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About this book

Shakespeare's tragedies are among the greatest works of tragic art and have attracted a rich range of commentary and interpretation from leading creative and critical minds. This Reader's Guide offers a comprehensive survey of the key criticism on the tragedies, from the seventeenth century through to the present day.

In this book, Nicolas Tredell:
• introduces essential concepts, themes and debates
• relates Shakespeare's tragedies to fi elds of study including psychoanalysis, gender, race, ecology and philosophy
• summarises major critical texts from Dryden and Dr Johnson to Janet Adelman and Julia Reinhard Lupton, and covers influential critical movements such as New Criticism, New Historicism and poststructuralism
• demonstrates how key critical approaches work in practice, with close reference to Shakespeare's texts.

Informed and incisive, this is an indispensable guide for anyone interested in how the category of Shakespeare's tragedies has been constructed, contested and changed over the years.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
Shakespeare’s tragedies engage, in incomparably resourceful language, with questions of meaning, being, life, death, love, hate, history, politics, sexuality, gender, ethnicity and ecology — and probably with other matters that have yet to be defined and discussed. The critical response to the tragedies is itself, in microcosm, a history of global culture, given their undeniable capacity to spread across and speak to the world. This Guide aims to select what seems essential from the Anglo-American strand of that response. Of course, the volume and variety of criticism that the tragedies have provoked means that readers may want to challenge, alter or augment this selection, and that is all to the good: the reader of this Guide is invited to work actively with its choices, testing them against one another, against alternatives that have not been included but may have a claim to essentialness, and, above all, against Shakespeare’s texts.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter One. The Augustans

Abstract
In this chapter, we will trace the development of critical thought about Shakespeare’s tragedies from the later seventeenth to the later eighteenth century. We start in the Restoration period, which runs from the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, when Charles II (1630–85) comes to the throne, to around 1700. We move on to the Augustan era, which we have taken to run from around the accession of Queen Anne (1665–1714) in 1702 to the deaths in the mid-1740s of the poet and translator Alexander Pope (1688–1744) and the poet, pamphleteer and proto-novelist Jonathan Swift (1667–1745). We finally come to the later eighteenth century and the era of Samuel Johnson.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Two. The Romantics

Abstract
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, cultural and literary values, in England and across Europe, began to undergo a wide-ranging transformation that marked the start of the Romantic era. This period was also marked by major historical events: the American War of Independence (1775–83); the French Revolution (1789–99); the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15).No simple summary can convey the range and complexity of the changes in this epoch — or the extent to which older eighteenth-century Augustan attitudes may have persisted within it in modified or differently clothed forms: the novels of Jane Austen (1775–1817) are heirs to the eighteenth century in their ordered structure and style even as they affirm the value of personal self-determination in matters of the heart (for example in Pride and Prejudice [1813], when Elizabeth Bennet defies Lady Catherine de Bourgh and proceeds with her marriage to Mr Darcy); Lord Byron (George Gordon (1788–1824), at the start of his ‘epic satire’ Don Juan (1819–24), exalts John Milton, John Dryden and Alexander Pope as models of poetry rather than William Wordsworth (1770–1850), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) or Robert Southey (1774–1843): ‘Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope; / Thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey’ (1.205.1–2),1 even as he generates a poetry of racy and ingenious rhyme, rhythm and diction that breaks free of Augustan poetic decorum.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Three. The Victorians

Abstract
Victorian critics of Shakespeare tended to conserve — and sometimes dilute — the insights of their Romantic forebears. In an era of relative stability and prosperity, Shakespeare became even more a part of an Englishman’s constitution, a national treasure that gave further proof of the superiority of the British way of life. The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909) was in some ways a rebel against Victorian conventions and an aficionado of Shakespeare, deeply read in both classical and Elizabethan drama; but his critical writings — for example, in A Study of Shakespeare (1880) — lack the close reference to quoted passages from Shakespeare’s texts that was increasingly expected in serious criticism.1 It is perhaps significant that the three most influential Shakespeare critics of this period all came from outside mainland Britain: Edward Dowden was Irish, born in Cork and educated at Queen’s College and Trinity College, Dublin, where he became Professor of English Studies in 1867; G. G. Gervinus was German and taught at universities in Göttingen and Heidelberg; and George Brandes was Danish, born of non-Orthodox Jewish parents, and the leader of Denmark’s radical intellectuals. We shall first discuss Dowden.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Four. Character and Correlative

