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The Meaning of Shakespeare by Harold Clarke…

The Meaning of Shakespeare (1951)

by Harold Clarke Goddard

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    The Complete Works of William Shakespeare by William Shakespeare (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: Mr Goddard has written a study which examines Shakespeare's complete plays as a whole, as one huge and unified body of work. Although each chapter is dedicated to one play, cross references with others (and occasionally with the sonnets) abound. The separate chapters can still be read as independent essays, albeit some broader nuances may be lost, but they do require familiarity at least with the play in question. Mr Goddard seldom discusses plots and characters in general; his comments are specific, provocative and often deal with psychology. They are really suitable only for those already familiar with the play in question. So, in short, Shakespeare's Complete Works is the olbigatory companion volume.… (more)

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Harold C. Goddard

The Meaning of Shakespeare

University Of Chicago Press, Paperback [1960].

8vo. 2 vols.
- Vol. 1: xiii+393 pp. A Word to the Reader by the author [vii-xi]. Index [387-393].
- Vol. 2: v+299 pp. Index [295-299].

First published, 1951.
Published in paperback, 1960.


Volume 1

I. Cadwal and Polydore
II. The Integrity of Shakespeare
III. The Comedy of Errors
IV. The Three Parts of Henry VI
V. Titus Andronicus
VI. Richard III
VII. The Two Gentlemen of Verona
VIII. Love's Labour's Lost
IX. The Poet-Playwright
X. The Taming of the Shrew
XI. A Midsummer-Night's Dream
XII. The Merchant of Venice
XIII. Romeo and Juliet
XIV. King John
XV. Richard II
XVI. Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
XVII. Henry V
XIX. Much Ado About Nothing
XX. As You Like It
XXI. Twelfth Night
XXII. Julius Caesar
XXIII. Hamlet


Volume 2

XXIV. Troilus and Cressida
XXV. All's Well's That Ends Well
XXVI. Measure for Measure
XXVII. Othello
XXVIII. Macbeth
XXIX. King Lear
XXX. Timon of Athens
XXXI. Antony and Cleopatra
XXXII. Coriolanus
XXXIII. Pericles
XXXIV. Cymbeline
XXXV. The Winter's Tale
XXXVI. The Tempest



How many a book on Shakespeare has been prefaced with a sort of shamefaced apology for “another book on Shakespeare.” Anyone who feels that way should never have produced such a book. For my part, I believe we are nearer the beginning than the end of our understanding of Shakespeare’s genius. Poetry forever makes itself over for each generation, and I cannot conceive a time that will not be able to ask with profit what Shakespeare has to say specifically to it. Twice within three decades our own time has called on its younger generation to avenge a wrong with the making of which it had nothing to do. For whom, then, if not for us, was Hamlet written? To whom, if not to us, did King Lear direct the question, “Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?” and of what age if not the atomic did Albany make his prediction:

It will come,
Humanity must perforce prey on itself,
Like monsters of the deep.

So Harold Goddard begins his “Word to the Reader”. The passage is an excellent example of his trenchant writing style marked by Bardolatory passions and penchant for striking if not always convincing parallels. You can say he is honest with his readers from the very beginning.

Further in this “Word”, Mr Goddard makes a number of fascinating points that a prospective reader ought to keep in mind. He considers Shakespeare first and foremost a poet; only then is the Bard a dramatist. I am not sure I agree there, but no matter. He insists on studying his output in detail yet at the same as a whole, considering all plays and poems as parts of one huge, unified work. Now here I agree completely, and not only about Shakespeare. Every writer should be studied like that. Mr Goddard is charmingly insouciant about his debt to Shakespearean scholars and students, but he is anxious to stress his “deeper kind of indebtedness [...] to those recent explorers in the realm of the unconscious among the wisest of whom are Samuel Butler, William James, and Carl G. Jung (not to mention such poetic predecessors of theirs as Blake and Emerson).” He warns his readers that frequent parallels with Dostoevsky are to be expected because the similarity between him and Shakespeare is “one of the most impressive phenomena in the history of human imagination.”

