Return to the Totem

Frank Kermode

  • William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion by Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, John Jowett and William Montgomery
    Oxford, 671 pp, £60.00, February 1988, ISBN 0 19 812914 9
  • Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare by Stanley Cavell
    Cambridge, 226 pp, £25.00, January 1988, ISBN 0 521 33032 7
  • A History of English Literature by Alastair Fowler
    Blackwell, 395 pp, £17.50, November 1987, ISBN 0 631 12731 3

This Textual Companion is described by the publisher as ‘an indispensable companion to The Complete Oxford Shakespeare’, which indeed it is, and it was reasonable to complain, when The Complete Works and The Complete Works: Original Spelling Edition appeared in 1986 and 1987, that they were badly in need of this third to walk beside them. The Companion is a very fine thing, and the publisher is again within his rights to call it ‘probably the most comprehensive reference work on Shakespearian textual problems ever assembled in a single volume’.

Its practical disadvantages are too obvious to dwell upon for more than a moment. Weighing about half a stone, it brings the total of pages in this Collected Edition to something over 3500, and the total cost to £170. Not many readers will have desks large enough to do as the editors pleasantly imagine they might, and have all the volumes open at once. The notes, incidentally, are keyed to the text of the Original Spelling edition, not the cheaper modernised version. Moreover, the annotation is purely textual, and explanatory only when the editors need to justify a reading; so anybody who craves the sort of help to be had from, say, the Arden Shakespeare, or the single-play editions of the Oxford, or even from some rival collected editions, will need an even larger desk. And we learn from the Preface, with mixed feelings, that the editors have compiled ‘a glossarial commentary (at present unpublished)’ which will no doubt in due course create further demands on pocket and space.

A rather tetchy review of the Companion-less volumes of the Complete Works (LRB, 21 May 1987) complained at some length about the Original Spelling edition, partly because it represented what I took to be an unexplained change of editorial policy (there are arguments against such an edition, some of which the senior editor had quite recently endorsed); and partly because justification for some of its readings – ‘fake antiques’, as they were unkindly dubbed – was to be withheld until the appearance of this ancillary volume, only a few scraps of which had been sent to reviewers.

As one would expect, the Companion learnedly defends its choices in these and the hundreds of other places where choice is an editorial necessity; and emendations for an ‘original spelling’ edition require some imaginative exercises in Jacobean spelling. Still, it is a fair guess that the principal reason for having an original-spelling edition after all was precisely that it made the business of explaining and defending editorial choices and emendations rather less clumsy for the editor, though at the cost of making the edition as a whole much harder to use by the reader.

However, it seems right to stop carping, for a while at any rate. The editors have thought hard about their policies and, conscious of their many arrogant and intemperate predecessors, explicitly disclaim infallibility. They point out that successful as well as erroneous work in this field almost invariably calls for correction, and, though quite firm in their treatment of other scholars, they avoid what Johnson called ‘the acrimony of a scholiast’ and generally preserve a civil tone. ‘No edition of Shakespeare can or should be definitive ... Our own edition ... is inevitably not only fallible but arbitrary.’ Gary Taylor’s General Introduction carefully explains why this is so.

It does a great deal more than that, tracing with learning and amenity the history of editorial interferences from the moment when Shakespeare’s ‘plot’ and his ‘foul papers’ were transcribed for the prompt book, licensed by the Master of the Revels as the Lord Chamberlain’s deputy, annotated by the prompter, and divided into actors’ parts. Publication, whether in authorised or unauthorised editions, or in the Folio collection of 1623, involved further interference, sometimes by scribes and always by compositors. Modern editors have to consider not only the work of all their learned predecessors but, much more importantly, the probable character of the lost manuscript material, a ghostly presence behind the early printed versions. To this end, they study with extraordinary minuteness the habits of particular scribes and compositors – journeymen now known and even loved for their idiosyncrasies, though for the most part named only by letters of the alphabet. To edit Shakespeare you need to know a great deal about contemporary conditions in the theatre and in the printing-house. And then you must make and defend firm decisions.

