The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.319 Thursday, 29 September 2016
Date: Thursday, September 29, 2016
Subject: From TLS: Not one sable tear
Not one sable tear
The theatre of our good will
303pp. Edinburgh University Press. £85 (US $140).
The self-renewing politics of a global playwright
218pp. Troubadour. Paperback, £12.99 (US $19.99).
Jonson, Donne, Shakespeare and the works of
272pp. Cambridge University Press. £64.99 (US $99).
[ . . . ]
In Worldly Shakespeare, Richard Wilson is lethal about the British Museum’s version of this activity. Its former director, Neil MacGregor, made “the most systematic bid thus far to annex Shakespeare to the merchandising bazaar” of the museum’s “long-term project, attractive to its donors, of validating imperialism as a necessary phase in the march of global capitalism”. Wilson has a lot of fun with the BM’s 2009 Aztecs exhibition, pointing out the discrepancy between MacGregor’s claims for his museum (it “reveals the oneness of the world”, that “all societies think and behave the same way”, “that humanity is one”) and some of the items it exhibited (daggers used to tear out human hearts for sacrifice, boxes used to collect children’s entrails). By way of this Aztec-style sacrifice of MacGregor, Wilson makes a distinction between the “worldly” and the “universal” and concludes Shakespeare was very much the former and not really the latter. In Worldly Shakespeare, we have a Shakespeare who knows – keenly – the irreconcilability of cultures, of peoples. “You that way, we this way” he ends Love’s Labour’s Lost, in words of what Wilson calls “ironic tolerance”. This is a Shakespeare full of characters who have “simply agreed to differ in the same language”, spikily opposed to the “false humanism” of a “plurivocal” or “protean” Shakespeare who “can be made to presage the normative rationality of deliberative democracy”.
The latter is exactly what we get in Shakespeare and Democracy by Gabriel Chanan – though we get it late, since it is only after 178 pages of a 218-page book that Chanan devotes much space to what “democracy” might be. Chanan can be acutely whimsical (he wonders whether Shakespeare, in despair at Henry VIII, deliberately burned down the Globe) but is more often mushy and bland. There are plenty of high school pieties about Shakespeare “perhaps having no answer himself; but [being] mightily concerned with the questions”, forever “walking a political tightrope” to avoid offence. By contrast Wilson’s book thinks of Shakespeare’s silences as profoundly offensive, noting how Henry Chettle’s “England’s Mourning Garment” (1603) seems to criticize Shakespeare for not dropping “one sable tear”, one idle poem, on the death of Elizabeth. Shakespeare’s silences were not meek but defiant – a refusal to write the works monarchy expected, whether laudatory or condemnatory. Rather than “the cliché question about his relation to the Tudor monarchy, the truly historicist query about Shakespeare may concern his perverse lack of relation to the Tudor state” (Wilson).
Chanan claims to supersede unnamed nineteenth-century commentators who saw Shakespeare as an “unvarying beacon of morality and humanity”, but the only thing his book varies in that formulation is the word “unvarying”. Instead, Chanan presents a Shakespeare who “got better as he went!” – but look at any timeline of Shakespeare plays and you’ll struggle to see a sustained Whiggish development to democracy, let alone one that deserves Chanan’s perky exclamation mark. All Chanan can conclude about his “limited and supplementary way” of reading the plays is that they “led to” modern democracy, much as Alfred the Great led to Elizabeth II: one came before the other, both have things in common, but neither stand in a relationship of significant causal connection.
