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Teaching Romanticism XIV: Shakespearean Legacies

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As part of this ongoing series on Teaching Romanticism we will consider the ways in which we lecture on and discuss individual authors, whether during author-specific modules or broader period surveys. I thought it would be particularly useful to hear about which texts educators use and in what context, whether they place certain poems or prose works against those of other writers, or use contemporary or modern theoretical texts, or something else entirely. For this strand of blog posts I invite academics across the world to share their advice and tips on any aspect that interests them about teaching Romanticism. Many thanks to all of those who answered my call through NASSR-L, The BARS Review, and elsewhere (lightly edited samples are reproduced below with permission of the authors). Please do feel free to contact me with advice on future subjects or, indeed, with further thoughts on teaching on the present theme, about which much more could be said, evidently. We will be considering a range of writers, canonical and non-canonical alike, in the coming months.

Jack Vespa (University of Nebraska-Lincoln): Approaching Shakespeare Romantically

I was recruited to teaccharlotte-smithh our English Capstone Experience at the 11th hour once when one of my colleagues had to bow out, inheriting a theme in the process—“Shakespeare and His Interpreters”—which had to be retained in some form out of respect to the students who had enrolled in the course already. The opportunity proved to be serendipitous. Shakespearean adaptation dovetailed nicely with a theme that I had proposed for a future capstone—“Representations of the Imagination and the Artistic Process”—so I married my colleague’s theme to mine, yielding the theme “From Shakespeare to Romanticism,” riffing off the old critical catchphrase “From Sensibility to Romanticism.” Doing so seemed apt, to my mind, as sympathy as well as sensibility were extolled by Romantic poets and writers during the Regency. The marriage of the two themes allowed me to showcase the sympathetic imagination in its Shakespearean and Romantic manifestations for my students, along with other aspects of the art or craft of poetry, which I refined further when I taught the course again the following semester. The second iteration met twice a week, and mixed lecture and discussion along with student presentations throughout the semester. I interspersed art song occasionally, in which I sang sonnets by Shakespeare and Charlotte Smith using musical settings that I had written, in order to accentuate thematic or tonal qualities in the poems.

Following an introductory week, I began the course with a two-week unit that traced some of the more remarkable representations of the imagination and the artistic process in Shakespeare’s Sonnets (prefaced by an overview of the Petrarchan sonnet tradition) followed by a three-week unit devoted to Shakespearean drama and adaptation, featuring Romeo and Juliet (by way of Arthur Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet) and John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love. I discovered that the sonnet tradition makes for a more apt segue to Shakespeare’s play than Brooke’s text, as the play’s metadramatic prologue takes the form of a sonnet, while dialogue in some early scenes is patterned after the sonnet form that, when contrasted with less rhetorical exchanges between Romeo and Juliet, allowed my students to glean insight into the evolving passion between the two characters. By putting these texts into play with one another, we discovered that Shakespeare’s representations of the art or craft of poetry over the course of the sonnet sequence proved to be far richer than the characterization of “Shakespeare” in Shakespeare in Love, relying as Madden and screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard did upon the overly familiar commonplaces of a writer seeking a Muse for inspiration and art imitating life.

william1(2)I then transitioned between the Early Modern and Romantic eras by spending a week on the Shakespearean criticism of Samuel Johnson, August Wilhelm von Schlegel, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Hazlitt (using excerpts from the out-of-print The Romantics on Shakespeare, edited by Jonathan Bate) focusing in particular on the concept of the sympathetic imagination. In doing so, we discovered that critics as well as filmmakers create versions of Shakespeare in order to explain his dramatic art, whether it be Schlegel’s Shakespeare as “artist” (89 ff.), Coleridge’s Shakespeare as “genius” (129 ff.), or Hazlitt’s Shakespeare as a “poet of nature” with little if any egotism (181 ff.), which my students found intriguing. While I believed that my tour of Shakespearean criticism adequately prepared my students to read select Romantic poets with an eye for appreciating the sympathetic imagination, it was not until we turned to a cinematic representation of Coleridge during the second week of a five-week unit devoted to Romantic poetry that sympathy clicked with my students, as it worked out.

