Writing about Shakespeare

Frank Kermode

Fifty-odd years ago I was asked to review a book about Shakespeare by an aged professor who claimed that a career spent largely in teaching Shakespeare gave him a right to have his final say on the subject. This notion I thought grossly self-indulgent. There seemed to be little reason to believe that at his age he could suddenly have found anything interesting to say. And there surely were enough books on Shakespeare already, many of them dull, many of them silly, without the addition of another of which the primary motive was vanity and an understandable fear of oblivion. My editor, detecting a breach of decorum, declined to publish my review. I thought this deference cowardly; I have now changed my opinion. I did so when I caught myself thinking that I had some vaguely apprehended right or duty to produce a book about Shakespeare, and needed to persuade myself that this was not a delusion.

For I myself have been teaching and writing about Shakespeare, off and on, for fifty-odd years, and am even older than the author of the book I was then reviewing. My motives will no doubt be seen to have included the ones I attributed to that old man fifty years ago: senile envy, querulous self-esteem. But all the same I persuaded myself, as no doubt he did, that my intentions were neither pathetic nor reprehensible.

I put it off for years but in the end I did it. It was a painful business, as the writing of books tends to be. It is true that there may be in one’s life a book that beautifully offers itself, pleading to be taken, simply to be written down, but like other such offers, this one is made only, I think, when one is fairly young. Most of us are self-sentenced to a year or more of un-epiphanic hard labour, made worse by a suspicion that it’s all a waste of time anyway. Morning after morning you go unwillingly to the desk, always accompanied by the treacherous notion that after all if you don’t feel like it you don’t have to do it. Who needs it, anyway?

I’ll begin by trying to answer that question. It obviously cannot be that there is a shortage of books about Shakespeare. I pick up a recent volume of Shakespeare Quarterly and find that the bibliography for 1997 contains 4780 items, 342 of which are about Hamlet: almost one a day. What sort of thing do the authors of these items find to say? SQ is a respectable trade paper. Inclusion in its refereed pages is of importance to the careers of the authors; so the contents of a recent issue (Spring 1999) should give a rough idea of what the institution currently approves of. Open it and the first article you find is called ‘Mamillius and Gender Polarisation in The Winter’s Tale’, and the second ‘The Bankruptcy of Homoerotic Amity in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice’. This latter was a reduced version of a paper given at the Folger Shakespeare Library, an important centre of Shakespearian studies and the publisher of the Quarterly, as part of a year-long seminar on ‘Sexuality, Subjectivity and Representation in Early Modern Literature’. No seminar could have borne that title even twenty years ago; nothing wrong in that, except that one can tell straight away that it appeals to a new cliquish interest; there is a spin on every word in it. Even the innocent-sounding ‘amity’ acquires one in the course of the paper.

Why does this concern me? Interests and attitudes change, if it were not so the whole business of criticism, especially academic criticism, would become even more sterile, even more self-involved than it has usually been. The conversation must go on somehow, for when there is nothing more to say about a book the book dies, and the parasitical criticism dies with it. But it seems to me wrong to seek to advance your career by professing to be concerned with Shakespeare, while actually writing about what happens to interest you more, forcing a limited set of new interests onto the old topic, using that topic as an excuse to write about these more fashionable concerns. It is true that this approach is now more likely to win institutional approbation, for the institution authorises this evasiveness and firmly supports a historicism which excludes attempts to differentiate between writing that was once regarded as literary, of aesthetic value, and all other contemporary documents.

I have nothing against homoerotic amity and of course I deplore gender polarisation. I agree that people concerned with these issues must be permitted if they wish to consider Shakespeare in their light. After all, they have found a way of agreeing that Shakespeare is important, which they do, not by attending intimately to what he wrote, but by conferring on it the valued endorsement of their own prejudices. Looked at in this way, essays of this sort are even a kind of misplaced homage, addressed not directly to Shakespeare but to some dummy standing in for him – say, the socio-economic milieu. Indeed it now seems improper to refer to Shakespeare as in any obvious way the author of his works. They have no single author, being the product of various practices and the various persons who had a hand in their making and production. But the best description of these processes and persons is still to sum them up as ‘Shakespeare’, in quotes if desired, in honour of the presiding personality; a practice that goes back to Shakespeare’s friends, Heminge and Condell, when they edited the Folio of 1623. These men knew at first hand how plays were made, and by what signs they could be known to have been made by Shakespeare.

And yet it seems that in a way these historicist approaches, though for the most part they avoid detailed attention to what was actually written by ‘Shakespeare’, are a new, admittedly oblique, manifestation of Shakespeare idolatry. They think the works worthy of copious though misdirected attention, and by replacing him with a dummy protect him against disparagement by those – a growing body – who think that he is simply a fiction or a fraud. For it is now strongly maintained that ‘Shakespeare’s’ reputation is the result of a cunning imperialist conspiracy: an increasingly large empire needed a suitably large poet and Shakespeare was chosen for the job. He was the beneficiary of a propaganda campaign that could as easily have been devoted to somebody else. This is now a commonplace. Only the other day I had to read a ‘mini-bio’ of Shakespeare, done by a graduate student, which began with an authoritative statement: ‘The work of William Shakespeare was evenly matched with many other authors in Elizabethan and Jacobean society, but modern opinion emphasises his importance as the finest playwright in Western culture.’ Modern opinion can now at last be seen to be false. But where shall we find the careful evaluation of the relative merits of these authors presupposed by this terrible sentence? Nowhere. And anyway such judgments are usually made by critics who do not think such evaluations possible, who believe that all value is attributed, not intrinsic, and that such attributions spring from political motives, their own of course excepted. Even the qualified idolatry I’ve mentioned seems preferable to this magisterial nonsense. Attempts to make Shakespeare crudely relevant, merely a text that can be made to reveal certain truths about the society and culture of his time, are, relatively speaking, virtuous, indeed idolatrous.

I detest idolatry, a temptation the best informed commentators quite easily resist. It is a mistake to think that there is a long tradition of idolatry in respectable critical circles. A.C. Bradley, still possessor of a fading eminence in the tradition of Shakespeare criticism, thought well but not idolatrously of Shakespeare, complaining that he ‘frequently sinned against art’. Bradley did not hesitate to point out faults of structure, inconsistencies, language ‘obscure, inflated … pestered with metaphors’. He called Shakespeare ‘a great but negligent artist’.

We’d do well to imitate this tone, and perhaps even lower it, and think of him as a very good but negligent playwright, maybe a writer who wrote too much too quickly, who might even have preferred a career of a different sort, for he sought a patron and wrote Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Perhaps he only wrote plays, or in his earlier days bits of plays, because that was one way poor poets could make money. He might have preferred not to be a poor poet. Rather unexpectedly, the theatre made him quite rich, and demanded most of his time. It also allowed him, as he grew into it, to be far more original, far more daring, than he could possibly have been as a fashionable poet under courtly patronage. But also, in allowing him to go his own way, to be obscure and pestered with metaphors. The right sorts of critic recognise this and dissociate themselves from the claque as well as from the mere historians. They agree with Goethe that ‘a universally regarded talent may make of its capacities some use which is dubious. Not everything the great do is done in the best fashion.’

Dryden, certainly an admirer, complained with justice that Shakespeare ‘often obscures his meaning with his words’. Dr Johnson, an expert fault-finder, found many faults, without doubting the poet’s powers. Indeed the necessary warnings were first expressed by Shakespeare’s friend and rival Ben Jonson, who loved the man ‘this side idolatry’ – certainly he ‘wanted art’, certainly he could be hasty and careless, but could still be said to be ‘not for an age but for all time’. This seems the proper tone, avoiding the raucous disapproval of Rymer, the dogmatic narrowness of Tolstoy, the imperceptiveness of our historicists, on the one hand; and the heritage industry, the horrors of Stratford, and all other demonstrations of mindless devotion, on the other. There is a way of treating Shakespeare not as a set of clues to some Jacobean conflict of discourse, nor as out-topping knowledge and so forth, but talking of him as Jonson and Johnson did, as a very good but sometimes not so good poet, as sometimes but not always clearly a writer of genius – as always, indeed, a writer and to be considered as such. The way to do this, obvious but now rarely taken, is to look directly at the words, at the language; and then say what in our own day satisfies and what does not, and, as far as possible, why. Much modern criticism, however subtle, however learned, is really no more than an evasion of this responsibility.

