The Great William: Writers Reading Shakespeare

The Great William: Writers Reading Shakespeare

by Theodore Leinwand


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The Great William is the first book to explore how seven renowned writers—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Virginia Woolf, Charles Olson, John Berryman, Allen Ginsberg, and Ted Hughes—wrestled with Shakespeare in the very moments when they were reading his work. What emerges is a constellation of remarkable intellectual and emotional encounters.

Theodore Leinwand builds impressively detailed accounts of these writers’ experiences through their marginalia, lectures, letters, journals, and reading notes. We learn why Woolf associated reading Shakespeare with her brother Thoby, and what Ginsberg meant when referring to the mouth feel of Shakespeare’s verse. From Hughes’s attempts to find a “skeleton key” to all of Shakespeare’s plays to Berryman’s tormented efforts to edit King Lear, Leinwand reveals the palpable energy and conviction with which these seven writers engaged with Shakespeare, their moments of utter self-confidence and profound vexation. In uncovering these intense public and private reactions, The Great William connects major writers’ hitherto unremarked scenes of reading Shakespeare with our own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226527628
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/16/2017
Pages: 239
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Theodore Leinwand is emeritus professor of English at the University of Maryland. He is the author of The City Staged and Theatre, Finance, and Society in Early Modern England, as well as a consulting editor for Shakespeare Quarterly.

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The Great William

Writers Reading Shakespeare

By Theodore Leinwand

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-36769-9


Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Impelling Thoughts" about Shakespeare

Hundreds and hundreds of pages of the Bollingen Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge are given over to Coleridge's notes, comments, reflections, marginalia, and lectures on Shakespeare. These testify en masse to the remarkable gregariousness of Coleridge the Shakespearean. The poems and plays, like so much else that Coleridge read, sponsored earnest, lifelong pedagogical relations between Coleridge and his family, friends, readers, and audiences. It fell to Coleridge first to understand, then to explain Shakespeare. What he read, he could not help but talk about. And talk about. He is relentlessly analytical, even when he experiences pleasure. Indeed, analysis itself was a source of pleasure: the best poetry stimulates the best reader to "be carried forward ... by the pleasureable [sic] activity of mind excited by the attractions of the journey itself." Time and again, where there is evidence of Coleridgean pathos, hard on its heels, even antecedent to it, there may be found a measure of logos and a dose of ethos. In his notes on interleaved sheets in the two-volume Ayscough edition of The Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare (1807) which he took with him into the lecture room at the Crown and Anchor Tavern, Coleridge's initial response to Iago observing Cassio take Desdemona "by the palm," then planning to "ensnare" him in "as little a web as this," is a burst of sheer enthusiasm: "O excellent." This is the stock in trade of a huge warehouse filled with Shakespeare marginalia; it expresses either knowing connoisseurship or it is the unselfconscious gasp of sudden recognition, the utter delight familiar to every reader of Shakespeare. However, no sooner does this pleasurable shiver register than Coleridge probes its cause. To write, "O excellent. The importance given to fertile trifles ..." is for Coleridge to begin to expose the logic — the compositional strategy — that intensifies the shudder. The wit of the playwright, no less than the villain's, consists of making terrors of trifles. Then Coleridge extends his gloss just one phrase further ("O excellent. The importance given to fertile trifles, made fertile by the villainy of the observer —"), now acknowledging the ethical dimension of his own, perhaps also Shakespearean, pathos. Coleridge's pulse appears to quicken to the fecundity of villainy, but the full glossarial trajectory — from felt impression to analysis to evaluation — is the distinguishing mark of the reader Coleridge at work. He may ask what a Shakespearean passage means; he often asks what a particular editorial crux actually says; but implicitly or explicitly, he most wants to know "[h]ow is it done?" (John Payne Collier's notes).

Here is another instance: not much farther along in the play, reading in 3.3, Coleridge writes, "Divine!" (CM, 4.868) in response to the way Othello's "If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself!" cues Desdemona's entrance. Once again, because of the pressure of a pedagogical imperative, an exclamation is not suffered to stand alone, as it undoubtedly would in the margin of any casually annotated volume of the plays. Coleridge has to explain. His exclamation point measures the duration of feeling before it gives way to clarification: "Divine! the effect of innocence & the [bitter/better?] [? genius]" (the conjectures are Foakes's in CLect, 2.319; Jackson and Whalley give "better genius" without comment in CM). Coleridge infers that his involuntary affect, his !, has been triggered by a Shakespearean display of technical virtuosity (the exquisite collision between Othello and innocence plus better genius, or between Desdemona's innocence and Othello's bitter genius) enacted by characters who for Coleridge are always "a medium for value."

