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A magnum opus from our finest interpreter of The Bard
The true biography of Shakespeare—and the only one we need to care about—is in his plays. Frank Kermode, Britain's most distinguished scholar of sixteenth-century and seventeenth-century literature, has been thinking about Shakespeare's plays all his life. This book is a distillation of that lifetime of thinking.The finest tragedies written in English were all composed in the first decade of the seventeenth century, and it is...
A magnum opus from our finest interpreter of The Bard
The true biography of Shakespeare—and the only one we need to care about—is in his plays. Frank Kermode, Britain's most distinguished scholar of sixteenth-century and seventeenth-century literature, has been thinking about Shakespeare's plays all his life. This book is a distillation of that lifetime of thinking.The finest tragedies written in English were all composed in the first decade of the seventeenth century, and it is generally accepted that the best ones were Shakespeare's. Their language is often difficult, and it must have been hard even for contemporaries to understand. How did this language develop? How did it happen that Shakespeare's audience could appreciate Hamlet at the beginning of the decade and Coriolanus near the end of it?
In this long-awaited work, Kermode argues that something extraordinary started to happen to Shakespeare's language at a date close to 1600, and he sets out to explore the nature and consequences of the dynamic transformation that followed. For it is in the magnificent, suggestive power of the poetic language itself that audiences have always found meaning and value. The originality of Kermode's argument, the elegance and humor of his prose, and the intelligence of his discussion make this a landmark in Shakespearean studies.
Although a large proportion of Shakespeare's verse was spoken in the theatre, a fact that accounts for much that affected its extraordinary development, I am not, or not primarily, interested in purely theatrical matters, though I must occasionally have something to say about them. I am aware that I am writing against the current, since for many years now we have been urged to think of Shakespeare as above all a professional man of the theatre who was required to be a poet because in his time plays were mostly written in verse. In the early years of the twentieth century there was a sensible reaction against an old idea that Shakespeare was somehow too big to be thought of as submitting to theatrical limitations, that King Lear was too great for the stage, and so on. The reaction was necessary and beneficial. That he was essentially a man of the theatre and that he became a great master of dramatic forms intimately related to the playhouses of his time are facts that cannot be contested. He was not only a playwright but an actor, not only an actor but probably what we now call a director, and certainly a shareholder in his company. He must have spent a large proportion of his adult life in the Globe and other theatres, and it is therefore a scholarly imperative as well as a matter of general interest that we should have some idea of how things were done there, by promoters, actors, and directors (whoever they were), all of them constantly motivated by their obligation to please the audiences of the day. Generations of scholars have answered the challenge, and a lot is now known about the companies andaudiences, about prompt books and parts, about acting styles and conventions, about contemporary fashions and contemporary censorship, even about which actors played what roles. The physical structure of theatres is better understood than it was fifty years ago. There is a Shakespearian archaeology. Not surprisingly, modern Globe theatres have been erected, and not only in Southwark. There is a perfectly decent one in Tokyo.
As a consequence of all this knowledge it has become a commonplace that only in performance can the sense of Shakespeare's plays be fully apprehended. It is also maintained on high authority that every production must "mine" something new from the text: "The life of a theatre," says the distinguished English director Richard Eyre, "should always be in the present tense." This is true, and the work of a modern director must always be to fuse the horizons of past and present; to read well and faithfully is always to read anew, but without introducing distortion. Eyre adds, "The life of the plays is in the language, not alongside it, or underneath it. Feelings and thoughts are released at the moment of speech. An Elizabethan audience would have responded to the pulse, the rhythms, the shapes, sounds, and above all meanings, within the consistent ten-syllable, five-stress lines of blank verse. They were an audience who listened."
"The life of the plays is in the language." Yet the language can admittedly be difficult, even baffling. This is obviously so for audiences coming in four hundred years after the event, but it must often have been true also of the original audiences, less because the language itself was unfamiliar (though much more so to us) than because of the strange and original uses an individual writer might put it to. It is true that the audience, many of them oral rather than literate, were trained, as we are not, to listen to long, structured discourses, and must have been rather good at it, with better memories and more patience than we can boast. If you could follow a sermon by John Donne, which might mean standing in St. Paul's Churchyard and concentrating intensely for at least a couple of hours, you might not consider even Coriolanus impossibly strenuous. And although Donne wasn't talking down to them, much of his language was familiar to his congregation.
