Shakespearean Tragedy (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Shakespearean Tragedy is a landmark work of literary criticism. It is at once the pinnacle of the nineteenth century's love affair with Shakespeare and the starting point for a new century of Shakespeare scholarship.

Critics have charged that A.C. Bradley attends to character at the expense of other elements of the plays, such as theme, dramatic structure, and historical background; Bradley's defenders have praised the work for its philosophical and psychological insights. As ...

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Shakespearean Tragedy (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

Shakespearean Tragedy is a landmark work of literary criticism. It is at once the pinnacle of the nineteenth century's love affair with Shakespeare and the starting point for a new century of Shakespeare scholarship.

Critics have charged that A.C. Bradley attends to character at the expense of other elements of the plays, such as theme, dramatic structure, and historical background; Bradley's defenders have praised the work for its philosophical and psychological insights. As the first important, book-length academic study in English of four of Shakespeare's major tragedies - Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth - Bradley's work both influenced and enabled modern Shakespearean literary criticism even as it engaged with, and often rebutted, conventional Romantic and Victorian interpretations of the plays and their author.

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Introduction

Over one hundred years after its first publication, A. C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy remains a landmark work of literary criticism. Based on Bradley's Oxford lectures, the book is at once the pinnacle of the nineteenth century's (occasionally excessive) love affair with Shakespeare and the starting point for a new century of Shakespeare scholarship. Initially published in 1904 to great enthusiasm and reprinted no fewer than twenty-two times since, Shakespearean Tragedy has been over the years lauded and attacked, revisited and reevaluated by students, scholars, and general readers. Critics have charged that Bradley attends to character at the expense of other elements of the plays, such as theme, dramatic structure, and historical background; Bradley's defenders have praised the work for its philosophical and psychological insights. Throughout the debate, Shakespearean Tragedy has managed to survive the vicissitudes of critical trends. As the first important, book-length academic study in English of four of Shakespeare's major tragedies-Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth-Bradley's book both influenced and enabled modern Shakespearean literary criticism even as it engaged with, and often rebutted, conventional Romantic and Victorian interpretations of the plays and their author.

Andrew Cecil Bradley was born in 1851. His father, the Reverend Charles Bradley, was a clergyman renowned for the powerful and eloquent sermons he preached to his congregations. Reverend Bradley was also a prolific progenitor, siring twenty-two children (of which Andrew Cecil was the youngest), with two different wives. The large family would be an accomplished one; Andrew Cecil's brother Francis Herbert Bradley became a major philosopher, and his half-brother, George Granville Bradley, a celebrated educator and reformer.

Andrew Cecil Bradley seems to have developed a passion for poetry early in life. He especially admired the great English Romantics Percy Shelley, William Wordsworth, and John Keats. At seventeen Bradley enrolled at Oxford University, where he went from undergraduate to fellow, then lecturer, at Balliol College, a hub of progressive thinking and intellectual skepticism about traditional knowledge, such as literal interpretations of the Bible. Bradley's course of study focused on classical philosophy, and the writings of the great ancient Greek Aristotle would prove particularly influential for his ideas about tragedy, as would the modern German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Although a philosopher by training, Bradley found subsequent academic positions in first Liverpool, then Glasgow, chiefly in modern literature. In 1901 Bradley returned to Oxford to accept a five-year position as Chair of Poetry.

Bradley published consistently on philosophy and poetry, but it was during his Oxford tenure that he composed his two most significant books, Shakespearean Tragedy and Oxford Lectures on Poetry (1909). Both works grew out of actual college lectures. As scholar Katharine Cooke observed in her 1970 book A.C. Bradley and his Influence in Twentieth Century Shakespeare Criticism, Bradley strove to reach beyond a strictly academic audience, and with good reason:
"In 1896 it first became possible to graduate at Oxford in English but in the years while Bradley was Professor of Poetry there were never more than five men taking Schools in English or more than twenty-one women. The majority of his audience would therefore not be specialized; indeed, it was Bradley's responsibility to create his own audience."
In late nineteenth-century England, university scholarship and teaching in modern languages and literature (as opposed to only the classics) was in its infancy. The major works on Shakespeare before Bradley had been overwhelmingly produced by "amateurs" rather than academics, such as the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), literary critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830), and essayist Charles Lamb (1775-1834). These amateur works, however, strongly influenced Bradley: Coleridge through his typically Romantic exaltation of Shakespeare's imaginative reach and the psychological depth of his characters' subjective lives, Hazlitt through his 1817 study Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, and Lamb by suggesting that the plays were better appreciated as poetry to be read rather than as theater.

