Tracking the secret of King Lear's letters

Did Shakespeare's audiences see the same plays as us?

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her villainous servant Oswald "Have you writ that letter to my sister?", we see that the ideal of personal candour has been replaced by rhetorical expertise, to the destruction of community.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.

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?