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The Shakespearian Rag

Shakespeare Our Contemporary

by Jan Kott, Translated from the Polish by Boleslaw Taborski, with an Introduction by Martin Esslin
Doubleday, 241 pp., $4.50

A year or so ago, the name of Jan Kott began to appear in English theater programs. Peter Hall quoted liberally from Kott in his notes on the Stratford version of the early history plays of Shakespeare; and Peter Brook’s Lear, seen not long ago in New York, was avowedly indebted to Kott’s essay on the play.

Certainly it is unusual for the speculations of a professor of literature to have so immediate an impact on the public stages; and to have attended with such enthusiasm to the bidding of a Shakespearian scholar may well ease the conscience of the directors. Unfortunately they show signs of being factious about it; the mood is well represented by Mary McCarthy, who has joined the Kott party and has herself written, shall we say, unstuffily on Macbeth, when she remarks that Kott makes “Anglo-Saxon Shakespeare criticism of the last twenty-five years seem smug and stuffy.” In fact the pre-publication puffs, or rather blasts, for Kott’s book suggest that he is to be sharply distinguished from other writers on Shakespeare, not for his learning but because as a Polish ex-Stalinist he has seen a world in which the flesh hates what it gets and the modern machiavel sends out his murderers before dawn. Possibly because this is a harder position to maintain than may at first sight appear, the champions of Kott have invented, as a comic antithesis to him, a sort of ivy-clad professor-figure, a dismal antiquary cut off from the world and myopically engrossed in microscopic investigations of texts he can’t hope to penetrate. There may be a few of these types left, say in Oxford, but hardly enough to justify this myth-making; and in any case it is wrong, simply because you like Kott, to neglect all the other estimable achievements of Shakespeare criticism in this century, much of it by men who have given the subject more time and effort than he has, and who are quite unlikely to be uniformly imperceptive (as their frequent anticipations of Kott may be held to confirm). The purpose of this preamble is not of course to defend professors, but simply to say that knocking them has no relevance to the defense of Kott, unless you wish to conceal the fact that the most interesting material in Kott’s book is often not particularly original. It may be added that what is most original in his book is, in my opinion, for the most part useless and sometimes harmful, or would be if anybody really took it seriously.

Writing with much energy and enthusiasm in prose which, if the translation is fair, could be described as excitedly banal, Mr. Kott appears, broadly speaking, to rely on two methods. The first is to treat Shakespeare as very up-to-date and especially meaningful to anybody who has experienced totalitarian politics. Thus Hastings, in Richard III, is less a medieval or Elizabethan politician who was outwitted and lost his head, than a Stalinist over-reached, a Beria. The second method is—strangely, perhaps, considering the nature of the first—historical. Kott’s history is founded on the popular myth that the Renaissance was a sort of second Fall of Man, and it involves him in the large assumption that Shakespeare was worried about Copernicus and Galileo. There is nothing original about either of these methods; the second has the disadvantage of resting on error; and to use the two in combination would call, I suppose, for a methodological delicacy which I cannot imagine, and which is certainly not provided in this book. It follows that there is much more distortion than interpretation in Kott’s essays—a consequence which would not necessarily lose the author the support of Mr. Hall and Mr. Brook. I hope that when these most gifted men read Kott’s absurd essays on The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream they looked back at their own productions of these plays and marveled that this new man had managed quite easily to be even more preposterous than they.

We must never, of course, revoke the liberty of interpreting. It is a liberty cherished by scholars, who in fact defined it, as well as by directors. Modern Shakespearian criticism—though you could not guess this from Esslin’s Introduction—has freely used it. There is even a tradition to sanctify free fantasy or rhapsody based on plays or characters. But the use of criticism is different; it is to make available insights into meanings and relationships proper to the plays, not to make the plays themes for variations. There is a license as well as a liberty of interpreting; license gives the critic or fantasist rights over the poet and produces versions which can live only at the expense of more humbly probable readings. The line may be hard to draw, but it certainly exists, and it is frequently crossed, sometimes very obviously (as when The Tempest is read as an allegory of French politics or as a Masonic rite) and sometimes with more finesse, as when Measure for Measure is shown to be a very schematic allegory of providence and redemption, with Lucio of all people as the devil himself; or when Silvia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona is dressed up as Intellectual Beauty. These instances happen to be drawn from the work, deplorable as I see it, of professors. There is no lack of license among the ivy-clad. But there has also been liberty well used; nobody who knew anything about it could characterize Shakespeare criticism since 1930 as timid or minute, though Mr. Esslin does so. As to Mr. Kott, he may be a freedom-loving Polish man of the theater but he can also be one more licentious professor. His Polish viewpoint is perfectly valid, to be sure, and there is no reason why it should not afford insights; but the originality of his work has been exaggerated; what he does is not invariably done well; and he is much given to license.

