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Tolkien and Shakespeare

Tolkien and Shakespeare: Essays on Shared Themes and Language. Ed. Janet Brennan Croft. Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland & Company, 2007. ISBN 978-0-7864-2827-4. tp, 327 pp., $35.00.

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Reviewed by Merlin DeTardo


[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:4 (#333) in April 2010.]

Introducing Tolkien and Shakespeare, Janet Brennan Croft writes that its essays are intended either to show William Shakespeare’s influence on J.R.R. Tolkien, or to achieve new insights through examination of motifs common to both authors. Croft also summarizes Tolkien’s knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays and explains why Tolkien’s much-reported dislike of Shakespeare is somewhat exaggerated. Several contributors repeat Croft’s points in their articles.

Eighteen essays are arranged into four broad categories. First is “Faërie”, whose four studies begin with Allegra Johnston’s account of the differences between Shakespeare’s and Tolkien’s elves, whom she traces to Celtic and Germanic traditions, respectively. Tolkien gives Johnston some trouble: she confuses Gimli with Boromir (15), fumbles the history of the “Silmarillion” texts (13, 16), and misunderstands the distribution of the Rings of Power (17). The next essay, by Jessica Burke, follows the history of diminutive fairies from Shakespeare through Tolkien’s own early poetry, emphasizing their portrayal in Victorian painting and theater. Burke’s awkward prose obscures some interesting ideas, including a proposal that Elwing represents Tolkien’s mature response to the winged fairies of nineteenth-century imagination.

Tolkien’s hobbits and Shakespeare’s Midsummer mechanicals are the subject of Rebecca-Anne C. Do Rozario’s article. She finds them similar as surrogates for readers, as English country types, in their chattiness and humor, and in their surprising depth. Romuald I. Lakowski ably shows how different aspects of medieval fairy queens appear in Shakespeare’s Titania and Tolkien’s Galadriel, but not why those aspects were selected. However, he finds a better hobbit analogue to “Bottom’s Dream” than Do Rozario does.

The first of six essays on “Power” is a lively study by the late Daniel Timmons, who offers a good defense both of Tolkien’s presentation of war and of the cause of the West in The Lord of the Rings. Shakespeare’s Henry V is offered for contrast: Timmons asks why critics are kinder to Shakespeare and Harry than to Tolkien and Aragorn. Timmons’s attempted enlargement of the argument to address contemporary attitudes to war is less successful. Kayla McKinney Wiggins then compares epic and tragic literary modes, using The Lord of the Rings and Hamlet as her respective examples. She also considers the works’ princes (referencing Machiavelli) and attitudes toward vengeance. (Concerning revenge in Tolkien, also see Brian Rosebury’s article in Tolkien Studies 5.)

Judith J. Kollmann contrasts Aragorn and Henry V as kings in waiting, yielding some good insights into Aragorn’s appeal. Her attempt to show that Tolkien intends Aragorn as a response to Hal falters, beginning with her title, which references not the Henriad but The Merchant of Venice. In a short study, Annalisa Castaldo argues that only in Shakespeare’s history plays could Tolkien have found a model for his mock-historical fiction, for such ideas as choice versus fate and a role for commoners. Castaldo is silent on three intervening centuries whose historical literature sometimes addresses those subjects.

Inspired by Michael Drout’s analysis in Tolkien Studies 1, Leigh Smith examines four themes shared by King Lear and The Lord of the Rings: misguided fathers, kingship, disguises, and the nature of evil. Smith means to show Shakespeare’s influence, but that needs a longer study. However, her comments on the leafy crowns of Lear and Tolkien’s Cross-roads king are nice. Smith incorrectly claims there are more occurrences of “nothing” in Lear than in Tolkien’s story (150). In Anne C. Petty’s essay, Shakespeare serves only for contrast; her suggestions as to more direct connections to Tolkien are insufficiently developed. Petty does better applying Aristotle’s definition of catharsis to Thorin, Denethor, and Fëanor, though the first two are mere supporting characters, while Fëanor, the central figure of a few chapters, is presented at a distance that obscures his tragedy. Tolkien’s most significant tragic figure, Túrin, is entirely absent from this collection, which shows why The Children of Húrin was needed.

