Shakespeares

David Norbrook

  • Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield
    Manchester, 244 pp, £19.50, April 1985, ISBN 0 7190 1752 1
  • Alternative Shakespeares edited by John Drakakis
    Methuen, 252 pp, £10.50, July 1985, ISBN 0 416 36850 6
  • Shakespeare and Others by S. Schoenbaum
    Scolar, 285 pp, £25.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 85967 691 9
  • Illustrations of the English Stage 1580-1642 by R.A. Foakes
    Scolar, 180 pp, £35.00, February 1985, ISBN 0 85967 684 6
  • Shakespeare: The ‘Lost Years’ by E.A.J. Honigmann
    Manchester, 172 pp, £17.50, April 1985, ISBN 0 7190 1743 2

‘Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is part of an Englishman’s constitution.’ Henry Crawford’s comment in Mansfield Park is a reminder that ‘Shakespeare’ is more than an individual writer: ‘it’ is an institution, a body of texts whose study, from O-level to the highest reaches of academia, is a means of legitimating social advancement and whose production on the stage and on television makes a powerful contribution to Britain’s invisible exports. This ‘Shakespeare’ has the characteristics Roland Barthes ascribes to myth: it turns history into nature, and thus impedes critical political analysis. Not only the Englishman’s constitution but also the English constitution are traditionally felt to be particularly ‘natural’: Shakespeare’s plays are seen as embodying a characteristically English balance of opposites, neither too radical nor too conservative, neither too popular nor too élitist. Shakespeare, like the Queen, is held to be above politics; his regal status has been confirmed by the formation of the Royal Shakespeare Company – a title of which it has been said that ‘it’s got everything in it except God.’ And indeed the many resemblances between Shakespeare and God have become commonplaces since the Romantic era. In practice, of course, the idea of his transcendence tends to reinforce conservative political positions. If we are to believe Mr Nigel Lawson, Ulysses’ speech on Degree in Troilus and Cressida exercises a powerful influence on Conservative economic policy. One of the most influential of modern Shakespeare critics, G. Wilson Knight, gave his blessing to Britain’s campaign against Argentina on the grounds that it embodied the essential spirit of Shakespeare’s plays. The myth of Shakespeare is also a powerful force for intellectual conservatism: its notion of essential Englishness implies a distaste for abstract thought, for explicit political debate, for anything that savours of foreign, Jacobin rationalism. Criticism of Shakespeare has been slow to take account of recent developments in literary theory. Markers of A-level and university scripts can testify that the influence of E.M.W. Tillyard is still pronounced, with candidates clearly being brought to believe that having an original thought about Shakespeare would amount to presumptuous rebellion against the Great Chain of Being.

But there have always been dissenting voices. Whitman, Tolstoy and Shaw all condemned the cult of Shakespeare as a bastion of political conservatism. Long before Tillyard was ‘discovering’ Ulysses’ Degree speech as the key to Shakespeare’s thought, Ernest Cassidy was citing it indignantly as an instance of bourgeois mystification in a pamphlet on ‘Shakespeare and the Working Classes’. After a long period of relative calm in Shakespeare studies, the onslaught on Bardolatry is being renewed by two complementary collections of essays, Alternative Shakespeares and Political Shakespeare. Alternative Shakespeares (AS), an addition to the Methuen New Accents series, presents a multiplicity of critical viewpoints: semiotic, psychoanalytic, deconstructionist, Marxist, feminist. This pluralism aims, not simply to replace the conservative image of the Tillyardian Shakespeare with a radical, progressive version, but to undermine the very notion of the unified, coherent authorial subject. The basic assumption here is that criticism whose aim is to recover a single authorial intention is inherently authoritarian, and that liberation from the author’s tyranny is also a political liberation. While such a direct equation between literary hermeneutics and political repression may be dubious, it cannot be denied that it yields some interesting insights. Terence Hawkes, Christopher Norris and Jacqueline Rose show how the attempts of some influential Shakespeare critics to reduce the plays to coherent unified structures break down as the gaps and contradictions of the texts are carried over by an uncanny transfer to their own interpretations. In Norris’s analysis, Leavis turns out to be identifying himself with Iago by associating Othello with the forces of linguistic and emotional corruption that he set himself to combat in his criticism; Jacqueline Rose shows how writers on Hamlet and Measure for Measure have reproduced the plays’ own misogynistic elements. The quest for complete coherence in literary texts is in her view the product of ‘a particularly harsh type of literary super-ego’: much recent literary theory can be seen as an attempt to overthrow this tyranny, to liberate the text and the reader from interpretative repression. The most enthusiastic liberators are the ‘ludic’ deconstructors who celebrate texts not as embodiments of moral truths but as perpetual, festive comedies of errors. Malcolm Evans’s essay on ‘Deconstructing Shakespeare’s Comedies’, which is itself highly ludic, shows how the ideas of Derrida and Bakhtin can be applied to the polysemous discourses of these ‘carnivalesque’ plays. But he is uneasily aware that current deconstruction may end up by reinforcing the traditional Shakespeare myth. To celebrate these plays for their potential for producing an infinite play of meanings is effectively to agree that they are great because completely all-inclusive: from transcendental signified to transcendental signifier.