That unit began with a week devoted to the sentimental poetics of Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets in order to mark her revival and reworking of the sonnet tradition, before turning to the concepts of sympathetic imagination, “Negative Capability,” and the “camelion Poet” so that I might set the tone for the remainder of the unit. I put Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere” from the 1798 Lyrical Ballads into play with portions of Julien Temple’s Pandaemonium that represent “Coleridge” at work on the poem, asking my students what they made of the scene in relation to the Shakespearean criticism that we had read. When no one recognized the representation of sympathetic imagination at work initially, I demonstrated as much by reminding them of the language that contemporary critics had used, such as Hazlitt’s remark about how “The poet may be said, for the time, to identify himself with the character he wishes to represent, and to pass from one to another, like the same soul animating different bodies” (184), then highlighted the film sequence’s sympathetic mise-en-scène. Juxtaposing visual and verbal texts in such a manner can help make what can be abstract concepts such as sympathy more accessible to students. Later that week, we read a selection of Keats’s letters that reinforced the concept of sympathy. Keats’s letters find the poet treating a number of intriguing topics associated with poets and the work of poetry, none perhaps more compelling than “poetical Character” in his October 27, 1818 letter to Richard Woodhouse:

As to the poetical Character, (I mean that sort of which, if I am anything, I am a Member; that sort distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone) it is not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it fair or foul, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated—It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion [chameleon] Poet…. A Poet is the most unpoetical thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity—he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s creatures…. It is a wretched thing to confess; but is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature—how can it, when I have no nature? (295)

Unlike Wordsworth, whose lyric poems often feature the various emotions, images, impressions, memories, and moods that course through the speaker’s consciousness, all of which tend to be closely associated with the “egotistical sublime” of the author, Keats favors an alternative role, the “camelion [chameleon] Poet,” inspired of course by Hazlitt’s version of Shakespeare, whose lectures on the playwright Keats had attended.

keatsKeats’s own sympathetic imagination allows him great sway in his experiments with form, genre, and mode, in turn, which is especially evident in the three romances that took up the remaining three weeks of the unit devoted to Romantic poetry (together with the Odes and a screening of Jane Campion’s Bright Star). Lamia, Isabella, and The Eve of St. Agnes all offer opportunities to show students how Keats “romances” his precursors, and the latter provides the most revealing instance of Shakespeare’s legacy. Keats riffs off the playwright thematically, parleying a version of his Romeo and Juliet in Spenserean stanzas that students recognized readily and appreciated. Stressing eroticism, Keats parleys a romance of wish fulfillment in contrast to the chastity and virtue that are typically stressed in romances, moreover, which marks a way in which Keats innovates as well as emulates. The way Keats’s romance trades in the marvelous and supernatural as it turns upon desire reminds us of some of the reasons why we call the poetry of the late 18th and early 19th centuries “Romantic,” and putting his work and that of other Romantic poets and critics into play with Shakespeare helps point up the legacy of Regency Romanticism as it does Shakespeare’s legacy.

Following our select survey of Romantic poetry, I devoted the next week of the course to presentations that previewed my students’ capstone projects—I only had 12 students that semester—which could take the form of a researched argument concerning the work of one of our poets, or a creative translation of one of those works into another genre or medium, depending upon their critical or creative interests, and set the last week aside for optional conferences. Two projects were especially memorable; one of my students set a Shakespeare poem and a few Keats poems to music, while another translated Romeo and Juliet into a poem attuned to current poetics. I admired both students for the way they tapped into their own sympathetic imaginations, exhibiting the kind of meta-cognitive turns for which the capstone experience was designed.

Works Cited

  • Bate, Jonathan ed. The Romantics on Shakespeare. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997.
  • Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “From ‘Lectures on the Characteristics of Shakespeare’ (1813).” Bate 129-147.
  • Hazlitt, William. “From ‘On Shakespeare and Milton’ (1818).” Bate 180-194.
  • Keats, John. Keats’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Jeffrey N. Cox. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2009.
  • von Schlegel, August Wilhelm. “From Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature (1810-11).” Bate 88-110.