So I decided that mine would have to be an old-fashioned book, in that it would be as far as possible about the words; and further, that I would not spend a lot of time talking about plays I thought ‘not done in the best fashion’ except to say, if I could, why I thought that to be the case; and even to say why I think that Shakespeare as he went on to his finest plays, increasingly and even exultantly skilful, cruel and powerful, was all the more likely to fall over his own feet, to obscure his meaning with his words.

Let me offer a few illustrations of some of the changes that happened to Shakespeare’s dramatic verse over the years. At the outset of his career verse was to a considerable extent ruled by rhetoric and you could expect dramatic verse to be quite like oratory. And there might be little difference between verse for the page and verse for the voice and for the theatre. But over the years between, say, 1590 and 1610 the theatre itself, and the intelligence of Shakespeare and his colleagues, combined to change the rules, and change the expectations and the powers of the audience. They were practised listeners anyway, more oral than literate, and, since they had to go to church, accustomed to following very long sermons. There might come a time, whether in St Paul’s churchyard or at the Globe Theatre, when things got tough and they just had to hang onto what was being said, to follow the drift rather than the words (as indeed we still sometimes must do, even if we’ve checked the text before going to the performance). And sometimes Shakespeare pushed them to, and over, the limit.

We can suppose that in the early days the audience was content with poetry suitable for recitation, and not so different from what might be found in the pages of a book. Listen to this, for instance, from III Henry VI, a very early play. Richard, Duke of York has fatally lost a battle:

… all my followers to the eager foe
Turn back and fly, like ships before the wind,
Or lambs pursu’d by hunger-starved wolves.

His sons rally to him, and they counter-attack:

With this we charg’d again; as I have seen a swan
With bootless labour swim against the tide
And spend her strength with over-matching waves.

His enemies then close in, and after a lengthy bout of mutual insult, kill him. To a modern ear this report of a military disaster surely sounds inept – absurdly lazy, inappositely languid, undistressed, unafraid. It puzzles us that in his extremity Richard goes in for elegant comparisons with ships and lambs to illustrate the fatal flight of his army, even putting in a word to explain why the wolves were in pursuit. Or that he should dwell sadly on the plight of the swan as a fitting image of a failed counter-attack.

Elizabethan audiences of this date (around 1590) may not have thought these conceits merely ornamental; they had a different idea of the use of ornament. But in our time we can hardly expect the same response, and survival is what we look for in the poetry of earlier ages. It would be easy to quote many more such passages from the early plays. The characters take their time, set everything out with the utmost elaboration. Here is Clifford advising Henry VI against unnatural exhibitions of mercy:

To whom do lions cast their gentle looks?
Not to the beast that would usurp their den.
Whose hand is that the forest bear doth lick?
Not his that spoils her young before her face.
Who scapes the lurking serpent’s mortal sting?
Not he that sets his foot upon her back.
The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on,
And doves will peck in safeguard of their brood.

You feel he only stops because he has run out of animal comparisons.

It took a while for this manner to change. King John, a bit later, has some intensities of a sort not to be found in its predecessors, but it remembers the old redundancies. Here Salisbury is protesting against the King’s decision to be crowned a second time:

Therefore, to be possess’d with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smoothe the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

The last line could be a comment on the whole rather absurd passage. Yet this is the play in which you can find one line chillingly, and rather daringly, divided into four separate speeches. The King is ordering Hubert to dispose of the young Prince Arthur: ‘Death./My lord?/A grave./He shall not live.’ And the Bastard Falconbridge is, interestingly, given the job of deflating pretension and excess of much the same kind I’ve illustrated. Soon it will be heard no more.

