“Shakespeare,” by the English poet Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), is a sonnet written in tribute to one of England’s greatest sonnet writers and to the man whom many consider perhaps the greatest dramatist in world history.
The poem begins with a short sentence that will puzzle many modern readers: “Others abide our question” (line 1). What, precisely, does abide mean in this context? The Oxford English Dictionary (the best dictionary of the English language) offers various definitions of the verb abide that help make sense of Arnold’s phrasing. These include such meanings as to await or expect, to await submissively or submit to, to wait to the end of or hear out, and to suffer, tolerate, or put up with. In Arnold’s poem, the opening sentence seems to suggest that other persons (probably other great writers in particular) are willing to be questioned and that they actually yield up some answers to those who try to understand them. Shakespeare, however, remains “free” of such questioning, probably in the sense that he and his works can never quite be pinned down or finally figured out. They raise questions without ever fully answering them. They cannot be easily or definitively interpreted with any confidence. They provoke continued questions and thus provoke continued thought, whereas lesser writers and lesser works yield up answers without offering much resistance or presenting many difficulties.
The opening line, then, sharply distinguishes Shakespeare from “others” and then quickly leaves those others behind. They are never explicitly mentioned again, although they are present by implication because Shakespeare is everything that they are not. He is “free” in all the best senses of the word: free from idle questioning, free in the breadth and depth of his thinking, and free from the normal limitations of ordinary humans, even humans who are otherwise as great as he is. He is almost godlike in his inscrutability. He and his works are inexhaustible mysteries. Indeed, much of the language of the poem is the kind of language most often heard when people try to describe the Christian God. For Arnold (as for many people of his time), Shakespeare has achieved an almost divine status during an era when many persons were plagued with real doubts about the character—and even the existence—of the God of the Bible.
The speaker of the poem presents himself not as an isolated, particular individual but as the representative of all inquiring, intelligent humans: “We ask and ask” (line 2). (The effect would be much different, and Shakespeare would seem much less intriguing, if line 2 began by saying, “I ask and ask.”) In response to such questions, Shakespeare is a kind of male Mona Lisa: “Thou smilest and art still” (line 2). It is partly Shakespeare’s very peace and repose—the fact that he seems in no hurry to explain himself and his works—that make him so mystifying and fascinating. Paradoxically, he is, on one hand, perhaps the most eloquent person who has ever lived—the person most supremely endowed with the gift of speech—even as he is, on the other hand, the most inscrutable, the most reticent of all great writers. He feels no need to unravel the mysteries that he and his works present, and it is partly this calm repose that makes us want to pester him with questions.
Notice the structural parallels between lines 1 and 2. The first half of line 1 focuses on “others” and on us; the second half focuses on Shakespeare. The first half of line 2 focuses on us and our...
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