Some of these ideas are further developed in the general chapters. Mr Goddard is evidently a Romantic, a contemporary of Hazlitt, Lamb and Coleridge born a century too late. He does respect Intellect as a source of rather trivial facts, but his boundless admiration is reserved for Imagination. Poetry, as you can guess, is the highest and purest expression of the Imagination, the only source of the ultimate truth about our existence. “Its primary function is not to convey thought, but to reflect life. It shows man his soul, as a looking glass does his face.” This, of course, is true of all great art.

Shakespeare, therefore, was a poet. He almost succumbed to the temptations of history (facts), philosophy (knowledge) and the stage (illusion), but fortunately for us he at last escaped from them all. For poetry, of course, is greatly superior to these transitory diversions. As a poet-playwright, Shakespeare had the difficult task to reconcile the aristocratic art of poetry with the democratic demands of theatre. This clearly required some deception of both the audience and the authorities. He remembered the words of Jesus about the predicament of poets: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” He followed the advice. The critics who have spoken of Shakespeare’s neutrality have recognised the dove, but not the serpent.

The non-sequitur conclusion of this long-winded, rhetorical and rather confused argument is that every book on Shakespeare is a mirror, a personal reflection of its author. Every reader, then, is his own best critic and, equally important in the case of Shakespeare, his own best actor and director. This is obvious to anybody but the mindless reader eager to be told what to think and feel about Shakespeare. Every book reflects as much its author as its readers.

Mr Goddard’s discussions often strike me as curiously contrived, as if he reached his conclusions first, no doubt by superb exercise of his imagination, and then set out to study Shakespeare in depth and confirm his prejudices. Nothing wrong with that. Literary criticism is not a science after all. But Mr Goddard is not especially convincing. His idea of “Shakespeare’s Integrity” is to trace, to his own satisfaction anyway, most of his later plays to hints in the narrative poems (e.g. “and, beauty dead, black chaos comes again” anticipates Othello, obviously). His rambling about the duality of symbols looks like it could lead to something significant; but it ends only in advocating close study of Shakespeare’s text and looking for hidden meanings. His idea that many of Shakespeare’s characters are mixtures of masculine and feminine traits cannot but rest on the flimsy ground of gender generalisations.

Whatever the value of these general reflections, Mr Goddard’s study must stand or fall on his chapters about the plays – which, of course, are often used to support the same ideas. I’d say it stands but shakily.

Here is the place to admit that I am ill-qualified to review this book. I have not read the complete Shakespeare canon even once, let alone multiple times as seem to be required to grasp Shakespeare’s protean genius, and therefore I have not read this book complete. To be precise, I have read only 17 of its 36 chapters, the three general ones (I, II, IX) and the 14 about the plays I have read so far[1]. Mr Goddard, in his “Word”, seems to condone, if not altogether approve of, patchy reading like that.

The best things about Mr Goddard, as I see them, are the supreme readability of his style and the striking insight he gives into some of Shakespeare’s plots and characters. He has a gift for close reading of the text that sometimes amounts to a complete re-evaluation of some of the greatest scenes in Shakespeare. The transformation of Cleopatra in the end of Antony and Cleopatra is a case in point. This is Mr Goddard at this absolute and awe-inspiring best. He proves with thoroughness worthy of a court of law that those who think Cleo dies simply because she can’t seduce Octavian are “taken in by her as badly as is Caesar himself.” Sadly, such flashes of brilliance are rare.

The worst things about Mr Goddard are his propensity to indulge in far-fetched psychological speculations and his relentless Bardolatry. The latter is much the more serious fault – for the former stems from it. Mr Goddard is not a Bardolater like Hazlitt and Bloom: they praise the Bard to the skies in general, yet they find plenty of faults with his plots, poetry or people. Harold Goddard is different. For him Shakespeare can do no wrong. No plot holes, no inconsistent characters, no sloppy verse. No problem plays, either. The Merchant of Venice is a tragedy with comic overtones because Shylock is a noble creature whose most sacred desire is to be brother with the Christians. He is “the leaden casket with the spiritual gold inside”. This is at best hugely controversial; at worst a thorough nonsense only the most biased interpretation of the text can support.

