Books: The Meaning of Recognition — Rough Guides to Shakespeare |
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Rough Guides to Shakespeare

Alan Yentob says that Leonardo da Vinci is a great artist. Michael Wood says that Shakespeare is a great playwright. There is nothing remarkable about saying these things, even on BBC1. All depends on how they are said. Long ago impressed by how much meaning remains packed into one of Wood’s sentences even while he pounds it with emphasis from all directions, I have been living with his In Search of Shakespeare for some weeks, after securing a set of preview tapes well ahead of the launch date. The week that Barry Manilow broke his nose was a good time to start watching them. Weight-wise, Wood bears a sharp resemblance to Manilow: men like them are thin forever. Also the historian’s nose is as salient as the singer’s. Though more pointed than preponderant, it courts a similar danger as its owner lopes searchingly forward. The risk is increased by this presenter’s habit of talking sideways while the camera tracks him. A potentially impacting object might get into range without his seeing it, so that when his head suddenly resumes a normal alignment it could be too late to take evasive action. In that event, of course, the footage would end up on the cutting room floor, but not before the abruptly rebuffed presenter ended up in the hospital. Wood’s blithe courage as a walking talker is part of his boyishness.

Another part is an urge to update his frame of reference in keeping with the current buzz. In the context of lust and love in Shakespeare, Sex and the City gets a mention. ‘The Elizabethans were very up-front about sex.’ Well, it’s true: they were. When Hamlet made his crack about country matters, the groundlings were probably elbowing each other’s ribs in the same way those dreadful lads on Big Brother do at the hint of a double meaning. That’s why the gag is there: it’s one for the punters. Shakespeare’s language is not pure. Even at its most exalted, it declines to be exclusive. It switches between one level of decorum and another as an electron shifts orbits without crossing the space between. Wood is right to shuffle his frames of reference, the better to cover the individual case, and to match the general fact of his hero’s gargantuan appetite for synthesis. The Victorian commentators, who were not up-front about sex, were at a loss properly to discuss one of the crudest, and therefore one of the most important, of the elements that contributed to Shakespeare’s richness — a richness that was not refined, like gold, but complex, like the world. Wood has a nose for that complexity. All the more reason to hold one’s breath as he steers the nose around trees, along tow-paths and through forests.

Actually one should not be too strict even about the excessive walk-talking that eats up time in the broadcast version of his essay. As in his previous shows, he is always walking through exactly the right landscape. When in search of Alexander, he and his crew slogged up all the appropriate escarpments to reveal Alexander’s knack for positioning the enemy so that a sudden charge into the centre would do the business. To match his feeling for words and rhythms, Wood has a feeling for terrain. (The connection is not rare in literature — it helped motivate the Augustans as well as the Romantics — but among today’s TV presenters it is almost unknown, partly because for them the whole world has turned into what Americans call the Flyover.) Was Shakespeare, during his Lost Years, ever in Lancashire? Asking the question sideways while both hands weigh invisible melons, Wood strides through the Lancashire mud. If Shakespeare had ever been in Lancashire he would have probably strode, or stridden, through mud like this.

There is usually a point to Wood’s talking walk. He strides beside the Thames. Well, so did Shakespeare. Canary Wharf was less in evidence at the time, but beside the Thames must still have been an exciting place to stride if you were a country boy just starting off in the big smoke. Mercifully, in Wood’s style as a programme maker, there is none of the sort of visual evocation known in the trade as Mickey Mouse. He and his crew can be a bit literal — we saw quite a lot of today’s wool trade while the possibility was considered that Shakespeare’s father once had the same sort of connection to fleece distribution as Tony Soprano has to waste disposal — but the tendency is kept well this side of the absurd. If Wood were to say that the young, on-the-make Shakespeare wolfed down the teeming experience of the London stews, we might be shown the presenter’s speed of stride along the smooth macadam now covering the area where the stews once were, but we would not be shown footage of a wolf.

