The author of four substantial scholarly books, numerous editorial interventions, and various critical articles, Anne Barton is a lucid and witty writer whose learning is both extensive and solidly grounded. Though born in America and a graduate of Bryn Mawr, she has lived and worked most of her adult life in England, where she is currently Professor of English and Fellow of Trinity College at Cambridge. Her career has been consistently, though not exclusively, devoted to the study of Shakespeare; and the present volume, Essays, Mainly Shakespearean, represents, as it were, a retrospective exhibit of much of her career. Two of the sixteen essays included are previously unpublished, the first, on English marriage customs in relation to Cymbeline, and the other, on “Comic London,” which stands next to last in the collection.
It is good to have the other fourteen essays collected here in a single book; and a thoroughly impressive book it is. The essays were first published not only in familiar repositories of the literature, such as the Shakespeare Quarterly and the Shakespeare Survey but in several Festschrifts and other topical places. With characteristic modesty and good taste, Ms. Barton has omitted a number of pieces which, though substantial, are already sufficiently familiar. Still, the collection stretches from a first undergraduate essay (1953) to the present—a solid body of informed, sensitive, and sensible commentary of which any scholar could be proud and with which future writers on Shakespeare will have to be acquainted. It is a big book but not a formidable one, and a consistent pleasure to read.
Since so much of the book has already appeared in print, albeit in scholarly journals, it may be appropriate for a reviewer to concentrate on the two new pieces, of which one shows Anne Barton’s historical work at its most distinctive, and the other illustrates its application beyond literature. The first essay concentrates on Cymbeline, commonly grouped with the romances or late plays. Probably it was produced in 1611, likely it was written a year or two before that, and its text derives from the 1623 Folio. Its action is set in early Britain, in the reign of Cunobelin (Cymbeline), during the rule of Augustus Caesar as Roman Emperor—very long ago, as needs no saying. Sundry Romans still live on the island, holdovers from the legions of Julius Caesar, the first invader. One of them is Posthumus Leonatus, so called because his father died before his birth. As a soldier-courtier, he frequents the court of Cymbeline, where he falls in love with, and is loved in turn by, Imogen, the King’s daughter by a previous marriage. This budding affinity is unwelcome to the King and particularly to the King’s second wife, who wants Imogen reserved for her uncouth son Cloten. In pursuance of this plan she has Posthumus Leonatus banished to the continent and Imogen jailed till she consents to marry the repugnant Cloten.
The question central to Ms. Barton’s essay has to do with the nature of the bond between Imogen and Posthumus Leonatus. They are dramatically eligible, young, handsome, brave, and affectionate; they say they are in love, and they are doomed to be separated by the paternal rigor of Cymbeline and his wicked queen (Imogen’s step-mother). The two gentlemen who introduce the audience to the court scene as the curtain first rises are entirely clear about the relation: Imogen is “wedded” to Posthumus Leonatus (line 7); he has “married her” (line 18). That is the prevailing situation.
But in what way and under whose auspices were they married? It cannot have been by a priest in a church with ring and prayer book and banns, because Christianity has not yet reached the island. Besides, the King looks with displeasure on the marriage, so it cannot be celebrated publicly. A marriage of sorts might have been performed by Druids, but there are no Druids elsewhere in the play, and if there were they would take a lot of explanation. Or it might have been performed, for stage purposes, by any one of several popular, not-very-well defined procedures known as verbum de praesenti or handfast (either silent or accompanied by a verbal formula, either privately or in the presence of witnesses). These were all forms of matrimony, more or less binding according to circumstances and the sustained intentions of the parties, and authorizing more or less domestic bliss as circumstances allowed. Ms. Barton thinks that one or other of these various arrangements may have taken place between Imogen and Posthumus Leonatus—as, indeed, it may have done.
Imogen particularly shows herself aware of the tricks and complications inherent in some of these informal arrangements. When she is enduring the unwelcome advances of Cloten she knows that she must answer them with an explicit, emphatic negative, lest her silence be interpreted as giving consent (II, iii, lines 112-123).
