How to Read a Book

Forms and Meanings: Texts, Performances, and Audiences from Codex to Computer

by Roger Chartier
University of Pennsylvania Press, 128 pp., $12.95 (paper)


Shakespeare created the world in seven days.

On the first day he made the sky and the mountains and the ravines
of the soul.
On the second day he made the rivers, the seas, the oceans as well
as the other feelings and gave them to Hamlet, to Julius Caesar, to Cleopatra, Ophelia and others, to reign over them with their children and later descendants for ever and ever.
On the third day…”
—Marin Sorescu

This hymn to the dead, white, male poet was written by the former minister of culture in Romania. It tells us something about postcommunism in Eastern Europe—and, by implication, about ourselves in the West. Such a poem could never be written in the United States today. Here we have postmodernism. And in its wake, like so many secondary storms stirred up by the general change in climate, we have jeremiads raining down on the humanities.

The decline of literacy, the end of the novel, the death of literature, the withering away of the intellectual, the extinction of the book, the collapse of the Gutenberg Galaxy—what doom has not been prophesied? Our cultural critics rend their garments and look out on a devastated landscape: texts deconstructed, canons dismembered, curricula demolished, and, dancing on the ruins, mad variations of cultural studies. If there is any escape, they say, we must get back to basics, begin again at the beginning, brush up our Shakespeare.

All roads lead to Shakespeare in the study of English literature, thanks in part to the original map designed by Samuel Johnson (in his Lives of the Poets). In French, owing to the similar work by Voltaire (Le Siècle de Louis XIV) all roads lead to Molière. But now, more than two centuries later, it is difficult to find clear patterns in the history of literature. Literature itself no longer looks like a succession of great books by great men, or “l’homme et l’oeuvre,” according to the old French formula for imposing order on it. It is not even a corpus of texts. Instead, it is an activity: readers making sense of symbols printed on pages, or, in a word, reading.

This approach to literature, generally known as reception theory, has become a banality among critics. But it has yet to prove itself, because we do not know what reading is when it takes place under our own noses, to say nothing of what it was in the time of Shakespeare, Molière, Johnson, and Voltaire. And another theory, generally known as deconstruction, has made texts appear so complex and contradictory that it seems hopeless to expect readers to extract any consistent meaning from them.

The study of meaning, however, stands at the heart of the “human sciences” as they are now practiced. Anthropologists, sociologists, historians, philosophers, and literary critics—or kindred spirits from tendencies within each of those disciplines—begin from the premise that human beings are meaning-making animals. They argue that meanings are shared and that common notions of meaningfulness belong to a general process, the attempt of everyone, the great unwashed as well as the great philosophers, to find some order in the world. Not that the social construction of reality, as this process is generally known, produces a clear and coherent world view. It involves endless conflict and negotiation, a matter of drawing lines, contesting boundaries, reinterpreting symbols, and rearranging experience into constantly shifting categories—in short, a struggle to construe meaning in society at large, which corresponds to the efforts of readers to make sense of books.

To find one’s way through a book is not, of course, the same as to make one’s way through life. Books themselves—Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, Miss Lonelyhearts—warn us against making too much of the parallel. Yet the parallel can be instructive. The most persuasive version of it was developed by the French critic and philosopher Michel de Certeau, who understood reading as the appropriation of texts, or, as he preferred to call it, “poaching.” He argued that ordinary people, especially those at the bottom of the social order, are not helpless, passive victims of the mass media. They take what they want from tabloids and soap operas. They do so on their own terms, not those of the sponsors. And they use the same tactics in their everyday lives, snatching whatever advantage they can from a hostile environment. Richard Hoggart developed a similar interpretation of working-class culture in Britain during the 1950s, and Janice Radway has shown its relevance for understanding the way women read Harlequin novels in contemporary America.1

Despite the difficulties, therefore, a history of reading might unlock the general problem of understanding how people construe the symbolic systems made available to them by their culture. But how are those difficulties to be negotiated?

