Like relics of the True Cross, there are said to be enough splinters to make an orchard from the mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare in his garden at New Place. The Shakespeare canon has excited nearly as much passion for tangible facts, however marginal to the true faith, as Holy Writ. Bits of venerated mulberry scattered around the world of believers are a salutary reminder that our passion for tangibility evokes more than just that irritable reaching after fact and reason that Keats declared to be the antithesis of Shakespeare. In the Shakespeare canon at present, fact seems to be even more of a problem than interpretation. With such an intensely scrutinised canon, the less tangible and mulberry-like the facts, the more susceptible they are to the reshaping and rewriting of interpretation, and vice versa. The value of the facts of the Shakespeare canon lies in their interpretability.
It is this that enhances the facts, to the point where the facts of the canon become themselves the basis for evaluation. The assertion of a fact is an assertion of value. So we are apt to find interpretation struggling for status and value as fact. Paradoxically, interpretation, itself quickly perishable, sustains the canon as an imperishable fact. The trouble is that they are not really separable, because a circular system develops where fact and interpretation interact to sustain one another. And yet interpretation needs the fixity of a canon. When does the chicken and egg question become a vicious circle?
Literary canons are interpretations masquerading as facts. Interpretation always plunges for its anchorage in fact, and commonly gets into trouble when it falls for the temptation of claiming to be as solid as its anchorage. Fact is usually definable as the components most firmly attached to a canon, the texts, the attendant social and biographical circumstances, the history of the canon’s reputation. Interpretation relies on the appearance of fixity in all these trappings, though some forms of interpretation do try to adjust some of the fixtures around the margins and even near the centre of the canon, while taking care not to alter its value. The problem which promotes this illusion is that interpretation can handle intangibles, the questions which float naturally or unnaturally up from their fixed base in the canon, while the canon itself has to rest on tangibles, the common ground which makes discourse possible by providing a shared subject. The Shakespeare canon seems on the whole a tangible entity. It generates the term ‘Shakespearean’ as a praise word, a term which describes a quality at the same time as it evaluates it, and the grounds for the praise are clearly recognisable. That is a point basic to interpretation of the canon and its surrounding texts. But it is not a point which rests comfortably on fact. One peculiar irony about the Shakespeare canon is that the chief quality denoted by the term ‘Shakespearean’ is a complex polyvalency, a flexibility of word and signification in which interpretation flourishes mightily, and where the insurmountable complexity of the question makes answers pointless. The main value-judgment inherent in the canon is negative capability. That is not, however, a useful quality for the interpretation which wants to fix facts. Interpretation commonly uses the word ‘Shakespearean’ to identify the qualities of the canon in non-canonical texts. Problems accumulate when the word is used to argue for the inclusion of new texts in the canon, making interpretation create new facts, because the circularity of the argument becomes too obvious for comfort.
The formation and function of canons was the subject of Frank Kermode’s Wellek Library lectures, now published as Forms of Attention. The third and concluding lecture is called ‘Disentangling Knowledge from Opinion’. Kermode’s elegant traditionalism allows him to acknowledge the difficulty of distinguishing what is right because it is established from what is established because it is right (‘in the matter of canonicity the antithesis collapses’), while still maintaining that some distinction can be made between knowledge and opinion, fact and interpretation. At the core of this distinction he holds that there is, despite all the fluctuations of interpretation, a tangibility or durability about canons themselves which outlives the transience of the interpretation that gave them their initial existence. ‘Not only is the world a book, but a book is a world ... All discords can be resolved into concords, whether in the heavens or on the page. For the book or the world time stops; only the observers, the interpreters, are mutable and subject to temporal attrition.’ This mutability of interpretation is necessary whether we adopt the hermeneutic principle of the limitations set by historical change against absolute and unchangeable values, or whether we prefer what Kermode calls the ‘objectivist’ view claiming we can get past such limitations. ‘Perhaps a perfect interpretation would, as Valéry said of pure reality, stop the heart. Good enough interpretation is what encourages or enables certain necessary forms of attention.’
This modest assertion, which justifies literary industry by its distinction between interpretation, a constant activity, and fact, a finite and end-stopped quest, depends entirely on that distinction. Kermode shows that Botticelli, forgotten and undervalued for so many centuries, was rescued by two interpreters both of whom had their facts wrong. The fact of his value, now validated by our closer view of the facts of his art, was established by acts of ‘good enough interpretation’. As interpretations, they could be discarded, but they did the job of identifying the factual value of the Botticelli canon. That is the substance of Kermode’s first lecture. The second, what he calls a scherzo on Hamlet, is an attempt to demonstrate the continuing fertility of interpretation even in the most ‘unshakably canonical’ of works. ‘The conversations of interpreters are shadows or images ... and not matters of substance, except that where there is shadow there must be substance, and a light on it; so the end of this shadowy talk is after all to keep a real and valued object in being.’ A nice image, but not quite the right one. Hamlet is substantial, indeed, but the substance is not so clear-cut that its shadows are distinguishable from it. The current state of dispute about the shape of the Shakespeare canon suggests that quite a lot of it is more shadowy, more a consequence of interpretation, than Kermode’s differentiation of fact from interpretation will readily admit.
