Nineteenth-century Shakespeares: nationalism and moralism

Hollingsworth, Mark (2007) Nineteenth-century Shakespeares: nationalism and moralism. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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This thesis shows that 'Shakespeare' (both the works and the man) was at the forefront of literary activity in the nineteenth century. By focusing on concerns about the identity of the British nation and its people it shows that Shakespeare was a constant presence in the debates of the day and that a number of agendas were pursued through what were ostensibly writings about Shakespeare's plays and the biography of their


The Introduction first notes Shakespeare's transition from Elizabethan playwright to Victorian cultural icon and proceeds to outline nineteenth-century critical practice and changes in the social organisation of knowledge. From here the shift in how Shakespeare was considered is noted as well as the fact that, despite increasing interest in the history of the phenomenon, the nineteenth century has been largely neglected. What exploration there has been of this period has tended, by its nature as part of larger surveys or issue-specific studies, to oversimplify the complexities of nineteenth-century criticism. Further to this, the nineteenth century itself is often treated as a time of unsophisticated development and as a precursor to modern thought rather than a period of interest in its own right. A variety of what this thesis terms 'literary pursuits' during this period are then contextualised, as well as the changing role of the critic in nineteenth-century society. This is accompanied by an exploration of the community of readers and writers who would have engaged with these works. Finally, the methodological decisions which have directed this thesis are explained, including the privileging of page over stage, and the choice of those nineteenth-century writers who have been examined.

The main body of the thesis is divided into two sections: Part One (Chapters One and Two) gives a broad taxonomy of ways in which nineteenth-century writers used Shakespeare as a means for addressing other issues, and Part Two (Chapter Three) uses a specific case study through which to examine these particular issues. It shows that attitudes to Shakespeare were shaped by an ongoing dialogue concerning the identity of the nation and its population. However, while there was much commonality regarding the agendas for which Shakespeare was used, the ways in which various different writers approached this was surprisingly diverse.

Chapter One, 'Nationalism,' looks at how Shakespeare could be used in order to serve a nationalistic agenda: this involved either allying Shakespeare with the nation itself (by utilising Shakespeare's nationality, writing in a rhetorically charged manner, or interpreting Shakespeare's works in a certain fashion), or equating the nineteenth century with the early modern period (and highlighting various commonalities or differences with those times). The concept of nationalism is contextualised by looking at various attitudes to the nation which were driven by the challenges of the expanding Empire.

Chapter Two, 'Moralism,' looks at the ways in which Shakespeare was used as a tool by those who sought to promote certain behavioural traits amongst their readers. The different ways in which writers made use of Shakespeare are situated within a discussion of nineteenth-century philosophical and moral positions. This chapter looks successively at what is termed 'Private Moralism' (a concern with abstract ideas, such as self-control and adherence to familial or religious ties), and 'Public Moralism' (that is, efforts to improve the outward or physical attributes of individuals, such as financial accumulation or class status).

Part Two of the thesis focuses on how Victorian writers used Shakespeare specifically in relation to Shakespeare's Sonnets. To this end, Chapter Three, 'The Sonnets,' looks at how writings on the Sonnets pursued moral or nationalistic agendas. This chapter also seeks to draw together the strands of nationalism and moralism by showing that anxieties about the state of Britain fed into writing about the Sonnets at this time and that this involved a complex debate about the Sonnets, ancient Greece, and the nature of what would today be termed homosexuality. A significant contention of this chapter is that nineteenth-century attitudes towards the Sonnets need to be appreciated on their own terms rather than anachronistically via a modern understanding of homosexuality.

The Conclusion suggests that Shakespeare was used by nineteenth-century critics and biographers as a location within which to debate certain overarching concerns of the day. How these issues were approached, however, took different forms and Shakespeare was employed for different ends, which points to a general unease regarding the identity of the nation. As the formal institutionalising of the English Literary canon was taking place during the period covered by this thesis it seems reasonable to suggest that the use of Shakespeare was related to Shakespeare's position of dominance within the canon. Finally, suggestions are made as to how the ease with which Shakespeare could be used - as well as the unavoidable difficulties which are attendant with Shakespeare - might have affected this process of canonisation.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Guy, Josephine
Robson, Mark
Keywords: Shakespeare, Nineteenth-Century, Victorian, Nationalism, Moralism, Sonnets
Subjects: P Language and literature > PR English literature
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Arts > School of English
Item ID: 10551
Depositing User: EP, Services
Date Deposited: 11 Aug 2008
Last Modified: 19 Oct 2017 11:35

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