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The Formalistic Approach to Shakespeare

Updated on May 18, 2012

An Important Approach to Shakespeare's works

This is one of the most important lines of approach which has been especially developed in recent years under the impetus provided by what is known as New Criticism. Here the whole attention is concentrated upon the play as an autonomous unit, consisting of certain component parts such as plot-structure, imagery and symbols and significant words and metaphors which can be analyzed and studied in order to discover their relevance and significance in the scheme of the play as a whole. In a way the study of the structure of the play was definitely initiated by Moultan in Shakespeare, the Dramatic Artist and has continued sporadically till this day. But in recent years the attention has shifted definitely to the analysis of the texture of the play- its verbal and imagistic patterns. The first systematic approach to Shakespeare’s imagery in the various plays was made by Caroline Spurgeon in her monumental work, Shakespeare’s Imagery and What it Tells Us (1935). The analysis of the key images is finally related to the theme and atmosphere of the play and their later classification and categorization serves to reveal the nature and the favorite fields of Shakespeare’s own observation. Thus in Macbeth the recurrent images create the atmosphere of darkness with lurid flashes of light, and a definite sense of color, the color of blood especially. Then there is the imagery of clothes, loose-hanging garments, symbolic of the usurpation of the crown by Macbeth, which does not rightly belong to him and serves only to enhance his uneasiness. In Hamlet the dominant imagery is related to disease and disintegration, sometimes disease of an invisible insidious type covered with apparently sound skin but actively eating into the vitals and spreading the inner corruption. In Lear the key images, as Bradley had already noted, are related to physical torture and violence, of things being torn out and mutilated. Then there is the recurrent animal imagery to indicate the relapse of humanity to the brute creation, as if human animals were ready to prey upon each other. Miss Spurgeon has laid great emphasis upon Shakespeare’s practice of confining his attention to familiar and well-known spheres for the stock of images. The images are drawn from domestic articles and operations, from war and peace, games and recreations, mythology and the art of acting on the stages. Most of his images are derived from books, the Bible and other moral works, where his whole art aims at vivifying, illuminating and energizing the borrowed images through addition, alteration and beauty and effectiveness of fresh expression.

A new approach to the images is embodied in W.H. Clemen’s The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery, where the analysis of imagery is directed to the demonstration of Shakespeare’s continuous progress towards the integration of the various images to the structure and the character of the play. The success of the dramatist in this sort of integration is a measure of the maturity if his art, which is best, demonstrated by his great tragedies: “Each tragedy has its own unmistakable individual nature, its own nature, its own color; its own landscape, atmosphere and diction. . . and the imagery of a tragedy plays an important part, not only in creating a dramatic unity if atmosphere, but also in binding the separate element of a play into a real organic structure.” This line has been further developed and the full significance of the organic nature of Shakespeare’s imagery clearly and strikingly brought out. For example by a careful analysis of the well-known final soliloquy of Macbeth which is occasioned by the intimation about his wife’ death; “Tomorrow and to-morrow and to-morrow” etc. it is shown how one image breeds another in a proliferating process. The image sequence is ‘all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death’, which produces ‘out, out brief candle’ and from candle comes the image- ‘life is a walking shadow’ and this leads to the ‘poor player’ and his struts and frets in two hours’ traffic; and this, in turn, culminates in a ‘tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.’ This is a fine illustration of Coleridge’s remark that you cannot remove a single stone from the edifice of Shakespeare, and we have shown that the stone, in fact, is organically bound with another stone like a living limb so that the removal will mean tearing, with a gaping wound left behind.

Allied with this preoccupation with the key or dominant images scattered throughout the whole play is an intensive and scrupulous study and analysis of crucial passages in the great plays which, in a general way, has always formed part of Shakespearean explanatory and interpretative criticism, but its most scientific and penetrating exercise is seen only in the criticism of the present century. Shakespearean scholars connected with the Scrutiny, F.R. Leavis, L.C. Knights and others have specialized in this method and it is also apparent in Cleath Brooks’ fine analysis of Macbeth’s famous lines ‘And Pity like a naked new-born baby’ etc. and in an equally illuminating analysis of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy- ‘to be or not to be’ etc. in an issue of PMLA. This verbal scrutiny reaches the height of its complexity it Empson’s analysis of quite innocent looking passages in Shakespeare’s sonnets, but its inherent danger is revealed when the ingenious, but its inherent danger is revealed when the ingenious detective of ambiguities attempts to interpret a whole play with the help of single iterative words. This is murdering to dissect indeed!


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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I voted up too. She is so powerful. Keep writing forever!

    • archana srivastav profile image

      archana srivastav 

      8 years ago

      Very well written

    • ytsenoh profile image


      8 years ago from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri

      Definitely voted up. Wow. This was really good material and it was so well-written. Thank you! Keep up the good work and shared material and viewpoints. Shakespeare is such a good subject.


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