Categories: Literary Criticism

The analysis of Shakespeare

The literary histories of Courthope, Gosse and Saintsbury, written in the closing years of the nineteenth century, exemplify two markedly different approaches to the genre that draw on the opposing techniques of schol- arship and criticism. Such differences are also apparent in early twentieth- century studies of Shakespeare, which can be used to illustrate the ambivalent attitudes of certain early professors of English towards recent developments in academic methodology. This ambivalence, in turn, highlights a gap between the rhetoric and practice of Shakespeare study. Shakespeare was a central element of all the early degree courses in English literature, and while the precise form of this study differed in each institution, many early professors (as outlined in Chapter 2) drew on literary history and bibliography to give their questions an objectivity that would make them easy to examine. Students taking University of London exams in the 1880s, for example, were expected to tackle ques- tions on the dates of composition of Shakespeare’s plays, the textual history of Richard III and Shakespeare’s reliance on Plutarch.74 Some critics saw this emphasis on scholarship as misplaced. Walter Raleigh claimed that a ‘rapid, alert reading of one of the great plays brings us nearer to the heart of Shakespeare then all the faithful and laudable business of the antiquary and the commentator’, seeing such ‘business’ as offering nothing more than ‘laborious descriptions of the facts to be explained’.75 Nevertheless, both Raleigh and his Oxford contemporary A. C. Bradley displayed attitudes towards professional scholarship that were much more complex than this initial rejection suggests. Both were professors, writing and speaking to audiences that included their own academic peer group as well as their students: both would have been fully aware of the developments in contemporary scholarship and of the status that professional authority was beginning to occupy in intel- lectual life. It is significant, then, that while both drew on certain aspects of literary scholarship in order to claim such authority, they also sought to distance themselves from the methods it employed and the types of knowledge that it prioritised, foregrounding a personal sympathy that offered itself as the only route to a ‘true’ understanding of Shakespeare and his characters. In Bradley’s case, this sympathy appears as a natural extension of the philosophy of personal engagement outlined in his inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry. Shakespearean Tragedy, published in 1904 and based on lectures and classes delivered during his professorships at Liverpool, Glasgow and Oxford, involves a psychological exploration of Shakespeare’s characters, depending on a concept of human agency that in turn requires a detailed examination of each character’s ‘fundamental tragic trait’.76 This method was famously criticised by L. C. Knights in ‘How Many Children had Lady Macbeth?’ as producing ‘irrelevant moral and realistic canons’, carrying out a ‘sentimentalizing’ of Shakespeare’s heroes that detracted from ‘the whole dramatic pattern of each play’: for Knights, such treatment reflected the naïve belief that characters had an existence independent of their dramatic roles. Yet while Knights saw Bradley as the ‘most illustrious example’77 of this form of criticism, Bradley was drawing on a long tradition of humanist scholarship. He alludes frequently, for example, to the work of Edward Dowden, who used Shakespeare’s plays as the key to an exploration of the playwright’s own growth and maturity, and believed that his depiction of ‘the mysteries of human experience’ allowed his audience an uncomplicated access to his ‘living mind’: ‘We are in company with a man; and a sense of real human sympathy and fellowship rises within us […] We are conscious of his strength communicating itself to us.’78 Bradley was less lyrical than Dowden about the benefits of Shakespeare’s company, but shared his view of the reading process as a struggle to comprehend the mind of the author as displayed through his characters, stating that true lovers of Shakespeare ‘want to realise fully and exactly the inner movements which produced these words and no other, these deeds and no other, at each particular moment’.79 He also continued to iterate his belief in the importance of an untutored sympathy with the author, establishing an opposition between criticism and scholarship which neatly exemplifies the ways in which they were seen by many of his contemporaries. Such

