Johnson on Shakespeare
Shakespearian and other Studies
Shakespeare the Craftsman
Shakespeare: The Pattern in his Carpet
The Tragic Engagement: A Study of Shakespeare’s Classical Tragedies
The Tiger’s Heart: Eight Essays on Shakespeare
Macbeth and the Players
The Pillar of the World: Antony and Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Development
Iago: Some Approaches to the Illusion of his Motivation
Reinterpretations of Elizabethan Drama
An Essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Mr. Lawrence F. MacNamée researches into Shakespearian research, and has published a study of academic dissertations on Shakespeare written in Germany, Britain, and the US during the century up to 1964. During this time there were, he says, 681 successful these, 333 of them in the US and thirty-one in Britain. This last figure I cannot accept; for my reason tells me that however I may feel about it I cannot myself have supervised or examined the entire output.
However, certain trends are detectable, and perhaps trends are more interesting than mere numbers. In the earliest days there was a tendency to be strenuously philological, and emulation of the sciences produced poker-faced source studies, or inquiries into the syntax of Shakespeare’s infinitives. Later there was a lot of history of ideas, the fossilized remnants of which are still chipped out of paperbacks by enterprising students; and then there was allegory, mostly Christian, and imagery. This information I derive not from Mr. MacNamee directly, but from a rather horrifying though well-produced annual entitled Shakespearian Research Opportunities (which, as we can see, researches into research on Shakespearian research). S.R.O. reports all it can gather about the Shakespearian scene, from major editions to books about Elizabethan bastardy, and from the proper study of computers to glossolalia in Hamlet. It is where you ought to go to study the action.
The purpose of this review, which takes in only a dozen or so recent books, is obviously more modest; although the sample may seem too small to entitle me to speak of trends, I intend nevertheless to do so. For Shakespearian criticism is, I think, interesting in ways that have nothing to do with Shakespeare, and that are in the long run the business of cultural pathology. It is the understanding of all sensible men that there is far too much criticism around, and that most of it is rubbish; but the license to write it probably originated with Shakespearians. The right to say what you damn well choose about Shakespeare is felt, like the American right to bear arms, to be constitutional, though it leads to those lamentations one regularly finds in prefaces to books by authors fastidious only in these exordia.
The standards of Shakespeare criticism are still very much lower than those of, say, Milton criticism. The reasons, partly cultural, partly social and economic, will not emerge from a cursory review, but the fact remains that Shakespeare is the only important writer on whom anybody can write a book for no other cause than that he has a mind to do so; and the chances appear to be that he will find a publisher. It is also a fact that good critics tend to do worse with Shakespeare than with anybody else, not because of his inherent difficulty but because the climate of Shakespeare studies is so relaxing.
I don’t mean that this batch is particularly dim; in fact, it may suggest that at the highest level …