What Shakespeare Read-and Thought
Shakespeare and Tragedy
Of making many Shakespeares there is no end; and in every image of Shakespeare as it takes form there is the potential for blotting out or blurring some part of every other Shakespeare. The more opaque and substantial we make the man from Stratford (b. 1564, d. 1616), the less we are likely to understand some of the other Shakespeares who speak to us from the texts of the plays. Like the material surviving from ancient Rome, the biographical material surviving from 400 years ago is mostly hardware, limited in quantity but even more in quality. It consists of contracts, leases, formal documents; of occasional allusions in the plays to things read in books and public events. At its outer fringes, the material relies on conjecture, more or less probable, about personal relationships.
Out of these materials A.L. Rowse, in What Shakespeare Read—and Thought, has compounded his image of Shakespeare. The picture he presents is that of an alert stage journalist, responding to the latest public scandals, or to the most recent book at which he has glanced—always to the stimulus closest to hand. To the extent that Shakespeare has an identity of his own, it is that of a conservative, patriotic, heterosexual Anglican businessman. He has a good ear, excellent training in the theater, a talent for expressing the commonplaces of the age, and a minimum of general ideas—not even great powers of introspection or reflection. The more closely Rowse can tie Shakespeare’s work to the current events of his time, the more confident he is of having captured the “real” Shakespeare; and he is nothing if not confident.
To be sure, one notes that in constructing his image of Shakespeare, Rowse doesn’t flinch from the oldest of errors, attributing the sentiments of characters in the plays to the author. As a candidate for the Friend in the sonnets, he ignores the Earl of Pembroke as an alternative to Southampton and equally ignores Chapman as an alternative to Marlowe for the Rival Poet. He accepts popular traditions when they make for some part of his case, and ignores obvious facts when they don’t. His great achievement on these lines is to sketch the biography of the dramatist without mentioning the name of his wife, or even acknowledging her existence, except so far as children must be presumed to have a mother. On the other hand, his identification of the Dark Lady, though completely hypothetical, is given central importance—and not in a meeching, suggestive way. For Rowse it is an established, unquestionable fact.
More important, though less curious, is the fact that Rowse’s book consists almost entirely of details gleaned long ago by other avid gleaners. Though no allusion is made to them, the two volumes of Shakespeare’s England and the 1898 biography by Sir Sidney Lee would probably furnish 90 percent of the materials for the present book. This is inevitable; Shakespeare had no Boswell to present the intimate, revealing details of his private life, and he left no diary to record, as Gide recorded, the genesis and growth of his work. The few hard facts that survive have been used over and over again in accounts of Shakespeare since the seventeenth century. They are boring in their familiarity, boring in their import, i.e., in the image of Shakespeare they establish, boring even to A.L. Rowse as he sets them forth.
What Shakespeare Read—and Thought is in fact a perfunctory and tired book. Occasionally it summarizes, more often it simply alludes to, the commonplaces of the historical record; when these fail, the author resorts to paraphrasing the plots of plays, airing his political prejudices, and occasionally snorting a bit at presumptuous critics who disagree with his evaluations. Such novelties as crop up occasionally are rehashings of Rowse’s own previous books. But it is heavy work. Hotson (not even granted a first name) has built “a crazy edifice of conjecture” (p. 43) on a certain legal document; but what this edifice is and why it’s so crazy Rowse’s readers shouldn’t even want to inquire. “Hence, rotten thing!” cries Coriolanus. Though the book is written on a very elementary level, as if for novices, there’s a great deal of casual allusion to Shakespearean phrases never identified by source, to critical opinions too well known to be explained, to historical personages and events so familiar as to need no context. The book sometimes sounds like a man talking to himself.
Comic relief is to be found in the preface, where Rowse assumes the role of miles gloriosus with a fine extravagance not seen since an American scholar published a selection of Shakespeare’s plays—with a portrait of the scholar at the front of the volume! Rowse here declares that he has solved all the problems of Shakespearean biography, and that his solution is “completely unanswerable.” Ordinary minds, he grandly declares, won’t grasp the new ideas for about a generation; by an analogy which would scarcely have occurred to one less inspired, he compares himself to Sir William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood. Indeed, he concedes, “when I first began work [on the Bard] it was not so clear to me that I should be giving the study of Shakespeare a revolutionary new impetus. But that is how it has providentially worked out, and I am duly grateful” Providence no doubt has much to answer for; but it can only have been the Spirit of Comedy herself who arranged for this statement of ringing egotism to stand at the head of such a drab little book.
