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A Criticism of William Shakespeare

by J. Middleton Murry

It is an exciting, though exhausting, experience to read a volume of the great modern Variorum Shakespeare from cover to cover. One derives from the exercise a sense of the evolution of Shakespeare criticism which cannot be otherwise obtained; one begins to understand that Pope had his merits as an editor, as indeed a man of genius could hardly fail to have, to appreciate the prosy and pedestrian pains of Theobald, to admire the amazing erudition of Steevens. One sees the phases of the curious process by which Shakespeare was elevated at the beginning of the nineteenth century to a sphere wherein no mortal man of genius could breathe. For a dizzy moment every line that he wrote bore the authentic impress of the divine. Efflavit deus. In a century, from being largely beneath criticism Shakespeare had passed to a condition where he was almost completely beyond it.

King John affords an amusing instance of this reverential attitude. The play, as is generally known, was based upon a slightly earlier and utterly un-Shakespearean production entitled The Troublesome Raigne of King John. The only character Shakespeare added to those he found ready to his hand was that of James Gurney, who enters with Lady Falconbridge after the scene between the Bastard and his brother, says four words, and departs for ever.

'Bast.—James Gurney, wilt thou give us leave awhile?

Gur.—Good leave, good Philip.

Bast.—Philip! Sparrow! James.'

It is obvious that Shakespeare's sole motive in introducing Gurney is to provide an occasion for the Bastard's characteristic, though not to a modern mind quite obvious, jest, based on the fact that Philip was at the time a common name for a sparrow. The Bastard, just dubbed Sir Richard Plantagenet by the King, makes a thoroughly natural jibe at his former name, Philip, to which he had just shown such breezy indifference. The jest could not have been made to Lady Falconbridge without a direct insult to her, which would have been alien to the natural, blunt, and easygoing fondness of the relation which Shakespeare establishes between the Bastard and his mother. So Gurney is quite casually brought in to receive it. But this is not enough for the Shakespeare-drunken Coleridge.

'For an instance of Shakespeare's power in minimis, I generally quote James Gurney's character in King John. How individual and comical he is with the four words allowed to his dramatic life!'

Assuredly it is not with any intention of diminishing Coleridge's title as a Shakespearean critic that we bring forward this instance. He is the greatest critic of Shakespeare; and the quality of his excellence is displayed in one of the other few notes he left on this particular play. In Act III, scene ii., Warburton's emendation of 'airy' to 'fiery' had in Coleridge's day been received into the text of the Bastard's lines:—

  'Now by my life, this day grows wondrous hot;
  Some airy devil hovers in the sky.'

On which Coleridge writes:—

'I prefer the old text: the word 'devil' implies 'fiery.' You need only to read the line, laying a full and strong emphasis on 'devil,' to perceive the uselessness and tastelessness of Warburton's alteration.'

The test is absolutely convincing—a poet's criticism of poetry. But that Coleridge went astray not once but many times, under the influence of his idolatry of Shakespeare, corroborates the general conclusion that is forced upon any one who will take the trouble to read a whole volume of the modern Variorum. There has been much editing, much comment, but singularly little criticism of Shakespeare; a half-pennyworth of bread to an intolerable deal of sack. The pendulum has swung violently from niggling and insensitive textual quibble to that equally distressing exercise of human ingenuity, idealistic encomium, of which there is a typical example in the opening sentence of Mr Masefield's remarks upon the play: 'Like the best Shakespearean tragedies,King John is an intellectual form in which a number of people with obsessions illustrate the idea of treachery.' We remember that Mr Masefield has much better than this to say of Shakespeare in his little book; but we fasten upon this sentence because it is set before us in the Variorum, and because it too 'is an intellectual form in which a literary man with obsessions illustrates his idea of criticism.' Genetically, it is a continuation of the shoddy element in Coleridge's Shakespeare criticism, a continual bias towards transcendental interpretation of the obvious. To take the origin a phase further back, it is the portentous offspring of the feeble constituent of German philosophy (a refusal to see the object) after it had been submitted to an idle process of ferment in the softer part of Coleridge's brain.

