Published Humanitas, Volume VII, No. 1, 1994

In T. S. Eliot’s essay on Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca, Eliot begins by discussing some recent interpretations of Shakespeare by Lytton Strachey, J. Middleton Murry, and Wyndham Lewis. Strachey, he says, has presented us with a fatigued Shakespeare, Murry with a messianic Shakespeare, and Lewis with a ferocious Shakespeare; and each of these interpretations, not surprisingly, bears a striking resemblance to the critic himself. Objecting to these approaches, Eliot disarmingly assures his reader that his own advantage consists in the fact that he at least is under no illusion that there is the slightest resemblance between Shakespeare and himself. He proposes instead for our consideration what he calls “a Senecan Shakespeare”—that is, one who was influenced, like some of his Elizabethan contemporaries, by the Roman philosopher and dramatist of the first century. He throws the suggestion out playfully, telling us that he does not mean it to be taken really seriously. He means “merely to disinfect the Senecan Shakespeare before he appears.” Perhaps he does it, though he does not explicitly affirm it, because he wishes to point our attention once more in the direction of Shakespeare’s past rather than to yield, as others have done, to the temptation to see in him a prophetic figure who adumbrates the forms of the future and anticipates the philosophical or social interests of our own time. He may thus have hoped to restore the traditional concern of criticism with the origins of a work rather than the more or less nebulous speculation about its messages to us, then in favor.

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