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Can we abide Shakespeare's question?
Unlike Eliot, say, or Tolstoy, Murry has no body of creative writing to back up the importance of his interpretive engagements. There is, nevertheless, a sense that the critic's identity is formed by his selfless encounters with artists of Shakespeare's stature. The art of criticism is rigorous; impressions are merely its raw material; the life-blood of its activity is in the process of ordonnance of aesthetic impressions. The rejection of impressionism leads, if we think of Eliot, and of Murry himself, simply to a more rigorous formulation of the paradox of the impersonal artist.
For Murry it meant comparing Christian and post-Shakespearean especially romantic ways of annihilating selfhood.
Blake becomes even more crucial for such a formulation than Keats. Knight also joins this quest. Other rigorous escape routes, that lead through impressionism beyond it, make Shakespeare's language the main character of his plays, the everything and nothing.
Rigor consists in having the local reading undo an established symmetry. Another form of rigor, historical scholarship, can be outrageously speculative. The trend was always there in the work of editors who unscrambled perplexing expressions or normalized daring ones. One might escape the Shakespearean vortex by discovering a firm historical emplacement for the plays, by clarifying their occasion as well as the characters in them. The quest for the identity of W.
It is as intriguing as anything ventured by newfangled intertextualists. Hotson claims in The First Night of Twelfth Night that the figure of Malvolio is a daring take-off of a high official in Elizabeth's court: Here it explicitly pleases or shames the ears of a court-centered audience.
Yet this shaming or delighting is not necessarily in the service of good sense or the status quo, for it can subvert as well as mock and purge. The one thing it does, as in the case of the Controller, is to acknowledge the law of gender—of generation and succession—which, as Erasmus saw, compels us to play the fool. Such allowed slander, whether or not reinforced by Elizabethan festivities, by periods of compulsory license, also penetrates Shakespearean tragedy:.
Even he, the father of gods and king of men, who shakes all heaven by a nod, is obliged to lay aside his three-pronged thunder and that Titanic aspect by which, when he pleases, he scares all the gods, and assume another character in the slavish manner of an actor, if he wishes to do what he never refrains from doing, that is to say, to beget children. So it is that from this brisk and silly little game of mine come forth the haughty philosophers.
Generation and Succession are so fundamental to almost all classes and types of humanity that to reduce them to their verbal effects might seem trivializing. Yet, as Erasmus's Folly hints, the very category of the trivial is overturned by these forces. It quickens even as it exhausts our wit. It points to a relentless need for devices—words, stratagems. There exist eloquent characterizations of Shakespeare's understanding of the common nature of mankind. As Bakhtin remarks of another great writer, Rabelais, there are crownings and uncrownings at every level.
The vicissitudes of Folly and Fortuna go hand in hand. Yet no conclusions are drawn; and it does not matter what class of person is involved—a Falstaff, a Harry, a King Henry; a clown, a count, a lady; a usurper, a porter. What happens happens across the board, and can therefore settle expressively in a language with a character of its own—apart from the decorum that fits it to the character of the person represented. Yet there is never an objective correlative that sops up the action or organizes all the excrescent motives and verbal implications. The scene, through the solecisms and mispronunciations of Fluellen, his butchery of English, makes us aware of what is involved in the larger world of combat, to which he is marginal.
An end penetrates the middle of the drama; the grimace if only linguistic of death begins to show through. Yet even here, as the action hits a dangerous juncture, as decisions become hasty and bloody, this verbally excessive interlude slows things down to a moment of humorous discrimination. Harry's transformation into King Henry, and Fluellen's comparison in his favor—that Harry's bloodthirsty anger is more justified than Alexander's—appear like a jesting in the throat of death, a vain distinction already undone by the battlefield context that levels all things, as by an earthy vernacular, or quasi-vernacular, that can slander all things in perfect good humor.
It seems impossible, then, to describe the poetical character of Shakespeare without raising certain questions. One concerns the character of the critic choices to be made in reading so strong and productive a writer ; another what happens to language as it nurtures a vernacular ideal that still dominates English literature.
A third, related question is whether what that language does to character and to us can be summed up or unified by methodical inquiry. In some way they are all nonliteral; at least not directly literal. He simply accepts Coleridge's thesis on wit and Shakespeare's time:. Add to this the very style of the sermons of the time, and the eagerness of the Protestants to distinguish themselves by long and frequent preaching, and it will be found that, from the reign of Henry VIII to the abdication of James II, no country ever received such a national education as England.
It downplays the subverting character of Shakespeare's wit, one that is not put so easily in the service of the nation-state and its movement toward a common language. Mahood calls it, in what is still the most sensitive exploration of the subject, 13 offended rather than pleased most refiners of English up to modern times. The speed and stenography, in any case, of Shakespeare's wordplay in the comic scenes undoes the hegemony of any single order of discourse, and compels us to realize the radically social and mobile nature of the language exchange. And, unlike the novel which allows Bakhtin his most persuasive theorizing , these scenes display less a narrative or a pseudonarrative than oral graffiti.
Verbally Shakespeare is a graffiti artist, using bold, often licentious strokes, that make sense because of the living context of stereotypes, the commedia dell'arte, and other vernacular or popular traditions. Is it possible, then, to see Shakespeare sub specie unitatis, as the younger Murry thought? It seems to me there is no mystery, no Abgrund, except language itself, whose revelatory revels are being staged, as if character were a function of language, rather than vice versa. More precisely, as if the locus of the dramatic action were the effect of language on character.
Twelfth Night will allow us to examine how this language test is applied. A play is not necessarily spoiled by study. If you think that its theatricality is shackled when the author's theme or meaning is taken into account, that restraint is gentle compared to the chains hung on the author by opinionated thespians.
Shakespeare's Pointers in Twelfth Night. It is commonplace to speak of the different kinds of Shakespearean comedy. And, among the first group, we are Review of Twelfth Night. Shakespeare Quarterly 53, no. Theatre Journal 54, no. At the opening of Rebecca Holderness's production of Twelfth Night, one saw on the stage floor an elongated pile of crumpled sheets of paper.