When he's bard, he's pretty bard

March 10, 2000

Trendy academic attitudes to studying Shakespeare incense Frank Kermode. He tells Nick Groom why he's on the attack

King's College, Cambridge, and the shadows are lengthening. In a tall little room by the senior common room, the academic and reviewer Frank Kermode and I have spent the best part of two hours talking about Shakespeare.

He puffs at his pipe and brings things to a sense of an ending by anticipating how I will begin writing about him: "Will you say he sat smoking?" He smiles in his sphinx-like way, although he is a rather apologetic sphinx and almost sorry to be obliged to set new literary riddles, especially on the hugely contested ground of Shakespeare studies. His new book, Shakespeare's Language, the culmination of more than 50 years' professional engagement with Shakespeare, will be the most important book he has written - even more so than the astonishing pair, The Sense of an Ending and The Genesis of Secrecy.

"There'll be a lot of attacks on it," he says with self-deprecating glee. "I know that because I've attacked so many people, but it isn't necessarily meant for scholars. I've always believed that what's happened with the onset of literary theory is that nobody outside universities understands what's really going on in literary criticism, and there are lots of people who are really interested."

Kermode's straightforward thesis is that Shakespeare should be read, and read decently. It is the language that matters, more than who really wrote the plays, or how the plays were performed or how Shakespeare came to be canonised.

Although he names few, he is particularly aiming at critics who sidestep what he sees as the real work of reading Shakespeare's poetry - and who then lard their opinions in obfuscatory language. He mentions the American professor Stephen Greenblatt, the godfather of "new historicism", the notion that literature needs to be studied in relation to the social context in which it was written.

"I'm amazed at the rubbish people talk about Wordsworth's poem 'Tintern Abbey'," he goes on. "New historicists like to move the poem away so that they can see what's underneath it, and you learn that what's underneath it is an act of cowardice, in that Wordsworth avoids every opportunity to talk about the poor, enclosure, about the French Revolution - he just goes on about himself - and then that means it's a poem in totally bad faith - hopeless.

"It's the same with Shakespeare studies. People write about The Tempest as if it was a direct commentary on the difficulties James I was having with his father. There are the faintest, remotest little harmonics, maybe, that would touch a contemporary situation like that, but I want to put it out the way and talk about something else."

What Kermode, who has held many chairs, including King Edward VII professor of English literature at Cambridge and Charles Eliot Norton professor of poetry at Harvard, wants to talk about is poetry - that strange secular, sacred amphibian he has spent more than half a century trying to capture. Unfashionably, he is fascinated by the question of whether poetry has the potential to have some universal or timeless meaning, beyond the context in which it was written. It is this notion of poetry as exceptional that he has consistently proposed and defended.

And Shakespeare's Language is as good a net as he has yet woven. It is a terrific practical course in close reading, braced with demonstrable value judgements. He is quick to clear the ground: yes, Shakespeare had collaborators; no, it is not all good - not by any means. He cares in a certain way that seems nowadays so difficult to achieve with any critical confidence, declaring for example of King Lear that "it is surely impossible for anybody who cares about poetry to write on without some expression of awe", a comment that is all the more courageous for being right.

There are, Kermode says, two separate ideas about Shakespeare's language in the new book. First, "there is Shakespeare's habit of verse", and second, "a particular movement that is very hard to describe: it often involves a lot of complex statements that will end abruptly in midline - that happens again and again - and I take that to be the real everyday voice of Shakespeare.

"The real problem to talk about is that in the tragedies especially you find a little core of actual words, not ideas but words that prepare you incessantly for a central theme of the play: the repetition of the word 'truth' in Troilus and Cressida, the word 'grace' in Love's Labour's Lost - but others far less obtrusive than that, quite commonplace words. In Othello, before you're going to say 'Give me the ocular proof', you find the word 'see' in almost every line, so it's as if there is a musical theme that breaks out into 'ocular proof'. Eyes famously are mentioned in Lear when they are irrelevant to the context. Placing the word 'eye' in this emotional position must have been a conscious device, and it can sometimes be almost intolerably powerful when you really get onto it."

So why will such close textual analysis irritate so many? Kermode happily predicts that his new book will provoke criticism on at least three fronts. It will annoy critical theorists who treat Shakespeare's plays as mere instances of Renaissance writing; academics fashionably examining the plays as they were performed in the theatre; and bardolators incapable of objectively assessing Shakespeare as a poet.

For while Kermode agrees that Shakespeare wrote brilliantly, he also contests that at times he wrote rather badly.

"One of the things about the book is that it does try to de-idolatrise and say when the verse is bad. I think that often in the late plays Shakespeare is bad - there's no justification for the complex and repetitive action."

He specifically cites Cymbeline for its overworked speeches, and its energetic yet clumsy and inexplicable plot.

Kermode is happy now to describe himself as a "bourgeois liberal humanist" - partly, I think, because it irritates some people, but it is also closest to what he holds dear: the liberty of critical interpretation founded on a common presumption that some forms of writing, such as poetry or the Gospels ("a palace of scholarship"), are a better use of one's time than reading books on, say, diet.

Asked whether he is simply reviving Shakespeare after the dull onslaught of recent theoretical trendiness, he replies: "It's all related in the end to a deeper complaint - about today's notion that it's wrong to distinguish hierarchically between one kind of writing and another, that everything should be degree zero. Even very sensitive critics treat texts about exorcism and King Lear as if they had exactly the same kind of interest, because they each take their place in a context."

So Shakespeare's Language is quintessentially Kermodian, and not least because of his staunch indifference to current orthodoxies. His mode of criticism does not amount to a school of thinking, despite the title of his recent birthday present of a liber amicorum, There Are Kermodians, which is reassuringly diverse. "I'm a non-joiner," he declares with a satisfied glumness.

His restlessness is fed by a perpetual engagement with earlier critics. "Both Ben Jonson's and Sam Johnson's praise of Shakespeare are impressive because they were keen to point out the faults - and they are genuine faults too. I never felt a deep sympathy with Coleridge on Shakespeare, although I admire the way in which he will attack some difficulty and say interesting things all around it.

"Brutus's soliloquy in the orchard, for example - 'I know no personal cause' - the idea being that the only reason that Brutus is trying to kill Caesar is that Caesar might become a tyrant, not that he is a tyrant or he's done anything tyrannical. And Coleridge then points out all the tyrannical things that Caesar has actually done. In the old days, people would say that is totally irrelevant - but it's a very sensible question to ask - why did Shakespeare do it that way? And so now it makes that otherwise perfectly lucid speech rather mysterious."

The mystery is what summons Kermode, just as the passing of such Shakespearean mysteries and secrets through generations helps to define what might be called poetry.

When I mention the rise in academic studies on how Shakespeare came to be canonised, he dismisses the field as "an old idea" and is reluctant to talk about it. In Shakespeare's Language he wastes no time in calling this the "worst" of the modern academic attitudes to Shakespeare: "the argument that the reputation of Shakespeare is fraudulent, the result of an 18th-century nationalist or imperialist plot".

There will be one more collection of essays and reviews, but no more books - this one, he tells me with a hangdog expression, was "like pushing a rock up a hill". Sadly, neither will there be another memoir like Not Entitled, although his American editor Elisabeth Sifton has told him, "all you need to do is begin at the beginning again and tell the truth". I feel a pang of disappointment.

He is still smoking.

Nick Groom is lecturer in English at Exeter University. Frank Kermode's Shakespeare's Language will be published by Penguin in April, Pounds 20.00.

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