We also need to remember how quickly the language of quite ordinary people grows strange, recedes into the past, along with other social practices and assumptions taken for granted in one age yet hard for a later age to understand. If you read or watch a Jacobean city comedy, say, for instance, Middleton's masterly play A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, you soon discover that for all the manifest life of the dialogue and the characters you are an outsider, missing jokes and implications—as perhaps, in the course of a generation or two, the allusions and jokes in the dialogue of modern soap operas will baffle the student and have to be looked up in a commentary. But the first audience could presumably follow most of it with ease and pleasure and without the effort it imposes on us. It is true that now and again Shakespeare uses a word neither the original nor the modern audience had ever heard before, which yet remains intelligible to both, as when Goneril (King Lear, I.iv.249) advises her father "A little to disquantity" his train. The dictionary records no earlier use of this word, and it did not catch on, but to the modern ear it has a disturbingly bureaucratic ring, rather like the euphemisms produced by government departments, and it must have surely struck the first audience also as a cold and official-sounding word for a daughter to use in conversation with her father.
But this coincidence of response must be thought unusual, and we have more often to deal with dramatic language that was almost certainly difficult even to the audiences for whose pleasure it was originally written. So we need to ask what "following" entails. It is simply inconceivable that anybody at the Globe, even those described by Shakespeare's contemporary, the critic Gabriel Harvey, as "the wiser sort," could have followed every sentence of Coriolanus. Members of an audience cannot stop the actors and puzzle over some difficult expression, as they can when reading the play. The action sweeps you past the crux, which is at once forgotten because you need to keep up with what is being said, not lose the plot by meditating on what has passed. Following the story, understanding the tensions between characters, is not quite the same thing as following all or even most of the meanings. Even modern editors, surrounded by dictionaries and practised in the language of the period, cannot quite do that, as almost any Shakespeare edition shows. There are passages, especially in some of the later plays, which continue to defeat learned ingenuity. Dr. Johnson, who liked Shakespeare best when he was writing simply, would struggle awhile with such passages and then give up trying, as he alleged Shakespeare to have done. ("It is incident to him to be now and then entangled with an unwieldy sentiment, which he cannot well express, and will not reject; he struggles with it for a while, and if it continues stubborn, comprises it in words such as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled by those who have more leisure to bestow upon it.")
This is well expressed, but we, in our time, are unwilling to cut the knot so roughly. We are far from sharing Johnson's distaste for Shakespeare's more rugged and complicated passages; we have lived through a long period when much of the most favoured contemporary poetry has been defiantly obscure; so we are stimulated rather than put off by this. We tend not to discard what seems obscure but to find out something about it; we want to know not what is just going on in a general way but what the words mean, to understand the life of them.
As for the original audiences, Volumnia in Coriolanus remarks that
Action is eloquence, and the eyes of th' ignorant More learned than the ears ... (III.ii.76-77)
and contemporary testimony exists to the effect that an onlooker, out of earshot, could still get the drift of a play, just by watching the gestures of the performers. But this kind of acting, which in any case had probably undergone severe modification before Coriolanus was first performed early in the reign of James I, was more demonstrative than we would care for; it may have helped the original audiences to keep up with what was going on, but it would simply make us giggle. Anyway, it does not help at all with the more complicated bits, which are beyond the reach of the most refined code of gesture, though it is vital to what came, around 1600, to be called "personation" rather than playing.
Personation, as Andrew Gurr explains, meant something grander than mere playing or even acting; it related to a fuller representation of characters, sometimes of characters whose thoughts can plausibly be represented as rugged, involved, even obscure. Perhaps Volumnia was referring to oratory, closer to the old-fashioned playing that was aimed at a large popular audience. But in Shakespeare's plays, especially after about 1600, the life of the piece, of the whole business of personation, is in large part not in the gesture but in the linguistic detail; we want to understand as much of this as we can. We don't want just to hang on to the general sense as if we were watching an opera in Czech.
The increasing obscurity of Shakespeare's language may be shown by the simple operation of contrasting the first of his tragedies, Titus Andronicus, with what is probably the last, Coriolanus. Titus immediately strikes one as much more "literary" than Coriolanus, which is as good an example as any of a work calling for intellectual virtuosity in hearers and even in readers. Here is a speech from Titus; it may be compared with the speech of Aufidius in Coriolanus (IV.vii), quoted below. Marcus comes upon his niece Lavinia, who has been raped and had her hands cut off and her tongue cut out:
Who is this? my niece, that flies away so fast?
