William Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage - Vol. 3

William Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage - Vol. 3

William Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage - Vol. 3

William Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage - Vol. 3

Synopsis

The Critical Heritage gathers together a large body of critical sources on major figures in literature. Each volume presents contemporary responses to a writer's work, enabling student and researcher to read the material themselves.

Excerpt

Comparing the Shakespeare criticism of this period with that covered in the previous volume, it is striking to see the emergence of much more liberal attitudes. This is not to say that neo-classicism is totally discredited but rather that the alternative judgments which I described in the last volume as 'escape-clauses' are invoked more frequently. The overall effect is much more liberated than in the previous twenty years.

True though this may be, we still find many of the neo-Aristotelian categories and the critical rejections which derive from them. Thus Aaron Hill confidently describes Hamlet as a most varied play which continues to please 'in spite of Errors and Absurdities, self-contradictory and indefensible' (No. 86: Prompter, 100). George Stubbes, in Some Remarks on the Tragedy of 'Hamlet', in the following year, found many 'unnatural and absurd' elements in the play, such as the presence of armies on stage (No. 87). The anonymous author of an essay on Edward the Black Prince (1750) attacked the view that 'Rules are not at all necessary, since we are not offended at the Breach of them in Shakespeare. To which I answer, that every Man of true Judgment is offended at it, though we suffer or excuse his Faults, on account of his amazing Excellencies.' Had Shakespeare 'followed the Critical Rules' it would have given his work 'a great Addition both of Fame and Excellence' (No. 122). That devoted exponent of neo-classicism, William Mason, endorsed Voltaire's judgment that the English veneration for Shakespeare and his disregard for 'the necessary rules of the Drama' had led to a weakening of our literature (No. 131).

The Unities continued to be the easiest categories within which Shakespeare could be found lacking. For Mason 'good sense, as well as antiquity, prescribed an adherence to the three great Unities'. Con-scious of the frequent criticism of Shakespeare for breaking the unity of time, John Upton excused Shakespeare by analogy with epic: in Julius Caesar the dramatist rightly continued beyond the death of Caesar, and as a result the plot of the play 'hangs together as in a heroic poem' (No. 114). Of course Upton is ignoring the specific neo-Aristotelian rules as to drama, but perhaps he intends that. (The ortho-

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