When Simon Schama says that Henry V was reputed in his day to have the personality of a leopard, we are shown footage of a leopard. We are also asked to believe that two intermittently intersecting tin swords represent the battle of Agincourt; but that is bearable even if feeble. The leopard is unbearable, and Schama must know it. At the same time as Michael Wood was establishing himself as one of the most promising young historians in Oxford, Schama was establishing himself as one of the most promising young historians in Cambridge, and I saw enough of him to know that he would rather be caught in a thunderstorm than in a cliché. Some students of the close relationship between Simon Schama and Mickey Mouse call such effects schamanic, but really they just mean that Schama is less in control of the producer than the producer is in control of him. He might consider trading off some of his enviable salary against more clout. Either Wood has done just that, or else he is luckier. Though often obliged to do his expounding on the move when he might have preferred to stand still, at least he can be sure that if he mentions Shakespeare’s talent reaching a peak the screen will not be occupied by footage of Sir Edmund Hillary doing the same. Merely through word and gesture, he boyishly finds means to convey the thrill of the search. But inevitably gesture crowds out word.

When pointing something out, it takes time for a presenter to instruct us, through the window of the lens, that something worth looking at lies nearby, and then for him to go over there and point a finger at it to help us look at it, while generating repetitive emphases with the voice in order to convey how very much worth looking at it is. The voice-over is much more economical in this regard than any piece to camera. Producers and directors, however, love the piece to camera, and beyond a certain point they can’t be fought, even by a presenter with Wood’s prestige. In his book there is much more room for words and all they can evoke without needing to show. In his book, as a consequence, the references to our current media world look less trendy. Some critics complained that the screen-time devoted to Shakespeare’s school days was too short, almost as if somebody was afraid that younger viewers might be scared off by the very mention of a school day lasting longer than a few minutes, and of lessons that had to be got by rote lest corporal punishment ensue. But on the page, Wood goes into Shakespeare’s education at length. ‘Shakespeare was the product of a memorizing culture in which huge chunks of literature were learned off by heart.’ So, to a certain extent, were you and I, but we must forgive him for insisting on the obvious, because he is well aware that the audience he is after has never memorized anything. The reader is not allowed to suppose that the most effortless-seeming progenitor of the English language did it all by natural warbling. Ben Jonson, who said that Shakespeare had ‘little Latin’, could say so only because he had a lot of Latin: Shakespeare had enough.

Though denied a university education — the denial might have been his biggest blessing, because it forced him to operate in a context other than purely literary — Shakespeare was a great reader before he was a great writer. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for example, he knew by heart, and in the Latin, although he used a translation for speed. Leaving us in no doubt of what learned times the playwrights lived in, Wood earns his right to the apparent flippancy of saying that Marlowe’s mighty line was ‘the sound everybody wanted’. The rock and roll frame of reference fits well. The playwrights were young, hungry and competitive, and the first blank verse, when they heard it, must have hit them in the head in the same way that the first rock stars who are now old or dead were hit in the knees by rhythm and blues records and suddenly realized that here was a musical language in which anything could be expressed without the listener ceasing to yell for more. Wood isn’t lowering the tone by drawing such analogies. He is raising it. He is talking about language as a marketable thrill, and that was the first thing Shakespeare’s language was. It wasn’t the last, but he would have had no theatrical career without that. He would have been just a poet.

