Prefaces to Shakespeare

Overview

When Tony Tanner died in 1998, the world lost a critic who was as sensitive a reader of Jane Austen as he was of Thomas Pynchon, and who wrote with a warmth and clarity that belied his fluency in literary theory.

In the final ten years of his life Tanner tackled the largest project any critic in English can take on—writing a preface to each of Shakespeare’s plays. This collection serves as a comprehensive introduction for the general reader, the greatest and perhaps the last in ...

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Overview

When Tony Tanner died in 1998, the world lost a critic who was as sensitive a reader of Jane Austen as he was of Thomas Pynchon, and who wrote with a warmth and clarity that belied his fluency in literary theory.

In the final ten years of his life Tanner tackled the largest project any critic in English can take on—writing a preface to each of Shakespeare’s plays. This collection serves as a comprehensive introduction for the general reader, the greatest and perhaps the last in the line of great introductions to Shakespeare written by such luminaries as Samuel Johnson and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Tanner brings Shakespeare to life, explicating everything from big-picture issues such as the implications of shifts in Elizabethan culture to close readings of Shakespeare’s deployment of complex words in his plays.

Although these prefaces are written for a general audience, there is much value for the scholar as well. Tanner introduces some of the most significant recent and historical scholarship on Shakespeare to show the reader how certain critics frame large issues in a useful way. This scholarly generosity permits Johnson, Hazlitt, Emerson, Thoreau, Ruskin, Pater, and many others to enter into conversation. The Independent said of the project, “All of Tanner’s life and education had prepared him for this task and the results are magnificent—both accessible and erudite.”

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Editorial Reviews

New Statesman - Colin Maccabe
To read this collection of introductions to Shakespeare's plays, more than ten years after Tanner's death, is to be reintroduced to his conversation. For in this, his final and finest critical work, Tanner's writing is at its most brilliant: he can summarize with the utmost economy; he can describe sources with the deftest of touches; he can, in sentences bristling with parentheses and boiling with quotations, develop the most complex of arguments, his own language engaging with Shakespeare's in a graceful dance...It is an impressive introduction not only to the plays, but also to the whole tradition of Shakespeare criticism from Dryden to Stanley Cavell, from Johnson to Kermode, with Coleridge an especial favourite. There is very little repetition and almost every page contains illumination, from the critical tradition, from the historical context, from contemporary debate...If you ever go to the theatre to see Shakespeare, or even just read the plays at home, Tanner's introductions are an indispensable guide.
Jeremy McCarter
Tanner, who died in 1998, maintains an easy, book-club tone, at once gentle and generous. Though some essays probe more deeply than others (he's sharpest on the comedies), he's always sensitive to how the themes of change and regeneration recur. And at almost every juncture, he resists the temptation to speculate out of hand.
—The New York Times
New Statesman

To read this collection of introductions to Shakespeare's plays, more than ten years after Tanner's death, is to be reintroduced to his conversation. For in this, his final and finest critical work, Tanner's writing is at its most brilliant: he can summarize with the utmost economy; he can describe sources with the deftest of touches; he can, in sentences bristling with parentheses and boiling with quotations, develop the most complex of arguments, his own language engaging with Shakespeare's in a graceful dance...It is an impressive introduction not only to the plays, but also to the whole tradition of Shakespeare criticism from Dryden to Stanley Cavell, from Johnson to Kermode, with Coleridge an especial favourite. There is very little repetition and almost every page contains illumination, from the critical tradition, from the historical context, from contemporary debate...If you ever go to the theatre to see Shakespeare, or even just read the plays at home, Tanner's introductions are an indispensable guide.
— Colin MacCabe

Around the Globe

It is tempting to devour this superb book in one long session, though at 3 lbs. and 800-plus pages there is a serious physical challenge. Our attention is constantly provoked by dazzling insights and informative zest, but the writing also promotes long thought and deep reflection...There have been few books on Shakespeare's art as good as this.
— Tom Deveson

Hudson Review

As an extended introduction, especially for students and other readers looking to become more familiar with the plays, it is a very good one indeed.
— William H. Pritchard

