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.
Inevitably, in a collection so rich and wide-ranging, one has moments of dissent. I jib, myself, at Honigmann’s comparison of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to Margaret Thatcher, in the essay “Politics, rhetoric and will-power in Julius Caesar.” It is unfair to Caesar. Nor would I really like to see, as he urges, a production of King Lear in which Cordelia was still (just) alive when carried in by her father in the final scene—though it is extremely valuable to be reminded by Honigmann that the word “dead” in the stage direction everyone remembers (“Enter Lear, with Cordelia dead in his arms”) was inserted by Rowe in 1709, has no textual authority, and cannot reflect a theater tradition because Tate’s version of Lear, in which Cordelia does not die, is the only one Rowe could have witnessed.
Again, I am skeptical about the prospect of a Helena who, at the end of All’s Well that Ends Well, literally leaves Bertram holding the baby. Such a reading may be faithful both to the source and to Bertram’s conditions as outlined in Act III, which required Helena, if she were ever to call Bertram her husband, to “show me a child begotten of thy body, that I am father to.” The letter Helena reads in the final scene, however, stipulating only that she be “by me with childe” surely reflects a change of mind on Shakespeare’s part, eliminating the awkwardness of a stage infant, as well as a nine-month gap in the action, and allowing Diana her poignant “riddle” about Helena’s pregnancy: “one that’s dead is quick.”
Awkwardness, an embarrassed Bertram uncertain what to do with an incipiently howling infant, is just what Honigmann wants in this final scene. One may reject his proposed staging, and yet accept the reason for it: a sharp conflict of male and female in this comedy generally, in which the women as a group win hands down. The question posed by Honigmann’s title, “All’s Well That Ends Well: a ‘feminist’ play?” is one that the essay answers, persuasively, in the affirmative. This reading, sensitively alive to but never forcing the text, goes a long way toward explaining why, in the hands of predominantly male critics, the play should for so long have been unpopular. It is one of several excellent essays in this collection, among which one might select Honigmann’s illuminating account of how the downfall of Essex bears upon the odd theatrical and publishing history of Troilus and Cressida, and “Shakespeare at Work,” a major contribution to the theory of how Shakespeare’s texts were revised by the man who, in The Stability of Shakespeare’s Text (1965), laid the foundation upon which others (including Taylor) have built.
Honigmann makes an appearance in Taylor’s Reinventing Shakespeare, but almost entirely as the author of “William Shakespeare, Businessman,” a conference paper partially overlapping with the first essay in his new book. This Taylor coarsens and misrepresents in order to suggest that the historical Shakespeare, like Edward Bond’s fictional character, was “not a nice guy.” Honigmann’s role in what is coming to be seen as the textual revolution that has given us new versions of several of the plays is entirely ignored. He can console himself, at least, that he is in good company. Although Nevill Coghill, Granville-Barker, and Dr. Johnson all speculated, as Honigmann does here, that authorial revision might explain certain variants in the quarto and folio texts of some of Shakespeare’s plays, Taylor erases their insights too.
It was, apparently, only in the 1980s that Taylor, with a few attendant lords, “challenged 250 years of Shakespeare’s text,” overturning an editorial orthodoxy unquestioned, we are told, since Rowe and Pope. Honigmann, in 1965, arrestingly compared Shakespeare with Keats. Despite contemporary talk of his “facility,” Keats, too, cared enough about his work to rethink it even after publication. For Taylor, on the other hand, evidences of authorial revision are merely ways of assailing Bardolatry: “God,” he announces gleefully, “doesn’t make mistakes, and God doesn’t change his mind.”
“Present Tense,” the penultimate section of Reinventing Shakespeare, contrives to leap on to a predictable combination of contemporary bandwagons while continuing to patronize the major editors, critics, and sometimes the great poets and novelists, of the past. Taylor’s crudely formulated left-wing bias makes him less open to the actual achievements of these people than to a sense of indignation that so many of them should have been male, white, British, middle or upper class, and, in most cases, dependent upon something other than quartos and folios for their livelihood. Dr. Johnson’s edition, we are told, was “granted a retrospective centrality that the quality of his editorial work hardly merited”—a surprising belittlement, justified, so far as one can see, only by Taylor’s subsequent description of Johnson as “the most famous of England’s Tory journalists.” W.W. Greg, grudgingly allowed to be a great (as well as professional) textual critic, is faulted for never having produced a “popular” edition and also for helping, in 1926, to break the General Strike, while Virginia Woolf, awarded a few points for being a woman, immediately loses them for her Bloomsbury attitudes.
Shakespeare, according to Taylor, revealed in his plays personal beliefs which “can hardly be doubted”: in orthodox Christianity, witches, ghosts, the over-whelming importance of premarital female virginity, the evil nature of bastards, the influence of the planets, the divine right of kings, the comic nature of cuckolds, that “gentlemen” are invariably “gentle,” etc. Such supposed views, rendering him dangerous to “schoolchildren and impressionable young adults” in our society, might be expected to attract such kindred spirits as Greg and Dr. Johnson. They scarcely explain (if we are to play the game of judging Shakespeare by his admirers) why Karl Marx loved the plays—a fact about which Taylor is silent—or their appeal to William Hazlitt, a figure of increasing importance these days, whose radical credentials are sound.
