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The Return to Shakespeare Orthodoxy

ISSUE:  Spring 1931

Materials for the Life of Shakespeare. By Pierce Butler. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. $2.00. Shakespeare, Truth and Tradition. By John S. Smart. New York: Longmans, Green and Company. $3.00. Shakespeare Studies. By Edgar I. Fripp. New York: The Oxford University Press. $2.50. William Shakespeare, a Study of Facts and Problems. By E. K. Chambers. New York: The Oxford University Press. 2 vols. $15.00.

Of the making of books on Shakespeare there is never an end. Nor is an end likely, because as time goes on more and more are interested in this greatest among creative minds, and the meager facts and records of which we can be certain suffuse an atmosphere of mystery and excite that far from the least noble of human proclivities, the urge to the making of myths. No man who has attracted the attention of his fellows in great number has ever escaped the penumbra of myth, whether it brighten by contrast the nimbus of his glory or darken it with the shadows of detraction. So that he who deals with the greatness of a Homer, a Tiberius, a Dante, or a Napoleon, is involved at once in questions of distinction between the close march of facts and untrammeled flights of fancy. Another human proclivity further complicates historical investigation, and that is an equally human reluctance to acknowledge the limitations of our own powers, the itch to leave nothing unexplained; and there are few who do not prefer the role of prophet, or wise man at least, to the discouraging attitude of the agnostic. Comment on Shakespeare, with much that is excellent, has long suffered from both of these tendencies, and we have had in the extremes the exploitation of what is little better than mere scandal and, on the other hand, the effort ingeniously to explain away every difficulty and pad the absence of evidence with plausible conjecture.

It is gratifying to note, under conditions such as these, an evident reaction as exhibited especially in several recent books on Shakespeare, a reaction which calls emphatically for a reappraisement of the scanty facts which are ascertainable as to the man and his work, and for a halt upon these safer premises, alike of the destructive criticism which calls everything into doubt, and the method by surmise which re-erects on ruins of probability, structures often perilous and absurd. In two of the books under consideration here, Pierce Butler’s “Materials for the Life of Shakespeare” and John S. Smart’s “Shakespeare, Truth and Tradition,” the stress is specifically on a return, simple and honest, to the materials, the data, the facts on which to rebuild a safer and a sounder biography of Shakespeare. The other two, Edgar I. Fripp’s “Shakespeare Studies” and Sir Edmund Chambers’ “Shakespeare, a Study of Facts and Problems,” involving this as well, enter, the one more deeply, in a continuation of the author’s previous researches, into the minute relations and details of Shakespeare’s Stratford and the people who were his family’s contemporaries there; while the last, in two fine volumes, brings to a triumphant completion this indefatigable writer’s long-continued studies in the many, and often vexed, problems which arise not only out of what we know of Shakespeare’s life, but out of his work under the conditions to which he was subjected.

Professor Butler’s modestly entitled “Materials for the Life of Shakespeare,” and the late Dr. Smart’s “Shakespeare, Truth and Tradition,” offer an interesting contrast of the manner in which two scholars working quite independently, in a field already gleaned and garnered, apparently to the last straw, can throw none the less each a new light on many a point and come to a substantial agreement by different ways. Professor Butler’s book is particularly valuable in its assembly into a sizable volume of the significant anecdotes, “lives,” criticisms, and documents relating to Shakespeare; and for the quiet hand of an unobtrusive guidance to the understanding of them. Here are the familiar allusions that we know so well, and those which we have taken for granted time out of mind, each referred to its source and its place in the category that goes to make up what we may confidently affirm that we “know” of Shakespeare ; and neither controversy nor, much less, any theorizing is allowed to interfere with the plain unvarnished tale. Here is Dr. Butler’s comment on Shakespeare’s quest for his father’s achievement of a coat of arms: “Thus, like half a dozen other actors, including members of his own company, Burbage and Heming, Shakespeare had a recognized and not an outcast status.” And once more, as to the dramatist’s testimony in the Mount joy lawsuit in 1612—the interesting discovery, it will be remembered, of our American scholar, Dr. C. W. Wallace—: “Different readers will read different things between the lines of this testimony—perhaps it is not going too far to say, that Shakespeare’s testimony seems reluctant, as if he would not further contribute to a domestic quarrel, as if he would remember only the amiable things about either Belott or Mount joy.” Dr. Smart’s book is more argumentative and, while employing the documents with equal fulness and frankness, discusses them less as such. Where the American critic proceeds from the earlier biographies and anecdotes to contemporary criticism and personal relations, concluding with the evidences as to the plays, the Scotsman—to designate Dr. Smart’s nationality accurately — proceeds from Stratford and family history to an active combat with error in his entertaining chapter on “Things Which Never Were”; and he does not even disdain to cross swords with the Shakespearean heretics, now long since out of date, who mix up Francis Bacon with the authorship of stage plays. In view of the several like heresies which have followed this old Victorian wraith, it seems a pity to waste so much wit and energy on so dead a topic. But as a piece of clever writing and sound reductio ad absurdum, Dr. Smart’s lively chapter, “The Strange Conspiracy,” is heartily to be commended. I like, too, among the “fragments,” the dictum: “Shakespeare might have written as carelessly, as Byron, and as illegibly as Dean Stanley or Andrew Lang, and might still be the author of ‘Hamlet’ ”; and the turn to that scandal, Shakespeare’s bequeathal of his “second best bed” to his wife, with a parallel from Mr. Arnold Bennett’s novel, “The Old Wives’ Tale,” by which it appears that when a certain widow returned to visit the young couple, her daughter and her daughter’s husband, who had inherited the estate, “she was not asked to occupy the second best room like Mrs. Shakespeare,” that being her place as a dowager, but was actually installed, “as a great concession and a special act of courtesy,” in the best, which had formerly been her own.

