To Beguile Nature of Her Custom: Drama as a Magical Action
Magical thinking figures not only in the Sonnets, but in the plays also. Few critics would demur if we referred to A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest, say, as plays about magic. But can a play be a magical creation as we have seen certain of the Sonnets to be? That is, can a play somehow be about magic and, at the same time, be magical in its effects?
As I indicated earlier, Shakespeare commentary has traditionally had a didactic cast. In his edition of Shakespeare ( 1765) Dr. Johnson waxes impatient with the dramatist's ungraspable qualities, including his obsession with word play, the "fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it." A quibble, Dr. Johnson argues, "has some malignant power over his mind. . . ." And Shakespeare's admirers
have most reason to complain when he approaches nearest to his highest excellence. . . . He is not long soft and pathetick without some idle conceit, or contemptible equivocation. He no sooner begins to move, than he counteracts himself; and terror and pity, as they are rising in the mind, are checked and blasted by sudden frigidity.
Often the most uncritical critics of Shakespeare share Dr. Johnson's assumptions about unity--but are convinced that they themselves have found out that unity: "I believe that if Hamlet is read against a background of contemporary philosophy, it will come to life as a study in passion, rather obviously constructed to show the profound truth of its dominant idea."1
Far less common, and itself rather mysterious, is Keats's tribute to Shakespeare's quality of negative capability, "that is when a