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The Ghost behind the Masks

The Ghost behind the Masks: The Victorian Poets and Shakespeare

W. David Shaw
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    The Ghost behind the Masks
    Book Description:

    InThe Ghost behind the Masks,W. David Shaw traces Shakespeare's influence on nine Victorian poets: Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Christina Rossetti, Thomas Hardy, Matthew Arnold, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Algernon Swinburne, Arthur Hugh Clough, and George Meredith. Often, he writes, the transparency of Shakespeare's influence on Victorian poets and the degree of their engagement with Shakespeare exist in inverse ratio. Instead of imitating a play by Shakespeare or merely quoting his lines, a Victorian poet may embrace more elusive elements of rhetoric and style, adapting them to his or her own ends.

    Shaw argues that the most Shakespearean attribute of the Victorian poets is not their addiction to any particular trope or figure of speech but their reticence, the classical restraint of their great monologues, and their sudden descent from grandeur to simplicity. He explores such topics as man-made law versus natural right, Stoic fatalism versus self-reliance, and the sanity of lunatics, lovers, and poets versus the madness of commonplace minds.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3545-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    To think like Shakespeare and the great Victorians is not to know but to see wonder, mystery, and the unknown everywhere, especially at the heart of what we think we know. Swaying between opposing possibilities and wavering between worlds, Shakespeare and the Victorian poets both express and nourish a genius for speculative wonder and debate. Though I do not pretend to offer a single argument about Shakespeare and the Victorians, my exploration of such topics as the contest between manmade law and natural right, Stoic fatalism and self-reliance, the sanity of lunatics, lovers, and poets and the madness of commonplace...

  5. Part I Poetic Beginnings

    • 1 Word and Love Games: BEROWNE AND IDA’S PRINCE
      (pp. 9-19)

      Inlove’s labor’s lost,Shakespeare shows what happens when the Princess of France and a bevy of her ladies visit the little academy of Navarre, a stronghold of young male courtiers and pedants resolved to woo their female guests with displays of extravagant erudition and wit. The young playwright celebrates his love affair with words while poking fun at their potential absurdity and excess. The play’s most brilliant adaptation, Tennyson’sThe Princess,is an aspirant’s discovery of his own genius as a lyric poet. Tennyson also delights in the adolescent pranks of male transvestites, and gently satirizes the grand pretentiousness...

    • 2 The Trespass of Intimacy: ARTISTS IN CRIME
      (pp. 20-44)

      To Shakespeare Browning owes his very origins as a poet. He told J.S. Mill that a performance of Edmund Kean as Richard Crookback led him to writePauline,his first attempt to realize a childish scheme “toact,as well to make verses, music, and God knows . . . what castles in Spain” (1981, 1, 1021). Part of the magic Browning shares with Shakespeare in this “Fool’s Paradise” is an ability to “assume and realize” different characters. It includes an uncanny power to make an audience intimate with dupes, charlatans, and villains. By constantly explaining to an audience the...

  6. Part II Hamlet’s Afterlives

    • 3 Toils of Fate: DICKENS, HAMLET, AND MALVOLIO
      (pp. 47-58)

      Great wits are sure to madness near allied,” claims Dryden inAbsalom and Achitophel(line 163); and we may say the same of tragedy and comedy. Thin partitions divide calamity from farce inOthello,where the Moor is both a tragic victim of betrayed love and a sexual dupe, the laughingstock of what Thomas Rymer notoriously calls a “bloody farce, without salt or savor” (1971, 164). InGreat Expectations,weird incantations and ritual repetitions make Pip the victim of a fate that seems at first tragic. There are forces at work in his world that he, like Hamlet, only half...

    • 4 The Angel of Dust: A GOD IN EXILE
      (pp. 59-80)

      Sometimes Shakespeare’s most authoritative words rise unbidden in the mind of a speaker who is preoccupied with other matters. Such is Hamlet’s great aside “What a piece of work is man,” which originates as a screen to hide his secret thoughts and suspicions from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who have been sent to spy on him.¹ Instead of speaking intimately, as a confidant or friend, Hamlet talks with the remote authority of an oracle. Lofty words tower above his offhand banter, and are more impressive for emerging out of the casual, sauntering movement of the prose.

      I have of late—but...

  7. Part III Shades of King Lear

    • 5 Thou, Nature, Art My Goddess: THE GARDEN AND THE HEATH
      (pp. 83-93)

      The ethics of Shakespeare’s Edmund inKing Learis the ethics of naturalism, embraced in the Victorian age by Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and Tennyson’s fool Dagonet in “The Last Tournament.” When Edmund invokes Nature as his goddess in his first soliloquy inKing Lear,he is introducing a distinction between “natural right” and “man-made law” that harks back to the thought of the Greek sophists. Coming after the straight prose of Goneril and Regan, the perfect medium for two practical schemers, Edmund’s lift into lively blank verse lends force to his claim to be an imaginative villain who possesses natural...