To avoid this danger, Evans indicates, it is necessary to situate Shakespeare’s plays in their historical context, and it is to this task that the later essays in Alternative Shakespeares address themselves. There is some overlap here with the first part of Political Shakespeare (PS), whose editors contribute the concluding essays of the Methuen volume. Their main concern is with the social and institutional context of Shakespeare’s plays, both in his own age and in modern Britain. Marxism is here the dominant intellectual influence: but as in so much modern Marxist criticism, this is far from implying any kind of endorsement of Marx’s own views on literature. Marx inherited an Enlightenment view of literary texts as exercises in the linguistic inventiveness and intellectual curiosity which it was the function of progressive politics to stimulate; readings from Shakespeare’s plays were a feature of his household. The new generation of ‘cultural materialists’, however (the term is borrowed from Raymond Williams, who contributes an afterword), are much more suspicious of ‘high culture’. In his introduction to Political Shakespeare, Jonathan Dollimore analyses a tripartite pattern in ideological conflicts of consolidation, subversion and containment. In certain circumstances, drama may subvert the ruling ideology, but the probability is that these challenges will eventually serve to legitimate the power structure, with the theatre functioning as no more than a safety-valve. Tillyard’s view of the Elizabethan theatre as simply glorifying Degree may be a simplification, but the idea of the drama as a site of radical, ‘alternative’ views is also misleading. In a powerful and ingenious essay entitled ‘Invisible Bullets’, Stephen Greenblatt shows that even an idea as apparently subversive as the ‘atheism’ of the Renaissance – the Machiavellian notion that religion was an instrument of political domination – could serve the English state overseas. Thomas Harriot, a dangerous atheist at home, could use his ‘Machiavellian’ insights to show the Virginian settlers that the Indians could be cowed not only by direct force but by the power of their own imaginations, by myths such as the nightmarish notion that epidemics were caused by ‘invisible bullets’ fired by generations of whites as yet unborn. Greenblatt applies this model of subversion as consolidation to a reading of the second tetralogy, and his analysis is echoed by several contributors to both volumes, who reject both the Tillyardian reading and its liberal inversion.

