Shakespeare and Clarissa: 'General Nature', Genre and Sexuality
I. Universality and Difference
Most critics in the eighteenth century, unlike academic critics today, were confident of at least one assumption about great literature: that the truths it embodied were universal and that, in the words of Dr Johnson in his Preface to Shakespeare, 'Nothing can please many and please long but just representations of general nature.' It is a view which depends of course on even more basic assumptions—that there is such an entity as 'general nature' (or at least that the category is useful); and that in turn there is such an entity (or meaningful category) as 'human nature'—a certain intrinsic 'humanness' which remains in some way constant despite variations from country to country and race to race, and despite the changes in behaviour over time. But while it might be agreed that there are some constant factors in human behaviour (without which it is difficult to see how we could respond to the literature of the past at all), the notion of a 'human nature' (whether as an essence, a useful category or some kind of shadowy ideal), has become (notoriously) in recent years almost impossible to use. It is probably fair to say that some such view lay behind nearly all literary criticism from Johnson's time (and indeed before) to our own. Questioned or rejected as these ideas have been by the various forms of deconstruction, post-structuralism, new historicism and the like, literary criticism has, again notoriously, become uncertain of its foundations and has...
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IL Genre: Tragedy Versus Comedy
Clarissa is a tragedy that might have been made a comedy. There is of course a great deal of wit and humour in the novel, and the situation and tone are not so very different, at least in its earlier stages, from Richardson's earlier novel Pamela where the heroine resists the seductive wiles of Mr Β and the novel moves to the comic conclusion of marriage. Some contemporary readers of the earlier parts of Clarissa expressed to Richardson their hopes that the novel would end happily. Richardson's most energetic correspondent, Lady Bradshaig, wrote with earnest entreaties that he would not be so hard-hearted as to let Clarissa die. Richardson replied: 'I would not think of leaving my heroine short of Heaven.'6 The reply reinforces the idea that Richardson's religious and didactic intention was a large part of the pressure that led the novel towards tragedy. He clearly developed a conception in which Clarissa would remain true to an absolute principle of integrity and virtue despite an emotional attraction to Lovelace, and Lovelace would remain true to a principle of Nature as opposed to morality (rather like Shakespeare's Edmund), to the principle of male sexual licence and domination, in spite of the sensitivity and intelligence which could see and admire Clarissa's own moral intelligence and virtue. 'Thou Nature art my goddess', says Edmund, and Lovelace speaks of his hopes of the Triumph of Nature over Principle. But...
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III. The Uses of Quotation
One measure both of the responsiveness of Richardson to Shakespearian suggestions and of the gap between the two authors' imaginations and between their two historical periods can be seen in Richardson's use of Shakespearian quotation. In the case of Lovelace the use is generally ironic (ironic and critical on the part of Richardson), in a way that points to the potentially tragic division in Lovelace's nature. There is the case for instance of his famous quotation of Ferdinand's speech about Miranda (The Tempest, 3.1.39-48):
Full many a lady
I've eyed with best regard; and many a time
Th'harmony of their tongues hath into bondage
Brought my too diligent ear. For sev'ral virtues
Have I liked sev'ral women. Never any
With so full a soul, but some defect in her
Did quarrel with the noblest grace she ow'd,
And put it to the foil. But SHE!—O SHE!
So perfect and so peerless is created,
Of every creature's best.
(Quotation as in Richardson, 1.150). The irony arises from the way this shows Lovelace's sensitivity and genuine wonder at Clarissa, qualities that are nevertheless, as we know, not held with complete sincerity. Even the emphasis on 'sev'ral' may suggest Lovelace's complacent self-regard for his own conquests. The idealizing love of Ferdinand is quickly...
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IV. Letters and Sexuality
Despite its capacity for drama in Richardson's hands, the epistolary novel suffers from the limitation of presenting action at two removes: it is mediated both through the mind of the author and through the imagined mind of the letter-writer. The former mediation is that of any literature, though drama, and particularly drama seen on the stage, gives the greatest illusion of its absence. Performed drama presents, as it were, the living, suffering body; whereas the epistolary novel presents that body mediated through two levels of reflection. And what both Richardson and his protagonist Lovelace say about letters confirms this sense that the letter (at least as a means of communication rather than as a novelistic technique) denies the body. Richardson suggests that communication through letters is purer, less interrupted by accident, than ordinary conversation:
This correspondence is, indeed, the cement of friendship; it is friendship avowed under hand and seal: friendship upon bond, as I may say; more pure, yet more ardent, and less broken in upon, than personal conversation can be even amongst the most pure, because of the deliberation it allows, from the very preparation to, and action of writing.
The phrase 'even amongst the most pure' suggests particularly an element of puritanism behind this. And he goes on a few lines later:
Who then shall...
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V. Rape, Writing and Morality
Shakespeare treats the subject of rape in any full way only in two works, and his way of doing so is significant both in relation to letters and genre and to the broader moral and historical questions I am exploring. When, in The Rape of Lucrece, the heroine has to communicate the news of her shame to her husband Collatine, she simply writes asking him to come to her. She dares not write down the cause of her grief in case he does not believe in her innocence, and waits until she can 'prove' it by suicide. She also feels that she can make her sincerity more apparent if she tells him what has happened to his face: 'she would not blot the letter / With words, till action might become them better.' And the poet comments:
To see sad sights moves more than hear them told,
For then the eye interprets to the ear
The heavy motion that it doth behold,
When every part a part of woe doth bear.
'Tis but a part of sorrow that we hear;
Deep sounds make lesser noise than shallow fords,
And sorrow ebbs, being blown with wind of words.
It is, one might say, almost a statement of the dramatist's credo, a belief in the greater emotional power of live drama as against the drama of reflective prose—or the novel. Where in any novel, one might ask, is the force of grief so powerfully rendered as it is,...
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Social and cultural historians differ markedly in their interpretations of the changes in moral attitude towards sex and marriage that took place between Shakespeare's age and Richardson's, depending partly on what kind of evidence they choose to look at. Lawrence Stone, drawing on a very wide range of social documents (though less on literary sources, apart from diaries) comes to the conclusion that sexual attitudes among the upper classes between 1500 and 1800 passed through four approximate stages: a phase of moderate toleration until the end of the sixteenth century; a phase of repressiveness that began around 1570 and lasted until about 1660; a phase of 'permissiveness, even licence' from 1660 to around 1770; and from 1770 for the next century and more a new wave of repression that coincided with the growth of evangelicalism. This would put Shakespeare at a point of transition between a phase of toleration and one of repressiveness, and Richardson, similarly, at a point towards the end of a phase of licence and before the beginnings of a new phase of repression. Both writers appear to be located at particular points of tension which provide a dynamic for their art.19
At the same time each writer drew, of course, on traditions which preceded their own ages: Shakespeare on a rich and complex mixture of classical literature and history, Tudor historiography, sophisticated literary predecessors, popular dramatic tradition,...
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