Voltaire and Falstaff

This post was written when my work was orientated towards the influence of French literary criticism on the eighteenth-century appreciation of Shakespeare, and is thus slightly out of sync with the rest of the material presented on this website. More details here.

Eduard von Grützner's 1921 painting of Falstaff
Eduard von Grützner’s 1921 painting of Falstaff
Voltaire, although I’m afraid I don’t know the artist

I admit that Voltaire and Falstaff make for an unlikely pairing: one is best remembered as a wizened philosopher and champion of the persecuted, the other as “plump Jack” and a persecutor of champions. Despite this, I came across a curious couple of passages in Maurice Morgann’s Essay on the Dramatic Character of Falstaff which bring the two into unexpected and fruitful harmony.

As one of the earliest ‘character studies’ of a literary text, Morgann’s 1777 work is full of oddities and unusual reflections, many of which inspired such later writers as Hazlitt in the nineteenth and A.C. Bradley in the twentieth century. His union of Voltaire and Falstaff, however, deserves to be pointed out, since it is a particularly odd mix of the conventional and the unusual.

First, the conventional. Early on, Morgann launches into a critique of Voltaire as part of a general defence of how Shakespeare’s works go against neoclassical doctrine. In a similar vein, Samuel Johnson speaks of how Voltaire’s mocking of Shakespearean irregularity represents the “petty cavils of petty minds”, whilst Elizabeth Montagu simply calls the Frenchman’s claims “misrepresentations”. Morgann’s phrases, although particularly dramatic, are very much part of this Arouet-bashing tradition:

When the hand of time shall have brushed off [Shakespeare’s] present Editors and Commentators, and when the very name of Voltaire, and even the memory of the language in which he has written, shall be no more, the Apalachian mountains, the banks of the Ohio, and the plains of Sciota, shall resound with the accents of this Barbarian.

Now, the unconventional. Having consigned Voltaire and the entire French language to the dustbin of history, Morgann nevertheless reaches for Voltaire’s Candide as a way of explaining something particularly tricky: the question of how we can enjoy and even sympathise with something that we should, if thinking rationally, abhor. This is the case, Morgann claims, with Falstaff, whom, extracted from the theatre and encountered in real life, would be quite horrible. Yet Falstaff, “plump Jack” charms audiences, just as Candide, with its rapes, murders and thefts, should appal us and yet entertains.

Setting Shakespeare’s creation and Voltaire’s alongside each other (and suspending his anti-Gallic leanings) allows Morgann to propose a clever distinction. He argues that we respond to fiction (be it staged or read, but that’s a different debate) both with “understanding” and with “mental impressions”: our understanding would detest Falstaff or the plot of Candide, but our “mental impressions” win us over. From this, the critic’s task is to study those minute details that help to influence our “mental impressions”, whether they be “the gay, easy and light tone” of Voltaire or the “double character” of Falstaff.

So there you have it: Voltaire and Falstaff, an unlikely conjoining that helps lay the foundations for the study of those tiny details that govern “mental impressions”, a labour modern-day undergraduates might call “practical criticism”.

Diderot and Shakespeare’s Performability

This is the text of a five-minute presentation I recently gave as a training exercise at Cambridge. Since it was for a non-specialist audience, and had to be kept both short and clear, I thought it would make a great blog post. Enjoy.


Two observations. The performances of the eighteenth-century actor David Garrick were praised as a “commentary” on Shakespeare’s playtext; however, thirty years after Garrick’s retirement, romantic critics such as Hazlitt and Lamb wrote that Shakespeare’s works were “impossible to perform”.

Today, I’m going to offer an explanation for this reversal, which might also further our understanding about the relative strength of categories like ‘drama’ and ‘poetry’ at the end of the eighteenth century.

This work is drawn from one chapter of my PhD. In this short version, I will begin with a sketch of eighteenth-century writing about Shakespeare in performance, then show how the ideas Denis Diderot and James Boswell had about acting offer a connection to romantic claims about Shakespeare’s ‘unperformability’, concluding that Hazlitt and Lamb’s claims actually have clear roots in the French and English Enlightenment thought they appear to repudiate.

