What the bard meant by before and after

Shakespeare's Storytellers

September 11, 1998

When is he going to start delving?" wondered Stoppard's Rosencrantz. Shakespeare's Storytellers opens with promises of delving to come. Barbara Hardy approaches Shakespeare's use of narration through memory, fantasy and gender, with Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth given extended treatment. "Narration," she argues, "is a primary act of mind, a way of comprehending and constructing social and psychic life." This looks like a wide-gauge definition, and so it proves, for "narration" covers pretty much what the author wants it to.

For the early chapters, this approach works well. Shakespeare's Storytellers is the product of many lectures: the preface is an academic Trajan's Column of victories from Oslo to Bochum. The text conveys the lecturer's virtues of fresh observation, nice discrimination, a sense of material sifted through a categorising mind. Shakespeare is a master of the inset narrative, and one gains an enhanced appreciation of his techniques. I especially liked the pages on "forgetfulness" and "Prospero's image of the 'dark backward and abysm of time' is that most subtle and Shakespearean figure, hendiadys, which forces the mind to shuttle to and fro ... fitting together the jigsaw of parts to make a whole."

But the lecturer's vice is to evade a full exploration of points touched on. Hardy's dashing style moves on rapidly from topic to topic, leaving a docile audience in no position to interrupt. In print the gaps are apparent. The coverage of Enobarbus's aria "The barge she sat on" is useless, because Enobarbus moves through five distinct tonal shifts, and Hardy barely gets to the second. Of the end of Hamlet, "Horatio ... does not narrate earlier in the play". Hardy cannot have been listening to the narrative-history lecture that Horatio delivers in the opening scene (I.i.79-107). Romeo and Juliet is much cited, but Hardy is silent on the Act V narration of Friar Lawrence, who to the boredom of untold playgoers tells us a plot we know by sitting through it. "Henry VIII ends with a particularly closed triumphant conclusion." Not to anyone who knows what happened to Anne Boleyn.

The generic vice is to treat Shakespearean passages as examples, rather than entities in their own right. (This was Northrop Frye's method, a high-wire act dangerous to follow.) Page 123 is a dubious generalisation supported by three shaky instances. Juliet's Nurse is held to be a stable characterisation. But Athene Seyler, who often played the Nurse, thought otherwise: "I wait until I meet my Juliet, look her in the eyes, and know at once whether to bully her or cajole her."

Hardy's characteristic qualities come out at Hamlet's "Sure he that made us with such large discourse,/Looking before and after..." The adverbs "before" and "after" have a "subdued ambiguity". The immediate sense is of place, "before" meaning "ahead" and "after" meaning "looking back". There "flickers the possibility of an alternatively compounded sentence in which the adverbs face in reversed directions, 'before' suggesting future and 'after' suggesting past..." But this misconstrues the adverbs of time. "Before" means past, and "after" means "the consequences of before", including the future. A fine insight is marred by carelessness.

Shakespeare's Storytellers, untainted by blue-chip journalism, is accessible to a wide readership. It is best read as a miscellany, evocative of some sparkling performances.

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

Shakespeare's Storytellers: Dramatic Narration

Author - Barbara Hardy
ISBN - 0 7206 0963
Publisher - Peter Owen
Price - £17.95
Pages - 224

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