I think we could call this accretion of insight about the Dantesque writers (to give them a useful epithet) the establishment of a kind of anthology of florilegium. By anthology I mean that what critics have done is produced a hierarchy of passages which serve as foci and thematic centers of the work. A new reader might be moved by Paolo and Francesca, but the experienced Danteist will be able to quote those passages of rebuke that apply to any great sympathy for them. We might be astonished by Satan's grandeur, but the keepers of Paradise Lost will know what later moments show astonishment to be a sign of the very sin the poem seeks to cure. I might like Shem too much, or not enough, but the community of scholars knows how to weigh his actions and intentions.
These Dantesque works are then either the triumphs or the prisoners of their interpreters. It's not that there aren't major disagreements about them -- I've already instanced Empson vs. C.S. Lewis. It's that what the disagreements are about has been almost entirely stipulated. These things change too, of course. I'm giving a synchronic snapshot, but the point is that at every point there's an agreed agenda that the critics of whatever day debate.
But this is not true of Shakespeare. We have better texts (or did for a while) than they had before the last century's revolution in textual scholarship; and we also have better glosses on Shakespeare's vocabulary. What we don't have is better criticism, nor even anything like general agreement on what the issues are. Sure, there are plenty of issues you can apply to Shakespeare: feminism, absolutism, theatricality, the coming of capitalism, imperialism, anti-semitism, racism. But none of those things really get you into the plays in any way that makes it possible to have new insights into Shakespeare. The idea of Shakespeare as author-function, as site for the circulation of social energy, is a kind of tribute to his non-accretive genius. This is the odd commonality between skeptical attitudes towards Shakespeare in people as otherwise different as Wittgenstein, de Man, Greenblatt, and even Freud.
What I mean by that is that Shakespeare has been seeming to me, over the last couple of decades, more and more amazing, in ways that no theoretical or philosophical approach can capture or systematize. He's amazing on the level of craft: he makes craft something transcendent, so that he's understanding of the experience of a play, of characters, of language, of communication becomes the real locus of his power: because these experiences -- of human interaction, of their language, of their communication with each other (and with us) -- are the deepest experiences of human life. Craft of his order just is as complete an understanding of "this complicated form of life" (LW) as there can be.
I don't mean to sound smarmy. I was thinking of this because I was thinking of an interesting error that it struck me Garry Wills was making in a review of Kenji Yoshino's book on Shakespeare and the law, A Thousand Times More Fair. Wills takes issue with Yoshino's defense of Shylock, citing an essay by Anthony Hecht:
While Wills exaggerates Hecht's focus on hatred in The Merchant of Venice, it's also interesting that Hecht himself is trying to read the play as though it were by Dante: his scholarship reads like Singleton's footnotes, and in fact he ends the piece with a direct comparison to Dante (Merchant of Venice is a comedy in the same way that Dante's is).
But what struck me, and the point of this entry, is that Wills makes a great deal of a word that it's striking, once you notice it, Shakespeare never makes very much of. It's a powerful rhetorical move to quote Shylock on hatred, and even more effective to repeat the word out of quotation marks (I've bolded those unquoted repetitions). Will's use of the word, especially his phrases "hateful" and "naked expression of hate," gives it a good Dantesque resonance, as echoed in Shelley's account of Dante returning "to tell, / In words of hate and awe the wondrous story / How all things are transfigured except Love." It's also Miltonic: "Heav'nly love oudoing hellish hate."
But in Shakespeare the word is strikingly milder. Even in Merchant, Portia assures Bassanio she's on his side (as he's thinking about the caskets): "Hate counsels not in such a quality." "Hate" there means "dislike," as it does in Sonnet 145. Yes, hate will rise to Miltonic or Dantesque viciousness in Shakespeare, but not very often. Even in King Lear, where Gloucester "callst on him that hates thee," Kent says that to try to save Lear's life at the end is showing a misapprehension of what Lear needs: "Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass! he hates him much / That would upon the rack of this tough world / Stretch him out longer."
In fact in Shakespeare "hate" tends to mean something like indifference to the good of someone. And the same mildness to be found in Shakespeare's use of hate is to be found in his use of love as well. There's very little of the extravagant (Heavenly Love, Love that moves the Sun and other stars) in Shakespeare. Love and hate are among the social emotions in Shakespeare: they show how it is we are with other people. And as long as we are with other people, we're in the realm of real life, and not that of the transcendent embodiment of primal principles.
So the interesting thing is that the two most central of literary words, love and hate, are just not central to Shakespeare. They can be misleading, people can make too much of them (like Lear), but they're part of our give and take with each other. What is central to Shakespeare is time and loss and commitment. "Love" and "hate" are highly attractive words for the rhetorician, for writers (like Wills) who plays their cards in order to use them as trumps. Shakespeare never trumps with them: it's amazing.
So imagine that: the greatest of all writers is really not interested in depicting love and hate, and the reason for this is that he's not interested in depicting principles at all. He's interested in depicting people. And the result is that criticism can't really get us very far with Shakespeare. The thing is he knows an amazing number of people: his characters and also his audience. He describes them amazingly well. He sees how they interact, and he sees what gives pleasure in that interaction. He sees too what they need.
And what they mainly need is time with each other. It's almost impossible to ruin Shakespeare if you don't cut the apparently extraneous scenes of nothing happening for a long time -- Lear, Kent and the Fool just talking, As You Like It in the forest of Arden, Act IV of The Winter's Tale, and so on. This is time we can spend with them too. Burgeoning critical consensus is not going to get you to understand Shakespeare's characters, and their interactions, better. Spending time with them will, and the trick is to avoid turning them into the representatives of some critical argument as long as possible. Unlike Dante or Milton, Shakespeare never did.