Monday, February 13, 2017

Preview: Will the Real Shakespeare Stand Up

I’m currently working on another open letter. I thought I’d publish some draft text while continuing to work on the full letter. It’s going to be a long one. First I have a couple paragraphs from a letter by John Robert ‘Haj’ Ross, who got a linguistics degree under Chomsky back in the mid-1960s but who also went across the Charles River and studied poetics with Roman Jakobson at Harvard. That sets things up. Then I have the section on Shakespeare.

Haj Speaks

The letter is dated November 30, 1989 and it was written when Haj was in Brazil at Departamento de Lingüística, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte [1]. He’s not sure whom he wrote it to, but thinks it was one Bill Darden. He posted it to with the title “Kinds of meanings for poetic architectures” and with a one-line abstract: “How number can become the fabric on which the light of the poem can be projected”. Here’s the opening two paragraphs:
You correctly point out that I don’t have any theory of how all these structures that I find connect to what/how the poem means. You say that one should start with a discussion of meaning first.

That kind of discussion, which I have not heard much of, but already enough for me, I think, seems to be what people in literature departments are quite content to engage in for hours. What I want to know, however, is: what do we do when disputes arise as to what two people think something means? This is not a straw question - I have heard Freudians ram Freudian interpretations down poems’ throats, and I think also Marxists, etc., and somehow, just as most discussions among Western philosophers leave me between cold and impatient, so do these literary ones. So, for that matter, do purely theoretical, exampleless linguistic discussions. Armies may march on their stomachs; I march on examples. So I would much rather hear how the [p]’s in a poem are arrayed than about how the latent Oedipal etc., etc. In the former case, I know where to begin to make comments, in the latter, ich verstumme.
That’s the contrast that interests me, meaning versus structures, patterns, whatever. If you will, interpretive criticism (meaning) versus poetics (structures, patterns). By an large academic literary criticism has focused on meaning and is interested in patterns and structures only to the extent that the critic knows how to subordinate them to meaning.

Will the Real Shakespeare Stand Up

Shakespeare is arguably the center of the Anglophone literary universe, the Greatest and most Important Writer Ever. While there was undoubtedly a real William Shakespeare back in the 16th and 17th centuries, the exalted author, The Bard, is a cultural construction of considerable sophistication and complexity. That complexity exceeds my knowledge, but I want to at least indicate its outlines.

So, imagine you attend a performance of some Shakespeare play. This performance is an “standard” performance, no Shakespeare in modern dress, no avant-garde scenery, no fancy lighting. Just Shakespeare the “old-fashioned” way. The text, though, will be spoken with modern pronunciation, not Elizabethan, which would be something of a specialty item in any event, so special that it would likely qualify as avant-garde. Moreover, whatever edition the director chooses is likely to have bits cut here and there. Why? Because most Shakespeare plays run a bit long play and it’s standard to cut parts out. Thus whatever you see is not quite going to be what played in Shakespeare’s London. Moreover, it’s likely to have scenery, which will, in turn, require breaks to change it. The Elizabethan theater didn’t use scenery, hence no breaks for changes, and things moved along at a quicker pace.

As for that text, the one the director cut, where’d it come from? Not Shakespeare, not quite. The spelling will be both modernized and regularized, but that’s relatively minor, though not without consequence, as we will see. Of more consequence is the fact that we have no manuscripts by Shakespeare and no explicit connection between the man we know to be a glover’s son and an actor and the printers who published the plays. The only thing that connects them is the name and various circumstances; hence there is a minor industry devoted to figuring out who the real Shakespeare is. Why not the glover’s son? you ask. Well, so the story goes, whoever wrote the plays was well educated, but that glover’s son was a mere commoner. And so it goes. I have little interest in that industry and mention it only to indicate how iffy our knowledge is.

