Shakespeare the Thinker

Shakespeare the Thinker

by A. D. Nuttall


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"A close reading of the plays that tries to map the creases and folds in Shakespeare's mysterious, elusive brain."— New York Times Book Review

A. D. Nuttall’s study of Shakespeare’s intellectual preoccupations is a literary tour de force and comes to crown the distinguished career of a Shakespeare scholar. Certain questions engross Shakespeare from his early plays to the late romances: the nature of motive, cause, personal identity and relation, the proper status of imagination, ethics and subjectivity, language and its capacity to occlude and to communicate. Yet Shakespeare’s thought, Nuttall demonstrates, is anything but static. The plays keep returning to, modifying, and complicating his creative preoccupations. Nuttall allows us to hear and appreciate the emergent cathedral choir of play speaking to play. By the later stages of Nuttall’s book this choir is nearly overwhelming in its power and dimensions. The author does not limit discussion to moments of crucial intellection but gives himself ample space in which to get at the distinctive essence of each work.

Much recent historicist criticism has tended to “flatten” Shakespeare by confining him to the thought-clichés of his time, and this in its turn has led to an implicitly patronizing view of him as unthinkingly racist, sexist, and so on. Nuttall shows us that, on the contrary, Shakespeare proves again and again to be more intelligent and perceptive than his 21st-century readers. This book challenges us to reconsider the relation of great literature to its social and historical matrix. It is also, perhaps, the best guide to Shakespeare’s plays available in English.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300136296
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 04/01/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 1,128,863
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

A. D. Nuttall was professor of English at Oxford University and the author of numerous books, including A Common Sky: Philosophy and the Literary Imagination and Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure? His books Two Concepts of Allegory and A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the Representation of Reality are published by Yale University Press.

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Shakespeare the Thinker


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2007 A. D. Nuttall
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11928-2

Chapter One

To the Death of Marlowe

How Causes Work: The Three Parts of Henry VI

We began with Milton, once thought of as the natural counterweight to Shakespeare in the history of English literature. Within Shakespeare's lifetime, meanwhile, there was one figure in the landscape that Shakespeare had reason to fear. Christopher Marlowe was the man to beat. As long as Marlowe lived, and for some time after, Shakespeare's writing is marked by special energy, an almost desperate assertion of brilliance. Later, after Marlowe has been dead for several years, the spring uncoils, and larger, slower eects are essayed.

The three parts of Henry VI may be the earliest Shakespearean drama we possess. If we turn immediately from a work of Shakespeare's maturity, such as Julius Caesar, to this procession of baronial bing and bashing, summed up perhaps in the old stage direction, "They fight, severally, about the stage," we shall easily conclude as Maurice Morgann did that the work is simply primitive. In the first act of 1 Henry VI we have what is called "split-focus staging": the English on one side, doubtless with cardboard battlements to protect them, and the French, similarly guarded, on the other. The fewyards of planking between may represent the field of battle. This, I submit, really is primitive in the way it treats space, as crowded medieval pictures in which out-of-scale helmeted heads show over the battlements that box them in are primitive. I am aware as I write this that "primitive" is now almost a taboo word. It will be said that the organization of space in a medieval picture is conceptually highly sophisticated, that meaning is allowed to dominate the banal requirements of perspectival visual data, and that in such work the imagination of both artist and viewer is far more active than in inertly photographic painting. Yet when all this has been said, such medieval painting remains primitive in the sense that it manifestly belongs to an earlier rather than a later phase. These painters did not deliberately over-ride ordinary perspective for conceptual reasons; they did not yet know how to paint using perspective. Children, as E. H. Gombrich pointed out, draw conceptually before they learn to present the phenomenal appearance of a thing. A house will be a rectangle and people will be drawn within the rectangle. If we say, "But you couldn't see the people through the wall," the child answers, "The people are in the house!" It is perfectly clear meanwhile that Shakespeare himself felt the force of the term "primitive" in application to such staging. In Henry V, written some eight or nine years after Henry VI, he frets at the almost comic inadequacy (in the sense, "un-realism") of his stage presentation. He notes, exactly as I did a moment ago, the painful contrast between the cramped wooden box of the theatre and the space it has to represent: "Can this cockpit hold / The vasty fields of France?" (Prologue, 11-12). He also smells out in advance the defence-through-activating-the-imagination: "Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts ... / Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them" (Prologue, 23, 26).

