‘We fret about words, we writers.’ Says Susan Sontag. ‘Words mean. Words point. They are arrows. Arrows stuck in the rough hide of reality.’ How pointed. How poetic. How stuck in the flabby hide of banality. Of course, language is important, we don’t need to be reminded of this—but then, perhaps we do. As literary criticism increasingly treats works as ‘historical sources’ (part of the manifesto ‘no literature exists in a vacuum’), leaving many historians (quite rightly) aggrieved that scholars with no historical training compete with them in their specialist field, or as parts of the artist’s psyche to be analysed with equally untrained (yet haughty) enthusiasm, the work itself becomes mere symptom of the ‘greater whole’: society or the ‘patient’. Increased specialisation, often concentrating on minute aspects of a single work has led to a greater distance between the reader and the specialist—and this is not productive.
Frank Kermode could not have written this book at a better time. It has all the trained sophistication of the lifelong specialist, without the necessary pedantry normally involved in specialist books. This is a book for the ‘intelligent reader’, a guide to Shakespeare which is neither patronisingly simplistic nor confoundingly ‘sophisticated’. Kermode’s aim is to show the increasing complexity of thought and language in Shakespeare’s plays, as the latter’s career developed from poetic playwright to full-blown dramatist. In this he is more than successful. Although the treatment of the earlier works is a little hurried (and perhaps dismissive), Shakespeare’s Language is not a whistle-stop tour of the plays. Pages are devoted to the countless meanings of single words, such as the analysis of the ambiguous word ‘prone’ in Measure for Measure, and the etymological and Classical variances between ‘opinion’ and ‘fact’ in Troilus and Cressida. There is a deep respect for the reader’s ability to understand, and a light touch taken in explaining and expanding upon poetic devices and the almost obsessive habits (such as ‘doubling’ lines and hendiadys), the poet at periods dwelled upon and dropped as his work progressed. Kermode does not forget the socio-historical factors: he places Shakespeare in his period, along with his contemporaries, yet we are encouraged to think of him as first and foremost a great writer, rather than simply representative of his time.
This book does have its flaws. The almost illogical assumption that during the plague-years of 1592-3 (when the theatres closed), Shakespeare simply stopped writing drama and focused solely on writing non-dramatic verse, is one. Another is the acceptance of Wallace Steven’s assertion that Shakespeare’s plays engendered a ‘fortuitous’ probing of philosophical ideas, while the verbal ‘virtuosity’ in his later plays ‘collides’ with the plot as if by chance. Surely Shakespeare intended language and meaning to collide, with all the enhancement of plot, and wonderfully eccentric ambiguities this created. Indeed, Kermode says as much many times through this book, and the reader may be left wondering whether the issues he has with Shakespeare-idolatry play a part in this. Kermode has problems with this all-too respectful treatment of his subject: he wants us to study, to understand, to follow the evolution of the poet’s work and thought—not simply stand in awe. It is nice to see our (possibly) greatest scholar, lead us through the mishaps and wrong-turnings of a great author, as well as his successes. It sometimes appears, however, that Kermode tries too hard to distance himself from the idolaters, and ends up contradicting earlier statements, or looking a little silly. These, though, like other minor niggles, never detract from the whole.
With few of us possessing any knowledge of Greek (let alone multi-dialect archaic Greek), Homer has become the plaything of the specialist, largely the historian, who treats the work as our only quasi-historical textual link to pre-Hesiodic days. Homer has become History. We should be grateful that we have Kermode to reawaken interest in the language of Shakespeare the playwright, in all its ambiguities, wrong-turnings and magnificence.
Reviewed by Gregor Milne