Ovid goes to Stratford

Michael Dobson

  • Thirty Great Myths about Shakespeare by Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith
    Wiley-Blackwell, 216 pp, £14.99, December 2012, ISBN 978 0 470 65851 2

Perhaps it was inevitable that Shakespeare’s talent should have been understood in mythological terms from the outset. Even before he published Venus and Adonis (1593) his early plays had revealed an imagination profoundly shaped by Ovid’s tales of the interaction between gods and mortals, and, despite the growing prevalence among his audiences of a neoclassical taste for satirical urban realism, throughout his career he scripted scenes in which Hymen personally ratifies the ending of a comedy, or Hercules abandons Antony, or Jupiter descends on an eagle. The first published review of his work, in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit (1592), depicts Shakespeare as Aesop’s vain corvid posing as a peacock, calling him an ‘upstart crow, beautified with our feathers’. Using the avian motif to more positive effect, Ben Jonson’s elegy in the First Folio of 1623 apostrophises Shakespeare as ‘Sweet Swan of Avon!’, thereby identifying him not only with his inconveniently swan-infested home town but with Zeus, who conceived the most beautiful of women through his union with Leda. Milton, another connoisseur and rewriter of myths, turned this trope on its head in the early 1630s: for him Shakespeare was still a bird – a wood-warbler, apparently – but one who was to be identified not as a divine father but as a divinely parented infant. In ‘L’Allegro’, the lively extrovert of the title proposes an excursion to the theatre, where he and his companions may hear ‘Sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy’s child,/Warble his native woodnotes wild’.

Whatever Harold Bloomian Oedipal reasons one may impute for Milton’s decision to turn his towering literary precursor into an untaught rustic infant, somewhere between Pan and Puck, ‘L’Allegro’ established a tradition characterised by the invention of fanciful metaphors about Shakespeare’s genius which involve mythological personages in his infancy, either as his parents or his early tutors. Joseph Warton’s poem ‘The Enthusiast’ of 1744 pictures a baby Shakespeare who, apparently left unattended by his negligent mortal parents despite the proximity of a deep river, is abducted and taken to a cave by Fancy, where he is subjected to genius-forming song recitals:

            What are the Lays of artful Addison,
Coldly correct, to Shakespear’s Warblings wild?
Whom on the winding Avon’s willow’d Banks
Fair Fancy found, and bore the smiling Babe
To a close Cavern: (still the Shepherds shew
The sacred Place, whence with religious Awe
They hear, returning from the Field at Eve,
Strange Whisperings of sweet Music thro’ the Air)
Here, as with Honey gather’d from the Rock,
She fed the little Prattler, and with Songs
Oft’ sooth’d his wondering Ears, with deep Delight
On her soft Lap he sat, and caught the Sounds.

Despite the tourist-guiding the poem attributes to its apocryphal shepherds, readers of Warton drawn to Stratford during the following decades, as the habit of making pilgrimages to the birthplace and grave of the little Prattler gathered momentum, would have been disappointed had they asked to see the cave. They might, however, have heard plenty more about the roles in Shakespeare’s early life played by Fancy and, increasingly, Nature. When my wife and I rented a holiday house near Stratford last year we were interested to discover that one wall was adorned with what was evidently an 18th-century pub sign, bearing a crude copy of the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare above the words ‘Here sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy’s child,/Warbled his native woodnotes wild.’ This probably hung outside licensed premises in Stratford during or soon after the town’s first great Shakespearean festival, David Garrick’s Jubilee of 1769; it may even have adorned the Birthplace itself, part of which was still in business as the Swan and Maidenhead Inn.

Garrick himself preferred to think of the infant Shakespeare being taught by Nature rather than Fancy: but the point was, as in the pub sign’s modification of Milton’s couplet, that the crucial lessons took place in Stratford. In his Jubilee ode, the recitation of which formed the climax of the 1769 festivities, Garrick declared that

Here Nature nursed her darling boy
From whom all care and sorrow fly,
Whose harp the Muses strung;
From heart to heart, let joy rebound,
Here, here, we tread enchanted ground,
Here Shakespeare walked and sung!

