Shakespeare by Mark van Doren

Reading Shakespeare can be difficult for people who have little background in reading early modern English verse. So it pays to turn to authorities. When I'm looking at authorities to help me through something difficult, I'm looking for two things:

  1. the authority truly is an authority;
  2. the authority is capable of producing a compelling and readable presentation for the general reader.


Mark van Doren's Shakespeare, a collection of short essays on Shakespeare's plays and his poetry first published in 1939, meets both criteria.

Van Doren was a professor of English at Columbia University in New York from 1920-1959, a recognized scholar in the field of Shakespeare and other English poets, and a published poet of some reputation himself. He was a much beloved teacher and was able to make his subject clear even to large audiences of students and non-students. It could be said of van Doren what Chaucer says of the young clerk, one of his Canterbury pilgrims: "gladly would he learn, and gladly teach."

The book is a collection of short essays on Shakespeare's poetry (a discussion of "The Rape of Lucrece," "Venus and Adonis," and the sonnets makes up the first chapter), and on the plays attributed to Shakespeare in van Doren's day, such as Edward III and The Two Noble Kinsmen are not addressed.

For any who might read this volume expecting nothing but gushing praise for the "Bard," let me make it clear that van Doren's praise, though high — this is Shakespeare we're talking about, after all — is not fawning. Van Doren was a poet himself and he trains his poetic eye on Shakespeare, noting flaws in the poems—he describes "Sonnet 71" as flawless, but admits that Shakespeare's verse is, at times, uneven, and that the form sometimes gets in the way of the message. The couplets of Venus are singled out for klutziness, but even in some sonnets, the closing couplet seems clumsy to van Doren. As he puts it, "The poems of Shakespeare are seldom perfect. The songs that shoot like stars across his plays are brightest at the beginning, and often burn out before the end."

The two long narrative poems ("The Rape of Lucrece" and "Venus and Adonis"), he notes, have Shakespeare trying, but not always succeeding, in copying Ovid's fluid grace, or in van Doren's words: "To say, justly enough, that Shakespeare's narrative poems are Ovidian exercises is to say that at their worst they are coldly clever." And he faults the slavish adherence to the rhyme scheme Shakespeare uses in those poems. For my part, I found "Lucrece" a better poem than "Venus," but that may be because the subject matter of "Lucrece" is more serious and because I found Venus a trifle too precious with an overly eager love goddess and her unmoved swain.

Like any reader of Shakespeare, van Doren has his favorite plays—he is especially fond of the Henriad (the tetralogy consisting of Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V), saying of Henry IV: "No play of Shakespeare's is better than "Henry IV." Certain subsequent ones may show him more settled in the maturity which he here attains almost at a single bound, but nothing he wrote is more crowded with life or happier in its imitation of human talk." He gives the great plays their due, but finds something worthwhile even in those plays which only the most committed Shakespearean ever tackles—e.g. King John and the three Henry VI plays among the histories, and Timon of Athens among the tragedies. Though admitting the faults in such plays, he takes pains to note elements where the poet soars. He notes of King John: "once more Shakespeare is greatly interested in the language he uses, and uses this time to the limit."

Van Doren's Shakespeare is not a scholarly tome on the Bard of Avon, though van Doren was a scholar. If you want great scholarship discussing the use of color in MacBeth or Freudian overtones in Hamlet, there are places where you can find such discussions (the best place to find scholarly or esoteric discussions of Shakespeare would be databases of scholarly journals, like Academic Search Elite that you can find on the KC Public Library site). But if you want to get something closer to detailed and loving reviews by a sensitive, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable reader of the poetry and plays of Shakespeare, take an hour or two, sit yourself down, and pick up kindly old Uncle Mark van Doren's Shakespeare.