by Marjorie Perloff, Stanford

From Will the Modernist: Shakespeare and the European Historical Avant-Gardes, ed. Giovanni Cianci and Caroline Patey (London: Peter Lang, 2014), 107-24.


People look at [Shakespeare] in amazement almost as a spectacle of nature. They do not have the feeling that this brings them into contact with a great human being. Rather with a phenomenon.
It seems to me that [Shakespeare’s] plays are like enormous sketches, not paintings; they are dashed off by one who could, so to speak, permit himself everything. And I understand how one can admire this & call it the highest art, but I don’t like it.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value1

Abstract: Wittgenstein’s oddly negative assessment of Shakespeare has caused consternation among literary critics. From F. R. Leavis to the present, English critics have often assumed that Wittgenstein was simply a bad judge of poetry and that he knew little about the literature of his adopted country. Or again, Wittgenstein stands accused, by critics like George Steiner, of demanding clear ethical values from literature – values Shakespeare, who never quite took sides with particular characters, did not proclaim. This essay argues that such criticisms fail to understand Wittgenstein’s own context as an Austrian writer, brought up on the German classics of the 18th C and 19th C centuries. It s true that this “classical” literature, coming two centuries later than Shakespeare, was much more subjective, more personal than Elizabethan literature, and that Wittgenstein was accustomed to a psychology not characteristic of Shakespeare. It is the demand for realism, for characters with whom the reader can identify that makes Shakespeare unsatisfactory to Wittgenstein. Nevertheless, Wittgenstein’s fugitive remarks about Shakespeare show great acumen and insight; he understood the Tragedies – for example, King Lear, much better than one might conclude from some of his strictures. Despite the gulf between the two writers, Shakespeare’s “dreamwork,” as Wittgenstein calls it, became a model for the philosopher’s own writing.

In the annals of Shakespeare criticism, Wittgenstein’s curiously negative assessment of the Bard has long been notorious2. How could this great philosopher be so blind to the genius of the greatest of poets? Was it that, as F. R. Leavis, Wittgenstein’s Cambridge colleague, remarked dismissively, “Cultivated as he was, his interest in literature had remained rudimentary”?3 Or was it, as so many commentators have posited, that Wittgenstein was troubled by Shakespeare’s seeming indifference to ethical values? For Wittgenstein, George Steiner explains, the great poet is one who is “not only a matchless artificer and imaginer [like Shakespeare], but, the … communicator to his fellow-men of a high, articulate religious-moral-philosophical vision and criticism of life” (Steiner 1996: 126). The resultant “misreadings” of Shakespeare’s dramatic discourse, writes Steiner, shows that “a great logician and epistemologist can be a blind reader of literature” (Steiner 1996: 127). And in a recent radio dialogue, the Stanford professors Robert Harrison and Stephen Orgel agree that Wittgenstein failed to comprehend Shakespeare’s openness to contradiction. “You really can’t pin [Shakespeare] down,” Orgel explains. “There isn’t some grand scheme behind the work. … It can’t be reduced to a philosophical position.”⁴

True, but can Wittgenstein be pinned down? When he was a young soldier on the Eastern Front in World War I, he discovered Tolstoy, specifically the late book Gospel in Brief, which, so he later told friends, “kept him alive” at this difficult time (Monk 1990: 115–16). Yet the submission to Tolstoyan Christianity was short-lived; Wittgenstein was soon reading, with great interest, Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ. (Monk 1990: 121). As for the notion that philosophy takes a particular position, “by the early 1930s, Wittgenstein was insisting that philosophy was itself really a form of poetry,5 that indeed, ‘Philosophical analysis does not tell us anything new about ‘thought’; on the contrary, ‘Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. … It leaves everything as it is.”⁶

‘Grand schemes’? ‘Higher spiritual aspirations’? It was Wittgenstein, sounding for all the world like an avant-garde poet, who admonished his readers, “Do not forget that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.”⁷ As for the theatre, here is a telling passage from a 1930 notebook:

Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing someone engaged in some simple everyday activity, when he thinks he is not being watched. Let’s imagine a theatre, the curtain goes up & we see someone alone in his room walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, sitting down, etc. so that we are suddenly seeing someone from the outside in a way we can never see ourselves; as if we, so to speak, witnessed a chapter from a biography with our own eyes, – surely this would be uncanny and wonderful at the same time. More wonderful than anything that a playwright could produce to be performed or spoken onstage. We would be seeing life itself. – But then we do see this every day & it doesn’t make the slightest impression on us! True, but we don’t see it in perspective. … Only the artist can represent the individual thing so that it appears to us as a work of art. … The work of art forces us – so to speak – to see it in the right perspective, but without art the object is only an object like any other.⁸

