Shakespeare's Use of Learning: An Inquiry into the Growth of His Mind & Art

Shakespeare's Use of Learning: An Inquiry into the Growth of His Mind & Art

Shakespeare's Use of Learning: An Inquiry into the Growth of His Mind & Art

Shakespeare's Use of Learning: An Inquiry into the Growth of His Mind & Art

Excerpt

The title of the present work has been chosen, it must be acknowledged, for brevity rather than for precision. It designates what is actually an attempt to study Shakespeare's acquisition and use of contemporary learning and the effect of his knowledge upon his development as a dramatist. When Shakespeare set out to dramatize an Italian tale or one of Plutarch's lives, he obviously selected and adapted his material to produce the effects that he wanted. As we watch this process of choice and alteration, we have a unique opportunity to see his mind at work, and the sources are an invaluable clue to his art and his thought that has been strangely neglected. The plays themselves also contain many passages that reveal the extent to which he had mastered contemporary lore. Following these two approaches leads to the discovery that Shakespeare grew in learning while he developed in skill as a playwright, and that his progress as a dramatist depended to a considerable extent upon his increasing mastery of contemporary science and philosophy. In fact, about the time of Julius Caesar a new way of looking at man and the universe led him to adopt a new and much better way of building his plays from their sources, and Macbeth is a greater play than Richard III not so much because Shakespeare knew more about the theater as because he had developed a new understanding of life in terms of traditional Christian thought. Charting the progress of his learning and his thinking should provide those who love his plays with another tool for understanding and enjoying them.

The approach is a new one, and some of the conclusions run counter to prevailing assumptions and even to recent scholarship, particularly with respect to the history plays. An attempt has therefore been made to present evidence in some detail, even at the risk of laboring a point now and then. One does not differ from scholars such as Lily B. Campbell or E. M. W. Tillyard without offering proof. Hamlet, as usual, has been a problem. It apparently involved a reworking of the old play in terms of some of the ideas that helped to shape the other tragedies. But the old play, on the other hand, seems likely itself to have furnished several important elements in Hamlet's thought and character and to have stimulated Shakespeare's own thinking, just as The Trouble some Raigne . . .

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