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Shakespeare studies in the XX century: main tendencies and development

 

Plan

1. General overview of the notion of Shakespearean criticism

2. Shakespearean criticism at an early stage

a) Shakespeare’s contemporaries

b) Ben Jonson

c) Criticism in the 17th and 18th centuries

d) Romantic appreciation

e) Criticism in the 19th century

b). Feminist criticism of Shakespeare

3. Shakespeare Studies in the XX century

a) General outline

c) New historicism

d) Cultural materialism

 

1. General overview of the notion of Shakespearean criticism

Although criticism is strictly the attempt to explain and evaluate works of art in terms other than their own, G. Wilson Knight, in The Wheel of Fire (1930), differentiates between 'criticism' (involving comparison and evaluation) and 'interpretation' (which seeks to understand a work on its own terms). In Shakespeare studies, criticism as such is often inextricable from editorial, textual, biographical, historical, linguistic, and/or purely scholarly investigation. The distinction is just as difficult now that the once informal activity of criticism has been professionalized in universities, and accompanied by a renewed codification of literary and critical theory. Because of the central place Shakespeare has come to occupy in academic education at every level, his works are now a site for contesting modes of interpretation, appropriation, and signification. In addition, there persists a broad division between literary criticism (reflecting a central canon of literature in English) and theatrical criticism (responding to the historically conditioning characteristics of live performance).

 

2. Shakespearean criticism at an early stage

a) Shakespeare’s contemporaries

Informal criticism of Shakespeare probably begins with schoolmaster Francis Meres's Palladis Tamia: Wit's Treasury (1598), in which he patriotically proposes equivalents in modern English literature for the great classical authors: Shakespeare matching Plautus for comedy and Seneca for tragedy; Ovid for love poetry; and Horace or Catullus for lyric poetry.

 

Classical conventions are also reflected in the presentation of the First Folio of 1623, where 36 plays are collected, in a few cases misleadingly, into genres of comedy, history, and tragedy (of which only national 'history' might properly be regarded as an Elizabethan invention); while the partial and imperfect division of individual plays into acts and scenes (with Latin designations) also reminds the reader of their classical antecedents.

 

The prefatory dedications and commendatory verses also raise matters which continue to occupy criticism. Shakespeare's actor-executors, John Heminges and Henry Condell, refer to the universality, popularity, and accessibility of the works; their dual status, as plays to be performed live on stage, and as texts to be read; the textual authority of the early printed editions, despite their author's inability to monitor many of them; Shakespeare's mysterious ease of composition and access to so-called 'Nature', exemplifying his spontaneous genius.



 

b) Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson, extravagantly calling the author 'my beloved', compares his achievement not only to his English predecessors and contemporaries (Chaucer, Spenser, Beaumont, Kyd, and Marlowe) but also to the great classical dramatists (Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Terence, and Plautus), apparently taking for granted Shakespeare's own familiarity with their works, despite his relatively 'small Latin, and less Greek'. Jonson too draws attention to the paradox of the intrinsic theatrical impermanence of Shakespeare's plays and their literary potential to transcend any limitations of time and place. While acknowledging Shakespeare's natural gifts, Jonson is also careful to justify both the art and the effort ('sweat.. . and strike the second heat') involved in such prodigious poetic expression.

 

These First Folio encomia set the critical agenda for centuries to come. But note the absence of biographical or personal information. They concentrate on art and achievement. There is mention of the Stratford monument;

the rivers Avon and Thames; the Globe, Blackfriars, and Cockpit theatres; the professional friends and aristocratic patrons. Shakespeare's appearance is commemorated in the Droeshout engraved portrait; but of family and personal life, those subjects which have so obsessed later speculators, there is nothing. Nor, on the other hand, is there the slightest doubt that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon actually did write the plays attributed to him.

 

c) Criticism in the 17th and 18th centuries

Criticism in the 17th and 18th centuries partly flourishes as an adjunct to the scholarly accumulation (often in successive editions and their accompanying biographies, from Nicholas Rowe in 1709 onwards) of facts about Shakespeare, his theatre, and his times; and partly as an antidote to the theatrical practice of adaptation and revision. But it also represents a direct challenge and sometimes confrontation between succeeding generations of modern authors and their illustrious predecessor. In John Dryden's Essay on the Dramatique Poetry of the Last Age (1672), Preface to Troilus and Cressida (1679), and Essay of Dramatick Poésie (1688), the leading author of the Restoration not only pays tribute to the 'largest and most comprehensive soul' of all modern and most ancient poets, but attributes Shakespeare's numerous defects of taste and judgement to the barbarous age in which he lived. This weighing of merits and defects seems to us unproductive, but it represents an attempt to establish permanent criteria for the assessment of value in literature against the anarchic flux of temporary fashion.