The nineteenth-century Romantics' glorification of Shakespeare the poet over Shakespeare the playwright, and their emphasis on his tragic heroes, particularly Hamlet, as emblematic of the Romantic sublime, were themselves reactions to the inherited conventions from the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These conventions focused on Shakespeare as a kind of savage genius, author of fine if flawed theater. The plays were evaluated according to how well they did-or usually, did not-conform to Neoclassical principles such as Aristotle's specification of unity of time, space, and action. Although paeans to Shakespeare's greatness abounded in the Restoration and Neoclassical eras, most notably by the poet and dramatist John Dryden (1631-1700) and author Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), praise was generally tempered with catalogues of the plays' violations of decorum and their perceived structural and thematic defects. From the English Restoration in 1660 throughout the eighteenth century, Shakespeare's plays were frequently staged with excisions and revisions of the original texts. Of these the most notorious is surely poet Nahum Tate's 1681 "adaptation" of King Lear, which imposed a happy ending on Shakespeare's darkest tragedy, with the king, Gloucester, and Cordelia all surviving, the latter married off to Edgar. Other revisions, while not so radical as Tate's, tended to purge the comic elements from the tragedies, doing away with such "low" figures as the drunken Porter in Macbeth and Lear's Fool for their disruption of classical tragic precepts. The great French Neoclassical playwright and philosopher Francois-Marie Aroeut de Voltaire (1694-1778) railed vehemently agai what he saw as Shakespeare's vulgarity and barbarism, inspiring passionate defenses of Shakespeare by first Johnson, then Coleridge.

As the eighteenth century waned, however, so did Neoclassicism. Two of the most important Romantic critics-and passionate Bardophiles-were born in the latter half of the century, Coleridge and German writer August Wilhelm von Schlegel (1767-1845), contemporary not only to the nascent aesthetic disenchantment with Neoclassicism but also to the emergence of a new, even revolutionary movement, Romanticism. Whereas the eighteenth century had privileged reason, decorum, and Enlightenment (as the period came to be known), the nineteenth century exalted imagination, passion, subjectivity, and the "sublime," the extra-rational if not irrational transcendent experience not accessible by reason alone. The figure of the so-called Romantic hero soon became a literary commonplace; he was an intense, brooding individual whose imaginative brilliance isolated him from an uncomprehending, even hostile world. This iconic Romantic hero may be observed in the novels of the Brontë sisters and Mary Shelley, but also in the poet's own self-representation, as was the case with Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and John Keats. In this distinctive literary climate Shakespeare was reconstituted as a kind of Romantic genius, his plays no longer flawed masterpieces but pure and rarified expressions of life's mysteries, indeed, of the sublime. Shakespeare's tragic heroes seemed especially to embody Romantic notions of lofty subjectivity, grandeur of passion, and nobility of spirit.

Hence, no Shakespearean protagonist was so ardently embraced and appropriated by the nineteenth-century imagination as Hamlet. The young prince was brilliant, melancholy, passionate, and, of course, too delicate a soul for the grossness of his world. In England, Coleridge and Hazlitt were but two literary figures who proclaimed a personal identification with Hamlet; the same was true for Goethe in Germany and Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire in France. Romantic Bardolotry flourished on the continent as well as in Britain. French composer Hector Berlioz, an ardent Bardophile, drew musical inspiration from Shakespeare, including in his much-lauded opera "Romeo and Juliet." The great French painter Eugene Delacroix produced a series of lithographs depicting scenes from Hamlet; tellingly, his model was actually female, the better to convey the delicacy and ethereality that Romantics so extolled in the Danish prince.