Abstract
Three major forces helped to create a new kind of criticism of Shakespeare’s tragedies in the early twentieth century: the explosion, across the arts, of Modernist innovations; the First World War; and the development of English Literature as an academic discipline. The complex of literary practices that we now call Modernist — represented by, among many others, Luigi Pirandello (1867–1936) in drama, T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) and Ezra Pound (1885–1972) in poetry, James Joyce (1882–1941) and Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) in fiction — placed a premium on difficulty: it challenged nineteenth-century preconceptions of literary form and subject matter and, in effect, asked its audiences to work at interpretation. This benefited the study of Shakespeare, especially of his tragedies, which offered many interpretative challenges; he could be seen as a Modernist artist avant la lettre. It is no accident that the most influential anglophone Shakespeare critic in the early twentieth century was also a major — perhaps the major — Modernist poet: T. S. Eliot.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Five. Psychoanalysis and Desire

Abstract
Four years before Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy, at the very turn of the nineteenth century, a book had appeared that would have far-reaching cultural effects: The Interpretation of Dreams (dated 1900; in fact issued 1899) by a then obscure Viennese Jewish doctor called Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Shakespearean tragedy was only one concern of this multifarious work; but Freud’s footnote on Hamlet, later promoted to the main text, was to prove fruitful, especially when Freud’s disciple, Ernest Jones (1879–1958), developed the ideas expressed there in an essay and then a book, Hamlet and Oedipus (1949). The French revisionist psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901–81) later explored Hamlet in his ‘Sept Leçons sur Hamlet’ [‘Seven Lessons on Hamlet’] (1958–9) and although Lacan’s impact on Shakespeare studies, and on literary studies, was to be delayed, it was considerable when it came.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Six. Imagery and Form

Abstract
In the 1930s, a major change came about in the study of Shakespeare. There was a repudiation, sometimes implicit, sometimes polemically explicit, of what was seen as the Bradley approach and its alleged tendency to focus on Shakespeare’s characters and treat them as if they were real people. New approaches to the interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays developed that focused on patterns of imagery and on the text as a whole. The pioneering book here is G. Wilson Knight’s The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespearian Tragedy with Three New Essays, published at the start of the decade, and we shall consider this first.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Seven. Archetype and Absurdity

Abstract
In the 1950s, Leavisian criticism in the UK and New Criticism in the USA gave a sense of ‘business as usual’ as far as the criticism of Shakespeare, and of literature in general, was concerned. There was a loose consensus that Shakespeare study, while it might draw on relevant scholarship, was primarily a matter of generating readings that eschewed what was seen as excessive political and religious commitment (though the latter was more acceptable than the former) and that confirmed Shakespeare’s endorsement of a morality that turned out to be remarkably like the kind of morality that a middle-class academic professional in the mid-twentieth century might have. But there was an underlying uncertainty. Both Leavisism and New Criticism had originally had a radical edge, in the sense that they challenged the industrial roots of modern society, but with their assimilation into the academy this edge became blunted; both had offered a new methodology but this had turned into a routine, one that still required considerable knowledge and skill but that, in terms of its results, offered more of the same, variations on a theme rather than fresh compositions. Along with this sense within academic literary criticism that new departures were needed went the social and cultural changes starting to gather force in the later 1950s — represented in literary terms, however roughly and inadequately, by the ‘Angry Young Men’ in England and the Beat writers in America — and that would erupt as the 1960s went on.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Eight. History and Subjectivity

Abstract
In the 1980s, Anglo-American criticism of Shakespeare’s tragedies, like other fields of literary criticism, began to change dramatically. A combination of social movements, particularly feminism, and of European, especially French, literary and cultural theories (deconstruction, poststructuralism, Lacanian psychoanalysis and power/knowledge perspectives derived from the French thinker Michel Foucault [1926–84]) broke down the empirical dykes roughly erected around Anglo-American criticism and a new set of critical concepts gushed in. These submerged, at least for a time, older ideas of resolution, homogeneity, unity and ultimately benign hierarchical order.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Nine. Gender and Sexuality

