Two new books on the master playwright offer a refreshing reconsideration of his workby Rhodri Lewis / December 9, 2019 / Leave a comment
Although events in Westminster have (so far) spared us Boris Johnson’s promised book on Shakespeare, one could be forgiven for thinking that more popular studies of the playwright are being published than ever before. Shakespearean biography and pseudo-biography are wells that never seem to run dry; the market for Shakespeare as a political, moral, cultural, philosophical and religious prophet, like that for Shakespeare as a window on the history of the 16th- and 17th-century worlds, continues to flourish. Beyond their prominent place in the heritage industry, what such studies have in common is not so much a lack of interest in Shakespeare’s works, as a loss of confidence in them. Rather than focusing on the complexities, challenges and frequent joys of Shakespeare’s art, they are content to make his plays the servants of arguments or histories to which his art is incidental. To the extent that Shakespeare’s works are said to matter, it is because of their value as a source material—or simply because they can be shown to have been important to so many different opinion-forming people for such a long time.
Viewed from here, the two very different titles under review are a tonic. Both take seriously Shakespeare’s works as artistic wholes, and both stress that to appreciate them demands our willingness to consider them in the poetic and dramatic round.
Emma Smith’s This is Shakespeare will, for some time to come, remain required reading for all those with more than a passing interest in Shakespeare. In 20 short chapters, each devoted to an individual play, Smith takes us on a chronological tour of the playwright’s writing career. The style is brisk, and to gauge from her “Approaching Shakespeare” podcasts, replicates the experience of her lectures for undergraduates at Oxford. The book feels decidedly Oxford in at least one other way: she has learned a lot from John Carey’s curious amalgam of populism, erudition and homeliness—and also has his knack for sketching complex ideas in arrestingly unstuffy prose. But Smith’s canvas and palette are more expansive than those of the Merton professor emeritus. More importantly, she never sacrifices nuance to vigour, and is often very funny.
One consequence of reading Shakespeare’s works in the round is that it becomes difficult to say exactly what they are supposed to mean. Eloquence is no guarantee: we might permit ourselves to treat, say, the fine lines of Hamlet as if they are a vehicle for Shakespeare’s own thinking about drama and the imponderables of the human condition; but Richard III, Claudius, Edmund, Macbeth and Leontes are not obviously less impressive speakers than the melancholy Dane. “Who’s there?” asks the first character we hear speak in Hamlet. As nobody on stage answers, we in the audience are obliged to start figuring it out for ourselves. Smith calls this quality Shakespeare’s “gappiness,” and takes it to be the core feature of his work: the plays are “woven of what’s said and what’s unsaid, with holes in between,” and tend “to imply rather than state; he often shows rather than tells; most characters and encounters are susceptible to multiple interpretations.”
This seems to me a compelling way of evaluating afresh an author about whom we are often told that everything has been said. Gappiness not only frames the relationship between his works and their audiences, but also distances his works from the orthodoxies and conflicts of the world in which they were written. By probing the ideas and mores of his contemporaries through a dramatic form that depends on the audience filling in the gaps, Shakespeare ensured that his plays would resonate in times and spaces far removed from his own. So it is that his plays have become such “spacious texts to think with—about agency, celebrity, economics, friendship, sex, politics, privacy, laughter, suffering, about a tonne of topics, including art itself.”
Not that by drawing attention to the plays’ gappiness, Smith is implying that anything goes. She has a line with which to measure her readings, one which has never quite received the attention it deserves in Shakespeare studies: dramatic structure. She introduces it through The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare’s masterful farce of mistaken identity. In Smith’s judgment, this play has been neglected because “we don’t know how to appreciate plot.” Plot, for Smith, is no superficial matter. As EM Forster once put it, “the king died and then the queen died” is a story, but “the king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. Smith’s Shakespeare is interested in the infinitely complicated relationships of causation that arise from the collision of our own feelings, thoughts, beliefs, uncertainties and deeds with those of the people around us.
This is Shakespeare offers virtuoso displays of reading for the comedic plot, but I suspect that it will be best remembered for the skill with which Smith traces the interplay between plot, character and theme within the tragedies. Romeo and Juliet, in which a prologue declares exactly what is going to happen in the action of the play, sets the tone. Shakespeare’s two King Richards likewise showcase Smith’s sensitivity to the importance of endings: we may get to them late, but they allow the playwright to define much of what goes before. The way in which Richard II confronts his dethronement and death threatens to turn the history play that bears his name into a tragedy, while the manner in which Richard III closes (the showily anodyne Richmond, about to become Henry VII, is triumphant at Bosworth) invites us to think again about the parade of vices and apparent virtues that we have just been observing: “Richmond has only that most equivocal of triumphs, that of being alive at the end of a Shakespearean tragedy. This is the hallmark of a nonentity (the Prince in Romeo and Juliet, Fortinbras in Hamlet, Malcolm in Macbeth: who cares?).”
