Keys to Shakespeare

Anne Barton

  • Shakespeare’s Tragic Practice by Bertrand Evans
    Oxford, 327 pp, £12.50, December 1979, ISBN 0 19 812094 X
  • The Tragic Effect: The Oedipus Complex in Tragedy by André Green, translated by Alan Sheridan
    Cambridge, 264 pp, £10.50, October 1979, ISBN 0 521 21377 0
  • Shakespeare’s Tragic Sequence by Kenneth Muir
    Liverpool, 207 pp, £9.50, November 1979, ISBN 0 85323 184 2
  • Shakespeare’s Comic Sequence by Kenneth Muir
    Liverpool, 207 pp, £9.50, November 1979, ISBN 0 85323 064 1

Twenty years ago, Bertrand Evans published Shakespeare’s Comedies, a book with one idea. Shakespeare, he argued, habitually gives his audience an awareness of the true nature of any dramatic situation greater than that of the characters on the stage. Evans analysed the 13 comedies and the four last plays scene by scene, and concluded that a technique of ‘discrepant awareness’ or ‘exploitable gaps’ between characters and theatre audience lay at the heart of Shakespeare’s dramatic method. ‘It is a fact,’ he announced, ‘that the comedies which approach perfection in their dramatic construction regularly exhibit a high proportion of scenes in which we hold advantage, and that those which are most deficient exhibit a low proportion of such scenes – thus, at the one extreme, Twelfth Night, and, at the other, Troilus and Cressida.’

Although some interesting points did emerge from its statistics and commentary, Shakespeare’s Comedies was a rather worrying book. Obsession with the value of ‘discrepant awareness’ led Evans to postulate a Shakespeare who steadily improved as a dramatist between The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night because, in each successive play, he found better and more ingenious ways of telling his audience more and his characters less. Some alarming critical misjudgments resulted from this premise: a superficial and dismissive treatment of the early comedies, the view of Troilus and Cressida as a deplorable failure, a rapturous response to the notoriously problematic last scene of Cymbeline because it creates such an extreme of audience omniscience and character confusion, and a corresponding uneasiness when faced with the unprepared-for resurrection of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. Only some adroit divagatory manoeuvres allowed him to avoid discovering that The Merry Wives of Windsor (audience advantage in 16 out of 22 scenes, as opposed to the four out of 27 in Troilus and Cressida) was Shakespeare’s most brilliant comedy.

The Preface to Shakespeare’s Comedies announced briskly that ‘a similar account of the management of awarenesses in the histories and tragedies is nearly finished at the present time’. In fact, it has taken Evans two decades to produce Shakespeare’s Tragic Practice, only part of the promised sequel. The somewhat desperate character of the finished book helps to explain this long delay. Shakespeare’s tragedies simply do not form as linked and coherent a body of work as the comedies. Even more important, they have proved resistant to Evans’s method. In the earlier book, ‘discrepant awareness’ played into the hands of a frankly sentimental reading of the comedies – the territory of ‘bright-eyed heroines’ (as Evans likes to call them) and transcendant goodness. Indeed, one of the main functions of ‘exploitable gaps’ in the comedies, apart from generating delightful irony and laughter, was apparently to reassure audiences that, whatever the characters may think, ultimately all will be rosy and well. In the tragedies, on the other hand, laughter and even irony are only incidental effects. And while the audience may be granted a knowledge of Iago’s plots, or the true nature of Edmund and Macbeth, superior to that of any of the characters on stage, this knowledge is scarcely the guarantee of a happy ending.

To do him justice, Evans does pause briefly midway through Shakespeare’s Tragic Practice to ask himself the crucial question. The dramatist’s purpose in devising ‘exploitable gaps’ in the comedies is always, he muses, self-evident. ‘But what is the result when the identical formula is applied in situations that involve life and death?’ Unfortunately, this query proves to be merely rhetorical. Evans never really answers it, except indirectly in the form of the particular interpretations he offers of individual tragedies. It quickly becomes obvious, however, that ‘discrepant awareness’ in this book has abandoned the tangible and relatively sensible area of plot and identity to enter the far more risky country of motivation. Even more alarming, most of these motivations turn out to be critical inventions, concealed from everyone but Evans.