Abstract
The last section of the previous chapter showed how a renewed concern with history and subjectivity in the 1980s combined, in Catherine Belsey’s work, with a non-essentialist feminism that focused on the construction of female and male subjects through the interaction of social discourse and desire, and explored the representations and subversions of these subjects in Shakespearean tragedy, and Jacobean tragedy more generally. Drawing on an often eclectic mix that could include Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, feminism, poststructuralism, deconstruction and postmodernism — and, still at the centre of critical practice, ‘close reading’ — a range of studies emerged towards the end of the twentieth century that examined issues of gender and sexuality in Shakespearean tragedy from a variety of angles. By this time, critics were freer to pursue projects without the need (evident to varying degrees in all four of the critics considered in the last chapter) to make an extensive case against older models of criticism (‘liberal humanist’ or ‘old historicist’, for instance) which were not necessarily wholly invalid but no longer attracted much critical energy. This more open situation also meant that it was possible to mix and merge a range of theoretical perspectives and interpretative approaches, with the result that the movements of the 1980s that had aimed at sharp self-definitions in order to advance their particular causes became, in the 1990s, blurred, broken up or blended, often in productive ways. Thus, while each of the critical texts we discuss in this chapter addressed issues of sexuality and gender in Shakespeare, none can be simply assigned to a particular category (e.g., feminism, deconstruction, psychoanalysis). We start with Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare’s Plays (1992) by Janet Adelman (1941–2010).
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Ten. Ethnicity and Ecology

Abstract
This chapter considers critical explorations of Shakespearean tragedy in relation to two modern approaches that take a global purview — ethnicity and ecology. Both approaches involve a mixture of close textual analysis, historical investigation and ‘presentism’, as they seek to analyse Shakespeare’s plays in ethnic and ecological perspectives, to tease out Elizabethan and Jacobean attitudes to race and nature, and to relate them to the twenty-first century. We begin with Margo Hendricks’s introduction to Shakespeare and Race (2000) and then focus on Barbara Everett’s essay, ‘“Spanish” Othello: the Making of Shakespeare’s Moor’ (1982), from the same volume.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Eleven. Philosophy and Ethics

Abstract
Shakespeare’s tragedies operate on similar terrain to that of philosophy and this is evident in their critical history, their attraction for philosophers (Hegel) or those inclined to metaphysical speculation (Coleridge). Key later twentieth-century critical movements, such as poststructuralism and deconstruction, tended to demote Shakespeare philosophically, proceeding as if he were to be understood in terms of other, supposedly superior forms of philosophical, linguistic, psychoanalytical and political knowledge. But the tragedies continued to attract those who did not see them as cognitively inferior — for example, professional philosophers (Stanley Cavell) or literary critics with some philosophical expertise (A. D. Nuttall). This chapter considers key philosophical readings of Shakespeare’s tragedies and the ways in which those tragedies themselves may be thought of as philosophizing. We start with Stanley Cavell.
Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Twelve. Religions and Reformations

Abstract
In the materialist readings of Shakespearean tragedy that predominated from the 1980s, there was a tendency to rewrite religion in terms of its social and political effects, its production of assent or subversion, and to set aside any idea of religion as a self-sufficient force, or spirituality as a valid mode of experience in its own right. But later decades have seen a ‘religious turn’ in Shakespeare studies, and early modern studies more generally, that can be separated into two main strands. One strand is related to the transition from an idea of society based on divine right to an idea of society based on economic and social contracts. In pursuing this strand, critics have drawn on the concept of ‘political theology’ developed by the German thinker Carl Schmitt (1888–1985). As Donald Hammill and Julia Reinhard Lupton explain in the introduction to their collection Political Theology and Early Modernity (2012), ‘political theology’ is ‘not the same as religion’ but ‘a form of questioning that arises precisely when religion is no longer a dominant explanatory or life mode, either historically (as in [the] Reformation) or existentially (as doubt, scepticism, or boredom)’.1 The second strand is concerned with religious discourses and institutions in Shakespeare’s time that are in the process of change due to the Reformation, and the possible social, psychological and theatrical effects of this change. We begin by considering the first strand in the work of Julia Reinhard Lupton.
Nicolas Tredell

Conclusion

Abstract
We have come to the end of a long journey — from 1693 to 2013 — and seen many sights, heard many voices, on the way. But the end is also a beginning. The range and variety of the criticism we have considered shows that there can be no final destination in the exploration of Shakespeare’s tragedies; they have the capacity, inherent in their richness of language and their engagement with fundamental themes, to go on generating new meanings for fresh audiences. This is not to say that the new meanings necessarily drive out the old ones, even though it is inevitable, and salutary, that some critical innovators take on the role of magicians who aim to make their predecessors vanish in a puff of stale smoke. But when the smoke clears, the predecessors, if they are any good, are still there and can always come forward again to take a bow — as this Guide has aimed to show. The new meanings may amplify and reanimate the old meanings and the old meanings may pose invigorating questions to the new ones. Moreover, the new meanings in time will become old ones, assimilated to that great conversation around Shakespeare in which it is, at best, a joy and a challenge to participate. We participate by continuing the critical journey.
Nicolas Tredell
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