Critical Approaches to Shakespeare: Some Initial Observations

An earlier introductory note to some basic principles of literary interpretation (“On Scholarship and Literary Interpretation”), stressed that literary interpretation or literary criticism is, in many ways, an anarchic conversational activity with the practical purpose of enriching our shared understanding of a particular text. The value of any particular interpretative observations, or of a methodology upon which those observations are based, is judged by the results, as adjudicated by a group of intelligent conversationalists who have read and thought about the text under discussion.

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Hence, there is no one privileged way of organizing and presenting one’s views. As that previous note mentioned, there are some basic rules about how the conversation should proceed, but these do not require a shared adherence to a single way of reading a text. In fact, the conversational basis for really useful literary interpretation finds its justification in the contrast between different ways of reading a text or some portion of it, because conversation is the best forum in which such differences confront each other and the participants profit from a discussion of the results of such different readings.

However, in spite of the above remarks, there are some favorite ways of reading fictions, each of which stresses certain elements of the work over others. These may be called, I suppose, common approaches to or entries into the works, preferred ways of making contact with something that is going on in the text, so as to organize one’s comments and get the interpretative conversation going. As we shall see, these methods are not mutually exclusive, although with some works one or more may be more practically useful than another.

The purpose of this document is to review a few of the more common of these critical approaches to Shakespeare’s plays. This introductory comment should help students reflect upon their own critical practices as they read, discuss, and write about Shakespeare’s texts. This is important, because one of the great values of studying Shakespeare is that such an endeavour can lead to a much wider and fuller understanding, not just of the works themselves, but of literary interpretation generally.

Such an understanding becomes all the more likely if students are prepared at times to experiment with new ways of reading a text, leaving behind for a moment their preferred methods and seeing how different approaches might work. The Challenge of Shakespeare’s Work Shakespeare’s work offers an extraordinarily rich resource for the literary interpreter because it includes such a huge variety, from lyric and narrative poetry to many different forms of poetic drama. Some of the plays seem deeply rooted in specific political realities, while others are clearly much closer to romance, science fiction, or pastoral.

The works include scores of complex characters, major and minor, whose psychological make-up invites analysis, but they also explore complex social, political, and moral ideas. Sometimes these ideas are very explicitly present, almost in allegorical form (for example, the witches in Macbeth or Queen Margaret in Richard III), at other times they are more deeply buried in the actions and decisions of particular characters. Moreover, the texts present these elements in an amazingly rich poetic style, full of evocative metaphors.

Here indeed is God’s plenty. As a preliminary caution, we need to remind ourselves that when we are reading Shakespeare’s plays, all we have are the words the different characters utter (along with some minimally useful stage directions) and the actions they carry out. We have no reliable notion in most cases of the tone of voice the character uses, any gestures or movements which might accompany these words, and no clear idea in most instances whether or not the character really means what he or she says.

Generally, we have no direct information about what characters look like, how old they are, or how they move. Unlike, say, a novel in which there is often an omniscient author reliably to inform us of a character’s intentions, tone, appearance, inner thoughts, and so on, a Shakespeare script leaves an enormous amount up to us. Hence, it will not be uncommon for us to find widely different possibilities in a single person or speech (depending upon how we see and hear the character in action).

For example, the age difference between Hamlet’s father and mother, if it is really significant (of the same magnitude as the age difference between Juliet’s parents), may prompt certain interpretative possibilities which are far less likely if we see the two of them as roughly the same age. That is one reason (by no means the only one) why we must reject the notion that there is one authoritative way to read a particular work. A dramatic script by Shakespeare has no single determinate meaning.

Rather, it contains a range of possible interpretative meanings. Our job as interpreters is to explore some of these possibilities, to evaluate them with respect to each other, and, if possible, to come to a sense of some of the major alternatives. This process will require the ability, one mark of a growing sophistication in the literary interpreter, to hold simultaneously in one’s imagination different possibilities (even contradictory options), while at the same time remaining open to other options.

One serious limitation of a college course in Shakespeare is that we do not have much opportunity to see many productions of specific works. While reading Shakespeare can obviously be an enormously delightful and rewarding experience, we need to remember that he did not write to be read, but to be performed (that is, to be seen and heard). This point is particularly important to recall if we drift into the habit of reading these plays as if they were novels. For we may then find ourselves objecting to something which we would hardly notice (or would accept readily enough) in a fine production (e. . , some of the coincidences on which much comic actions depends, the time frame in Othello or Hamlet, sudden changes of mind, like Lady Anne’s in Richard III, and so on). Plays tend to present a vision of reality far less immediately naturalistic than traditional novels, simply because an audience at a play brings a set of evaluative criteria different from the ones people use when reading naturalistic fiction in the solitude of their domestic dens (more about this later). The Approach Through Character Analysis

The most obvious way to begin an interpretation of a Shakespearean play (and also the most popular) is by evaluating the characters. Any play involves characters in a particular setting, doing particular things. The plot will develop a conflict, which will usually inflict pain or distress on some people (comically or otherwise), and will lead to a final resolution of sorts in which some characters may die or be punished severely, while others survive or triumph or get substantially rewarded.

