Act Three, Scene Three of Julius Caesar ends with the murder of a poet. It begins with a stage direction: Enter Cinna the poet, and after him the Plebeians. This direction creates two oppositions. The poet is opposed to the plebeians. And ‘Cinna the poet’ is opposed to ‘Cinna the conspirator’, a character with the same name but a different vocation. On these two oppositions – between poet and plebeians, between poet and conspirator – Shakespeare builds his narrative of bardicide.
You might object that he inherited these oppositions from history. But of Plutarch’s two accounts of ‘the murder of Cinna’, only one even mentions, in passing, that the victim was ‘a poet’. Given a choice, Shakespeare chose to make Cinna a poet. He also chose to dramatise this superfluous episode. In inserting this scene and insisting upon Cinna’s vocation, he asserted a relationship between literature and politics. Whether ‘the aesthetic and the ideological are necessarily intertwined in literature and literary criticism’ is the question vigorously debated by the 19 contributors to Shakespeare Left and Right, a question repeatedly and vehemently asked in the current American debate about ‘political correctness’. But in this scene from Julius Caesar the relationship between politics and poetics is not imported by a Post-Modernist critic, but demanded by Shakespeare.
Moreover, Shakespeare did not simply transcribe into the sign-language of the theatre a historian’s prose: he changed the story – and changed it in ways which make it, if anything, less dramatic. Plutarch does not say how the plebeians slew Cinna. Shakespeare insists, five times, that the plebeians dismember him. It is not easy to dismember an actor on stage; it would have been especially difficult in the Elizabethan theatre. Why so insistently demand a theatrically impossible dismemberment?
In dismembering Cinna Shakespeare must have remembered, and expected many playgoers to remember, the death of Orpheus. Orpheus – the Muse’s own son, the mythological original and iconographic epitome of the poet – was murdered by a crowd which tore him to pieces. Five times elsewhere in the 1590s Shakespeare explicitly referred to Orpheus, who was part of the Renaissance literary system, its emblem books and dictionaries, its cheap pamphlets and expensive masques, its popular and esoteric discourses.
By making Cinna’s death visually, verbally and actively echo that of Orpheus, Shakespeare implies that what happened to Cinna is not an accidental narrative episode but a recurrent pattern in the history of culture. Plutarch’s Cinna is ‘a poet’, once; Shakespeare’s Cinna is (three times) ‘the poet’. Cinna’s death is Orpheus’s death is the death of ‘the poet’, as a Platonic and social category.
Shakespeare, in dramatising Plutarch, generalises and emphasises the murder of the poet. This emphatic generality would also have been encouraged by the circumstances of the play’s early performances. Julius Caesar was seen by a tourist on 21 September 1599; most scholars now agree that this must have been one of its first performances. In June 1599, the government decreed ‘that no satires or epigrams be printed hereafter,’ and on 4 June many published satires were, by order of Archbishop Whitgift and Bishop Bancroft, publicly burned. Julius Caesar was thus probably being written at a time when books were being burned. Is the timing coincidental? It was not coincidental that the first American revival of Julius Caesar which restored this scene took place in 1937, when books were being burned in Germany: Orson Welles portrayed the plebeians who murder Cinna as Fascist Brown-shirts. In 1937, in 1599, Julius Caesar dramatised an attack on a poet, at a time when poets were being attacked outside the theatre.
Act Three, Scene Three of Julius Caesar is Shakespeare’s Defence of Poetry. The death of the author is here attributed to a strong misreading. The ambiguous proper noun ‘Cinna’ is misinterpreted by a plebeian auditory, who attribute to it a political meaning which it does not have. The poet Shakespeare constructs a scenario in which the poet is unmistakably innocent; the poet’s work, unmistakably apolitical; the poet’s intentions, unmistakably clear; the popular reading of the poet, unmistakably mistaken.
