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The Revelations of Frank Kermode

Kermode is, for once, aggressive in his rejection of many of the most fashionable recent scholarly approaches to Shakespeare, exposing his distaste frankly in the preface:

There are modern attitudes to Shakespeare I particularly dislike: the worst of them maintains that the reputation of Shakespeare is fraudulent, the result of an eighteenth-century nationalist or imperialist plot. A related notion, almost equally presumptuous, is that to make sense of Shakespeare we need first to see the plays as involved in the political discourse of his day to a degree that has only now become intelligible. These and other ways of taking Shakespeare down a peg seem, when you examine them, to be interesting only as evidence of a recurring need to find something different to say, and to say it on topics that happen to interest the writer more than Shakespeare’s words, which are, as I say, only rarely invoked. The tone of these novelties is remarkably self-confident….
On the other hand, the various forms of idolatry against which doctrines of this sort are over-reactions must also be deplored. There is no reason why we should not find passages and even plays that are routine and relatively uninteresting….
Then there are those who refuse to value one text over another, a play by Shakespeare over an ephemeral contemporary pamphlet, or to see reason to offer the one a different form of attention from that accorded the other. The question of intrinsic or attributed value is admittedly a difficult one…. As I believe in the value of Shakespeare and, without ignoring historical issues, regard the plays as being about more than such issues, I shall not pay much attention to what are nevertheless the prevailing modes of Shakespeare criticism.

Kermode is clearly anxious that the plays be seen as plays and not as historical documents, that they be read and viewed for dramatic and poetic experience and enjoyment and not for a demonstration of social and political change. He does not, indeed, ignore historical considerations, but uses them incidentally to elucidate the literary significance.

In only one instance, I believe, does he mistakenly neglect the historical background. It is true, as Kermode maintains, that the importance of Jacobean colonialist policy for The Tempest has been exaggerated and that is not what the play is about for most of its action; rather it is a Renaissance Italian type of tale of revenge and forgiveness. Nevertheless, at one crucial point, the idea of Jacobean colonialism adds extraordinary significance. Of the indigenous inhabitants of the island taken over by Prospero, Caliban is a slave and a subhuman brute. Taught to speak by Prospero, he glories only in the ability to curse, and has mainly one interest in life—to rape Prospero’s daughter Miranda. However, this almost wholly unadmirable being is given a speech of startling poetic character, which Kermode quotes:

Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not,
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That if I then had wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I wak’d
I cried to dream again.

Kermode comments beautifully:

He has learned language for other reasons than to curse. The pleasing sounds happen often enough, and some are especially remembered; hence the switches of tense [give, will hum, had wak’d, would open, cried]…. Sleeping, dreaming, waking, sleeping: the rhythm is of a child’s rhyme, and the “riches” are of another world, a richer world than Prospero’s.

However, he misses the ethical dimension that requires us to reflect on the habitual or traditional contempt for the indigenous population of a colony. Shakespeare does not idealize Caliban but for one moment he gives him a fully human aspiration. This parallels his treatment of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, which is relentlessly anti-Semitic except for the one famous passage where Shylock protests his humanity. Both scenes instruct us on the nature of Shakespeare’s sympathy.

This speech of Caliban’s, moreover, is a magnificent witness to one of Kermode’s most important points. The later Shakespearean technique has forgone the traditional routine academic rhetoric for a new and supple style that follows the movement of a mind. Caliban is striving little by little to recall the music he has heard and his experiences of the different sounds, hence the switches from future to present to past tense, to which Kermode calls attention, but it all wonderfully hangs together as a single sentence, in which one line subtly spills over into the next—it is not merely the memories that enchant us, but the continuous movement from one to another, the dazzling vision and the sudden drop into the wakened reality. In the main, Kermode is right: it is the art and not the political background with which we must end to get the full measure of what Shakespeare could accomplish. No book elucidates Shakespeare’s art so convincingly as Shakespeare’s Language.

Kermode had a sure sense of what to quote. I am deeply grateful to him for his recalling the lines of Prince Florizel in The Winter’s Tale, replying to Perdita’s famous speech about her garden:

She draws from Florizel lines of equal virtuosity: “When you do dance, I wish you/A wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do/Nothing but that, move still, still so…” (140–42), where the rhythm mimics the rise and fall of a wave.

For Kermode, the new capacity to create a style that follows the process of thought, with all its hesitations and convolutions, begins with Richard II. He finds a parallel in the work of Shakespeare’s contemporary John Donne, and a similar willingness to write sometimes in harsh verse that would be difficult to take in at first hearing or reading. (One should add that of all the lyrics of the time, the works of Donne were often close to the style of the stage, many of his poems having the manner of spoken dramatic verse.)

