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.

The Canons of Criticism

I’ve just finished yet another book in the series Eighteenth-century Shakespeare, this time called The Canons of Criticism, by Thomas Edwards, first published in 1748, and reissued six times thereafter, finally stopping in 1765. The book is a critique of Bishop Warburton’s 1747 edition of Shakespeare’s works. It functions by fulfilling Warburton’s over-ambitious promise of a “supplement” (including “canons of criticism” and “glossary”) to his edition for him, albeit extremely critically. The first “Canon”, which Edwards claims to have kindly extracted from Warburton’s editing style, provides sufficient example of his intent:

A Professed Critic has a right to declare, that his Author wrote whatever he thinks he should have written; with as much positiveness as if he had been at his Elbow.

Unsurprisingly, Edwards was repeatedly denounced by Warburton, but still continued needling the Bishop, hence the seven editions from 1748 to 1765. In many ways, this book offers a fairly typical example of the pamphlets (and books) published as part of the long wrangle over editing Shakespeare. As I read it, though, I was interested in how much a text so deeply embroiled in debates of punctuation and glossing looked out to other spheres in which Shakespeare was active, such as references to French learning or invocations of how Shakespeare in performance..

The short answer is: not much. But then, I wasn’t expecting there to be, given that Edwards is so focussed on demolishing Warburton’s editing. Rather, what little I did find on the edges of the work was of some interest to me, and, as far as I know, unremarked by others.

First up, references to France. There are two things I noticed here. First, that any reference by Edwards to the world beyond the shores of Britain occurs only when Warburton instigates it: thus French neoclassical authorities like Bossu, Rapin or Dacier only crop up when the Bishop has (in the judgment of this text) misapplied them. Second, that by far the most frequent subject of references to France is the critique of Warburton’s attempt to insert French words into cruces of Shakespeare’s text. Here’s one neat example:

Examp. IV. Vol. 4. P. 97. I HENRY IV.
“No more the thirsty entrance of this soil
Shall damp her lips with her own childrens blood.”
“Shall damp her lips] This nonsense should be read, shall trempe [from French, “tremper”, to soak], i.e. moisten; and refers to thirsty in the preceding line.” WARB.
Why must this be nonsense? And why must Shakespear thus continually be made to use improper French words, against the authority of the copies, instead of proper English? […]

There’s a tasty mix of patriotism (“proper English”) and editorial method (“authority of the copies”) here, but my problem is that these attacks on Walpole are not confined to his use of French: Italian, Latin, and Greek references all come under fire. This leads to a larger question about whether my thesis is solid enough if I focus just on French influences and appearances, since in cases such as these, all I end up doing is dismantling a jingoistic view of Shakesepeare in the period for a marginally less myopic binational version of events.

Bishop Warburton
William Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester. I couldn’t find a picture of Edwards.

I’ll file that doubt for now.

The second marginal aspect of this text that caught my eye was references to the stage. These can be hard to identify: when Edwards talks about the effect of a line “on the hearers”, he is manifestly more interested in Shakespeare the poet than Shakespeare the dramatist, for example. Indeed, the frequent appeals to “a reader of common sense and common attention” make it clear why the stage does not often appear.

Nevertheless, there are a few useful tidbits. First is the common anitpathy of the textual critic to the actor. Edwards quotes Pope for the idea that the corruption of the text is the fault of the Jacobean actors’ sloppy habits, and then, in a sonnet at the end of the book, reiterates the point with talk of “the rubbish cast on thy fair page / By Players or ignorant or forgetive”. Yet for all this antipathy, Edwards is not above castigating Warburton for misdescribing passages as “interpolations of the players”, and, on one occasion, wryly remarks that such categorisation is all too easy, and leads to poor editing.

One final point about the theatre in this volume. After chipping away at Warburton for two hundred or so pages, Edwards copies in a series of remarks from a “Mr [Richard] Roderick”, included for their “acute yet sober criticisms of Shakespeare’s text”. As well as much on textual matters, Roderick also turns to performance when trying to explain all the shifts of emotion in Lear, observing that “the Looks of the Actor would convey the sentiment more effectually, than any explanation can do”. Given that Garrick was starring as Lear at this time, I suppose though, that it is not too surprising that the path from textual criticism to reflections on the actor should run through the stormy heath.

That said, the existence of such a path at all is important, and makes for an interesting, if unconsidered trifle to snap up.

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.

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