Shakespeare’s Tragic Practice is essentially a work of fantasy. In his Preface, Evans solemnly protests that ‘it has been no part of my intent to shock readers, but in fact I have sometimes been shocked myself by what has emerged here’. If his application of the method of Shakespeare’s Comedies to the tragedies ‘should cause the hair of my Shakespearian colleagues to rise on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine, I protest only that this effect formed no part of my intent’. The truth of the matter is that boredom and mild exasperation, rather than shock, is likely to be felt by readers asked to believe that ‘the crucial gap between Macbeth’s awareness and ours is simply that we have a moral sense and he has none,’ that Iago’s only genuine motive is a need to continue extracting money from Roderigo, and that if Desdemona had ‘married some noble young Venetian instead of Othello, he would yet have devised a set of arguments to convince Roderigo that he himself had long hated this particular gentleman for sundry injurious acts done by him’ and behaved in exactly the same way, or that Antony doesn’t care for Cleopatra, probably tells her to trust Proculeius at the end because he knows Proculeius will betray her, and uses Egypt’s queen only as a convenient excuse behind which to conceal ‘his spirit’s terror of Caesar’. It seems that Kent carefully intrigues to get himself put in the stocks because he wants to send Lear mad, and that if ‘approached in the right way at the right moment, Capulet would doubtless consent to his daughter’s marriage’ to Romeo. Evans expresses irritation with Horatio for trying to join Hamlet in death. Unfortunately, Horatio has failed to reach Evans’s conclusion that Hamlet’s only reason for delay has been a concern for honour: he cannot kill Claudius until all the evidence for the King’s guilt is out in the open, and can be summarised by Horatio. ‘Stalwart, stable, stolid, solid, implacable, unshakable, loyal, but, at this moment, not too brilliant, Horatio has somehow missed the point of it all.’ Well, yes, but so have readers and audiences for centuries.

Rambling and descriptive, unabashed in its concentration upon character, and in its tendency to speculate about what Shakespeare’s heroes and villains would do in different circumstances, or another play, Shakespeare’s Tragic Practice is a more old-fashioned book than the one Evans wrote twenty years before. Certainly it seems, at first sight, to belong to a wholly different world from André Green’s The Tragic Effect. Green is a French psychoanalyst associated with the school of Jacques Lacan. Like Evans, he is a hedgehog: a man dominated by a single, all-embracing idea. For Green, the Oedipus complex lies at the heart of tragic experience, and he pursues it not only through Shakespeare’s Othello, but in Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Racine. Green’s interpretations of individual plays are sustained by a formidable theory of dramatic representation, set out in a densely written ‘Prologue’ bristling with structuralist terminology. Frank Kermode, who admires the book, points out in his foreword that Anglo-Saxon readers are likely to find this introductory section difficult, and its manner unfamiliar. The warning is fair. Nevertheless, like Evans’s theory of ‘discrepant awareness’, Green’s psychoanalytic approach to tragedy must stand or fall in terms of its value when applied to specific plays. I do not myself see that the fantasies aired in The Tragic Effect are any more interesting or responsible than those of Shakespeare’s Tragic Practice.

Green regards the theatre as an embodiment of the unconscious, that ‘other scene’. The audience must interpret stage dialogue without the benefit of explicit commentary. In doing so, it relives the experience of the child, who attempts to comprehend the mystery of its origins through interpreting its parents. In both cases, the truths of the unconscious are hidden, and their discovery inhibited by the force of repression. But what is concealed from the child and from the theatre audience is clear enough to the Freudian analyst. The Oresteia, Oedipus Rex, The Bacchae, Othello and Racine’s Iphigénie all illustrate our common predicament, that of being born of two parents, one of whom was the child’s object of desire, and the other the obstacle to its fulfilment. Green is prepared for readers to resist his oedipal readings. Indeed, his attitude is very much that of the experienced analyst poised to catch his patient evading an unpleasant but potentially therapeutic truth. To disagree with Green is to invite the charge of repression – and as a result The Tragic Effect is, in its own terms, virtually unassailable.

