2022: The Year of Shakespeare, Part 1

The Taming of the Shrew

I don’t remember actually reading The Taming of the Shrew in tenth grade, now more than twenty years ago; I remember only that it was assigned reading for my class, probably because 10 Things I Hate About You had just come out on VHS and my teacher intended to buy some downtime by showing us the film instead. In any case, if the premise of the play seemed unseemly for my cohort back then, for sure it’s problematic today — even cancel-worthy. No, Petruchio doesn’t try to “tame” the outspoken Katherine by browbeating her, since his initial efforts follow something closer to a rope-a-dope strategy whereby he’ll bait her into responding to him, then exhaust her until she grows meek. But towards the end of the play he changes tack to dabble in something we’d now call gaslighting, albeit of an absurd variety:

Come on, i’ God’s name; once more toward our father’s.
Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!

The moon! the sun: it is not moonlight now.

I say it is the moon that shines so bright.

I know it is the sun that shines so bright.

Now, by my mother’s son, and that’s myself,
It shall be moon, or star, or what I list,
Or ere I journey to your father’s house.
Go on, and fetch our horses back again.
Evermore cross’d and cross’d; nothing but cross’d!

Say as he says, or we shall never go.

Forward, I pray, since we have come so far,
And be it moon, or sun, or what you please:
An if you please to call it a rush-candle,
Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.

I say it is the moon.

I know it is the moon.

Nay, then you lie: it is the blessed sun.

Then, God be bless’d, it is the blessed sun:
But sun it is not, when you say it is not;
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it named, even that it is;
And so it shall be so for Katharina.

Elsewhere — especially in their first substantive encounter — their exchanges read like a drawn-out dry run for the more sprightly sparring of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing: “Asses are made to bear, and so are you.” “Women are made to bear, and so are you.” And so on. Yet for all their spirited back-and-forth, the best lines in the play go to the servant Biondello, the only character who is given a chance to really feel the robustness and rhythm of Shakespeare’s language on the tongue:

Why, Petruchio is coming in a new hat and an old
jerkin, a pair of old breeches thrice turned, a pair
of boots that have been candle-cases, one buckled,
another laced, an old rusty sword ta’en out of the
town-armory, with a broken hilt, and chapeless;
with two broken points: his horse hipped with an
old mothy saddle and stirrups of no kindred;
besides, possessed with the glanders and like to mose
in the chine; troubled with the lampass, infected
with the fashions, full of wingdalls, sped with
spavins, rayed with yellows, past cure of the fives,
stark spoiled with the staggers, begnawn with the
bots, swayed in the back and shoulder-shotten;
near-legged before and with, a half-chequed bit
and a head-stall of sheeps leather which, being
restrained to keep him from stumbling, hath been
often burst and now repaired with knots; one girth
six time pieced and a woman’s crupper of velure,
which hath two letters for her name fairly set down
in studs, and here and there pieced with packthread.

Who comes with him?

O, sir, his lackey, for all the world caparisoned
like the horse; with a linen stock on one leg and a
kersey boot-hose on the other, gartered with a red
and blue list; an old hat and ‘the humour of forty
fancies’ pricked in’t for a feather: a monster, a
very monster in apparel, and not like a Christian
footboy or a gentleman’s lackey.

As far as juvenilia goes, The Taming of the Shrew is pretty extraordinary: there’s plenty of entertainment, a fast pace to the proceedings, and opportunities aplenty for performers to strike sparks. It is, in a word, well-crafted — at least passably so — though it lacks the philosophical depth, and the contemplative equipoise, of the true masterpieces to come.

2022: The Year of Shakespeare

At the turn of year, but on the spur of the moment, I decided to devote a good portion of 2022 to reading the complete works of Shakespeare. To begin with: one play each week, one act each weekday, from the first full week of January until mid-September. Thereafter: a couple of sonnets each weekday for the fifteen weeks before Christmas, then an extra pair on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, until I’ve read all one hundred and fifty-four.

I’m not unfamiliar with Shakespeare, of course. I’ve taught Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth in the classroom; I’ve co-directed student productions of Romeo & Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing; I’ve seen all of those plays performed by professionals, and I’ve also read and seen King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard II and Richard III, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. But there are some major plays with which I’m totally unfamiliar — Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and most of the comedies — as well as others I must have glanced at when I was in high school, though never again. So, out of admiration and curiosity, I’m going to take the plunge; and as I go along, I’m going to use this space to record my impressions — some rudimentary, some more fully-formed.

What Do We Mean By “Readable”?

