Prefaces to Shakespeare

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. (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 is the author of the novels Prague, The Egyptologist, Angelica, and The Song is You.