Cousin, a word; where is your husband?
If I do dream, would all my wealth would wake me!
If I do wake, some planet strike me down,
That I may slumber an eternal sleep!
Speak, gentle niece: what stern ungentle hands
Hath lopp'd and hew'd, and made thy body bare
Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments
Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in,
And might not gain so great a happiness
As half thy love? Why dost not speak to me?
Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr'd with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath.
But sure some Tereus hath deflow'red thee,
And lest thou shouldst detect him, cut thy tongue.
Ah, now thou turn'st away thy face for shame!
And notwithstanding all this loss of blood,
As from a conduit with three issuing spouts,
Yet do thy cheeks look red as Titan's face
Blushing to be encount'red with a cloud.
Shall I speak for thee? shall I say 'tis so?
O that I knew thy heart, and knew the beast,
That I might rail at him to ease my mind!
Sorrow concealed, like an oven stopp'd,
Doth burn the heart to cinders where it is.
Fair Philomela, why, she but lost her tongue,
And in a tedious sampler sew'd her mind;
But, lovely niece, that mean is cut from thee.
A craftier Tereus, cousin, hast thou met,
And he hath cut those pretty fingers off
That could have better sew'd than Philomel.
O, had the monster seen those lily hands
Tremble like aspen leaves upon a lute,
And made the silken strings delight to kiss them,
He would not then have touch'd them for his life!
Or had he heard the heavenly harmony
Which that sweet tongue hath made,
He would have dropp'd his knife, and fell asleep,
As Cerberus at the Thracian poet's feet.
Come let us go, and make thy father blind,
For such a sight will blind a father's eye.
One hour's storm will drown the fragrant meads,
What will whole months of tears thy father's eyes?
Do not draw back, for we will mourn with thee.
O, could our mourning ease thy misery! (II.iv.11-57)
The first audience would have had a very good idea of what Marcus is up to here. He is making poetry about the extraordinary appearance of Lavinia, and making it exactly as he would if he were in a non-dramatic poem. To a modern director the scene is something of an embarrassment: Marcus, instead of doing something about Lavinia, who, as his account of the matter confirms, is in real danger of bleeding to death, makes a speech lasting a good three minutes. Confronted with an obvious need to act, at first he wishes he could be planet-struck into sleep (as it happens, Shakespeare used a similar figure in Coriolanus, but with an entirely different force). There is a neat play on the antithesis gentle-ungentle. Marcus compares Lavinia to a lopped tree, and the blood pouring from her mouth to a crimson river. Since it pours also from her hands, she is likened to a garden ornament, a conduit with three spouts. Her breath, despite all the blood, is still described as "honey," as if this were an immutable Homeric epithet. Her cheeks are compared to the setting sun.
Marcus, a well-educated Roman in the hands of a well-educated English poet, aptly adduces a Senecan tag or proverb about unspoken grief stopping the heart. He is quick to see as apposite the story of the rape of Philomel by Tereus, which happens to be the myth on which the plot of the play is based (as the text often reminds us). But Tereus only tore out Philomel's tongue, leaving her the option of revealing her assailant's identity in a piece of sewing. The new rapist has taken notice of this and outdone him by cutting off his victim's hands as well. Marcus remembers Lavinia's voice and the sight of her hands playing on a lute, not omitting a reference to the music with which Orpheus charmed Cerberus in the underworld. We are not to think it absurd that he expresses a wish he could ease his mind by giving the culprit a good scolding. He leaves us in no doubt that he commands the means to explain why he finds the whole scene very upsetting, and even thinks of blinding Lavinia's father to spare him the same sight.
We should find this verse ridiculous, but insofar as it belongs in a theatre, that theatre is very different from the theatre of Hamlet or Macbeth or Coriolanus, and the task of the poet very differently conceived. We must not look here for plausible action, not even for plausible inaction or silent horror. In Peter Brook's memorable production of 1955, the speech was entirely cut; Marcus wasn't even on stage when Lavinia (Vivien Leigh) entered with red ribbons streaming from her wrists and mouth. That was a way of preserving the horror without the language that in the time of the early Shakespeare seemed a good way of representing it, a poet's way, but now embarrassing. Trevor Nunn, in 1972, cut twenty-nine lines from Marcus's speech, leaving us with neither one thing nor the other, but one really needs to choose, all or nothing; Deborah Warner, in her 1988 version, restored the whole speech.
