This side idolatry

This side idolatry

In Brief

When John Eglinton says of Shakespeare that "I admire him, as old Ben did, on this side idolatry," he is quoting words published four years after the Bard's death by fellow poet and playwright Ben Jonson. For Jonson, and for Joyce too, the words convey very precise significance. By locating himself on "this side idolatry" Jonson expresses high esteem while reserving the right to judge. His air of respectful rivalry suits the context in the library chapter, where Eglinton says that Irish writers have not yet produced anything as estimable as Shakespeare's Hamlet even as Stephen Dedalus is using the play to envision how he might do exactly that.

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Two of Jonson's works make clear that "bardolatry," the Victorian enthusiasm that George Bernard Shaw gave a name in 1901, grew from roots reaching back as far as Shakespeare's own times. Although Jonson had a titanic ego, vast classical learning, and enough artistic genius not to be cowed by Shakespeare's accomplishments, he also understood the awe that many people of the theater felt toward his rival. In the remarkable lines he wrote as a preface to the First Folio (1623) he poured forth extravagant praises: "neither man nor Muse can praise too much"; "Soul of the age! / The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage"; "He was not of an age, but for all time!" Tellingly, though, just one phrase from that poem had enough tough-minded bite to become engraved in popular memory: "thou hadst small Latin and less Greek." In Timber: or, Discoveries; Made upon Men and Matter (1620), Jonson showed the same insistence on leavening praise with criticism:
I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, “Would he had blotted a thousand,” which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candor, for I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped.
§ Early in Scylla and Charybdis Joyce alludes to Shakespeare's cultural status as the Great English Writer: "— Our young Irish bards, John Eglinton censured, have yet to create a figure which the world will set beside Saxon Shakespeare's Hamlet though I admire him, as old Ben did, on this side idolatry." The "censure" is evidently directed at Stephen, who as the chapter opens has already begun contesting received notions about the significance and the greatness of Hamlet. No Irish writer, Eglinton points out (Stephen presumably least of all), has yet risen to this level of literary accomplishment. But the Irishman is no bardolator. His qualifying word "though" emphasizes that he is placing himself on "this side" of the line separating judicious appreciation from uncritical adulation.

The same could be said of Stephen. He has devoted vast time and energy to developing a "theory" of Shakespeare as the model of great literary art, but he sees the Bard as less than infallible and harbors a racial animus against the "Saxon." Like Jonson, this "young Irish bard" gazes on greatness through the lens of his own artistic aspirations.

JH 2022
Portrait of Ben Jonson held in the National Portrait Gallery, London, probably painted in the early 1800s after a ca. 1617 original probably painted by Abraham van Blyenberch. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of Will Shakespeare held in the National Portrait Gallery, London. probably painted ca.1610 by John Taylor. Source: Wikimedia Commons.