Act Three, Scene Three of Julius Caesar ends with the murder of a poet. It begins with a stage direction: Enter Cinna the poet, and after him the Plebeians. This direction creates two oppositions. The poet is opposed to the plebeians. And ‘Cinna the poet’ is opposed to ‘Cinna the conspirator’, a character with the same name but a different vocation. On these two oppositions – between poet and plebeians, between poet and conspirator – Shakespeare builds his narrative of bardicide.
You might object that he inherited these oppositions from history. But of Plutarch’s two accounts of ‘the murder of Cinna’, only one even mentions, in passing, that the victim was ‘a poet’. Given a choice, Shakespeare chose to make Cinna a poet. He also chose to dramatise this superfluous episode. In inserting this scene and insisting upon Cinna’s vocation, he asserted a relationship between literature and politics. Whether ‘the aesthetic and the ideological are necessarily intertwined in literature and literary criticism’ is the question vigorously debated by the 19 contributors to Shakespeare Left and Right, a question repeatedly and vehemently asked in the current American debate about ‘political correctness’. But in this scene from Julius Caesar the relationship between politics and poetics is not imported by a Post-Modernist critic, but demanded by Shakespeare.
Moreover, Shakespeare did not simply transcribe into the sign-language of the theatre a historian’s prose: he changed the story – and changed it in ways which make it, if anything, less dramatic. Plutarch does not say how the plebeians slew Cinna. Shakespeare insists, five times, that the plebeians dismember him. It is not easy to dismember an actor on stage; it would have been especially difficult in the Elizabethan theatre. Why so insistently demand a theatrically impossible dismemberment?
In dismembering Cinna Shakespeare must have remembered, and expected many playgoers to remember, the death of Orpheus. Orpheus – the Muse’s own son, the mythological original and iconographic epitome of the poet – was murdered by a crowd which tore him to pieces. Five times elsewhere in the 1590s Shakespeare explicitly referred to Orpheus, who was part of the Renaissance literary system, its emblem books and dictionaries, its cheap pamphlets and expensive masques, its popular and esoteric discourses.
By making Cinna’s death visually, verbally and actively echo that of Orpheus, Shakespeare implies that what happened to Cinna is not an accidental narrative episode but a recurrent pattern in the history of culture. Plutarch’s Cinna is ‘a poet’, once; Shakespeare’s Cinna is (three times) ‘the poet’. Cinna’s death is Orpheus’s death is the death of ‘the poet’, as a Platonic and social category.
Shakespeare, in dramatising Plutarch, generalises and emphasises the murder of the poet. This emphatic generality would also have been encouraged by the circumstances of the play’s early performances. Julius Caesar was seen by a tourist on 21 September 1599; most scholars now agree that this must have been one of its first performances. In June 1599, the government decreed ‘that no satires or epigrams be printed hereafter,’ and on 4 June many published satires were, by order of Archbishop Whitgift and Bishop Bancroft, publicly burned. Julius Caesar was thus probably being written at a time when books were being burned. Is the timing coincidental? It was not coincidental that the first American revival of Julius Caesar which restored this scene took place in 1937, when books were being burned in Germany: Orson Welles portrayed the plebeians who murder Cinna as Fascist Brown-shirts. In 1937, in 1599, Julius Caesar dramatised an attack on a poet, at a time when poets were being attacked outside the theatre.
Act Three, Scene Three of Julius Caesar is Shakespeare’s Defence of Poetry. The death of the author is here attributed to a strong misreading. The ambiguous proper noun ‘Cinna’ is misinterpreted by a plebeian auditory, who attribute to it a political meaning which it does not have. The poet Shakespeare constructs a scenario in which the poet is unmistakably innocent; the poet’s work, unmistakably apolitical; the poet’s intentions, unmistakably clear; the popular reading of the poet, unmistakably mistaken.