Characteristically, however, the best and the worst in Mr Goddard’s writing are inextricably mixed. His veneration of Shylock may be ridiculous, but his takes on Portia and Antonio are penetrating and persuasive. He is not taken in, as so many Shakespearean scholars have been, by the charms of the Mistress of Belmont or the ostentatious altruism and anti-Semitism of “The Merchant of Venice”. He makes fine cases that in the famous Trial Scene it is Portia who is on trial and that Antonio’s vicious attitude to Shylock, far from being anti-Semitic, stems from his subconscious suspicion that he and the Jew are very much alike.

Some common traps Mr Goddard easily falls into. As You Like It is not Rosalind’s one-man/woman-show, even though his take on Touchstone is penetrating. Nor is the intensely stupid Brutus anything like a tragic character. But it’s inconceivable to Mr Goddard that Shakespeare could have failed at something he obviously tried. So Brutus must be extolled and the most bizarre reasons for his tragic status must be found. The chapter is redeemed by some interesting touches about minor characters like Portia and Lucius. The tragic dimensions of Richard III are nicely noticed, notably in the great scene with the dreams, but the links between “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!” and the horse as a symbol of “the nocturnal world – the other side of life – the unconscious” is a little too much. Talk about far-fetched symbolism! With The Tempest Mr Goddard is quite smitten, seeing in it Shakespeare’s proverbial farewell in the most exalted light. I see poor drama and obvious decline of Shakespeare’s creative powers, however felicitous some of the poetry may be.

In some plays Mr Goddard doesn’t seem to be very interested, at least if the short and superficial chapters are anything to go by. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a striking example. The author raves about the importance of this play in Shakespeare’s development, and he is entirely concerned, predictably enough, with Theseus’ famous quotes about the imagination (of course!) and the quality of his hounds (deeply metaphorical, you bet). He is also ecstatic about Bottom’s dream – “the original miracle of the Imagination” – yet again. Never for a single word does he address Shakespeare’s obsession with love and gender relationships in this play, not to mention the parallels with Romeo and Juliet.

“Romeo and Juliet” is one of Mr Goddard’s better chapters. By which I mean it agrees with my prejudices. I have never liked either Mercutio or the Nurse, so it’s nice to see both relegated to the Bard’s most despicable characters. Mr Goddard is especially perceptive on the crucial scene with the murders of Mercutio and Tybalt. He argues persuasively that Romeo’s tragic error, for this is the essence of the scene, is his failure to live up to his love for Juliet. He begins well by refusing to engage in a fight with Tybalt, but after Mercutio’s death he fails to keep this attitude. Far from being a tragedy of excessive love, Mr Goddard concludes, this is a tragedy of insufficient love – and no more indebted to chance than usual.

It is refreshing and stimulating to read something like that about the most abused of all Shakespeare plays, possibly the play that has been subjected to more superficial and misguided reviews than any other, Othello and Hamlet included. But there are some strange lacunae and at least one gross misrepresentation. To begin with the latter, Mr Goddard is a bit of a prude and he denies the star-crossed lovers sensuality. Apparently he forgot that Shakespeare takes a great deal of trouble to cram into his busy plot the marriage and its consummation. As every prude, Mr Goddard fails to realise that there is nothing wrong with sensuality so long as it’s not the only way – as is nearly always the case. Nor should Mr Goddard get away with his strange silence on the character of Friar Laurence, the man in by far the best position to prevent the tragedy, but unfortunately quite a fool. Last but not least, the author seems to take rather seriously the ancient quarrel, though there is plenty of evidence in the text that this has long since burnt out.

Every book on the Shakespeare canon must stand or fall largely on its discussion of the four pillars that support Shakespeare’s everlasting fame more than any others. Mr Goddard covers the Big Four of Shakespeare’s tragedies with commendable thoroughness. Some 150 pages, between one fifth and one fourth of the complete work, are dedicated to them alone. What do they do amount to? Well, to the same very, very mixed bag.

