Category Archives: Feeling

A Brief Response to A General View of the Stage

Thomas Wilkes’s A General View of the Stage (1759) is an enormous and rich mine of information about the eighteenth-century stage. An attempt at raising the profile of the stage, defending it from its many detractors is both the book’s starting point and its over-arching theme. What I hope to do here is sketch out a few of the more curious places that Wilkes’s defence of the theatre leads him to, not least since many of them have wider implications for literary criticism of the period.

Garrick and Mrs Pritchard performing Macbeth, by Zoffany (1768). Note Garrick’s height.

Wilkes begins his defence with a commonplace, that the theatre offers a moral education to those who watch a play.

the bard and the player happily hold up the mirror to nature, in which each man may behold his own portrait at length; the shades of vice, and lights of virtue being so happily blended as to force the human heart to acknowledge the likeness, and the audience are obliged from their own feeling to applaud.

What caught my eye here was the use of Hamlet’s advice to the players from 3.2 as a means of defending the utility of the theatre. It can be tempting to read “mirror” here as something purely aesthetic, a way of expressing precise mimesis, but – as Wilkes and Hamlet use the word – “mirror” can also carry moral import since its function is all about revealing oneself to oneself. Hence such popular Tudor titles as The Mirror for Magistrates. Once Wilkes has made this point about the stage as educational mirror, he returns to this argument throughout, analysing, for example, Lady Macbeth as Shakespeare’s way of “correcting” minds in which one would find “the seeds of a passion so very hateful”.

As well as the reference to Hamlet, this quote about mirrors also does something else quite interesting: it makes no distinction between “bard” and “player”, both of whom “happily hold up the mirror to nature”. This is something of a running theme in Wilkes’s text, perhaps because he wishes to elevate the stage by shackling the actor to the more respectable figure of the successful author. Sometimes the relationship between writer and player is collaborative, where, for example, “The poet presents a correct drawing; the actor enlivens with colouring and finishes the piece.” Other times, the actor seems to have the edge, not least because there were no contemporary authors to rival dramatists of the past.

So that were not Shakespeare, Rowe and Otway sometimes to step forth with uncontroulable dignity, we should be apt to think the end of tragedy no longer subsisted in Britain; not all the varieties of the Roman Father could be able to preserve it a footing on the Stage, but for the exquisite feeling of a Garrick, which we once remember to have been finely supported by the tenderness of a Cibber, the noble deportment of a Barry […]

This passage argues that great actors have the ability to maintain the moral benefit of tragedy when they take up parts in the revivals of the great works of Shakespeare, Rowe and Otway. This point is made again later on, once more in the actor’s favour since the actor, more than the creator of immutable texts that is the author, is able to respond to contemporary conditions.

where the men dismiss shame, the women forget modesty, the Stage will first be touched with, and sink under the infection; the Music will be loose and enervate, the Theatre will be no more considered as the school of wisdom, but both tragic and comic energy dwindle into lightness and buffoonery. This period has Garrick, with giant-force, repelled.

Here Garrick is not just a reviver of past plays, but rather a bulwark against contemporary dangers of moral decline.

Having raised the profile of the actor to the skies, Wilkes then begins a second section on what a great actor requires. Of course, this part is also a continuation of his general theme, since the more an actor requires to succeed, the more such successful actors deserve a high rank in society. This logic is behind such passages on the actor’s skills:

[…] life and motion are derived from the actor: he unites all the beauties of the poet’s fancy, the Painter’s pencil, the Musician’s art; he graces them with elocution action, and a proper expression, as well as impressions of the various passions necessary to the character he assumes.

As well as such eulogies, two other passages mark out this section. One is Wilkes’s take on the perennial debate about what occurs when an actor acts. His description of the process sees the performer as someone who consciously renounces his own identity, and thus comes to act from feeling.

He must put on the character with the habit, and assume the air, look language, and action of the person he represents, till his imagination, quite absorpt in the extensive idea, influences his whole frame; is visible in every glance of the eye, every air of his countenance. Thus all his powers will sometimes swell with the most violent transports of rage, and again dissolve away by an insensible gradation into the most placid calm and serenity. This is not so much acting as being an original; and the Actor who has attained this has reached the summit of his art.

A little further on, Wilkes turns to Shakespeare, and argues that the playwright must have been an excellent actor since his writings show the “language of Nature” which all performers must be sensitive to. John Hill makes a similar defence in The Actor, a text whose influence is everywhere in this section.

