Grady Takes on 'Great Shakespeareans' and Literary Daredevils

July 6, 2012 Sarah Schwartz

If your idea of a great Shakespearean includes a quill pen, Elizabethan collars or the likeness of Mel Gibson, you’ve got it all wrong. Just ask Professor Hugh Grady, who recently edited and contributed to Great Shakespeareans: Empson, Wilson Knight, Barber, Kott (Continuum 2012)—an anthology of critical essays that focuses on four major modern Shakespearean critics who were true literary daredevils.

The critics whom Grady selects are anything but your typical bookish types—from being kicked out of Cambridge and landing in the Polish underground resistance in World War II to speaking to Shakespeare beyond the grave.

The Great Shakespeareans series covers a wide range of artists and critics, including A.C. Bradley, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. This particular volume deals with a “crucial segment of the centuries-long multivalent and international set of reactions” to Shakespeare. Naturally, series editors Peter Holland (University of Notre Dame) and Adrian Poole (Trinity College, Cambridge, UK), thought of Grady, a seminal specialist in Shakespeare and contemporary critical theory.

Grady set out to identify four Shakespeareans who were most influential, leading the way to what is now called New Historicism—the idea that a literary work should be considered a product of its own time. There were several important 20th-century events that impacted Grady’s choices, including the rise of English literature as a newly instituted subject for professionalism, as well as the post-war period that entrenched Shakespearean criticism into a more social- and political-minded direction.

Grady’s first book, The Modernist Shakespeare: Critical Texts in a Material World (1991), covered this period extensively, examining how Shakespeare was reconstructed in the light of modernist aesthetics.

“It reveals a more spatialized text, a revolt against the 19th-century history and character. That was the main reason they thought of me.” Each essay in Great Shakespeareans: Empson, Wilson Knight, Barber, Kott assesses Shakespeare's impact on the critic and of the critic's impact on the understanding, interpretation and appreciation of Shakespeare.

Close Reading Revolution

Grady’s chosen luminaries of the Modernist revolution, William Empson and G. Wilson Knight, were both eccentric individuals. Empson began Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), a book that would assure his literary legacy, at Cambridge University. But he was forced to finish the book in a London flat. Cambridge expelled him after a college porter found condoms in his rooms.

Scandal seems to have served this critic well. Although today ambiguities are routinely found in Shakespeare, at the time Empson’s idea provoked hot dispute: a reader that enjoyed intentional ambiguities might be suspected of liking still-controversial modernist poetry like the poetry of T.S. Eliot.

Because Empson’s work on Shakespeare was largely confined to the Sonnets, Grady included G. Wilson Knight, who invented a powerful and influential method of reading the play as a whole through a type of close reading technique, concentrating on images, symbols, and the patterns they formed throughout.

Knight’s eccentricities were less advantageous. A devoted spiritualist, Knight reported contact with his dead brother and others. “Many of the assumptions that he made have fallen into great disrepute, but Knight was very transcendental and a great believer in the organic unity of a text,” says Grady. “He intended to find spiritual meaning within the text.”

Due to Knight’s reputation among some literary circles, Grady’s decision to include him as a Great Shakespearean was met with some resistance. Orchestrating such a volume can be “a pleasure and in other cases, very difficult,” he says. In many cases Grady already had critics and colleagues in mind; however, in the case of G. Wilson Knight, it was a little more difficult.

Predecessors for a New Historicism

The second half of Great Shakespeareans jumps into the second half of the 20th century, which marks a turn away from the formalist and purely aesthetic New Critical readings of the first half of the century, towards more politically and socially minded readings—a prelude to New Historicism. Grady identified C.L. Barber, who is famous for his book Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy, and Jan Kott, Polish poet and critical essayist who merged Marxism and Existentialism in Shakespeare, Our Contemporary.

“Particularly as a Pole, [Kott] read the history plays and understands the political tragedies as about the sort of futility of historical change, for what he called the great mechanism, whereby one tyrant succeeds another in history. There are obvious parallels to Poland, having escaped Hitler, only to fall under Stalin.”

As detailed in the anthology, Kott led an interesting life—a Marxist and a member of the Communist Party, he visited France, met with Sartre and was part of an underground Resistance against the German occupiers of Poland during the 1930s. His political activism fueled his essays, which had a tremendous impact on theatrical productions. Shakespeare became one of the main methods of political protest.

“It was all in how you staged it,” says Grady. “Shakespeare was Marx’s favorite writer and an approved author of the Communist party. Shakespeare was produced often in all the eastern European countries. In Poland, they immediately sensed that Kott was writing a piece of criticism about contemporary Polish and generally Eastern European society under Communist direction. The critics later denounced him but the productions went on.”

Shelving his red cloth-bound copy of Great Shakespeareans and packing his bags, Grady is ready for a new adventure. In July, he departs for a year-long sabbatical to accompany his wife, Susan Wells, a Composition, Rhetoric and Critical Theory Professor at Temple University, who will be teaching in Rome, Italy. He plans to revisit the topic of his dissertation: John Donne. “I’ll be working with Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Allegory and applying it to Donne’s poetry in the some of the ways that Benjamin looked at Baudelaire,” he smiles. “I’m not quite sure where it will take me.”

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