Michael Dobson

  • Lyric Wonder: Rhetoric and Wit in Renaissance English Poetry by James Biester
    Cornell, 226 pp, £31.50, May 1997, ISBN 0 8014 3313 4
  • Reason Diminished: Shakespeare and the Marvellous by Peter Platt
    Nebraska, 271 pp, £42.75, January 1998, ISBN 0 8032 3714 6
  • Shakespeare and the Theatre of Wonder by T.G. Bishop
    Cambridge, 222 pp, £32.50, January 1996, ISBN 0 521 55086 6
  • The Genius of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate
    Picador, 386 pp, £20.00, September 1997, ISBN 0 330 35317 9

‘Soul of the age!’ exclaimed Ben Jonson in the prefatory pages of the First Folio (1616), ‘The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!’ His climactic description was elaborated in the Second Folio (1632) by the young John Milton: ‘Thou, in our wonder and astonishment/Hast built thyself a lasting monument.’ Historically, Shakespeare criticism begins with wonder, and that it should have returned there in these millennial times ought not to surprise us. This batch of studies finds, in the USA, Peter Plan and T.G. Bishop combing the plays for miracles and James Biester finding the key to Renaissance courtly poetry in its strategies for eliciting astonishment. Back home, Jonathan Bate is gobsmacked by the sheer Genius of Shakespeare. It’s perhaps as well to remember that in cooler moments Jonson complained that ‘Shakespeare wanted Art’ and Milton berated Charles I for preferring the Bard to more serious reading.

Wonder, after all, is a feeling which, according to the most authoritative doctrine on the subject available in Shakespeare’s time, you are supposed to get over. As James Biester breezily puts it, ‘Renaissance theorists concocted various recipes for wonder, but they almost all shopped at the same store, the texts of Aristotle.’ According to Aristotle, astonishment, in and of itself, is a bad thing: arrested by a wonderful effect, the subject should be stimulated into overcoming his temporary mental paralysis by seeking an understanding of how the effect has been produced. For Aristotelians die chief justification for wonder is that it provokes intelligent and probing curiosity: the good spectator should leave a magic show not dazzled by the ability of rabbits to materialise from thin air, but thoroughly informed about the mechanical possibilities of top-hat linings.

Do Shakespeare’s depictions of wonder and wonders endorse this view? And what position should we adopt in relation to the supreme conjuring tricks of the Complete Works themselves? Some of the critics represented here are far more comfortable with the Aristotelian view of how to appreciate marvels than others. Platt and Bishop treat Aristotle more or less as the villain of their respective pieces, seeking to claim Shakespeare for alternative views, some of which are derived from late medieval Italian literary theorists, which let the wonderful stay numinously wonderful. (Platt is particularly keen on Francesco Patrizi, though the chances of Shakespeare having even heard of him, let alone having read his unpublished treatise on la maraviglia, seem slender.) Their animus against the rational, though, often seems to have less to do with the Middle Ages than with the New Age. Biester, by contrast, adopts a brisk Madison Avenue manner towards the marvellous, and one of the achievements of his wide-ranging study of late Elizabethan and Jacobean courtly poetry is to rescue the discussion of Shakespeare’s Metaphysical contemporaries from the solemn formalism in which it once languished, replacing it with something altogether more pragmatic.

Starting from a minute exegesis of Aristotle’s views about the marvellous in life and literature, Biester explores the way Renaissance writers took the theories Aristotle had developed for describing tragic drama – which was supposed to have plots which surprised and overwhelmed, but which, like Oedipus Rex, made perfect causal sense on reflection – and adapted them as prescriptions for die production of wonderfully startling metaphors, metaphors which from Lyly to Marvell became the defining mannerism of a whole school of English poets. What transforms this meticulous piece of scholarship from yet another dutiful account of how Donne and his contemporaries might have described their conceits in the terms of classical rhetoric, is Biester’s sense of the social context of English 16th and 17th-century poetry. Lyric Wonder redefines the potentially precious-sounding world of Elizabethan lyric as a gladiatorial arena in which the grandsons of a warrior caste competed for favour by the pen instead of by the sword, taking rhetorical risks sometimes almost as fatal (in career terms at least) as Sir Philip Sidney’s neglect of his thigh-armour at Zutphen. He is particularly good on the dangers young would-be courtiers ran into in the 1590s when the dominant literary modes for pursuing advancement shifted from love poetry and pastoral to a mock-rebellion centred on satires, epigrams and the wilfully obscure. (Sir John Hoskyns, for example, features here not only as a pioneer of nonsense but as a quick wit imprisoned in the Tower for seditious quips.) Inspiring amazement by the use of an epistemologically destabilising style might be altogether too close to inspiring dismay as an equivocating malcontent. Biester is fascinating, too, on the decline of this literary and social milieu under James and Charles (whose court masques sought a royal monopoly on the wonderful), and his conclusion clearly exemplifies the connections between poetic style and social formation:

