Art of Embarrassment

A.D. Nuttall

Humane, learned, un-showily stylish and at times moving in their tender intelligence, these essays by Anne Barton, ranging from a richly ‘mellow’ piece first published in 1953 – a period when even undergraduates wrote as if they were middle-aged – to the magnificent ‘Wrying a Little’, on Cymbeline, Jacobean marriage law and female desire, are nourishing to the spirit. Livy, Machiavelli, Ford, Dekker, Heywood and Jonson all figure in the book, but the main recurring subject is Shakespeare. It is, moreover, good to see the publication of this book marked by an accompanying Festschrift – a volume of essays on comedy by friends and colleagues of Professor Barton, ranging from American luminaries like Jonas Barish and Stephen Orgel to newcomers like Richard Rowland (who contributes a thumpingly good piece on Heywood). Shakespeare is still the most challenging object in the literary canon, the most generous with meaning and, at the same time, the most apt to find out folly in those who would interpret him. Anne Barton is, so to speak, a good listener to Shakespeare. She is the beneficiary of his generosity and survives the challenges better than most of us. She survives – but not quite unscathed, perhaps.

One of the best essays in this book deals with the night scene in Henry V. On the eve of Agincourt, the King, disguised, moves among the common soldiers and is drawn into an argument about the war in which they are all engaged. It is a scene from which, through the centuries, commentators have flinched. The truth is that we are not given what we expect and desire from the scene. The soldiers complain, as soldiers always have, and we wait for good King Harry’s heartening answer, his demonstration of the real, not fake, glory of the enterprise. But it all goes wrong. ‘Methinks I could not die anywhere so contented as in the King’s company – his cause being just and his quarrel honourable,’ says the disguised King; Williams answers, ‘That’s more than we know.’ We sense at once in Henry’s words the fatal element of rhetorical assumption; the King heartily assumes a willingness to die in (his own) company, after which the very modesty of Williams’s quiet reply has a frightening destructive power. And Williams is never answered. The King never shows why it is right that so many poor men should die.

Moreover, after Williams’s quiet answer the balance of linguistic power shifts from the King to Williams, suddenly blazing in the astonishing image of all the severed limbs joining to scream their accusation of the King. This is amazing demotic poetry, like something imagined by Bosch or else like the huge composite body on the title page of Hobbes’s Leviathan re-expressed, in horrific parody, by Grimmelshausen, who taught Brecht what to think of the Thirty Years’ War. When the King is once more alone he reflects on what has passed in accents which are almost pettish: all, he says, is laid upon the King. Indeed it is.

Professor Barton shows how deliberately Shakespeare contrived this scene, with its strange embarrassment, against a background of popular fictions which, in contrast, provided exactly what was sentimentally required by the audience. In the England of Robin Hood and Coeur de Lion, commoner and King find themselves united in manly accord, if ever they can, with the help of a disguise kit, elude the net of intervening ceremony (traditionally the King is ‘a regular guy’ though his courtly advisers are not). There can be no question but that Shakespeare knew what he was doing, for the structure is repeated, as Anne Barton shows, in the ‘magnanimous’ rewarding of Williams later in the play. There the stereotypical form of the episode is as follows: although the King has every excuse to punish Williams for his bitter words, he sees the real honesty of the man and gives him a glove full of money. But it goes wrong once more. King and subject do not sit down happily together at table (though Dekker’s Henry V and Heywood’s Edward IV do just this). The generosity of Shakespeare’s Henry V is evidently de haut en bas, curtly dismissive, and Williams’s response to the largesse is distant, unmusical.

Only the greatest artists embarrass us in this way. Just as Shakespeare is seen as the poet of martial glory, Dostoevsky is seen as the novelist of Russian orgiastic contrition (where, to borrow a phrase from Freud, penance became a technique for allowing murder to be done). But in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov, when he tries to carry out the public repentance urged by Sonia, finds that, in practice, it does not work. He prostrates himself in the marketplace but the bystanders think he is drunk. The words ‘I am a murderer’ die on his lips.

Shakespeare is hard on the patriotic sentimentalist, but he is no less hard on the sentimental sceptic. Certainly a lesser dramatist who gave his hero so difficult a time could hardly have avoided tilting the genre of the piece, transforming heroic history into satirical comedy. But Shakespeare, even as he shows us this tongue-tied King, half-shamed by the subjects he is leading (in so many cases) to mutilation and death, does not allow us to forget that, but for the war with France, civil war might have led to worse horrors, that Henry’s options are few. All of this Anne Barton gets right. She fully understands the ideological context, the background of quasi-mythical expectations, but she does not flatten Shakespeare into an inert conformity with that background. Instead she uses her understanding of context to clarify the difference (differentness) of Shakespeare.