an opposition held that the study of literary history and textual sources was ‘useful and even in various degrees necessary’, but that
an overt pursuit of them is not necessary [. . .] nor is any one of them so indispensable to our object as that close familiarity with the plays, that native strength and justice of perception, and that habit of reading with an eager mind, which make many an unscholarly lover of Shakespeare a far better critic than many a Shakespeare scholar.80
Nevertheless, it is significant that even while Bradley asserted the importance of an intuitive approach to literature, he also drew on tech- niques that would help to give his work the appearance of a more scholarly kind of text. The first two lectures on which Shakespearean Tragedy was based took the form of an investigation of the moral and philosophical world of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and of the patterns Bradley identifies in their underlying structure. In describing these patterns, Bradley empha- sises the need to make careful distinctions and logical deductions. For instance, after discussing the role of chance, insanity and the supernatural, he concludes that
thus it appears that these three elements in the ‘action’ are subordin- ates, while the dominant factor consists in deeds which issue from character. So that, by way of summary, we may now alter our first statement, ‘A tragedy is a story of exceptional calamity leading to the death of a man in high estate,’ and we may say instead […] that the story is one of human actions producing exceptional calamity and ending in the death of such a man.81
Bradley’s conjunctions give his argument an orderliness that helps to convey this authoritative tone: there is a sense that his definitions are both systematic and carefully reasoned, and therefore incontrovertible. This sense of order continues when Bradley’s discussion of ‘the constant alteration of rises and falls in […] tension or in the emotional pitch of the work’82 leads him to adopt an alphabetical form of notation in order to simplify his argument:
Let us for the sake of brevity call the two sides in the conflict A and B […] through a considerable part of the play, perhaps the first half, the cause of A is, on the whole, advancing; and through the remaining part it is retiring, while that of B advances in turn […] And since we always more or less decidedly prefer A to B or B to A, the result of this

oscillating movement is a constant alternation of hope and fear, or rather a mixed state predominantly hopeful and a mixed state predominantly apprehensive.83
For all Bradley’s claims about the ‘unscholarly lover’ of Shakespeare, the use of such techniques gives him an authority that would not be afforded by a more superficial empathy with the text: he is asserting a kind of knowledge that is gained only through depth of study and analysis. Moreover, his use of quasi-algebraic notation to simplify the different elements of this structure also gives his work an impersonality that balances the emotions (‘hope and fear’) that these elements represent, and mimics the appearance of a more scientific kind of writing. This appearance is heightened by his use of an alphanumerical system to demarcate separate points in his argument, giving the sense not of a personal meditation rooted in feelings, but of a carefully structured analysis of facts (derived from traditions of philosophical logic) in which different strands of thought have been meticulously distinguished from one another. It seems that Bradley was aware of the intellectual authority that such techniques could convey, and that he was keen to draw on this authority – and the sense of professionalism and objectivity that went with it. Yet such claims must be seen in the context of the personal authority upon which Bradley’s work also rests. For all its surface appearance of logic and precision, and its attempt to imitate the new scholarly methods of the social sciences, Shakespearean Tragedy is a work of imagination: the technique Knights so roundly criticised – that of treating characters as real people, and carrying out explorations of their notional psycho- logical state – is apparent throughout, and consequently these characters appear as having ‘inner lives’ that can be reached through the medium of Shakespeare’s text. This emphasis of the characters’ realism actually serves to diminish any sense of Shakespeare’s role in their creation and manipulation, as what is foregrounded is an impressionistic sense of how each character responds to, and is affected by, the events that unfold around them. Hamlet, for example, ‘cannot prevent himself from probing and lacerating the wound in his soul’:84 he is described in terms of his intellectual power; his ‘pathological condition’ of melancholy; and his speculative genius, a ‘necessity in his soul’ that ‘dr[ove] him to penetrate below the surface and to question what others took for granted’.85 The audience is constantly invited to identify with characters, to examine their traits and to consider themselves in their position, exploring their psychology in a way that sees them as autonomous agents rather than

