NEGATIVE CAPABILITY:Curtain Call For The Complexity of Sympathy

“Brown and Dilke walked with me & back from the Christmas pantomime. I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various
subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in
Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously–I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in
uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” ( John Keats,Letters 1.193)

Keats’s famous “negative capability”  represented an unexplored connection between Keats’s theatrical experience with Edmund Kean and his ideas about poetry’s changing social function. …

Edmund Kean as Sir Giles Overreach in A New Way to Pay Old Debts, by George Clint. Oil on canvas. 1820.

He was illegitimate and from the lower classes, exposed to theatre and performance at an early age, and his first performance as Shylock at Drury Lane on January 26, 1814 was a turning point in both his life and in the life of British theatre.Instead of playing Shylock as a villain, Kean presented him as flawed but human.”Hath Not a Jew Eyes?”: Edmund Kean and the Sympathetic Shylock. It was both a scandal and a sensation.

Bennett Cooperman:I believe that in the plays of Shakespeare, Edmund Kean early found a beauty, a structure in the world he found nowhere else. Even as a child he became known in London for his readings from Shakespeare, and then when he was nine, his mother, seeing that he could make money, reclaimed her son and again, says Playfair, "he became the child vagabond." She had him travel with shows to fair-grounds where he learned tumbling and clowning, and had to scrape together whatever food he could find. Early, Edmund Kean met a confusing world. Playfair writes that by fifteen, "he had been buffeted and caressed...praised and insulted and in sum he had learned that the world was cruel and relentless and had to be fought back hard." Kean endured terrible things, and I believe that along with his mighty impulsion to art, unknowingly he also saw the world as an enemy, an opponent he had to beat to get anywhere. Here he was like many men.

Edmund Kean brought a complicated sympathy to his role as Shylock, and, in the performance history of The Merchant of Venice, influenced how the character developed on stage and off. Since Kean, theatrical and literary readings of The Merchant of Venice have focused on the representation on Shylock as a cultural signifier of Jews and Jewishness. In many ways Kean was the Byron of the stage, self-consciously living the life of the Romantic artist who burned out through his own passionate excesses. But if these excesses led to Kean’s premature destruction, according to those who most admired him, they also were the sources of his sympathetic identification with the character.

William Hazlitt theorized that in such identification actors reveal a sympathetic imagination: “The height of their ambition is to be beside themselves. Today kings, tomorrow beggars, it is only when they are themselves, that they are nothing. Made up of mimic laughter and tears, passing from the extremes of joy or woe at the prompter’s call, they wear the livery of other men’s fortunes; their very thoughts are not their own” (“On Actors and Acting,” Howe). If ,as Hazlitt argued, theatre is a school for cultivating sympathy and developing moral sentiments, an actor such as Kean was a teacher instructing the audience in the complexities of sympathy. How did Kean’s instruction in The Merchant of Venice relate to Shylock’s vengeful warning to Salarino and Solanio: “The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction” ? In other words, how does the theoretical emphasis on cultivating one’s sympathetic imagination work when the object of sympathy is a Jew who is not accepted in either Shakespeare’s imaginary Venice or in early-nineteenth-century England?

Kean played Shakespeare's Richard III, Shylock, Iago, Othello, Hamlet and Sir Giles Overreach in Massinger's A New Way to Pay Old Debts. The poet Lord Byron was at a performance of this latter role when, near the end of the play, Sir Giles is cornered by his enemies, lashes out and goes mad. Kean was so utter the audience thought he was "possessed by the devil." Writes Giles Playfair: Even the actors on the stage—hard-boiled professionals ...were frightened. And then the pit rose up in a body and cheered and went on cheering... "By God he is a Soul," said Byron.

“Mr. Kean is all effort, all violence, all extreme passion; he is possessed with a fury, a demon that leaves him no repose, no time for thought, or room for imagination. He perhaps screws himself up to as intense a degree of feeling as Mrs. Siddons, strikes home with as sure and as hard a blow as she did, but he does this by straining every nerve, and winding up every faculty to this single point alone; and as he does it by an effort himself, the spectator follows him by an effort also. …” ( William Hazlitt)

Edmund Kean ( 1790-1833 ) did not lack for praise. Byron, who was much involved in the affairs of Drury Lane, was overwhelmed by him. After he saw Kean for the first time Byron wrote in his journal:”By jove he is a soul! Life-nature-truth without exaggeration or diminution.” Kean’s sister-in-law wrote to a friend: “Lord byron is enchanted with Edmund and is like a little dog behind the scenes, following him everywhere.” Byron presented gifts to Kean- a Turkish sword and a snuffbox- and addressed a poem to him which began:

“Thou art the sun’s bright child!
The genius that irradiates thy mind
Caught all its purity and light from heaven

the task, with mastery most perfect,
To bind the passions captive in thy train!..