King John is not in the least what Mr Masefield, under this dangerous influence, has persuaded himself it is. It is simply the effort of a young man of great genius to rewrite a bad play into a good one. The effort was, on the whole, amazingly successful; that the play is only a good one, instead of a very good one, is not surprising. The miracle is that anything should have been made of The Troublesome Raigne at all. The Variorum extracts show that, of the many commentators who studied the old play with Shakespeare's version, only Swinburne saw, or had the courage to say, how utterly null the old play really is. To have made Shakespeare's Falconbridge out of the old lay figure, to have created the scenes between Hubert and John, and Hubert and Arthur, out of that decrepit skeleton—that is the work of a commanding poetical genius on the threshold of full mastery of its powers, worthy of all wonder, no doubt, but doubly worthy of close examination.

But 'ideas of treachery'! Into what cloud cuckoo land have we been beguiled by Coleridge's laudanum trances? A limbo—of this we are confident—where Shakespeare never set foot at any moment in his life, and where no robust critical intelligence can endure for a moment. We must save ourselves from this insidious disintegration by keeping our eye upon the object, and the object is just a good (not a very good) play. Not an Ibsen, a Hauptmann, a Shaw, or a Masefield play, where the influence and ravages of these 'ideas' are certainly perceptible, but merely a Shakespeare play, one of those works of true poetic genius which can only be produced by a mind strong enough to resist every attempt at invasion by the 'idea'-bacillus.

In considering a Shakespeare play the word 'idea' had best be kept out of the argument altogether; but there are two senses in which it might be intelligibly used. You might call the dramatic skeleton Shakespeare's idea of the play. It is the half-mechanical, half-organic factor in the work of poetic creation—the necessary means by which a poet can conveniently explicate and express his manifold æsthetic intuitions. This dramatic skeleton is governed by laws of its own, which were first and most brilliantly formulated by Aristotle in terms that, in essentials, hold good for all time. You may investigate this skeleton, seize, if you can, upon the peculiarity by which it is differentiated from all other skeletons; you may say, for instance, that Othello is a tragedy of jealousy, or Hamlet of the inhibition of self-consciousness. But if your 'idea' is to have any substance it must be moulded very closely upon the particular object with which you are dealing; and in the end you will find yourself reduced to the analysis of individual characters.

On the other hand, the word 'idea' might be intelligibly used of Shakespeare's whole attitude to the material of his contemplation, the centre of comprehension from which he worked, the aspect under which he viewed the universe of his interest. There is no reason to rest content with Coleridge's application of the epithet 'myriad-minded,' which is, at the best, an evasion of a vital question. The problem is to see Shakespeare's mind sub specie unitatis. It can be done; there never has been and never will be a human mind which can resist such an inquiry if it is pursued with sufficient perseverance and understanding. What chiefly stands in the way is that tradition of Shakespeariolatry which Coleridge so powerfully inaugurated, not least by the epithet 'myriad-minded.'

But of 'ideas' in any other senses than these—and in neither of these cases is 'idea' the best word for the object of search—let us beware as we would of the plague, in criticism of Shakespeare or any other great poet. Poets do not have 'ideas'; they have perceptions. They do not have an 'idea'; they have comprehension. Their creation is æsthetic, and the working of their mind proceeds from the realisation of one æsthetic perception to that of another, more comprehensive if they are to be great poets having within them the principle of poetic growth. There is undoubtedly an organic process in the evolution of a great poet, which you may, for convenience of expression, call logical; but the moment you forget that the use of the word 'logic,' in this context, is metaphorical, you are in peril. You can follow out this 'logical process' in a poet only by a kindred creative process of æsthetic perception passing into æsthetic comprehension. The hunt for 'ideas' will only make that process impossible; it prevents the object from ever making its own impression upon the mind. It has to speak with the language of logic, whereas its use and function in the world is to speak with a language not of logic, but of a process of mind which is at least as sovereign in its own right as the discursive reason.

Let us away then with 'logic' and away with 'ideas' from the art of literary criticism; but not, in a foolish and impercipient reaction, to revive the impressionistic criticism which has sapped the English brain for a generation past. The art of criticism is rigorous; impressions are merely its raw material; the life-blood of its activity is in the process of ordonnance of æsthetic impressions.

