REVIEW
Granville-Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare.
Princeton: Princeton U P, 1946. Rptd. as Preface to Hamlet. New York: Hill and Wang, 1957.


In General: The value of Granville-Barker's work lies mainly in his narratives of the development of plot and character throughout the course of the play. He has an impressive sensitivity to the web of relationships that make up a play: how tension rises, falls and rises again to new heights; how characters serve as foils for each other, so that we can see each one more clearly because of the presence of the other; how the information that we receive in one scene can lend intense dramatic irony to the next scene. In addition, Granville-Barker's narrative often gives rise to examinations of more general questions. Here's an example:
[After the exit of the Ghost] Hamlet is left in some limbo, from which to struggle back to the certitudes of the world. He has not spoken since that
O my prophetic soul! my uncle!
was wrung out of him; he listened in silence to the tale of his mother's shame. Now, with an
O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else?
And shall I couple hell? O fie . . .
he emerges; "recovers his senses" we cannot say -- for that, it will appear, is just what he does not completely do. From this moment indeed until (after that critical night of the adventure of the play, the killing of Polonius and the grim hide-and-seek through the palace) it begins to seem, as he sets out on his journey in the morning, that the ill is purged, from now till then Hamlet is "mad." How mad, whether by a modern alienist's standard certifiably so -- Shakespeare does not think in those terms. He uses the word as unprecisely as we still commonly do. Says Polonius,
              to define true madness,
What is't but to be nothing else but mad?
Hamlet speaks of himself as mad; half ironically, while he is under the spell; when he is free of it, as having been
                       punished
With sore distraction.
He is not ironical there. But he speaks in riddles. And this we may fairly accept as Shakespeare's conclusion too; that the thing itself is a riddle. He attempts no answer. Nor need he, since he is writing a play, not a pamphlet. All he has to do is to show us what madness amounts to in this particular case. Hamlet will also pretend to be mad, and the pretense and the reality will not easily be distinguished. That there is reality mixed with the pretense -- so much is plain. The reality, and the riddle of it, is Shakespeare's addition to the old story and its pretense, and is the leaven which, lifting the character above the story's needs, gives the play its enduring significance. For while few of us have murdered fathers to avenge, and not so many adulterous mothers to shame us, there will be hardly a man in any audience to whom the word "madness," in some one of its meanings, has not at one time or another come dreadfully home.   (65-66)
Thus is the nature of Hamlet's "madness" most persuasively explained.

On the other hand, Granville-Barker's strength is also his weakness. He is excellent at the description and examination of moments and psychological states, but he has little or nothing to say about the general impact of the play, about pity, fear, catharsis, or any of that. He can't see the forest for the trees, but what he has to say about the trees is always clear and interesting.

Notes on Granville-Barker and his Prefaces to Shakespeare: Harley Granville-Barker (1877-1946) was both a man of the theater and a Shakespearean scholar. As man of the theater he was an actor, director, producer, and playwright. His productions of Shakespeare were famous because he was able to persuade the actors to speak the lines naturally. As a Shakespearean scholar he wrote Prefaces to Shakespeare and (with G. B. Harrison) A Companion to Shakespeare Studies. Prefaces to Shakespeare, to which Granville-Barker devoted the last twenty years of his life, is a landmark in Shakespeare criticism because it so eloquently expresses the viewpoint of the person who has the job of making Shakespeare come alive for live audiences.

The two volumes of Prefaces to Shakespeare were published by Princeton University Press in 1946 and 1947. The Preface to Hamlet, reviewed on this page, contains the material on Hamlet and the general introduction to Prefaces to Shakespeare, both of which appeared in the first volume.

Bottom Line: Readable and enlightening.