Gobsmacked

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.

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