William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare; drawing by David Levine

I begin with three quotations. On August 17, 1863, Abraham Lincoln, writing to the actor James Hackett, said:

Some of Shakespeare’s plays I have never read; while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader. Among the latter are Lear, Richard the Third, Henry Eighth, Hamlet, and especially Macbeth. I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful.1

A century or so later James Baldwin, in his striking contribution to the Shakespeare quatercentenary celebrations, described the moment when, as a boy, he suddenly heard a scene from Julius Caesar, heard it as an authentic voice speaking from the past directly to his own present:

Under this light, this revelation, both myself and my past began slowly to open, perhaps the way a flower opens at morning, but, more probably, the way an atrophied muscle begins to function, or frozen fingers to thaw.2

About the same time a decidedly nonacademic boy in a “Further Education” class in England was asked why he read so badly from a modern author when, the previous week, he had read a part in Macbeth with ease and gusto. “Well, Miss,” he replied, incredulous that the question needed to be asked, “Shakespeare kind of fills your sails, like, dunn’e?”

The point of these quotations? Clearly they are from people who—whatever their differences in innate ability—represent the nonprofessionals, people who are not going to lecture on Shakespeare or take higher degrees on some aspect of his work, but who find something in the plays to which, each in his own way, they can respond. In this sense they are common readers; and—directly or ultimately—it is for the sake of the common readers that the critic writes and the teacher teaches. In the last analysis it is for them, and not for fellow professionals, that all the volumes of exegesis and commentary exist.

“In the last analysis” is intended to show that I am not being altogether simple-minded. The common reader today is very different from the common reader with whom Dr. Johnson rejoiced to concur. We can no more make his tastes the touchstone of excellence than we can accept the shibboleth of “relevance” in the whole range of academic studies. Some literature, with its appropriate and necessary commentary, is likely in any age to find only a small number of readers; and even the greatest classics—works potentially of the widest appeal—demand the labors of devoted exegetes who write primarily for the community of scholars. We should remember Stuart Hampshire’s warning against a too-simple view of these matters:

It is generally only in retrospect that we can see why a concern that might at the time have seemed marginal, scholastic, academic in the abusive sense of this word, was in fact a working out in apparently alien or even trivial material of an exemplary conflict of values, which had a much wider relevance. There is a law of indirection here: no doubt some literary critics in England have been in a sense right when they claim that we properly come to literature with ultimate questions about what men are to live for, and that serious criticism should invoke these questions. But, I would add, not directly or head-on. When these questions are too directly raised, or when works of the imagination are fingered and tested for directly evident social and moral relevance, we get disastrous dismissals and misunderstandings, and a narrowing of the opening for new possibilities.3

The fact remains however that the greatest works of literature belong not to the professors and researchers but to the world. What, then, of the mass of print turned out by the professionals (according to Kermode there were 1,200 books and articles on Shakespeare in 1962, and the flood isn’t likely to have abated)? Very few outstanding books are popular in the entirely good sense illustrated by, for example, A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy or Harold Goddard’s The Meaning of Shakespeare. Many are necessarily written for a scholarly, a specialist, or a sophisticated audience. But if they are very good books the chances are that they will contain information, stimulus, or suggestion that by devious ways will reach the larger audience that reads or theater-goes simply, as they say, for pleasure—meaning, of course, for some enhancement of life.

Frank Kermode’s recent collection of essays is rather a mixed bag, in both subject and quality: three learned essays on Spenser which are very much for Spenser specialists; an even more learned essay on Chapman’s Ovid’s Banquet of Sense; a perfunctory essay on Donne (by which, to judge by some glaring misprints, the author was too bored to read his proof sheets); an essay on Milton which those who find something uncongenial in that author ought to ponder; and five essays on Shakespeare, also rather uneven. Three of these, however—“The Patience of Shakespeare,” “Survival of the Classic,” and “Shakespeare’s Learning”—are of uncommon interest; and this is partly because, among other matters, Kermode is concerned with the question of what the literary critical industry is all about. Rightly refusing to make too sharp a distinction between “research” and “criticism,” he sees literary criticism—“not only a humble but an uncontrolled and inexact science”—as part of the process by which masterworks are kept alive and, so to speak, turned about to reveal new answers to new questions:


Criticism—conceived as ungrandly as possible—is the medium in which past art survives. It is the activity of the schoolmaster in the classroom, even of people chattering at parties. It is simply the way the news gets about that X, having this or that to be said for him, belongs to what we talk or should care about. At a higher level it may provide ways of talking and caring, adapting the old to our newer requirements, showing that there are aspects of the old which can be dealt with by signalling-systems based on the new. In the respect that now concerns me, that is what criticism does.