While Coleridge's experience of the pleasures of a Shakespearean text has a genuine affective component, he responds as if pleasure were a prompt, or a heuristic. According to James Dykes Campbell's transcription of J. Tomalin's notes on Coleridge's November 28, 1811, lecture in the Great Room of the London Philosophical Society, Coleridge read the description of the horse and then of the hare in Venus and Adonis. He commented that "auditors wd perceive that there was accuracy of description blended with the fervour of the poet's mind, thereby communicating pleasure to the reader" (CLect, 1.252). The path to pleasure traverses (Tomalin's version of) Coleridge's precise and logical ("thereby") account. As befits someone who valued "every thing ... in its place" and the ability "to contemplate not things only, or for their own sake alone, but ... the relations of things, either their relations to each other, or to the observer, or to the state and apprehension of the hearers," he begins by applauding Shakespearean method, or discrimination ("accuracy of description"). Coleridge's Shakespeare, famously, always exercises judgment. To Shakespeare's "accuracy" Coleridge joins "fervour," but notably, this is mental fervor. The door is barred against Shakespeare as "a sort of beautiful Lusus Naturae, a delightful Monster — wild indeed, without taste or Judgment, but like the inspired Ideots of so much venerated in the East." In the lecture sentence from which I have quoted, we do make our way to the reader's pleasure, but it is a telos that serves primarily as an opportunity to inquire into its source. John Payne Collier's 1811 notes confirm that insofar as poetry is concerned, "Pleasurable excitement was its origin & object" (CLect, 1.207). Pleasure-giving poetry begins with "constant activity of mind, arising from the poet himself" (Tomalin's notes transcribed by Campbell, CLect, 1.222). For the reader, it produces "a highly pleasurable Whole, of which each part shall communicate for itself a distinct & conscious pleasure" (CN, 3:4111). This is just one version of what was axiomatic for Coleridge, that a poem "must be one, the parts of which mutually support and explain each other"; that the poet "diffuses a tone and spirit of unity, that blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each"; that the imagination reduces "multitude into unity of effect" and depends upon imitation to express "sameness and difference" (BL, 2:10–14 and 256). Our cognition of a poem's or a poet's success according to these criteria determines whether or not we experience pleasure, that is to say, "pleasureable activity of mind" (BL, 2:11). If a poem is "a rationalized dream" (CN, 2:2087), then the poetic imagination, first and foremost a "power ... put in action by the will and understanding," always remains "under their ... controul" (BL, 2:12). The poet, then, is only ever a "great poet" if a "profound philosopher" (again and again, Coleridge insists that Shakespeare, a "philosophical aristocrat," was "no automaton of genius, no passive vehicle of inspiration" [CLect, 2.272; BL, 2:19; cf. CN, 3:4115]). And the reader repays the philosophical poet with "perpetual activity of attention" — what Coleridge called "intellectual pleasure" (BL, 2:15; CN, 3:4111) and experienced as "intellecturition" (CM, 1.653).

