Hazlitt on comedy, Shakespeare, Jonson, and Olives.
Most readers of Hazlitt recognize his significance as originator of the familiar essay, as early cultural commentator, theatre critic, hack journalist, or exponent of the familiar style. But few commentators consider the way that his "style" also morphs into his technique. This process manifests itself especially in his consideration of comic writers. Here, Hazlitt's critical voice merges with comic perception to deliver multi-voiced information to share, consider, delight, and inform. Anyone who reflects on society, especially a critical thinker such as Hazlitt, will inevitably reflect on the ridiculousness of society, its platitudes, its estimations, its idealizations. Severe youthful tendentiousness (often in the form of radical allegiance, romanticized sexuality, or asexualized romance) commonly yields to the benign neglect of maturity (often in the form of retirement savings, scorn, or satire). Excruciating at first, romance eventually flattens its perceptions of difference to encompass satirical sameness after the fact. As a writer on English comedy, Hazlitt follows a similar trajectory from comedy generally, to Shakespeare in a romantic register, and on to Jonson in a more self-consciously satirical mode.
From the outset, Hazlitt gets very familiar in his considerations of comedy. Such familiarity itself represents a channel for comic delivery within which Hazlitt feels at once disquieted and involved. Somewhat like a comic performer himself, Hazlitt feels anything but comfortable with his timing and his delivery. He would rather admire romance from afar, from the culturally safe space of Shakespearean appreciation--which he helps to create--than engage with the disorienting minutiae and ludicrous complications of satirical comic interaction as promulgated and broadcast by Jonson. And yet Hazlitt cannot help himself. As will be seen, he may publicly discredit Jonson with the same aplomb as he disavows a taste for olives, but his taste for Jonson's satire exposes and reinforces itself even through its repeated disavowal. But this is not to psychoanalyze Hazlitt's deep denial or deconstruct the terms of his scholarly discourse. Instead, I will argue that Hazlitt's grasp of comedy reaches out from romantic perceptions to grasp satirical truths.
From the first sentence of his introductory essay "On Wit and Humour," Hazlitt overleaps Aristotle's dictum of man as laughing animal to land on the other side of comic perception: "he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be" (Wu, 5:3, Howe, VI:5). Hazlitt balances sympathy with lack of sympathy to reach the true binary of absurdist human experience in the following exclamation: "To explain the nature of laughter and tears, is to account for the condition of human life; for it is in a manner compounded of these two!" (5:5, VI:5). The excruciating romance of human experience that expresses itself within shared laughter and tears, comedy and tragedy, sadness and merriment - what Hazlitt might otherwise punctuate as "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir too"--always involves deep feeling at the first. But then something else happens, and Hazlitt courageously (if somewhat begrudgingly) gives this disagreeable, odd, but ultimately comic moment of perception its due:
If every thing that went wrong, if every vanity or weakness in another gave us a sensible pang, it would be hard indeed: but as long as the disagreeableness of the consequences of a sudden disaster is kept out of sight by the immediate oddity of the circumstances, and the absurdity or unaccountableness of a foolish action is the most striking thing in it, the ludicrous prevails over the pathetic, and we receive pleasure instead of pain from the farce of life which is played before us, and which discomposes our gravity as often as it fails to move our anger or our pity! (5:3, VI:5)
Allowing for the exclamation point, Jonson himself couldn't have been more precise on the conflicting energies of satirical comedy.
Like every comic commentator from Aristotle to Jonson, to Hobbes, Hazlitt recognizes the need to reconcile feelings and circumstances. He accommodates this physical necessity within laughter, which he anatomizes as "that alternate excitement and relaxation, or irregular convulsive movement of the muscular and nervous system, which constitutes physical laughter" (5:5, VI:7). Like children surprised at unmaskings, or adults baffled by contradiction or absurdity, human perceptions of "the discontinuous in our sensations" produce a corresponding physical discontinuity manifesting itself as laughter. Hazlitt expands on his italics as follows: "We turn with an incredulous smile from a story that staggers our belief: and we are ready to split our sides with laughing at an extravagance that sets all common sense and serious concern at defiance" (5:5, VI:7). Locating the essence of the laughable within the incongruous proportions of human interactions and perceptions, he quantifies three degrees of the laughable: 1) the immediate surprise; 2) the ludicrous, arising out of the improbable or distressing; and 3) the ridiculous, arising out of absurdity as well as improbability. The surprising, the ludicrous, the ridiculous--all three tend toward Hazlitt's summation: "This last species is properly the province of satire" (5:6, VI:8). Yet the foregoing principle of discontinuity and contrast is fundamental to all three. Themes of romantic accommodation, greatness of heart, and humane generosity are nowhere to be found in Hazlitt's early theoretical musings. Technically, and from the very first, he identifies with Jonsonian satire rather than Shakespearean romance.
