‘Words, Words, Words’

In 1933, Logan Pearsall Smith published a small, compact, engagingly personal book called On Reading Shakespeare. In its first chapter, he recalled how a great divine of the Elizabethan era describes in one of his sermons a region in the East, in Georgia, which was so immersed all day in gloom that no one could see his own hand within its borders; those who dwelt upon its frontiers could hear the noise of cocks crowing, horses neighing, and the cries of human beings, but no one outside dared to venture in, for fear of losing his way in that land of eternal darkness. Thus, he said,

the cries of the distracted inhabitants sometimes reach us from the dark realm of Shakespearean interpretation. We hear the bleating of idiot adorers and the eternal swish of their whitewash brushes; we hear the squeals of the idealists…; the war-cries of the Foliolators and Disintegrators as they rush upon each other and even wilder battle cries than these (for it is impossible to exaggerate their strangeness) will reach our ears. For listen!

Smith then reminded his readers of the cries emitted by the followers of “no less than five ghostly resurrected Elizabethan Earls”; of those heard from the supporters of Derby, Oxford, Rutland, and other claimants to be the true author of the man from Stratford’s plays; of the Pembrokians and Southamptonians quarreling vociferously over the identity of the young man addressed in the Sonnets; and finally, “as the wind shifts, we hear the ululations of those vaster herds of Baconian believers, as they plunge squeaking down the Gadarene slope of their delusion.”

The underlying myth here is, of course, classical in origin. In Book XI of the Odyssey, Odysseus anchors briefly off the shores of the land of the Cimmerians, a country of perpetual darkness even at midday, located on the furthest edge of the sea that bounds the world, but he is too prudent to venture inland. No outsider who does is likely to emerge again into the light. Logan Pearsall Smith, wittily reimagining Cimmeria as “the darkling plain” of Shakespeare scholarship (including biography and interpretation), a place where Matthew Arnold’s “ignorant armies clash by night,” doesn’t really cross its frontiers either, contenting himself with isolating a few overheard voices. What cohesion the place has was provided for him by A.C. Bradley, E.K. Chambers, and Harley Granville- Barker, commentators who seemed to him to make sense.

Ron Rosenbaum, by contrast, in The Shakespeare Wars, boldly rushes in, emerging (after some six hundred pages) with an attempted map of the whole region (now geographically far more extensive as well as populous than in Smith’s day), together with a detailed description of its many contemporary inhabitants, some—in his view—more benighted than others. Not all readers will find his account persuasive, or, indeed, find the present state of Shakespeare scholarship (critical interpretation and textual studies included) quite so dark and conflict-ridden as Rosenbaum makes it out to be.

Rosenbaum’s real bugbear—“literary theory”…

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