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Yonder Shakespeare

In response to:

New Bards for Old from the November 6, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

I thought Robert M. Adams’ account of my book, Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets, was more or less fair, but I am puzzled by his complaint that “Fineman nowhere substantiates his claim for invention by close comparison with any of Shakespeare’s predecessors; nor, more remarkably, is any later period, author, or poem indicated where one might look for some evidence of, or parallel to, Shakespeare’s new concept of poetic subjectivity. Did it bear fruit in Donne, Pope, Shelley, Browning, or W.H. Auden? Nobody in fact paid much attention to the sonnets until the end of the eighteenth century; ‘subjectivity’ was not an English word until 1821. So the ontological nature of this invention which nobody noticed or named or in any way recognized for two hundred-plus years after it was made might have been worth defining.”

Quite apart from the fact that the book pays considerable attention to at least a few authors prior to Shakespeare, I am puzzled by these remarks because it is the book’s explicit and insistent claim that in his sonnets Shakespeare invented, by which the book means he came upon, a literary subjectivity whose formation and psychologistic content are, for strictly formal reasons, stringently determined by the waning of the poetics and poetry of praise; the book argues that Shakespearean subjectivity, and the historical response thereto, amounts to a predetermined consequence of the conclusion of a tradition of epideictic literariness associated, from antiquity to the Renaissance, with the literary as such. I regret that my book on Shakespeare’s sonnets fails to consider in detail the history of poetry subsequent to Shakespeare, but the book’s frankly formalist approach makes very clear what kind of post-Shakespearean influence it attributes to the invention of Shakespearean subjectivity; the following, on pages 299–300, specifically addresses Mr. Adams’ complaint:

I have suggested that to the extent that Shakespeare’s sonnets mark the historical conclusion of the tradition of epideictic poetics, to that extent the postepideictic subject of a “perjur’d eye” becomes the governing model of literary subjectivity in literature successive to Shakespeare.

To say that Shakespearean subjectivity is the governing model for subjectivity in literature after Shakespeare is not to say, at least not to say in any simple way, that this is the only instance or type of characterology that can be discovered in literature after Shakespeare. The point is not that authors who come after Shakespeare all read Shakespeare’s sonnets and then proceed, when writing, to copy what they read (and here it should be mentioned that, at least up through Malone’s edition, Shakespeare’s sonnets appear to have been pretty much ignored). Rather, the claim is that Shakespeare in his sonnets draws—and not accidentally at the level of characterology—a fully literary response to the conclusion of the poetry of praise, a response that is fully “literary” because the only response to its demise that the perennial tradition of epideictic literariness can continue fully to support even after its conclusion.

This is why it is important to insist upon what I have called specifically literary exigencies that begin before and continue after Shakespeare, for such exigencies explain why Shakespearean characterology has established itself as something uniquely authoritative in the literary history that begins in the early modern period. This also suggests why strong writers who come after Shakespeare, even those authors who might not have read Shakespeare’s sonnets, would still be very much affected by the subject of a “perjur’d eye.” This Shakespearean subjectivity is authoritative and governing in the sense that, after the poetry of praise, it remains uniquely literary. For this reason, whatever other subjectivities authors might generate in literature after Shakespeare, these subjectivities will be conceived through this Shakespearean subject which functions as a necessary paradigm of literary character, as a master placeholder of literary person, in the aftermath of idealism.

Alternative subjectivities may perhaps be written in reaction to the Shakespearean; they may be imagined as attempts to exceed or to deny the Shakespearean. Nevertheless, to the extent that they are themselves literary, these post-Shakespearean experiments will measure themselves by, and will be measured by, the characterological literary norm to which Shakespeare in his sonnets gives substantial form. This is a norm that, even if Shakespeare had never written his sonnets, would still, as something virtual, control and constrain the subjective possibilities of any literature that understands itself historically to succeed the poetry of praise. It further follows that any literature that understands itself to be yet further successive to this Shakespearean succession, any literature that understands itself to be different in kind from Shakespearean literariness, will be obliged radically to rewrite the themes, tropes, images and self-conception of literature, to rewrite them, however, to a point at which, on its own terms, practically as well as theoretically, such literature would understand itself to be extraliterary.

To claim that Shakespeare’s sonnets would have exerted the same historical influence even if they had never been written may seem paradoxical, but, like it or not, that is the central thesis of the book; so too, this account of the posthumous power of the poetry of praise defines what Adams calls the “ontological nature” of the Shakespearean invention with which the book is concerned. In a forthcoming book, on Shakespeare’s plays and narrative poems, I attempt to explain why these formalist exigencies are realized at a specific historical moment, under particular historical circumstances, and with particular historical results; in this new book, called Shakespeare’s Will, I discuss post-Shakespearean literariness in more detail.

Joel Fineman

University of California,

Berkeley, California

Robert M Adams replies:

When Paul Siegel describes the Richard III portrayed by Shakespeare as a despicable bourgeois, and interweaves that description with the Communist Manifesto‘s denunciations of the iniquitous international bourgeoisie, what is he doing but implying parallel analyses of the same phenomenon? If he means something else, he is remarkably chary of saying so.

In calling his Marxism intermittent in its application, I meant that the book contained a monstrous deal of inert matter in proportion to the amount of interpretive analysis. Perhaps the same thing could be said of Trotsky; I do not know.

Against the charge of reaching unremarkable conclusions, Siegel’s defense is that they are so old-fashioned as to be positively revolutionary. You could call the glass of water half full or half empty.

I am grateful to Joel Fineman for having quoted himself at greater length than, in an omnibus review, I could venture to do; he gives an excellent idea of what his reader is up against.

When he says that Shakespeare in the sonnets (but he really means sonnets 127–152) draws the only response to the demise of the poetry of praise (I abbreviate radically from his letter). I continue to feel he should have given a sample analysis or two. Milton’s Lycidas and Shelley’s Adonais (two poems taken at random) sound to my ear much more like the poetry of praise familiar from Sidney and Spenser than like the Dark Lady sonnets. A critical demonstration might change my mind, but Fineman doesn’t attempt it.

It was too kind of him to leave me that opening about the historical influence of Shakespeare’s sonnets “even if they had never been written.” But who can resist it? I look forward to an extensive, detailed, and I hope more readable volume about the influence exerted on English drama by all the plays that Shakespeare didn’t write. It’s a spacious subject.

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