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Whose Shakespeare?

In response to:

Shakespeare's Double Vision from the September 28, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

While finding myself in agreement with much of E.A.J. Honigmann’s clear-headed, sensible review of Robert Adams’ book [“Shakespeare’s Double Vision,” NYR, September 28, 1989], one of Honigmann’s comments disturbs me, as much for its uncharacteristic carelessness, as for the major distortion it, perhaps unwittingly, creates.

Seeking to explain Shakespeare’s turn toward romance structures in the early years of the seventeenth century, Honigmann adds a proviso to Lytton Strachey’s assertion that Shakespeare turned to romance out of “boredom.” Not so, Honigmann suggests. Rather, he continues, Shakespeare may have been “supremely self-confident.” In the following sentences Honigmann explains:

He [Shakespeare] was now recognized as a classic, he was “our Shakespeare,” he could please himself.

Honigmann here does an injustice to the historical record, at least as far as historians of Bardolotry are concerned. The First Folio of Shakespeare’s works (1623) was not issued until seven years after Shakespeare’s death and some ten to fifteen years after his turn to the romances. While the issuance of the First Folio is important for the history of English drama in print, it was preceded by Jonson’s publication of his works in folio form in 1616. Before 1623, Shakespeare’s works existed primarily in non-authorized texts, at least as we use the phrase today. Indeed, a good number remained unpublished in any form until 1623. Can Shakespeare be said to have been a “classic” even before the issuance of the first folio? To the best of my knowledge, most current scholarship credits the origination of the idea of a “classic Shakespeare” with David Garrick’s orchestration of the Stratford Jubilee in 1769.

Honigmann continues by suggesting that Shakespeare was “our Shakespeare” during his lifetime [emphasis mine]. To whom, then, does that “our” refer, the English nation-state or cultural polis? Surely, common sense tells us that Shakespeare was less “our Shakespeare” than Spenser, recognized and subsidized by Elizabeth, was “our Spenser,” or Sidney, prominent both in Elizabethan letters and politics, was “our Sidney.” Yet we would not, I think, advance either “supreme self-confidence” or “boredom” to account for Spenser’s shift to the epic from pastoral, or Sidney’s revision of the Arcadia from pastoral comedy to dark political allegory.

Whether Shakespeare was indeed supremely self-confident or, as Strachey argued, bored, methodologies like psychobiography offer a temptation to read too much of our modern artistic and psychological sensibilities onto a previous age, even when any result thereby obtained is finally speculative. As a poet struggling to mediate between the demands of various audiences and my own need to deliver a personal message, I might propose a simpler, albeit far crasser, explanation for Shakespeare’s turn to romance: romance sold tickets, especially at upper-class theaters like Blackfriars. We might do well to ask, not why Shakespeare turned to romance, but why romance, as a sub-genre, was so popular in the Jacobean age.

Charles Bryan
University of Wisconsin
Madison, Wisconsin

E.A.J Honigmann replies:

Shakespeare was referred to as the English equivalent of the best classical writers before the publication of the Folio of 1623. Francis Meres said (in 1598), “the sweet witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honey-tongued Shakespeare,” and “as Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for comedy and tragedy among the Latins: so Shakespeare among the English.” John Davies of Hereford (in 1610) addressed a poem “To our English Terence, Mr. Will. Shake-speare.” The author of an epistle printed with Troilus and Cressida (1609) said, quite explicitly, “had I time I would comment upon it…. It deserves such a labour, as well as the best comedy in Terence or Plautus.” An inscription in a copy of Lope de Vega’s Rimas, dating from 1613 or 1614, stated that in Spain the poet is “accounted of…as in England we should of our Will Shakespeare.” I discussed these allusions in Shakespeare’s Impact on his Contemporaries (Macmillan, 1982).

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