Introduction to The Wheel of Fire: Essays in Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Sombre Tragedies by G. Wilson Knight
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[ 145 Introduction to The Wheel of Fire: Essays in Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Sombre Tragedies by G. Wilson Knight London: Oxford UP, 1930. Pp. xix + 296; Introduction, xi-xix.1 It has taken me a long time to recognize the justification of what Mr. Wilson Knight calls “interpretation.”2 In my previous scepticism I am quite ready to admit the presence of elements of pure prejudice, as well as of some which I defend. I have always maintained, not only that Shakespeare was not a philosophical poet in the sense of Dante and Lucretius; but also, what may be more easily overlooked, that “philosophical poets” like Dante and Lucretius are not really philosophers at all. They are poets who have presented us with the emotional and sense equivalent for a definite philosophical system constructed by a philosopher – even though they may sometimes take little liberties with the system. To say that Shakespeare is not a philosophical poet like these is not to say anything very striking or important.3 It is more worth while to point out that my notion of Dante or Lucretius as providing the “emotional equivalent” for a philosophical system expressed by some one else, is not to be pressed to a literal point for point parallelism, as in the old theory of mind and body. The poet has something to say which is not even necessarily implicit in the system, something which is also over and above the verbal beauty. In other words, the pattern of Cyrene or that of the Schools is not the whole of the pattern of the carpet of Lucretius or of Dante.4 This other part of the pattern is something to be found in the work of other great poets than those who are “philosophical” – I say of other, not of all – for that would exclude Horace or Dryden or Malherbe.5 It is also to be found in the work of some (again, not of all) of the greatest novelists: certainly of George Eliot, and of Henry James who gave the phrase its currency.6 And of this sort of “pattern” the most elaborate, the most extensive, and probably the most inscrutable is that of the plays of Shakespeare. For one thing, in Dante the pattern is interwoven chiefly with the systematic pattern which he set himself, and the mystery and excitement lies in trying to trace its relations and differences – the relation, and the personal variations in another mode, between for Essays, Reviews, and Commentaries: 1930 146 ] example the Thomist doctrine of Love, the poetic Provençal tradition, and the direct experience of Dante with its modifications under philosophical and literary influences. But the philosophic pattern is far more a help than a hindrance, it is indeed a priori a help. Furthermore, Dante in his kind of poetry was doing exactly what he liked with his own material; and the practical exigencies of a badly paid playwright, popular entertainer, sometimes actor, and sometimes busy producer, can only confuse us in our study of Shakespeare. Then again, with Dante the philosophic system gives us a kind of criterion of consciousness, and the letter to Can Grande confirms it;7 just as of a lesser writer, but no less genuine a pattern-maker, Henry James, we have some gauge of consciousness in his very nearness to us in time and civilization, in the authors he studied and the constant play of his criticism upon his own work. But with Shakespeare we seem to be moving in an air of Cimmerian darkness.8 The conditions of his life, the conditions under which dramatic art was then possible, seem even more remote from us than those of Dante. We dare not treat him as completely isolated from his contemporary dramatists, as we can largely isolate Dante. We see his contemporaries for the most part as busy hack writers of untidy genius, sharing a particular sense of the tragic mood: this sense, such as it is, merging into the mere sense of what the public wanted. They confuse us by the fact that what at first appears to be their “philosophy of life” sometimes turns out to be only a felicitous but shameless lifting of a passage from almost any author, as thoseofChapmanfromErasmus.9 This,indeed,isahabitwhichShakespeare shares; he has his Montaigne, his Seneca, and his Machiavelli or his AntiMachiavel like the others.10 And they adapted, collaborated, and overlaid each other to the limits of confusion. Nevertheless, they do seem, the best...