However, the truly vital change was to come later. It can be called, rather crudely, the acquisition of the power to represent persons actually thinking. When you can do that you can begin to speak of character in a new sense; if they think, they are. Cogitant ergo sunt. And it is by this new style that our own powers are tested to this day.

The soliloquy was originally just a way of keeping the audience informed about the plot, but it was now to become a representation of a man thinking. And this made for an increase in obscurity. A few quotations roughly suggest the stages by which this development occurred. In Julius Caesar, one of the first Globe plays as well as a play with deep political interests, Brutus has to decide whether to join the conspiracy against Caesar. So here is a man thinking about something we take to be urgent and important.

It must be by his death; and for my part
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general. He would be crown’d:
How that might change his nature, there’s the question.
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder,
And that craves wary walking. Crown him that,
And then I grant we put a sting in him
That at his will he may do danger with.
Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins
Remorse from power; and to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections sway’d
More than his reason. But ’tis a common proof
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber upward turns his face,
But when he once attains the utmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may;
Then, lest he may, prevent. And since the quarrel
Will bear no colour for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus: that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities;
And therefore think him as the serpent’s egg,
Which, hatch’d, would as his kind grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.

This speech gets criticised on various grounds: for example, that Brutus could have cited good evidence that Caesar was much less mild than he says; and that his worry about the effect of coronation was anachronistic. Whatever view you take of the historical Brutus, Dante’s regicide in the depths of hell, or Michelangelo’s hero, it is hard to imagine him arguing that Caesar would be perfectly fine if he stayed just the way he was. But that is not the present point. Anybody can see how this kind of writing differs from the earlier examples I gave, but the immediate question is whether it has reached the point where we can say ‘this is a plausible representation of anxious thought.’ And I don’t believe one can say that. It is still too languid and explanatory, though it leaves much unexplained. The figures of the ladder and the adder are worked out in a very detached way, spelt out at leisure, no seething, no apprehensiveness. Brutus ‘has not slept’ but he shows little sign of disturbance. How far it falls short of the linguistic animation I’m talking about is made clear in Hamlet, only a year or so later.

Take this passage, which doesn’t come from Hamlet’s own soliloquies (though they represent a peak in the evolution of the soliloquising manner), but from the speech of Claudius as he ponders his guilt after the play-within-the-play.

Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will.
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offence?
And what’s in prayer but this twofold force –
To be forestalled ere we come to fall,
Or pardon’d being down? Then I’ll look up.
My fault is past, but, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder?’
That cannot be, since I am still possess’d
Of those effects for which I did the murder:
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.
May one be pardon’d and retain th’offence?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice:
And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law, but ‘tis not so above:
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature, and we ourselves compell’d,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence.
What then? What rests?
Try what repentance can. What can it not?
Yet what can it, when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that struggling to be free
Art more engag’d! Help, angels! Make assay,
Bow, stubborn knees, and heart, with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe!
All may be well.

The last lines strike me as somewhat archaic and repetitive, a partial return to an older, elaborately exclamatory, manner. And the first lines are simple enough, and effective enough, setting out the idea that it is useless to ask forgiveness when still possessed of the fruits of the crime. What seems new is the bit in the middle – the passage italicised above. It repeats and reinforces the earlier point, but with a new kind of nervous vigour.

