As the back cover assures us and as the author states several times in various ways: “A great deal of Shakespeare criticism is an effort to force the bard into categories into which he will not fit.” Of course, much the same could be said of nearly any great work of literature and its misuse and abuse by modern critics. The interpretations of the proponents of the various modern literary theories — existentialist, Marxist, queer, feminist, whatever the case may be — are all attempts to force the works of the great authors of the past to fit into their own box and support their pet ideologies. As for Shakespeare himself, I have seen just in the last month new articles which claim he was, among other things, a Catholic, a Calvinist, an atheist, and gay. Truth be told, he was almost certainly none of the above. And this is where Robert E. Fitch’s tour de force of Shakespeare’s worldview via his dramatic and poetic achievements comes in.
Fitch, as the subtitle has it, sets out to examine Shakespeare from “the perspective of value.” In other words, Fitch desires to get to the root of Shakespeare’s ideas about God, about man, and about the world; he wishes to discern Shakespeare’s principles and values, as well as how these might have changed during the course of his literary life. And this he does with vigor, with force, and with charm.
Fitch’s nearly encyclopedic knowledge of Shakespeare is on full display throughout. Any time that he makes a claim about a value Shakespeare might have held, Fitch is able to immediately muster to his defense references from every piece of Shakespeare’s repertoire. In so doing, happily, he avoids the tortuous mental gymnastics so many modern critics must adopt in order to find a way to force the Bard into their box. Instead, he allows Shakespeare to speak for himself, often in his own words.
A helpful companion to this volume might be Tillyard’s Elizabethan World Picture. There, Tillyard expounds upon the worldview common to most Elizabethans, including such ideas as the Great Chain of Being, the four elements, the moral order, and the primacy of man. All of these ideas are, of course, the ideas Shakespeare would have been immersed in, even when he finds himself questioning some of them. Fitch is able, however, to explain all of these ideas well enough in the course of his examination of these principles and values in Shakespeare’s work specifically that Tillyard’s volume is not necessary to understanding Fitch’s but rather helpful.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in getting at the real Shakespeare, the man himself and what he believed. It will be a real treat for those who, like myself, greatly enjoy Shakespeare’s plays, but also helpful to anyone interested in literature and intellectual history in a more general way.