Biggest bang in a dramatic universe

April 25, 2003

In the beginning was a table. A dozen or so people sat around it. This was the Conference of Shakespearean Scholars at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1946, which it was feared Polish and Yugoslav representatives could not attend "by reason of transport difficulties". Twenty-five participants turned up for the 1947 conference, including an advance party of Americans. Those early conferences grew into the biennial Shakespeare Conference, now numbering over 200 participants, and its major papers are collected in the annual Shakespeare Survey . Cambridge University Press has now reissued numbers 1 to 50 in paperback, available individually and as a set. In them can be seen giant Kondratiev waves of cultural movement. Shakespeare Survey has not been "influential" in the way that F. R. Leavis' Scrutiny was, but it reflects the growth and development of Shakespeare studies. It is their litmus test.

In its early numbers, the Survey ran a series of articles devoted to the major Shakespearean collections. These articles are essential reading for what they tell us about the times. Shakespeare is presented as a literary and archival figure. His most important bequest is the first folio and single-text quartos; libraries are therefore to be judged on the numbers of folio and quarto holdings. It is illuminating to read L. W. Hanson on the Bodleian, and his patient rebuttal of Joseph Quincy Adams' account of the league tables. (Do two copies of the fifth quarto of Richard III , one in poor condition, rate as equal to a Bad quarto of Romeo and Juliet ?) But while the great libraries - British Library and Bodleian, Folger and Huntington - can never lose their standing or give up a single tattered quarto, and no future collector will ever get near the Folger's 79 first folios, they had to yield primacy, as objects of Shakespearean study, to the stage.

From the first, the Survey covered important productions in England. This was irregularly done, and in some years there was no coverage of Stratford-upon-Avon. Then, in the 1960s, concurrently with the birth and rise of the Royal Shakespeare Company, performance criticism came in on the tide. Editors realised that henceforth all editions would become out of date, since an updated section on stage history would be necessary. New, striking productions of Hamlet , Henry V and Measure for Measure meant that in effect new plays were added to the canon. Editors and academics generally saw the Shakespearean stage as a career opportunity. Academic commentary on performance supplemented, then colonised what had previously been an affair of newspapers - theatre reviewing. There was growing acceptance of the text as a set of stage directions, as a design for performance.

This helped to change the face of the plays, especially the comedies. The accepted view used to be imparted via works such as John Dover Wilson's Shakespeare's Happy Comedies (1962), C. L. Barber's Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (1959) and Peter G. Phialas' Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies (1966), which registered a critical attitude respectful of the plots, if nothing else.

But the era of happy and romantic comedies was passing. In its place came, as a French critic remarked, a certain gout de morosité . Later writers made it clear that they were not taken in by the jokes, wooings and supposedly happy endings: the jokes were concealed hostilities, the wooings dowry negotiations with added sex, the endings the victories of the socially agile.

With no play did the paradigm shift become more clear than with Twelfth Night . Auden found the atmosphere "a bit whiffy", with a sense of "inverted commas around the fun". For Jan Kott, Illyria was part of "Shakespeare's Bitter Arcadia". By 1974, Peter Gill's RSC Twelfth Night featured R. D.

Laing in its programme notes. Later productions pick up on Orsino's sexual ambivalence, the view of Sir Toby Belch as an unreformed alcoholic rather than a comic drunk, and a Malvolio who ends as bitter victim. The radiant pairings of Act 5 go with implosions of identity. Survey reviewers chart the progress, from Survey 1, when they complained at "tiresome and frivolous business", to 48, where Ian Judge's production is described as "unpleasantly ingratiating... The pleasures of this play should be hard-won, worrying, and uncertain". Twelfth Night is not much fun.

Less striking, but perhaps more significant, is the move from the solid-state The Histories ( Survey 6 ) to the more detached and questioning Shakespeare and History ( Survey 38 ). Here, E. M. W. Tillyard used to be the only topic on the table. Later, a more sceptical gaze took in the various versions of history that Shakespeare might be thought to support or at least reflect. For the historian, the mechanisms of power - patronage, court, censorship, the role of the family and social class - are the true objects of study. As E. W. Ives put it in Survey 38 , Shakespeare does not show us "a contact print of the world of reality", but a filtering of it. Commentators such as Jonathan Dollimore are well placed to spot that what is called "history" in Antony and Cleopatra is propaganda, with Octavius acting as his own spin-doctor.

