Anne Barton

Anne Barton, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, is the author, most recently, of Essays, Mainly Shakespearean and a study of Byron’s Don Juan.

In George Peele’s Elizabethan play The Old Wives’ Tale, a character called Jack interrogates the ‘wandering knight’ Eumenides: ‘Are you not the man, sir (deny it if you can, sir) that came from a strange place in the land of Catita, where Jackanapes flies with his tail in his mouth, to seek out a lady as white as snow and as red as blood?’ Jack is dead. The...

Once upon a time there was a little girl who, at the age of two, had in some fashion to be told that her father had just cut off the head of the beautiful mother who used to lavish affection on her, and pretty clothes. Shortly afterwards the child learned that, although she retained contact with him, she had been officially repudiated as her father’s daughter, even if she probably had...

Tousy-Mousy: Mary Shelley

Anne Barton, 8 February 2001

Richard Holmes published Shelley: The Pursuit in 1974. More than a decade later, in Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985), he recalled how obsessive his engagement gradually became, not just with Shelley, but with that whole group of English expatriates associated with him, as it moved from Geneva through Italy – Bagni di Lucca, Este, Venice, Rome, Naples, Ravenna, Pisa...

Transparent Criticism

Anne Barton, 21 June 1984

Erich Auerbach’s celebrated study of the representation of reality in Western literature, Mimesis, was published in German in 1946. Grounded on the analysis (mainly syntactic) of passages selected from texts in some nine different languages, ranging from Homer and the Old Testament to Virginia Woolf, it assumes throughout that reality has an objective existence, is open to perception, and needs no apologetic inverted commas. It can be and enduringly is represented by writers whose work bears the impress not only of their own individuality but of a particular historical context, a social and cultural milieu. Auerbach’s book remains, for many readers, one of the great critical achievements of the 20th century: a work marked out not only by its scholarship, breadth of sympathy and imaginative range, but by its author’s ability to validate his generalisations through scrupulous attentiveness to the smallest details of a text.

That Night at Farnham

Anne Barton, 18 August 1983

In Marlowe’s Edward II, the royal favourite Gaveston plans delicious entertainments which ‘may draw the pliant king which way I please’. He will introduce musicians to the court, ‘wanton poets’, Italian masques by night, and ‘pleasing shows’. Edward, walking abroad, is to encounter pages dressed as ‘sylvan nymphs’, and


Anne Barton, 2 July 1981

Twenty-one years ago, in The Characters of Love, John Bayley suggested that ‘there is a sense in which the highest compliment we can pay to Shakespeare is to discuss his great plays as if they were also great novels.’ At that time, Othello seemed to him particularly (indeed uniquely) responsive to such treatment. Here, Shakespeare was writing about ‘the private life – personal relations and problems of domesticity and daily living – in a way he does nowhere else’. This early essay on Othello, conceived in large part as a rejoinder to Leavis, has been widely and justly influential. Jane Adamson’s meticulous and sensitive reading of the play in Othello as Tragedy can be seen as an extension and development of Bayley’s 1960 approach. Her book catches up Bayley’s resistance, in The Characters of Love, to Leavis’s condescending detachment, his neat placing and dismissal of the hero. Uneasy, like Bayley, both with Bradley’s noble Moor, and Leavis’s criminal egotist, she seeks to understand love’s failure in terms of naturalistically-conceived characters placed in a detailed and convincing social milieu: people who are flawed and psychologically vulnerable in ways we all share.

Plays for Puritans

Anne Barton, 18 December 1980

In Act II of Twelfth Night, Maria says of Malvolio – that poker-faced enemy of cakes and ale, bear-baitings, and all ‘uncivil rule’ – that ‘sometimes he is a kind of Puritan.’ Cautious and qualified though this statement is, Maria retracts it almost at once: ‘the devil a Puritan that he is, or anything constantly, but a time-pleaser, an affectioned ass.’ She insists that Malvolio’s defects spring from his own hypocrisy and self-love. They are not, as Sir Andrew Aguecheek wants to believe, associated with a particular religious and political alignment in Elizabethan England. Maria’s scrupulousness here about an easy misuse of the term ‘Puritan’ would seem to be Shakespeare’s own. Although critics often permit themselves to describe the repressive Angelo in Measure for Measure as ‘puritanical’, no one in the comedy ever does so, nor is any connection implied between the ‘outward-sainted’ deputy and the party which, by 1604, had already begun to indicate its opposition to royal absolutism as well as to Popery in all its forms. As Shakespeare uses it (twice) in All’s well that ends well, the word ‘Puritan’ signifies nothing more than ‘anti-Papist’. In Pericles, it occurs as a straightforward synonym for ‘virtuous’ and even as late as The Winter’s Tale the single ‘puritan’ among the sheep-shearers in Bohemia is no refuser of festivity. He contents himself with fitting psalms to the hornpipes he relishes as much as anyone else.

Keys to Shakespeare

Anne Barton, 5 June 1980

Twenty years ago, Bertrand Evans published Shakespeare’s Comedies, a book with one idea. Shakespeare, he argued, habitually gives his audience an awareness of the true nature of any dramatic situation greater than that of the characters on the stage. Evans analysed the 13 comedies and the four last plays scene by scene, and concluded that a technique of ‘discrepant awareness’ or ‘exploitable gaps’ between characters and theatre audience lay at the heart of Shakespeare’s dramatic method. ‘It is a fact,’ he announced, ‘that the comedies which approach perfection in their dramatic construction regularly exhibit a high proportion of scenes in which we hold advantage, and that those which are most deficient exhibit a low proportion of such scenes – thus, at the one extreme, Twelfth Night, and, at the other, Troilus and Cressida.’



18 December 1980

Anne Barton writes: To say that Margot Heinemann is ‘a better and more subtle historian than she is a literary critic’ is not to claim that her history is unassailable. As I point out in my review, Puritanism and Theatre has its Hill-ish excesses. In particular, Dr Tyacke is right to question Miss Heinemann’s assumption that a Parliamentary Puritan party had crystallised by the early...

In the Shady Wood: Staging the Forest

Michael Neill, 22 March 2018

Anne Barton​ delivered the lectures on ‘The Shakespearean Forest’ that form the basis for this, her much anticipated last book, in Cambridge in 2003. The Clark Lectures were...

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Art of Embarrassment

A.D. Nuttall, 18 August 1994

Humane, learned, un-showily stylish and at times moving in their tender intelligence, these essays by Anne Barton, ranging from a richly ‘mellow’ piece first published in 1953 –...

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True Words

A.D. Nuttall, 25 April 1991

‘The French call it pain, the Germans call it Brot and we call it bread; and we are right, because it is bread.’ So wrote (I have been told though I have not been able to verify the...

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Blair Worden, 7 March 1985

In 1892 A.C. Benson published an essay which introduced the modern appreciation of Andrew Marvell. For more than two hundred years Marvell’s verse had shared with Metaphysical poetry a...

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