He identifies too with Hobbesian satire even as he gestures toward his first literary references: Slaukenbergius' tale from Tristram Shandy and the laughable pairings of horses and men from Don Quixote. A pronounced contrast in size, style, class, and kind ensures laughable response in every case, and Hazlitt registers a layered multi-ethnic example: "Three chimney-sweepers meeting three Chinese in Lincoln's-inn Fields, they laughed at one another till they were ready to drop down" (5:6, VI:8). East meets west meets upper meets lower meets cleanly meets sooty--and all within the context of established English authority. Such differences can be reconciled only through laughter, and Hazlitt extends his example into a deeper sense of suggestive gendered reversal: "Women laugh at their lovers" (5:6, VI:9). This starkly suggestive observation follows from Hazlitt's polite form of Hobbes' "sudden glory": "One rich source of the ludicrous is distress with which we cannot sympathise" (5:6, VI:8). This impassable fissure suggests itself even more fully in Hazlitt's summation: "We laugh to shew our satisfaction with ourselves, or our contempt for those about us, or to conceal our envy or our ignorance" (5:6, VI:9). This observation fully explains the laughter endemic to institutional academic discourse today with the further unsentimental realization that "Some one is generally sure to be the sufferer by a joke" (5:6, VI:9). Hazlitt hereby registers his Hobbesian allegiance without presupposing the moral comfort and political correctness that Western sophisticates insist on today. Again, Hazlitt's unsentimental accuracy sees it whole: "We only laugh at those misfortunes in which we are spectators, not sharers" (5:6, VI:9). Those London chimney-sweepers and Chinese visitors may have laughed at each others' perceived "misfortune" but they also laughed at the contrast of their shared unlikely circumstance.
From defensive laughter to offensive delight, from shared mirth to secret pleasure--a modicum of discomfort always registers itself. Hazlitt catches the sense in relation to old plays on the stage and current courtroom process. He avers as follows: "Wickedness is often made a substitute for wit; and in most of our good old comedies, the intrigue of the plot and the double meaning of the dialogue go hand-in-hand, and keep up the ball with wonderful spirit between them" followed by the pointed observation that "It is not an easy matter to preserve decorum in courts of justice" (5:7, VI:10). Solemnity always suggests subversion. In fact, the more solemn the occasion the more incongruous the moment--especially in relation to official and unofficial life experiences. Hazlitt even advances the ultimate forced incongruities as evidence: the fact that Sir Thomas More, Wycherley, and Rabelais died jesting and laughing "with a bon-mot in their mouths" (5:7, VI:10). Such comical excessiveness thrives on exaggeration, misdirection free association, and improvisatory rants, pushing Hazlitt all the way to the perception that lying is itself "a species of wit and humour," adding further that "the more incredible the effrontery, the greater is the joke" (5:8, VI:11). Extremity always asserts itself as a form of cognitive inflexibility--sometimes subtle, sometimes not--within the parameters of wit and humour.
A form of comic inflexibility links itself to character and action, what Hazlitt refers to as "keeping." This key term is practically Bergsonian in its perception and in its effects, as Hazlitt affirms,
There is nothing more powerfully humorous than what is called keeping in comic character, as we see it very finely exemplified in Sancho Panza and Don Quixote. The proverbial phlegm and the romantic gravity of these two celebrated persons may be regarded as the height of this kind of excellence. The deep feeling of character strengthens the sense of the ludicrous. Keeping in comic character is consistency in absurdity; a determined and laudable attachment to the incongruous and singular. (5:8, VI:11)
Along similar lines, he credits the relentlessly hobby-horsical Uncle Toby from Tristram Shandy as well as Malvolio and Christopher Sly. He might well have included Jonsonian characters such as Surly and Sir Epicure Mammon, whose scene of confrontation Hazlitt later praises as "the finest example I know of dramatic sophistry" (5:39, VI:45), the fortune hunters from Volpone, each "occupied with the ridiculousness of the other's pretensions" while "blind only to the absurdity of his own" (5:38, VI:44), and finally the central character Morose from Epicoene, identified by Jonson as "a gentleman that loves no noise." These ludicrously disenchanted and inflexible comic characters certainly maintain their headlong drives without deviation while the romantic gravity of their feelings are theirs alone. In a book titled The Comic Theories of Hazlitt, Lamb, and Coleridge (44), George Goodin links Hazlitt's sense of comic keeping to realism and sympathy for specific characters while soft pedaling Hazlitt's clear association of character, inflexibility, and laughably ludicrous behavior. For purposes of illustrative summary, Hazlitt himself becomes a comic writer and provides a gag worth quoting at length:
I remember reading a story in an odd number of the European Magazine, of an old gentleman who used to walk out every afternoon, with a gold-headed cane, in the fields opposite Baltimore House, which were then open, only with foot-paths crossing them. He was frequently accosted by a beggar with a wooden leg, to whom he gave money, which only made him more importunate. One day, when he was more troublesome than usual, a well-dressed person happening to come up, and observing how saucy the fellow was, said to the gentleman, 'Sir, if you will lend me your cane for a moment, I'll give him a good threshing for his impertinence.' The old gentleman, smiling at the proposal, handed him his cane, which the other no sooner was going to apply to the shoulders of the culprit, than he immediately whipped off his wooden leg, and scampered off with great alacrity, and his chastiser after him as hard as he could go. The faster the one ran, the faster the other followed him, brandishing the cane, to the great astonishment of the gentleman who owned it, till having fairly crossed the fields, they suddenly turned a corner, and nothing more was seen of either of them. (5:9, VI:12)
This summing up of incongruity and relative distress features misdirection, and effrontery as central to the surprise of the actual situation: a generous but complacent gentleman fleeced of the gold-headed instrument with which he entertained thoughts of his own unassailable superiority. This gag would work well as a scene in Volpone or The Alchemist.
