21st Century Shakespeare Criticism Essays

During his own lifetime and shortly afterward, Shakespeare enjoyed fame and considerable critical attention. The English writer Francis Meres, in 1598, declared him to be England’s greatest writer in comedy and tragedy. Writer and poet John Weever lauded “honey-tongued Shakespeare.” Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s contemporary and a literary critic in his own right, granted that Shakespeare had no rival in the writing of comedy, even in the ancient Classical world, and that he equaled the ancients in tragedy as well, but Jonson also faulted Shakespeare for having a mediocre command of the Classical languages and for ignoring Classical rules. Jonson objected when Shakespeare dramatized history extending over many years and moved his dramatic scene around from country to country, rather than focusing on 24 hours or so in a single location. Shakespeare wrote too glibly, in Jonson’s view, mixing kings and clowns, lofty verse with vulgarity, mortals with fairies.

Seventeenth century

Jonson’s Neoclassical perspective on Shakespeare was to govern the literary criticism of the later 17th century as well. John Dryden, in his essay “Of Dramatick Poesie” (1668) and other essays, condemned the improbabilities of Shakespeare’s late romances. Shakespeare lacked decorum, in Dryden’s view, largely because he had written for an ignorant age and poorly educated audiences. Shakespeare excelled in “fancy” or imagination, but he lagged behind in “judgment.” He was a native genius, untaught, whose plays needed to be extensively rewritten to clear them of the impurities of their frequently vulgar style. And in fact most productions of Shakespeare on the London stage during the Restoration did just that: they rewrote Shakespeare to make him more refined.

Eighteenth century

This critical view persisted into the 18th century as well. Alexander Pope undertook to edit Shakespeare in 1725, expurgating his language and “correcting” supposedly infelicitous phrases. Samuel Johnson also edited Shakespeare’s works (1765), defending his author as one who “holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life”; but, though he pronounced Shakespeare an “ancient” (supreme praise from Johnson), he found Shakespeare’s plays full of implausible plots quickly huddled together at the end, and he deplored Shakespeare’s fondness for punning. Even in his defense of Shakespeare as a great English writer, Johnson lauded him in classical terms, for his universality, his ability to offer a “just representation of general nature” that could stand the test of time.

Romantic critics

For Romantic critics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the early 19th century, Shakespeare deserved to be appreciated most of all for his creative genius and his spontaneity. For Goethe in Germany as well, Shakespeare was a bard, a mystical seer. Most of all, Shakespeare was considered supreme as a creator of character. Maurice Morgann wrote such character-based analyses as appear in his book An Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff (1777), where Falstaff is envisaged as larger than life, a humane wit and humorist who is no coward or liar in fact but a player of inspired games. Romantic critics, including Charles Lamb, Thomas De Quincey (who wrote Encyclopædia Britannica’s article on Shakespeare for the eighth edition), and William Hazlitt, extolled Shakespeare as a genius able to create an imaginative world of his own, even if Hazlitt was disturbed by what he took to be Shakespeare’s political conservatism. In the theatre of the Romantic era, Shakespeare fared less well, but as an author he was much touted and even venerated. In 1769 the famous actor David Garrick had instituted a Shakespeare Jubilee at Stratford-upon-Avon to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday. Shakespeare had become England’s national poet.

Twentieth century and beyond

Increasing importance of scholarship

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw major increases in the systematic and scholarly exploration of Shakespeare’s life and works. Philological research established a more reliable chronology of the work than had been hitherto available. Edward Dowden, in his Shakspere: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art (1875), analyzed the shape of Shakespeare’s career in a way that had not been possible earlier. A.C. Bradley’s magisterial Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), a book that remains highly readable, showed how the achievements of scholarship could be applied to a humane and moving interpretation of Shakespeare’s greatest work. As in earlier studies of the 19th century, Bradley’s approach focused largely on character.

