- Forms of Attention by Frank Kermode
Chicago, 93 pp, £9.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 226 43168 1
- Shakespeare: A Writer’s Progress by Philip Edwards
Oxford, 204 pp, £12.50, January 1986, ISBN 0 19 219184 5
- Shakespeare’s Lost Play: ‘Edmund Ironside’ edited by Eric Sams
Fourth Estate, 383 pp, £25.00, January 1986, ISBN 0 947795 95 2
- Such is my love: A Study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets by Joseph Pequigney
Chicago, 249 pp, £16.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 226 65563 6
- Shakespeare Survey 38: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production edited by Stanley Wells
Cambridge, 262 pp, £25.00, January 1986, ISBN 0 521 32026 7
- The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama by Catherine Belsey
Methuen, 253 pp, £13.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 416 32700 1
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 full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 8 No. 4 · 6 March 1986
SIR: Just my luck to have Ironside reviewed by Andrew Gurr (LRB, 6 February), who can’t even see that the More Hand D scene is by Shakespeare. John Kerrigan admits that my 70 parallels with Titus Andronicus prove either the same author or plagiarism. But he begins by ruling out the former. So, since Titus was written by 1594, and Shakespeare cannot be the plagiarist, Ironside may safely be labelled ‘1595-1600’ and replaced, none too gently, on the shelf. To other academics, this will seem reasonable, even self-evident. To at least one layman it represents a depressingly typical blend of complacent assumption and reckless invention, whereby historical fact is conveniently inferred from literary opinion.
If Kerrigan truly believed that ‘everything hangs on the date,’ he would have begun with that question, not ended with it; and in the spirit of science, not omniscience. Then he might have asked himself whether his imaginary ‘1595-1600’ really outweighs my 14 pages of evidence and argument in favour of 1588. He might also have wondered whether it is really scholarly, or even rational, to postulate a dull and inept Tudor playwright whose sole discernible skill consisted in stealing occasional ideas from an early anonymous play. This puzzling practice was so unobtrusive that it remained unrecorded for 360 years. Yet it was so comprehensive as to include not only the 50 Titus parallels noticed by Kerrigan but 150 from the Henry VI trilogy (first published 1632), 80 from the Richard plays, and hundreds more from the canon at large. Sadly, I had no space to tabulate all of them: so it is only the Titus sample spread at pages 34-37 that catches the eye. But readers, if not reviewers, will readily find the rest; and not everyone will feel free to invent unverifiable entities and corollaries just in order to explain away those appearances as non-Shakespearean.
In case I am accused of unfairness to academics in calling Kerrigan typical, I should add that Richard Proudfoot, Stanley Wells, John Wilders and John Jones, so far, have all approached Ironside from exactly the same angle. They too know a priori that it is not by Shakespeare. Yet they cannot deny the close and copious affinities. So they select among whatever they happen to notice, and then proceed to shield Shakespeare from any suspicion of complicity. For them, too, this entails inventing otherwise unknown playwrights who write like Shakespeare, and adjusting history accordingly. Of course the resulting dates and details differ widely, but no one troubles over such trifles. It will not be mere coincidence that precisely these same procedures, complete with built-in contradictions, are habitually used to supply Bad Quarto mythology with its sole support. First assume that the early Ironside-like versions of e.g. 2 and 3 Henry VI are not by Shakespeare. Then conjure up a whole troupe of strolling plagiarists who hide Shakespearean gems among their own crude paste so cunningly that only a specially-trained expert can tell the difference. These hypotheses in turn enable the 1623 Folio texts to be imaginatively redated c.1590. Again history obliges with a properly deferential reaction to one’s own opinions.
It is now time to challenge those opinions. As the entire world has recently had cause to notice, the trained Shakespeareans cannot agree about what he actually wrote, let alone when. Kerrigan and Gurr further illustrate this for me by their various views on ‘Shall I die?’, Edward III and Sir Thomas More as well as Ironside. Such questions should now be handed over to trained logicians and historians. Meanwhile the layman can make a contribution just by keeping an open mind. So far, I have seen only one lay review of my Ironside edition, by Anthony Burgess in the Observer. So far, he alone feels no compulsion to invent any date for that play, or to deny that it could be by Shakespeare. Could it be that his literary perceptions are even keener than Kerrigan’s?
Vol. 8 No. 15 · 4 September 1986
SIR: Andrew Gurr begins his paragraph on my book Such is my love: A Study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (LRB, 6 February) by remarking the difficulty that arises when ‘fact is called upon to sustain interpretation,’ and accumulated ‘interpretation’ is used to support the ‘assumed fact’. Then he tries to make my readings of Shakespeare’s Sonnets exemplify this circularity. First I am supposed to assume that Annabel Patterson’s theory of the hermeneutics of censorship ‘justifies’ the readings. That theory is in no way applicable, however, for I say nothing at all about censorship – the idea is pure projection. Then I am supposed to have ‘faith’ in the ‘ “fact” ’ of the ‘poet’s homosexuality’. I establish rather, the poet’s bisexuality – one would never know from the review that his affair with the dark lady is considered at length – by proceeding not on faith but through reason to reach the conclusion inductively, and, far from presupposing ‘belief’ in my readers, seeking to convince them by the weight of copious evidence drawn from a text whose canonicity is an accepted fact nowhere put in question.
While failing utterly to make his charge of circularity stick, Professor Gurr dreams up an ‘interpretation’ of my book that has little relevance to what in fact is said. The effort to bring his comment on it into line with the rest of his argument was ill-conceived. Throughout he plays fast and loose with the term ‘fact’, does little better with ‘interpretation’, and is confused, confusing and naive about the difficult relationship between the two.
At one point he seems to subvert the very idea of interpretation, finding in the ‘Shakespeare canon … a complex polyvalency, a flexibility of word and signification in which interpretation flourishes mightily’ but where – to him ironically – ‘the insurmountable complexity of the question makes answers pointless.’ In that case all interpretative criticism should be worthless. It is a position that he does not consistently maintain. He neither provides nor can be depended on to follow coherent literary discourse, and he was well-advised in the case of his own book to shun a topic of criticism and instead to compile a compendium of the known historical facts of the Shakespearean theatre.
Gurr does, though, introduce a semblance of fact at the end of the paragraph, if only for the purpose of distortion. He quotes my explication of a line of Sonnet 33 apart from its contexts, which consist not only of the analysis of Sonnets 33-35, wherein the young man’s ‘sensual fault’ is at issue, but also of the demonstration in an earlier chapter of the sonneteer’s frequent use of words of homoerotic reference. Ben Jonson rightly took exception to being quoted ‘by pieces (which was an excellent way of malice), as if any man’s context might not seem dangerous, and offensive, if that which was knit to what went before were defrauded of his beginning’. This passage from Timber, which Patterson cites, articulates a ploy of censorship utilised by the reviewer. He is intent on dismissing the book and focuses on but one of its aspects: on its exposition of the sexual nature of the love between the poet and the friend. He obviously would conserve, by any means whatsoever, the professoriate’s traditional negation of homoeroticism in the Sonnets.
Vol. 12 No. 11 · 14 June 1990
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.