This is one of the clearest statements of the Conceptualist notion that the poetic construct – in this case a play – is distinguished, not, as most Modernist critics from I. A. Richards to the Russian Formalists believed, by its use of special language, whether imagery, metaphor, pun, or rhetorical figure, but by its “perspective” or framing, a framing that makes us spectators feel that we are witnessing “life itself,” as it is actually lived but which we normally fail to “see.” “Ordinary language,” as Wittgenstein put it, “is alright” (BB 1965: 28). Indeed, the great poet or artist is one who can take the most pedestrian object or event – the man crossing the room to open the door – and make it entirely new. The artist who immediately comes to mind is, ironically, one whom Wittgenstein did not know and whose work he would surely have dismissed as ‘ridiculous’ or ‘worthless,’ had he been exposed to it. I am thinking of Wittgenstein’s exact contemporary Marcel Duchamp, whose readymades – the urinal called Fountain or the snow shovel suspended in a glass case and titled In Advance of the Broken Arm – were precisely ordinary objects, made new by the subtle use of framing, captioning, and displacement.⁹

But where does Shakespeare fit into this scheme of things? To answer this difficult question we must begin with Wittgenstein’s own context – the culture within which he operated. When Leavis remarks that the Wittgenstein he knew at Cambridge seemed to have little interest in literature, he means, of course, English literature.10 But then Wittgenstein was not English: he grew up in Vienna on the German classics – specifically Goethe and Schiller, followed by the nineteenth-century lyric poets from Heinrich Heine to Eduard Mörike and fiction writers from Heinrich von Kleist to Gottfried Keller. More important, for a Viennese of Wittgenstein’s generation, the word drama signified first and foremost the prolific Austrian playwright Franz Grillparzer, whose now classical romantic dramas, like the trilogy The Golden Fleece (1821), are still produced regularly at Vienna’s Burgtheater, along with the plays of Johann Nestroy and Ferdinand Raimund.

When my own family emigrated to New York from Nazi Austria in 1938, among the few books we managed to bring with us were little paperback volumes of Raimund – for example, Der Bauer als Millionär (1830) and Der Verschwender (The Wastrel 1832); I still know these Zaubermärchen plays by heart.

Wittgenstein was also quite familiar with such of his Viennese contemporaries as Arthur Schnitzler and Karl Kraus (he frequently refers to the latter, often with asperity),11 Rainer Marie Rilke, and especially the Expressionist poète maudit Georg Trakl. The latter’s suicide on the Eastern Front in 1914 hit Wittgenstein, who had never met him but had endorsed his poetry, especially hard. “Wie traurig. Wie traurig!!!”, he wrote in his Notebook.12 These are hardly the words of a logician who doesn’t trust the poetic imagination, as Steiner and others imply.

At the same time – and here is where things get complicated – it is important to understand that Wittgenstein’s education was not the typical one of the Austrian or German intellectual either. Although, like his siblings, he had received extensive musical training, he was sent, at fourteen, not to the Gymnasium in Vienna, but to the more technical and less academic Realschule in Linz, where, as is well known, Hitler was briefly his contemporary. Thus he was not exposed to the Greek and Latin classics; on the contrary, after leaving Linz in 1906, he studied mechanical engineering at the Technische Hochschule in Charlottenburg, Berlin and two years later moved on to Manchester to further his studies in aeronautics. It was here in 1908 that Wittgenstein first read Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica and decided to go to Cambridge to study philosophy with Russell. The latter regularly referred to his new pupil as “my German engineer” (Monk 1990: 39), while Lytton Strachey, considering Wittgenstein for possible membership in the exclusive Apostles (a membership Wittgenstein later refused), sarcastically dubbed him “Herr Sinckel-Winckel” (Monk 1990: 48–49).Wittgenstein was to have numerous close friends, lovers, and disciples at Cambridge, both in the pre-War years, and after 1930, when he returned as a university don. But he remained always an outsider, aloof from Cambridge concerns and especially hostile to Bloomsbury, whose ethical and aesthetic values he found wholly alien. (Monk 1990: 255–57).