Historical criticism

Increasingly in the 20th century, scholarship furthered an understanding of Shakespeare’s social, political, economic, and theatrical milieu. Shakespeare’s sources came under new and intense scrutiny. Elmer Edgar Stoll, in Art and Artifice in Shakespeare (1933), stressed the ways in which the plays could be seen as constructs intimately connected with their historical environment. Playacting depends on conventions, which must be understood in their historical context. Costuming signals meaning to the audience; so does the theatre building, the props, the actors’ gestures.

Accordingly, historical critics sought to know more about the history of London’s theatres (as in John Cranford Adams’s well-known model of the Globe playhouse or in C. Walter Hodges’s The Globe Restored [1953]), about audiences (Alfred Harbage, As They Liked It [1947]; and Ann Jennalie Cook, The Privileged Playgoers of Shakespeare’s London, 1576–1642 [1981]), about staging methods (Bernard Beckerman, Shakespeare at the Globe 1599–1609 [1962]), and much more. Other scholarly studies examined censorship, the religious controversies of the Elizabethan era and how they affected playwriting, and the heritage of native medieval English drama. Studies in the history of ideas have examined Elizabethan cosmology, astrology, philosophical ideas such as the Great Chain of Being, physiological theories about the four bodily humours, political theories of Machiavelli and others, the skepticism of Montaigne, and much more. See alsoSidebar: Shakespeare on Theatre; Sidebar: Shakespeare and the Liberties; Sidebar: Music in Shakespeare’s Plays.

New Criticism

As valuable as it is, historical criticism has not been without its opponents. A major critical movement of the 1930s and ’40s was the so-called New Criticism of F.R. Leavis, L.C. Knights, Derek Traversi, Robert Heilman, and many others, urging a more formalist approach to the poetry. “Close reading” became the mantra of this movement. At its most extreme, it urged the ignoring of historical background in favour of an intense and personal engagement with Shakespeare’s language: tone, speaker, image patterns, and verbal repetitions and rhythms. Studies of imagery, rhetorical patterns, wordplay, and still more gave support to the movement. At the commencement of the 21st century, close reading remained an acceptable approach to the Shakespearean text.

New interpretive approaches

Shakespeare criticism of the 20th and 21st centuries has seen an extraordinary flourishing of new schools of critical approach. Psychological and psychoanalytic critics such as Ernest Jones have explored questions of character in terms of Oedipal complexes, narcissism, and psychotic behaviour or, more simply, in terms of the conflicting needs in any relationship for autonomy and dependence. Mythological and archetypal criticism, especially in the influential work of Northrop Frye, has examined myths of vegetation having to do with the death and rebirth of nature as a basis for great cycles in the creative process. Christian interpretation seeks to find in Shakespeare’s plays a series of deep analogies to the Christian story of sacrifice and redemption.

Conversely, some criticism has pursued a vigorously iconoclastic line of interpretation. Jan Kott, writing in the disillusioning aftermath of World War II and from an eastern European perspective, reshaped Shakespeare as a dramatist of the absurd, skeptical, ridiculing, and antiauthoritarian. Kott’s deeply ironic view of the political process impressed filmmakers and theatre directors such as Peter Brook (King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream). (For further discussion of later interpretations of Shakespeare, seeSidebar: Viewing Shakespeare on Film; Sidebar: Shakespeare and Opera.) He also caught the imagination of many academic critics who were chafing at a modern political world increasingly caught up in image making and the various other manipulations of the powerful new media of television and electronic communication.

A number of the so-called New Historicists (among them Stephen Greenblatt, Stephen Orgel, and Richard Helgerson) read avidly in cultural anthropology, learning from Clifford Geertz and others how to analyze literary production as a part of a cultural exchange through which a society fashions itself by means of its political ceremonials. Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980) provided an energizing model for the ways in which literary criticism could analyze the process. Mikhail Bakhtin was another dominant influence. In Britain the movement came to be known as Cultural Materialism; it was a first cousin to American New Historicism, though often with a more class-conscious and Marxist ideology. The chief proponents of this movement with regard to Shakespeare criticism are Jonathan Dollimore, Alan Sinfield, John Drakakis, and Terry Eagleton.