created figures within a wider dramatic conception. Such an exploration draws much of its weight from the imagination of both Bradley and his audience. When he asks his students to consider the situation of Ophelia, he emphasises his own powers of sympathy in his impressionistic re-creation of Ophelia’s state of mind:
Consider for a moment how matters looked to her. She knows nothing about the Ghost and its disclosures. She has undergone for some time the pain of repelling her lover and appearing to have turned against him. She sees him, or hears of him, sinking daily into deeper gloom, and so transformed from what he was that he is considered to be out of his mind […] She is frightened, then; frightened, if you will, like a child.86
Such descriptions draw attention not to Bradley’s intellectual powers, but to a more personal understanding and an ability to empathise with the human dilemmas in which characters find themselves. As a result, his work can be linked to an Arnoldian tradition of generalist criticism in which an understanding of the text was seen as a route to an enriched awareness of the human condition. The endings of Bradley’s lectures, for example, typically emphasise the spiritual gains of reading Shakespeare’s tragedies. Hamlet ‘brings home to us at once the sense of the soul’s infinity, and the sense of the doom which not only circum- scribes that infinity but appears to be its offspring’: it affects us because of its capacity to make us recognise that ‘in all that happens or is done we seem to apprehend some vaster power’.87 Similarly, King Lear’s blend of ‘pity and terror’ with ‘law and beauty’ enables us to feel ‘a consciousness of greatness in pain, and of solemnity in the mystery we cannot fathom’, a reminder of the ineffability of poetry that Bradley tried to capture in his Inaugural Lecture.88 For all his cautiousness about the ‘ulterior motives’ of literary study, Bradley is convinced of the power of the sense of awe and mystery that accompanies Shakespeare’s tragedies: his iteration of this theme places his work firmly in the tradition of the Victorian sage. In view of this, it is significant that Bradley reserves his discussion of more ‘scholarly’ textual matters for the Notes appended to his text, where he deals with questions of editorship (he recommends several emendations to the stage directions in Rowe’s edition of Hamlet) and dating. These notes do show evidence of a knowledge of contemporary research: Bradley’s summary of the various metrical tests used in estab- lishing the order of the plays involves references to the work of the

German scholars König and Hertzberg and a discussion of the relative merits of methods known as the Speech-ending test, the Overflow test and the Light-and-Weak ending test.89 Bradley acknowledges that such topics will be ‘of interest only to scholars’90 and separates them from the main body of his text, where footnotes are used mainly to develop and clarify points in the argument rather than to give references, and where the interpretations discussed tend to be drawn from a wider group of men of letters (Schlegel, Goethe, Coleridge) rather than from Bradley’s academic peer group. It is significant that Bradley chose to give Shakespearean Tragedy this more scholarly dimension, however grudging it might appear: he appears to be making a concession to the changing nature of academic practice while also seeking to distance himself from these changes. But his logical rhetoric and references to contemporary research do not conceal the fact that his interpretation of Shakespeare is founded on a much more personal set of skills: for Bradley, the ‘justice of perception’ involved in a close study of character was clearly more important than any evidence of scholarship. Walter Raleigh, in contrast, had serious misgivings about the merits of a psychological exploration of Shakespeare’s characters, and distanced himself from critics who ‘must finish his sketches for him, telling us more about his characters than ever he knew’.91 His criticism of such an approach encompasses Bradley’s work and anticipates the direction that would be taken in the future by some of Cambridge’s Tripos questions. For Raleigh, speculation about character and motivation had ‘no meaning for criticism’:
We seem to know them all, and to be able to predict how each of them will act in trials to which [they] cannot be exposed. What if Desdemona had been Lear’s daughter, and Cordelia Othello’s wife? Would not the sensitive affection of the one and the proud sincerity of the other have given us a different result?92
Yet despite this disagreement, Raleigh shared Bradley’s emphasis on the need for a personal engagement with the text, and saw such an engagment as taking precedence over the artificial ‘canons of judgment’ offered by criticism.93 Indeed, Raleigh’s own criticism can be seen as an attempt to demonstrate the power of the ‘real reader’, a person who saw the text as a living force rather than an object for academic study. Stephen Potter described Raleigh as having the power to ‘send his audiences away tingling with a sense of the unique value of the particular writer he had been expounding, eager to find out more on their own account’.

