Shakespeare and the Stage

John Kerrigan

  • Elizabethan Popular Theatre: Plays in Performance by Michael Hattaway
    Routledge, 234 pp, £14.95, January 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9052 8
  • Shakespeare the Director by Ann Pasternak Slater
    Harvester, 244 pp, £18.95, December 1982, ISBN 0 7108 0446 6

Plans have been laid, the land is bought and later this year contractors will start to build, at Southwark, on or near the original site, a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe. It’s an exciting scheme, and everyone interested in drama must be grateful to Sam Wanamaker and his academic accomplices for advancing it – especially since the space will apparently be used not only for More Shakespeare but for neglected works by his contemporaries. But whatever the merits of the Globe Theatre Project, it’s a scheme attended with insidious dangers. For the temptation to assume that, with careful research, Shakespeare’s theatre can be reconstituted in lath and plaster is almost irresistible, when everything essential to that theatre actually lies beyond archaeology. As Michael Hattaway reminds us in his eloquent new study of Elizabethan Popular Theatre, the Rose, the Curtain, the Globe and the rest did not define the drama that they housed. Far more important than the ‘wooden O’ and ‘cockpit’ were those shared attitudes to language and illusion, spectacle and narrative that generations of actors and audiences worked out in Tudor halls, inn yards and bear gardens. In other words, when the last piece of marbled timber is slotted into place at Southwark, the real work must begin, with the elaboration of a mode of performance which, open to Elizabethan influence (appropriate, indeed, to a replica playhouse), can nevertheless be read without anxiety by modern audiences.

At which point, the company could do worse than turn to Dr Hattaway’s book, which concentrates uncompromisingly on the theatrical dimension of late Elizabethan drama. Wide-ranging but informed, critically alert and consistently responsive to the possibilities of performance, Elizabethan Popular Theatre is, I think, the best introductory account of a subject far too often handled in a spirit of dull antiquarianism. Cambises, Sir Clyomon, Platter’s Travels and Henslowe’s Diary are not the most immediately engaging of works, and they usually induce a self-indulgent dullness in the scholars who discuss them: but such texts come to life in Hattaway’s hands. He has formidable gifts as an expositor. Particularly impressive is the long first section of the book, devoted to stages, audiences, gestures and rhetoric. It might have been predictable, with Heywood’s Apology and Hamlet’s advice to the players following hard upon the Fortune contract and Jonson’s Induction to Bartholomew Fair: but Hattaway, with all the assurance of a man in complete command of the sources, adds less obvious texts (like Gayton’s Notes Upon Don Quixote and Rhenanus’s adaptation of Tom-kis’s Lingua) and illustrations (the elder Peter Breughel’s Mascarade D’Ourson et de Valentin as well as the younger’s Village Fair), so that the old points emerge with new emphasis. The second half of the book gives critical readings of The Spanish Tragedy, Mucedorus, Edward II, Dr Faustus and Titus Andronicus, and it is, on the whole, less satisfactory. There’s a skimpiness and loss of subtlety suggesting haste and a looming word limit. But Hattaway is never less than stimulating.

Indeed, the faults of his book are those of excess, not stolidity. Reading it, you can see how certain concerns have liberated Hattaway as a critic without being entirely enabling. Structuralism, for instance. Throughout Elizabethan Popular Theatre there’s a delight in ludic revelry and significant play which is both refreshing and historically appropriate. It keeps at bay the kind of drab moralism that so often crushes in analysis works like Tamburlaine. At the same time, by taking speech and action together – by reading them as parts of one discourse – Hattaway exposes as anachronistic and inconsistent the standard critical grumble about plausible actions ruined by mere rhetoric. The same logic leads him towards some excellent pages on ‘liveliness’, ‘personation’ and the discipline of improvisation. Best of all, it prompts him to a bricolage theory of the theatrically makeshift. A rush-strewn stage, bursting sheeps’ guts, a jumble of historical and contemporary costumes, leaden daggers and Hell mouths may seem oddly assorted, Hattaway suggests, but, quaint now, they had a coherence at the time which forbids our condescension. Yet the force of this is somehow lost as the argument is crystallised back into the theory which gave it birth: ‘Costume in fact was a language, a system of signs, whose meanings derived from its own codes and not from congruence with reality.’ No congruence? How arbitrary a signifier is a doublet representing a doublet? This is excess, not insight – a good critic suddenly subservient to a cliché.

