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her villainous servant Oswald "Have you writ that letter to my sister?", we see that the ideal of personal candour has been replaced by rhetorical expertise, to the destruction of community.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
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments