Thinking about William Richardson

William Richardson (1743-1814) was a professor at Glasgow University and published five books on Shakespeare, all with similar titles, and, behind the titles, a similar and unusual approach to the bard. Over the last few days, I have read the following:

  • A Philosophical Analysis and Illustration of Some of Shakespeare’s Remarkable Characters (1774).
  • Essays on Shakespeare’s Dramatic Characters of Richard the Third, King Lear, and Timon of Athens. To which are added, an Essay on the Faults of Shakespeare; and Additional Observations on the Character of Hamlet ( 1784).
  • Essays on Shakespeare’s Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff; and on his Imitation of Female Characters; Observations on the chief Objects of Criticism in the Works of Shakespeare (1784).
  • Essays on Shakespeare’s Dramatic Characters; with an Illustration of Shakespeare’s Representation of National Characters in that of Fluellen (1798).

The main thrust of Richardson’s work is best described in his Philosophical Analysis. Here, he points out that moral philosophers are at a disadvantage when set alongside natural philosophers: the latter can obtain specimens for study relatively easily, whereas those who study sentiments have great trouble creating the necessary conditions for useful research. What is needed is some means “during the continuance of a violent passion, to seize a faithful impression of its features, and an exact delineation of the images it creates in us”, for “such a valuable copy would guide the philosopher in tracing the perplexed and intricate mazes of metaphysical inquiry”, just as a specimen guides the natural scientist. In Richardson’s view, plays can be the moral philosopher’s specimen.

With this established, the Philosophical Analysis launches into a study of what we would now call the psychology of Shakespeare’s characters, explaining motivation with reference to general principles of human behaviour, and elaborating new principles from the observation of Shakespeare’s characters.

William Richardson, engraved by Ridley, date unknown.

The only critic I’ve found discussing this extraordinary approach to Shakespeare (using the playwright’s characters as an inexhaustible supply of lab rats) is Michèle Willems, although I admit that I have much more reading to do on this. Willems uses Richardson as illustration of how the critical tenets of neoclassicism in England broke down when faced with Shakespeare: at the beginning of the eighteenth century, it was normal enough to discuss Shakespeare’s imitation of nature, just as the great classical texts had discussed ‘mimesis’ in their turn; come Richardson’s era, however, and things have got out of hand. Richardson, for Willems, isn’t really claiming that Shakespeare copies nature, but rather that his copies are, in some respects, more useful that the natural object itself, since – unlike your real-life human subject – Shakespeare’s characters can be studied again and again in controlled conditions. On one hand, the superiority of Shakespeare’s craft claimed here breaks free of neoclassical stricture, while, on the other, the fact that new rules (and indeed, new science) can be drawn from the example of Falstaff, Hamlet, and the rest represents a methodology as old as Aristotle’s discussion of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.

Willems’ point is a very good one, and, having read this material, I agree with her. If I had to add something here, though, it would be a slight resistance to something implicit in her arguments. As seen by Willems, Richardson’s approach (and indeed Morgann’s analysis of Falstaff as well) detaches Shakespeare’s characters from their original context and brings them to the moral science laboratory. This decontextualisation risks, I think, being overstated, since – as I shall now show – Richardson does not completely forget that Shakespeare was a dramatist as well as an extraordinarily gifted painter of the human psyche.

First, one has only to look at Richardson’s titles and subheadings: he may announce a Philosophical Analysis of Shakespeare’s Characters in 1774, but every other work on Shakespeare he published refers to “dramatic characters”. A small point, but further supported by Richardson’s talk of “representation” of a character such as Falstaff as well as other turns of phrase more suited for the stage. Of course, he mentions the impact of a character on a “reader” as well, but this does not cancel out my larger argument that this critic still occasionally thinks of Shakespeare in the theatre.

Second, Richardson often praises Shakespeare’s skill at creating dramatic situations, and this seems to refute the idea that his psychological approach decontextualises Shakespeare’s characters. There are many examples of such praise, but a particularly clear one occurs in the discussion of Falstaff’s “dramatic character” during one of the tavern scenes of 2 Henry IV:

Then he [Falstaff] adds, after an emphatic pause, and no doubt with a pointed application in the manner: – “You confess then that you picked my pocket?” Prince Harry’s reply is very remarkable. It is not direct: it contains no longer any raillery or reproach; it is almost a shuffling answer, or with some conscious confusion […]

This description is alive to the possibilities of interpretation, the way the characters should speak and interact with each other. The mention of an ‘emphatic pause’ might even reflect on the signature (and much-mocked) speaking style of actors trained in the mould of Garrick and Macklin.

Last, but not least, there is the argument, found in all these texts, that Shakespeare’s understanding of human psychology, as well as providing the moral scientist with models, also makes his plays so very interesting to watch. Again, many examples are possible here, so I shall content myself with a brief selection by way of conclusion:

From A Philosophical Analysis‘s chapter on Shakespeare’s Female Characters:

Crowded theatres have applauded Imogen. There is a pleasing softness and delicacy in this agreeable character, that render it particularly interesting. Love is the ruling passion; but it is love ratified by wedlock, gentle, constant and refined.

From A Philosophical Analysis‘s chapter on Hamlet’s character:

The scene between the Queen and Hamlet has been highly celebrated, and cannot fail, even though less advantageously represented than by a Garrick and a Pritchard, to agitate every audience. The time, ‘the very witching time of night,’ and the state of Hamlet’s mind, when ‘he could drink hot blood and do such bitter business as the day would quake to look on,’ prepare us for this important conference.

From Essays on Shakespeare’s Dramatic Characters of Richard the Third, King Lear, and Timon of Athens:

Boldness, command of temper, a spirit of enterprise, united with intellectual endowments of discernment, penetration, dexterity, and address, give us pleasure. Yet these may be employed as instruments of cruelty and oppression, no less than of justice and humanity. When the representation is such, that the pleasure arising from these qualities is stronger than the painful aversion and abhorrence excited by concomitant vices, the general effect is agreeable.


One thought on “Thinking about William Richardson”

  1. Wonderful summary, thank you. The bit about being more helpful than the natural object itself is really great and seems to jive with Nuttal on the matter.

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