Shakespeare Only

July 1, 2010

Like the parrot in the Monty Python sketch, the author is no more. Literary texts, we are assured, come into being as a patchwork of cultural fragments, quotations and half-quotations and conversations with other works that echo earlier texts and adumbrate those as yet unwritten. The great world of words shapes itself mysteriously, inanimately into individual utterances eschewing the governing hand of the artist. Couple this authorless theory of literature with the New Historicist attack on the very existence of early modern autonomy, and one wonders what it is that scholars of the period have left to ponder.

Of course, the rash of Shakespeare biographies over the past decade is symptomatic of current heretical dissent from the so-called "Death of the Author", although it remains the case that the theory's residual effect, alongside the idea of the theatre as a site of communal creativity, serves to diminish the primacy of the playwright. Furthermore, the marginalisation of the author is exacerbated by what Jeffrey Knapp identifies as "a vaguely Marxist or at least populist preference for groups of laborers over single workers".

In Shakespeare Only, Knapp explores the "various styles and theories of authorship throughout (Shakespeare's) career", suggesting that not only was the playwright conscious of a professional identity but also that he conspicuously fashioned it into protean forms from one play to the next. Knapp challenges the critical orthodoxy that company-centred theatre yielded over the period to a theatre based around and identified with individual playwrights. For instance, the departure of Will Kemp from the troupe in 1599 is commonly read as indicative of the shift from actors' to playwrights' theatre. But as Knapp insists: "In reality, we have no idea why Kemp left the Chamberlain's Men." In fact, he suggests that both options (actor and author) were maintained simultaneously and that "Shakespeare's own self-variousness as player-author means that his sympathies in Hamlet are never wholly on one side or the other of the battle-line Hamlet draws between scripting and clowning". This composite figure is one of the identities Shakespeare purposefully assumed.

Whereas Keats' "negative capability" proposed that Shakespearean playwriting was the product of the artist's self-effacement, Knapp declares that the author's awareness of his subjectivity was at the heart of his achievement. "Shakespeare's understanding of himself as an author shapes the dramatic material in these plays, just as their dramatic material shapes his understanding of his authorship," he writes. In support of the first part of this assertion, Knapp points out that, with the exception of the final plays, none was the product of collaboration and, furthermore, the playwright foregrounded his own contribution. Citing the authorial presence at the endings of the history plays, Knapp contends that the epilogues "capitalize on Shakespeare's unparalleled success at writing and completing his cycle".

But this incisive study is less convincing when arguing the second half of the chiastic formulation - that the plays' "dramatic material shapes his understanding of his authorship". Knapp proposes of Pericles, for instance, that its "tragicomic linkage of death and rebirth helped Shakespeare envision his co-authorship itself as a kind of revival, an inheritance". The possibility is as tantalising as it is tenuous. Relationships between characters are read as allegories for different modes of authorship. In The Two Noble Kinsmen Shakespeare becomes Palamon to John Fletcher's Arcite. From here, it is a small step to Shakespeare as Prospero, "with a control over his actors as absolute as that of a writer over his characters".

In the main, this is a provocative study that persuasively calls for the resurrection of artistic agency. Perhaps the author was only pining for the fjords after all.

Shakespeare Only

By Jeffrey Knapp
University of Chicago Press, 256pp, £24.00
ISBN 9780226445717
Published October 2009

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