Literary explication of Virginia Woolf’s William Shakespeare
Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” offers a major piece of literary analysis with an eye towards the ever evolving role of the female author. During Woolf’s discussion of past and present writers, she repeatedly refers to the work of William Shakespeare, specifically his play Antony and Cleopatra, as a model for an “ideal” writing style that authors should revere. In her essay, Woolf is clear in her contention that Shakespeare possessed a rare form of authorial style that few could match, on multiple occasions referring to Shakespeare’s writing as “incandescent” and “free of impediment.” His writing was truly successful, Woolf claims, because of his ability to express true creative genius without allowing his personal beliefs, prejudices or agenda to interfere with the integrity of his work, and thus permitting an ultimate interpretation that stems directly from the reader. By viewing specific passages from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, readers can witness his use of deliberately indistinct word choice in character description as well as the utilization of metaphor that serve to exemplify this incandescent and “unimpeded” style that Woolf holds in such a high regard throughout the course of her own writing.
To begin to analyze Shakespeare’s unique writing style, readers must first identify Woolf’s advocacy of it as well as how she goes about describing it in “A Room of One’s Own.” For example, while describing to readers the “ideal” circumstances under which successful literature is produced, Woolf employs Shakespeare as a prime example. She states:
. . . The mind of an artist, in order to achieve the prodigious effort of freeing whole and entire the work that is in him, must be incandescent, like Shakespeare’s mind. . . The reason perhaps why we know so little of Shakespeare . . . is that his grudges and antipathies are hidden from us. We are not help up by some “revelation” which reminds us of the writer, All desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim injury, to pay off a score, to make the world a witness of some hardship or grievance was fired out of him and consumed. Therefore his poetry flows from him free unimpeded. If ever a human being got his work expressed completely, it was Shakespeare. If ever a mind was incandescent, unimpeded, I thought . . . it was Shakespeare’s mind” (Woolf, 56).
These lines directly serve as the foundation for Woolf’s opinion of Shakespeare as an author; however, they also open a broader door to readers, as Woolf fails to reveal how Shakespeare’s writing is construed as “incandescent” or “without impediment”—it is left to the reader to delve into the specifics of Shakespeare’s plays in order to seek evidence of these terms that Woolf so often refers to.
To find examples of this writing style, readers can simply look to specific descriptive passages embedded within the text of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. One major method Shakespeare utilizes in his verse is his purposeful ambiguous characterization of key players within the play. In other words, Shakespeare deliberately uses terms that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Woolf praises Shakespeare’s ability to show no prejudices in his writing; thus, his character descriptions are highly laced with careful wordplay so as to not promote one specific view or characterization over another. This aspect of Shakespeare’s writing works to allow his own views or preferences to remain latent in his writing. For example, by utilizing specific wordplay to depict his characters as constantly changing in Antony and Cleopatra, they, as a result, cannot be defined one dimensionally; and shift as with readers’ views from scene to scene. Through this androgynous-type of character description, Shakespeare ensures that readers can use a multitude of lenses to view his characters through, rather than one single dimension.
Particularly noticeable in Antony and Cleopatra, the resulting opinion on how certain characters should be defined is ultimately left to the reader’s own literary devices and interpretations, as Shakespeare’s language makes it increasingly difficult to gauge how he feels about the characters as an author – the signifier, according to Woolf, of a successful writer.
For example, in Act I sc. i, Cleopatra, a character who demonstrates her particular ability to morph into new personalities throughout the play, makes a comment to Antony on the topic of becoming his future queen, stating, “But sir, forgive me, / Since my becomings kill me when they do not / Eye well to you” (Shakespeare I.i.52-53). Though this line can be read as a simple commentary on Cleopatra’s ability to suit Antony as a new queen after the death of his former wife, the word “becomings” produces multiple meanings, additionally referring to Cleopatra’s own fluid transformations within the play, her constantly shifting moods and the many versions of herself she presents to readers. Though it can be easy to view Cleopatra as a manipulative seductress in one scene, it is just as easy to view her as star struck lover for in the next, accenting her uncanny ability to constantly shift and transform, and additionally proving the ability of Shakespeare’s language to do so. It is for this reason Shakespeare’s language becomes so important—it assists in promoting his characters in a variety of manners, rather than through a single accepted definition, even if the language appears a single way on the surface.
Another example of Shakespeare’s deliberately ambiguous wordplay occurs in Act II, during Enobarbus’s description of Cleopatra’s personality. Enobarbus states, “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety. Other women cloy / The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry / Where most she satisfies. For vilest things / Become themselves in her, that the holy priests / Bless her when she is riggish” (Shakespeare II.iii.276-281). The phrase “infinite variety” in this passage also warrants further interpretation. Through the insertion of this phrase, Shakespeare assures readers that there is more to Cleopatra than a singular definition. The word “varieties,” for example, does not carry with it one accepted connotation and can instead be interpreted at readers’ discretion. Shakespeare’s continued focus on the shifting “varieties” of his characters from scene to scene allows readers to make their own determination as to how these characters should be characterized. It is for this reason that Woolf describes Shakespeare as being without prejudice, or writing about impediment. Readers do not get a sense of Shakespeare’s personal viewpoint through his characters, and by adding words that attest to their mutability and fluidity, the play is able to take on whatever form a reader interprets, rather than one single viewpoint or specific sympathies that Shakespeare wanted to push across: her personality exists and is shaped through the eyes of the reader.
