Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present
Young Hamlet: Essays on Shakespeare’s Tragedies
Myriad-Minded Shakespeare: Essays, Chiefly on the Tragedies and Problem Comedies
Shakespearean Constitutions: Politics, Theatre, Criticism, 17301830
In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, John Heminge and Henry Condell, friends and fellow shareholders in the acting company he had served for most of his working life, put together the first collected edition of his plays. They addressed it “To the great Variety of Readers. From the most able, to him that can but spell.” Heminge and Condell not only expected, they positively welcomed readers of “divers capacities” and, by implication, differing temperaments and social position. They were sure, however, that Shakespeare was an author “whose wit can no more lie hid than it could be lost.” He is to be read “againe, and againe,” and “if then you doe not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger not to understand him.”
Ben Jonson’s famous claim, in the commendatory poem he contributed to the 1623 Folio, that Shakespeare was “not of an age, but for all time,” came to look somewhat dubious during the Restoration. When the theaters reopened, after a hiatus of eighteen years, Beaumont and Fletcher and Jonson himself overshadowed their older contemporary, both for readers and on the stage. Most of those plays by Shakespeare that were still performed required drastic adaptation to render them acceptable to contemporary taste. In Reinventing Shakespeare, Gary Taylor argues that Shakespeare owed the recovery (and, ultimately, the enormous magnification) of his sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century reputation primarily to the London publishing house of Jacob Tonson and his heirs. In 1709, Tonson brought out Nicholas Rowe’s complete edition of the plays. There had been reprints of the First Folio, corrected or with added (mostly spurious) material, in 1632, 1652, and 1685. Rowe’s, however, was the first serious textual reexamination since 1623. It was followed by a series of other editions, all of them associated with the Tonsons, each fiercely critical of its predecessor: Pope’s in 1723, Theobald’s (1733), Warburton’s (1747), Dr. Johnson’s (1765), and Capell’s in 1768.
The Restoration practice of theatrical adaptation had involved Dryden, as well as a number of lesser talents, in the careful reworking of several Shakespeare plays. When, in the eighteenth century, Pope and Johnson also immersed themselves, this time as editors, in the minutiae of his texts, Shakespeare became an important influence upon their own work, as he had been on Dryden’s. The result, in Taylor’s view, was that by the end of the eighteenth century Shakespeare—and with him, “the defense of political and social privilege”—had been “insinuated into the network of English literature.” Like a bad tooth, or a particularly troublesome garden weed, “he could not be extracted without uprooting a century and a half of the national canon.” When a real opportunity presented itself, moreover, it was botched:
Shakespeare was not deposed because George III was not deposed; or, George III was not deposed because Shakespeare was not deposed. From 1790 on, the defense of political and social privilege was justified as a defense of the culture of the English people, and any such defense would inevitably entail the preservation of Shakespeare, already widely regarded as England’s greatest artist. Indeed, Shakespeare was certain to be further glorified by such a movement.
England, in other words, failed to produce any equivalent to the French Revolution. The Romantics, instead of demoting Shakespeare, deified him.
Rather than confront Shakespeare, they directed their hostility onto his editors, critics, and adapters. Dryden, Pope, and Johnson conveniently belonged to both categories of target. Anyone familiar with political history will recognize such tactics: in the face of growing popular protest, the president/prime minister/general secretary/emperor sacrifices members of his staff. By toppling underlings a society presumes and ensures the inviolability of the high center of power.
As a result, both the Bard and the pernicious social system that (according to Taylor) he uncritically supported, and from which he cannot be disentangled, not only survived but flourished. Both, even in America, plague us still. Both ought to go.
Bard-bashing is almost as old as Bardolatry, and it has taken a variety of forms, from the mischievous dissent of Byron, who only did it to annoy, to Tolstoy’s exasperated and quite genuine insistence that anyone ought to be able to see, with half an eye, that the emperor has no clothes. The French have periodically behaved as though only an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy could possibly explain why Shakespeare has more readers than Racine. During the last fifteen years, however, there has emerged in America, and in Shakespeare’s own native land, a concerted and more serious ideological attack. In 1974, Edward Bond’s play Bingo portrayed a thoroughly repellent Shakespeare, capitalist oppressor both of the women in his family and of the Warwickshire poor, whose own daughter Judith is finally driven to tell him, “You must learn that people have feelings. They suffer.”
Academic criticism of a Marxist/ deconstructionist (and occasionally feminist) kind has subsequently extended Bond’s indictment, sometimes to the point of suggesting, as Malcolm Evans does in Signifying Nothing: Truth’s True Contents in Shakespeare’s Texts (1986), that Shakespeare’s presence in school and university curriculums is objectionable: a weapon in the hands of the establishment, and an obstacle to social change. In 1989, the only novel thing about Taylor’s position (apart from the stupefying vulgarity of its presentation) is that it should have been arrived at by a man who not long ago wrote a book called To Analyze Delight: A Hedonist Criticism of Shakespeare (1985), and has spent nine years of his life coediting the new Oxford edition of the complete works.