John Bayley’s is, I suppose, one of the “ordinary minds” whom Rowse scorns as typical of “the Shakespeare industry.” His new book, Shakespeare and Tragedy, is the subtlest and most steadily enlightening piece of literary discussion that I’ve encountered in a long time. It is a work of the highest imaginative quality, unpretentious in its methods, and rich in literary sensitivity. By emphasizing its literary qualities, I mean that it deals undeviatingly with the plays, their language, the quality of the minds represented in them, and the responses to those imagined persons that Shakespeare is able to evoke from us. Bayley’s image of Shakespeare is not incompatible with most of the traditional biographical facts, but the way to understand this dramatist is not to look for the closest possible influence from his reading, his personal life, or current events, it is through an appreciation of his active imagination. One can’t possibly suppose that a man who molded the words and acts of his plays as subtly and freely as Bayley convinces us he did could have been the simple instrument of exterior influences that Rowse describes.
Broadly speaking, Bayley argues that Shakespeare engaged the concept of tragedy in several different ways, which he distinguishes as tragedies of consciousness (Macbeth, Othello) and tragedies of construction (Julius Caesar,Coriolanus), with some mixed and heterogeneous instances and a down-right failure or two. But these broad divisions are no more than the skeleton of the argument. When he points out the strong elements of farce latent in Othello, or the paradox by which the open Hamlet must act covertly while the devious Claudius can act with specious frankness, Bayley isn’t so much telling us something earthshakingly new as reminding us of subliminal impressions by which we’ve already been touched but may not have fully recognized in the plays. He articulates the hollow, repetitive quality in the diction of Timon that we likely sensed without fully defining it. When he says of Cordelia that she is not right for her situation, “in the sense that she is not the kind of character who can make plain that a situation is going on, and of what kind” (pp. 37–38), he makes clear why so many stereotypes have been imposed on this character who steadfastly refuses to play a role. In a thousand different nuances and subtleties of perception, Bayley presses one to reformulate intuitions about the patterns of Shakespeare’s plays and their relation to possible structures of tragedy.
His commentary doesn’t involve immediate sympathetic reactions or judgments, lyric “appreciations,” or moral paraphrase; rather, it moves directly at the way the plays work, especially the relation between characters and their roles, and the multiple functions of language, which can as easily draw us into the consciousness of the speaker as keep us apart from it, or, sometimes, create outside the play another world entirely. These are uneven motions to follow; within individual essays the line of Bayley’s development seems to be not linear but branching. I’ve described his methodology as unpretentious. By contemporary standards it’s self-effacing, appearing at times no more than shrewd, intense, sustained, and half-directed talk. The trap for a book like this is mere chat, easy clichés or easy triumphs over easy clichés. None of that here; the arguments are taut, the prose lean. Allusions to the scholarship are made only for good cause and are therefore sparse, but the discussions are fully informed where they have to be—for example, about the Elizabethan audience and the backgrounds of the texts. There’s little waste motion in the book, and few passages of any length where one’s mind isn’t widened to some aspect of Shakespeare in his dealings with tragedy.
King Lear, since it’s the first of the plays to be discussed and in some ways the most complex, may serve as an example of Bayley’s approach. He begins with the passage (IV,vi) in which the disguised Edgar has led his blinded father Gloucester to the peak of Dover cliff, and pauses to describe the view. The sense of lucid, exhilarating space in these lines, from which Gloucester, buried in the misery of his blindness, is hopelessly excluded, suggests a larger concept—that the tragedy takes place in an inappropriate world, not macabre, just ungainly and unsuitable. Thus neither Lear nor Gloucester nor Edgar nor Cordelia can speak the right words or perform the right, inevitable actions, as Brutus does in the last scenes of Julius Caesar. They are too hurried, too buried, too oblique. They say marvelous things, but almost in passing; they don’t summarize themselves. Hence the familiar formulas like “redemption through love,” “titanic sublimity,” “ultimate cruelty,” and the demonic comic grotesque all fall flat before the actual tonalities of the text. The characters have no backgrounds, no perceptible futures; they lack that translucency which enables us—requires us—to see the world through the eyes of Macbeth.
Lear has cast himself for a role in the wrong play, and Cordelia refuses to play roles at all; to say that she isn’t a character in a play might imply a transcendent measure of theatrical “naturalness,” i.e., art; but that isn’t it either. She is not properly of or in the play at all—as devoid of studied human eloquence as an angel might be. And thus Lear is seen as a play in which things fall apart, people fail to make contact with one another, actions get out of hand. This isn’t what the play is “about,” but it’s a condition of everything that happens in it. The exuberance of the sight from Dover cliff is outside the tragedy; so is the subduing of the cold, wet, miserable Fool, the anguish of Cordelia dead, the brisk and careless way in which Edmund scatters evil about him.