There is an interesting chapter on Shakespeare’s scholarship in Dr. Smart’s book which is worthy of close attention. All four of the books under discussion in the present article agree in repudiating the idea of a dirty and illiterate Stratford, a father for Shakespeare who could neither read nor write, and a poet handicapped with a pitiful unacquaintance not only with the classics, but with anything else that makes for culture or learning. But the other extreme—once so ingeniously sponsored by Churton Collins—that the dramatist was a considerable linguist, stepping from passage to passage of the Greek dramatists and the Latin satirists or lyrists with the ease and unoriginality of an Oxford don, is quite as equally repudiated. Dr. Smart raises a nice point in this matter in which he urges: “Until the archives of the Colleges for the appropriate dates have been minutely searched and no William Shakespeare discovered, it will be impossible to prove from University sources that he was never at Oxford [or Cambridge] even for a term.” Men have been graduates of both Universities, as Robert Greene, Shakespeare’s early rival, was given to boasting, and have taken precious little learning away with them. More pertinent to the question is Mr. Fripp’s surprising chapter, “Shakespeare’s Use of Ovid’s Metamorphoses,” in which he shows that our glib acceptance of Arthur Golding’s “clownish translation” as the source for the many reminiscences and quotations from Ovid to be found scattered up and down Shakespeare’s plays, is preposterous. He further shows that the many more such reminiscences than we have ever suspected—and these he gives in full—go to prove that Shakespeare knew his school-book, as he should after seven years at an excellent Latin school, his Ovid in the original, and what is more to the purpose, “loved it.” We may add that he assiduously used it, with a surprising verbal nicety and accuracy.

Mr. Fripp’s Shakespearean studies range widely, and this is no less than a fourth book from his fertile and ready pen. As was to be expected from “Shakespeare’s Stratford” and “Master Richard Quyny,” previous volumes, the present work is strong in antiquarian research as to the fellow-townsmen of the dramatist. Where all is so interesting, it is difficult to specify. “The Minister Who Baptized Shakespeare,” John Bertchgirdle, and “John Brownsword: Poet and Schoolmaster,” to whom Shakespeare must have gone to school, are pertinent and full of new and absorbingly interesting material. Later the subjects range to “Light on Doctor Hall,” who married Shakespeare’s daughter; “Monsieur Jaques,” in which the present reviewer confesses that he cannot follow on; an exceedingly illuminating paper on Falstaff, immortal theme for the wise and the merely intrepid. Amongst innumerable smaller matters, Mr. Fripp shows that John Shakespeare’s “difficulties” towards the end of his life were not Roman Catholic recusancy, as some have thought, but perhaps too warm a sympathy in the opposite extreme. It is good also to have another example of the strange word “aroint” which occurs always as applied to a witch (aroint thee) in both “Macbeth” and “King Lear”: and this time from a bit of contemporary Stratford testimony recorded by Dr. Hall, bringing this strange word in the Shakespearean vocabulary singularly near home.

To turn to Sir Edmund Chambers’ “William Shakespeare, a Study of Facts and Problems,” we are in the presence of a singularly complete and exhaustive piece of criticism and research. For in these two handsome volumes the author brings to conclusion the ambition and the study of a lifetime. Realizing that no man’s career nor any series of happenings can be viewed except in the light of the fullest possible understanding of his age and his personal surroundings, Sir Edmund began his purposed work on Shakespeare more than twenty years ago, with the publication of that fascinating book, “The Medieval Stage,” thus clearing up the origins of the drama in England. Years after came the four scholarly volumes on “The Elizabethan Stage,” which summarized, with critical distinction and in orderly arrangement, the learning which has been gathered during generations as to the theatrical background of Shakespeare, his contemporaries, their plays, the manner of their writing, and the conditions of the time as affecting all this. And now the author is at last ready for the central figure of his long-prepared labors, Shakespeare himself. There are two ways of writing history, and biography as well. The aim of one is the production of a picture to visualize, so to speak, in the imagination, the subject that the reader may see. The other seeks the perfection of a map, that the reader may be sure to find his way, and leaves seeing to the reader’s own eyes. For the average reader—and we are most of us such—the picture is imperative, for he can see only what is visualized for him. For the scholar the guidance of the map is not only alone sufficient; he resents the other method. In view of this distinction, it will not be taken as captious for us to recognize that these splendid volumes of Chambers are essentially for the student who cannot bring too much scholarship to the understanding of them, as he cannot be sufficiently grateful for this orderly, sound, and complete presentation of a subject the intricacy of which it would be difficult to exaggerate.