At this point, however, Hazlitt moves quickly toward consideration of the comedy of romance. He argues a half-and-half relationship between satire and romance, the sort of combination of "old" and "new" that Northrop Frye so convincingly argued some years ago in a significant Shakespeare Survey article. Hazlitt distinguishes the two halves as "the infliction of casual pain" as opposed to "the pursuit of uncertain pleasure and idle gallantry" (5:11, VI:14). This "pursuit" suggests the teleological plot in general as isolated by Frye: "the main theme of this plot is that of the alienated lover moving towards sexual fulfillment.... A new society is created on the stage in the last moments of a typical New Comedy, when objections, oppositions, misunderstandings, and the schemes of rivals are all cleared out of the way" (1). Hazlitt lists the great variety of characters involved in "the obtaining of those 'favours secret, sweet, and precious' in which love and pleasure consist, and which when attained, and the equivoque is at an end, the curtain drops, and the play is over" (5:11, VI:14). He includes the clownish lover, happy man, fine lady, chambermaid, valet, wise man, and fool--all the way, somewhat surprisingly, to misquoting Ophelia's enumeration of Hamlet's attributes: "the soldier's, scholar's, courtier's eye, tongue, sword, the glass of fortune and the mould of form" (5:11, VI:14). Not that Hamlet is so romantically comic--although Hazlitt did famously characterize him elsewhere as "the prince of philosophical speculators" (1:145, IV:234)--but that Hazlitt's listing, as with Hamlet itself, strives inclusively to contain it all, to "get it all in." The enumeration of attributes suggests both the obligatory excess of comedy and its endless variety. Besides, comedy is nothing if not inclusive of variety: The more the merrier. Here comes everybody. The stranger the better. And--as opposed to that great and overwhelmingly incapacitating tragic question, "Who am I?"--who are you? out there, involved in a complicated social world.
Beyond the constant uncertainty that Hazlitt affirmed as "the salt of comedy" (5:11, VI:14), Hazlitt doubtless considered quoting from Shakespeare to be fair game itself in any context. Jonathan Bate, a few years ago, noted over 2400 quotations from Shakespeare in P.P. Howe's edition of Hazlitt's Complete Works, observing, "Hazlitt felt it was perfectly natural and unexceptionable to use Shakespeare's words" (29). To Hazlitt, quoting Shakespeare was a form of popular culture in relation to the writing of familiar essays and nothing is more familiar than Shakespeare. Hazlitt links popular consideration to a great variety of comic couples all the way back to Slender and his bittersweet, imploringly romantic but nonetheless forever ineffectual, imprecation "sweet Ann Page" from The Merry Wives of Windsor. In a sense, Hazlitt asserts endless romance, endless character association, and endless plot conflict in relation to the teleology that Frye saw as eventuating in profoundly transcendent Eros symbolism, "towards the garden of Eden, the journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land, and the vision of the hortus conclusus of the Song of Songs which in its Christian form is the epiphany of the virgin mother and divine child (2). Such comic spirit suggests eternal youth and freshness, an endless sense of romantic comedy that Hazlitt claims as materially central to comedy itself: "Our old comedies would be invaluable were it only for this, that they keep alive this sentiment, which still survives in all its fluttering grace and breathless palpitations on the stage" (5:11, VI:15). Comedy forever flirts, and it flirts romantically with the possibility of "forever" itself.
However, dealing as he is in the theory of wit and humour, Hazlitt moves quickly to some rigorous critical differentiation. He sees humour as the ludicrous in itself, whereas wit provides exposure of the ludicrous. Hazlitt links humour to nature and accident, while wit "is the product of art and fancy" (5:11, VI:15). A cumulative sense of this crucial comparison suggests the connection:
Humour, as it is shewn in books, is an imitation of the natural or acquired absurdities of mankind, or of the ludicrous in accident, situation, and character: wit is the illustrating and heightening the sense of that absurdity by some sudden and unexpected likeness or opposition of one thing to another, which sets off the quality we laugh at or despise in a still more contemptible or striking point of view. (5:11, VI:15)
As a sharpening or heightening of perception, wit also provides what Hazlitt calls "the eloquence of indifference," adding "littleness to littleness" (5:12, VI:15) in a process of reduction as provided by Feste in Twelfth Night who, through the following exchange, "proves" Olivia to be a fool in her excessive humour:
FESTE. Good madonna, why mourn'st thou?
OLIVIA. Good fool, for my brother's death.
FESTE. I think his soul is in hell, madonna.
OLIVIA. I know his soul is in heaven, fool.
FESTE. The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother's soul, being in heaven. (1.5.63-68)
This segment of calculated belittlement takes the form of syllogistic or deductive reasoning that exposes an unexpected likeness. It also betrays itself into what Hazlitt identifies as derision "by a fatal comparison, as in the mock-heroic" (5:12, VI:15). Feste announces his procedure as a "catechism" that turns out to be ridicule. Of course Twelfth Night involves the mock-heroic from the first in Orsino's excessive rhetoric, "Oh, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,/Methought she purged the air of pestilence" (1.1.18-19). Hereby, the agon of wit and satire collides with, even as it detracts from, the future-oriented amour of romance.
To exemplify the mock-heroic, Hazlitt enjoys quoting from Hudibras or minor Shakespearean characters such as Justice Shallow, but he has moved already to another "side" of his argument: the under side. In so doing, he gestures through metaphor toward the lower bodily stratum that Bakhtin would isolate and emphasize in the later twentieth century. Hazlitt credits Sheridan's reductive metaphorical wit in his description of Addington's administration as "the fag-end of Mr. Pitt's, who had remained so long on the treasury bench that, like Nicias in the fable, 'he left the sitting part of the man behind him'" (5:13, VI:17). Like the "old well-known nickname of the Rump Parliament" (5:14, VI:17) such metaphorical wit reduces cognitive grandeur to asinine familiarity. In this regard, politics and political figures--perhaps especially Pitt--are more than fair game, they provide inexhaustible data.
Consider Hazlitt's reductive characterization of Pitt, from Free Thoughts on Public Affairs (1806), as a war-mad automaton with no sense of external reality. As critic, Hazlitt enjoys expanding on Pitt's singularly inscrutable lack of empathy, a defect which ironically renders him all the more effective:
Having no strong feelings, no distinct perceptions, his mind having no link, as it were, to connect it with the world of external nature, every subject presented to him nothing more than a tabula rasa, on which he was at liberty to lay whatever colouring of language he pleased; having no general principles, no comprehensive views of things, no moral habits of thinking, no system of action, there was nothing to hinder him from pursuing any particular purpose by any means that offered; having never any plan, he could not be convicted of inconsistency, and his own pride and obstinacy were the only rules of his conduct. Having no insight into human nature, no sympathy with the passions of men, or apprehension of their real designs, he seemed perfectly insensible to the consequences of things, and would believe nothing till it actually happened. The fog and haze in which he saw every thing communicated itself to others, and the total indistinctness and uncertainty of his own ideas tended to confound the perceptions of his hearers more effectually than the most ingenious misrepresentation could have done. (I.108-9).
In a short essay on Hazlitt's particular use of comic technique, Robert Ready quotes partially from the above passage, thereby ignoring Hazlitt's particularly recurring "no, no, no, nothing" construction. This repeated rhetorical construction diminishes Pitt even as it credits his political and even ethical emptiness. Effectively caricatured, Pitt has much in common with Jonson's Sir Politic Would-be as overstated Bergsonian automaton--"improbable by an excess of consistency" (5:35, VI:40) as Hazlitt puts it. Ready summarizes the effect as follows: "Just as Fielding's Mrs. Slipslop is hard to consider as anything but a caricature as she tries to fill some interesting niches of her own with the wrong words, so Hazlitt's Pitt seems to have been pushed over the verge of caricature by the preposterous size of his ministerial deceit" (113).
Hazlitt is quick to concede that "spleen can subsist on any kind of food" (5:19, VI:23), especially in relation to simple parody. While commenting on the easy cynicism that facilitates burlesque parodies of nearly any sentiment, however, Hazlitt makes a significant distinction: "It is a common mistake, however, to suppose that parodies degrade, or imply a stigma on the subject: on the contrary, they in general imply something serious or sacred in the originals" (5:19, VI:24). This perception immediately informs Hazlitt's sense of burlesqued passion between King Lear and the Fool, but relates more clearly to his previous emphasis on such parodic classics as Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy. Contemporary theorist Margaret Rose notes that such parodies, while appearing to be destructive or parasitic, actually create new, better, and more considerable fictions out of their own parodic materials. As Rose puts it, "by incorporating parts of the target text into the parody, parodists can both ensure the closeness to a target necessary for an accurate firing of their critical arrows and preserve the essential features of the target which will make the parody outlive the demise of the parodied work's readership" (52-53)--a quality of "something serious or sacred in the originals," as Hazlitt puts it. Likewise, Bakhtin drops some significant names in his sense of parody as double-voiced and deeply significant: "The parodic and objectivized incorporation into their work of various types of literary language (especially in Sterne) penetrates the deepest levels of literary and ideological thought itself, resulting in a parody of the logical and expressive structure of any ideological discourse as such (scholarly, moral and rhetorical, poetic) that is almost as radical as the parody we find in Rabelais" (Dialogic 308). With equal enthusiasm (if less ideological sensitivity), Hazlitt concludes his lecture with reference to that same great comic progenitor, "Even to those who have never read his works, the name of Rabelais is a cordial to the spirits, and the mention of it cannot consist with gravity or spleen" (5:25, VI:30).
