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Shakespeare & Co.

In response to:

Shakespeare for the Eighties from the April 28, 1983 issue

To the Editors:

Why does the usually judicious Frank Kermode, in his review [NYR, April 28] of my study of Shakespeare’s sonnets, The Book Known as Q, attribute to me so many opinions I do not hold? For example, he states that I apply the adjective “absurd” to those who are cautious about treating the sonnets “as referring to the poet’s life in just the same way as the poems in, say, Robert Lowell’s Notebook.” My book says (p. viii): “Only a few [sonnets] are” biographical, and my sole use of “absurd” (p. 54) occurs in this context: “It is certainly unwarranted to assume that Shakespeare was disgusted with life because Hamlet was so disgusted … but when [he] uses a sonnet to tell us that ‘my name receives a brand’ because Fortune ‘did not better for my life provide / Than public means which public manners breeds,’ is it unwarranted to conclude that at this moment in his life he is ashamed of his profession [of acting and playwriting]? Only if you believe that poets absolutely never write sonnets about themselves. Adherence to such an absurd belief constitutes the anti-biographical fallacy.” Nowhere of course do I refer to Lowell’s poems.

Mr. Kermode wrongly attributes to me the opinion that George Chapman was a bad poet. I merely state (p. 190) that the four sestiads Chapman wrote for Hero and Leander are inferior to Marlowe’s and that Shakespeare’s description of the Rival Poet as a writer of “great verse” could not apply to Chapman. Surely there’s ample room for Chapman somewhere in the upper reaches of the enormous gap between “bad poet” and “writer of great verse.” Mr. Kermode feels my book shows a “lack of genuine interest in the poems themselves” because I do not analyze every sonnet, but I had neither the space nor desire to do a poem by poem analysis. My opening sentence states that my book is concerned with the discrepancy between the late publication of Q, seven years before Shakespeare’s death, and the circulation of the poems more than eleven years earlier, which the review never mentions.

Mr. Kermode wrongly implies that I swallowed the eighteenth century gossip that Southampton gave Shakespeare one thousand pounds. My text (p. 83): “Whatever the figure may have been, and we shall probably never know, no one seems to dispute the fact that Southampton was a generous patron.” Kermode: “Some of Giroux’s idle and lesser inferences are wrong…. [Sonnet 89] would lose its force if Shakespeare was actually lame.” Text (p. 182): “Most readers, including myself, prefer to regard ‘lame’ and ‘lameness’ as metaphors.” Kermode: “Giroux unfortunately has little good to say [of Stephen Booth’s book].” Text (p. 50): “[Booth’s] book of 578 pages contain[s] subtle and erudite readings of many of the sonnets.”

It is true I don’t subscribe to Mr. Booth’s academic thesis that Shakespeare’s sonnets can be discussed only as literary exercises. If poets who curse their fates, who express anxiety about their names receiving brands, who resent having vulgar scandal stamped upon their brows, who display vanity because they aren’t “featured like him,” who blatantly desire this man’s art and that man’s scope, and who shamelessly beweep their outcast state—if such poets prove so troublesome and messy and such a botheration to the academic mind that their work can be treated only as literary exercises, then perhaps a completer understanding of them should—to use Mr. Kermode’s condescending phrase—be left to “the well-informed layman.”

Robert Giroux

New York, New York

To the Editors:

My attention has been called to Frank Kermode’s remarks on vol. I of my Collected Papers in your issue of April 28, where after suggesting that I made Paul Ricoeur’s book on metaphor responsible for John Barton’s adaptation of Greek myth in The Greeks, he adds “Those who reject the fashionable in toto rarely think it worth their while to find out what it is they are rejecting.”

As I recently shared a weekly seminar with Paul Ricoeur for six months at the National Humanities Center, and have known John Barton for thirty years, perhaps I correlated The Rule of Metaphor (1980) with John Barton’s production in too condensed a way, but without any causal connexion. The irrelevant comment on a word of praise for two friends who are so much more than fashionable must have sprung from the need to shape a review of several books by casting me in the role of the “veteran” Gammer (of) Gurton.

Muriel Bradbrook

Girton College, Cambridge University

Frank Kermode replies:

I am sorry to have fallen in Mr. Giroux’s estimation.

  1. I didn’t say he mentioned Lowell, whom I named as an example of a poet autobiographical in a manner different from any that might be predicated of Shakespeare. Mr. Giroux believes that to make such a distinction is to be the victim of something called the “Antibiographical Fallacy.” However, he is wrong.

  2. Mr. Giroux didn’t say that in his view the quality of Chapman’s verse made him an improbable contender for the part of Rival Poet. He said: “To me it is grotesque to suppose [Shakespeare] might be referring to George Chapman.” That epithet somewhat limits the “ample room” he now speaks of.

  3. I ought to have mentioned the theory about late publication and lack of applause. It is extremely thin and takes little or no account of the perhaps too commonplace explanation of the apparent failure of Thorpe’s enterprise, namely that the vogue for sonnet sequences had ended a dozen or more years earlier.

  4. Southampton’s supposed gift to Shakespeare: what I imply (and rightly) is that Mr. Giroux accepts the eighteenth-century story about a generous donation, merely expressing some doubt about its size.

  5. On Shakespeare’s possible lameness, Mr. Giroux allows that Shakespeare’s acting roles “might have been possible for a lame actor” before judiciously stating that he prefers a metaphorical sense. My point was that a reading of the sonnet that allows the possibility of such a choice is simply wrong.

  6. I concede that Mr. Giroux has a little good to say of Stephen Booth. He says it by way of qualifying his condemnation of Booth when he first mentions him. There is a second allusion, not so qualified. The substance of Booth’s edition is not touched upon, and his book not mentioned. I haven’t made a careful check, but I should be surprised if Mr. Booth ever said that he regards the Sonnets as merely “literary exercises,” and if he did I should want to disagree with him.

  7. Well-informed layman” is complimentary, not condescending.

The Rule of Metaphor (1977, not 1980) is a translation of La Métaphore vive (1975) and so Mr. Barton could have read it before embarking on The Greeks, though it is far from clear that he could have derived anything useful from it, or what the “correlation” might be, other than the accident of Professor Bradbrook’s being acquainted with both Barton and Ricoeur, and wishing to offer them a word of praise. And what about the description of Derrida as an anthropologist? An explanation of that would probably be much more interesting. I know from long and friendly acquaintance that Muriel Bradbrook is an excellent explainer, and am disappointed that she missed this opportunity to demonstrate her powers.

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