Re: Social Climbing & Trumping

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.263  Monday, 8 August 2016


From:        Jim Carroll <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         August 7, 2016 at 4:21:11 PM EDT

Subject:    Re: Social Climbing & Trumping


A few comments on recent postings here on SHAKSPER. First, on Shakespeare's coat of arms (SHK 27.234  Friday, 8 July 2016):


Shakespeare's quest for a coat of arms has been known for a very long time. "Draft of Grant of Arms to Shakespeare's Father (1596)" and "Confirmation and Extension of Heraldic Honors to John Shakespeare (1599)" are two of the documents that make up the list of documents  that begin the 1926 edition of Tucker Brooke's "Shakespeare of Stratford". Of the first document Brooke comments (p. 17), "It is reasonably conjectured that the motive for John Shakespeare's position came from the poet, and that it reflects the latter's ambition and worldly prosperity. Other wealthy actors-e.g. Augustine Phillips and Thomas Pope of Shakespeare's company-assumed arms to which they appear to have had no hereditary right. A contemporary herald, Ralph Brooke, mentions Shakespeare as one of twenty-three persons charged with obtaining coats of arms to which they were not entitled."


Samuel Schoenbaum's 1977 book "William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life" likewise discusses the issue, with added details (p. 232): "The particulars of Brooke's complaint are not recorded, but may be inferred from the joint reply of Garter and Clarenceux. They defended the eligibility of John Shakespeare-a magistrate 'of good substance and habilite' who had married an heir of Arden...." 


Obviously the copies of the arms dated 1602 and later have William's, not

John's, name on them because John was buried in September 1601.


The claims for Shakespeare's "social climbing" seem to me to be unwarranted. First of all, I don't consider a reward for accomplishing something significant to be "social climbing". I would consider the empty gathering of credentials to obtain a fake authority, or schmoozing like Osric, or rewriting the same old thing to earn tenure, to be "social climbing". Second, we have no solid evidence at all that William Shakespeare had anything to do with the granting of the arms. The arms would descend upon Shakespeare at his father's death whether he wanted them or not. It seems to me that a scenario just as likely is the John was envious of his son's success and wanted something to compensate. Anyone who has had a father buy a more expensive car than the one they bought will know what I mean. I think the misplaced desire to place the "social climber" title on William Shakespeare has more to do with modern commentators projecting their own trivial sense of "ambition" onto him than anything else.


(S sable (black) A argent (silver) Or (gold)


PWDG permitted (by) William Dethick Garter (King-of-Arms)


P Ro. Co. Cla.  Permitted (by) Robert Cook, Clarenceux (King-of-Arms)).



Paul Hamilton's piece is apt:


but more can be added. The Trump personality itself is more likely to be found in Jonson:


Volpone: Good morning to the day; and next, my gold:

Open the shrine, that I may see my saint. 

                                                     - Volpone 1.1.1-2


and his business associates as well:


Sir Epicure Mammon: Come on, sir. Now you set your foot on shore

in novo orbe; here's the rich Peru:

And there within, sir, are the golden mines,

Great Solomon's Ophir! He was sailing to't

Three years, but we have reached it in ten months.

This is the day wherein to all my friends, 

I will pronounce the happy word, 'be rich'.

                                          -The Alchemist 2.1.1-7


Shakespeare has the political Trump (Cade) and that portion of the electorate 

which is the most childish and short-sighted and thus most likely to vote for a Trump:


CADE. Be brave, then, for your captain is brave, and vows reformation. There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny; the three-hoop'd pot shall have ten hoops; and I will make it felony to drink small beer. All the realm shall be in common, and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to grass. And when I am king- as king I will be - 


ALL. God save your Majesty!


CADE. I thank you, good people- there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score, and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers and worship me their lord.


DICK. The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.


CADE. Nay, that I mean to do. Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? That parchment, being scribbl'd o'er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings; but I say 'tis the bee's wax; for I did but seal once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since. How now! Who's there?


Enter some, bringing in the CLERK OF CHATHAM


SMITH. The clerk of Chatham. He can write and read and cast accompt.


CADE. O monstrous!


SMITH. We took him setting of boys' copies.


CADE. Here's a villain!


SMITH. Has a book in his pocket with red letters in't.


CADE. Nay, then he is a conjurer.


DICK. Nay, he can make obligations and write court-hand.


CADE. I am sorry for't; the man is a proper man, of mine honour; unless I find him guilty, he shall not die. Come hither, sirrah, I must examine thee. What is thy name?


CLERK. Emmanuel.


DICK. They use to write it on the top of letters; 'twill go hard with you.


CADE. Let me alone. Dost thou use to write thy name, or hast thou a mark to thyself, like a honest plain-dealing man?


CLERK. Sir, I thank God, I have been so well brought up that I can write my name.


ALL. He hath confess'd. Away with him! He's a villain and a traitor.


CADE. Away with him, I say! Hang him with his pen and inkhorn about his neck. 

