Talking about Shakespeare

Frank Kermode

  • Young Hamlet: Essays on Shakespeare’s Tragedies by Barbara Everett
    Oxford, 232 pp, £22.50, June 1989, ISBN 0 19 812993 9
  • ‘Timon of Athens’ by A.D. Nuttall
    Harvester, 164 pp, £25.00, March 1989, ISBN 0 7108 1006 7

Barbara Everett’s book consists of her four Northcliffe Lectures, given at University College London in 1988, on Hamlet and the other ‘major’ tragedies, together with a number of shorter pieces on Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, Twelfth Night, and quite a lot more about Hamlet. This account may make the book sound scrappy, but it holds together. Its chief hero Hamlet keeps returning to the scene like a reassuring leitmotif, and there are other compensating virtues. Ms Everett is, as always, discursive, and as always ready to take any promising detour – a habit which, though occasionally exasperating, reinforces one’s sense of her independence and her confidence. We are told that the whole business of criticism, not excluding Shakespearian criticism, has been changed utterly in the last few years, but you would never guess it from Everett’s writing, which is distinctive without excessive straining for novelty: this presumably goes to show that it is more interesting to do criticism than to argue about what criticism ought to do, and to what. She will worry away at a word – for example, ‘success’ in Macbeth – with as much determination as a deconstructor in search of an aporia, but she is always trying for solutions, however complex, rather than merely detecting problems, and although success, in the old sense of what’s going to come next, is frequently in doubt, there is no doubt that this is, in a more modern sense, a highly successful performance.

It would be too much to claim that one is always swept along by the force of the arguments: there are passages in this book which leave one slightly impatient and incredulous. For instance, Everett makes a great to-do about the fact that the names of Iago and Roderigo are Spanish. She offers a short history of the Moors in Spain, and claims a hitherto unsuspected connection between Iago and Santiago, patron saint of Spain and enemy to the Moors, who were treated as quintessential strangers, always to be feared. This Spanish excursus is meant to give an idea of ‘how the story of “the Moor” might appear if read within a world with a different mental geography than our own’.

It is true that Brabantio thinks foreign general Othello good enough to be a guest in his house but not good enough to marry his daughter; and that Iago calls him, among many other things, ‘an extravagant and wheeling stranger’. But Brabantio must have wanted a dynastic marriage and had a personal reason to be hostile; and so, despite Coleridge, had Iago. It does not follow (in terms of what we find in the play) that Venetians, lacking their motives, generally felt as these enemies did. Iago wants Othello (and Roderigo) to think that foreign mercenaries, especially when they managed to elope with girls who have refused Venice’s ‘curled darlings’, could expect to be humiliated and betrayed. Brabantio’s point would probably have been made with equal force of any mercenary, and the only characters who consider Othello in terms of black face and thick lips are Iago and Othello himself. In a moment of candid, unguarded outrage Emilia insults Othello as fiercely as she knows how, but not by referring to his appearance or his foreignness: ‘O gull, O dolt,/As ignorant as dirt,’ she cries. Admittedly she later addresses him as ‘thou dull Moor’, but he is often uncontemptuously called ‘the Moor’ and Emilia’s point is, once more, not his race but his contemptible stupidity (‘thou’, coming from her, is as contemptuous as ‘dull’).

So although it is true that Iago can make Othello sound like an ugly black military braggart, nobody else, not even the Doge before whom he does do some heavy boasting, seems to think of him in that way; the Doge presumably takes Othello’s big speech to be a rather high-flown but timely and militarily justified piece of self-commendation. Othello, so far from being regarded as a vain and dangerous intruder, is so trusted a soldier that he is chosen at the moment of crisis to defend Cyprus and Christendom against the Turk. The point is simply that he had accessible insecurities, not that he really was generally regarded as an old black ram or a dangerous Spanish Moor, though his foreignness and the nature of his career made him vulnerable to someone crafty enough to see that jealousy could feed on those insecurities. If he could be persuaded that the gutter view of blacks and Venetians was at bottom the right one, Othello might well accept a gutter view of himself and of Desdemona. Since Iago does not believe his own calumnies it seems wrong to provide him with plausible reasons for doing so, and it is hard to avoid the feeling that in this chapter we have twenty pages of fuss, not about nothing, but not about much.

Among the addenda there is also a long chapter on textual cruces in Hamlet. Some of the proposals will convince some readers and some won’t. Here is one rather favourable sample, the famous crux in I, iv, where Hamlet is passing the time while they wait for the ghost by opining, in a quite leisurely way, that a single flaw can ruin the reputation and achievement of an otherwise great person. His virtues

Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault: the dram of eale
Doth all the noble substance of a doubt
To his own scandal.

This is the reading of the ‘Good’ Quarto (the lines don’t occur in the Folio). Everett thinks ‘eale’, sometimes glossed as ‘yeast’, is really ‘ele’, an obsolete form of ‘oil’. The OED records nothing after the 14th century that could be used to support ‘ele’ meaning ‘oil’, and we may be sure that Everett would have told us if it did: but if we allow it as anyway not impossible we have still to explain what the drop of oil is doing here, and that means making sense of ‘of a doubt’. Everett says it should read ‘overclouds’, which does make quite good sense of what has often been dismissed as a lapse into incoherence. She, and the OED, find the word ‘overcloud’ in Kyd and Nashe and Florio’s Montaigne, sometimes thought to have been available to Shakespeare though not published at the time he was writing Hamlet.