The book opens with some over-excited essays on the history plays. They strike me as radically muddled; for example, Kott finds in the Henry VI Richard III sequence a total freedom “from any vulgar telelogical conception,” but repeatedly describes these plays as devoted to a study of what he calls the Grand Mechanism of history. This Grand Mechanism, he suggests, may be thought of as operating a Grand Staircase, so that one thinks of a sort of escalator on which kings move up and topple over. This is a Grand Banality. Kott tells us that Shakespeare saw history as dark, impenetrable, dense, absurd; and that he viewed its “implacable mechanism without medieval awe.” Yet the one thing every professor and indeed every undergraduate knows (which does not in itself make it false) about these plays is that Richard III was not deposed by another power-crazy king or a malign historical mechanism, but by Henry Tudor with God’s support. So far as you can say anything about the historiographical assumptions of the plays you have to admit that they include unmistakable references to the official view, which was that Henry’s accession ended the century of bloodshed which followed the deposition of Richard II, the last unchallengeable legitimate incumbent, and that everybody ought to be pleased to have Henry’s granddaughter still on the throne. If you think this is not so—and it certainly isn’t the whole truth—then the onus is on you to prove it mistaken. Kott simply goes on about his Staircase (and at one point even credits Shakespeare with the figure). This is what I mean by license.

In his need to see the Histories from one conveniently narrow angle, Kott makes less of the later series, not knowing what to do with Falstaff, whom he treats rather as an unhappy interruption of history as he likes to see it: a nightmare of unintelligible battles, casual slaughters, blackness, absurdity. At its worst, this gives one a theatrical vision which has more in common with Beyond the Fringe than with anything serious; though there was a great deal to admire in the Stratford Henry VI and Edward IV, which were Kottian. The truth seems to be that anything which will persuade a director that Shakespeare is not fundamentally boring and incompetent helps. And yet the truth suffers in the end by a failure to take into account what may seem tediously self-evident, unmodern. Kott, to mention a trivial instance of a sacrifice of truth to modernity, wants to make Richard III absurd in a dignified, modern way, so says that he is a kind of clown, a kingly buffoon, but that this truth lay hidden until recently revealed by the Polish actor Woszczrowicz. This will surprise thousands of people who have seen Sir Donald Wolfit in the part and rightly regarded his playing as traditional. This isn’t a quibble; Kott and his supporters, in converting Shakespeare to the modern Absurd, are saving him from imaginary dangers of dullness by largely imaginary discoveries.

Everybody has some right to speak strangely of Hamlet, as it is a principal characteristic of the play that it encourages, or anyway is patient of, such liberties. Kott emphasizes, as others have done before him, the strange open-endedness of the part of Fortinbras; and the penetration of the plot by espials, lawful and unlawful. So far, so good, even if familiar. But Kott leaves almost everything out of Hamlet in order to defend such positions as that Hamlet is a bit like James Dean (a harmless fancy, if not involved in some pretentious philosophical generalization). And there are self-evident objections to a view of Hamlet as so primitive that he is positively incapable of reflection; on the stage the consequence of such a theory is a performance like the one Kott saw and admired in Cracow: it left out all the soliloquies.

And so it goes on. On Troilus and Cressida Kott says, with his own emphasis, useful things about the play’s quasi-philosophical investigation of a theory of value; they had been said, more thoroughly and more temperately, before. Then comes the leap into “originality”—a palpably silly notion that the Trojans are Spaniards and the Greeks Englishmen. This is the second, or historical, approach in action. There is no suggestion that this is mere fantasy, like Browning’s Caliban or Renan’s; it is flatly proposed as history. On Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Corialanus there is nothing here that should be taken as both new and valid.

