The Chandos portrait, believed to depict William Shakespeare. Public Domain

Wittgenstein wrote in his diary in 1950:

“I cannot understand Shakespeare because in absolute asymmetry I want to find symmetry. It seems to me that his plays are huge sketches, not finished paintings, roughed out by one who, so to say, can afford to do anything. I can understand those who admire his art and call it the most sublime, but I don’t like it. I can then understand those who are left speechless in front of his plays, although it looks to me we misunderstand Shakespeare when we admire him in the same way for example Beethoven is admired.”

[Wittgenstein, Vermischte Bemerkungen, 1977 Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main. Translation by ManofRoma]

Shakespeare and the Continent

While Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein ( 1889 – 1951 ) laments a lack of symmetry in Shakespeare’s art, it is well known how French Voltaire ( 1694 – 1778 ) commented on Hamlet and his author (the French original text first, then a translation by Man of Roma):

“Je suis bien loin assurément de justifier en tout la tragédie d’ Hamlet: c’est une pièce grossière et barbare, qui ne serait pas supportée par la plus vile populace de la France et de l’Italie. […] On croirait que cet ouvrage est le fruit de l’imagination d’un sauvage ivre. Mais parmi ces irrégularités grossières, qui rendent encore aujourd’hui le théâtre anglais si absurde et barbare, on trouve dans Hamlet, par une bizarrerie encore plus grande, des traites sublimes, dignes des plus grands génies. Il semble que la nature se soit plue à rassembler dans la tête de Shakespeare ce qu’on peut imaginer de plus fort et de plus grand, avec ce que la grossièreté sans esprit peut avoir de plus bas et de plus détestable.” (qtd. from Voltaire, Francois-Marie Arouet. Oeuvres Complètes de Voltaire. Vol. IV. Paris, Garnier Freres, 1877-85. 501-502.)

“I am certainly very far from justifying in all Hamlet’s tragedy: it is an unrefined and barbarous play, that would not be tolerated by the meanest populace of France and Italy. We would believe that this work is the fruit of the imagination of a drunken savage. But among all these unrefined irregularities, which to this day make the English theater so absurd and barbarous, we find in Hamlet, by a yet greater oddity, sublime elements worthy of the greatest geniuses. It seems like nature had delight in collecting within Shakespeare’s head all that we can imagine of what is greatest and most powerful, together with what rudeness deprived of wit can contain of what is lowest and most repulsive”.

Hitler and a boy who might be Wittgenstein. Linz RoyalSchool in 1903. Public Domain

I will just add a note, the relationship between ‘the structure of a work of art’ and ‘the structure of the world’ seeming too complex a topic here. First of all I personally adore both Shakespeare and a lot of English poetry (it’s been a drug for me for really many years) although in my view – the view of a passionate dilettante – impeccably polished and musical English verses came out only from Alexander Pope on. What I mean is that this infallible taste for perfectly refined verses, which Latin writers (Italian, French etc.) seem to have almost innate but which originates from hard work as well, was attained by English and British poets only at a later time; or so it seems to me, problem probably being the pronunciation of some words changing over time which makes a few or numerous verses – even of John Milton, for example – poor in rhythm. This observation should be checked.

Italian version

4 thoughts on “In Absolute Asymmetry I Want to Find Symmetry

  1. Well I am a poor judge of Poetry but as far as shakespeare is concerned, He was a genius although a very shrewd one.
    I did some research on him back in 2000-2001 as an effort to better understand his play “Merchant of Venice” which was a part of my syllabus. And I observed quite a few things.

    1. His plays was not necessarily his own orignal ideas. He was happy to copy roman and greek scriptures and happy to pass them as their own with litlle or no modification. And sometimes amalgamating to different sources as woven one plot. It is also alleged that have stolen ideas from other greats of his time of Marlowe and Bacon. ( Correct me if I am wrong abt the authors)
    So when ur work is not entirely orignal but a remix more often than not, it does leave spaces for the critics to claim >>It seems to me that his plays are huge sketches, not finished paintings, roughed out by one who, so to say, can afford to do anything.

    2. he never wrote a play with any literary intention. It was all there to mint money and that meant pleasing the masses even if it meant >>this(His) work is the fruit of the imagination of a drunken savage.

    3. And it is exactly the above point which makes him a genius that he was able to do so and yet churn out pieces which are appreciated by many critics and masses centuries later.

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  2. @Falcon

    This whole matter is complicated, Falcon, and one risks to say stupid things since Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the greatest Western philosophers of the twentieth century; Shakespeare is UK’s sublime swan; and Voltaire, a key French writer and thinker of the XVIII century.

    I do not think Wittgenstein’s dislike of Shakespeare’s art (“I don’t like it”) was due to his plots being not original, since this can also be said of so many writers of any time.

    What W. didn’t like about S. was in my view 1) his almost total lack of coherence in his vision of the world, namely his inexistent philosophy that made him say everything and its exact opposite (if I recall well, Shakespeare could not read Latin or Greek which at that time, in the West, was a great flaw). 2) W. also probably disliked the structure of Shakespeare’s works that was too irregular (if compared to French Racine’s, for example, who wrote according to the harmonious rules of classicism; this, among other things, made him sound, to French Voltaire’s ears for example, like a drunken savage). 3) Inconsistencies and anachronisms everywhere, like the streets of Rome alive with the citizens of Elizabethan London, three days passed for one character in a scene where three months mysteriously passed for another, … sublime expressions of love intercut with schoolboy jokes about bodily functions… ( I am quoting freely from an article by Nicholas Hytner published in the NYTimes on July 1998 ) 4) too many verses that do not sound well, i.e. are not musical, are not harmonious etc. etc.

    My best regards

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