Then, too, Wittgenstein’s evolving aesthetic, in the Cambridge years, is difficult to expound because his highly eccentric personal tastes were by no means in accord with his aesthetic principles. The philosopher who regularly insisted that the beautiful could not be defined and that to call aesthetics a science was “ridiculous” – like being able “to tell us what sort of coffee tastes good!” (LA 1966: 11) – was quite ready, in his letters, notebooks, and conversations, to pronounce on a given work with strong conviction. The words großartig and herrlich appear again and again with reference to a Mozart symphony, a Mörike poem, or Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Schubert’s Quintet in C Sharp is von phantastischer Großartigkeit (‘exhibits fantastic brilliance’), the second movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony is unglaublich (‘unbelievable’), Mahler’s music, by contrast is nichts wert (‘worthless’), and Alfred Ehrenstein’s poetry ein Hundedreck (‘dog shit’).13

The excessive vehemence of these pronouncements is no doubt, at least in part, a function of class and nationality: as a member of one of the wealthiest, most elegant families of Vienna – a family inhabiting what was justly designated a palace – Wittgenstein no doubt felt entitled to an opinion, especially when it came to the performance of music. But he also knew that such personal and emotional opinions had no place in philosophical discourse, where, as Wittgenstein makes especially clear in his Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough, in assessing a ‘primitive’ culture, a religious ritual, or an art form, one cannot explain a given practice (Gebrauch); “one can only describe and say this is what human life is like” (GB 1993: 121).

Wittgenstein’s critique of Shakespeare, fragmentary and diaristic as it was, belongs, at least at first glance, to his personal commentary: surely, he would not have published these sweeping and off-the-cuff remarks. At the same time, his malaise vis-à-vis Shakespeare was not merely idiosyncratic, as were so many of his literary judgments. Rather, I would posit, Wittgenstein’s mistrust was a function of his peculiar Germanic modernity, his lack of understanding for anything as remote as the English Renaissance, which had taken place four centuries earlier. Indeed, the history of English literature, as it evolved from Chaucer and Spenser to the twentieth century has no counterpart in the Viennese world. For whereas the English Renaissance from Shakespeare to Milton, including the great lyric poets and writers of devotional prose of the seventeenth century, is agreed to be an age of brilliant accomplishment, the Germany of the Renaissance, a mosaic of independent states, could boast of no internationally known author aside from Martin Luther. Indeed, to speak of the German ‘Classics’ as opposed to the British ones is to speak of the great figures of the later eighteenth century: Goethe and Schiller, to a lesser extent G. E. Lessing and J.G. von Herder. If the Golden Age of English Literature was understood by the British reading public to be the ‘Renaissance,’ for a German contemporary of Wittgenstein’s it would no doubt have been the Age of Goethe.14

It is difficult to believe that the term Classics can be so differently defined, but whereas for an English primary and secondary school student, the national classic is Shakespeare, for the German-speaking equivalent, as I can attest, the classics came into being a full two centuries later. Indeed, it was not till the 1830s, when August Schlegel began his great translation of the tragedies, that Shakespeare was introduced into the German-speaking world: the belatedness of this entry into the canon had the effect of producing a wave of bardolatry that was to know no bounds: Shakespeare was made over as the great Germanic Romantic hero. Even Adolf Hitler, a recent study of the Führer’s library has revealed, adored Shakespeare, preferring him to Goethe and Schiller (Ryback 2010: xi-xiii).

Perhaps it was the nineteenth-century German cult of Shakespeare as natural genius, a mysterious and anonymous creator, above and beyond the characters he had invented, that alienated Wittgenstein. “I think,” he wrote in 1950, “that in order to enjoy a poet one must also be fond of the culture to which he belongs. If it leaves you feeling indifferent or contrary, your admiration cools” (CV 1994: 96). Goethe, in contrast to Shakespeare, belonged to a modern age Wittgenstein could understand: in his historical or myth-based tragedies, from Götz von Berlichingen to Iphigenie to Faust, as in his novels from Werther to Die Wahlverwandschaften (Elective Affinities), and even in his botanical study The Metamorphosis of Plants (which Wittgenstein especially admired) – Goethe had an essentially lyric sensibility. However complex, ironic, or multivoiced a given Goethe text, the poet is always present in the work. When, for example, Wittgenstein cites Faust’s recognition (I, 3, l. 63) that “Am Anfang war die Tat” (‘In the beginning was the deed’), the implication is that the epiphany is not only Faust’s but that of Goethe himself, at his most resistant to Christianity. For Wittgenstein, poetry is understood as the expression of an individual and unique sensibility. From Goethe and Schiller to Trakl and Kraus, poets were seen as specially endowed individuals. The same holds true, for that matter, for German philosophers from Kant to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

