Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2007
SHAKESPEARE AND THE NEW
I thought of calling this section something like ‘Extravagant Imaginative Dimensions’ in order to convey my sense of Shakespeare criticism’s often tortuous desire these days for originality. Shakespeare’s critics, like his lunatics, lovers and poets, often seem to be of imagination all compact. To take Theseus’s dim view of the workings of the imagination, however, hardly does justice to a deeply imaginative book that seems at first blush to set itself apart from any desire for originality. Yet it is, of course, completely original and I deal with it at the beginning of these reviews to remind us why we should bother to wrack our imaginations on Shakespeare in the first place. Alexander Leggatt’s Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Violation and Identity is a set of meditations on seven of Shakespeare’s tragedies that has been a long time gestating, the interim end-product of an on-going conversation about them with friends and students. Leggatt prises the term ‘thick readings’ away from the company it usually keeps in anthropological and cultural circles in order to describe his ‘close engagement with the plays themselves’ in his attempt to ‘keep them free to do their own thinking’, although the thinking in question is in fact the creatively synthetic thinking of the critic himself.
Leggatt gives us seven bracing chapters on Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. They are valuably interconnected. He opens the second chapter, for instance, the one on Romeo and Juliet, with the remark that ‘Romeo’s first meeting with Juliet seems designed not only to begin the love story of Romeo and Juliet but to heal the wounds of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus.’ His concluding chapter begins: ‘We began with Lavinia dehumanised by violence; we end with the death of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the perpetrators of violence, humanised.’