The Oxford editors do so. For example, they have decided that when they think they have detected an original of theatrical provenance (for instance, a text printed from a prompt book), they should choose it as their control-text. So they choose the Folio rather than the Second Quarto text of Hamlet: which is why, in their text, they omit the last of Hamlet’s soliloquies, ‘How all occasions do inform against me,’ and some other well-loved lines. ‘We do not wish to pretend,’ they demurely admit, ‘that this is the only rational choice; but we do insist that a choice has to be made, and that editors and readers must live with the consequences.’

Readers may very occasionally find it hard to do so – for instance, when Falstaff disappears, or rather turns into Sir John Oldcastle, since it is known that in early performances (though not in any printed form of the plays) that is what he was called. Oldcastle’s descendants protested, and the consequence was the presumably unique disclaimer in the Epilogue to 2 Henry IV. The decision to do away with Falstaff is characteristic of a certain archaeological rigour in the editors’ procedures. Of course they are right to say that if we use their work we must live with their decisions, but it may simply be too late for most of us to start thinking of Falstaff as Oldcastle, and we may even find reasons for refusing to do so. There is a possible view of the plays, never considered here, and perhaps thought merely sentimental, that gives some weight to what they have become (especially when the change happened so early) as well as to what they originally were.

Another editorial decision, defended at length in the General Introduction, goes against the weight of tradition in supposing that Shakespeare, like other authors, sometimes revised his own plays, though not for publication. Of the six plays which exist in forms such that authorial revision may be suspected, one – King Lear – is included in this edition in both variant forms. Hamlet might have been treated likewise but for considerations of space. The editors are here again acting on examined convictions, though admitting they may be wrong. And it is true that the plays in question are, as usually printed, cobbled together in forms that lack historical justification. In the Folio version of Lear no servant brings Gloucester flax and whites of eggs to apply to his bleeding face, and if we are as severe as these editors, and if we want to keep that moment (Peter Brook, for example, didn’t), we have really to accept a version of the play that lacks over a hundred lines found only in the Folio.

The General Introduction ably defends these editorial principles, and along the way gives a very lucid and engaging account of Shakespearian textual problems. It is followed by a minute examination of the canon and its chronology, an impressive blend of history and statistical analysis, right up to the minute in these and other respects, which weighs all the evidence and most of the methods by which it has been and might be analysed. The learned have laboured at these problems for over two centuries, and here receive proper tribute. We probably now have a clearer notion of the order of the plays, and the nature of Shakespeare’s collaborations, than ever before. There is still room for disagreement about various assumptions, and even for dissent on matters of principle, but the material for argument, against as well as for, is set out here.

These prefatory considerations take up a quarter of the space, the remainder being devoted to textual annotation of the plays themselves. There is bound to be something in the treatment of almost any Shakespeare play that will upset somebody, whether the cause is the general position on the nature of the text, or just irritating individual readings. Such quarrels will often be about plays which are more interesting to scholars than to the world at large – for example, the second and third parts of Henry VI, which we are now invited to refer to as The First Part of the Contention and Richard Duke of York – 1 Henry VI comes later, after Titus Andronicus. The two parts of Henry IV are similarly split by The Merry Wives, which shows how fiercely attentive to chronology we are required to be.

For simplicity’s sake, the following remarks on individual textual decisions will be confined to some of those about which queries were raised in the review of 21 May 1987. The ‘Arme-gaunt Steede’ of Antony and Cleopatra I, v, 47 (wrongly given as I, iv, 47 in that review) became, in the old-spelling edition, ‘Arme-iaunct’ and in the modern version ‘arm-jaunced’. We are now told why one mysterious word is replaced by another: disliking all existing attempts to explain ‘arm-gaunt’, the Oxford editors point out that Shakespeare used the word ‘jaunce’ several times. OED says it means ‘? To make (a horse) prance up and down’. ‘The sense is good,’ say the editors confidently, ‘implying that the horse that Antony “soberly” mounted was exhausted by being ridden by one in armour or by its own armour.’ But this seems no better than the rejected explanations of ‘arm-gaunt’ – such as ‘lean with much war service’. Antony is only just getting onto the animal; he is leaving Egypt to join in a war, but his army hasn’t recently been in action, and in fact the horse has no obvious reason to be tired, and doesn’t seem to be, neighing so prodigiously that what Alexas is saying to Antony is drowned.