One of the uses of circularity in the Shakespeare canon is that it enhances the components in it, makes them potent by the share they have in the whole oeuvre. Philip Edwards, in his concise little survey of the main canon, argues that it ‘is a unity, and the meaning of each part is enlarged by recognising the unity.’ He cites Muriel Bradbrook in support of this version of Eliot’s argument about the great tradition being modified by each accretion, and would probably have the support, however inexplicit, of most interpreters who write about the canon. Paul de Man’s assertion that a canon gets its status from its constituent parts and Kermode’s counter-claim that it happens the other way round can easily be reconciled in such a view. Both positions, though, are likely to suffer a few jolts when attempts are made to add new works to the old canon. So long as interpretation of a fixed and familiar canon – the ‘continuous and fertile interpretation’ that Kermode sees as guaranteeing for texts like Ulysses the status of perpetual modernity – can manage to concentrate on fixtures, there is a kind of harmony, since the disputes over interpretation collaborate in upholding the canonical status which is their first premise. But when the text of Ulysses itself comes into question, or when the canonical King Lear disintegrates into two distinct versions – and both of these things have happened recently – the question of fixity returns to being a matter for interpretation.
Shakespeare himself does not seem to have helped much by his relegation of print to the status of what Beaumont called a ‘second publication’. He gave his plays life on stage as performance texts, and may well have rested content without giving any second publication to more than two-thirds of all his oeuvre in his lifetime. The labour of editors to restore Shakespeare’s texts is, to some extent, a kind of taxidermy. He even kept from the press the ‘sugred Sonnets among his private friends’ until some accident fixed them in 1609. The Shakespeare canon is a modern artefact, an interweaving of fact and interpretation. Since the most recent editorial practice sets up performance texts rather than written texts as the desideratum, it has committed itself to taking the essential Shakespeare almost out of anyone’s reach. Theatre is a far more local and immediate thing than any other literary form. The essential Shakespeare as performance text is less tangible than most canonical figures, certainly less than Botticelli.
The difficulty is that some form of fact, even as a necessary fiction, is necessary if interpretation is to flourish. What is most needed, and on current evidence most lacking, is a recognition of the contingent nature of much of the fact, and a recognition, at the point where fact and interpretation merge, of what is fact and what is interpretation claiming to be fact, if indeed they can be distinguished. Most of the irritable reaching seems to be generated where interpretation feels the need to claim itself as fact.
This weave of fact and interpretation which makes the Shakespeare canon is painfully stretched at the moment. Editors of the central texts are adjusting to the idea that Shakespeare had second thoughts and wrote for the moment more readily than he did for all time, not only with Lear but with Hamlet, Othello and even Macbeth (the survival of only one authorised version for the Scottish tragedy intensifies the scope for conjecture). Censorship and Interpretation Annabel Patterson’s study of the hermeneutics of censorship, pins the two versions of Lear much more tightly into their political and transient moments than even Gary Taylor managed in his contribution to The Division of the Kingdoms. In the process, she undermines the assumption of timelessness which generates a lot of the canon’s ostensible value. On the margins of the canon, too, there is a queue of new candidates pressing for admission. In different ways they all demonstrate the struggle to convert interpretation into fact which is the usual way of mediating between Kermode’s opinion and knowledge.
Gary Taylor’s arguments supporting his case for the poem ‘Shall I die?’ are not the strongest testimony to the way fact is used to validate interpretation. Understandably, in view of the way journalists have canvassed verdicts about the poem from experts like A.L. Rowse, the presentation of his case in the TLS on 20 December 1985 was printed alongside a second presentation demolishing his case, and an editorial note assuring breathless readers that Taylor’s reply to his critics would appear at the end of January. The poem is there to be argued over, a fact. The rest is interpretation, and in Taylor’s case rather shaky interpretation. Personally I think ‘Shall I die?’ does have a not far from Shakespearean ring to it: nothing like “Venus and Adonis’, but very likely from the same belfry as ‘A Lover’s Complaint’. But Taylor does not spend time interpreting the poem. He uses internal evidence as fact, and rather dubiously. By modernising the text, for instance, he alters some of the facts and conceals points that might be used against him. By making ‘shew’ become ‘sue’ in line five, he conceals a question about a possibly non-Shakespearean pronunciation. In such a heavily-rhymed poem the evidence of pronunciation from the original spellings ought to be a major contributor of facts to the case. His citation of verbal parallels, which are his main evidence in the TLS presentation, is easily burlesqued by Robin Robbins, author of the adversary case, with citations of equivalent parallels from Spenser, Daniel and others. That leaves only our reading of the modernised text, which is not enough to go on as confirmation of the fact that Shakespeare wrote it.
