Mathew Lyons

What Shakespeare meant to the Bloomsbury Group

Virginia Woolf’s mind was ‘agape & red & hot’ when reading him, and he was an everyday companion to most of the Group – but what they couldn’t bear was to see the plays acted

Virginia Woolf in London in 1939. [Gisele Freund/ Photo Researchers History/Getty Images]

In November 1935, Virginia Woolf saw a production of Romeo and Juliet. She was not overly impressed. ‘Acting it,’ she wrote, ‘they spoil the poetry.’ Harsh words, you might think, for a cast that included John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans and Alec Guinness. But Shakespeare on the stage was something of a bête noire for the Bloomsbury group. ‘We, of course, only read Shakespeare,’ Clive Bell later said. The Shakespeare that mattered was the one on the page.

Shakespeare on stage was a bête noire for the Bloomsberries. ‘We, of course, only read Shakespeare,’ said Clive Bell

Who was that ‘we’, though? Marjorie Garber’s understanding of the group’s membership encompasses Woolf and her siblings, numerous alumni of the Cambridge society known as the Apostles, and their children and friends. The question Garber poses in Shakespeare in Bloomsbury, however, would add one more to the list. To what extent, she asks, might we consider Shakespeare himself a member – an ‘absent-present’, in Woolf’s phrase, in their thoughts and conversation?

Woolf’s introduction to Shakespeare came largely through another absent presence in her life, her older brother Thoby, himself an Apostle, who died in 1906. His loss haunted her, and she considered dedicating Jacob’s Room to him in 1922. But his passion for Shakespeare left its mark: ‘He would sweep down upon me, with his assertion that everything was in Shakespeare. He was ruthless; exasperating me; downing me; overwhelming me.’

There is a similarly engulfing physicality in Woolf’s reading of Shakespeare. It surges off the page:

I was reading Othello last night, & was impressed by the volley & volume & tumble of his words. I never yet knew how amazing his stretch & speed & word coining power is… things I could not in my wildest tumult and utmost press of mind imagine.

Late in life she wrote of how ‘theatre must be replaced by the theatre of the brain… the audience… by the reader’.

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