William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Speech — A Description of the Real Shakespeare

William Faulkner (1897-1962) received the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1949.  Three major works that exploded from his pen within a short space of time – The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930) and Light of August (1932) – have become American classics and are on Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best English-Language Novels of the 20th Century.  At the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm on December 10, 1950, Faulkner delivered a now-famous speech that, for me, serves as yet another reminder that the Shakespeare “authorship question” really does matter.

He referred to his “life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit,” which is exactly what we would expect to hear from the author of Hamlet and King Lear as well as from the man who wrote the tortured lines of the sonnets such as number 66 in which he pens a virtual suicide note, listing reasons he would prefer to die: “Tired with all these, for restful death I cry … Tired with all these, from these would I be gone.”

Faulkner told of the “anguish and travail” to which he was dedicated; he focused on “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, which alone can make good writing, because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”

Such cannot be said of the traditional mythology of Shakespeare, who, we are told, wrote primarily not out of experience but with only a part of himself, keeping one eye always on the box office.  But that traditional figure cannot be the man who wrote Hamlet’s dying plea to Horatio to “absent thee from felicity awhile and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain to tell my story.”

Accepting his award, Faulkner urged any young writer to leave “no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.

“Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands…

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.  The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart…”

Here’s the full speech as later published:

Ladies and gentlemen,

I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will someday stand here where I am standing.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, which alone can make good writing, because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he re-learns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tide-less in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’ve read that the people in his hometown couldn’t read his works, as every character portrayed was obviously someone they knew. I’m curious how the court of Elizabeth viewed the plays, if the characters were as obvious to them as the characters in Faulkner were to his neighbors.

    • I’m sure that in the early part of the reign (1560’s-1588 roughly) it was more like a bunch of inter-related family members, all calling each other cousin, suddenly snow-bound inside the great castle or mansion, with time to fill with entertainment supplied by that eccentric cousin Edward, who knocks ’em dead with uncanny spoofs and portraits, even or even mostly mocking himself, setting all the tables on a roar….

  2. Nicely done, Hank!

    • Thanks, Wally! It’s a reminder that our concern with Shakespeare authorship covers a lot of ground and includes the great artists of all eras…Cheers….

  3. Great post Hank, thanks.

    • I appreciate the comment, Roger, and would urge everyone to visit http://shake-speares-bible.com/about/ — and the commentary section proves a great bonus, not least because of your description of how orthodox Shakespeare scholars have determined when the Bard wrote his plays!


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