Shakespeare and the Literary Police

Jonathan Bate

  • The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Vol. V: Lectures 1808-1819 On Literature edited by R.A. Foakes
    Princeton/Routledge, 604 pp, £55.00, December 1987, ISBN 0 691 09872 7

Henry Crabb Robinson had a busy evening on 27 January 1818: having attended William Hazlitt’s lecture on Shakespeare and Milton at the Surrey Institution, he hurried over the river to the London Philosophical Society to hear the first lecture in a new course by Coleridge. He was gratified to find there ‘a large and respectable audience – generally of very superior looking persons’. There was considerable activity on the London literary scene that month, for at an institution in Lincoln’s Inn Fields John Thelwall was lecturing to a much less respectable audience on Shakespeare and Dr Johnson.

It has become an orthodoxy of literary history that there was a phenomenon called ‘Romantic Shakespearean criticism’, that it was a way of reading which especially emphasised character study, that it was enormously influential throughout the 19th century, that it reached a peak with a book which is still given to our schoolchildren, A.C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy, and that its greatest practitioner was Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But if one wished to obtain Coleridge’s seminal book on Shakespeare, as one could obtain Shakespearean Tragedy or Wilson Knight’s The Wheel of Fire, one would have some difficulty. Characteristically, Coleridge never got around to publishing it. The major early printed sources, both of them highly corrupt texts dating from after his death, were a sampling of notes, reports and marginalia in the Literary Remains put together by his nephew in 1836-9 and Seven Lectures on Shakespeare and Milton, partly reconstructed and partly fabricated by John Payne Collier in 1856. The book that was readily available, and which did exert enormous influence in the 19th century, was Hazlitt’s Characters of Shakespear’s Plays. Now the situation is reversed: R.A. Foakes has produced as full a reconstruction of Coleridge’s Shakespearean criticism as will ever be possible, while Hazlitt’s book has been out of print for many years.

More than anything else, it has been Hazlitt’s title which has led to the belief that Romantic Shakespearean criticism was primarily concerned with character. But the title is misleading: in its own time the book was thought of not as character criticism but as political criticism. We label Coleridge and Hazlitt psychological critics. Coleridge may have been the first to use the word ‘psychological’ in its modern sense, but to contemporaries Hazlitt was something very different: a Jacobinical critic. His book was damned by William Gifford, the most powerful London editor of the day, as a seditious appropriation of the National Poet. Once we know this, the shadowy presence of that third lecturer, John Thelwall, becomes decisive. His lectures of 1817-18 mark the re-entry into political life of the greatest radical activist of the 1790s. Coleridge and Thelwall had both given anti-government lectures in 1795: indeed, Coleridge recognised that it was primarily in order to gag Thelwall that Pitt introduced his Seditious Meetings Bill. And when they met in Somerset in 1797 ‘Citizen Samuel’ and ‘Citizen John’ discussed treason together. It must have been a profound embarrassment to Coleridge that Thelwall should reappear as a rival lecturer at a time when his own politics had turned a dark shade of blue.

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