Kermode does avoid idolatry. He refuses the recent attempts to defend the second half of Measure for Measure, which is, indeed, a mess, although, like almost everyone else, he finds the first half to be among Shakespeare’s greatest achievements. A few lines may show how far Shakespeare was beginning to go in testing the ability of the public to follow his thought. The judge, Angelo, is planning to condemn Claudio to death for fornication, and is justifying his decision to Claudio’s sister, who has come to plead for him. Angelo claims that pardoning a fornicator is worse than pardoning a murderer:

…fie, these filthy vices! It were as good
To pardon him that hath from nature stol’n
A man already made, as to remit
Their saucy sweetness that do coin heaven’s image
In stamps that are forbid. ‘Tis all as easy
Falsely to take away a life true made
As to put metal in restrained means
To make a false one.

The comparison of fornication and murder is made, as Kermode comments, “in crowded language” with an elaborate metaphor drawn from counterfeit money. Almost all the expression is oblique. A murderer is “him that hath from nature stol’n/a man already made,” while to “coin heaven’s image/In stamps that are forbid” is to create a bastard. “Falsely to take away a life true made” is illegally to kill a victim properly born in wedlock. The image of counterfeit money is reinforced by describing fornication as “to put metal in restrained means to make a false [life].” This is clear enough on reflection, but was the meaning instantly communicated to the average groundling in Shakespeare’s time? And as Kermode insists, later in Shakespeare’s career, the style can become even more puzzling. He writes on a speech in Coriolanus:

What we feel, even before we start to unpack the language, is its pace, its sudden turns and backtrackings, its metaphors flashing before us and disappearing before we can grasp them. We recognise the representation of anxious thought, a weighing of possibilities….This kind of thing was now being done in verse for the first time.

In unpacking the language, Kermode is deeply indebted to Empson’s studies of the way poets can bring to the fore the subsidiary meanings, the connotations of words, to enrich the texture. In the above quotation from Measure for Measure, the words “false” and “falsely” are used ambiguously to signify both counterfeit money and being born out of wedlock, and “remit” suggests paying back as well as pardon. He also borrows Empson’s demonstration of the way that Shakespeare sometimes concentrates throughout a play on one word, like “honest” in Othello, exploiting all its possibilities of signification.

Of course, Kermode remarks, the public could follow the gist of a play through the gestures, as, indeed, one of Shakespeare’s characters (Volumnia in Coriolanus) observes:

Action is eloquence, and the eyes of th’ ignorant
More learned than the ears.

Still, as he writes:

But in Shakespeare’s plays, especially after 1600, the life of the piece, of the whole business of personation, is in large part not in the gesture but in the linguistic detail; we want to understand as much of this as we can. We don’t want just to hang on to the general sense as if we were watching an opera in Czech.

No critic has done more than Kermode in revealing the secrets of Shakespeare’s work in ways that enhance our joy in reading the plays.


In homage to Kermode, we should finally mention the brilliance of much of his journalism and book reviews. The conclusion of his review of a biography of Cyril Connolly, the editor of Horizon, a well-known literary magazine, from 1939 to 1949 will give a taste of Kermode’s extraordinary bravura:

It was almost by accident that Connolly became the most influential figure in English writing in the 1940s. He gave it a coloring derived from a former time, from the world of Waugh’s early novels, and Anthony Powell’s, with a dash of Elizabeth Bowen—upper-class refinement, a rather weary vice, a snobbishness appealing and appalling. It was remarkable that such a coloring could survive that awful decade, but it did. It has still not quite faded [in 1989], though doubtless it will soon be gone for good, like Connolly’s own taste for the refinements of Latin poetry, for the high pleasures of Paris, for women who are both intelligent and submissive.
It is so long since most writers had the necessary education, or could afford the pleasures and find the women, that if they were made available we should hardly know what to do with them. But looking at my own battered, surviving copies of Horizon, I remember that among the myths that animated me in those years was that perhaps someday I should possess and know how to value that douceur de vie, even if it meant being rather deliciously sad for quite a lot of the time. If anybody enjoys it now, he or she doesn’t edit a literary journal, and almost certainly has very little interest in what used to be called, in all innocence, literature.

The rich combination of comedy, nostalgia, admiration, and contempt—with even a touch of self-contempt—almost obscures the way these final paragraphs delicately communicate a sense of the changing social, cultural, and economic history of a past decade and its souvenirs. For vitality, complexity, and range of intelligence, Frank Kermode had few peers.

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