Autobiography – encountering Shakespeare

McLuhan had systematically studied all of Shakespeare’s plays by the time he left Winnipeg for Cambridge in the fall of 1934 at age 23.1 At Cambridge he was tutored by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (cf Letters 57, cited extensively below) and heard a memorial Dover Wilson lecture on Hamlet (cf Letters 32, also cited extensively below), the year before Wilson published his influential What Happens in Hamlet.2 Since Quiller-Couch and Wilson were the joint editors of the New Cambridge Shakespeare, issued between 1919 and 1966, McLuhan could hardly have received more authoritative training in the works of the bard.

Here is McLuhan as an undergrad at the University of Manitoba:

Shakespeare (…) that paragon of mortals, the very quintessence of human clay (…) Shakespeare held up the mirror to life itself (…) sublime genius (…) I spent 2 hours reading Hamlet this morning. I never enjoyed anything so much. What power! What tremendous genius! A wonderful cure for conceit and ambition. (McLuhan, age 19, to his Mother, February 19, 1931, Letters 9)3

Here he is a few years later as a grad student, but still in Winnipeg:

What infinite delight there is in Shakespeare (…) I have not had any dull moments except with the incredible pedants who crawl all over him with their microscopes and fine [tooth] combs, and then write up their “discoveries” with a mixture of stupid dullness and childish delight (…) I [myself] stick to Coleridge 4 and shall do [so] all my life so far as Shakespeare is concerned. (McLuhan, age 22, to his Mother, spring 1934, Letters 17) 5

Later that year he had begun his career at Cambridge and reported home to his family about a lecture (“paper”) by the famous Dover Wilson:

His paper was excellent: ‘The make-up of Hamlet’6 — [that is,] his psychological make up— briefly (…) stated: Hamlet is not a real person, not a consistent psychological creation7 but simply a portion of the tissue of the play. Shakespeare published his plays upon the stage and would have been amazed at the critical ingenuity of readers. Hamlet’s character is simply a means of developing a total dramatic effect — one of tremendous brooding mystery. Therefore his ‘madness’ and his antic-disposition are a problem Shakespeare never meant us to understand as the drama is actually played. And so [also] with the reasons for [Hamlet’s] procrastination. After bringing H’s character into discredit and low worth [Shakespeare] suddenly rehabilitates him with almost a single magic stroke. It is his greatest artistic triumph — the duel scene — of tremendous interest to the Elizabethans — the process of the duel has not been appreciated. Laertes anticipates the [start] signal [of the duel] and wounds Hamlet. H. drops his [sword,] wrests [Laertes’] untipped sword from him and ironically points to L. to take up [the dropped sword]. Then he runs L. through. (McLuhan to his family, age 23, November 3, 1934, Letters 32-33)8

In this same letter from November 3, 1934 McLuhan included a parody of Prospero’s speech from The Tempest Act 4 scene 1: 

This orgy now is ended. These mad hustlers
As I foretold you, were all bluff and
Are shown to be air, even hot air:
And like the baseless credit of their business
Their sign-capped towers and raucous newspapers.
Their film temples, great Hollywood itself.
And all that it doth breed on shall dissolve,
And like an insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind. They were such stuff
Screen-stars are made on and their feverish life
Is quieted now in sleep.9

Shakespeare and Coleridge are coupled again in a letter to his brother from this same time:

But in psychology the confusion arises from the fact that the thing which [studies] is also the thing studied. The psychologist forgets that a man does know some things about a man long before he is cloven in 2 and 1/2 becomes a psychologist and the other a psychological problem. When he plunges into the dark sea of the subconscious he forgets that there is such a thing as the broad daylight of human nature. You will remember Coleridge saying that “Shakespeare keeps to the main highway of the human affections”. (McLuhan to Maurice McLuhan, December 1934, Letters, 44-45)

The turn of the year from 1934 to 1935 seems to have been crucial for McLuhan. A series of letters from this time record his sense of decisive change:

My mind is a ferment these days — boiling with new ideas and experience. I must keep it so for years yet, if I am to be worth anything as an educator. (McLuhan to his family, December 6, 1934, Letters 44)

How rapidly my ideas have been shifting and rearranging themselves to make room for others! My difficulty is to keep up with myself. (McLuhan to his Mother, January 18, 1935, Letters 51).

