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Letters

Vol. 12 No. 11 · 14 June 1990

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Bardbiz

James Wood (Letters, 22 March and Letters, 24 May) clearly has a problem, and it does little to assist his crusade to preserve ‘Shakespeare’ from the allegedly perverse activities of ‘cultural materialists’ who deny the text’s ‘original’, ‘intentional’ and by implication authoritative meaning. Alan Sinfield (Letters, 19 April) berates Wood, with some justification, for his combination of ignorance and paranoia, but this has now provoked an even more outrageous response, in which all that does not meet with Wood’s approval is kneaded into an utterly unrecognisable dough before being relegated to the Avernus, as he thinks, of Cultural Materialism. Not for Wood any attempt at serious analysis, since this is what dislodges the text from a pedestal that he has constructed and renders it ‘poor’, but even more, he seems unable to distinguish between a ‘characterisation’ (his term) and an absurdly reductivist caricature of the position(s) to which he takes such exception.

Wood’s problem is that despite a worthy desire to enlist Shakespeare in the campaign for liberal dissent, he assumes that a Shakespearean text is exclusively the product of authorial intention. He carelessly glosses over the verifiable fact that some of the materialisms to which he seems to take exception have found roots in the very Enlightenment rationalism upon which foundation his own mystified humanism rests. Indeed, such is his confidence that he can say without embarrassment that ‘cultural materialism draws upon the work of Shakespeare – and he certainly did not believe any of that.’

Here the caricatured determinism of an equally caricatured intellectual position is replaced by a preferred form of ventriloquism which puts words into the mouth, not of a text, but of an author whose support can be enlisted for ‘human itchiness’ and ‘human complexities’ which make us all unpredictable beings, true heirs of that Thatcherite bureaucratic centralism which vehemently denies the irreducibly social origins of the mystified individual autonomy which it slavishly venerates. Insofar as Wood has imbibed the post-modernism hovering in the metropolitan air, he speaks for the chattering classes whose limited understanding rests upon bluffers’ guides, jacket blurbs and media hype. Any attempt to explain real complexity is, it now seems, a mark of mediocrity, and the result is, it is not surprising to hear, ‘sinister’ readings of Shakespeare. So much for Wood’s much vaunted politics of dissent, which is, in reality, just another version of an authoritarian metaphysics attempting to excuse its own combination of bad faith and ostentatious ignorance.

Terence Hawkes’s review (22 February), which elicited Wood’s misguided response, refers to the empirically verifiable fact that Shakespearean texts are constituted ‘not only by an author but also by the interpretative strategies of readers and the material, political and social pressures of the historical contexts helping to shape those strategies’. What Wood cannot see for the trees is that criticism is a constitutive discourse, not simply a parasitic or a ventriloquistic one, but also that originary moments of artistic creativity are, in fact, readings and mediations of a whole range of social, cultural and literary pressures. This may be as much as his limited understanding can take, but if he really is interested in demonstrating his self-appointed intellectual superiority, then he might entertain the possibility that, pace Hawkes and others (not all of whom are Cultural Materialists in the strict sense of the label), Shakespearean texts are sometimes perceived as critical representations of ideological materials which disclose the conditions of their own historical existence.

For this to happen we do not need to raise the spectre of authorial intention, since Shakespeare, like any other writer, may not have been fully conscious of what his texts were doing, nor is it reasonable for us to expect him to have been. It is a matter of fine critical and historical judgment, governed by a range of carefully formulated academic protocols, which are themselves constantly subject to verification and revaluation, as to what proportion of a Shakespearean text we may ascribe to authorial intention, and the solution lies somewhere other than in making of the author a ventriloquist’s dummy. In accusing Hawkes, and ‘cultural materialists’ (now reduced to a meaningless derogatory slogan), of a rigid determinism, Wood falls into the very trap himself of claiming to be able to predict the responses of some of those whose work he clearly does not understand, but whom he senses present a threat to his own authority.

