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Shakespeare in the Interpretation of the Time

ISSUE:  Summer 1943

Shakespeare’s Satire. By Oscar James Campbell. Oxford University Press. $3.75. Shakespeare and the Nature of Man. By Theodore Spencer. The Macmillan, Company. $2.75.

The past twelve months have seen published three new Shakespeare studies of major importance: J.C. Adams’ study, “The Globe,” Oscar James Camp, bell’s “Shakespeare’s Satire,” and Theodore Spencer’s “Shakespeare and the Nature of Man.” Mr. Adams’ book has already been commented upon in this Review and Mr. Spencer’s volume has had enough time since its printing for a reviewer’s judgment to mellow, but Mr. Campbell’s striking conclusions,—in the main new to Shakespeare scholarship except as he himself has advanced them in earlier publications,—have been published so recently that his book must be read once and the reviewer’s ideas rushed greenly into print.

It is unfortunate that in following an order of chronology the author of “Shakespeare’s Satire” first presents a theory that “Shakespeare’s clown was the first of his characters to play the satirist.” For me at least the role of Will Kemp as a satirist is the most unconvincing part of the book, and followed as it is by the not very much stronger presentation of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and “As You Like It” as satires in part, it does not make an approach to the arguments of the later chapters that prepare us for the so much better documented analyses of “Troilus and Cressida,” “Measure for Measure,” and “Timon of Athens.” Mr. Campbell appears almost to extend to Kemp joint-authorship in the plays by such statements as “Kemp has learned how to make his clownish parodies yield trenchant comment on the absurd or evil ways of his fellow characters,” and, of Grumio and Launcelot Gobbo, “But into neither role has Kemp insinuated any satire.” This, it seems to me, is to miscast Kemp as much as to mistake Shakespeare. The hobby has only become a wild horse when Mr. Campbell implies that the Bastard in “King John” and Mercutio in “Romeo and Juliet” are “satiric commentators” so much in Kemp’s vein that not to have given the part to Kemp “would have been stupid business for a dramatist writing for the company.” After some pages of discussion, he faces the somewhat stubborn fact that Mercutio appears in the same scene with Peter, a part that we are certain (his name is printed in the text) Kemp took. “In any case,” is the lame conclusion, “the part of Mercutio is a natural expansion of those parts into which Kemp found it possible to insert his distinctive comic business.” If a scholar can make his hobbyhorse leap such hurdles as that, the reader will be on his guard.

None the less, guard himself as he will, the reader will find much to convince him in the other chapters of “Shakespeare’s Satire.” It is not necessary to accept the interesting supposition that “Troilus and Cressida” was written for the Inns of Court rather than the public stage (a likely enough conjecture) to find oneself in agreement with the closely argued case for its satiric meaning. Nor is it needful that the major contention of the aim of “Measure for Measure” be approved, for the discussion of that play to prove illuminating in many important details. I should dissent from much that is said of “Hamlet” and “Lear” without discounting greatly the interest that the discussion of those plays awakens. Especially convincing is the case made for “Timon of Athens” as an unfinished satire. Mr. Campbell believes that John Marston and Ben Jonson inaugurated a popular run of satirical dramas and that Shakespeare was influenced to experiment in the type. In his first effort, “Timon,” he was not sufficiently pleased with the result to complete the play for production, but with the next, “Coriolanus,” he was more successful. Such an experience is almost too close for probability to the later case of his experiment with “Pericles,” which he apparently abandoned to return to its method and devices with success in “Cymbeline,” “The Winter’s Tale,” and “The Tempest.” Mr. Campbell’s discussion of “Timon” explains the baffling effects that the play makes upon its readers. His theory does not fit “Coriolanus” so well. His discussion of that play is subtle and persuasive but, to me, not convincing. It is true that the worst traits of Coriolanus are spoken of by his friends as well as by his enemies, but it is not true that they are “all contributing features to a disagreeable portrait.” His faults are the excesses of his virtues. He plays the man he is. Had his proud, aristocratic nature lived at another time when a Roman general who had saved his city need not try to play the politician, the paradox brought about by his trying to act as he thought proper to himself and to his family and his city would not have arisen. Aufidius gives us the key to his misadventures: “our virtues lie in the interpretation of the time.” Mr. Campbell’s own tests break down when one of the Volscians says of Coriolanus, “This man is noble and his fame folds in this orb o’ the earth,” and another, after his death, “the most noble corse that ever herald did follow to his urn.” And even his murderer and rival, Aufidius, grants, “Yet he shall have a noble memory.” Mr. Campbell has weakened his case by pushing his search for satire too far, but he has made an important contribution to Shakespearean studies in making it very clear that the ‘gentle’ Shakespeare did write satire of a sort; and he has analysed brilliantly and illuminatingly several of the most difficult of the plays.

Mr. Campbell thinks that the philosophical unrest of the period accounts for much in the dramas written around the breaking of the seventeenth century. “Truth that used to be had for the asking now seemed beyond the reach of every man.” With this view Mr. Theodore Spencer agrees, quoting Donne’s words, ” ‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone.” There had been coherence over which nature ruled: the cosmos, “an enormous sphere,” “the world of created objects on earth,” “the world of human government,” and the microcosm of man. And all these had correspondences. But with the Renaissance came doubt. The three interrelated orders—cosmological, natural, and political—were each being questioned. “Copernicus had questioned the cosmological order, Montaigne had questioned the natural order, Machia-velli had questioned the political order.” It is against the background of this conflict and its effect upon the questioning mind of Shakespeare that Mr. Spencer undertakes anew the study of Shakespeare’s plays in their order of composition. The scope of the book is too wide for it to be analyzed successfully in a brief review, but its aims can be explained with reasonable fairness.

He builds up the intellectual conventions of the age and the conflict that followed the challenges which assailed them. Then he traces the development of the changing dramatic conventions that were back of Shakespeare’s craft. Finally he attempts “to analyze and judge” the plays in terms of what he believes “to be true of human experience as a whole.” With a knowledge of Professor Campbell’s theory of “Troilus and Cressida,” as set forth in his earlier “Comical Satyre and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida,” he does not find the play a satire but, following “Hamlet,” a concrete presentation of the “conflict between the two views of man which was implicit in Shakespeare’s age” and “the kind of experiment which was necessary before ‘King Lear’ could be written.” For in “Lear” Mr. Spencer finds that “Shakespeare uses the three inter-related hierarchies given him by the assumptions of his age to make ‘King Lear’ the largest and the most profound of all his plays.”

Shakespeare’s career, he says, was divided into three stages: “a period of experiment and adaptation, a period of tragic vision, and a period of affirmation.” In his reinter-pretation of the plays of Shakespeare in terms of a thinker reconstructing in his plays a disordered view of the universe and of being, Mr. Spencer has ambitiously sought himself to give coherence to the creative life of Shakespeare. He has not offered especially novel or startling interpretations of the individual plays, but he has discussed them with poetic insight and critical acumen. His book is not dry criticism, nor heavy, philosophical conjecture: it is entertainingly written with vivacious intelligence. Especially it gives to Shakespeare’s life a reasonable basis of unity and gives us permission to fancy, if we please, that we can hear the pulsing bloodstream of a real person throbbing through such unrelated plays as “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” “Troilus and Cressida,” and “The Tempest.” I am not forgetful that Time hath a wallet at his back wherein he puts alms for oblivion, but I dare venture the prediction that “Shakespeare and the Nature of Man” will take its place, out of the many Shakespeare studies, as one of that small number that endure for a time.


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