In addition, Shakespeare also uses this wordplay to describe Antony’s ever-changing personality and actions as well. In Antony’s final lines of the play he states, “Here I am Antony, / Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave” (Shakespeare V.xv.13-14). Again, Shakespeare’s decision to use the phrase “hold this shape” assists to define Antony as, so to speak, indefinable. Throughout the play this pattern holds true for both Antony and Cleopatra: neither could hold a definite “shape,” allowing readers’ viewpoints and analyses to likewise change shape from scene to scene. This ambiguity creates a broader definition of his characters, leaving them a product of their always changing and unpredictable actions and how readers interpret them, rather than how the author does. By allowing Antony and Cleopatra to have such a variety of representations, Shakespeare artfully puts their final characterization into readers’ hands, not his own. By the end of the play, it is up to the reader to determine whether Antony dies as a war hero or love stricken fool, or Cleopatra as political tactician or overzealous actress. Shakespeare does not allow any personal gospel or grudge to “shape” his characters, proving his ability to check his prejudices and sympathies at the door. His characters speak for themselves, rather than Shakespeare speaking for or through them.
In combination with Shakespeare’s tactfully presented wordplay to allow for the shifting of his characters, his use of metaphor to assist in their description also demonstrates Woolf’s portrayal of his writing as purely “incandescent.” Shakespeare utilizes the form of metaphor as a both a descriptive tool that allows for a reader-based interpretation of specific characters or scenes, in addition to offering a more unique form of writing compared to a free verse description of the same event or character.The fact that Shakespeare casts his characters in such different lights throughout the play is bolstered by his use of metaphor to describe and assist in this very phenomenon, thus, giving his writing its creative or ‘incandescent” quality. Shakespeare uses the form of metaphor as a unique perspective that allows readers to form their own interpretation of a character, based off of an individual and personal interpretation or a metaphor.
For example, Antony’s lines in Act V serve not simply to describe Cleopatra as his character intends to, but can also be applied in a broader sense to the thematic shifting of characters’ actions and emotions from scene to scene as well. Antony, through a statement about clouds, also works to describe the heart of the play’s major characters, stating:
Sometime we see a cloud that’s dragonish, / A vapor sometime like a bear or lion, / a towered citadel, a pendant rock / A forked mountain, or blue promontory / With trees upon’t that nod unto the world / And mock our eyes with air. Thou hast seen these / signs. / They are black vesper’s pageants. [ … ] That which is now a horse, / even with a thought / The rack dislimns and makes it indistinct / As water is in water. / (Shakespeare IV.xiv 3-14)
It is through metaphorical description such as this that allows Shakespeare to permeate boundaries. Allowing readers to understand that they may see a “dragonish” Cleopatra in one scene and a “lioness” in the next, attest to her character’s flexibility from scene to scene. This use of metaphor to describe the variability of his characters is key in Shakespeare’s profound ability to not limit the lenses through which readers can view his characters; thus presenting his writing’s unique form, or what Woolf calls “incandescence,” as a result. Like clouds, some readers may see Antony as a “citadel,” while others may interpret his personality and actions as a “forked mountain.” It is Shakespeare’s use of metaphor that assures readers that both descriptions are correct, though, and that there is no single lens to use, but rather a variety of acceptable ones. The use of metaphor as a device which relies on reader interpretation highlights the fact that Shakespeare’s writing allows readers to see their own creation of character, not a latent sympathy or agenda of the author.
Another example of this occurs with Cleopatra’s similar short metaphorical statement at the end of the play as she refers to herself as “fire and air,” (Shakespeare V.ii.344) before she breathes her last. Operating on the same level as Antony’s clouds, it is up to the reader to apply the metaphor in a way that suits their personal analyses. Readers can offer various interpretations as to what constitutes “fire” and likewise “air,” again serving as an example to Shakespeare’s own writing—the definition and interpretation stems from the reader’s view, not the author’s. Cleopatra’s words and actions could be interpreted in a variety of manners, and Shakespeare ensures that readers have the option to do such, leaving the description of “fire and air,” in readers’ hands; as it is hard to define exactly what Shakespeare himself meant by the metaphor.
Through Shakespeare’s utilization of metaphor and carefully chosen word choice, readers are left with varying interpretations of his play and characters even after the play concludes. Was Antony’s suicide honorable? Was Cleopatra simply an actress? Shakespeare’s writing style proves to have the same mutability as his characters, as readers can turn to metaphor and single words to highlight multiple meanings in a character’s personality or actions, thus showing Shakespeare’s ability to allow his readers to have the final judgment, not his own authorial personal views or prejudices. The mere fact that the play leaves readers with questions and shifting views rather than a single interpretation is a testament to Shakespeare’s brilliance—or as Woolf puts it: his incandescence and capability to rise above impediment. Shakespeare’s ability to write without prejudice—allowing his words to hold power over his person—leave his writing with a successful complexity. Left in the hands of his readers, Shakespeare proves that his work is pure, powerful and ultimately shaped by its very readers, which according to Woolf, is how the ideal author ought to operate.
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