Wild and whirling words

<i>Shakespeare's Language</i> by Frank Kermode (Allen Lane, &pound;20, 324pp)
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The Independent Culture

Frank Kermode is undoubtedly the greatest literary scholar of his generation. Fifty years ago, his edition of The Tempest combined the customary textual rigour of the Arden series with the scholarly traditions of the Warburg Institute. By considering the European tradition of the "savage man" and the literature on the natives of the New World, Kermode bought much wider cultural histories to bear on the text. His Tempest has a real claim to be the founding text of the critical school of "new historicism". But if he founded a school, it is one he all but disavows. Recent new-historicist work is ignored in a book dripping with unostentatious scholarship.

Frank Kermode is undoubtedly the greatest literary scholar of his generation. Fifty years ago, his edition of The Tempest combined the customary textual rigour of the Arden series with the scholarly traditions of the Warburg Institute. By considering the European tradition of the "savage man" and the literature on the natives of the New World, Kermode bought much wider cultural histories to bear on the text. His Tempest has a real claim to be the founding text of the critical school of "new historicism". But if he founded a school, it is one he all but disavows. Recent new-historicist work is ignored in a book dripping with unostentatious scholarship.

The focus is very specific. Kermode has eschewed the buffoonish generalisations of Harold Bloom in order to concentrate on one question - Shakespeare's language in the plays written after the move to the Globe in 1599. There is wide agreement that his work underwent a dramatic transformation with this move, and that almost all of his greatest plays develop a new and more complicated relation between verse and action. Kermode's concern is to analyse the relation of syntax and diction to dramatic action in these plays.

The book is full of marvels. At the end of the famous scene in Julius Caesar, when Brutus has been meditating Caesar's assasination, he is joined by his wife. She asks him what he is thinking and whether she is in "the suburbs of his affections". The modern meaning of suburb is very different from that of the Renaissance. Then, suburbs were licentious places of brothels and theatres; she is asking if he takes her for no more than a prostitute or boy actor. The following scene of domestic concord is given a great deal more force and irony as one follows the contradictions that Kermode's philology unpacks.

He is equally adept with textual scholarship. Most editors of Othello follow the Folio rather than the Quarto and drop the 48 swearwords that pepper the play, above all in Iago's speech. But Kermode argues that the reason for this is simply the censorship which came in between the Quarto and the Folio, and that Iago's foul-mouthedness is an essential part of his repressed and hateful NCO character. Kermode makes this comment with unusual force because he refers to his own military experience in the Second World War, which formed so large a part of his fascinating authobiography, Not Entitled.

If one of the mysteries of that book was why the scholarship played so small a role in the life, it might be said that the compliment is returned in a book of scholarship which is, for the most part, curiously lifeless. It is not just Kermode's life which is ignored, but Shakespeare's. The problems of Timon of Athens, that cri de coeur against commodity relations, are put down to insufficient time in drafting, although Ben Jonson's testimony - which elsewhere Kermode treats as authoritative - tells us that Shakespeare "never blotted out line". The much more obvious explanation - Shakespeare's own participation in new property relations, not least his part-ownership of the Globe, which both James Joyce and Edward Bond saw as the key to Shakespeare as a writer - is simply not considered.

Even more surprising is Kermode's decision to all but ignore the Sonnets. For it is there that the writing that so interests him first becomes evident. One might argue that the Sonnets are non-dramatic, but they are constantly dramatised by sexual desire. Of sexuality and desire, Kermode says almost nothing, except to remark that the heroines of the late plays are "nowadays virtually unplayable". The reason might be captured in terms of feminism or sexual liberation, but these are not words in his vocabulary.

What interests Kermode is close reading. If he expanded the horizons of his discipline at the beginning of his career, his bitter remarks here make it clear that he feels this fundamental practice is now seriously threatened. Kermode is, of course, right; but this brilliantly wrought book will do little to remedy the situation. The crisis of literacy that runs from primary school to university is not to be solved by even the most brilliant of literary lessons - unless it engages with the media which now provide primary access to Shakespeare for all schoolchildren. The linking of close reading to the audiovisual media is now the urgent task for anyone who hopes that Shakespeare will be still read with attention at the end of the 21st century.

It is churlish to criticise the book for this inevitable weakness, although a comparison of, say, Branagh's and Luhrmann's handling of Shakespeare's verse in their films should constitute at least a chapter in any book entitled Shakespeare's Language. A more relevant criticism is that Kermode hardly ever reveals his full hand. Exactly why the linguistic complexity he so elegantly analyses is of value is a question he hardly addresses. Perhaps the closest he comes is in comments on Clarence's speech in Richard III. His dream introduces the dead that the Duke will join when he wakes. Kermode remarks that, with this speech, Shakespeare, and by implication English culture, affiliate themselves with the traditions of Mediterranean Europe, and the set-pieces of the Odyssey and Aeneid when heroes visit the underworld. But whether it is the act of affiliation, or the creation of a similar space of linguistic complexity, that is of value - or even if these come to the same thing - Kermode does not say.

Nor is there any discussion of what might have been lost in the move to the Globe. Falstaff's language is strikingly absent. Falstaff had been promised as one of the opening attractions at the Globe but Kempe, the actor who played him, pulled out and staged a complicated symbolic critique in his famous "nine days' dance" to Norwich. Shakespeare seems to have been stung enough to reply with sarcastic ballads, which in turn forced Kempe to publish an account of his dance. In the Nine Days Wonder, Kempe makes clear that his objection to the Globe is that language has been turned into a commodity, losing all active relation between audience and representation. Now, as new technologies and the old restraints of copyright begin to configure another fundamental change in the relations between representation and audience, it is a pity Kermode did not bring his immense learning to bear on these questions.

He claims to have written a book for the "general reader", but in fact it assumes a learned audience. If the study of Shakespeare is to mean anything in the years to come, Kermode's readings will be an indispensable reference. But one might hope that future scholars, while remaining as close to the text as Kermode, will show that interest in its relation to their own, and Shakespeare's, life, which he steadfastly abjures.

Colin MacCabe is professor of English at Exeter University

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