William Hazlitt’s Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays is one of a precious few works of Shakespearean criticism that still bear reading long after their first appearance. So much nonsense in every generation has been written about the Bard that we may well be tempted, after an excruciating reading of Solipsists and Stratagems: A Poststructuralist Dissection of Hamlet, to cry out that T.S. Eliot was right when he said that the only thing to do with Shakespeare is find new ways to be wrong about him. It is the virtue of Hazlitt’s book, and of a few others, to show us that not every map of the territory is completely misleading. Hazlitt’s critical intelligence at its strongest combines straightforward common sense with a fine immunity to moribund platitudes and standards of evaluation acquired at second hand. He is not afraid to say that Cymbeline is one of the “most delightful” of the dramas, which it is, however few readers may share this opinion. He has a clear eye also to note among Shakespeare’s minor characters powerful creations who have seldom received their meed of recognition. Of Queen Katherine in Henry VIII he writes that she “is the most perfect delineation of matronly dignity, sweetness, and resignation that can be conceived.” Even if we are tempted to raise a skeptical eyebrow at Hazlitt’s superlatives, a reading of the queen’s speech beginning “Sir, I desire you do me right and justice” should be enough to convert us to a more generous verdict. In fact, often when Hazlitt’s language is at its most vehement and most rhetorical (and he wrote in an age drunk with rhetoric), it is nonetheless at its most exact and faultlessly accurate. Witness his praise of King Lear:
“This depth of nature, this force of passion, this tug and war of the elements of our being, this firm faith in filial piety, and the giddy anarchy and whirling tumult of the thoughts at finding this prop failing it, the contrast between the fixed, immoveable basis of natural affection, and the rapid, irregular starts of imagination, suddenly wrenched from all its accustomed holds and resting-places in the soul, this is what Shakespeare has given, and what nobody else but he could give.”
Is there much that we can add to this, two hundred years later? This is the best gift of criticism: to give us an appetite for the work in question, and a savor of the most essential qualities of the artistry examined, with a minimum of parenthetical distractions; this, and more besides, Hazlitt gives time and time again in his Characters.
This is not to say that he is without his blindnesses. As with many critics before and after him, Hazlitt’s Achilles’ heel is an inability to enter properly into the spirit of a play that includes matter to offend his political sensibilities. Hazlitt wrote during a period in which English literary journalism was pretty well divided between Republicans and Tories, and Hazlitt left no doubt as to being firmly allied with the former camp. The partisan spirit was strong: the conservative Blackwood’s Magazine arrogantly condemned John Keats’ early work less for its demerits as literature than for its author’s association with the radical Leigh Hunt, and apparent lack of a university education. Serene objectivity had departed from the offices of Fleet Street. Certainly it abandoned Hazlitt. Kingship, and the evils of kingship, appear in all manner of his writings as a nearly literal King Charles’ Head, and not even Shakespeare is a reverend enough idol to guard against its appearance. Worse, Shakespeare wrote of kings in nearly all of his histories, without giving much evidence of any wish he might have entertained that their crowns should be struck from their heads, or their heads from their shoulders. There is no reason to suppose that Shakespeare was mad with Divine Right theory, as were so many of the Elizabethans; at the same time, neither do we depart from his company with the suspicion that he believed monarchy to be a great evil worthy of eradication. A mistake, this; so Hazlitt feels, and would have his reader feel. In his comments on Henry V especially his prejudices alienate him from the heart of the drama. What Henry does and, more to the purpose, what Henry is offends Hazlitt on principle, and much of Hazlitt’s essay on this history is little more than a catalogue of Henry’s enormities of conduct as a man and a ruler. The danger of this misreading does not lie in any distortion of Hazlitt’s moral sense as such, since anyone familiar with the chronicles of the House of Lancaster can testify to real violence and morbidity of character in the second king of that line. Hazlitt is upset that Shakespeare does not hate his protagonist as much as Hazlitt does, and not to hate Henry is, he would have us believe, to take up a brief for him: “Henry V is a very favourite monarch with the English nation, and he appears to have been also a favourite with Shakespeare, who labours hard to apologize for the actions of the king, by showing us the character of the man, as ‘the king of good fellows’. He scarcely deserves this honour…” And so forth. Yet anyone who knows the play knows quite well that Shakespeare hardly acts as Henry’s lawyer. The legal grounds on which Henry stakes his invasion of France are patently questionable; the Chorus, in the fifth act, reminds us right before the curtains close that the spoils of the conquest were lost in the subsequent reign; and as for the common men of the Eastcheap Gang who accompany Henry to Agincourt, two are hanged, and one returns to England to make what living he can by thievery. Whatever Shakespeare’s dramatic purpose may have been, it is a very hostile critic who would take it to be a jingoistic apologia for English militarism.
Hazlitt was an able critic and an almost matchless essayist. Even so, his loves and hates swayed his judgment in certain places, and anyone who practices literary criticism should learn by his example, both as a master of the craft, and one whose occasional failures may serve to put us on guard against trespasses of our own.
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