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Man of Many Lives studied the plays having forgotten there was such a man. He had read Georg Brandes’s recent study of Shakespeare which he described as ‘the ablest of Shakespeare’s commentaries’, though Kingsmill noted that he made ‘no acknowledgement of his obvious debt to him’. Despite Harris’s imperfections Kingsmill’s book ends with his strengths.

The finest passage in his writings is where he passes in review the spokesmen of Shakespeare’s sadness or despair: Richard II sounding the shallow vanity of man’s desires, the futility of man’s hopes; Brutus taking an everlasting farewell of his friend and going willingly to his rest; Hamlet desiring unsentient death; Vincentio turning to sleep from life’s deceptions; Lear with his shrieks of pain and pitiful ravings; Macbeth crying from the outer darkness. Kingsmill’s biography is neither adulation nor an attack. Out of his candid recognition of weakness, Rebecca West wrote, ‘there comes a living portrait which has made at least one reader who found Frank Harris’s personality violently antipathetic understand why a great many people adored him and forgave him’.

MICHAEL HOLROYD’s first book, politely turned down by fifteen publishers, was Hugh Kingsmill (1964).


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