Cooperman: Eli Siegel reviewed for Scribner's Magazine in 1933, praising Hillebrand's "live and scholarly words," and saying of Kean: This acting person had something; a new, big and divine something. I can say, without putting on, that this...famous actor, teamed with Shakespeare, put me in a pleasing, definite tremor—in 1933. Kean brought a new excitement to England. What Kean's acting shows powerfully—the whole self joining with what is not oneself—stands for the expression men today hope to have in their everyday lives.

Coleridge provided the most frequently quoted line on the subject: “To see Kean act is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.” Shelley intended Kean to play the Count in “The Cenci”. Keats, who said, “One of my ambitions is to make as great a revolution in modern dramatic writing as Kean has done in acting,” wrote his one finished play, “Otho the Great”, for him. Kean, with good theatrical sense, never played in either Shelly’s or Keat’s literary drama.

But Kean did not lack for trouble either. His hurricane temper, occasional drunkenness, and illness brought him into conflict with managers. His personal life seethed until it erupted in a suit by one Alderman Cox against Kean for “criminal conversation” with Mrs. Cox. Kean and Mrs. Cox had, in fact, been lovers for some years. That she was a rather permissive lady and that her husband had probably known this , were considered irrelevant. After a newspaper orgy of scandalous articles and cartoons, the alderman was awarded damages.

Cooperman:"Expression," Mr. Siegel said, "is activity, but it begins with how we think." And he says this which I love: "we have to be impressed before we can be expressed." Hearing this, you know it is something true that was never put in words before. And I feel it describes, too, Edmund Kean's tremendous, untrammeled expression—he was said to be the best listener on the stage. In a matter of weeks after his Drury Lane debut, he went from poverty and obscurity to fame and great wealth—nothing like it ever happened in the history of the theatre. Yet, as men have, Kean also had come to see his expression as fighting the world, seeing it as an opponent to vanquish. Said Mr. Siegel, "Kean was more sensible as an actor than a human being: that happens to be the moral of most actors' lives."

… Kean embodied new modes of cultural experience on the early nineteenth-century London stage. Kean’s conspicuously vexed relationship to the situational possibilities offered by the dramatic text was, in Hazlitt’s apt formulation, a “radical” departure from John Philip Kemble’s personification of rhetorical mastery. Whereas Kemble’s excellence resided in a demonstration of the single emotion called for by each dramatic scene, Kean attracted audiences with an ability to present, in a moment, a mass of contradictory feelings. With his pantomimic contortions and emotional outbursts, Kean imported an “illegitimate” grammar of representation onto the Drury Lane stage,a new language embedded in the art; rendering the traditional relation between performer and audience uncertain and exposing the legitimate theater’s increasing commercial reliance on lower-class modes of consumption.  His presence–not only in the theater but in London society–called attention to changing social climate and the flowering of the Romantic movement.

The implications of Keats’s emphatic desire to be of Kean’s “company,” then, are greater than a simple difference of opinion between dining fellows.( see below ) Kean played a crucial role in shaping both Keats’s attitudes towards his own social rank and his ideas about the changing nature of cultural experience.  Educated to an understanding of Kean by Hazlitt’s theatrical criticism, Keats’s attention to the actor in letters and theatrical reviews in late 1817 and early 1818 coincided with and  occasioned his thoroughgoing revision of the poet’s role as a cultural intermediary for readers. Keats imagines the poet continually engaged in an identity crisis brought on by encounters with actual and imagined cultural objects. The poems of early 1818, especially, begin to reshape contemporary notions of authorship because they present the poet speaking from–rather than merely reflecting on–the uncertain moments that characterize such encounters. Yet far from simply representing a lower-class, or even proletarian, perspective defined against middle-class experience, Keats naturalizes his crisis as a standard of true feeling surpassing the “mannerism” of the would-be cultural elite….

Cooperman:Kean could apparently be brutal to anyone he saw as a possible threat to his new position. "The throne is mine," he wrote," I will maintain it," and there are accounts of his fierce competitiveness with other actors. Kean never knew that desire to squash a seeming rival came from an utterly different source than that which made for great expression in him.

