William Empson: Essays on Shakespeare

At the time of his death in 1984, the poet and critic William Empson was preparing and revising a collection of his essays on Shakespeare. This collection edited by David Pirie, is a book which the literary world has wanted for over half a century. Here, in a single volume, are major readings of Hamlet and Macbeth; a witty and sometimes impassioned defence of Falstaff, and a new piece on the architecture of the Globe theatre and other Renaissance playhouses, in which Empson explores the problems that the design of contemporary stages posed for a working playwright; there are also essays on the narrative poems, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the last plays. The essays demonstrate the subtlety and agility of Empson’s mind, as well as his remarkable breadth of knowledge, while the almost racy wit of his informal prose style argues for a literary criticism which should never become solemn if it is to be truly serious.


Preface; Sources and acknowledgements; 1. The narrative poems; 2. Falstaff; 3. Hamlet; 4. Macbeth; 5. The Globe theatre; 6. Fairy flight in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; 7. Hunt the symbol; Select bibliography.


‘Academic scholars may bar his way, but Empson wheedles past with his charm and common sense.’ The Times Literary Supplement

‘Empson was a professor, but he had all the qualities that academics are often accused of lacking: he was humane, intense, eccentric, passionately hostile to Christianity, never dull, and very very clever … The blurb calls this book … a book which the literary world has wanted for half a century, and for once I think the publisher is not exaggerating. Today as much as ever, literary criticism needs its William Empsons.’ The Spectator