As Shakespeare’s writings are the very language of Nature, it is probable, that, while he continued an Actor, he suited his voice and action to it; and as we know he did not care to have “a passion torn to tatters,” by this madness of gesture and voice, we may justly infer, that his judicious regulation of both was not relished by the vitiated taste of the audience of his days, and that he was censured as a bad Actor undeservedly.

After these opening sections on the value of the stage and the art of acting, Wilkes offers a historical account of the theatre before turning to a “critical examination of the merits and demerits of the principal performers in england and Ireland”. Here, once more, the actor’s status is elevated, with a truly remarkable piece of praise for Garrick towards the end:

We shall conclude the character of this Aesopian Roscius [i.e. good in tragedy and comedy] with observing, that he gives us not resemblances, but realities; that he does not exhibit, but create; in him we view as actions what we only admire in others as representations. There is in his performance true dignity of expression; his figures, where his subject gives him scope, are noble beyond imagination […]

To conclude this brief and partial (there are interesting points about theatrical illusion I can’t put in here) journey through A General View of the Stage, it’s worth just insisting on the general aim of establishing the cultural importance of the theatre. Following on from this, we see the intertwining of actors and authors, especially in the tropes of praise, and this mixing both offers new ways of thinking about actors (as creators, as educators) and writers (as performers, as weak in their immutability), including Shakespeare.

Reynolds vs Fielding (avec version française)

Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792)

Over the course of his tenure as the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Joshua Reynolds gave a series of Discourses, one a year, on the occasion of the annual prizegiving in December. These speeches were not easy to compose for a number of reasons: first, as delivered by the president of a relatively young institution, they tended to be seen as statements of policy; second, his audience would have consisted of artists ranging from the level of neophytes right up to established professionals, and few topics would interest them all. On 11th December 1786 (Discourse XIII), however, Reynolds hit a particularly rich seam of material, with the proposition, ill-expressed, that “To enlarge the boundaries of the Art of Painting, as well as to fix its principles, it will be necessary, that, that art, and those principles, should be considered in their correspondence with the principles of the other arts, which, like this, address themselves primarily and principally to the imagination.”

There is not space to explore at length how Reynolds does this, ranging across poetry, drama, architecture and more; rather, the president’s comments on the theatre will be briefly laid out for analysis here. One  instructive parallel drawn, for example, between the stage and the canvas is that both have ‘high’ and ‘low’ modes, where the latter “follows nature” and the former “departs from it”. In the theatre, you thus have comedy which follows nature by depicting the foibles of everyday life, whilst tragedy departs from nature by being more stylised and excessive than quotidian existence in order to engage with deeper questions of human nature. After making this point, Reynolds then points out that a failure to realise this distinction between the imitations of high and low art is evident in a celebrated passage of Fielding’s Tom Jones (found here)

[…] our late, great actor, Garrick,has been as ignorantly praised by his friend Fielding; who doubtless imagined he had hit upon an ingenious device, by introducing in one of his novels, (otherwise a work of the highest merit) an ignorant man, mistaking Garrick’s representation of a scene in Hamlet, for reality. A very little reflection will convince us, that there is not one circumstance in the whole scene that is of the nature of deception. The merit and excellence of Shakespeare, and of Garrick, when they were engaged in such scenes, is of a different and much higher kind. But what adds to the falsity of this intended compliment, is that the best stage representation appears even more unnatural to a person of such a character, who is supposed never to have seen a play before, than it does to those who have had a habit of allowing for those necessary deviations from nature which art requires.

Reynolds attacks Fielding by showing that it is incorrect to think of acting in terms of ‘deception’. Instead, the real skill of such actors is not that they deceive but that, in high tragic drama at least, they depart from nature and still captivate the theatregoer. After all, it is imperative that, when one is performing, “every thing should be raised and enlarged beyond its natural state; that the full effect may come home to the spectator, which otherwise would be lost in the comparatively extensive space of the Theatre”. Fielding is wrong to show Partridge as the one tricked by Garrick, since Partridge’s ignorance of the stage would have made him supersensible to Garrick’s departures from absolute mimicry that the theatre and traditions of tragedy require. Instead, it is only the more educated members of the audience, those who “have had a habit of allowing for those necessary deviations” that would experience such emotional engagement. Counter-intuitively, only the most sophisticated are subject to delusion, an argument that both justifies the high-class credentials of some of Reynolds’ own fantastical paintings and suggests that the illusions of the actor are less morally-problematic than they might otherwise appear, since those most subject to them are of a class sufficient to look after themselves.

