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This review is taken from PN Review 24, Volume 8 Number 4, March - April 1982.

DEATH OF A SALESMAN John Bayley, Shakespeare and Tragedy (Routledge and Kegan Paul) £4.95

No wheel of fire is needed by John Bayley in his attempt to redefine Shakespearean tragedy. The heroes and heroines are not 'tragic' because they are racked in purgatory or fall into the comic-grotesque, but because, says Bayley, extricating them from Wilson Knight, they are so very ordinary. To be more precise-since the critic's notion of 'ordinary' Shakespeare forbids excess vigour-the 'tragic' is a matter of the unexciting, the enfeebled, the pedestrian, or the purely tedious. Lear's part is 'too boring to be effectively taken over by actors', because he, with his old man's 'blankness', like unpretentious Cordelia with her 'vacancy', belongs with those qualifying for Bayley's description of the tragic to the extent that they are escaping the 'play' they are in and fail to be compatible with set 'roles', 'poetry', 'rhetoric' or 'big ideas'. The more they do fit in with 'big ideas' (which, in the case of Othello or Timon, means absorption by high romance or misanthropy), the more Bayley regards them as rich sports of their author's exuberance. They, in their verbal prosperity, are not sufficiently inadequate, 'blank', or 'commonplace'.

The bias against strength, and praise of the dull for being out of their 'play', are signs of a more central weariness in the book. It is not just the many small emphases-Bayley enervating Shakespeare's sense of human vulnerability, dependency, or indeterminateness to a matter of the merely helpless, thus weakening one's grasp of the discrepancy (rightly observed) between characters and the 'play' ...


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