Literary criticism has been taken to a new level by Holger Syme. Over three weeks, the associate professor of English at the University of Toronto live-tweeted his appalled criticism – running to more than 500 tweets – of what he sees as a “tremendously awful” new book on the texts of King Lear and earned himself a scathing response from the target of his attack, Sir Brian Vickers, who said that such a “bitterly sarcastic” response, “laden with errors” of its own, “trivialises literary criticism”.
Although King Lear is often regarded as Shakespeare’s greatest play, there has long been debate about the precise relationship between the texts published in the Quarto edition of 1608 and the First Folio of 1623.
In recent years, the standard scholarly view has been that the Folio incorporates Shakespeare’s own revisions and thus that we have two different versions of the same play.
In a new book published by Harvard University Press, The One King Lear, Sir Brian, distinguished senior research fellow at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, sets out to “restore King Lear to its original unity” and to show that “the passages missing in the Quarto but found in the Folio” were not “subsequently added by Shakespeare” but “omitted by the [Quarto’s] printer, Nicholas Oakes, because he had underestimated the amount of paper he would need”.
Professor Syme found himself fuming. “My brain’s likely to melt if I don’t let off a steady flow of steam,” read his first tweet as he started Sir Brian's book.
As the rather niche tweets unfolded (later collated by Professor Syme via Storify, listing, for example, the 95 tweets on chapter 2 alone), he attacked Sir Brian for describing “Q1 of 1H4 in a way that makes it sound like a piece of crap, rather than the very carefully printed book it is” and lamented that it “takes a special kind of arrogance to state that neither Peter Blayney nor D. F. McKenzie really get the ‘dynamics of typesetting’”.
He closed his reading of chapter 2 with: “Done for tonight. This is such a tremendously awful book.”
At one point, he admitted that he was “writing these [tweets] while a teething puppy is chewing on my slipper. This may affect my tone.”
Professor Syme told Times Higher Education that he found reading the book a “dismaying experience” that repeatedly went against his “scholarly convictions and principles”.
Some of his criticisms concerned “the practices of the early book trade”, yet others touched on questions of “how we see Shakespeare as an artist: was he a writer who crafted intensely intricate, complex, delicately balanced works (as Sir Brian seems to think), or was he a theatre practitioner who fully anticipated that his plays would change (shrink and expand), both in performance and on the page, as actors got to work on them and over the course of multiple revivals?”
Sir Brian told THE: “I have lived with King Lear for over 50 years. It took me three years to write this book, which twice received anonymous peer reviews from experienced scholars. One of them is quoted on the dust jacket describing it as ‘a big, bold book, a major piece of scholarship for everyone to engage with’.
“I cannot take seriously the 500 or so tweets that Professor Syme has published, page by page, before he could have taken in the argument of each chapter, and the extensive documentation in the endnotes. His hasty judgements are expressed in bitterly sarcastic terms, and contain many errors of his own. He trivialises literary criticism, reducing it to attention-catching soundbites. Is this the way to go?”