One could say Bayley sees the full text with all its essential impressions as a loose envelope over a tragic fable, which fits loosely over a family situation whose full violence and reticence are properly unactable. It is a play, he suggests, of unjoined tatters and potent vacancies, not dominated by a single consciousness or a single theme, without purposeful coherence. Because he is parsimonious with his value judgments, I’m not sure that Bayley would subscribe to a conclusion that seems to grow from his premises—that Lear is the most elemental of the tragedies, the one that confronts most nakedly and with fewest literary trappings our sense of awe at the world and the human condition. It’s a conclusion I find hard to resist.
Careful critical analyses aren’t easily compressed into a few sentences, and I’ve deformed Bayley’s version of Lear in trying to give a brief account of it. As with all proper literary analysis, this one includes a large element of the speculative and hypothetical. Incidental comments are apt to be no less suggestive than major theses, and the alert reader will frequently profit from Bayley’s statement of a case, even when it doesn’t fully answer to his own experience of the text. Quiet observations repeatedly strengthen the argument. “Shakespeare’s instinct, in a tragic setting, seems always to be to work through characters who in one way or another are unsuited to the action, its conventions, its atmosphere” (p. 64). Of Troilus and Cressida: “The styles and aspects of the play eat each other, instead of settling down together” (p. 109). About Antony and Cleopatra: “The current of the play is indeed tidal, bearing those who are at its disposal forward and backward” (pp. 135–136). In Hamlet, “what is not seen in the play is quite normal and innocent, the kind of innocence that extends to Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius, and his relations with her. Outside the old king’s murder, everything else in the play is good and normal” (pp. 173–174). So much for idle speculations about what may have happened between Hamlet and Ophelia.
For sheer compressed and gymnastic analysis, there’s nothing in the book quite to equal the few pages (184–200) devoted to Macbeth. At one point Bayley considers Lady Macbeth’s speech beginning, “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be / What thou art promised”:
The remarkable thing about her speech, whose tone is as typical of her, and the certain sort of literalness which reveals her mental process, as his homely suavity is of Claudius, is that her picture of Macbeth has a curious irrelevance: she is not talking about the real consciousness with which we are becoming intimate. To her he is a man who is afraid to try getting what he very much wants. That is a diagram drawn by a moral idiot, but, more important, it indicates the gap between them, a gap which their deep and backward-reaching intimacy, so much stressed in the text (“My dearest partner—my dearest love”) does nothing to bridge.
Othello, which also lets us into the consciousness of the chief character and then refuses to let us out, is also brilliantly discussed. Like Macbeth, it is a tragedy of mind, but whose mind? Exploration of the question engages us deeply with the play. The account of Hamlet shows good sense but fewer novelties. The Roman plays (Timon, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar) serve to some degree as foils to the tragedies of consciousness. Troilus and Cressida, in which not everybody has recognized a tragedy (it is often associated with All’s Well and Measure for Measure in a semi-category known as “problem plays”), is given a more sympathetic treatment than it and its characters usually get. Romeo and Juliet, for some reason, is not discussed at all.
Shakespeare and Tragedy is not, surely, the book to which one would send a beginning student of Shakespeare; in its critical abstractions and austerities it is a little forbidding. But as a model of what one can responsibly say about the plays—after nearly 400 years and almost as many volumes of criticism—without wasting the reader’s time, the book could be set before anyone. If people are worried about the “Shakespeare industry,” the freshness and economy of this study should demonstrate that it need not turn out routine products.
One sour note has to be struck. Bayley’s book is relatively brief, amounting to but 220 pages of text with no footnotes, no index, and a few pages of selected, lightly descriptive bibliography. To charge $25 in hard cover and $10.95 in paperback for such a book is unconscionable; to put it out with a passage of bitched type like that on page 28 adds insult to injury. For the benefit of anybody who finds the passage as printed absolutely incomprehensible, lines 8 through 10 are supposed to read:
potential of the play as for instance does the sugared pretence and animal practicality of the two sisters, or the gusto of Edmund. Such an acting potential can be very artfully comprehensive in Shakespeare: a
You can paste these lines into your new $25 book, or write them in the margin somewhere. Not very neat, but maybe the best way out of a bad situation. Bayley has written a fine book; his publisher has done it two gross misservices.