In a sense, admirable lyric wit was the flamboyant finale of courtier poetry, its flameout before extinction. If the rise of absolutism seems merely coincident with the fall of witty wonder, it is worth remembering that more than a style disappeared in the middle of the 17th century, that the methods of a new mechanistic philosophy were brought to bear on more than the natural landscape: both poetry and politics became substantially more professional over the course of the century, and the courtier-poet, reflecting dread majesty at a third remove, became obsolete.

What went on around the literary edges of the court is one thing, though, and what went on in the public playhouses quite another, however the two worlds interpenetrated. Shakespeare, disappointingly, features in Lyric Wonder only as the author of the Sonnets and some paradoxical phrases in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as the progenitor of the Hal whose PR tricks parallel some of those attempted by upwardly-mobile poets, and as the subject of Milton’s highly conceited first publication, quoted above. Any gap in the market for a study of Shakespeare’s own dealings with the wonderful is amply filled by Bishop and Platt, however, who approach the subject from a completely different angle, seeing Shakespeare less as one competitor in a contemporary marketplace of literary marvels than as the sole bearer of the true flame of the unrationalised into a bleakly mechanistic post-Renaissance future. Their books, impressive as they are, are defined less by their interest in the way a distinctively Shakespearean version of wonder arose from its social and historical context than by their desire to preserve that wonder from the threat of any explanation at all.

In this respect Reason Diminished and Shakespeare and the Theatre of Wonder can both be seen as blowing the gaff on a central aspect of New Historicism, the critical school which is their chief influence. New Historicism has at times analysed wonder – notably in relation to exploration and discovery, as in Stephen Greenblatt’s Marvellous Possessions – but has more pervasively and implicitly celebrated it and capitalised on it, offering up Renaissance England for the bedazzlement of American graduate students as itself a cabinet of wonderful curiosities. Both these studies acknowledge the direct influence of Greenblatt: Bishop, admittedly, expresses some reservations (‘making large claims for some crucial transition in the “history of subjectivity” on the basis of a poem or two and a documentary extract is threatening to become a habit of criticism’), but Platt is star-struck (‘Stephen Greenblatt and his work have cast a benign shadow over this project’). Shorn of its framework of high Post-Structuralist theory, as it is in both of these accessibly written books (and more signally in Greenblatt’s own prefatory materials to the new Norton Shakespeare), New Historicism can seem to resemble old-fashioned American writing about the Renaissance in its sometimes nostalgic, sometimes patronising desire to locate Shakespeare’s England as a safely distanced refuge of pre-Enlightenment faith, an intellectual destination glorious, if at all, as the twilight of the medieval rather than the dawning of the modern.

In Reason Diminished, the opposition between the irreducibly wonderful and the explicably Aristotelian is perpetually turning, sometimes inadvertently, into other, more familiar antitheses – the sublime versus the merely beautiful, magic versus science, the visual versus the verbal, the subversive versus the contained. The most important of these analogues, though, is deliberately pointed out in a chapter on ‘Wonder and the Reformation of Images’: ‘Wonder lies at the centre of the religious disputes that raged during the English Reformation. The disagreement over the primacy of images and ritual on the one hand and the pure, unadorned Word on the other provides another version of the philosophical and literary debates we have already examined.’ The debate between Aristotle and his discontents over the marvellous neatly resurfaces for Platt as the debate between Protestantism and Catholicism and, although he finds one example of a pro-wonder Protestant in Hooker, his discussion unsurprisingly finds Shakespeare’s plays much closer in spirit to the Catholic position. For Bishop, far more emphatically, Shakespeare’s most important predecessors as dramatists are the pre-Reformation authors of the mystery plays, and his Bard emerges less as a theatre professional than as an undercover priest, preserving a residue of the sacred in the art of an ever more secular world.