But this very scene, which denies that the poet is a political agent, is itself a political act – was a political act in 1599, and has been one ever since. Every disavowal is an avowal. Consider, for instance, Shakespeare’s portrayal of the populace. Shakespeare had two models for the crowd that murders a poet, and he altered both. The crowd that murdered Orpheus knew who it was murdering, and why. In a long poem printed in 1597, the legend of Orpheus is made the occasion for extensive satire on women; Bacon’s De Sapienta Veterum of 1609 explains ‘it is wisely added in the story that Orpheus was averse from women and from marriage; for the sweets of marriage ... commonly draw men away from performing great and lofty services ...’; in Fletcher’s play of 1617, Orpheus tries to persuade the Mad Lover that the love of women is a hellish plague. The hostility of women to such a poet is understandable. The Orpheus myth – in which a crowd of women murders a male poet, deliberately – was always overdetermined by gender, and the cultural logic of that myth is perpetuated by those who see feminist criticism as an enemy of literature.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 14 No. 2 · 30 January 1992
Gary Taylor argues (LRB, 9 January) that in dramatising the murder of Cinna in Act III of Julius Caesar Shakespeare altered Plutarch in order to present an apolitical poet as innocent victim of the plebeians. It is Shakespeare, he suggests, who makes the people fickle and easy to manipulate, and his crowd, ‘unlike Plutareh’s, is uncontrollably irrational and cruel’. I doubt if anyone who has read Plutarch recently would agree with this. True, Shakespeare highlights the fickleness of the plebeians, but Plutarch speaks plainly enough of ‘a fickle and unconstant multitude’. In both his accounts of Cinna’s murder (and in the Life of Antony) he refers to the ‘fury’ of the people. And Taylor’s contention that ‘Plutarch does not say how the plebeians slew Cinna’ holds good only for the Life of Caesar. In the Life of Brutus, which Shakespeare certainly used, we read that the Senate ‘made no inquiry of them that had torn poor Cinna the poet in pieces’. There is, of course, another poet in Julius Caesar (IV.3 – he is not a poet in Plutarch). His attempt to intervene in politics is not very successful.
Gary Taylor simply transcribes a dramatist’s fine verse and prose into the blunt sign-language of the career-critic. He changes the story – changes it in ways which deprive it of all the drama Shakespeare carefully gives it – and does so by ignoring virtually all the words, and implicit signs, in which it’s written.
Shakespeare’s Cinna is a fool to allow something to lead him forth of doors when he has no will to do so. He is a fool to answer the plebeians so consistently and pompously by echoing every word they say: there is no technique which better conveys condescension masking as chumminess, and no form of frightened defence better calculated to provoke attack. The desire to kill him is there in the plebeians before he even reveals what his name is, or what he does: had he announced that he was Cinna the pastry-cook they would have torn him for his bad puddings. His foolishness might lead us to suspect that he is indeed a writer of bad verses; at the very least, he is, in his poor management of the plebs, asking for it. The scene of his death is, in short, funny – that uniquely Shakespearean kind of funny that we see when Macbeth says (of Banquo), ‘Would he were here!’ or when Leontes tells Hermione that her actions are his dreams. Cinna is no political innocent: he’s a political idiot, and connives at his own death as surely as does the similarly insensitive Brutus.
For the rest, there are crowds and crowds: and I don’t see how you can put down the fictional one in the Forum by referring to the real ones in Tiananmen Square, or Moscow, or Prague. The one in the Forum doesn’t come to protest, nor does it stay to try and overthrow a government.