John Drakakis
University of Stirling

James Wood’s tactics in argument (Letters, 22 March) scarcely justify his claim to speak with authority of ‘human complexities and struggles’. I did not say that no cultural materialists have presented Shakespeare as going along with the dominant ideology of his time: of course they have, and so have lots of other people! I said that in cultural materialism it is a question (I repeat the emphasis). So it is not surprising that Wood can quote sentences that seem to support his contention. However, his intellectual tradition appears not to require him to admit contrary evidence, so he carefully avoids acknowledging the extent to which this work tends in other directions, or opens up intricate problems of agency, intervention, subversion. For my own part, I do believe that authors have intentions, dissident intentions often, and that they put them into effect in their writing.

Alan Sinfield
University of Sussex

Mistaken Methodology

May I renew my unanswered protests (LRB, 6 March 1986 and 19 May 1988) about modern Shakespeare editing? The latest Oxford volume, The Merry Wives of Windsor, exemplifies the mistaken methodology I indicted. Its editor, T.W. Craik, who teaches English literature, is far from impressed by the credentials of the critic John Dennis or the poet laureate Nicholas Rowe. Indeed, he calmly calls them both liars, in effect, just for claiming in 1702 and 1709 respectively that the play was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth. John Dryden and William Davenant fare no better: if they were the sources of the story, ‘either of them may have invented it.’

Professor Craik, having thus spurned early evidence as invention, proceeds to embrace late invention as evidence. ‘It is now accepted that [the 1602 Quarto] is a corrupt text reconstructed from memory [of the 1623 Folio version] and, where memory failed, from invention.’ In fact, every operative word of that sentence is false. ‘Corrupt’, ‘reconstructed’, ‘memory’, and the pre-existence of the 1623 text, are themselves inventions. Even the ‘invention’ is an invention.

So is ‘accepted’. In fact, this theory has been rejected ever since Walter Greg announced it in 1910. Even Greg himself rejected it, in 1928. By 1942 he had withdrawn his notion that the ‘reporter’ was the actor who played the Host. T. W. Craik is silent about this damaging decapitation of ‘memorial’ reconstruction, which is still running about in Oxford circles. He inadvertently defines its fatal fallacy, as follows: ‘The relatively accurate reporting of the Host’s speeches in particular gives good reason for believing that the actor who played this role was either the sole reporter or the principal one.’ Even without my italics, everyone can see that the assumed reporter is assumed from the assumed reporting, and conversely.

We are then told that ‘there is no need to set down all the evidence’ for this theory: fortunately for it, since none exists. It also defies the historical facts, the rules of reasoning, and three hundred years of consensus to the contrary. Prima facie the 1602 version of Merry Wives represents a comedy by William Shakespeare, played by his company before his sovereign, as its title-page tells us. There are no factual grounds whatever for asserting that it was a corrupt travesty botched up by piratical actor-reporters for sale to dishonest publishers, and thence to a gullible public, as the quite different play that had been presented on the London stage. This is not just invention but fairy-tale fantasy.

It is also refuted by the textual facts. The 1623 edition has over 2700 lines, as against only 1600 in the earlier version, which contains some five hundred otherwise unknown. Only 120 are the same in both sources. So the hypothetical Elizabethan memoriser of a Jacobean text completely forgot most of it, misremembered almost all the rest, and added five hundred lines of his own – which is absurd.. Shakespeare is, however, well-known to have revised his own work. It is time to get his dates right and give him his plays back, including such typical descriptions of Falstaff as ‘an unreasonable woolsack’ or ‘a bladder of iniquity’ which modern editors attribute to an imaginary reporter.