Ten years ago one might have dismissed this as a throwback to the days of C.S. Lewis and his like, when the attempt to find Catholic allegory in the late romances was a recognised minority sport, but in the late Nineties it suddenly looks like the critical craze of the moment. Richard Wilson, for example, published an article in the TLS a few months ago reviving the claim that the young William Shakespeare can be identified with the actor William Shakeshafte who is named in the will of one of Edmund Campion’s Lancashire Catholic disciples in 1581 – a claim that requires its adherents to believe that Shakespeare wound up as England’s greatest playwright only as a Jesuit martyr manqué. (Wilson doesn’t go into the question of whether the code-name Shakeshafte would be adequate camouflage for someone called Shakespeare in danger of execution for treason, nor does he consider how a Midlands teenager apparently more interested in Papist sainthood in Preston than in the worldly distractions of the metropolis had already achieved professional recognition as an actor by the age of 17.) Exactly the same view has even found a reductio ad absurdum, in Frank McGuinness’s bizarre new play, Mutabilitie, which was shown at the National Theatre recently: here, a delirious, burned-out Shakespeare, dropping in on Spenser near Cork in 1598, is overheard muttering Hail Marys by a prophetess in the local Irish resistance, and is promptly recognised as the Messiah who will keep the mysteries of the true church alive in disguise on the stages of Protestant London.

I don’t mean to dismiss the biographical question as to whether Shakespeare was a closet Catholic (the recusancy of at any rate his father has long been generally accepted), but the claims now being made for the importance of this in what remains a remarkably secular body of plays require the letter of Shakespeare’s texts to be supplemented by a great deal of supervenient grace. When Wilson, for example, describes ‘this Gothic theatre of dark towers, moated granges and silent convents, where statues weep in private chapels, and friars emerge from hiding places to resolve each plot’, he seems to be talking about Anne Radcliffe or Matthew Lewis rather than Shakespeare, and readers of Bishop’s study may be similarly surprised to learn that ‘the figure of the Virgin Mother’ is ‘Shakespeare’s deepest presider over the scene of reunion’.

It would be a mistake, nonetheless, to overlook Shakespeare and the Theatre of Wonder. Bishop close-reads Shakespeare’s plays (in an idiosyncratic and scrupulous critical idiom drawing on psychoanalysis and theology as well as literary theory) with an intentness which can border on the manic, and he is often very good at pinning down the linguistic and dramatic effects which make them so distinctive:

Consider, for instance, the large number of phrases that condense crucial moments of entire plays in a stark and baffling paradox that demands to be understood, and, even more surprisingly, that we think we can and do understand: ‘Mine own and not mine own’; ‘Nothing is but what is not’; ‘I am not what I am’: ‘This is, and is not, Cressid’; ‘A natural perspective that is and is not’; ‘I confess nothing, nor I deny nothing’ ... Rhetorician Puttenham called such figures ‘The Wondrer’ and certainly in their dramatic context they often have the qualities at once of profound representational power and of equally profound self-consciousness that we have associated with the dynamic of that emotion.

Few readers will fail to be impressed, too, by the sophistication of his analysis of what happens in the mind of the young Mamillius in The Winter’s Tale. It is equally true, though, that few will not feel that Bishop here rests a great deal of interpretation on a very small amount of dialogue (the poor boy only appears in two scenes, and of his 13 speeches only one is more than two lines long), and the amount of textual evidence on which both Bishop and Platt base their arguments is worrying on the larger scale too. It’s one thing to point out that Shakespeare wrote romances, which are generically hospitable to religiose scenes involving miraculous reunions, the music of the spheres, revived mothers and restored children; it’s quite another to go on as if he had written nothing else. When Platt’s book finally gets to the Shakespeare advertised in its subtitle, by offering essays on only Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, it gives the impression that the Bard’s career began when he was already in his mid-forties and lasted only four years or so. Bishop’s book has a chapter on the early Comedy of Errors, but after that he too skips to Pericles and The Winter’s Tale, without even sending Time to explain what went on in the intervening 16-year gap. Both cite Theseus’ misinformed dismissal of the lunatic, the lover and the poet in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but beyond that they stake their claims for a sacramental Shakespeare on a decidedly rigged-looking selection of plays, amounting to about a ninth of the Complete Works. It is this as much as anything else which gives Bishop’s book its particular affect, its sense of an author desperately reading a small selection of the evidence as if his salvation depended on being convinced by it. By the time the reader gets to his finale on The Winter’s Tale the strain is almost unbearable, as if Bishop had directed the play and wasn’t sure that the statue scene was going to work. Here (as is so often the case in the theatre) it doesn’t: Bishop’s argument that The Winter’s Tale supplies a critique of the sexual politics of earlier Shakespearean drama looks painfully like wishful thinking. (Reducing Perdita to the quaint formula ‘a general solvent of overgrown rigidities’ isn’t exactly emancipating, either.)