“Hamlet” is by far the longest chapter in the whole study (56 pages) and, at some places, by far the most muddled. It contains, indeed, some classic Bloomian nonsense like “Hamlet is an early draft of a new creature on the Platonic order, conceived in the Upanishads, who begins to synthesize the sexes”. There are some interesting reflections about Hamlet’s projection of his hate, of himself as well as of his mother and father, on others, but there is nothing that made me re-read the play with new eyes. Just about everything Mr Goddard told me was either old news to me or his usual (and growing very tedious) obsession with dreams, Dostoevsky, the Imagination and the Unconscious (my capitals, but I’m sure the author would have agreed). He spends considerable space refuting the Oedipal theory of Hamlet’s motivation, then popular thanks to the essay of one Dr Jones and Olivier’s film, but I have never been able to accept this theory as anything but a gross oversimplification. It’s not worth refuting.

Mr Goddard’s most profound observations are that Hamlet is too enlightened for his bloodthirsty age and that his melancholy is a symptom rather than a cause. There is nothing far from obvious, or new, in all this. Bernard Shaw had expressed the former idea in a more forceful way by comparing Hamlet with Jesus, and the latter is easily inferred by the text which shows the Prince, even excepting his antic disposition, in a wide range of moods. Besides, some of Mr Goddard’s questions, for instance “Should Hamlet kill the King?”, are simplifying the matter too much. Killing the King, towards the end of the play, amounts to nothing more than self-defence. In this case murder is not only justified: it is desirable. But Mr Goddard is a moralist and he abhors murder regardless of the circumstances; he even tries, very lamely, to link it with war and lust.

As he does Shakespeare on the whole, Mr Goddard idealises Hamlet as more or less a flawless specimen of godlike humanity. But tragic characters are necessarily flawed, fatally so. However admirable in some respects, on the whole they are cautionary tales. The Prince is a classic example of pathologically intellectual make-up. Hamlet’s refusal to kill the King a-praying is not enlightened reverence for human life. It is pure and simple lack of courage, not to mention lack of insight into human nature (for the King, the Prince should have known after the play, would attempt the murder of his nephew as soon as possible under the circumstances). According to Mr Goddard, if I understand correctly his rambling argument, Hamlet’s major flaw is using art (the play) to expose and insult the King rather than make him repent and reform him. To my mind this is, to put it mildly, a travesty. I don’t want to mention at all the author’s final speculations on Hamlet as a King of Denmark or Will as a King of England!

Othello, we are told, is very closely related to Hamlet, for instance because the Prince (“the most paradoxical mixture of good and evil”) is divided here between Desdemona (“close to pure good”) and Iago (“close to pure evil”). It is this preposterous psychology, if that’s what you want to call it, that makes it hard to take Mr Goddard as seriously as he no doubt deserves.

It’s news to me that Desdemona is “close to pure good”. Mr Goddard insists with some vehemence that she is a strong character. This is obviously true considering her courage to disobey her father and marry a Moor. But “the strongest in Shakespeare”? Really! In the company of Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth and Rosalind, Desdemona seems non-existent to me. Even Juliet and Portia are stronger and more courageous than her.

Desdemona’s constant nagging, which has more than a little to do with her undoing, Mr Goddard excuses with her boundless love for the Moor. Very convenient, but not very convincing. He deals at length with the notorious handkerchief and, amazingly, blames Othello for everything. It was his fault that the handkerchief was lost, for he rudely refused Desdemona’s hand when she wanted to wipe off his sweaty brow, and it was his fault that he pressed her about that later. Mr Goddard’s Desdemonic adoration is evidently as boundless as Juliet’s love for Romeo. I don’t buy this stuff. Desdemona’s death is not the tragedy in this play. Othello’s degradation is. It is curious, by the way, how little of Mr Goddard’s chapter is dedicated to the title character.

It’s news to me, too, that there is any evil in Hamlet or too much in Iago. Here Mr Goddard’s prejudices lead him to unheard-of heights. As a man who worships the Imagination and barely tolerates the Intellect, it is natural enough that he should claim the latter ought to be a servant of the former. Now, this is very much open to question. I should say exactly the opposite: the intellect controlling the imagination is much the better option. Either way, I don’t see how we can deem one superior to the other. Neither works well alone.