Vol. 14 No. 3 · 13 February 1992
In ‘Bardicide’ Gary Taylor tells us (LRB, 9 January) that the scene of Cinna the Poet’s murder in the middle of Julius Caesar is wrong: ‘wrong historically, wrong morally, wrong in 1599, still wrong in 1991. There never was a poet like Shakespeare’s Cinna; the Plebeians are not the enemies of poetry.’ But does the scene make the claims Taylor attributes to it, either about poets or about the lower orders? His version rests first on the assumption that we’re supposed to see Orpheus’s dismemberment behind Cinna’s (and hence an allegory about The Poet), but Caesar’s murder seems a closer antecedent: much the same action (a crowd surrounds and murders an individual); many verbal echoes (both victims evoke their names as an unsuccessful form of self-protection); and a better mythic overlay, at least if you approach the play via Milton’s sense of Classical myths as ‘erroneous relatings’ or ‘shadowy types’ of a Christian truth (Shakespeare’s Caesar suffers 33 wounds, ten more than Plutarch’s). Taylor makes much of the fact that Cinna is three times called ‘the poet’, but the definite article can be understood as turning Cinna into a grotesque rather than an archetype, like Popeye the Sailor Man, or Ralph Ellison’s Raz the Destroyer. Kenneth Burke apparently understood the scene in such a farcical way, comparing Cinna to the ‘slain-unslain’ circus clown shot from a cannon. Burke’s version seems more plausible than Taylor’s, in which Shakespeare is said to be making a general proposition about the apolitical nature of the Poet.
I think it’s equally far-fetched to claim that the scene is making a general proposition about the mindlessness of the lower orders, especially in crowds. The mob that kills Cinna may be more vicious and fickle than crowds usually are, but why does Taylor insist upon the scene as issuing in a normative or universal claim? Is Macbeth supposed to be trying to convince us that Scottish people are murderously ambitious? The patrician individuals in the play are also fickle, ‘fashioned’ and ‘moved’ themselves, and violent as well (‘Stoop, Romans, stoop’). Violent ignorance isn’t class-specific in Julius Caesar, and the canny citizens in the play’s first scene frequently come off better than Murellus or Flavius, as do Coriolanus’s plebeian antagonists eight years later.
I don’t want to offer an ur-democratic Shakespeare, the Bard as cultural materialist Shakespeare before the letter, in lieu of the formalist snob that seems to emerge from ‘Bardicide’: but the fact that both arguments can and have been made – the way Shakespeare’s plays tolerate and even seem to encourage contradictory interpretations – seems worth keeping in mind. I’m not saying that his rich ambivalence transcends ideology (others abide our question, thou art free), or that the playwright nothing affirms and therefore never lieth, but that the plays affirm too much and too unstably to be Taylored to the measure of ‘Bardicide’. The accessibility of Shakespeare’s plays to so many different tastes, and their appropriability by so many different political interests, can help to explain why we’ve been interested in arguing with each other about them for so long.
Why then does Taylor work so hard to construct the scene into a proposition declaring poets to be apolitically good and plebeians politically bad? Apparently because such a view allows him to make a claim for Middleton against Shakespeare: but the argument in support of this claim is not convincing. Let’s say Shakespeare, at least in this scene, was indeed guilty of the nasty generalisations Taylor charges him with. You can still like the scene, even prefer Shakespeare to Middleton, without having to condone state censorship or inevitably becoming accessory after the fact to the murder of Rushdie’s Japanese translator.
‘I understand a fury in the words, not the words.’ Desdemona’s speech describes my predicament with ‘Bardicide’. What can be driving such an intelligent critic to make use of such tenuous arguments in order to reach such implausible conclusions? I can only guess at the subtext, but the following excerpt from a communication I received some months ago may shed some light on the matter: ‘The Complete Works of Thomas Middleton will be published in 1994 by Oxford University Press in a one-volume modernised annotated format comparable to contemporary undergraduate editions of Shakespeare … The purpose of the edition is canonical: to establish a new Middleton canon and to secure for Middleton a more prominent position in the literary canon, to make Middleton more widely available, more accessible, more read, more taught, to insist upon his importance in English drama and the English Renaissance.’ Gary Taylor wrote these words as the General Editor of the Oxford Middleton, and I think it would have been helpful for readers of ‘Bardicide’ to have included this information in the Notes on Contributors.
I don’t mean to suggest it was dishonesty not to include it. I like to think I’m as post-modern as the next person, and honesty is a problematic term in the post-modern lexicon. In fact, it was problematic in the Early Modern lexicon as well. ‘This, reader is an honest book.’ So Montaigne at the beginning of the Essays (a new translation of which is included in the list of books referred to in ‘Bardicide’): but within a few lines, with his characteristic slyness (I almost called it honesty), Montaigne makes the concept disappear. For how can honesty exist when writing is motivated by a set of interests located in a volatile self to which at best only an occasional and imperfect access is granted? And if writing is therefore ‘orphaned’ (Derrida’s word), and honesty in the strong sense impossible, what could dishonesty possibly mean?
