The poet John Keats coined the phrase “negative capability” in a letter he wrote
to his brothers, George and Thomas, in 1817 in which he distinguished writers
like Shakespeare, who had it, from writers like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whom,
Keats believed, did not:
[S]everal things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously. I mean negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.
Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.
Scholars have tried for centuries to determine Shakespeare’s religion, philosophy and politics with the result that we now have as many theories about what Shakespeare, the man, believed as we have beliefs. But the reason these critics have failed is because in his writings Shakespeare does not irritably “reach after fact and reason.”
Shakespeare didn’t write to change the world, to make a point or to send a message, but rather, simply to create beauty.¹ He was content to remain in a state of uncertainty which allowed him to accurately represent human nature (i.e. the thing itself) and let his readers make their own religious, moral and philosophical judgments about it.²
¹ “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” – John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn
² Shakespeare had Keats’ negative capability in abundance. But those psuedo-intellectuals who spend their time irritably reaching after proofs of Shakespeare’s personal beliefs do not. The same, by the way, can be said of those authorship conspiratorialists who cannot abide the fact that they weren’t present in Shakespeare’s study to observe him penning Hamlet.