History of English Literature, Volume 2 - Print and eBook


by Franco Marucci (Author)
©2018 Monographs X, 408 Pages
Series: History of English Literature, Volume 2


History of English Literature is a comprehensive, eight-volume survey of English literature from the Middle Ages to the early twenty-first century. This reference work provides insightful and often revisionary readings of core texts in the English literary canon. Richly informative analyses are framed by the biographical, historical and intellectual context for each author.
Volume 2 offers a general assessment of all of Shakespeare’s works, summarizes the critical reception since its onset, traces a tentative biography of the playwright, discusses the youthful poems and the sonnets, and analyses the plays one by one. The plays are divided into the traditional thematic and chronological subsets – such as historical dramas, comedies, tragedies and romances – but they are further assessed in terms of their «experimental» or «mature» characteristics.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • § 1. Introduction: Getting oriented in Shakespeare
  • § 2. Introduction: Shakespeare and his critics
  • § 3. Introduction: Organizing the dramatic canon
  • § 4. Introduction: Biography
  • § 5. The Poems and the Sonnets: The narrative poems
  • § 6. The Poems and the Sonnets: ‘The sonnets’ I. Norm and anti-norm
  • § 7. The Poems and the Sonnets: ‘The sonnets’ II. Irradiation
  • § 8. The History Plays: The history plays
  • § 9. The History Plays: Henry VI
  • § 10. The History Plays: King Richard III
  • § 11. The History Plays: King Richard II
  • § 12. The History Plays: King John
  • § 13. The History Plays: Henry IV Part 1
  • § 14. The History Plays: Henry IV Part 2
  • § 15. The History Plays: Henry V
  • § 16. The History Plays: Henry VIII
  • § 17. The Euphuistic Comedies: The euphuistic comedies
  • § 18. The Euphuistic Comedies: The Comedy of Errors
  • § 19. The Euphuistic Comedies: The Taming of the Shrew
  • § 20. The Euphuistic Comedies: The Two Gentlemen of Verona
  • § 21. The Euphuistic Comedies: Love’s Labour’s Lost
  • § 22. The Euphuistic Comedies: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • § 23. The Roman Plays: The Roman plays
  • § 24. The Roman Plays: Titus Andronicus
  • § 25. The Roman Plays: Julius Caesar
  • § 26. The Roman Plays: Troilus and Cressida
  • § 27. The Roman Plays: Antony and Cleopatra
  • § 28. The Roman Plays: Coriolanus
  • § 29. The Tragedies and the Tragicomedies: The tragedies and the tragicomedies
  • § 30. The Tragedies and the Tragicomedies: Romeo and Juliet
  • § 31. The Tragedies and the Tragicomedies: The Merchant of Venice
  • § 32. The Tragedies and the Tragicomedies: Hamlet
  • § 33. The Tragedies and the Tragicomedies: Measure for Measure
  • § 34. The Tragedies and the Tragicomedies: Othello
  • § 35. The Tragedies and the Tragicomedies: Macbeth
  • § 36. The Tragedies and the Tragicomedies: King Lear
  • § 37. The Tragedies and the Tragicomedies: Timon of Athens
  • § 38. The Romantic and Dark Comedies: The romantic and dark comedies
  • § 39. The Romantic and Dark Comedies: Much Ado About Nothing
  • § 40. The Romantic and Dark Comedies: As You Like It
  • § 41. The Romantic and Dark Comedies: Twelfth Night
  • § 42. The Romantic and Dark Comedies: The Merry Wives of Windsor
  • § 43. The Romantic and Dark Comedies: All’s Well that Ends Well
  • § 44. The Romances and the Apocryphal Plays: The romances and the apocryphal plays
  • § 45. The Romances and the Apocryphal Plays: Pericles
  • § 46. The Romances and the Apocryphal Plays: Cymbeline
  • § 47. The Romances and the Apocryphal Plays: The Winter’s Tale
  • § 48. The Romances and the Apocryphal Plays: The Tempest
  • § 49. The Romances and the Apocryphal Plays: Apocrypha and plays in collaboration
  • Index of names
  • Thematic index