                                            - Henry VI part 2 4.2.64-110



Jim Carroll




Beethoven and Shakespeare

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.262  Thursday, 4 August 2016


From:       Sidney Lubow <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:        August 3, 2016 at 9:07:13 PM EDT 

Subject:   Beethoven and Shakespeare


It is extremely interesting that Beethoven was taken by the canon of Shakespeare and admired his poetry. As a matter of fact, his poetry was, when translated, considered better in German.  If, as I believe, that the bard was speaking to his mirror, himself, his 'self', in German, 'selbst', could it be possible that the other genius, Beethoven, understood the Bard's Sonnets, when he wrote to his 'immortal beloved' in the following way in a letter that was found in a draw with a nail protruding that started the futile search for the woman:


Mein Engel, mein alles, mein Selbst -nur ein paar Worte heute in der Tat mit Bleistift (mit Ihnen)


My Angel, my all, my very self. - just a few words today with pencil, (yours)




MV Dialog

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.261  Tuesday, 2 August 2016


[1] From:        John Drakakis <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

     Date:         August 1, 2016 at 5:00:12 PM EDT

     Subject:    Re: SHAKSPER; MV Dialog 


[2] From:        Sidney Lubow <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

     Date:         August 1, 2016 at 4:29:58 PM EDT

     Subject:    MV Dialog 




From:        John Drakakis <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         August 1, 2016 at 5:00:12 PM EDT

Subject:    Re: SHAKSPER; MV Dialog


William Blanton <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>


To John Drakakis


In response to your post dated July 22, 2016.


You wrote: 

Bill Blanton’s attempt to establish a link between Portia in MV and Elizabeth I, while interesting, doesn’t seem to me to be very convincing. There are a number of problems with the thesis although the methodology is not unfamiliar, and of the kind that one finds in allegedly ‘scholarly’ biographies of Shakespeare. I suspect that the (usually male) fans of Portia are not too dissimilar to those that many years ago Linda Woodbridge noticed had a soft spot for Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. There’s an odd, unacknowledged presentism in all of this that doesn’t quite get acknowledged, but might be worth investigating further.  Terry Hawkes thou shoulst be living at this hour. Shakespeare he hath need of thee!



I had hoped for more specificity. I have numbered the paragraphs to make it easier to reply. If any specific example is mistaken in some way, please let me know. You have made it abundantly clear that you do not agree with my approach so I do not expect you to agree with any example. It would be helpful, however, if you could express your agreement or disagreement with any example by assuming without agreeing to that approach.


After all, this is supposed to be a dialog. I want to profit from your knowledge of the play in order to correct any errors in fact or logic that I may make. In return, I believe that you can learn from me some things about the play that you do not already know.


You say that “there are a number of problems with [my] thesis.” I would be grateful if you would spell them out.


I do not particularly mind that you dismiss my ideas as “allegedly scholarly.” I have acknowledged from the beginning that our respective approaches to the play are very different: yours is scholarly and geared towards Shakespeare as Literature; mine is that of an amateur who concedes you the scholarly analysis but who wants to analyze the play from the perspective of a sophisticated Elizabethan playgoer.

OK Bill, let me put it this way: Your basic assumption - in fact the assumption upon which your whole case rests is that Shakespeare had an intimate knowledge of Elizabethan court politics. In the plays there are passing references to particular events - and some of them are in MV. References to ‘the Andrew’, for example.  In order to connect the play to the ‘history’ that you want to follow (an aristocratic history rather than a ‘popular’ history) you invest the details you focus on in the play with meanings that you claim to be ‘objective’.  Your reasoning seems to be: (a) I think this happened in the court politics of the later 16th century and (b) Shakespeare must have been aware of it and incorporated it into his play.  I can’t accept responsibility for the General Editors’ preface to the New Arden series. I didn’t write it.  In any case the phrase ‘cultural context’ is open to very wide interpretation. It is wide enough to allow you from your own position to speculate, and I am prepared to concede that methodologically speaking. BUT whenever we speculate (and I do in my edition) we need to be careful to try to establish some kind of causal connection between the various elements that we are trying to connect. It all depends very much on what you understand by ‘cultural’ here, and I think that you will need to be a lot more explicit about you own methodology here. 

I quote from your General editors’ preface:

“Both the introduction and the commentary are designed to present the plays as texts for performance, and make appropriate reference to stage, film and television versions, as well as introducing the reader to the range of critical approaches to the plays. They discuss the history of the reception of the texts within the theatre and scholarship beyond, investigating the interdependency of the literary text and the surrounding ‘cultural text’ both at the time of the original production of Shakespeare’s works and during their long and rich afterlife.” (emphasis supplied.) pp. xiv-xv.


This great play has a fascinating cultural context, wrapped up, I believe, in the continuing conflicts created by the English Reformation. I intend to demonstrate that Shakespeare was very much involved in those conflicts, did what he could to improve the situation in England, and tried to “open men’s eyes” to what was happening around them.


