Tracking the secret of King Lear's letters

Did Shakespeare's audiences see the same plays as us?
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The Independent Culture
Essays in Appreciation by Christopher Ricks Clarendon Press, pounds 25

The major development in Renaissance literary scholarship over the last 10 years or so has been the rise of what is called the New Historicism. New Historicists want to place literary texts in the context of social history, to show how they form part of a larger documentary continuum in which early modern ideas about selfhood emerged, and were enacted, in the courtroom as much as in the playhouse. The aim is not simply to show how a contemporary audience might have understood poems or plays, but to demonstrate a continuity between literary and non-literary concerns. The nine essays in Lisa Jardine's new book exemplify some aspects of New Historicist practice.

The most interesting is "Reading and the Technology of Textual Affect", which draws together Erasmus's views on the writing of letters and the extraordinary number of letters exchanged in King Lear. Professor Jardine shows that Erasmus saw the familiar letter as ''a highly crafted form of communication" which aimed "to convey passionate feeling, to create bonds of friendship, and to make the absent loved one (or intellectual kindred spirit) vividly present." This understanding was inherited by Shakespeare's contemporaries.

At first sight, it seems pretty obvious that letters are conscious rhetorical constructs; we address our lovers and our bank managers in different styles. Professor Jardine's point is more subtle, though, because it relates letter- writing to the establishment of community between individuals. The Erasmian letter is an honest substitute for being personally present, but when Goneril, for instance, asks her villainous servant Oswald "Have you writ that letter to my sister?", we see that the ideal of personal candour has been replaced by rhetorical expertise, to the destruction of community.

Professor Jardine argues that Shakespeare's audience, having these ideas about letters, valued the "controlled expression of feeling" and mistrusted the "raw emotion" which, she says, is all the honest characters have left. A modern audience, however, responds more immediately to pure feeling because we do not expect truth to be expressed rhetorically. "Like Gloucester and Edgar, we experience with immediacy that raw emotional intensity in a moral, social and historical void", whereas Shakespeare's audience would have been appalled by the loss of emotional control those characters undergo. For them, that was the tragedy.

Generalisations about Shakespeare's audience are, of course, usually deeply unhelpful and often patronising, suggesting as they invariably do that the past was a little dimmer and a lot less various than the present. I find it hard to believe that the groundlings had so strongly and unanimously internalised Erasmus's commentary on a letter of St Jerome or its assumptions; after all, as Professor Jardine points out, Lear himself does not share that understanding.

None the less, this essay is valuable on two counts. First, it undoubtedly shows a response which was possible for some of Shakespeare's audience, and one which is now unfamiliar. Secondly, without saying so, it returns us to the perennial mystery of Shakespeare's own relation to language, the radical scepticism which explains why we find in him no authorial commitment to the view that one utterance is more true than another. In that sense, though, Shakespeare's understanding is wider than Professor Jardine's.

The other essays in this book deal with Othello, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Marlowe's The Jew of Malta and Middleton's and Rowley's The Changeling. In each case, Jardine relates the plays to evidence drawn from social history. The odd effect is that the Shakespearian texts seem much more boring than usual, but the others more interesting.

Dealing with The Jew of Malta, for instance, Professor Jardine brilliantly demonstrates that Barabas, the central figure, encapsulates a number of contemporary concerns about early capitalism for which a Jew was the necessary contemporary embodiment. For once, the play seems much more than a fascinating cartoon.

In the same essays though, she attacks The Merchant of Venice because Shakespeare's presentation of Shylock as "pathologically greedy, deceitful, vengeful and inhumane", whether or not this was for simply dramatic reasons, inevitably engages us "against his generalised person, his alienness and his creed".

She comes close to arguing that Marlowe was more aware than Shakespeare, which seems implausible, while the reading of The Merchant as anti-semitic is simplistic. Such slack moments mean that this book is, in the end, considerably less than the sum of its parts - like all too much New Historicist writing.