The three other books reviewed here adopt very different, and positive attitudes toward Shakespeare. Yet all of them begin—as a few years ago they would not—with something that looks like a defense. Barbara Everett prefaces her collection of essays on the tragedies with the announcement that her subject is “their truth to ordinary human experience,” something she feels is in danger of being obscured with time. “One of the hardest but most fascinating of all intellectual problems,” she observes (as though with Taylor in mind), “is how not to patronize the past.” Ernest Honigmann seeks, in his Introduction, readers who, like Shakespeare himself, are “myriad-minded”: receptive to a multiplicity of critical procedures, distrustful of simplification—Hamlets, in fact, rather than Malvolios guilty of the “trick of singularity.” His Shakespeare is one who “took the trouble to revise some of his plays, worried about social and political issues, and did not resort lightly to…irresponsible happy endings.”
Jonathan Bate’s Shakespearean Constitutions, a book which subjects to careful scrutiny some of the same historical terrain over which Taylor gallops with such abandon, takes for its epigraph Emerson’s assertion that Shakespeare “wrote the text of modern life.” Current attacks on Shakespeare’s position in our culture are misguided, Bate argues in his “Prologue.” They fail to recognize how complex that position is and always has been, because they ignore the persistent “strand within Bardolatry which turns Shakespeare against the power of the State and repossesses him in the name of liberty.”
Of these three books, Barbara Everett’s is the most personal and imaginative. In its first half, “Purchasing Experience,” she deals with the traditional four central tragedies under chapter titles that sound like a series of novels by Henry Green—“Growing,” “Mixing,” “Loving,” “Succeeding.” Part II, containing further essays on Hamlet and Othello, as well as on Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida, and including two textual studies, is more disparate. Common, however, to both parts are Everett’s sudden, dazzling retrievals of meaning. In her hands, “Shake, quoth the dove-house,” a line in Romeo and Juliet which editors usually gloss flatly as “the dove-house shook,” comes to life as the Nurse’s attempt, years earlier, to make an earth-quake both comprehensible and reassuring for a very small child. She fastens on single images—Macbeth’s “light thickens,” Achilles’ hacked and mangled Myrmidons “crying on Hector” in Troilus and Cressida, or Pandarus’s comparison of his niece in the same play to “a new tane sparrow”—and from such particularities, vividly new-seen, is able to say things about the plays in which they are embedded that are arresting and fresh.
In Macbeth, she points out, the murderers also inexplicably “thicken” from two to three, and so does the rain Banquo predicts, as he stands with his son “in the same beautiful dark frightening evening air” as his assassins—rain that comes down, immediately after he has spoken, as blood. Everywhere attentive to the original meanings of Shakespeare’s words, Everett is not afraid to bring a secondary and more twentieth-century sense to the foreground. The Elizabethan phrase “crying on” had, as its primary meaning, “exclaiming against.” But, she argues,
The words leave room, because of the blankness of the preposition and the plangency of the verb, for a more modern reading, for a feeling far more childish and brutishly inarticulate, as of small bloodied beaten-up boys saying “Hector did it,” or a yowling animal holding up a broken paw.
Because “crying on Hector,” in yet another sense, is what History does too, these combined meanings have something special to say about human glory. As for Cressida, “all the play’s cool sympathy, its disgusted tenderness” fuse in Pandarus’s description. Small birds are nice, “but no one would compare Rosalind or Imogen to a sparrow.”
One may not agree with the view of Cressida that Everett proceeds to elaborate: “something contemporaneous, sub-urban, misplaced, like a character from Kingsley Amis adrift in a novel by Richardson.” Or with her judgment that Iago is “the voice of the Mob,…that in a crowd, which pushes to the front,” and Edgar’s worst burden in King Lear “the weight of his father Gloucester’s love.” Yet Everett’s work—subtle, fastidious, unwaveringly intelligent—amply rewards attention even when it provokes dissent. Creative in the best sense, it does not neglect the plays’ realization on the stage, while constantly letting slip (as in that “beautiful dark frightening evening air,” or the “tree” she imagines Achilles leaning against while his Myrmidons revenge themselves on Hector) that the theater in which they unfold is primarily that of her own imagination.
Everett is a very English critic, with a considerable following in her own country. Her book, full of the excitement generated by an alert and original sensibility fully and emotionally engaged with Shakespeare’s text, ought to increase the number of her admirers. If one were to fault its less successful parts, it would have to be in the terms she herself offers when writing about the Nurse’s monologue in Romeo and Juliet: “something that offers fascinating and rich glimpses of the centre of the play from an angle that is an angle merely.”
Like Everett, E.A.J. Honigmann has collected a group of essays written over a number of years. Myriad-Minded Shakespeare is largely directed toward the tragedies and the three problem comedies, although it also finds room for a quizzical piece on Shakespeare as both businessman and poet, a personality expressing itself differently in two different worlds, and for an examination of his methods of composition. Less polished and literary in style than Everett’s, these essays include many that began life as lectures or conference papers, and to a large extent they retain an impression of the spoken voice. Addressed specifically to the general reader, they set out to confront her or him with a multiplicity of approaches to the subject: biographical, textual, feminist, political, theatrical, historical, or based on studies of character and genre. It requires an agile and also an extremely knowledgeable writer to encompass such diversity, but Honigmann himself, like his subject, is genuinely myriad-minded.