Anna Fancett and Leslie Drury (independent scholars): Reading Shakespeare in Scott

As Scott was a great fan of Shakespeare and drew on the Bard for inspiration across his literary works, examining Scott’s direct intertextual references and thematic links helps to elucidate Scott’s own literary goals. Two different methods that students can use to investigate the connections between Shakespeare and Scott shall be considered here. Firstly, a focused approach that would benefit students with a more superficial knowledge of Shakespeare would be to examine Scott’s use of Shakespearean epithets. Scott used these extensively throughout his novels, adding further nuance to his plots and characters.

sir walter scottAn approach for students to meaningfully explore the juxtaposition of Shakespeare and Scott is through close reading of a particular epithet and chapter pairing. For example, in chapter eight, volume two of The Pirate, the Troil sisters’ argument about the novel’s two young heroes, is prefaced by an epithet from A Midsummer’s Night Dream. This epithet is drawn from Helena’s speech in which she believes that Hermia has betrayed their ‘sisterly’ love by setting Demetrius and Lysander to mock her (3.2.193-220). Students will be able to quickly discuss the similarity between the scenarios: sisterly love is strained by romantic entanglements. It is in the differences between the pairs of girls, however, that more meaningful analysis occurs. Shakespeare’s women are set at odds by jealousy and fairy magic which takes a full night and further spells to undo. Scott’s sisters have not swapped partners, their argument is of very short duration, and they quickly reach a truce. This juxtaposition, created by Scott’s use of the epithet, requires further student examination. Does the use of Shakespeare’s quotation raise questions over the seeming reconciliation of Scott’s two sisters, and does this affect the novel’s resolution? Likewise, does it foreshadow events or revelations from later in the text about family resentments in general? Does the overt supernatural setting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream impact a reader’s view of the more subtle supernatural elements of superstition and incantation in The Pirate? Additionally, as students are given brief passages in this lesson plan, emphasising close reading will be central. Students will be able to elaborate on the ways in which the formerly loving and now strained sisterly relationships are described through literary techniques such as imagery by both Shakespeare and Scott.

For students, this discussion will highlight Scott’s manipulation of both the Shakespearean scenario and his own chapter in order to present a narrative filled with interpersonal tensions. This, in turn, will provide students with a fuller thematic analysis of Scott’s novels. A second approach to studying Shakespeare’s influence on Scott is to begin with a thematic comparison and move toward closer textual analysis. The theme of cross-dressing, for example, which can illuminate issues of identity, autonomy, gender, and social expectations, can also provide students with individual passages for close textual interpretation.

Walter-Scott-Redgauntlet-illustration-1By drawing the students’ attention to the characters of Darsie Latimer from Scott’s Redgauntlet and Twelfth Night’s Viola, questions of identity and autonomy can be explored thematically. By donning the costume of the other sex, both Darsie and Viola find themselves unable to act for their own interests. Viola’s soliloquy in Act 2 Scene 2 expresses her resignation to her inability to take action; time, not Viola, must solve the play’s integral complication. In chapter 6, volume 3 of Redgauntlet, Darsie is literally trapped in the folds of his petticoats and unable to dismount his horse without assistance, and he is figuratively trapped by the person of Cristal Nixon who prevents Darsie from making his identity known to his friend and assistor. In both examples, their external appearance prevents action and resolution – this must come later and by other sources. Both texts have comic expressions of love (from Darsie about his sister before her identity is revealed, and from Olivia to Viola), yet the students can explore whether these are made sinister by Darsie’s and Viola’s lack of autonomy, as present in the passages above, and whether this affects the texts’ overall structure and outcome.

Once again, however, the differences between the two passages are more fruitful for student investigation than the similarities. Does the fact that Viola chooses her disguise whereas Darsie’s is forced upon him alter how the characters behave and are represented? Is it significant that one cross-dresser is male to female and the other is female to male? What questions about gender performance in general are raised by the acts of cross-dressing? Twenty-first-century students, readers and audiences have different concepts of gender fluidity, trans cultural and performative gender than either Shakespeare’s or Scott’s original audiences. Students can consider whether their own social, cultural and personal understanding of gender influences how they approach these texts.