But this very scene, which denies that the poet is a political agent, is itself a political act – was a political act in 1599, and has been one ever since. Every disavowal is an avowal. Consider, for instance, Shakespeare’s portrayal of the populace. Shakespeare had two models for the crowd that murders a poet, and he altered both. The crowd that murdered Orpheus knew who it was murdering, and why. In a long poem printed in 1597, the legend of Orpheus is made the occasion for extensive satire on women; Bacon’s De Sapienta Veterum of 1609 explains ‘it is wisely added in the story that Orpheus was averse from women and from marriage; for the sweets of marriage ... commonly draw men away from performing great and lofty services ...’; in Fletcher’s play of 1617, Orpheus tries to persuade the Mad Lover that the love of women is a hellish plague. The hostility of women to such a poet is understandable. The Orpheus myth – in which a crowd of women murders a male poet, deliberately – was always overdetermined by gender, and the cultural logic of that myth is perpetuated by those who see feminist criticism as an enemy of literature.
By contrast with the Orpheus myth, Shakespeare’s rendering of the death of the poet strips the crowd of its reason and changes its sex. No longer a dispute between rival ideologies or genders, it becomes a dispute between art and error, pure poetry and pure noise, a lone artist above ideology and a crowd beneath ideology.
Shakespeare’s crowd also differs from Plutarch’s. In Plutarch, the misunderstanding that leads to Cinna’s death illustrates an axiom in information theory, textual criticism and gossip: the more often a message is transmitted, the more corrupted it becomes. The word ‘Cinna’ is passed from mouth to mouth in a large group, and eventually, inevitably, misinterpreted. ‘The first man told it to another, and that other unto another, so that it ran straight through them all, that he was one of them that murdered Caesar.’ shakespeare’s onstage crowd, by contrast, cannot have been large, and only four plebeians speak. The misidentification of Cinna does not result from an innocent failure of reiterated transmission, but is a consequence of direct, aggressive interrogation. The plebeians come looking for trouble; they wilfully misunderstand the meaning of Cinna’s first innocent replies; they leap to their violent conclusion across the space between the word ‘Cinna’, spoken by Cinna himself, and the very next word, spoken by his interlocutor, ‘Tear’; they ignore the victim’s three explicit corrections of their fatal misreading. Shakespeare’s crowd, unlike Plutarch’s, is uncontrollably irrational and cruel.
Some might say that Antony is to blame for the plebeians’ violence: he has ‘moved them’. But our perception that the crowd expresses Antony’s will, and not its own, comes from Shakespeare’s representation, in the preceding scene, of the popular voice. Again, Shakespeare changed Plutarch’s narrative. In none of Plutarch’s three separate accounts of Antony’s oration does it immediately follow an oration by Brutus. Plutarch, unlike Shakespeare, does not juxtapose two orations, which move the plebeians first in one direction, then in its direct opposite. Shakespeare, in short, makes the people fickle and easy to manipulate.
Oh, but crowds are irrational, cruel, fickle and easy to manipulate, aren’t they? Are they? A generation ago, the historians E.J. Hobsbawm, George Rudé, and E.P. Thompson demonstrated that even rioting crowds are ‘not fickle, peculiarly irrational, or generally given to bloody attacks on persons’. Their conclusions have been confirmed by three decades of historical case-studies of violent crowds in England, Europe and America. Were the crowds in Moscow last August irrational or violent? Were the crowds in Tiananmen Square fickle? Would a short clever speech by the leader of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party have turned the crowds in Prague ideologically inside out, and persuaded them to attack, ‘the poet’ Vaclav Havel?
