July 2010

Janis Lull


Prefaces to Shakespeare by Tony Tanner

This is probably the last book about Shakespeare. Or rather, it’s the last book about “Shakespeare,” as he used to be presented in Anglo-American criticism. If we do not destroy ourselves, as Carl Sagan liked to say, we will write lots more about Shakespeare’s words, the printing of his books, his politics, his inner life, his illegitimate children, and how these may or may not be relevant to his works as we use them today. But another work such as Tony Tanner’s Prefaces to Shakespeare is unlikely because its audience has just about dried up. 

These essays are earnest and genial discussions of the individual plays that assume many shared experiences between critic and reader. On the jacket, Frank Kermode recommends the book “above all others to an interested young person.” But I don’t think Tanner is addressing, for example, an undergraduate who has never encountered a play by Shakespeare, or a graduate student searching for a dissertation topic. Although the essays were written as introductions to the plays for Everyman’s Library, they don’t really aim at a general audience, either, unless it’s one that regularly reads the TLS. To appreciate what Tanner is doing here, one should already be acquainted with most of the plays and with many of the critics he mentions. Dennis Donoghue, writing in the New Criterion, called this a book of “convivial criticism.” It is that, but “collegial” might be an even better word. The ideal readers of these generally graceful essays would be a lot like Tony Tanner himself: longtime admirers of Shakespeare and of the kind of close reading that prevailed in literary criticism until around the end of the twentieth century. You wouldn’t have to be an expert on Shakespeare, necessarily. Tanner was not, at least by profession; he taught American literature at the University of Cambridge. But you would certainly want to brush up. 

On the other hand, if you took the trouble to refresh your memory of these 37 plays before (or maybe during) a reading of Tanner, you would be rewarded by a final glimpse of Shakespeare-Our-Contemporary, a great author from the English Renaissance whose complex verbal art remains almost entirely accessible to us today, if only we pay close attention. In this incarnation, Shakespeare thinks (and especially feels) more or less as we do. “I hold it as axiomatic,” Tanner writes, “that, if we find something (or someone) cruel unconscionable, intolerable (not to mention admirable, lovable, or laughable), in Shakespeare’s plays, then so did Shakespeare.” To Tanner, as to most close-reading critics, Shakespeare is far more a writer than a maker of plays. These essays rarely talk about productions, for example, although Tanner does glancingly mention that he once saw a “perfect performance” of Love’s Labor’s Lost, and was “never so conscious of growing communal pleasure.” I, for one, would certainly like to know more about that perfect performance. Since Love’s Labor’s Lost consists almost entirely of word games, I would at least like to hear who the players were at that -- both on the stage and in the audience. But never mind. As Tanner says in his offhand way, personal anecdotes “are invariably rather pointless in this matter.” I suppose you had to be there. 

It goes without saying that Tanner loves Shakespeare’s plays, including the comedies. He even loves the ones that put most people off. Rather than reading The Two Gentlemen of Verona as a tale of (failed?) male friendship between Valentine and Proteus, he sees “the beginnings of a study of dishonourable conduct deliberately chosen, wrong-doing knowingly pursued. After Proteus come, with all their differences, Richard III, Don John (Much Ado), Bertram (All’s Well), then Iago, finally Macbeth -- Shakespeare’s greatest exploration of conscious evil.” This view of Two Gents as Shakespeare-in-development is certainly more appealing than the belief that the author here supports an ideal of male friendship that requires Valentine to “give” his beloved to his friend Proteus just after Proteus has tried to rape her. But taking the long perspective -- Proteus to Macbeth -- only works if the reader already knows something about Richard III, Don John, and the rest. In these essays, ostensibly introducing particular plays, the Tanner more often than not has his eye on the whole body of Shakespeare’s work. Prefaces to Shakespeare often displays a genial unwillingness to twist the reader’s arm. If one wants to give Tanner’s opinions serious consideration, fine. If not, also fine. Isn’t this the way one talks to colleagues rather than to neophytes? On The Taming of the Shrew, for example:  “If you don’t like the play, you don’t… Finding this play sexist would go along with finding Othello racist, and The Merchant of Venice anti-semitic. Quite wrong-headed in my view -- but a line which has been argued.” If you’d like to see how that other line of argument goes, however, you’ll just have to look it up somewhere else. 