Imogen and Posthumus when together in the first act of the play sometimes refer to each other as “husband” and “wife”; and also when alone, each thinking of the other party. But through the entire middle part of the play (Acts II, III, IV), they are very chary of using these matrimonial designations. The silly argument that culminates in a foolish bet between Posthumus and Iachimo turns on the chastity of Posthumus’s “mistress” or his “lady.” There is a dramatic reason for such euphemistic discretion in the court of Cymbeline, but not in Rome. In fact, nobody has said straight out whether the couple were actually married, or by whom, or when, or where. Evidently Shakespeare wants to have it both ways. When they are together in the first and last acts of the play, Imogen and Posthumus are married as married can be; in the middle of the play, they are less so. (Posthumus is already in trouble with a sensitive audience for betting on his mistress’s virtue; he would be even more of a clod if it were emphasized that he was giving and taking odds on his wife’s chastity.) In a word, like the number of Lady Macbeth’s children, whether Imogen and Posthumus are or are not indissolubly married depends on one’s point of view, on the dramatic context, on the immediate convenience of the playwright.
In a similar way Prince Florizel is and is not married to Perdita in The Winter’s Tale. Their arrangement is variously referred to as a “pledge,” a “troth-plight,” or a “contract,” and sworn to in the most solemn terms by the prince; but when directly questioned by King Leontes, “You are married?” Florizel responds, “We are not sir, nor are we like to be” (V, i, 205). The ambiguity of the situation was most agreeable to itchy young people and to dramatists; however, it was not only lawyers, ecclesiastics, and heavy parents who in real life wanted matters clearly resolved one way or the other, but also possible heirs and heiresses, political allies, and opponents—anyone wanting to know for sure who was what.
Off the stage, people had to make up their minds. Handsome and well-to-do young ladies had to keep a sharp eye out for attractive and penniless young gentlemen who might take advantage of incautious words and informal marriage procedures to whisk them off into undesirable, permanent, and very much unwanted marriages. As late as the early eighteenth century young Harry Fielding (not yet the eminent novelist) tried unsuccessfully a version of this scam. The cause célèbre when Cymbeline first hit the boards was that of Arabella Stuart, whose blood was too blue to let King James feel comfortable about letting her marry anyone, whether formally or informally. The twenty-first story of Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron turns mostly on a marriage per verba de praesenti. From playbills and court records and scandal sheets Ms. Barton has collected dozens of instances where bypassing the formal procedures led to problems and disputes.
But the very variety of these developments raises questions about their use in interpreting Cymbeline. If Shakespeare meant this mass of tangled and various custom to be a key to the interpretation of his play, he hid it very successfully from an audience’s view. On the single occasion when one of the crucial words is pronounced (I, v, 77-78) the wicked queen speaks of the servant Pisanio as a remembrancer to Imogen of the handfast she may have exchanged with Posthumus. But the queen uses the word in contempt; it does not imply that Pisanio was a witness, for as a witness he would reinforce a bargain that she wants to abolish. If she really thought he had been a witness, she could have him questioned, doubtless disagreeably. As a matter of fact, this particular passage is one of only two in all of Shakespeare where one of the crucial terms is spoken onstage. The word “handfast” is used again in The Winter’s Tale (IV, iv, 768), but in the sense of “manacled,” “shackled.” Counting words does not prove very much, either positively or negatively, and Shakespeare’s failure to use the technical vocabulary could indicate either that he took for granted a popular understanding of this complex body of confusing custom—or that it was not quite as crucial to the play as it has seemed.
When she comes to sum up, Ms. Barton says that the study of contractual and matrimonial law in Shakespeare’s time can (1) rescue Imogen from charges of prudery, (2) make sense of the conflicting signals given out by the decor of her bedchamber, and (3) clarify the shifting definitions of her relation with Posthumus. Two of these problems seem to me less than major. The charges of prudery rest on a couple of lines spoken in a rage by Posthumus (II, v, 9-10):
Me of my lawful pleasures she restrain’d
And pray’d me oft forbearance….