My real quarrel with Taylor is strategic rather than ethical. I think it’s imprudent to try to create a demand for Middleton by claiming that the market for Shakespeare shares is over-inflated. This is an old old device; it goes back to the time of good neighbours. Johnson invented bardicide (if it wasn’t Shakespeare himself, or maybe it was always already there), and it has taken us hundreds of year to begin to rescue Johnson from the weight of the comparison under which he wound up burying himself. ‘Bardbiz’ is massively constructed and firmly entrenched: who knows this better than Gary Taylor? You may as well go bid the main flood abate its usual height as argue with the Bard. Besides, Middleton’s claims don’t need to be based on reducing Shakespeare’s, even if such reduction were likely. There’s lots of great writing in the Middleton canon, even in its pre-expansionist dimensions. I am completely sympathetic with Taylor’s Middleton project. Really I am. And as proof of my good faith (for this, reader, is an honest Letter to the Editor), I hereby inform anybody who cares that, as a result of aggressive lobbying, I have persuaded my Graduate Programme Director to let me teach a course in Middleton next year. My lobbying was undertaken before I read either ‘Bardicide’ or the General Description of the Oxford Middleton Edition.
Concordia University, Montreal
One crucial element missing from Gary Taylor’s analysis of the Cinna scene is any reference to the humour elicited by the immediacy of a theatrical performance. That the scene was written as a piece of satirical comedy is evident from a comparison of the way the citizens fire questions at Cinna (Sinner?) with Miss Piffs’s interrogation of Lamb in Pinter’s hilarious sketch, ‘Applicant’. The dramatic intention of both scenes is the same. Cinna, like Pinter’s Lamb, is a pathetic, impotent Everyman caught up in a sinister situation which, while making us laugh, still arouses our sympathy. However nasty the fate awaiting him in the wings, we are left with the feeling that it is not necessarily terminal. The proscription scene which follows becomes even more chilling by contrast. The kangaroo court’s questioning of Cinna can be, and often is, played against the grain of the scene’s implicit humour, but it doesn’t work. This is Shakespeare’s version, not Plutarch’s, and Mr Taylor’s Cinna is his own creation, not Shakespeare’s.
When Mr Taylor dignifies Cinna with all the portentous gravity of his title, ‘the poet’, and sees him as the heroic embodiment of the Orpheus myth, he overlooks the fact that the Citizens object not to Cinna’s poetry, but specifically to his bad poetry, and that even that is merely a trumped-up excuse for violence against the pretentious little poetaster. Shakespeare’s implied concern is not, in fact, plebeian insensitivity to art, but plebeian emotional volatility, which enables the unscrupulous to manipulate them as a political force. One only has to think of the reversal in Mrs Thatcher’s popularity rating which followed her call to arms over the Falklands to realise what he was getting at.
Newcastle upon Tyne
Vol. 14 No. 7 · 9 April 1992
Edward Pechter (Letters, 13 February) at least recognises that my essay ‘Bardicide’ is as much about Middleton as Shakespeare. But, typically, he tries to turn that fact into yet another defence of Shakespeare: like your other correspondents, he rushes to defend poor misunderstood Goliath against the attacks of that bully David. Pechter’s argument belongs to the tradition which disqualifies and silences any adverse criticism of Shakespeare (for examples see my book Re-inventing Shakespeare, pp. 399-400). Pechter politely accuses me of both dishonesty and bias: bias, because I am editing Middleton, and dishonesty, because I concealed from readers the fact that I am editing Middleton.