One thing that might surprise neophyte and colleague alike is that Tanner groups Romeo and Juliet with the comedies, insisting that the play “fails of being a ‘comedy’ by something under a minute.” That is to say, if Juliet had awakened from her drug-induced trance one minute earlier, while Romeo was still alive, the whole play would have proceeded along the lines of classical (Roman) comedy. Two lovers blocked by stubborn parents finally get around them with the help of various clowns and servants (Mercutio, the Nurse, the Friar), and get married at the end. That’s what happens, more or less, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Tanner thinks Shakespeare may have been writing Dream at the same time as Romeo, and simply wanted to see what it would be like if he suddenly threw a wrench into the plot that works out so splendidly for the Midsummer lovers. This is an interesting and plausible idea, especially if your interests lie in Shakespeare’s literary thinking and his methods of composition. For Tanner, Romeo and Juliet also looks forward to Antony and Cleopatra. Both plays are about lovers who die, but in such an atmosphere that the audience feels they have been “cut... out in little stars” and placed in heaven rather than doomed. Their love has not died, but moved to a higher plane. 

When Tanner comes to Shakespeare’s history plays, he gives the inexperienced a bit more help. He sets these works in the context of the “Tudor myth,” the idea that the Tudor rulers, including Elizabeth I, needed an account of British history that showed the contradictions of feudalism and explained why monarchy was a better idea, a Tudor monarchy the best idea of all. For historical “facts,” Shakespeare relied on the Tudor historians who were producing such accounts, and Tanner is quite good at outlining the often wrenching changes Shakespeare made to his sources in order to turn the chronicles into dramas. Except for Henry VIII, which is a kind of pageant ending in the birth of baby Elizabeth, all Shakespeare’s history plays dramatize the bloody events of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when England was undergoing a transition from feudal society, with power invested in regional barons, to a new sort of monarchy. Eight plays treat this transition, from the overthrowing of Richard II, the last medieval heir to the throne, to the arrival of Henry Tudor, Elizabeth’s grandfather, who established a “legitimate” monarchy once again.

But Shakespeare does not deal with events in this order. First he writes four plays about Henry VI and Richard III, the one a weak king and the other an evil one, who finally ground the life out of the old feudal system. Then he writes four plays about the earlier era, including the toppling of Richard II and the troubles and triumphs of the Lancaster family that toppled him, focusing on the development of Henry V, England’s great warrior-prince. Overall, Tanner cares more about Shakespeare’s development from the episodic structure of Henry VI Part 1 to the emergence of distinctive individual characters and tight plots in the later plays than he does about any political argument the playwright might be making. He does not, old-school critic that he is, think that Shakespeare opposed the Tudors or doubted the events recounted in the chronicles. But the fact that Richard III speaks the first true soliloquy in Shakespeare -- with its conventions of psychological candor and direct address to the audience -- matters more to Tanner than what, if anything, Shakespeare thought about politics. Tanner is most interested in the history plays, that is to say, when they approach the condition of tragedy. 

Writing about the four “Major Tragedies” (Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth) as A. C. Bradley grouped them (Shakespearean Tragedy, 1904), Tanner moves easily through a wide range of scholarly and critical opinion. As always, he offers few footnotes. (When he does, you sometimes wish he hadn’t. Referring to French philosopher Jacques Derrida, he says, “I know that too much Derrida is the sort of thing that makes the British think twice about taking their holidays in France, but he has a remarkable meditation on the balcony scene” in Romeo and Juliet. This makes Tanner sounds like a disagreeable academic character in an David Lodge novel.) There are no endnotes or bibliographies or indices in the back of the book, so if you don’t know your Derrida from your Dover Wilson, you won’t find any help there. (On the other hand, of course, there is no end matter to intimidate and weigh down the reader’s spirit. No guilty conscience about not reading the bibliography.) Once again, it’s as if Tanner is discussing with us, his colleagues, some of his ideas about the plays, plus what others have said (sometimes neglecting to name those others -- they’re so well-known), and this conversation is taking place more or less right now, rather informally. This is a charming approach, in its way, but it marks the end of an era. Tanner is something like the late Robert Byrd, quoting each of Shakespeare’s 37 plays on the Senate floor at least once in 1994 alone (and who knows how many other times in all his years in Congress?). We shall not look upon his like again. 

