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Understanding Art

George Bernard Shaw once wrote a review of a play based on Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. In it, he says that Shakespeare "wrote for the theatre because, with extraordinary artistic powers, he understood nothing and believed nothing." That is truly an amazing statement for Shaw to have made! Shakespeare is on every list ever made of Western civilization's greatest literary masterpieces precisely because of what is considered to be his great understanding of human nature. But Shaw lists the sorts of people that he thinks populate the Bard's plays:

villains, fools, clowns, drunkards, cowards, intriguers, fighters, lovers, patriots,hypochondriacs who mistake themselves (and are mistaken by the author) for philosophers, princes without any sense of public duty, futile pessimists who imagine they are confronting a barren and unmeaning world when they are only contemplating their own worthlessness, . . .

Shaw says Shakespeare has no heroes, lacks energy and reality of imagination, and is silly and resourceless.

All this he contrasts with John Bunyan, to whom he attributes a sort of vigor and energy that comes from simple understanding based in experience, not in "paper." Shaw argues convincingly, but he never fully carries through with the contrast as he began it. He says that Shakespeare "understood nothing and believed nothing" -- the obvious implication is that Bunyan's greatness springs, at least in part, from the fact that he does indeed understand and believe something.

This is not an insignificant bit of pedantic argument. Psalm 111 says that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments." The understanding that results from obedience is understanding for the artist as well as for the theologian, civil magistrate, father, and truck driver. Shakespeare was, after all, great, and did observe and capture human nature. But there is a reason that an untrained author such as Bunyan was able to compete with Shakespeare on his own literary terms: Bunyan believed in a way that Shakespeare never did, and therefore understood in a way that Shakespeare didn't. And the fact is, that however much we ought to disagree with G.B. Shaw in many other areas, he did recognize the literary power that comes from genuine belief.

Bunyan is as good an artist as Shakespeare in his use of language, depiction of moral conflict, and ability to appeal to the imagination, and Christians who read him ought to have no fear that for the sake of good content they are sacrificing artistic soundness. They are not.

WJC


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