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, and offer his majestical analyses no show of violence. More: we find ourselves involved regularly in the discussion (if not the “extraction”) of Shakespeare’s characters in some of the best of these essays (by R. W. Chambers, Wilson Knight, L. C. Knights, J. I. M. Stewart, Helen Gardner). The focus is once more on the establishment of the dramatic image of man and the moral implications of that image as Shakespeare’s central activity. Mrs. Ridler, noting this tendency in her introduction, justly observes that the study of characters is now more closely bound to the whole contexts of the plays. This stress on the “organic” wholeness of the dramatic poem is strong throughout the collection. Images, image-clusters, symbols, ideas, formal patterns, conventions of thought and stagecraft are seen achieving their final realization in the human images which move before us on the stage (or in the imagination) and in their imagined actions. The force of these elements in the plays is weighed by the degree to which they are structured into the characters and their acts, animating and illuminating those, as the “enchared flood” becomes part of Othello himself, the tempest the dark heart of King Lear. The emphasis, as Jonson insisted, is on the complex art which makes meaningful the gifts of nature. If any one has been “left fairly behind” it is the New Critics in their more restricted efforts.

Much of this organic sense of the work was implied, or directly presented, by Bradley—as it had been earlier by Coleridge—and would have been continuously available if the rebels had troubled to read them fully and with care (or at all) instead of mocking trivially at Bradley’s notes, or supposed notes, out of context. The fineness of Bradley’s analysis of the images of man in action projected by Shakespeare’s art, the central substance of any drama, was so subtle as to be distracting in many cases; but it was always related to a sense of the poetic shape, massed meanings and rhythms of the whole play, and the vision of a moral universe it implied. There were moments when Bradley nodded; his aberrations are famous, but they are very few. Yet even Cordelia’s childhood with her evil sisters (a backward reflection in fact prompted in us by some lines in the play) is more relevant to the full meaning of King Lear than are some of the floating strands of imagery we have been asked to grasp at by those critics who have detached symbol and image from the central dramatic context. In extreme developments of this criticism disengaged from dramatic action, one has sometimes the impression that a performance in the vital Elizabethan-Jacobean theatre is imagined as a private rite of language celebrated in the presence of a crowd of indifferent groundlings (and, in the better places, Donne, Essex, Bacon, Ralegh, Sir Henry Wotton) in which autonomous mechanisms of words, self-sustaining, self-delighting, unsullied by any relevance to the life words refer to, went through their intricate motions. Yet the groundlings, one suspects, and even Donne and the others, continued to ask their vulgar questions: What is the matter with Hamlet? Do the vilest things “become” themselves in Cleopatra? Is ripeness really all?


It is cheering therefore to see a reunion of tendencies in the best work in this volume: an attempt to gather the great deal we have come to know about the texts, performances and conventions of the Elizabethan-Jacobean theatre, the still living but disturbed medieval tradition, the great debates of the Renaissance, imagery, symbolism, psychology old and new, into a single focus on the organic and complex poetic-dramatic art which animates Shakespeare’s plays. The tone—an emphasis on both symbol and character and their implications—is set by the longest of the essays in the volume, Wilson Knight’s “The Shakespearean Integrity,” which extends the organic sense to the whole of Shakespeare’s mature work, and presents the coherence of the Shakespearean vision of life as it develops through the particulars of many dramatic actions. We may not be able to follow Professor Knight in his presentation of Shakespeare as prophet, but he gives us the formula for sound criticism: “Symbolism blends with iterative imagery and that with the persons of the play themselves, so that there is scarcely an isolated or insatiable heart to the organism.” Dr. Leavis, in a relaxed moment, shares this wisdom: “We are aware of the subtle varieties of possibility under the head of convention, and now we must keep a vigilant eye open for the development of theme by imagery and symbolism, and for the bearing of all these on the way we are to take character, action, and plot.”

A combination of the approaches of Bradley, Wilson Knight and Granville-Barker, approaches not ultimately incompatible, holds promise for a study of Shakespeare which will attend to character, action, poetic and symbolic structure, performance in a realist-symbolist theatre, all related by that relentless coherence which is a unique characteristic of Shakespeare’s mature genius. The best of the critical essays in this collection make such a combination: L. C. Knights on King Lear, F. R. Leavis on Shakespeare’s last plays, Kenneth Muir on Pericles, W. H. Auden on music in Shakespeare.

Other, more historical, essays are drawn from that growing body of studies which relate the works of Shakespeare to the history of ideas and dramatic and literary conventions: R. W. Chambers on Elizabethan-Jacobean attitudes in Measure for Measure, Nevill Coghill on the medieval tradition of the comedies, and excerpts from Dover Wilson’s The Fortunes of Flastaff and E. M. W. Tillyard’s Shakespeare’s History Plays. This approach requires a constant caveat lest in recognizing the continuing energies of tradition it overlook the equally great energies of change that marked Shakespeare’s age, and thus fail to value properly one of his chief accomplishments—the reconstitution in the plays of a sense of world and individual order, in many aspects traditional, but an order which has endured the questioning of the mature plays, and is transformed by that questioning. Some selections from scholars who stress the counter-Renaissance tendencies in Shakespeare—Theodore Spencer, J. F. Danby, Patrick Cruttwell—would have made this selection more representative.

No volume of this size can, of course, be truly representative or give a comprehensive view of the main tendencies of recent Shakespeare criticism. Mrs. Ridler acknowledges this limitation, and one cannot therefore quarrel with her many omissions. Two or three such collections would be needed to give something like the full spectrum of work on Shakespeare, especially in the United States, where fashions in criticism proliferate in greater abundance than in Great Britain, and also endure longer. (The colleges are still full of unreclaimed Stollites, for example.) In a larger volume, or a series of small ones, one would expect to see some of the significant work of Alfred Harbage, Mark Van Doren, D. A. Traversi, Una Ellis-Fermor, all of whom are omitted from Mrs. Ridler’s selection. The ritual elements in drama (touched upon in this volume in H. D. F. Kitto’s essay on Hamlet) could be studied further in the work of Francis Fergusson and C. L. Barber. The psychoanalytic approach, though it has produced much nonsense, has been so widespread that it needs to be met with. There is promise in some as yet tentative attempts to link Shakespeare’s pieties to that study of the history of art forms which the art historians of this century have analyzed with so much scholarship and brilliance. And one may quarrel with Mrs. Ridler’s reason for omitting any specimen of the work of William Empson: that it requires “a complex technique of understanding”; his essays on Folly and the Fool in Lear in The Structure of Complex Words, for example, are available and illuminating to any one who brings to them a merely active mind. Yet one must be grateful to Mrs. Ridler for having gathered together so many good essays, and for having established firmly in her selections the salutary direction which is coming to dominate Shakespeare criticism.


This Issue

June 1, 1963