Other examples of cross-dressing, gender identity or disguise can be used for alternative or extended comparison. In The Heart of Midlothian, for example, George Staunton temporarily takes the identity of Madge Wildfire, a woman he has wronged, to unsuccessfully try to rescue another woman whom he has wronged. The limited nature of his autonomy as represented by his disguise can be compared to the use and effectiveness of disguise in Shakespeare’s plays. A thematic approach to the similarities between two writers can be made more challenging for an advanced class, where the students are given a theme but have to find the examples and passages themselves. However, both comparing epithet texts and their corresponding chapters, and providing passages for thematic comparisons, can be accessible even for first-year or foundation classes.


Bianca Milan (Universidade Estadual de Campinas—Unicamp): Shakespeare and Brazilian Romanticism

Since its first performances on the Elizabethan stage, the Shakespearean text has exerted a strong influence in several fields of humanities, especially in literary studies. However, it was not always the case that the Bard’s prestige was uncontested. Despite the current prominence, it was from the eighteenth century, in Goethe’s Germany, that the modern appreciation of Shakespeare’s work, in fact, was largely constituted. It is known that the playwright was poorly assimilated by the critical judgment of Classicism, mainly due to the disregard of the Unities’ rules. In the Sturm und Drang tradition, however, Shakespeare was established as a supreme model of the original genius – the one who will break the rules, that does not imitate nature, but it is himself a natural force – therefore inspiring the Romanticism period. A careful reading of the English playwright stimulated writers such as Goethe, Lenz, Herder and Schiller in Germany in the eighteenth century, who in turn inspired writers from Shakespeare’s homeland, such as William Hazlitt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth and John Keats.

machado-de-assis-2-e1358856581637However, not only has Shakespeare influenced German and English Romanticism, but he also contributed to the Brazilian literary productions in the period. In the nineteenth century, Shakespeare’s plays started to be translated by Brazilian writers, and then staged by national companies, making it possible for not only intellectuals but also the general public to be in touch and familiarized with the Bard’s work. By knowing Shakespeare’s plays, some Brazilian writers, including Olavo Bilac, Álvares de Azevedo and Machado de Assis, were inspired to produce poems, plays and romances influenced by what they have seen and found in Shakespeare. Through these facts, it is very interesting to consider teaching Romanticism by approaching some of Shakespeare’s plays not only in universal literature, but in the Brazilian tradition as well. As with the Germans, Brazilian writers were also trying to find a national identity, without losing the sight of the Europeans trends, because the themes were scarce in a newly independent nation.

Hamlet’s soliloquy “to be or not be” was one of the most translated parts of the Shakespearean text, as well as passages from Othello, Romeo and Juliet and King Lear. Evidently the main approach is to use Shakespeare’s plays to understand the construction and formation of characters and their feelings and state of spirit in the Romantic productions. Hamlet is one of the most meaningful plays to help to understand the image of a shadier and more nocturnal side of nature, typical of Romanticism. The atmosphere spread by the play draws our attention to the value of the mystery, the inexplicable, the indefinable feelings as we can see in the presence of Hamlet’s father’s ghost, the confusion and melancholy of Hamlet in his monologues, and the insanity of Ophelia. Speaking about Hamlet, and maybe reading the play (or some passages, at least) with the students should prove useful as a means of transmitting these aspects so used in Romanticism.

Álvares_de_AzevedoAnother trace valued by the Romantics is the supernatural, the state of a dream (or nightmare). Shakespeare conducts his readers to worlds where we can find supernatural or magical figures such as the ghost in Hamlet, the magic of Prospero or characters such as Ariel and Caliban in The Tempest, or the fantastical characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A Brazilian Romantic writer, Álvares de Azevedo, uses two characters of The Tempest to create a poem. He uses Ariel and Caliban to consolidate a paradox and an opposition of images in his poem. Ariel would be the light, the side that is good, while Caliban would be the dark, the night, the side that is perverse. Shakespeare once more inspires and influences the Romantics writers.

Brazilian writers also use Shakespeare’s human intuitions in order to deepen the revelations and developments of the characters. The romantic idealization and the illustration of love could be easily linked with Romeo and Juliet. Brazilian Romantic authors usually use the play Othello in order to reference jealousy, betrayal, prejudice and perverse and dissimulative actions. In the transition from the Romantic to the Realistic period, Machado de Assis, a Brazilian writer, inspired by the changes brought by Romanticism, also referenced Shakespeare. In his most famous work, Dom Casmurro, he uses a variety of Shakespearean symbology such as the name of the main character: Bento Santiago – “Santiago” is a combination of “Saint” and “Iago”; the reference of good (Saint) and the perverse (Iago, character of Othello) which is very meaningful to the character’s features, actions and decisions in the story. The issue of betrayal is also enriched by images of Othello; however, there is not the tragic tone of the Shakespeare play.