Eric Sams
Sanderstead, Surrey

Where Israel is concerned

S.J. Fisher complained in your last issue that I should not have discussed ‘the rise of Israeli “thug-ism"’ without mentioning the hostility of Israel’s thug-like Arab neighbours.’ I was not discussing ‘the rise of Israeli “thug-ism" ’ but reviewing the autobiography of one particular thug, Sharon, and I saw no need to consider other delinquents. In any case, the behaviour of the Syrian and Iraqi dictators has had little influence on the careers of those thugs cited by Mr Fisher. Begin, Shamir and Sharon were busy murdering British and Arab civilians while Asad and Hussein were still children. Furthermore, Mr Fisher’s suggestion that ‘peace and a Palestinian state’ would automatically follow an Iraqi offer of peace is astonishingly naive. Does he not remember what happened after Egypt, the most powerful Arab state, made peace with Israel? Did the Israelis then ‘put “doves" into high office’ determined to pursue an overall settlement? Of course they did nothing of the kind. Exploiting the disappearance of the Egyptian military threat, they re-elected (with an increased vote) the bellicose Begin and thus paved the way for the devastation of Lebanon and accelerated land-grabbing on the West Bank.

In the previous issue Michael Nelson said a number of things about me, some of them true and some of them untrue. I am indeed anti-Zionist but I do not try to ‘de-legitimise’ the state of Israel. I believe the Zionist enterprise was an error and an injustice that has brought tragedy to millions of innocent people, but I have never thought that its victims’ grievances should be redressed by the disappearance of the Jewish state. Like most of the rest of the world, I have always supported a two-state solution to the conflict: Israel in its pre-1967 borders and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Mr Nelson goes on to accuse me of ‘unrelenting hostility’ towards Israel, but in fact that hostility is only unrelenting towards the brutal and expansionist policies of its government. When Israel stops invading Lebanon, when its soldiers stop shooting unarmed demonstrators, when its politicians stop building colonies on other people’s land – then, certainly, I shall relent.

David Gilmour
Edinburgh

What’s so good about Reid?

Galen Strawson is not entitled to introduce ‘mental items’ and then to complain about ‘slippery terms’. There are two problems in talking about ‘mental items’ as Strawson does (Letters, 19 April) when discussing the opinions of Locke, Berkeley and Hume, and, in his original review, Descartes as well. The first is that the phrase ‘mental items’ is ambiguous, and it is not made clearer by the selection which Strawson offers: that is, ‘ideas’ or ‘images’ or ‘representations’. Ideas, as I pointed out in my letter (Letters, 22 March), is a key term in the writing of all four philosophers, but does not have the same meaning in any two of them. The ‘representations’ admitted by this group, similarly, are of incompatible kinds, a fact obscured by simply calling them ‘mental items’. For instance, in the case of Berkeley, an idea cannot be a representation at all, since representations belong to his theory of concepts. It happens too that Berkeley uniquely perceives Berkeleyan ideas, which are quite unlike the ideas of the other three. It is true only of Berkeleyan ideas that esse est percipi.

The second, related problem arises from Strawson’s objection to ‘slippery terms’ in his praise of Reid. There was, of course, much confusion about terminology then as now, but for a given writer major terms can be identified and defined. This takes time, but it remains true that discussion is not enhanced by introducing free-wheeling ‘mental items’ and bypassing crucially distinctive ‘ideas’.

Finally, ‘notions’ is a technical term in Berkeley’s writing, a fact that your printing practices obscured in my original letter. Notions allowed for a theory of representation distinct from Berkeley’s theory of ideas.

Désirée Park
Concordia University, Montreal

Isle of Dogs

It had to come! I’ve just heard a story on the news about a Rottweiler rescuing a woman from drowning. Nice one, Prince. Who paid you? This blatant attempt at rehabilitation can’t spoil Iain Sinclair’s wonderful dog-ridden nightmare (LRB, 10 May). I’ve felt the breath of the hounds of Hackney, but didn’t know it until I read this review, which is the proof of a writer’s success. I look forward to his novel.

Clare Marlow
Dagenham, Essex

The men they like

One is of course unshockable nowadays. But should the relatively small space devoted to poems each week in the LRB be filled with grotesqueries such as appeared in your issue of 24 May? Ms Pitt-Kethley’s nauseating comments on the smokers she takes to bed with her are not merely unbelievably nasty in their implications, but sick – an insult to your women readers, to the men they like and admire, and to a tradition of poetry that can accommodate John Wilmot, but prefers Andrew Marvell. By these standards Mr Mark Ford’s two banal exhibits are not poetry at all.

Elizabeth Hill
Exeter

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