Shakespeare and the Pendulum, Lukas Erne’s Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist

Written by Veronika Schandl

Lukas Erne: Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist
CUP, 2003.
ISBN: 0521 82255 6
Price: Ł45.00, US$ 65.00


When in 1977 J.L.Styan published The Shakespeare Revolution, his claims were indeed revolutionary. Declaring that “the play on stage expanding before an audience is the source of all valid discovery, [for] Shakespeare speaks, if anywhere, through his medium”1 he asserted that literary critics need a continual dialogue with the theatre. Claiming that, instead of poems, Shakespeare wrote playscripts, whose potentials can be best realised when performed, Styan drew a parallel between Early-Modern and 20th-Century stage-practices, viewing the latter – or at least some versions of it – as the rebirth of the ‘authentic Shakespeare-experience.’ Though for three decades most of his claims were severely criticised (as few believe in the revival of an ‘authentic Shakespeare-experience’ except for the management of the various Globe theatres around the world), by placing the theatre in the focus of scholarly interest he opened up doors, and in his footsteps a whole generation of performance critics have marched into the field of literary studies. The performative approach has become so widespread that even the influential Shakespeare collected edition of Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor placed the stage in its editorial focus. The pendulum swung and at its very end dogmatic performance critics discarded the reading of the plays altogether, and investigated solely the relationship of stage and audience. The oversimplified image of Shakespeare as a Hollywood scriptwriter, working for profit and not literary fame, entered the picture, and slowly displaced that of the man with the receding hairline, holding a quill in his hand. Receding into dusty libraries was the ultimate literary author, as depicted in the well-known image of the shrine in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford.

Performance critics gave Shakespearean criticism a few ideas which have almost become axiomatic in recent times. Among others, the two most prominent notions are (1) that Early-Modern playwrights (or at least Shakespeare) did not pay much attention to the publication of their plays, which they wrote exclusively to be performed, (2) that playing companies opposed, rather than encouraged, the printing of their playscripts, which could only reach publishers in pirate or stolen versions.

At the end of the 1990s, however, these ideas were challenged by among others Richard Dutton and Peter Blayney.2 But it is Lukas Erne, in Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist, who provides the most pervasive re-examination of these topics. Erne argues that Shakespeare’s dramatic authorship was established well before the appearance of the First Folio, in fact as early as in the last decades of the 16th century, as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had a coherent strategy of getting their playwrights’ works into print and promoting their authority and marketability. He claims that the company used plays in print as a way of promoting and advertising the dramas when they were revived on stage usually two years after their first performances. Erne wishes to prove that from this strategy it follows that Shakespeare’s artistic aims and involvement are there to be found in the published texts as well. However, Erne’s argument is rather conjectural, for it mixes the financial and artistic motives of publishing and does not really contradict the image of the entrepreneur-Shakespeare that it set out to discard. Among the otherwise well-researched claims, however, what seems uncharacteristically sketchy is his discussion of the back-set of playbook publication after 1601 (fifteen plays registered until 1603 then a sudden drop after Troilus): he dismisses the important changes in the company’s structure (from Lord Chamberlain’s Men to the King’s Men), and attributes the ebbing in publication solely to Shakespeare’s intention of saving the unpublished material for a planned Folio publication.

All in all, however, the early chapters, in which Erne conveys a picture of Shakespeare the privileged playwright, who could both write for the stage and the page are excellently researched, well-argued, and would in themselves qualify the book as one of the most significant volumes of its kind published in recent years. Erne convincingly demonstrates that – though Bodley did condemn them – plays were treated as literature, collected by intellectuals, and shelved in libraries. Through explicit research, he also confutes the generally held belief that players opposed the publication of the plays.

By taking “the two hours’ traffic of our stage” reference in Romeo and Juliet and the "two short hours" of Henry VIII literally, Erne, in the second half of the book, argues that the long, ‘good’ Quarto and Folio texts of the histories and tragedies were never performed on stage in their full length. Quoting Webster’s distinction of ‘plays’ (performances of dramas) and ‘poems’ (printed and perfect copies of the plays), and taking into consideration the general practice of abridgment on the Renaissance stage – seen for example in the few theatrical manuscripts we have at hand – he boldly concludes that the ‘bad’ quartos are the abridged plays the Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed on London stages, while the longer versions present us Shakespeare’s full texts, which were intended for publication only. The changes of play structures he demonstrates in examining the two versions of Henry V, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, all of which – according to Erne – support a premise that the stage versions are much simpler in development and character building than their published equivalents.

However challenging and admirably researched this second part is, one cannot but feel a bit uncomfortable about it. With a slight overstatement we could claim that by accepting Erne’s assumption that ‘good quartos’ are ‘authentic’ Shakespearean texts we may subscribe to a Shakespeare very much different from what performance critics drew him to be. This playwright does not really write plays (which by definition are meant only to be performed) but aims at begetting closet dramas, all longer than the average plays on the contemporary stage. As a by-product, he gives his consent – for he has to make ends meet and help fill the theatre – to the productions of these plays which are put on stage cut and crippled by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, but his real aim is to amend them later in his complete volume of a Folio. With a conclusion like this, Erne’s book does injustice to the claim it makes in its title, for instead of finding the golden middle of a playwright engaged both in contemporary performance and publishing Erne depicts a writer who only wrote for the stage en passant. The pendulum seems to have swung to the other end of the scale. Erne’s outstanding book which aims at rewriting and rethinking almost everything which was published in the past few decades about Shakespeare and the theatre will I am sure generate huge arguments among Shakespeare scholars.

The truth is still out there.

1 J.L.Styan, Shakespeare. Revolution (Cambridge: CUP, 1977) p 235.

2 Dutton, Richard. "The Birth of the Author." In Elizabethan Theater: Essays in Honor of S. Schoenbaum, ed. R.B. Parker and S. P. Zitner, 71-92. Newark: University of Delaware Press. 1996; The First Folio of Shakespeare: Based on Folios in the Folger Shakespeare Library Collection (Facsimile Series), eds: Charlton Hinman, Peter W. M. Blayney, Folger Shakespeare Library, W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Publisher: Pázmány University Electronic Press - Budapest, ISSN 1785-6515
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