There follow bibliographical arguments showing that the misreading of the compositor can be attributed to the well-known vagaries of secretary hand, but so can almost anything, and I imagine she puts this argument out of a sense of scholarly duty rather than critical conviction. And her main point is that editors have failed in their literary duty by giving up the speech as hopeless, and ignoring, for instance, the other clouds in the play (How is it that the clouds still hang on you,’ etc).

The argument is lengthy, ingenious and on the whole persuasive, though there are murky moments: for instance, the suggestion that Shakespeare himself cut the passage from the Folio version of the play because it was too brilliantly explicit, and so subversive of the play’s ‘peculiar reticence’. I think it true that Hamlet has a ‘peculiar reticence’, but what helps to make the reticence peculiar is that the play never misses a chance of saying what seems, if the ostensible purpose was to be explicitly getting on with it, far too much – its surplus of everything, characters, plots and words, is paradoxically a way of keeping quiet, and Hamlet’s moralising in I, iv is part of the surplus that silences.

Whether or not one can accept the emendation while arguing about its literary justification, it is clear that Everett’s editorial efforts – I have space to mention only one of the string, and so chose the most celebrated crux in the play – are more fun than most, and of course she is right to say that you need not only bibliographical know-how and the OED, but also literary skills, to do the job well. They are skills she herself certainly possesses.

To see them at work on a larger scale one turns to the lectures on the four big tragedies. The one on Hamlet is certainly the most striking. It winds about in the usual manner, with a lot of good stuff about Danish Renaissance royal palaces ‘blazing with colour and light’, and a fanciful passage about the reference in the opening scene to a legend about Christmas: ‘The bird of dawning singeth all night long.’ Nobody has found any trace of such a legend, and Everett thinks Shakespeare invented it, so making Hamlet a sort of Christmas piece: Hamlet is a young prince, rather like Jesus. More inviting is the observation that in the first reference to the hero of the play, at the end of the first scene, he is referred to as ‘the young Hamlet’. An obvious reason for the adjective is that the preceding talk has been entirely about the old Hamlet, but there is more to it than that. It is a masterly touch, in this most masterly, most oblique overture, to delay all mention of the present Hamlet till the end, and the delay is continued: it is quite a long time before the two Hamlets meet and the action or inaction can get going. But Everett makes a different point, claiming that ‘Young Hamlet’ becomes, as it were, the hero’s true name. She meditates at length about the significance of ‘young’, pondering the stock question as to why, though an undergraduate still, and still wearing his ‘subfusc’, the prince is firmly established in the last act as 30 years old. There is an interesting disquisition on differences between Elizabethan assumptions about age, and ageing, and our own. To pot the whole argument: Hamlet starts off young (20) and ends by growing mature, a condition for which 30 was then thought the appropriate age.

All this is nicely done, and very choicely illustrated. Subsequently Everett develops the argument by firing what McLuhan used to call probes into subsequent literary history. So Hamlet turns out to be, by way of Wilhelm Meister, the progenitor of the Bildungsroman. You needn’t be convinced by any or all of it to find this lecture a fascinating and original performance. And it is, after all, very important to be original about Hamlet; Everett feels its modernity strongly, and it will stay modern only so long as we can say original things about it.

On Othello I find her less persuasive and occasionally even obscure or overstated, as when she argues that only if Desdemona had really been unfaithful could the play be said to ‘centre on’ jealousy: her fidelity ‘can do nothing but distract from the seriousness of her husband’s condition’. But there is a pathology of jealousy, as analysts know; it is a condition no less serious when without grounds in reality. However, she does have new things to say, especially about Shakespeare’s use of the Cinthio novel. Here, as in her Lear lecture, she probably alters our sense of what is going on in the play rather less than in the leading essay, but we never, as so often in reading Shakespearian criticism, simply lose interest. Not only in her variations on ‘success’, but in her comments on such passages as ‘Light thickens,/And the crow makes wing to the rooky wood,’ she has illuminating or provocative points to make about Macbeth; and she dares, as so few of us nowadays dare, to make strong ethical statements as well as epigrams. Even the more commonplace points are made with a fineness that shows them to have been rethought, not merely repeated – an effect that can only be produced by an exceptionally gifted reader and writer.

A.D. Nuttall’s introduction to Timon is the work of an equally unconventional, equally learned mind, though of a more philosophical bent. Faithful to fact yet adventurous, this short book is much more than the routine crib you might expect from its appearance, and Nuttall has a lot of more than merely sensible things to say about this play. And he bears down on particular words and ideas with as much shrewdness and tenacity as Everett.

He can’t, of course, answer all the questions raised by this anomalous play. For example: only very rarely did Shakespeare ever write a scene so systematically based on a pre-existing plan as the first scene of Timon. Elsewhere a formal scheme may be clearly present, as in the laus musicae at the end of The Merchant of Venice, but the use of it is less rigorous and less protracted. Nuttall knows the Timon scheme, which is derived from the Italian paragone, and therefore rather learned; he recognises that it is unique and is keenly aware, for he goes through the text in detail, that the whole play has an unusually schematic structure. It has always seemed to me that a skeleton plot was quite elaborately sketched, and that some parts of it were truly written and polished – the opening scene is evidently one such – while others were wretchedly botched up or only tentatively scribbled in. Nuttall provides a thorough discussion of the possibility that Middleton had a part in the writing: he allows it, but credits Shakespeare with the original conception, adding credibly that it might well have been intensely discussed by the two dramatists before the actual writing began. And it seems likely enough that the play was planned in conference and executed piecemeal, though for some reason never properly finished. So the play is likely always to be a mystery different in kind from all the other Shakespeare mysteries but a welcome member of their company. They are what keeps going the Shakespearian conversation to which both these books are excellent contributions.