Shakespeare has constructed the political innocence of the poet by constructing a fiction of the political guilt of the plebeians. Is it surprising that Cinna’s death was first triumphantly restored to the theatrical repertoire by a court company financed and directed by the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, in productions which toured all of Europe in the 1870s and 1880s – that is, in the aftermath of the crushed revolutions of 1848, the crushed January uprising in Poland in 1864, the crushed Paris Commune of 1871? In 1880, Londoners could read an English translation of the German scholar Paul Stapfer’s praise of Shakespeare as ‘a bolder and more searching anatomist of the human monster’ than Plutarch; ‘knowing well what the mob is capable of in its intoxication on the day of revolution’, Shakespeare in this scene ‘shows us the amazing unreasonableness, and lets us hear the loud bursts of stupid and ferocious laughter of a populace in revolt’. In 1881, Londoners could see a German company perform the scene in a manner which confirmed Stapfer’s diagnosis. The very novelty and success of the Meiningen production depended upon the totalitarian control of every action of a large group of people by an unseen, offstage director. As Antony is to the plebeians who murder Cinna, the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen was to the actors who pretended to murder Cinna: the crowd in either case has no will or identity of its own, but is merely an instrument deployed by an absent charismatic leader (like the absent playwright who constructed this scenario).
Shakespeare’s opposition between the apolitical poet and the political conspirator is thus inevitably falsified by his own practice and the practice of those who revive his work. Shakespeare’s other opposition, between the poet and the people, is also false. The enemy of the poet is not usually the populace: far more often, it is the authorities who dismember authors. As Shakespeare was writing his first plays, the suspected authors of the Marprelate pamphlets were arrested and tortured; two were executed. It was not the English public, but the Parliamentary and episcopal authorities, which proscribed satire in the summer of 1599. The systematic suppression of poets was official Elizabethan policy in Ireland. Shakespeare, despite such evidence, depicts the poet as a victim, not of cold-blooded official policy, but of hot-headed popular frenzy.
The opposition between poet and mob seems natural to us, only because it became, retrospectively, part of the mythology of Romanticism. But the paradigm offered by Shakespeare’s Cinna does not actually fit any of the Romantics very well, not even Keats. Keats was initially excoriated, and later celebrated, for writing a new kind of poetry; the crowd which rejected him was reviled, by his admirers, for its conservatism, its resistance to change. What Shakespeare in his stage directions often calls ‘the rabble’ has, by contrast, a weakness for what he calls, always disparagingly, ‘innovation’. Moreover, the crowd which ‘killed’ Keats – and the other Romantic martyrs – was not solely, or even essentially, plebeian; philistines were united by attitude, not class. The crowd was the world. But it is an adamantly plebeian mob which kills the innocent Cinna.
It should be evident by now that Shakespeare’s narrative of the death of the author is not a universally applicable human myth. Nor is it endemic to Western discourse, or even to a particular epoch. We get very different representations of the crowd from the choric harmony and common sense of Greek tragedy, from the communal pride of Renaissance civic pageantry, from the resistant solidarity of Lope de Vega’s Fuenteovejuna (c. 1612). And we get a very different conception of the death of the poet if we move from Shakespeare in 1599 to Thomas Middleton in 1604. The Ant and the Nightingale; or, Father Hubburd’s Tales contains a three-stanza apostrophe to that ‘honest soul’ Thomas Nashe. In 1599 the bishops had ordered ‘that all Nashe’s books ... be taken wheresoever they may be found and that none of [his] books be ever printed hereafter.’ Within two years, having been prohibited from earning his living as a writer, Nashe had died, in extreme poverty. In Middleton’s fable, the Nightingale, who is herself a poet, laments to Nashe:
Thou didst not live thy ripened autumn-day,
But went cut off in thy best blooming May ...
Thy name they bury, having buried thee;
Drones eat thy honey – thou wert the true bee.
Peace keep thy soul!
Middleton does not say who ‘they’ were, but his readers knew well enough who had ‘cut off’ Nashe’s livelihood. And the other poets of this fable do not fare much better. The Nightingale is, of course, raped Philomel, the archetypal female poet, as Orpheus is the archetypal male. The Ant has been incarnated as a succession of ‘poor’ and ‘small’ victims of injustice: first, a ploughman abused by his prodigal landlord; then a common soldier cheated of his pay by corrupt officers, crippled by a shot fired by cannon sold to the enemy by English arms dealers, and ignored or ridiculed when he returns home to a country that has no use for disabled veterans. In his third incarnation, the Ant, having been ‘unfruitfully led to the lickerish study of poetry’, composes ‘a neat, choice, and curious poem’, which he presents to Sir Christopher Clutchfist – only to discover, later, his ‘book dismembered very tragically’ by Clutchfist, who was only interested in its rich binding and carnation silk strings. Unlike Shakespeare’s ‘unlucky’ Cinna, Middleton’s Nashe, Ant and Nightingale are not casualties of a misunderstanding or a chance encounter: they are victimised by an entire (entirely corrupt) social apparatus.