I agree with you about the play’s fascination but you would need to be more explicit about what you understand by ‘the English Reformation’ and where you might think Shakespeare was positioned in it. How was Shakespeare ‘involved’?  You seem to think that ‘involvement’ here is a kind of lifestyle choice. I would put it to you that ‘involvement’ could be very dangerous, and there is little evidence to show that Shakespeare was ‘involved’ in any committed sense. I am not trying to suggest here that Shakespeare was event-handed, but I don’t think that we can deduce anything certain about his ‘involvement’ or otherwise from the plays.


I would ask Bill Blanton to consider this: at 1.1.161 ff. Bassanio gives a glowing description of Portia whose “sunny locks / Hang on her temples like a golden fleece, / Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchis’ strand, / And many Jason’s come in quest of her.” (ll.169-72). As an heiress Portia is desirable, and Bassanio’s quest is at root a business proposition if a little romanticised.  This ‘might’ be connected to the alleged desirability of Elizabeth or of any eligible heiress.



I have considered 1.1.161 ff. In fact, in my post dated 8 June 2016 I specifically referenced 1.1.165-66, noting that Shakespeare had named the previously unnamed Lady of Belmonte as Portia, and further associated her with Cato’s daughter, Brutus’ Portia. That is in paragraph 3, which has incited some reaction to my speculation concerning “regime change.” I also mentioned “regime change” as a possible reason why Shakespeare connected Portia with the Sibyl (paragraph 5) in my post dated July 1, 2016.


I’m even more confused here Bill. Yes, the name Portia has ‘resonances’ (and Shakespeare went on to use the name again in JC). I think the place to start from here is the name and its historical rather than its mythical resonances. Let’s take the ‘regime change’ issue.  Why would Shakespeare be interested in ‘regime change’ (even assuming that it was thinkable for him, which I don’t think it was)  Here you are mixing up your discourses, and you are allowing a very modern concept to provide a gloss for something that would not have crossed the minds of ‘ordinary’ Elizabethans. Elizabethans were inventive readers, as the response to Sir John Hayward’s The History of Henry IV (1597) indicates, but if anybody thought that MV even hinted at ‘regime change’ Shakespeare would have been for the chop, after having been hung and drawn. . 

On pp. 163-4 of your edition you provided a number of scholarly references to the name Portia. All of which are interesting, but most of which fail to address the cultural context with which I am interested. Of all the possible references, Shakespeare himself specifically identified only one: wife of Brutus. So I asked myself: why that particular reference? My answer: so that Bassanio becomes Brutus when he marries Portia on the Story Dimension, and Essex becomes Brutus when he marries Elizabeth on the Political/Religious/Current Events Dimension. 

The key phrase here Bill is “the cultural context in which I am interested”. Now I’m all for ‘democratic reading’ (see my review in SHAKSPER of Harry Berger Jnr.’s excellent book on the Venetian plays, where he demonstrates that). It is also nonsence to say that Bassanio becomes Brutus when he marries Portia. This is NOT the Roman Portia; this is the Belmont Portia, and the only ‘evidence’ for your argument is a forced connection between two unconnected details. Even if you wanted to say that the Roman Portia was a ‘republican’, and that Venice is a ‘republic’, you would need to tease out the resonances of ‘republic’ much more carefully than your forced link suggests. Of course, you are perfectly at liberty to re-invent the play if you want, but if we are trying to proceed in a scholarly manner then we need to establish some protocols. A question: why would Shakespeare engage in these arcane links that few members of his audience would have understood or had knowledge of? And this time I’m afraid I can’t allow you to invent a ‘select few’ with whom Shakespeare was allegedly communicating. If we carry along that line then we’ll end up with the film Anonymous and we’ll be back into the crazed debate about whether Shakespeare was Shakespeare.

In particular, I will be analyzing this matter further when we discuss the identity of Bassanio on the Political/Religion/Current Events dimension of meaning. The myth of Jason and the Argonauts plays an important part in my analysis.


As you say, Shakespeare paints Portia as desirable and that Bassanio’s quest is for business, which “might” be connected to the desirability of Elizabeth or of any eligible heiress. To my mind, it must be to Elizabeth because Shakespeare specifically connected Portia to Diana, who was famously connected to Elizabeth at the time Shakespeare wrote the play. Surely this is obvious.

I think your ‘might’ gives the game away here. There is no connection with Elizabeth. In any case Elizabeth (or those around her) invented a number of occasional classical connections...which does not mean to say that anyone else who used classical narratives was referring to Elizabeth. I think the danger of your approach here is that you put two and two together and come up with five. 


BUT if we move to 3.2. we find this speech that begins:


                                                     Look on her beauty                    

            And you shall see 'tis purchased by the weight,

            Which therein works a miracle in nature,

            Making them lightest that wear most of it:

            So are those crisped snaky golden locks,

            Which maketh such wanton gambols with the wind

            Upon supposed fairness, often known

            To be the dowry of a second head,

           The skull that bred them in the sepulchre.

