Dominant on page and stage: but is the greatest writer in the English
language primarily a poet or a dramatist?
The Times Literary Supplement
March 5, 2008
Edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones and H. R. Woudhuysen 593pp. Thomson: The
Arden Shakespeare. Paperback, £9.99. 978 1 903436 87 5
The Arden Shakespeare is intended both as a student text and as a revision
of traditional scholarship. If it is to be used in the first way, then the
often narrow thread of text above a sediment of footnotes, something Dr
Leavis so deplored, can prove debilitating. Poems, especially the classics
of our language, should be read headlong. Dubieties may be looked up later.
The introductions and general essays, however, are more important, even when
they swell to mammoth proportions as editors pursue theories of their own.
One of the fascinations of literary scholarship is its hold on writers of
our own time. Contemporary poets read Shakespeare almost as if he were a
rival, or some sort of perennial vade mecum of technical forms and
approaches. John Berryman, embodying that special concept of his time, the
"anxiety of influence", went so far as to lament having written so much
verse when he might have spent his life editing King Lear. Even without the
expanding needs of modern education, Shakespeare would be with us in
hundreds of studies year by year. What remains to be said that is new? Must
all evaluation be reassessment in historical and lexicographical terms, or
forays into literary value-judging, a procedure with hundreds of books
behind it, from ancient Bradley to latest Kermode? The present fascination
with Shakespeare's life and some of its more speculative corners (E. A.
J.Honigman's Lost Years, James Shapiro's 1599 and Charles Nicholls's The
Lodger) turns out to be as packed with basic literary criticism as any of
their more orthodox predecessors. However equivocal Shakespeare's record may
be, his is one of the most familiar presences in our lives.
In Katherine Duncan-Jones and H. R. Woudhuysen, scholarship is happily
united with clear thinking and witty writing. Duncan-Jones's Arden edition
of the Sonnets (1997) brought her face to face with the most intractable of
all Shakespearean dilemmas. One of the basic problems she encountered was
the tendency, perfectly natural in poetry-lovers, to look away from what the
sonnets might signify when read dramatically and in situ. A similar concern
preoccupies the editors here when they consider Love's Martyr (1601), the
marsupial volume containing "The Phoenix and the Turtle". Lured by the
poem's enticing difficulties, so many previous expounders have wandered into
sorts of metaphysical mazes. It is hard enough to decipher and so attractive
to imaginative commentators that one down-to-earth critic has attributed its
appeal to its being considered "ravishing nonsense".
Though Duncan-Jones and Woudhuysen deplore a tendency to regard "The Phoenix
and the Turtle" as Shakespeare's anticipating the Metaphysicals - George
Gascoigne and Fulke Greville might be thought better candidates for that
doubtful honour - they do not insist that their own fixing of the poem in
its historical context as a propaganda device honouring the very forward
Welsh courtier, Sir John Salusbury, dispels its strangeness or mitigates the
difficulty of interpreting it even when its special circumstances and
surroundings are examined. Similary, in her previous Arden edition,
Duncan-Jones's tracing of Shakespeare's activities during the frequent
closing of the theatres by the plague as a possible aid to dating the
Sonnets, and her careful readings of the texts themselves do not tempt her
to underestimate how problematic the sequence remains. What is admirable in
poetry lives a multiple of later lives, and while continuing to admire
forensic searching, one's ungrateful self goes on wanting to esteem
Shakespeare independently of historical connections. This is the truth
underlying that over-casual phrase, "Shakespeare our contemporary": nowhere
more so than when reading "The Phoenix and the Turtle".
This Arden is made up of all Shakespeare's poems as such, minus the
Sonnets - which amounts to the long narratives in formal stanzas, Venus and
Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, those poems included in The Passionate
Pilgrim and those in Love's Martyr, and a handful of dubious or lost pieces.