George Whalley, the first Bollingen editor of Coleridge's marginalia, points out that this neologism appears in one of Coleridge's notes in the margin of the Works of Jacob Behmen [Jakob Böhme], a four-volume edition that was a gift from Thomas De Quincey (CM, 1.lix). Coleridge summons multiple languages, even devising a nonce word, as he tries to describe something that is "haud Jam Intelligens neque Intellectus" ("this not-yet Intelligent [Intellecting] nor Intelligible [Intellected]" — CM, 1.653, n. 1224). Here is the series of synonyms that unfurls in the margin: "perpetual Intellecturition, a [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [pothos], Sehnsucht, Yearning, Ceres" (CM, 1.653). "Intellecturition" combines activity of the mind with desire (in his essay on the "Prometheus of Aeschylus," Coleridge refers to [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or desire" [CM, 1.665, n. 1404]), with love ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is synonymous with "the being in love" in one of Coleridge's marginal notes in Joseph Ritson's A Select Collection of English Songs [CM, 4.292]), with longing, and with appetite (according to Friedrich Schelling, who had read Böhme, Ceres stood for languor plus sucht, or for "hunger" [CM, 1.665, n. 1404]). Whalley adds a "sexual component," arguing that for Coleridge, "the only way of rendering the feel of intellecturition is in a sexual image" (CM, 1.601, n. 522). The reader engaged in intellecturition reaches out, longing for the sustaining pleasures of intellectual intercourse, for table talk that consists mostly of nurture (giving), but also a degree of self-serving nutrition (taking). The solitary act of reading is largely a pretext for the social, extroverted arts of conversation and lecturing. The primacy of intelligence in intellecturition answers to the mental activity that for Coleridge was the greatest pleasure and the necessary imposition for which reading was responsible. But intellecturition also entails outward- or other-directed activity that extends beyond mere talk to pedagogy. Coleridge's homemade abstract noun tallies with his yearning for someone with whom to talk, better still, someone who would just listen to him. Seamus Perry quotes Bryan Waller Procter, who thought that talking was for Coleridge "like laying down part of his burden." Coleridge no less than his critics could see the connection between himself and the Ancient Mariner. As Perry sympathetically notes, "[t]his is the act of uttering as a desperate 'outering, getting rid of' (CN, 4:4954), an attempt to evade the prison of the unhappy self and make contact with a redeeming world without: 'Have Mercy on me, O something out of me!' (CN, 2:2453)."

At one point in 1803, Coleridge told his brother that for three years, he had been reading at least eight hours a day (CM, 1.lxxxi). All of this appears to have been reading for — not merely for himself, or for knowledge or for pleasure, but for knowledge and pleasure that he could convey to others (this despite the fact that when he was twenty-four years old, he imagined himself as "a library-cormorant" who "seldom read except to amuse myself"). Kathleen Coburn, the first Bollingen editor of Coleridge's voluminous notebooks, quotes from an autobiographical fragment written by Coleridge two years before his death, when he was sixty years old. In what is called the "Folio Notebook," Coleridge begins with his childhood, passes on to his father's death, and then to his years at Christ's Hospital school. He remembers that a stranger gave him borrowing privileges at a circulating library in King's Street, Cheapside, and that he "read thro the whole Catalogue, folios and all ..." He describes how his "whole Being was with eyes closed to every object of present sense — to crumple myself up in a sunny Corner, and read, read, read, — finding myself in Rob. Crusoe's Island, finding a Mountain of Plum Cake, and eating out a room for myself, and then eating it into the shapes of Chairs & Tables — Hunger and Fancy —". Because what struck me when I first read this was what Coburn calls Coleridge's "solitariness," I was brought up short when I found Coburn shrewdly asking us to notice that "the plum-cake room had tables and chairs, in the plural, for sociability." Books, Coleridge wrote in his notebook, were his "dear, very dear, Companions"; yet he often felt a "pang that the Author is not present ... At times, I become restless: for my nature is very social" (CN, 2:2322). Even for the boy, there was something missing: someone to join him in table talk, or, at least, to pull up a chair and listen to what Coleridge had to say about what he had been reading.

In notes on "our Shakespear" that appear to date from 1811 or 1812, Coleridge wrote "that I have been daily reading him since I was ten years old" (CLect, 1.429). However, there does not seem to be any evidence that he took pleasure in reading Shakespeare with or out loud to others. What excited and motivated him was what he derived from his reading, what it led him to think and then to say. Even his earliest Shakespeare reading looks grim. The Reverend James Boyer, master of the upper grammar school at Christ's Hospital, required students to memorize Shakespeare and Milton. What Coleridge remembers, early in Biographia Literaria, is not the memorization per se, but the "time and trouble [it took] to bring up [what he had memorized], so as to escape his censure" (BL, 1.4). If this does, after all, conjure a kind of reading community, then it represents a benchmark level of Shakespearean negative sociability for Coleridge. There is no evidence of pleasure — Coleridge seems to have associated Boyer with vulnerable bottoms at least as much as with book learning — in fact, it may be that reading and reciting Shakespeare, as opposed to talking about what he read in Shakespeare, never satisfied Coleridge. In John Payne Collier's notes, taken at an 1811 lecture on The Tempest, we find Coleridge refusing to "pass from the character of a lecturer into a mere reciter" (CLect, 1.366). When Henry Crabb Robinson complained in a letter to his brother about Coleridge's lectures that "C. can be induced to read Shakespear" (1.410), Crabb Robinson revealed what would please him but decidedly not his friend. And if we can credit De Quincey's jaundiced report, then "amongst Coleridge's accomplishments, good reading was not one; he had neither voice (so, at least, I thought), nor management of voice." (1.148). Coleridge's bent was pedagogy, not oratory. He was a professional lecturer — an educator who lectured on education as well as on literature — not an actor.