The apparent petrification of the fertile Hermione is an appropriate endpoint, however. Bishop, too, looks like a classic case of being made marble with too much conceiving, prevented by his obsessive concentration on ‘the poetics of incarnation’ from acknowledging the potentially hackneyed, tabloid status of the wonderful in English Renaissance writing. Shakespeare was, after all, a colleague of Will Kempe, who profitably immortalised a publicity-stunt jig to Norwich by printing the catchpenny Kempe’s nine days’ wonder (1600), and had he picked up a pamphlet called True and wonderfull in 1614 he would have found not a grave disquisition on Aristotle or Aquinas but ‘a discourse relating to a strange and wondrous serpent or dragon lately discovered in Sussex’, written by a nameless anticipator of the Sunday Sport’s house style who claims that he ‘would send better news if he had it’. Platt and Bishop are both alarmingly deaf to Shakespeare’s wry sense of the corniness of some of his own dabblings in this area. You’d never guess from Reason Diminished that Shakespeare could have written Celia’s sarcastic response to Rosalind’s ignorance that her lover is also in Arden: ‘O wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful-wonderful, and yet again wonderful, and after that out of all whooping.’ Similarly, Bishop’s oddly pious account of Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale (who is ‘always cheered by audiences because they see in him a spirit of their own energetic resistance to darker necessities’) doesn’t pick up the way in which his successful flogging of mendacious ballads to naive rustics, on such wonderful subjects as ‘a fish that appeared upon the coast on Wednesday the fourscore of April, forty thousand fathom above water’, mimes and knowingly winks at Shakespeare’s own successful peddling of the equally improbable fiction in which the peddler appears.

It’s a relief to turn from these two accounts of the wonder in Shakespeare to Jonathan Bate’s account of the wonder of Shakespeare, not least because Bate is willing to remind us that for many readers Shakespeare has been less important as a purveyor of sacred mysteries than as an altogether secular demystifier – patron saint not only of a crypto-Catholic royalism but of the Shaksperian Association of Leicester Chartists (1840). The Genius of Shakespeare avoids topic-fixated close-reading in favour of an attempt to understand the Shakespeare phenomenon, recognising the need for a student introduction capable of making sense at once of the life, the works and the afterlife. The book offers in Part One, ‘Who is Shakespeare? What is he?’, an account of Shakespeare’s writings and their relation to his biography, and in Part Two, ‘The Shakespeare Effect’, reflections on the development of Shakespeare’s reputation, and in particular his importance to subsequent writers and thinkers. It thereby promises to bring together such apparently disparate materials as the Elizabethan grammar-school curriculum, the Shakespearean epigraphs to chapters in Scott and the gift shop at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, and to relate them cogently to Shakespeare’s writings themselves.

The jacket tells us that ‘Jonathan Bate has been described as “our finest Shakespeare scholar”,’ and while this remark might carry more rhetorical force if we were told by whom, there is plenty here to suggest why the description might have been offered. Bate is especially good on how Shakespeare’s learned and conscious artistry came to be construed as artlessness, requiring the word ‘genius’ to develop its modern sense in the process; he has some intelligent fun at the expense of the Authorship Controversy; he has a very Nineties sense of Shakespeare’s different significances across Europe, claiming Victor Hugo as an ally in his bid to have the Bard recognised as not just Britain’s but the EU’s national (or supranational) poet; and, unusually for a Shakespearean scholar, he writes conspicuously well about post-Shakespearean music, not just the usual Verdi/Boito suspects but orchestral works such as Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette symphony (although Post-Structuralist eyebrows may lift at Bate’s enthusiastic assertion that ‘Berlioz goes beyond representation to the emotion itself’). In short, this is not only an accessible but a genuinely interesting book, and deserves the wide readership at which it is clearly aimed.

