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.

Among the most interesting documents reprinted by Foakes are two reports on Coleridge’s Shakespearean lectures written by Thelwall in his journal The Champion. The first expresses bafflement and pain that Coleridge has edited his own former radicalism out of his memory, and quotes back at him his early sonnet in praise of Thelwall. The second asserts that ‘in many particulars Mr C at least accords with, if he has not availed himself of the opinions of Hazlitt, and of another Lecturer [viz. Thelwall himself], whose discussion on the character of Hamlet, during the last season, excited very popular attention.’ This particular claim about plagiarism is not well founded, but it does alert us to the fact that in the period of unrest between Waterloo and Peterloo Coleridge on one side and Hazlitt and Thelwall on the other were fighting for the possession of Shakespeare.

In particular, they were contesting his politics. As reviews of Characters of Shakespear’s Plays, published in 1817, divided on strictly party grounds, so newspaper reports of lectures in 1818 and 1819 were politically motivated: it comes as no surprise that the pro-establishment Courier said that Coleridge ‘leaves competition far behind him’ and has ‘none of the glib nonsense of Mr Hazlitt’. The Courier accused Hazlitt of ‘violent distortion’ in his readings of the plays: what it meant was that he was daring to suggest that there might be a critique of governmental legitimacy contained within Shakespeare. The suggestion was sufficiently provocative for Gifford to feel impelled to reassure the readers of the Quarterly Review that Shakespeare ‘was not at all likely, had he lived in our time, to be an orator in Spafields, or the editor of a seditious Sunday newspaper’. Hazlitt replied to this in his ‘Letter to William Gifford’: ‘You are the Government Critic, a character nicely differing from that of a government spy – the invisible link, that connects literature with the police.’ He knew what Gifford was up to: ‘The greater the shock given to the complacency of servility and corruption, by an opinion getting abroad that there was any knowledge of Shakespear or the English language except on the minister’s side of the question, would it not be the more absolutely incumbent on you as the head of the literary police, to arrest such an opinion in the outset, to crush it before it gathered strength, and to produce the article in question as your warrant?’ The article in question was Hazlitt’s Characters of Shakespear’s Plays, which besides being the first single-volume critical introduction to the plays was also the first publication to suggest that the Bard might not have been on the minister’s side of the question. This was enough to set on the literary police. Thanks to Hazlitt, the question of whether it was the ministry or the people who owned the National Poet had become a matter of fierce debate.

In the reigns of Elizabeth and James I, ‘the theatres still continued to be powerful vehicles for the suppression of every generous principle of liberty,’ and ‘public exhibitions were made use of as vehicles of fulsome adulation to tyranny and oppression.’ This sounds like Stephen Orgel or Stephen Greenblatt arguing that Renaissance plays – especially court-masque-influenced ones such as The Tempest – were bound up with the display and ‘inscription’ of monarchical power. In fact, it is John Thelwall. Long before the ‘new historicism’ he saw that the theatre is ‘in reality a question of politics’ and started asking awkward questions about Shakespeare’s politics. He came to the pessimistic conclusion that Shakespeare ‘too often wielded the pen of political prostitution’. Hazlitt agreed that the theatre was political, but argued that behind the show of power and kingly glory in plays like Henry VIII, there was a subversive critique of monarchy. It was Hazlitt who was first to offer a negative reading of that most popular of Shakespearean kings, Henry V: ‘Henry, because he did not know how to govern his own kingdom, determined to make war upon his neighbours. Because his own title to the crown was doubtful, he laid claim to that of France. Because he did not know how to exercise the enormous power, which had just dropped into his hands, to any one good purpose, he immediately undertook (a cheap and obvious resource of sovereignty) to do all the mischief he could.’

Coleridge thought very differently about Shakespeare’s kings. Hazlitt wrote in 1819 of how ‘Mr Coleridge, in his late Lectures, contend[ed] that not to fall down in prostration of soul before the abstract majesty of kings as it is seen in the diminished perspective of centuries, argues an inherent littleness of mind.’ Foakes has only managed a partial reconstruction of Coleridge’s 1818 and 1819 lectures, so we do not know to what precisely Hazlitt refers – perhaps a passage in the lecture on Richard II, in which Coleridge claims that ‘the Spirit of patriotic reminiscence is the all-permeating Spirit of this Drama’ and that the play is likely to ‘fall dead on the hearts of Jacobinised Englishmen’. Back in the 1790s, Coleridge and Thelwall had been shadowed by a government spy; now, Coleridge had become a government critic, an informer in the pay of the literary police.

He was unequivocal about his new views on the French Revolution. A Courier report noted the following detail in one of the 1818 lectures: ‘The character of Caliban, as an original and caricature of Jacobinism, so fully illustrated at Paris during the French Revolution, he described in a vigorous and lively manner, exciting repeated bursts of applause.’ Coleridge’s prospectus for these lectures was addressed to ‘the higher and middle classes of English society’, and this was the kind of thing that those classes clearly liked to hear. Coleridge has his cake and eats it too as far as Shakespeare’s politics are concerned: one moment the Bard is an anti-Jacobin, the next he stands serenely above the cut and thrust of faction, being credited in the same lecture with having ‘no sectarian character of Politician or religion’ despite writing ‘in an age of political & religious heat’.

