As You Like It
To the Editor:
In “Shakespeare in the Original” [December 1984] Fernanda Eberstadt says that in Henry V Shakespeare comes down clearly on the side of individual responsibility. Yet what I got from the play was the sufficiency of following orders, something much derided in our time. For example, in Act IV, Scene 1, the justice of the king’s cause and the honor of his quarrel are “more than we know” and “more than we should seek after, for we know enough if we know we are the king’s subjects. If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us”; “. . . to disobey [the king] were against all proportion of subjection.” I am not a literary person, so I would appreciate Miss Eberstadt’s comment.
Stony Brook, New York
To the Editor:
I am grateful to Fernanda Eberstadt for her informative and provocative coverage of Shakespeare scholarship. However, I want to quibble with her tendency to identify Shakespeare with his characters, and especially with the claim that Shakespeare “affirms” the values of nationality, religion, and sexism.
This approach misses what is at the core of Shakespeare’s greatness—the absence of a specifiable core. It also explains other dramatists like Euripides, whom it was fitting that Shakespeare knew, and who shared Shakespeare’s dark and eclectic vision. Such greatness is not in the simple affirmation of any selected values or beliefs or outlooks; rather, the affirmation (if it can even be called that) is the drama itself, the rich and multifarious panoply of characters and viewpoints, conjoined necessarily with a deliberate absence of a simple identification with any of them. . . .
Miss Eberstadt sees Shakespeare as religious and nationalistic in the Henrys, but profoundly ironic in The Taming of the Shrew. She neither faults nor credits him with “affirming” the male chauvinistic views so widely held in his time. However, she points out with some sympathy that Ann Thompson finds Shakespeare “rather more comfortable in that world [of male supremacy] than we might like him to have been.”
This kind of criticism runs in hopeless circles: sometimes we find our values in Shakespeare’s characters and are pleased; we then attribute certain views to Shakespeare. At other times we have to acknowledge, as a matter of scholarly honesty, that Shakespeare’s values are not ours, not what they should be, and we have to fault him for being like his characters. At still other times we think we are absolutely sure that Shakespeare is unlike, say, Iago, Richard III, Lady Macbeth.
This effort to extract or disentangle Shakespeare from his characters misses the mark. It is possible that the nationalistic and religious affirmations that appear in the texts are not Shakespeare’s, and it is even possible, indeed likely, that the “endorsement of patriarchy” in The Taming of the Shrew is not Shakespeare’s. What is the evidence for this? Only the tremendous variety of all that there is in Shakespeare.
Dr. Thompson’s and Miss Eberstadt’s attempts to pin Shakespeare down become so entangled that they are at least unwittingly ironic. The view of Dr. Thompson, and perhaps also of Miss Eberstadt, that Katherine’s spirit is not broken at the end of the play and that “Petruchio . . . freed . . . her creative powers” (hence Shakespeare was not all that sexist) is an example of this. The clearer evidence is that Petruchio does break Katherine’s spirit, that Petruchio is sexist in the extreme, but that we need not equate Shakespeare with Petruchio. Yes, it is entirely appropriate “not to force” Petruchio’s views on Shakespeare, but it is also inappropriate to read Petruchio’s accomplishments as anything but sexist. Likewise sexist is any approval of Katherine’s conversion at the end.
Miss Eberstadt makes much of the ad hoc moral ending, Katherine’s acceptance of her new situation, and the presumed credibility the play acquires with this ending. But endings can be perfunctory, even in Shakespeare. Petruchio and Kate might not live happily, and Shakespeare can be said to have given us a mockery of Petruchio, and of Katherine’s conversion, rather than an “affirmation” of what the ending presumably represents.
I suggest, without dogma but in the spirit of idle and playful countering, that the ending of The Taming of the Shrew is not credible—merely conventional. “And they lived happily ever after . . .” affirms the ethos of (a marriage) comedy, but such an ethos ought never to be taken seriously, only ironically. Petruchio and Katherine, in the afterworld of marriage, will soon be at it again, hammer and tongs, or else Katherine would really have been transformed into the zombie that Miss Eberstadt denies she has become.
One could well make a case for Shakespeare as egalitarian, as non-sexist, and non-patriarchal. Look at Lady Macbeth, at Beatrice, etc. However, I would be hoist by my own petard if I attempted it as an alternative to its opposite. I make it only as a reminder of Shakespeare’s dramatic richness. . . .
Miss Eberstadt is pleased that Kenneth Muir’s introduction to Troilus and Cressida “restores health and balance to a play in which critics before him have seen only cynicism and dissolution.” What one can be sure of is that there are more things in Shakespeare’s dramas than are dreamt of by critics, and so long as “corrections” of interpretations are additive and not subtractive, we are on the proper path.
Fernanda Eberstadt writes:
In answer to Robert Carlen, Henry and the foot soldiers are discussing how far a ruler’s responsibility for his subjects extends. A very particular case is raised: if a soldier has committed a crime in civilian life and dies in battle un-absolved, is his damnation on the king’s head? No, says Shakespeare. Every man is responsible for his own private actions, for how he conducts his affairs. The playwright goes on to suggest, however, that there are two separate accounts, two separate spheres of action: a man’s personal conduct, for which he alone is responsible, and his duty as a citizen and subject, which is to serve his country. Today we seem to have got these accounts confused. It’s a man’s civic duty, seemingly, to question (or condemn) his country’s actions, but if he gets into trouble, it’s not his own fault but society that is to blame.