Although Smith’s chapters on Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra are outstanding, it is those on King Lear and Othello that fully reveal the boldness and sophistication of her approach. She reminds us that King Lear is Shakespeare’s most forthright study in desolation: Lear is modelled on the biblical Job, only without redemption; Cordelia is a Cinderella, who, “rather than being whisked off to the ball, is instead mown down by that pumpkin coach, drawn by mice coachmen of the apocalypse”; everyone tells themselves stories in the attempt to exert a measure of control over their world and their place within it, only to find that this propensity for storytelling has become the engine of the catastrophe that engulfs them. That catastrophe—the denouement, and the actions and aspects of character that make it inescapable—depends upon Shakespeare’s genius for plotting against conventional expectations of what a tragedy like King Lear ought to be doing. Reading Smith, it is clear that, unlike Dr Johnson and many more recent students of the play, we ought to resist the temptation to change, ignore, or moralise away this bleakest of endings.
In comparison, Smith’s interpretation of Othello might seem modish or fashionably woke. It is neither. Smith notes the ways in which the play lends itself to analyses of race, class, gender, religion, orientalism and sexual politics—as it has to jealousy or the nature of unmotivated evil. The rub is that such readings depend either on abstracting individual characters (in the case of Othello and Desdemona, a couple) from the play of which they are a part, or on cherry-picking parts of the play to discuss something (an idea, ideology, or historical moment) intruding from outside it. It is not so much that Smith wants students to forgo this sort of thing, but that she wants them to be aware, first, that they are doing it when they are and, second, that doing it comes with costs.
Chief among these costs is an attentiveness to plot. In a deft provocation, Smith argues that even the most politically-charged readings of Othello have blinded themselves to its radical “intersectionality”: just as Iago’s plotting depends on his acute perception of the overlapping relationships between gender, race, class, religion et al in Venetian-ruled Cyprus, so Shakespeare weaves the same subjects into the plot to which Othello, Desdemona and Iago belong. You need not, I think, regard yourself as a social justice warrior to see that Smith is on to something significant here. And again, an awareness of the highly wrought structure of Shakespeare’s plays puts the ball back in our court. While we must take care not to botch the plays’ words up to fit our own preoccupations, we are the ones who have to determine what they mean and why they matter.
Is Smith’s book really Shakespeare, or even Shakespeare as he survives in the 21st century? I don’t know, but it is a model for almost everything that Shakespeare criticism for the general reader should be striving to achieve.
Oliver Morgan’s Turn-taking in Shakespeare is a markedly different proposition, but is also an intelligent book written for intelligent readers. Its focus is not on plot but on dialogue and the role of dialogic exchange in shaping scenic form; its thesis is that linguistic analysis—in particular, the branch of it concerned with “turn-taking” in conversational settings—has much to teach us about the ways in which Shakespeare’s writings should be understood. Morgan’s learning and ingenuity are considerable, and he shows beyond any shadow of a doubt that attentiveness to the conventions of conversational exchange (and to the occasions when these conventions are ignored) offers a fresh way of comprehending the plays.
The order in which Lear’s daughters are invited to speak when asked to declare their love for their father is an obvious enough point of reference, well handled by Morgan. But Morgan’s treatment of Gertrude intervening to prevent her son Hamlet and new husband Claudius from coming into direct conflict—“like a barman stepping between two drunks in a pub”—gives a better sense of what his kind of linguistic analysis can do. The attention he gives to the dying words of Hotspur on the battlefield of Shrewsbury, and to Cleopatra frustrating Antony’s attempts to tell her that he must return to Rome are other fine cases in point. Even so, his method is best realised in teasing out the tensions and implications of longer encounters—or even whole scenes— such as the one between Bolingbroke, Mowbray and the king near the start of Richard II. Shakespeare has seldom been read with a combination of such tact and quantificatory precision.
Morgan sometimes seems worried that all this linguistic detail might look too dry: chapters begin with elaborate exercises in throat clearing, and the novelty of his readings can feel over-sold. No matter. His is an important book that, in offering a new way to illuminate the patterns through which Shakespeare’s characters interact with one another, joins Smith’s This is Shakespeare in affirming that the play, approached in the round, really is the thing.
This is Shakespeare by Emma Smith (Penguin Books, £20)
Turn-taking in Shakespeare by Oliver Morgan (Oxford Textual Perspectives, £50)