This would be prudery, the argument suggests, if the couple were not married or betrothed; it seems to me more prudish if they are. The discussion verges on the implication that Imogen remained a virgin throughout, in which case why did she go through the forms of informal marriage at all? If Posthumus, while calling himself “husband” and Imogen “wife” does not exercise toward her anything but “forbearance,” how does he know about the “mole cinque-spotted” (a distinctive blemish on her breast) which is supposed to be inescapable proof? In fact, Imogen is supposed to be a delicious mixture of willingness and reluctance—her “sweet pudency” is exactly what Shakespeare’s mostly male audience dreamed of.
As for the “conflicting signals given out by the decor of her bedroom,” if they are signals to anyone, surely the fact that they are in her private bedroom limits their value as messages. No doubt they are both erotically inviting and chastely admonitory, as befits signals sent to a royal maiden. But this sort of decorative embroidery need not draw allegorical reinforcement from the indirect implications of a possible legal code.
The basic human situation of the drama, which anyone can appreciate with minimal scholarly apparatus, flows from the cruel and arbitrary forbiddings of Cymbeline, the heavy father. Imogen, being a sensible girl with whom the audience is invited to sympathize, wants to get around her father’s rough and arbitrary law. She makes her case, not primarily on the basis of obscure precedents and ambiguous popular traditions but on grounds the audience can instantly understand, her common sense and the recognized superiority of Posthumus. It is good for her position that many peripheral precedents and traditions were widely if not well known, justifying (in a way) something like the liberties taken by the young people. It is good for us, who read Shakespeare at a great temporal distance, to be reminded by Ms. Barton of this peripheral material. But it’s permitted to think that much of it remained peripheral as well to the audience at the Globe. By “peripheral” I don’t in the least mean “unwelcome.”
The essay on “Comic London” pairs easily with Ms. Barton’s 1979 study of “London comedy and the ethos of the city.” “Tragic drama,” she writes in the earlier essay,
does not like the city. Comedy, by contrast, has usually insisted that the urban world constitutes its proper sphere. It confronts its audience with a more or less heightened, a fantasized picture, of that audience’s own, day-to-day life in a city which, although it often shelters prudently under other names, tends to be recognizable as a version of the one just outside the playhouse door.
The ethos of the city, though it left, as Barton points out, the merest trace on the work of Shakespeare (perhaps the “Pyramus and Thisbe” play of Bottom et al.) made a distinctive appearance early in the seventeenth century and in literature other than the drama. From John Taylor the Water Poet to Elkanah Settle and Sir Richard Blackmore, with lesser figures in between, runs a line of poets for whom the city of London cherished a special and reciprocated fondness. Their special talents had been welcomed officially at the civic pageants held annually in honor of the Lord Mayor. They mistrusted individual fantasy, classical mythology, and strained metaphor, but admired good sense and historical fact. Thus, despite a basic hostility to theater and the arts of impersonation, the city developed out of its own social legends a kind of dramatic presence. To the polite writers for the gentlemanly stage, city dramas were preposterous parodies of truly heroic theater. The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607), which in good part makes fun of The Four Prentices of London by Thomas Heywood, represents the heroic dream-life of the London bourgeoisie. Ms. Barton focuses the picture further by emphasizing the prentices of the city as a particularly extravagant class of dreamers, and reminding us of their folk- or fantasy-heroes like Dick Whittington (whose famous cat may have been an interlingual pun on the French word for “purchase,” achat), of the less edifying shoemaker-mayor Sim Eyre, and of the very historical Sir Thomas Gresham.
Scholarly prose rarely illustrates effectively the stylistic graces, and it can’t be denied that Ms. Barton (who seems to have read and actually recalled every minor character in the lowest farce staged at the Red Bull) occasionally overloads her sentences with allusive detail. But as a rule the flow of her prose is graceful and deft. She can summarize in a few glancing sentences the decline of London’s parks in the late eighteenth century:
Most important of all, however, was what registers increasingly in eighteenth-century comedy as a real change and diminution in the comedic value of the park: one in which the imagery of the hunt was eventually to become obsolete. Already in Steele’s The Lying Lover of 1704, an assignation at Rosamond’s Pond has entirely lost its sexual implications. The anonymous author of St. James’s Park, in 1733, does almost nothing with an enormous cast of characters clearly intended to mirror his actual outdoor audience, but have them walk up and down the Mall slandering each other. Some of the dialogue, genuinely funny, looks forward to Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (1777). Nonetheless, when five of them decide to march abreast down the Mall and “as Congreve says, Laugh at the great Vulgar and the Small… Sneer all the Men we meet that are strangers to us, out of Countenance. And jostle all the Women,” it is impossible not to remember that in The Way of the World (1700) these were the very minor voices of Petulant and Witwoud, whose proposals to do just this Mirabell treated with contempt.