Whether being ‘just a poet’ means being less of a poet is a nice question. On Newsnight Review, Germaine Greer said she would make up her mind about Wood’s series when she had heard him on the subject of Shakespeare’s poems. She wasn’t pressed on the point: a pity, because I would have liked to hear more. She has formidable scholarly credentials — Wood must be waiting for her verdict with thighs atremble, and thus with gratitude that his jeans still fit so loosely — but I would have thought her best credential was that she knows an awful lot about the theatre, and is therefore proof against any notion that Shakespeare’s poems are the acme of his poetry. An accomplished actress herself (there are those of us who think that her show of considering the opinions of some of her fellow Newsnight Review panellists merits a BAFTA award of its own) she is well aware that a line which has to be understood the first time it is heard can achieve the status of the poetic only by a far bigger miracle than a line written to be figured out on the page. Frank Kermode, in his fine book Shakespeare’s Language, dares to suggest that some of the dense imagery of the later plays might have been as hard to follow for its contemporary audience as it is for us. He is almost certainly right. But equally there can be little doubt that Shakespeare had created a climate of trust in which his audience was ready to let some of the meaning go as long as they could follow the drift.

There was always a drift, and for a long time, until near the end, the drift was a flood. To assess the composition and dynamics of this torrent of meaning is where the student of language comes in, if come in he must. Wood’s qualifications to do so are of a respectable order. ‘Like the paintings in the guild chapel with which this story began,’ he writes near the end, ‘humanity’s encoded memories are being erased everywhere across the planet.’ The word ‘encoded’ sounds a bit Matrix-conscious, but the proposition is sadly true. In his screen performance I noticed only one solecism (‘Apart from being a country bumpkin’ means the opposite of ‘far from being a country bumpkin’, and he obviously meant to say the second thing rather than the first) but in the text there are none. He is a clean writer so it is no surprise that he is a clean reader. Germaine Greer might pounce on his apparent assumption that the line in the sonnets about the dun breasts is further evidence of the lady’s darkness, whereas the argument insists only that she is not perfectly white, which no one but a freshly made snowman is. On the whole, however, Wood reads the dramatic poetry at the level on which it was written, with the proper sensitivity for both the theatrical requirements that shaped it and the theatrical opportunities to which its protean flexibility gave rise. There have been critics who could do that — Shaw could do it better than Coleridge and Hazlitt put together — but none of them has been a television presenter who could talk about the structure of the iambic pentameter while striding blind through Stratford upon Avon.

Wood has all the dubious skills, and all the undoubted publicity value, of a television presenter. He can thus call attention to his book, so we are lucky that it is excellent. It would be less so, however, if he knew less about showbiz, so there is no conflict. Making television documentaries, you either make compromises or you don’t get the job done. You either learn to work with other people or you don’t work. Veteran of many a weary argument in which he saved the project by appearing to yield a point, and then saved the point the next day by an adroit psychological manoeuvre — almost always it entails confirming a director in his opinion that he is Federico Fellini, but sometimes you have to convince the company catering manager that he is Marco Pierre White — Wood is unusually well placed to make plausible deductions about the man behind the name, the man we know so little about. Faceless and yet forceful, Shakespeare emerges from the book as the master general he must have been. From that fact alone, one further deduction might have been made: a deeper reason for Greene’s flaring envy in the ‘Shakescene’ diatribe. Greene might have been annoyed by more than Shakespeare’s unfair knack for a phrase and his energizing effect on the theatre: an effect which did, after all, boost the market for his fellow practitioners. Greene might also have been annoyed by Shakespeare’s ability to bank the earnings. Greene might have spotted that Shakespeare had no plans for living from hand to mouth, and was on his way to good clothes, a coat of arms, and New Place. Greene couldn’t have guessed that it would be called New Place. (Who could have guessed that the greatest poet who ever lived, after buying a new place called New Place, would go on calling it New Place?) But Greene, as he sucked on the last of his pickled herrings, could probably see New Place looming in the distance. Hence the bile. As a general rule, poets can stand it if one of their number shows an exceptional lyrical gift. But if he also shows a gift for worldly success, the knives come out.