The original epithet is surely more likely to have meant ‘powerful’ or ‘ready for battle’ or even just ‘wearing armour’ than ‘worn out by fighting’. However, having chosen ‘jaunced’, the editors can without much difficulty find scholarly reasons for printing the brand new Jacobean word ‘iaunct’ in their text. In the nature of the case this kind of thing must often recur in such an edition. Theobald’s celebrated ‘babbled of green fields’ in Henry V, which licenses the editors to print ‘babeld’, is not even discussed.

Another and possibly more serious problem arises from the two texts of Lear, and specifically from the two versions of Kent’s speech about Oswald in II, ii, where the Quarto has him speaking of rats biting cords that are ‘to intrencht, to vnloose’ and the Folio gives us ‘holy cords’ that are ‘to intrince, t’vnloose’. The review last May argued that the cords can never have been called too ‘entrenched’ – they must always have been too ‘intrinse’, since the idea is of biting through something that cannot be untied, not of digging something out by gnawing at it. The clear implication is that the Quarto reading is corrupt. But following their decision to treat Q and F as independent texts, the editors do not feel obliged to consider the two versions together, and the Companion, quite logically, has no note at all on ‘intrencht’. This silence gives canonical status to what must be a sophistication, perhaps introduced by a compositor who couldn’t read, or didn’t understand, the unusual word ‘intrinse’. A director favouring the Q text might therefore count on their editorial blessing if he stuck to ‘entrenched’, wrong as it almost undoubtedly is.

We might also ask whether it is likely that Shakespeare ever referred in this passage only to ‘those cords’, as the Quarto has it, making the cords ‘holly’ (holy) only later: the metaphor surely needs ‘holy’ to do its work, and one might think it had been there from the beginning. But the only editorial comment on ‘holly’ is by way of defending it as a spelling of ‘holy’.

These may seem small matters, but, properly considered, they show how much can be at stake in the handling of detail, and how more is required of editors than bibliographical and palaeographical know-how. And, as I’ve remarked, these editors insist that decisions once taken – such as the decision to have two versions of Lear – must be carried out unwaveringly. They will have their cost.

To an extent one can’t really suggest in a review of this kind the Oxford editors, tearing like a hurricane across the terrain of the Complete Works, have altered many familiar features. If they still sometimes seem over-bold, the laborious and civilised arguments of the Companion volume should exempt them from the charge of having been simply épatants, though the suspicion lingers that they have been capable, all else being equal, of choosing the more spectacular alternative. And the question remains as to the practicality of the whole vast edition. We can only suppose, since everybody concerned with it is highly professional, that its bulk and its price have been preferred to alternatives after due consideration; once a decision was made they stuck to it, except when, somewhere along the way, they changed their minds about Original Spelling.

Stanley Cavell calls himself an amateur, which is modest, considering the celebrity of his Shakespeare essays, of which one, the long meditation on King Lear, has been on reading lists for twenty years. However, he is by vocation a philosopher, of distinctive orientation since he has close dealings with Emerson and William James as well as with Wittgenstein, and with Hollywood comedies as well as with Thoreau; and he often turns to Shakespeare for contributions to philosophical issues, confident that he explores ‘the depth of the philosophical preoccupations of his culture’. Thus he likes to work, as John Hollander once remarked, in the buffer-zone between poetry and philosophy.