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Criticism about William Shakespeare

The Visual Poetry of Filmed Shakespeare
"Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet and Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (his adaptation of Macbeth) take contrasting approaches to filming Shakespeare. Branagh treats the full text as a coherent artefact; Kurosawa uses Macbeth as his inspiration for a film which totally transmutes Shakespeare's original."
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Are there Ciphers in Shakespeare?
"This is an introduction to an ingenious and creative cipher system to be found in the works of William Shakespeare." This work questions whether or not Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. It particularly examines the works for possible ciphers (codes) used to hint at Francis Bacon as the actual author.
Contains: Commentary, Criticism
Author: Penn Leary
Attacking the Cult-Historicists
"In a sequence of recent articles Richard Levin and Tom McAlindon have attacked what they see as the slipshod criticism and political dogmatism of New Historicism and Cultural Materialism."
Contains: Criticism
Author: Martin Coyle
From:Renaissance Forum: An Electronic Journal of Early-Modern Literary and Historical Studies March 1996; vol. 1 no. 1
The Case for Oxford
"Tom Bethell argue[s] that {Shakespeare's] works were probably written by the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, who, for fear of compromising his aristocratic name by writing for the public, falsely attributed his works to an uneducated actor from Stratford by the name of William Shakspere."
Contains: Commentary
Author: Tom Bethell
From:Atlantic Monthly October 1991
The Case for Shakespeare
"Irvin Matus... argue[s]... that there is inadequate reason to doubt that the actor from Stratford was in fact the true author of the Shakespeare works."
Contains: Commentary
Author: Irvin Matus
From:Atlantic Monthly October 1991
Characters of Shakespear's Plays
An in-depth, book-length examination of the characters in Shakespeare's plays.
Contains: Commentary
Author: William Hazlitt
From: 1817
Did Shakespeare Consciously Use Archaic English?
This paper discusses whether Shakespeare's use of archaic words was both deliberate and a common poetic device at the time.
Contains: Criticism
Author: Mary Catherine Davidson
From:Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 1 (1997): 4.1-14
Keywords: historical context
Jean E. Howard's Postmodern Marxist Feminism and the Economic Last Instance
"For over a decade, the Marxist-feminist critic Jean Howard has been a keen observer of the shifting trends in Shakespeare studies. Her insightful commentary on the work of some of the newer, 'political' critics in this field -- including the new historicists, cultural materialists, and feminists -- has helped to clarify many of the theoretical and practical problems with which these writers have struggled in their efforts to counter the ahistorical formalism of an earlier era. More than a metacritic, however, Howard has also offered her own innovative analyses of the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and, in the process, has enlarged our understanding of the significance of a wide range of early modern 'theatrical practices'."
Contains: Criticism
Author: David Siar
From:Renaissance Forum: An Electronic Journal of Early-Modern Literary and Historical Studies Autumn 1997; vol. 2 no. 2
Keywords: Marxism, feminism
Partial Views: Shakespeare and the Map of Ireland