            Thus ornament is but the guiled shore

            To a most dangerous sea; the beauteous scarf

            Veiling an Indian beauty; in a word,

            The seeming truth, which cunning times put on

            To entrap the wisest.


What is Bassanio ‘thinking’ of here? Could Shakespeare be drawing upon archetypal notions of ‘woman’ that might be common in early modern male discourse of praise and doubt? The above passage, if Shakespeare had Elizabeth in mind would surely have earned him a visit to the local torture chamber wouldn’t it? 



I do not think that Shakespeare was drawing upon “archetypal notions of ‘woman.’” As I described in my post of 7/1/2016, I believe that Bassanio/Essex was talking about Elizabeth in a most unflattering manner. Makeup. Hair fashions. Wigs. Changeable mind. Of course, Shakespeare might have been utilizing these archetypes as part of his plausible deniability, as discussed below.


Of course you reject ‘archetypes’ here because you are wedded to the Bassanio/Essex connection, and you flesh this out with a Portia/Elizabeth connection. Elizabeth wasn’t the only woman to use make-up. Look at what Claudius says about the ‘harlot’ in Hamlet and I’d be very surprised if this was a direct reference to Elizabeth’s “beutying o’er with the plastering art.”

Shakespeare knew how to avoid the torture chamber. Playing companies and their playwrights had worked out a modus vivendi with the Master of Revels so that they knew what would be acceptable and what not. If some dissident matters were to be included in a script, they knew how to disguise them sufficiently to pass muster, while at the same time making the subversive material sufficiently apparent to the cognoscente


This is precisely why Shakespeare chose source material set in Venice, and why he set his story in Venice: plausible deniability. No offense intended here. See, it’s in Venice. It involves a Jew and generic Christians, not Protestants and Catholics. Portia is a beautiful young woman, not an aging monarch. Any notion that it might refer to London, or to the conflict between Protestants and Catholics, or to the persecutions of one against the other, or to the Queen, why, that’s all in your head. Nothing to do with me.


Besides, the Master of Revels answered to the Lord Chamberlain, patron of Shakespeare’s acting company and cousin to the Queen.

Here you go again Bill, You are trying to make the ‘facts’ that you determine fit the thesis.  Your notion of ‘plausible deniability’ is interesting but implausible. Yes, Shakespeare seems to have been careful - more careful than Jonson, or Marston, for example. BUT that does not mean that he was in cahoots with the Master of the Revels. OR that he was nodding and winking to some ‘cognoscenti’. You have to invent these people in order to sustain your case, which is why I come back to protocols.


What we have to consider here is ‘context’, and it is this term that Bill Blanton stretches widely in one direction, just as he narrows it down in another to one specific sort (an aristocratic sort) of ‘history’. Nailing the play down to a specific ‘history’ reduces its appeal, and (by the way) tells us nothing specific about Elizabeth. 



I beg to differ. 


Cultural context is exactly what I am considering. I do not understand what you mean by “narrow[ing] it down in another to one specific sort (an aristocratic sort) of ‘history.’” Please explain.


I am not trying to nail the play down to a specific ‘history.’ I am trying to show that the play is vastly more appealing precisely because of the various Dimensions of Meaning that I have identified and am trying to explicate. The play does tell us some specific things about Elizabeth, which I have been at some pains to point out. The historical context is just one star in the fascinating galaxy of stuff going on in this play.


Indeed you are. You are claiming that all that you have discovered about Elizabeth was fully available to an audience, or (even more implausibly) that part of the audience who were allegedly ‘in the know’ for whom Shakespeare was writing. This is why I say that you are offering us a very traditional aristocratic history. I agree that there is a lot going on in this play, but you want to narrow it down to Elizabeth and Essex. You are telling me I can read this play in any way I want so long as I agree that it is about Elizabeth and Essex.  As Dr Johnson once said:  if I were starting out for Roscommon, I wouldn’t start out from there.


Certainly not that Shakespeare, or any of his contemporaries harboured a desire for ‘regime change’. We might as well say that Portia is a composite of George W. Bush and Tony Blair...with the gender switch to throw us off the scent, and that Shakespeare prophesied events in Iraq and Syria. Myself I think Shakespeare prophesied BREXIT, and that Julius Caesar is a key text (the knifing of the brute Boris Johnson...with Antony and Cleopatra prefiguring a fatal encounter between Angela Merkel and Boris Johnson, with the empress Teresa (Octavius) May - who, apparently shares a name with a porn star- pronouncing unctuously at the end of the fiasco! 


To be fair to Bill Blanton, his proposal nowhere near as whacky as that, -given some of the nonsense that passes for ‘scholarship’ these days - though it seems to me to come out of a stable that is methodologically to close in proximity for comfort.