Even Greene’s knife, though, only pricked like a pin. Ben Jonson would have been a frightful enemy if he had so wished, but something about his ‘gentle Shakespeare’ soothed incipient ire. We can assume it was the gentleness. If Shakespeare, like Dr Johnson or Oscar Wilde, had talked for victory, we would have heard about it. How little we have heard about him tells us a lot about him. Part of his gift was to blend in, so that people would tell him things — diplomatic aides, receivers of stolen goods, sailors who had been washed ashore on the coast of where was it? Illyria? We can infer that his face was not striking. Wood shows us a portrait painted in 1588, the year of the Armada. But we can tell by the way Wood fails to walk past the portrait, walk back, and lean over it while emphatically pointing out its features, that he doesn’t care whether it is a portrait of Shakespeare, Marlowe or the current Earl of Wessex dressed for a costume ball.

Those who don’t already think that such an indifference to the perennial topic of Shakespeare’s appearance is exactly right should take a quick look at Shakespeare’s Face, a compendium of essays dedicated to the questions supposedly raised by the ‘Sanders portrait’. A judicious essay by Stanley Wells might slow the quick look down by about thirty minutes. Wells talks nothing but sense about Shakespeare. As a result he has almost nothing to say about the portrait. The other contributors, among whom the editor Stephanie Nolan is the most prominent, have a lot to say about it. The portrait came to light in Canada, where it was big news. ‘Is this the face of genius?’ asked the Toronto Globe and Mail. Art experts confirm that it is indeed a contemporary portrait. What nobody can confirm is that it is a portrait of Shakespeare. The scientific dating was a bit of a blow to my own theory that it is a portrait of John Malkovich, but I have whistled in a scientist of my own who suggests that the prankish and well-funded Malkovich could have engineered the whole deal with the aid of artificially aged carbon. Marjorie Garber, a Professor of English and Director of Visual Arts at Harvard, assures us that ‘the male minx in the Sanders image, with his knowing eyes and flirtatious, up-curved mouth, seems about to burst into words — words as witty and perhaps as improper as our current taste will permit.’

How witty would that be, I wonder? We can better imagine how improper. The flirtatious, up-curved mouth, however, certainly looks as if it once adorned an actor — an actor of a particular kind, the kind some of us call a lip-licker. Shakespeare was an actor, but he was probably not a lip-licker. The lip-licker finds the fountain of his expressiveness in the pool of Narcissus. In my forthcoming thesis on the mannerisms of actors (it’s called Ah, Bogie! Spot the reference) I address the question of whether lip-licking is the cause or the consequence of a career gone haywire. David Caruso was already licking his lips in the first series of NYPD Blue. Keen observers didn’t have to wait for CSI: Miami — in which he not only licks his lips but keeps putting on and taking off his dark glasses — to decide that he was out of his head with self-regard. Mickey Rourke had a suitcase-full of collagen injected into his lips in order to give himself bigger lips to lick. As for Malkovich ... but I don’t want to give too much of my book away. Back to Shakespeare’s Face, a book which has so little to give away that one feels compelled to toss it a bone. Here is the bone.

The book does have one merit. It assumes, surely correctly, that Shakespeare had ambitions beyond the lonely garret. The sumptuary laws specified plain cloth for anyone not noble. Shakespeare was out for the velvet. Contending with his energy for the right to exalted goods, he was a precursor of the bourgeois world we live in now. The grand total of 480 pictures that have at one time or another been supposed to be of him probably don’t include even a single authentic case, but if there were ten times as many they would scarcely reflect his determination to take his place as a man of the world. Holding to the notion that an artist should be above such things, we can frown on that determination if we wish, but it is very doubtful if he did. So Shakespeare’s Face is not quite as useless as it appears to be at first glance.

Nor, even, is Harold Bloom’s scholarly new super-squib Hamlet: Poem Unlimited. Less than 150 pages long but somehow weighing like 1,500 pages of pulped railway timetables, Bloom’s booklet engages itself in the doomed task of convincing us that Shakespeare was a great writer, and that Hamlet is a great play. The task is doomed because nobody in his right mind doubts these things. There are even people in their wrong minds who know them to be true. People who think Shakespeare was Queen Elizabeth know Hamlet is a great play: that is why they think Queen Elizabeth wrote it. But Bloom thinks we do not understand. He talks to us as if we were wilfully failing to take in an intractable fact. He is a British Airways stewardess trying to tell Liam Gallagher that the bar is closed. He tells us that Hamlet is up there with the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy and Leaves of Grass.

