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Shakespeare & Co.

Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne: Renaissance Essays

by Frank Kermode
Viking Press, 308 pp., $7.95

The Masks of Othello

by Marvin Rosenberg
University of California, 313 pp., $12.75

The Masks of King Lear

by Marvin Rosenberg
University of California, 431 pp., $13.75

Hero and Saint: Shakespeare and the Graeco-Roman Heroic Tradition

by Reuben A. Brower
Oxford University Press, 440 pp., $10.50

I begin with three quotations. On August 17, 1863, Abraham Lincoln, writing to the actor James Hackett, said:

Some of Shakespeare’s plays I have never read; while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader. Among the latter are Lear, Richard the Third, Henry Eighth, Hamlet, and especially Macbeth. I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful.1

A century or so later James Baldwin, in his striking contribution to the Shakespeare quatercentenary celebrations, described the moment when, as a boy, he suddenly heard a scene from Julius Caesar, heard it as an authentic voice speaking from the past directly to his own present:

Under this light, this revelation, both myself and my past began slowly to open, perhaps the way a flower opens at morning, but, more probably, the way an atrophied muscle begins to function, or frozen fingers to thaw.2

About the same time a decidedly nonacademic boy in a “Further Education” class in England was asked why he read so badly from a modern author when, the previous week, he had read a part in Macbeth with ease and gusto. “Well, Miss,” he replied, incredulous that the question needed to be asked, “Shakespeare kind of fills your sails, like, dunn’e?”

The point of these quotations? Clearly they are from people who—whatever their differences in innate ability—represent the nonprofessionals, people who are not going to lecture on Shakespeare or take higher degrees on some aspect of his work, but who find something in the plays to which, each in his own way, they can respond. In this sense they are common readers; and—directly or ultimately—it is for the sake of the common readers that the critic writes and the teacher teaches. In the last analysis it is for them, and not for fellow professionals, that all the volumes of exegesis and commentary exist.

In the last analysis” is intended to show that I am not being altogether simple-minded. The common reader today is very different from the common reader with whom Dr. Johnson rejoiced to concur. We can no more make his tastes the touchstone of excellence than we can accept the shibboleth of “relevance” in the whole range of academic studies. Some literature, with its appropriate and necessary commentary, is likely in any age to find only a small number of readers; and even the greatest classics—works potentially of the widest appeal—demand the labors of devoted exegetes who write primarily for the community of scholars. We should remember Stuart Hampshire’s warning against a too-simple view of these matters:

It is generally only in retrospect that we can see why a concern that might at the time have seemed marginal, scholastic, academic in the abusive sense of this word, was in fact a working out in apparently alien or even trivial material of an exemplary conflict of values, which had a much wider relevance. There is a law of indirection here: no doubt some literary critics in England have been in a sense right when they claim that we properly come to literature with ultimate questions about what men are to live for, and that serious criticism should invoke these questions. But, I would add, not directly or head-on. When these questions are too directly raised, or when works of the imagination are fingered and tested for directly evident social and moral relevance, we get disastrous dismissals and misunderstandings, and a narrowing of the opening for new possibilities.3

The fact remains however that the greatest works of literature belong not to the professors and researchers but to the world. What, then, of the mass of print turned out by the professionals (according to Kermode there were 1,200 books and articles on Shakespeare in 1962, and the flood isn’t likely to have abated)? Very few outstanding books are popular in the entirely good sense illustrated by, for example, A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy or Harold Goddard’s The Meaning of Shakespeare. Many are necessarily written for a scholarly, a specialist, or a sophisticated audience. But if they are very good books the chances are that they will contain information, stimulus, or suggestion that by devious ways will reach the larger audience that reads or theater-goes simply, as they say, for pleasure—meaning, of course, for some enhancement of life.

Frank Kermode’s recent collection of essays is rather a mixed bag, in both subject and quality: three learned essays on Spenser which are very much for Spenser specialists; an even more learned essay on Chapman’s Ovid’s Banquet of Sense; a perfunctory essay on Donne (by which, to judge by some glaring misprints, the author was too bored to read his proof sheets); an essay on Milton which those who find something uncongenial in that author ought to ponder; and five essays on Shakespeare, also rather uneven. Three of these, however—“The Patience of Shakespeare,” “Survival of the Classic,” and “Shakespeare’s Learning”—are of uncommon interest; and this is partly because, among other matters, Kermode is concerned with the question of what the literary critical industry is all about. Rightly refusing to make too sharp a distinction between “research” and “criticism,” he sees literary criticism—“not only a humble but an uncontrolled and inexact science”—as part of the process by which masterworks are kept alive and, so to speak, turned about to reveal new answers to new questions:

Criticism—conceived as ungrandly as possible—is the medium in which past art survives. It is the activity of the schoolmaster in the classroom, even of people chattering at parties. It is simply the way the news gets about that X, having this or that to be said for him, belongs to what we talk or should care about. At a higher level it may provide ways of talking and caring, adapting the old to our newer requirements, showing that there are aspects of the old which can be dealt with by signalling-systems based on the new. In the respect that now concerns me, that is what criticism does.

