Thursday, 15 October 2015

Lecturing on Shakespeare: Hazlitt versus Coleridge



Looks rather as if that poster is advertising 'Leitures', don't you think?

So, between January 1808 and March 1819 Coleridge delivered over a hundred lectures, parcelled into twelve separate courses, some courses lasting only for a few lectures, others stretching to as many as seventeen, or maybe more (in some cases we're not quite sure). The topics were mostly literary, with the majority given on Shakespeare, Milton and European Literature; other lectures were Philosophical. Coleridge lectured mostly to earn money, because he was usually stony broke. He charged a few shillings a ticket, and many people paid. He lectured without notes, or else he brought notes and then pointedly did not consult them; there were many digressions, some brilliant, others baffling or bathetic. Reactions were mixed: some reports acclaimed his genius, others mocked his digressive manner, abstruseness and dulness.

He was by no means the only person giving lectures like these at this time, although he probably the most celebrated on the London circuit. The 1811-12 lectures, some of which Byron attended, became quite the 'in' thing, were well-attended and made some good money; but when Coleridge tried to repeat the success later in 1812 it didn't go so well. Still, lots of people were offering paying lectures on lots of topics around this time. By 1819, the New Annual Register could say 'the establishment of various institutions for lectures on literature and science, may be regarded as one of the signs and consequences, as well as one of the causes of a more general prevalence of miscellaneous knowledge on almost every subject, than existed among our ancestors. Among the subjects of these lectures, none have been more engaging and popular than the belles lettres'.

Some of these courses sound, perhaps, a little dull—one example: A Course of Lectures, containing a Description and Systematic Arrangement of the several Branches of Divinity; accompanied with an Account, both of the principal Authors, and of the Progress which has been made at different Periods in Theological Learning. By Herbert Marsh, D.D. F.R.S. Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge (collected in volume form, 1809). Some look rather more intriguing: like these ones—


Schlegel's lectures On Dramatic Art and Literature (especially Shakespeare), which had been delivered from 1801 onwards in Berlin, were translated in English by John Black in 1816, and proved a big hit. Coleridge had read them, in German of course, early in 1812; everyone else read them a few years later.


Who else? Well George Campbell lectured on 'Ecclesiastical History' at Marischal College in 1806; Dr Collyer lectured on 'Scripture Doctrine' and 'Scripture Fact' in 1817; and the Rev Ezekiel Blomfield's Lectures on the Philosophy of History were published posthumously in 1819. Returning to Shakespeare, radical firebrand John Thelwall lectured in 1817-18 at an institution in Lincoln’s Inn Fields on Shakespeare and Dr Johnson. You might be forgiven for thinking that everybody was at it.

But there's one fellow-lecturer in particular who is significant for our purposes. In part motivated by Coleridge's example, William Hazlitt began giving lectures at the Russell Institution in London in January 1812, continuing at the Surrey Institution and elsewhere. He talked, like Coleridge, on Literature and Philosophy. Unlike Coleridge, he wrote up and published his lectures:



Hazlitt and Coleridge had been friends as young men; but Coleridge's drift (as Hazlitt saw it) to what nowadays we would call the right-wing of politics alienated him from his former mentor. Indeed, these two lecture series, Coleridge's and Hazlitt's, stand as rival modes of interpreting Shakespeare. In two books (Shakespeare and the English Romantic Imagination [OUP 1986] and Shakespearean Constitutions: Politics, Theatre, Criticism 1730–1830 [OUP 1989]) Jonathan Bate has mounted a vigorous defence of Hazlitt as not only the more politically sympathetic reader of Shakespeare, but the better critic too.

