Return to Table of Contents

John A. Bertolini


Shakespeare's Shadow and Wilde's Art in Shaw's You Never Can Tell


Shaw's allusion in You Never Can Tell to John Home's 1756 play, Douglas, along with other allusions to Shakespeare (Macbeth in particular), signal a complex range of aesthetic concerns regarding Shaw's literary rivalry with Wilde and with Shakespeare.

You Never Can Tell in its immediate historical context responds to Wilde's the Importance of Being Earnest; in its a-historical context it defines Shaw's comedy as similar to Shakespeare in comedic pattern but distinct from Shakespeare in philosophy.

Although Shaw was an Irishman, he seems to have identified almost as strongly with the Scots, as against the English and in competition with Shakespeare, claiming to trace his ancestry, for example, back to Macduff. When the Clandon children, Phil and Dolly, are being presented to the family solicitor, Finch McComas, they fall into quoting alternate lines of the famous speech from Home's play (Act II), wherein Norval unwittingly reveals himself to his unknown mother, Lady Randolph, as her son; that is, they enact a scene of discovery: " 'My name is--'Norval. On the Grampian  hills'--"My father feeds his flock, a frugal swain' " . The quotation from a Scottish author, whose play sparked nationalist feelings invokes Shaw's competition with Shakespeare; and alludes to Wilde's spoofing of discovery scenes in The Importance of Being Earnest. At the Edinburgh premiere of Douglas, the audience's emotional response to the play was capped by a triumphant outcry, "Whaur's yer Wully Shakespere noo!" Moreover, prior to the success of Douglas, the author seems to have felt keenly the burden of competing with Shakespeare in drama, as witnessed by his "Verses Written by Mr. Home, with a pencil, on Shakespeare's Monument in Westminster Abbey" (1747), where Home actually laments his failure to equal the impact of Shakespeare on the British stage. Home's lament seems to have crystallized for Shaw his own anxieties about fighting off the reputation of his shadow-double, Shakespeare, for the cry of "Whaur's yer Wully Shakespere noo!" comes back in Shakes Versus Shav (1949), when Shaw has Rob Roy voice this cry over the defeated Macbeth in order for Shaw to oppose his own optimism against what Shaw took to be Shakespeare-Macbeth's despair. The return of Home to Shaw's imagination in almost the last play he wrote shows how deeply this current of emotion ran in Shaw.

In Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, Shaw found exemplified a perfect Art for Art's sake aesthetic, divorced from human emotion. When Jack Worthing discovers his true identity as the son of General Ernest Moncrieff, his discovery is not meant to produce any emotion whatsoever. Therefore Shaw makes his discovery scene, the reunion of father and daughter, Crampton and Gloria, simultaneously artificial through its resemblance to Wilde's discovery scene, but distinct from Wilde in its insistence on the presence of authentic emotion. Thus does Shaw defeat his rival Wilde and compete with his rival Shakespeare in You Never Can Tell.