Because so few readers left traces of how they read—marginalia, commentaries, replies to inquisitors—historians of reading have had to string hypotheses from whatever looks solid enough to pass as hard fact. By studying iconographic evidence from many paintings and engravings, for example, Erich Schön has argued that the physical relation of readers to books changed significantly about two hundred years ago. Before the nineteenth century, pictures usually show readers holding books in their hands or balancing them on their knees, even when seated by a table. After 1800, the table becomes the main prop of reading. Readers lean over it, usually supported by an elbow, their rapport with the text reduced to movements of the eyes and the occasional touch of a finger.2

Whether this change in posture amounted to a “loss of sensuality,” as Schön claims, may be debated (I suspect that the concurrent change in paper, made by machines from wood pulp instead of by hand from rags, was equally important for getting the different feel of a book); but the corporeal element in reading certainly had some bearing on the cerebral. The shift from the volumen to the codex in the second century AD meant that people no longer had to unroll books to read them. Instead, they could jump around in a book by “leafing” backward and forward. The advent of printing—and with it the increased use of tables of contents, running heads, and indexes—brought that sort of experience within the range of increasingly broad sectors of the population. But in the last few years the computer has threatened to make the single page extinct as a unit of literature. Readers at computer screens contemplate an uninterrupted flow of text. They “scroll” through texts somewhat as their predecessors did under the Roman Empire, except they scroll up and down instead of sideways; and they do so by pushing buttons, pausing now and then to open a “window” and plunge into another stream of words.

Historians of reading have detected other fundamental shifts—from reading aloud to reading silently, from reading in groups to reading in private, from reading intensively (that is, reading a few books over and over again) to reading extensively (reading many kinds of printed matter casually and only once). But they have come up with so many counter examples and dissenting arguments that it is difficult to make out any overall pattern, to say nothing of resolving the fundamental problem: How did readers make meanings from books?

The most successful efforts to get a grip on that problem have come from the discipline of analytical bibliography. Roger Stoddard, a prominent American bibliographer, has warned literary critics that authors do not write books. They write texts, which are made into books by compositors, pressmen, binders, and other middlemen, who determine the form that literature takes when it falls into the hands of readers. The response of readers is shaped by typography, page design, illustrations, dedications, tables of contents, binding, and many other peculiarities of the book as a physical object.

John Locke stressed the same point three centuries ago, when he observed that the Bible would read very differently if it were printed as a continuous narrative instead of being sliced into tiny fragments suitable for quoting as chapter and verse. Drawing on Locke and a wide range of English literature, the greatest bibliographer of our time, Donald F. McKenzie, has argued that bibliography must expand into a “sociology of texts,” that is, a study of literature which will relate texts to their total environment, one that extends beyond printing shops and bookstores to the entire range of media and mentalities in a given society.3

A tall order! McKenzie’s own bibliographical work on the Cambridge University Press and on editions of Congreve suggests that bibliography can indeed trace the operations of “printers of the mind,” as he calls them, but it falls short of providing a full history of reader response. The most ambitious effort in this direction has come from the French cultural historian Roger Chartier, whose latest book, Forms and Meanings: Texts, Performances, and Audiences from Codex to Computer, illustrates the problems that such a history must confront.

Like McKenzie, Chartier draws his inspiration from sociology, particularly the work of Pierre Bourdieu. And like some opponents of post-modernism, he takes a strong stand against the so-called “linguistic turn,” or the tendency to interpret meaning, behavior, and reality itself as the product of discourse. By discourse, Chartier understands a closed system of signs, such as a body of texts, in which statements are deemed to be meaningful according to the way they relate to one another rather than by reference to the intention of an author or to any reality outside the boundaries of language. The current fashion of discourse analysis, as he sees it, is fundamentally misguided, because it treats non-discursive practices, such as everyday behavior, in the same way as messages printed in books. It confuses experience with texts and threatens to replace social history with literary criticism.