Songs and lyrics from the plays are excluded except when they crop up in
modified form in any of the above collections. There is a proselytizing tone
to the preface and introduction, launched by a quotation from a passage in
Don Marquis's archy and mehitabel, where the Bard (a term fortunately never
used by these editors) explains that he wanted to compose sonnets and poems
in stanzas but got into "the frightful show game business" and so lost his
true calling as a poet. Immediately there opens up that worrying crack in
literary sensibility which generations of poets have pondered over and felt
sorry for themselves about.
Is the greatest writer in the English language primarily a poet or a
dramatist? The easy answer, that he is both, is no answer at all. The better
one, which most practicing poets of whatever age have endorsed, is that he
is a poet who, wonderfully well equipped at adapting stories and devising
theatrical situations, also can tame the lightning of poetry for stage
performance. Readers and recitalists who have mouthed their way through "The
quality of mercy is not strained", "Time hath my lord, a wallet at his back"
and "We are such stuff as dreams are made on", feel him as a poet, and leave
it to the literary critics, philosophers and historians to create their
special edifices of illumination from his works. At least the poems cut from
his plays don't seem like fish on dry land the way that "Voi che sapete",
"Nessun dorma" and "When I am Laid in Earth" do when set adrift from their
In essence, this edition is an opportunity to revisit Shakespeare in guise
as the poet he may have wanted to be when he started out, in the company of
two editors with remarkable gifts of erudition and patience. The division of
labour is a generalized one, and if Duncan-Jones seems the moving spirit in
the discussion of Venus and Adonis and Woudhuysen The Rape of Lucrece, they
are joined at the hip in responsibility and temperament. Why, they ask, do
convenors of Shakespeare conferences, academics in general and almost all
authorities of sententious disposition ignore the poems, concentrating on
the plays? He arrived at fame and consciousness first as a poet, and a
remarkably realistic and accessible one. The introduction puts this
directly - "Although both Venus and Lucrece are more patterned and verbally
complex than the plays, they are considerably more naturalistic". Viewed
together, the two poems offer unique opportunities to link Shakespeare with
the great Renaissance painters of Italy and France.
In a psychologically acute moment in Lucrece, when she is bewailing her rape
before the return of Collatinus, Shakespeare devotes many stanzas to
describing a wall-hanging in her chamber depicting aspects of the Trojan
War. This is done at such length as to seem almost a show-off interlude, but
is typical of him as a verbal architect. Lucrece's eye falls at last on
Hecuba, soon to be Hamlet's ghostly spokeswoman -
On this sad shadow LUCRECE spends her
And shapes her sorrow to the beldam's woes,
Who nothing wants to answer her but cries
And bitter words to ban her cruel foes:
The painter was no god to lend her those,
And therefore LUCRECE swears he did
To give her so much grief and not a tongue.
Richard Wilbur once wrote "odd that a thing is most itself when likened",
and such likening done over considerable length is at the heart of many of
the great soliloquies in the plays. As such it is a technique developed in
these early poems, often amounting to a veritable narrative of metaphor.
It was here, and in such of his sonnets as filtered into public knowledge,
that Shakespeare became renowned while still young. The testimony is well
documented, its most famous record being Francis Meres's "mellifluous and
honey-tongued Shakespeare. Witness his Venus and Adonis. His Lucrece, his
sugred sonnets among his private friends". And there was something else: he
was a purveyor of erotica. Venus and Adonis was so popular it was often
reprinted. It has a lightness and charm that masks its reversal of the usual
role of male pursuer and female pursued. It seems perfectly possible that
the atmosphere of soft porn in the poem runs counter to its ostensible moral
purpose. Many Elizabethan young men must have been fantasists of the kind
familiar to us as the buyers of top-shelf magazines. Adonis's coyness
amounts to a revulsion from Venus's physical allurements, but both plot and
tone require her to be ever more pressing and so give the poet freedom to
elaborate her sexiness. That her wiles are wasted does not make such vernal
venality like Sonnet 129: there is a waste, but not of shame, only of
life, slain by the boar Venus has warned him against in her campaign to keep
young men's attentions where they should be - hunting women and not wild
animals. Her own retreat from love is godlike in the best Greek manner:
Thus weary of the world, away she flies
And yokes her silver doves, by whose swift aid
Their mistress, mounted through the empty
In her light chariot quickly is conveyed,
Holding their course to Paphos, where their
Means to immure herself and not be seen.
