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.’

There are some easy truths here, but also some palpable errors. Hawkes uses what has become a common ploy: he sets up an easy adversary, a sort of celluloid-collar Shakespearean who is always banging on about culture, tradition and morality – as if there were no way of distinguishing criticism that is not the kind he enjoys, however well-informed, from the sort of thing politicians say in Birthday Dinner speeches. He regards as ‘essentialist’ (a nasty accusation nowadays) all who take another view. But there are, of course, many who do not fit this caricatured description, and they are unlikely to be either shocked or converted. They may well accept without cavil the uncontroversial notion of an endlessly changing ‘conversation’, an endless process of reinterpretation, but still deny that to do so necessarily entails acceptance of certain other positions held by the New Historicists of America and the Cultural Materialists of this country. Among these are the doctrine that one must ‘decline to privilege literature’, and not think it in any way distinguishable (except in terms of the attention it has had) from what has been arbitrarily judged to be subordinate or ‘marginalised’ writing.

Some claims, then, are too obviously correct to detain us. The endlessness of the critical ‘conversation’ is simply a fact of life. That every interpretation is false in so far as it is not new is a familiar and congenial idea; ‘it is enough to say that we understand in a different way if we understand at all.’ This explains why the ‘conversation’ can sometimes be interesting and also why it can sometimes be silly. Gadamer has another famous sentence that gives an acceptable version of the idea that there is more to the text than the author can have intended: ‘Not occasionally only, but always, the meaning of a text goes beyond its author.’ And Gadamer, along with many other people, could agree that no interpretation is ‘final’ without believing that as a consequence of that agreement he would be obliged to deny that there is a qualitative difference between the poems of Stefan George and the prose of a Volkswagen manual, or to see all soi-disant works of art as mere pawns in complex ideological games.

Nowadays there are fashionable critics who expressly declare that Shakespeare is valueless, his reputation an enormous bourgeois hoax, a plot against the people carried on by generations of time-serving buffers, unwitting agents of malign superior powers. Some subscribe to this conspiracy theory because they genuinely cannot see anything in Shakespeare and can find no other explanation for the fuss about him. Others like him better but feel they have to politicise him into conformity with their own programmes (for example, by discovering him to have been a covert opponent of James I) before they can justify their interest. Although he is often in sympathy with critics of the latter sort Hawkes is distinctive in that he actually seems to enjoy Shakespeare, and he quite often allows himself to speak about literature as if it really existed and might form a legitimate topic of conversation.

Attacks on the idea that Shakespeare had anything to do with the meaning of what is lazily regarded as his work are fairly routine nowadays, but the firmness with which Hawkes states the case somehow serves to suggest his awareness of the case against it. He sometimes allows, perhaps inadvertently, that Shakespeare and other authors did have something to do with the meaning of what they wrote: Hamlet is commended for ‘probing ... the relation between art and social life, role-playing on stage and role-playing in society’, so ‘offering an adequate account of important aspects of our own experience’. This seems to give the man who wrote the play a hand in making its meanings. He allows that A Midsummer Night’s Dream ‘hints’ at this or that, without claiming that it is after all he himself who is doing the hinting. He states that ‘the complex of paradoxes’ in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is ‘calculated’. He offers, gratuitously and confidently, an explanation of what Empson meant by his poem ‘Legal Fiction’. Then again he is often prepared to show how conventional scholars go wrong, which can only mean that Hawkes gets Shakespeare’s meaning and they don’t.

We are asked to consider the following lines in Coriolanus:

         like an eagle in a dovecote, I
Flutter’d your Volscians in Corioles.
Alone I did it.

The Folio original reads ‘flatter’d’. Conventional scholarship accepts the emendation made in the Third Folio, explaining that ‘flatter’d’, though a barely possible archaic form of ‘flutter’d’, would look odd and be misleading in a modernised text. Even the unconventional Oxford editors, as a rule hungry for novelty, print ‘flutter’d’, regarding the Folio form as simply a misreading. But Hawkes maintains that ‘flatter’d’ ‘makes perfect sense’ and ‘suggests a much more complex interactive engagement with the Volscians than the imperiously dismissive “flutter’d”. It implies comparison, evaluation and negotiation (the eagle’s pre-emptive ferocity hinting at an unrealised potential in the doves) and thus a considerable degree of societal awareness and involvement.’ And so on: ‘baffled reciprocity, impotent mutuality’. Moreover the preference for ‘flutter’d’ is not simply editorial stupidity; it is meant to promote an establishment view (like Mrs Melville’s, perhaps) of Coriolanus ‘as unique individual pitted alone against society’. It is, argues Hawkes, for once indignant, ‘deliberately to choose to impose a single specific reading on the indeterminacy and multiplicity fostered by the First Folio text’ – something Shakespeare’s editors are said to have conspired to do for centuries. The reading ‘flutter’d’ is politically wicked (‘the play is recruited to a conservative project’) and what’s more, it distorts the meaning of the text – here, one notices, not Hawkes’s meaning but Shakespeare’s own. ‘The heart of the text lies here.’