[ . . . ]
Wilson’s book seems to circle around Chanan’s, as the shark does the seal, but not as much as it circles back to Wilson’s earlier writing. Worldly Shakespeare reads like an update of Secret Shakespeare (2004), posing and foregrounding more contemporary – more worldly – readings. Renaissance Southwark was “an extramural banlieue”; Sir Anthony Sherley’s 1598 arms deal with Shah ‘Abbas was a Renaissance version of the Iran–Contra affair; Hamlet is a terrorist, a suicide bomber. These claims risk sounding tritely contemporary, but Wilson effortfully establishes the worth of each connection between the Renaissance and the present. He is less effortful in his claims about the past. He loves breezy, frequently parenthetical, assertion about things that are uncertain. It would be possible to finish his book thinking that Sonnet 106 was definitely about The Faerie Queene, that Sonnet 124 was definitely about Queen Elizabeth, and that there undoubtedly existed (or exists) a testament of John Shakespeare’s Catholic faith. None of these things (especially not the latter) is established – and Wilson makes no attempt here to establish them. Even more breezy is his treatment of the Puritans. Wilson has worked hard to rescue Renaissance Catholicism and Renaissance Catholics from the bigotry of Tudor England. In Worldly Shakespeare he continues bringing English Catholics back into the light; yet he sometimes does so by throwing Puritans into the dark. Here Puritans are shadowy figures, scarcely quoted or named but a dependable source of nasty, objectionable opinions. In fact they sound rather like the Catholics of Tudor polemic.
Wilson is more patiently dismissive of James I, the “‘folio’ king” with literary pretensions or, in James Joyce’s phrase, the “Scotch philosophaster with a taste for witch-roasting”. Yet in Writing the Monarch in Jacobean England Jane Rickard does a good job of burnishing – and rehabilitating – James’s credentials as an author. Here was a king who published decent poetry, and an even more decent treatise on poetics (“A short treatise”, 1584); a king who wrote learnedly about politics and theology; a king who commissioned Jonson, appointed Shakespeare and encouraged Donne. In turn, Rickard finds these writers motivated by James’s works – and not always in servile postures of patronage, but in defiance, superiority, even mockery. Donne’s king-like suitors, for example, are full of hot air, while Jonson’s Folio is a text-for-text competition with James’s (they were both printed in 1616).
We might expect the section of this book on James and Shakespeare to tread old ground: witchcraft in Macbeth, Anglo-Scottish union in King Lear, kingship in Measure for Measure. But Rickard avoids the obvious and, in doing so, uncovers a new allusion to James’s poem The Lepanto (1591; reprinted 1603) in Othello, and a meditation on 2 Henry IV in James’s Meditation upon Saint Matthew (1620). Shakespeare and James read each other more widely than we have supposed. So, when Rickard returns to more familiar territory in her chapter on Measure for Measure, she is better able to drown critical canards. Far from the play’s Duke parodying James’s shyness, particularly his aversion to crowds, Measure for Measure “does not even prove that the Duke himself dislikes public appearance”; indeed, he seems a Peter Mandelson-like figure, hogging both the shadows and the limelight. Nor, it turns out, was James congenitally averse to crowds – that was an eighteenth-century misapprehension based on John Oldmixon’s reading of Measure for Measure. The argument for the Duke-as-James has always also been an argument for James-as-Duke, circular from the start.
Jane Rickard’s book does not have the dazzling range of Wilson’s. She confines her analysis of James and his writer-subjects to the lexical and topical, tracing a phrase or a theme from or to the King. So Writing the Monarch does not deal with another, highly germane field of allusion. Given that Jonson, Donne, Shakespeare and others knew of James as a poet, might they have engaged with the poetics espoused in James’s treatise (reprinted in 1603) or in his poems? It is probably telling, for example, that Samuel Daniel bound his Defence of Rhyme with a 1603 panegyric to the new King. James was a favourer of rhyme, at a time when laureates such as Edmund Spenser were publishing against it. In Macbeth Shakespeare’s witches frequently speak a seven-syllable verse line which James, in his treatise, had called “broken”. When (if) he saw it performed at court, was the King spooked by the line, or flattered by it, or both? Was this Shakespeare “offending with good will”, as Wilson would likely suggest, while preserving the status quo; or beginning a conversation with James which – in its insistence on an equal footing – edged the English state towards democracy? The latter option seems rather grand, even grandiloquent; but it is to the credit of these three books, both in their scope and their limitations, that it can seem – just – possible.