The first major systematic critical discourse of English literature is without a doubt Sidney's Defence of Poesie. Sidney managed to assimilate his understanding of the newly-discovered Poetics, a text that 'was largely neglected in antiquity' and which 'exerted surprisingly little influence' (Javitch, 53), and apply it, as its many commentators had done throughout Europe before him, to the poetry of his own native vernacular. When Dryden wrote his Essay of Dramatic Poesy in 1668, this debate was, as to this day, no nearer to being solved. Nonetheless, the literary milieu from which he made his address was both palpably different to and inescapably informed by that of Sidney nearly an hundred years before. Moreover, by this time, the critical task Sidney had set himself, to chart and understand the path and reasoning of literature, was if not defined, at least critically agreed upon. The stress, as in almost all literary criticism of the period, was placed on the historical precedents of literature, on the contingencies with past writers. Sidney talked derisively of the historian who
because it suited his needs in elevating poetry above the two other sciences of Philosophy and History, yet the historical emphasis of the essay is hard to ignore. That Aristotle agreed with him in saying that poetry 'is more philosophical and more studiously serious than history' (Sidney, 354), only served to offer ironic historical support for his condemnation of history. Accordingly, this essay seeks to illustrate how, having assimilated and broken free from its historical constraints, literary criticism starts to anticipate the future progressions of literature and ultimately. It will also be argued that Shakespeare's dramatic works act as the basis on which literary criticism begins to turn, and ultimately define itself.
Sidney's appropriation of the Poetics is important in that he applies it to English vernacular writers like Chaucer. For Sidney, as for Aristotle, poetry had only one end, 'to teach and delight' (Sidney, 345), and thus, 'a conclusion not unfitly ensueth: that as virtue is the most excellent resting place for all worldly learning to make his end of, so poetry being the most familiar to teach it, and most princely to move towards it, in the most excellent work is the most excellent workman.' (Sidney, 350) This sense of poetry's historically conditioned virtue, is however, directly applicable to England and Sidney later laments 'why England (the mother of excellent minds) should be grown so hard a stepmother to poets, who certainly in wit ought to pass all others.' (Sidney, 377) This is important, for Sidney is aware of his audience and the essay 'embodies a paradox of self-reference, which hinges on the speaker being a member of the group he speaks about.' (Connell, 39) Sidney knows that 'these arguments will by few be understood' (Sidney, 344), but in 'diverse small learned courtiers' in whom he has found 'a more sound style than in some professors of learning'(Sidney, 387), he hopes he may find some like minds with which to better the lacklustre state of English poetry.
Sidney's emphasis on drama over the epic, a finely maintained balance in the Poetics, hints at a belief that drama was the future of English poetry. Allardyce Nicoll notes that 'Shakespeare is a figure so colossal that he forms a kind of touchstone to any particular period, and we could almost write a history of English thought […] by studying alone the attitude displayed towards him by succeeding poets and critics.' (Nicoll, 6) Although one is inclined to agree with Nicoll, and this essay will adopt Shakespeare as a central figure within the literary debate of past and future, I propose that Sidney's preceding or anticipatory attitude towards an as-yet absent, but inevitable dramatist of note, is also worth study.
'The Tempest' is one of Shakespeare's latest plays and in many ways, one of his most critically coherent. It adheres perfectly to the strict Arstotelian unities, and is set in one location. The action depicted on stage takes place in real time. In this sense, it occupies an odd position in that his final independently authored play should be the one which is so rigorously archaic in its adherence to the unities. Whilst Propspero's breaking of his staff at the end of the play is almost always clichéd as Shakespeare doing the same, there is a clear argument to be made that depicts 'The Tempest' as Shakespeare's clearest discussion of what the theatre means, how it works, and how he views its development.
Whilst King Lear does not contain nearly as music discussion on the nature of theatre as 'The Tempest', through looking at its textual history, one is able to discern a great deal about how Shakespeare, through his publication history, was understood by a succession of critics. This essay will argue that when both plays are read together, both in terms of the implicitly theatrical discussion of 'The Tempest' and the textual variants in King Lear, one can come to understand how meaning in Shakespeare has evolved. Q1, which was first printed in 1608 and taken from manuscript drafts, presents a rough version of the play we read today. The second version, Q2, was published in 1609 before the Folio (F) was published in 1623. There are a number of significant changes between Q1 and F, and to take one example, Lear's final speech before he dies, is to realise what has taken place. In Q1, Lear remarks, 'neuer, neuer, neuer, neuer, pray you vundo this button, thanke you, sir, O, o, o'. In the Folio, this becomes, 'Pray you vndo this Button. Thank you Sir, Do you see this? Looke on her? Looke her lips, Looke there, looke there' (Halio, 4) . As J. L Halio notes, 'F's reading is superior in many ways. It brings the movement of the play full circle. Whereas in the opening scene Lear directed attention to myself, asking his daughters to proclaim how much they love him, at the end he directs attention to his beloved Cordelia.' (Halio, 5) Whilst this new reading adds more meaning to the scene, it should be understood as a critical change, undertaken by Shakespeare's literary executors, and thus it is hard to define how he meant it to look. However, if we compare this with the plays of Ben Jonson, Shakespeare's main theatrical rival, a purist, often horrified with Shakespeare's casual disregard for dramatic conventions, this will become clearer. On top of this, unlike Shakespeare, Jonson had immeasurably more control over how his work was published that Shakespeare did.