| 3 →

§ 1. Getting oriented in Shakespeare

It goes without saying that the primary, basic division in William Shakespeare’s works (1564–1616) is between two very distinct corpora. On one side, in possible order of writing, the canon of the sonnets, together with the smaller appendix of two poems; on the other, the plays. Each of these two canons is monumental in size. There are, in fact, over 150 sonnets, while the only other great Elizabethan to be attributed with as many writings and plays is Ben Jonson. And yet at the turn of the seventeenth century the theatres were going so strong that other playwrights could and did put their signatures to as many plays as Shakespeare (Middleton and Massinger), or they even overtook him (Thomas Heywood, Shirley and Fletcher). There was no alternative to choose, no third way to go, as the novel was very much in its infancy, though romances were high fashion. More importantly, Shakespeare had no desire or capacity to dedicate himself to writing long poems, like his contemporary Spenser, or, some decades later, Milton. It would be very mistaken, therefore, to consider Shakespeare’s poems and especially the sonnets as errors of youth. He himself described the sonnets as a monument – as the second, far more concentrated monument to his art. He boasted he possessed an art capable of immortalizing others and himself at the same time, like a Horatian monumentum aere perennius. It may have been a rhetorical convention, but Shakespeare confesses in his sonnets that becoming a playwright was a second choice, that his real vocation was that of the poet, and that the theatre contaminated and infected him like a dyer whose hands are ink-stained from the job he does. So the sonnets all together form an autonomous work – a self-enclosed universe. For this reason they have been recently excluded from monographs on the whole Shakespeare and have given rise to a specific bibliography of studies which grows year on year, and is the work of ad hoc scholars. Though autonomous, the sonnet cycle is however tied by a double thread to the corpus of the plays in a system of accumulative or bilateral mutual illuminations, given an unconfutable uncertainty about which corpus precedes the other, and about whether some, or all, of the sonnets come before the plays. The normatively brief 154 sonnets can be measured up against the plays, whether 38, 39 or 40. It can be inferred, therefore, that the specific weight of a play corresponds to ← 3 | 4 → more or less four sonnets. It is a reasonable enough calculation, because up to now there is no known book dedicated to a single sonnet, but there are essays and studies focused on limited, circumscribed groups of them. The present specialization of Shakespeare studies confirms that a sonnet may contain the same semiotic density as a play, and is in fact a compressed play, stripped bare of all accessories. With such an untapped richness, the sonnets have challenged changing critical currents, theories on texts, fashions and tastes. Practitioners of all kinds of methods have approached them, just as they have intrigued the great poets following Shakespeare, who have often translated them. To the query about a well-educated later reader, unaware of the sonnets’ authorship, being able to recognize that the sonnets come from the same mind as the plays, the answer would be initially negative, but would gradually be transformed into assent. The poet’s voice is all one or close to being such, while the playwright’s breaks up into a poliphony of voices. The interrelation between the two corpora, as is easily verifiable, is above all lexical, and it is precisely on the recurrence of frequent and rare words both in the sonnets and plays that an experimental dating of some groups of sonnets has been based. In other words, the two reservoirs are correspondent and echo each other in a dual, overlapping, recursive process – horizontal within the poetic corpus, and vertical and transversal between poems and plays. Shakespeare the playwright – the historical playwright of England, who represents, though always via imaginary interpositions, an actual and recognizable reality – is the mirror-like, complementary face of Shakespeare the sonneteer, who embroiders a free, distorting picture of selected biographical and emotional experiences. In the sonnets there are only a few enigmatic, ambiguous, coded allusions to public history, one of which may be to the Gunpowder Plot in the parenthetic pair (124 and 125) as well as references which underscore the way royal conduct comes under criticism in the plays, because while the ‘fair youth’1 is not a political figure, he is one in the sense of not being shaken by passing things and standing firm against adulation, always for Shakespeare the force ruining courts. Another allusion is in sonnet 107, to Queen Elizabeth and a symbolic ← 4 | 5 → ‘eclipse’ that has aroused a wide range of the most varied interpretations.2 The line of a personal biography can therefore be generally traced out, but all temptations to give a slavish, close biographical reading need to be resisted, or carefully evaluated. In his sonnets, too, Shakespeare is an objectifying playwright.

2. What are then the characteristics of Shakespeare’s plays on first sight? What organization can be given to them? A first and even obvious answer could be that they can be divided up above all by: a) time; b) place; c) titles. The time is the present (at least in one case) and the past, both recent and distant. Sometimes time goes back to the classical period, the days of Greece or Rome, while in other moments it is medieval or Renaissance. Other plays may be achronic. Time is often, and especially, fantastic and imaginary, and can therefore also be in the future. And whatever the time, it is like space – mixed, defined and undefined, but always re-invented as English, French and especially Italian. In Shakespeare, in fact, there reigns a playful, bizarre synchrony of time and space, which also concerns the naming of places and characters. It seems to be a caprice, an odd decision – though often belied by subtle motivations and allusions – to call characters in the same play with classical or classical-sounding names, and at the same time create strident cacophonies and give others names from different origins and extraction. The titles of literary works, according to Gérard Genette, offer allusions and suggestions, and help the theme and the common thread of the play to emerge succinctly. Twenty-one of Shakespeare’s thirty-eight plays, that is, a half plus two, have titles referring to a single protagonist, even in the form of antonomasia (The Merchant of Venice). A second typology, occurring in three plays, is that of a binary title; and two eponymous heroes are males, like the two gentlemen from Verona, or the two noble kinsmen. Other titles are verbal or transitive, indicating the final result of an action, like the taming of a shrew or love’s labour’s lost (the first with a gerund and the other with a past participle). Other titles sound like, or indeed are, proverbs, for example, All’s Well that Ends Well. Others point not to a character but ← 5 | 6 → to the event sparking the action, like a tempest. Or they may be thematic, like the comedy of errors, or referring to a precise, possibly hybrid genre, like a dream play (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) or a fairy play, or tale, of winter. At times, the title may refer to the moral to be drawn from the conclusion – measure for measure, much ado about nothing, as you like it. On one occasion the title points at once to the choral character of the play, indicating that there will be no dominant hero or heroine, as in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Twelfth Night stands alone as the only title based on a moment in calendar time.