As Ever

John D



Let’s not fool ourselves. You are not trying to be fair to me; in fact, you are insulting me by comparing my ideas to the “whacky” examples that you dreamed up. I have not insulted you and do not intend to do so. Like you, I am a professional, and would prefer that our conversation be conducted in a professional manner.


OK Bill, my intention was to offer you a lighthearted example of what happens when people misunderstand ‘presentism’.  There has been a lot going on here about BREXIT that probably won’t mean very much to you, and there have been a lot of Shakespeare quotations flung around in an opportunistic way. My point - and it is a serious one - is that you seem to me to be trying to offer an ‘objective’ kind of cultural history. The problem I have with it is that you also seem to me to occlude the part you are playing in fabricating the connections between its elements. I’ve tried to see some of the connections that you are proposing, but they simply won’t gel. I’ve probably said enough about Venice, so I won’t repeat myself. BUT I will repeat the view that Venice is NOT England, nor is it a cover for England (a common error that still persists in criticism). You might like to consider the difference between ‘a monarchical republic’ (the phrase that Patrick Collinson coined in his 1987 Manchester lecture) and the kind of republic that is described in great detail in Lewis Lewekenor’s translation in 1599 of Contarini’s History of Venice. The connection with Venice has to do with money - another segment of cultural history, that is much more pregnant with meaning in MV, and that Shakespeare can be shown to have had an interest (sorry, no pun intended!) in. In this connection have a look at Robert Bearman’s excellent recent little book Shakespeare’s Money

Best regards,



Best wishes, as ever



From:        Sidney Lubow <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         August 1, 2016 at 4:29:58 PM EDT

Subject:    MV Dialog


 Bill Blanton, what is Shylock referring to by using the words ‘Pirates’ and ‘ducats’? Is this a cat and mouse game by the clever bard?



Oh, no, no, no, no: my meaning in saying he is a

good man is to have you understand me that he is

sufficient. Yet his means are in supposition: he

hath an argosy bound to Tripolis, another to the

Indies; I understand moreover, upon the Rialto, he

hath a third at Mexico, a fourth for England, and

other ventures he hath, squandered abroad. But ships

are but boards, sailors but men: there be land-rats

and water-rats, water-thieves and land-thieves, I

mean pirates, and then there is the peril of waters,

winds and rocks. The man is, notwithstanding,

sufficient. Three thousand ducats; I think I may

take his bond


How interesting that Michael Lok goes over the heads of the Masters of Stylometrics who cannot recognize a pun from the mind of Shakespeare. Do we need a poke in the ribs to recognize the RATS

In the word piRATeS or even duCATS?


MiChael Lok the Merchant of London?


Sid Lubow




London Review of Books: Shakespeare’s Binding Language

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.260  Tuesday, 2 August 2016


From:        Bo Bergstrom <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         August 1, 2016 at 4:45:27 PM EDT

Subject:    London Review of Books: Shakespeare’s Binding Language


London Review of Books

Vol. 38 No. 15 · 28 July 2016

pages 27-28 | 2814 words

Nothing Is Unmixed

Michael Wood


Shakespeare’s Binding Language by John Kerrigan
Oxford, 622 pp, £35.00, March, ISBN 978 0 19 875758 0


‘There is a touch of Shylock in this,’ John Kerrigan says of a moment in King Lear. There are touches of Shylock in many places outside The Merchant of Venice, and indeed outside Shakespeare altogether, but this one is of unusual interest. It is in Cordelia’s speech responding to her father’s question about which of his daughters loves him most – well, to be precise, which of his daughters he is to say loves him most. He is not asking for an answer, he is asking for a show.


The connection between Shylock and Cordelia rests on their common use of the single word ‘bond’. ‘I stay here on my bond,’ Shylock says, meaning he will not diverge in any way from his literal claim on what is due to him. Cordelia says: ‘I love your majesty/According to my bond, no more nor less.’ The power of the connection lies both in the word’s general meaning and its behaviour in the context in which these two use it – in their crazy literalism, their faith in language’s stability, as if it were immune to metaphor or displacement. Do moneylenders get their pound of flesh if we default on a debt? And how. They take our houses or put us in jail. Do daughters love their fathers exactly as much as they are supposed to, neither more nor less? With any luck a little more, but they are right to save some love for one or two other creatures. But then we are not talking about actual pounds of flesh or mathematical quantities of affection, and Shylock and Cordelia are.


‘Shylock and Shakespeare are nothing if not subtle,’ Kerrigan says. The character’s literalism is calculated, he wants to avenge himself for his debtor’s insults, while the author wants to explore what happens when apparent securities become loose. Cordelia is not subtle; she thinks subtlety is the family problem. She wants to rebuke her two sisters for their extravagant lying in their answers to their father’s question and to bring her father back to some sense of reality, but in effect, as Kerrigan says, she initiates the sequence of acts of ingratitude that structures the play. Her speech is ‘valid but peremptory’, and what it does takes her far from what she means.