So strongly does Mr Goddard hate the intellect that he casually links Iago’s “unreserved dedication of intellect to death and destruction” with “modern war”. One must remember that Mr Goddard wrote in the late 1940s, when war memories were still very fresh, but that hardly excuses him. He all but ascribes all wars in history to the vileness of the human intellect. This is simply ludicrous. Imagine a world where Imagination reigns supreme and there is no intellect at all. Would it have a more peaceful history than ours? How much “death and destruction” in our history can be traced to mindless passions quite devoid of anything like intelligence? Are we we so short of supreme intellects (often coupled with supreme imaginations) who have dedicated themselves to peace and art? Rhetorical questions, of course.

Mr Goddard’s idea of proving the credibility of Othello’s jealousy is to quote a long “practical joke” which Dostoevsky’s wife played on her husband. If this piece of sordid melodrama is genuine, it only shows that the great novelist was a far bigger fool than Othello. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s pure fiction. Anyway, Mr Goddard needn’t have wasted his time and space. People who have experienced the “green-eyed monster” personally would have no trouble believing Othello. The rest should acquire greater experience before reading Shakespeare. The Bard is about life, and you cannot study life without living it.

The chapter on Othello may also boast possibly the most convoluted explanation of irrelevant plot details. There is only one such detail in this tensest of all Shakespeare plays. That’s right, the clown and the musicians that open Act III. Their wind music is linked with the storm in the beginning of Act II. “Here is music played on the wind instruments of storm”, reverently whispers Mr Goddard, “which, like the storm itself, reaches the stars.” Muddleheaded metaphysics doesn’t get any better than that. Well, actually, it does. We are then treated to the “transcendental reunion of Othello and Desdemona”, an act comprehensible only to the imagination which can infer “the unknown factors of life from the known ones” and works its mysterious ways through poetry (“the art of spiritual mensuration”). If that makes any sense to you, you have my sceptical admiration.

“How fortunate that there are prose and reason in the world to keep the poetry straight!” So exclaims, no doubt sarcastically, Mr Goddard. The sarcasm is rather misplaced, though. The world has indeed suffered enough at the mercy of brainless poets and dreamers. It’s time to try the rational man, if such exists, for whom his own ideas of poetry and imagination are not necessarily infallible.

Equally questionable, though ostensibly based on some “old stage tradition”, is Mr Goddard’s speculation that Othello stabs Desdemona after strangling her. This is supposed to explain her “speaking after death”. Go figure! Ironically enough, Desdemona’s “lie” in her last words that it was she who caused her death has a grain of truth in it. To be sure, Iago is much the more important factor. But he is not the only one; the Moor and his wife actively participate. Mr Goddard appears to defend Desdemona, but he quite misses the point with yet another fatuous parallel with Dostoevsky and the hilarious claim that in these last words Desdemona puts “the whole mystery of the atonement”. Like I said, go figure!

Mr Goddard even claims that another similarity between Hamlet and Othello is that both are plays of revenge, evidently taking Iago’s own explanations at face value. What happened with the paramount role of the unconscious? I should think Iago is a terrific example of somebody who is quite deluded about his motives on conscious level. This much is evident from the great discrepancy between his soliloquies and the rest of the play. I expected Mr Goddard to come up with some startling insights into Iago’s unconscious. But he never did.

There is only point that somewhat redeems this otherwise disastrous chapter. It happens to be the most controversial point of all. Briefly, Mr Goddard argues at length that Iago, much like Shylock, has a core of goodness inside him. The case is not impeccable, and like so many other cases it gives the impression of having been made before the arguments were assembled[2], but it’s much more convincing than Shylock’s. The crucial encounter between Iago and Desdemona after the so-called “brothel scene”, Mr Goddard says, captures the Ancient off guard. He is unusually silent and rather touched by Desdemona’s plight. That he doesn’t fake compassion is evident from the next scene with Roderigo in which Iago hardly regains the perfect poise so characteristic of him. He never really does. Mr Goddard pronounces him “defeated” for the rest of the play.

