Knight is one of the most influential Shakespearean critics of the twentieth century: he helped shape a new interpretive approach to Shakespeare's work and promoted a greater appreciation of many of the plays. In his studies The Wheel of Fire (1930), The Shakespearian Tempest (1932) and later works, Knight rejected criticism which emphasizes sources, character analysis, psychology, and ethics and outlined his principles of interpretation which, he claimed, would "replace that chaos by drawing attention to the true Shakespearean unity." Knight argued that this unity lay in Shakespeare's poetic use of images and symbols—particularly in the opposition of "tempests" and "music." He also maintained that a play's spatial aspects, or "atmosphere," should be as closely considered as the temporal elements of the plot if one is "to see the whole play in space as well as time."
In the introduction to his third book, The Imperial Theme, Knight points out quite concretely what the poetic symbolism is that he finds out in Shakespeare. There are certain values and negations running through these plays which show the unity underlying them all. By values Knight means those positive qualities in man, those directions taken by human action, which to the imaginative understanding clearly receive high poetic honour throughout Shakespeare. These are kingship, honour, war, love, and religion. They may appear togrther in various plays, and they may even conflict – as do love and war in Antony and Cleopetra. And they are symbolically represented by imagery involving the sun, moon, stars, flowers, feasting, jewels, fire, music and so in. Opposed to these values are the negations: hate, evil, death – which form the themes of the somber plays. Their imagery consists of tempests, diseases, beasts, rocks, iron. It is obvious that some imagery can be employed in both meanings: nature, for example, may be negative or idealized –the sea can be both tragic and peaceful. But the main opposition which Knight finally derives from this series is that which he expounds in his latest book The Shakespearean Tempest – namely, the music-tempest opposition. This opposition he now makes the basis of Shakespeare’s total unity: “the only principle of unity in Shakespeare.”
Knight calls his approach “interpretation”, and distinguishes it from “criticism”. He argues that most Shakespeare commentary is too concerned with temporal factors, sequential factors, and doesn’t pay enough attention to spatial factors, to atmosphere. The spatial element, the atmosphere, may be created unconsciously by the poet, and may be perceived unconsciously by the reader. Knight says that the atmosphere is ‘pure Shakespeare’, whereas the time-sequence, the plot, is often borrowed from earlier writers (Plutarch, Holinshed, etc.). Knight thinks that a study of Shakespeare’s sources is of little use since these sources don’t shape the atmosphere, the spatial element. Knight focuses on the atmosphere, the theme, the “burning central core” of the play, rather than on the plot, the time-sequence. According to Knight, once we grasp this central core, this theme, then all the incidents make sense. The incidents “relate primarily, not directly to each other, nor to the normal appearances of human life, but to this central reality alone.”
One of Knight’s chief innovations is to de-emphasize character. He argues that character is merely a role that we play, not our true nature. Shakespeare goes deeper than character, and depicts our true self, our fundamental nature. According to Knight, Shakespeare removes the mask, goes deeper than personality, and describes the fundamental drives that all people share.
The play from Julias Caesar to The Tempest fall into a significant which Knight has called the “Shakespearean Progress”. Hence we must relate each play to this sequence. Special notice also should be given to the Hate-theme, which runs through most of these plays.
Applied to specific plays, these principles evolve a pattern. Hamlet has a “central reality of pain”. Death indeed is the theme of this play, for Hamlet’s disease is mental and spiritual death. Macbeth is “the apocalypse of evil”. Othello turns on the theme of “the cynical intellect pitted against a lovable humanity”. “Man’s relation to the universe is the theme of King Lear.” If Macbeth is Hell and Antony and Cleopetra Paradise, Lear is Purgatory. Antony and Cleopetra is “probably the subtlest and greatest play in Shakespeare.” It “discloses a vision rather universalistic…earth, air, water, fire, and music, and … visionary humanism.”
G. Wilson Knight has set a new standard for Shakespeare commentary, he has revealed aspects of Shakespeare’s genius that weren’t previously appreciated, and he has enriched our understanding, not only of Shakespeare, but of literature in general and of human nature.