Ear cocked for social whirrings offstage

Shakespeare - The Texts of "Othello" and Shakespearian Revision - Reading Shakespeare Historically
May 10, 1996

Stage history used to have only two plots: the cyclic, as expounded by Alan Hughes ("there is no such thing as progress in the theatre, there is only change"), and the progressive. The latter view held that upholstered Shakespeare, the 19th-century tyrant, was overthrown by the glorious revolution of Granville Barker. The Savoy productions of 1912-14 paved the way for Peter Brook and the creation of the Royal Shakespeare Company. That was the Whig view of stage history.

Latterly the Whigs have been modifying their progressive view. Shakespeare: an Illustrated Stage History edited by Jonathan Bate and Russell Jackson is a Festschrift for Stanley Wells, chronologically arranged. The earlier essays are well done, especially those of R. A. Foakes, Martin Wiggin, and Michael Dobson. The later ones move into shaky polemic. The editorial essays present recent Shakespeare as a Manichaean struggle between the establishment (the great state theatres, agents of the sinister Thatcher) and the forces of good, all of which adhere to fringe groups.

Jonathan Bate sets out his stall in the introduction. He eyes mournfully the RSC and Royal National Theatre, whose reliance on state subsidies and high ticket prices "means that they cater for a predominantly 'cultured' audience and that the forms of socio-political critique they express remain within the bounds of liberal dissent." Against the establishment is set as a paradigm of excellence the theatre company Cheek By Jowl, at the top of whose performance stands the all-male As You Like It. "Declan Donnellan's directorial conception was deeply and committedly of our time in its unabashed celebration of gay desire (manifested for instance when Le Beau touched up Orlando on the line, 'I shall desire more love and knowledge of you') and homosocial bonding (Jaques was persuasively wooed back into the group at the end)." Bate's praise of the black actor Adrian Lester hardens into a stern warning: "If you did not see Adrian Lester's Rosalind, you are in no position to argue with my assertion." Which cramps discussion somewhat.

All this is going to involve some deft rewriting of history. The editors contrive to detach themselves from the later RSC, which by 1990 is seen as an instrument of repression. The true inheritor of the abrasive tradition of the triumphant 1960s trilogy Wars of the Roses, thinks Jackson, is Michael Bogdanov's travelling English Shakespeare Company, and not the RSC of Adrian Noble's "symbolist" The Plantagenets. There is some political fudging here: Bate seems to think that the RSC's "highly Brechtian" Wars of the Roses was produced under a Labour government. It was conceived, rehearsed, and mounted in the consulship of Macmillan (July 1963), before being repeated the following year - under Sir Alec Douglas Home.

Still, the main thesis is hammered in by Peter Thomson in a muscular polemic, "Shakespeare and the public purse". "The insistence on accountability and market values had the effect of emasculating the radical companies without enhancing the potency of the 'established' theatre." Nowadays, the squeeze on theatrical budgets, the quest for sponsorship, and the need to fill theatres mean that Shakespearean productions will be shallow, designer-embellished and selected from the top ten plays. "By the 1990s, the golden age of subsidised theatre in Britain was over." Thomson's heart is in the 1960s, and he recalls nostalgically a Shrew "which ended with Sly humiliatingly discarded by a carousing gang of landowners and bourgeois capitalists". This was a German production: "My impression is that a theatre ticket in Weimar cost less than a bar of chocolate." History is going to have to endorse East Germany, whether it likes it or not.

The problems are more elegantly evaded by Jackson, whose editorial endpiece is called "Shakespeare in opposition: from the 1950s to the 1990s". This chapter is concerned primarily with alternative styles of acting and production, and with fringe theatre. Cheek By Jowl is endorsed as the inheritor to the Elizabethan theatre. Shakespeare in "government" - mainstream, main theatre - is ignored. By the clearest of implications, the Deadly Theatre stands on the South Bank, hard by Waterloo Bridge.

