Hallucinations of Shakespeare

When English tourists abroad are accosted by foreigners on trains it is now more likely to be about Manchester United or Downton Abbey. According to the writer Maurice Baring, in his time it was often about Shakespeare, as in this intriguing account in his Lost Lectures (London, 1932):

Over and over again it has been my fortune to be told about English literature by foreign high-brows in trains, and to be initiated in the secrets of the literature of my country. I once met a Serbian professor who told me that he had written a book about Shakespeare. He spoke French (not Shakespeare—the Serb). Shakespeare was a well known case, he said, of self-hallucination. He knew, because he was a mind doctor. Hamlet was a well-known case of a man who thinks he sees ghosts.
“But”, I said, “the other people in the play saw the ghost.” “They caught his infection,” he said.
“But they saw it first,” I objected.
“It was Suggestion,” he said; “it often happens. The infection comes from the brain of the man who thinks he sees a ghost before he has seen the ghost, and his coming hallucination infects other brains. Shakespeare hallucinated, or he could not have described the case so accurately. All his characters hallucinated—Macbeth, King Lear, Brutus (he saw a ghost).”
I said enough things had happened to King Lear to make him go mad. “Not in that way,” he said. “Ophelia is mad; Lady Macbeth is mad; Othello is mad; Shylock is mad; Timon of Athens is very mad; Antonio is mad; Romeo is mad. The cases are all accurately described by one who has the illness himself.”
“Was Falstaff mad?” I asked.
“Falstaff,” said the doctor, “is a case of what we call metaphenomania.
He was a metaphenomaniac; he could not help altering facts and changing the facets of appearances.”
“What we call a liar?” I suggested.
The doctor said that was an unscientific way of putting it, but it was true. Then he got out.

9 thoughts on “Hallucinations of Shakespeare

  1. Anonymous

    As an American, I would be nearly as impressed if my fellow countrymen knew what Manchester United was, never mind Shakespeare. "Soccer" as we call it, has suffered from our conservative bloviators who would like to believe it to be a quaint hobby practiced by youths in the fields of warm countries with difficult to pronounce names, not a real sport beloved by billions. Fox News especially(thanks Rupert!), occassionaly takes a break from shouting about "the war on Christmas/straight people/white people" to mock soccer as either a less than manly sport or one of the fundamental dangers of socialism.
    Your are quite right about Downton Abbey. I have personally overheard many conversations on planes(American trains are so bad or nonexistent that any sane English tourist would be wise to avoid them) during which Americans badger the Brits with questions about royalty, nobility, and butlers. They know all about Downton Abbey, but if you asked the average American on the street to define "Manchester United," most would assume it is a United Airlines flight originating in Manchester, New Hampshire or a labor union(another endangered entity in, um, the greatest country on earth).
    We have PBS, which is sort of like BBC1, but not as good, which basically relies on the popularity of Downton Abbey to stay one step ahead of our Congress which perpetually threatens to vote for its destruction. We also have a cable channel called BBC America, which basically plays endless, back-to-back episodes of Top Gear. Essentially, most Americans believe the average Brit to be something between the Dowager Countess of Grantham and Jeremy Clarkson, ruled over by the Queen, who all go home every afternoon for high tea.
    Love your blog!

    1. Anonymous

      So conservatives are to blame for the lack of interest in soccer? Ha! With cable TV and the Internet and assorted sports bars, there is no lack of exposure to the game. Add the fact that it seems every preteen in the country seems to have played the game and I think you'll have to admit that it's not a top-down conspiracy of suppression. I don't know why we Americans generally don't care for it.

    2. Jim

      Football (soccer) is still a minority sport of course, but growing at a phenomenal rate:
      The 2014 MLS season saw record crowds, with an average attendance of 19,151. The average crowd at a Premier League match in 2013-14 was 36,657.
      The best supported MLS club in 2014 was Seattle Sounders, drawing an average of 43,734 spectators per match. In the football world, MLS ranked eighth in terms of crowds, ahead of first divisions in nations such as Brazil, Argentina, Portugal and Japan.
      And, on this side of the pond, we are not much better informed about the goings on of the Dallas Cowboys, the Cincinatti Reds or the New York Knicks – though, again, there is a significant minority interest in US sports here.
      In my experience US cultural insularism exists, but is exaggerated.

    3. Edwin Moore

      My American cousin is well up on British culture but as he admits he is unusual. Big Bang Theory has lots of British cultural references but i suspect they are mainly whoosh over the heads of most.

      Th perplexity has long been mutual. The MP J S Buckingham wrote a fine book – A Journey Through the Slave States of North America (1842) – among the startling things he records is a slave band in Charleston playing the curfew for blacks (free and unfree) – the tune being Scots Wha Hae.

  2. admin Post author

    Thanks for kind words Anon. Glad we got it right about Downton. People do ask you about soccer in the USA but they are usually people who have spent time in Europe or Hispanic guys who have football in the blood. It seems odd that all the world is crazy about the 'Beautiful game' except America, although to be fair they fielded a pretty good team in the last world cup…

  3. Edwin Moore

    I had the Collins Alexander Shakespeare on my list for over 10 years and occasionally got odd letters from all over the place – a few American Baconians among them. I always replied politely.

  4. admin Post author

    Thanks for the input Edwin – this you could't make up "…perplexity has long been mutual. The MP J S Buckingham wrote a fine book – A Journey Through the Slave States of North America (1842) – among the startling things he records is a slave band in Charleston playing the curfew for blacks (free and unfree) – the tune being Scots Wha Have" There may still be some residual antipathy to the Scots in the South!

    1. Edwin Moore

      No funny enough (or not funny at all) many southerners are obsessed with what they take to be Scottish culture – Marlk Twain of course blamed the Civil War on Scott's novels, and Griffith's Birth of a Nation – which includes bizarre takes on Scottish culture – led to a revival of the KKK.

      More recently the segregationist apologist Trent Lott somehow persuaded the US Senate and Congress that the so-called 'Declaration' of Arbroath influenced the Declaration of Independence. In fact, Jefferson had to be persuaded to take a derogatory reference to the Scots out of his first draft.


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