AD's English Literature : A.C. Bradley and Hegelian Philosophy Combined in Shakespearean Criticism

A.C. Bradley and Hegelian Philosophy Combined in Shakespearean Criticism

A Hegelian in philosophy and a follower of the aesthetic traditions of Coleridge and Hazlitt than  both A.C. Bradley was of course more scientific and methodical critic. Bradley was intensely subjective possessing candid , lively and inspired imagination trained for the type of criticism after his heart. Bradley applied the basic principle of Hegelian dialectics (conflict of forces) to Shakespeare’s tragedies and traced in them the struggle between the forces of good and evil. He was, it should be remembered, the first Shakespearean critic to investigate the nature of Tragedy with an approach that was basically interpretive. His Shakespearean criticism broadly consists of Shakespearean Tragedy where he interprets four major or principal tragedies of Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear and his lectures on Antony and Cleopatra and The Rejection of Falstaff included in his Oxford Lectures on Poetry.

What was the nature or substance of Shakespearean Tragedy, according to Bradley? Bradley, the Hegelian, contemplated the essential nature of the universe around us and conceded that both moral commotion in the world and the conflicting universal forces are reflected in the life of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. In contemplating the issue in this light, he was the first to come upon the essential distinction between ancient Greek tragedy and romantic Shakespearean tragedy. Dryden of course before him drew the attention to a distinction between Greek and Shakespearean tragedies but that was confined to structural aspect only. The distinctive spirit of Shakespearean tragedy might have made some impression on the earlier critics too but it was left for Bradley to give a clear and detailed utterance of that immanent distinction. Bradley unequivocally declared that “Shakespeare’s conception of tragedy or view of the tragic fact” differed basically from that of the ancient Greeks. Fate for the Greeks was all important, fate holding men as mere toys in hands while for Shakespeare the tragic core lay in “action issuing form character, or in character issuing in action’. Fate or destiny in the Greek sense does not have much to do with the life –course of a tragic hero in William Shakespeare.

After declaring the supremacy of character in Shakespearean tragedy, Bradley proceeds to hedge his statement with limitations. “The dictum that with Shakespeare, ’character is destiny’ is no doubt an exaggeration …but it is the exaggeration of a vital truth”. And he admits that “Shakespeare in most of his tragedies allows to chance or accident an appreciable influence at some point in action”. However, this chance or accident has nothing in common with the inexorable fate or destiny of the Greeks. It is not generally very important according to Bradley but it may sometimes assume alarming proportion and significance altering the whole balance against the tragic protagonist as the lost of handkerchief by Desdemona in Othello.

Regarding the application of Hegelian dialectical method (proceeding by thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis) to Shakespearean tragedy, It is only partial to the extent that Bradley sees only two types of clash or conflict in the principle tragedies of Shakespeare- the inner conflict in the soul of the tragic hero and the outward conflict. For the common auditor who is not a regular of the play, the outward struggle provides the centre of interest while the regular serious reader of Shakespeare takes an infinite interest in the inner conflict of the tragic characters.    

Extra Notes:

  1. A.C. Bradley is a Shakespearean critic belongs to the borderland between and nineteenth and twentieth century. His famous lectures on the four great tragedies of William Shakespeare were delivered at the end of the last decade of nineteenth century although those were published in book form (Shakespearean Tragedy) in 1904. This explains the reason for some scholars to claim Bradley as belonging to the twentieth century.  
  2.  Bradley is also considered the last great Romantic critic of William Shakespeare in spite of the general run of Victorian critics who had failed to develop the creative criticism of Coleridge in proper direction. Bradley’s criticism based on the aesthetic tradition of Coleridge and Hazlitt was in fact the culmination of a century of romantic thinking on William Shakespeare and his Shakespearean Tragedy remained for a whole generation the truest and profoundest book on Shakespeare criticism. It has not yet just its pride of place among the common readers.

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