The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.328 Friday, 30 September 2016
Date: Friday, September 30, 2016
Subject: From TLS: The weight of the pasts
The weight of the pasts
Harry Berger Jr
Skills of offense in Shakespeare’s Henriad
232pp. Fordham University Press. £59 (US $85).
220pp. Cambridge University Press. £64.99 (US $99.99).
“Harrying” is a verb with violent associations: the OED gives to plunder, violate, harass and despoil as synonyms. Harry is the name Harry Berger Jr prefers for Harry of Lancaster Jr, the central figure in Shakespeare’s “Henriad”: a different critic would have made hay with this onomastic echo, but Berger lets the opportunity pass. Both Berger’s own method, and his view of Harry, are milder and more co-operative than this titular verb suggests.
Berger’s overarching method is to uncover the “linguistic mischief” by which the language Shakespeare gives his characters “always says more than they mean to say”. This develops a psychoanalytically inflected New Criticism that is at its most brilliant in moments of close analysis. Working with Richard II’s soliloquy from prison which begins “I have been studying”, Berger points out the strange artfulness of the present perfect tense, as if Richard is explicitly bringing us up to date with his activities since we last saw him. Developing the particular performative address of the soliloquy, Berger nevertheless suggests that its enabling stage direction, “Enter Richard alone”, is actually a description of the play as a whole. He worries away at Richard’s imagery, noticing with wonderful lucidity the self-destructiveness of the phrase “still-breeding thoughts”, where “still” connotes both movement and stasis, cancelling and emphasizing the futility of “breeding” with ideas of stillbirth. The verbal confusion, Berger suggests, epitomizes a wider “Bad Seed Fantasy” that poisons the history plays’ father/son relationships and makes children objects of fear and mistrust.
Reprinting Berger’s essays from the past three decades is a very valuable project (although the publishers never acknowledge that it is a collection largely of previously printed material). Berger’s chapters revisit, refine and enrich the topics and arguments on which he has long been so influential. Readers of Imaginary Audition (1989) will recognize his distinction between “wide-eyed playgoers and slit-eyed armchair readers”; and the Prince’s dog, the perils of speech-prefixivity and the rhizome and hydra all reappear in the current volume. Berger develops here with great clarity his Girardian argument that Richard II seduces Bolingbroke into the role of usurper, noting the echo by which the hapless French in Henry V also desire their invasion and defeat. He understands the plays from Richard II to Henry V as a whole, not, as the “Henriad” might suggest, as an extended dramatic Bildungsroman, still less an early modern box set, but rather as a “process of continuous revision” to be read backwards and forwards across the plays.
This non-linear structure derives from and supports Berger’s express conviction that Shakespeare’s plays do not, as commonly asserted, find their true meaning on stage. Rather, he suggests here, they are “underdetermined by their theatrical purpose”. The structure of these particular history plays can only be accessed in print, when all four can be simultaneously present. Some of that readerly interrelatedness is left implicit by the rather episodic structure of the chapters in Harrying: for example, extensive interrogation of horses, real and metaphorical, in the Henry IV plays is not taken up in the more obvious context of the Dauphin’s sonnet to his “prince of palfreys”. But Berger’s method is suggestive rather than exhaustive: perhaps his greatest skill is to make us feel we have discovered things for ourselves.
[ . . . ]
The argument of Isabel Karremann’s book The Drama of Memory in Shakespeare’s History Plays seems harder won: the difference between these two books is as much generational as it is thematic or methodological. Karremann’s important contribution to the growing field of literary memory studies is to take forgetting seriously, as itself a significant part of mnemonic practice rather than its catastrophic or unintended opposite. Her understanding of forgetting as purposive rather than accidental, as an active process rather than the mere absence of remembering, identifies “the constitutive force of oblivion” in early modern culture. As John Willis put it in 1618, with obvious implications for the history plays, the term for recalling those things we have remembered in order “to discharge our memories of them” is “deposition”. Falstaff’s play-acted “Depose me?” thus reverberates with the inevitability of being forgotten. Karremann suggests that both the Wars of the Roses and the Reformation were violent acts understood by Elizabethan culture through different memorial forms, including repeated forgetting.
The strength of this combination of cognitive theory, theatre history and formalist criticism is in its reading of individual plays. Beginning with the undervalued 2 Henry VI, Karremann draws out its debate between literacy and orality, in which the alliance between Henry and Margaret is figured as “cancelling . . . blotting . . . razing . . . defacing . . . Undoing all, as if all had never been”. She reads Richard II’s own unkinging as an act of oblivion, suggesting a specifically post-Reformation evacuation of signs, practices and rituals. In 1 Henry IV Hal’s self-forgetfulness is seen to be strategic, whereas Falstaff’s corporeal reminders of medieval carnival suggest how the theatre can repurpose the past by investing it with new, commodified meanings. Karremann is interesting on the ways the Oldcastle/Falstaff controversy enacts signs of erasure and oblivion, but Falstaff’s own distinct cultural unforgettability might have been worth further exploration. And perhaps something about what our own literary histories have chosen to forget in the construction of the history play as a solely Shakespearean serial might offer a useful corollary. While Isabel Karremann’s elegant study allows for the audience’s “intertheatrical memories”, like many Shakespeareans she, too, leaves the influence of adjacent plays such as Woodstock, Sir John Oldcastle or Edward III forgotten.
The layered obligations of “lest we forget” are affectionately depicted in Antic Disposition’s Henry V: a simultaneous commemoration of Agincourt, the First World War and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. These parallels are achieved through a framing story set in a field hospital, where invalided French and English combatants begin a scratch production where rolled bandages stand in for the Dauphin’s tennis balls and the corrugated crown is made from a canteen tin can. While sometimes the conceit creaks a little – updated productions of Henry V have frequently struggled with the fact that Britain’s twentieth-century wars were in, but not actually against, France – it also generates the production’s most electrifying interpolation. As Henry holds his service pistol to the guilty Bardolph’s forehead, his prisoner begins to shake uncontrollably. The traumatized soldier breaks down, the Shakespearean performance is quickly suspended, and even back in character as the phlegmatic Gower, James Murfitt retains an edge of savage vulnerability for the rest of the evening.
[ . . . ]
All three works have a clear memorial aspect: of a distinguished critical career; of the arts of oblivion; of the Shakespeare anniversary in a wider commemorative context. But they also imply that the weight of multiple pasts can be burdensome. Shakespeare’s history plays repeatedly invoke the long shadows cast across the present by legendary figures such as Edward the Black Prince and that “ever-living man of memory, Henry the Fifth”: in the retrospective light of the Shakespeare quatercentenary maybe they have now themselves become that overbearing cultural presence they so memorably dramatize.