Frank Kermode

  • Meaning by Shakespeare by Terence Hawkes
    Routledge, 173 pp, £30.00, October 1992, ISBN 0 415 07450 9
  • Shakespeare’s Professional Career by Peter Thomson
    Cambridge, 217 pp, £24.95, September 1992, ISBN 0 521 35128 6
  • Shakespeare’s Mouldy Tales by Leah Scragg
    Longman, 201 pp, £24.00, October 1992, ISBN 0 582 07071 6
  • Reading Shakespeare’s Characters by Christy Desmet
    Massachusetts, 215 pp, £22.50, December 1992, ISBN 0 87023 807 8
  • Bit Parts in Shakespeare’s Plays by Molly Mahood
    Cambridge, 252 pp, £35.00, January 1993, ISBN 0 521 41612 4

Faithful readers of this journal will remember Terence Hawkes’s article ‘Bardbiz’, if only because it provoked, between March 1990 and September 1991, one of the most protracted scuffles in the history of correspondence columns. ‘Bardbiz’ is unrepentantly reprinted in this new book, omitting the subsequent complaints and endorsements but courteously listing their authors.

Professor Hawkes is a genial, even joky professor, and a pun is, not altogether unendearingly, his fatal Cleopatra. He calls one of his chapters ‘Take me to your Leda’, and ends it with the suggestion that no Zeus is good Zeus, and that if we take Leda’s part we cannot well remain du côté de chez Swan. The chapter in question covers a lot of ground before it reaches these apparently un-Shakespearean termini, having a good deal to say about Wittgenstein, and his acquaintance F.R. Leavis, as well as about Measure for Measure, which Leavis admired and which Wittgenstein may or may not have read or seen but was not predisposed to like. Yet it would be wrong to suppose that Hawkes is merely engaged in a ludic ramble. He earns some of his jokes, and one of the best things about his books is that he has the skill, rare in these and most other times, to endow a critical essay with an interesting plot.

If he announces an intention to discuss ‘Shakespeare and the General Strike’ you can be sure that the conjunction will eventually make some sense. Even as the General Strike loomed the Stratford theatre was destroyed by fire; the Birthday play, perforce performed in a cinema, was, significantly, Coriolanus. Mrs Melville, wife of the vicar of Stratford, a self-confessed Fascist and anti-semite who vigorously opposed the inclusion of the Soviet flag at the Birthday ceremonies, was a governor of the Shakespeare Theatre and must therefore have had a hand in the choice of Birthday play, the hero of which shared her presumptive views on the ‘common cry of curs’ – in this case the miners or workers generally. There is a lot more about the political situation in 1926, all tending to show that attempts to depoliticise Shakespeare are bound in the long run to be frustrated by the action of a politicised providence. This is a relatively benign manifestation of the current opinion that to think Shakespeare anything but political is a bourgeois-humanist cop-out. But the title at least is justified.

So, more or less, are the titles of the other chapters (‘By’, ‘Or’, ‘Slow, slow, quick quick, slow’), and the title of the book. Hawkes jokes that the old theatre programmes which used to acknowledge ‘cigarettes by Abdullah, costumes by Motley’ might well have added ‘meaning by Shakespeare’. He himself believes that the meaning of the plays, as of all texts, is entirely a construction of the reader’s. A joke he somehow seems to miss is that if the meaning of a book is what we say it to be, the statement on the title page of this one that it is ‘by Terence Hawkes’ is a fib, a claim as phoney as the institution in which he achieves authority by pretending to be a scholarly critic capable of writing books which say exactly what he means.

However, he is not concerned with such paradoxes or aporiai, and in fact is rather good at saying, without the slightest equivocation, exactly what he means. That hasn’t changed much since his earlier book, That Shakespeherian Rag (1986), and I daresay there are a great many Shakespeherians who would think that to change it would be very treacherous; yet to hold it, at any rate in the form here proposed, is probably to invite more outraged correspondence.

The following propositions are rather dogmatically affirmed. We cannot have access to ‘final, authoritative or essential meanings in respect of Shakespeare’s plays’. ‘Like it or not, all we can ever do is use Shakespeare as a powerful element in specific ideological strategies.’ ‘Shakespeare doesn’t mean: we mean by Shakespeare.’ We use the plays ‘to generate meaning’, which of course we shall do according to whatever position we are placed in by the machinations of ideological power in our time. It follows that to use such expressions as ‘for all time’ is ‘absurd’, and simply plays into the hands of those powerbrokers who want Shakespeare to be ‘culture-reinforcing and morally uplifting’. What is needed, instead of repeated protestations of the incomparability, the imperial eminence, the heritage value of Shakespeare, is a constantly changing Rortian conversation, making no absolute claims and relinquishing the old bourgeois quest for a final, essential meaning. To this conversation ‘there is no end.’

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