But it gets little coverage here. The curiosity of this volume is that a title which claims inclusiveness leaves so much untouched. Actors Charlotte Cushman, Johnston Forbes-Robertson, Mme Vestris, Charles Fechter, Tommaso Salvini are missing. George Bernard Shaw gets three brief references, none Shakespearean; and the role of drama critics has no serial consideration. Nor does the acting profession of modern times. Harley Granville Barker, once the historian's lynchpin, now receives one and a half paragraphs. Herbert Beerbohm Tree, whose Shakespeare Seasons glittered throughout the Edwardian era, has to be content with a photograph. Richard Eyre, artistic director of the National Theatre since 1988, gets a solitary mention; "commercial" Shakespeare in the West End, none. The editors' agenda is to exalt the fringe and demote the main lines of Shakespearean development on the modern stage. This is not history, it is merely what the contributors want to write about.

Lisa Jardine's essays read the text from the vantage point of social history and social anthropology. At her best, she throws some genuine light on the text from the archives. Othello turns on Emilia's "Why should he call her whore?" and this is related to the many defamation cases brought before the ecclesiastical courts. Since three women in the play are accused of sexual misdemeanours, their cases would resonate with an audience well versed in such matters.

Again, the treatment of The Jew of Malta concentrates on the specifics of Barabas's dealings. "Barabas unites in one culturally recognisable figure a collection of late 16th-century commercial activities in which transactions involving knowledge for future gain . . .give rise to public unease." Jardine is right, I think, to contrast this cultural construct with Shylock, in whom "the relationship between trade as an activity and the personality of the merchant is internalised and pathologised".

Jardine's familiarity with social structures leads to a recurring argument on "service". Dependence is the key to sexual activity and role in the patriarchal household. The necessary ambiguity of service/friendship or love cannot usually be "read" by outsiders; the tension is inherent. The analyses of dependence here have some useful applications: "Twelfth Night steadily entangles the prospects for dependency in household service with those for sexual liaison". The Changeling is analysed in terms of social rank; but it is going too far to say that Beatrice-Joanna "has freely chosen De Flores". That play fires on an equal mixture of class and sex.

The eager pursuit of the argument risks some falls. In Much Ado About Nothing "Claudio falls headlong in love - at first sight - with Hero". This is quite wrong. Claudio tells Don Pedro that he knew her before, and "liked her ere I went to wars". The text makes clear that Claudio fancies Hero, but before allowing his emotions to overheat he prudently inquires "Hath Leonato any son, my lord?" This is a hasty misreading of the text. Far worse is the chapter on Hamlet, which is a write-off. "Recently, critics have begun to notice that the recurrent use of the term 'incest' in Hamlet refers not to any putative or incipient relationship between Hamlet and his mother, but to Gertrude's remarriage to her dead husband's brother." Has it really taken critics nearly four centuries to grasp that when Hamlet says incest, he means it, and he has Gertrude and Claudius in mind?

Anyway, we establish incest as an issue. Why, asks Jardine, does no one respond? "Nobody at the court seems to have noticed any incest at all." (Cedric Watts, quoted with approval.) Well, they wouldn't, would they? A courtier does not go around deploring the incestuous conduct of his royal master. He just likes employment. Hamlet, it is argued, is barred from the succession by the incestuous union: "Claudius's unlawful marriage to Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, cuts Hamlet out of the line."

It does not, because Elsinore works on a different principle. The Danish monarchy is elective. Claudius "Popped in between th'election and my hopes", and his accession to the throne is in the hinterland of a giant ambiguity. "For your intent/In going back to school in Wittenberg/It is most retrograde to our desire." We cannot know whether Hamlet was in Wittenberg or Denmark when his father died. In either event it made sense for the Electoral College, or court, to ratify a package solution: Claudius becomes king and marries Gertrude as "imperial jointress". This has nothing to do with the English law of succession.