This said, however, The Genius of Shakespeare fails to achieve its full promise, partly because it is often digressive at the expense of what is in any case a pretty miscellaneous structure, and partly because not all of its digressions are anything like as good as the passages I have just mentioned. Rather than completing a full account of Shakespeare’s life, for example, Bate is sidetracked into an unhelpful fantasy about the true identity of the Dark Lady of the Sonnets (poems which Bate also discussed in a deeply unconvincing Sunday Telegraph article headlined ‘Shakespeare Was Straight’), attempting to convict the poet Samuel Daniel’s sister of multiple adultery on circumstantial evidence that wouldn’t have persuaded Othello. She was married to John Florio, another protégé of Shakespeare’s patron the Earl of Southampton: Bate claims that Florio was in the early 1590s ‘declining into the vale of years’ and ‘entirely devoted to his work’, and that the former Miss Daniel, ‘a spirited and neglected young wife’ – with four young children, mind – ‘could easily enjoy a turn in the bed with the witty poet. And she would find it hard to resist the advances of the Earl ...’ This, surely, is exactly the sort of idle sexist calumny which Shakespeare’s plays characteristically abhor, and Bate – himself, as wags in the trade have already pointed out, exactly the age now that Florio was then, and hardly undevoted to his own work, which has been appearing at the rate of a book every eighteen months or so for the last decade and more – ought to have known a good deal better. As perhaps he did: ‘The sonnets have wrought their magic upon me and forced from me yet one more reading to add to all those which they have generated since the Romantic period,’ he laments. ‘Their genius is still at work.’ As an introduction to the Sonnets and the rewards they might offer their readers, this is dubious praise.

Bate appears here, as elsewhere, to have been the victim of his own facility: a speculation offered itself, and he couldn’t resist dashing off a quick and largely uninspected reading of the poems based on it. One has the odd sensation, with The Genius of Shakespeare as with some of Bate’s other books, of sometimes reading the work of a major and original scholar, and sometimes that of a particularly efficient undergraduate, a student who has eagerly assimilated the ideas of various important critics (here Harold Bloom on the influence of Marlowe, Peter Conrad on Shakespeare and Romantic opera, Michael Bristol on the ‘culture wars’) without thinking very hard about either their implications or their compatibility. (It’s manifestly counter-productive, for example, to conclude an engagingly fervent book about the unique irreplaceability of Shakespeare’s genius with the claim that had history been a little different Lope de Vega would have done just as well.) What compounds this latter impression is the fact that Bate, unlike the Hazlitt whom he reveres, is at heart something of a teacher’s pet: like Reason Diminished and Shakespeare and the Theatre of Wonder, The Genius of Shakespeare is essentially a conservative book, its argument that Shakespeare can be radical merely a further needless defence for the best-established literary reputation in world history. It isn’t that Bate is wrong to point out the absurdity of trying to limit Shakespeare’s works to the sum of the banal uses to which they have often been put, or to regret the blinkered nature of the debate between those who have seen Shakespeare as reactionary and a good thing and those who have seen him as reactionary and a bad thing, but his zeal to prove that Shakespeare is the greatest and could never have been wrong frequently betrays him into embarrassing overstatement. Would even Frank McGuinness’s deluded proto-Fenian prophetess, reading the jokey little scene between the Englishman, the Welshman, the Scotsman and the caricatured intemperate Irishman, MacMorris, in Henry V, seriously assert that when ‘MacMorris says “What ish my nation?”, Ireland in all its anguish is allowed to speak’? It’s perhaps significant that Bate doesn’t make any parallel claim for The Taming of the Shrew as a document of women’s liberation: the feminist response to Shakespearean drama is clearly one which Bate, like Bishop, has had more trouble coming to terms with.

The central anxiety motivating the strained defences of Shakespeare’s wonders offered by Bishop, Platt and Bate alike seems to have something to do with the current position of literary criticism itself in relation to its objects of inquiry, as if all three critics feared that their professional activity of explaining Shakespeare’s wonderful effects were suddenly in danger of explaining them away. Their common project, in an academic world increasingly run according to the canon-defying logic of the free market, seems to be to make critical capital out of the Bard without appearing complicit in his belittling commodification. Just as Bishop and Platt strenuously resist the reduction of Shakespeare’s onstage miracles to their secular causes, so Bate is above all anxious to resist the reduction of Shakespeare’s no less miraculous on and off-stage immortality to an effect of hype or ideology or both. The anxiety, though, is groundless: countless academic and commercial books have yet to reduce Shakespeare’s plays to a topic of solely academic and commercial interest, just as countless thousands of student essays have yet to reduce their superbly opaque characters to their motivations, their narrative functions or (please God) their symbolism. Shakespeare and the Shakespeare effect are of course wonderful, and these books are in different ways acute at showing exactly how: but in countering such Post-Modern scepticism as has recently been directed towards the Bard it is probably best not to lapse into pre-modern credulity. As Ben Jonson was again the first to observe, the honouring of Shakespeare’s memory does well to stay on this side of idolatry.