Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Res Theatralis Histrionica: Acting Coleridge in the Lecture Theater

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Res Theatralis Histrionica: Acting Coleridge in the Lecture Theater

Article excerpt

IN LATE AUGUST 1807, THOMAS POOLE RECEIVED A LETTER FROM THE CELEBRATED scientist Humphry Davy urging him to persuade their mutual friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to commit to a series of literary lectures at the Royal Institution in London:

   The Managers of the Royal Institution are very anxious to engage
   him; and I think he might be of material service to the public, and
   of benefit to his own mind, to say nothing of the benefit his purse
   might receive. In the present condition of society, his opinions in
   matters of taste, literature, and metaphysics must have a healthy
   influence; and unless he soon becomes an actual member of the
   living world, he must expect to be brought to judgment for 'hiding
   his light.' (1)

Ironically, it would be his withdrawal from "the living world" that Coleridge would go on to make his critical distinction--or, more accurately, his critical persona--when he chose to accept Davy's offer and step onto the public stage for the second time in his career. No longer the political firebrand he had been in Bristol in 1795, Coleridge the literary lecturer in fashionable London figured himself as an ideal reader--responsive, imaginative, philosophical--and proceeded to refashion after his own values the Shakespearean drama that was his almost exclusive subject. Most notoriously, Coleridge's Hamlet became renowned amongst his friends as a thinly disguised projection of his own aspirations and anxieties. But this was true, I would suggest, in more ways than have yet been realized, for Coleridge's critical performance (and criticism as dramatic performance) goes to the heart of his own reading of Hamlet, as it does of Shakespeare's play, making the lecture theater of the early-nineteenth century the ideal venue for Coleridge on Shakespeare.

Ideas, information, and opinions were the social currency of the expanding public sphere of the eighteenth century, and by the early-nineteenth century the production and consumption of scientific and cultural knowledge in Britain's thriving lecture culture testified to an unprecedented emotional and economic investment. Its combination of display, performance, education, and social occasion made the public lecture in science and the arts an alternative form of entertainment, even while the combined activities of many and various lecturers covering every topic from insects to angels amounted to an alternative, "open" university, for many of the middle-class public (and most of its women) the only formal instruction to which they had access. Public lectures flourished and by the early-nineteenth century a number of institutions were springing up to house and foster them, first and foremost the institution where Davy had made his reputation and to which he beckoned Coleridge in his letter to Poole.

I

The Royal Institution was a brainchild of the Royal Society habitue and eccentric Count Rumford (Benjamin Thompson, an American citizen who had the distinction of having been knighted by the King of England and created Count by the Elector of Bavaria). Along with a group of Fellows of the Royal Society, including Sir Joseph Banks, as well as other citizens of distinction, like the philanthropist Sir Thomas Bernhard, Rumford founded the Royal Institution in 1799 as a center for displaying the latest mechanical inventions, containing a meeting house and a library and offering lectures and workshops for the poor. Its aims were reflected by the title of Rumford's Proposal for forming by subscription a public Institution for diffusing the knowledge and facilitating the general introduction of useful mechanical inventions and improvements (1799). (2)

By 1800, thanks to Banks and Henry Cavendish, the Royal Institution had a new building in Albemarle Street with a new lecture theater and laboratory installed, featuring throughout the most up-to-date design and appointments. The emphasis of contemporary reports (utilizing the Royal Institution's own promotional material) was on production and performance:

   The new lecture room . … 
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