It is in this German Romantic-Modernist context that we must understand Wittgenstein’s response to Shakespeare. The famous aphorism from the Tractatus “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (5.6), is, after all, a two-edged sword: on the one hand, it pinpoints Wittgenstein’s central conviction that there are no thoughts prior to their embodiment in language, that “language is not contiguous to anything else” (LWL 1980: 112). On the other, the reference is to ‘my’ world, to the personal reference of even the most commonly played and seemingly ubiquitous language game. And ‘my’ world, as Wittgenstein would have been the first to admit, was one of profound exile. Having made the decision to teach philosophy at Cambridge in 1929 when he was forty, Wittgenstein could never quite reconcile himself to English habits and customs and was soon finding ways of distancing himself from Cambridge life: the failed plan to become a worker in the Soviet Union (1935–36) was followed by less ambitious escapes to Norway, Wales, and, in his last years, to Ireland. “If you ever live amongst foreign people for any length of time,” he wrote his friend Frank Ramsay shortly after arriving in Cambridge in 1929, “& be dependent on them you will understand my difficulty” (CC 1995: 228). “In my room,” he wrote in his diary of 1930, “I feel not only alone but exiled [exiliert]” (Klagge 2011: 56). In April 1947, “Cambridge grows more hateful to me. The disintegrating and putrefying English civilization.” And a few months later, “I feel myself to be an alien [fremd / Fremdling] in the world” (Monk 1990: 516).

Such histrionic statements may be taken with a grain of salt: mercurial as Wittgenstein was, there were other moments when he felt great warmth for his Cambridge students and local friends. It was Wittgenstein, after all, who remarked in his 1916 diary, written during World War I, “that we cannot defeat England seems certain. The English – the best race in the world – cannot lose!” (Perloff 1996: 26). In 1940, at the height of the Blitzkrieg, Wittgenstein confided to his friend Drury that “despite my dislike of many features of English life, now that England is in real danger, I realize how fond I am of her” (Drury 1984: 159). And in 1951, having come back to Cambridge to spend his dying days at the home of his physician Dr. Edward Bevan, his last words to Mrs. Bevan, with whom he had struck up a great friendship, were, “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life” (Monk 1990: 579).

Teaching the ‘Differences’

It was towards the end of that ‘wonderful life’ that Wittgenstein came to Shakespeare. He had been familiar with the major plays from childhood on – they were staged by his siblings, especially Gretl and Rudi, at family theatricals at the Palais Wittgenstein (McGuinness 1988: 36) – but the first note on Shakespeare in the Nachlass coincides with the outbreak of World War II in 1939:

Shakespeare, one might say, shows the dance of human passions.
He must therefore be objective, otherwise he would not, after all, be showing the dance of human passions – but just talking about it. But he shows them [the passions] as a dance, not naturalistically. (CV 1994: 42)

This is a curious and seemingly contradictory statement. The phrase ‘dance of the human passions’ connotes formal structure and ritual – one thinks of W.B. Yeats’s repeated use of dance as an analogy for poetic structure. A dance play, moreover, would certainly be the antithesis of a ‘naturalistic’ drama – say, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which Yeats, for one, despised. But – and here’s the catch – naturalism is by definition the depiction of everyday reality, particularly the seamy side of life, recorded objectively – as it were, scientifically. As such, Naturalism as a late nineteenth-century literary movement was a reaction against Romantic idealization – against, for example, the intense subjectivity of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. Naturalism went hand in hand with objectivity.

For Wittgenstein, however, the naturalistic or realistic is, curiously enough, related to the subjective, the personal. His own way of writing philosophy was, as he tells us in the Preface to the Philosophical Investigations, to produce “a series of remarks (Bemerkungen), short paragraphs, sometimes in longer chains dealing with the same subject, sometimes jumping, in quick change, from one area to another.” The pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’ are ubiquitous in these ‘remarks,’ giving Wittgenstein’s questions and answers an intimate tone: the reader is, so to speak, overhearing a highly personal debate. And the “very nature of the investigation” … is “to force us to travel over a wide range of thoughts, criss-cross [kreuz und quer] in all directions,” producing no more than “a number of sketches,” arranged in what is, in the end, “just an album” (PI 2009: 3–4). In the words of Ezra Pound (Canto 116), Wittgenstein felt that he ‘couldn’t make it cohere.’