For Shakespeare, by contrast, the poet is not part of a complex economic, political and cultural system, but an individual among others. Shakespeare’s poets are defined, socially, by their relationship to a patron: Cinna is ‘a friend’ of Caesar. If not to a patron, poems are addressed to a lover – an erotic patron. The fusion of the beloved and the patron in the young man of the Sonnets epitomises the theory that poetry is speech addressed to a single auditor. The plebeians are vulgar interlopers, who do not understand what Cinna is.
For Middleton, that ‘golden age’ in which kings ‘hung jewels at the ear of every rhyme’ is already dead. The Ant and the Nightingale begins with a mock dedication to Sir Christopher Clutchfist, ‘the Muses’ bad paymaster’; the author already knows that such men ‘never give the poor Muse-suckers a penny’. Middleton must get his pennies from the marketplace of print. The plebeians in Shakespeare do not know the poet’s name; Middleton does not know the reader’s name. In Middleton, the exchange between writer and reader is not a personal relationship, of one to one; but a commercial relationship, of one to many. The poet is no longer a lover, but a prostitute, who sets his ‘wit to sale’. ‘There was a golden age – who murdered it?’ The Ant does not answer his own question: but he does observe that, today, ‘the golden age lies in an iron chest.’
Consequently, although Middleton’s poets suffer, none of them is the wholly innocent victim which Shakespeare presents in Julius Caesar. Middleton admired and was much influenced by Nashe, but even he is accused of ‘bitterness’, ‘sloth’ and ‘railing’. In Middleton’s The Puritan, George Pyeboard is a scholar, satirist, playwright, masque-writer and expert plotter; he is also a con-artist, who at the end of the play is arrested. In Middleton’s The Nice Valour, Lapet is an author, seen correcting proofs and handing out copies of his new book: but he is also a coward and a masochist, the author of a systematic treatise on the many different ways one can accept physical abuse – a kind of Kama Sutra of abasement. One of the most popular characters in Middleton’s A Game at Chess is the Fat Bishop, a greedy, gluttonous, ambitious, mercenary author; he is, in the end, consigned to the body-bag of hell. Theatrically, Pyeboard, Lapet and the Fat Bishop are irresistibly appealing and vivacious: but they are never innocent. In Middleton’s world, a pen is a weapon; the pregnant page, unmarried; paper, an ‘adulterous sheet’.
Middleton recognises that an author is always implicated, biographically and textually. His model of the poet is not classical, but Biblical: not Orpheus, but Solomon and David, the two chief authors of what Sidney described (conventionally) as ‘the poetical part of the Scripture’. Those Biblical models were the foundation of what has been called a ‘Protestant poetics’, which shaped English poetry from Sidney and Spenser to Herbert and Milton. Middleton belongs to the same tradition. Margot Heinemann, in her influential account of Puritanism and Theatre (1980), established Middleton’s links with the oppositional politics of 17th-century Puritanism; now, John Strachniewski – in one of several excellent essays in R.V. Holdsworth’s anthology of criticism of The Revenger’s Tragedy, Women beware women and The Changeling – has revealed a pervasive Calvinist vocabulary and psychology in Middleton’s tragedies.
Middleton’s first work, published when he was only 17, was a verse paraphrase of the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon. A poet who models himself on Solomon and David will look very different from a poet who models himself on Orpheus. Neither Biblical poet is apolitical; as kings, they could hardly be. And neither is innocent: both were themselves great sinners, whose sins were both private and public. Their example encourages a compromised, political, sinful poetry, a poetry like Middleton’s, conscious of its own place in an imperfect human order. It was, after all, the author Solomon himself who looked on all the works his ‘hands had wrought’ and realised ‘all was vanity and vexation of spirit,’ and that ‘of making many books there is no end.’