There are three essays under the heading “Magic.” In the first, Nicholas Ozment reminds readers that Gandalf’s angelic nature distinguishes his wizardry from the (to Jacobeans) morally dubious magic of Prospero in The Tempest. Frank P. Riga, noting that Merlin is variously portrayed as a good or evil figure, believes this duality influenced the beneficent and tyrannical aspects of Prospero, with Tolkien dividing these characteristics between Gandalf and Saruman. Croft’s own contribution, reprinted from Seven 21, examines Macbeth, the best-known Shakespearean source of motifs in The Lord of the Rings. She expands a little on earlier work by Tom Shippey. Since Croft knows that Tolkien acknowledged the partial influence of the Scottish play on the Ents, why does she allow Riga (206) and Maureen Thum (229) to claim that there are no examples of Shakespeare directly affecting Tolkien?

Thum starts the last section, which includes five papers on “The Other,” by comparing Twelfth Night’s Viola and Olivia to Éowyn and Galadriel, respectively. I think she is wrong that Tolkien masks Galadriel’s power in conventionality, while a claim that critics “frequently” overlook Galadriel’s importance requires more than one citation (245). Also, it’s not true that Tolkien’s writings include “no female witches whatsoever” (247) – see “The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun”. Given Thum’s subject, it is odd that Robert Gehl finds that “Tolkien’s work does not address gender” significantly (251). Gehl’s attempt to compare Frodo and Gollum to Iago and Othello is sloppy and tendentious. In Gehl’s reading, the “dominant culture” of the West in Middle-earth is “challenged by an outsider”, Gollum (251) – but doesn’t Mordor dominate, with Frodo as the challenger? Gehl reads racially where moral analysis is called for: he terms the Nazgûl a “genetic perversion” of humankind, with Gollum “blackened by Sauron’s power” as a “miscegenated foil” for the hobbits (258). His conclusion completely misreads Tolkien: in “the rise of Men”, Gehl sees the marginalization of Orcs (264), but not the loss of Elves. Dissenting opinions are either dismissed out of hand (Patrick Curry, Sandra Straubhaar) or not mentioned (Christine Chism, Anderson Rearick).

Anna Fåhraeus finds antecedents for Tolkien’s ideas about death and decay in the Richard plays. Imagery in Clarence’s dream suggests the Dead Marshes and the Ringwraiths, while language in Gaunt’s speech evokes Númenor. Lisa Hopkins notes similarities between Gollum and Caliban, particularly as Shakespeare’s “monster” has been interpreted in light of evolutionary theory. She also touches on novels by Shelley, Stoker, Haggard, Buchan, and Huxley. Both essays need some correction: Sméagol and Déagol don’t fight in a boat (271). Morgoth not Sauron is defeated as the First Age ends (273). Men awake but do not “arrive” (in Beleriand) when the Sun first rises (276). A remark by Pippin is attributed to Sam (290). There is a confusing reference to the “lost language of Númenor” (285). And Buchan’s use of “Mirkwood” came too late, in 1941, to influence Tolkien (287).

In the collection’s final entry, Charles Keim analyzes Gollum’s “Slinker” and “Stinker” personas and suggests their division was influenced by Othello’s final scene. Keim is careless with the textual history of The Hobbit, struggles with Tolkien’s geography, and misreads Othello’s circumcision as evidence of his conversion to Christianity (299, 302).

The cover illustration is probably supposed to represent Dunsinane Castle. Croft’s index, like her introduction, is good. Infrequent typos include “Sare Hole” for “Sarehole” (62), “in media res” for “in medias res” (134), “Ilthilien” for “Ithilien” (144), and “Smégol” for “Sméagol” (271). Factual errors are more common. In addition to those noted above, some writers confuse Tolkien’s books with Peter Jackson’s films (which are regularly cited, usually to no advantage). So Gehl describes “Gollum’s screams of ‘Baggins’ and ‘Shire’” (263). Keim mentions occasions when Gollum “casts the stones at Sam” (302). Riga claims Gandalf won’t “even touch the Ring” (210). And Fåhraeus has the hobbits go straight from the Ferry to the Pony (271). But the main problem with Tolkien and Shakespeare is that most of its essays are neither thorough enough to convincingly show that Shakespeare is Tolkien’s source, nor expansive enough to demonstrate why comparison between their works was needed.


Tolkien and Shakespeare: Essays on Shared Themes and Language. Ed. Janet Brennan Croft. Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland & Company, 2007. ISBN 978-0-7864-2827-4. tp, 327 pp., $35.00.

Buy Online