According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was not yet surpassed 150 years ago. Doubt if much has changed since. In glorious prose the likes of which we don’t see much anymore, Emerson lays out precisely what the contenders are up against:
Shakespeare is as much out of the category of eminent authors, as he is out of the crowd. He is inconceivably wise; the others, conceivably. A good reader can, in a sort, nestle into Plato’s brain, and think from thence, but not into Shakespeare’s. We are still out of doors. For executive faculty, for creation, Shakespeare is unique. No man can imagine it better. He was the farthest reach of subtlety compatible with an individual self – the subtlest of authors, and only just within the possibility of authorship.
With this wisdom of life, is the equal endowment of imaginative and of lyric power. He clothed the creatures of his legend with form and sentiments, as if they were people who had lived under his roof; and few real men have left such distinct characters as these fictions. And they spoke in language as sweet as it was fit.
Yet his talents never seduced him into an ostentation, nor did he harp on one string. An omnipresent humanity coordinates all his faculties.
Give a man of talents a story to tell, and his partiality will presently appear. He has certain observations, opinions, topics, which have some accidental prominence, and which he disposes all to exhibit. He crams this part, and starves that other part, consulting not the fitness of the thing, but his fitness and strength.
But Shakespeare has no peculiarity, no importunate topic; but all is duly given; no veins, no curiosities; no cow-painter, no bird-fancier, no mannerist is he: he has no discoverable egotism: the great he tells greatly; the small, subordinately. He is wise without emphasis or assertion; he is strong, as nature is strong, who lifts the land into mountain slopes without effort, and by the same rule as she floats a bubble in the air, and likes as well to do the one as the other.
This makes that equality of power in farce, tragedy, narrative, and love-songs; a merit so incessant, that each reader is incredulous of the perception of other readers.
Whoa! That’s some kickass prose. I didn’t know Emerson could write like that.
He’s right. Shakespeare’s in another world altogether. There’s Shakespeare, and then there’s everyone else.
- Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 1850. Representative Men. Boston: Phillips, Sampson and Co.