In any event, though the great vogue of comic Cockneyism was just around the corner, the eighteenth century developed very little city drama of its own, whether serious or derisive. Perhaps the sort of humor that later gathered around figures like George Jorrocks and Sam Weller was itself more literary than real. (Most early accounts of special dialects are greatly exaggerated:I have never heard a New York “toity-toid street” dialect, and shrewd observers report that Sam Weller’s kind of Cockney speech is undiscoverable now—if it ever existed outside the pages of Dickens.)
Thus the sort of humor built on Cockney mannerisms does not fall within Ms. Barton’s present purview. Too bad, for she would have had something fresh to say about it. One wonders why The London Merchant, George Lillo’s lone powerful and influential play, had to wait till 1741 to bring on stage an authentic prentice-hero. Such a question gets us into difficult matters of social history and psychology, but if they cannot be answered definitively, they can provoke speculation. What is sure is that change, if irregular, was constant. From the affectionate mockery of John Gay to the inter-snob skirmishing of Oscar Wilde to the jocosities of Jeeves and Wooster to the comic microcosm of the Bellamy household on Eaton Square, the comic world of London has steadily broadened and deepened. Brave New World is a London novel of sorts, and so after a fashion is A Clockwork Orange. Tracing out these trends, modes, and possibilities is work for a full company of scholars, fantasists, and visionaries to come.
It would not be right to pass in silence over Ms. Barton’s reprinted essays, which make up the bulk of the new volume. Many of the Shakespearean essays deal with the later plays; and for this reader two of the most distinguished were that on “realism” and that on the divided catastrophe as in Antony and Cleopatra. The latter play is one of the most familiar, and no topic more discussed than the mirrored duplicity of the protagonists; yet even here Barton writes freshly and revealingly:
Continually the play directs one back to Cleopatra’s perspective picture, to the monster who is also a Mars. With these two people, moreover, the same quality tends to evoke contradictory descriptions, to become a virtue or a vice depending on the position of the viewer, or the particular moment of time. So, Cleopatra’s infinite variety, the quality that holds Antony captive in Egypt for so long, both is and is not the same as her deplorable tendency to tell lies. Enobarbus himself, that shrewd and cynical commentator, cannot distinguish between her charm and her deceit at a number of crucial moments in the play. Nor, alas, can he separate Antony’s extravagance, that culpable waste about which Caesar is so censorious, from Antony’s bounty: that godlike generosity of spirit which makes Antony send Enobarbus’ treasure after him when he defects to Caesar, and breaks the soldier’s heart. Antony’s behaviour, as Philo complains in the opening scene, “o’erflows the measure,” but the very phrase reminds us that when the Nile does exactly this, it showers goodness and prosperity on everyone around. Caesar’s “bounty,” on the other hand, on the one occasion when the word is associated with him (V, 2, 43) is a meaningless abstraction—a politic lie invented by Proculeius in the hope of deceiving Cleopatra. Antony’s bounty is very different. A protean and mercurial thing, it is as stunning and unnecessary as the spontaneous leaps of the dolphin, and as difficult to restrain or assess. The worst things about Cleopatra and her lover are also, maddeningly, the best.
Perhaps the piece on Livy, Machiavelli, and Coriolanus contains more preliminary arguments than are justified by its relatively mild conclusion. But that the complex and doubtful relations between language and “reality” in the later plays call for a special sort of reading is cogently argued in a jewel of a paper on Leontes and the spider. And for a summary—half-literary, half-psychological, and meticulously detailed—of the life-long relations between Ben Jonson and Shakespeare, one need not look beyond Ms. Barton’s essay of that name.
The book is not one to be read at a sitting, but to be studied long and meditated on longer. It’s not often tha
September 22, 1994