Reading, for Chartier, is precisely the sort of social activity that needs to be rescued from the literary critics. He describes reading as “appropriation,” a key term which he adopts from De Certeau and colors with Bourdieu’s concept of “distinction” in order to indicate a mode of behavior by which one social group asserts itself against another. When readers appropriate texts, therefore, they do not merely poach in a forest of symbols for whatever suits their individual needs and whims. They make sense of texts in a way that is characteristic of a particular group or “interpretive community,” a term that Chartier borrows from Stanley Fish.

All this sounds rather abstract, and it may put off those who have no interest in the nuances that separate one theoretician from another. But Chartier shows how much is at stake in sorting out and blending theoretical propositions by applying them to case studies. As in his previous work, he emphasizes the importance of studying the popular chapbooks known as the Bibliothèque bleue, which peddlers spread throughout France from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century. They must not be taken as specimens of popular culture, he insists, for nothing could be more misleading than to look upon these primitive paperbacks, with their fantastic tales about knights and bandits, as if they were a window opening onto a world view. They are texts, not transparent expressions of a popular mentality, and the crucial question is not what themes they contain but how they were read.

In attempting to answer that question, Chartier uses the techniques perfected by McKenzie and other bibliographers in order to show how the physical qualities of the books constrained certain readings. Some works, he observes, appeared originally in noble editions—in-folio or in-quarto, in fine paper and expensive bindings—intended for a noble clientele. Then publishers reissued them as chapbooks. They were abridged, cut up into short chapters, printed on cheap paper with worn-out type, stitched, and wrapped in the crude blue paper traditionally used for sugar cones (hence the Bibliothèque bleue), and peddled for pennies to a semi-literate public. When read or heard—for many were probably read aloud to groups of artisans or peasants—they could not convey complex plots and character development. They provided snatches of action which could be used for amusement or as food for thought by an audience that took them in episode by episode, paying attention obliquely while knitting socks or mending tools, rather as modern housewives listen to soap operas.

But precisely how did they pay attention? No one knows, because there is no adequate evidence to confirm the hypotheses that Chartier constructs from the physical qualities of books. The famous example of Menocchio, the sixteenth-century miller from Friulia studied by Carlo Ginzburg, suggests that plebeian readers took what they wanted from texts, extracting material and reassembling it in ways that had little to do with the originals. But sophisticated humanist scholars did the same thing, as Lisa Jardine and Anthony Grafton have demonstrated in a study of “How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy.” Harvey spread books out on a contraption like a small Ferris wheel, spun them around so that he could copy extracts into a commonplace book, and reworked the extracts into new texts that had little resemblance to their sources. Nothing proves that appropriation worked differently at different levels of society.4


Proof is sadly lacking in this kind of history, however rigorous the theory may be. At times, Chartier appears to paint himself into a corner, for the history of reading as he envisages it seems to be persuasive in conception and impossible in practice. But he finds a way out: he goes back to Molière.

Molière’s plays, like Shakespeare’s, lend themselves to wildly different interpretations, but the history of their performances can be determined with some accuracy, and that history has important implications for the problems raised by reception studies. Despite their obvious differences, performances of scripts are like readings of books in one respect: they are an activity which brings texts to life by making sense of them; and they add another dimension to the making of meaning, because the audience of a play interprets the interpretation of the actors. The history of the theater (or, more precisely, of performances) can therefore be studied as a complement to the history of the book (or of reading); and it has the advantage of being well documented. In the case of Molière’s players, la troupe du roi, later known as the Comédie-Française, we have stage directions, actors’ notebooks, box office receipts, even the original props and costumes, including the chair in which Molière was stricken during his final, fatal performance of the title role in Le Malade imaginaire. The productions have continued in an unbroken line from the time of Molière himself. This year, on January 18, the Comédie-Française put on its 2,177th performance of Le Misanthrope.