Raleigh’s book Shakespeare (1907), part of Macmillan’s ‘English Men of Letters’ series, demonstrates how he achieved this, with a characteristic technique being the building of impressionistic descriptions of the playwright’s greatness and breadth of experience. Like Bradley, Raleigh saw this greatness as a key to an enriched understanding of life; one which could not be gained through the ‘prosaic enthusiasm and learned triviality’95 of scholarly enquiry. Shakespeare, for example,
keeps us out of doors, and we find the width of his wisdom fatiguing, the freedom of his movements bewildering. He is at home in the world; and we complain that the place is too large for us, the visitation of the winds too rough and unceremonious […] But Shakespeare’s apology for his own life is more than sufficient. We know something of what he felt and thought, for he has told us. If we ask what he did, his answer admits of no human retort – he wrote his plays.96
The ‘indispensable preliminary’ for understanding Shakespeare was, then, ‘not knowledge of his history, not even knowledge of his works, but knowledge of his theme, a wide acquaintance with human life and human passion as they are reflected in a sensitive and independent mind’.97 Such statements attest to the emphatically humanist nature of Raleigh’s study: his aim was to take his readers ‘nearer to the heart of Shakespeare than all the faithful and laudable business of the antiquary and the commentator’,98 in order that the playwright’s unique under- standing of life may be communicated to a wider audience. However, this generalist philosophy was not without its specialist foundations. For all Raleigh’s caution about the benefits of scholarship, he was clearly in possession of a ‘scholarly’ body of knowledge about Shakespeare’s sources, influences and historical background: he writes, for instance, of the dramatic tradition that preceded Shakespeare; his use of contemporary songs, ballads and proverbs; and the differing treatment he gave to sources such as Holinshed, Plutarch and the Bible. His discussion of Shakespeare’s cultural background makes use of contemporary archival sources and the accounts of witnesses: his descrip- tion of Shakespeare’s early years in London draws on a considerable depth of historical research.99 Nevertheless, Raleigh is careful not to betray too much of his scholarship. It is significant that while his text belonged to the same series as Gosse’s study of Gray (and, indeed, was written 25 years later), it differs from Gosse’s work in that it contains no biography or list of sources, and has no system of referencing quotations or citations, despite its discussion of textual variants and the