Hence, one clear entry into such a work is to put the characters on trial: Who is good? Who is bad? Why do certain people act in certain ways? Do any of the characters change? Where are my sympathies as I make my way through this play? As an interpreter, I am, in essence, the judge, and how shall I apportion my verdicts? Interpreting a play by analyzing the characters in it, judging them, and coming to some final evaluation of them is a natural way to approach Shakespeare for three main reasons.

The first is that these are plays, and they inevitably feature active characters more or less recognizably like people around us. That, indeed, is the chief appeal of the genre. So it is entirely natural to treat the play as we treat life itself, by responding to the people we see, the actions they carry out, the words they use, and the decisions they make. On the basis of these observations we will come to some conclusions about their characters and will discuss the play in those terms.

The second reason is that Shakespeare is famous, more than anything else, for his astonishing ability to create interesting, complex, and natural characters. Unlike many other dramatists whose characters do not invite very complex investigation (e. g. , many writers of situation comedies who rely upon stock characters very similar to those in other plays), Shakespeare has the ability to fill a play with scores of characters, each of whom talks in a language and acts in a way which indicates a sharply focused individual personality with a very particular response to experience.

Hence, it is, once again, natural to treat them as fully realized people whose conduct (amusing or not) requires an evaluative judgment. Then, too, the fact that we are dealing with plays always keeps the approach through character analysis alive, because theatre productions depend upon individual actors, and individual actors need to reflect upon the motivations for their characters. They have to, in a sense, discover their human qualities and become the stage people whose lives they enact.

Thus, the dramatic tradition of continuing to mount Shakespeare productions ensures that the analysis of character will remain a powerful force in the interpretation of the plays. The third major reason why character analysis is an important approach to Shakespeare’s plays is (as Harold Bloom has repeatedly pointed out) that Shakespeare’s characters are often intrigued or puzzled by their own characters. That is, they make their characters part of the dramatic “problem” of the fiction we are exploring.

When, for example, Hamlet or Macbeth or Othello starts to wrestle with his own character, trying to understand his own motivation, feelings, and actions, that moment places the nature of the character as an essential element in the work (in a way that is markedly different from texts in which a character’s personality does not create particular problems for him). In other words, the plays themselves put character analysis directly on the table.

The approach to a Shakespeare play which places the analysis of character at the centre of the process was particularly strong in the nineteenth century, and the literary interpretations from that period often illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of that approach. The great value of character analysis is that it always reminds us that, whatever else we may want to talk of, the central concern is particular human beings. Whatever else King Lear is about, it is centrally about a suffering old man, whose unique character brings upon him almost unimaginable suffering.

Whatever we make of Hamlet, we cannot forget that the people in the play drive Ophelia insane and lead her to suicide, and that she is an innocent and loving young woman. Focusing upon the characters in the play always keeps us in touch with a major reason why Shakespeare matters–his works constantly illuminate human nature in all sorts of moving ways. That said, however, treating the interpretation of a play as primarily (or exclusively) a matter of evaluating character can create problems, particularly if we get into the habit of thinking that that is all there is that matters in the text.

One major problem, of course, is that in many instances we do not know enough about a character to arrive at a sufficiently full understanding of his or her personality. We know almost nothing of Hamlet’s childhood, or Bolingbroke’s inner thoughts, or Lady Macbeth’s sexuality. Thus, key elements required in any full character analysis are missing. Of course, we can speculate on such matters (we have to if we want to arrive at a full understanding of the personality), but such speculations can often end up in inconclusive and often trivial debates, because there is not enough evidence.

So we can find criticism by the analysis of character degenerating into explorations of the girlhood of Shakespeare’s heroines, endless arguments about whether or not the Macbeths had any children, how old Hamlet might be or whether he is really insane or not, whether Falstaff is a coward or not, how black Othello really is, or what Antony and Cleopatra really talk about when they are alone together. A second problem which can arise by an overemphasis on character analysis is that we may forget that Shakespeare’s characters, as well as being keenly drawn individuals, also have social and family positions.

They are kings, sisters, daughters, servants, widows, generals, fools, dukes, property owners, workers, and so on. So they carry with them, not merely their individual personalities, but a host of social and political attitudes, commitments, and responsibilities, and they are, to some extent, representatives of social, political, and gender types. Hence, their interactions are more than just clashes of particular personalities. The Approach Through Thematic Analysis

That last point about how dramatic characters are also, to some extent, representatives of social types is a reminder that their dramatic impact includes more than their unique personalities. For they bring with them, for example, political and gender meanings which inevitably have a bearing on the impact of a play and make it, not just a clash of people, but a clash of or an exploration of ideas or themes which the characters and their actions develop, explore, qualify, or undermine. This fact gives rise to thematic analysis.

A thematic approach to Shakespeare’s work will tend to focus first on some guiding idea which a character in action either expresses overtly or exemplifies. For example, Richard II is not simply a particular person; he is also a king. That gives him particular social and political power and responsibilities. When Bolingbroke rebels against Richard, the action immediately calls attention to an important idea: the tension between legitimacy and fitness to rule or, alternatively put, the justification for usurping an unfit but legitimate king.