Professional and personal troubles combined on the night in January 1825, when Kean returned to the stage after alderman Cox’s victory. The house was packed and hostile; the audience kept up a storm of hooting and abuse, punctuated with orange peels, so that although he played out the entire role of Richard III, not one word was heard. He continued to fight back night after night, insisting on playing and delivering curtain speeches, but he made little headway against the hostility and decided to give the ostentatious moral outrage time to subside while he toured America.

—Should We Be Impressed by the World or Fight It? “Expression,” Mr. Siegel said, “is activity, but it begins with how we think.” And he says this which I love: “we have to be impressed before we can be expressed.” Hearing this, you know it is something true that was never put in words before. And I feel it describes, too, Edmund Kean’s tremendous, untrammeled expression—he was said to be the best listener on the stage.—

Benjamin West. Death on the Pale Horse.

Everything about Kean–his style of acting, his politics, his demeanor–set him apart from his main rival,John Philip Kemble. According to Jonathan Bate, Kean broke the Kemble “family hegemony” over the London stage . In contrast to Kemble, Kean was, as Jane Moody writes, a “studied iconoclast” who knew what he was doing–he studied his effects and had a strategy for his performances. G. W. Lewes, remembering a performance he had seen in 1825, similarly observes that Kean was not just “impulsive” but “regulated, with the “precision of a singer” .

According to Tracy C. Davis, “his mode of acting emphasizing intense emotions and marked mood swings won out over the neoclassical restrained style of the Kembles, who had seemed to emphasize showing ideals in statuesque standard poses -points’ held to applause’- rather than embodying the emotional explosiveness of human experiences in made-to-order fluid combinations.” This technical shift from the ornamental style to the emotional is analogous to the “experiment” that Wordsworth undertakes in the Lyrical Ballads–breaking class and genre expectations and emphasizing emotion as the source of poetic creativity. Likewise, Wordsworth’s “recollection in tranquility” introduces the dimension of thought-the well-regulated mind tempering the poetic …

Literary characters exact their vengeance. The Rival Richards or Sheakspear in Danger, an 1814 cartoon by artist William Heath, depicts Shakespeare caught between two of his kingly subjects. The righteous indignation of the Richards is guaranteed immortality thanks to the cataloging of the Folger Shakespeare Library, with support from NEH. —Folger Shakespeare Library


(Keats letters): I dined too (for I have been out too much lately) with Horace Smith & met his two Brothers with Hill & Kingston & one Du Bois, they only served to convince me, how superior humour is to wit in respect to enjoyment–These men say things which make one start, without making one feel, they are all alike; their manners are all alike; they all know fashionables; they have a mannerism in their very eating and drinking, in their mere handling a Decanter–They talked of Kean and his low company–Would I were with that company instead of yours said I to myself! I know such like acquaintances will never do for me …

“THE part of Iago was played at Drury Lane on Saturday ( May, 7, 1814) by Mr. Kean, and played with admirable facility and effect. It was the most faultless of his performances, the most consistent and entire. Perhaps the accomplished hypocrite was never so finely, so adroitly portrayed–a gay, light-hearted monster, a careless, cordial, comfortable villain. The preservation of character was so complete, the air and manner were so much of a piece throughout, that the part seemed more like a detached scene or single trait, and of shorter duration than it usually does. The ease, familiarity, and tone of nature with which the text was delivered, were quite equal to any thing we have seen in the best comic acting. It was the least overdone of all his parts, though full of point, spirit, and brilliancy. The odiousness of the character was in fact, in some measure, glossed over by the extreme grace, alacrity and rapidity of the execution. Whether this effect were “a consummation of the art devoutly to be wished,” is another question, on which we entertain some doubts. We have already stated our opinion, that Mr. Kean is not a literal transcriber of his author’s text; he translates his characters with great freedom and ingenuity into a language of his own; but at the same time we cannot help preferring his liberal and spirited dramatic versions, to the dull, literal, commonplace monotony of his competitors. Besides, after all, in the conception of the part, he may be right, and we may be wrong. We have before complained that Mr. Kean’s Richard was not gay enough, and we should now be disposed to complain that his Iago is not grave enough.” ( Hazlitt )

Years later, when Kean was being hooted off the stage, Hazlitt made a one-man cavalry charge at the mob: ‘Let a great man but “fall into misfortunes” and then you discover the real dispositions of the loving public towards their pretended idol. See how they set upon him the moment he is down, how they watch for the smallest slip, the first pretext to pick a quarrel with him, how slow they are to acknowledge any worth, how quick to exaggerate an error, how ready to trample upon and tear “to tatters, to very rags” the frailties which being flesh and blood he has in common with all men, while yet they overlook or malign the incomparable excellence which they can neither reach nor find a substitute for…. ( Hazlitt )

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