The latest Arden editor, from whom I borrow the stage history above, is a keen advocate of the merits of Titus Andronicus, and he defends Marcus's speech by claiming to find in it an acceptable modern psychology. Marcus has to learn to confront suffering. "The working through of bad dream into clear sight is formalized in Marcus' elaborate verbal patterns; only after writing out the process in this way could Shakespeare repeat and vary it in the simple, direct, unbearable language of the end of Lear: `Look there, look there!' ... And a lyrical speech is needed because it is only when an appropriately inappropriate language has been found that the sheer contrast between its beauty and Lavinia's degradation begins to express what she has undergone and lost." But this interpretation is surely as misguided as it is honourable. It may be true that the kind of thing we find in Titus was a preparation, something a poet at thirty might think right, given the sort of piece he was writing—a drama affected by the example of Seneca and, even more so, by the example of Ovid, who was the source of the Philomel/ Lavinia plot, as of much else in Shakespeare. Titus is probably his most learned play, and poets needed to be learned. But playwrights needed another kind of erudition than that appropriate to non-dramatic poetry. There was obviously an overlap of skills, but theirs was a different craft. It soon became apparent that the trade of the dramatic poet was different and increasingly remote from the conventional, bookish rhetorical display. Not that rhetoric was abjured, merely that it was powerfully adapted to a different task and greatly changed in the process. Of course prentice work in a more formal rhetoric could be thought as a useful, perhaps at the time an essential, preparation.
Throughout this scene Lavinia is perforce silent, and the only way of dealing with her silence was to give Marcus a very long speech. "Shall I speak for thee?" he asks. And he does. There was (as yet) no alternative. Shakespeare later found other ways of dealing with silence, not least in the characters of Virgilia in Coriolanus and Hermione in The Winter's Tale. Indeed, an increasing interest in silence might be thought to mark a general development away from rhetorical explicitness and towards a language that does not try to give everything away.
It is safe to say that at the time he wrote Titus Andronicus he simply lacked the means to do, or even to envisage, what he achieved later, and his treatment of silences is an illustration of this. Impossible on the printed page (in the sense that a blank space can stand in no relation to the absence of speech in a context of talk), silence can be a feature of oral rhetoric, and was proverbially valuable. "In plentiful speech there is always something to be censured," says a proverb. Loquacity was deplored, but held to be quite different from eloquence, which was praised, though perhaps not in women, where it could be a sign of unchastity. And silence itself could be eloquent. When nothing is said, runs another proverb, silence speaks. That silence could make a contribution to eloquence, that in the theatre you didn't have to lay everything out with the utmost explicitness and could treat silence itself as requiring many words (as in that speech of Marcus), was evidently a discovery Shakespeare made in the course of time.
The point is most powerfully illustrated in King Lear V.ii, when Edgar goes off to fight, leaving his father, Gloucester, on the empty stage while the battle proceeds in the distance. Gloucester says nothing at all. How long this silence continues depends on the director's skill or nerve. I first understood how amazingly bold this little scene was when I saw Peter Brook's 1962 production; Gloucester, horribly blinded, sat sniffing the air for an intolerably long time, in a silence only emphasized by the distant noise of battle. The silence ends when Edgar returns, defeated, and takes his father away: "Men must endure / Their going hence even as their coming hither, / Ripeness is all. Come on" (V.ii.9-11). Eleven lines, and a silence probably much longer than the speeches—a silence at the very heart of Shakespeare and not available to the author of Titus Andronicus. Lavinia, like Philomel, lost her tongue, but her silence must be volubly represented by the words of Marcus.
Coriolanus has Virgilia, described by her husband as "My gracious silence" (II.i.175); she speaks when she must, but is still silent by comparison with the sheer noise of the play, the military din of her husband and the language of the virago Volumnia; their kinds of eloquence are related to violent action as Virgilia's is to peace. Coriolanus himself professes to prefer deeds, which speak without voice, to words; what finally drives him into exile is his inability to tolerate the voices of the plebs, "The multitudinous tongue" (III.i.156), and what brings on his death is a wounding word: "Boy!" (V.vi.100-16). It forces him to scold (105) like his mother.
|TROILUS AND CRESSIDA||126|
|MEASURE FOR MEASURE||142|
|ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA||217|
|TIMON OF ATHENS||231|
|THE WINTER'S TALE||270|
|HENRY VIII and THE TWO NOBLE KINSMEN||301|