Of even more consequence is the fact that each play exists in two or three early versions. So the text that gets acted or that one reads will have been edited from those early texts. In some cases the differences between the texts are relatively minor, but that’s not the case with Hamlet, which is at the center of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. We’ve got three texts. One is roughly half the length of the other two, which differ from one another in 10% of their lines. Differences of that magnitude cannot be called minor. So the Hamlet you see acted on the stage is likely an eclectic text based on one of the two longer versions with appropriate modifications made by an editor. And, until fairly recently, the editor’s objective would have been to produce the one true text, the best version, the real Hamlet intended by Shakespeare himself.

And where did the one true Hamlet come from? Here I’m not thinking about the fact that the Hamlet story is older than Shakespeare. I have something different in mind. When a modern playwright writes a play, they do so with the intention that it will be performed by whoever pays the licensing fee. Shakespeare – assuming he is that glover’s son – didn’t work that way. He wrote for the company he was attached to (and in which he owned shares). He knew who was going to act the parts. Do you think, then, that he would have suited the parts, not to some ideal actor, but to the real actors in his company? Is it even possible that those actors may have suggested things to him that he then incorporated into his script? Is it further possible that the published texts might reflect improvisations the actors offered up during performance and that Shakespeare incorporated into the text that he sent off to the printer? We don’t really know.

In making this last round of remarks I’m thinking of a rather different and more recent artist, Duke Ellington. Ellington didn’t write for any band in general; he wrote for his band. His personnel were relatively stable, as those things went, with some musicians staying with him for decades. And we know that he took ideas from his musicians. It’s not unreasonable to speculate that Shakespeare might have done the same.

My point, then, is that when you attend a performance of Shakespeare, the lines you’re listening to were created by a committee. No doubt that the glover’s son was the chief and by far the most important and influential member of that committee, but other hands and other minds have been messing with the text.

Now imagine that you are a literary critic and that you are going to write an interpretive essay about, say, Hamlet, the sort of essay that makes the sorts of claims that cannot, in the end, be strongly justified. Until quite recently you would have worked from an eclectic text based on one of the two longer originals, with ‘improvements’ as the editor saw fit. In the last decade or so editorial theory – and, believe me, there is such a thing – has gotten to the point where at least some scholars think we need to work from the originals, not from an eclectic text. Regularize and modernize the spelling, correct printer’s errors and such, but otherwise leave the text alone. In this situation what does it mean to talk about the meaning of Hamlet? What is this thing, this Hamlet?

At this point you might be thinking that these Shakespeare texts are almost as mystified as the Bible. The Biblical texts of course are much older, and we know considerably less about the circumstances of their creation, assembly, and transmission. Thus our best accounts of these texts are at one and the same time more elaborate and less definitive than our accounts of the Shakespeare texts. But in both cases there comes a point where the cultural apparatus we’ve built around the texts simply disappears. If you will, it sinks into the dark matter of one's mind and becomes invisible. What remains visible is, in one case, the powerful though mortal word of The Bard, and in the other case, the sacred and immortal Word of God.

Let me push this just one step further. Shakespeare as we know him today is an emic construction created by a tribe of academic specialists working from a somewhat limited collection of etic objects – early editions of the plays plus a variety of other documentary and artifactual materials – and employing an ever evolving conceptual and methodological apparatus. As I understand it the emic/etic distinction originated in the distinction between phonemics and phonetics within linguistics and has become generalized within anthropology, starting with Kenneth Pike, where it is generally glossed as the insider’s view of a culture, emic, versus the outsider’s view, etic. In the typical case where a Western educated anthropologist is studying a preliterate society somewhere in the world, the anthropologist is clearly the outsider. In this case the force of the distinction is to make the investigator acutely aware of the difference between their views of the world and the views of the people they’re studying.

But, while we, you and I, qualify as sophisticated Western-educated investigators, the society we’ve been examining happens to be our own. So how could the emic/etic distinction possibly be relevant? Well, perhaps it isn’t, not in that form. But that’s the tool I’ve got, so I’m going to use it. And if it breaks, well, that’s OK.

In the first place I note that we live in an enormously complex society containing many subcultures and that each of us participates in several of these subcultures to one degree or another. The tribe of academic Shakespeareans is one such subculture. They have various duties and produce various things, among them, editions of Shakespeare texts. While some of those editions are intended primarily for other members of their tribe, many are intended for the public at large.