A similar pattern of subversion and ultimate containment is found in the comedies. An important influence on recent sociological criticism is Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of ‘carnivalesque’ discourse: but Dollimore’s essay on Measure for Measure (PS) is designed to pre-empt a Bakhtinian reading, insisting that the low-life elements do not ultimately subvert the defence of princely authority. Leonard Tennenhouse (PS) shows how the ‘carnivalesque’ was harnessed to official ideologies under Elizabeth and James I. Terence Hawkes, Francis Barker and Peter Hulme (AS), and Paul Brown (PS), link The Tempest with the ideology of colonisation, arguing that the play’s formal involutions reflect, not transcendent truths about illusion and reality, but the ideological strains of legitimising overseas conquest. Political Shakespeare ends with a series of essays by Alan Sinfield, Graham Holderness and Margot Heinemann which analyse the propagation of the Shakespeare myth in modern Britain in the theatre, the cinema, television and the schools. The gradual replacement in all these areas of the old stiffly patriotic Shakespeare by a more liberal version may seem to have been a gain: but it is argued here that the effect is more often simply to depoliticise literary studies altogether. Sinfield is so disenchanted with literary education that he can offer only purely negative reasons why anyone should want to read or teach Shakespeare: the Right do it so the Left must do it too. Unfortunately this rationale may be a shaky one given that some sections of the Right are starting to attack literary education as giving the lower orders ideas above their station. Political Shakespeare oscillates rather uneasily between a radical critique of the spurious ‘progressiveness’ of the cult of spontaneity and self-expression in literature teaching, and a surely exaggerated fear that the entire British literary tradition is so savagely and unfailingly repressive in its political outlook that radical intellectuals might do best to shield the working classes from any contact with its malign influence.

The problems of subversion and containment are raised again in the (rather few) essays that adopt a feminist perspective. Rose and Norris (AS) both argue that some of the most interesting and complex features of Shakespeare’s texts, the elements least amenable to conventional critical classification, have been identified by critics with the feminine and regarded as dangerous threats to the business of establishing a fixed and definitive interpretation. The critique of the quest for objective interpretation is thus linked with a critique of sexism. Catherine Belsey argues (AS) that Shakespeare’s comedies respond to a Renaissance crisis in conceptions of the family, and that their uneasy sense of the arbitrariness of conventional sexual roles may help us today to explore new modes of being. Kathleen McLuskie, however, takes a more wary line (PS), and is anxious not to reinstate an all-inclusive Shakespeare: his plays were, after all, ‘the products of an entertainment industry which, as far as we know, had no women shareholders, actors, writers or stage hands’. While rejecting the notion that the plays have a single and definitive meaning, she does believe that their ‘theatrical strategies’ deny ‘an autonomous position for the female viewer of the action’. Her essay is a reminder that although literary studies are conventionally supposed to enlarge the imagination, critics have in practice found it extremely difficult to imagine the response of spectators who might not share their conservative view of sexual politics. In this area, indeed, it could be argued that until recently Shakespeare criticism actually regressed: Shaw and Tolstoy, writing during the so-called ‘first wave’ of feminism, were sensitive to issues that were relegated to the sidelines from the 1920s onward.

Some readers will doubtless protest at these attempts to bring politics and theory into the hallowed sanctuary of Shakespeare studies, but both volumes make it clear enough that the politics and the theory are already there, embodied in critical assumptions and institutionalised in examination questions. Sinfield quotes such choice examples as: ‘ “While we may hope for a happy ending to King Lear, Shakespeare’s conclusion is entirely fitting.” Discuss.’ Because the question is cast entirely in terms of demonstrating the exquisite fitness of every part of Shakespeare’s dramatic design, the apparently open discussion necessarily excludes all the questions raised by McLuskie. Shakespeare criticism needs to acknowledge the urgency of the issues raised by the ‘alternative’ books if it is not to stagnate. There are, however, some as yet unresolved tensions in the new theorists’ positions. On the one hand, the aim is to undermine any notion that Shakespeare’s plays embody universal values, and there is therefore a move towards historical contextualisation; on the other hand, there is a strong hostility to all forms of empiricism which verges on a sceptical refusal of the possibility of historical knowledge. The problem is that whatever its theoretical status, such disdain for empiricism may in practice slide into a simple refusal to take awkward facts – or ‘facts’, as they are here contemptuously called – into account. Sinfield’s project of ‘adjusting Shakespeare to radical ends’, of ‘appropriating’ him for the Left in exactly the same way as the Right have appropriated him, makes the whole process sound a little too easy and arbitrary. Critics who turn their backs on recent ‘bourgeois’ scholarship can easily end up by uncritically reproducing the assumptions of an earlier generation. The new theorists marshal a formidable variety of sophisticated methodologies to refute the arguments of Eliot or Leavis but do not always seem aware that Shakespeare studies have changed since their time. Thus although both books are marketed as the very last word in daring, innovative ideas, fostering the current cult of built-in obsolescence in critical approaches, they are not always as innovative as they seem. The readings of the second tetralogy here on offer do not differ markedly from an emerging critical consensus. Alessandro Serpieri’s attempt (AS) to combine modern semiotics with classical rhetoric in the analysis of dramatic structure sounds promising but reaches the not altogether startling conclusion that ‘in dramatising history as a clash of models’ Shakespeare ‘is careful not to declare allegiance to one side or the other’. Both books consistently attack bourgeois notions of the stable text but give the impression that the Arden or Alexander texts definitively established an eternally valid version of Shakespeare.