My position in regard to English Literature is altering rapidly. I have discovered that having in previous courses sampled numerous bits of it, I came to certain conclusions about them which really discouraged a further expansion of interest. I have discovered the utmost reluctance to open Keats or Shakespeare (…) largely because of an unconscious reluctance to disturb my previous judgements about them.  I have recently, in this new atmosphere, dissolved the old incrusted opinions (even where they were “correct” but none the less sterilizing) and obtained a fresh receptivity which is the thing most difficult to maintain in America. I had thought that I at least was not being victimized by our insane methods of abstracting certain men from the living context of English history and considering them as classics per se.  [But] I had not escaped… (McLuhan to his family, February 1935, Letters 54)10

An important letter to his family that same month records his impressions of a tutorial11 with  Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and the first of his life-long considerations of King Lear:

Having just returned from the Divinity School where “Q” recommenced his course on The Poetics of Aristotle, I wish to set down certain facts while they are fresh. There was just one other chap with me and so we were able to be a very chatty trio. The Poetics were soon side-tracked when illustrating the theory of the punctum indifferens in Shakespeare — ie. the idea that in all art there is a point of rest in the midst of surrounding conflict. Horatio in Hamlet, Kent in Lear etc. The last led us to ask whether the fool played a similar part in maintaining the salutory mean of sense and sanity. Then “Q” gave us a “frantic” (he called it, and justly) theory about the fool in Lear. He appears only when Cordelia is off stage (both parts prob. acted by some boy ‘star’). He brings missives from Cordelia, and when Lear holds the dead Cordelia in his arms he calls her “my poor fool” (or sumpin like it). The idea is that Kent is in on the secret. When the fool meets the wild “Tom O’ Bedlam” Edgar he goes quite hysterical etc. We had a lot of fun mauling this idea. (McLuhan to his family, Feb 7, 1935, Letters 57)