Such ‘subjective naturalism,’ arranged in paratactic units, may have be alien to the turn-of-the century novel, but it could be said to characterize most Modernist poetry from Pound and William Carlos Williams to Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire, to Brecht and Trakl. In all these instances, the poet is very much in the poem, but the detail is realistic, even documentary in its particulars. Wittgenstein may have thought of himself as being on the side of the great ‘classical’ (read, Romantic) composers like Beethoven and Brahms (as opposed to the ‘worthless’ Mahler or the Schoenberg he simply ignored), but, consciously or not, he was himself a Modernist poet – an introspective realist. As such, Hamlet or Othello or Lear, with their larger-than-life characters presented without authorial intrusion by a creator who stands above and beyond the picture frame, must have seemed too remote to Wittgenstein. “I do not understand [Shakespeare],” he writes in 1946 (CV 1994: 56), and four years later, “I could only stare in wonder at Shakespeare; never do anything with him.” Indeed, “in western culture at least, he stands alone, & so, one can only place him by placing him wrongly” (CV 1994: 95).

It is evidently the scale, both temporal and spatial, of Shakespearean drama that confounds Wittgenstein. Renaissance rhetoric, with its dense figuration (metaphor, conceit, hyperbole, catachresis, oxymoron, simile, and pun), and its repeated invocation of universals – ‘Hear, nature, hear!’ (Lear); ‘My parts, my title, and my perfect soul / Shall manifest me rightly’ (Othello) – challenges Wittgenstein to play a language game he doesn’t quite comprehend. Consequently, he complains again and again that

It is not as though S. portrayed types of people well and were in that respect telling the truth. He is not true to life. But he has such a skilled hand & such an individual brushstroke, that each of his characters looks significant, worth looking at (CV 1994: 96).

Shakespeare is not true to life. Here again is the demand for realism coupled with the conviction that the poet should be present in his work, however indirectly or ironically. “Beethoven’s great heart –” remarks Wittgenstein, “no one could say ‚Shakespeare’s great heart.’” (CV 1994: 96). From the perspective of a Modernist writer, this makes good sense. Shakespeare’s plays transcend the personality of their maker, about whom we know almost nothing, and whose greatness is precisely the ability to get inside an astonishingly varied cast of characters, male and female, young and old, princes and clowns – Shylock and Portia, Romeo and Mercutio, Ariel and Caliban. Beethoven, on the other hand, was a figure of human dimensions: his biography was known in great detail and could be related step by step to his string quartets, piano sonatas, and symphonies. His deafness – so terrible a condition for a composer – his various illnesses, his romantic attachments, his response to the events of the day, all these have been closely studied, and Beethoven’s own conversation books reveal his daily life. As in the case of Goethe, life and art seem fully intertwined.

Shakespeare the poet, on the other hand, remains wholly elusive. When Wittgenstein declared “I don’t think that Shakespeare can be compared to any other poet” (1950; CV 1994: 95), he meant that in their range and depth, the plays far exceed the conceivable parameters of authorship: rather the poet “sings as a bird sings” (CV 1994: 96). In fact, of course, Shakespeare can and has been compared to his Elizabethan and Jacobean contemporaries from Thomas Kyd to Thomas Middleton, but since Wittgenstein had no knowledge of these dramatists, he could only think in terms of his own tradition and here he found no parallels.

And yet in these, the last years of his life – the years of preparing for publication the Philosophical Investigations and producing the remarks collected posthumously in Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology and On Certainty – Wittgenstein also revealed a different side. In a conversation with his former student and close friend M. O’C. Drury, for example, he responded to a query about Hegel:

Hegel seems to me to be always wanting to say that things which look different are really the same. Whereas my interest is showing that things which look the same are really different.’ I was thinking of using as a motto for my book a quotation from King Lear: ‘I’ll teach you differences”.’15

The line in question is found in Act I, 4 of Lear, when the disguised Kent comes to his former king’s aid by sending Goneril’s insolent steward Oswald packing (ll. 99–102):

‘Come, sir, arise, away! I’ll teach you differences: away, away! If you will measure your lubber’s length again, tarry: but away! Go to; have you wisdom? So. [Pushes Oswald out.]