Some obvious objections can be raised against this interpretation. Mr Goddard’s Desdemonic worship may clearly get the better of him. She is such a paragon of goodness and godliness that she must convert even the greatest villain in her vicinity. The argument that nobody can “feign goodness successfully” unless they “retain potential goodness” strikes me as too sentimental. Lastly, Iago can hardly be said to be “defeated”. If he were, he would reveal the truth to Othello in time and there would be no tragedy. Nevertheless, Iago’s latent goodness remains a stimulating idea to contemplate. It lends a whole new dimension to a character all too often dismissed with empty words like “evil”.

Macbeth continues Mr Goddard’s obsession with war. Play after play, the Bard – unconsciously, of course – described the horrors of war and tyranny. I rather doubt Shakespeare was such a pacifist as all that. That he was rather preoccupied with murder in his plays is another matter. Mr Goddard also continues with the countless links between different plays, especially the Big Four. They are so closely related on so many levels at so many points that one is finally driven to the embarrassing conclusion that they all are the same play written four times over. Whatever differences there are, they are minor variations. Parallels between Macbeth and Hamlet are prodigious, but I can’t think of a single instance that doesn’t strike me as mightily superficial.

The writing is as beautiful as ever, with some striking general insights (e.g. “for tragedy has to do with men possessing the capacity to become gods who, momentarily at least, become devils”), but I can’t say I finish the chapter with a new awareness of the Macbeths. Having argued criminology at length with one Professor Stoll and indulged in his favourite Dostoevskian tittle-tattle (Raskolnikov, of course), the most perceptive thing Mr Goddard has to say in the end is that Macbeth is not an ordinary criminal and the supernatural elements are really Macbeth’s unconscious. We know that. We know most criminals are not tortured by remorse. It takes an exceptional character to be thus afflicted. We also know, for Shakespeare’s text makes it clear, that Macbeth’s murderous thoughts predate the Weird Sisters. They merely articulate what he had been afraid to confess even to himself.

Much of the Scottish chapter is wasted on plot points which are either clear or trivial. Does Lady Macbeth fake her fainting? Of course she does. Is Macbeth the Third Murderer? If he is, his later conversation with the First Murderer doesn’t make much sense, does it? Of course he may be playing a part, but that requires a cynical sense of humour which is not among Macbeth’s qualities at any other time in the play. Either way, is it worth spending page after page on the matter? I really don’t see how such details probe the depths of Macbeth.

King Lear, truth to tell, is my least favourite among the Big Four. I have never felt the old man as close as Othello, Hamlet and Macbeth. There is some major flaw in this play that I still can’t put my finger on. Perhaps the relationship with Cordelia, from which much of the tragic interest stems, is too insubstantial to make her death, and Lear’s, truly tragic. But that seems, at best, like only a part of the story. Obviously, the play will need a few readings more. Can Mr Goddard help with something?

He calls the play “the culmination of Shakespeare” and plunges deeply into Blooming comparisons with the rest of Shakespeare. I love this kind of parallels. I use them in my reviews, too. But within reason! When they are done in heaps every single paragraph, “The Integrity of Shakespeare” becomes tedious, not to say spurious. Sometimes I do wish Mr Goddard would take a play and its characters independently of anything else – save human nature, of course. But he seems quite incapable of doing this. He keeps on raving how Cordelia illuminates Hamlet, how the angelic Desdemona is less human than Cordelia, etc., etc., etc. Indeed, sometimes King Lear and his play are positively lost in Mr Goddard’s learned exuberance.

Following his own fascinating dictum, Mr Goddard searches for the essence of a play in the least likely place. He is very fond of “eyes” and “eye-sight”, a prominent image throughout, but I find G. B. Harrison, the type of historical critic despised by Mr Goddard, more rewarding with “nature” and “nothing”. That Lear gains spiritual vision as Gloucester loses his physical one is rather obvious. Somewhere at this point Mr Goddard loses himself in metaphysics, universes and all that jazz. Well, he is not alone there.

