Keys to Shakespeare

Anne Barton

  • Shakespeare’s Tragic Practice by Bertrand Evans
    Oxford, 327 pp, £12.50, December 1979, ISBN 0 19 812094 X
  • The Tragic Effect: The Oedipus Complex in Tragedy by André Green, translated by Alan Sheridan
    Cambridge, 264 pp, £10.50, October 1979, ISBN 0 521 21377 0
  • Shakespeare’s Tragic Sequence by Kenneth Muir
    Liverpool, 207 pp, £9.50, November 1979, ISBN 0 85323 184 2
  • Shakespeare’s Comic Sequence by Kenneth Muir
    Liverpool, 207 pp, £9.50, November 1979, ISBN 0 85323 064 1

Twenty years ago, Bertrand Evans published Shakespeare’s Comedies, a book with one idea. Shakespeare, he argued, habitually gives his audience an awareness of the true nature of any dramatic situation greater than that of the characters on the stage. Evans analysed the 13 comedies and the four last plays scene by scene, and concluded that a technique of ‘discrepant awareness’ or ‘exploitable gaps’ between characters and theatre audience lay at the heart of Shakespeare’s dramatic method. ‘It is a fact,’ he announced, ‘that the comedies which approach perfection in their dramatic construction regularly exhibit a high proportion of scenes in which we hold advantage, and that those which are most deficient exhibit a low proportion of such scenes – thus, at the one extreme, Twelfth Night, and, at the other, Troilus and Cressida.’

Although some interesting points did emerge from its statistics and commentary, Shakespeare’s Comedies was a rather worrying book. Obsession with the value of ‘discrepant awareness’ led Evans to postulate a Shakespeare who steadily improved as a dramatist between The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night because, in each successive play, he found better and more ingenious ways of telling his audience more and his characters less. Some alarming critical misjudgments resulted from this premise: a superficial and dismissive treatment of the early comedies, the view of Troilus and Cressida as a deplorable failure, a rapturous response to the notoriously problematic last scene of Cymbeline because it creates such an extreme of audience omniscience and character confusion, and a corresponding uneasiness when faced with the unprepared-for resurrection of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. Only some adroit divagatory manoeuvres allowed him to avoid discovering that The Merry Wives of Windsor (audience advantage in 16 out of 22 scenes, as opposed to the four out of 27 in Troilus and Cressida) was Shakespeare’s most brilliant comedy.

The Preface to Shakespeare’s Comedies announced briskly that ‘a similar account of the management of awarenesses in the histories and tragedies is nearly finished at the present time’. In fact, it has taken Evans two decades to produce Shakespeare’s Tragic Practice, only part of the promised sequel. The somewhat desperate character of the finished book helps to explain this long delay. Shakespeare’s tragedies simply do not form as linked and coherent a body of work as the comedies. Even more important, they have proved resistant to Evans’s method. In the earlier book, ‘discrepant awareness’ played into the hands of a frankly sentimental reading of the comedies – the territory of ‘bright-eyed heroines’ (as Evans likes to call them) and transcendant goodness. Indeed, one of the main functions of ‘exploitable gaps’ in the comedies, apart from generating delightful irony and laughter, was apparently to reassure audiences that, whatever the characters may think, ultimately all will be rosy and well. In the tragedies, on the other hand, laughter and even irony are only incidental effects. And while the audience may be granted a knowledge of Iago’s plots, or the true nature of Edmund and Macbeth, superior to that of any of the characters on stage, this knowledge is scarcely the guarantee of a happy ending.

To do him justice, Evans does pause briefly midway through Shakespeare’s Tragic Practice to ask himself the crucial question. The dramatist’s purpose in devising ‘exploitable gaps’ in the comedies is always, he muses, self-evident. ‘But what is the result when the identical formula is applied in situations that involve life and death?’ Unfortunately, this query proves to be merely rhetorical. Evans never really answers it, except indirectly in the form of the particular interpretations he offers of individual tragedies. It quickly becomes obvious, however, that ‘discrepant awareness’ in this book has abandoned the tangible and relatively sensible area of plot and identity to enter the far more risky country of motivation. Even more alarming, most of these motivations turn out to be critical inventions, concealed from everyone but Evans.

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