In The Ghost behind the Masks, W. David Shaw traces Shakespeare’s influence on nine Victorian poets: Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Christina Rossetti, Thomas Hardy, Matthew Arnold, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Algernon Swinburne, Arthur Hugh Clough, and George Meredith. Often, he writes, the transparency of Shakespeare's influence on Victorian poets and the degree of their engagement with Shakespeare exist in inverse ratio. Instead of imitating a play by Shakespeare or merely quoting his lines, a Victorian poet may embrace more elusive elements of rhetoric and style, adapting them to his or her own ends.
Shaw argues that the most Shakespearean attribute of the Victorian poets is not their addiction to any particular trope or figure of speech but their reticence, the classical restraint of their great monologues, and their sudden descent from grandeur to simplicity. He explores such topics as man-made law versus natural right, Stoic fatalism versus self-reliance, and the sanity of lunatics, lovers, and poets versus the madness of commonplace minds.
This book is just what one would expect from a scholar like David Shaw, who has for many decades been one of our most consistently penetrating critics of Victorian poetry: it is learned, illuminating, and frequently profound. The book makes a valuable and truly original contribution to our understanding not only of major Victorian poets but of Shakespeare.
Shaw's erudite and finely attuned ear discerns the ghostliest of Shakespearean resonances in subtle close readings of seven Victorian poets.
W. David Shaw, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Toronto and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, is the author of numerous books, most recently Secrets of the Oracle: A History of Wisdom from Zeno to Yeats.