All this is interesting, sort of, but it also misses the point. There is no such thing as a metaphysical tragedy; there are not even political or social tragedies. Tragedy is personal and familial. So is King Lear, whatever philosophical musings it might also contain. I wish more commentators would concentrate on the personal and familial dimensions.

Mr Goddard’s conclusion is that King Lear is not pessimistic, as generally believed, but a religious “miracle play”. What all this actually means I am still at sea, but no matter. That Lear dies of joy under the false impression that his daughter is alive doesn’t seem like a sufficient explanation. There is no indication in the text that Cordelia does remain alive after the final curtain, but Mr Goddard appears to be convinced in this. In the end he modestly admits that his personal interpretation may be wrong and if, indeed, those who say Cordelia is dead are right, then the play is “the darkest document in the supreme poetry of the world. And perhaps it is.”

But all this is by the way. Finally, we are really back to the old story about the “supremacy of imagination” and how Shakespeare gleefully takes in his readers and spectators stupid enough to miss this grand moral. Senses and the intellect are nothing. Imagination is everything, “the faculty by which alone man apprehends reality”. (Cordelia lives in the imagination, too, by the way.) “It is only our absurd “scientific” prejudice that reality must be physical and rational”, Harold the Mystic observes, “that blinds us to the truth.”

It goes without saying that Mr Goddard considers the play perfect. No bizarre coincidences (e.g. intercepted letters), no gratuitous violence (e.g. Gloucester’s blinding), no unintentional comedy (e.g. Gloucester’s attempted suicide), no lines out of character (e.g. Lear on sensuality; why, lust and violence are linked in Shakespeare ever since the narrative poems). Sometimes the author’s purple adulation is so fulsome as to be almost nauseating. This scene is “transcendent”, this character is “most beautiful and appealing”, that stage effect is really “motivated with the very nicest gradations”, every line in the play is like “a shower of golden arrows”, and so on.

Did all that change my conception of the play? Did it make me rush and read it again? I’m afraid not.

On the whole, it is hard to make up my mind about Mr Goddard’s study. It is beautifully written, enormously erudite and fantastically readable. It is also violently uneven. The central idea of the superiority of poetry and imagination, not to mention the paramount importance of dreams and the unconscious, is of dubious value in the first place, and wantonly applied to plays, scenes, characters, history and human nature. Some of this is thought-provoking and even persuasive, possibly leading to a deeper appreciation of some tricky moments in Shakespeare. But a great deal of it is utterly unconvincing stuff, not to say sheer claptrap.

I would cautiously recommend this study to everybody seriously dedicated to the exploration of the Shakespeare canon. If you fall in this category, it is inconceivable that you will fail to profit, one way or another, by Mr Goddard’s thoughtful and lifelong passion for the Bard. I will certainly continue to read his chapters as I tackle new plays or re-read old ones. But I must say that the more I read the less impressed and more disillusioned I become.

Perhaps Mr Goddard’s greatest achievement would be to make me do something I have been putting off for years. Read Dostoevsky.

[1] For the record, the plays I have read so far are the following (roughly in order of their writing): Richard III, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus and The Tempest.
[2] It is ironic that later in the same chapter Mr Goddard should profess himself to be rigorously scientific:
A scientist gets his hypothesis from he does not always know where. He subjects it to the test of the facts, and accepts and rejects it accordingly. So it should be with the interpretation of a work of literary art. Where a suggested reading comes from is not the important question. The important question is whether it can pass the test of the text. If not, however alluring, it must be dismissed.
Fine words. But must one point out the obvious? Literary criticism is not science. It can never be. The text of a work of fiction, especially if it’s a classic, can quite easily be made to support any interpretation. The test is not of the text. The test is how many readers you can take in. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | May 12, 2017 |
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Sweet, sweet, sweet poison for the age's tooth.

When such a spacious mirror's set before him
He needs must see himself.


The secret of nature
Have not more gift in taciturnity.


In there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?

How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?


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The greatest poetry has always depicted the world as a little citadel of nobility threatened by an immense barbarism, a flickering candle surrounded by infinite night.
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This refers to Mr Goddard's complete study, published either in one or two volumes. Please do not merge with volume 1 or volume 2 only.
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