The Study of Shakespeare Criticism
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[ 837 The Study of Shakespeare Criticism1 Dr. Eliot prefaced his speech with the generalization that “the views which different men have taken of Shakespeare at different times form a commentary on the history of civilization.” He began his lecture by stating of Shakespeare, “he is one of those very few poets whom it takes a whole lifetime to understand. One reads him every year with more understanding, for it takes increasing maturity to know him” (SLP). Dr. Eliot first suggested the way in which Shakespeare should be read. He said that to fully understand Shakespeare, one should understand the opinions of others about him and thus get a prospective view of him. “There is no English poet which I have taken so long to understand . . . One of the most interesting things about Shakespeare is to view the development of criticism at different times and by different people. This view forms an integral part of the history of different civilizations in Europe” (HN). “Mr. Eliot considers it a notable fact that in every period Shakespeare seems to have some quality that attracted the people, in spite of the changing point of view of each generation. The praise of his contemporaries is of especial worth because “greatness, in a sense, is the product of time. Contemporary opinion is often imperfect or wildly wrong.” Johnson, in his Preface to Shakespeare, has paid as great a tribute to Shakespeare as any poet could desire, in declaring that his plays, “as they have devolved from one generation to another, have received new honors” (SL).2 The important periods of Shakespearean criticism were designated by Eliot as that of Ben Jonson, of the Age of Dryden, of Pope, of the French Eighteenth Century, of the French Nineteenth Century as exemplified by Victor Hugo, of the English Nineteenth Century as done by Coleridge and influenced by German critics, and, of course, of the present critics (SLP). In tracing the course of the criticism concerning Shakespeare, Dr. Eliot mentioned first the contemporary critic, Ben Jonson, who “had the most criticalmindofhisday,butwhoseopinionswererathercurious.Shakespeare’s contemporaries didn’t realize his genius” (HN). “It is the whole pattern of commentratherthananyindividualcriticismwhichisinteresting.Thesimple praise of Shakespeare’s contemporaries doesn’t count in the same manner as thecontemporaryvogueaboutByron–andourpresentneglect–isnecessary Lectures in America, 1932-33 838 ] toanunderstandingofthatpoet.ThemenofBenJonson’stimecriticizedthe actual play. By the eighteenth century it is evident that criticism is from the study rather than from the pit” (SLP). Eliot has the greatest respect for Dryden’s criticism of Shakespeare and advises the reading of all his critical work. His comparison of Shakespeare with Beaumont and Fletcher is both proper and valuable and shows originality and understanding. His appreciation of the difference between them, in spite of the absence of temporal perspective, is evidence of his first-rate capacity (SL). In connection with Dryden, who was representative of people a generation away from the acted plays, he added: “I doubt whether I would have had his foresight in choosing Shakespeare ahead of Beaumont and Fletcher” (HN). “The eighteenth century brought a change in the character of criticism. Shakespeare began to be read and criticized from the reading rather than from seeing his plays on the stage. The criticism of this period is largely the result of French influence. French criticism was based largely upon comparison with French plays, which were written to be produced and were criticized accordingly, while the English viewed Shakespeare’s plays as dramatic poems. In consequence the French criticism shows misunderstanding (SL ). “In Pope’s time,” he said, “we begin to feel that his criticism takes account of other criticism as well as the written plays. . . . Here the attention of the critic becomes focused on the poetry, and not so much on the drama” (HN ). Coleridge, De Quincey and Lamb were mentioned as critics of the nineteenth century. The speaker then turned to the influence of foreign criticism , chiefly that of the French and Germans (HN  ). The nineteenth century criticism is largely a development from the German theater and the influence of the work of Coleridge and his friends. The Germans had no dramatic background similar to the French and show greater sympathy and understanding (SL ). Shakespearean criticism is not a thing that is finished. Mr. Eliot feels that the criticism of the next period will differ from that of the last in its treatment of Shakespeare’s plays as a whole rather than as individual units, and in their consideration as dramatic poetry, rather than as straight drama...