3. As for genres, Shakespeare is a historical, comic, tragic and ‘romantic’ playwright (in the precise meaning of an author of romances). The hierarchy of values varies, of course, according to the dramatic aesthetics and tastes of different historical times. Not only do half of Shakespeare’s plays focus on facts and figures belonging to historical England, Rome and Greece, but various others are based on invented history. History is here, and is understood, as a synonym for a succession of documented or invented facts reaching over a long period of time. An essential branch of Shakespearean criticism is, in fact, the study of sources and how they were used. Shakespeare, whose destiny was to be ‘remade’ innumerable times, was himself a remaker. His greatness lies not in the wholesale invention of a plot or character, but in an act of refashioning. However, with him – the opposite of what normally happens – the hierarchy is inverted and the source text is either less valid or functions only as a handservant to the final result. His nature as historical playwright comes from breaking up the unity of time, followed by that of place. All Shakespeare’s plays exhibit their preference for the holes between the woof and the warp rather than the cloth itself. To use a musical analogy, they are diatonic rather than chromatic. And so it is not at all true that in Shakespeare’s case a scene drives and therefore creates another in quick succession, following an inflexible diegetic need. The true constructive internal law is just the opposite. What famously comes home to roost for the historical playwright is the treatment of movement and action in terms that are impossible for a genre which is monologic, dialogic or choral, unless there are long and laborious stage directions. Shakespeare solves the problem by treating action scenes in a Homeric way. He either resorts to brief ex post accounts, ← 6 | 7 → or chooses from the tangle of facts and the confusion one or more clashes between representative warriors, elected or pre-destined enemies or challengers in search of each other, like Hotspur and Henry in Henry IV. He never develops plots built on a brief episode, an epiphany or a lightning incident, so that within his plays space must be found sooner or later for a kind of narrated theatre. The variousness of times, places and scenes leads to a unity by means of a supra-temporal vision of history. Shakespeare makes absolute an epigraph, boutade or maxim, which he puts in the mouths of commentators within the play or the protagonists themselves: that history is in decline and times are corrupt. A pale compensation is offered by a cyclical concept of history, which puts forward a permanent redemption, one however that being intermittent and not resolutive can therefore fail. Since various characters speak in very different periods in varied periphrases of ‘these bad times’, they point to a philosophy of history. This is backed by the frequency of a metaphor registered as very high in the concordances,3 that is, ‘infection’ and its derivatives, evoking the area of illness, contagion and epidemics. It hardly seems the case to recall a very well-known generalization, that Shakespeare, like Donne, had one foot in the slowly declining medieval culture and the other in the Renaissance, unsettled by the new geographical discoveries, heliocentric theories and a pre-capitalistic economy on the advance; and that he had, so to speak, a third foot in Baroque and manneristic culture, connoted visually by the spiral, logically by discordia concors, and on a rhetorical level by antithesis, oxymoron, hyperbole and litotes – though bearing in mind the caveats historically indicated by C. S. Lewis.4