This is obvious nonsense. It makes a political conspiracy out of a straightforward and necessary emendation. It offers an absurd broken-backed metaphor in place of a strong one. How could Coriolanus’s achievements at Corioles be thought to resemble an eagle flattering doves? (Even if the metaphor were not rejected as trivially grotesque, it is hardly likely that the hero, terminally eulogising himself, would use it, except by a slip of the tongue, which isn’t part of Hawkes’s case.) The transitive use of ‘flutter’ is unusual (though the sort of thing Shakespeare often did), and Hawkes attaches importance to the fact that the word ‘fluttered’ occurs nowhere else in Shakespeare, without reflecting that it wasn’t needed anywhere else; Shakespeare has many nonce words. It is true that he uses ‘flattered’ more often; but nowhere does he use it to refer to the kind of thing eagles do to doves. And are we to suppose that whoever changed the ‘u’ to ‘a’ in the Third Folio (1663) was already in the grip of a Tory conspiracy?

At least Hawkes’s concern to put us right about the meaning of Coriolanus implies a belief that it is important to do so, more important, say, than putting us right about Topsell’s Historie of Foure-footed beastes, a work published about the time Coriolanus was written, and just the sort of ‘marginalised’ text that should in principle get the same attention as the ones we ‘privilege’. But despite such tacit admissions Hawkes isn’t quite ready to admit that Shakespeare is really any good; and when he comes to consider this question he calls to his aid no less a figure than Wittgenstein.

This is not the first appearance of the philosopher in this cause – in fact he provides the epigraph for That Shakespeherian Rag, in which he wonders whether praising Shakespeare, about whom he cannot make himself care, has been merely ‘the conventional thing to do’. Here he is again, a powerful ally, outwitting Leavis about the meaning of Empson’s ‘Legal Fiction’, and declaring his ‘un-English’ refusal to accept Shakespeare’s ‘essential “greatness”’. And according to Hawkes, Wittgenstein’s remark implies not only that Shakespeare’s reputation results from conventional praise rather than any inherent value, but that ‘no text offers values or meanings that exist as essential features of itself.’ About the same time, he adds, a Cambridge contemporary, I.A. Richards, was demonstrating in his Practical Criticism that the ‘initiative’ had now passed to the reader. In fact Richards was concerned to show how badly readers read, how often they got the meaning of the protocol poems absurdly wrong. On Hawkes’s view, which he also, falsely, attributes to Wittgenstein, it cannot be possible for anybody to get the meaning of a poem wrong, since that meaning is whatever the reader says it is.

It is surely obvious that Wittgenstein was talking only about his own inability to see greatness in Shakespeare (and therefore doubting whether he was as wonderful as the professors said). He cannot have been endorsing the generalisation here attributed to him. The very passage cited in Hawkes’s earlier book goes on to say how very differently the philosopher felt about Milton. In the reported fragments of his lectures on aesthetics he has some remarks about how good Klopstock is if properly read. And he would not have said of Goethe what he said of Shakespeare. He lamented what he took to be the decline in the value of German music composed after the 19th century. He did agree that the arts don’t exist in isolation from everything else, that you need to know about a whole culture before you can pronounce on its arts, but he also pointed out that you can tell the difference between somebody who knows about painting, music or poetry and someone who doesn’t, implying the value of informed interpretations and valuations. It is true that he thought badly of professors of literature. It is also true that it is not very easy to discover just what he thought about the arts. What is not true is the claim that his views resembled those of Professor Hawkes, except, of course, for a certain scepticism concerning Shakespeare.

So there is a lot to cavil at, but there are also indications that Hawkes knows this. He knows that future historians will be able to demonstrate that ‘far from presenting the “truth” about Shakespearean drama, both New Historicism and Cultural Materialism are enterprises which, as products of our Western European or North American presuppositions, prove to be as blindly culture-specific as the societies they describe.’ He is rightly cheerful about this prospect of his own occultation; it is a fate which, like death, he will share with us all. But he hopes that, unlike most of us, he will have sharpened the continuing conversation. At one point he even worries whether the New Historicists etc aren’t in danger of frustrating this ambition and unduly hastening the change of subject by setting up a damaging stereotype, this time an anti-humanist image as rigid and thought-preventing as Tillyard’s infamous Elizabethan World Picture – which is now ritually biffed in book after book, on the curious assumption that everybody treated it as holy writ until the New Historicists arrived. Why should it worry him that the new Picture is already a bit of a bore? In seeing that possibility he has hit on something important, and might, by following it up, give a very desirable new turn to the conversation.

