A.C. Bradley, writing in the early 1900s, is one of the most intelligent and respected critics of Shakespeare of any period.  Harold Bloom groups him in the same category as Samuel Johnson.  In a series of lectures on Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and Lear collected in Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), Bradley has written a number of introductory essays; the first entitled “The Substance of Shakespearean tragedy” in which he describes what are for him its basic elements.

At the root of Bradley’s conception of tragedy is the concept of greatness – the glory of Man, and therefore the tragedy of his fall. A moral order and fate are behind tragedy. Bradley first talks about ‘fate’ in the sense of tragic, heroic characters not being able to predict the outcomes of their acts – that is, understanding their own tragic flaws and appreciating the unpredictable nature of the world.  In the first case, Lear could not have known the outcome of his first, precipitous act of self-disinheritance; and in the latter, Desdemona’s loss of her handkerchief at just the wrong moment. Bradley says that because of this ineluctable course of fate, “All this makes us feel the blindness and helplessness of man.”

Bradley goes on to expound on his theory of ‘waste’ – how in this universe where the striving for good is always thwarted by evil, man’s heroic actions are always wasted. The Hamlet lectures are the standouts here.  Bradley highlights Hamlet’s disastrous failure, which leads not only to his death but to the deaths of many others, including his mother and the young woman he has loved—a domino fall of wasted lives that goes far beyond the intended murder of Claudius.

Bradley’s learning is formidable.  He has an easy acquaintance with the imposing German tradition of Shakespeare scholarship, along with an elegant, lightly-worn knowledge of the many influences Shakespeare drew upon for his writing. However, Bradley’s intertwining of tragic flaw and ‘fate” – does not really explains tragedy. He is pre-modern in his belief that there is good and evil in the world.  He skates around this conclusion, but it is there – “The main source [of tragedy]…is in every case evil in the fullest sense, not mere imperfection, but plain moral evil….”

At heart, Bradley’s method is personal.  He says what he thinks of Shakespeare’s characters, and why he feels they matter to our understanding of life.  Obviously, this approach exposes him to ridicule.  His only real shield against failure is his own insight into people, based on his inevitably dated and incomplete notions of human nature.  In the end, he can’t tell us more about Hamlet or about the world than Shakespeare tells us himself.  Bradley knows this, and his modesty is appealing.  He assumes that good literature always has more to give us than even the best critics can express in topic sentences and abstractions.  And it’s precisely Bradley’s humility—his willingness to embrace his ultimate defeat—that allows him to polish and display certain facets of Shakespeare we aren’t likely to have seen so sharply on our own.

Bradley isn’t merely critiquing Shakespeare—he’s writing a fiction of his own. Again and again, Bradley takes up the four great tragedies of Shakespeare and uses them to bring his personal observations about the world into focus.


Last modified: Saturday, 4 November 2017, 12:58 AM