As important to Hattaway is a vaguely Hillish view of English history. He believes that late Elizabethan drama drew its strength from a social solidarity dissipated under the Stuarts as class distinctions hardened up and the London theatre divided between coterie privacy and a Red Bull populism. As a literary-historical hypothesis, this is vulnerable on half a dozen fronts at once (though it’s no doubt preferable to the increasingly dominant notion that Marlowe, Shakespeare and the rest wrote for a socially exclusive audience), and whenever it crops up baldly it seems to me to mar the book. But there’s a sense in which the paradigm serves Dr Hattaway well as a critic, because it makes him splendidly responsive to the breadth of appeal offered by a play like Titus Andronicus: Senecan and Ovidian on the one hand, Shock Horror populist on the other; at once erudite and joyously showmanly. It makes him an unashamed apologist for ‘fond and frivolous gestures’ like jigs, bankets, fireworks, monsters. And it alerts him to the questioning, subversive and anti-authoritarian elements in Elizabethan drama.

If this side of things is overdone, the blame is partly Brecht’s. Because Brechtian dramaturgy is Dr Hattaway’s third and most important enabler, and some of the politics inevitably carry across. In a series of comparisons which I found immensely illuminating (if not neatly convincing) Hattaway uses the Gestus, episches Theater and Verfremdung to draw out the oddly detached, frequently disjunctive but strongly narrative qualities of Kyd, Marlowe and the early Shakespeare. The trouble is, however gestic the plays may be, it’s hard to see them as political fables. It seems perverse to compare Hieronimo’s Latin tags with Brechtian captions, and little short of wilful to summarise the effect of Titus’s bloody banquet like this: ‘Its naivety ... serves a serious and humane purpose as the audience is delighted by the spectacle of politicians punished for their corruption.’ Significantly, the least convincing analysis in the second half of the book concerns Edward II, read as ‘dramatic documentary’ with a deferential eye on Brecht’s adaptation. If, as Hattaway claims, ‘Marlowe in this play sought to turn tragedy back towards history,’ generations of critics have got it wrong and the poet’s handling of Holinshed and Stow looks distinctly misguided. It’s surely more likely that the Leben Eduards des Zweiten von England: Historie occupies its anomalous position in the Brecht canon – is the one approach there to what’s generally called Tragedy – because the young dramatist could not finally free himself from the tragic logic of his precursor’s play. Marlowe and Brecht pull in different directions, but Dr Hattaway wants them to be friends.

There are some weak links, then, in the second half of Elizabethan Popular Theatre. But even Hattaway’s worst pages are unstintingly interesting, while his best – on clowning, Kyd, Mucedorus – are really first-rate. Ann Pasternak Slater’s new book is, by contrast, consistently disappointing. And that’s a pity, because the subject – Shakespeare’s articulation of his plays through explicit and implicit stage directions – is a good one, and oddly neglected. We certainly need a book on Shakespeare the Director; it would come in handy at Southwark as well as in the classroom. But Dr Slater is not the person to write it: her critical grasp is slack; her scholarship is dated and derivative; and she seems to have little sense of what will work in the theatre.