Here, it seems, is a man suffering for his thought, working out his emotion in violent, immediate language, subjected to the pressure and slippage of bold, even anguished metaphor. ‘Corrupted currents’ is vague – a corrupt current could be a sewer. The sense is of a world where all affairs tend to corruption. Instead of developing this idea Claudius, always a character of strong and sometimes turbulent intellect, presents an allegory so briefly sketched that one almost does not hear it as allegory. Offence – the crime is now briefly personified – holds money in his hand and ‘shoves by’ (pushes away) Justice, also glimpsed as a personification; then, relaxing into the literal, he puts it thus: the gold obtained by a crime may be the bribe that ensures the offender’s security. He then contrasts this state of affairs with what obtains in the world ‘above’. ‘Shuffling’ means ‘underhand’ or ‘equivocating conduct’, especially legal trickery – a move to distinguish Justice (above) from Law (below). The ‘action’ – the prosecution’s case in the heavenly court – ‘lies’ (‘is sustainable’), and in that case full confession is unavoidable. ‘The teeth and forehead of our faults’: earlier we had ‘confront the visage of offence’, a vivid enough little allegory, an aggressive mercy challenging sin; and earlier we have seen that in Claudius’s opinion Hamlet’s offences grow ‘out of his brows’, challenging the King. In this instance, however, teeth and forehead give a new and different force to the ideas of ‘visage’ and ‘brows’, no longer menacing but guilty and menaced by justice. The face or mask stands for the guilty person: he will be shamed; aggressive browbeating, defiance, cannot now serve his cause. Here is a form of energy, a poetry animated by rapid and oblique associations, that corresponds with nothing in the earlier work. The play of figures, the refusal to surrender to the old habit of milking similitudes, the changing depth of focus on Mercy, Justice, Offence, the vigorous colloquial roughness of ‘shove’ and ‘shuffle’, the persistent yet always quick and varied legal references: these testify to a different range of metaphorical usage and to a different manner of talking, no longer laying ideas out schematically and illustrating them at leisure, but discovering or representing a man thinking under the stress of guilt and fear. One of the reasons we return regularly to the discussion of ‘character’ in Shakespeare – once a principal object of admiration, but long out of fashion – is that we have to deal with this discovery of a new, as it were, internal, rhetoric, the sound of a person thinking under stress. The speech does not begin that way, and it doesn’t end that way, but those terrific lines in the middle show what can be done, provided people will listen to them with attention, as apparently the Globe audience was now ready to do.

A passage from Coriolanus, the last of the tragedies, provides an example of this way of writing at its ripest. The speaker is Aufidius, the enemy of Rome. The exiled Coriolanus has joined him and is enjoying great military success; Aufidius is impressed, can’t quite understand how it has happened, and is a little afraid that the success of this foreigner will hurt his own reputation.

All places yield to him ere he sits down,
And the nobility of Rome are his.
The senators and patricians love him too;
The tribunes are no soldiers, and their people
Will be as rash in the repeal as hasty
To expel him thence. I think he’ll be to Rome
As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it
By sovereignty of nature. First he was
A noble servant to them, but he could not
Carry his honours even. Whether ‘twas pride,
Which out of daily fortune ever taints
The happy man; whether defect of judgment,
To fail in the disposing of those chances
Which he was lord of; whether nature,
Not to be other than one thing, not moving
From th’ casque to th’ cushion, but commanding peace
Even with the same austerity and garb
As he controll’d the war; but one of these
(As he has spices of them all, not all,
For I dare so far free him) made him fear’d,
So hated, and so banish’d; but he has a merit
To choke it in the utt’rance.

This begins easily enough: Coriolanus will not be resisted by anybody in Rome, whether plebeian or patrician. So how did it happen that a man so highly valued ended as an exile? Pride, which the habitually fortunate man is subject to? Or was he defeated by the oxymoronic role of ‘noble servant’, failing to keep a straight course when loaded with civilian as well as military honours? Or should we say it was just want of judgment, lack of political nous? Anyway, it may simply not have been in his nature to vary his conduct, disastrously behaving in peace with the same rigour he showed in war. Perhaps one of these descriptions fits – they’re all related and all applicable. No, I can’t quite say that, he’s not guilty of them all – but anyway one of them caused him to be hated and exiled. That is a lame prose summary. The general point is that this is quietly tortuous thinking, with metaphors that flash by, with tightly written phrases (‘austerity and garb’, a hendiadys, conveys not only an idea of a kind of behaviour but a glimpse of the man behaving, as it were, in an inappropriate military uniform). ‘From the casque to the cushion’ is a rapid synecdoche, the casque a warlike helmet, the cushion signifying the senator’s seat. Then there is a final admission, as from one general to another, of merit enough to nullify such considerations.