The evidence of productions (la mise en scène) can be studied like the material qualities of books (la mise en page) to determine the general character of interpretations. Of course, all such evidence must be handled with care and supplemented by other documentation, but when done well it can be convincing. Chartier executes such a feat in the most important section of his book, a long essay on Molière’s George Dandin, a play that was first performed before the court of Louis XIV in the gardens of Versailles on July 18, 1668, and then produced four months later for a Parisian public in Molière’s theater in the Palais Royal. By drawing on a wide variety of evidence, including inventories of the costumes, program notes, and contemporary correspondence, Chartier provides a wonderfully rich account of what the performances meant to two such different audiences.

The play concerns the humiliation of a rich peasant who tries to improve his status by marrying the daughter of a nobleman. Over the centuries, it has been performed as everything from an innocent farce to a seditious protest against the tyranny of rank. For the courtiers of Louis XIV, Chartier argues, it provided not merely amusement but also a sociological lesson about the nature of absolutism. The première took place at the height of Louis’s power, just after he had waged a successful war in Franche-Comté. It was but one moment in an extravagant round of festivities—banquets, ballets, masques, concerts, balls—designed to demonstrate the glory of the monarch. Contemporary reports dwell on the magnificence of the setting rather than on Molière’s wit. To the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens, who happened to be present, the play was “hasty and not much.” Mme de Sévigné, who also attended the première, did not even mention it in her famous correspondence. Instead, she discussed the issue that dominated gossip in court: the efforts by various families to demonstrate their nobility by proving the antiquity of their titles before royal officials, as required by a declaration of the King in 1661.

That, however, was precisely the problem dramatized in the play for the courtiers who watched it on July 18, 1668, according to Chartier. No one in court took seriously a peasant’s claim to noble status, for peasants, however wealthy, did not marry into the nobility during the late seventeenth century. But George Dandin’s absurd marriage served as a commentary on the general process of establishing a social identity. In principle, one could move from the third (common) to the second (noble) estate through established procedures, such as the purchase of certain offices, but in practice one had to win recognition from people like Mme de Sévigné. Dandin’s attempt to convert wealth into status taught him that society was not merely ordered by a code but by the arbiters of that code. Things were not what they seemed to be, and the rules of the game depended on those who enforced them.

The ultimate arbiter was the King. By requiring “his” nobility to establish its legitimacy through all sorts of bureaucratic procedures, Louis XIV made himself the master of the games people played in order to win a position in the social hierarchy. So George Dandin, one of the great losers in all literature, provided his aristocratic audience with something more than amusement. He gave them a lesson in sociology, a sociology remarkably similar to that of Pierre Bourdieu.

In Paris, the play took on a different meaning, one closer to that of Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. It exposed the dangers of trying to rise above one’s station to an audience of commoners who might be tempted to do so. Instead of examining social distinctions as a process of negotiation and arbitration, it reinforced the status quo: “The spectators at the Palais Royal must have sensed that the comedy, under the guise of showing a peasant in a farce, carried a warning against unwarranted ambitions and a message in support of an order in which everyone stayed in his place.” Chartier’s interpretation sounds convincing, but he supports it at crucial points with phrases like “must have” and “may have” instead of with solid evidence. One could turn the “may haves” in a different direction, because other scholars have argued that the theater audiences in Paris were heavily aristocratic.5 The Parisians may have understood the play in essentially the same way as the spectators in Versailles.

It seems ungenerous to raise such an objection after following Chartier’s masterly account of the play’s performance at the court. One simply desires more—an equally rich interpretation of the Parisian performances. If in the future Chartier can complete his reception study by filling in the second half of the traditional formula, la cour et la ville, he will indeed advance far toward his goal of developing a history of cultural appropriation.


Meanwhile, literary historians on the other side of the Channel, and of the Atlantic Ocean, have made advances on another front of the same set of questions. They have gone even further than the French by reworking their own tradition—that is, by going back to Shakespeare. The so-called New Historicism developed within Shakespearean studies as an attempt to break out of the closed circuit of theorizing in which literary criticism seemed to be lost. The New Historicists did not reject postmodernist thought. Their work bristles with citations of the usual suspects, especially Michel Foucault. But they tried to make a connection with social history by applying theoretical concerns to concrete problems, above all the problem of finding affinities between the performances of Shakespeare’s players and the preoccupations of the Englishmen who saw them.

