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 looked about for new ones. The stress has been put on relativism, on the notion that cultural values change, and on the idea that every age reads past works of literature not just differently (this was always conceded) but radically differently, not even always in 'the spirit that the author writ' (another eighteenth-century maxim, this time Pope's) but sometimes against that spirit, in readings that dissect, analyse, recreate in the image of the critic's own time. The stress has been put not on an 'unchanging human nature' but rather on the idea that human nature does change, and that literature is important above all because it both records and contributes to that process of change.
In the case of Richardson, eighteenth-century...
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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 Lovelace can feel intense remorse, and even Edmund tries to countermand the order for Cordelia's murder.
Richardson's drama of male sexuality, female virtue and parental and social prohibition suggests comparisons with Shakespeare, but not so much in the realm of tragedy as in comedy. It is not an exaggeration to say that Shakespeare characteristically treats sexuality (particularly if we confine ourselves to the subject of love before marriage) in terms of comedy rather than tragedy, and in ways which question assumptions (as in Richardson) of sexual polarity. In As You Like It Rosalind is banished by her wicked uncle with only Celia for an ally (as Anna Howe is to Clarissa), and teaches Orlando how to woo her by adopting a male disguise that seems to suggest a playing down of the absolute differences of male and female roles and of the absolute opposition of male and female sexuality. This mitigation of absolute sexual polarity also occurs in Twelfth Night where Orsino falls in love with Viola by way of being initially attracted to her as a young man; whereas his possessive and fantastical passion for Olivia evaporates into an absurd destructiveness parodic of Othello's (and close to Lovelace's) in his lines at Act 5.1.115-17:
Why should I not, had I the heart to do it,
Like to th' Egyptian thief, at point of death
Kill what I love;
and Olivia comes to love Sebastian by way of her love for his disguised twin sister. (The convections of disguise and mistaken identity are simply used as compressions or figurations of these processes). In Much Ado About Nothing one half of the plot turns on the question of Hero's chastity, but Don John's plot is exposed, and the brutality and arrogance of Claudio's violent spurning of his bride is also exposed and repented of (an arrogant moralism not unlike that of James Harlowe at his sister's supposed 'fall').
Shakespeare, then, tends to view the problems of premarital love and sexuality in a comic rather than tragic light, as amenable to the human and reconciling conventions of the genre. His 'sexual' tragedies tend to focus on marital relations: in Othello the jealous rage of the supposedly wronged husband; in Antony and Cleopatra the confusions and conflicting and self-destroying aims and ambitions of a mature man and woman both thwarted and exalted by their relationship. None of Shakespeare's tragedies centres, as Richardson's does, on the chastity, or more exclusively the virginity, of an unmarried woman. The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet arises from the 'fate' enjoined on them by their feuding families and an additional element of chance or accident. The question of Juliet's 'virtue' hardly arises. In this and in the ways we have already noted, it is of all Shakespeare's tragedies the one closest to comedy (although several other tragedies are intensified and made complex by their comic elements and even by the sense that they often seem to arise out of 'a comic matrix').7 It is the lightness, the volatility, the youthfulness of Romeo and Juliet that gives the tragedy its unique romanticism and sadness.
But it is in Measure for Measure, a Shakespearian comedy which comes perhaps closest to tragedy, that we find the most suggestive parallels and contrasts with Clarissa. Angelo's character is of course very different to Lovelace's: the icily repressed puritan governor as opposed to the irresponsible aristocratic rake. But in his sudden passion for Isabella, in particular his sexual attraction to her virtue, he shows responses akin to Lovelace's. Perhaps too, as has been suggested, Richardson half recalls some of Angelo's phrases in the language he gives to Lovelace.8 When, for example, Lovelace is writing to Belford about the maid-servant Dorcas's fidelity to his 'bad cause', he notes: 'The vicious are as bad as they can be; and do the devil's work without looking after; while he is continually spreading snares for the others; and, like a skilful angler, suiting his baits to the fish he angles for.' (III, 247);9 which recalls Angelo: Ό cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint, / With saints dost bait thy hook!' (Measure for Measure 2.2.185-6). Again, when Belford is meditating (to Lovelace) on his own and Lovelace's past follies he uses language which recalls Isabella's rebukes to Angelo:
Lords of the creation! Who can forbear indignant laughter! When we see not one of the individuals of that creation (his perpetual eccentric self excepted) but acts within his own natural and original appointments: and all the time, proud and vain as the conceited wretch is of fancied and self-dependent excellence, he is obliged not only for the ornaments, but for the necessaries of life . . . to all the other creatures; strutting with his blood and spirit in his veins, and with their plumage on his back: for what has he of his own, but his very mischievous, monkey-like, bad nature?
Isabella is terser and more concentratedly metaphoric (as we would expect of Shakespeare's creation) but has the same combination of scorn for man's godlike pretensions, with the imagery of dress and animals:
But man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep . . .
It is perhaps characteristic of Shakespeare that his most serious study of a man who is, in effect, a would-be rapist, is the study of a repressed puritan rather than of a rake. There are very few rapists in Shakespeare's plays: the only other obvious examples are Cloten in Cymbeline, who is a spoilt fool, and Demetrius and Chiron in Titus Andronicus, who are just princely...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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