work of other writers. Raleigh’s scholarship acts as a means to an end rather than an end in itself, allowing him to anchor his impressionistic descriptions in significant details. His description of the world of Elizabethan theatre and the popular dramatic tradition within which Shakespeare worked begins by referring to contemporary pamphlets (The Serving-Man’s Comfort of 1598); actors such as Will Summer, Richard Tarlton and Will Kempe; choirs such as the Children of Paul’s and the Children of the Chapel Royal; and the emergence of the University Wits: these factual details culminate in the broad descriptive sweep with which Raleigh depicts
the wild Bohemian life of actors and dramatists […] a time when nothing was fixed or settled, when every month brought forth some new thing, and popularity was the only road to success. There was fierce rivalry among the companies of actors to catch the public ear. Tragedy acknowledged one man for master; and a new school of actors was growing up to meet the demand for poetic declamation. Comedy, the older foundation, was unchanged, and remained in the hands of the professional jesters […] Force, stridency, loud jesting and braggart declamation carried the day, and left no room for the daintiness of the literary conscience.100
Such passages are rooted in fact, but nevertheless have an oracular tone that glosses over the fact that what is being displayed is the imaginative power of the man of letters – a form of writing used to improvisation and speculation – rather than the research of the scholar. Raleigh’s concept of reading was similar to Bradley’s in that it prioritised imagination, sympathy and a capacity for the instinctive perception of the author’s greatness, underpinned by the humanist knowledge of the critic. In comparison, the knowledge produced by scholarship was seen as both laborious and inferior.
The sheer range of critical practices and philosophies outlined in this chapter points to the lack of agreement about what constituted literary criticism at the end of the nineteenth century. Moreover, the fact that many of the early professors of English still espoused the practices used by the generalist critics of the mid-nineteenth century indicates that these varied critical practices cannot be mapped onto a simple binary division between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’. While literary scholars, keen to advance the subject’s claim to disciplinary status, were willing to draw on history and philology as paradigms for academic English, critics both inside and outside the universities were insisting that literature could not be reduced to the accumulation of facts – that it possessed special qualities that set it apart from other newly professionalised disciplines. The philosophies expressed by these critics can be distinguished along the lines of the differing models of critical practice espoused by Arnold and Pater: the former emphasising literature’s role as an agent of social change; the latter concerned with the private relationship between text and reader. While these two models rest on opposing notions of the uses to which criticism could be put, what links them is their resistance to the kind of specialism that the early literary scholarship sought to encourage. For both, the immediate audience and purpose of criticism were envisaged not as a community of experts and the pursuit of academic knowledge, but in broader and more general terms: in Arnold’s model as a non-specialist community of ‘aliens’, led by ‘the love of human perfection’101 and the desire to spread the benefits of culture throughout humanity; and in Pater’s as a sensitive, attentive reader who stands outside the notion of ‘community’ altogether, dedicated to a precise understanding of his or her inward response to art. These views, and the ways in which they were adapted and promoted, defined criticism in ways that made it neither teachable nor examinable. While scholarship was leading to the codification of literary knowledge along historical and linguistic lines, criticism was concerned with an understanding that was much more personal and consequently much less tangible. However, as with ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’, the idea of a straight- forward distinction between ‘scholarship’ and ‘criticism’ needs to be approached with caution. As we have seen, both Bradley and Raleigh adopted some elements of scholarship while also appearing to reject it, recognising the professional authority that it was able to give to their work. And by the early twentieth century, elements of a more critical approach were becoming apparent in the degree courses which had previously emphasised the objective knowledge associated with scholar- ship: in 1910, the Victoria University of Manchester asked students to comment on Shakespeare’s characterisation, and on his treatment of concepts such as jealousy and the ‘tragic fault’, in a manner that seems to draw directly on Bradley’s psychological treatment of his characters.102 As a result, the relationships between professors and institutions, and criticism and scholarship, appear to have been highly complex. As academic critics became more aware of the professional authority that scholarship was able to confer on their work, some of them sought an accommodation with scholarly methods that is apparent in their adoption of certain techniques of referencing and bibliography, as well as in the language they use and the concepts on which they draw. Conversely, there are signs that institutions previously concerned with scholarship were beginning to recognise the alternative kinds of knowledge that were made available by criticism. As noted at the end of Chapter 2, Oxford’s Faculty of English was beginning to acknowledge, by the 1920s, that literary study drew on skills that were not encompassed by the objectivity of philology or textual study. These skills had not yet been formalised, but they would be given a more enthusiastic welcome in Quiller-Couch’s Cambridge. Outside the universities, many critics had a more straightforward approach to the complexities of criticism and scholarship, using their writing to reclaim literature from academic methods and institutions, and replace it in the hands of the non-academic reader. Yet this latter figure could not be identified with the general reading public of the Victorian periodicals. While some scholars had aimed to infuse literature with a rigour that would secure its place in the universities, the critics associated with Modernism sought to give it a different kind of diffi- culty: one that could be grasped not through education, but through the possession of what Pater had deemed ‘a certain kind of temperament’.103 Such definitions, which will form the basis of Chapter 4, took criticism out of the hands of the academic professionals, and gave it to a different kind of elite.

bookworm

Recent Posts

Origin of English Literature

Origin of English Literature English literature begins with the history of dark ages about 8th – 14th centuries comes to…

10 months ago

Important Characters in English Literature

Important Characters in English Literature Of course, we must know almost every writer who contributed to literature or helped to…

10 months ago

How to study English Literature

How to study English Literature Because of broad subjects, each student approaches to study with the prejudice in the first.…

10 months ago

Structure in English Literature

Structure in English Literature English literature, based on many years of history, has many unique features. It has many literary…

10 months ago

Eras of the English Literature

To find out how many parts a literature has is the main point of beginning to study. In general division,…

10 months ago

Parody and Satire Definitions and Examples

Parody Definition A work created to mock or poke fun at an original work, its subject, author, style, or some other…

3 years ago