Twain’s manufactured but curiously theological thoughts on Shakespeare

Friends have urged me to read Mark Twain’s nonfiction for years, but it was only after happening upon his thoughts about the human race that I decided to follow their advice. Much of what he wrote is available online. And while it’s a rare writer who can compel me to focus on a computer screen for more than a few pages, Twain’s vigorous, sardonic prose captures my attention so fully that whole chapters fly by before I remember that I’m staring at pixels rather than holding a book in my hands. When I get ready to leave work, I print out pages.

Is Shakespeare Dead? recalls the steamboat pilot who forever colored Twain’s perspective on the Bard by reading from the plays, “not just casually, but by the hour, when it was his watch, and I was steering.”

He certainly was a good reader, and splendidly thrilling and stormy and tragic, but it was a damage to me, because I have never since been able to read Shakespeare in a calm and sane way. I cannot rid it of his explosive interlardings, they break in everywhere with their irrelevant “What in hell are you up to NOW! pull her down! more! MORE! — there now, steady as you go,” and the other disorganizing interruptions that were always leaping from his mouth. When I read Shakespeare now, I can hear them as plainly as I did in that long-departed time — fifty-one years ago. I never regarded Ealer’s readings as educational. Indeed they were a detriment to me.

His contributions to the text seldom improved it, but barring that detail he was a good reader, I can say that much for him. He did not use the book, and did not need to; he knew his Shakespeare as well as Euclid ever knew his multiplication table.

Did he have something to say — this Shakespeare-adoring Mississippi pilot — anent Delia Bacon’s book? Yes. And he said it; said it all the time, for months — in the morning watch, the middle watch, the dog watch; and probably kept it going in his sleep.

More hilarious still is Twain’s recollection of the pilot’s need to debate, all the way up and down the river, the who-wrote-Shakespeare? question, and of Twain’s switching positions to please him.

A brighter person would have seen what the trouble was, earlier than I did, perhaps, but I saw it early enough for all practical purposes. You see, he was of an argumentative disposition. Therefore it took him but a little time to get tired of arguing with a person who agreed with everything he said and consequently never furnished him a provocative to flare up and show what he could do when it came to clear, cold, hard, rose-cut, hundred- faceted, diamond-flashing reasoning. That was his name for it….

Then the thing happened which has happened to more persons than to me when principle and personal interest found themselves in opposition to each other and a choice had to be made: I let principle go, and went over to the other side.

Not the entire way, but far enough to answer the requirements of the case. That is to say, I took this attitude, to wit: I only BELIEVED Bacon wrote Shakespeare, whereas I KNEW Shakespeare didn’t. Ealer was satisfied with that, and the war broke loose. Study, practice, experience in handling my end of the matter presently enabled me to take my new position almost seriously; a little bit later, utterly seriously; a little later still, lovingly, gratefully, devotedly; finally: fiercely, rabidly, uncompromisingly. After that, I was welded to my faith, I was theoretically ready to die for it, and I looked down with compassion not unmixed with scorn, upon everybody else’s faith that didn’t tally with mine. That faith, imposed upon me by self-interest in that ancient day, remains my faith to-day, and in it I find comfort, solace, peace, and never-failing joy. You see how curiously theological it is.


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