Virginia Woolf from her essay “On Being Ill” (1926)
Rashness is one of the properties of illness—outlaws, that we are—and it is rashness that we chiefly need in reading Shakespeare. It is not that we should doff the intelligence in reading him, but that fully conscious and aware his fame intimidates us, and all the books of all the critics dull in us that thunder clap of conviction that nothing stands between us and him, which, if an illusion, is still so helpful an illusion, so prodigious a pleasure, so keen a stimulus in reading the great. Shakespeare is getting flyblown; a paternal government might well forbid writing about him, as they put his monument at Stratford beyond the reach of scribbling pencils. With all this buzz of criticism about, one may hazard one’s knowing that someone has said it before, or said it better, the zest is gone. Illness in its kingly sublimity sweeps all that aside, leaves nothing but Shakespeare and oneself, and what with his overweening power, our overweening, arrogance, the barriers go down, the knots run smooth, the brain rings and resounds with Lear or Macbeth, and even Coleridge himself squeaks like a distant mouse.
Of all the plays and even of the sonnets this is true; it is Hamlet that is the exception. Hamlet one reads once only in one’s life, between the ages of twenty and twenty-five. Then one is Hamlet, one is youth; as, to make a clean breast of it, Hamlet is Shakespeare, is youth. And how can one explain what one is? One can but be it. Thus forced always to look back or sidelong at his own past the critic sees something moving and vanishing in Hamlet, as in a glass one sees the reflection of oneself, and it is this which, while it gives an everlasting variety to the play, forbids us to feel, as with Lear or Macbeth, that the centre is solid and holds firm whatever our successive readings lay upon it.
- quoted in Stay, Illusion! The Hamlet Doctrine by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster