William Shakespeare Shakespeare and Clarissa: 'General Nature', Genre and Sexuality

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Shakespeare and Clarissa: 'General Nature', Genre and Sexuality

Martin Scofield, University of Kent

I. Universality and Difference

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 admirers were virtually united in the kind of praise they accorded him, and this praise had two main formulations: that he embodied universal truths, and that he was like Shakespeare. 'Of Nature bora, by Shakespeare got' was the first line of a poem on Richardson by David Garrick; Dr Johnson for his part described Richardson as 'a writer similar in genius to Shakespeare, being acquainted with the innermost recesses of the heart' ('the heart' being a kind of constant, like 'human nature') and as having 'an absolute command of the passions, so as to be able to affect his readers as himself is affected';1 and he also asserted that there were 'few sentiments [in the sense of thoughts or reflections] that may not be traced up to Homer, Shakespeare or Richardson'.2 The trio of great names, widely separated by history, is itself a good example of the universalizing and trans-historical view of literary value. In 1813, again, The Monthly Magazine called Richardson 'the Shakespeare of Romance'.3

The tradition of comparing Richardson and Shakespeare has continued into our own day. There are a few dissenting voices like that of Walter Allen who compared Fielding with Shakespeare, and Richardson with Milton. But Mark Kinkead-Weekes put the comparison strongly when he wrote: 'The great invention of Clarissa can indeed be seen as the discovery of how to use comedy to probe tragedy . . . What is significant is that the probing of tragedy by comedy is as centrally "Shakespeare" as the depth of characterization and the mastery of human nature that were the distinguishing features of Shakespeare for the eighteenth century.'4 This introduces the idea of mixing the genres; and...

(The entire section is 10,853 words.)