  1. See his letter to his Mother from the spring of 1934: “Just one more play to read: The Winter’s Tale. I (am) completing The Tempest having 1st done MacBeth with some care to-day.” (Letters 17)
  2. Wilson refers to this lecture as an important occasion in the history of the book’s composition: “But the final stroke of fortune came as a chance sequel to a lecture delivered last November (1934) before the Cambridge University English Club, in which I tried out the argument of Chapter vi. My kind hosts for the evening were old friends, Stanley Bennett and his wife, Joan Bennett, whose charming and helpful study of Four Metaphysical Poets you like the rest of us will have been reading. And when I tell you that George Rylands of King’s, producer of the notable Marlowe Society Hamlet of 1932, was also of the company, you will not be surprised to hear that after the lecture discussion went on far into the night. ” (What Happens in Hamlet, 22)
  3. The number of young men in 1931 repeatedly writing to their Mothers about Shakespeare was doubtless not large.  The number doing so in Winnipeg was presumably equal to exactly one.
  4. McLuhan is referring to lectures on Shakespeare given between 1808 and 1818 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and published as Shakespearean Criticism (2 vols., 1907).
  5. Although it was to cost him in various ways, McLuhan throughout his life never tried to hide his scorn for ‘scholars’ who concentrated on the trees at the expense of the forest. And his esteem of Coleridge would be affirmed later that same year in Cambridge, where he would find I.A. Richards influentially maintaining that modern criticism had to revert to Coleridge to find its way.  (McLuhan would recall this connection in a letter to Richards 35 years later: “I owe you an enormous debt since (my) Cambridge days. I also owe a great deal to STC.” McLuhan to I.A. Richards, July 12, 1968, Letters 355)
  6. As further discussed above, the title of Wilson’s lecture was just the title of Chapter vi of What Happens in Hamlet.
  7. In the Preface to the Third Edition of What Happens in Hamlet Wilson makes this point as follows: “to abstract one figure from an elaborate dramatic composition (…) is to attempt something at once wrong in method and futile in aim.”
  8. McLuhan’s later development may be seen here in nuce.  He sees from (or possibly already with?) Dover Wilson, that personality is not an individual matter of “psychological creation” but a question of its “portion of the tissue” of a larger theme: “Hamlet’s character is simply a means of developing a total dramatic effect”. McLuhan would later call this a matter of “putting on” an environment or assuming a “role”. It may be that he already vaguely intuited that one such larger theme is that of “readers” — the Gutenberg galaxy — and that it is in this literary context alone that “consistent psychological creation” becomes a need and a standard. Further, surely following Wilson far beyond his own appreciation and knowledge, he specifies the scene of the duel between Hamlet and Laertes for special attention, noting that it was “of tremendous interest to the Elizabethans” and even calling it Shakespeare’s “greatest artistic triumph”. Indeed — as was, however, unknown to McLuhan and perhaps even to Wilson (since the fact is not mentioned in his 1935 What Happens in Hamlet) — this scene recaptures one of the oldest mythological dramas in the western tradition, one that already appears in Homer and Ovid: that of the the Aloadai twins who waged a gigantomachia against the gods by piling the mountains Pelion and Ossa on top of each other in order to attack the immortals in the sky.  In the end, “Artemis finished off the Aloadai in Naxos by means of a trick: in the likeness of a deer she darted between them, and in their desire to hit the animal they speared each other.” (Apollodorus, Library 1.53) In Hamlet Shakespeare carefully prepares the ground for this mythological re-enactment of “brothers” killing one another (just before the final duel, Hamlet pardons himself to Laertes by saying, “I have shot mine arrow o’er the house, And hurt my brother”) through a series of specific allusions in the play which are described here. For further on this gigantic theme see McLuhan and Plato 8 – Gigantomachia and Babel.
  9. Many posts in this blog will treat McLuhan’s contributions to a consideration of nihilism. What is particularly noteworthy in this parody is the direction in which McLuhan takes Shakespeare’s wonderful paeon to insubstantiality — “These our actors (…) were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air: And, like the baseless fabric of (…) the great globe itself (…) shall dissolve And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep”. McLuhan plainly wanted to pose the question of how, outside the theatre in what is thought to be ‘real life’, such insubstantiality could yet seem so real to so many and with such effect. His answer here, at 23, is that a concerted alliance of business (“mad hustlers” with “baseless credit”), advertising (“sign-capped”), media (“newspapers”) and entertainment (“great Hollywood itself”) is able to “put on” a production of ‘real life’ such that we all take our identities and roles from it. A couple months later, on January 18, 1935, McLuhan would conclude a letter to his Mother by noting the “glib acceptance of officially encouraged and systematic hypocrisy” (Letters 51).
  10. A series of points in this letter would germinate in McLuhan’s later work. First, he sees the need for “fresh receptivity” and the difficulties of enabling it, in the event that humans have an “unconscious reluctance to disturb (…) previous judgements” and even “correct” views can be “none the less sterilizing”.  This would become his critique of the rear-view mirror and his differentiation between perception and conception. Second, he sees the related need to see through texts (and, indeed, through everything else including individual human beings and historical events) to “the living context” beneath them. Not to do this he calls “abstracting”: instead of attending to phenomena as complexly transparent, as partially revealing their underlying ground, an “abstracting” view remains with the “incrusted” surface “per se”. Decades later, figure absent ground and figure with ground would become McLuhan’s usual way of describing this contrast, although he also spoke frequently of the need to go through the looking-glass — aka the rear-view mirror — with Alice. Importantly, McLuhan applied these insights to himself since he notes his own “unconscious reluctance to disturb my previous judgements” and records how this new self-consciousness was radically changing his mind across a series of areas. In addition to his changed view of English Literature, McLuhan had, of course, begun the process of religious conversion that would culminate the next year with his decision to enter the Catholic church.
  11. Nominally this was a course, but as only two students attended this session, McLuhan and “one other chap” received a tutorial from this legendary figure. In his letter to his family describing the resulting “very chatty trio” of “Q” and the two students, McLuhan mentions Quiller-Couch’s “theory of the punctum indifferens in Shakespeare — the idea that in all art there is a point of rest in the midst of surrounding conflict” (Letters 57).  This was an idea going back to Schelling, the German romantics and their English counterpart, S.T. Coleridge. One of the sources of McLuhan’s later formulation that the “gap is where the action is” is doubtless to be found here.

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