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The Ghost behind the Masks

The Victorian Poets and Shakespeare

W. David Shaw

Publication Year: 2014

In The Ghost behind the Masks, W. David Shaw traces Shakespeare’s influence on nine Victorian poets: Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Christina Rossetti, Thomas Hardy, Matthew Arnold, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Algernon Swinburne, Arthur Hugh Clough, and George Meredith. Often, he writes, the transparency of Shakespeare's influence on Victorian poets and the degree of their engagement with Shakespeare exist in inverse ratio. Instead of imitating a play by Shakespeare or merely quoting his lines, a Victorian poet may embrace more elusive elements of rhetoric and style, adapting them to his or her own ends.

Shaw argues that the most Shakespearean attribute of the Victorian poets is not their addiction to any particular trope or figure of speech but their reticence, the classical restraint of their great monologues, and their sudden descent from grandeur to simplicity. He explores such topics as man-made law versus natural right, Stoic fatalism versus self-reliance, and the sanity of lunatics, lovers, and poets versus the madness of commonplace minds.

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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For their learning and sharp accuracy of judgment, I am indebted to the two scholars who read my manuscript for the University of Virginia Press. I am also grateful to the Press’s Humanities Editor, Cathie Brettschneider, for her generous counsel and support, and to Colleen Romick Clark for her careful...

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pp. 1-6

To think like Shakespeare and the great Victorians is not to know but to see wonder, mystery, and the unknown everywhere, especially at the heart of what we think we know. Swaying between opposing possibilities and wavering between worlds, Shakespeare and the Victorian...

Part I: Poetic Beginnings

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1. Word and Love Games

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pp. 9-19

In Love’s Labor’s Lost, Shakespeare shows what happens when the Princess of France and a bevy of her ladies visit the little academy of Navarre, a stronghold of young male courtiers and pedants resolved to woo their female guests with displays of extravagant erudition and wit. Th e young...

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2. The Trespass of Intimacy

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pp. 20-44

To Shakespeare Browning owes his very origins as a poet. He told J. S. Mill that a performance of Edmund Kean as Richard Crookback led him to write Pauline, his first attempt to realize a childish scheme “to act, as well to make verses, music, and God knows . . . what castles...

Part II. Hamlet's Afterlives

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3. Toils of Fate

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pp. 47-58

Great wits are sure to madness near allied,” claims Dryden in Absalom and Achitophel (line 163); and we may say the same of tragedy and comedy. Thin partitions divide calamity from farce in Othello, where the Moor is both a tragic victim of betrayed love and a sexual dupe, the laughingstock...

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4. The Angel of Dust

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pp. 59-80

Sometimes Shakespeare’s most authoritative words rise unbidden in the mind of a speaker who is preoccupied with other matters. Such is Hamlet’s great aside “What a piece of work is man,” which originates as a screen to hide his secret thoughts and suspicions from Rosencrantz and...

Part III: Shades of King Lear

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5.Thou, Nature, Art My Goddess

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pp. 83-93

The ethics of Shakespeare’s Edmund in King Lear is the ethics of naturalism, embraced in the Victorian age by Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and Tennyson’s fool Dagonet in “The Last Tournament.” When Edmund invokes Nature as his goddess in his first soliloquy in King Lear, he is...

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6. A Choral Mind Trap

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pp. 94-107

One of the most harrowing yet poignant scenes in Victorian fiction is Angel Clare’s symbolic entombment of his bride on their wedding night in Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Though Tess’s bolting upright in the Abbot’s tomb reenacts the climactic moment in...

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7. Wisdom and Wit

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pp. 108-122

A wise fool like Shakespeare’s Touchstone or Feste has less in common with Tennyson’s fool Dagonet in “Th e Last Tournament” than with the witty ironist who narrates Trollope’s novel Barchester Towers. He also resembles the bemused Fool staring at his face in a mirror in...

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8. The End of Illusion

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pp. 123-142

Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s Essays, one of the few books we know Shakespeare read, is a manual of wise skepticism and learned ignorance. Its informed or higher ignorance is not to be mistaken for the natural ignorance of a simpleton like Shakespeare’s Justice Shallow. Nor...

Part IV: Grace and Death

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9. A Toil of Grace

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pp. 145-163

In Antony and Cleopatra, Octavius Caesar speaks eloquently of the beauty he was cold to when Cleopatra lived but which kindles the poet in him when she dies. He says the poisoned queen so resembles a sleeping temptress that he would not be surprised if even in death she snared another...

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10. Off the Edge

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pp. 164-192

Like Shakespeare’s Claudio, Hamlet fears death may be a sleep disturbed by nightmares worse than he can possibly imagine. Since Victorian Anglicans and Dissenters do not believe in purgatory, and since few believe in hell, they seldom share Shakespeare’s fear that death may bring in its...

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11. The Hills Are Shadows

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pp. 193-219

Shakespeare, the most Ovidian of poets, enjoyed special prominence in the age of evolution, the age of Darwin and Lyell, who studied changes wrought in biology and the earth’s history by time the devourer, the subject of Shakespeare’s most moving sonnets. Honing Ockham’s...

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12. Oracle Meets Wit

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pp. 220-252

Literary influence is never a matter of mere quotation. It also embraces more elusive elements of rhetoric and style. One unexpected discovery made in the course of this study is that Browning and Hopkins, the Victorian poets who sound most like Shakespeare, allude to him...


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pp. 253-262

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 263-276


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pp. 277-286

E-ISBN-13: 9780813935454
E-ISBN-10: 0813935458
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813935447
Print-ISBN-10: 081393544x

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 875640214
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Ghost behind the Masks

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • English poetry -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Aesthetics, Modern -- 19th century.
  • Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 -- Influence.
  • Poetics -- History -- 19th century.
  • Great Britain -- History -- Victoria, 1837-1901.
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