To return to the attack on Fielding, there is much to be said in defence of this section. One might point out, for instance, that the resemblance between the ignorant Partridge and the theatrical connoisseur may well have been intentional ironic social commentary and not a misunderstanding of the principle that “the truest poetry is the most feigning.” After all, Fielding himself, for all his fame as a novelist, began his literary career as the most successful playwright of the early eighteenth century.

Version française: Reynolds contre Fielding

Tout au long de sa présidence de la Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Joshua Reynolds prononça tous les ans un ‘Discours’ lors de la remise des prix en décembre. Ces discours étaient très difficiles à composer pour plusieurs raisons. D’abord, on avait tendance à considérer les propos tenus publiquement par le président d’une institution relativement jeune comme des déclarations de sa politique. Ensuite, son public était composé d’artistes de tous niveaux et il fallait trouver un sujet qui les intéresserait tous. Le 11 décembre 1786 (Discourse XIII), Reynolds trouva cependant un sujet particulièrement riche dans l’idée (mal exprimée) que “To enlarge the boundaries of the Art of Painting, as well as to fix its principles, it will be necessary, that, that art, and those principles, should be considered in their correspondence with the principles of the other arts, which, like this, address themselves primarily and principally to the imagination.”

Je n’ai pas la place ici d’explorer en détail comment Reynolds réalise cette ambition à travers la poésie, le drame, l’architecture et d’autres disciplines. A la place, je souhaite analyser brièvement les commentaires du président sur le théâtre. Il propose, par exemple; un parallèle instructif entre la scène et la toile, dans la mesure où toutes deux ont des genres hauts et bas, où le bas “follows nature” et le haut “departs from it”. Au théâtre, on a ainsi la comédie qui imite la nature en montrant les manies quotidiennes, tandis que la tragédie s’éloigne de la nature par son style moins naturel pour réfléchir à des questions plus profondes sur la nature humaine. Après avoir établi cela, Reynolds indique un passage de Tom Jones qui échoue à réaliser cette distinction entre style haut et style bas.

[…] our late, great actor, Garrick,has been as ignorantly praised by his friend Fielding; who doubtless imagined he had hit upon an ingenious device, by introducing in one of his novels, (otherwise a work of the highest merit) an ignorant man, mistaking Garrick’s representation of a scene in Hamlet, for reality. A very little reflection will convince us, that there is not one circumstance in the whole scene that is of the nature of deception. The merit and excellence of Shakespeare, and of Garrick, when they were engaged in such scenes, is of a different and much higher kind. But what adds to the falsity of this intended compliment, is that the best stage representation appears even more unnatural to a person of such a character, who is supposed never to have seen a play before, than it does to those who have had a habit of allowing for those necessary deviations from nature which art requires.

Reynolds critique Fielding en montrant qu’il est incorrect de penser le jeu théâtral en termes de ‘deception’ (tromperie). Au contraire, le talent de tels acteurs ne consiste pas dans la tromperie mais, du moins dans la grande tragédie, à s’éloigner de la nature tout en captivant le spectateur. Il est impératif, quand on joue, que “every thing should be raised and enlarged beyond its natural state; that the full effect may come home to the spectator, which otherwise would be lost in the comparatively extensive space of the Theatre”. Fielding a tort de montrer Partridge comme celui qui est trompé par Garrick, puisque l’ignorance de Partridge concernant le théâtre l’aurait rendu très sensible à la manière – requise par la tradition théâtrale – dont Garrick s’éloigne du simple mimétisme. Au lieu de cela, seuls les membres les plus éduqués du public, ceux qui “have had a habit of allowing for those necessary deviations”, se seraient autant investis émotionellement . De façon contre-intuitive, seuls les spectateurs les plus sophistiqués se trompent. Cet argument justifie l’élitisme des toiles non-naturalistes de Reynolds et suggère que les illusions produites par l’acteur sont moins gênantes sur le plan moral qu’elles pourraient le sembler, puisque ceux qui y sont le plus sujets sont suffisamment cultivés pour en avoir conscience.

Pour en revenir à l’attaque contre Fielding, il y aurait beaucoup à dire pour la défense de ce passage. On peut signaler, par exemple, que la ressemblance entre l’ignorant Partridge et le spectateur averti  pourrait bien avoir été intentionnellement ironique, et non pas l’effet d’une mauvaise compréhension du principe selon lequel “the truest poetry is the most feigning.” Après tout, Fielding lui-même aussi célèbre qu’il fût comme romancier, avait commencé sa carrière littéraire comme le dramaturge le plus apprécié  du début du dix-huitième siècle.

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.

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.