Criticism of Shakespeare

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At the time of the Restoration in 1660, it would not have been easy to identify such a thing as ‘criticism of Shakespeare’ – or, for that matter, criticism of any modern author. ‘Critick’ was a term few writers were willing to apply to themselves, since it was usually a byword for mean-spirited pedantry – this despite the shining example of ‘the Critick’, Aristotle. By 1800, though, the literary critic was an established cultural institution, a force to be reckoned with, and occasionally even respected. Shakespeare and the critics had a symbiotic relationship, in which critics did much to increase the esteem for Shakespeare while Shakespeare played a large part in the invention of the figure of the critic. There were isolated comments on Shakespeare during his lifetime and shortly after, both celebrations of his talent and denigrations of his failings. Real critical evaluation of Shakespeare, though, is often said to begin with Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle – the first of many women writers who were instrumental in studying Shakespeare over the course of the long eighteenth century. In CCXI Sociable Letters (1664), Cavendish devotes Letter 123 to Shakespeare, whose works were becoming newly prominent on the Restoration stage. Readers with more continental taste had already begun faulting Shakespeare for his neglect of decorum, but Cavendish is astonished that anyone ‘could either have the Conscience, or Confidence to Dispraise Shakespear's Playes, as to say they were made up onely with Clowns, Fools, Watchmen, and the like’. She insists that Shakespeare was not only able to depict low characters, but had mastered all forms of characterization: ‘Shakespear did not want Wit, to Express to the Life all Sorts of Persons, of what Quality, Profession, Degree, Breeding, or Birth soever.’ So entirely does he enter the minds of his characters that ‘one would think that he had been Metamorphosed from a Man to a Woman, for who could Describe Cleopatra Better than he hath done, and many other Females of his own Creating, as Nan Page, Mrs. Page, Mrs. Ford, the Doctors Maid, Bettrice, Mrs. Quickly, Doll Tearsheet, and others, too many to Relate’.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationShakespeare in the Eighteenth Century
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781139047333
ISBN (Print)9780521898607
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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