He has now collected the Lear piece, which originally appeared in Must we mean what we say? (1969), one on Othello from The Claim of Reason (1979), and more recent papers on Coriolanus, Hamlet and The Winter’s Tale. To them he adds a long Introduction, bringing in other plays, (notably Antony and Cleopatra) and explaining that all the essays have a place in his sceptical enquiries into philosophical scepticism. ‘The advent of scepticism as manifested in Descartes’s Meditations is already in full existence in Shakespeare,’ whose plays ‘interpret and reinterpret the sceptical problematic’. Thus Lear ‘figured the precipitousness of scepticism’s banishment of the world’, Othello allegorised the doubt as jealousy, the disgust of Coriolanus is ultimately the sceptic’s disgust with the inadequacy and vulgarity of language, and so on.

Cavell is bold, original and very intelligent, though it is noticeable that his style has grown more idiosyncratic and even rather narcissistic over the years. It’s a little unfortunate that the long Introduction was written last, for its manner, full of bizarre parentheses and dependent on certain too often repeated locutions, may put some readers off before they get to the substance of the book. It may also be said that there are lots of excellent things which aren’t necessarily related to the main thesis about scepticism, and which on the whole benefit from the author’s resolve to be, when he feels like it, ‘incredible’ or ‘outrageous’. He even develops a philosophy of critical outrage.

Scepticism, we are told, is largely a masculine preoccupation, illustrated by Othello’s putting the finite human being Desdemona in the place reserved by Descartes for God, or by Leontes’s stubborn doubt as to the paternity of his children (‘the structure of scepticism expressed as a form of insane jealousy’). Certain heroes, Antony, for instance, are taken as shadowing Christ in a world in which religion can no longer mend the split between objectivity and subjectivity.

No doubt a certain scepticism about this sceptical enquiry into scepticism is in order, but what is beyond doubt is the range and ambition of the quest, which takes in pretty well all the philosophical problems raised by the theatre: what is the nature of the relationship of audience to players? What does tragedy effect? ‘Why do I do nothing, faced with tragic events?’ ‘A radical necessity haunts every story of tragedy. It is the enveloping of contingency and necessity by one another, the entropy of their mixture, which produces events we call tragic.’

‘The Avoidance of Love’ – the chapter on Lear – takes up more than a third of the book, and contains many excited digressions as well as some passages of very close and acute attention to the text. It can be surprising: for instance, it is unusually nice to Edmund and unusually rough on Edgar. The real novelty, however, lies in the idea of avoidance, as when Lear’s mad banter about Gloucester’s eyeless sockets turns on his need to recognise without being seen; or when, reunited with Cordelia, his one ambition is to hide in prison and spy on the world. Edgar is also avoiding recognition, by means which associate him with the evil characters like Cornwall and Regan.

Cavell, with his usual boldness, generalises this habit of avoidance: ‘There are no lengths to which we may not go in order to avoid being revealed, even to those we love and are loved by.’ Some subtle pages on the ‘abdication’ scene at the beginning of the play suggest that what Lear wanted from Goneril and Regan, though not from Cordelia, was exactly what he got – insincere offers of love.

‘It may be that I have forced this scene too far in order to fit it to my reading,’ says the author; and the same may be true of other scenes too. It may also be thought that too much speculation, philosophical and other, is crammed into the argument – the author himself partly apologises for the fact that the Lear chapter ends with a passionate application of its argument to the Vietnam War: ‘In such circumstances, a purpose of tragedy remains unchanged: to make us practical, capable of acting. It used to do that by showing us the natural limitations of action. Now its work is not to purge us of pity and terror, but to make us capable of feeling them again.’ In fact, I think it would be wrong to call this redundant or dated: it is proper to a peculiar kind of criticism, and such peculiarity of imagination is a feature of the criticism we are likely to find most interesting, as in the extravagances of Empson or Burke.

