Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne: Renaissance Essays
The Masks of Othello
The Masks of King Lear
Hero and Saint: Shakespeare and the Graeco-Roman Heroic Tradition
I begin with three quotations. On August 17, 1863, Abraham Lincoln, writing to the actor James Hackett, said:
Some of Shakespeare’s plays I have never read; while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader. Among the latter are Lear, Richard the Third, Henry Eighth, Hamlet, and especially Macbeth. I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful.1
A century or so later James Baldwin, in his striking contribution to the Shakespeare quatercentenary celebrations, described the moment when, as a boy, he suddenly heard a scene from Julius Caesar, heard it as an authentic voice speaking from the past directly to his own present:
Under this light, this revelation, both myself and my past began slowly to open, perhaps the way a flower opens at morning, but, more probably, the way an atrophied muscle begins to function, or frozen fingers to thaw.2
About the same time a decidedly nonacademic boy in a “Further Education” class in England was asked why he read so badly from a modern author when, the previous week, he had read a part in Macbeth with ease and gusto. “Well, Miss,” he replied, incredulous that the question needed to be asked, “Shakespeare kind of fills your sails, like, dunn’e?”
The point of these quotations? Clearly they are from people who—whatever their differences in innate ability—represent the nonprofessionals, people who are not going to lecture on Shakespeare or take higher degrees on some aspect of his work, but who find something in the plays to which, each in his own way, they can respond. In this sense they are common readers; and—directly or ultimately—it is for the sake of the common readers that the critic writes and the teacher teaches. In the last analysis it is for them, and not for fellow professionals, that all the volumes of exegesis and commentary exist.
“In the last analysis” is intended to show that I am not being altogether simple-minded. The common reader today is very different from the common reader with whom Dr. Johnson rejoiced to concur. We can no more make his tastes the touchstone of excellence than we can accept the shibboleth of “relevance” in the whole range of academic studies. Some literature, with its appropriate and necessary commentary, is likely in any age to find only a small number of readers; and even the greatest classics—works potentially of the widest appeal—demand the labors of devoted exegetes who write primarily for the community of scholars. We should remember Stuart Hampshire’s warning against a too-simple view of these matters:
It is generally only in retrospect that we can see why a concern that might at the time have seemed marginal, scholastic, academic in the abusive sense of this word, was in fact a working out in apparently alien or even trivial material of an exemplary conflict of values, which had a…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.