Sunday Herald

Terrific.
— James Boyle

Times Literary Supplement

One is drawn in by Tanner's Kermode-like attention to language. There is something exhilarating about watching a mind—an open and attentive one—engage with vocabulary, etymology, repetition, syntax...At his best, Tanner thinks and writes like an Elizabethan. He loves copia. He relishes vocabulary...This love of words is at its most engaging when he admits interpretative defeat. The chapter on All's Well that Ends Well is a tour de force in this respect: time and again, Tanner's acute ear and eye lead him to point out phrases and sentences that simply don't make sense.
— Laurie Maguire

Kenneth Gross
Tony Tanner's introductory essays take us deeply into the fierce, strange life of words, thought, and character in Shakespeare's plays. This is generous and authoritative criticism. The vividness of Tanner's own critical voice, often evoking Shakespeare's craft as writer, is remarkable.
Colin McCabe
To read English at Cambridge in the late Fifties was to have the last opportunity to read the whole cannon of English literature. Tanner has a strong claim to be the best reader ever produced by this particular formation and this is the underlying force of all his work. His greatest triumphs were reserved for last. Venice Desired (Harvard 1992) looked at that fabled city through its literary representations...It might have seemed difficult to surpass this superb interweaving of literature and history but Tanner's next task was his magnum opus -- to provide prefaces to every one of Shakespeare's plays. All of Tanner's life and education had prepared him for this task and the results are magnificent – both accessible and learned.
Sir Frank Kermode
Tony Tanner was probably the most versatile and ingenious English critic of his time. His prose was exemplary, full of life and humor, and his literary range was extraordinary. The acknowledged leader of British Americanists, he was also admired for his books on Jane Austen, and he broke new ground in Adultery in the Novel and Venice Desired (Harvard 1992). But in his own opinion the Shakespeare Prefaces were his finest work, and it would be difficult to disagree. The essays cover the entire range of the plays, treating them with characteristic brio in that very personal style that accommodates new insights, based on expert close reading, with an easy command of historical and linguistic contexts. I would recommend this book above all others to an interested young person, provided he or she was both intelligent and capable of delight in the poetry of the plays as Tanner makes it manifest.
Barnes and Noble Review - Arthur Phillips
I do hope every teacher and professor can love and illuminate the plays as well as Tanner does in these insightful, elegant, and witty essays.
New York Times Book Review - Jeremy McCarter
Prefaces to Shakespeare is a collection of the essays that the Cambridge professor Tony Tanner wrote to accompany the plays for the Everyman's Library series. Tanner, who died in 1998, maintains an easy, book-club tone, at once gentle and generous. Though some essays probe more deeply than others (he's sharpest on the comedies), he's always sensitive to how the themes of change and regeneration recur. And at almost every juncture, he resists the temptation to speculate out of hand.
Around the Globe - Tom Deveson
It is tempting to devour this superb book in one long session, though at 3 lbs. and 800-plus pages there is a serious physical challenge. Our attention is constantly provoked by dazzling insights and informative zest, but the writing also promotes long thought and deep reflection...There have been few books on Shakespeare's art as good as this.
Hudson Review - William H. Pritchard
As an extended introduction, especially for students and other readers looking to become more familiar with the plays, it is a very good one indeed.
Sunday Herald - James Boyle
Terrific.
Times Literary Supplement - Laurie Maguire
One is drawn in by Tanner's Kermode-like attention to language. There is something exhilarating about watching a mind--an open and attentive one--engage with vocabulary, etymology, repetition, syntax...At his best, Tanner thinks and writes like an Elizabethan. He loves copia. He relishes vocabulary...This love of words is at its most engaging when he admits interpretative defeat. The chapter on All's Well that Ends Well is a tour de force in this respect: time and again, Tanner's acute ear and eye lead him to point out phrases and sentences that simply don't make sense.
New Statesman - Colin MacCabe
To read this collection of introductions to Shakespeare's plays, more than ten years after Tanner's death, is to be reintroduced to his conversation. For in this, his final and finest critical work, Tanner's writing is at its most brilliant: he can summarize with the utmost economy; he can describe sources with the deftest of touches; he can, in sentences bristling with parentheses and boiling with quotations, develop the most complex of arguments, his own language engaging with Shakespeare's in a graceful dance...It is an impressive introduction not only to the plays, but also to the whole tradition of Shakespeare criticism from Dryden to Stanley Cavell, from Johnson to Kermode, with Coleridge an especial favourite. There is very little repetition and almost every page contains illumination, from the critical tradition, from the historical context, from contemporary debate...If you ever go to the theatre to see Shakespeare, or even just read the plays at home, Tanner's introductions are an indispensable guide.
Barnes and Noble Review