Small wonder then that Hazlitt, with regard to Shakespeare, concedes that "both Rabelais and Cervantes, the one in the power of ludicrous description, the other in the invention and perfect keeping of comic character, excelled Shakspeare [sic]" (5:26-27, VI:31). At pains to refute Dr. Johnson's simple but authoritative binary that Shakespeare was better in comedy than tragedy, Hazlitt objects with polite irony: "It is in fact the established rule at present, in these cases, to speak highly of the Doctor's authority, and to dissent from almost every one of his critical decisions" (5:26, VI:30). Hazlitt then gets personal with some expressive bardolatry of his own: "For my own part, I so far consider this preference given to the comic genius of the poet as erroneous and unfounded, that I should say that he is the only tragic poet in the world in the highest sense, as being on a par with, and the same as Nature, in her greatest heights and depths of action and suffering" (5:26, VI:30-31). Shakespeare contains it all within the sweep of his romanticized genius, but to achieve the highest sense--in Hazlitt's vocabulary--the most serious sense of comedy, "we must go to Shakespeare's tragic characters, the Timon of Athens or honest Iago" (5:27, VI:31)--or to Falstaff.
Sounding like Harold Bloom before his time Hazlitt affirms, "Falstaff alone is an instance which, if I would, I could not get over" (5:27, VI:32). He credits this character with a powerfully sympathetic humanity, rising above ridicule and satire through rejection of spleen and assertion of personal fulfillment: "Falstaff himself is so great a joke, rather from his being so huge a mass of enjoyment than of absurdity" (5:27, VI:32). Bloom credits Hazlitt, along with his own Shakespearean secularism proudly manifest as self-admitted bardolatry, especially in the case of Falstaff. In fact, Bloom even sounds like Hazlitt in the following character analysis: "One wouldn't want to marry the Wife of Bath, or carouse with Falstaff, but if you crave vitalism and vitality, then you turn to the Wife of Bath, Panurge (in Rabelais), Sancho Panza (in Cervantes), but most of all to Sir John Falstaff, the true and perfect image of life itself' (284). However, "life" fails to measure up in the sequel wherein The Merry Wives of Windsor--in Hazlitt's words as well as Hamlet's--"is not 'a consummation devoutly to be wished,' for we do not take pleasure in the repeated triumphs over him" (5:27, VI:32). Bloom feels the same way, dismissing the Falstaff of Merry Wives as "a nameless imposter masquerading as the great Sir John Falstaff' (315).
Although he credits the romantic comic sweep of Shakespeare's genius, Hazlitt focuses especially on passages and minor characters related to Falstaff from the two parts of Henry IV. He lists all the usual suspects: Wart, Feeble, Mouldy, Bull-calf, Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph, declaring their moral weaknesses to be implicit in readerly consciousness and thereby deserving forgiveness with regard to moral judgment. He intuits that our own self love, bribed to side with comical misbehavior, reaches into areas of comic and transgressive sympathy. Having touched a comic nerve, Hazlitt again gets personal: "I have more sympathy with one of Shakespeare's pick-purses, Gadshill or Peto, than I can possibly have with any member of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and would by no means assist to deliver the one into the hands of the other" (5:28, VI:33). Comedy overrides hypocrisy in every case. Besides, ridiculous characters from the Henry IV plays have a way of reaching beyond ridiculousness. Invested with authority, the incompetent Justice Shallow famously recalls the "chimes at midnight" of his youth. As Hazlitt pointedly observes, "Falstaff encourages the loftiness of his pretensions" (5:29, VI:33),
but Shallow has audience enough in his cousin Silence to permit free access into areas of grim nostalgia not usually explored in simple comedy. These areas of mortality linked to inconsequential details of personal biography antedate Waiting for Godot by some three hundred and fifty years.
