On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History

by Thomas Carlyle

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Why does Carlyle choose Shakespeare as an example of a hero poet?

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Carlyle chooses Shakespeare as an example of a hero poet because he sees him as possessed of integrity, moral insight, and a man who led his fellow men into a higher spiritual life.

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Shakespeare is one of the nineteen men eulogized by Carlyle in his On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. Carlyle uses extravagant words of praise throughout this collection of lectures, but in the case of the Bard, he passes over into outright idolatry.

Shakespeare is “priceless,” the “free gift of Nature,” a “great soul” in “a tranquil unfathomable sea,” an immaculately built house in which everything is as it should be. We can be in no doubt as to how much Carlyle venerates the greatest playwright in the English language.

Despite this remarkable encomium to Shakespeare, however, Carlyle sees in him pretty much the same characteristics as he sees in the other heroes in his lectures.

Like them, Shakespeare is possessed of a remarkable degree of integrity. It is this moral quality of his that makes him such a “noble sincere soul” and “a voice of Nature.” There is a sincerity about Shakespeare that Carlyle finds irresistible and which links the great playwright to other titans of history such as Martin Luther and the Prophet Muhammed.

Carlyle also sees in Shakespeare a profound moral insight, which gives him the power to act as a leader of men, guiding them towards a higher spiritual life. For Carlyle, Shakespeare is a visionary, possessed with the capacity to see into the true nature of things. Through his plays, with their acute insights into the human condition, he penetrates the heart of nature and describes what he sees to his fellow man.

Carlyle tells us that the degree of vision that exists in a man gives us a correct measure of that man. As the Shakespeare presented to us by Carlyle is indeed a man of vision, this tells us an awful lot about what kind of man he was overall.

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