The danger here, I think, is of too crude an ideological separation being imposed: in the blue corner Coleridge, by this stage in his life a Church and State Tory, reading Shakespeare as in effect a Conservative; in the red, battling Hazlitt, trying to reclaim Shakespeare for the people, and in doing so inadvertently inventing 1980s-era cultural materialism. Bate:
Long before the ‘new historicism’ [Thelwall] saw that the theatre is ‘in reality a question of politics’ and started asking awkward questions about Shakespeare’s politics. He came to the pessimistic conclusion that Shakespeare ‘too often wielded the pen of political prostitution’. Hazlitt agreed that the theatre was political, but argued that behind the show of power and kingly glory in plays like Henry VIII, there was a subversive critique of monarchy. It was Hazlitt who was first to offer a negative reading of that most popular of Shakespearean kings, Henry V: ‘Henry, because he did not know how to govern his own kingdom, determined to make war upon his neighbours. Because his own title to the crown was doubtful, he laid claim to that of France. Because he did not know how to exercise the enormous power, which had just dropped into his hands, to any one good purpose, he immediately undertook (a cheap and obvious resource of sovereignty) to do all the mischief he could.’ Coleridge thought very differently about Shakespeare’s kings. Hazlitt wrote in 1819 of how ‘Mr Coleridge, in his late Lectures, contend[ed] that not to fall down in prostration of soul before the abstract majesty of kings as it is seen in the diminished perspective of centuries, argues an inherent littleness of mind.'
A touch unfair to represent Coleridge not by his own words, but via the hostile prism of Hazlitt. But OK:
Coleridge has his cake and eats it too as far as Shakespeare’s politics are concerned: one moment the Bard is an anti-Jacobin, the next he stands serenely above the cut and thrust of faction, being credited in the same lecture with having ‘no sectarian character of Politician or religion’ despite writing ‘in an age of political & religious heat’. Hazlitt, who was lecturing to a very different, predominantly Dissenting audience at the Surrey Institution, read the Courier report and wrote a reply in the pro-radical Yellow Dwarf. He chid Coleridge with his own former Jacobinism, reminding him of the Conciones ad Populum. But he also produced a counter-reading of The Tempest, which takes the form of an ironic amplification of Coleridge’s comparison with modern France. Hazlitt reads Caliban as the legitimate ruler of the isle and Prospero as the usurper: Prospero is therefore the Jacobin, or the Bonaparte, and Caliban the Bourbon, ‘the Louis XVIII of the enchanted island in The Tempest’. The initial purpose of this is to ridicule Coleridge’s verssion of Caliban, but Hazlitt cannot resist pursuing his reading: ‘Caliban is so far from being a prototype of modern Jacobinism, that he is strictly the legitimate sovereign of the isle, and Prospero and the rest are usurpers, who have ousted him from his hereditary jurisdiction ... “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother”; and he complains bitterly of the artifices used by his new friends to cajole him out of it.’ If we are to speak of usurpation, does it not come from the court rather than the native, not from Caliban but from ‘those finished Court-practitioners, Sebastian and Antonio’? ‘Were they Jacobins like Caliban, or legitimate personages, like Mr Coleridge? Did they belong to the new school or the old? That is the question: but it is a question which our lay-preacher will take care not to answer.’ Hazlitt has brilliantly turned the argument, and the play is seen in new light as an attack on legitimacy. For Hazlitt, Prospero is like all absolute rulers in that he relies on arbitrary power and the forcible repression of opposition. Furthermore, contained within the claim that Caliban is the real owner of the island is a reading in terms of colonial exploitation – the play thus becomes an exemplary text for abolitionists. Out of Coleridge’s passing remark, Hazlitt has created the kind of Tempest that has been rediscovered in the 1980s.
Clever Hazlitt! How could we fail to agree with Bate? Down with STC, up with Haz. Or ... maybe not. For myself, I'm persuaded by Pamela Edwards' great book The Statesman's Science: History, Nature, and Law in the Political Thought of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (2004) that it is simply a mistake to follow the crowd of Romantic commentators (and subsequent critics) in pegging late Coleridge a Tory. He himself insisted that his core values had not changed, and although it's possible to mock that as the kind of thing late-converts to Toryism from Radicalism are bound to say, it's also possible to take it at face value. His 'radicalism' had always been a very different thing from the radicalism of Thomas Paine or Thelwall; and his Toryism was a much more radical matter, in many ways, than his contemporaries realised. I certainly think that his account of Shakespeare in the 1811-12 and 1818-19 lectures is much more nuanced and ideologically nuanced than Bate gives it credit. But then I would say that, wouldn't I.

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