"Contemporaries were divided over the visual power of maps: while some praised the privileged visibility afforded by cartography, apparent in the exciting possibility 'to view the whole world at one view' (Thomas Blundeville 1589), others commented on the uselessness of what they saw as little more than vague geographical records, literally 'superficial' images of a far more complex spatial reality. The aim of this paper is to explore the operation (and political functionalization) of this ambivalent visual code in one specific historical instance, the English construction of Irish space in Elizabethan and Jacobean times: in contemporary maps, Ireland could either be fully exposed and dragged into open view, or literally forced off the map and pushed into an indistinct and shadowy background. Such "partial views" of Ireland, I argue, are not only endemic in maps but also in contemporary plays, and in order to explore conceptual interrelations between the dramatic and cartographic representation of what many observers rationalized as Ireland's intractable spatial otherness, the essay considers several early modern Irish maps alongside four plays by Shakespeare. The analysis of maps and plays reveals, I argue, both the continuing English interest in Irish space, as well as the gradual discursive accomodation of Irish cultural difference into a "British" framework."
Contains: Criticism
Author: Bernhard Klein
From:Early Modern Literary Studies 4.2 / Special Issue 3 (September, 1998): 5.1-20
Revisiting Shakespeare and Gender
"William Shakespeare is a rich and suggestive author in terms of alerting students to issues in women's studies and gender ideology. Although Shakespeare reflects and at times supports the English Renaissance stereotypes of women and men and their various roles and responsibilities in society, he is also a writer who questions, challenges, and modifies those representations."
Contains: Criticism
Author: Jeanne Gerlach, Rudolph Almasy, and Rebecca Daniel
From:Women in Literature and Life Assembly Vol. 5 Fall 1996
Shakespeare and the Politics of Community
"The turn towards a narrative sense of community has emerged as a central conceptual premise in communitarian and postmodern scholarship. This article is premised on a discussion of the idea of a narrative community as presented in contemporary scholarship. It then proceeds to a discussion of communitarian ideas in early modern political and literary thought, concentrating on the presentation of these ideas in Shakespeare's description of the politics of association, most particularly in Love's Labour's Lost."
Contains: Criticism
Author: Ian Ward
From:Early Modern Literary Studies 4.3 (January, 1999): 2.1-45
The Shakespeare Law Library
"Strangely, the case for Shakespeare's knowledge of Elizabethan law has never been appropriately framed during the almost 150-year history of the argument. This site archives works that address the argument."
Contains: Commentary, Criticism
Author: Mark Alexander
Shakespeare; or, the Poet
"Ralph Waldo Emerson�s lecture from Representative Men. "
Contains: Commentary, Criticism
Author: Ralph Waldo Emerson
From: 1904
Shakespeare: Life and Plays
"The great teacher and scholar George Saintsbury created the touchstone for Shakespeare reference with these chapters from the Cambridge History of English Literature. "
Contains: Extensive Bio, Commentary, Criticism, Bibliography
Author: George Saintsbury
From:The Cambridge History of English and American Literature Vol.5, The Drama to 1642, Part One
Surfing with the Bard -- Lesson Plans
This site contains a growing number of lesson plans for teaching about Shakespeare.
Author: Amy Ulen
A Text of Shreds and Patches: Shakespeare and Popular Culture
http://www.marshall.edu/english/OVSC/SR1997.html#A Text of Shreds...
This paper explores how the "twentieth century has fragmented the plays (as well as the legend of the person) of Shakespeare and injected pieces into other forms of popular culture."
Contains: Criticism,
Author: Annalisa Castaldo
From:Selected Papers of the West Virginia Shakespeare and Renaissance Association Volume 20, 1997
What is the English history play and why are they saying such terrible things about it?
"Is the only alternative to 'Shakespeare' an 'Alternative Shakespeare'? Contributors to the second Alternative Shakespeares volume differ."
Contains: Criticism
Author: Steve Longstaffe
From:Renaissance Forum: An Electronic Journal of Early-Modern Literary and Historical Studies Autumn 1997; vol. 2 no. 2

