Bardbiz

Terence Hawkes

  • Rebuilding Shakespeare’s Globe by Andrew Gurr and John Orrell
    Weidenfeld, 197 pp, £15.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 297 79346 2
  • Shakespeare and the Popular Voice by Annabel Patterson
    Blackwell, 195 pp, £27.50, November 1989, ISBN 0 631 16873 7
  • Re-Inventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present by Gary Taylor
    Hogarth, 461 pp, £18.00, January 1990, ISBN 0 7012 0888 0
  • Shakespeare’s America, America’s Shakespeare by Michael Bristol
    Routledge, 237 pp, £30.00, January 1990, ISBN 0 415 01538 3

Few things unhinge the British as much as doublet and hose. The merest hint unleashes golden fantasies of order and well-being, yoking together gentility and free-born earthiness within a deep dream of peace. And so, in 1989, when bulldozers in Southwark accidentally laid bare the foundations first of the Rose Theatre and then of the Globe, a furore began fit to astonish any passing Elizabethan ghost. The possibility that one of these sites might fall prey to property developers generated more squeaking and gibbering in the London streets than you could shake a severed head at. Greenrooms of actors ranged anoraked bodies against the pile-drivers. Guggenheims of scholars jumboed in from North America. There was weeping and wailing and the gnashing of clapperboards for the TV cameras. The air thickened with pronouncements about culture, art, our ‘national heritage’.

It’s worth reminding ourselves during the present lull in hostilities that a salutary strand of Puritanism is woven into the very ‘national heritage’ that the self-appointed guardians of the Rose and the Globe Theatres claim to be preserving. One of the major charges levelled by the Puritans against the playhouses of Shakespeare’s day was that they were involved in and encouraged idolatory: the worship of graven images. The appalling spectacle of famous actors and actresses praying over heaps of bricks and mortar, lighting candles, and tying paper flowers to the wire fencing around the Rose and the Globe, had a familiar whiff.

Andrew Gurr and John Orrell’s Rebuilding Shakespeare’s Globe concerns a project conceived well before the recent discoveries. But its primary aim – to present the case for a ‘reconstruction’ of the Globe Theatre in Southwark near the site of the original – might well set the odd Puritan nostril twitching. Gurr’s crisp, lucid survey of the present state of knowledge about audiences, acting companies and playgoing in 1600 is predictably impeccable, and nothing less could be said of Orrell’s account of the structure of the original Globe and the Inigo Jones designs for indoor theatres. The book’s scholarship, its commitment, its good intentions lie manifestly beyond dispute. However, there are difficulties.

The first and most obvious one lurks in the linked notions of ‘reconstruction’ and ‘original’. Their involvement in what the fell sergeants of deconstruction have urged us to see as a culture-specific need to establish legitimating presences, and what less amibitious citizens might rank as a longing for a vanished Eden, should give us pause here. The potential of ‘origin’ as an agent of affirmation, confirmation and limitation makes it a powerful ideological tool. If we can persuade ourselves that in some way origins generate authenticity, determine, establish and reinforce essentials, then we can forget about change and about the history and politics which produce it. A covert, idolatrous agenda backs temptingly into view. The ‘original’ Globe Theatre! That firmest of rocks on which the true unchanging English culture is founded! To bolt the shifting uncertain present firmly to that monument must be a project worth encouraging. Let Europe loom, the pound wilt, Shakespeare’s wooden O offers a peculiarly satisfying bulwark against change.

Another difficulty is that the notion of an ‘original’ Globe theatre doesn’t bear much looking into. There were, to begin with, two of them. The first Globe was constructed in 1599. It burned down in 1613 and a second Globe was constructed on the same site. If the first Globe is the ‘original’ one, a central problem must be that the timbers from which it was built were themselves ‘originally’ used to construct Burbage’s first playhouse, called The Theatre, situated on the north bank of the Thames and dismantled in December 1598. In short, the first and ‘original’ Globe was itself already a literal ‘reconstruction’ of a pre-existing theatre, arid the present project runs the serious risk of being a reconstruction of a reconstruction. The dizzying prospect of a third remove enters with the fact that the best physical picture of the Globe is the one afforded by Wenceslas Hollar’s ‘Long View’ of London. But this gives a view of the second Globe, which is, of course, a reconstruction on the same site of the first Globe. Finally, as if in mockery of all such reaching after authenticity, it happens that Hollar’s engraving reverses the captions on the two buildings, with the result that the one it clearly nominates as ‘The Globe’ is no such thing. Indeed, the sacred edifice itself is ignominiously designated for all to see as an arena for ‘Beere bayting’.

