Undecidability

Alastair Fowler

  • Shakespeare’s Scepticism by Graham Bradshaw
    Harvester, 269 pp, £32.50, June 1987, ISBN 0 7108 0604 3
  • The Elizabethan Hamlet by Arthur McGee
    Yale, 211 pp, £14.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 300 03988 3

We cannot let Shakespeare alone. He saw so deeply into life, and wrote so well, that we cannot bring ourselves to relegate him to his Elizabethan world, as we do, or used to do, with Jonson. Yet when Shakespeare is taken out of period, his works become problematic, since they are not referred to appropriate contexts, to the domains of assumption they address. So Shakespearean hermeneuts go round and round in wandering mazes lost. And now a new difficulty besets them, making it harder still to achieve perspective: the additional burden of ‘method’, of having to adopt a distinctive (and necessarily irrelevant) theoretic approach. Fortunately Graham Bradshaw, a lover of literature rather than criticism, is a robust simplifying writer in the Empsonian tradition, who knows that abstract theoretic discourse has had its day. He has the boldness, moreover, to cut hermeneutic knots by ignoring much recent work – including, unfortunately, some of the best American criticism and scholarship. On the whole, he confines the monster Monistic Theory to its cave: although the gapped hoof of deconstruction occasionally sticks indiscreetly out, and Nietzsche is invoked much oftener than Bradley.

The scepticism in Shakespeare’s Scepticism is not exactly that of Montaigne – or of Cornelius Agrippa’s The Uncertainty of Sciences or Franciscus Sanchez’s That Nothing is known. Bradshaw prefers not to go into Renaissance thought further than summary shorthand phrases like ‘new philosophy’ will allow. He is more interested in ‘radical scepticism’ as a way of reading Shakespeare: for the dramatist’s interrogative scepticism comes out not in explicit ideas but rather ‘in a subtly appraising play of intelligence’. In a sense, Bradshaw’s thesis is simply that the Elizabethans were torn between contrary valuations of nature which Shakespeare’s drama embodies in opposed characters. Idealists like Othello are purged (and their views undercut) by materialists and nihilists like Iago. And in all this ‘quarrel about the nature of nature’ the dramatist’s own views are not to be identified with less than the total drama. There must be no facile identification of Shakespeare with characters on one side or another of the quarrel – such as Bradshaw variously detects in both E M W. Tillyard and Jonathan Dollimore. ‘The “Tragedy” is located in that radically sceptical perspectivism, and the play’s thinking about man and Nature is irreducibly experiential, a process we live through.’ It is an attractive approach: yet not all will like the idea of Shakespeare it leads to. For the ‘total drama’ turns out in practice to amount to the bits Bradshaw’s deconstructive method selects; and the total view is that of a sceptical Shakespeare remote from Christian Humanism.

This conclusion follows logically enough from certain highly questionable assumptions: that Shakespeare puts equal emotional investment into each of his characters; that he has no way of structuring oppositions so as to decide issues; and, above all, that he does not go in for allegorical (or quasi-allegorical) symbolism. In Lear, for example, ‘like Paulina, Edgar rouses indignation as a self-appointed spiritual midwife who protracts torture for the good of the tortured.’ But Edgar and Gloucester are not motivated characters in a novel. Edgar is not self-appointed to teach his father to suck eggs, but appointed by the dramatist, perhaps to represent a form of repentance that Gloucester does not recognise. When he does recognise it, the Old Man of sin (in the Pauline sense) dies.

But if the thesis is simple, it allows many subtle interpretations of Shakespearean passages, informed by a good sense of what drama is often about. Naturally, Bradshaw has most to say on Hamlet: much of it fresh, or freshly put together. At his most Empsoinian, he addresses ‘the two crucial questions we must ask’: ‘What kind of play could so enthral the western imagination?’ and ‘How could any work have seemed to submit to so many divergent and incompatible readings, without being in itself flawed and obscure?’ His answer to the first (to summarise crudely) is that Shakespeare, with a university audience in mind, took a popular success (the old Hamlet) and grafted on to it a highly intellectual prince. What astonished the earliest spectators, and has never lost its hold, is an ‘intensely inward and original rendering, in Hamlet’s tortured consciousness, of that momentous Renaissance conflict between different conceptions of the nature of Nature, of human nature and human potentialities, and of Value’.

For his second answer, Bradshaw returns to J. M. Robertson and the idea that ‘there was a limit to the miracles’ which even Shakespeare could work with so barbaric an old play. This answer may seem plausible enough (although unverifiable, without the old Hamlet): but it ignores the sophistication of the revenge play tradition (as traced in Gordon Braden’s Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition), to say nothing of its symbolic relation to political and religious reform. And when Bradshaw says that Hamlet cannot be permitted to question the ethics of revenge, ‘because the play’s inherited framework ... would begin to disintegrate’, one wonders why, exactly, this should be so – thinking uneasily, maybe, of Chapman’s questioning of those same ethics, or Middleton’s in The Revenger’s Tragedy. The first answer, as Bradshaw admits, posits a content more remote from the action than that proposed by Harold Jenkins and Nigel Alexander – the ‘duality of the revenger’ theory: but he prefers it since the play their theory explains ‘seems so unlike, and so much smaller than, the play which obsessed Goethe and Schlegel, Turgenev and Pasternak’. It is not obvious to me that questions about reform, or about ethics, are smaller than questions about nature – or why it is Schlegel’s Hamlet, rather than Shakespeare’s, that we should feel obliged to discuss.

