Art of Embarrassment

A.D. Nuttall

Humane, learned, un-showily stylish and at times moving in their tender intelligence, these essays by Anne Barton, ranging from a richly ‘mellow’ piece first published in 1953 – a period when even undergraduates wrote as if they were middle-aged – to the magnificent ‘Wrying a Little’, on Cymbeline, Jacobean marriage law and female desire, are nourishing to the spirit. Livy, Machiavelli, Ford, Dekker, Heywood and Jonson all figure in the book, but the main recurring subject is Shakespeare. It is, moreover, good to see the publication of this book marked by an accompanying Festschrift – a volume of essays on comedy by friends and colleagues of Professor Barton, ranging from American luminaries like Jonas Barish and Stephen Orgel to newcomers like Richard Rowland (who contributes a thumpingly good piece on Heywood). Shakespeare is still the most challenging object in the literary canon, the most generous with meaning and, at the same time, the most apt to find out folly in those who would interpret him. Anne Barton is, so to speak, a good listener to Shakespeare. She is the beneficiary of his generosity and survives the challenges better than most of us. She survives – but not quite unscathed, perhaps.

One of the best essays in this book deals with the night scene in Henry V. On the eve of Agincourt the King, disguised, moves among the common soldiers and is drawn into an argument about the war in which they are all engaged. It is a scene from which, through the centuries, commentators have flinched. The truth is that we are not given what we expect and desire from the scene. The soldiers complain, as soldiers always have, and we wait for good King Harry’s heartening answer, his demonstration of the real, not fake, glory of the enterprise. But it all goes wrong. ‘Methinks I could not die anywhere so contented as in the King’s company – his cause being just and his quarrel honourable,’ says the disguised King; Williams answers, ‘That’s more than we know.’ We sense at once in Henry’s words the fatal element of rhetorical assumption; the King heartily assumes a willingness to die in (his own) company, after which the very modesty of Williams’s quiet reply has a frightening destructive power. And Williams is never answered. The King never shows why it is right that so many poor men should die.

Moreover, after Williams’s quiet answer the balance of linguistic power shifts from the King to Williams, suddenly blazing in the astonishing image of all the severed limbs joining to scream their accusation of the King. This is amazing demotic poetry, like something imagined by Bosch or else like the huge composite body on the title page of Hobbes’s Leviathan re-expressed, in horrific parody, by Grimmelshausen, who taught Brecht what to think of the Thirty Years’ War. When the King is once more alone he reflects on what has passed in accents which are almost pettish: all, he says, is laid upon the King. Indeed it is.

Professor Barton shows how deliberately Shakespeare contrived this scene, with its strange embarrassment, against a background of popular fictions which, in contrast, provided exactly what was sentimentally required by the audience. In the England of Robin Hood and Coeur de Lion, commoner and King find themselves united in manly accord, if ever they can, with the help of a disguise kit, elude the net of intervening ceremony (traditionally the King is ‘a regular guy’ though his courtly advisers are not). There can be no question but that Shakespeare knew what he was doing, for the structure is repeated, as Anne Barton shows, in the ‘magnanimous’ rewarding of Williams later in the play. There the stereotypical form of the episode is as follows: although the King has every excuse to punish Williams for his bitter words, he sees the real honesty of the man and gives him a glove full of money. But it goes wrong once more. King and subject do not sit down happily together at table (though Dekker’s Henry V and Hey-wood’s Edward IV do just this). The generosity of Shakespeare’s Henry V is evidently de haut en bas, curtly dismissive, and Williams’s response to the largesse is distant, unmusical.

Only the greatest artists embarrass us in this way. Just as Shakespeare is seen as the poet of martial glory, Dostoevsky is seen as the novelist of Russian orgiastic contrition (where, to borrow a phrase from Freud, penance became a technique for allowing murder to be done). But in Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov, when he tries to carry out the public repentance urged by Sonia, finds that in practice it does not work. He prostrates himself in the market-place but the bystanders think he is drunk. The words ‘I am a murderer’ die on his lips.

Shakespeare is hard on the patriotic sentimentalist, but he is no less hard on the sentimental sceptic. Certainly a lesser dramatist who gave his hero so difficult a time could hardly have avoided tilting the genre of the piece, transforming heroic history into satirical comedy. But Shakespeare, even as he shows us this tongue-tied King, half-shamed by the subjects he is leading (in so many cases) to mutilation and death, does not allow us to forget that, but for the war with France, civil war might have led to worse horrors, that Henry’s options are few. All of this Anne Barton gets right. She fully understands the ideological context, the background of quasi-mythical expectations, but she does not flatten Shakespeare into an inert conformity with that background. Instead she uses her understanding of context to clarify the difference (differentness) of Shakespeare.

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