The Shakespeare Wars

Battling the American Shakespeare Industrial Complex
New books dissected over email.
Sept. 21 2006 3:38 PM

The Shakespeare Wars

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Dear Steve,

I agree there are those like Bloom who boost themselves to vatic status on Shakespeare's shoulders, so to speak. But on the other hand, I've always found Shakespeare to be a powerful remedy for self-importance.

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Consider the ridicule of self-importance one finds throughout the plays—I can think of no more persistent theme. It is perhaps embodied most explicitly in Twelfth Night—in the scourging of thefoolishly preening steward, Malvolio; but also in the implicit ridicule of the self-loving lover, Orsino ("If music be the food of [self-] love, play on").

Lear's cry of "Take physic, pomp" or Hamlet's self-lacerating "How all occasions do inform against me" subvert self-importance, as do the satirically self-important courtiers Polonius and Osric. (And by the way, I don't think "To be or not to be" has been utterly exhausted. Consider what results if you hear it as "two be, or not two be"—a meditation on self-division.) Indeed, in just about every play, one can find ridicule of a figure of self-importance, both comic—Achilles in Troilus and Cressida, Pistol in Henry V—and tragic—Coriolanus in Coriolanus, Richard II's recognition that the self-importance of kingship rests upon a "hollow crown." I could go on.

But in a larger sense, Shakespeare's body of work itself is a remedy for self-importance because it cannot help but imbue anyone—but especially writers—with a sense of humility bordering on futility. Nothing one does can come close to it—Shakespeare makes Kinbotes of us all.

But to move on to your question about the PAUSE (whose capitalization, by the way, is an attempt to reproduce Sir Peter Hall's virtual bellowing vocalization of this descriptor of silence), I'm pleased you found this issue as resonant as I did. After all, whether Shakespeare's works unleash their potential all comes down to how you speak the speech, right? Hamlet's obsessively detailed instructions to the Players on how to speak their lines seems to reflect his author's concern as well.

I've suggested that Hall's pause turns each line into its own "aesthetic enclosure," an echo chamber of internal resonances like one of Alexander Pope's jewel-box rhyming couplets. And I agree it's kind of wonderful to think of the entire edifice of the Royal Shakespeare Company (which brought Shakespeare into the modern era in large part by stripping away Victorian encrustations of scenery and verbal floridity) was built upon an absence, a delicate "sensory break" as Sir Peter now calls it.

But do I detect a whiff of Anglophilia in your contrast between the subtle silence of Hall's pause and Bloom's booming bloviation? Must America be saddled with Bloom as its representative, rather than, say, Berkeley's Stephen Booth, who is exquisitely attuned to Shakespeare's verbal ambiguities (and to whose brilliant analysis of the sonnets I devote a chapter)?

And after all, as you know, I came to fully understand and appreciate the function of the pause in a Shakespeare verse-speaking class I took with American director Barry Edelstein at the Classic Stage Company on 13th Street in Manhattan. Edelstein says that he, too, was puzzled by the pause at the end of the line until he reconceived it as the moment the character needs to "think up the next line."

Now, we know that the actor doesn't really "think up" the next line at that moment. But if he or she is good, then playing the pause as the moment of thinking up the next line has a remarkable heuristic effect. It gives a kind of renewed forcefulness to that momentary halt, a place for a gathering of energy and articulation. The pause becomes a launching pad for, or a springboard into, the next line.

It's a conceptual trick, this notion of pausing to think up the next line, but it evokes exactly what impressed me so forcefully in Brook's legendary production of A Midsummer Night's Dream: A sense that the words were freshly minted that very instant, spoken as if for the first time, not recited or emoted, but torn from the actor.

And if it's something that is now a kind of thought experiment—the mimesis of invention—it recalls the original moment when Shakespeare's hand must have paused, poised over the page, before inventing and inditing the next line, a paradoxical fusion of spontaneity and inevitability.

Those who doubt it should give it a try. Speaking the verse aloud oneself is always a voyage of discovery. I recommend testing out the Edelstein version of the Hall pause on the long opening speech of the Chorus of Henry V:

O! for a Muse of fire that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention ...

Because it's about invention in the sense of finding what follows from the new vista attained in the ascent to the end of the line.

I would, however, agree with you that there are at least two ways in which U.K. scholars have distinguished themselves as a rule from the general run of their American counterparts. In both cases, the distinction inheres in a kind of skepticism, always a remedy for the zealotry you speak of.

Eight years ago, American scholars—or at least the publishing arm of the American Shakespeare industrial complex—rushed to embrace the bogus attribution of the awful "Funeral Elegy"—an exhausting, interminably pious 600-line poem that had been moldering away in an Oxford library for 400 years until an overly ambitious Vassar professor rode it to fame and fortune by claiming it as a "Shakespearean discovery." His statistical analysis matched the style to Shakespeare's, but the conclusion just didn't ring true to those who'd spent their lives developing a sensitivity to the Shakespearean sensibility.

It was the occasion for me to embark upon my own personal Shakespeare War—a war I waged in my New York Observer columnsagainst the attribution and its inclusion in the Shakespeare canon—and I found my only outspoken allies on the other side of the Atlantic, most notably prodigious scholar Brian Vickers. But, even though my position was eventually vindicated, the overeager professor had to admit he was wrong and that the wretched elegy was by John Ford. American Shakespeare publishers had already forced hapless editors to include the poem into their newest Complete Works of Shakespeare editions, largely, I believe, because of market pressures. Publishers wanted to flog "the new Shakespeare poem" at the expense of the poor students compelled to take it seriously.

But there was another factor at work, I think: the seduction of American academics by the so-called death of the author theory—i.e., the largely uncritical acceptance of "critical theory," most especially that based on the works of Michel Foucault and others who likewise professed disdain for "subjectivity" and "agency," and thus authorship itself. An author was merely the mouthpiece for the hegemonic zeitgeist whose works reproduced the power relations of the moment rather than any individual authorial vision.

Thus the well-known "death of the author," and the substitutions of silly jargon phrases such as "author function" for author, left many American scholars unable, or too uninterested, to judge issues of authorship—and made them susceptible to the claims that a silicon chip could be substituted for individual critical sensibility.

(By the way, I hope you saw Richard Wolin's recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education on Foucault's previously untranslated later lectures—which largely repudiated his earlier critique of subjectivity and, by extension, the foundation of the "death of the author" critical theology. It should come as kind of Emily Litella "never mind" moment for theory-addled American literary scholars.)

But, as I report in my final two chapters, there has already been a significant turn away from theory folly by the brighter minds among Shakespeare scholars. And so I am able to close my book on an optimistic note, including a return of the examination of aesthetics, the nature of beauty and pleasure, previously unfashionable in academic circles as subjects of serious discussion among serious scholars.

And I will close this communiqué on a hopeful note. Having enjoyed our exchange immensely, and feeling much gratitude for your thoughtful appreciation of my work, I hope that this will represent not an end of our discussion, but instead ... a PAUSE.

Best,

Ron

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