The theme is taken up in what is perhaps the best essay in the book, “Survival of the Classic.” Centering on King Lear, it demonstrates “a history of acceptance, avoidance, selection,” so that we come to feel both the necessity and the provisional nature of our own descriptions of the way the play strikes home to us. Formal criticism, in short, is only a small part of the complicated process by which the imaginative life of the past communicates with and nourishes our present. This does not mean that we can disregard past criticism, as though the critics were like the waves in Shakespeare’s poem—“in sequent toil all forwards do contend”—and contemporaneity were the goal: nothing is more fragile than the contemporary. When a great man confronts a great work—Kermode instances Dr. Johnson on King Lear—it does not matter if we feel that he is “wrong”: what matters is that he has been disturbed, and, over the centuries, can communicate his disturbance. Questions from a personal center can challenge us to wrestle in like manner, though not necessarily with like results.

With these questions other characteristics of the classic come into view. Shakespeare’s greater plays offer an apparently limitless range of potentialities, of which only some can be realized by one person or in one age: they “defeat attempts to isolate some determinate meaning”; they are “horizonless.” This does not mean that they are chaoses from which we can pick anything we choose. A work of art is not dream or fantasy—it is made and structured, and in concentrating on the technical task of making, the artist is most likely to tap the deeper sources of unconscious meanings. But a work of art does have something in common with the dream. As Kermode puts it:

…whatever will bear the stress of our demands upon it will, in all probability, be complex, superficially confused, resembling a dream in its condensations and overdeterminations, yet not like a dream in speaking with disarming immediacy to our waking concerns.

It is for these reasons that Lear, for example, “challenges and defeats our power of penetration, and at the same time sustains the demands made of it by all who have wanted and want it to survive.” It is in wanting a work to survive—and taking measures, however humble, to ensure it—that scholars and critics have the sole justification for their labors. Not that they need give themselves airs about it—as Kermode points out, la cour et la ville (or their modern equivalents) have a hand in the process too.

La cour et la ville mean an audience of theatergoers rather than secluded readers—the two categories are not mutually exclusive—and Professor Rosenberg’s The Masks of Othello represents an important line in “academic” Shakespeare studies going back at least to Granville-Barker and much strengthened in recent years. Shakespeare’s plays, the argument runs, are artistic entities “created to be perceived through a fusion of word, sound and action in the theater”; “sight and sound are as essential to the communication of [the] dramatic art object as words.” The argument is salutary, and Rosenberg’s account of “the search for the identity of Othello, Iago and Desdemona by three centuries of actors and critics” (which is the book’s subtitle) gives a good many examples of the way in which a particular reading needs to be checked against experience in the theater: at the least the critic needs a lively “theatrical” imagination.


It isn’t altogether convincing, however. This is partly because the effects which great actors have been capable of producing are often described by their rather crude emotional impact: putting it simply, the man who doesn’t want to cry at the end of a good performance of Othello is probably incapable of understanding the play. But even if, as Blake says, “a tear is an intellectual thing,” Othello is designed to produce rather more than tears. In this book—the second, as we shall see, is another matter—Rosenberg’s notion of what Shakespeare’s plays are capable of doing seems partial and onesided. The power of the plays may be first felt in the interaction, the clash and development of figures whom we can recognize as human beings like ourselves. But behind the action of the characters there is, surely, a psychological and philosophic content that is not exhausted by character analysis and that goes far beyond emotional empathy.

Othello yields more easily to descriptive analysis in fairly simple “human” terms than most of the greater plays, and the book contains some acute remarks on the characters. But even Othello offers a good deal more than a simple tug at the heart strings. There is “magic in the web,” a more universal pattern of humanly important meanings, that has to be discovered in the study before it can even be intimated on the stage.4 Rosenberg says—and quotes—some good things on Iago; but he doesn’t even refer to Coleridge—not much of a theater man—whose acute psychological probing of Iago’s “motive-hunting” starts from a contact with the play which has little to do with the stage but which is as direct and potent as that of any theatergoer.5

The Masks of Othello is a highly competent specialist account of the critical and theatrical fortunes of a particular play. Its wider interest is that it documents Kermode’s “patience,” the extraordinary powers of survival of Shakespeare’s work. Shakespeare has been kept alive for us as a dramatic fact not only by generations of readers and critics but by actors and their audiences; and what this means is that on the stage he has survived both cutting and altering in the interest of changing notions of the dramatically acceptable, and the virtuoso displays of star performers who—however much thought they rightly gave to particular shades of character development—naturally played mainly with an eye to immediate emotional effect. Sometimes one feels that actors and audiences have conspired to break up the indissoluble unity of Shakespeare’s tragedies into a succession of “great” moments. Rosenberg quotes a nineteenth-century writer:

It was at the end of this speech [“If thou dost slander her and torture me…”] that Kean rushed for the sofa that stood on the stage…and thereon threw himself to recover from his absolute exhaustion before he could go on with his next speech, during…thunders of applause and waving of hats and handkerchiefs…. Forrest changed the action and rushed for [a] profiled column…while the audience gave him a like ovation.

