Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A.C. Swinburne - Virtue and Vice

I discovered Swinburne's criticism years ago in St. Anne's college library, and it added to my admiration for his poetry (check out Edith Sitwell's collection, if you haven't already). Here he is on Lear:

"Here is no need of the Eumenides, children of Night everlasting; for here is very Night herself."

Yet he continues:

"As it is, Shakespeare has gone down perforce among the blackest and the basest things of nature to find anything so equally exceptional in evil as properly to counterbalance and make bearable the excellence and extremity of their goodness. No otherwise could either angel have escaped the blame implied in the very attribute and epithet of blameless. But where the possible depth of human hell is so foul and unfathomable as it appears in the spirits which serve as foils to these, we may endure that in them the inner height of heaven should be no less immaculate and immeasurable."

The popular image of Webster and the Jacobeans -- even among many scholars who don't happen to know him well -- is of the psychopath from Shakespeare in Love. I can only imagine that image is based on his Grand Guignol villains like Ferdinand, yet he wrote complex characters like Bosola as well, and Stoic heroes like the Duchess. Aside from authorial or biographical fallacy, note that Webster worked on many more comedies than tragedies, and his Duchess (for example) is portrayed as a Stoic hero in sharp contradistinction to her character in Webster's probable sources.

Excerpt from a review of Victorian Appropriations of Shakespeare by Robert Sawyer:

"Sawyer plucks A. C. Swinburne and his A Study of Shakespeare from the wake of T.S. Eliot's demolishing dismissal and rejuvenates him as an important, perhaps even formative, early critic of Shakespeare. While other Victorian critics busied themselves with ridding Shakespeare's fecund garden of its more unsettling weeds -- latent homosexuality, latent anti-nationalism -- Swinburne reads the bard against the grain to find support of his own subversive sexuality and aesthetic politics. ... Swinburne's subtle 'double-voice' opens up new critical spaces in Shakespeare. Sawyer also touches on the power of Shakespeare to grant legitimacy and cultural currency to those who can manage to make Shakespeare speak for their own causes. Appropriation here is a matter of genuine political and social force, in an early instance of what has since gathered considerable momentum in the widespread use of Shakespeare to legitimate divergent and often contradictory agendas. Where local or personal appropriations of Shakespeare tend to affect immediate circumstances or particular people (George Eliot and Robert Browning), Swinburne's appropriation, with its subtleties and its dialogic ambiguities, reverberates more widely. Moreover, because Swinburne speaks simultaneously to the conservative standard and to the emerging fringe, his critical appropriation, Sawyer notes, does double duty; it holds the attention of the status quo while making space for radical departures into new territory."

Appropriation: adaptation.

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