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June 08, 2006

The Number One Man's Number One Fan - William Hazlitt's Characters of Shakespeare's Plays

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Characters of Shakespeare's Plays
by William Hazlitt
first published 1817

published in Liber Amoris and Dramatic Criticisms
Pp. 426. Peter Nevill, 1948

Available as a paperback, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (Kessinger Publishing, 2004), 16.95

I feel that Hazlitt is a kind of a friend of a friend, several times over. People have said to me, "You must read Hazlitt on that" or "You would really like Hazlitt." He is the subject of that nice Phillip Swallow's research (and of a book which is printed, but never distributed) in a trilogy of academic novels by David Lodge. His subjects include love, politics, landscape and literature not a combination which would deter me. If he didn't share my enthusiasm for cricket and football, this was hardly an option for a man born in 1778 who died in 1830.

However, when we finally did meet, I decided to eschew any attempt at reviewing his essays as a whole in favour of those which have the greatest reputation and, for me probably, the greatest interest those on Shakespeare.

I should state at the start that I am an orthodox Shakespearian Fundamentalist. Bard Rules OK just about sums up my view and if there is a Hell I would like to think that it consists mainly of pouring scorn on those - like Leo Tolstoy and George Bernard Shaw - who did not appreciate him. And those nameless fools who thought his plays were written by someone else. I have been very lucky in my dealings with Shakespeare. Though I went to a very traditional school it had a rather radical Eng. Lit. syllabus and I never had to study Shakespeare, but came across him acting in Julius Caesar. I can accept that it is possible to find Shakespeare boring if you just have to sit and read the plays, but not if you get to say his lines out loud, on a stage, in front of other people. Not if you have the slightest thespian instinct, anyway.

Later, the Bard and I became neighbours in that I have spent most of my adult life eight miles from Stratford-upon-Avon. I have seen every Shakespeare play, uncontested or doubtful, apart from Timon of Athens and most of them many times. It has been remarked that I have a biological reaction to Shakespearian productions because I walk more quickly towards them than to any other destination except a football match involving Burnley or a cricket match involving Lancashire. This must temper the perceptions which I bring to the critical essays of Hazlitt, who might claim to be Shakespeare's greatest fan and publicist.

Hazlitt wrote thirty five essays on Shakespeare. These comprise a general introduction, a consideration of the doubtful plays, an essay on the sonnets and thirty two individual pieces on the orthodox canon. Henry IV and Henry VI are treated as one each while Titus Andronicus and Pericles, Prince of Tyre are excluded. This is not because Hazlitt accepts the widespread claims that they are not by Shakespeare; he thinks that they are genuine, but "unworthy". The "Doubtfuls" are an interesting list. One of them, Edward III, is now accepted as a play by Shakespeare, but there is no mention of Thomas More or Two Noble Kinsmen which are now accepted to have considerable Shakespearian input. Whatever happened to The Merry Devil of Edmonton, The Birth of Merlin, and The Fair Emma which are just three of many candidates which he does mention?

Much of the intrigue of reading Hazlitt lies in comparing his views with those of our own contemporaries, bearing in mind that Hazlitt's long term influence on our perceptions of Shakespeare has been considerable. He tells us, in the opening line of his essay on Macbeth that:

Macbeth and Lear, Othello and Hamlet, are usually reckoned Shakespeare's four principal tragedies.
This was a view handed to me as fact when I was a child. When he confesses that Lear is a play of such greatness that he is unworthy to comment on it (which doesn't stop him, of course) I can report that I once conducted a survey during an Anglo-American conference on Shakespeare and discovered that Lear was, indeed, considered to be his greatest work, though it is not my own opinion.

Hazlitt's view that if you had to eradicate a single Shakespeare comedy then Love's Labours Lost should be the one to go is also probably held by many to this day. I personally do agree with his view that Henry IV is as good as anything Shakespeare ever wrote and most of us probably think that The Merry Wives of Windsor is a good comedy (and to us the ancestor of sitcom), but that it is a pity that Shakespeare called its leading character Falstaff. Legend has it - and scholarship does not deny - that this was on the insistence of Queen Elizabeth I.

Hazlitt's views on the incomparable greatness of Shakespeare amount to this: no one else can rival the threefold combination of beautiful poetry, complex characters and the breadth of his canvas. This last analogy meant a lot to Hazlitt as he had come to London to be a painter and was an essayist only by default. These great qualities are not, of course, evenly distributed. Richard II contains exquisite poetry, but is narrow and rather claustrophobic in focus whereas Merry Wives is written entirely in prose. Most of Henry IV is also prose and is less quoted, but it offers us an extraordinarily broad sweep of early fifteenth century England. Hazlitt often refers to Shakespeare as "the poet", but is clearly aware of his other talents.