Equally clearly, however, he is embarrassed by the sheer crudity of the theatrical apparatus. Even if we do not think (or feel that it is not permissible to think) Henry VI dramaturgically primitive, it looks as if Shakespeare, within a few years, came to think exactly that. Are we then, as Morgann supposed, confronted, in this first offering from one later acknowledged to be a supreme genius, by an undeveloped, undeveloping affair?

Well, hardly. The three parts of Henry VI compose a complex English history, and the history play seems to be a Shakespearean invention. Here it is being invented before our eyes. John Bale's King John is indeed earlier, but Bale's play is a strange hybrid, part incipient history, part morality. The anonymous Troublesome Reign of John, King of England, once thought to be the source of Shakespeare's King John, is now thought to be later than Shakespeare's play. The old play of Gorboduc has some claim to be considered as a history, but it is really a Senecan tragedy. Its Shakespearean affinities are with King Lear, another chronicle play that we refuse to classify as anything but tragedy. We know that there was an early non-Shakespearean play on the reign of Henry V. Thomas Nashe alludes to it in Pierce Pennilesse his Supplication to the Divell (1592). After an admiring reference to Talbot, the hammer of the French, in Shakespeare's Henry VI, he goes on to observe that Henry V has cut a similarly triumphant figure on the stage, "leading the French King prisoner." Whether, if we had the text, we should consider this a real history play is a question that cannot be answered. The young Shakespeare is certainly doing something new. Marlowe's Edward II is a real history play, but it is later than the Henry VI plays. The generic move is so important, so fundamental, that it produced the well-known triple division in the grand folio published after the poet's death, in 1623. Instead of the expected binary scheme, "Comedies and Tragedies," we have "Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies." There is indeed a certain awkwardness in the newly intruded category. Richard II is obviously a history, but one wishes to be allowed to point out that it is also the purest tragedy, generically, that Shakespeare ever wrote. What is inescapable, however, is that he has made the idea of a history play part of the well-worn furniture of the literary mind.

What is less clear is the priority in time of the first part of Henry VI. Some think it was written after parts 2 and 3 and that, in any case, within part 1, only Act II, Scene iv, and Act IV are from Shakespeare's hand. If most of 1 Henry VI is by someone other than Shakespeare and in fact came before parts 2 and 3, then Shakespeare certainly is not the originator of the history play. Even without Act II, Scene iv, and Act IV, 1 Henry VI is already forming a real history. Note that, according to this reconstruction of the process of composition, the most strikingly primitive stagings of spaces (they occur in Act I) are no longer Shakespearean, although he is working with them on the table, so to speak. And Act II, Scene iv, is simply astonishing in its subtlety, by any standard of dramatic sophistication.

The play is about a war with France and an emerging conflict between the Houses of York and Lancaster. It begins with the funeral of Henry V, the great warrior king who had subdued France. His successor, Henry VI, is, we soon learn, a man of very different temper: mild, devout, notably devoid of the killer instinct. Meanwhile his wife, Margaret of Anjou, is a fighter, frustrated by her husband's passivity. All this, note, will be re-run later, with added power, in certain conversations of Macbeth with his lady. The dynamic of the opening scene looks forward to the beginning of King Lear in that a grand processional display is swiftly splintered in a discordant play of individual personalities. The disintegrators could be wrong-the whole play could quite easily be Shakespearean. Gloucester, the Lord Protector of the King, who came to the throne when he was a child, is at odds, we learn, with the churchman, Winchester. The rising quarrel is then interrupted in its turn by the entry of a breathless messenger, with news that great tracts of France have been lost through disputes among the English military leaders. Act I, Scene ii, shows the fighting before the gates of Orleans. Here the twenty-first-century reader gets his or her first shock, with the entry of Joan de Pucelle. Slowly we realize, "This is Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans." Shakespeare's Joan is, as we say, demonized, almost literally (we see her surrounded by actual fiends who have done her bidding in Act V, Scene iii). For Shakespeare as for Edward Hall, the chronicler (his principal source), Joan was an evil witch, assisting the French. Led by Joan de Pucelle the French beat back the English and raise the siege of Orleans.

