- The Ghost behind the Masks: The Victorian Poets and Shakespeare by W. David Shaw
W. David Shaw’s recent study confirms that it traces not so much literary allusions to Shakespeare as echoes of Shakespeare. As such, Shaw has embarked on a complex study, not of the immediately verifiable, but of veiled intimations. In spite of Shaw’s referring to him as “a presence like the air,” the ghost of the title does not remain a ghost by the end of the study: Shaw implicitly removes the dramatist’s mask. He emphasizes the humanity in Shakespeare’s work, alluding more than once to the corporeal man of whom we know little. The book is in many ways a study of inner struggle: the contending forces of love, faith, doubt, and grief. Shaw returns throughout to the Ovidian metamorphosis and its tension between “the outer animal disguise and the inner human person” as an important trope for understanding Shakespeare and the intellectual and emotional climate of the Victorians. Shaw’s talent as a careful reader of poetry is very much on display: his treatments of end in King Lear and “Childe Roland” and of on in The Tempest and In Memoriam are sensitive and masterful. While his occasional indulgences in impressionist commentary are at times suspect, his use of the western philosophical tradition and the Victorian prose writers is, as always, illuminating.
The book is divided into twelve chapters, focusing on one or two specific themes that Shaw identifies as shared between Shakespeare and the Victorians. Drawing on Hamlet, King Lear, and a healthy dose of many other plays, Shaw sets the bugle echoes flying; while most often strengthening as the echoes bounce back and forth, in some cases they fade away too quickly. Some strong echoes are heard in the chapter, perhaps the most enjoyable, focused on the figure of the fool, “Wisdom and Wit.” In later chapters, the trope of the “unsealed dome” and the concept of the “higher ignorance” are masterfully traced, illuminating both Shakespeare’s plays and the Victorian sensibilities, while the “choral mind trap” and the “toil of grace” perhaps need fuller elucidation. There are extended treatments of both Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Great Expectations, the latter of which receives a full chapter. While the study of [End Page 389] Thomas Hardy’s novel acts as a complement to an examination of a handful of his poems, the study of Pip, alongside Hamlet and Malvolio, seems almost a ploy to force the reader to ask with Robert Browning, “But where’s music, the dickens?”
Shaw’s discussions are dominated by examinations of the works of Alfred Tennyson and Browning: this seems reasonable and appropriate. The book does treat as many as seven poets, the others being Matthew Arnold, Arthur Hugh Clough, Christina Rossetti, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Hardy; few pages, however, are devoted to these. Rossetti in particular gets barely four pages to examine three of her poems; one wishes for a more extensive treatment of her work and perhaps a consideration of one or two of her brother’s poems, and one almost yearns for a treatment of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Some commentary on Emily Brontë and Amy Levy might have helped round out the selection of poets. But it is Augusta Webster, herself a dramatist and poet of some complex dramatic monologues, whom I feel is too obviously missing.
In this ambitious study, one overhears the erudite scholar, the sensitive reader, and the compassionate teacher: this is what we have come to expect from Shaw’s writing. But he adds another voice to this book, not dissimilar from the fourth, “oracular voice” of poetry he studies in the final chapter. Shaw momentarily pulls off the mask of the scholar near the end of “Off the Edge” to reveal the human, both strong and fragile, beneath. It is a touching moment that bears heavily on one’s reading of the final two chapters. Shakespeare’s portrayal and Shaw’s exploration of Lear’s reaction to the...