Scholarship in this vein has poured out at such a rate during the last two decades that it has transformed our sense of the literary landscape four centuries ago. Stephen Greenblatt showed how The Tempest expressed the first wave of English imperialism in the New World. Richard Helgerson demonstrated the linkage between the patriotism in Henry V and the attempts to transform the kingdom of Elizabeth I into a nation-state by drawing maps and codifying laws. Lisa Jardine exposed the similarities between gender relations in The Comedy of Errors and the unequal war between the sexes in society at large. And as early as 1973, Stephen Orgel and Roy Strong examined the ways that comedies like As You Like It and tragedies like Macbeth belonged to the power plays of the Tudor-Stuart courts.6

One of the best monographs, The Place of the Stage: License, Play and Power in Renaissance England, by Steven Mullaney, supplies precisely the fine-grained analysis of urban theater that is lacking in Chartier’s book.7 Of course, Shakespeare’s London differed from Molière’s Paris, especially around the edges—that is, in the “Liberties,” or border areas outside the city walls and south of the Thames, where the city shaded off into the countryside and the jurisdiction of the city authorities thinned out into something close to lawlessness. Here it was in 1576 that James Burbage erected a building that he called a “Theatre,” a new kind of structure designed for public performances of plays.

By 1600 London was ringed with theaters, impressive edifices like Shakespeare’s Globe, which rose above a landscape of taverns, bawdy houses, gaming dens, cockpits, bullrings, lazar houses, flea markets, prisons (The Clink), prison-like hospitals (The Lock), and a graveyard for unidentified aliens (No Man’s Land). The gallows stood nearby, a reminder of the affinity between the scaffold of the hangman and the scaffold (stage) of the players. It was marginal territory, full of wild things to be marveled at and mastered, among them the English language, as Shakespeare demonstrated in Henry IV Parts I and II. Mullaney takes his reader on a tour of this territory and of Shakespeare’s texts. It is a tour de force, showing how this new institution, the public theater, expressed the tensions of a dangerous border zone, where the social and political conflicts of Tudor-Stuart society were played out.

With the urban setting mapped, it remained for a literary historian to survey the territory where plays and power converged at the other end of London, the court of James I in Whitehall to the West. This task has been accomplished with consummate skill by Alvin Kernan in Shakespeare, the King’s Playwright: Theater in the Stuart Court, 1603-1613, a book that appeared at the same time as Chartier’s and that makes the same kind of argument. Whether it can be classified as New Historicism is another question, because Kernan belongs to an older generation. In fact, he directed the doctoral thesis of Stephen Greenblatt, the most eminent of the New Historicists. And in his last books, he joined the chorus of jeremiads about the state of literary criticism by tracing the rise of print culture (Printing Technology, Letters, and Samuel Johnson, 1987) and its fall (The Death of Literature, 1990).

By “literature,” as opposed to “letters,” a term best applied to the period before the mid-eighteenth century, Kernan understands a way of knowing the world based on the experience of reading and the institutions that made it possible: advanced literacy, a flourishing book trade, and the romantic cult of the author. Television, computers, and other forms of modern technology have destroyed the foundations of print culture, Kernan argued. So he pronounced literature dead—not, however, with a lamentation, but rather in a canny series of monographs which trace the time-bound character of the verities that looked eternal to him and his fellow students on the GI Bill when they took up Shakespeare after putting down their guns at the end of World War II.

Shakespeare, the King’s Playwright rounds out this series by showing where literature began: in the courts of the Renaissance princes. It did not gain autonomy, however, until the age of Samuel Johnson, the Great Cham of Literature, when the printing trade replaced patronage as the source of support for authors. As the most important playwright of the King’s Men, Shakespeare had to do the bidding of his royal patron, James I. He also had to please the crowd in the Globe, which provided between 85 and 90 percent of the income of the troupe. But the performances in the Liberties could not offend the King, Kernan argues, because, aside from the constraints of licensing, they served as rehearsals for the climactic moments of the theatrical season, the Christmas cycle of revels in the court, which extended from St. Stephen’s Day (December 26) to Epiphany, or Twelfth Night (January 6), and often through the carnival period to the beginning of Lent.