Act I, Scene iii, is set in London. The good Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, the Lord Protector, is refused admission to the Tower on the orders of the Bishop of Winchester. The insult is extreme and causes street fighting among the followers of both parties. Gloucester's men have the upper hand, but the Mayor arrives suddenly and sends them all home. This too will be re-run later-in the opening of Romeo and Juliet. As he watches them depart the Mayor observes, "I myself fight not once in forty year" (I.iii.91). This pause in the action, with the glimpse it gives of a human individual and another mode of life, looks very Shakespearean. Throughout his career he had this power to endow an individual with autonomous identity, amid the hurly-burly of the play's action. The Mayor is bürgerlich, civil not martial. The feudal belligerents he quiets and sends home seem for a second to belong to the childhood of the world, he to its maturity. A grown-up comes and order is restored. But because the dominant ethos of the play remains feudal, the Mayor is not especially impressive. We smile in something close to contempt when he tells us that he scarcely ever fights. Yet again we are looking at something that will grow later. In Coriolanus the "co-operative values" of the guild-hall and the marketplace will be set in opposition to the "competitive values" of the battle-field.

The rest of Act I and the first three scenes of Act II are taken up with the progress of the war with France. Talbot fights like a tiger but shows that he has brains as well as brawn by evading a trap laid for him by the oily-tongued Countess of Auvergne. This is a thoroughly enjoyable, dance-like sequence that ends with the lady herself applauding. And then we come to Act II, Scene iv.

We have already seen, together with the coarsely schematic presentation of war at the level of staging and props, a very different suppleness at the level of plot-progression-personality clashes interwoven expertly with larger political antagonisms, one action interrupting, overlapping, reinforcing, or retarding another. We become aware that history has a multiple momentum and is imperfectly controlled by the most powerful persons concerned. The lines describing the discussions that led to the loss of large parts of France are in a somewhat stilted style, but they are also politically expert in their effortless analysis of a complex field:

One would have ling'ring wars with little cost; Another would fly swift, but wanteth wings; A third thinks, without expense at all, By guileful fair words peace may be obtain'd. (I.i.74-77)

Before the American army entered Iraq some said, "Let us go in with a large force and save money in the long run," others said, "Let us go in with few soldiers but in a spectacular manner," and yet others said, "Let us see what the United Nations can do." Shakespeare's language here is intelligently faithful to the real to-and-fro of high-level political discussion. This means that before we reach the crucial scene, Act II, Scene iv, we have already acquired a sense of historical process as something both violent and mysterious.

The scene itself shows the quarrel among noblemen from which the long Wars of the Roses sprang. The dynamic is supplied by a kind of contradiction. The scene presents the origin of the Wars of the Roses, how it all began, and, simultaneously, withholds the reason. It is an aetiology without an aitia, or "cause." The essence of the scene is proleptically summed up in the very first line: "Great lords and gentlemen, what means this silence?"

The speaker is Richard Plantagenet, late Duke of York. He is asking angrily why no one will speak openly "in a case of truth." In response his interlocutor Suolk says, in effect, "Hush. We need privacy for this. Let us go into the garden." We follow them into the private garden but learn only that Plantagenet and Somerset are disputing "sharp quillets of the law" (II.iv.17), that is to say, legal niceties. As the play unfolds it becomes apparent that the Duke of York is asserting a claim to the throne, presently held by a descendant of the House of Lancaster. The best critical account known to me of what follows is Tania Demetriou's.

She points out that in Hall's chronicle York's claim emerges later, after the death of Gloucester. Hall's earlier references to York, when he was still Richard Plantagenet, simply recount his actions and then add, with editorial hindsight, that this is the man who will claim the throne. Shakespeare could have managed his earlier placing of the claim by a straight change in the sequence of public events, as he does elsewhere. Instead he does something very subtle. He cuts o Hall's clear, explanatory hindsight, for obviously this cannot have been available to persons at the time, and the drama is technically confined to their perceptions, has no over-riding narrative or editorial voice. Then he turns the space between origin and visible action into a tantalizing mystery. Commentators on the play tend to say that the "sharp quillets of the law" must have something to do with the succession, but they, like Hall, are comforting themselves with hindsight.