She gives up on love and retires to her birthplace, defeated not by morality
but by bad choosing and masculine self-sufficiency. That Adonis ends up
gashed in his genitals by the boar he pursues may be a bit cruel, but is in
line with many Renaissance works of art rebuking reluctant lovers, male and
female alike - a favourite Monteverdian theme. There is a serious caution
below the surface innuendo - attractive people must accept responsibility
for the feelings they arouse in others. Adonis is a tease, and his fate
serves him right.
Shakespeare's ambiguous lubricity in Venus is less disturbing than the
bleakly moral emphasis of Lucrece, where virtue is so low-spirited, its
exclamation so lachrymose and its justification the nasty realpolitik of
Roman Republicanism. The sun has not dried the dew on the grass in Venus,
but the ill-lit world of Livy's Rome darkens Lucrece. The first poem lives
out of doors; the second is in a permanent chiaroscuro.
Rereading the boisterous verse of these two poems (3,045 lines in all) more
than forty years after first encountering them is more enjoyable than their
current neglect might suggest. They are, of course, masterpieces by a
colossus, but what are they like as versifying? The biggest problem is their
rhyming. Duncan-Jones and Woudhuysen give the reader copious information on
Elizabethan and Jacobean pronunciation, but too often refer dubious rhymes
to a single article, that by Helge Kokkeritz, Shakespeare's Pronunciation
(1953), without attempting a r?sum? of its conclusions. The user of this
Arden will profit from the editor's encyclopedic knowledge of Elizabethan
publishing, a detailed consideration of how poets dealt with courtiers, and
firm unpacking of meaning in the many footnotes. For a large part of their
intention they will be hostages to scholars for the certainty of some of
their decisions. Recent correspondence in the TLS shows how tendentious
disputes over attribution can be. For a reviewer who is firstly a reader and
secondly a working poet, this book is a welcome home to a prodigal. But it
leaves the matter of his versifying still in doubt.
Venus is composed in six-line stanzas made up of a quatrain rhyming in the
usual abab pattern, with a rhyming couplet at the end. Lucrece is in rhyme
royal, a stanza which seems more like a Manx version of ottava rima than any
more stable structure. To state this is to fly in the face of the received
notion of rhyme-royal's being well established in English poetry.
Nevertheless, it forces the last four lines of each stanza to become rhymed
couplets, inadequately introduced by an aba triplet. W. H. Auden's handling
of it in Letter to Lord Byron shows no inadequacy against his model Byron's
ottava rima, but then Auden is an accomplished rhymer and Shakespeare is
not. Before crying outrage, Shakespeare idolators should look at the impact
the poems make. They should also consider the Sonnets - one after another in
this sequence of the greatest sententious poetry in the language is spoiled
by clunking final couplets. In the plays, with the exception of Romeo and
Juliet, and occasionally in Love's Labour's Lost and A Midsummer Night's
Dream, nothing that rhymes enlivens the action; they only serve as door
stops. In Venus and Lucrece the worst sins of rhyming occur in the frequent
employment of feminine endings, in some cases over whole stanzas:
As one of which doth Tarquin lie revolving
The sundry dangers of his will's obtaining;
Yet ever to obtain his will resolving,
Though weak-built hopes persuade him to
Despair to gain doth traffic oft for gaining,
And when great treasure is the need
Though death be adjunct, there's no death
At least, in this example, the final couplet is a powerful aphorism. But
there are several stanzas where continuous feminine endings become
ludicrous. It would take a W. S. Gilbert to make this work. Shakespeare has
no scruple in allowing present participles to seem true rhymes. In Italian,
owing to the inflected language, rhyme is no great matter, but in English
any feebleness is injurious. Shakespeare must have been relieved, on moving
into the theatre, to be able to keep rhyme for occasional moments and not be
bound by its peculiar restrictions. Perhaps for him, it became a holiday
addiciton as it seems to have been habitually for Milton.