The less than edifying spectacle of scholars in pursuit of authenticity is familiar enough in the field of Shakespearean textual scholarship, where the quest for what the Bard ‘originally’ wrote in pristine and unsullied manuscript form has its own comic and ideologically illuminating history. But Gurr and Orrell’s meticulous and delicate work deserves a better fate than the underwriting of what has begun to look rather like an Elizabethan theme park with two reconstructed playhouses (the Globe and the ‘Inigo Jones playhouse’) firmly (if that’s the word) at its centre – I speak as a former enthusiast for the project. The playhouses, we are told, will act as the focus of a larger complex, an ‘educational milieu’ presenting a ‘re-created piece of London’s history’. The good news is that, to conform to modern fire regulations, the theatres will have illuminated ‘Exit’ signs. Light one for me.

There is, of course, an ultimate difficulty. What can never be reconstructed is the major ingredient of all Shakespeare’s plays, the factor which completed them and made them work: their original audience. Annabel Patterson’s Shakespeare and the Popular Voice boldly confronts this issue in a spirited study of the ways in which the plays might be said to give that audience a voice. Rejecting as ‘counter-intuitive’ the notion that Shakespeare would have supported an aristocratic and ‘anti-popular’ myth of society, she offers a populist Bard writing on the side of an inherited cultural tradition of popular protest. By the early 19th century this Shakespeare had been expunged from the record and a different voice was on offer as the true utterance of the Bard. Patterson is one of a number of critics and scholars who have recently been trying either to establish contact with the voice of the earlier incarnation or to understand the nature of the expunging process itself.

One of the most effective agents in that respect was certainly the apostate Coleridge, whose lectures on Shakespeare gear themselves to a growing fear of popular revolution and, in the playwright’s name, deploy a considered programme of anti-Jacobin propaganda. As Jonathan Bate has pointed out in an incisive study of the cultural politics of the period,[*] Hazlitt stands as the Radical to Coleridge’s Conservative in terms of a struggle for possession of Shakespeare that was a feature of British ideology between Waterloo and Peterloo.

Shakespeare’s centrality as an instrument of cultural meaning was confirmed by that contest. The creature familiar to us as ‘Shakespeare’ was to some degree produced by it. Reinforced and transmitted by the educational system, this is a figure we immediately recognise and embrace: liberal, disinterested, all-wise; his plays the repository, guarantee and chief distributor next to God of unchanging truth. If there is a darker side, it emerges in the conclusion to which Hazlitt is ineluctably drawn – that, by virtue of his poetic imagination, Shakespeare is ultimately complicit with the political power he scrutinises.

Bate’s thoughtful analysis suggests that the plays ultimately elude wholesale appropriation, that they cannot be finally constituted by political preference. But Hazlitt’s conclusion remains to trouble us. Are Shakespeare’s plays essentially reactionary? Can we discern popular protest only in their unconscious revelations, in the patterns of their systematic blindness? Or do they offer us the direct voice of that protest, once we have trained ourselves to hear it beyond the filtering mediations of the intervening years?

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[*] Oxford, 234 pp., £27.50, 28 September 1989, 0 19 811749 3. Bate’s book will be discussed in this journal by John Bayley.

[†] Signifying nothing: Truth’s True Contexts in Shakespeare’s Texts, by’ Malcolm Evans (Harvester, 317 pp., £10.95, 1989, 0 7450 0624 8) and Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries by Jonathan Dollimore (Harvester, 312 pp., £40 and £10.95, 1989, 0 7450 0623).