It is time, however, to return for a moment to Shakespeare, and to observe in one crucial instance the effect of the quest for logic in a single line. In the fine scene where John hints to Hubert at Arthur's murder, he speaks these lines (in the First Folio text):—

  'I had a thing to say, but let it goe:
  The Sunne is in the heauen, and the proud day,
  Attended with the pleasure of the world,
  Is all too wanton, and too full of gawdes
  To giue me audience: If the midnight bell
  Did with his yron tongue, and brazen mouth
  Sound on into the drowzie race of night,
  If this same were a Churchyard where we stand,
  And thou possessed with a thousand wrongs:
  … Then, in despight of brooded watchfull day,
  I would into thy bosome poure my thoughts….'

If one had to choose the finest line in this passage, the choice would fall upon

'Sound on into the drowsy race of night.'

Yet you will have to look hard for it in the modern editions of
Shakespeare. At the best you will find it with the mark of corruption:—

+'Sound on into the drowsy race of night ('Globe');

and you run quite a risk of finding

'Sound one into the drowsy race of night' ('Oxford').

There are six pages of close-printed comment upon the line in the Variorum. The only reason, we can see, why it should be the most commented line in King John is that it is one of the most beautiful. No one could stand it. Of all the commentators, only one, Miss Porter, whom we name honoris causa, stands by the line with any conviction of its beauty. Every other person either alters it or regrets his inability to alter it.

'How can a bell sound on into a race?' pipe the little editors. What is 'the race of night?' What can it mean? How could a race be drowsy? What an awful contradiction in terms! And so while you and I, and all the other ordinary lovers of Shakespeare are peacefully sleeping in our beds, they come along with their little chisels, and chop out the horribly illogical word and pop in a horribly logical one, and we (unless we can afford the Variorum, which we can't) know nothing whatever about it. We have no redress. If we get out of our beds and creep upon them while they are asleep—they never are—and take out our little chisels and chop off their horribly stupid little heads, we shall be put in prison and Mr Justice Darling will make a horribly stupid little joke about us. There is only one thing to do. We must make up our minds that we have to combine in our single person the scholar and the amateur; we cannot trust these gentlemen.

And, indeed, they have been up to their little games elsewhere in King John. They do not like the reply of the citizens of Angiers to the summons of the rival kings:—

  'A greater powre than We denies all this,
  And till it be undoubted, we do locke
  Our former scruple in our strong-barr'd gates;
  Kings of our feare, untill our feares resolu'd
  Be by some certaine king, purg'd and depos'd.'

Admirable sense, excellent poetry. But no! We must not have it. Instead we are given 'King'd of our fears' ('Globe') or 'Kings of ourselves' ('Oxford'). Bad sense, bad poetry.

They do not like Pandulph's speech to France:—

  'France, thou maist hold a serpent by the tongue,
  A cased lion by the mortall paw,
  A fasting tiger safer by the tooth
  Than keep in peace that hand which thou dost hold.'

'Cased,' caged, is too much for them. We must have 'chafed,' in spite of

  'If thou would'st not entomb thyself alive
  And case thy reputation in thy tent.'

Again, the Folio text of the meeting between the Bastard and Hubert in
Act V., when Hubert fails to recognise the Bastard's voice, runs thus:—

  'Unkinde remembrance: thou and endles night,
  Have done me shame: Brave Soldier, pardon me
  That any accent breaking from thy tongue
  Should scape the true acquaintaince of mine eare.'

This time 'endless' is not poetical enough for the editors. Theobald's emendation 'eyeless' is received into the text. One has only to read the brief scene through to realise that Hubert is wearied and obsessed by the night that will never end. He is overwrought by his knowledge of

'news fitting to the night, Black, fearful, comfortless, and horrible,'

and by his long wandering in search of the Bastard:—

  'Why, here I walk in the black brow of night
  To find you out.'

Yet the dramatically perfect 'endless' has had to make way for the dramatically stupid 'eyeless.' Is it surprising that we do not trust these gentlemen?

Book: Shattered Sighs