Like Sidney before him, Jonson placed the emphasis on classical models. He granted that 'Aristotle, was the fist accurate Criticke, and truest Judge; nay the greatest Philosopher, the world ever had' (Jonson, Discoveries, 640), and that certain rules of decorum must be followed; 'language most shewes a man: speke that I may see thee' (Discoveries, 625). Moreover, by translating Horace's Ars Poetica he essentially aligned himself with Horace's Roman views. However, Horace, like Aristotle before him, left plenty of interpretative space for the poet-critic to impose his own readings. Thus, Jonson can write in his preface to Sejanus, a tragedy which should be especially bound to Aristotle's Poetics, that the play is 'no true poem in the strict laws of time.' (Jonson, To the Readers-Sejanus', 350)
As such, we should understand Jonson's adherence to classical norms not as binding rules but instead, as guides: 'Nothing is more ridiculous, then to make an Author a Dictator, as the schooles have done Aristotle.' (Discoveries, 627) Jonson attempts to reform the preconceived norms in accordance with his own time; he will not 'serve the ill customs of the age', but instead hopes his plays will be 'as other plays should be' (Jonson, 'Every Man in His Humour' (1616 Folio), 303). Jonson's literary criticism however, is not uniform. Discoveries, a common-place book of jottings and translations, and the Conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden are comprised of material not intended for publication with little structure or coherence. Much of Jonson's literary criticism is to be found in the Prologues to his plays, and these adopt a variety of different mediums.
However the Discoveries do provide an interesting dialogue between Jonson and Shakespeare. He commends Shakespeare's 'excellent Phantasie; brave notions, and gentle expressions', barbing his comment with the qualifier that 'hee flow'd with that facility, that sometimes it was necessary he should be stop'd' (Discoveries, 584) Wary of Shakespeare's unbridled poetic inspiration - 'I remember, the Players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing, (whatsoever he penned) hee never blotted out a line […] would he had blotted a thousand' (Discoveries, 583) - Jonson's view was that the poet should be assiduously self-cultivated by careful reading and poetic diligence: 'as in every body; so in every Action, which is the subject of a just worke, there is requir'd a certaine proportionable greatnesse, neither too vast, nor too minute.' (Discoveries, 646) Therefore, Jonson's notion of progress was not breaking with the past but making the past fit the present. Similarly, although Jonson could understand the idea of poetic development within a writer's life; 'I will like and praise some things in a young Writer, which yet if hee continue in, I cannot but justly hate him for the same' (Discoveries, 617), there is no acknowledgement of development or progress in Shakespeare's life, only a tacit recognition (which was itself a development in Jonson, culminating in his prefatory verses for the 1623 Folio) that he had to be judged on his own terms: 'There was ever more in him to be praysed, then to be pardoned.' (Discoveries, 584)
Javitch, D. 'The assimilation of Aristotle's Poetics in sixteenth-century Italy', in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, ed. G. P. Norton, 9 vols., (Cambridge, 1999), III, pp. 53-66
Sidney, P. 'The Defence of Poesie', in English Renaissance Literary Criticism, pp. 336-392, pp. 349-50
Connell, D., Sir Philip Sidney: The Maker's Mind, (Clarendon, 1977)
Nicoll, A., 'Dryden as an Adapter of Shakespeare' in Shakespeare Association Papers, 6-10, (Oxford, 1922), 8, pp. 1-34,
Jonson, B., 'To the Readers-Sejanus', in Ben Jonson, IV
Jonson, B., 'Timber, or Discoveries', in Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford Percy, E. Simpson, 11 vols., (Oxford, 1947), VII
Jonson, B., Prologue to 'Every Man in His Humour' (1616 Folio), in Ben Jonson, III,
Halio, J. L., 'King Lear: A Guide to the Play', Greenwood, 2001