On Shakespeare and Handel: by Samuel Butler

by Samuel Butler

November, 1881.

From this chapter:  “As Mozart said of him (Handel), ‘he beats us all in effect, when he chooses he strikes like a thunderbolt’ .”


Most men will readily admit that the two poets who have the greatest hold over Englishmen are Handel and Shakespeare — for it is as a poet: a sympathizer with, and renderer of, all estates and conditions whether of men or things — rather than as a mere musician, that Handel reigns supreme.  There have been many who have known [only] as much English as Shakespeare, and so, doubtless, there have been no fewer who have known as much music as Handel:  perhaps Bach, probably Haydn, certainly Mozart; as likely as not, many a known and unknown musician now living; but the poet is not known by knowledge alone–not by gnosis only– but also, and in greater part, by the agape [charitable love] which makes him wish to steal men’s hearts, and prompts him so to apply his knowledge that he shall succeed.  There has been no one to touch Handel as an observer of all that was observable, a lover of all that was loveable, a hater of all that was hateable, and, therefore, as a poet.  Shakespeare loved not wisely but too well.  Handel loved as well as Shakespeare, but more wisely.  He is as much above Shakespeare as Shakespeare is above all others, except Handel himself; he is no less lofty, impassioned, tender, and full alike of fire and love of play; he is no less universal in the range of his sympathies, no less a master of expression and illustration than Shakespeare, and at the same time he is of robuster, stronger fibre, more easy, less introspective.  Englishmen are of so mixed a race, so inventive, and so given to migration, that for many generations to come they are bound to be at times puzzled, and therefore introspective; if they get their freedom at all they get it as Shakespeare “with a great sum,” whereas Handel was “free born.”  Shakespeare sometimes errs and grievously, he is as one of his own best men “moulded out of faults,” who “for the most become much more the better, for being a little bad;” Handel, if he puts forth his strength at all, is unerring:  he gains the maximum of effect with the minimum of effort.  As Mozart said of him, “he beats us all in effect, when he chooses he strikes like a thunderbolt.”  Shakespeare’s strength is perfected in weakness; Handel is the serenity and unself- consciousness of health itself.  “There,” said Beethoven on his deathbed, pointing to the works of Handel, “there–is truth.”

These, however, are details, the main point that will be admitted is that the average Englishman is more attracted by Handel and Shakespeare than by any other two men who have been long enough dead for us to have formed a fairly permanent verdict concerning them.  We not only believe them to have been the best men familiarly known here in England, but we see foreign nations join us for the most part in assigning to them the highest place as renderers of emotion.

It is always a pleasure to me to reflect that the countries dearest to these two master spirits are those which are also dearest to myself, I mean England and Italy.  Both of them lived mainly here in London, but both of them turned mainly to Italy when realising their dreams.  Handel’s music is the embodiment of all the best Italian music of his time and before him, assimilated and reproduced with the enlargements and additions suggested by his own genius.  He studied in Italy; his subjects for many years were almost exclusively from Italian sources; the very language of his thoughts was Italian, and to the end of his life he would have composed nothing but Italian operas, if the English public would have supported him.  His spirit flew to Italy, but his home was London.  So also Shakespeare turned to Italy more than to any other country for his subjects.  Roughly, he wrote nineteen Italian, or what to him were virtually Italian plays, to twelve English, one Scotch, one Danish, three French, and two early British.

But who does not turn to Italy who has the chance of doing so? What, indeed, do we not owe to that most lovely and loveable country?  Take up a Bank of England note and the Italian language will be found still lingering upon it.  It is signed “for Bank of England and Compa.” (Compagnia), not “Compy.”  Our laws are Roman in their origin.  Our music, as we have seen, and our painting comes from Italy.  Our very religion till a few hundred years ago found its headquarters, not in London nor in Canterbury, but in Rome.  What, in fact, is there which has not filtered through Italy, even though it arose elsewhere?  On the other hand, there are infinite attractions in London.  I have seen many foreigncities, but I know none so commodious, or, let me add, so beautiful. 



CHAPTER I–Introduction

by Samuel Butler

November, 1881.

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