1. Shakespeare in and of the theatre

Shakespeare was frequently performed on the stages of eighteenth-century London. Because of this, and because of his availability in print, works that discuss the theatre from this period frequently use Shakespeare’s works and hypotheses about the writer himself to support their arguments. However, in so doing, they also paint a specific portrait of Shakespeare, one inextricable from the workings of the theatre. They do this in the following ways:

  •  By using quotations from Shakespeare to illustrate points of acting technique. An actor must “stiffen the sinews” to show anger (just as Shakespeare wrote in Henry V); or show the dignity that Shakespeare has Hamlet find in a portrait of his dead father.
  •  By imagining Shakespeare’s own involvement with the theatre, either as an actor, playing the ghost of Old Hamlet, or as a master of theatrical effect, as shown by the stage directions to The Tempest.
  •  By reproducing or subverting the link Garrick claimed between himself and Shakespeare. This is done positively, for example, in paintings showing Garrick wrapping a brotherly arm around a statue of Shakespeare; on the other hand, one also finds imaginative accounts of Garrick in the underworld, listening to Shakespeare condemn his acting skills.

Overall, through quotation, re-imagination and the influence of Garrick … the understanding of Shakespeare as an author, as well as the study of his works, appears deeply connected to the theatre in the eighteenth century.

2. New theories of acting

Denis Diderot (1713-1784)

Because of the connection between Shakespeare and the stage, it is reasonable to presume that new ways of thinking about acting might have a bearing on new ways of thinking about Shakespeare. The largest debate about performance in this period involved the question of whether actors feel what they are acting whilst they are acting it: does Garrick, for example, feel sadness when he plays a grieving King Lear? For the most part, the answer to this is yes; moreover, Shakespeare is himself imagined as having the same delicacy of feeling, something which only becomes fully apparent in performance of his works. In the face of this orthodoxy, two writers, James Boswell in England and Denis Diderot in France, argue that the actor takes some distance from his emotions when he is performing. This, I believe, impacts ways of thinking about Shakespeare.

  • Boswell, in 1770, argued that the actor has ‘two chambers’ in his head, one which is filled with all the emotion of the role, and one ‘inner chamber’ which remains cold and calculating, directing the performer’s movements according to a prepared script.
  • Diderot, at around the same time, argued that the actor feels nothing when acting but rather, prior to performance, has imagined the entirety of their role. When acting, the performer then attempts to correspond to the ideal image of the part that they have in their head.
James Boswell (1740-1795)
James Boswell (1740-1795)

What is striking about both these theories is that they displace the work of the performer from the stage to the period of preparation before going in front of an audience. This is crucial, because it means that ideas originally articulated with relation to what happens on stage can now be applied in all sorts of different arenas: to barristers (for Boswell), to prostitutes (for Diderot), and, more generally, to authors such as Shakespeare, who can have a dramatic genius but be separate from the stage. Shakespeare can be ‘unperformable’ and yet retain something of the actor, because, in the eyes of Diderot and Boswell, the real work of the actor occurs prior to the performance.


We have now seen how eighteenth-century claims about the importance of the theatre to understanding Shakespeare give rise to Lamb and Hazlitt’s claims that Shakespeare’s works were “impossible to perform”. This shift is facilitated by a new wave of acting theory that detaches the actor’s work from the stage, instead placing the emphasis on the actor’s preparation, preparation which can serve as a model for poetic creation.

A Muse of Fire

How international is a national poet?
This blog is part of a doctoral investigation into the role played by French thought in the criticism and canonisation of Shakespeare in eighteenth-century Britain. Typically seen as a ‘national poet’, I believe that Shakespeare, from the outset, was read and interpreted in an cross-cultural and not an insular envronment. To test my ideas, I will be focussing both on established pieces of Shakespeareana from the period, such as Johnson’s Preface and Garrick’s Jubilee, and ranging out into lesser-studied texts such as acting manuals with their conflation of French acting theory and Shakespearean example. Given the international celebrity of some British actors of Shakespeare, the techniques and technicalities of performance (and their ability to cross borders) will be a particularly central concern of this work. Hence the title of this blog, the first lines of the Chorus’s wish that the audience imagine the fields of France on the British stage. Like them, I too may need a muse of fire to get through this PhD.