I am, indeed, General Editor of a one-volume edition of Thomas Middleton’s Complete Works, now in progress, to be published by Oxford University Press in 1994. This project is not, as Pechter suggests, a secretive conspiracy, unmasked by his discovery of telltale documents (cf. the ‘Protocols of Zion’). The ‘communication’ to which he alludes has been widely circulated, and is available to anyone who wants it, either in print or electronically (BITNET address: MIDDLETON@BRANDEIS).
But why should the fact that I am editing Middleton be taken as evidence of bias? My chances of making any money off the Middleton edition – with royalties divided among a distinguished international team of 40 contributing editors – are slim. Should editors of Shakespeare be disqualified from praising him, on the grounds that their praise is biased? If so, much of what has passed for Shakespeare criticism, past and present, will have to be dismissed. Is it not possible that editing an author might provide critics with a particularly broad and detailed knowledge of his work? Or is it not possible that one chooses to edit an author because one admires him, rather than that one admires him because one is editing him? And since I have also edited Shakespeare’s Complete Works (something Pechter neglects to mention), how can editing Middleton demonstrate a bias in his favour, against Shakespeare? Could I not claim that I am, by virtue of editing both, uniquely qualified to compare them? (I would not make that claim, but it follows from Pechter’s logic.)
So much for the implied bias. What about the implied dishonesty? Why did I not mention the Middleton edition? Because it is not yet published. Because I could not list all my publications. Because – most of all – I did not want ‘Bardicide’ to be taken as a manifesto for the Oxford Middleton. When I speak about editorial matters, I can speak, more or less, for the whole project; when I speak as a critic, I speak only for myself.
So much for me. What about Pechter? Why does he ask these questions? Because he wants to find some explanation for my criticisms of Shakespeare. By attributing them to a flaw in my personality, he can avoid having to answer them. As he says, ‘I understand a fury in the words, but not the words.’ That is, ‘Taylor is obviously unbalanced; let us ignore his words, and seek the psychological source of their fury.’ (This technique for dealing with dissidents was pioneered by Soviet psychiatrists.) Is it a symptom of ‘fury’ to take the dismemberment of Cinna as an echo of the dismemberment of Orpheus? If so, Pechter will also have to hospitalise Jonathan Bate, who had independently reached the same conclusion, in his forthcoming study of Ovid’s influence on Shakespeare. And since Jonathan Bate and I have so often been contrasted, if we are both mad, then all of Shakespeare criticism must be mad. Either that, or the ‘fury’ is just a sPechter of conservative paranoia.
Pechter is to be congratulated for deciding to teach Middleton next year. But that fact does not prove (as it was clearly intended to do) his own ‘honesty’. After all, Pechter does not mention the fact that he has been teaching Shakespeare for many years – a fact so ‘natural’ that it has become invisible. I have been teaching both Middleton and Shakespeare for years, am doing so now, and will do so again next year. That experience does not make me an innocent critic; as Middleton knew, no writer can be completely innocent. Not even – or especially not – Shakespeare.
Brandeis University, Massachusetts
Edward Pechter in his criticism of Gary Taylor’s essay concedes that ‘there’s lots of great writing in the Middleton canon, even in its pre-expansionist dimensions.’ In the context of Pechter’s hostile argument, this seems to imply that Taylor is artificially expanding the dimensions of the Middleton canon, in order to make Middleton look like a more important author than he is. This is nonsense. Whatever one may think of Taylor’s critical argument, his views about Middleton’s authorship are neither original nor a reflection of the prevailing consensus of specialists. The only two works of disputed authorship mentioned in Taylor’s essay – The Puritan and The Nice Valour – have been treated as Middleton’s by such orthodox scholars as the late Fredson Bowers (general editor of the Cambridge edition of The Dramatic Works in the Beaumont and Fletcher Canon) and G.R. Proudfoot (general editor of the New Arden Shakespeare, and of a projected edition of the Shakespeare Apocrypha). Moreover, the more sophisticated authorship studies of the last thirty years have not simply added works to the Middleton canon established by Alexander Dyce in 1840: they have also subtracted works (like The Spanish Gypsy and Blurt Master Constable). The result is not a speciously expanded Middleton canon, but a more accurately defined Middleton canon.
University of Manchester