Category Archives: Romanticism

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.

Marian Hobson-Jeanneret and My Thesis

The first page of the book in question.
The first page of the book in question.

Following on from my post on Anne Barton (née Righter), this post is dedicated to Marian Hobson-Jeanneret (née Hobson), and, more particularly, her book The Object of Art: The Theory of Illusion in Eighteenth-Century France, published in 1982. Like Barton’s Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play, this book grew out of Hobson-Jeanneret’s thesis, so I’ll also be trying to work out, as I write, what I can learn from it for my thesis. For the most part, these will be different conclusions from those drawn the last time I did this, as this book is – for want of a better word – much more ‘theoretical’ than Barton’s.

The book’s aim is a large one: to trace the development of theories of illusion in eighteenth-century France across four major domains, the novel, the theatre, poetry and music. Needless to say, the breadth of knowledge demonstrated by such a book is breathtaking: the book’s bibliography exceeds thirty pages of very small print, and the index contains pretty much anyone you could think of as relevant to this topic. At the same time as being wide-ranging, however, Hobson-Jeanneret is also focussed on the topic of illusion, and manages, by the end of the text, to give a convincing account of how this concept evolved, just as Barton, by focussing on ‘the idea of the play’ is at once wide-ranging and specifically deep.

The introduction to The Object of Art contains a table, laying out some of the conceptual framework Hobson-Jeanneret has created for the discussion of illusion. I’ll reproduce it here:

S1: simulation
making itself like something which is not there
A1: seeming
the work seems (to be) (like) – it is not really
Contrary of Adequatio
S2: dissimulation
hides itself by some diversionary behaviour
Contrary of Aletheia
A2: appearing
shows itself, and points to something beyond

This framework, elaborated with the help of Gombrich, Hamon, Derrida and Plato, demands study. I can only get a grip on it by setting one side against the other: S1 vs A1 shows the importance of “it is not really”, and S2 vs A2 the importance of a direct relation to aletheia. The important S1 vs A2 (adequatio vs aletheia) distinction is explained by Hobson-Jeanneret as follows: “our attention is relayed by the appearance towards what is pointed at” in aletheia, while “adequatio, on the contrary, seeks a replica, a simulation, it excludes what is not truth, it presents the alternatives”. Such distinctions, and other new concepts introduced here (like papillotage), become clearer as the book dives into the worlds of writing around novels, plays, music and poetry, but this way of beginning a book is, I find, quite remarkable. It asks a lot of the reader, but does provide the tools the reader will learn to use better as they go on with the text. On top of this, such an interpretative grid, established before really entering into the eighteenth-century material, claims the potential for being extracted and used in other debates over ‘illusion’. Ultimately, therefore, as well as having a broad corpus of texts, Hobson-Jeanneret’s tight focus on illusion is, from the outset, itself aiming at broader applications.

With regard to my own work, I don’t know whether such a thing would be possible. At the moment, I don’t really have a single concept open to such anatomisation as Hobson-Jeanneret performs. I suppose I could obtain one by taking the concept of ‘performance’ and then breaking down the various ways of understanding it in the period, ranging from the ‘execution’ of a task to the mere appearance of doing something (doing it / feeling as though you’re doing it // not doing it / not feeling it). I suspect that if I took this road, the concept of ‘performance’ would become the limiting factor, the tight focus of my thesis, and so replace Shakespeare’s reception. Studying the concept of ‘performance’ in the eighteenth-century reception of Shakespeare would only provide me with a body of texts both too small and too unrepresentative to work with.

I’ve just been using The Object of Art to help me prepare my paper for Yale. Upon returning to the book, I noticed a few other things about the way it is written that might come in handy for my own work. The first of these is the density of Hobson-Jeanneret’s text, which is not so much the result of her style, but rather the sheer inter-connectedness of her way of writing. Individual points are hard to extract as each point grows out of another. This means that she is very hard to argue against, as each point justifies and is justified by another, with the whole ensemble serving as the foundation for her choice of subject. If I can get anywhere near such interrelation with my own writing, I will be very happy indeed. To be more precise, though, what is specifically striking is not so much the creation of a network, with lots of cross-references (although this is also present), but rather the linear way each point leads to the next, and this new topic then drives us forward into another. To be able to do this demands more than a grasp of a wide range of material, but a powerful logical approach to them as well.

My second main observation, and the last I will detail in this post, is Hobson-Jeanneret’s flair for neat and memorable expression. The chapter on plays (in the section on illusion and the theatre) concludes with a memorable use of the word ‘ogle’ in the summary of how perceptions of what plays should be evolved (from aletheia to adequatio, as defined above):

Conventional tragedy refers away from what it is: it ogles a meaning which is not within it; like certain scurrilous novels it is often à clé; it clearly accepts theatrical convention and sharpens it to an extreme of artificiality; its defenders use the theory of voluntary illusion. The reform of drama, on the contrary, tries to make meaning and play coincide: signs are to be eliminated in favour of the thing signified.

