Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Goddard's Shakespeare

I think I'm in love.  I've long been a fan of "introductions to Shakespeare"--particularly the really great ones like Mark Van Doren and W. H. Auden. I could add Russell Fraser's work, a set of introductions in the form of a biography.   Tony Tanner, which I just discovered lately, is good, albeit not in the same class.  There are others that have their virtues. But somehow I missed until now what may be the most remarkable of all: The Meaning of Shakespeare, by Harold C. Goddard (link, link) once an English professor at Swarthmore.  The book--two volumes--is a kind of summum bonum, the best of his life-work, published only posthumously (and with a title the author did not choose) by the University of Chicago Press.

It comes well blurbed.  Here is Harold Bloom, perhaps the best known introducer of Shakespeare currently working: "This superb commentary upon all of Shakespeare's plays has been an inspiration for me for half a century, and I never tire of recommending it passionately to my own students." Grant that Bloom is by nature a great enthuser; still there is nothing in my experience so far (I've had a copy in hand only a few days) to suggest that he overdoes it. Everything about the book--everything I've read so far--suggests somebody who offers a lifetime of sympathetic engagement with the text.

Goddard perhaps counts as Fraser in mirror: Fraser writes introductions via a life. Goddard sees the life in the plays. This isn't to accuse either of vulgar point-to-point associations: "Shakespeare writes about Italians; therefore, Shakespeare must have been Italian." No" we are working here with the insight of Keats (Goddard at v. 1, p. 15)" "Shakespeare led a life of allegory: his works are the comments on it." Goddard expands upon the point:

 That sentence of Keats's is by general consent one of the profoundest ever uttered about Shakespeare. But there is no such general consent as to what it means. What did Keats have in mind? Something very close, I imagine, to what Sir Thomas Browne did when he exclaimed: "Now for my life, it is a miracle of thirty years, which to relate were not a History, but a piece of Poetry, and would sound to common ears like a Fable." If there is anything in this conjecture, Keats's sentence implies two things: first, that Shakespeare's life had the organic character of a work of art; and, second, that his works are less ends in themselves than a by-product of his living and hence a kind of unconscious record of his life. If so, they should be then not separately but as parts of a whole.
In the same vein, commenting on Henry IV:
There is something like critical agreement that Shakespeare's three greatest achievements in character portrayal are Falstaff, Hamlet, and Cleopatra, to whom Iago is sometimes added as a diabolical fourth. Now Falstaff, Hamlet, and Cleopatra, different as they re in a hundred ways, have this in common: they are all endowed with imagination, and especially with dramatic and histrionic power, to something like the highest degree. Each is a genius of play. (Even Iago is in his perverted way.) In a word, they all are in this respect like their creator, a kind of proof that even Shakespeare could draw people better who resembled himself than he could others. Who would not like to have had Shakespeare as a teacher?
Vol. I, 210.  Who indeed. Or, failing that, Harold C. Goddard.

3 comments:

HYDRIOTAPHIA said...

Yes, Coleridge, who was a great admirer of Browne urged that his 'Religio Medici' ought to be read in a 'soft and flexible' sweet and dramatic' manner. and indeed there's several passages in R.M. which can be rendered in a dramatic way, as one of Sir T.B.'s enthusiastically remarked upon him as our greatest writer since! Shakespeare.

bizandlegis said...
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Sue K said...

I have been a fan of HC Goddard since 1975. After reading his Meaning of Shakespeare, I wrote to his daughters (who were still alive at the time) and corresponded with daughter Eleanor Worthen until her death in the early 1990s. I even visited her and her husband Mark in VT in 1986, and the trip from New Orleans to her home was like a pilgrimage. Along the way, I remember my girlfriend and I spotted a pink tree in New England which we considered like the white tree in the Chekhov fragment he speaks of: "A conversation on another planet about the earth a thousand years hence. 'Do you remember that white tree?'" We started to say "Do you remember that pink tree?" I had traveled there to see if I could write a biography of her father, but she felt that his "Alphabet of the Imagination" was a sufficient memorial to him. I'm sorry she declined.

Dr. Goddard died 5 years before I was born, yet he transformed my life. However I learned from Eleanor that this was hardly unusual. They would often get posts for their father and tell him, "You have gotten another 'You changed my life!' letter!" His students often kept in touch or felt the need to contact him later in life. His own grasp of human nature was such that he could understand Shakespeare's sometimes misunderstood view of human nature, which he explains in MoS so well. (Example, Measure for Measure)

Maybe it's true that conversations on another planet in 1,000 about the Earth will be as inane as "Do you remember that white tree?" but I firmly believe there will be a few who will utter that sentence because they have read the line in Goddard's book.