As a character, Shallow certainly indulges in seriocomic waiting. Having surveyed his old inns-of-court college acquaintances and their characteristic frolics from some fifty years before, Shallow descants on his own early days as well as on the early days of that same Sir John Falstaff who currently "comes hither anon about soldiers":
The same Sir John, the very same. I see him break Scoggin's head at the court gate, when 'a was a crack not thus high. And the very same day did I fight with one Sampson Stockfish, a fruiterer, behind Gray's Inn. Jesu, Jesu, the mad days that I have spent! And to see how many of my old acquaintances are dead! (2 Henry IV, 3.2.28-35)
Sentimentally assured of death's certainty, Shallow continues conversation with his cousin:
Is old Double of your town living yet?
SILENCE: Dead, sir.
SHALLOW: Jesu, Jesu, dead! 'A drew a good bow; and dead? "A shot a fine shoot. John o' Gaunt loved him well, and betted much money on his head. Dead? (3.2.41-46)
Then, after expatiating on old Double's exploits in archery and inquiring aimlessly about current farm prices, he revisits his thoughts in disbelief: "And is old Double dead?" (3.2.53). Hazlitt refers to this exchange as both "inimitable and affecting" as well as "absurd and ludicrous" (5:29, VI:33), and it certainly does run a range of spectral possibilities. The humour and pathos of the exchange seem intermixed and fully appreciable to Hazlitt as he observes, "We see the frail condition of human life, and the weakness of the human understanding in Shallow's reflections on it; who, while the past is sliding from beneath his feet, still clings to the present" (5:30, VI:34). Any reader might well reflect likewise, as Hazlitt affirms, "The wit, however diverting, is social and humane" (5:30, VI:35). Old Double remains a profoundly doubled figure within the irony of Shakespeare's prose, the assertion of Hazlitt's perspective, and any sense of readerly or theatrical reception.
If Shakespeare's comic Muse (Hazlitt's capitalization) betrays a critical fault, that fault resides within its constant humanity of character and consistently humane affirmations. Such procedural goodwill rejects everything ridiculous, mean, and contemptible in favor of wholesome and good-natured magnanimity. Hazlitt reserves satirical necessity for a later, more pretentious, and ultimately more refined polity: "In a word, it is when folly is epidemic and vice worn as a mark of distinction, that all the malice of wit and humour is called out and justified to detect the imposture, and prevent the contagion from spreading" (5:30-31, VI:35). In this regard, he acknowledges the fools of Wycherley and Congreve to be the worst offenders. To Hazlitt, they border on public nuisance. But Shakespeare's fools are more natural, involuntary, freely promoted and encouraged in their exaggerations by an admiring public. Hazlitt waxes eloquently in their defense: "Shakspeare, living in a state of greater rudeness and simplicity, chiefly gave certain characters which were a kind of grotesques, or solitary excrescences growing up out of their native soil without affectation, and which he undertook kindly to pamper for the public entertainment" (5:3 l, VI:36). A later age would mirror the genteel complications and ridiculous circumstances of civic life more thoroughly and convincingly than could be performed in Shakespeare's day. Hazlitt even gives the period a "local habitation and a name": "The golden period of our comedy was just after the age of Charles II when the town first became tainted with the affectation of the manners and conversation of fashionable life, and before the distinction between rusticity and elegance, art and nature, was lost (as it afterwards was) in a general diffusion of knowledge, and the reciprocal advantages of civil intercourse" (5:32, VI:37)--little crediting, even as he would argue the case, that Ben Jonson's comedy had been there all along.
To Hazlitt, Shakespeare clearly enjoys precedence as ascendant author, but Hazlitt's own authority veers toward satire in his descriptions of Jonson and his work. Deriding Jonson as "a plagiarist even from nature" (5:33, VI:38), Hazlitt draws a curiously forced comparison between the two: "Shakspeare, even when he takes whole passages from books, does it with a spirit, felicity, and mastery over his subject, that instantly makes them his own; and shews more independence of mind and original thinking in what he plunders without scruple, than Ben Jonson often did in his most studied passages, forced from the sweat and labour of his brain" (5:33, VI:38-39). That Shakespeare was "original" in what he plundered, suggests an irony similar to that observed of Shakespeare by Jonson in "Discoveries": "Many times he fell into those things, could not escape laughter: as when he said in the person of Caesar, one speaking to him; 'Caesar, thou dost me wrong'. He replied: 'Caesar did never wrong, but with just cause': and such like; which were ridiculous" (394). According to Hazlitt, Jonson's style is dry, literal, and meagre, while Shakespeare's is exuberant, liberal, and unrestrained. How unrestrained? Hazlitt shakes off all fetters in quoting Ulysses on Troilus and imagining that it is Shakespeare himself of whom he speaks, Shakespeare himself who does
Mad and fantastic execution, Engaging and redeeming of himself With such a careless force and forceless care As if that luck, in very sport of cunning, Bade him win all. (Troilus and Cressida 5.5.38-42)
Consider again Jonson (but this time in relation to Hazlitt): "His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too" (394). Hazlitt, however, having impressionistically clinched Shakespeare's mastery in the above-quoted lines from Troilus and Cressida, makes a surprising leap of taste: "There are people who cannot taste olives--and I cannot much relish Ben Jonson, though I have taken some pains to do it, and went to the task with every sort of good will" (5:34, V1:39).