We therefore need to understand Shakespeare as a patronage artist working within the confines of the Jacobean court, not as the Promethean genius imagined by historians infected with romanticism. Romanticism is the bête noire that Kernan stalks throughout the book. He sees it as an anachronistic product of an outdated notion of literature, and he sees it everywhere—even in modernist productions that make Coriolanus into a fascist and in New Historicist interpretations that see Caliban as a victim of imperialism. Shakespeare’s plays do not convey a revolutionary message, he insists. Their meaning is bounded by the experience of the courtiers who saw them in the early seventeenth century.

As in the case of Molière, the surviving documentation is dense enough for the historian to recapture some of that meaning. The King’s Men played before the court 138 times between the ascension of James I in 1603 and the retirement of Shakespeare in 1613. They probably ran through the entire repertory of works by their premier playwright. Seventeen of Shakespeare’s plays are mentioned explicitly in the accounts of the Treasurer of the Chamber and other archives, along with details about the actors, costumes, and settings. As grooms extraordinary of the Outer Chamber of the royal household, the players also marched behind the king, wearing his livery, in royal processions. They had only bit parts in the court, and their productions attracted less attention than some of the masques and most of the wining and dining. But they had their appointed place in the staging of the royal person. They produced plays within the play that was power in the court.

The notion of power as performance was not just a literary conceit in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The English took it literally: “We princes are set upon stages in the sight and view of all the world,” said Queen Elizabeth. “A king is as one set on a stage, whose smallest actions and gestures, all the people gazingly do behold,” said James. When the King’s Men played at court, the audience came to watch the King watching the play. Kernan proves this point by reconstructing the seating arrangements at performances staged in the halls of Hampton Court, Whitehall, and Christ Church College, Oxford. The King sat on a raised platform known as the State. Behind him and to the side, the courtiers sat in rows arranged to give them the best view of the monarch, not the stage; for, as Kernan observes, the play was not the thing; the King was.

When Hamlet was performed in Hampton Court on December 26, 1603, the play-within-the-play, The Murder of Gonzago, was a mirror image of the audience in front of it. James seated next to Queen Anne on the State corresponded perfectly to Claudius next to Gertrude on the State of the stage. And James’s courtiers watched him watching Hamlet watching Claudius with all the intensity of the power plays that could mean life or death in a Renaissance court. “It must have been one of the great moments in Western theater, a true coup de theatre, delighting every one and causing all thoughtful spectators then and since to wonder which world was stage and which reality,” Kernan observes.

The spectators would have picked up plenty of allusions to court politics in Shakespeare’s text. Anne was Danish, and she had honeymooned with James in Kronborg, the Elsinore of the play. Like Hamlet, James loved books and tended to philosophize, though he was more of a pedant than a poet. More important, he, too, had faced a succession crisis. His mother, Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots), was suspected of complicity in the murder of his father, Lord Darnley (King Henry I of Scotland), and she married the suspected murderer, the Earl of Bothwell, shortly after the crime, exactly as Gertrude married Claudius in the play: “Thrift, thrift, Horatio, the funeral bak’d meats/Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.”

Several murders and kidnappings later—blood feuds were the common coin of Scottish politics—James, like Hamlet, confronted the problem of revenge; and like Hamlet he prevaricated. As king of Scotland after the expulsion of Mary and her imprisonment in England, he could have taken the high road of heroism by trying to save her or the low road of Machiavellianism by letting the English execute her. He hesitated, wrote tortured and ingratiating letters to Elizabeth, and looked the other way in 1587, when the Iron Lady had the deed done. James succeeded in 1603. The low road had led to the English throne, but the founder of the new dynasty needed legitimation and propaganda.

