Subscribe to Christianity Today
Peter J. Leithart
Shakespeare is the Rorschach test of English literature, a mirror for every critical obsession. Coleridge gazes at Hamlet and finds a partner in procrastination. Freud and Ernest Jones discover in Hamlet confirmation of the universality of the Oedipal complex. For Rene Girard, Shakespeare was a Girardian, and Harold Bloom's Shakespeare embodied Bloom's ludic ecstasies in Falstaff on the way to inventing the human. Shakespeare knew it would happen. He knew that lovers—including lovers of drama—see not with the eyes but with the mind.
This is in part testimony to the fecundity of Shakespeare's imagination. But Dostoevsky and Joyce are almost equally fecund, yet interpretations don't slop over the edges the way they do with Shakespeare. Dostoevsky critics work within the horizons of his letters, his journalism, his Orthodoxy, his gambling, his troubled marriage, and we know what Joyce read and how it came to be fictionalized. The problem of interpreting Shakespeare is structural. On the page and stage, Shakespeare is the undisputed master of English, even world, letters, the "man of the millennium." Yet we know comparatively little of his life, and what we know suggests he was an uncommonly litigious and grasping man. He left no letters, no diary, no confession to explain himself. It's the discrepancy between sublime artistic achievement and grubby public record that tantalizes. Shakespeare has to be understood within the horizons of the Elizabethan age and stage, but more definite constraints are missing.
That's part of what fascinates and complicates. The other part is on the page itself. Even if we had no personal papers, we'd know from their poetry that Milton detested Presbyterians and that Blake hated factories. Not Shakespeare. Shakespeare is a bardus absconditus, known only in the trace of his absence, manifest only behind his masks, glimpsed in his withdrawal behind the curtain. For biographers, this is a frustration, but some turn Shakespeare's elusiveness ...