Lead Weights on Rubber Sheets

A page of Thomas More written by Hand D, supposedly Shakespeare.

I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve written a summary of my PhD. When I created this blog, I had five chapters (on editors, theorists, actors, illusionists, and ambassadors), and instituted blog post categories accordingly: the way they have fallen into disuse is but one symptom of the gradual evolution of this project.

The thing is, every new chapter draft I write, like a lead weight on a rubber sheet, changes the contours of everything around it. What follows at the end of this post is my current thinking, based on the current form of the thesis, drafted as three, twenty-thousand-word chapters.

As ever, it will be fun to look back on the text given here come submission in July and see how much it’s changed. I guess I can’t be alone in this experience, and part of me would love to know what the discarded forms of some of my favourite academic books looked like, and whether, of course, the author was happy with the printed snapshot that was ultimately published.

The Instant Will: Sentimental Shakespeare

In the eighteenth century, William Shakespeare became the pre-eminent figure of British literature. The many social, cultural and economics reasons for this are now well understood. What remains to be examined, however, are the critical origins and consequences of this sea-change. To do this, it is necessary to place Shakespeare’s oeuvre at the centre of the enquiry. Without his plays especially, there would be no Shakespeare, no reference point for moralists, politicians, philosophers, poets and playwrights, to name a few. Yet a focus on the oeuvre of a dramatist is already problematic, since that oeuvre must be seen as at least double: one finds Shakespeare’s works in the eighteenth-century, as now, in bookshops, and one finds them also, as now, on the stage. An edition of a play, as much as a performance of it, is an instantiation of Shakespeare’s own creation. These two forms, printed and performed, can claim to be the most tangible manifestations of this artist’s work, presences around which a host of lesser forms – from paintings to prologues, from anecdotes to articles – gather with increasing frequency.

Shakespeare exists on the page and on the stage. In the eighteenth-century, and particularly during the career of David Garrick, as Vanessa Cunningham has argued, these two media were closer than ever. Yet to insist on the proximity of stage and page is to mute the extent to which both of these spheres underwent massive re-evaluation in the course of this period. A circle of mutual evolution formed and must be accounted for: Shakespeare’s increasing presence triggered changes in the critical understanding of page and stage, while at the same time such revolutions themselves led to new approaches to Shakespeare’s work. Marcus Walsh places Shakespeare alongside John Milton at the birth of English vernacular literary editing, and, from Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition of the plays to Edmond Malone’s complete works of 1790, Shakespeare’s printed form was at the heart of textual innovation. On the stage, the eighteenth century sees the rise of repertory theatre, and, especially following the 1737 Licensing Act, a subset of Shakespeare’s plays make up an increasing part of that repertory. A repertory theatre encouraged comparison and criticism, and so gave birth to both new theories of acting and new stars. Theorists and practitioners connected themselves to the omnipresent Shakespeare: a performer like Garrick could bring the playwright back to life, while a writers like Aaron Hill, Chalres Churchill, James Boswell or Robert Lloyd could, from the words of the bard, extrapolate advice for those who wished to judge or become actors.

Poet and actor, thus with blended Skill
Mould all our Passions to their instant Will.

These lines, from Robert Lloyd’s The Actor (1760) articulate the central theme of my enquiry. In the three sections that follow I examine the rise of Shakespeare in terms of the eighteenth-century critical understanding of blended page and stage. In so doing, a coherent approach to Shakespeare, one based on emotion, emerges. In my conclusion, I suggest how this approach evolved into that of the Romantic period, an approach which still dominates general attitudes to Shakespeare today. By showing what we inherit, as well as what we do not, from the eighteenth century, it is possible to suggest alternative foundations for the critical analysis of Shakespeare and so challenge those currently dominant.

In my first section, I explore the connection between page and stage, showing the means by which, despite what may seem obvious distinctions between the two media, eighteenth-century criticism emphasised their similarity or even their identity. Emotion, in the work of each critic studied here plays a central role: a play read, as Johnson wrote, affects the mind like a play acted.

In my second section, I turn to the topic of how emotion is performed and recorded in the eighteenth century. In acting manuals, reviews, and Francis Gentleman’s performance edition, a great emphasis is placed on the actor’s ability to use “transition”. This term, drawn from the science of the time, describes the ability to move from the portrayal of one emotion to another. “Transition”, by drawing our attention to the passions with which each scene and play is built, thus offers a distinct way of analysing Shakespeare’s composition: a critical method exclusive to neither page nor stage, practice or theory, but partaking of all.

My third section focusses on the striking moment, a general term used to indicate the particular shape given to Shakespeare’s work in this period, organised around particular instants, variously named as beauties, points, tableaux. Transition feeds these striking moments, but their real interest here is for their ability to exceed the union of page and stage, and reproduce themselves in letters, anecdotes, engravings, and, most importantly, outside the borders of Britain. By concentrating on French and German responses to Shakespeare’s works, both read and staged, the same unifying focus on emotion already identified is brought into greater clarity through recognition of its mystery, its temporality and its depth.

The material covered in these three sections runs through three languages and from the mid-eighteenth century to the start of the nineteenth. It thus includes the years of Garrick’s prime, as well as some early romantic responses to Shakespeare. The entanglement of page and stage that is so important to the understanding of Shakespeare in this period, however, begins far earlier. It is the task of the introduction to present the editorial and performance traditions around this playwright during the first fifty years of the eighteenth century, showing, as it does, the considerable overlaps between them. Eary vernacular editors could not ignore the stage’s part in Shakespeare, nor could early theorists of performance neglect an actor’s literary credentials.

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