The theme is taken up in what is perhaps the best essay in the book, “Survival of the Classic.” Centering on King Lear, it demonstrates “a history of acceptance, avoidance, selection,” so that we come to feel both the necessity and the provisional nature of our own descriptions of the way the play strikes home to us. Formal criticism, in short, is only a small part of the complicated process by which the imaginative life of the past communicates with and nourishes our present. This does not mean that we can disregard past criticism, as though the critics were like the waves in Shakespeare’s poem—“in sequent toil all forwards do contend”—and contemporaneity were the goal: nothing is more fragile than the contemporary. When a great man confronts a great work—Kermode instances Dr. Johnson on King Lear—it does not matter if we feel that he is “wrong”: what matters is that he has been disturbed, and, over the centuries, can communicate his disturbance. Questions from a personal center can challenge us to wrestle in like manner, though not necessarily with like results.

With these questions other characteristics of the classic come into view. Shakespeare’s greater plays offer an apparently limitless range of potentialities, of which only some can be realized by one person or in one age: they “defeat attempts to isolate some determinate meaning”; they are “horizonless.” This does not mean that they are chaoses from which we can pick anything we choose. A work of art is not dream or fantasy—it is made and structured, and in concentrating on the technical task of making, the artist is most likely to tap the deeper sources of unconscious meanings. But a work of art does have something in common with the dream. As Kermode puts it:

…whatever will bear the stress of our demands upon it will, in all probability, be complex, superficially confused, resembling a dream in its condensations and overdeterminations, yet not like a dream in speaking with disarming immediacy to our waking concerns.

It is for these reasons that Lear, for example, “challenges and defeats our power of penetration, and at the same time sustains the demands made of it by all who have wanted and want it to survive.” It is in wanting a work to survive—and taking measures, however humble, to ensure it—that scholars and critics have the sole justification for their labors. Not that they need give themselves airs about it—as Kermode points out, la cour et la ville (or their modern equivalents) have a hand in the process too.

La cour et la ville mean an audience of theatergoers rather than secluded readers—the two categories are not mutually exclusive—and Professor Rosenberg’s The Masks of Othello represents an important line in “academic” Shakespeare studies going back at least to Granville-Barker and much strengthened in recent years. Shakespeare’s plays, the argument runs, are artistic entities “created to be perceived through a fusion of word, sound and action in the theater”; “sight and sound are as essential to the communication of [the] dramatic art object as words.” The argument is salutary, and Rosenberg’s account of “the search for the identity of Othello, Iago and Desdemona by three centuries of actors and critics” (which is the book’s subtitle) gives a good many examples of the way in which a particular reading needs to be checked against experience in the theater: at the least the critic needs a lively “theatrical” imagination.

It isn’t altogether convincing, however. This is partly because the effects which great actors have been capable of producing are often described by their rather crude emotional impact: putting it simply, the man who doesn’t want to cry at the end of a good performance of Othello is probably incapable of understanding the play. But even if, as Blake says, “a tear is an intellectual thing,” Othello is designed to produce rather more than tears. In this book—the second, as we shall see, is another matter—Rosenberg’s notion of what Shakespeare’s plays are capable of doing seems partial and onesided. The power of the plays may be first felt in the interaction, the clash and development of figures whom we can recognize as human beings like ourselves. But behind the action of the characters there is, surely, a psychological and philosophic content that is not exhausted by character analysis and that goes far beyond emotional empathy.

Othello yields more easily to descriptive analysis in fairly simple “human” terms than most of the greater plays, and the book contains some acute remarks on the characters. But even Othello offers a good deal more than a simple tug at the heart strings. There is “magic in the web,” a more universal pattern of humanly important meanings, that has to be discovered in the study before it can even be intimated on the stage.4 Rosenberg says—and quotes—some good things on Iago; but he doesn’t even refer to Coleridge—not much of a theater man—whose acute psychological probing of Iago’s “motive-hunting” starts from a contact with the play which has little to do with the stage but which is as direct and potent as that of any theatergoer.5

  1. 1

    Abraham Lincoln: A Documentary Portrait through his Speeches and Writings, edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher (Signet), p. 237. Lincoln went on to comment shrewdly on a point in Hamlet.

  2. 2

    Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” The Observer Week-end Review (London), April 19, 1964.

  3. 3

    Commitment and Imagination,” The Morality of Scholarship, edited by Max Black (Cornell), p. 51.

  4. 4

    See for example Robert Heilman’s study of the play, Magic in the Web.

  5. 5

    See the brilliant short essay by Elinor S. Shaffer, “Iago’s Malignity Motivated,” Shakespeare Quarterly, XIX, 3, Summer 1968.

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