Another example, and one I’m currently quoting in a draft of the NEASECS 2013 paper, is Hobson-Jeanneret’s description of Garrick’s role in Diderot’s thought about the theatre:

Just as Chardin’s [i.e. a painter’s] work and talk may have forced Diderot to recognise the role of technique in creation, so it is round the figure of Garrick that the recognition that the art object is imaginary crystallises

Overall then, whether it encourages me to think of my research in more abstract terms, or provides an example of powerful and memorable argumentation, The Object of Art has been pretty useful for my thesis. This is, of course, without even really mentioning the many detailed and clear observations it makes on eighteenth-century material that have been extremely useful for my general understanding of this area. I suspect that I may have portrayed Hobson-Jeanneret as too theoretical here, and so it’s important to note in this final sentence that, like all good concept-heavy approaches, this one also has deep textual roots.

A School for Hazlitt

I am not a Hazlitt specialist, but I do enjoy reading and studying his writing a great deal. So I spent Saturday 14th September at UCL listening to a series of lectures on ‘Hazlitt and the Theatre’. They were all good, and, as a consequence, there is no way I could summarise them all here. I’ll settle for noting that I learnt from Claire Sheridan some of Hazlitt’s techniques for criticising utilitarianism; from John Stokes, the correspondences between Hazlitt and Oscar Wilde; from Marcus Risdell, so much about ‘theatrical performance portraiture’; and from Peter Thompson, the curiously parallel lives of Hazlitt and the actor who so often inspired him, Edmund Kean: ‘Aut Caesar aut nihil’ as they both said, for example. I’ll now give the rest of this report to Tom Lockwood’s talk on reading and performance in Hazlitt’s lectures, which was the first of the day, and, as luck would have it, relevant to the work I’m currently doing for NEASECS 2013.

William Hazlitt, Self Portrait, c. 1802

The central point of the talk was that Hazlitt’s last lecture series ‘On the Dramatic
Literature of the Age of Elizabeth’ is remarkable for taking the relationship of page to stage as one of its topics and so containing no small element of self-scepticism. Because of this, the lines between reading and performance blur: how does Hazlitt read/perform his long quotations from Elizabethan drama? Does he sing the songs his lecture cites? We will never know, but what is clear is that so many of the comments he makes about the plays and their writers prompt reflections on the lecturer as well. The clearest example of this was the juxtaposition of the following two passages.

First, from an analysis of Webster:

The author’s power is in the subject, not over it; or he is in possession of excellent materials, which he husbands very ill.

Then from Hazlitt’s own exhausted conclusion to the lectures:

I have done: and if I have done no better, the fault has been in me, not in the subject.

Both quotations show, of course, the same ideas: a writer possessed of great material, but unable to make the most of it. Lockwood remarked that the year Hazlitt gave these lectures (1820) was also the last year Coleridge lectured, making it seem as if an era of criticism was ending. Looking back over the handout from the event, it certainly seems that way, so many of the passages quoted sound tired and drained: “I have half trifled with this subject”, “the great characteristic of the elder dramatic writers is, that there is nothing theatrical about them”.

That last citation brings me to the apsect of this talk, more than the others, that caught my attention: the overview Lockwood gave of Hazlitt (and Lamb’s) antitheatricality. Lamb is important here as he lent Hazlitt most of the materials for these lectures, not to mention corresponding about and talking through them with his friend. Perhaps as a result of the increasingly melodramatic acting style of the early nineteenth century, perhaps for other reasons, both Hazlitt and Lamb argue that many of our great plays are best appreciated as we read them and not as we see them acted. Another quotation is in order here, this time from Lamb, on King Lear

So to see Lear acted, – to see an old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick, turned out of doors by his daughters in a rainy night, has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting. We want to take him into shelter and relieve him. That is all the feeling which the acting of Lear ever produced in me. But the Lear of Shakespeare cannot be acted.

The master-stroke of Lockwood’s talk was to connect this hostility to the stage, the uncomfortable focus on the ‘walking stick’ and the worry about the actor, with the self-critical atmosphere of Hazlitt’s own lectures, as they blurred the distinction between reading and performing. A description of the lectures survives, for example, which has a similar balance of emotions to Lamb’s writing about Lear, the same nagging attention to the material. With it, I’ll end this report, conscious that I, like W.H. have perhaps been leaning too heavily on citations in this post:

He was not so nervous as he had been on the two prior occasions; but a person who was present tells me that he hitched up his knee-breeches continually in a very distressing manner, for they kept slipping over his hips through the want of braces, and disclosing bits of shirt.

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.