Of the five works of art which Green discusses, Othello is obviously the least mythic. Its plot, borrowed from a 16th-century Italian novella, does not readily yield up the primal Freudian archetypes to be found in the stories of Agamemnon and Iphigenia, Orestes, Oedipus and Pentheus. On the other hand, the comparative naturalism of the situation and dialogue in Shakespeare’s play makes it easier for Green to reduce the text to the position of analysand. While admitting that the analyst as literary critic ‘cannot attain the emptiness that he must practise whenever he undertakes the analysis of a patient, listening with his “third ear” to the new sounds of the analytic speech’, he nonetheless proceeds to interrogate Othello rigorously as to what it really means, as opposed to what Shakespeare’s conscious monitor is allowing it to say. The results are not very convincing. For example, when Iago exclaims, ‘Lechery, by this hand!’, Green takes the phrase literally, completely ignoring Elizabethan idiom: ‘Iago swears an oath with Roderigo, the spurned suitor, now tricked by his supposed friend, by offering him his hand as a sign of his sincerity. But as he does so his outstretched hand becomes in his phantasy first that of the courteous lieutenant, offered to Desdemona, then Desdemona’s fingers penetrating Cassio from behind.’ What lies behind this extraordinary declaration is Green’s conviction that, apart from Roderigo (and, presumably, Brabantio), all the major characters in Othello are longing to sleep with Cassio.

With both Othello and Desdemona lusting after the lieutenant, it is hardly surprising that their marriage goes to pieces. But there are, in Green’s view, other factors which contribute to the tragedy. Othello, it seems, ‘is a brother of Oedipus and Orestes’. That is, he has gone to live in a foreign land in order to save himself from the desire to castrate his father, only to end up performing this act (metaphorically speaking) upon the substitute father, Brabantio. Desdemona – to whom, significantly, Othello gives his mother’s handkerchief – becomes, in fact, his mother and their lovemaking is incestuous. (The handkerchief itself is a ‘phallic emblem’, and when Desdemona loses it, she becomes ‘no more than a castrated woman – to be avoided in order to avoid any contact with castration’.) To the possible objection that, after all, Desdemona is not a very likely Jocasta, being considerably younger than Othello, as the Moor is keenly aware, and also white, Green has an ingenious answer: ‘It is as if in binding himself in love to the object furthest removed from his mother – not other than his mother, but exactly the converse – it is still his mother that he finds.’ The same reasoning allows Green to argue that Othello and Iago are two sides of a single character, united not only by ‘their common méconnaissance of their desire for Cassio’, but by the fact that Shakespeare has presented them as ‘utterly unlike each other, united by their very contrast’. This is to improve on Fluellen: Wales and Macedonia are strikingly similar places because there are rivers and salmon in the one, and none in the other.

For all his up-to-date psychoanalytic method, Green is really very like Bertrand Evans (not to mention older critics of the girlhood-of-Shakespeare’s-heroines variety) in his readiness to indulge in irrelevant biographical speculation about individual characters. ‘Who can say what took place during their wedding night?’ he asks of Desdemona and Othello, and then distorts Othello’s anguish in the final scene to make it provide the answer he wants: ‘Cold, cold, my girl! / Even like thy chastity.’ In Shakespeare’s Tragic Practice, Evans arbitrarily decides that Macbeth’s terrifying speech to his wife in Act Three, ‘Be ignorant of the knowledge, dearest chuck, till thou applaud the deed,’ should be ‘uttered as though a naughty boy who has conspired to commit a wicked deed should find, to his great relief, that his mother thoroughly approves; at the end of the scene, surely the actor of Macbeth should exit gleefully, carrying his “chuck” aloft, and kicking up his heels.’ Evans arrives at this preposterous conclusion without any help from Freud, but there seems little to choose between it and Green’s equally arbitrary claim that Othello wants his wife to be ‘like the mother of earliest childhood, the mother as yet untouched by castration, provided with the veil, which hides her face from the world’.