Instead of this admirable passage I might have picked one from the lines of the principal character of this intense, rather brutally calculated play, but Aufidius’ speech has the same unadorned martial energy. Or I might have chosen one from another play altogether, for there is no shortage of brutality and turbulence. However, to come to the last point in this tendentious little survey, it should be admitted that this intellectual power is sometimes used in excess of the occasion, moments when, as Dryden remarked, the words obscure the meaning.

Sometimes, in the late plays, Shakespeare gives a character a speech that the person addressed cannot understand. There are a couple of rather comic examples in Cymbeline: when Iachimo is ranting on about the wickedness of her husband Posthumus in Rome Imogen asks: ‘What is the matter, trow? … What, dear sir,/Thus raps you? Are you well?’ And Cloten misses the point of Imogen’s reference to her husband’s ‘meanest garment’ and in his bewilderment repeats the expression four times. This is a kind of joke and is worked into the plot when Cloten proposes to rape Imogen while wearing some of her husband’s clothes. Yet Cloten is not always stupid and wicked, is sometimes a powerful speaker himself; and there is a sense that Shakespeare in this play is actually teasing the audience with these variations, contradictions and linguistic riffs.

This habit grew on him, I think, along with a sort of mounting indifference to any demand for perspicuity. There are passages in Coriolanus that nobody now understands and even allowing for possible textual corruption it seems unlikely anybody ever did. Sometimes this kind of language seems to come from an overplus of power (as, for instance, in the wonderful opening scenes of The Winter’s Tale), sometimes it appears that the writer was just not taking his task very seriously. As early as All’s Well we find the Countess explaining her stoicism in these terms:

Think upon patience. Pray you, gentlemen –
I have felt so many quirks of joy and grief
That the first face of neither on the start
Can woman me unto’t.

The drift is clear enough: she has experienced much joy and sorrow and a sudden announcement that there is to be more of either cannot make her weep, as women usually do on these occasions. But the third line is close to unintelligible on first hearing and the fourth uses the nonce verb ‘to woman’ in a very forced manner. The abrupt ending of the sentence in mid-line, a common practice in later plays, is another sign of the abandonment of the old expansive manner. I suppose we ought to recall that there was a fashion for harshness in the non-dramatic poetry of the time, as in some of Donne’s satires and verse-letters: ‘I sing not, Siren-like, to tempt; for I/Am harsh.’ Writing of this sort was sometimes labelled ‘strong lines’. The fashion may have appealed to Shakespeare, sometimes to good purposes, sometimes not: ‘laboured and complex but not rich’, says George Hunter of the verse of All’s Well, and he also calls it ‘unfunctional’.

However, it is in later work that one finds the most laboured and complex examples. It will be said that the instances I provide come from what might be called post-retirement plays, and, in one case certainly, plays written for more expensive audiences at the Blackfriars theatre, who might be expected to be more receptive. But Henry VIII was certainly played at the more popular Globe, which was indeed burnt down during a performance of the play. Here is Norfolk at the beginning of the piece, describing in disapproving tones the lavish festivities at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, when Henry made his state visit to Francis I of France:

… men might say
Till this time pomp was single, but now married
To one above itself. Each following day
Became the next day’s master, till the last
Made former wonders its. Today the French
All clinquant, all in gold, like heathen gods,
Shone down the English; and tomorrow, they
Made Britain India; every man that stood
Show’d like a mine. Their dwarfish pages were
As cherubims, all gilt; the madams too,
Not us’d to toil, did almost sweat to bear
The pride upon them, that their very labour
Was to them as a painting. Now this masque
Was cried incomparable; and th’ensuing night
Made it a fool and beggar. The two kings,
Equal in lustre, were now best, now worst,
As presence did present them; him in eye
Still him in praise, and being present both,
‘Twas said they saw but one, and no discerner
Durst wag his tongue in censure.