Meanwhile Bardbiz of all kinds continues at an unflagging pace, often getting by without puns and politics. For example, Peter Thomson’s Shakespeare’s Professional Career is an exceptionally lively and up-to-the-minute introduction to ‘Shakespeare’s job’. It leans slightly towards the view that his family, and he himself residually, was Catholic, and argues with more certainty that his acting career began under the auspices of great men with theatrical interests, notably the Stanleys. They needed to look like energetic persecutors of recusants in order to avoid the reasonable suspicion that, like most of the Lancashire aristocracy, they favoured the old faith. Similarly Shakespeare, a socially ambitious young man, could have been loudly anti-Catholic, as in King John, without abandoning the family beliefs. He was ‘an exemplary Elizabethan venturer’ – not, as Thomson agrees, that this fact is of paramount importance, but it is well to know he wasn’t immune from ‘the infections of his age’. Thomson’s account of London, the theatres (with relevant detail about the recent excavations) and theatre business (including relations with the courts of Elizabeth and James, patrons and censors) is also exemplary. He agrees with the view now widely accepted (and in some measure an achievement of the New Historicists) that the theatre was at least latently a site of subversion, ready to ‘confront Lenten authority with Carnival disorder’, but he does so without wholeheartedly endorsing the notion that Shakespeare was ‘hostile to authority’, for what Shakespeare obviously had was an ‘ability to keep his head down’. This lively, informed, unillusioned book should be especially valuable at present, when so many people are keen to return Shakespeare to history and place him in a context of contemporary political and social affairs.

The title of Shakespeare’s Mouldy Tales refers to Ben Jonson’s sneer – ‘some mouldy tale/Like Pericles’ – and the book minutely examines the way the Bard reworked hackneyed materials, here classified under the headings ‘Sibling Confusion’, ‘Gender Change’, ‘Scolding’, ‘Substitute Coupling’, ‘Exile’ and ‘Putative Death’. Such an enterprise, however well and carefully conducted, is almost bound to reach the predictable conclusion that Shakespeare was very original in his revamping of mouldy tales; but there are some surprises along the way, and the treatment of The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado will interest feminists.

All the attacks on ‘character’ criticism have failed to prevent ordinary people from indulging in it every time they discuss the plays, and Christy Desmet’s book is a serious attempt to give it a new intellectual respectability. She is interested in the rhetorical devices which shape character, and her concern with rhetoric extends from Aristotle to Kenneth Burke, Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man. There is a suggestion that reading characters is a form of ‘ethical self-fashioning’, even if the character is a villain or, for male readers, ‘woman as Other’.

Desmet offers at the outset what is intended to be a model study of Ophelia’s speech ‘O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown.’ It has structure and rhetorical function; it demonstrates amplification, synecdoche, metaphor, and so on. Ophelia is an orator. But this setpiece is unhappily not very well done; nothing is made of those intrusive and vacuous doublings (‘deject and wretched’, ‘noble and most sovereign’ etc) which give the speech a quality of empty artifice (a quality she does discern in the speeches of Goneril and Regan at the beginning of King Lear); and subtle though her conclusion sounds (‘the portrait of Hamlet affirms that the self, if not constructed solely by discourse, becomes comprehensible only through rhetorical representations’), it is subtle in the wrong way. Later she quotes Howard Felperin to the effect that ‘Shakespeare never succumbs to the rhetorical pressure of the traditional forms he employs, to their built-in claim to have made sense of the world, but keeps them always in brackets.’ So he does with Ophelia’s epideictic display; the doublets are calculatedly pointless, like those of her father Polonius, not pregnant like those of Hamlet and indeed Claudius. Yet the book does deal with something important and difficult – namely, the effect of rhetorical devices we no longer habitually use or recognise on the representation of character.

Molly Mahood’s rather extraordinary achievement is to have found what I take to be a new Shakespeare topic, which she explores with the aid of an impressively detailed knowledge of the texts and a feeling for what happens to them in the theatre, including unwise directorial cuts of apparently insignificant parts like Reynaldo in Hamlet. She distinguishes small parts from mute, and mutes from characters who are mentioned but don’t appear. She shows that the importance of a part is not necessarily commensurate with its brevity, and discusses with intimate detail various small-part functions such as doubling, of which there had to be a great deal, and bit parts perhaps written in primarily for training purposes. The body of the book is devoted to studies of the bit parts in particular plays – Richard III, Julius Caesar, Measure for Measure, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra (45 small speaking parts) and The Tempest (six). All this is done with gusto, and offers perceptions any director might benefit by.

Mahood tells the joke about the small-part actor who, when asked what Hamlet was about, began: ‘Well, there’s this Barnardo ...’ ‘Well,’ she adds, ‘there is this Barnardo,’ and goes on to explain his importance. It appears that you don’t have to be a Cultural Materialist to make a contribution on Shakespearean subjects. There are other ways, sometimes more attractive, of continuing the conversation.