The treatment of Shakespeare the man is a striking instance of the combination of novelty and received ideas in these books. The chief assumptions that unite the essays in the ‘alternative’ volumes are that Shakespeare is utterly unknowable and that biographical knowledge would in any case be irrelevant to the criticism of his plays. But the latter point is hard to separate from the historical premise, for it is clear that the contributors do have strong assumptions about Shakespeare the man. These emerge most clearly in James Kavanagh’s essay on ‘Shakespeare and Ideology’ (AS). Kavanagh’s Shakespeare is a man who has no conception of ‘the literary’ or of ‘dramatic structure’; he is in no sense an intellectual and would have been utterly incapable of understanding complicated modern ideas like class and ideology. Insofar as Kavanagh does allow Shakespeare any originality it is not in his ideas but in his ability, as a practical man of the theatre, to devise new formal ‘strategies’ in order to keep abreast of public taste. These assumptions are not really radical and subversive. The emphasis on Shakespeare as man of the theatre is part of a widespread, and necessary, reaction against reductively ‘literary’ treatments of the plays. But the reaction tends to reinforce, from a slightly different angle, what has become a commonplace of Shakespeare criticism since the Romantic era: that there is a huge gulf between the relatively humble grammar-school boy from Stratford and the infinite complexity of the plays he wrote.

From Keats to Borges, the notion has gained ground that Shakespeare was a chameleon, lacking any positive identity and taking on colouring passively from the dominant artistic and intellectual currents of the age: the antitype of Milton the artist with a coherent political vision. In the case of Shakespeare, it is in fact superfluous to proclaim the death of the author: he is already dead. Samuel Schoenbaum’s monumental Shakespeare’s Lives argued as forcefully as any of the ‘alternative’ writers that each biographer has constructed Shakespeare in his or her own image; and his Documentary Life carried this scepticism to the point of a measured refusal to go beyond the surviving, mostly financial and legal, evidence. His new collection of essays, Shakespeare and Others, still lays the emphasis on Shakespeare the middlebrow practical man. Several of these pieces are rather lightweight essays and after-dinner talks which try to show Shakespeare’s universal relevance by arguing, for example, that if one only sets aside the language and the dramatic structure, Macbeth could easily be a documentary about the career problems of a modern American executive. Schoenbaum illustrates Shakespeare’s profound political ‘realism’ by arguing that a recollection of the mob in Julius Caesar helps one to understand the tragic dilemma of the Shah of Iran, betrayed by his friends and abused by a ‘shouting throng’ of demonstrators. When Shakespeare’s authority is invoked to prove that all mobs and foreigners are always the same, it becomes clear that books like Political Shakespeare are essential. Schoenbaum’s book nevertheless contains some more substantial essays on Shakespeare and his contemporaries which deserve this more permanent format; and in the essay on Richard II he does present a Shakespeare with a sharper political and historical consciousness than the more genial stereotype allows.

