Twelfth Night

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Writing about Shakespeare promotes a sympathy with extremes. One such extreme is the impressionism of a critic like A. C. Bradley, when he tries to hold together, synoptically, Feste the fool and Shakespeare himself, both as actor and magical author. Bradley notes that the Fool in Lear has a song not dissimilar to the one that concludes Twelfth Night1 and leaves Feste at the finish-line. “But that's all one, our play is done …” After everything has been sorted out, and the proper pairings are arranged, verbal and structural rhythms converge to frame a sort of closure—though playing is never done, as the next and final verse suggests: “And we'll strive to please you every day.” Bradley, having come to the end of an essay on Feste, extends Twelfth Night speculatively beyond the fool's song, and imagines Shakespeare leaving the theater: the same Shakespeare who perhaps had hummed the old song, half-ruefully and half-cheerfully, to its accordant air, as he walked home alone to his lodging from the theatre or even from some noble's mansion; he who, looking down from an immeasurable height on the mind of the public and the noble, had yet to be their servant and jester, and to depend upon their favour; not wholly uncorrupted by this dependence, but yet superior to it and, also determined, like Feste, to lay by the sixpences it brought him, until at least he could say the word, “Our revels now are ended,” and could break—was it a magician's staff or a Fool's bauble?2 The rhetoric of this has its own decorum. It aims to convey a general, unified impression of a myriad-minded artist. Shakespearean interpreters have a problem with summing up. Leaning on a repeated verse (“For the rain it raineth every day”), and more quietly on the iteration of the word “one” (Lear: “Poor Fool and knave, I have one part in my heart / That's sorry yet for thee”; Feste: “I was one, sir, in this interlude; one Sir Topas, sir, but that's all one”), Bradley integrates Shakespeare by the deft pathos of an imaginary portrait. Today's ideological critics would probably purge this portrait of everything but Shakespeare's representation of power-relations and hierarchy. Such critics might note that the portrait's final question serves only to emphasize the artist's marginality, his loneliness or apartness, as if by a secret law of fate being an artist excluded Shakespeare from social power in the very world he addresses. The relation of “character” in the world (domestic or political) to “poetical character” (the imaginary relations to that same world which make up our image of a particular artist) is always elusive. Especially so in the case of Shakespeare, of whose life we know so little. A myth evolves, given classic expression by Keats, that the mystery or obscurity enveloping Shakespeare's life is due to the fact that a great poet has no “identity,” that he is “everything and nothing”—as Bradley's evocation also suggests. John Middleton Murry's book on Shakespeare begins with a chapter entitled “Everything and Nothing” in which Murry explores his reluctant conclusion that “In the end there is nothing to do but to surrender to Shakespeare.” “The moment comes in our experience of Shakespeare when we are dimly conscious of a choice to be made: either we must turn away (whether by leaving him in silence, or by substituting for his reality some comfortable intellectual fiction of our own), or we must suffer ourselves to be drawn into the vortex.”3 The focus moves, in short, to the character of the critic, determined by this choice. Can we abide Shakespeare's question? Does the critic have a “character” of his own, or is he simply a bundle of responses accommodated to a special institution or audience: university students and dons, or other drama buffs, or the general public? Unlike Eliot, say, or Tolstoy, Murry has no body of creative writing to back up the importance of his interpretive engagements. There is, nevertheless, a sense that the critic's identity is...
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