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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.4 (2001) 695-709

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William Hazlitt on Dramatic Text and Performance

James Mulvihill

The relation between text and performance is central to William Hazlitt's dramatic criticism. For the typical Regency theatergoer, the text was almost negligible, merely a series of hooks for stage action and spectacle--a "vehicle," in Hazlitt's words, "for connecting scenery, pantomime, and song." 1 Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that in Lectures on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth (1820), Hazlitt should approvingly observe of the Elizabethan dramatists that "there is nothing theatrical about them. In reading them, you only think how the persons, into whose mouths certain sentiments are put, would have spoken or looked: in reading John Dryden and others of that school, you only think, as the authors themselves seem to have done, how they would be ranted on the stage by some buskined hero or tragedy-queen" (6:246). Yet Dryden seemed theatrical largely because Dryden's theater was familiar to Hazlitt who, when he read All for Love, saw it cut down to a prompt text conceived for the performances he attended at Covent Garden and Drury Lane. The Shakespeare presented in these venues, moreover, was not the Shakespeare Elizabethans saw but one wearing "[Colley] Cibber's manager's coat" (6:247). If Hazlitt often deplored the result, just as often he liked it, in part because it challenged the way he read Shakespeare.

It is worth asking, though, what he thought he was seeing on stage week after week: was it the more-or-less successful enactment of an ideally authoritative text? The matter of textual authority where Hazlitt's Shakespeare is concerned suggests that [End Page 695] in practice it was not. To be sure, Charles Lamb's "On the Tragedies of Shakespeare, Considered with Reference to Their Fitness for Stage Representation" would have brought to his attention the inferiority of Romantic stagings of Shakespeare. 2 What specific texts Hazlitt recognized as definitive, however, if he thought in such terms, is hard to say. Attempting to determine what text was used in Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, for instance, P. P. Howe rules out such editions as Edmond Malone's (1790), George Steevens's (1773), and Samuel Johnson's (1765). While identifying it as an Alexander Pope text (1725), with points of preference for such editors of the Pope school as Thomas Hanmer (1744) and William Warburton (1747), Howe finds that it does not collate exactly with any of these, and concludes that "Hazlitt used a text which, from whatever year we ought to date it, was not one of those which has come down to us as primary" (4:391). 3 Add to this Hazlitt's notorious misquoting of Shakespeare in his own writings, and we may conclude that whatever authority a dramatic performance might or might not have must depend, for Hazlitt, on variables other than a definitive text. I will argue that Hazlitt's dramatic criticism is sensitive not only to how a dramatic text is altered by its performance, effectively generating new texts through successive traditions of performance, but how performance is conditioned by, even as it conditions, reception.

Examination of Hazlitt's theater notices--written mainly during his reviewing days in 1813-17--reveals a sense of the complexly mediated ways by which drama authorizes itself through performance. In an 1817 review of Edmund Kean's Richard III in the Times, Hazlitt remarks that Kean "is almost the only actor who does not spoil Shakspeare" (18:256), and yet the acting style he describes, "distorted gestures, and smothered voice" (18:257), is a marked contrast to the classical demeanor John Kemble brought to the role and that Regency theater audiences had come to expect as a result. Kemble's interpretation of Richard was squarely in the tradition established by David Garrick in the previous century, whereas Kean's more demonic reading owed something to George Frederick Cooke, though again Kemble's and Cooke's characterizations agreed on certain points...


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