Books: Latest Readings — Shakespeare and Johnson |
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Shakespeare and Johnson

WHEN I STILL DID a lot of traveling to make TV shows or appear on stage, I always took my complete Shakespeare with me on a long flight. It was the old Selfridge’s one-volume edition, with no notes but with an excellent introduction by Sir Henry Irving himself. Thus, because I was always traveling, I was always reading Shakespeare, even when the book fell to pieces so seriously that it had to be held together with a rubber band. In particular I read the history plays and the tragedies. The comedies I have always been able to read less often, although A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a special case. I like to read it every couple of years. Recently, on a midsummer night, I went with the family to see an open-air production in King’s College gardens. For my granddaughter, aged eight, it was the second time she had seen the play, and during the interval she politely made it clear that she had seen it done better: a knowledgeable theatergoer. She was right, alas. The production was uninspired. Though they were hired-in professionals and not the usual bunch of mistakenly confident undergraduates, only a few of the actors knew how to speak. But the lines survived the beating they took. The text is a crowd pleaser, however transmitted. Hence the obvious answer to Johnson’s momentary puzzlement in his note on the play, when he quotes the bit about “the fiery glowworm’s eyes” and says “I know not how Shakespeare, who commonly derived his knowledge of nature from his own observation, happened to place the glow-worm’s light in his eyes, which is only in his tail.” But Shakespeare wasn’t just interested in what he himself knew to be true: he was interested in what the audience thought to be true, as they sat there and watched. As always, however, I would rather have been reading than watching.

Time having gone by since I fell ill, I have become reconciled to never traveling very far again, so I need a new routine for reading Shakespeare. I have taken to keeping a single volume of the Arden Shakespeare on my writing desk in the kitchen. At the moment it is Antony and Cleopatra. The Roman plays are my favorite Shakespeare anyway, and Antony and Cleopatra is my second-favorite among those—after Julius Caesar—so this is a high-ranking event. I have just finished going through the volume line by line and footnote by footnote, with increasing admiration for M. R. Ridley, who brought R. H. Case’s 1906 edition up to date with modern scholarship: modern for 1954. I spent decades getting familiar with Shakespeare without resorting to footnotes, but it was a doomed forgoing. Eventually you must look at the footnotes or you won’t know where you are. It remains true, however, that the best moments hit you without benefit of clergy. In Antony and Cleopatra, T. S. Eliot thought that the line most worth talking about comes from Charmian when she dies: “Ah, soldier!” I have always thought that Eliot was right, and now I still do. Charmian has so little to say at the crucial moment, and the soldier, of course, has even less. But it is the way the words are placed. The handmaiden’s transition into death was almost nothing, a pinprick: and yet for her it was a revelation. How great the great poet was, to know that.

Shakespeare brings me to Johnson’s notes on Shakespeare, which form a neat and abundant little book, Johnson on Shakespeare, edited for Oxford University Press by Walter Raleigh in 1908; but you need a volume containing the revisions made in 1925. Only a couple of hundred pages long but with something memorable said in every paragraph, almost in every sentence, it makes an ideal book for holding in front of your nose while you pace up and down the kitchen. Johnson is so good when he comments on poetry that anybody who comments on his comments usually has little to add. His gift for pertinence needs to be remembered when the reader picks up either of the two small Oxford volumes of his Lives of the Poets and is dismayed to find that so many of the names in the list of contents are unrecognizable. Johnson had good things to say about Milton and Dryden, but he also had good things to say about Smith.

Yes, there was a poet called Smith, and the details of his life were almost as little known then as they are now. But Smith had a certain renown for his poetic abilities, and Johnson did not disagree. Johnson said that Smith had all the talents, but achieved nothing with them. That observation reminds me of some of my fellow writers, when I was young, who were so gifted that they practically had to fight to achieve obscurity. Late in my life I still find it remarkable that they attained their aim. Johnson’s specific criticism, full of detail about technical points, abounds with general topics that lead you into questions about the creative life. Nor was “Dictionary Johnson” ever quite the strict academician that you might have expected from his reputation for whipping the ignorant. He was just as much descriptive as he was prescriptive. He observed the growth and change of language for what it was: a living thing. “That our language is in perpetual danger of corruption,” he wrote in his Life of Roscommon, “cannot be denied; but what prevention can be found? The present manners of the nation would deride authority, and therefore nothing is left but that every writer should criticise himself.” All he needed to add was that unless you can criticize yourself, you are not a writer.