Monday, March 28, 2011

Who is Hazlitt, and did he read the same play I did?

Flipping through my Kindle version of the plays this weekend I tripped over this description of Twelfth Night (found here via Google Books):

This is justly considered as one of the most delightful of Shakespeare's comedies. It is full of sweetness and pleasantry. It is perhaps too good-natured for comedy. It has little satire and no spleen. It aims at the ludicrous rather than the ridiculous. It makes us laugh at the follies of mankind not despise them and still less bear any ill will towards them.

This comes from William Hazlitt, in the early 1800's (the Google copy is dated 1845, and I note with a smile that it is dedicated to Charles Lamb, of Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare).

Am I misunderstanding something, or has our understanding of Twelfth Night done something of a one-eighty? I've seen it described as the dark and twistiest of the comedies. Here, Hazlitt claims it has no spleen.

What's going on? Somebody fill us in on this Hazlitt fellow.

UPDATE: From the Wikipedia page, I think I would have quite liked this guy:

His approach was something new. There had been critics of Shakespeare before, but either they were not comprehensive or they were not aimed at the general reading public. As Ralph Wardle put it, before Hazlitt wrote this book, "no one had ever attempted a comprehensive study of all of Shakespeare, play by play, that readers could read and reread with pleasure as a guide to their understanding and appreciation". Somewhat loosely organized, and even rambling, the studies offer personal appreciations of the plays that are unashamedly enthusiastic. Hazlitt does not present a measured account of the plays' strengths and weaknesses, as did Dr. Johnson, or view them in terms of a "mystical" theory, as Hazlitt thought his contemporary A.W. Schlegel did (though he approves of many of Schlegel's judgements and quotes him liberally). Without apology, he addresses his readers as fellow lovers of Shakespeare and shares with them the beauties of what he thought the finest passages of the plays he liked best.

Emphasis mine. But yes, yes, yes.


Elleoneiram said...

Sounds like Harold Bloom. At least in Invention of the Human. But I never made it through that because I completely disagreed with many of his opinions, and he indicated that those who disagreed were foolish. I guess that's just my interpretation.

Jon said...

It's interesting, isn't it, how reactions to works of art (particularly works that need performance) shift over the centuries. A classic in my area (music) is Mozart's 40th (G minor) symphony. Robert Schumann (early 19th century) wrote of its "Grecian lightness and grace," and Donald Tovey (early 20th) of its opera buffa character. Yet I would say that most current interpreters see it in terms of darkness, drama, or as Charles Rosen puts it, "passion, violence, and grief." Yet the notes haven't changed.

Is the description "darkest and twistiest" of the comedies from a published article? I'd be interested to read the whole thing. I can't go quite that far myself -- even leaving aside the romances and the 3 "problem plays" (all officially classified as comedies), Merchant surely has accumulated enough baggage that the final scene is almost impossible to play as cloudless bliss now.

Yet I think it's true that attitudes about Twelfth Night have changed since about 1960. Reading about productions before then, one finds descriptions very like Hazlitt's. Since then, its mood has shifted toward the autumnal, if not wintry. This can be overdone -- it remains a comedy in form, after -- yet I do respond to the idea. I thought the Trevor Nunn movie got this especially right: the happy ending for two couples leaves a lot of others out in the rain (Sir Andrew, Antonio, Malvolio, possibly even Sir Toby and Maria). Heigh-ho.

catkins said...

Hazlitt is a very well known editor of Shakespeare.
I agree with his assessment of Twelfth Night and suspect the darkness attributed to it to be due entirely to how it has been directed.
In a previous post, I mentioned a production I saw at Shakespeare and Company that was absolutely delightful. It achieved the "sweetness and pleasantry" with "no spleen" that Hazlitt speaks of by making Malvolio annoyed at the prank, but not whiny. He is always aware that he will be liberated from his dungeon and not truly frightened, so the prank is not as horrific as it might appear in other productions. It's all in how the tale is told.

Wayne Myers said...