Richard II is, among other things, very clearly an examination of this idea–not simply because the point is discussed in the play, but, more importantly, because the action of the play forces us to consider this idea from many different perspectives. Thematic interpretation will tend to see the works primarily as explorations of particular social, political, or moral ideas. This does not mean that the work is of interest merely as a philosophical working out of some issue, some rational investigation of what an idea means or where it logically leads.

What it does mean is that the thematic interpreter will tend to call attention to some guiding idea or theme in the work and explore how the action of the play develops our understanding of that idea (often the point will be to complicate our understanding of an apparently simple issue, without necessarily resolving it). Richard II does not resolve the issues surrounding legitimacy and fitness to rule, but by the end of the play we have come to understand many of the complexities that the issue raises (Henry IV, Part 1 does the same with the notion of honour).

We have come to this understanding, not by being told of those complexities, but by having witnessed the consequences in action of characters who have been caught up in a drama in which this issue is something they have had to deal with in action. Similarly, when we follow the sufferings of Ophelia in Hamlet, we are, to some extent, dealing with the issue of how women are treated in Elsinore, an issue which transcends the uniqueness of Ophelia’s character. And we can push the issue even further to argue that the play is, in large part, about gender relations generally.

Thematic criticism is particularly useful in reminding us that these plays are about more than the particular characters, that there are social, political, gender, religious, and moral issues at stake and that, as we proceed through the play, we do need to attend to how the drama is putting pressure on our understanding of those ideas in the context established by the play (and beyond). Macbeth, for example, is more than the story of one particular ancient Scottish warrior-king.

It is also clearly about the nature of evil in our world, about loyalty, and other matters as well. If we fail to attend upon these issues, because we are overly concerned with, say, Lady Macbeth’s motivation, then we are missing some essential elements in the play. At the same time, however, thematic criticism has its dangers, particularly if the approach becomes too ham fisted, that is, if the interpreter simply forces onto the text the working out of a particular idea and makes the play a relatively simple allegory.

An interpreter who insists, for example, that King Lear is only or exclusively a debate between two contrasting views of nature has taken an important element in the play and made it the total experience of the work, forgetting that there’s a suffering old man at the centre of the action and that that man, in all his human particularity, is our main emotional contact with what is going on. An interpreter who insists that Richard III is principally a confirmation of the providential vision of history may well miss important ways in which the play may be subverting that idea or developing alternative visions.

In other words, if the danger of character analysis is that it can get bogged down in trivial unanswerable questions about details of the lives of particular men and women, the danger of thematic criticism can be that it gets crudely reductive, turning a complex work into the simple illustration of a particular idea or dogma. This is presumably the form of criticism practiced by many of those who would dismiss Shakespeare on the ground that his works are patriarchal, conservative, and bourgeois (i. e. , which reinforce a narrow and unwelcome ideology).

It’s true that some plays invite a strongly thematic approach in which the characters are little more that signals for a particular idea and their conflict is the working out or illustration of some ideological message outside the play. Such a work of literature we call allegory. While many of Shakespeare’s works (like King Lear) have what appears to be an allegorical framework (and can be usefully interpreted to some extent in terms of that), in most of his plays the complexity in the characters tends to undercut any simple allegorical approach.

The one possible exception in the plays we study is The Tempest, which, for reasons we will discuss when we get to that work, seems to invite allegorical treatment (although there is much debate about which allegorical treatment is most appropriate). In some sense, interpretation which focuses on character appeals to our desire for the unique particularity of each moment in the play and the ways these help to define rich memorable characters; interpretation which focuses on thematic analysis appeals to our desire for more general coordinating issues throughout the work.

There is no reason these cannot work well together. In fact, that makes good sense. For in Shakespearean drama, as in life, ideas and actions are constantly at work, sometimes reinforcing each other, sometimes contrasting each other. Sometimes a simple action will undermine a beautifully coherent idea (that happens all the time in Shakespeare); sometimes a simple action will confirm an important human truth. For that reason, a good deal of interpretation involves testing possible themes against the perceived actions of the characters.

Is The Tempest really an exploration of colonialist attitudes? That’s an interesting idea. How does a close reading of the play, together with a careful examination of the characters’ actions, confirm or repudiate that suggestion? Is the first History Cycle calling attention to the marginalization of women from the political process? Or does the dramatic effect of these particular female characters challenge that idea?

Reading a number of Shakespeare’s plays encourages this often fertile union of character analysis and thematic interpretation, because he is fond of returning to dramatic conflicts between pairs of opposite types: the valiant warrior (Othello, Hotspur, Antony) pitted against the devious manipulative schemer (Iago, Henry IV, Octavius); the expressive poet-prince (Richard II, Hamlet) pitted against the shrewd political pragmatist (Bolingbroke, Claudius); the intelligent, loving young woman (Rosalind, Viola) having to deal with the sentimental, poetical bachelor (Orlando, Orsino), and so on.

These conflicts may present uniquely drawn characters in action, but there are recurring thematic issues which help to coordinate all of Shakespeare’s work until it starts to become, for the avid reader, one long work, ceaselessly exploring major issues through the experiences of unforgettable characters.

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