"Enthusiastic admiration is the first principle of knowledge, and the last."
That quotation from William Blake (as cited by Goddard) sums up the value of this book. Goddard himself possessed such admiration for Shakespeare, and admiration should be the foremost quality for any expert trying to explain Shakespeare. Unfortunately, most literary criticism lacks enthusiasm and is dry to the point of being unreadable. In fact, many professional academics churn our papers and books not for love of the subject matter but in the need to secure tenure. They write on topics that they happen to find themselves studying--whether due to departmental pressures or contemporary intellectual fashions. A monograph dedicated to an explanation of Macbeth, for example, often gives the impression that its author has as much enthusiasm for Macbeth as he would for the chemical reactive qualities of benzene. What's the point?
But this is not true of Goddard! He was a scholar who saw into the depths of Shakespeare's plays, appreciated what he saw, and then explained what he saw for the rest of us. His resulting book is well worth reading.
In brief, Goddard's philosophical approach to Shakespeare might best be understood through his contrast between 'intellect' and 'poetry.' As Goddard intends it, the term 'intellect' might be better understood in contemporary times as being scientific or technological. Being a scion of the humanities, Goddard of course favors poetry. In the opening chapter, some quotations provide the flavor of Goddard's approach:
"The aim of the intellect is not to wonder and love and grow wise about life, but to control it. ... We want the facts for the practical use we can make of them. ... When the intellect speaks, its instrument is rational prose. The more unmistakable the meaning the better. 'Two and two are four.' Everybody understands what that means, and it means the same to everybody. But 'Become who thou art'; 'Know thyself'; 'Ye must be born again'; 'I should never have sought thee if I had not already found thee'; 'The rest is silence': what do they mean? Will any two men ever exactly agree? Such sentences are poetry."
It should be clear where Goddard's interests lie. And for my own part, although I admit the questions of intellect deserve great respect, ultimately it is the questions of poetry that really matter to self, to life.
Goddard's approach to the plays is one of close reading. In other words, Goddard is no drama critic who routinely attends Shakespearean plays in performance and then reports on his emotional reaction to them. Rather, his book is the product of someone who has read the text multiple times, bringing his own imagination to bear upon its meaning--and not that of some director's or actor's. Goddard's results are often contrarian to the normal interpretations of the plays. And frankly his interpretations are at times on the verge of being outlandish, (especially with respect to Merchant of Venice, Hamlet and King Lear). Still, Goddard provides solid evidence and argument for his interpretations, and even if the reader disagrees in the end, it is still an expansive experience to learn of someone else's very different take on a play.
With regard to the Henriad, Goddard and I had different experiences in coming to an understanding of Falstaff. Previously, I had read the Henriad plays multiple times, but I could never understand Falstaff's appeal--he always seemed so petty and vile to me. Only when I saw Orson Welles playing Falstaff in "Chimes at Midnight" did I finally arrive at an appreciation of him. For me, it took a great actor to bring Falstaff to life, with his charisma and humor. But Goddard claims just the opposite: "We shall never see Falstaff on the stage. On the stage there the monster of flesh stands. ... It takes rare acting to rescue him from being physically repulsive. ... But in a book! On the stage of our imagination! That is another matter." For me, that drastic distinction between book and stage has happened for only one Shakespearean character, Falstaff. And I assume the same is true for Goddard. And yet our experiences were diametrically opposed to one another. Curious.
I feel I should comment on the book's title, "The Meaning of Shakespeare." After the book was accepted for publication yet before it had a title, Goddard died. So the title was given by the publisher. But Goddard would never have chosen a title like that! It carries the implication that its interpretations are somehow definitive, somehow final. But that is contrary to Goddard's overarching philosophy, which emphasizes ambiguity, poetry and imagination. As it stands, the book's title is horribly misleading. The best rebuttal to this title comes from Goddard himself: "I hope that I have myself given no impression of speaking 'the truth' about King Lear in this sense. ... If others do not see [these figures of interpretation], for them they are not there. Far be it from me in that case to assert that I am right and they are wrong."
I'll leave the final word to Goddard's book (quoting a student):
"'We were saying that other night,' a college girl wrote to her mother, 'that we probably know the members of our Shakespeare class, deep down, far better than we shall know any class again. You just can't discuss Shakespeare without putting a window in your very soul.'"