    • 6 A Choral Mind Trap: HARDY AND THE HOMILISTS
      (pp. 94-107)

      One of the most harrowing yet poignant scenes in Victorian fiction is Angel Clare’s symbolic entombment of his bride on their wedding night in Thomas Hardy’s novelTess of the d’Urbervilles.Though Tess’s bolting upright in the Abbot’s tomb reenacts the climactic moment inRomeo and Julietwhen the drugged Juliet awakens in the crypt, the words Angel pronounces over the woman he wraps in a shroud then carries in his arms resonate most powerfully with the ending ofKing Lear.Angel’s “Dead, dead, dead” is an echo of Lear’s words “Howl, howl, howl” as the old king, carrying Cordelia...

    • 7 Wisdom and Wit: LEAR’S FOOL TO DAGONET
      (pp. 108-122)

      A wise fool like Shakespeare’s Touchstone or Feste has less in common with Tennyson’s fool Dagonet in “The Last Tournament” than with the witty ironist who narrates Trollope’s novelBarchester Towers.He also resembles the bemused Fool staring at his face in a mirror in the frontispiece illustration of Thackeray’sVanity Fair,who portrays an important side of the narrator’s own character. As for the disillusioned Dagonet, he combines the cynicism and jeering of Shakespeare’s Thersites with the wit and wisdom of the Fool inKing Lear.Dagonet’s songs are jovially exuberant. But like Thersites’s jests inTroilus and Cressida,...

    • 8 The End of Illusion: CHILDE ROLAND AND CALIBAN
      (pp. 123-142)

      Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s Essays, one of the few books we know Shakespeare read, is a manual of wise skepticism and learned ignorance. Its informed or higher ignorance is not to be mistaken for the natural ignorance of a simpleton like Shakespeare’s Justice Shallow. Nor is it to be confused with those quick-witted souls in Middlemarch who walk about “well wadded with stupidity” for fear of dying “of the roar than lies on the other side of silence” (1956, 144). Unlike simple ignorance or voluntary ignorance, a learned ignorance is the property of a skeptic like Montaigne, who wants to...

  8. Part IV Grace and Death

    • 9 A Toil of Grace: CLEOPATRA AND HER HEIRS
      (pp. 145-163)

      InAntony and Cleopatra,Octavius Caesar speaks eloquently of the beauty he was cold to when Cleopatra lived but which kindles the poet in him when she dies. He says the poisoned queen so resembles a sleeping temptress that he would not be surprised if even in death she snared another victim.

      he looks like sleep,

      As she would catch another Antony

      In her strong toil of grace.

      While a tranquilizing simile (“she looks like sleep”) relaxes the mind, a seductive comparison (“as she would catch”) turns grace, an attribute of God and kings, into a sexual trap. At the...

    • 10 Off the Edge: END GAMES AND ELEGY
      (pp. 164-192)

      Like Shakespeare’s Claudio, Hamlet fears death may be a sleep disturbed by nightmares worse than he can possibly imagine. Since Victorian Anglicans and Dissenters do not believe in purgatory, and since few believe in hell, they seldom share Shakespeare’s fear that death may bring in its wake Claudio’s infinity of torments. On the contrary, Tennyson’s Lucretius, Arnold’s Empedocles, and Browning’s Cleon are all more afraid that when they’ve spun their “last thread,” they “shall perish on the shore” (Donne, “A Hymne to God the Father,” lines 13–14). Many Victorians feared that death would simply annihilate them. Their “sin of...

    • 11 The Hills Are Shadows: TIME THE DEVOURER
      (pp. 193-219)

      Shakespeare, the most ovidian of poets, enjoyed special prominence in the age of evolution, the age of Darwin and Lyell, who studied changes wrought in biology and the earth’s history by time the devourer, the subject of Shakespeare’s most moving sonnets. Honing Ockham’s razor, Darwin used it to dispense with design and submerge the world in a maelstrom of accidental variation and random flux. Any study of Shakespeare’s influence on the poetics and intellectual milieu of the Victorians raises the ghost of Ovid’stempus edax.With childlike simplicity Shakespeare protests, “Time will come and take my love away” (sonnet 64,...

    • 12 Oracle Meets Wit: THE PROMISED END
      (pp. 220-252)

      Literary influence is never a matter of mere quotation. It also embraces more elusive elements of rhetoric and style. One unexpected discovery made in the course of this study is that Browning and Hopkins, the Victorian poets who sound most like Shakespeare, allude to him less often than do Tennyson and Clough. Few monologues are more Ovidian (and hence Shakespearean) in subject matter than Tennyson’s “Tithonus,” whose speaker in Greek myth suffers the indignity of being turned into a grasshopper. But the poem is full of sound effects and grammatical devices that are less typical of Shakespeare than of Keats...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 253-262)
  10. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 263-276)
  11. Index
    (pp. 277-286)