Friday, June 17, 2022

Notice of James Ryan's Shakespeare's Symmetries [ring-form, & a note on opportunity cost]

Jennifer Young, Peter J. Smith, Elinor Parsons, Elisabetta Tarantino, Emanuel Stelzer, Shirley Bell, Ben Haworth, Vanessa Lim, Sheilagh Ilona O’brien, and Louise Powell, Shakespeare, The Year’s Work in English Studies, Volume 0 (2019), p. 36:

James E. Ryan, in Shakespeare’s Symmetries: The Mirrored Structure of Action in the Plays [2016], describes the presence of a chiasmic ABCBA structure in all the ‘mature, non-collaborative plays’ by Shakespeare (p. 2). (If we follow the order of the Norton Shakespeare, the earliest play included in Ryan’s analysis is Love’s Labour’s Lost.) This is a common device, which is found in Old Testament books or Gothic arches, as well as in other literary artefacts. Ryan points out that this is not a narrative-based approach: his ‘keystone scene’ (the non-repeated thematic element that constitutes the ‘C’ in the structure) rarely coincides with the narrative climax. As well as allowing us to perceive subtle thematic elements and to make sense of what has been seen as the jumbled structure of some of the plays (such as King John), this theory has practical usefulness: for instance, according to Ryan it indicates that alternative versions of King Lear and 2 Henry IV, which lack a keystone scene, have been transmitted to us in an incomplete state, rather than representing self-standing earlier versions. It can also serve as an indication of how to divide plays into scenes. In some cases Ryan has to defend what constitutes a ‘scene’ according to his parameters (though we may grant an implicit virtuous circularity to his argument if a ‘scene’ is what works well according to a pattern that is demonstrated to work well in many other cases). When he discusses how the three ‘sourceless’ plays (Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest) all consist of nine scenes, for the middle play he is following a common but not unanimous scene division, and ‘[a]n argument for the traditional division is implicit in [his] analysis of the play’ (p. 224n.). Besides locating within an overall framework individual elements that have already been highlighted by other critics, Ryan supports his claim with detailed structural analyses of twenty-six ‘mature’ plays (as he points out, it is important to view his tables together with the text, because not all of them are lists of scenes that are placed in mirrored sequences). The evidence put forward in this book should be examined with far greater attention than can here be devoted to the task, but is worth taking into consideration in any discussion of the relevant plays.

Indeed, a proper evaluation of Ryan's analysis would require a great deal of attention, more than is usually given to literary criticism. That is why I have not undertaken it myself nor even, I am ashamed to admit, undertaken to read the book.

Why? Opportunity cost. It would take me a month or so to do the work and when I'm done there would be no place to publish it except here or as a working paper at the usual places (, SSRN, or ResearchGate). That is to say no one would read it. So that's a month of time wasted. Not that I have a substantial readership for anything else I write. But I could have been doing other things in that month, things more useful to me. That's the opportunity cost.

Let me explain. On the one hand, chiasmic structure, which I prefer to call ring-form or ring-composition, is not new to me. On the contrary, I am quite familiar with it and have analyzed in 18 texts at last count (including films). It takes a fair amount of work. In each case I constructed a table in which I listed the elements in the text – scenes, incidents, whatever – and then analyzed the result to see if it exhibited ring-form.

To evaluate Ryan's analysis I would have to re-read each of the 26 plays he analyzed and perform an analysis myself. That's at least a day's word for each text. Then I would compare the results of my analysis with his. I have no idea how that would work out. But I don't see why, in principle, he cannot be right.

And if he is right, in all cases or even only a hand full or cases, then there is a sense in which Shakespeare critics don't know what they're talking about when they talk about those plays, for they don't have descriptive control over their materials. Is that an extreme judgement? Of course it is. I recognize that form isn't everything, but it is central. If the profession isn't prepared to describe and analyze form, which it isn't (though most critics would disagree with me on that, and they wouldn't be entirely wrong, but yes they would be wrong in a very important way), then it shouldn't make form and formalism central concepts in literary criticism.

The problem is not confined to Shakespeareans. It infects – is that the right word? maybe "afflicts"? what about misinforms? – nearly the whole profession.

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Other posts on ring-form. See also, Journey into Shakespeare, a tedious adventure – Will the real Hamlet stand up?, where I discuss the possibility of examining the three extant texts for ring-form.

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