Bradshaw has little difficulty in showing Hamlet’s sceptical doubts about the ghost to be a mainspring of the play’s ambiguity – easily dismissing Prosser’s thesis that Elizabethans would automatically have seen the ghost as a instrument of darkness. But here Bradshaw’s scepticism does not go nearly far enough: failing, for example, to explore the wider, but not unlimited, range of possible Elizabethan views (and consequent additional ambiguities) opened by Roland Mushat Frye in his invaluable The Renaissance Hamlet. Was Hamlet’s attitude recognisably Papist, or Protestant but ‘infected’ with lingering traditional ideas? Were not Shakespeare’s Papist spectators taught a proper scepticism towards spectral visitors? Was the elder Hamlet’s charge to be seen as an encouragement to private revenge (evil) or public justice (sometimes acceptable)? Is the charge a commission to reform the state? Even without being a sceptic, it seems, Hamlet might understandably be in doubt.

Need we be similarly in doubt? At the first sign of ambiguity, Bradshaw, good deconstructionist as he plays at seeming, waves the blank flag of undecidability. But, while they were certainly taken through the experience of uncertainty, Shakespeare’s first spectators would be hardier in their scepticism, not to say better-trained in working through it to conclusions. Bradshaw seems to me unreasonably reluctant to envisage that Hamlet (like every English tragic protagonist) is judged – that his perspective is contained within a larger justice. Besides, need an Elizabethan Hamlet be ‘unhistorical, as well as aesthetically impossible’? True, the Elizabethans were far from monolithic agreement in matters of doctrine. Nevertheless, they all seem to have shared one particular characteristic: namely, the inability to conceive of continuously-motivated novelistic realism. Thus Bradshaw is himself unhistorical in preferring novelistic interpretation of Shakespeare – interpretation, that is to say, in terms of a continuous action broken by local ‘discontinuities’ identifiable as revealing ‘gaps’.

In Measure for Measure, Macbeth and Troilus and Cressida sceptical questions about the nature of nature are somewhat more peripheral, and Bradshaw’s attempts to make them central do not always go with the grain. But his approach suits well enough the offsetting in Troilus of new men against old, of ‘Greek Realpolitik’ against ‘the Trojans’ doomed, medievally-minded code of honour’. This is an opposition on which any sound understanding of the play must be based (although I should hardly call the late Renaissance world of Realpolitik ‘decentred’: it was centred on the absolutist monarch to the point of sun-king mystification). Bradshaw is good at seeing how far Ulysses’s ‘rational’ use of traditional ideas is guided by ulterior political aims. And he convincingly shows that Thersites’s nihilism is neatly undercut, that he is a Nietzschean Mr Foolhardy in reverse. Yet, unaccountably, Bradshaw concludes from this that the play’s vision is one of undecidability. Obviously Shakespeare thought too deeply to opt for old or new without comprehensive qualification. But if traditional ideals must always go down before a politik more Real, does that make them less admirable?

Bradshaw goes too far when he sees contradicted scepticism in Hector, on the grounds that in the Trojan Council he opposes the war (Helen is ‘not worth what she doth cost the keeping’), when he has himself sent a challenge to the Greeks. But surely Hector is neither ‘clever’ nor a ‘thoroughgoing sceptic’. He is inconsistent only to the critic who privileges contradictions. For Hector’s noble ‘inconsistency’ lies in a readiness to risk his own life, to ‘find quarrel in straw’. His challenge is aimed (as Ulysses and Nestor are alarmed to perceive) at Achilles: at setting up the straight match of prowess versus prowess that may end the disproportionate war. Personal honour is above rational consistency, not below it.

It often strikes me how little US criticism impinges on British critics. In so far as Arthur McGee’s The Elizabethan Hamlet is concerned with traditional problems, it was largely rendered unnecessary by Frye’s better-informed The Renaissance Hamlet (1984), although it retains interest for specialists, by virtue of its penetrating treatment of cruxes like Ophelia’s mad discourse (related here to her incest with Polonius). McGee is big with discoveries, and has no time for perspective or method; unlike Bradshaw, who by contrast might be said to have at times a little too much method.

No very strong method will serve with literature, least of all with Shakespeare. It tends to cloud insights. Bradshaw’s book is often so insightful, however, that I almost entertain the fancy that he might have set up ironies of his own, to make it undecidable how committed he was to deconstruction. But, however brilliant locally (and however finely written throughout), Shakespeare’s Scepticism is not in the end substantially satisfying. Was Shakespeare a sceptic? Yes, of course, so far as crude ideologies were concerned. But belief of another sort is another matter. And Bradshaw ought to have considered the possibility that a philosophy of right reason might have been just as deep as one of scepticism.