4. The emergence of the tragic in Shakespeare is rooted in the great existential contests that tragedy had sung and mourned since the times of the Greeks. An inscrutable Fate, even before human will faces its ordeals, exercises its irony in Shakespeare through its equivocations. This means ← 7 | 8 → that language and the systems of communication are fallible and equivocal in spite of the good intentions of humans. An unfortunate and undesired mortal accident, or an unrepairable misfortune happen because of the congenital breakdowns in communication, caused perhaps by puns, identical names or ill-interpreted allusions. If the present volume had needed a subtitle to indicate its emphasis, one from the phenomenology of communication would have been most appropriate. Shakespeare’s work is both a sumptuous ‘banquet of languages’ and an illustration of how information is tampered, and of how comedy and especially tragedy are generated by equivocation. Shakespeare’s concept of man and human identity is that of a field fraught with tensions: body and spirit, senses and soul, nature and culture, nature and counter-nature, egoism and altruism, stupidity and wisdom, instinct and reason, pleasure and renunciation, modesty and ambition. Man can rise to the highest peaks of purity and immateriality, but he can also sink and be threatened with sinking into the abyss of degradation. Shakespeare shows that he takes part in the most impassioned search for ideals, but no-one can be as obscene as he can, or more precisely makes men speak obscenely as he does. Innuendos are endemic and recall the male fixation with fornication and lust. From various plays the whole cosmos appears to be permeated by uncontrollable urges, many of them revolving around the explosion of lechery. Ipso facto, the Shakespearean being regresses to an animal state – a beast, a monster. It is the demonstration of a feared, regressive rather than progressive evolutionism. The evolution of living itself is of the nature of a myth, which is found time and time again damaged, denied and destroyed. Kingdoms fall apart for natural reasons, most often because they are rotting from within, so that a new revitalizing force needs to come from outside. The monarch or prince should enforce the laws and act as their guarantor, but too often he abdicates or applies inhuman laws and just as often tyrannizes. That Shakespeare is impassible is pure fiction: he is in fact a proto-illuminist who denounces obfuscating and repressive laws, and is always on the side of civil progress and social harmony, as well as the free expression of the human faculties.* ← 8 | 9 → ← 9 | 10 → ← 10 | 11 → ← 11 | 12 → ← 12 | 13 →

1 This term will be adopted here throughout, though it never appears in any of the sonnets.

2 Lopez’s plot in 1594, the queen’s climacteric in 1596–1597, her illness in 1599 and the Count of Essex’s rebellion in 1601.

3 Seventy-nine recurrences in the plays. For the contextual recurrence of ‘infection’ in Sidney see Volume 1, § 48. Melchiori 1964, passim in his comment on the sonnets (see bibliography, § 6), points to the echoes of the dialogue between Cecropia and Pamela in Sidney’s New Arcadia.

4 Volume 1, § 37.3.

* By now there are several thousand volume-length critical monographs available on Shakespeare’s works, and the number of essays in periodicals has to be multiplied by who knows how many times. It also needs to be said that, in answering the nature and aim of this volume, the following bibliography is particularly selective and will be limited to recognized landmarks only and to the most accredited studies, representative of critical tendencies that have followed one another over the last few decades; it will also include general surveys of Shakespeare’s works but exclude specialist studies for the initiated. Readers in search of a more exhaustive documentation are referred to the numerous bibliographies on Shakespearean studies (all of which are rapidly becoming obsolete, and of which the most thorough is the annual supplement of The Shakespeare Quarterly). Especially with Shakespeare, it will be possible to cite articles in journals only in a few rare cases. To facilitate access, the following material has been subdivided and ordered into sections, one of which is dedicated to Italian criticism, which excels on the international scene for its quantity and quality. Separate editions of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and criticism specifically on them and his poetic production, as well as monographs on individual plays, will be listed in their respective sections.

Editions. Historical editions, all published in London unless differently specified, edited by N. Rowe (1709), A. Pope (1723–1725), L. Theobald (1733), S. Johnson (1765), E. Capell (1768), E. Malone (1790), Cambridge Shakespeare (1863–1866), Variorum (1871–1928). Modern and recent editions begin with the first Arden series (1899–1931; 2nd series 1951–1982, and 3rd series under way since 1995), and are followed, to name only the main ones, by The New Cambridge Shakespeare (ed. J. Dover Wilson and A. Quiller-Couch, Cambridge 1921–1966, since republished with a new layout and new editors); Complete Works (ed. P. Alexander, 1951), The Pelican Shakespeare (ed. A. Harbage, 1956–1967), The Riverside Shakespeare (ed. B. G. Evans, Boston, MA 1974), The Oxford Shakespeare (ed. S. Wells and G. Taylor, 1986), Complete Works (ed. D. Bevington, New York 2002), Complete Works: The RSC Shakespeare (ed. J. Bate and R. Rasmussen, London 2007).


X, 408
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (May)
Shakespeare Drama Poetry
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2018. X, 408 pp.

Biographical notes

Franco Marucci (Author)

Franco Marucci is a former Professor of English at the Universities of Siena, Florence and Venice Ca’ Foscari. His publications include Il senso interrotto. Autonomia e codificazione nella poesia di Dylan Thomas (1976), The Fine Delight that Fathers Thought: Rhetoric and Medievalism in Gerard Manley Hopkins (1994), L’inchiostro del mago. Saggi di letteratura inglese dell’Ottocento (2009) and Joyce (2013). His Storia della letteratura inglese in eight volumes was published by Le Lettere / Editoriale Srl, 2003–2018. As a creative writer he is the author of Pentapoli (2011), followed by Il Michelin del sacro (2012). He runs the blog <http://francomarucci.wordpress.com>, with comments and features on literature and music, and a weekly sports page.


Title: History of English Literature, Volume 2 - Print and eBook
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
420 pages