Hazlitt appears in Taylor’s book only to be reprimanded for (sometimes) not liking the plays in the theater, and for failing, along with the other Romantics, “to take arms against a sea of Shakespeare.” But he is the hero of Jonathan Bate’s Shakespearean Constitutions. Where Taylor generalizes about the persistent “reinvention” of Shakespeare over some 350 years by reactionary (or pusillanimous) editors and readers, Jonathan Bate scrupulously examines a single century of his “appropriation” by conflicting political and aesthetic ideologies. Part One of his fine book concentrates on political caricature, notably that of James Gillray, and on parody, while also attending to Shakespeare as acted in the period, and edited. Jacob Tonson, Bate points out, the in-group publisher Gary Taylor loves to hate, in fact brought out a cheap, duodecimo reprint in 1714 of Rowe’s 1709 edition, as well as selling the more popular plays individually. These cheap editions circulated widely in rural areas and servants’ quarters. (Some have turned up specifically marked for “The Housekeeper’s Room.”) The reason so few survive is that, like modern paperbacks, they were “read until they fell to pieces.”
For Bate, “the centrality of the plays to English culture” is no source of dismay. He demonstrates not only that Shakespearean quotation and allusion was used in caricature directed against the establishment, as in Cruikshank’s “Massacre at St. Peter’s,” but that it often exploded in the hands of pro-government satirists: text subverted image by summoning up its original context in the play. With Gillray, officially a government supporter, Bate argues, Shakespeare even became a way of acknowledging covert political dissent. In the face of Bate’s scholarship, Taylor on the same ground looks silly. He is diminished even further when Bate, in Part Two of Shakespearean Constitutions, turns his attention to Hazlitt as the exemplary critic, because “attuned at one and the same time to the theatre, to the plays as literary objects, to Shakespeare’s capacity to illuminate a later age, and to the difficulty of being liberal-minded in politics yet committed to the power of art.”
Bate is too ready to endorse Hazlitt’s troubled misreading of Coriolanus as a play essentially contemptuous of the people. But the error is generous. He is out to praise Hazlitt’s honesty and fairness as a critic, even in an instance where Shakespeare’s text seemed to challenge his most deeply held convictions. Bate’s response here is one of imaginative sympathy, and it aligns him across two centuries with Hazlitt himself, whose guiding critical principle this was. Almost as important was his sense of great literature as a gift. Bate rightly gives pride of place to Hazlitt’s observations that
People would not trouble their heads about Shakespear, if he had given them no pleasure, or cry him up to the skies, if he had not first raised them there. The world are not grateful for nothing.
A lack of imaginative sympathy, and of real respect for literature, are precisely what make Taylor’s Reinventing Shakespeare such a tedious book. Apart from his implied approval of a few colleagues, and some of the “big” names in current criticism, Taylor does not seem to enjoy anything he reads. As Winnie-the-Pooh says ruefully of Tigger, “All the good things which an animal likes / Have the wrong sort of swallow or too many spikes.” Keats’s magnificent sonnet, “On sitting down to read King Lear once again,” is dismissed, astonishingly, as “not, to tell the truth, a very good poem,” resembling in this “most of Shakespeare’s own sonnets.” When, near the end, Taylor embarks on a defense of Plautus, it is only because the “toughness” of Roman comedy can be used as a means of attacking the “central mushiness” of Shakespearean comedy. One might expect him to be disturbed by the fact that Plautine “toughness” includes an unruffled acceptance of slavery and, at the end of the Menaechmi, the play he compares (to its advantage) with The Comedy of Errors, the right of a husband to auction off his unwanted wife. Taylor, however, intent on getting at Shakespeare, momentarily forgets his principles—or, perhaps, his reading of Plautus has been as slipshod and imperceptive as it is of Keats.
One of the things that irritate Taylor about the Keats sonnet is that its author is reading King Lear “again.” Shakespeare’s plays, he growls, have by this time “become the objects of repeated readings.” Heminge and Condell, however, had urged exactly this back in 1623: “Reade him, therefore, and againe, and againe.” Coediting the Oxford Shakespeare has necessarily involved Taylor himself in a good deal of rereading. While he scarcely qualifies for the category of those “that can but spell,” his inability to “like” does seem to be a product of his failure to “understand.” The result is not just another bad book on Shakespeare. Reinventing Shakespeare calls into question the qualities of sensibility Taylor has brought to the Oxford edition. Addressed, moreover—accompanied by a great deal of publishers’ hype—to the general reader, from a position of apparent academic authority, it threatens (especially for the young) to do damage and seriously mislead.
Reinventing Shakespeare is nothing if not vigorous. Like Tigger, Taylor bounces. Editions are not simply published, but “burped out”; Dr. Johnson, editing the last act of Lear, has to return “to the scene of the accident”; plays, at the close of the seventeenth century, go “from sexually erect to morally upright”; “Word thickens, and the crow makes wing to th’ booky wood” (solemnly noted as “Misquotation of Macbeth 3.2.51–2″), and “We have made love to The Tempest so many times that the act of textual intercourse itself has begun to bore us.” Here, as elsewhere, Taylor’s confident plurals assume the right to speak for Everett, Honigmann, Bate, and everyone else reading, teaching, or writing about Shakespeare: “Our judgment is bewildered past recall;…our tongues make noises but can no longer taste.” It is unlikely that “anyone who professes literature in the English-speaking nations really knows anymore whether Shakespeare is ‘as good as they say.’ ” Anyone, that is, but Taylor. He is sure that Shakespeare is now “a black hole,” distorting our view of the universe around, transmitting “no visible light.” But the truth is that Tigger has seen something “climbing up” the table,
and with one loud worraworraworraworraworra he jumped at the end of the tablecloth, pulled it to the ground, wrapped himself up in it three times, rolled to the other end of the room, and, after a terrible struggle, got his head into the daylight again, and said cheerfully: “Have I won?”
To which the answer is, “No.”
February 1, 1990