But is Leaves of Grass really up there with Hamlet? If Bloom can’t tell the difference between chalk and cheese, or anyway between cheese and lesser cheese, the deficiency in taste can scarcely be irrelevant to his pretended historical sweep, which means little if it fails to detect points of quality and join them up. From that angle, Bloom ought to be safe with Hamlet: it is, after all, pretty good. But it is less certain that Hamlet is safe with Bloom, or that Shakespeare himself is safe either. Possibly there is a professional deformation that we ought to consider. ‘You cannot get beyond Hamlet, which established the limits of theatricality.’ When F.R. Leavis decided that there could be no completely serious English writing after Lawrence, he allowed it to be inferred that there might be one exception: Leavis. If Bloom is saying that only he fully appreciates Shakespeare, he might also be saying that only he inherits Shakespeare’s capacity to view the world. This is a view of the world in itself, and one that could be hatched only in the dark.

A star academic can get away with it. Anyone who worked on the outside would be thought to have looped the loop. But really not even Bloom is wholly isolated, because Shakespeare won’t allow it. In front of his class, and even in his study, Bloom is a Shakespearean character, and in his deepest heart he knows which one. He is Falstaff, talking up a storm, pinning Hal to the wall before the world intrudes. His histrionic urge gets him to the party after all. Picking your character is a good place to start with Shakespeare. You can imagine yourself in tights, which helps you to remember that once they had to be paid for, washed and ironed, and that the expense came out of the profits that Shakespeare and his fellow partners were keen to retain intact. In the world of art they created, it was the practical and the physical that made the spiritual so intense. The year after he graduated, Michael Wood played Oberon in a combined Oxford—Cambridge production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. All the women in the cast, and several of the men, were enchanted by his elegance of leg. I can remember him now, striding across the stage with his nose pointing at the audience, the boyish portent of a shimmering career.

TLS, 11 July 2003


This piece was written too early to catch Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World. Though so strong on the background that its hero pales in the foreground, the book survives its cute title. Few critical works on the subject contribute as much. But a good many of them contribute at least something: if not a fact, then a slant of interpretation that looks not utterly invalid in the light of recent history. The question is about what exactly is being contributed to. How much of all this commentary should we have time for? When Greenblatt and I were graduate students in Cambridge in the late 1960s, some of our contemporaries risked failing grades in English by spending too much time acting for the dramatic societies. But quite often they were acting in Shakespeare, and wasn’t every speech they learned by heart worth a hundred pages that had been written about it? The question haunts me still. (I think it still haunts Greenblatt: one of his best qualities.) At gunpoint I would have to say that the study of Shakespeare shouldn’t end with merely memorizing what he wrote: after all, even the question of what he wrote is a subject for scholarship. But it should certainly begin there. J. Dover Wilson’s What Happens in Hamlet is a classic of scholarship that every student should read, so as to have an inkling of what being a scholar takes. But the student should know Hamlet first, and preferably by heart. It is a matter of priorities. Armed with the memory of a few lines spoken by Cassius and Brutus on the night before the battle of Philippi, for example, I have an answer ready for Harold Bloom’s deafening contention that Hamlet is the greatest play in the world. Yes, keep your voice down, nobody disagrees; but if Hamlet didn’t exist, wouldn’t you have to say the same thing about Julius Caesar? Or, failing that, about King Lear? About Macbeth? About Antony and Cleopatra? There is a special kind of academic madness that wants to get in amongst the great works of art and make itself indispensable by sorting them into some plausible order of importance. In the behavioural paradigm usefully supplied to us by Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, that specific breed of nutter can be hired as a part-time sales assistant, but he must never be left alone to run the store.