The differences to which Kent refers are of course ones of rank: Oswald has willfully ignored the unbridgeable difference between his own ‘lubber’s [grasshopper’s] length’ and the ‘authority’ of the king. Such social stratification is not the issue in the Investigations, but it is also the case that it is difference (between Lear and his daughters, between Cordelia and her sisters, between Lear and Gloucester, Edmund and Edward, Kent and the Fool) that sets the tragedy in motion, beginning with the very first line of the play, in which Kent says to Gloucester, ‘I thought the king had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.’ In assessing his own sons-in-law, Lear displays a failure in discrimination that, with respect to language, is a major theme of the Investigations.

Would Kent’s speech then have served as an appropriate epigraph? Yes, because the Investigations is, on its own terms, devoted to the ‘teach[ing] of differences.’16 “But isn’t the same at least the same?” Wittgenstein asks rhetorically in the Investigations, § 215. The answer is no: repeat the phrase just once and it is already part of a different language game. ‘I will teach you differences,’ also serves as a caution to avoid generalization. Leavis, we recall, was convinced that Wittgenstein, being a philosopher and a foreign one at that, could not know anything about poetry. But Leavis himself tells a remarkable tale about his and Wittgenstein’s mutual colleague, the young poet-critic William Empson. It seems that Wittgenstein once asked Leavis to explain the Empson poem ‘Legal Fictions.’ Leavis was reluctant to do so, remarking that Wittgenstein, who was not familiar with Empson’s master John Donne, could not possibly understand it. But when Leavis made a few preliminary remarks, Wittgenstein evidently interrupted him:

’It’s perfectly plain that you don’t understand the poem in the least,’ he said. ‘Give me the book.’ I complied and sure enough, without any difficulty, he went through the poem, explaining the analogical structure that I should have explained myself, if he had allowed me. (Leavis 1983: 145)

A similar case can be made with regard to Wittgenstein’s reading of Shakespeare. “Was he perhaps a creator of language rather than a poet?” asks Wittgenstein in a 1950 note that has often been cited by Wittgenstein’s critics as an example of his obtuseness. But what does the distinction really mean? Consider Wittgenstein’s rumination about the structure of dream in Shakespeare:

Shakespeare & the dream. A dream is quite false, absurd, cobbled together from different sources, & yet completely true: it makes, in its unique assemblage, a distinct impression. Why? I don’t know. If Shakespeare is as great as he is said to be, then it must be possible to say of him: it’s all false, it makes no sense – & yet it’s all true according to its own laws. 
One could also say: if Shakespeare is great, he can only be so in the entire corpus of his dramas, which create their own language and their own world. For he is entirely unrealistic (like a dream). (CV 1994: 89)

This profound comment, recorded in 1949, can be glossed by one made just a year earlier (also reproduced in Culture and Value) on the Freudian analysis of dreams. We know that, although Wittgenstein admired Freud and had read The Interpretation of Dreams carefully, he came to object to Freud’s translation of the dream-work into a coherent narrative, an explanatory narrative that makes sense of all the particulars:17

In Freudian analysis the dream is so to speak dismantled. It loses its original meaning completely. You might think of it as a play performed in the theatre, with a plot that is sometimes fairly incomprehensible, or at least apparently so, & as though this plot were then torn into pieces & each part given a completely different meaning. You could also think of it like this: a picture is drawn on a big sheet of paper & the sheet is then folded in such a way that pieces which do not belong together at all in the original picture collide in appearance & a new picture, which may or may not make sense, is created (this would be the manifest dream, the first picture the ‘latent dream thought.’) (CV 1994: 78)

Such rationalization, Wittgenstein posits, is always reductive. Indeed, “What is intriguing about a dream is not its causal connection with events in my life, etc., but rather the impression it gives of being a fragment of a story – a very vivid fragment to be sure – the rest of which remains obscure. … the dream story has a charm of its own, like a painting that attracts and inspires us.”18

Now let us reconsider what Wittgenstein says about Shakespeare and dream. A dream is a “unique combination; it makes an impression,” but we don’t know why. Indeed, it may be “quite false, absurd, assembled from various sources,” but it is, in Wittgenstein’s words, “true according to its own laws.” (CV 1994: 78). Just so, Shakespeare’s dramas ‘create’ their own language and their own world; they are true according to their own laws. The demand for realism, which Wittgenstein took very seriously can, in the case of someone as great as Shakespeare, be set aside in favor of the invention of a language.