It is all very rum—rummer than is suggested by Rosenberg’s neutral comment, “Here was the peak of Forrest’s performance.” But perhaps those “prettiest women in Paris” who, when Talma enacted the murder, “fainted in the most conspicuous boxes and were publicly carried out of the house,” like the well-known ladies of Hamburg who on a like occasion were overcome with “premature and unsuccessful confinement”—perhaps these fringe figures are no odder witnesses to the ability of the plays to survive than the endless stream of academic notes, comments, commentaries, readers’ guides, and scholarly disquisitions about which, in academic circles, it is now almost obligatory to complain, especially when adding to the heap. Shakespeare lives on, not only in spite of these things but, one might almost say, because of them: they are society’s way of serving up and chewing over its nourishment. But it would be a substantial gain if the plays could be kept available for those who need them with less fuss and fiddle, and more sense of what great works of art are, essentially, for.

In The Masks of King Lear Rosenberg’s method is different from that of the earlier book. He is still very much the theater man; but although some of the visualized action assumes a more cluttered stage than is strictly necessary, his scene-by-scene imaginative reconstruction does bring out in specific detail how much we need to see—gesture, facial play, movement, etc.—even if only in the mind’s eye, if we are to experience the play with any fullness. More important, he now shows a much more subtle sense of what is going on at any point in the dramatic action. The emphasis has shifted from theatrical effectiveness to a more complex interplay of intensive reading and theater experience.

He has the producer’s eye for the almost unnoticed anticipations of future developments of feeling and action, and, correspondingly, the felt pressure (in word, gesture, grouping) of what has gone before. And he has the critic’s sensitivity to language, pointing out, for example, the essential part played by key words—not only the inescapably obvious ones (“nature,” “kind,” etc.), but such things as the unobtrusive, ever-recurring “if,” which so largely determines the insecurities of the Lear world, with its patterns of flight and pursuit, its harsh juxtapositions of conflicting impulses, conflicting assumptions about what the world really is. (The word “Nature,” he acutely observes, is “a private prism through which various characters view the world; by looking back through the prism we will be able to see more clearly the design of the characters.”) The result is one of the most exciting books on Shakespeare that I have read for a long time, one that again and again convinced me that I had missed something I ought to have seen.

Rosenberg is very good on characterization, insisting—as against the moral simplifiers—on what he calls “their full polyphonics of mixed qualities,” even in the too easily simplified Kent and Cordelia. One wants to quarrel here and there as with the attempt to extract a completely naturalistic interpretation from Edgar’s enigmatic roles. But Rosenberg is, I am sure, right in insisting that the grand design that forms part of our thinking about the world at large must spring not from an intellectual awareness of abstract patterns (not even when these are seen as “the urgent dialectic of ideas”) but from a full response to the play’s presentation of human suffering. No interpretation, no “message,” is imposed. As he says after speaking of the last terrible scenes:

The dark, deadly, grimly comic world of Lear evokes so wide and intense a range of responses on so many levels of consciousness because it reflects so many varieties of human possibility, from the transcendent to the animal—so many that it must, defeat any attempt to enclose its meaning in limited formulae such as redemption, retribution, endgame, morality, etc…. The playwright describes, he does not prescribe.6 Only a tragic vision as vast as one of his own lines from Lear can suggest the whole implication of the play’s world for our own: Edgar’s

…it is,
And my heart breaks at it.

In the spectrum of possible approaches to Shakespeare Professor Brower’s book is very remote from Professor Rosenberg’s: it belongs to the study rather than to the theater—which is not to say that a producer couldn’t read it with profit. It is impossible to review it properly here, partly because of limitations of space, partly because the right reviewer would need a range of qualifications equal to Professor Brower’s own, which are very extensive indeed. He is as much at home with the Greek and Latin classics as he is with twentieth-century poetry (witness his admirable book on Robert Frost). Like the other books discussed it raises general questions about the active assimilation of Shakespeare (“the argument is directed…towards an act of reading”), but raises them in a different way.

Its purpose is “to explore probable analogies between the Shakespearean heroic and the Graeco-Roman heroic” and to show where in Shakespeare the heroic ideal gives way to something else—indicated (I think rather unsatisfactorily) by the “saint” of the title. Five chapters define the changing conceptions of “the hero” in antiquity (Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Seneca, Plutarch), noting that any particular idea or image is inseparable from a particular use of language which carries within itself an evaluative system. The idea of the heroic was pretty complicated even in pre-Christian times. When the idea—really a cluster of ideas—reached the Elizabethans it was complicated still further by the overtones of the Christianized language used by the translators. It is to this not easily defined image that Shakespeare responded, both positively and critically, as Brower tries to show in a detailed analysis of six of the major plays.

It is a tribute to Mr. Brower that I found myself changing my mind as I read (I also suspect that he changed his mind a bit as he wrote). The introduction, “The Noble Moor,” although a useful counterpoise to a possible simplification of the view that sees Othello as self-betrayed (F. R. Leavis’s “the essential traitor is within the gates”),7 didn’t seem to offer a convincing alternative to that view itself. And although I gained much useful information from the chapters on the classics I was uneasy when the first of these was introduced by quotations from the funeral orations for three Shakespearean heroes—Coriolanus, Brutus, and Hamlet—the irony ignored, and the speeches presented “straight” as marking “the death of a hero in more than a modern conventional sense.” For some way into the book I felt that Brower was overplaying Shakespeare’s feeling for the heroic—the more than life-size assertion of primal energy; that in re-creating the climate in which the plays were born he was in danger of substituting one more abstraction—from an extended and up-dated Elizabethan World Picture—for the living responsiveness that the plays demand from age to age.

This proved to be a wrong judgment. What the book does in fact do is to show Shakespeare reacting critically to the already complex notion of nobility and heroism that his age inherited. As Brower rightly says, Shakespeare “never did ‘settle down”‘; and it is in questioning the accepted, in probing more and more deeply into the sources of action, however “heroic,” in multiplying perspectives and possible references, that Shakespeare shows himself the supreme ironist. What Brower does is to remind us that strong irony demands a real respect for its object, a sympathetic and engaged feeling for what is undercut or discarded as finally inadequate. If, in an age when Hamlet is narrowed down to Beckett’s Hamm,8 we start from a suspicion that publicly acclaimed values of self-assertive energy are likely to be sham or dubious, we make things too easy for ourselves—just as easy as the opposite naive admiration for a swashbuckling “hero” like Henry V.

What Shakespeare demands from us is the ability to tolerate “the bitter furies of complexity.” Lear is no less heroic—and Brower brings this out in an excellent chapter—because the Fool envisages him putting down his breeches. Much the same could be said about other towering characters whose weaknesses are so fully exposed: Shakespeare “does not attack to destroy.” Brower quotes Antony’s praise of the dead Brutus (“Nature might stand up / And say to all the world, ‘This was a man”‘) and says:

In responding to such language Elizabethan auditors—whether they knew it or not—were being moved by attitudes towards the life and death of a soldier-hero that had their origin in the epics of Greece and Rome.

Which may well be true, but it isn’t the whole truth, and Brower’s honesty as a reader compels him—increasingly as the book progresses—to recognize it. What his reminder of largely forgotten ideals does is to block any tendency toward denigrating or debunking irony. A compassionate irony—mixed with admiration and awe—remains. Hero and Saint is not likely to make an immediate impact on the reading or theater-going public. It is, in the best sense, an academic book; but it could be a seminal one, inasmuch as, in revealing new possibilities of interpretation, it counters the simplifying self-assurance of those who prefer antiheroes to heroes and can only see in Shakespeare a reflection of their own predilections.

All these books—like the majority of books on Shakespeare and the present review—come from professors at establishment universities. We are still left with the question of how to bridge the gap between the world of the scholars and the immeasurably larger world of men and women whose frozen faculties—given the right circumstances and the right prompting—could thaw in contact with great art. Sometimes indeed they don’t even need our prompting: there must be many mute inglorious Dickenses and Cobbetts who, like those writers, come across the books they most need more or less by chance. The process of keeping the classics alive—which is almost to say of keeping civilization alive—is therefore enormously complicated. There is no prescription for the academic professionals: they can only cultivate a decent humility, write when they must about what most interests them, and, remembering the larger world (“Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men”), hope that their labors will do something to disturb inert acceptance, stir a dim liking into livelier flame, or encourage directors and actors to tackle their own work with the integrity and, again, humility, that a masterwork deserves.9

There is however one not hopelessly impractical step they could take: that is—remembering that it is mainly from the universities that the mass of handbooks, reminders of “research opportunities,” etc., come—to discourage their universities from using mere bulk of publication as the sole qualification for appointment or promotion. We could, at a pinch, do without quite a lot of the research that forces the narrow gate of university preferment. What we cannot do without is teachers, men and women deeply committed to their subject who are capable of communicating (listening as well as talking) with the young: communicating, that is, in the sphere of their own engagement and insight, which will necessarily include their uncertainties and their disturbance by those very awkward and unsettling nonconformists, the great writers. As Kermode says:

In so large a profession it is hardly to be expected that all the practitioners will be ingenious and persuasive. But it is to be hoped that some of them succeed in transmitting their valuations across the generation gap. Once that is done it hardly matters that the young will reject the old rhetoric and the old interpretations; indeed, it could be said that they must do so; to survive, the work must change.

This Issue

October 5, 1972