Hardy and Shakespeare

Tracy Hayes

Thomas Hardy's relationship with Shakespeare began at a relatively early age. At 13, while attending Isaac Last's school, he had already read all of Shakespeare's tragedies, though he was disappointed with Hamlet because 'the ghost did not play his part up to the end as he ought to have done'. In 1863 Hardy took up lodgings at 16 Westbourne Park Villas in London, and this is where his literary career can truly be said to have begun. While working as an architectural draughtsman for Arthur Blomfield during the day, Hardy devoted himself to a rigorous program of self-education in the evenings and at weekends, attending the opera and the theatre, visiting museums and art galleries, and reading voraciously. He was already reading a great deal of Shakespeare, using a ten-volume edition he purchased soon after arriving at his lodgings. It was here that he began his 'Studies, Specimens &c.' notebook, writing out brief quotations from a number of authors, including Shakespeare, as a series of vocabulary-building exercises, underlining words he found particularly interesting. Hardy would later write in 'The Profitable Reading of Fiction' (1888) that 'Good fiction may be defined here as that kind of imaginative writing which lies nearest to the epic, dramatic, or narrative masterpieces of the past...Any system which should attach more importance to the delineation of man's appetites than to the delineation of his aspirations, affections, or humours, would condemn the old masters of imaginative creation from Aeschylus to Shakespeare'.

Hardy often underlined passages of certain books and his copy of the Bible, and dated them, when in a particular mood, and his Shakespeare volumes were no exception. For example, on 15th December 1870, after sending off the completed manuscript of Desperate Remedies to Tinsley, Hardy was not hopeful of success and marked a line from Hamlet: 'Thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart: but it is no matter!'. The following year while completing his novel Under the Greenwood Tree he noted 'July 1871' next to a line from Macbeth: 'Things at their worst will cease, or else climb upward to what they were before'. When in 1873 Hardy's friend and mentor Horace Moule committed suicide in his rooms at Cambridge, Hardy turned to Shakespeare's Sonnet 32 for comfort: 'But since he died, and poets better prove,/Theirs for their style I'll read, his for his love'. Interestingly, in 1881 while living in Wimborne with his first wife Emma, Hardy briefly joined the Local Shakespeare Reading Society, which met in private houses, members being assigned parts beforehand to recite at each meeting. By this time though Hardy had become somewhat of a sophisticated Londoner, a regular of 'the Season', and he soon dropped out, 'leaving behind a reputation as a poor performer who put no expression into his reading'.

Allusions to Shakespeare often featured in Hardy's novels, both Michael Henchard from The Mayor of Casterbridge and Clym Yeobright from The Return of the Native being susceptible to analogies with King Lear. Tess of the d'Urbervilles, subtitled 'A Pure Woman', also contained as an epigraph a passage from The Two Gentlemen of Verona: 'Poor wounded name! My bosom as a bed/Shall lodge thee'. And Hardy modelled his verse drama The Dynasts on Shakespeare's history plays.

In 1892 Hardy's father, also Thomas Hardy, passed away, his death certificate citing 'exhaustion'. Hardy was devastated, he had been very close to, and hugely admiring of, his father, who had instilled in the son his love of music and his steadfast work ethic. After the funeral Hardy once again turned to his copy of Hamlet, underlining Hamlet's praise of his friend Horatio as 'A man that fortune's buffets and rewards/Has ta'en with equal thanks'. Hardy did in fact visit Stratford-upon-Avon, staying for a week during a holiday with Emma in August 1896. Though we have no record of his impressions there, we do know from The Life that he reread King Lear after Emma suffered from an accident while riding her bicycle. A quote which Hardy claimed was 'partly from Shakespeare and partly from the Bible' was carved into Emma's tomb after her death in 1912: 'This For Remembrance'. By 1920 Shakespeare's works had become so ingrained in Hardy's psychological make-up that his friend Sir Sidney Cockerell claimed all of Hardy's conversations when entertaining visitors at Max Gate were 'as usual' about 'Shakespeare, Keats, and Shelley'. The great Stratford Bard had become an integral part of the great Wessex author's life, and remained so until his death in 1928.

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