At times, then, there must have been what we now call a "disconnect" between what Coleridge set out to do in his lectures and what he accomplished. This gap between intention and effect has all of the hallmarks — rapture, abstraction, and self-absorption — of Coleridge attempting conversation. In Crabb Robinson's 1811 letter, he describes Coleridge's "pretended lectures" as "immethodical rhapsodies" (CLect, 1.409; Coleridge himself acknowledged that the Biographia was so "immethodical a miscellany" [BL, 1:64]). De Quincey, who appears to have attended Coleridge's second lecture in 1808, complained that the "passages he read, moreover, in illustrating his doctrines, were generally unhappily chosen, because chosen at haphazard" (CLect, 1.148). Crabb Robinson recorded in his diary that Lamb made fun of Coleridge for delivering a "lecture [supposedly on Romeo and Juliet] in the character of the nurse" (CLect, 1.283). But as far back as 1804, when he was first contemplating a series of Shakespeare lectures, Coleridge wrote to Sir George Beaumont that he would prepare by reading

each scene of each play ... as if it were the whole of Shakespere's Works — the sole thing extant. I ask myself what are the characteristics — the Diction, the Cadences, and metre, the character, the passion, the moral or metaphysical Inherencies, & fitness for theatric effect, and in what sort of Theatres — all these I write down with great care & precision of Thought & Language — / and when I have gone thro' the whole, I then shall collect my papers, & observe, how often such & such Expressions recur / & thus shall not only know what the Characteristics of Shakespere's Plays are, but likewise what proportion they bear to each other. (CL, 2:1054)

"Each ... each ... care & precision ... collect ... recur ... proportion" — if this is anything, it is methodical. Coleridge describes a quasi-scientific collection of evidence, an orderly reading process that would enable him to produce proofs. We hear more of this sort in a much later letter, from 1819: "during a course of lectures, I faithfully employ all the intervening days in collecting and digesting the materials" (CLect, 2.346). On the one hand, meticulous data harvesting, on the other, rhapsody. There are several ways to explain this, the first of which is straightforward. R. A. Foakes, the editor of the Bollingen Lectures, argues that at first, the Coleridge who was "afflicted ... by illness, opium-addiction, and other problems" frequently improvised and digressed. However, "[f]rom 1813 onwards he seems to have prepared with some care almost every lecture ... he followed his notes ... his later lectures were probably more obviously coherent and better organised than many of the early ones" ( According to this version, Coleridge "consolidated and improved his technique" (1.liii). A second explanation — Coleridge's own (although Foakes finds it "untrustworthy" [l:i]) — may be found in the same letter from 1819. There is indeed, as we have seen, a process of "collecting and digestion," of "consideration," and there are "study" and "principle"; but then Coleridge writes that "before I had proceeded twenty minutes, I have been obliged to push the MSS. away, and give the subject a new turn." So much for following his notes. "I know almost as little as any one of my audience ... what they ["the words, illustrations, &c."] will be five minutes before the lecture begins." In fact, he crows, his auditors used to "threaten" him when they saw his sheaf of notes, "declaring they never felt so secure of a good lecture as when they perceived that I had not a single scrap of writing before me" (2.346–47).


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Table of Contents


Chapter I Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Impelling Thoughts” about Shakespeare
Chapter II John Keats on Sitting Down to Read Shakespeare Once Again
Chapter III Virginia Woolf Reads “the Great William”
Chapter IV Charles Olson’s “Objectist Shakespeare”
Chapter V John Berryman’s Shakespeare / Shakespeare’s John Berryman
Chapter VI Allen Ginsberg on Shakespeare’s Funny Mouthings
Chapter VII Ted Hughes Reads the Complete Shakespeare


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