An introduction to the French enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire and his trenchant criticism of Shakespeare.
Voltaire was the pen name used by the prolific French writer and philosopher François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778). Voltaire was a leading figure in the French Enlightenment movement and wrote trenchantly and cogently on the abuses of the Catholic Church, monarchy and establishment and in favour of Enlightenment values such as freedom of thought and of religion, free trade and reformed international relations. Alongside Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau, therefore, Voltaire’s writings helped to influence the American Revolution of 1776 and those who conducted it.
Voltaire wrote prolifically in a wide range of styles, including plays and prose works (novels had not really been established in form and scope at this time), as well as large numbers of satirical pamphlets. Perhaps his most famous work is Candide (the full title is Candide, ou l’Optimisme), which is a philosophical novella that follows the adventures and misadventures of its eponymous protagonist and his ultimate rejection of the Panglossian formula that all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds. Instead, Candide adopts a more pragmatic if not pessimistic position.
Voltaire spent three years in exile in Britain and was much taken by the reforms that had taken place there, which at the time were somewhat in advance of France. When he was permitted to return home, he wrote approvingly of Britain and, in particular, of Shakespeare. His early observations on Shakespeare were that his stagecraft and technical skills were qualities to which French playwrights would do well to try to emulate. However, subsequently he modified his opinions. Indeed, where once he had translated some of Shakespeare’s plays into French so as to introduce the work to his fellows, he later came to consider the works to be the results of a ‘drunken savage.’ Of course, there is nothing so wont to upset and simultaneously discomfort the English as the criticism of a French intellectual and Voltaire’s position led to some controversy.
Voltaire’s principal criticism of Shakespeare was that the latter diverged from the Augustan-era aesthetics, language and structure that were then held by some to be the apogee of artistic good taste. Rather than finding these values upheld in Shakespeare, Voltaire repeatedly found ‘barbarities’ of thought and language and dramatic twists and turns of fate which offended his own understanding of how the world should be and which characters and forms of behaviour should be rewarded and which punished. Voltaire’s rage increased to its greatest extent when dealing with Shakespeare’s greatest expression of art, Hamlet: this, he thought, was so vulgar it would not be tolerated by even the lowest classes of people in France or Italy. The basis of this argument was the belief that art should have an improving effect on the audience and this improving effect should in itself be dignified and respectful of social proprieties: Voltaire’s plays, for example, are not noted for their jokes.