The references to the Bard are usually not mere decoration, but deepen character development and operate a search for that natural force in the original. So it is very important for the students who are studying Romanticism to be in touch with Shakespeare’s work in order to find elements that enrich their perception and to better understand what is happening and being created in this period of literature. There is no need to know deeply the entire work of the Bard, but it is essential that some of the most influential pieces of Shakespeare be known, at least by their stories, characters and most preferably some of the main passages. In that way learning and assimilating better the subject will be possible.


Jeffrey Kahan (La Verne): Romantic Dissonance

William Shakespeare, English poet and playwright. Portrait of William ShakespeareI teach Shakespeare primarily from a long 18th-century perspective. By that I mean that I focus my readings though Rowe, Theobald, Johnson, Steevens, Malone, Hazlitt, Coleridge, Cowden, Jameson, and others. It seems to me that these people set the table and prepared the fare for Shakespeareans, and there remains much that is ripe and edible. What is perhaps still more valuable are the indigestible chunks, the bits of 18th-century Shakespeare that do not at all translate to our era. My aim here is to investigate a wide range of social practices against which we can assess, differentiate, and specify the function of dramatic presentations. In all these regards, my approach offers a counter-practice to what J.B. Shaw called Bardolatry. Just to cite two instance:

1. Race/sexuality. Thomas Rymer—a bit early, even for the long 18th century—and, later, John Quincy Adams, both wrote on Othello, and their barefaced racism and sweeping misogyny is a real eye-opener to students, who are shaken that such things were set to paper and widely-embraced by the then-dominate culture.  What a look at the 18th century demands is that students put away all thoughts of Shakespeare’s trans-historicity. If he can mean such different things to different eras then what does he mean intrinsically? From here, we can cliff-dive into a bottomless pit of topics: Does Shakespeare deserve his revered status? Do his works express the human condition, or do his works actively block the possibility of social change? Is Shakespeare an enlightened humanist, seeking and expressing the best of humanity, or is he a racist and a misogynist? Are his works closeted biographies, philosophical explorations, or cheap pornography?

SamuelTaylorColeridge2. Originality. We tend to celebrate Shakespeare by our own aesthetic—and today, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which stems from the Queen Anne copyright act, his genius is, at first blush, synonymous with originality. This is my prompt for the long essay: Shakespeare was such an original, Dryden insisted, that he would never borrow, even from himself. Thus, John Dryden moved Pericles to the beginning of the Shakespeare canon, because he felt its textual echoes might indicate Shakespeare’s originality was fading by the time he wrote this late play. “Shakespear’s own Muse her Pericles first bore, / The Prince of Tyre was elder than the Moore: / ’Tis miracle to see a first good Play.” Similarly, Coleridge suspected that any Shakespearean passage that strongly echoed lines in another play was a sure sign of textual corruption: “the law of Shakespeare’s thought and verse is such, that I feel convinced that not only could I detect the spurious, but supply the genuine, word.” As he subsequently argued, that “supplied” word would not be any word Shakespeare had used before, but one he had not. Consequently, Coleridge argued that it was impossible that Shakespeare had written Two Noble Kinsmen because “ Shakespeare would never have imitated,” much less so badly. Disagree with the above-cited critics by demonstrating that Shakespeare does, in fact, borrow. In your reply, touch upon:

  1. the value placed upon originality and whether originally was a concern in the Renaissance;
  2. the role originality plays in our assessment of Shakespeare.

vortgnlFrom here, I usually bring in W.H. Ireland, comparing his Vortigern with a lesser known Shakespeare piece, for example, Two Gents. However, I don’t reveal who authored which piece. It’s quite interesting and intriguing to weigh modern aesthetics, poetics, and general issues of discrimination, call it what-you-will, through this “blind” taste test. Hint: Ireland usually wins.


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