I do hope every teacher and professor can love and illuminate the plays as well as Tanner does in these insightful, elegant, and witty essays.
— Arthur Phillips

New York Times Book Review

Prefaces to Shakespeare is a collection of the essays that the Cambridge professor Tony Tanner wrote to accompany the plays for the Everyman's Library series. Tanner, who died in 1998, maintains an easy, book-club tone, at once gentle and generous. Though some essays probe more deeply than others (he's sharpest on the comedies), he's always sensitive to how the themes of change and regeneration recur. And at almost every juncture, he resists the temptation to speculate out of hand.
— Jeremy McCarter

The Barnes & Noble Review

I came to Tony Tanner's Prefaces to Shakespeare as a Shakespeare fan, not as an academic, so I cannot say where it ranks in Shakespeare criticism, the vast and metastasizing Talmud to the canon's Torah, but I do hope every teacher and professor can love and illuminate the plays as well as Tanner does in these insightful, elegant, and witty essays.

I fell for the book (and for its late author as a teacher) about fifty pages in, during his discussion of The Taming of the Shrew. This play has always seemed to me a relic of cruel, pre-modern relations between the sexes, an ugly and one-sided show. But in his easy, chatty language, the enthusiastic Cambridge professor set me straight by ignoring the supposed bigger issues and focusing instead on the details of character: "We might want to pause at that line… Does [Petruchio] really want a bleached-out conformist?" With his comic precision, his understanding of psychology, his appreciation for Shakespeare as something higher and rarer than a moralist, Tanner re-opened my eyes to a play that is neither the sexist tale that turns post-feminist stomachs, nor the improbable ironic proto-feminist version that defensive directors sometimes try to stage in its place. Shrew is a story, Tanner reminded me, about specific people with specific qualities (some fixed, some changeable) and their efforts to find happiness by their own lights. The play he re-taught me is vital, entertaining, and enlightening.

Written from 1992-1996, the Prefaces average twenty pages and address thirty-seven of Shakespeare's plays (those of the First Folio plus Pericles). Each essay presupposes some familiarity with its play, or quickly ignites a desire to read it. Tanner always starts with language, structure, characters, beauty, atmosphere -- the delicious details of drama -- before addressing politics or moralities, and he largely ignores questions of Shakespeare's personality, biography, or motives. ("No man's motives are less recuperable.") He finds in each play the standard by which it should be judged, and he treats its characters seriously, not as types or vessels for messages (anti- or pro-Semitic, anti- or pro-feminist, anti- or pro-royalist) but as humans; none perfect, none the bearers of all the truth in a play.

While its author is unmistakeably a teacher, this is not a dry, academic book. Though Tanner's two favorite lecture-hall-lingo words -- adumbration and proleptic -- occur with a troubling frequency, I quickly forgave him because (a) I finally looked them up, and (b) his style is more likely to feature jokes than jargon. (He opens a footnote with "My editor does not like footnotes.") He frequently promises "I'll come back to that" and "More of that later," because he is so plainly enjoying his massive and impossible task of unpacking the magician Shakespeare's bottomless suitcase and explaining everything he pulls out. Tanner can't wait to get to the next idea, but doesn't want to leave anything behind, and that level of enthusiasm, of love, is the best reason to write a book of criticism, and the best reason to read this one.

"That last line is one of the most haunting in the whole of Shakespeare…" is a typical burst of reader's affection breaking through the scholarly veneer. "It beggars belief," is his wonder-struck conclusion about one of Shakespeare's accomplishments. Tanner's love is strong enough to defeat my doubts about plays I'd given up on. His second-longest essay, where he is at his most Rex Reed-esque ("extraordinary… Staggering!") is on Cymbeline, a play I had dismissed as outright insane. Tanner relishes the challenge of defending it against popular fashion and previous critics, and he succeeded in convincing me I have been unfair -- maybe. He did as well with Love's Labour's Lost, which I had judged a tedium of puns about 16th-century grammar, but he has me thinking I have been missing out on great fun. Henry V(Of course, there is a downside to such affection, no great sin but still a sin: Tanner's love can veer into idolatry that does no one any kindness, not even Shakespeare. His Coriolanus essay concludes, "So ends the last great tragedy written for the English stage." No great tragedy has been written in English since 1608? There is a danger in loving a writer too much, even Shakespeare.)