Throughout these essays, Jardine's ear is cocked for the social whirrings offstage. She is less inclined to "respond to those points in the texts which excite our critical attention", as though "critical attention" were suspect and the only reality the offstage whirrings. But this is to misconceive Shakespeare. His dramatic fictions are sited somewhere between the real, social world of Tudor England and an aesthetic construct obedient only to its own laws. What Shakespeare may offer is the odd echo of contemporary England, always filtered through the needs and text of the play. No analysis of Hamlet can rest on a sustained comparison. The play is set in an exotic, foreign milieu of the unspecified past. And it takes place at a social level well above normal concerns. You cannot glean much of English divorce law by studying Henry VIII. The concerns of the Danish state are not linked to subroyal second marriage practices in ordinary English society. The missing element in Jardine's argument is raison d'etat.

Shakespearean editors rarely invoke A. E. Housman. They dare not. His contempt for editors who lean on the "better text" comes too close to home. E. A. J. Honigmann, trenchant as ever, quotes boldly from Housman's Preface to Manilius I: 'To believe that wherever a best [text] gives possible readings it gives true readings, and that only where it gives impossible readings does it give false readings, is to believe that an incompetent editor is the darling of Providence." A critic who adopts this method of trusting to the best manuscript (or text) "employs it in the same spirit of gloomy resignation with which a man lies down on a stretcher when he has broken his legs." (Preface to Juvenal.)

Honigmann has no intention of lying down on Housman's stretcher. His task, in this companion volume, is to pave the way for the Arden 3 Othello. Othello comes to us from two parent texts, the "Good" Quarto (Q) and the Folio (F), and their relationship is problematic. Modern editors usually prefer F. Honigmann is entirely more open-minded, quoting Paul Werstine's complaint that "the current rigidified hierarchy of the 'good'/'bad' quartos has come oppressively to limit negotiation in Shakespeare's textual criticism".

Editors may steer or drift, but Honigmann's line is sceptical of the Folio. He regards Ralph Crane as having a crucial editorial role, the scribe in charge of lining up the manuscripts for the printers. In general, Crane was "neither humble nor faithful", and Honigmann finds his presence no guarantor of authenticity. Crane's was the bossiness of the professional, inclined to tidy up the punctuation. Q has Desdemona say "I will, so, what's the matter?" F amends to "I will so: What's the matter?" The Folio punctuation is much more heavy, decisive, "modern". It clears up the status of "so". Honigmann thinks that F divides the line in the wrong place, and offers this version of the psychological plot: "Desdemona overcomes her agitation, forcing herself to sit still, and then asks Othello to go on: 'I will. So: What's the matter?'" All depends on 'so', and the inflection the word may contain. Shakespeare's manuscript quite possibly gave no pointing at all (as the extant pages of Sir Thomas More in Shakespeare's hand suggest). Crane knew better. Today we would call him a copy-editor-probably working for an American press.

Crane's arbitrary decisions take us towards the standards of the future, and the fault lines of the Folio. Shakespeare's own manuscripts were written for colleagues who needed "performance scripts"; the Folio texts were revised into "reading scripts" for the general public. Clarity, and the closing of options, are the public's needs. Honigmann admits this, but warns that "the very existence of punctuation in modern texts is regrettable, if not indeed reprehensible".

Still, the public must be served, and the forthcoming Arden 3 Othello will surely be the best and most advanced that contemporary scholarship can supply. Honigmann's examination of the texts, which stops short of espousing Q as the better, is rigorously eclectic. It is almost entirely convincing. I have a minor cavil at Honigmann's running together of the ideas of linguistic obscurity, illegibility, and nonsense. He thinks Shakespeare's later hand illegible, and quotes Ben Jonson: "Many time he fell into those things, could not escape laughter." He does not go on to quote Jonson's example from Julius Caesar: "Caesar did never wrong, but with just cause". That line is not in the text that has come down to us, but is perfectly acceptable, as Trevor Nunn proved by restoring it in his 1972 production. The line is not nonsense but self-conscious paradox. I doubt that the borders of those categories can ever be adequately policed. In the acuity and independence of its analyses, this book will have an effect beyond Othello. Housman would be at least civil to its author.

Ralph Berry is the author of Shakespeare in Performance: Castings and Metamorphoses.

Shakespeare: An Illustrated Stage History

Editor - Jonathan Bate and Russell Jackson
ISBN - 0 19 812372 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 253

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments