Why The World Still Loves Shakespeare

The great endurance of the Bard

Books Literature
"David Garrick as Richard III" (1745) by William Hogarth

Samuel Johnson knew why Shakespeare’s plays were so popular. The guiding principle was clear: “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.” For Johnson, Shakespeare’s popularity rested on the fact that his writings embodied that principle more richly and more fully than did those of any other author:

Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life. His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply and observation will always find.

For more than 200 years after Johnson wrote those words in 1765 that view of the foundation of Shakespeare’s greatness as a writer more or less prevailed. Of course, Shakespearean criticism did not remain static during those centuries. Romantic critics reacted against Johnson, and were reacted against in their turn by the Victorians. The character-based criticism associated with A. C. Bradley was challenged by the rise in the mid-20th century of a criticism that put poetic coherence above psychological realism. But all these successive critical phases had in common the assumption that Shakespeare’s plays addressed human questions of perennial importance, and that it was the task of the critic to explain how they did so by revealing what the plays seemed to say about those questions. So when Derek Traversi wrote in the conclusion to his influential An Approach to Shakespeare that “Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ (if we may use so self-conscious a word) is that of imparting order and poetic significance to the keenly felt but separate elements of human experience”, it is easy to see how that formulation reached back to Johnson, by way perhaps of the Arnoldian notion of poetry as a “criticism of life”.

However, the advent of theory in the last decades of the 20th century drove from the field that way of thinking about how and why great literature holds our attention. Suddenly all the commonsensical ideas about language and literature which had seemed so unproblematic that one could safely treat them as axioms — that works of literature had discoverable (albeit often complex) meanings, that language was a system of signification which referred to things outside itself — were derided as mere prejudices. In fact, both sides of Johnson’s memorable phrase — “just representations of general nature” — were put under devastating pressure by theory. These theoretical critiques sought to unmask the idea of a “just representation” as a delusion. According to the theorists, literature (and indeed language) could do nothing more than point mournfully to its own impotence as representation. Delusional, too, was the concept of a “general nature”. Politically-minded critics took pleasure in showing how what we had been offered as the “natural’ tended to be socially-constructed in deference to dominant, oppressive, usually male and white, social interests. And since those interests were themselves not timeless, no more timeless were the fictions of the natural that they created.

So a “just representation” was impossible for a variety of reasons: representation was itself an illusion, and it could not be “just” in either sense of that word, since it could neither be accurate nor fair. No doubt some of the Shakespeare criticism published before the arrival of theory was bland, conservative paraphrase and deserved a degree of rough handling. But the theoretical challenge went beyond simply the spring-cleaning of our critical notions. It raised the more profoundly sceptical prospect of all approaches to literature which sought to relate its content to matters of enduring human importance — what we might call “ethical criticism'” — being ruled out of court on the double grounds that, even if literature were able to engage with such issues (which given its nullity as representation, it wasn’t), there were in the first place no such permanent and naturally human issues for literature to address.

Eventually the theoretical tide in literary studies ebbed. The questions raised by theory were of the first importance. But even the academy finally tired of the narcissism with which theory addressed those questions. And was there not something hyperbolical about theory’s scepticism? Did it not topple over into a modern form of pyrrhonism? It sometimes seemed as if literature’s powers of subtlety of signification were being over-read as evidence of the impossibility of signification. On the subject of human nature, the constructivists began to be answered by more historically-minded philosophers who remembered that, a few years before the composition of Johnson’s Preface to his edition of Shakespeare, in David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) that truly sceptical philosopher had found a way to hold in a single thought both his experience of the variable surface of human conduct and his faith in constant principles of human nature: “The internal principles and motives [of human nature] may operate in a uniform manner, notwithstanding these seeming irregularities; in the same manner as the winds, rain, clouds, and other variations of the weather are supposed to be governed by steady principles; though not easily discoverable by human sagacity and enquiry.”

Although the fortunes of theory as a practice waned, its impact was lasting. In particular, critics who were not in thrall to theory nevertheless showed little appetite to revive the ethical criticism upon the rubble of which the theoreticians had erected their own, brief, period of authority. Post-theory, criticism of Shakespeare moved in three main directions. First, there was a turn to history, in the form of the “New Historicism”. Historically-grounded readings of the plays might revive the flavour of the old ethical criticism, without being so vulnerable to the powerful corrosives which theory had used so destructively on that earlier school. Second, there was a revival of interest in theatre history, and in positioning Shakespeare within the dramatic archive. Third, there was a resurgence of interest in authorship studies, particularly in the phenomenon of collaborative composition. These developments all marked at once an advance and a retreat. They showed an impressive gain in various forms of technical power and accomplishment (historical contextualisation, early modern theatrical institutions, textual analysis of authorship). At the same time, however, they revealed the academy turning in on itself and retreating further from the possibility of addressing a general educated readership.

The contrasting social backdrop to these ultimately mandarin movements in Shakespeare criticism is the extraordinary phenomenon of worldwide attendance at performances of Shakespeare’s plays. For theory, reliant as it was on a constructivist account of human nature and hostile to any idea of essence, the fact of Shakespeare’s popularity was easily explained away as a simple consequence of the massive “Shakespeare Establishment”. No doubt the entrenched position of Shakespeare in the school curriculum and the existence of so culturally potent an entity as the Royal Shakespeare Company both exert an influence, at least in Great Britain. But enthusiasm for Shakespeare is not confined to the West, and indeed flourishes in cultures where no “Shakespeare Establishment” exists. The recent critical preoccupations of the academy-historical explication, theatrical antiquarianism, and authorship studies — may of course yield important findings. But they will always be “second-order” findings. These critical modes cannot in their own terms find a way of addressing — let alone of explaining — the vast, primary fact of the enduring human appetite for Shakespeare’s drama. However, the ultimate tendencies of both the books under review favour a reconnection of the discussion of Shakespeare’s drama to the abiding concerns of curious, intelligent, but otherwise ordinary men and women.

For many years the question of Shakespeare and religion was a non-question, because Shakespeare was almost defined by his Olympian detachment from parochial confessional loyalties. “Shakespeare is no sectarian,” Thomas Carlyle would pronounce in 1827 in his essay on Goethe: “To all he deals with equity and mercy, because he knows all and his heart is wide enough for all.” Rumours that Shakespeare died a Papist sprang up quite early. Like all of his generation, Shakespeare’s parents and grandparents had been at least partly raised in the traditional religion. So a familiarity with Roman Catholicism, and maybe even a sentimental attachment on Shakespeare’s part to the aesthetic, ritual, and social formations associated with Roman Catholicism — all of this is very easy to accept. More recently, however, the question has been raised in a more strident form. Shakespeare, we have been asked to believe, was a recusant, a covert adherent of the old religion, and his plays contain encrypted evidence of his confessional identity.

This is not the place once more to enter the lists on that topic — beyond perhaps pointing out at a formal level the nullity of an argument in which both supposed positive evidence for the contention, and also the absence of such evidence, is offered as confirmatory proof. David Scott Kastan’s own, eminently sensible, position on this vexed issue is that Shakespeare’s “own faith cannot be teased out of his handling of the controversies”. What Kastan does in this brief, elegant book is to examine “how religion is presented in the plays and how the subject gets shaped by Shakespeare’s imaginative engagement”, all the while bearing in mind that “Shakespeare’s religious belief is not the master narrative that either motivates or explains the plays.” Religion here means not just Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, but also Judaism and Islam. What emerges is a playwright whose imagination indeed engaged with religious topics and language, but never as a polemicist — indeed, one thinks at times, even barely as a protagonist. As Kastan shrewdly notes, “In all the plays set in contemporary Italy, Shakespeare stages Catholicism without any of the hostility with which English Protestant polemic characteristically treated it.” Shakespeare was saturated in the life of his time, but somehow not entirely captured by it.

A similar insight is precipitated by Quentin Skinner’s Forensic Shakespeare, which like A Will to Believe had its origin in a series of lectures delivered in Oxford. As delivered, Skinner’s lectures were marvellous examples of the lecturer’s art — meticulously prepared, vivaciously and wittily delivered, enlightening and entertaining, and seasoned with a little well-directed malice. Now enlarged into a book, the scholarly underpinning of the argument is more to the fore, as is only natural. Skinner contends that, during a certain period of his career, Shakespeare’s dramaturgy was shaped by the tropes and precepts of forensic rhetoric — that in these late Elizabethan and early Jacobean plays “there are numerous major speeches, as well as several complete scenes, that are basically constructed according to the classical rules governing the inventio and dispositio of judicial arguments”. Here Shakespeare follows the precepts of the rhetoricians “with a remarkable degree of tenacity and exactitude”.

The Shakespeare specialists will be fighting over the details of Skinner’s argument for many years. He does take up strong and exposed positions on questions about, for instance, the dating of some of the plays. One of the delicious pleasures of attending Skinner’s lectures was to see the professional Shakespeareans almost literally chewing the carpet — the lectures were themselves a brilliant illustration of the advantages, even in the modern world, of attending to the practical guidance of the ancient rhetoricians. Nevertheless, Skinner’s angle of approach to the plays certainly reveals new detail about the structure and plotting of a scene such as Julius Caesar III.ii, where Brutus and Antony speak to the mob over the corpse of Caesar. And to be made aware of the particular forensic valency of certain, apparently ordinary, words in Shakespeare’s vocabulary — words such as “matter”, “foul”, “fair”, and “issue” — is to come closer to a contemporary understanding of the language of the plays.

But what is striking about Skinner’s book is that, while it reveals with exemplary scholarship new features of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy, and their forensic roots, it doesn’t shift the interpretation of the plays. (This is no criticism of Skinner, whose goal is explanation, not interpretation.) Before Skinner wrote this book, most of us had overlooked the rhetorical dimension to Shakespeare’s dramaturgy. But we had not therefore misunderstood Shakespeare’s plays. Indeed, Skinner’s analysis reinforces the judgments of what we might call an “ordinary” reading of the plays. Every member of the audience at a production of Hamlet realises that Polonius is a verbose fool. Thanks to Skinner, we now know how and why, in the terms of early modern forensic rhetoric, Polonius is precisely that. Modern scholarship is not returning to a Johnsonian model, but perhaps it is doing something almost as good, namely vindicating the idea that great art can, after all, produce “just representations of general nature”.