Many of the productions of "Twelfth Night" of Hazlitt's time were crammed with songs and poetry not written by Shakespeare, much the same as gimmick-filled "funny" "Twelfth Nights" continue to be staged today (a "vaudevillian" "Twelfth Night," packed with comic routines and physical comedy to, as the director stated, "highlight the play's comedy," was staged in Fullerton, Calif., in February).

"Twelfth Night" is not a farce comedy, but unfortunately, this is the kind of “Twelfth Night” an audience most often encounters today, rather than a darkly lyrical work of Shakespeare's staggering middle period that is the gateway play to his most sexually-dark works--"Troilus and Cressida" (which likely was penned following "Twelfth Night"), "Measure for Measure," "All's Well That Ends Well," and "Othello."

"Twelfth Night" is all about "doubleness"--including
sexual identity. Arguably, it is one of the three Shakespeare
plays—“Troilus and Cressida” and “Othello” are the other two—that most display the discomfiting truths about our sexuality. The play’s proximity to “Troilus and Cressida” and “Othello” makes its sexual subtext nearly impossible to avoid.

Shakespeare likely wrote “Twelfth Night” in 1600, yet many directors treat it as an early, circa 1594-like Shakespeare play such as “The Comedy of Errors.” It’s something akin to staging Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” as if it were “A Funny Thing
Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

The first director of "Twelfth Night" to have fully understood the play's astonishing and timeless sexual truth may have been Peter Gill, whose "bisexual" "Twelfth Night" for the RSC in 1974 featured Jane Lapotaire as a sexually-adventurous Viola.

In 1958, Peter Hall changed the way many people saw “Twelfth Night” with his "autumnal" production for the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in
Stratford-upon-Avon. But he missed his chance to do the same with his
“Twelfth Night,” featuring his daughter Rebecca Hall as Viola, that opened at the National Theatre in January.

It was a “Twelfth Night”
whose time had past, with the majority of the critics who reviewed the production agreeing that the play’s poignant, humorous and disturbing investigation of sexual “doubleness” can no longer
be ignored in twenty-first century productions.

The humor of "Twelfth Night" is consistent with that found in Shakespeare's great middle period plays--that is a comedy that is blacker to the brink of pitch and intensely sexual.

"Twelfth Night" is one of the most beautiful and erotic plays ever
written, and, like the once-terribly neglected "Troilus and Cressida," is more than at any other time in its production history a play of our time, revealing, in my opinion, insights into our psychology and nature (including sexual) as great as that found in "Othello," "King Lear," "Macbeth" and "Measure for Measure."

Wayne Myers said...

@ Jon: I'm far from certain that "Twelfth Night" indeed has a happy ending, but given that Olivia has fallen in love with someone who doesn't exist, an ending of compromise at best. Viola, too, comes away from this "tainted." She's had an obviously close attachment to Sebastian, and when she thinks he's dead, falls in love with Orsino with a like obsession. This relationship undergoes changes, too, after "some three months commerce" with Olivia. It's a real mess, but very poignant. Time may not have untied this knot.

This ending anticipates the darker endings of "Measure for Measure" and "All's Well That Ends Well." I had thought about including "The Merchant of Venice" as having one of Shakespeare's great unsentimental but compassionate play endings ("Love's Labor's Lost," "Twelfth Night," "Measure for Measure" and "All's Well That Ends Well"), but this is wrong. Portia has shown poor judgement (exactly what her father tried to prevent with the casket game)in her choice of a husband (we know he is a wastral and have no reason to believe he'll change). She liked what she saw and to have him, tipped him off as to which casket contained her picture. She may have totalled Shylock, but I think she's going to get what's coming to her also. The marriage will not be a good one.

kj said...

I'm with Hazlitt all the way here. Perhaps that's because the Nunn film version ruined this play for me.


Wayne Myers said...

@kj -- Nunn's "Twelfth Night" has been overpraised. What is a bizarre, mesmerizing and erotic play comes across instead as unremittingly gloomy. Miscast as Viola-Cesario, Stubbs registers as asexual. The mustache cliche makes it worse.