When she turns to the Roman plays Barton’s touch is less sure. She expresses herself mildly puzzled by the fact that Cleopatra should have concealed more than half her property from Octavius Caesar’s prying eyes (as the steward Seleucus reveals) if she was really intent on death. The strange thing here is that Barton writes as if there were no obvious answer to hand – but, famously, there is. In Shakespeare’s principal source for Antony and Cleopatra, North’s translation of Plutarch, marginal glosses are provided to assist the reader. At this point we read: ‘Cleopatra finely deceiveth Octavius Caesar, as though she desired to live.’ If we are willing to follow this cue, we instantly discover a more coherent reading: Cleopatra indeed makes a great show of rendering Caesar a complete account of her possessions and Seleucus indeed makes humiliating nonsense of her grand profession; Cleopatra’s words are exploded but Cleopatra herself is far from being humiliated; Seleucus has done exactly what she counted on him to do and the result is that the Roman conquerors will relax their vigilance, so enabling her to proceed with her suicide.

It may be that Barton has decided, with New Critical severity, that Plutarch is one thing and the play another, that the subtle deception in the Greek account is simply absent from the drama – but can we be sure of this? At IV.xv.25, 49 Cleopatra told the dying Antony she would kill herself. At IV.xv.81 she soliloquises on suicide (there is a heavy presumption in favour of sincerity in any soliloquy). She then makes her intention publicly clear in the lines immediately following. In V.i. we find Cleopatra presenting a submissive front to Octavius, through the Egyptian messenger, but V.ii. opens with Cleopatra, once more alone, reaffirming her intention to die. Dolabella then enters and Cleopatra again expresses her submission to Octavius (V.ii. 21, 31). By this time a pattern has been established: public politeness to keep the Romans quiet, private determination to die. Dolabella has no sooner gone than Cleopatra actually makes an attempt, on stage, to kill her self (‘Quick, quick, good hands!’) and is instantly disarmed by Proculeius; the Romans, we now learn, are watching like hawks. At V.ii. Cleopatra finally learns, unequivocally, from Dolabella what she has previously suspected, that she will be led in triumph through the streets of Rome. This, for her, is the ultimate horror and can only harden her secret purpose. It is at this point that the Seleucus episode unfolds. When it is over, Cleopatra whispers in Charmian’s ear and Iras says: ‘Finish, good lady, the bright day is done, and we are for the dark.’ Cleopatra answers: ‘It is provided’, referring without question to the means of death.

Given the drumbeat consistency of the references to the death-plan in counterpoint with the studied formality of Cleopatra’s behaviour to the Romans, the Plutarchian reading makes immediate sense. It is not always possible to say, with immediate confidence, what is or is not absent from the text. The Plutarchian gloss invites us to listen for nuances in the text which we might otherwise have missed. When Cleopatra says ‘Speak, Seleucus’, we now hear the words as prodding him to do what she knows he will do. Octavius’ benign reaction, ‘Nay, blush not, Cleopatra, I approve your wisdom in the deed’, is suddenly eloquent of that relaxation of Roman vigilance which Cleopatra needs. These things can be conveyed to an audience. But Professor Barton says nothing about any of this. Instead she wonders whether Cleopatra is simply ‘a boggler to the last’ and meditates on ‘perspectival’ shifts between tragedy and comedy. There is no disputing the fact that comic and tragic elements co-exist in Antony and Cleopatra. What is at issue is whether they are intelligently combined by the dramatist or offered in unmeaning oscillation only. That Cleopatra is simply inconsistent is an arguable view; my complaint is that Barton has not chosen to argue it. In a book which is hirsute with notes and references there is no allusion to the copious literature on this question.