Jamil and Jeanette Q. Public know little or nothing about the Shakespeareans. When they see Denzel Washington, Kenneth Branagh, and Emma Thompson dancing around on the screen in a movie version of Much Ado About Nothing, they likely think they’re watching something more or less created by The Bard Hisownself, albeit with a little help from Hollywood. They know nothing about what the tribe of Shakespeareans had to do to come up with the words at the heart of the shooting script for that film (nor do most of them know much about shooting scripts).

But, let me ask you, when the Shakespeareans regularize and modernize the spelling they find in those old texts, aren’t they doing that because there is something foreign, something alien about them? Even the most casual Penguin paperback edition of a Shakespeare play will have its pages weighted down with footnotes glossing the meanings of words. Why? Because those words no longer exist in the language; they are foreign words that belong to a somewhat foreign language that is, however, recognizably close to modern English.

And the culture, Elizabethan England is a very different culture in a very different society. It was a monarchy and the monarch did double-duty as head of the church. No democracy, no separation of church and state. It was a world where the difference between an aristocrat and a commoner was conceived of as a difference in kind, not merely of material circumstance and history. And so on for a long list of differences. The differences are so substantial that in the 1980s the tribes of literary critics created something called the New Historicism to deal with that kind of difference.

Now, there’s nothing esoteric or hidden about these things. I’m not breaking any tribal oaths in telling you these things. Heck, I’m not myself of the Shakespeare critic’s tribe, though I’ve studied with some of them and read their books and articles. There’s little in this story that’s controversial.

But, and here’s the point, these are the people who are telling Haj Ross to put meaning first, that the patterns that so engage him aren’t important unless he can relate them to a poem’s meaning. Moreover, remember that for most of their history, those Shakespeare plays made their way in the world without benefit of the interpretive commentary that has becoming the focus of literary criticism since World War II. Those critical readings, our interpretations of those oh so carefully ‘laundered’ texts, are they emic or etic? Does it make sense to say that, with respect to Shakespeare and his contemporaries they cannot but be etic, the work of outsiders? With respect to us, that is, those of us not of the tribe of Shakespeare critics, they are emic, but they work best in that function to the extent that we forget about the apparatus that’s constructed them.

Thus, when critics talk of “reading” a text, more often than not they mean, “produce a written interpretation” of a text. Sometime in the 1960s and 70s, I believe, literary critics began eliding the distinction between reading in the ordinary sense, where it’s one of the three Rs, and interpretive reading, which is something one learns through a multiyear apprenticeship among the tribes of literary critics. The effect of that elision is to disappear the critical apparatus into the mind’s dark matter.

When literary critics complain that Haj isn’t concerned about meaning they are, ipso facto, complaining that he’s stepping outside the circle of mystification. When linguists work as linguists they step outside of language and examine it as an etic object, even when working on their own language. When working on their native language they may call on their emic intuitions, but their basic intellectual stance is that of an outsider. And that’s what Haj does when he’s working on poetry. For the most part he works on English poetry, generally fairly recent poetry, and he calls on his emic intuitions as a speaker of English, but his basic stance is that of a linguist, an outsider. As far as literary critics are concerned, he’s sinning.

Sin!? Surely this is overblown, you’re thinking. Well, says I, it is and it isn’t. It’s a tricky business. And I think it’s high time we step back, put the whole business at arm’s length, and ask, in all humility: What are we doing?

[1] Haj Ross, Kinds of meanings in for poetic architectures,, URL:

1 comment:

  1. Its not just the pronuncation but also the style of inflection.

    Old school classical British delivery for this form of verse is the declamatory style. Dates back to David Garrick.

    Relationship with rehtorical styles used by modern preachers. One 18th century play that used and played with the different rehtorical styles used by preachers and clearly the diffrences were known to the audience.

    Globe has put on productions using o.p. (original pronunciation) but the style of inflection is still anyones guess and makes a marked difference.

    It has an organic development, it can't cheat time and return to its birth. I am not sure why you would want to "jump the life to come" from a performance perspective.