The much-debated madness of Hamlet and more straightforward derangement of Lear and Ophelia were also admired by Romantics, interested as they were in subjectivity and extremes of passion. This fascination with characters' psychological complexity tended to foster the view of the fictive heroes and heroines as if they were real individuals existing independent of the plays. By the time Bradley was born mid-century this critical practice of "naturalizing" Shakespeare's characters was well entrenched in literary criticism. In the second half of the nineteenth century, realism and naturalism came to take root in theatrical productions of Shakespeare as well of the works of other dramatists. Bradley was not only a man of his times, but also an avid theatergoer, a fact of which many of his later critics seemed oblivious. Yet if Bradley can be justifiably taken to task for occasionally treating Shakespeare's characters as if they were real people-the main charge that dogged Shakespearean Tragedy throughout the twentieth century-it was not solely because he followed his Romantic predecessors in privileging the "theater of the mind" over the actual stage.

While Bradley's era is more properly Victorian, he certainly inherited his interest in character from the Romantics. Coleridge observes in his early nineteenth-century essay "The Characteristics of Shakespeare's Dramas" that "The interest in the plot is always in fact on account of the characters, not vice versa, as in almost all other writers; the plot is a mere canvass and no more." Nearly one hundred years later, Bradley writes in Shakespearean Tragedy, "The center of the tragedy . . . may be said with equal truth to lie in action issuing from character, or in character issuing in action." But where he differs from the Romantics is in the ensuing qualification: "Shakespeare's main interest lay here [i.e., in character]. To say that it lay in mere character, or was a psychological interest, would be a great mistake, for he was dramatic to the tips of his fingers."

Nonetheless, Bradley's reminder of the dramatic basis for Shakespearean characterization does not keep him from occasionally delving into extra-textual speculation about such matters as the ages of Hamlet or Lear's Kent, how Desdemona might have behaved differently than Cordelia toward Lear, or whether Lady Macbeth had been married before. In what remains the most famous attack on Bradley's method, critic L. C. Knights mockingly titled his 1933 essay "How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?", scoffing at one of Bradley's copious endnotes concerning the matter. Knights may have chosen to deliberately ignore the conclusion of Bradley's pondering whether or not Macbeth or his wife had offspring: "We cannot say, and it does not concern the play."

In fact, the persistent misconception that Shakespearean Tragedy is exclusively about character serves to obscure the extent to which Bradley, the philosopher as much as literary critic, explores the function of character within the tragic vision itself. Unlike Aristotle, the first great theorist of tragedy, Bradley does not see tragedy as the result of the protagonist's "tragic flaw" of hubris (excessive pride). Nor does he endorse the Romantic position; Bradley asserts that "the type of tragedy in which the hero opposes to a hostile force an undivided soul, is not the Shakespearean type." Bradley's theory of tragedy, explicated in the book's first three lectures, holds that "the [tragic] story is one of human actions producing exceptional calamity and ending in the death of such a man." Mental aberration, supernatural forces, and chance may play a role in impelling the tragic events, but none is a prime cause. Rather, it is the tragic hero's deeds rooted as much in his greatness as his weaknesses that set into the motion the "exceptional calamity." The effect on the reader or audience is not one of Aristotelian pity or fear; instead, argues Bradley, it is a sense of waste, not of moral judgment.

Bradley admits to focusing on four Shakespearean tragedies that best exemplify his theses about character and tragic vision, but his selections also largely reflect Romantic and Victorian literary tastes. Hamlet's rapturous reputation throughout the nineteenth century made the play a natural choice for Bradley's discussion. As for King Lear, Bradley too was speaking for many Bardophiles in considering the play almost as a freestanding objet d'art of the same lofty caliber as Beethoven's symphonies, Michelangelo's sculptures, and Dante's Divine Comedy, but also a highly problematic dramatic work. Lear is "too huge for the stage," Bradley argues, and "as a whole is imperfectly dramatic." It would take twentieth-century criticism to fully grant Lear its current status as arguably Shakespeare's greatest play.