Recent scholarship has in fact been questioning the traditional image of Shakespeare in a number of ways. In his Shakespeare’s Impact on his Contemporaries, Ernst Honigmann took a hint from the socialist playwright Edward Bond, whose Bingo portrayed Shakespeare as guiltily complicit in contemporary social conflicts rather than serenely transcending them. Honigmann agreed that the biographical evidence supported a view of Shakespeare closer to Bond’s than to the bland figure of the myth – a man hard-headed in his business dealings and equally hard-headed in his concern for his literary reputation. Along with a number of scholars working on Shakespeare’s text, Honigmann has been questioning the idea that he never blotted a line and arguing that he may have revised his major plays extensively over a period of years. He may, then, have had ‘literary’ ambitions for them, rather than writing whatever would please current theatrical fashions.

Emrys Jones has pointed out in The Origins of Shakespeare that the 16th century was the period of a Humanist ‘educational revolution’ which generated immense intellectual excitement and produced a heightened political and historical consciousness from the renewed study of Classical texts. Shakespeare’s grammar-school education would have given him a reasonable introduction to these developments, and there is no reason to suppose that he stopped learning when he left school. To situate him in his age may be precisely to understand why his ideas seem to go beyond that age. As the stock antithesis between ‘learned’ Jonson and ‘natural’ Shakespeare is being overcome, it is growing possible to analyse the political rhetoric of his plays more closely. For example, the more it is recognised that historical writing in this period was consciously politicised, the more important it becomes to analyse Shakespeare’s departures from his sources, which may have had political rather than merely artistic motives. He may indeed have had some conscious, and not necessarily impartial, political intentions; and they may not be wholly irrecoverable.

If we attribute to Shakespeare a certain measure of sophisticated historical consciousness, it becomes necessary to ask whether this may not have been reflected in the staging of his plays. He was, after all, in a position to influence, and not just reflect, the prevailing stage conventions, being a major shareholder in his own company (one significant ‘fact’ that Kavanagh omits). Most of the ‘alternative’ writers fall in with the currently influential view that the Elizabethan stage was bare and austere, the complete antithesis of Victorian naturalism. In his valuable collection of Illustrations of the English Stage 1580-1642, R.A. Foakes tentatively questions this ‘new orthodoxy’: scholars have tended to concentrate on only a limited amount of the surprisingly plentiful, though frequently contradictory, evidence that survives. The theorists are doubtless influenced by the current orthodoxy that all forms of artistic ‘realism’ are inherently reactionary. But Margot Heinemann (a member of an earlier critical generation) shows in an interesting essay (PS) that even Brecht, often cited as the central authority for the assault on ‘realism’, took some care in his Shakespeare productions to give the sense that the plays were serious attempts to explore the political conventions of different cultures. Heinemann argues that the modern fashion for almost completely empty stages ‘makes the visual representation of historical context and of class contrast very difficult’. Brecht tried to be a little more specific in his Shakespeare productions; perhaps Shakespeare did too.

But all these arguments about Elizabethan stage conditions, Shakespeare’s intellectual formation, and the nature of his texts, are as yet circumstantial; the available biographical evidence is just not enough to prove the case adequately. To that extent the scepticism of the ‘alternative’ critics is justified. But Honigmann has now taken the argument a step further: in Shakespeare: The ‘Lost Years’ he claims to have found new evidence which proves, amongst other things, the religious affiliations of the young Shakespeare. Honigmann has ventured into the black hole of Shakespeare biography, the years between his marriage in 1582 and the first mention of his success on the London stage in 1592. These years have provided biographers in the past with a convenient blank space in which to inscribe their favourite interest: Shakespeare is reputed to have spent his time as an apothecary, a gardener, a lawyer, a sailor, or a soldier. More recent scholars, including Schoenbaum, have tended to remain agnostic about these years. But Honigmann has now revived, and extended, a theory that had seemed exploded: that the ‘William Shakeshafte’ who appears in the will of Alexander Hoghton, a Lancashire landowner, in 1581 was the young dramatist. The major new fact with which Honigmann backs up the theory is that John Cottom, who was for a time a schoolmaster at Stratford, appears in the same will. Both Hoghton and the schoolmaster were Catholics; and there is evidence that Shakespeare’s father was a recusant. These factors would help to explain why Shakespeare might have gone so far from home: he would have been seeking employment from co-religionists. Honigmann suggests that he may have originally been employed as a schoolmaster to the family but became more interested in taking part in family theatricals (a slightly awkward transition, this) and eventually passed from local dramatic activities, via the patronage of a local landowner, Sir Thomas Hesketh, to the dramatic company patronised by Lord Strange (later the Earl of Derby). In the second part of the book Honigmann provides a wealth of circumstantial evidence to show Shakespeare’s connections with the Lancashire gentry. He also tries to show that the history plays and ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ reflect Shakespeare’s links with the Derby dynasty.