Others who liked to think of Shakespeare as Nature’s darling boy included George Romney, who from the 1760s painted a series of variations on the theme of The Infant Shakespeare Nursed by Tragedy and Comedy and Nature Unveiling Herself to the Infant Shakespeare, culminating in The Infant Shakespeare Attended by Nature and the Passions (1799). In this Anglicised, semi-secularised version of the Nativity, according to the subtitle supplied to Benjamin Smith’s engraving for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, ‘Nature is represented with her face unveiled to her favourite Child, who is placed between Joy and Sorrow. On the right of Nature are Love, Hatred & Jealousy; on her left hand, Anger, Envy & Fear.’ The infant Shakespeare himself looks as much nonplussed as inspired by all this, and possibly on the verge of bursting into tears.

Romney’s original painting, appropriately enough, is now in the RSC’s collection at Stratford, where the myth-making tradition to which it belongs would persist for some years yet. In the 1830s a club called the Mulberry gathered annually to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, drinking toasts and reciting literary productions written for the occasion in a distinctly Pickwickian manner. Its members included William Godwin junior, son of the political philosopher by his second wife, whose account of the origins of Shakespeare’s genius, a poem called ‘Olympian Mulberry Leaves; or, The Offerings of the Gods to Shakespear’, is every bit as Gothic as anything written by his half-sister, Mary Shelley. The key divinity here is once more Nature, though this time the goddess has been fitted with a biomechanical device to make Shakespeare’s access to unmediated truth especially convenient:

‘Nought now remains,’ she cried, ‘to grace my son,
Save that which I, his mother, must put on: –
Behold, ye Gods!’ – As thus she spoke, she threw
Her vesture open, & disclosed to view
A chrystal mirror leading to her heart: –
‘’Tis here my Shakespear now shall learn his part …
And like the bird who feeds her youngling nest
With mother’s blood extracted from her breast,
So I my Shakespear’s soul instil with food,
In Nature’s heart of hearts profound imbued.’

Other club members preferred less gruesome explanations for the playwright’s brilliance. Robert Folkestone Williams, later to write a trilogy of biographical novels about Shakespeare – Shakespeare and His Friends, The Youth of Shakespeare and The Secret Passion – reverts to a less elaborate version of the Ovid-goes-to-Stratford manner in ‘A Hymn to Shakespeare, Volunteered at the Shakespeare Anniversary. April 1832’. Perhaps Shakespeare’s divine literary gifts were indeed hereditary, but not on Mother Nature’s side. Wasn’t it likelier that the god Apollo had sex with Mary Shakespeare née Arden?

How know we not by Avon’s waters bright
Thy mother, full of woman’s dazzling charms,
Once held the God of Melody and Light,
  Within her arms
And thou inheritest the sacred fire
Of thine immortal sire?

In the end, though, Williams adopts a less pagan hypothesis, one more compatible with the revealed truths of the Christian religion: Shakespeare, he concludes, must have been the offspring of one of those angels who took up with the daughters of men.

How seriously did any of these writers take their different myths about the nature and sources of Shakespeare’s talent? By the time of the Mulberry Club the tradition is clearly on the point of drowning in its own whimsy, but from Warton onwards – who pointedly contrasts his pastorally nurtured Shakespeare with the educated neoclassicist Addison – it is evident that imagining Shakespeare as a divinely sired or just divinely spoiled Warwickshire infant is one way of understanding his genius as irreducibly national. The word ‘native’, which in Milton’s poem means something like ‘innate’, has by the time of the pub sign come to mean ‘indigenously English’: according to all these examples, Shakespeare was great because he was a true untaught son of the soil of the motherland who had direct access to provincial English reality. Far from having been shaped by the European humanist tradition, he was unspoiled by foreign book-learning; thanks to Nature’s presence in his infancy, his divine gifts were latently present before he even saw the Latin textbooks at the local grammar school. The gods self-evidently favoured the Midlands, and hence, as Garrick put it in another song at his 1769 jubilee,

Our Shakespeare compared to is no man,
No Frenchman, nor Grecian, nor Roman;
Their swans are all geese to the Avon’s sweet swan,
And the man of all men was a Warwickshire man …
Warwickshire Will! Matchless still! The Will
              of all Wills was a Warwickshire Will.

Appropriately, this was later adopted as the marching song of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, and British military force legitimised by the personal interest taken by Nature and/or Fancy in Stratford-upon-Avon’s most famous son.