On Coriolanus, Barton falls, perhaps, into the very error from which she so brilliantly rescued us when she wrote on Henry V: she flinches from the proper discomfort of the play. Coriolanus is a patrician who despises the common people. We, in our turn, experience an automatic impulse to despise him. Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, allows us to do this but does not allow our contempt to be unimpeded in the way the sentimentalist requires. Indeed, it is almost as if Shakespeare saw Karl Marx coming and resolved to enjoy himself. Early in the play the people are starving and ask the patricians for corn. The smooth-talking Menenius fobs them off with the notorious ‘Fable of the Belly’, in which he explains that they, the people, are mere limbs, but the patricians are the stomach and so properly the store-house, the hoarding-place of wealth. The reply to Menenius seems obvious: ‘If we, the limbs, won this wealth, we deserve some return now; the office of a digestive system includes redistribution.’ This is the answer which naturally occurs to the Marxist, who always wants to start by determining where the wealth came from in the first place. The awkward thing about Coriolanus is that, despite Menenius’ apparent concession in the fable that the limbs obtained the wealth, the play as it unfolds seems increasingly to enforce a different economic model, at once archaic and paradoxical. The plebeians of Rome are not, it seems, growers of corn, raisers of cattle, but depend on a dole which in its turn depends on wealth raised by military conquest. Meanwhile, the person we expect to be an economic parasite, the patrician Coriolanus, then turns out to be, through his martial prowess, a spectacular wealth-producer. For the traditional Marxist, the worker earns, by his primary labour, his right to hate the capitalist owners.

What if Coriolanus has similarly earned his right to despise the people? We imagine that, in the 20th century, we can think as we please, but in fact some thoughts are very difficult for us: for example, the thought that, where the people are corrupt, democracy is immoral (though it is easy enough to imagine, say, a small community in which a clear majority vote to torment a racial minority).

Professor Barton sticks up for the plebeians. She argues strenuously that, even if they did hang back and refuse ‘to thread the gates’ as Coriolanus says, they did show courage in helping him out of trouble later, that they must have played a part in the wars. Here she places considerable emphasis on the opening of I.vi.: ‘Breathe you, my friends, well fought; we are come off/Like Romans ...’ Plainly, she says, the people have here fought well and Cominius admits as much. Certainly there is an atmosphere of heady comradeship, but Cominius, a general, could be praising not the plebeians but the nobler sort (Shakespeare’s conception of even Roman battles could easily be influenced by later medieval encounters, in which knights on their horses played a crucial part). When Coriolanus enters he observes that ‘the common file’ fell back and Cominius does not contradict him. A couple of scenes later we find the same Cominius underscoring our sense of the dependence of the plebeians on Coriolanus: ‘the dull Tribunes’ and ‘the fusty plebeians’ will in the end thank the gods, he says, that they had such a soldier as Coriolanus (I.ix.6-9).

Barton suggests that Shakespeare does not show in his earlier plays the sympathy for the urban crowd that we find in Coriolanus. This is imprecise criticism. In fact Coriolanus is technically interesting for the manner in which it succeeds a. in telling us that the people are actually starving and b. in suppressing our natural pity (this, from the author of King Lear). Our sympathy with the people grows, not because we see that Coriolanus was wrong to disparage their prowess, but as we become aware that they are developing co-operative, civic values appropriate to a complex republic, values which, as they form, render Coriolanus himself increasingly barbarous, unacceptable, a bore. There is a wonderful moment when Coriolanus is required to canvas for votes, which he does, predictably, with open contempt for the voters. One of the citizens explains to him, as if talking to a child, ‘The price is, to ask it kindly’, that is, ‘All you have to do is say “Please.”’ As for sympathetically presented masses in earlier plays, what about the admirably rhetoric-proof crowd described by Buckingham in Richard III (III.vii. 1-41)?

Barton tells us that before Coriolanus Shakespeare had never written a play set in Republican Rome. Once again the statement is oddly abrupt and confident. If the Roman Empire was begun by Augustus then Julius Caesar is set in Republican, not Imperial, Rome. Some see the dictatorship of Julius Caesar as the real beginning of the Roman Empire and in consequence we must allow that we are dealing with a grey area. The same ‘greyness’, incidentally, infects the career of Augustus, who skilfully dressed his growing powers in language which evoked the forms and conventions of the Republic. The real history of the period is at best ambiguous. Shakespeare’s conception of the period inclines, it seems to me, to the interpretation that the Empire began with Augustus. We are shown a Caesar who, on the Lupercal, refuses (however reluctantly) a proffered crown. The scrupulous, nit-picking Brutus admits to himself that he is willing to assassinate not one who has seized monarchical power but one who one day may (‘lest he may, prevent’). True, when Brutus explains to the mob that he killed his friend because that friend was ambitious for more than Republican power, the citizens cry out ‘Live, Brutus, live, live!’ and one adds, ‘Let him be Caesar.’ This shows, if you like, that Brutus has wasted his agony of conscience on a Republic which has ceased to value its own freedom. But the words produce a shiver precisely because they show, not the Roman Empire as an accomplished thing, but rather the Republic in its death throes. Antony and Cleopatra deals with the period of Roman history following the death of Julius Caesar, preceding the emergence of Octavius Caesar (Augustus) as Emperor. The world it shows us is the pre-imperial world of the Triumvirate. It seems to me to make slightly better sense to say that, of the three Roman plays written before Coriolanus, only one had dealt with Imperial Rome. Professor Barton is not necessarily wrong, but a sharper critic would have written a more guarded sentence.

