Anne Barton is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. She is the author of Essays, Mainly Shakespearean.

‘Words, Words, Words’

In 1933, Logan Pearsall Smith published a small, compact, engagingly personal book called On Reading Shakespeare. In its first chapter, he recalled how a great divine of the Elizabethan era describes in one of his sermons a region in the East, in Georgia, which was so immersed all day in …

The One and Only

“Others abide our question,” Matthew Arnold famously declared of Shakespeare in 1844, “Thou art free./We ask and ask—Thou smilest and art still,/ Out-topping knowledge.” Biographers, he suggested, might as well interrogate Mont Blanc about its personal history and opinions. Yet the interrogations continue. Indeed, they seem alarmingly on the increase.

The Romantic Survivor

On March 22, 1812, Leigh Hunt (1784– 1859) and his elder brother, John, finally went too far. In the Examiner, “A New Sunday Paper Upon Politics, Domestic Economy and Theatricals,” which both brothers had launched in 1808 but to which Leigh was the chief contributor, an article by him appeared …

Byron: The Poetry of It All

Although Delia Bacon is said surreptitiously one night to have approached the vault beneath Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church armed with a crowbar and shovel before losing her nerve, no one has yet succeeded in disinterring William Shakespeare. Byron, who had wanted to be buried without fuss in Greece, where he …

The Group

p>On the 5th of February 1805, John Wordsworth, William’s sea captain younger brother, drowned at the age of thirty-two when his ship broke up in a gale off the south coast of England. News of the disaster reached London two days later, and Richard Wordsworth, eldest of the five Wordsworth …

The Truth as Masquerade

In the autumn of 1821, Edward John Trelawny (1792-1881) left Geneva for Italy, where in the following January he briefly became part of the little circle of English expatriates at Pisa: Lord Byron, Shelley and his wife, Mary, Shelley’s cousin Thomas Medwin, Edward Williams (who, like Medwin, had been a …

Not an Ideal Husband

In the fragmentary last canto of Don Juan, abandoned in 1823 when Byron left Italy to sacrifice his life (as it turned out) in the Greek War of Independence, he reflected mockingly upon what he recognized as the instability and contradictions of his own nature: Temperate I am, yet never …

John Berryman’s Flying Horse

“Oh my god!” John Berryman complained in October 1952, “Shakespeare. That multiform & encyclopedic bastard.” Even then, twenty years before he plunged to his death from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Berryman had established an extraordinary and complicated relationship with the man from Stratford. It manifests itself, as John …

The Mysterious Mr. Wordsworth

When Shelley, in Peter Bell the Third, satirized the Wordsworth of 1819 as a political turncoat, a conservative who formerly “wrote for freedom,” and also a constitutionally “solemn and unsexual man,” indeed a kind of “male prude,” there were a number of things he did not know. Shelley was aware, …

The Village Genius

There are certain poets—Spenser is one—with whom other poets, whatever the prejudices or inattention of the critics, have conspicuously kept faith. After his death in 1599 (when, according to Camden, contemporary writers symbolically threw not only verses but their pens into the grave), Spenser’s general reputation slowly declined. It was …

An Affair to Remember

“Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,/ And did he stop and speak to you?” Browning marveled in Men and Women, recalling a scrap of conversation he had overheard as a boy. Henry James, who could have seen Claire Clairmont plain, and at an even greater remove in time, missed …

Twice Around the Grounds

“Allow me,” said Mr. Gall. “I distinguish the picturesque and the beautiful, and I add to them, in the laying out of grounds, a third and distinct character, which I call unexpectedness.” “Pray, sir,” said Mr. Milestone, “by what name do you distinguish this character, when a person walks round …

Over the Dark River

In Footsteps (1985), Richard Holmes records his first, salutary, disillusionment as a self-styled “Romantic Biographer.” In 1964, when only eighteen, he undertook to duplicate Robert Louis Stevenson’s journey through the Massif Central of France in the autumn of 1878, the trek subsequently described in Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in …

Sacred Woods

The seventh square on the chessboard, the Red Queen warns Alice, “is all forest.” When Alice arrives on its outskirts, in the looking-glass world, she finds its darkness disquieting. “Well, at any rate it’s a great comfort,” she said as she stepped under the trees, “after being so hot, to …

Byron Lives!

In 1937, T. S. Eliot described Byron as the Romantic poet “most nearly remote from the sympathies of every living critic,” and called for “half a dozen essays” in order “to see what agreement could be reached.” Eliot’s own contribution to this putative critical consensus makes curious reading now. After …

Shakespeare in the Sun

Much Ado About Nothing (1598) is one of the most resolutely urban of Shakespeare’s comedies. The house of Leonato, Governor of Messina, stands in a Sicilian city of churches, law courts, and jails, where crowded streets as well as private dwellings need to be patrolled and kept quiet at night—however …

Perils of Historicism

“In a small glass case in the library of Christ Church, Oxford,” Stephen Greenblatt writes at the beginning of “Resonance and Wonder,” the last and most recent of the nine essays in Learning to Curse, “there is a round, red priest’s hat.” A note card, he continues, “identifies it as …

Inventing Shakespeare

In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, John Heminge and Henry Condell, friends and fellow shareholders in the acting company he had served for most of his working life, put together the first collected edition of his plays. They addressed it “To the great Variety of Readers. From the most …

What’s a Girl to Do?

In Livy and Ovid, Lucretia is a model and submissive wife. While other Roman matrons are idling away their evenings, she is to be found industriously spinning among her maids. The very exemplary quality of her life, not simply her beauty, inflames Tarquin. Only his threat to kill her, and …

Was Shakespeare a Chauvinist?

At the small community college in Maine where she teaches, Mira, the heroine of Marilyn French’s best-selling novel The Women’s Room, is condemned to an endless round of Fairy Tales and Folklore, Grammar 12, and Composition 1-2. She doesn’t seem able to get her hands on the Shakespeare course. This …