In a passage from the Conversations on Freud, recorded by Rush Rhees between 1942–46, Wittgenstein spells out what he means by such invention:

Suppose we were to regard dream as a kind of game. … There might be a game in which paper figures were put together to form a story, or at any rate were somehow assembled. The materials might be collected and sorted in a scrapbook full of pictures and anecdotes. The child might then take various bits from the scrapbook to put into the construction; and he might take a considerable picture because it had something in it which he wanted and he might include the rest because it was there. (LA 1966: 49–50).

This description of the dreamwork as language game immediately recalls Wittgenstein’s account of his own book, the Philosophical Investigations as a kind of scrapbook or ‘album’ – a chain of remarks “travelling criss-cross in every direction over a wide field of thought” (PI 2009: 3). He further refers to his remarks as “a number of sketches of landscapes,” recalling the very phrasing he uses with reference to Shakespeare in the last entry of 1950: “It seems to me that his plays are like enormous sketches, not paintings; they are dashed off by one who could, so to speak, permit himself everything” (1950, CV 1994: 98).

Critics have assumed that this comment denigrates Shakespeare – that Wittgenstein takes the Bard to be not quite a Poet, only an “inventor of language.” And indeed, no sooner has Wittgenstein declared that Shakespeare’s plays “are like enormous sketches,” than he feels compelled to add, “I understand how one can admire this & call it the highest art, but I don’t like it” (CV 1994: 98).

But then, Wittgenstein didn’t much like his own writing either. The Preface to the Investigations denigrates his own “sketches” as “unsuccessful attempts to weld my results together into … a whole” (PI 2009: 3). “The best that I could write,” he notes apologetically “would never be more than philosophical remarks; my thoughts were soon paralyzed when I tried to force them in one direction against their natural inclination.” Wittgenstein’s self-criticism here echoes his criticism of Shakespeare. But why should that surprise us? It was Wittgenstein, after all, who held that philosophy should really be written only as a form of poetry. And poetry by definition avoids logical linear structure.

Shakespeare, let us conclude, was not a congenial poet for Wittgenstein in the sense that the great German lyric poets and playwrights were congenial. Both geography (the distance between England and the German-speaking world) and history (the distance between the Renaissance and the German “classical” age) mitigated against such congeniality. The irony is that despite this gulf, the “asymmetries” of Shakespeare’s “dreamwork” (CV 1994: 98) became a model for Wittgenstein’s own writing, showing him the way to conduct his own practice of “teach[ing] us differences.” Wittgenstein may not have ‘liked’ Shakespeare, but, in the end, he had come to regard the master’s great plays as inextricable from his own dreams.

Marjorie Perloff teaches courses and writes on twentieth and now twenty-first century poetry and poetics, both Anglo-American and from a Comparatist perspective, as well as on intermedia and the visual arts. She is Professor Emerita of English at Stanford University and Florence R. Scott Professor of English Emerita at the University of Southern California.  She is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.


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Bouveresse, Jacques: Wittgenstein Reads Freud: the Myth of the Unconscious, trans. Carol Cosman, Princeton 1995.
Drury, M. O’C: Conversations with Wittgenstein (1984), in: Rhees 1984.
Harrison, Robert / Orgel, Stephen, On Shakespeare, in: Entitled Opinions, KZSU, Stanford, January 19, 2010 (‘entitled opinions’).
Klagge, James C.: Wittgenstein in Exile, Cambridge/London 2011.
Leavis, Frank Raymond: Memories of Wittgenstein, in: The Critic as Anti-Philosopher: Essays & Papers, ed. G. Singh, Athens, Georgia 1983.
McGuiness, Brian: Wittgenstein: A Life. Young Ludwig (1889–1921), Berkeley 1988.
Monk, Ray: Ludwig Wittgenstein. The Duty of Genius, New York 1990.
Perloff, Marjorie: Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary, Chicago 1996.
–: But isn’t the same at least the same?’, in: The Literary Wittgenstein, ed. John Gibson and Wolfgang Huemer, London/New York 2004.
–: Writing Philosophy as Poetry: Literary Form in Wittgenstein, in: The Oxford Handbook of Wittgenstein, ed. Oskari Kuusela and Marie McGinn, Oxford 2011.
–: The Madness of the Unexpected: Contextualizing Duchamp’s Readymades, ‘Perloff’; 2012
–: Towards Conceptualism: The Aesthetic of Kringelbuch #52, in: Kulturen & Werte, ed. Josef Rothhaupt, Berlin/Boston 2013.
Rhees, Rush: Recollections of Wittgenstein, Oxford 1984.
Ryback, Timothy: Hitler’s Private Library, New York 2010.
Steiner, George: A Reading Against Shakespeare, in: Steiner, George: No Passion Spent: Essays 1978–1996, London 1996.
Stewart, Stanley: Shakespeare and Philosophy, New York 2010.