The winners in this trend have been those who used to be called Marxists but have since been repackaged as "cultural materialists". The material conditions surrounding social phenomena, including artworks, have simply replaced crude economics. Marxists have always tended to deny the autonomy of the text, and to affirm the power of social sanctions ("hegemony"). For them, Shakespeare today is a tool of the establishment; his plays analyse the strategies of past hegemonies. The Histories are thus seen as critical, even subversive in their thrust. Where does this leave the once-conventional "Elizabethan World Picture"? Harriett Hawkins made the point well in Survey 34 : suppose we accept the subtle, transferred ideological protections of the ruling class, as apprehended by Shakespeare, what then? "Readers familiar with the criticism of the 1950s and '60s will remember having read eerily similar conclusions about Shakespeare's plays, in countless articles that lauded them for affirming the hierarchical values of the time." Conservative commentators also discerned the hand of the ruling classes. They just thought that hierarchy was a good thing, and that Shakespeare approved. "It now seems most unlikely that Shakespeare studies can ever return to the pieties of the past," a recent materialist critic, Ivo Kamps, has affirmed. It looks like a gloomy future with pieties removed from the comfort index.

Tragedy is as always mysterious and elusive. George Steiner's The Death of Tragedy (1960) did not dispose of Shakespeare's tragedies, but highlighted the problems of analysis and playing. Some years ago Ronald Bryden posed the question: "Why is it that Antony is always undercast these days?" The heroic protagonist has backed away from centre stage, leaving it to case histories. Hamlet is merely anti-Romantic. Othello is a muscle-bound athlete or "a sensitive and scrupulous Arab intellectual". Macbeth is a warlord who needs only a Kalashnikov or kukri to show authenticity. Prospero, who used to be old and serene, is now a middle-aged man in a foul temper. Cleopatras meanwhile are getting older (the latest was 54). Lear, once a terrifying despot, is now at pains to show his court that he is merely primus inter pares , a man who misplays his family cards on the way to nursing home. What started with Donald Wolfit ends with Nigel Hawthorne. As with Hamlet, the "domestic" dimension weighs down the political. From these later images of Aristotelian great men, critics have edged away. In recent years there have been few books on Shakespearean tragedy, and none of authority.

In all this, controversy has generally been avoided or tempered. Shakespeare Survey is not the arena of blood feuds. The two-text Lear, for example - the great issue of the 1970s and 1980s - has now settled down. Conflation had once been perfectly respectable; distinguished scholars did not care to have their edition of King Lear derided as "hybrid". Radicals called for separate texts for study and even performance. To an extent, this call for Q and F texts has been met with Lear and other plays. But the purity of this demand has been threatened from two sides. Directors are hardened conflationists; they will not let go of the Mock Trial (found in Q only) but generally prefer F. Academics who teach need for practical reasons a single text, as does the general public. That is what Riverside and Bevington supply. The Norton Shakespeare contains three texts, Q, F and a conflation. Most Shakespeareans accept, I think, R. A. Foakes' position that "we have two versions of the same play, not two different plays". The other grand controversy, the inclusion of "Shall I die?" in the canon, caused uproar in The Times Literary Supplement for months. No such incendiary passages occur in the Survey . When the time came for the Oxford University Press edition to be reviewed, MacDonald Jackson tactfully quoted the Oxford editors: "We can only modestly defer to the testimony of the extant witnesses (the Bodleian attribution), when we lack any other evidence more substantial than our own aesthetic judgement." The rest of the profession, amounting to something close to 100 per cent, has been less diffident about its aesthetic judgement.

Over five decades, the grand movements have been from archival research to critical readings of the plays, and thence to performance criticism. This has opened out to wider questions of culture. The afterlife of Shakespeare is taking over much of today's scene, and, in the past decade, three of the Survey's theme volumes, devoted to The Tempest , Hamlet , and Romeo and Juliet , focus on "after" in the broadest sense. Shakespeare and Cultural Exchange ( Survey 48) signalled the globalisation of Shakespeare. As the Americans put it, the plays were always foregrounded in the first four decades. Now the emphasis has moved towards culture, not only Shakespeare's but ours. This is not unmixed gain. Those who looked to Shakespeare and Sexuality ( Survey 46) to delight and instruct were cruelly undeceived in the lead article, which stated: "It seems almost quaint these days to associate sexuality with pleasure." However, it is revealing that in no Survey essay title does "gender" appear. Compare this with America's Shakespeare Quarterly , whose dedication to gender is total.

Shakespeare Survey is organised from the heartland of the Anglosphere. It hosts the best of world commentary. Shakespeare remains, as Jonathan Miller saw him, part of an expanding universe: "Literary and dramatic matter will be continuously created out of fundamental substance created in the early history of the literary universe."

Ralph Berry's most recent book is Tragic Instance: The Sequence of Shakespeare's Tragedies .

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