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Shakespeare From Several Angles

ISSUE:  Autumn 1929

Keats’s Shakespeare. By Caroline F. E. Spurgeon. London: Oxford University Press. $10.00. Shakespeare Improved. By Hazelton Spencer. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. $5.00. Shakspere’s Silences. By Alwin Thaler. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. $3.50. Shakespeare’s Workshop. By W. J. Lawrence. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $3.00.

Since Matthew Arnold at least, a peculiar affinity has been recognized between Keats and Shakespeare. As Professor Spurgeon remarks, “They were alike in certain qualities of mind and of art, a fact of which Keats himself was fully, aware, and in some of these qualities they are unique among English poets.” Four years ago, in his “Keats and Shakespeare,” Mr. John Middleton Murry studied the influence of the one upon the other with an imaginative insight all too seldom enlisted in the service of English literary scholarship.1 Now, Professor Spurgeon’s “Keats’s Shakespeare” might be described as a kind of footnote to the Murry book, or perhaps it would be fairer to say that it exemplifies the kind of material on which sucli interpretations as Mr. Murry’s, or even Professor Lowes’s still more wonderful study of the creative imagination in “The Road to Xanadu,” must depend. Professor Spurgeon, of course, made a remarkably lucky find when, in the library of Mr. George Armour, she discovered the seven volume set of Shakespeare owned by Keats and read and marked diligently by him during the last three years of his life. Her book preserves the record of these markings—and “markings” is the word to use, since there are only a few “ ‘notes” in the entire set. The volume is divided into three parts: first, an essay of fifty-four pages in which the author interprets the significance of her find and makes such generalizations concerning the markings as occur to her at this time; second, ten pages of parallel passages designed to show the influence of “The Tempest” upon “Endymion” (Professor Thaler, be it noted, also relies on parallel passages to convince us that Shakespeare influenced Milton and Sir Thomas Browne);—and, third, the bulk of the book: “an accurate reprint of all the marks, annotations, and under* linings in the text of four plays in Keats’s . . . Shakespeare . . . : ‘The Tempest,’ ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ ‘Measure for Measure,’ and ‘Antony and Cleopatra’; also those of ‘Troilus and Cressida’ in his folio edition at Hampstead.” There are numerous, excellently-printed plates, and the frontispiece is an exceedingly interesting reproduction of a hitherto unpublished, and practically unknown, water-color drawing of Keats by Joseph Severn.

This is a book for specialists, a collection of raw materials, as I have already called it. Some interesting points do emerge: the principal one—the influence of “The Tempest” on “Endymion”—has been referred to. Very amusing are Keats’s scribbled comments on the critical dicta of Dr. Johnson: it would be impossible that the poet’s view and the pundit’s could be placed in sharper juxtaposition. This, however, is not especially important. How much light future scholars will find in “Keats’s Shakespeare,” to what extent, if at all, it will come to illuminate what we already know of the influence of Shakespeare on Keats is, of course, a question which only the future can answer. Meanwhile, Professor Spurgeon herself has done quite as much as might reasonably have been expected of her—perhaps more. Lovers of Keats may well thank her and Mr. Armour for the opportunity they now have to read Shakespeare with Keats’s eyes. What they see in this way is likely to depend pretty definitely on the amount of imagination they, themselves happen to be in possession of.

I am convinced that Keats was one of the few men who have really known how to read Shakespeare. Generally, like Milton, he focussed his attention on the poet and neglected the dramatist, and of course he was ignorant of everything that we now know as “equipment” in Shakespearean scholarship. Still he ate his way somehow into the life of Shakespeare, in a way that I fear few of our scholars, with all their erudition, can hope to rival. Certainly such detail work as is represented in Professor Hazelton Spencer’s ironically-entitled “Shakespeare Improved” does not bring us very close to Shakespeare. The theme is the fate of the dramatist in England between 1660 and 1710, and the larger portion of the volume is given over to a minute examination of the various adaptations of Shakespearean plays made and presented during that time. Professor Spencer’s method is, generally, after a brief introduction, to offer a detailed summary of the adapted play, after which he summarizes changes and draws conclusions. This procedure is frequently tedious, but it should be added that Professor Spencer is a most companionable writer, even though here and there his comments seem superfluous and sometimes a little “smart.” In the course of his investigations, he is able to correct more than one previous investigator in his field, and he is quite likely to do so with a certain self-consciousness. His mind, however, is alert and active, and on more than one occasion he draws a pungent illustration from contemporary life.

“Shakespeare Improved” is then an immensely useful reference book for all those interested in the Restoration theatre. To criticize is to criticize the orthodox literary scholarship of our day in general. And it is no secret that that scholarship is, on the whole, somewhat lacking in imagination and rather inclined to worship facts as facts. It is not often, in the Shakespearean field, that we get such a book as Professor Stoll’s wonderful “Shakespeare Studies,” or, to take a very different example, the late Professor Tolman’s “Falstaff and Other Shakespearean Topics.” These are books which any man who is interested in letters and life can relish: scholarly though they are, one does not need to be a specialist to find the meat in them. What is it that finally emerges from “Shakespeare Improved”? That the Restoration did not understand Shakespeare, and that those who tried to rewrite his plays were, most of them, dreadful asses. Did we not know this before? I wonder is it worth quite so much labor to discover it again?

The other two books are made up of reprints and, as such, necessarily lack objective unity. Professor Thaler’s “Shakspere’s Silences” takes its title from the first long essay, in which be maintains that Shakespeare consciously used silence as an element in both characterization and dramatic development. Closely connected with this is “The Unhappy, Happy Ending,” an ingenious defence of certain much criticized features in connection with the winding-up of several of the comedies and the romances. While I cannot feel that Professor Thaler has made any particularly valuable contribution to our knowledge of Shakespeare in these two papers, he has profitably recalled our attention to problems which are worth considering always, and no lover of Shakespeare can fail to follow him with interest. The second half of the book, somewhat loosely entitled “Shakspere and Milton,” presents interesting, if not at every point quite convincing, evidence of the influence of Shakespeare on Milton and Sir Thomas Browne, and closes with a study of the theatrical adaptations of Milton’s poems which hardly belongs at all in the present volume.

Mr. Lawrence’s “Shakespeare’s Workshop” is made up of two halves which do not fit well together. Five of the papers: “Shakespeare’s Lost Characters,” “The Ghost in Hamlet,” “Shakespeare on Masks,” “Windows in Shakespeare,” and the title-essay, while scholarly, in the best sense, are still addressed to the general cultivated reader, and are wholly delightful. In addition to his own pungent observations, Mr. Lawrence here sums up the conclusions of recent scholarship on various moot questions, and his annotations add considerably to the value of his book. The other half of the volume, however, is devoted to purely technical matters, and here, although he ventures many, wise guesses, Mr. Lawrence seems to one reader at least, on the whole, somewhat less convincing, as well as less entertaining. His theory that the Second Quarto text of “Hamlet” represents the original version of the play, and that the First Quarto is a shortened version made for a provincial company, for example, is supported by much ingenious reasoning, and he may be right. Rut there is a good deal to be said on the other side.

1. See The Virginia Quarterly Review, July, 1926, for my review of Middleton Murry’s book, as also of Albert H. Tolman, “Falstaff and Other Shakespearean Topics,” to which reference is made hereinafter.


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