Shylock fails to understand language use too, or fails to understand that his own subtlety, his anger masked as legality, is not going to enable him to get what he is after. ‘Shylock’s bond,’ Kerrigan shrewdly says, ‘is not rightly made to secure what Shylock wanted … because of the ambiguities of its wording, even its making use of language at all.’ He can’t have his pound of flesh, to summarise an argument from the play too crudely, because a pound is too exact a measure and flesh doesn’t include blood. He is defeated, that is, by a better literalist than he is, and the double (mock) literalism shows you can do almost anything with words except rely on them. ‘The ambiguities in Shylock’s bond are easily exploited by the tongue of man, or at least by a boy pretending to be a woman disguised as Dr Balthazar.’ ‘Easily’ is a finely chosen word for this set-up, and suggests something of the complicated interpretative skills we have when we are not pretending things are simpler than they are.


‘Language cannot secure what the characters want to have fixed,’ Kerrigan says in another context, that of a quarrel about truth in The Winter’s Tale. Hamlet and his father’s ghost seek to swear others to silence, ‘to bind by the flux of words’. The failure of language in these cases is not Kerrigan’s only or even his main subject, but it is part of an awareness that ‘oaths and vows are … means not just of assurance but of deception and self-deception.’ And the question keeps recurring. ‘Does binding language bind?’ Yes, but it is ‘naively unhistorical’ to ‘assume that binding language ought always to bind’. Shylock himself is defeated by his own ‘unbindable binding language’. The title of Kerrigan’s book names a prospect or a project rather than a stable or closed practice. Even in instances of success, as Kerrigan says in a rather technical near pun, ‘the quality of the performance affects the quality of the performative’.

Shakespeare’s Binding Language offers ‘linked case studies’ of a large number of plays, with a discreet and persuasive glance at the Sonnets in an epilogue. The ground of the work is historical, a study of the attachment to a ‘whole array of utterances and acts by which the people of early modern England committed themselves to the truth of things past, present and to come’, and of Shakespeare’s ‘extensive recourse to oaths, vows, promises, contracts, penal bonds, covenants and the like’. The practices explored include the declaration and execution of revenge, the borrowing and lending of money, accusations of lying, protestations of honesty, swearing allegiance, announcing fidelity, cursing and prophecy. In the background, or the near foreground, are the Gunpowder Plot and a series of controversies about religious allegiance and acts of real or supposed blasphemy. Lancelot Andrewes, the recently appointed bishop of Chichester, for example, seems to have thought that the oath Guy Fawkes and the others took in the name of the Trinity and the sacrament they received was ‘almost the worst thing about the conspiracy’. ‘Blasphemous equivocation’ might be more heinous than blowing up a parliament, and this extravagant thought matches Kerrigan’s reminder that even though ‘complaints of moral decline are routine in most periods’, the early modern age distinguishes itself by its ‘focus on oaths and vows’. ‘Was ever an age so outragious in Othes?’ Edmond Bicknoll asked in 1579. ‘So blasphemous in railing? So rooted in periurie?’ The answer is probably yes, lots of ages were, but it’s the mood of the questions that is important.


Kerrigan’s Shakespeare does not join the complainers, or even represent the age’s oaths and vows in a strongly formal or legal way. ‘His is not a theatre of deeds, mortgages and wills,’ Kerrigan writes. ‘The reason for the unusually high incidence of verbal bonds lies elsewhere.’ And here Kerrigan’s interesting general history meets his skilled exercise of literary criticism. If not every case of swearing or promising is different from every other – there wouldn’t be any cases if this were so – the sheer intricacy of individual instances in Shakespeare is amazing.


The book opens with an extraordinary scene from Troilus and Cressida. The siege of Troy has been going on for years. Hector is determined to rejoin the battle but his wife, Andromache, cries out ‘Unarm, unarm, and do not fight today,’ because she feels her ‘dreams will sure prove ominous’. Hector’s sister Cassandra appears and confirms Andromache’s prediction, adding the authority of prophesy to the fears of love. Hector refuses adamantly to change his decision. ‘The gods have heard me swear,’ he says, and ‘Mine honour keeps the weather of my fate.’ Cassandra and Andromache then offer two interesting arguments. The first says that ‘the gods are deaf to hot and peevish vows’; the second that Hector should ‘not count it holy/To hurt by being just’. Hector is unmoved and after his father, Priam, is brought into the conversation, goes off to the war and dies.


Hector’s appeal to honour is convincing and perhaps indisputable in his culture. But what about his claim to have sworn to go, which seems quite different? And, as Kerrigan asks, ‘is Andromache’s ingenuity desperate, or is she justifiably reminding Hector that oaths are … caught up in moral reasoning? And how convincing is Cassandra?’ More convincing to Elizabethans than to Greeks perhaps, since the former knew that to persist in ‘a rash oath, adds sin unto sin’. The whole picture is skewed, of course, by our knowledge of what happens. Andromache and Cassandra are right about the result even if Hector is right about his honour. But this just shows how complicated such transactions are: they take place in the present but always involve investments in ‘the shape of the future’.