But this is quibbling. Tanner pays his subject a critic's highest respect: he assumes that if it's in the play, Shakespeare did it on purpose, even if, as in the case of All's Well that Ends Well, that means Tanner has to admit to some confusion: "It is not at all clear what on earth [Helena] is talking about… [parts of the play are] semi-incomprehensible." Later, he summarizes the history behind the history plays for "those who, like myself, have some difficulty in getting, and keeping, straight some of the whos and whens and whys involved." He writes about As You Like It, "Now I think Shakespeare is engaging in some sort of deep joke here which I am not sure I fully understand." This consistent humility has the effect of making Tanner's vast learning and argument all the more impressive.

And his learning runs deep and broad. He cites dozens of critics, novelists, and poets, and is able to move easily through Shakespeare's own sources. He is comfortable in the Bible, Ovid, the Greek dramatists, Italian romances and commedia, Holinshed, Montaigne, histories of Bermudan shipwrecks, etymology, psychology, Henry James, Thomas Pynchon, Dickinson, Coleridge, Derrida (nicely leavened with a footnote beginning, "…too much Derrida is the sort of thing that makes the British think twice about taking their holidays in France, but…"). He is tolerant enough to soften his own views with acknowledgement of why others may disagree, but he can also dismiss shoddy thinking with great panache, accusing one critic of submitting "to conspiratorial homicidal intoxication," a charge that rings true about certain critics I know.

At his best, Tanner reminds us that Shakespeare is a great writer because he is usually not trying to make a point, but is leaving moral judgments in our hands. Shakespeare still seems modern to us because in his plays he is constantly blurring the lines, pointing out the gray areas, the fluidity and imprecision of all values. Tanner writes of King Henry IV, "Things come mixed… nearly always a matter of more and less. A usurper king still has to reign, and he may be better at it than his legitimate predecessor." Any simple idea finds its opposite somewhere in the canon.

Shakespeare is good enough to let you debate the point; Tanner is good enough to show you how. For if this clarity of vision is the writer's responsibility, it will not do for a reader to stop there. The critical reader will draw his own conclusions about the characters. Tanner judges their actions and tries -- humbly, eloquently, charmingly -- to convince us he's right. He demonstrates how to think about Shakespeare's ideas and characters, and to what end, whether or not you agree that Henry V is a war criminal, or Brutus is a Machiavellian rogue.

Throughout the Prefaces Tanner frequently and fondly cites his own university tutor. He even gives his teacher the book's last words. Paying one's teacher that respect is very much to the point, because of course without a good teacher to inspire the next generation, Shakespeare isn't any more immortal than a language or a culture, which can die in a generation or two (as I'm sure he knew). But with the right educator, the great things carry on, a gift for those to come. As this beautiful book proves, Tony Tanner was just such a teacher. I would have loved to speak with him.

--Arthur Phillips

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674051379
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/30/2010
  • Pages: 848
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Tony Tanner was Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Cambridge.

Stephen Heath is Professor of English and French Literature and Culture at the University of Cambridge.

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Table of Contents

  • Foreword by Stephen Heath

  • Comedies
  • The Comedy of Errors
  • The Taming of the Shrew
  • The Two Gentlemen of Verona
  • Love’s Labor’s Lost
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • The Merchant of Venice
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • As You Like It
  • Twelfth Night
  • All’s Well That Ends Well
  • Measure for Measure

  • Histories
  • Henry VI, Part One
  • Henry VI, Part Two
  • Henry VI, Part Three
  • Richard III
  • King John
  • Richard II
  • Henry IV, Part One
  • Henry IV, Part Two
  • Henry V
  • Henry VIII

  • Major Tragedies
  • Hamlet
  • Othello
  • King Lear
  • Macbeth

  • Greek and Roman Plays
  • Titus Andronicus
  • Troilus and Cressida
  • Julius Caesar
  • Antony and Cleopatra
  • Timon of Athens
  • Coriolanus

  • Romances
  • Pericles
  • Cymbeline
  • The Winter’s Tale
  • The Tempest
  • About the Author

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