This started out as a review of John Kerrigan’s Shakespeare’s Originality (2018) and my intention was to compare Kerrigan’s chapter on The Tempest, as an example of his overall argument and approach, with that of Robert Graves in Poetic Unreason (1925). But given how obscure the latter text is, and given that I've been meaning to write about it for a long time, what follows turned into an extended discussion of Graves’, ‘The Tempest, an Analysis’ (pps. 221-232). Thoughts on Kerrigan may or may not follow. This is long so it’s broken into two posts.
This first is background. I may be guilty of saying water is wet.
Assume you know about Medieval and Early Modern attitudes towards ‘authorship’ and the practices of those times. You know about the debates leading up to the establishment of ‘copyright’ in the Queen Anne Act of 1710, and how the idea of the original author who creates a unique product coalesced around the Romantic period and lingers still despite all the theoretical assaults that have been launched against it.
Knowing all this, you are aware that applying ‘originality’ to Shakespeare is anachronistic. Kerrigan is also well aware of this, so his title, ‘Shakespeare’s Originality’ is always going grab your attention.
But having read the book I’m not convinced that all the scholarship and perception isn’t being wasted on trying to make something happen where it obviously doesn’t. Or perhaps, more generously, that he’s asking the wrong question. The great unanswered critical question about Shakespeare the writer, is why him and not Marlow, or Jonson? How did he produce texts which have been constantly admired, often for radically different reasons, for the last four hundred years? And 'originality' is not going to answer that question.
When Roland Barthes wrote ‘All texts are recombinations of pre-existing texts’ he might have rattled some of his readers’ fuzzy concept of ‘originality’ as the sign of the great author, but had he said the same thing to an Anglo-Saxon Scop, Chaucer, Spenser or Shakespeare, they would have wondered why he was telling them water was wet.
For Medieval and Early Modern authors, although they had other words for it, recombination was their job. They would have pointed out, as any modern reader might, while in no way disagreeing with Barthes’ statement, that what audiences value is the end product of that recombination, and some authors consistently produce texts that are worthier of reading than others.
Shakespeare, certainly, would have wondered what the fuss was about. For centuries now it’s been known that like any medieval or early modern writer he plundered his reading for plots, characters, and lines. He worked with other writers. What mattered to them was the door-take, produced by the success of their end product.
In the history of Shakespearean reception, his reputation has fluctuated depending on current attitudes and understandings of that practice. A book called “Shakespeare’s Originality, appearing in the 21st century, is always going to be worth reading.
It is possible to argue, as Kerrigan doesn’t, that Shakespeare’s ‘orginality’ lies in what he did with his sources. But that’s a circular argument because that assumes we know exactly what those sources were and what Shakespeare himself wrote.
The problems with source analysis are numerous. Two stand out. The first is that it quickly descends into an academic game of discovering increasingly obscure texts that few have heard of and even fewer have read. The doubt that dogs the process is that just because a text existed, and the scholar sees similarities between it and the piece in question, doesn’t establish a link between text and source except in that scholar’s mind: two things can be similar and otherwise unrelated. This is compounded by the equally nagging doubt that proving the author had access to those texts is often impossible.
There is no agreed methodology to distinguish between ‘reading in’ and ‘reading into’. Kerrigan and the RSC Shakespeare both state categorically that there is no major source for the main plot of The Tempest. Graves, as we'll see in the next post, was equally sure he had identified such a source.
Source analysis used to be explicitly textual. This book linked to that book. Then it became obvious that things other than the kind of texts literary scholars were familiar with were ‘sources’: rather than see texts as passive reflectors of beliefs and attitudes and transmitters of purely literary matter, they began to be seen as participants in a process of circulation, negotiation and exchange. This did wonders for what could be included in a discussion of sources. Kerrigan can talk about clothes and wills and feet as well as Sidney’s Arcadia and Latin authors.
So some of the earlier doubts can now be sidestepped by invoking ‘Julia Kristeva’ and ‘intertextuality’ like a medieval pilgrim invoking the intercession of a favorite saint before setting out on a difficult journey. However, the doubts continue to nag: even in the most trivialized post-modernism, intertextual links don’t just happen, they need agents. Too often one is left with the suspicion that while the critic can make dazzling connections between clothes, toes and texts, there is no reason to believe the author or the original audience did.
The second problem, perhaps the biggest problem with source analysis of whatever kind is the lingering feeling that it doesn’t contribute a great deal to anyone’s understanding of the final product.
What does it matter if the sub plot of a play is taken from Sydney’s Acardia or a Latin text you’ve never read, never heard of and are unlikely to find in anything but the best University library? Or that the text is inflected with contemporary sumptuary laws. What can be done with this information?
And finally, since everyone was recombining with unembarrassed gusto, then the only way to show that Shakespeare was ‘original’ in our modern sense, is to compare his treatments with others and show how his treatment of his sources was in some way different to everybody else’s. And while that would require an enormous amount of scholarly work, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that it goes in the wrong direction. Looking for ‘originality’ might well be an entertaining dead end.
In 1925 Robert Graves ended his book ‘Poetic Unreason’ with a chapter on The Tempest. Graves and Riding are acknowledged pioneers of ‘Close Reading’, but the chapter on The Tempest pre-empts ‘new historicism’ by about fifty years. Update the references, add in a few later twentieth century theoretical gurus (who I suspect Graves would have viewed with profound distrust, if not disgust) and the only thing that would make it out of place in an anthology called ‘Practising New Historicism’ is Graves’ purpose, which was to illuminate a theory of poetic composition; an orientation that has not been fashionable for some time in critical circles.
Part two to follow.