Romeo swears by the moon, and his language is ‘charged with his yearning’. But his language also ‘acts as a species of lie-detector’, and Juliet is ‘right to doubt him’. I’m not sure she has to doubt him but she does doubt his fancy words, and she is certainly nervous about the noise he’s making. She’s not just nervous, though, she’s funny, and she anticipates Rosalind in As You Like It, the wittiest of Shakespeare’s characters on the subject of the acting that goes into speech acts. Orlando says he will die if Rosalind does not accept his suit. Rosalind, at this point pretending to be Ganymede pretending to be Rosalind, makes a fine doubting speech about romantic hyperbole, which ends ‘Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.’ ‘From time to time’ is magnificent, as if dying is a bit of a stretch for most people, and the unloving worms remind us how many mundane reasons there are for eating.


Shakespeare’s Binding Language has close commentaries on Titus Andronicus and Hamlet and several history plays, and a wonderful essay on Measure for Measure. The last chapter looks at Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale, and connects two of Shakespeare’s many jugglings with the word ‘nothing’ in a striking way. Cordelia repeats the word when invited by her father to say something that will allow her ‘to draw a third more opulent’ than her sisters’, obstructing ‘the delusions of the love-trial’, whereas Leontes’s insistent uses of the word in The Winter’s Tale are ‘dynamic’: ‘obsessive, emphatic, epistrophic’. They shape the logic of a whole paranoid fantasy:


Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? 

Is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? 

Stopping the career

Of laughing with a sigh? …
Why then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing,

The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia nothing,
My wife is nothing, nor nothing have these nothings

If this be nothing.


The person in The Winter’s Tale who comes closest to Cordelia is Leontes’s suspected but innocent wife, Hermione. She too thinks honesty is enough, but that is because ‘she does not yet understand how deluded her husband is.’ By failing to protest too much she confirms his suspicions. But she would also have confirmed them if she had protested more. This is one of the ways in which binding language works: it ties everyone in knots.


The book ends with a commentary on Sonnet 152, which begins ‘In loving thee thou know’st I am forsworn,’ and closes ‘For I have sworn thee fair – more perjured eye/To swear against the truth so foul a lie.’ The ‘more perjured eye’ is also a more perjured ‘I’, and we may hear a faint announcement of Macbeth’s unintended verbal collusion with the witches. When he says he has never seen ‘so foul and fair a day’, he doesn’t yet know that ‘fair is foul and foul is fair.’ The sonnet is full of energy and wit in its double-dealing, but, as Kerrigan says, it also evokes ‘that queasy, less deceived state which often follows a binding utterance’. It’s as if the witches’ glee and Macbeth’s forebodings were inhabiting the same mind.


These intricate instances may seem to complicate the realm of oaths and vows beyond redemption. The complication is real, but there are two reasons why it is not the whole story. One is Shakespeare himself as he appears in Kerrigan’s book. These characterisations are incidental to the argument but add up to a convincing portrait of the artist as inquirer. He has an ‘impulse to engage critically with the socially given’; with him ‘nothing is unmixed’; he ‘always escapes the sociological diagram’. He doesn’t believe in neat endings, and an ‘untidy teleology’ is the best we can expect from him. ‘All’s done, my lord,’ Ulysses says in Troilus and Cressida, but as Kerrigan comments, ‘in Shakespeare, that is rarely true.’ Shakespeare ‘was doubly engaged by the ethical weight and airiness of verbal bonds’; ‘substantially and deeply preoccupied with what they tell us about the make-up of truth’. He ‘felt impelled to pursue the make-up of truth-telling’. This, Kerrigan writes, was an ‘exploratory drive’ that no doubt had its roots in his lived experience but requires no ‘autobiographical assumptions’ for us to see it or understand it. It’s true that the ethical airiness of these bonds often seems to interest Shakespeare more than their weight, but that may be the professional tilt of the poet and playwright; and in any case a person interested in the conveyance of truth would have to be interested in the multifarious ways in which truth is bent or lost. Kerrigan’s use of the word ‘make-up’ has a double edge.


Indeed it directs us towards the second reason why complication is not the whole story. Outside Shakespeare, and even outside literature, ambiguities abound. They cause plenty of trouble but also often help us out. This is true to such a degree, I think, that J.L. Austin’s wonderfully clarifying thoughts about speech acts and their success or failure (their felicity or infelicity, as he put it), and above all his sense of how firmly the boundaries between what he calls ordinary and parasitic versions of utterances can be policed, how clear the distinction is between speaking seriously and acting or quoting, now look rather wishful. Kerrigan’s book, in effect and perhaps in intention, invites us further into scepticism about these dealings than many of us may want to go.