For Hazlitt the difference between these two great comic writers involves sympathy. Shakespeare has it; Jonson does not: human nature vs. humour categories. And while these humourous situations of Jonson are both arbitrary and conventional--like a later sense of signified and sign--Shakespeare's are more variable and sympathetic. Harold Bloom similarly intuits: "Ben Jonson composed ideograms and called them characters; at their best, as in Volpone and Sir Epicure Mammon, they are rammed with life, and yet they are not portrayals of persons" (280). But Jonson's characters move purposefully with absurd speed and comic density of overstatement not usually seen in average people. Hazlitt seems to fit in perfectly, as indicated perhaps in his oral delivery of the lecture which Crabb Robinson--who was there--described as a "dull performance," observing however that "the best thing he did was reading a glorious passage from Ben Jonson's Alchemist in which the Alchemist riots in imagination on the wealth he is about to enjoy" (Lockwood 117). Hazlitt, it would seem, effectively performs the alchemist's gloriously unabating, mechanical obsession.
Hereby, Jonson's character loss within literalized categories also figures as significant gain in terms of Bergsonian comic theory. Of course Hazlitt had no way of knowing Bergson, but he enunciates Bergsonian theory in Jonson's favor with admirable--even Bergsonian--sharpness: "Shakspeare's characters are men; Ben Jonson's are more like machines" (5:34, VI:39). Impugned as "caricatures," as "handicraft wit," the products of Jonson's imagination are as crudely fashioned as "his plots are improbable by an excess of consistency" (5:35, VI:40). Such dubious attributes, as stated by Hazlitt, actually double as comic dicta in Bergson's analysis: "The attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine" (79). Constantly predictable in their humours and their distresses, the characters of Jonson's comedy exercise their compulsions despite Hazlitt's obvious class bias as he sniffs, "In Ben Jonson, we find ourselves generally in low company, and we see no hope of getting out of it" (5:35, VI:40). Yet, as previously seen, Hazlitt heartily approves of Shakespeare's "low" characters such as Nym, Bardolph, Wart, Feeble, and Peto. To Hazlitt, Jonson lacks Shakespearean "bless'd conditions," as quoted from the idiotic Roderigo whose romantic sense of comedy has no hope against the more devious nastiness of Iago. As Hazlitt says of Iago elsewhere: "The part indeed would hardly be tolerated, even as a foil to the virtue and generosity of the other characters in the play, but for its indefatigable industry and inexhaustible resources, which divert the attention of the spectator" (1:121, IV:209). Such hardworking resource and industry, however, is central to the technique of Jonson's satirical vision.
In Jonson, Hazlitt finds it incredible that "every obstacle give way to a predetermined theory," citing the instance from Volpone: "Nothing can be more incredible than the mercenary conduct of Corvino, in delivering up his wife to the palsied embraces of Volpone; and yet the poet does not seem in the least to boggle at the incongruity of it" (5:35, VI:40). Readers and spectators, however, do "boggle" at the irony of it in line with another Bergsonian formulation from Laughter: "Any incident is comic that calls our attention to the physical in a person, when it is the moral side that is concerned" (93). With some patronizing good humour of his own, Hazlitt willingly concedes some good attributes to "Old Ben," including "acute observation, great fidelity of description and keeping in character"(5:35, VI:40)--a quality which he prizes above all others in comedy and which is worth quoting again from "On Wit and Humour": "There is nothing more powerfully humorous than what is called keeping in comic character" (5:8, VI:11). Jonson has it, in addition to "great honesty and manliness of feeling, as well as directness of understanding" (5:35, VI:41). These attributes must be taken on Jonson's own terms, as argued by critic Ronald Huebert in a Renaissance Drama essay on Jonson's "manliness," and likewise perceived, if less fully considered, in Hazlitt's own theory of comedy.
Hazlitt writes of Jonson's Epicoene as if he were constructing physical comedy himself: "The author, in sustaining the weight of his plot, seems like a balance-master who supports a number of people, piled one upon another, on his hands, his knees, his shoulders, but with a great effort on his own part, and with a painful effect to the beholders" (5:37, VI:42-43). This acutely physical and Bergsonian image of "something mechanical encrusted on the living" (84) is comical in itself. But "pain" within this play seems located most fully within the principal character Morose, a gentleman "who loves no noise." Hazlitt himself characteristically focuses on one of the most physical confrontations in the play: "The scene between Sir Amorous La Foole and Sir John Daw, in which they are frightened by a feigned report of each other's courage, into a submission to all sorts of indignities, which they construe into flattering civilities, is the same device as that in Twelfth Night between Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Viola, carried to a paradoxical and revolting excess" (5:37, VI:43). Hazlitt's discomfort at this lack of decorum can be explained by Bergsonian theory. Bergson references a comic observation of Pascal that relates to Hazlitt's experience of discomfort: "Two faces that are alike, although neither of them excites laughter by itself, excite laughter by their repetition" (82). He then expands this instance to include the multiple likenesses of many dancing marionettes, and concludes with an observation worthy of Hazlitt himself:
I daresay the performers have never read Pascal, but what they do is merely to realise to the full the suggestions contained in Pascal's words. If, as is undoubtedly the case, laughter is caused in the second instance by the hallucination of a mechanical effect, it must already have been so, though in more subtle fashion, in the first. (Bergson 83)
Repetition reinforces laughter; the more the merrier? Jonson's physical comedy goes even further in cognitive terms, as observed by the character Truewit when he comments on the punishment measured out to Sir John Daw: "What's six kicks to a man that reads Seneca?" (Epicoene, 4.4.264).