Each party to the dispute thunderously arms the self-evidence of his cause, but the audience is kept guessing. Then, suddenly, Plantagenet proposes that, since no one will speak out, any man who believes him to be right should pluck a white rose-and as he speaks he plucks a white rose. Somerset responds by inviting his supporters to pluck red roses. As with the picking of the apple in Milton's Eden, the picking of the roses is felt by the audience as a point of origin. This is it, the beginning of all that killing. But as with the apple, so with the roses: the apparent clarity of the event is involved in a spider's web of indefinite presuppositions that drain away the promised explanatory power. "Why did Eve pick the apple? This cannot be the point at which sin entered the world, she must have been bad already to disobey God in this way," and so on and so forth. The moment of the rose-picking is simultaneously chivalric (backward-looking) in its resonance and politically sophisticated. It hovers between "Here I plant my standard!" and "Let's take a straw vote."

But that is not all. There is a further sense that each man's case is mysteriously crystallized by the physical roses, bravely worn. Richard's words as he suggests the device, "Since you are tongue-tied and so loath to speak, / In dumb significants proclaim your thoughts" (II.iv.24-25), seem to say that the rose can properly fill a vacuum in the articulation of reasons. It is as if concrete things have a self-evidence, an un-answerable truth-bearing power often absent from words. Juries can be suddenly convinced, quite irrationally, by a blood-stained handkerchief, produced in court. Seeing is believing. Othello, whom we shall meet later, was like one of those jurors; "Give me the ocular proof!" he cried (III.iii.360). And he too, irrationally and tragically, was satisfied by the production of a handkerchief.

Of course a rose cannot set out legal arguments. It can, however, affect behaviour and increase belief, commitment, allegiance, confidence. As the roses are picked, the juggernaut of history picks up speed. Honour rather than reason is now engaged. As Tania Demetriou says, there is something "uncannily real" about the scene. I know that in committee meetings, after a show of hands in which I have declared a view, I warm to that view, begin to set aside counter-arguments that until then had solicited my attention. Group motivation is partly a matter of wearing the colours of one's side, as football supporters do. Shakespeare has hit on something very close to the "James-Lange" theory of motivation. The "James" here is William, Henry's philosopher brother. The theory calls into question the assumption that actions are determined by pre-existing emotions. Instead of striking because we feel angry, in fact, "We feel angry because we strike." The extreme forms of this reversal seem to crop up in military contexts. The sweet-smelling roses, red and white, conduct us to blood and death:

this brawl today

Grown to this faction in the Temple Garden, Shall send between the Red Rose and the White A thousand souls to death and deadly night. (II.iv.124-27)


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Q: In recent years there has been a trend of very senior scholars writing big, ambitious books about Shakespeare for the general reader—Stephen Greenblatt's and James Shapiro's biographies, and Harold Bloom's and Sir Frank Kermode's studies. And now A. D. Nuttall of Oxford enters the fray. What more can be said about Shakespeare that hasn't already been said?  How is this book different?
A: First, this isn't a biography—of the titles mentioned, the Bloom and the Kermode come closest. But my book is more intently engaged with ideas and with (dramatically conducted) argument than any of these. Everyone knows that Shakespeare excels in imagination and rhetorical power. This book argues that he was also very intelligent—both philosophically and psychologically. There are certain questions that fascinate Shakespeare, and he returns to them repeatedly, but in always new and different ways.
Q: In pursuit of Shakespeare's thought and particular preoccupations, you follow the plays in chronological order, is that right?
A: Yes, but only roughly in chronological order. I broke with chronology if, say, a certain play was closely linked in argument with another but was written some time before. In a sense, though, it was Shakespeare himself who determined the exact sequence in which I took up the plays for consideration.
Q: Shakespeare the Thinker seems to me an extremely personal book, more personal than any of your previous books. Do you think that's a fair statement?
A: Well, this book comes after a lifetime of thinking about, and teaching, Shakespeare. You wondered, earlier, whether it's possible to say anything new about Shakespeare. I'm quite sure it is. I have taught Shakespeare for many years--and each year was completely different from the one before. With Shakespeare, one always finds more. Among other things I hope the book demonstrates something of the distinctive essence of each play. I wanted to provide an introduction to the plays—and to do it without compromising—without ever pretending that Shakespeare is simpler or shallower than he really is. 

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Shakespeare the Thinker 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Erwind on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Excellent - like a course in Shakespeare with a great professor. Full of interesting insights.