Broadly speaking, Shakespeare the Director pursues two theses. First, that Shakespeare learned from his own dramatic practice. This is obvious enough, and might be quickly proven: but Dr Slater contrives to make one doubt it. By referring to so few non-Shakespearean plays (and by reading those so ineptly), she robs her argument of a context, making it seem suspiciously circular. As the examples of Shakespearean hand-clasping, genuflection, kissing and weeping pile up – each action given a chapter – one begins to wonder, no doubt unnecessarily, why Marlowe’s, Greene’s and Jonson’s kneeling, embracing and crying are not being weighed up as possible influences. The second thesis is less clearly focused and it might be more charitable to term it a prejudice than an argument. ‘Realism underlies and strengthens Shakespeare’s practice,’ Dr Slater thinks, not just in particular scenes or plays, but ‘in all ... aspects of his theatrical technique’. It’s not surprising that, setting out from there, Dr Slater finds all the early and most of the late plays incompetently executed. ‘Rhetoric and dramatic manipulation are the besetting problems of the early plays,’ she writes, and ‘at the end of his career Shakespeare sometimes seems worryingly content to crawl back to his archetypes.’ Being so out of sympathy, Dr Slater finds it impossible to engage intelligently with Titus Andronicus – handled so well by Michael Hattaway – King John, or indeed any of the plays which made Shakespeare’s reputation in Elizabethan London. And she does not know where to begin with Cymbeline. Yet her contempt for Shakespeare’s non-naturalism remains unwavering. ‘Rumour painted full of tongues’ and ‘Time with his wings and glass’ are, for her, incomprehensible lapses – ‘limp off-shoots of Tudor tradition’ – while ‘the armed Prologue to Troilus and Cressida’ can only be a parody, ‘as satirical as Starveling’s Moon’ (does the verse tell her nothing?). A less complacent critic might wonder why a great dramatist spent so much time barking up the wrong tree – might wonder whether something was being missed: but Dr Slater knows that she is right. She seems to think of Shakespeare as a gifted but lazy schoolboy, with herself as headmistress. Not much can be expected from a first-former, ‘the beginner Shakespeare’, so not much is found. But ‘Practice makes perfect,’ and although the Bard’s grades are never what they should be in Literature (‘inveterately slipshod over narrative organisation’, she says), he eventually does well at Maths: ‘here we see Shakespeare finally get his sums right’ is her condescending judgment on Measure for Measure, a play which she does not understand. And yet, alas, Shakespeare rests on his laurels (or crawls back to his archetypes), and Dr Slater’s report on the romances must be negative, if more in sorrow than anger: ‘In the last plays,’ she writes, ‘it is disappointing to find some lapses into the jerky questions and prodding commentary of King John.’ Go to the bottom of the class, Shakespeare.

Elizabethan Popular Theatre has a fair sprinkling of misprints and mistakes. A few errors might even be a good idea in a critical book: they put the academic reader at his ease. But Dr Slater seems to collect blunders as assiduously as she does significant gestures. Romeo is in love with Rosaline, not ‘Rosalind’. Cordelia does not smile and weep ‘ “Sun shine and raine at once” when Lear is found’. Her ‘first’ words are no more ‘Loue, and be silent’ than ‘Soft you; a word or two’ begins Othello’s ‘last speech’. If Capulet’s ‘How now a Conduit girle’ demonstrably depended on Wyatt’s ‘My galy charged’ it were something indeed. That Lear adds ‘O [you] are men of stones’ to ‘Howle, howle, howle’ suggests that those ‘commands’ are not in fact ‘irresistible’. It can be no bad thing that ‘the Ghost’s truth is questioned’ if, as we are confidently assured elsewhere, Old Hamlet has been ‘released from hell’ to tell his story. Can ‘Iago, Emilia, Rymer’ and ‘the audience’ really be bundled together as Othello’s ‘objective observers’? Dr Slater thinks that Tamora’s ‘sons’ are ‘sacrificed to Titus’s family honour’ at the Andronicus tomb when only Alarbus dies there. Wanting Angelo to ‘commit the equivalent of Claudio’s crime’, she ignores de futuro and de praesenti spousals. And so on. She does not know what ‘hubris’ means, and Aristotle would not recognise her use of hamartia. The textual critical foundations of her work are old and rotten. She claims to follow received opinion over dating, but does not hesitate to put Lucrece before Henry VI, Timon before King Lear and Pericles after Cymbeline when it suits her argument.