Readers of Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith’s Thirty Great Myths about Shakespeare may be disappointed to discover that it contains nothing about Jove, or Apollo, or Nature, or Fancy, nothing to connect subsequent habits of mythological thinking about Shakespeare to the mythological habits of mind modelled in his own writings, and comparatively little reflection on the national and international interests which continue to converge on his works. (Oddly for a book published in Britain by two Oxford dons, Thirty Great Myths is printed in American spelling, even though the authors still sound almost surprised to observe that ‘Shakespeare is not just English’.) ‘Myth’ is here used in the sense Barthes used it in Mythologies, to suggest a comfortingly familiar mini-narrative which idealises, simplifies or exaggerates some aspect of reality; one of those petits récits which between them add up to the illusion of truth, certainty and coherence known, according to one’s inclinations, either as ‘common sense’ or ‘the dominant ideology’. The other French text one may be reminded of by Maguire and Smith’s introductory discussion of what constitutes a ‘myth’ about Shakespeare is Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas. This is not only because both books deal with what is listed here as myth 30, ‘Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare’ (or, as Flaubert reported the delusion, ‘Shakespeare never existed. His works were all written by Bacon’), but because for Maguire and Smith myths about Shakespeare are usually espoused by other people. Although it claims to be equally interested in the cultural work performed by the received ideas about Shakespeare that it examines, and in being right about them, there is an unavoidable hint of smugness about the book. It could almost have been called ‘Thirty Things about Shakespeare which Stupid People like You Would Believe if You Didn’t Have Clever People like Us to Help You’.

This doesn’t stop Thirty Great Myths being lively, enjoyable and sensible throughout. But on the whole it performs slightly less than it appears to promise. ‘Myths abound about Shakespeare in part because of half-remembered or out-of-date scholarship from schooldays,’ the authors observe, but most of their essays don’t try to investigate why our culture should have invested so heavily in its favourite half-truths about Shakespeare. Instead Maguire and Smith concentrate on rescuing their readers from all that wicked out-of-date scholarship, bringing them efficiently up to speed on the current academic consensus about, say, whether Shakespeare was a Catholic, or how big Shakespeare’s vocabulary was, or whether Shakespeare was interested in having his plays printed. In that respect the book may merely replace thirty obsolete myths about Shakespeare with thirty current ones. In any case to describe having an imperfect or outdated sense of the relations Elizabethan theatre companies may have enjoyed with Elizabethan printers as subscribing to a ‘Great Myth’ seems something of an overstatement.

The book’s title appears to advertise a vigorously sustained exercise in debunking, which some of its essays certainly don’t provide. How is myth 25, ‘Boy actors played women’s roles,’ a myth at all, give or take a few quibbles about how old a male Elizabethan actor had to be before you stopped calling him a boy? The relevant essay tells us that, yes, boy actors did play women’s roles, but it has surprisingly little to say about the reasons the topic might matter, or about the way wider changes in our understanding of the nature of gender and sexuality have so transformed scholarly writing on the subject of Elizabethan boy-actors over the last thirty years. And what about myth 26, ‘Shakespeare’s plays don’t work as movies’? In a literal sense, the claim is tautologous; once you have adapted, filmed and edited a Shakespeare play for the screen instead of rehearsing it for live performance, it is no longer a play anyway – and how does Maguire and Smith’s run-through of Shakespeare movies they happen to like help us to evaluate it? One could just as easily name selected stage directors whose work might be adduced as evidence that Shakespeare’s plays sometimes don’t work as plays.

What may be more refreshing about Thirty Great Myths than its contents is its format: here for once a couple of professional academics are prepared to demonstrate what they can do with their specialist subject in the genre they impose on their students, the 2000 to 2500-word essay. This bite-sized approach prevents Maguire and Smith making as sustained an argument about the status of Shakespeare and the myths by which his reputation circulates in the world as some of us might like. (On myth 30, for instance, one would be better off turning to James Shapiro’s Contested Will, or Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson’s collection, Shakespeare beyond Doubt.)[*] Nevertheless it means that their book is always alert, memorable and to the point. Come to think of it, Thirty Great Myths about Shakespeare is made up of sections exactly the length of this review, which might perhaps be offered as a supplementary essay, or myth 31, viz. ‘Myths about Shakespeare aren’t what they used to be.’

[*] Contested Will was reviewed by Helen Hackett in the LRB of 11 March 2010. Shakespeare Beyond Doubt is published by Cambridge (298 pp., £18.99, April, 978 1 107 60328 8).