Certainly, of making many books about Shakespeare there seems to be no end. Samuel Schoenbaum’s Shakespeare’s Lives is one of the best of them, but it accepts, uncritically, Shakespeare’s own interpretation of the lives (and deaths) of poets: patronage without politics, biography without history, and a mob of misinterpreters tearing to pieces the ‘featureless impersonality’ of the ‘unpolemical’ poet. Schoenbaum has mistaken Cinna for Shakespeare – which is, of course, exactly what Shakespeare wanted him to do.
I, too, am a maker of books about Shakespeare, and as such I am regularly invited to various forums where I am expected to praise Shakespeare, not to bury him. But I find myself in the position Montaigne was in, discussing Cicero, who was at the time the most admired of prose stylists: as rendered in M.A. Screech’s learned but digestible new translation, Montaigne confesses, ‘to tell the truth boldly (for once we have crossed the boundaries of insolence there is no reining us in) his style of writing seems boring to me.’ Why should French philosophers have a monopoly on insolence? To tell the truth boldly, the more I think about this scene in Julius Caesar, the less I like it: wrong historically, wrong morally, wrong in 1599, still wrong in 1991. There never was a poet like Shakespeare’s Cinna; the plebeians are not the enemies of poetry.
Please understand: I am not accusing all of Western discourse, or all of Shakespeare, or even all of Julius Caesar. Such totalising critical strategies seem to me, not only untrue, but politically unavailing: by attacking everything, they leave everything in place. No, I am criticising, here, only one scene of one play. But even so, I am addressing a crowd of bardophiles, and I am no orator, as Shakespeare is; I will not wrong the honourable men whose essays have praised Shakespeare, Shakespeare who ‘did never wrong, but with just cause’, Shakespeare the teflon bard.
Besides, it is dangerous to dislike anything communicated by the Great Communicator. To criticise some passages of Shakespeare’s work has recently been described, in the TLS and PMLA, as ‘bardicide’. In this metaphor, to dissent is to destroy. But bardicide is not always just a metaphor. If you have tears, and are prepared to shed them now, perhaps you might weep, not for Shakespeare, but for Nashe, the Irish bards, the murdered Japanese translator of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, or even for Thomas Middleton. In 1599, young Middleton’s Microcynicon was among the satires the bishops ordered burned. In 1624, middle-aged Middleton wrote the most popular play of the English Renaissance, A Game at Chess. After nine consecutive days of packed houses, the play was banned, and Middleton arrested. He was eventually released, but – so far as we can tell – he never wrote another play. He died three years later, in such poverty that the City of London made a special appropriation to relieve his widow. Is it likely that a professional playwright would voluntarily cease to write plays, after his greatest success? Like Marston before him, Middleton was arrested after writing a play which satirically portrayed King James; like Marston, Middleton was released, but wrote no more plays. It seems reasonable to suspect that Middleton was ‘put to silence’.
And he is still being silenced; he cannot be heard, over the roar of the crowd hailing Shakespeare. As long as we continue to collaborate with the authorities that silenced Middleton for the last three years of his life and for two centuries after his death, we will all remain accessories after the fact to bardicide.
Among the books referred to in this article:
The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, translator and edited by M.A. Screech. Allen Lane, 1284 pp., £35, 21 November 1991, 0 713 99072 4
Three Jacobean Revenge Tragedies: A Casebook, edited by R.V. Holdsworth. Macmillan, 287 pp., £30, 16 November 1990, 0 333 38337 0
Shakespeare’s Lives: New Edition by S. Schoenbaum. Oxford, 612 pp., £25, 31 October 1991, 0 19 818618 5
Shakespeare Left and Right, editer by Ivo Kamps. Routledge, 335 pp., £35, to be published in March, 0 415 90375 0