A similar abrupt confidence (which reminds me of Dame Helen Gardner) marks her observation that Miranda’s strangely violent language to Caliban in The Tempest has nothing to do with sexual repression on the island but is, in fact, detached from the character of Miranda, mere impersonal poetic affirmation of the theme of fruitfulness. But it may not be crazy to feel that sexual repression is in the air, on this island. To this day, popular cartoonists all know that desert island = sexually restricted environment, hence the mound of sand, palm tree, curvy lady, unshaven man etc ... In his rewrite, Dryden responded strongly to the idea of a woman who had never seen a marriageable man, inventing, to match her, a man who had never seen a woman (not noticing that in Shakespeare’s play there is already a marvellous study in exactly that, called Caliban). Prospero, some have felt, is troubled by incestuous impulses. Certainly most of his verbal energy goes into the ferocious prohibition of pre-marital sex, very little into the channel we would have predicted, benevolent imagining of future fruitfulness. Incest is never made explicit in The Tempest, though it shows in two closely related plays, Pericles and The Winter’s Tale, and recurs in the romance source materials of these late works. I am not answering Barton’s certainty with a counter-certainty of my own; rather I am answering certainty with doubt, inviting her to think again.

In her essay, ‘Leontes and the Spider’, Barton quotes some words of Othello: ‘I had been happy if the general camp, / Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body, / So I had nothing known.’ She describes these words as ‘a sophistical insistence that a man is robbed only if he knows he is’. This time the critical imprecision is extreme. Othello is no sophist and says no such thing. Barton speaks also of ‘false logic’ and later in the same essay applies these words to Brutus’s soliloquy in the orchard in Julius Caesar (‘lest he may, prevent’). I can find no logical error in Othello’s bleak, pathetic observation that, even if his wife had been grotesquely unfaithful, as long as no one told him so his happiness might have continued unimpaired. Nor do I see any false logic in the reasoning of Brutus. The speech in the orchard has always seemed to me to show not the ellipses and exaggerations of false rationalisation but rather a strange excess of logical conscientiousness. Brutus does what all honest thinkers know they must do, pitilessly exposes the thinness of his own case, acknowledges that he is about to act not on the basis of a proven political crime but in order to pre-empt a mere possibility. Rationalisers do not argue as Brutus does, but rather seek to make their case appear impregnable.

Even in her admirable essay on Cymbeline, Barton may be guilty of a certain hasty imprecision in her account of Jacobean marriage law. I write with great hesitation here, for the whole subject is a minefield. Professor Barton seems not to know clearly whether ‘spousal de praesenti’ is or is not marriage. ‘Spousal de praesenti’ is the technical phrase in ecclesiastical law for a contract formed by two persons using the present tense: ‘I do take thee, Bridget, for my wife’; ‘I do take thee, John, for my husband.’ Henry Swinburne, whose Treatise of Spousals was published in 1686 but written a century earlier, is clear that such a contract, without solemnisation, without consummation, constitutes valid, indissoluble marriage. To marry privately in this way is contrary to the law but, nevertheless, if it is done it is done and the law can penalise the parties but cannot undo the bond. ‘Secret marriages are done indeed against the law, but being contracted cannot be dissolved,’ writes Swinburne. The legal point is of interest to jurists because of what George Elliott Howard called ‘the puzzling and disastrous antagonism of legality and validity’. The consequences are of interest to social historians because of the co-existence of casual ease in the manner of forming the bond and the absoluteness of the bond itself.

