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 interesting changes are about to occur. We may be moving into a new era of Shakespeare criticism, and if we are it is a matter of interest not only to Shakespearians. The first ten titles listed above are all comfortably within the current orthodoxy—the one which, for the past forty years or so, has taken the place of the older philology, and is either a mixture, usually dilute, of history of ideas and “new” criticism, or a continuation more or less humanized of “scientific” factual research.
The last three, however, are different, and perhaps belong to the next orthodoxy. At first sight their main interest might seem to be closely related to the obsolete syntax-of-the-infinitive kind of thing; actually it is new, and still close enough to the critical achievements of the more recent period to use them freely. Mr. Rabkin, in the Introduction to his collection, talks about a Kuhnian “change of paradigm.” If Thomas Kuhn’s hypothesis—I mean the view that science does not move gradually to new positions but, by paying attention to facts hitherto ignored as unimportantly anomalous, leaps to a whole new position—if this really works for criticism we shall in due course see the old disciplinary matrices not so much systematically demolished as simply stranded, ignored, mopped up, if at all, only when the main thrust is over, as if intellectual history were a kind of Panzer attack on the future. I.A. Richards, writing about Jakobson’s little book, puts it differently but no less excitedly, for he thinks that this kind of linguistic criticism will improve not only our reading of Shakespeare but ourselves and our world.
Whether these claims, and these ways of making them, are justified is a question that can wait; but surely one can say, in general, that some major change is due. The kind of thing the old orthodoxy can say about Shakespeare is of small interest to the young; the new drama has altered their style of attending, and the conventions governing the older criticism, though they once seemed natural, are now known and recognized to be very arbitrary. This is true in all fields, I think, and perhaps especially in history of ideas; so that when some daring elder, like Mr. Howarth, gently questions the permanent truth and utility of Tillyard’s Elizabethan World Picture the reaction of the more spirited youth is likely to be one of astonishment that anyone should think it needed destroying.
Still, the great bulk of work will presumably continue, for some time, to be of the older style, and not only out of inertia, but because there is a need that can never be fully satisfied for the kind of inquiry that isn’t much affected by these paradigmatic alterations: reliable information of a primary sort, reliable texts, and much else. The Newest Criticism is ultimately just as dependent on it as the New. And my first ten titles contain a measure of this kind of work, as well as the secondary kind that grows from it: synoptic studies and popularizations. It may be unfortunate that the exceptional brilliance of the “new” in this list rather dims much of the old. It could of course be just as trivial and tedious as the worst of what it aims to replace.
To begin at the scholarly roots, the edition of Johnson’s criticism has naturally no ambitions beyond accuracy of text, completeness, and adequate annotation; it has nothing to do with the general reader, who will be far better served by W.K. Wimsatt’s excellent paperback,* and it is, as it must be, ponderous and minute. Johnson requires such attentions, though he himself addressed the educated general reader, and wrote for him what is still the best single essay on Shakespeare. “He that has read Shakespeare with attention,” he wrote long before publishing his edition, “will perhaps find little new in the crouded world,” adding that the poet’s “reputation is…safe, till human nature shall be changed.” He perhaps meant never, or at the apocalypse; and possibly he would still hold to this in our time.
Johnson had his faults. He is here duly charged with them, and especially with his failure to collate as many early editions as he promised. His work is messier than it should have been; but not because he wasn’t a sufficient scholar. The huge project was carried out, for the most part, very hastily, but it had as its strong foundation Johnson’s immense lexicographical labors. His first proposals for the edition were issued in 1745, twenty years before the book, and at that time he made himself a Shakespearian glossary, some of which got into the Dictionary. He knew a lot about the drama, and quite a lot about the Elizabethans; he used other scholars well, and was humane as well as clever in glossing hard passages. Nobody who has edited a play is in danger of underestimating the achievement of Johnson in this field, though the dissociation of scholar and man of letters had hardly begun. And the Yale editors were being useful as well as pious when they decided to include all but the most trifling of his notes. Johnson is still, if we think the qualities most desirable in a critic to be intelligence and industry, our best model.
Though they would not deny Johnson, the most learned of modern scholars would more naturally trace their ancestry back to Malone. F.P. Wilson—“probably,” as Helen Gardner says in her Preface to his posthumous papers, “the most learned Elizabethan scholar in the world”—was long associated with the Malone Society, of which the chief business is the transcription and editing of early dramatic manuscripts and books. Wilson was a professor, but the tradition in which he worked was not necessarily academic; his friends E.K. Chambers and W.W. Greg, obituarized in this book, were not attached to universities and knew nothing of routine teaching. He was less prolific than Chambers and probably less ingenious (in the full sense) than Greg, but like them he practiced a high, disinterested, and minute scholarship, and commanded an enormous range of information, having done the kind of reading that only a few men in any generation can or will undertake.
This was the more admirable in that he lived through and took part in several scholarly revolutions—two of them in Elizabethan bibliography, and at least one in the study of theatrical structures. This collection of Wilson’s work is weaker for the omission of his remarkable essay of 1945 on the New Bibliography; it is a historical survey of great importance, and Dame Helen had wanted to make it the centerpiece of the book. But Wilson had not fully brought it into line with the next bibliographical phase, associated with such names as Bowers and Hinman; and so she left it for separate publication. What takes its place in the present volume is much less interesting, being the material of the history plays and comedies that Wilson wrote for his unfinished volume of the unlucky Oxford History of English Literature.
Wilson’s slightest lecture would contain pertinent matter from books nobody else had read, and it is not surprising that these chapters have the same merit; but they are dull on the whole, partly because he was not really much interested in the possibilities, delusive or not, that opened out in the criticism of his time, and partly, of course, because the scheme of the History committed him to many pages of exposition in which an unenterprising lucidity takes precedence over all else. Some notion of the kind of scholar he was can be got from such pieces as “The Proverbial Wisdom of Shakespeare,” which is founded on his huge personal collection of proverbs; it supplements Tilley’s standard collection, and is precisely the kind of primary material that, in the slow course of time, feeds editors and critics; it belongs to that part of literary study in which knowledge really is cumulative, whatever is happening to the paradigms.
Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare, Hill and Wang, $1.50.↩
Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare, Hill and Wang, $1.50.↩