Hazlitt, who was lecturing to a very different, predominantly Dissenting audience at the Surrey Institution, read the Courier report and wrote a reply in the pro-radical Yellow Dwarf. He chid Coleridge with his own former Jacobinism, reminding him of the Conciones ad Populum. But he also produced a counter-reading of The Tempest, which takes the form of an ironic amplification of Coleridge’s comparison with modern France. Hazlitt reads Caliban as the legitimate ruler of the isle and Prospero as the usurper: Prospero is therefore the Jacobin, or the Bonaparte, and Caliban the Bourbon, ‘the Louis XVIII of the enchanted island in The Tempest’. The initial purpose of this is to ridicule Coleridge’s verssion of Caliban, but Hazlitt cannot resist pursuing his reading: ‘Caliban is so far from being a prototype of modern Jacobinism, that he is strictly the legitimate sovereign of the isle, and Prospero and the rest are usurpers, who have ousted him from his hereditary jurisdiction ... “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother”; and he complains bitterly of the artifices used by his new friends to cajole him out of it.’ If we are to speak of usurpation, does it not come from the court rather than the native, not from Caliban but from ‘those finished Court-practitioners, Sebastian and Antonio’? ‘Were they Jacobins like Caliban, or legitimate personages, like Mr Coleridge? Did they belong to the new school or the old? That is the question: but it is a question which our lay-preacher will take care not to answer.’ Hazlitt has brilliantly turned the argument, and the play is seen in new light as an attack on legitimacy. For Hazlitt, Prospero is like all absolute rulers in that he relies on arbitrary power and the forcible repression of opposition. Furthermore, contained within the claim that Caliban is the real owner of the island is a reading in terms of colonial exploitation – the play thus becomes an exemplary text for abolitionists. Out of Coleridge’s passing remark, Hazlitt has created the kind of Tempest that has been rediscovered in the 1980s.

These matters are barely touched on in Foakes’s edition of Coleridge’s lectures. The remarks on Hazlitt in the introduction are symptomatic: Foakes asserts that Characters of Shakespear’s Plays consisted of published lectures, when in fact it is a collection of essays; he perpetuates the misapprehension that Hazlitt marked ‘the culmination of the 18th-century emphasis on character in Shakespeare’, when in fact he initiated a new kind of political criticism; and he dates the Lectures on the English Poets 1819, when in fact they were both delivered and published in 1818. One should be enormously grateful to Foakes that he has settled once and for all the question of Coleridge’s debt to A.W. Schlegel, by showing conclusively that all the essentials of Coleridge’s criticism are there in the 1808 lectures which pre-date Schlegel’s. But one cannot allow to go unchallenged the claim that ‘of all the Shakespearean criticism written before the 20th century only Dr Johnson’s and A.W. Schlegel’s compares in significance and influence with that of Coleridge.’

Lectures 1808-1819 On Literature far surpasses all previous editions of Coleridge’s criticism on Shakespeare, Milton and poetry in general. By piecing together notebooks, manuscript jottings and marginalia, Foakes has reconstructed Coleridge’s working lecture-notes with a fullness that no other editor has thought possible. These two thick volumes are worthy additions to the Collected Coleridge, one of the great scholarly projects of our time. They confirm one’s sense that Coleridge was the father of both Bradley and the critics who reacted against him, in attending less to character and more to the intricacies of poetic language. One of Coleridge’s prospectuses was for ‘six lectures of particular and practical Criticism, taking one play of Shakespear’s, scene by scene, as the subject of each Lecture’: he is revealed throughout this collection as above all else a wonderful practical critic. In the lecture-notes we find him tracking the word ‘honest’ through Othello with Empsonian finesse and responding to the language of passion with marvellous intensity (his note to himself on Lear’s ‘reason not the need’ reads: ‘The tranquillity from the first stun permitting Lear to REASON – recite this’). But the edition is a monument to a kind of criticism the premises of which now look questionable. Foakes claims that Coleridge ‘paved the way for several different modern approaches to the plays’, but the modernities he has in mind have become old hat – they are what 18th-century criticism was to Coleridge. A Shakespearean criticism that is newly and vigorously concerned with the theatre and with politics must be suspicious of Coleridge. His attempt to create a systematic philosophical, psychological and poetic criticism was partly motivated by a desire to remove Shakespeare from the dangerous arenas of theatre and politics. When he did let slip a political comment, it was usually a crudely patriotic one. For a serious concern with Shakespeare in the theatre we must turn to Hazlitt’s View of the English Stage, and for a considered political reading we must turn to Hazlitt’s deeply troubling essay on Coriolanus. If we knew more of Thelwall’s lectures we would have another powerful voice. ‘New historicists’ and ‘cultural materialists’ are recovering and inventing a ‘radical’ Shakespeare. It is part of their argument that the Romantic tradition must be pushed aside because it idealised and privatised the plays. Foakcs’s Coleridge will reinforce this belief. But criticism circa 1817-19 had several faces, not all of them ‘Romantic’, and if one is looking for radical Shakespeare he is there in Hazlitt.