Barton says that the drama of the period is perfectly clear on the distinction between spousal and full marriage. She admits that the words of the Duchess of Malfi, ‘I have heard lawyers say / A contract in a chamber, per verba de praesenti, / is absolute marriage’, may suggest that the matter is arcane and not generally understood; but that, she says, is because the Duchess is covertly straining to make a pre-contract seem all-sufficient as in truth it was not. In fact, the distinction between spousal and marriage was far from clear. Henry Swinburne indeed attempts to separate the terms by artificially restricting the word ‘spousal’ to contracts formed in the future tense (these were indeed dissoluble in certain circumstances), but has to concede that usage is against him and that spousals de praesenti do constitute full marriage. There is nothing strained about the Duchess’s use of the phrase ‘absolute marriage’ and the original implication of an obscure technicality stands. Meanwhile, as Swinburne acknowledges, there was a body of legal opinion which backed the view that an illegal contract could not be valid, though this party was not in the ascendant. In the Liber Officialis of St Andrews we have a 16th-century contract unambiguously expressed in the future tense, which appears in the record, wildly, as ‘both de futuro and de praesenti’. Rudolf Sohm cites a number of cases in which the same contract is held at one time to be de praesenti and at another de futuro. Professor Barton writes of pre-contracted persons ‘anticipating marriage’, when she should have written ‘anticipating solemnisation’, but concedes elsewhere in the essay that clandestine marriages were valid because of Swinburne’s principle that ‘naked consent’ makes a marriage.

But Barton’s touch is sure when she writes about the city and its relation to comedy. She is rightly fascinated by a certain silence or abstention on Shakespeare’s part. He alone of the important dramatists of the period never produced a comedy dealing with London. The Merry Wives of Windsor is suburban; As You Like It, though haunted by memories and images of the city, is firmly located in a pastoral forest. In Greek New Comedy the significant action takes place outside the house, in the street: it is perhaps a space we have lost, because of cars. Carless Venice is still a city of New Comedy encounters; I remember a snowy, traffic-stopping night in Brighton when the people grouped themselves fearlessly in the white space of the street, which suddenly looked exactly like an old painting.

This comic space is partly, as people say nowadays, a matter of gender. After remarking that real houses in ancient Athens were small while the public spaces were magnificent. Barton points out that the men cannot wait to get out of the house into the street; meanwhile the women are less free. Jacobean houses, ill-lit, smelly, loud with the ranting of abused women, must have had a similar effect. The most memorable lines of sex-hate in Shakespeare are surely Bertram’s in All’s Well: ‘War is no strife/To the dark house and the detested wife.’ The sense of housebound women and free-range men survives in Arthur Daley’s idiom for Mrs Daley in Minder, ‘’Er indoors’. In Othello the antithesis ripens into a unique domestic tragedy. Further, the marketplace is for buying and selling. Money, the medium of exchange, is life to comedy and death to tragedy. Here one urgently wants Professor Barton to write about ‘the exception that proves the rule’, Timon of Athens, a tragedy (in which the protagonist does not so much die as vanish) all about money.

At this point in Professor Barton’s book all my worries about coarseness of criticism vanish. She writes with admirable subtlety not only about city and country but about the imaginative interpenetration of the two, about intermediate spaces, suburbs, gardens, parks which are simultaneously paradisal and humanly familiar. Barton’s analysis of the literary erotics of parks takes her at last to Rochester’s libertine poem, ‘A Ramble in St James’s Park’. Here she relaxes her customary chronological rigour and allows herself a forward comparison, with Pinter and Edward Bond. For me, the poem, with its picture of the trees in gross sexual congress with the skies, points forward to Roquentin’s surreal vision in the park of a ‘jaillissement vers le ciel’ of phallic trees, in Sartre’s La Nausée.

Barton is not the kind of critic who delights in killing the author in order to be the freer with the text. Shakespeare himself comes through very strongly as the genius of a loving intermediacy. There is some truth, it seems, in the old picture of Shakespeare as growing up, in Stratford, on a line dividing the civil east from the wild, forested west. The huge, ancient Forest of Arden, by Shakespeare’s time half-colonised as ‘the Woodland’, really did lie, as Barton shows, to the west of Stratford. Remember the Clown in All’s Well: ‘I am a woodland fellow, sir, that always loved a great fire.’ In Othello, the herald, dispatching the crowd, divides the people into two sorts, ‘some to dance, some to make bonfires’. I have always known which of these I am (a bonfire maker, no dancer). But Professor Barton does both, and more.