Kerrigan notes the considerable cost of deception or illusion in the business of binding in language: ‘Oaths and vows can reinforce the very doubt they are meant to allay’; ‘The higher the speech act, the harder, more dramatic the fall.’ There are many moments when ‘language cannot secure what the characters want to have fixed.’ There is ‘violence … inherent in oaths and vows – the world must be made to fit the word’. Words may fall into ‘disgrace’ through their sheer slipperiness. This is not to say that we have to doubt every oath, or that speech acts have to fall or fail, or that language can’t help us get what we want. Sometimes the world fits the word with minimal violence, and there may be no disgrace in the offing at all. The practical question, though, is not about the possibility of success or failure in promising or swearing, but about the actual occasions of either or both.


The sort of scepticism about words that Shakespeare models for us, the idea that ‘speech act and doubt go together,’ as Kerrigan puts it, does not, I think, imply that our words are likely to behave improperly, as if they were unruly children or rebellious populations. It does imply that their behaviour depends on how we treat them.


What happens when we trust someone’s language, believe what they say, and prove to be right in the placing of this trust and belief? What will have counted is the local action of the words and their relation to whatever knowledge we have and whatever faith we can or want to muster. A King Lear who was less like an old-time movie producer would have understood Cordelia better even if she was overdoing the Puritan candour. But don’t the words mean what they mean? Yes, but I am suggesting – or proposing as a summary of what provocations all around us have long been suggesting – that this meaning is not a code or a base, a stable centre of sense that is modified in one way or another to form what Austin calls the force of an utterance. The given meaning is material for making meaning, a toolkit that doesn’t work until used. This is the reason yes can sometimes mean no, and this is the way the whole Freudian concept of negation works. If in answer to your kind question about how I feel I say I’m all right, thanks, your response will depend on how well you know me, my tone of voice, your degree of attention and distraction, various surrounding conditions and histories and much else. When you collect the results you can decide whether to say you’re glad to hear it, or to call an ambulance.




World Shakespeare Congress

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.259  Tuesday, 2 August 2016


From:        Stuart Manger <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         August 1, 2016 at 4:21:56 PM EDT

Subject:    Re: SHAKSPER: World Shakespeare Congress


Getting newspaper coverage in UK. 


Stuart Manger


Much ado about Shakespeare: UK hosts global Bard summit:

Stratford-upon-Avon and London welcomes huge gathering of academics and fans 400 years after playwright’s death


How have touring productions of Shakespeare gone down with Japanese audiences? Do the plays work when reimagined as manga books? What can we learn from the style of underpants worn by actors playing Falstaff in previous Royal Shakespeare Company productions?


These were just some of the questions debated in Stratford-upon-Avon on Monday, as more than 800 scholars and enthusiasts from 48 countries gathered for one of the biggest academic conventions on Shakespeare to be held in Britain for decades.


The World Shakespeare Congress meets only once every five years, and has not been held in the UK since 1981. In the year of the playwright’s quadricentennial, however, there could be no more fitting place to kick off the congress than the town in which he was born, continuing later this week in London, the city where he made his name and fortune.


“Stratford is a place where people have been imagining Shakespeare in different ways for 400 years, it has the resonances of all these different performances that have happened here,” said Prof Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare institute at the University of Birmingham, which is co-hosting the event with the RSC, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and King’s College London. “Everyone who has been interested in and committed to Shakespeare sooner or later wants to visit Stratford, so it has traces of the huge long comet tail of ‘Shakespeare’ as well as his actual, mundane life.”


There was plenty of evidence of the writer’s enduring popularity on a grey Monday afternoon, with crocodiles of tracksuited Chinese teenagers battling for pavement space with guided German walking tours. But one could also hear snatches of conversations, on the lawn outside the riverside theatre and in the gift shop at the playwright’s half-timbered birthplace, about the staging of Measure for Measure and favourite productions of King Lear.


In a packed day’s schedule, delegates from countries as diverse as Mauritius, the UAE, Egypt and India could choose between sessions examining the “problem” with the Comedy of Errors, the role of chance in the gravediggers’ scene in Hamlet, and the possibility that other writers may have collaborated with Shakespeare in his sonnets.


Tony Voss, who before his retirement was professor of English at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in Durban in South Africa, said the value of attending the congress was that “it puts what you’re doing in perspective and prevents you from becoming provincial and narrow in your own work”.


Though he lived in Oxford at one point in his career, during which he frequently attended Shakespeare productions in the town, Voss said that returning to Stratford “reminds me that Shakespeare was, in the end, only one man. He isn’t really the huge story that has developed around him”. Later in the week, Voss will participate in a seminar on the meaning of the Comedy of Errors to South African audiences, and many other delegates spoke of the particular resonances of Shakespeare’s work in their own cultural contexts.


Yang Lingui, a professor at Donghua University, in Shanghai, said Chinese audiences had a particularly acute understanding of the immense cultural changes that were happening in Europe in the playwright’s lifetime. Until cultural restrictions were eased in the late 1970s, he said, “Chinese people’s experience of life was quite like the middle ages. Then their eyes were opened to the outside world – like the Reformation in Shakespeare’s time”.


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