 

The 'enlightened' apportionment of praise and blame continues in the work of both Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson. Pope's criticism, contained in the Preface to his 1725 edition, has been described as uninspired and conventional, although he does acknowledge the absurdity and irrelevance of applying Aristotelian prescriptions to Shakespeare. Johnson's own notable contribution to criticism also comes in the Preface to his edition, of 1765, in which paradoxically he appeals to both 'nature' and 'delusion' (or dramatic illusion) in defense of Shakespeare's distinctly unregulated and unclassical imagination. Johnson's praise for Shakespeare's 'just representations of general nature' and his dramatic realization of 'the genuine progeny of common humanity' reflect the importance he attached to the agreed verdict of generations of readers and spectators.

 

Several 18th-century essayists seem to anticipate concerns central to later criticism. Maurice Morgann's Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff (1777) begins an enduring fashion for isolating individual characters for

analysis. Similarly, Walter Whiter's Specimen of a Commentary on Shakespeare (1794), in drawing attention to the association in Shakespeare's mind of certain clusters of ideas and images, begins another process, only systematically exploited in the 20th century, of attention to the function of specific details of diction and imagery.

 

d) Romantic appreciation

This period also marks the beginning of important contributions to the study and reputation of Shakespeare by distinguished European authors, including both Voltaire's rationalist detraction and Goethe's Romantic devotion. Although England's major Romantic critic of Shakespeare, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in seeking to place Shakespeare's 'judgement' on a level with his 'genius', seems to discount any debt to German Romantic criticism, particularly that of A. W. Schlegel, the coincidence of ideas is clear and only the precedence uncertain. The often fragmentary sources for Coleridge's own criticism (notebooks, letters, conversations, reported lectures, etc.) do define two important alternative streams of Shakespearian criticism: the 'poetic' (focusing on organic form in language) and the 'psychological' (focusing on character)—De Quincey too calls his 1823 essay 'On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth' a 'specimen of psychological criticism'. William Hazlitt's Characters of Shakespear's Plays (1817), including 'doubtful plays' as well as the accepted plays, poems, and sonnets, also emulates the romantic enthusiasm of Schlegel, in reaction to the classical reservations of Dr Johnson. Hazlitt's own insight into poetry and character is matched by his response to live performance, both in the Characters and in some of the companion pieces in The Round Table (also 1817), particularly his vivid essay 'On Mr. Kean's Iago'. John Keats's continuous allusions to Shakespeare in his letters, particularly his identification of Shakespeare's 'Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason', represent another aspect of Romantic impressionism, with its elevation of Shakespeare's poetic and imaginative capacity over his intellectual judgement.

 

e) Criticism in the 19th century

Perhaps in reaction to the romantic trends, much 19thcentury criticism is conducted precisely in a context of such 'irritable reaching after fact', the accumulation through documentary research of information about Shakespeare's life and times being typified by the activity and output of the Shakespeare Society (founded 1840) and the New Shakspere Society (founded 1873). Passionate enthusiasm persists, reflected in the writings of Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, or Fyodor Dostoevsky; while a few sceptical detractors (notably Leo Tolstoy) remained unimpressed by the rising cultural tide of almost universal approbation.

 

The New Shakspere Society attempted to use metrical and phraseological tests to establish the order in which Shakespeare wrote the plays; and, using that order, to study 'the progress and meaning of Shakspere's mind'.

 

Much influential criticism in the 19th century reflects that speculation, both in Britain and Europe: Edward Dowden's Shakspere: A Critical Study of his Mind and Art (1875), responding to the German psycho-biography of Gervinus (1849-50, translated as Shakespeare Commentaries in 1863). Dowden's inference of distinct periods in the growth of Shakespeare's intellect and character, while frequently scorned as unscholarly, nevertheless informed general and specialized studies of Shakespeare's 'happy' comedies, 'dark' comedies, 'great' tragedies, and 'romances' for nearly a century; and found further expression in the Danish Georg Brandes's William Shakespeare (1896), which influenced writers such as Ibsen, James Joyce, and Bernard Shaw, as well as academics such as A. C. Bradley, in Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), whose detailed analysis of Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth is probably still the most widely consulted critical work on Shakespeare ever published, despite repeated attempts (by E. E. Stoll, F. R. Leavis, L. C. Knights, and many others) to discredit its premisses.

 


Date: 2015-01-29; view: 683


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