1 CV 1994: 96, 98. All references are to second bilingual edition, 1994, with facing pages of the German and English (e) text. But because Peter Winch’s 1977 translation is, to my mind, quite problematic, I have found it necessary sometimes to retranslate the German. Therefore, although the page references throughout this essay are those of CV, the wording may be somewhat different.

2 Altogether, there are seven manuscript entries on Shakespeare collected in CV 1994, all of them composed relatively late in Wittgenstein’s career. The first dates from 1939, two from 1946, the remainder, including the two above, from 1949–50. The notes range in length from a short paragraph to two pages; further scattered remarks are found in Wittgenstein’s letters or published conversations, but the total corpus is quite small.

3 Leavis 1983: 144. Cf. Harold Bloom’s suggestion that, if Wittgenstein had been better informed about Shakespeare, he wouldn’t have made his ill-advised and ‘annoyed’ comments on the transcendent ‘inventor of the human’ (Bloom 1998: 12).

4 Harrison/Orgel 2010.

5 Wittgenstein, CV 1994: 28; “Philosophie dürfte man eigentlich nur dichten,” and cf. Perloff 1996, 51–80; 2004: 37–38; 2011, chapter 31, passim.

6 See LW 1980: 35; PI 2009: 123, my italics.

7 Z 1967: 160.

8 CV 1994: 6. The passage in question is a key item in the soon-to-be published Wittgenstein’s Kringel-Buch, the compendium presented and edited by Josef Rothhaupt, collecting and annotating those notebook entries marked by Wittgenstein with a marginal Kringel (crossed circle), and that may, so Rothhaupt believes, constitute a book of literary/cultural remarks Wittgenstein intended to publish. See Perloff 2011, passim.

9 I treat this issue at greater length in Perloff 2012 and Perloff 2013.

10 “It may of course be,” Leavis admits, “that in German the range and quality of his literary culture was more impressive, but I can’t give any great weight to that possibility” (Leavis 1983: 144). But Leavis was wrong about Wittgenstein’s ignorance of English literature as well: in his Conversations with Wittgenstein, for example, M. O’C. Drury, for example, Wittgenstein cites Tristam Shandy (Drury 1984: 148), Samuel Johnson (Drury 1984: 109, 129), William Blake and William Cowper (Drury 1984: 164–65), James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Drury 1984: 144).

11 In a 1948 notebook entry, for example, Wittgenstein writes, “Genius is talent in which character makes itself heard. For that reason, I would like to say, Kraus has talent, an extraordinary talent, but not genius” (CV 1994: 75).

12 For an account of this failed meeting, see Monk 1990: 119–20.

13 See Wittgenstein, CB 1980: 222, 22, 47, 48, 78 and CV 1994: 76. Cf. Perloff 2004: 38–39.

14 Goethe’s dates are 1749–1832. In Italy, the great literary period dates from the fourteenth century (Dante and Petrarch) through Renaissance Humanism, with marked decline setting in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The situation of France, on the other hand, resembles England’s. There is continuity from the Roman de la Rose of the early thirteenth century to the present, with the proviso that France’s so-called ‘classics’ date from the seventeenth rather than the sixteenth century.

15 Drury 1984: 157. Lear seems, in any case, to be the exception to Wittgenstein’s dismissal of Shakespeare. In 1930, he attended a performance of Lear by the Cambridge University amateur dramatic society. He told Drury, “You should not have missed seeing this; it was a most moving experience. You need young players to perform this play: they can put the necessary passion in it. Coming away from the theatre I was so absorbed by what I had heard that in crossing over the street I was nearly run over by a taxi” (Drury 1984: 133).

16 For a somewhat different reading, see Stewart 2010: 174: “My guess would be that Wittgenstein understood Kent’s meaning very well but chose to ignore the significance of the remark. Wittgenstein brushed aside the cultural importance of social rank that functions so powerfully in King Lear.”

17 See Bouveresse 1995, chapter 3 passim.

18 CV 1994: 78–79. My translation here is a composite of Peter Winch’s and Carol Cosman’s excellent translation of the passage in Bouveresse 1995: 119–20.

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