Morris Grossman’s letter, however “idle and playful” its intent, is an exercise in precisely the kind of willful misreading my piece cautioned against: the critical tendency to foist on a 16th-century author one’s own assumptions and prejudices.
Mr. Grossman’s complaints proceed from the belief that I call Shakespeare “sexist” in The Taming of the Shrew, a charge he takes issue with because although he himself finds the character Petruchio “sexist in the extreme,” he sees no evidence that Petruchio speaks for Shakespeare.
The only trouble is that I never accused Shakespeare of “sexism” (a term Mr. Grossman seems to have promoted to a kind of Aristotelian category for understanding the world). On the contrary, in my discussion of the Cambridge Taming of the Shrew, I praised Ann Thompson, the play’s editor and a confessed feminist, for refraining from imposing this foreign and extraneous outlook on the play. Mr. Grossman’s quarrel is therefore not with me but with Dr. Thompson, whose words he attributes to me while putting sentiments in both our mouths that neither of us has uttered.
Mr. Grossman’s remarks, however, express a now-popular view of The Taming of the Shrew which deserves further examination. In my discussion of the Cambridge edition, I noted that the play has long been subjected to feminist attentions. Earlier in this century feminists (Bernard Shaw included) were content to attack The Taming of the Shrew as a despicable “endorsement of patriarchy” (the phrase is Dr. Thompson’s, and not mine). In recent years, however, trendy critics and directors have chosen in their wisdom to read The Taming of the Shrew as ironic, thereby rescuing Shakespeare from the charge of male chauvinism. Hence, what has always seemed a raucously funny and full-blooded comedy has emerged as a scathing indictment of man’s oppression of woman and a “mockery” of precisely those characters in whom audiences have long delighted. The revisionist procedure is irresistible: first you make Shakespeare a “sexist,” then, by the miracle of imagined irony, you make him an “anti-sexist” and a leader in the battle against male supremacy.
Unfortunately, this approach requires a new ending for the play. As the reader will remember, The Taming of the Shrew closes with Katherine—once a sour nag, now, thanks to Petruchio’s energetic cure, a spirited and loving wife—lecturing the other wives on a woman’s duty to her husband. Mr. Grossman implicitly understands that it is crucial to the arguments of the Coalition for an Ironic Shakespeare that this speech be proved the very opposite of what it seems: the strong and beautifully expressed declaration of a woman who through love has come into her own. Recent directors have therefore tried to undercut the speech’s natural beauties—some by having their Katherines deliver it sarcastically or in a brainwashed-sounding monotone, others by “ironic” staging. Charles Marowitz went so far as to bring out Katherine wearing the garment of a mental institution. (By much the same tricks was Henry V, long enjoyed as a patriotic rouser, transformed into a withering indictment of war and imperialism.)
Such flattening for the sake of ideology makes for a very pale and gutless sliver of the play Shakespeare wrote, if not for downright lies. I am sorry that Mr. Grossman is willing to pay such a high artistic price in the name of a false “egalitarianism.”
Mr. Grossman’s larger point concerns the question of equating Shakespeare with his characters. In his opinion, at the core of Shakespeare’s plays is “the absence of a . . . core,” and therein lies their greatness. Mr. Grossman faults me for attributing “values” (such as love of God or country) to Shakespeare, in whose works he finds only rich and multifarious neutralism and a semi-divine relativism. This is a lot of twaddle livened by a little sense.
It is true that it is one of Shakespeare’s chief gifts as a playwright to present compellingly every man’s side. It was a habit instilled in him by a Tudor grammar school’s rhetorical training in the writing of controversiae and guided by Shakespeare’s own larger instinct for locating his plays in those centers of human character and situation which provoke a powerful—and divided—response: the deposing of a rightful king, the forfeiting of virtue for a brother’s life, the assassination of a dictator. This ability to voice convincingly every side of a vexed issue and yet always to invite response and disagreement from his audience; this capacity to make us feel both for Richard II and for his usurper Bolingbroke, for Henry VI and for his murderer Richard II, is a feature of that abounding humanity that makes Shakespeare the greatest of all poets. Through love, he understands all, and through understanding, forgives.
But to say that Shakespeare loves the sinner is not to say that he fails to abhor the sin. Although Shakespeare illuminates feelingly the succession of motives and apprehensions behind every point of view and every act, we are never in doubt as to where a play’s moral center lies. Indeed, Shakespeare’s very choice of dramatic subject matter is a moral choice, bearing with it necessary judgments. We pity Macbeth and admire his endurance while seeing that regicide is a crime against nature; we delight in Antony while learning that a man who forsakes his country for an unlawful love loses his very soul.
The history of Shakespeare criticism has proved that those who single out characters as embodiments of the playwright’s own true sentiments (as, for instance, in the 19th century Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida was thought to be) look pretty foolish in a few decades’ time. But whether or not Petruchio speaks for Shakespeare is, really, a question of little concern. To judge from Petruchio’s enduring power to delight an audience and to inflame critical passions, I would guess that Shakespeare put a good deal into him, and got a lot out of him in return.