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NEGATIVE CAPABILITY

Updated: Jul 22, 2019

Peter Bradbury


It has become a truism that Shakespeare’s plays are rich and complex. That is one of the reasons they have remained at the top of the chart for five centuries. But that complexity can often seed confusion in the minds of both audience and actors. Shakespeare appears to say contradictory things about his characters, and they seem to speak and act in several directions at once.

In Merry Wives Anne Page appears to succumb to Fenton’s honesty and his account of his own transformation while nonetheless demanding that he convert his words into practical action. When he complains at the beginning of 3,4 that he cannot get her father’s support he pleads, “no more turn me to him, sweet Nan.” But she doesn’t want him to give up so soon: “Gentle Master Fenton, yet seek my father’s love. Still seek it, Sir. If opportunity and humblest suit cannot attain it …” She does not get a chance to finish her sentence, but we can tell by her tone - beginning quietly and disarmingly with “gentle” but then repeating her instruction - that she will demand of him some active proof of the love he has stated for “the very riches of thy self”. She is at once charmed by Fenton and in sharp control of the situation they find themselves in. In sharp contrast to the way every man who courts her thinks, she is the dominant one.

On an even grander scale Falstaff horrifies us with his lascivious, self-serving and violent pursuit of Mistresses Ford and Page, while attracting us with his poetry and claiming our sympathy with his folkliricized demise. Of course the contradictions of Falstaff, a man who is gross and petty, who repels and attracts, who acts prosaically and speaks poetically, have fascinated audiences, critics, other writers and composers since he first appeared in Henry IV, Part 1. The composer Verdi adapted Merry Wives for has last opera, Falstaff, which has given us the great fugal finale ‘Tutto nel mondo è burla’ (everything in the world is a jest): https://youtu.be/yx2zJMN4uEo.

How do we think about these paradoxes of character, these canaries (quandaries) of thought and action?

The great English poet John Keats, in December of 1817, was thinking about the same question as he walked home from a Christmas pantomime talking to his friends Browne and Dilke. In a letter later that month to his brothers Tom and George he wrote:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.

This is a wonderful way of understanding this quality that Shakespeare had in abundance but that he shares with most great writers, composers and artists. For Keats negativity was not the objectionable quality it has become in our positivist century. Keats had been reading Hegel, whose Phenomenology put forward the idea that negation, or negativity, is essential to dialectical thinking.

Keats did not elaborate on the teasing and intuitive idea of ‘negative capability’. However he did continue to think about the way great writers create characters who cannot be bridled by ordinary reins. In a letter to his friend Richard Woodhouse in October the following year, he wrote that the

poetical Character is not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in an Iago (Othello) as an Imogen (Cymbeline). What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion Poet.

We do not have to justify the way Shakespeare builds contradiction and paradox into even the most minor of characters. But it takes a lot of effort to put aside the Western habit of dissecting and seeking a reason or an excuse for everything.


[Keats’ letters are worth reading for their own sake as well as for their insights into creativity and art. There are various editions available online, in e-text versions and in bookstores. Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807) (Phenomenology of Mind/Spirit) is available in various translations and also online etc. This work provided Karl Marx with a philosophical basis for his radical dialectic.

The picture is from a Glyndebourne Opera production of Verdi's Falstaff.]

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