The same will most likely have to be said for other proposals emboldened by Ernst Honigmann’s renewal of the question of Shakespeare’s lost years. Eric Sams’s edition of Edmund Ironside, advertised as ‘Shakespeare’s lost play’, a neat self-contradiction as well as a declaration of prodigality, suffers from the same fragility of evidence without offering much encouragement from the text. Edmund Ironside has been known and read much more widely than ‘Shall I die?’ and few critics sprang to its support before Sams. His evidence is presented with open irritability, and is mostly of the ‘salmons in both’ variety. The connections are chiefly with Titus Andronicus and I Henry VI, but Sams finds significant parallels as far away as Pericles: both plays have a scene in which a letter is read out. What, says Sams after citing a page and a half of similar parallels, could be more Shakespearean? Confidence in Sams’s case is not strengthened by his shaky use of minor facts such as the meaning of Marlowe’s ‘mother wits’, the date of Gorboduc, the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury as censor, and the standard practices in censoring play texts. I may have reacted too coolly to Sams’s display of irritation at the generations of scholars who have failed to recognise the force of his case, but twisting circumstantial facts does not assist the interpretation of such facts as are put on offer. The play itself remains marginal to the canon: interesting largely because of its proximity, but not obviously altering the canon’s appearance. One of the minor difficulties about Eliot’s case for the great tradition was knowing what texts counted as significant enough to modify it.
Probably the commonest difficulty emerges when fact is called on to sustain interpretation, and interpretation is piled up until the assumed fact becomes demonstrable by the very accumulation of support for it. As evidence, it suffers from the circularity of the salmon-in-both argument. A case in point is Joseph Pequigney’s reading of the sonnets as an explicit though covert account of male eroticism. Pequigney assumes that the hermeneutics of censorship, that complex and intimate communication of knowledge shared under the blanket between writer and reader, justifies his readings of that communication as a consistent sequence of sexual allusions. His faith in the ‘fact’ of the poet’s homosexuality may test his reader’s belief when he glosses the fourth line of Sonnet 33’s image about the sun ‘gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy’ as ‘enriching an orgasm with delectable magic’.
Several other recent publications bear down on the canon from one direction or another. In Shakespeare Survey 38 Giorgio Melchiori makes a case for Hand D in Sir Thomas More doing a more sophisticated job with his adjustments in the manuscript than modern editors have made of his adjustments. Since Hand D’s three pages are firmly lodged, as part of the canon, in Alexander’s 1951 edition, Sisson’s 1953 edition and the 1974 Riverside, Melchiori’s case for the dexterity of Hand D is an endorsement of its right to be there. It demonstrates, in the process, the other side of the circular argument. Hand D’s adjustments are Shakespearean. What is Shakespearean might be Shakespeare’s. Therefore Hand D is Shakespeare’s. Melchiori adroitly refuses to close the circle, but it hangs like a halo over his case because we have to accept that the ingenuity and theatrical sophistication he identifies in the adjustments are there by design and not accident. The play at large is not such a marvellous artefact that it bears much reading without the inducement of Shakespearean sapphires buried around its axle-trees.
The same issue of Shakespeare Survey has Gary Taylor’s incisive challenge to the old orthodoxy of keeping the name Falstaff instead of the original Oldcastle in 1 Henry IV. He knowingly creates difficulties for editors, not only because there is less case for changing the name in 2 Henry IV, Henry V or The Merry Wives, so that discontinuities not designed by Shakespeare emerge, but because it challenges what most of us have accepted as a rigid fact of the canon. His case for the change is that the adjustment of Oldcastle into Falstaff was forced on Shakespeare by outside pressure, and indeed (an extra argument required by the performance text principle) there is some evidence that Shakespeare’s company occasionally reverted to the original name. The trouble with that is that Shakespeare did acquiesce in the change, and used Falstaff for the later three plays. Nonetheless the original concept as it was performed at first did use Oldcastle. Taylor can therefore, with some justification, invoke Holy Writ and claim that he, like Erasmus, is returning to the divine original while the Falstaffians content themselves with the corrupt Vulgate. He may not be entirely right to claim that ‘bad texts do not encourage good criticism,’ but the converse, that good criticism promotes better texts, is certainly right.
Some of the better interpretation that has appeared lately stands at a safe distance from the question of canonicity, remote enough to free itself from the irritability surrounding fact without floating too far from the essential canon. Catherine Belsey shares some of the problems of intangibility which Patterson confronts in Censorship and Interpretation since she takes the same large subject, the history of liberal humanism in the Renaissance. But on the scale she uses it does not greatly matter that attendant facts like the provenance of Arden of Feversham or the texts of Hamlet and Lear are in dispute. Her analysis of the growth of the concept of individual identity, male and female, enhances the texts she uses as much as it illustrates the history she contributes to, a valuable kind of circularity.
Canons need rewriting, and rewriting the canon is, at least in Shakespeare, currently a large part of the function of interpretation. If the rewriting entails alteration of what has been established as fact, that only emphasises the extent to which an assertion of fact is chiefly a value-judgment, a declaration of absolute objectivity. Interpretation needs the claims of factual canonicity to justify the forms of attention – that ‘rabbinical minuteness of commentary and speculation’ – which Kermode identifies as the interaction of opinion and knowledge: but the facts are rarely as distinguishable from assertion as he maintains. Not that it matters, perhaps. Like Shakespeare’s mulberry tree, the canonical egg and the interpretative chicken are a breeding cycle as well as a vicious circle.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.