One of the greater ironies of Shakespeare scholarship over the last century
is the ongoing effort by Shakespeare scholars--most of whom spend dozens of
hours a week enjoining, cajoling, and browbeating their students into addressing
Shakespeare's plays as literature--to deny that those plays are literature.
Shakespeare, these scholars say, thought of his plays as disposable, populist
ephemera, like Hollywood scripts; they were created for performance, and that's
all. Views, interpretations, editions, or theoretical schools which posit
a reader are, by this thinking, sadly and anachronistically missing the point.
A comment on Hamlet by John Dover Wilson may serve as proxy for
many others. He describes the play as "an elaborate work of dramatic
art," and continues, "…the only criticism relevant to such an art
is one that follows these impressions in the order in which the dramatist
released them, and then considers the total impression left behind upon the
audience after the play is finished." (328) So any interpretation which
assumes a thoughtful, literary reader is simply…irrelevant. Innumerable undergraduates
will no doubt be dismayed (or vindicated) when they learn this.
It is especially surprising, given the hegemony and orthodoxy of the "performance"-based
position among the adept (countered by the occasional plaintive voice in the
literary wilderness), that the position is grounded almost entirely on assertions
from absence: there's no known evidence that Shakespeare was actively involved
in the publication of his plays. But as Lukas Erne demonstrates in Shakespeare
as Literary Dramatist, there is a large body of convincing evidence showing
that Shakespeare was writing not just for players and playgoers, but for readers
as well. Erne calls upon every relevant study and scholar of note over the
last century (he does not duck the tough questions) to demonstrate that:
Dramatic literature was rapidly gaining respectability in the 1590s,
long before that widely-supposed watershed, Jonson's 1616 publication
of his Workes. Plays for the public theatres (with Shakespeare's
predominant) were widely quoted in poetic miscellanies and commonplace
books starting in the 1590s, for instance, in company with the brightest
literary lights of the day.
Between 1594 and 1603, every Shakespeare play that was not somehow
precluded (by, for instance, a stationer's company entry for a similar
play) was in fact published--generally about two years after the plays'
stage debuts. Erne posits an intentional strategy by The Chamberlain's
Men to get Shakespeare's plays into print.
Shakespeare's long plays were far too long to have been played uncut
in the public theatres, and were far longer than those of his contemporaries.
Only Ben Jonson, that most self-consciously literary of playwrights, compares.
Erne's cogent re-analysis of Alfred Hart's 1930s data on the length of
Elizabethan and Jacobean plays effectively addresses the critiques of
Hart's analysis by Steven Urkowitz and others.
Longer plays--Shakespeare's and others'--were regularly cut for performance,
just as they are today.
The short quartos are representations--however mangled--of such performances.
Among many arguments (which were there time and space enough, I would detail
here), I will mention here Erne's explication in his final chapter of the
theatrical nature of the short quartos of Romeo, Hamlet, and
Henry V. He shows the hand of a skilled theatrical abridger at work,
surgically excising flowery and purple "literary" material, and
reworking the remainder for the benefit of players and playgoers. To cite
one example, he shows that all the scattered references to Hamlet's sea voyage
(which no auditor could dream of piecing together while watching a play--only
a careful reader could do so) are absent in Q1, with all the information conveniently
condensed into the only added scene in the quarto, between Gertrude and Horatio.
Appendix A, "The Plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in print,
1584–1623,"is an intelligently designed, information-packed table, sufficient
reason in its own right for having this volume to hand. Other tables throughout
the volume are equally useful.
Erne's argument is not without chinks. One significant omission, for instance--which
he shares with others who have tackled the issue--is his failure to consider
playing times in non-public venues: court, the Inns of Court, and private
residences. Shakespeare's company presented his plays at court dozens of times
during his lifetime--for twenty years they dominated the winter revels season--so
this omission merits further research and discussion.
Likewise, Erne does not provide a satisfying explanation for the sudden
halt in registration of new Shakespeare plays around the time of James' accession.
(Fifteen plays in the Stationer's Register in nine years, ending with Troilus
in February 1603, followed by a five-year gap before Lear's registration,
and only two more in Shakespeare's lifetime, in 1608.) Erne somewhat cavalierly
(and uncharacteristically) casts aside the notion that this change had anything
to do with the company's accession as The King's Men. Again, further investigation
is in order. The book's index (as is sadly predictable with scholarly publications)
is execrable. The single page-entry for James I, for instance (James is mentioned
multiple times), doesn't point to the important though brief discussion of
his accession. And many entries include more than a dozen undifferentiated
Even with these imperfections, Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist
effectively puts paid to a complex of largely-assumed and reactive truisms
that have increasingly dominated Shakespeare scholarship over the last century.
It's difficult to come away from this book with any impression other than
the perhaps-obvious one: that Shakespeare was writing for both the page and
Shakespeare's ability to write for apprentices and earls, for court and
courtyard, for auditors and for readers, constitutes an important part
of--and demonstration of--the skill that has transformed him into "Shakespeare."
So perhaps this book's greatest importance is its promise of emancipation--freeing
Shakespeare scholars to revel once again with their apter pupils in the genius
and diversity that Shakespeare's "books" provide, without risk of
suffering Prospero's exile.