Category Archives: Shakespeare

A Thesis Abstracted

I found writing up my thesis to be an exciting time. I have always enjoyed writing (hence this blog), but the assembly of so many words, ideas, arguments, was something new to me. For various reasons (publication, the fact I’m writing this before my viva, copyright), I cannot publish the thesis online here. I can, however, offer you my abstract, the document which attempts the probably impossible task of distilling three hundred pages and years of reflection into a mere four hundred words.


This thesis draws the line of a rise and a fall, an ironic pattern whereby the English stage of the long eighteenth century, in its relation to Shakespeare in particular, first acquired powerful influence, and then, through the very effects of that power, lost it. It also shows what contemporary literary criticism might learn from the activities that constitute this arc of evolution.

My first chapter interrogates the relationship between text and performance in vernacular writings about acting and editing from the death of Betterton in 1709 to the rise of Garrick in the middle decades of the century. From the status of a distinct tradition, performance comes to rely on text as a basis for the intimate, personal engagement with Shakespeare believed necessary to the work of the sentimental actor. Such a reliance grants the performer new potential as a literary critic, but also prepares a fall. The performer becomes another kind of reader, and so is open to accusations of reading badly.

My second chapter analyses the evolving definition of Shakespeare as a dramatic author from Samuel Johnson onwards. An untheatrical definition of the dramatic (Johnson’s) is answered by one which recognises the power and vitality of the stage, especially in its representation of sympathetic character (Montagu and Kenrick). Yet that very recognition leads to a set of altered critical priorities in which the theatre is, once more, relegated (Morgann and Richardson).

My third and fourth chapters consider the practices and critical implications of theatrical performance of Shakespeare during Garrick’s career. I focus on the acting of emotion, the portrayal of what Aaron Hill called ‘the very Instant of the changing Passion’, and show that performance of this time, attentive to the striking moment and the transitions that power it, required from the actor both attention to the text and preternatural control over his own emotions. In return, it allowed Garrick and others to claim a special affinity with Shakespeare and to capture the public’s attention, both in the theatre and outside it. Yet this situation, that of ‘twin stars’, does not last. French and German responses to English acting, the concern of my last chapter, show its decline particularly well. They also, however, show the power that existed in such a union between page and stage, and equal weight is given in both my third and my fourth chapter to how the theatrical-literary insights of eighteenth-century critical culture might also illuminate modern approaches.

A wave o’th’sea

My posts have been few and far between of late, as I am nearing the end of my thesis, and pouring my energies into making three years of thinking and reading presentable. I couldn’t, however, resist a little post about these lines from The Winter’s Tale. Florizel is watching Perdita.

FLORIZEL When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’th’sea, that you might do
Nothing but that, and own no other function.

These lines are well known, and well loved, not least by me. In one of the little moments of serendipity which sometimes occur when reviewing and rewriting,  I’ve also found a way to make them into a kind of emblem of my doctoral research. Throughout the thesis, I’ve tried to characterise what changes in the way people understood Shakespeare between the time of Garrick and that of the Romantics. Two uses of the phrase “wave o’th’sea” now help me do this.

First, Hogarth’s. In his Analysis of Beauty, Hogarth uses these lines from The Winter’s Tale to show that Shakespeare, many years before this painter, had also observed how “the beauty of dancing” resided in its “serpentine lines”. In other words, Shakespeare – although he never used the term – understood Hogarth’s concepts of the line of beauty and the line of grace, and so writes elsewhere of “bends adornings” and the fascinating pleasure of “infinite variety” that can be found in the physical spectacle of the dance hall or the professional stage.

Against Hogarth’s use of a “wave o’th’sea” we may set Hazlitt’s, who weaves the phrase into one of his most famous comments on Hamlet.

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 unavoidably fails in this character from a want of ease and variety. The character of Hamlet is made up of undulating lines; it has the yielding flexibility of ‘a wave o’th’sea’.

The contrast with Hogarth is striking. Whereas the eighteenth-century writer finds in Shakespeare’s Florizel words that characterise the beauty of physical presence, of performance, Hazlitt finds an expression of the inscrutability of Hamlet’s character. A “wave o’th’sea” denotes variation and fascination in both cases, but, in the latter, is attached to character, to the inward world, and not, crucially, to the stage.

From the eighteenth to the nineteenth century therefore, the line of Shakespearean beauty changes its location and its nature. It moves inward and becomes a matter for the mind.

An Article Comes Forth

So, back in the mists of time, back before this blog and even back before the start of this thesis, I decided to read some writing by Madame de Staël. Everyone should do this.

In my case, I read her Corinne, ou l’Italie, her De la littérature and her De lAllemagne. My interest in Shakespeare was already well developed by this time (the bard and I go much further back than the mists of time), and I found much in these texts that caught my interest. Once I was back in Cambridge, and not too deep in my doctoral research, I devoted some time in September 2012 to writing up my thoughts on Staël’s relation to Shakespeare, especially with regard to Corinne. Continue reading An Article Comes Forth