Mulberrying

Andrew Gurr

  • Forms of Attention by Frank Kermode
    Chicago, 93 pp, £9.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 226 43168 1
  • Shakespeare: A Writer’s Progress by Philip Edwards
    Oxford, 204 pp, £12.50, January 1986, ISBN 0 19 219184 5
  • Shakespeare’s Lost Play: ‘Edmund Ironside’ edited by Eric Sams
    Fourth Estate, 383 pp, £25.00, January 1986, ISBN 0 947795 95 2
  • Such is my love: A Study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets by Joseph Pequigney
    Chicago, 249 pp, £16.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 226 65563 6
  • Shakespeare Survey 38: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production edited by Stanley Wells
    Cambridge, 262 pp, £25.00, January 1986, ISBN 0 521 32026 7
  • The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama by Catherine Belsey
    Methuen, 253 pp, £13.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 416 32700 1

Like relics of the True Cross, there are said to be enough splinters to make an orchard from the mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare in his garden at New Place. The Shakespeare canon has excited nearly as much passion for tangible facts, however marginal to the true faith, as Holy Writ. Bits of venerated mulberry scattered around the world of believers are a salutary reminder that our passion for tangibility evokes more than just that irritable reaching after fact and reason that Keats declared to be the antithesis of Shakespeare. In the Shakespeare canon at present, fact seems to be even more of a problem than interpretation. With such an intensely scrutinised canon, the less tangible and mulberry-like the facts, the more susceptible they are to the reshaping and rewriting of interpretation, and vice versa. The value of the facts of the Shakespeare canon lies in their interpretability.

It is this that enhances the facts, to the point where the facts of the canon become themselves the basis for evaluation. The assertion of a fact is an assertion of value. So we are apt to find interpretation struggling for status and value as fact. Paradoxically, interpretation, itself quickly perishable, sustains the canon as an imperishable fact. The trouble is that they are not really separable, because a circular system develops where fact and interpretation interact to sustain one another. And yet interpretation needs the fixity of a canon. When does the chicken and egg question become a vicious circle?

Literary canons are interpretations masquerading as facts. Interpretation always plunges for its anchorage in fact, and commonly gets into trouble when it falls for the temptation of claiming to be as solid as its anchorage. Fact is usually definable as the components most firmly attached to a canon, the texts, the attendant social and biographical circumstances, the history of the canon’s reputation. Interpretation relies on the appearance of fixity in all these trappings, though some forms of interpretation do try to adjust some of the fixtures around the margins and even near the centre of the canon, while taking care not to alter its value. The problem which promotes this illusion is that interpretation can handle intangibles, the questions which float naturally or unnaturally up from their fixed base in the canon, while the canon itself has to rest on tangibles, the common ground which makes discourse possible by providing a shared subject. The Shakespeare canon seems on the whole a tangible entity. It generates the term ‘Shakespearean’ as a praise word, a term which describes a quality at the same time as it evaluates it, and the grounds for the praise are clearly recognisable. That is a point basic to interpretation of the canon and its surrounding texts. But it is not a point which rests comfortably on fact. One peculiar irony about the Shakespeare canon is that the chief quality denoted by the term ‘Shakespearean’ is a complex polyvalency, a flexibility of word and signification in which interpretation flourishes mightily, and where the insurmountable complexity of the question makes answers pointless. The main value-judgment inherent in the canon is negative capability. That is not, however, a useful quality for the interpretation which wants to fix facts. Interpretation commonly uses the word ‘Shakespearean’ to identify the qualities of the canon in non-canonical texts. Problems accumulate when the word is used to argue for the inclusion of new texts in the canon, making interpretation create new facts, because the circularity of the argument becomes too obvious for comfort.

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