Borrowing a quote from Julius Caesar, Tanner finds the focus of the major tragedies “Between the acting of a dreadful thing / And the first motion.” That is to say, the Big Four are about what happens in a person’s mind during the period between the protagonist’s first thinking about “a dreadful thing,” and his finally acting on that thought. This summary most famously applies to Hamlet, which Laurence Olivier called “a play about a man who cannot make up his mind.” Othello, too, concerns the (drastically collapsed) deliberations of a protagonist driven to murder, and the tyrant Macbeth, as Tanner says, “with increasing desperation, tries to shrink and indeed obliterate the ‘interim’” between his dreadful thoughts and deeds. King Lear, alone among the Big Four, enacts a search for knowledge after the dreadful deed has already been done. Lear starts the ball rolling downhill -- perhaps without thinking at all -- and then tries to understand its causes and effect. As Tanner notes, the word “cause” figures prominently in all of the major tragedies. Here and throughout the book, Tanner gets a great deal of use out of the tools of traditional philology, especially word frequency counts, to underscore his ideas. 

Six more of Shakespeare’s tragedies are grouped by Tanner under the heading “Greek and Roman Plays.” In this section he stresses the historical importance of Greece and Rome to Tudor England as much as he does the psychology of the tragic protagonists. Again, as in the section on English Histories, we hear more than elsewhere about the playwright’s sources and how he changed them, compressing time and conflating events to transform narrative into drama. There is no doubt in Tanner’s mind that just as Shakespeare wrote the English history plays in support of the “Tudor myth” -- or rather that the playwright simply did support it -- he favored a monarchical form of government while writing the Greek and Roman tragedies. There has been much scholarly debate about this matter, but Tanner generally skips over it, another sign of his faith that Shakespeare is more or less transparent to us. The playwright often chooses his subjects from imperial periods in classical history (the Trojan war, the Augustan empire), and when he doesn’t, as in Timon of Athens and Coriolanus, Tanner finds hints everywhere that he shared the Elizabethan fear that representative government would degenerate into mob rule. As they can throughout the book, each of these essays can stand alone as an introduction (or rather re-introduction, since they are best read by people with some experience of Shakespeare). But every section tells more if the prefaces are read together. Compare-and-contrast, another old-fashioned scheme, has never been so expertly deployed. 

Finally, Tanner comes to the “Romances,” where he has been heading all along. These are often thought of as Shakespeare’s last (public) words, written after the death of Elizabeth I in the early 1600s. For Tanner, as for many others, these plays reconcile all the threads of Shakespeare’s art and represent his mature style, especially The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. The Romances are grouped together by traditional critics -- and Tanner is nothing if not a traditional critic -- not only because Shakespeare wrote them late in his career, but because they seem to merge tragedy and comedy with the help of spiritual or supernatural forces in a way analogous to the prose stories of questing and magic that the Elizabethans and Jacobeans called “Romances.” For most audiences or readers, some of the four Shakespearean Romances -- the other two are Cymbeline and Pericles -- work their miracles better than others. A prize-winning short story writer I know once called Cymbeline a “structural mess.” (Samuel Johnson thought so, too.) Tanner, of course, is aware of such opinions. He is nevertheless a fan of Cymbeline, as he is, in fact, of all 37 plays in the book. If you’re looking for a critic who avoids “Bardolatry,” Tanner is not your man. He is well aware of the untraditional criticism of Shakespeare (Psychoanalysis, Deconstruction, New Historicism) that characterized the late twentieth century (Tanner died in 1998). In the end, however, he does not embrace most of these approaches in his Prefaces, although he rarely attacks them, either. (The backhanded compliment to Derrida is an exception.) Of Howard Felperin's reading of Cymbelline as a pro-Christian tract, for example, Tanner says, “it is only appropriate to place this version before readers of this introduction. But the play just doesn’t feel like this to me.” This common-sense approach perfectly matches Tanner’s conviction that if something disgusts or delights us today, it would also have disgusted or delighted Shakespeare. The Bard was one of us. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that “convivial” sense of “us” as an audience for Shakespeare’s plays will ever be quite the same. Tanner’s Prefaces may be the summing-up of that kind of criticism, just as Tanner sees The Tempest as the summing-up of Shakespeare’s dramatic art. For that, as well as for its readability, the book is well worth looking into. 

Prefaces to Shakespeare by Tony Tanner
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
ISBN:  9780674051379
825 Pages