I call it an ‘argument’, but there are times when one wonders whether Dr Slater knows what logic is. Certainly, the writing is in many places so lax that if she is not being dull-witted she is being unscrupulous. Take the conclusions of Chapter Eight, on ‘Costume’. ‘All the last plays end with a restitution of what they began with,’ she writes, ‘but loss has made the objects dear. These plays act out the debate begun in Troilus and Cressida, “Whats aughts [sic] but as tis valued?” Hermione and Imogen do not change, but their value does.’ But it’s absurd to argue that The Winter’s Tale, say, ends with a restitution of what’s been lost when Mamillius, Antigonus and 16 years of love and friendship are gone beyond recall, and ludicrous to claim that Hermione does not change in the course of her long estrangement when Leontes can say of the supposed statue: ‘Hermione was not so much wrinckled, nothing/So aged as this seemes.’ The Trojan debate about moral relativism and the creation of worth has nothing to do with the matter in hand. Dr Slater, however, presses on with her sentimental misreading of the last plays. ‘As they end,’ she says, ‘everything has become new.’ Incredibly, she clinches this account of the romance endings by citing not the last but the first act of The Tempest, and then compounds the offence by quoting a later exchange (from Act Two) to prove that ‘It takes the wise old Gonzalo to see the miraculous in the commonplace right from the start of the play.’ It debases The Tempest to suggest that it moves Ferdinand and the rest towards the benign but gullible optimism of a Gonzalo. Quotation is abused if it’s used indiscriminately to lend a vague air of plausibility to a page of unfounded critical opinion.

Occasionally, Shakespeare the Director rises to the banal, and we are told that in Macbeth’s banquet ‘large-scale disorder is mirrored by the miniature of shattered domestic ceremony.’ More often, the author devotes herself to simple-minded reduction. She thinks Cordelia ever such a nice girl, and Cressida perfectly horrid. ‘Cordelia is the quiet absolute,’ she gushes, without wondering whether she’s also a bit stubborn (‘a chip off the old block’, as Peggy Ashcroft once described her); ‘greater than Virgilia, her very silence is the still centre of this turning world.’ As for Cressida, Dr Slater sees no reason to doubt Ulysses (of all people) when he denounces her with such seamy cynicism for kissing the Greek generals. ‘Some falls are means the happier to arise,’ she says: ‘So Gloucester knelt on Dover cliff, to fall to a failed death that brought him resignation, and reunion with his son.’ If this were true, it would be truly consoling: but it’s not. Gloucester does not learn resignation (we last see him in a less than stoical mood and he dies torn ‘’Twixt two extremes of passion’); and he’s either reunited with his son long before the ‘fall’ from Dover cliff (which never happens) or – if Dr Slater has in mind Edgar’s final revelation of identity – so much further into the play that the ‘reunion’ can’t reasonably be said to have been brought about by the ‘fall’. If these objections sound tetchy, the book provokes that kind of response. There’s a complacent carelessness about it, allied to a critical coarseness which too often issues in vulgarity. ‘Take Ibsen’s Wild Duck,’ Dr Slater invites us, ‘or Chekov’s Seagull (a dead duck every time).’ The sneer is unworthy, but typical. Shakespeare the Director labours for wit but consistently flops into an inept smartness. The bad quartos are not ‘useful’ but ‘a raffish ace witness’; the young Shakespeare is not ‘confident’ but ‘cocksure’; Richard III is not only sometimes close to Hall – ‘Richard and Buckingham dutifully go through their historical paces’; Joan of Arc ‘scampers’ and ‘boggles’, Adonis ‘whines’ and Desdemona ‘quavers’.

Fortunately, the book will do no damage. The Globe Theatre Project will advance unscathed. No director is going to wade through Dr Slater’s pages for the sake of suggestions like this: ‘Clarence’s murderer, doubled up by a sudden cramp of conscience, begs his accomplice: “I prythee stay a little: / I hope this passionate humour of mine will change, / It was wont to hold me but while one tels twenty.” There should, then, be a twenty-second pause ... ’ (In the theatre, twenty seconds’ silence is an eternity.) And consider this account of Falstaff’s recovery on Shrewsbury field: ‘One longs for the modern producer to take the hint and let himself go, staging this resurrection from the dead on a darkened stage, Falstaff swathed in garish light like Grünewald’s risen Christ.’ True, there’s something compelling about the sheer awfulness of the idea: but no one thinking seriously about Shakespeare in performance is going to take the ‘hint’. Dr Slater’s theatrical suggestions are, in short, unworkable, undesirable to the point of absurdity, or a combination of the two. And this, in the last analysis, makes her book safe for circulation. Whatever influence Michael Hattaway’s new study exerts – and I hope it will be widely read – Shakespeare the Director will be ignored.