Biographical sites about William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare
Provides a brief biographical sketch of the poet, full text of several poems, and links to other web sites.
Contains: Sketch, Bibliography, Webliography, Pictures
Author: Academy of American Poets

Other sites about William Shakespeare

Shakespeare Online
"Amanda is the editor of Shakespeare Online, a comprehensive guide to the life, works, and world of England's greatest writer. Her work has been published in the literary anthology Context."
Contains: Extensive Bio, Full Bio, Pictures, Criticism
Author: Amanda Mabillard
From:Shakespeare Online
Shakespeare - Comprehensive Information About Shakespeare - About.com
Contains: Full Bio, Criticism, Commentary, Pictures, Works List
Author: Amanda Mabillard
An Authorship Analysis: Francis Bacon as Shake-speare
Extensive site addresses the question of whether Bacon was the actual author of many or all of Shakespeare's works.
Contains: Commentary, Extensive Bio, Pictures
Author: Dupuy, Paul
The Classic Text: Traditions and Interpretations: William Shakespeare
Part of "The Classic Text: Traditions and Interpretations", an online exhibit which "examines some of the high spots of the western literary canon. It explores the foundations of their iconographic standing, demonstrating how they arrive at this status through a variety of means, and not always on the basis of their literary worth. The exhibition gives special focus to how printers, publishers, editors, illustrators, and translators have used the icon of the classic text as a venue for their own agendas."
Author: Christopher Barth, Virginia Haas, Sarah McDanie
From:University of Wisconsin Milwaukee - Special Collections Library
The Common Reader's Shakespeare
"The ISE can give the diverse World Wide Web audience both a populist edition for the common reader and a scholarly edition that advances research in Shakespeare studies. With access to what many existing editions lack -- computer databases, including on-line Renaissance text libraries and journals, just-emerging reference resources such as Shaxicon and the Early Modern English Dictionaries Database, and Michael Best's Shakespeare's Life and Times -- the ISE can centre itself on Shakespeare and his works as problematic historical constructions. Each can be displayed, as remade by succeeding generations according to their needs. On-line readers, the next generation, will look for such features as multiple versions of the texts, hypertextual linkage to source materials and criticism, a historical time-line integrated with theatrical documents and pictures, as well as opportunities to export ISE resources to the latest text- and image-analysis software. A Web Shakespeare can reinvigorate the editorial tradition in Shakespeare studies both with native computational research and with a much larger, more intricately networked scholarly context for the texts themselves than possible up to the present."
Contains: Commentary
Author: Ian Lancashire
From:Early Modern Literary Studies 3.3 / Special Issue 2 (January, 1998): 4.1-12
The Ghost's Vocabulary
"About the joint quest of a statistician and a mathematician to use computer analysis 'to find out whether Shakespeare, rather than Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford or any of a myriad of others, wrote the plays and poems we associate with his name.'"
Contains: Commentary
Author: Edward Dolnick
From:Atlantic Monthly October 1991
The People For Whom Shakespeare Wrote
A look at the people of England during the time of Shakespeare.
Author: Warner, Charles Dudley, 1829-1900
From: New York, Harper & brothers, 1897
Shakespeare Illustrated
"Shakespeare Illustrated, a work in progress, explores nineteenth-century paintings, criticism and productions of Shakespeare's plays and their influences on one another."
Contains: Bibliography, Pictures, Commentary
Author: Harry Rusche
Shakespeare on Television: A Bibliography of Criticism
"The present bibliography intends to provide a comprehensive reference guide to the publications dealing with Shakespeare on television, updating and revising misprints and inaccuracies in previous bibliographies (see section A). Its coverage is exhaustive up to 1999, the year of the centenary of the first Shakespeare film and the celebration in Spain of the first international conference exclusively devoted to such a relatively new area in Shakespeare studies. The scope of this bibliography is limited to studies on Shakespeare television adaptations and derivatives and does not include musical versions or operas based on the plays. Televised stage productions and video productions have also been included, and the corresponding entries make reference to the television broadcast, deliberately excluding articles and reviews focusing on the stage production as in the case of Jonathan Miller�s The Merchant of Venice (1970) or Edwin Sherin�s King Lear (1973). Although the bibliography intends to be as comprehensive as possible, certain types of entries have been omitted: abstracts, announcements, accounts of film-making, dissertations, reports of conferences and courses, reprints (unless they are revised or expanded editions), and works containing only passing references. Interviews have only been listed if they specifically deal with one or several adaptation(s); those referring to a director�s whole �uvre have been discarded. Reviews are usually excluded, with three exceptions: a) those published in Shakespearean journals; b) those that were later reprinted in volumes such as J. C. Bulman and H. R. Coursen�s Shakespeare on Television: An Anthology of Essays and Reviews (1988); and c) those making reference to virtually unavailable adaptations such as the television series An Age of Kings (1960) or The Spread of the Eagle (1963)."
Contains: Bibliography
Author: José Ramón Díaz-Fernández
From:Early Modern Literary Studies 6.1 (May, 2000): 4
Shakespearian Glossary
A glossary of some Shakespearean terminology.
From:Internet Wiretap

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