His playwright provided them, adapting the full panoply of Elizabethan theater to the theory of divine-right absolutism produced by James himself in his treatises Basilikon Doron and The Trew Law of Free Monarchies. The propaganda shows through everywhere in Shakespeare’s late plays, according to Kernan, but it struck contemporaries most forcefully in two masterpieces, Macbeth and King Lear, both performed before the court in 1606.

In Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 1, Shakespeare paraded the Stuart family tree on stage in a manner that conformed exactly to James’s mythical notion of history, which made him a descendant of King Fergus, who supposedly founded Scotland in 330 BC. It showed that James’s ancestors stretched back “to the crack o’doom”; that primogeniture was established as a principle of legitimacy when Macbeth’s usurpation of the throne was overcome and Malcolm succeeded the murdered Duncan; and that the line would extend far into the future, as one of the actor-kings demonstrated by holding a mirror to reflect the image of James, sitting in his State in the Great Hall of Hampton Court on August 7, 1606.

Lear, performed before the court in Whitehall on December 26, 1606, also evoked the primeval origins of kingship. It went even further in asserting James’s claim to be above the common law of the land and to dispose of the land itself as if it belonged to him. Thus Lear, an absolute ruler of an ancient Britain, carved up his kingdom and commanded everyone around him without consulting anything other than his own titanic will, which he identified with the divine order of the world in these actions. Kernan argues that in these actions the courtiers would have recognized James’s claim to exert the royal prerogative over Parliament, particularly his attempt to overcome the Commons’ opposition to his plan to unite Scotland and England and thereby restore the Britain that Lear had mistakenly divided. They would have identified James’s sons, Henry and Charles, then dukes of Cornwall and Albany, with the titles of the husbands of Lear’s two older daughters. And in Lear’s fool, they would have seen Archie Armstrong, the notorious fool of James.

Spotting such allusions has long been a game for modern scholars as well as Jacobean courtiers. The witches in Macbeth evoked the Demonologie, James’s treatise on witchcraft, and also the Witches of Lothian, a political witchcraft trial of 1593, which James used to suppress the last threat from the Bothwell faction in Scotland. The Porter’s remarks on “equivocation” in Act 2, Scene 3 of Macbeth summoned up Father Garnet’s attempt to save himself from execution at his trial in March 1606, where he was convicted of complicity in the Gunpowder Plot. Sharp eyes have seen allusions to James’s epic poem, “The Lepanto,” in sections of Othello (performed before the court in November 1604) and the conclusion of his Basilikon Doron in the very title of Measure for Measure (performed before the court in December 1604). Well-tuned ears have picked up echoes of the treason trial of Sir Walter Raleigh and others (1603) in the debates about justice and mercy in Measure for Measure. Keen intelligences have detected James’s adviser, Robert Cecil, in the character of Menenius in Coriolanus (probably played before the court in December 1608). They have also identified James’s opponents in the House of Commons, John Hare and Sir Edwin Sandys, as the rabble-rousing tribunes in the same play. And they have found hints of James himself in several characters, notably Prospero in The Tempest (played before the court in November 1611 and again in the spring of 1613 to celebrate the wedding of James’s daughter Elizabeth to Frederick of Heidelberg, which was evoked by the wedding of Miranda and Ferdinand in the play).

All these associations and many more reverberated through the audiences in the great halls where the plays were performed. They have also furnished matter for endless commentaries by Shakespearean scholars. Kernan goes over them all, but lightly, because the plays cannot be interpreted merely as political tracts and the players could not perform them as dramatizations or allegories of current events. The King’s Men learned that lesson in 1604 when they staged Gowrie by an anonymous author. It featured a favorite theme of Jacobean propaganda, James’s escape from a supposed murder conspiracy by the Earl of Gowrie and his brother in Perth on August 5, 1600. But it portrayed the King himself on the stage, an intolerable offense, which led to the suppression of the play. Even indirect allusions could be dangerous. On February 7, 1601, Shakespeare’s troupe performed Richard II at the request of some noblemen who were implicated shortly thereafter in the Essex Rebellion, a plot to force Queen Elizabeth from the throne. Elizabeth took the deposition scene as an attack on her—“Know you not that I am Richard Second?”—and the players narrowly escaped having their ears and noses sheared by the public hangman.