Up to a point! The opinion which most jars on contemporary minds is the idea that Shakespeare's plays are better read than seen. In his essay on Hamlet he says:

We do not like to see our author's plays acted, and least of all, Hamlet. There is no play that suffers so much in being transferred to the stage. Hamlet himself seems hardly capable of being acted. . . . Mr Kemble plays it like a man in armour, with a determined inveteracy of purpose, in one undeviating straight line, which is as remote from the natural grace and refined susceptibility of the character as the sharp angles and abrupt starts which Mr Kean introduces into the part. Mr Kean's Hamlet is as much too splenetic and rash as Mr Kemble's is too deliberate and formal.
In the case of The Midsummer Night's Dream (sic) the case seems more logical and less particular:
The ideal can have no place upon the stage, which is a picture without perspective: everything there is in the foreground. That which was merely an airy shape, a dream, a passing thought, immediately becomes an unmanageable reality. . . . . . Thus Bottom's head in the play is a fantastic illusion, produced by magic spells: on the stage it is an ass's head, and nothing more . . . . Fairies are not incredible, but fairies six feet high are so.
But Richard III:
may be considered as properly a stage-play: it belongs to the theatre, rather than to the closet.
This approach to Shakespeare receives very little, if any, support now either as a general method or as a view about what Shakespeare might have intended. I only read Shakespeare when I am so excited on returning from the theatre that I want to check the words and listen to them again. Or if I have to prepare for a particular discussion. Much of the fun of a production is in seeing a new interpretation of an old text, of admiring (or not) how a director creates an overall atmosphere, a kind of alternative universe equivalent to the aborigine's "dreamtime", from a familiar play.

Hazlitt is, of course, halfway back to Shakespeare's language and may have found unaided reading easier than we do. I suspect also that after a century of visual sedation from films and television we lack the imaginative energy to people our interior stage with Oberons and Titanias and to be Hamlet, just as most people find Sir Walter Scott or Charles Dickens extremely difficult to read. But your imagination must surely tend to be the same every time whereas if you are able to share some new person's, it is always going to be different. And perhaps my Mr Branagh and Mr West were just better than his Mr Keen and Mr Kemble?

Two centuries have changed a good deal of the moral and political perception of Shakespeare and of what constitutes a "problem" play. This is irrelevant to most cases (especially the comedies) but is also dramatically true in some cases. Take Henry V and The Taming of the Shrew. To Hazlitt, Henry is simply an appalling fellow: He was fond of war and low company:

we know little else of him. He was careless, dissolute and ambitious - idle, or doing mischief. In private he seemed to have no idea of the common decencies of life, which he subjected to a kind of regal license; in public affairs, he seemed to have no idea of any rule of right or wrong, but brute force, glossed over with a little religious hypocrisy .
In France, he behaves like a vicious and brutal conqueror, determined:
to destroy all that he cannot enslave.
There is, of course, a very definite political context to Hazlitt's remarks. At the time of their writing Wellington had led an army into France to restore to the throne the "fat pig" descendant of the Capet kings whom Henry had sought to oppose and Hazlitt (and most of his friends) had opposed the war.

But whatever the political context the moral indictment of Henry is surely fair. On the other hand I have perhaps only once out of ten seen a production in which Henry failed to incorporate us, be we ne'er so vile, into his band of brothers and have us cheering at the end. Ten thousand French dead? Can't be bad! Perhaps it is the difference between page and stage? And/or that our age, contrary to its self image and after the century of total war, is nationalist to its bootstraps and incorporated by its governments to a degree which Hazlitt and his friends could barely understand. Thus we forgive Henry V his little moral foibles as we forgive Churchill for Gallipoli and Dresden and elect him "man of the century".

The Taming of the Shrew presents the opposite case. We have difficulty with it. A feisty and rather difficult woman is bullied and subdued to the point that, rather like someone who has been successfully "re-educated" she says:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee
To Hazlitt this is the only one of the plays which is "downright moral". Petruchio is a character
which most husbands ought to study.
Again, the context must be mentioned: Hazlitt's relationships with wives, mistresses and inamoratae seem to have been particularly fraught. And his account of the play is not a simplistic patriarchal manifesto, but closer to my own, which I would claim was both subtle and utilitarian.

In my view Taming is a wonderful love story about two interesting misfits whose only chance of happiness - and it is a chance of great happiness - is with each other. That some pretty weird stuff has to go on before they can get it together . . . . . well, it was ever thus. Kate's subservience is not that of a broken woman, but of an intelligent person who recognises that certain particular social arrangements, which go contrary to instinct, are necessary if a good life is to be had. But I rest with my comparison: Hazlitt had great difficulty with Henry and very little with Petruchio, whereas we invert this.

For all the interest of his subject matter, I don't think that Hazlitt is a great essayist in the way that David Hume and George Orwell are. He muses, he indulges, he quotes far too much. A typical taste of his style as what I regard at its worst is his description of Juliet:

What was to hinder the thrilling tide of pleasure, which had just gushed from her heart, from flowing on without stint or measure, but experience which she was yet without? What was to abate the transport of the first sweet sense of pleasure, which her heart and her senses had just tasted, but indifference which she was yet a stranger to? What was there to check the ardour of hope, of faith, of constancy just rising in her breast, but disappointment which she had not yet felt?
I have no quarrel with the content of this passage, but even if you like rhetorical questions this would surely read better with half as many words? With Hume and Orwell there is always that focus and clarity which comes with firmness of purpose. With Hazlitt we have musing and self-indulgence. He is more like the kind of early twentieth century essayists - A. G. Gardiner or Robert Lynd, for example - who made their living filling what was then vast space in newspapers than he is like Orwell. And where he makes me laugh I'm not sure that he wants to. An example would be his nicely prim opening to his account of Henry VI:
During the time of the civil wars of York and Lancaster, England was a perfect bear-garden and Shakespeare has given us a very lively picture of the scene.
Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.


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