Outside of rhyming, both poems are remarkable achievements and play on their
author's great strengths - his phrase-making, his audacity with metaphor,
and his magniloquent sound. Striking lines abound:
Forced to content, but never to obey,
Panting he lies and breatheth on her face;
She feedeth on the steam as on a prey
This is Shakespeare's only use of steam in all his works, the editors
Is thine own heart to thine own face affected?
Can thy right hand seize love upon thy left?
Then woo thyself, be of thyself rejected,
Steal thy own freedom, and complain of theft.
"The boar!" quoth she, whereat a sudden pale,
Like lawn being spread upon the blushing rose,
Usurps her cheek; she trembles at his tale,
And on his neck her yoking arms she throws.
She sinketh down, still hanging by his neck,
He on her belly falls, she on her back.
One more instance illustrates the realism Shakespeare mixes with his high
This said, he shakes aloft his ROMAN blade,
Which like a falcon towering in the skies
Coucheth the fowl below with his wings'
Whose crooked beak threats if he mounts he
So under his insulting falchion lies
Harmless LUCRETIA marking what he
With trembling fear, as fowl hear falcon's
That gallimaufry The Passionate Pilgrim (1599) is presented as further
evidence of Shakespeare's popularity as the best amorous poet of the day. A
continuous glow of mild pornography hangs over this compilation as well.
Whatever their authenticity, these poems seem derived from already
acknowledged works of Shakespeare:
Hot was the day, she hotter that did look
For his approach that often there had been.
Anon he comes and throws his mantle by,
And stood stark naked on the brook's green
The sun looked on the world with glorious eye,
Yet not so wistly as this queen on him.
He, spying her, bounced in whereas he
"O Jove", quoth she, "why was I not a
The humid ambiguity of randy Cytherea waiting for Adonis by a watercourse
could hardly be plainer. Then, in Stanza Nine, all delicacy is cast aside:
Fair was the morn when the fair queen of love,
Paler for sorrow than her milk-white dove,
For Adon's sake, a youngster proud and wild,
Her stand she takes upon a steep-up hill.
Anon Adonis comes with horn and hounds;
She, silly queen, with more than love's good
Forbade the boy he should not pass those
"Once", quoth she, "did I see a fair sweet youth
Here in these brakes deep wounded with a
Deep in the thigh, a spectacle of ruth.
See in my thigh", quoth she, "here was the
She showed hers; he saw more wounds
And blushing fled, and left her all alone.
Is our editors' general plea for equality of the poems with the dramatic
writings affected by the many lyrics inserted in the plays? Are they like
arias in music or are they passing divertissements? Some are ironic asides;
others direct interventions, such as the Fool's Blakean riddles in Lear. Yet
others can contribute to formal masques, as happens in The Tempest. However
we regard them, they do nothing to challenge the supremacy of blank verse
and pontifical prose in Shakespeare's later work. After "The Phoenix and the
Turtle" there are only a few extant squibs of poems, if one excludes the
Sonnets as most likely written largely in the previous century, though
published in their entirety only in 1609. It was now plays all the way.
There is a final embarrassment one would wish were out of the way - the
awful threat on his gravestone:
Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbeare
To digg the dust enclosed here!
Blest be the man that spares these stones
And curst be he that moves my bones.
How convenient it would be if there were a tradition of Jacobean tomb
monuments being ordered from monumental masons, as hurried mourners can do
today. Unfortunately he may have written the lines himself; certainly their
doggerel has worked, and nobody has moved his bones to an ossuary.
Whatever the rest is, it isn't silence. He still dominates English
Literature and World Theatre. This new Arden edition should inspire all who
think they know Shakespeare to return and visit him at the explosive start
of his career. It's a rough ride, but an exhilarating one.
Peter Porter's most recent collection of poems is Afterburner, 2004. His
Saving from the Wreck: Essays on poetry appeared in 2001.