‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’ is an essay by T. S. Eliot; it began life as an address Eliot gave to the Shakespeare Association on 18 March 1927 before being published on 22 September of that year. Although it is Eliot’s poetry that has endured, and his reputation as a perceptive and provocative critic has dwindled slightly since the 1920s, this short essay demonstrates the precise qualities that made Eliot such an original and valuable thinker.
‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’: summary
Eliot argues that every new generation tends to reinvent ‘Shakespeare’, finding a new way to discuss the poet and playwright, often in ways which are far removed from the reality. In Eliot’s opinion, it is a good thing that new interpretations of Shakespeare’s work, examining his writing through different lenses, come along, not because these new readings are any closer to the truth, but because they at least succeed in making the older erroneous interpretations unfashionable.
Having sketched out how previous critics and biographers have endeavoured to show how Shakespeare was influenced by different Renaissance thinkers – the French essayist Montaigne, and the Italian political philosopher Machiavelli – Shakespeare proposes his own new approach to Shakespeare, which involves acknowledging the importance of stoicism, as it is outlined in the prose writings of the ancient Roman writer Seneca, in Shakespeare’s plays. Stoicism is the philosophical belief that we should accept that there are things in the world that we cannot change, and to minimise the effect that harmful things can have on us accordingly.
In other words, we simply refuse to let them affect us. With his tongue in his cheek, Eliot declares that he is only proposing such a new approach in the hope that it will prevent such a theory being put forward by someone else in the future.
Eliot freely acknowledges that Shakespeare almost certainly never read any of Seneca’s philosophical works in prose, which are ‘dull’; he also admits that Seneca’s plays, which Shakespeare had probably encountered (at grammar school), don’t really reflect the stoical approach to life. But Shakespeare may have encountered the principles of stoicism at second- or third-hand, via other writers.
Comparing Shakespeare to the medieval Italian poet Dante, Eliot argues that neither poet did any real thinking, for that ‘was not their job’: instead, they drew upon the thought of their times, such as the theology of St Thomas in Dante’s case. Both Shakespeare and Dante are great poets, but Shakespeare’s poetry is often great even though the philosophy underpinning it is, in Eliot’s view, inferior to the thought underpinning Dante’s poetry. The important thing is that both Dante and Shakespeare express timeless human emotions through their poetry.
Eliot makes the famous pronouncement that ‘The great poet, in writing himself, writes his time.’ Both Dante and Shakespeare express ‘private failures’, ‘rage’, or ‘disappointments’, but they ‘metamorphose’ or transform these into something universal and reflective of the age in which the poets live. Shakespeare had an ability to draw upon ideas that were current during his lifetime and create great poetry out of them, and these ideas include the stoicism of Seneca, which was already widely disseminated throughout Shakespeare’s world, so finds its way into his work in all sorts of ways.
‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’: analysis
‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’ begins in a rather casual or even flippant manner, with Eliot stating that he wishes to propose the idea of Shakespeare as a Senecan stoic if only to prevent the idea from taking hold in literary-critical circles. But Eliot goes on to advance his thesis in some detail, revealing it to be a matter to which he has devoted considerable thought.
Eliot sees the stoicism of ancient Rome re-emerging in the Renaissance, and this stoicism informs the growing self-consciousness which Eliot detects in many of Shakespeare’s heroes, including Hamlet and Othello. This is a new attitude, which leads, ultimately, to the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose ideas were still relatively new when Eliot was writing.
Fundamentally, the stoical attitude derived – albeit indirectly – from Seneca which Eliot detects in much Renaissance drama, including the plays of Shakespeare, is an attitude of ‘self-dramatisation’. Usually this attitude manifests itself most explicitly during the great final speeches of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes: when Othello dies, or Hamlet speaks to Horatio before dying (‘The rest is silence’), for example.
The Shakespearean tragic hero to whom Eliot pays the closest attention in ‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’ is Othello, whose dying words reveal a man who is ‘cheering himself up’ (Eliot’s emphasis). Othello is trying to escape reality, the world immediately around him, in his dying moments, and taking his mind off Desdemona, his wife whom he has murdered in the erroneous belief she had been unfaithful to him. Instead of thinking about what he has done to Desdemona, Othello turns his thoughts to himself. He dramatises himself as a method of coping with what he has done, and through self-dramatising he shows his determination to ignore reality and to ‘see things as they are not’.