We need to remember that Norfolk, disapproving of all these shows because they had been run by Wolsey, is doing some exasperated irony, but the verse and the figures still have the tortured, involuted quality I’ve been talking about, and the difficulty of following it is mitigated only by the fact that the drift is obvious enough: both kings put up an extravagantly fine show. Pomp, personified as a single man, marries upward to pomp, which Johnson calls ‘a noisy periphrasis’, and which is certainly far-fetched. More of the same follows. Each day absorbs and exceeds the wonders of the day before. An awkward sentence ends with ‘its’ – a new word, at any rate for writers; it is not to be found in the Authorised Version of 1611, and was brought in only in the 1660 edition. (Shakespeare’s is the first use of the word recorded in OED.) An audience might well have found this hard or surprising. One day the French, ‘clinquant’ – ‘glittering’, or ‘gold-spangled’, not a common word – ‘shone down’ the English; another Shakespearian idiosyncrasy, to make ‘shone’, usually intransitive, do unusual work: ‘surpassed by shining’. ‘Made Britain India’ is again a surprise, for its sudden compactness, but also for its use of ‘Britain’ for ‘England’ – a usage only firmly validated by the accession of James I in 1603. ‘Every man that stood/Show’d like a mine’ is also very tight, and the passage about the heavily adorned women (‘madams’, perhaps in scorn for the French) takes some unravelling. Wearing heavy finery was hard work for these women, unused as they were to labour, and the effect was to make their faces pink as if from using (too much?) make-up. The whole idea is repeated rather more simply in the last sentence. The complexity of this speech seems far in excess of its value, and the effect on character is bad, for we wonder irrelevantly what sort of a person Norfolk is or was to express himself thus. He continues to do so. What does this mean?

As I belong to worship, and affect
In honour honesty, the tract of every thing
Would by a good discourser lose some life
Which action’s self was tongue to.

In essence it means that he is prepared to swear that even an expert raconteur could not, in his description of it, equal the thing itself. The personification of Action, the redundant or irrelevant affirmation of honour, the affected word ‘tract’, the tongue as a figure for ‘action’s self’, the terminal preposition, all are typically muscle-bound and contorted, and the banality of the idea is not eliminated by the excess of the expression.

One last instance, from The Two Noble Kinsmen; the heroine, Emily, is commending Arcite:

Half-sights saw
That Arcite was no babe. God’s lid, his richness
And costliness of spirit look’d through him; it could
No more be hid in him than fire in flax,
Than humble banks can go to law with waters
The drift winds force to raging.

‘Half-sights’, though not hard to understand, is, and always was, strange – OED seems not to know it. ‘Costliness’ is odd and redundant. The notion of a fine spirit looking or shining through a person’s body was better expressed in some famous contemporary lines of Donne. The idea that riverbanks might consider suing rivers for being turbulent when stirred by ‘the drift winds’ seems pointlessly odd ( ‘drift’ meaning ‘driven’, like a snowdrift, one supposes). The whole mixture, including the surprising oath, seems very unlike Emily. And in both these plays the ruggedness of Shakespeare is enhanced by contrast with the gentler cadences of Fletcher.

Shakespeare was not the only playwright of his time to write harshly, but it would be vain to look elsewhere for anything very like the passages I have quoted; and it would be easy enough to supply many more. It is Isabella in Measure for Measure who tells Angelo, ‘O it is excellent/To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous/To use it like a giant,’ and the reproach is relevant here.

Certain plays of Shakespeare should be described as extraordinary, wonderful, great, not because we attribute superhuman powers to their author but because they are performances exhibiting degrees of skill and power we are able to judge because we can compare them with other works that we agree are worth the most concentrated attention we can give them. The moment we lose that purpose the whole project dissolves into neo-historicism, gender criticism and so forth, on the one hand, and, on the other, heritage waffle. And the argument that Shakespeare on occasion wrote badly is, I think, a defence against that danger: all the more so when it can be shown that the bad writing has the same source as the good, that except when he was at the top of his form, which, it must be said, he very frequently was, the giant could be tyrannous.

This, on a larger scale, is the perhaps not particularly astounding theme of my book. The reason it still seems to me to have been worth doing is simply that it required close attention to the writer’s language. It seemed to me that academic Shakespearians would now attend to almost anything rather than to the words. And to persist in this neglect might mean, in the long run, the disappearance not only of Shakespeare as anything but a document like any other historical document, but of all poetry – indeed of everything that we used, in an old-fashioned way, to call literature.