Honigmann anticipates that his portrayal of Shakespeare as a Catholic will prove the most controversial feature of his book; it certainly goes against the tradition of Shakespeare as completely impartial and therefore necessarily a staunch supporter of the Church of England. But the case is not utterly implausible. As Christopher Haigh has shown, devotion to the old religion was particularly strong in Lancashire; and, while motivated by attachment to local traditions, Catholics could find themselves pushed into highly subversive political positions. Shakespeare’s plays manifest both a certain social conservatism and a radically sceptical view of secular authority; these are positions which might be expected of someone who had spent formative years in such a milieu. A man who had lived amongst people who needed, perhaps on pain of death, to conceal their inmost convictions might well have developed into the guarded figure of Honigmann’s earlier book, a man who perhaps deliberately left so little evidence about his inner life behind him. Honigmann assumes that Shakespeare had become an Anglican by the time he started work on the major plays, but notes a certain strained tone in some of the anti-Papal rhetoric; Shakespeare certainly did take a revisionist line on a number of cherished Protestant myths. It would not be altogether surprising to find that what innumerable critics have acclaimed as an absolutely universal and impartial political position was in many ways a conservative one.

Honigmann’s thesis, if accepted, would strengthen other hypotheses of the new scholarship. Several of Shakespeare’s plays could be pushed back in time to a period Honigmann considers more likely than the orthodox dating. Shakespeare would then appear not as someone produced by the conditions of the Elizabethan theatre but as someone who set out from an early age with ambitions to remould it, provoking Greene’s envy precisely because of an intellectual and social self-confidence he considered inappropriate for a mere grammar-school boy. The very fact that the new theory confirms so many of Honigmann’s previous assumptions may indeed arouse some scepticism: amidst all the shaking of staffs, can we not hear the grinding of axes? Honigmann’s dating of ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ seems implausibly early. The data he gives about Shakespeare’s links with Lancashire families are interesting, and could be followed through by examining the dedications of Michael Drayton, Giles Fletcher the elder and Augustine Taylor. But common contacts do not necessarily prove the hypothesis: Fletcher knew of the Hoghton family without needing to go to Lancashire. The links between Shakespeare and John Cottom are not as clear as could be desired. More obdurately, however you look at the name Shakeshafte it just is not Shakespeare, and the reasons Honigmann gives for this anomaly do not seem quite adequate.

Honigmann enthusiastically calls on his readers to join in the hunt for missing documents that may one day clinch his arguments. But is the gap between ‘Shakeshafte’ and ‘Shakespeare’ merely the product of a mistranscription, a slip of the pen which can be ultimately corrected by hunting for more evidence? Or is it, as the new theorists would propose, an emblem of the inevitable gulf between archive and theory, a reminder that all biographical evidence rests on prior assumptions and that there is no way out of the hermeneutic circle? Is ‘Shakespeare’ no more than a series of texts lacking a unifying presence? It is depressingly symptomatic of the current state of English studies that the opposing viewpoints make so little contact with each other. Honigmann adopts the tone of an amateur detective of the 1920s, sleuthing out hidden documents in country houses, and shows no awareness of urgent methodological or political problems in the study of Shakespeare; the ‘alternative’ critics, while refreshingly open to new ideas, almost completely ignore developments in conventional scholarship which might help to contextualise Shakespeare more precisely. But at least from their very different viewpoints both the scholars and the ‘cultural materialists’ are breaking the crust of over-familiarity that has closed over Shakespeare criticism. For too long Shakespeare has seemed blandly and transcendently natural: it is time to make him look strange again.