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The Ghost Behind the Masks

The Victorian Poets and Shakespeare


 W. David Shaw


 Charlottesville & London: University of Virginia Press, 2014

Hardcover. ix+ 285 pages. ISBN 978-0813935447. $39.50


Reviewed by Laurent Bury

Université Lumière – Lyon 2



“Since that time [twenty years ago] the poetry I have committed to memory has been alive with the sound of Clough quoting Hamlet, Hopkins echoing King Lear, and Lady Macbeth talking through Christina Rossetti. I keep overhearing Othello and Hamlet in Tennyson, and a host of Shakespearean voices in Browning” [ix]. W. David Shaw, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Toronto, the author of several volumes already, has finally decided to write a book about the links between nineteenth-century poets and the Bard. He focuses on seven great names, in order to study what he calls the four voices of poetry : Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, and the sadly neglected Arthur Hugh Clough, in whom “a reader hears mainly the first of lyrical voice of poetry, in which the poet speaks in his own person” [228-229], Browning, Hopkins, Christina Rossetti and Thomas Hardy, who mainly use “the second or rhetorical voice” [229], the  other two  voices being the “third or dramatic voice” and the “fourth voice we might call ghostly or prophetic” [229]. However, the book does not take each poet, or poetic voice, separately but reads their work via a series of themes, in which the Shakespearean influence is examined through many examples. Other poets than the seven great ones are also discussed more briefly: Swinburne, George Meredith, Edward Fitzgerald, A.E. Housman.

One might consider that the title only partly reflects the contents of the volume, since Chapter 3, for instance, hardly has anything to do with Victorian poetry, but is all about Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, a novel in which Hamlet is very present, but where W. David Shaw sees Pip as another Malvolio (one might also object to the patronizing tone adopted in those pages, with judgments like “we must not make Great Expectations a better novel than it is” [56] or references to “Dickens’s limitations as a novelist” [57], which are only partly compensated by the sentence “A comic genius like Dickens delights in what separates people rather than what unites them. The genius who wrote Hamlet is the exact opposite… Because we want Pip to grow up as a man, and Dickens as an artist, we feel as cheated by the comedy of his failed encounters as we feel grateful for the growth into wisdom of a tragic hero like Hamlet” [58]).

Another detail which ought to be mentioned before discussing the various chapters of the book is the relative absence of Shakespeare’s sonnets: they finally appear on page 186 (out of 251), in Chapter 10, but the rest of the volume is exclusively devoted to the influence of Shakespeare’s plays, one might even say of his tragedies: there are indeed some references to The Comedy of Errors or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the Victorians seem to have been much more attracted by the Bard’s gloomier aspects. Rhetorical and stylistic questions are focused on in the last chapter, with the use of asyndeton, for instance. “The most Shakespearean attribute of the Victorian poets, however, is not their addiction to hendiadys or hyperbaton but their reticence, the classical restraint of their great monologues, and their sudden descent from grandeur to simplicity” [223]. One last caveat: Shaw’s book is obviously not the first in this field, as witnessed by the recent Shakespeare and the Victorians (Arden, 2004), by Adrian Poole. “Adrian Poole’s volume in the Arden Shakespeare series studies Shakespeare in a Victorian context. My study reverses his emphasis by placing Victorian poets in the context of Shakespeare” [4].

The volume starts in a light-hearted mood, with a study of extravagant or ridiculous wits like Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost, or Osric in Hamlet, “another Shakespearean prototype of the Victorian aesthete” [12]. Chapter 2 concentrates on Browning and his “uncanny power to make an audience intimate with dupes, charlatans and villains” [20], a quality he shares with the Bard. Among those artists in crime, one meets Richard III, Iago and the Duke in “My Last Duchess”. Chapter 4 compares “Shakespeare’s assessment of man’s angelic and apelike nature in Measure for Measure” with “Tennyson’s grand appraisal of man’s dual status as paragon and misfit in section 56 of In Memoriam” [63]. Nevertheless, Hamlet is also very much discussed in that same chapter: it is indeed “the play the Victorian poets quote most often, not because it is Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, but because its hero, in the manner of many Victorians, is immobilized in his sphere of action” [67]. This allows Shaw to scrutinize Clough’s “masterpiece[s] of Hamlet-like indecision and doubt” [72], Amours de Voyage and Dipsychus. A Victorian thinker like John Henry Newman is then summoned, just like Carlyle is later depicted as a “Victorian Prospero” [209] in Sartor Resartus. Chapter 5 is mostly philosophical, bringing together Shakespeare’s vision of the links between art and nature in the human condition and the way Darwin, Huxley, Ruskin or John Stuart Mill reacted to the scientific discoveries of their time.

Chapter 6 is exclusively about Thomas Hardy, the novelist (Tess of the d’Urbervilles compared with King Lear), but also, of course, the poet, who sometimes “substitutes homily for drama or rhetoric for art” [101]. Chapter 7 studies the figure of the Fool, in Troilus and Cressida (Thersites) and in Idylls of the King (Dagonet). Chapter 8 develops the notion of “informed or higher ignorance” [123], that is, skepticism, in “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”, the most enigmatic Victorian poem inspired by King Lear”. “Like Shakespeare or Montaigne, Browning’s speaker is a knight, not of faith, but of higher ignorance and doubt. Yet his impulse to disbelieve everything … also misleads him” [124], and his speculations and conclusions are “a tortured fantasy, exquisitely refined, but implausible as an explanation of what he sees” [127]. Chapter 9 deals with the femme fatale, who seduces men with wiles like Cleopatra’s “toil of grace” [145], Antony and Cleopatra being one of the sources for Tennyson’s play Queen Mary, just like Macbeth is the source for the representation of madness Maud. Chapter 10 is about transience and beauty, about the imagination of death. Tempus edax rerum is also the subject of Chapter 11, Ovid, Shakespeare and Tennyson being classified among “Prophets of time’s power to level and destroy” [192].

“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 Tennyson and Clough” [220]. W. David Shaw’s familiarity with Victorian poetry, fiction and philosophy is obviously incontestable and immensely impressive. He may not be quite as knowledgeable about Victorian art, since he mentions John Everett Millais’s “works like The Lady of Shalott and Ophelia, for which he is best remembered today” [182]. Millais did treat the subject in a drawing in 1854, but it never went any further; in the Moxon edition, “The Lady of Shalott” was shared between two illustrators, Hunt and Rossetti, Hunt going on to produce, several decades later, an oil on canvas after the 1857 engraving. This has to be a slip of the pen for Mariana, Millais’s most famous Tennysonian painting.


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