Shakespeare Criticism, 1935-1960
Since Ben Jonson, in his commemorative poem in the First Folio, applied his critical theory to Shakespeare, stressing the “Art” that shaped, ordered and clarified the copious inventions and intuitions proceeding from his “Nature,” Shakespeare’s works have been the proper and central concern of English—speaking critics. Critical theories and methods have been tested on the plays and poems, confirmed by them, or, in some cases, have originated from their study. (One thinks of Keats and Empson.) A history of Shakespeare criticism would be a basic history of criticism in English and might, in fact, serve instead of a full account. Since major movements of critical thought, the shifting fashions and winds of doctrine, and the wilder aberrations as well, are usually encountered first in the limitless flood of commentary that Shakespeare provokes, we must look with more than a specialist’s interest at a volume like Mrs. Ridler’s, which attempts to select a sampling of “principal trends” in the Shakespeare criticism of the past quarter century.
This selection extends the previous selection which Mrs. Ridler made of the Shakespeare criticism of the years 1919 to 1935 for a World’s Classics volume published in 1936. The earlier volume presented new and exciting directions in the 20th-century approach to Shakespeare: Caroline Spurgeon’s early work on imagery and “leading motifs,” Granville-Barker’s examinations of dramatic meanings in relation to the mixed modes of the Elizabethan-Jacobean theatre, Wilson Knight’s study of symbolic and visionary patterns. Also included were textual and historical analyses by W. W. Greg and G. B. Harrison, and more rigidly historicist readings by E. E. Stoll and J. M. Robertson (whose untenable assumptions about the origin of Hamlet, transmitted by T. S. Eliot, have confused a whole generation). More general and impressionistic essays were included, by J. M. Murry, George Rylands and Edmund Blunden, as well as T. S. Ellot’s essay on “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca.” The theme most central to the collection was borne, however, by those critics, led by Granville-Barker, who saw Shakespeare’s context, as Mrs. Ridler pointed out in her introduction, as “the theatre, and England under Elizabeth,” though disagreeing about the nature of that theatre, and the assumptions and attitudes of the Elizabethans. To this generation of critics, Mrs. Ridler noted, the “moral approach” of Pater and Bradley’s “practice of character extraction” had grown alien.
Twenty-five years later the wheel, if it has not come full circle, has swung through a measurable arc. An echo of the once-fashionable rejection of Bradley is still heard, it is true, in F. R. Leavis’ essay in this volume (“We have left Bradley fairly behind”) which incredibly fuses Bradley with William Archer in the hyphenated phrase “the Bradley-Archer approach.” But elsewhere one critic (J. I. M. Stewart) dares to speak of Shakespearean Tragedy as “the best book on Shakespeare” and the others treat Bradley’s work with the respect that has always marked major Shakespeareans like Granville-Barker and Wilson Knight …