Arguably, Green’s reading of Othello is sillier and more obviously misjudged than the interpretations he offers of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Racine. This is partly because, in dealing with the Greek material, he enters a familiar, closed-circuit network of Freudian speculation in which he has predecessors (Marie Delcourt, Melanie Klein) with whose particular interpretations he can quibble, while perpetuating their general method. Either you are sympathetic to this approach to Greek tragedy, or you are not. But Green’s argument seems vulnerable on a number of counts. It does not, for instance, seem reasonable to compare the Oresteia of Aeschylus with something Green has christened the Oedipodeia, as though Sophocles had written his two Oedipus plays at the same time, and intended them to be seen as a unit. Green’s conviction that ‘the Oedipodeia rises gradually towards the light; the Oresteia is imbued with the power of darkness’ is a gross simplification of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonnus, and simply inaccurate as a description of the end of the Eumenides. Here again, Green has been led astray by his obsession with ‘mirror relations’, the idea that opposite things are somehow one and the same. Like his predecessors, Green gives the impression of being more interested in the myths themselves than in the highly-wrought and sophisticated works of art which embody but also veil them. His analyses also fail to engage with the best modern accounts of the plays, which have tended to stress the public, status-defined nature of character in Aeschylus and Sophocles, and to be sceptical about the notion that these authors were at all interested in unconscious motivation. As Moses Finley has said, speaking of Oedipus Rex, in a recently published lecture, ‘to convert it into allegory, or into a symbol of Freud’s Oedipus complex, is to pretend, to confuse appearance with reality’.

It might be argued that books about Shakespeare written by hedgehogs – critics in the grip of a single, consuming idea – constitute some of the worst literary criticism currently marketed by reputable publishers. Presumably, much of it escapes into print because publishers know that they can sell books, even bad books, about Shakespeare. Evans’s Shakespeare of ‘discrepant awareness’ and Green’s oedipal Bard are distortions no worse than many others currently available. (A newly published Marxist reading of Shakespeare’s comedies, for example, comandeers Northrop Frye’s theory of the ‘green world’ but argues that Belmont, Arden, Illyria and the wood near Athens function as ideological systems cruelly promoting the aristocratic interests of the Portias, Rosalinds, Orsinos and Lysanders, at the expense of the Corins and Malvolios.) To be handled in such monolithic terms seems an ironic fate for an author who, more perhaps than any other, was temperamentally aligned not with the hedgehogs but with the foxes.

Against this background, Kenneth Muir’s two books, Shakespeare’s Tragic Sequence and Shakespeare’s Comic Sequence, come as a welcome relief. For Muir is a critical fox. The word ‘sequence’ in his titles is neutral and straightforward. It refers to an approximate chronological progression of plays, not to any overall critical theory about Shakespeare’s development propounded by Muir. Indeed, the closest he comes to an informing, general idea is probably his statement that ‘there is no such thing as Shakespearian Tragedy: there are only Shakespearian tragedies’ – a principle which he applies to the comedies as well. Shakespeare’s Tragic Sequence was first published in 1972, in the Hutchinson University Library series. It reappears now as a companion volume to his new study of the comedies. Muir’s ability to pick his way through the jungle of conflicting criticism from Rymer to the present day is admirable. The book commands attention as the work of a distinguished Shakespearean who is remarkably devoid of critical prejudices, and far more interested in the plays than in what he can construct out of them. One of the most refreshing aspects of Muir’s approach to the tragedies is his reluctance to sit in judgment upon Shakespeare’s protagonists. ‘It is,’ he writes, ‘perhaps misleading to speak of approving or disapproving of one of Shakespeare’s heroes. We need, in the greatest tragedies, at least to sympathise; and the kind of criticism which reads like a speech by the public prosecutor, or – still worse – by the Grand Inquisitor, has not proved very rewarding.’ This still needs to be said. Witness the current production of Othello at the National Theatre, permeated by the Eliot/Leavis denigration of the hero, and the steady stream of politically ill-informed articles demonstrating that Shakespeare despised Coriolanus.

I personally find Muir less persuasive on the comedies than on the tragedies. This is partly because the critical tradition here is nothing like as rich as it is with the tragedies, thus depriving Muir of the opportunity to exercise his gift for the synthesis, evaluation and sifting of differing points of view. His own readings seem, in some instances, to be uncharacteristically dogmatic, shutting out other, equally valid responses, or possibilities which the text will sustain. The book suffers, to some extent, from its compression. Muir is committed to discussing 18 plays, some of them very complex, in the space of just over two hundred pages. There is a great deal, however, to outweigh complaints of this kind: the humanity and tough reasonableness of Muir’s approach, the wit and lucidity of his prose style, and a constant awareness that these are, above all, plays for the stage.