I’m just back from the 5th British Shakespeare Association conference at the University of Lancaster. There were just under two hundred of us there (scholars, teachers, enthusiasts, and theatre practitioners). I took part in a panel about a new book which we hope heralds a new and fresh approach to Shakespeare criticism.
Shakespeare and I is a collection of essays by different scholars, but also a series of dreams, an anthology of attempts to communicate something real in language, a succession of illustrations which show why personal experience in relation to art, in relation to Shakespeare, matters. All the contributors to this volume share a sense of daring, a declaration that what they have seen and felt, combined with what they can rationally know and demonstrate, is important. All of the essays to a greater or lesser extent are about personal formation.
Through the course of this collection of essays, we encounter discussions about sexuality, class-distinctions, how we learn, how we remember, what forms and constitutes our theatrical memories, how Shakespeare attaches himself to our daily lives, how Shakespeare enhances our life, what it means to read with the heart, reading as a spiritual exercise, deeply submerged ghosts and memories, and Shakespeare providing a point of focus through grief.
Feelings are messy and often unforgettable, irrational, and will always escape any theoretical paradigm. ‘Feelings’ (unless they be historicized Early Modern ones) are also unprofessional and do not speak the right kind of language for academic conferences and publication.
To be truly honest about our feelings is to drop our defences. Writing which is honest, open and in our most fully possessed human language finds its place in the long tradition of confessional literature, memoirs, and essays, the kind of writing which was being re-invented in the Early Modern Period. In Shakespeare’s time confessional writing is perhaps best exemplified by Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592). Later comes Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682) who, like Montaigne, wrote, as it were, with a mind so copious, generous and open that he felt his way around a subject intuitively, excluding nothing, including everything.
In his essay for Shakespeare and I, David Fuller recalls his former tutor, William Empson, in terms which evoke the Renaissance ideal of learning as something which engages the whole person and in which a love of poetry was an inextricable part of a wide-range of interests across what we now call disciplines. All of the essays here gathered share that same spirit of large-mindedness. ‘Know thyself’ says Socrates (to whom Shakespeare’s mind is compared on his memorial bust in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon).
To write about Shakespeare from within, as these authors do, is not about only demonstrating an argument, rather its about establishing a framework in which one can say: ‘Shakespeare means this to me because of such and such. Can you meet me here? Do you recognise what I’m saying? Can you connect with what I say?’
As a Shakespearian, I am most attracted to reading Shakespeare closely, partly because this is what I have been trained to do and partly because this is where any Shakespearian activity starts from. The practice has for me found its most direct expression in my work on Shakespeare’s Sonnets (with Stanley Wells) and my own deep interest in Shakespeare in performance, reviewing the plays, and the sound of Shakespeare’s words and poetry. Actors perform Shakespeare through close readings of the text; to act Shakespeare is closely to read him. Unless you are performing a heavily adapted version of a play, the main reason for performing Shakespeare at all is, it seems to me, because the language is life-giving, is the theatrical energy of the thing, is what makes the characters real, tells us everything we need to know, and, in the ideal theatrical space, is what crackles around the auditorium (if the acoustic is good enough). Performance, then, is definitely a form of close-reading. And so is theatre reviewing, and so are all works of art or social practice which take Shakespeare as their starting point: creative writing, music, Shakespeare in prisons, or Shakespeare as psychotherapy. Any reflection on our own experiences is also a form of close-reading.
This kind of (self) reading has a long and distinguished tradition, and I think that part of its future will be its willingness and openness to absorb and engage with other forms of writing. I see a creative future for criticism, close-reading, and writing of this kind.
A subtitle for Shakespeare and I might be How Shakespeare Formed Me. The contributors ask ‘Where have I come from? What part did Shakespeare play in that, and why? How might this help me relate to where other people are coming from?’ Shakespeare and I requires its readers to be good listeners. Some readers might find it hedonistic. Perhaps it is. But this kind of hedonism is tempered with discernment, with the self listening carefully to itself, and creative expression. It requires no more justification than this: ‘speak what we feel, not what we ought to say’ (The Tragedy of King Lear, 5.3.299). Our revels now are started.
Shakespeare and I is published by Continuum as part of the Shakespeare Now! series, and is co-edited by William McKenzie and Theodora Papadopoulou.