In Kernan’s view, therefore, the plays functioned as propaganda, but their references remained oblique and their themes cannot be reduced to politics. On the contrary, their political power consisted in their poetry, and their poetical force carried them far beyond the realm of power struggles in the Jacobean court. The language in Macbeth works on the audience in a way that associates Duncan with natural processes—growth, fruition, the flow of time itself—whereas Macbeth turns against nature, tries to stop time, and veers off into madness. Lear, too, confronts the elemental forces that buffet all humanity. He does so as a king—that is, as someone immeasurably bigger than other forms of life. So when he staggers into the wind, he sweeps smaller lives up with him; and when he collapses on the heath, he hits the bedrock level of existence.

Kernan has a term for this regal struggle with reality: “cosmicization.” Awkward as it is, it conveys the kind of experience that anthropologists have tried to explain in studying myths and rituals: the feelings on the part of the audience or the participants that they have come into contact with the nature of things—the fundamentals of the human condition, the way the world is.

All the chapters of the book feed into this conclusion by following the same strategy. First, they provide an account of the main events during the first ten years of James’s reign in England, which coincided with the last ten years of Shakespeare’s career as a playwright. Next, they bring together all the evidence of how the audiences reacted. Finally, as they near the end of the discussion of each play, they shift into another register and take the reader through the inner workings of the Shakespearean imagination. To a deconstructionist or a New Historicist, this last step would look like a step backward. It assumes that an individual author produced a coherent text whose meaning can be identified and whose ultimate message, however time-bound, can still speak to us today.

For all its sophistication, then, this is not the book of an academic sophisticate. It has none of the cleverness, the wordplay, and the winking to insiders that characterize so much current literary criticism. At an age when most graduate students of literature first learn to tear apart a text, Kernan was spending four years on aircraft carriers in the Pacific, bombing and being bombed. He tells that story, too, in another book, Crossing the Line: A Bluejacket’s World War II Odyssey.8 It has the same plain style as Shakespeare, the King’s Playwright. It has the same subject: the fragility of life, the cruelty of men, the moral emptiness of nature, the redemptive power of sympathy and laughter. “A whaleship was my Yale College and my Harvard,” wrote Herman Melville. Alvin Kernan had similar schooling at Midway and Okinawa and Guadalcanal, where his ship, the USS Hornet, was bombed and torpedoed to the bottom of the ocean. The experience did not yield an answer to the problems of reception theory, nor did it supply a rebuttal to postmodernism. But it provided a vantage point from which to watch the Gutenberg Galaxy deconstruct itself.

  1. 1

    Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (University of California Press, 1984); Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working-Class Life with Special Reference to Publications and Entertainments (Chatto and Windus, 1957); Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (University of North Carolina, 1984).

  2. 2

    Erich Schön, Der Verlust der Sinnlichkeit oder die Verwandlungen des Lesers: Mentalitätswandel um 1800 (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1987).

  3. 3

    D.F. McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (British Library, 1986).

  4. 4

    Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), and Lisa Jardine and Anthony Grafton, “‘Studied for Action’: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy,” Past and Present (November 1990), pp. 30-78.

  5. 5

    John Lough, Paris Theatre Audiences in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Oxford University Press, 1957).

  6. 6

    Stephen J. Greenblatt, Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (Routledge, 1990); Richard Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (University of Chicago Press, 1992); Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1983); Roy Strong, Splendor at Court: Renaissance Spectacle and the Theater of Power (Houghton Mifflin, 1973); Stephen Orgel, The Illusion of Power: Political Theater in the English Renaissance (University of California Press, 1975).

  7. 7

    University of Chicago Press, 1988.

  8. 8

    Naval Institute Press, 1994.