Marjorie Garber’s new book, Shakespeare in Bloomsbury, explores the influence of Shakespeare on the writers and artists of the Bloomsbury Group in early 20th-century England. The excerpt below focuses on Virginia Woolf, a key member of that group, and her early correspondence with her brother Thoby. Marjorie Garber is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Research Professor of English and Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University.
Her brother Thoby Stephen was Virginia’s first Shakespeare tutor, and his influence on her, intellectually and personally, was to last a lifetime. When he went up to Cambridge in November 1901, she wrote him with what she called a “confession” concerning her views on “a certain great English writer”: “I read Cymbeline just to see if there mightn’t be more in the great William than I supposed. And I was quite upset! Really and truly I am now let in to [the] company of worshippers—though I still feel a little oppressed by his—greatness, I suppose.” Still, she had questions to ask as well as an important discovery to report.
I shall want a lecture when I see you; to clear up some points about the Plays. I mean about the characters. Why aren’t they more human? Imogen and Posthumous [sic] and Cymbeline—I find them beyond me. Is this my feminine weakness in the upper region? But really they might have been cut out with a pair of scissors—as far as mere humanity goes— Of course they talk divinely. I have spotted the best lines in the play—almost in any play I should think—
Imogen says—Think that you are upon a rock, and now throw me again! And Posthumous answers—Hang there like fruit, my Soul, till the tree die. Now if that doesn’t send a shiver down your spine . . . you are no true Shakespearian! Oh dear oh dear—just as I feel in the mood to talk about these things, you go and plant yourself in Cambridge.
A twenty-first-century reader might wonder why Virginia had turned to Cymbeline, of all Shakespeare’s plays, as a test case for his “greatness.” But due in part to the admiration of poets such as Tennyson and Swinburne, and also to the performances of celebrated Victorian actresses like Helena Faucit, Cymbeline had risen high in the estimation of readers and audiences. The story of Tennyson’s death—his repeated request for “his Shakespeare,” the book opened at Posthumus’s lines, his burial with a copy of Cymbeline—was described by his son Hallam in the two-volume Memoir he published in 1897, a work Leslie Stephen would certainly have known. Whether it was among the books Stephen read to his children or lent them to read is unclear; nothing in Virginia’s letter to Thoby suggests anything other than that she discovered the “best lines” while reading Cymbeline for the first time.
In any case, the play would remain firmly in her mind, appearing again and again in the pages of her novels. Clarissa Dalloway sees a copy of Cymbeline in a shop window and is haunted throughout the day by its dirge, “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun.” In Jacob’s Room, a book Woolf wanted to dedicate to Thoby’s memory, the painter Cruttendon, announcing that he knows “the three greatest things that were ever written in the whole of literature,” begins to recite “Hang there like fruit my soul,” and Jacob joins him in chanting the lines. (The nineteen-year-old Virginia’s reversal of opinion on Shakespeare does, however, accord with one of her father’s precepts: “Try again, and see if Shakespeare will not improve.”)
The artificial quality she had noted in Cymbeline’s characters—“really they might have been cut out with a pair of scissors”—would, just a few years later, be discussed at length by Lytton Strachey in his iconoclastic essay “Shakespeare’s Final Period.” But what we should also see in Virginia’s letter to Thoby is her desire to talk about Shakespeare—with her brother and with friends like his. “I dont get anyone to argue with me now, and feel the want,” she wrote to him in May 1903:
I have to delve from books, painfully and all alone, what you get every evening sitting over your fire and smoking your pipe with Strachey etc. No wonder my knowledge is but scant. Theres nothing like talk as an educator I’m sure. Still I try my best with Shakespeare—I read Sidney Lees Life—What do you think of his sonnet theory? It seems to me a little too like Sidney Lee—all that about Shakespeare’s eye to the main chance—his flattery of Southampton etc.—But the Mr W.H. is sensible— I must read the sonnets and find my own opinion. Sidney says that Shakespeare felt none of it—I mean that not a word applies to him personally— But it is a satisfactory book—doesn’t pretend to make theories—and only gives the most authentic facts.
In these last phrases Virginia echoes Lee’s own claims in his preface (“an exhaustive and well-arranged statement of the facts of Shakespeare’s career, achievement, and reputation” together with “verifiable references to all the original sources of information,” avoiding “conjecture”), while allowing some of her personal reservations about him to come through. She is here conscientiously the good student, reporting on both her research and her need to develop her “own opinion”—but her letter is also, manifestly, a request for intellectual companionship. She misses the sociability of their conversation about Shakespeare, which he now may be having instead with “Strachey etc.”
From Shakespeare in Bloomsbury by Marjorie Garber. Published by Yale University Press in September 2023. Reproduced by permission.
Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.