Patrick Cheney never promises but he means to pay. In his 2004 book, Shakespeare, National Poet-playwright, he set out a two-volume plan to argue that, contrary to the popular image of Shakespeare as a "man of the theater" with little regard for the literary system of poets like Edmund Spenser, Shakespeare remained deeply, professionally invested in that system. Building on the work of scholars like Lukas Erne and James Bednarz, this argument would revise how we understand Shakespeare's relationship to the "literary" and thus to his own legacy.
In Shakespeare's Literary Authorship, Cheney redeems the time with interest. While the earlier book focuses on printed poetry to give Shakespeare the vocational distinction of "poet-playwright," the present volume addresses the whole range of plays to demonstrate Shakespeare's "counter-laureate authorship." Cheney defines this term as "an oblique literary form of self-representation that allows the author to hide behind the veil of his fictions, while allowing us to follow him, through the tracks he himself leaves" (14). Unlike Spenser, who followed Vergil's model of laureate self-presentation, Shakespeare refracts his authorial claims into the plays themselves. Cheney makes the surprising and intriguing claim that if we "wish to 'see' this author, we may find him not only where we often look—in such famed characters as Hamlet—but more precisely in the character of the author's images, his figural representations" (44). As this quotation suggests, these "figural representations" include play characters who are themselves authors but also Shakespeare's many metaphors, metonymies, and other images that invoke the topics of authorship, print, and poetry.
On first reading, this approach may seem like Robertsonian-style code-breaking, as if we must hunt the animal that left these "tracks" to understand Shakespeare's authorship. Indeed, much of the book's argumentative rigour goes into "follow[ing]" the "figural representations" of authorship through the plays, across genres and from early plays to late. But Cheney aims less to unearth some mischievously hidden meaning and discover the "real" Shakespeare than to reconstruct Shakespeare's conception of authorship in and through the plays' relationship with the texts of Ovid, Vergil, Marlowe, and especially Spenser. In moments when Shakespeare consciously or unconsciously rehearses those texts—moments that Cheney cleverly labels "extemporal intertextuality"—we see Shakespeare "countering the idea of the laureate or national poet" (19). That these intertextual moments are identical to the "figural representations" of authorship should hardly surprise us, for Cheney shows how the plays' motifs of authorship, print, and poetry constitute in themselves Shakespeare's authorial self-presentation.
For example, in Chapter One, easily the most controversial of the book's eight chapters, Cheney claims that Shakespeare's authorship isn't simply "counter-laureate" but is also "self-concealing." He argues that the Achilles stanza in the Rape of Lucrece, which describes a picture of the hero's spear but not of his actual person, constitutes a "displaced, mythologized version of self-representation" (26) that "specifies the precise character of [Shakespearean] authorship" (34). In harking back to and pushing against Ovid, Dante, Petrarch, Chaucer, and Spenser, all of whom refer to Achilles' spear as a marker of authorship, the stanza operates as an authorial signature. In other words, Cheney sees the stanza's representation of invisible authorship—epic authorship in particular—as pointing to, even standing in for, Shakespeare's own invisible authorship.
The book is split into two parts. In Part One, Cheney recasts Shakespeare's authorship by looking at moments of "extemporal intertextuality" in Shakespeare's author figures, such as Prospero, in discourses on poetry and authorship, such as Theseus's speech on "the lunatic, the lover, and the poet," and in moments that fuse poetry with theatre and books with theatre. Cheney deftly moves from play to play to show both the extent to which Shakespeare is invested in the terms of literary authorship and the surprising coincidence of that investment with points of contact with Spenser's works. In Part Two, the pace slows somewhat as Cheney dedicates whole chapters to 2 Henry VI, Much Ado about Nothing, Hamlet, and Cymbeline. This part proves more exciting than Part One for a number of reasons. For one, we get to see Cheney work through four difficult plays at considerable length, and for another, the argumentative pitch of Part One lowers somewhat, allowing us to experience the subtleties of Cheney's claims. Whereas, for example, As You Like It receives just two pages in Part One (104-6), 2 Henry VI gets almost thirty (149-78) that show how the play rehearses and then surpasses the collision of Spenser's and Marlowe's authorial models.
For the reader resistant to Cheney's bold theory of Shakespearean authorship—and its boldness alone will surely invite skepticism—the book nevertheless provides a whole storehouse of superb readings from one of our discipline's most learned and sensitive scholars. Indeed, even without its framing argumentative focus on "counter-laureate authorship," the book greatly elucidates Shakespeare's literary affiliations and engagements. In Chapter Six, for example, Cheney argues that in Much Ado About Nothing "Shakespeare creates a dramatic plot that moves from theatre to poetry, fictionalizing a succession from plays to sonnets," so that Shakespeare "validates rather than simply mocks the art of the sonnet" (201). In itself, this argument proves rigorous and convincing, with respect both to the play and to Shakespeare's engagement with the Petrarchan tradition. But Cheney places that compelling reading onto the authorial matrix, arguing that "Shakespeare continues to refine a metaphysics of reputation as the goal of a literary career" (202). A reader unwilling to buy this last move, along with others like it throughout the book, need not deny that Cheney has given us a fresh, elegant perspective on the plays that illuminates Shakespeare's engagement with other writers.
Bednarz, James P. Shakespeare & the Poets' War.
New York: Columbia UP, 2001.
Cheney, Patrick. Shakespeare, National Poet-playwright. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004.
Erne, Lukas. Shakespeare As Literary Dramatist. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.
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