Hazlitt reflects similar wit in his concluding summaries. He credits Volpone as Jonson's best play, declaring it to be "prolix and improbable, but intense and powerful" (5:38, V1:44). Of Every Man in his Humour he says: "Bobadii is the only actually striking character in the play, and the real hero of the piece. His well-known proposal for the pacification of Europe, by killing some twenty of them, each his man a day, is as good as any other that has been suggested up to the present moment" (5:39, VI:44). One wonders how Pitt would have reacted. He then pillories Bartholomew Fair as "chiefly remarkable for the exhibition of odd humours and tumbler's tricks, and is on that account amusing to read once" (5:39, VI:45). One wonders if Pitt ever did so. Finally, he describes The Alchemist as containing "all that is quaint, dreary, obsolete, and hopeless in this once-famed art, but not the golden dreams and splendid disappointments" (5:39, VI:45), before quoting at considerable length the golden dreams and disappointments of Sir Epicure Mammon, Surly, and Face. To Hazlitt, Jonson's comic verse speaks for itself in its very excessiveness. And yet even Hazlitt censors himself by cutting the final line of Mammon's kinky fantasy of comfort and self voyeurism:
I will have all my beds blown up; not stuffed: Down is too hard. And then, mine oval room, Filled with such pictures, as Tiberius took From Elephantis: and dull Aretine But coldly imitated. Then, my glasses, Cut in more subtle angles, to disperse And multiply the figures, as I walk Naked between my succubae. (The Alchemist, 2.2.41-48)
Hazlitt dropped that final line. More might not always be merrier. But with Hazlitt, as with Jonson, comedy always represents itself as a matter of relative taste, edgy obsessiveness, and over-the-top excess.
In a recent essay titled "Hazlitt and Biography," Gregory Dart notes that "by Hazlitt's time the activity of identifying and praising literary merit had become a business in itself, a business that was itself capable of being described in terms of the language of genius" (344). He argues Hazlitt's place especially in terms of contemporary authors such as Lamb, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, noting that Hazlitt's own uneasy relationship to his craft and its uncertain sense of genius "gives a rather competitive, combative feel to many of Hazlitt's character portraits" (345). Hazlitt approached his subjects through "a process of sympathetic identification" (345), a process that profoundly shaped his biographical approach. Even more recently, in direct relation to Jonson, Tom Lockwood writes, "Hazlitt's prose absorbs and is permeated by his reading; his critical judgements take their impulse not merely from thought but from the subtler cues of phrase and figure" (116).
In the foregoing pages I have attempted to argue that Hazlitt approached comedy, and especially Ben Jonson, through a likeminded cognitive approach. Again in a biographical context, Dart avers: "Even his most violent critical tirades can be read as attempts to induce in himself something of the monomania of his sitter" (345). When the "sitter" is Jonson, Hazlitt writes accordingly. Dart is disarmingly observant about a key feature of Hazlitt's criticism: "One of the things that renders Hazlitt such a rewarding critic is his complete frankness about the pathological element in his own criticism" (346). Such frankness underlies Hazlitt's stated distaste for both olives and Ben Jonson, a distaste that he modified most significantly later in his lecture on Jonson in the "Age of Elizabeth" series:
In a course of friendship some difference of character, even a little roughness or acidity, may relish to the palate; and olives may be served up with effect as well as sweetmeats. Ben Jonson, even by his quarrels and jealousies, does not seem to have been curst with the last and damning disqualification for friendship, heartless indifference. (5:286, VI:307)
Such frankness relates to Hazlitt's characteristic focus on Jonson as both comic type and comic genius--forever following and therefore modifying Shakespeare. Hazlitt loved Shakespeare in terms of poetic impression and Romantic sensibility, but he befriended Jonson--with all his faults and indiscretions--as a matter of satirical taste and appreciation. Jonson is to Shakespeare as olives are to sweetmeats. In the course of his lectures on the English comic writers, Hazlitt intensified a taste for them both.
University of Alberta
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|Title Annotation:||William Hazlitt, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2009|
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