Good times for meta-criticism. Following on from Daniel Green’s “cold takes” on Darker With the Lights On and Milkman, here’s a perceptive Twitter thread from Sam Byers in response to someone else’s earlier remarks on the “unreadability” of Finnegans Wake. First, the unattributed spur:

[The judgment of “unreadability”] invokes that style of “reading” which, encountering no obstacle, is hardly reading in the active sense at all, resembling rather, in Beckett’s dismissive words, the “rapid skimming and absorption of the scant cream of sense”.

Now, Byers:

Very struck by this, which feels relevant to current literary or “books” discussion. What do we mean by “readable”? Do we simply mean “encountering no obstacle”? Contrast this with “reading as interpretation or as provoking visions” which to me at least seems way more exciting. Also struck by “different kinds of attention”. It makes me feel that in our current near-obsession with “attention”, we misunderstand it, and then in turn misunderstand the things that demand it. If we see attention as a fixed and uniform skill or phenomenon, we naturally expect all art to appeal to that fixed attention in the same way, which is why we’ve ended up assessing novels against metrics of pace and accessibility more pertinent to TV than to literature. It makes me think we’re in a strange kind of mess where we demand that something captures and holds our attention, but don’t consider the benefits of applying varying types of attention to objects that seem not to ask for it, or which actively work to repel it.

Beyond the Praise

I’m a longtime admirer of the literary criticism of Daniel Green. I reviewed his essay collection Beyond the Blurb when it came out a few years ago, and I’m honoured now to have him writing on a regular basis for Splice. This week, he has chimed in with a review of Anna Burns’ Milkman, and he’s tackling the question of “difficulty” head-on.

The whole review is full of keen observations, not only about the novel but also about the way the novel has been discussed and praised. Of course, Green himself writes favourably about Milkman, but he also finds something untenable about the critical tendency to praise it for its representation of political turmoil in Northern Ireland while appreciating its stylistic features in an ancillary way, as if they’re intriguing by the by — or, worse, the tendency to simply give a tip of the hat to the style while “ploughing on,” or “working through it,” to reach the political marrow. Green reminds us that Burns’ choice of style is its own political manoeuvre, and argues that not giving pre-eminent consideration to this choice can entail missing out on something significant in Milkman rather than accessing something else in a more direct way.

In retrospect, this review works hand-in-hand with Green’s first review for Splice, focusing on David Hayden’s Darker With the Lights On. What I appreciate about both of them is the way they challenge the reductive tendencies of a critical consensus. They’re not necessarily challenging the consensus per se, not breaking with the praise for either of these two books — but once a consensus begins to develop around a book (eg. Darker With the Lights On is “dreamlike” or Milkman is abstracted and digressive) there’s a pressure on critics to move the discourse forward, and this leads many people to adopt certain terms without thinking through their implications. I include myself in this.

In these two reviews, however, Green reminds us to stop, slow down, take pause, think twice. Are David Hayden’s stories really “dreamlike”? Is that the most apt way to describe them? Do we use that word just because they feel like dreams? Is it appropriate if they don’t necessarily follow a dream logic? And do we pre-emptively circumscribe our reading of the stories, their effects, their strategies if we take their being “dreamlike” as our starting point, the basis for our engagement? And then, Anna Burns — her novel is really and ultimately about Northern Ireland, isn’t it? But is it so specifically about Northern Ireland if the author employs strategies of abstraction that remove us from the setting? When we see the specificities of time and place in Milkman, how much do they issue from us, as readers, rather than from the text? How much of what we see of Northern Ireland is due to our habit of reading the specificities into the voids of Burns’ abstractions, supplying Milkman with what the author has removed from it?

In the hurly-burly of publication, prizes, reviews, counter-reviews, and so on, it’s all too easy to take for granted things that adhere to a text — coming to them from elsewhere in the discourse — and appraise a book without questioning them. But Green keeps an eye on them and reminds us to question them, to see through them to the originary text. And to see that a book might deserve praise for the ways it anticipates and challenges the very terms we’re likely to apply to it.

Voices or Ventriloquism?

With the Republic of Consciousness Prize shortlist making space for Alex Pheby’s Lucia, Will Eaves’ Murmur, and Anthony Joseph’s Kitch, it’s clear that there’s a trend for “bio-fiction” — fictionalised biographies of real historical figures — which raises a number of questions about the intersection between aesthetics and ethics. There’s a fascinating discussion of these issues on the latest RofC podcast and a welcome defence of more experimental strategies from the powers that be at Galley Beggar Press.