To give anything like an adequate account of the rich and varied contents of Sir Edmund’s book would be impossible in a review of any ordinary dimensions. Let us content ourselves with a bare mention of some of the many questions with which the text bristles. There is a no more vexed or difficult one than that which concerns the history of the stage in the age of Shakespeare: the facts by way of record are scattered and incomplete; the companies were many and confused, alike in their patrons and their personnel, both of which were open to incessant change, shifting, coalition, division, appearance now at court, again in London, and fitfully in the provinces. Contrary to the neat theories of Sidney Lee and others that trace Shakespeare as a boy attracted by the Earl of Leicester’s theatrical entertainments at Kenil-worth into the orbit of the players, Sir Edmund finds Shakespeare’s emergence as a player and playwright in the theatrical disorganization of the years 1592 to 1594, circumspectly allowing the alternatives of an association with Pembroke’s men, with Sussex’s, or even the status of an unattached playwright. And he rejects another recent surmise which reconstructs for Shakespeare a regular period of seven years’ apprenticeship. On the more solid ground which follows our knowledge of Shakespeare as “a payee on behalf of the Chamberlain’s men for plays given at court in the winter of 1594,” we progress forward rapidly in the familiar story of the dramatist’s career, coming again and again upon adjudications or obiter dicta which illuminate the theses or refute the arguments of contemporary scholarship. For example, one of our prevalent departures into the realms of biographical fancy, where historical analogies exist in the atmosphere of a world of four dimensions, transforms Shakespeare’s dramatic transcripts of history and story into deeply planned allegories of contemporary or recent Elizabethan events. According to this species of twist as to the significance of things, Hamlet becomes an adumbration of King James before his accession to his English throne, and the story of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Bothwell is set forth in that of Macbeth and his lady. Here is our author’s wholesome verdict as to that sort of thing: “I do not myself believe that apart from some passages of obvious satire in comic scenes, there is much of the topical in Shakespeare, whose mind normally moved upon quite another plane of relation to life.”

An absorbing and informing chapter of this work is that entitled “The Book of the Play,” the phrase employed contemporaneously to denote not the author’s manuscript or “original,” but that manuscript as ordered, corrected, and otherwise arranged to guide the prompter or bookkeeper in his direction of the play. Scholarship of late has been very active in this matter of Elizabethan dramatic manuscripts, of which an interesting variety—though, alas, none of Shakespeare’s—is extant; and the work of Greg, Sisson, Sir Edmund himself, and many others has made many of these accessible and studied them with illuminating results to our knowledge of things, extending from the handwriting of the period to the possible effects of manuscript peculiarities and imperfections on the text of plays subsequently in print. For example, a veritable warfare has raged about the manuscript of a play involving several hands on the subject of “Sir Thomas More,” and scholars are still agog as to whether certain passages of this manuscript may or may, not be in the handwriting of Shakespeare himself. In its wider reaches this is a subject of great intricacy, involving, as it does with much else, that maze of difficulty, the Elizabethan practice of collaboration in playwriting. Of late, a theory has been evolved, especially in the hands of Dr. J. Dover Wilson, one of the editors of the New Cambridge Shakespeare, by which a species of “continuous copy” is surmised as having existed in the possession of the theatrical company, begun originally by one or more writers and open to a succession of rewritings and revisions subsequently at the hands of apparently anybody who might be employed for the purpose. Such a theory, in the upshot, transforms Shakespeare, with most of his fellows, into a mere “play-patcher,” mending and amending, without original or artistic purpose or design; and arrogates, on the part of a critic such as Mr. J. M. Robertson, a preternatural discernment in the niceties of vocabulary, diction, and the use of figure by which these writers of three hundred years since are delicately to be distinguished. Sir Edmund, as might have been expected from his brilliant lecture on “The Disintegration of Shakespeare,” a few years since, will have none of this; and a general vindication of the Shakespearean text in an exhaustive examination of the problem from every point of view is not the least valuable of the many services of this book.

Orthodoxy is, of course, no accurate term to employ as to the findings of science or even as to those of history. But there is in the growth of opinion and scholarship on any topic a middle way, shall we call it, that keeps steadily on, absorbing to itself after considered scrutiny such progress as can be made by way, of the unearthing of new material or a wiser understanding of what we have. This is what the present writer means by the return to orthodoxy as to Shakespeare, for in all of these sane and considering critics such is the tread forward; and neither the romanticist nor the scandalmonger, neither he who explains everything nor he who regards everything as unexplainable, except on the basis of his own incredible little theory, none has disturbed this steady onward pace, this buttressing of what we know and this disregard of error and false inference. I am sorry that Dr. Smart mentioned Bacon; otherwise the silence as to that and the several other efforts, its successors, to create a mystery where there is none is complete.


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