But the worst essays are on The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The first of these is a long set-piece which is marked by futile fantasies, extravagances, and evasions of a kind perfectly familiar to anybody who has ever visited the vast dark underworld of Shakespeare criticism, and especially Tempest criticism. Here are the remarkable parallels, this time with Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo, which are not parallel or merely commonplace. Here is the scholar’s caution (“Had Shakespeare heard of Leonardo? We do not know. He may have—from Ben Jonson…”). Here is the usual evasion of the obvious, as when Kott calls Prospero’s farewell to magic a “remote travesty” of the lines in Ovid which it paraphrases with unique fidelity (he wants it to be about Leonardo). Here is the misrepresentation of all earlier criticism to make one’s own version seem more strikingly original: Kott suggests that everybody before him treated the play as calm and idyllic, Arcadian. The valuable elements in this piece—about the recapitulatory and many-layered structure of the play—are not new, but acknowledgements of past achievements are reduced to the sort of thing that enhances the air of travesty his kind of writing always has: “Caliban—as Allardyce Nicoll has rightly pointed out—speaks in verse.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a wonderful play with a serious comic theme, and Mr. Kott is to be congratulated on noticing this, as Mr. Hall did not. Let us admit that there remains much to be said about it, and that Edgar Wind’s book Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance (employed by Kott, as it has been by others) can be of help. Is the play what Kott calls it, a study in “total eroticism”? The answer is a dubious affirmative, dubious because this way of putting it already seems at odds with the tone of the play, and one fears that commentary will end and fantasy begin. It does. The play is called “violent.” Whereas what it does is very delicately to put in circulation the possibly violent ends of violent delights; quick bright things come to confusion, but not here in the comedy, only in the Pyramus and Thisbe story, which is accordingly represented as an alternative ending and rejected as farcically out of key. Kott the historian assumes that the Dream was written for a wedding, but Kott the Absurdist calls it cruel and scatological, seeing the court of Titania as made up of “old men and women, toothless and shaking, their mouths wet with saliva, who sniggering procure a monster for their mistress.” He speaks of the Pyramus story as if it were written in tragic blank verse. Only if he were the first critic to treat the play as philosophically serious would this essay be worth anybody’s attention; and he is not.

Kott’s most famous essay is the one called “King Lear or Endgame,” and it seems fair to end a review of this much-praised book by referring to it. It opens characteristically with an entirely unacceptable account of former criticism; an unacknowledged allusion to Bradley, whose book is now sixty years old, serves as a summary of modern commentary on Lear, and this enables the author to say that the play seems to have lost its relevance to modern life and that he will restore it. The truth is rather that Lear has for a generation or so occupied the position of eminence among the tragedies formerly reserved for Hamlet. Yet in what follows Kott is undoubtedly at his best. He argues that since tragedy involves relations with some absolute, a dramatic record of human suffering without such relations is not so much tragic as what he calls grotesque, or Absurd; and, as is well known, he relates the grotesquerie of Lear to that of the modern theater, and notably to Beckett’s.

An unwary reader, seeing here a footnote allusion to G. Wilson Knight’s essay “King Lear and the Comedy of the Grotesque,” might be misled by the date given (1957) into supposing that Kott and Knight had written at much the same time, but Knight’s essay appeared in The Wheel of Fire in 1930, and has been widely read ever since; one could say its ideas had long ago passed into the mainstream of criticism; in a sense they, and others of the same kind, helped to prepare the stage for Beckett. The novelty of Kott’s piece is more a matter of presentation than substance. Nevertheless, he made his impact, and deserved to.

It would be a harsh test for any critic to examine him at work on what is perhaps the greatest scene in all drama, the encounter between Lear and Gloucester, the mad and the blind, in the Fourth Act of Lear. This is the very limit of Shakespeare’s power, or perhaps it is beyond that limit and in the territory where, by a sort of abandonment of himself to his own genius, a man attracts the maximum of luck or grace. Kott has the merit of visualizing this scene as strictly theatrical, and insisting on its undecorated pantomime; here Mr. Brook was able to improve on his hints. Yet Kott misses much of the power of the scene; others have done a much better job of conveying it. And he is tempted by his own theories into providing an inaccurate interpretation of Gloucester’s suicide speech.

For the rest, as when he enlarges on the allusions to the Book of Job, or the pervasive influence of traditional fool and folly materials, he is not saying something new so much as distorting something well-known. The reading of the Gloster plot as a kind of education in patience was most successfully transferred to the stage in Mr. Brook’s production; but it is an old idea, and Kott seems not really to understand it. In short, the Lear piece has many of the defects of the others—rhetorical extravagance, muddled method, failure to profit by other insights, a weakness for striking but improbable historical parallels and inferences. Yet it is much the best of all the essays, and the only one with much chance of a permanent place in the canon of Shakespeare criticism.

I have put the case against this book with what might seem hostile emphasis, but it seemed necessary to do so because the clamor of its supporters might disarm criticism. This book could be a nuisance. Not, of course, that it can do Shakespeare any harm, he has taken far worse punishment than this—the danger is simply that people who would like to be given a good modern book on the tragedies, by a man alive to the modern theater and the modern world, might be persuaded that this is it. It isn’t.

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