In praising Macbeth, Bradley invokes one of Romanticism's key aesthetic cornerstones in his remark, "The whole tragedy is sublime." But it was his inclusion of Othello in the same rarified company as the other three plays that many of his contemporaries and immediate successors in Shakespeare studies would question. Indeed, Bradley was among the few Shakespeareans of his time to deem Othello a major masterpiece, "the most painfully exciting and most terrible" of Shakespeare's tragedies, its hero "more poetic than Hamlet." He seems to acknowledge that some may regard Othello's exploration of sexual jealousy as either too distasteful or as insufficiently lofty a matter for tragedy. One may consider Bradley's one of the first truly modern readings of the play, both for his recognition of Othello's tragic grandeur and for his probing psychological analysis of the characters, especially Iago, who had been famously designated by Coleridge as "motiveless malignity." In fact, the four specific play lectures of Shakespearean Tragedy do not simply focus on their titular tragic heroes, as does much Romantic criticism; they also investigate the protagonist's relationship with the play's other characters, their psychology, and their functions in the unfolding of the tragic events.

The first generation of academic Shakespeareans after Bradley's own emerged around 1930, most arguing that their own modes of reading the plays were more intellectually astute. Along with L. C. Knights, these scholars included Elmer E. Stoll, who insisted that the psychological complexity of Shakespeare's characters had been exaggerated; and Lily B. Campbell, whose Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes drew, if rather generally, upon Elizabethan humoral psychology. Some critics neither directly praised nor criticized Bradley but instead offered different points of focus, such as poetic language, patterns of imagery, ethics and Christian theology, and, most notably with Ernest Jones' Hamlet and Oedipus (1947), Freudian psychoanalysis. New scholarly battle-lines continue to be drawn and redrawn. In the latter twentieth century the influence of French critical theorists and philosophers, especially Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, has inspired a dazzling variety of "postmodern" Shakespeares, including Marxist, "new historicist," deconstructive, feminist, queer, and multicultural readings.

Today, fewer Shakespearean scholars feel the need to explicitly invoke or refute Bradley than did many of their predecessors. Nonetheless, the debt owed by the contemporary "Shakespeare industry"-the constantly expanding body of scholarly articles, books, and lectures-is great. Not only did Bradley all but single-handedly inaugurate the subfield of academic Shakespeare criticism, but his insights into what makes the tragedies so endlessly interesting still resonate, whether we acknowledge Bradley or not. Referring to Bradley's influence, perhaps Shakespearean critic Robert B. Heilman has put it best: "Of course character analysis has never been in a real slump. We may come to it with different tools-stage conventions, psychoanalysis, doctrines of the day, socio-politico-economic bearings, symbolistic habits of mind, linguistic predeterminations-but rarely do we wholly bypass the issue, to use the recent idiom, of 'who Hamlet is.'" One might easily add, or who Lear, or Othello, or Macbeth is. These and other tragic figures from Shakespeare's canon have challenged readers and audiences virtually from their first appearance on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stages to pluck out the hearts of their mystery. Daunting though that challenge has proven over four centuries, A. C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy boldly takes up the gauntlet.

Karin S. Coddon has published widely on Shakespeare and Renaissance drama. She has taught at Brown University and University of California, San Diego, and is currently a freelance writer.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 15, 2012

    Not hyperlinked

    Bradley's work is an incredible contribution to Shakespearean studies, yet I must recommend paying the few dollars more for the premium edition. This one doesn't have anything hyperlinked, and with the table of contents' page numbers not corresponding to the Nook's, it becomes very inconvenient to navigate through the text. There likewise are a few typing errors.

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    Posted October 14, 2010

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    Posted September 27, 2010

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