‘Tragedy as a kind of epistemological problem, or as the outcome of the problem of knowledge’ is the general theme of the Othello essay, and the particular idea is that Othello wants to believe Iago as an alternative to believing something even less tolerable, namely that Desdemona is chaste and faithful. One needs to read the whole peculiar essay to understand this piece of outrageousness. Othello is ‘horrified by human sexuality’, and his horror is related to the sceptic’s suspicion that we do not know what it is to know that another exists. The play, like the philosophers, tries to ‘convert the human condition ... into an intellectual difficulty ... the conversion of metaphysical finitude into intellectual lack’.

Coriolanus is perhaps a more obvious instance of a ‘refusal to know and be known’, and in setting out his proof Cavell has interesting things to say on Menenius’s fable of the belly and the members, and on much else, such as the treatment in the play of food and language (the voices of the people come out of their mouths like vomit – what Coriolanus wants is their votes without their voices). Yet somehow he misses the obvious while in search of the extraordinary. Thus he says of the moment when Coriolanus expresses his wish to spare an inhabitant of Corioli who had once offered him hospitality, but forgets the man’s name, that ‘the unnamed figure ... is, vaguely, transiently, an image of his father.’ More obviously, Shakespeare makes his hero’s benefactor ‘a poor man’, though in Plutarch he is patrician. Coriolanus, to whom names are very important, finds it hard to allow them to plebeians.

The chapter on Hamlet – a sketch, a promise of more to come – returns to that famous old article by W.W. Greg which argued that the reason why Claudius doesn’t seem to be upset by the Dumb Show is that he hadn’t in fact murdered the old Hamlet by pouring poison in his ear. Cavell quite often acts in this way, a sceptical outsider looking freshly over the professional territory. There is every indication that he will go on doing this, coaxing Shakespeare into unusual philosophical contexts, and every reason why the professionals should listen to what he says, however outrageous. They need to listen to outsiders who stand at a peculiar angle to the bard, though only if they have minds as interesting as Cavell’s.

One of the questions he doesn’t ask is whether the pre-eminence of Shakespeare in our literature is justified: in fact, he more than once proclaims this pre-eminence, and his high expectations of philosophical collaboration always assume it. So it is interesting to observe that in Alastair Fowler’s one-man History of English Literature, a terrifically professional job, Shakespeare has to share thirty pages with the whole of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. Fowler, an expert in genre, divides his history on chronological-generic principles: Shakespeare is scattered about under various sorts of comedy and tragedy and tragicomedy, and accorded no special idolatrous tribute.

It is a familiar view that single-handed history of this kind is no longer possible, perhaps hasn’t been so for half a century, but Fowler sees both deep and wide, and manages to be not only useful but entertaining and willing to speculate. If The Faery Queene has to be got into four pages, it’s as well that the person doing it should know a lot about Spenser. And although a book like this must necessarily contain much familiar information, this one can surprise by its long views, its juxtapositions and its enthusiasms. The quincunxes of Browne’s ‘Garden of Cyrus’ remind Fowler of ‘Pynchon’s amassment of post-horns, or Beckett’s permutation of pebbles’. A letter of James Howells which catches his eye is quoted at length, and damn the pressure on space. A certain genre of novel, labelled poioumenon – which is self-begetting, writes itself as it goes along, and explores ‘the limit of narrative truth’ – contains, we discover, Tristram Shandy, Sartor Resartus, Vanity Fair, The House of the Seven Gables and Pale Fire, as well as lots of ‘Post-Modern’ writing by Beckett, Salmon Rushdie, Barth, Golding and others.

Fowler takes us right up to the present moment, worrying a bit about Ashbery, Ash and Prynne, but happy with Tomlinson and Hill. With a final modest look into the future (very uncertain, for ‘the very cards in the generic pack are changing’) he guesses that, in a sense, English literature, taking unforeseeable forms as the literature of the English-speaking world, ‘may only be beginning’. And what will become of Shakespeare then, the institutionalised idol, the canonical totem, to which, in their different ways, the Oxford editors and Stanley Cavell do happy obeisance?