Frank Kermode
(Farrar Straus)

Part II
What first brought me to Kermode was a fairly lengthy article he wrote for the London Review of Books in which he suggested that Shakespeare was so much in command of his words and language and poetry that at times he flooded the gates, poured in great complicated juggernauts of verbiage so that, even now, 400 years after the fact --- we can't make head-nor-tail of what he is supposed to be telling us.

Such was his joy with words, and such were his enormous resources of poetry, vocabulary, and style, that he could come up with obscure and puzzling passages --- a frenetic roman candle shooting words all over the place, sheer delight at the beauties and puns and twists and turns of this brand new language --- so much so that he managed to make a puzzling mush out of it all.

Kermode sees it as "wilful obscurity." As one example, he quotes from a brief speech by the Countess in Measure for Measure:

    Think upon patience. Pray you, gentlemen,
    I have felt so many quirks of joy and grief
    That the first face of neither on the start
    Can woman me unto't.

He comments, "the obscurity does nothing for the Countess and merely puzzles the audience. Even Helena, whose intentions are so single and so clear to herself, produces lines that drive commentators to despair:"

    Yet in this captious and intenible sieve
    I still pour in the waters of my love
    And lack not to lose still.


Or this from Timon of Athens, being an even more willful show-off of obscurantist pyrotechnics:

    My free drift
    Halts not particularly, but moves itself
    In a wide sea of wax; no levell'd malice
    Infects one comma in the course I hold
    But flies an eagle flight, bold, and forth on,
    Leaving no tract behind.

Admittedly this is purposely befuddled, for it is a speech delivered by the Poet; but by placing it in a Poet's mouth, our playwright is making fun of any and all writer's show-off techniques of studied obscurity. Shakespeare the dramatist is, thus, making fun of Shakespeare the poet.

    One's intuition that this is not really meant to be clearly understood is confirmed by the Painter's rejoinder: "How shall I understand you?"

But then, in the spirit of translator --- and Kermode is a fine and delicate translator --- he plunges us into the text:

    "Halts not particularly" is intelligible --- doesn't dwell on individual aspects of the man --- but the "wide sea of wax" will give anybody pause; indeed, it is safe to say that nobody knows what it means. The usual conjecture concerns wax tablets, as used for writing in the ancient world. It strikes me as more likely it is a very forced, way of referring to the sea as "waxing," in the sense that the moon does; so this is a full sea as opposed to a "drift" capable of analysis to "particulars," a situation in which the imagination is not cramped by detail but remains free and powerful. The notion of "malice" infecting a "comma" is also difficult, but the comma is here less an orthographical device than another way of saying "a particular," a detail, the idea being that in not halting at particulars the Poet shows that his purpose is not to satirize such things, since he has grander plans in mind. But these are guesses and the lines are clearly meant to be baffling; the contrast between poetry of this kind and the kind of poetry it purports to describe is obvious, but any benefit it confers is obtained at the expense of baffling all the auditors.

§     §     §

Passages like this convince me that Shakespeare's Poetry is a detective story, in the mode of Josephine Tey or Agatha Christie or even Conan Doyle. If one were a show-off poet, one might say that the language has been murdered --- but the clues are everywhere, and our detective will piece them all together so we will know what transpired.

Like Shakespeare, Kermode, in his game pursuit, throws off many sparks --- and not all of them are kindly. At one point he suggests that the popping out of Gloucester's eyes in King Lear "restores the mood of despair and horror," but then:

    There is something appalling about the thoughts of an author who will submit his characters and his audience to such a test.

Kermode, like his subject, is involved in seeking out echoes. For what makes Shakespeare so beloved of the critics and cryptologists of the world are the patterns --- the undercurrents of the plays that hold them together and drive the action. Like the common vulgar talk in Othello, raw soldier language; or sequences in Macbeth where "the play as a whole is greatly preoccupied with time." Or the characters in Lear:

    Some understanding of the history and privileges of the Fool is essential to understanding King Lear; he is a perpetual reminder of Carnival, of the commentary on grandees allowed by custom to the humble. The Fool is both loyal and bitter; his master has reduced himself absurdly to a fool's role, and the Fool is now the source of wisdom, fantastically delineating a world turned upside down. The proper additions of the Fool include a coxcomb, and the Fool offers his to the King to take the place of a crown.

Kermode dwells on patterns of action and, as well, the pattern of words, or better, puns:

    "Will" is a multicoloured word in Shakespeare, and here its colours vary from the sense given it by the Articles of Religion [God's will]... to the frankly sexual senses, for "will," by association, can include not only sexual desire but the genital organs themselves, identified, in some of the Sonnets, with those of the author, Will.

§     §     §

I said earlier that one might be better off playing hooky from this weekend's local production of As You Like It and instead, spend the time curled up with Shakespeare's Poetry. Having passed more than a week with it, I am impelled to commend the author for his unbounded curiosity, his fine sense of language, his wit, and his sense of completeness.

This last brings my only complaint. Kermode is at his best with the Big Plays: Hamlet, Lear, Measure for Measure, Othello, Macbeth, and Anthony and Cleopatra. When we get to such doubtful dramas as The Two Noble Kinsmen, Cymbeline, Coriolanus, Henry VIII and Timon of Athens (some of which were probably only partially the work of Shakespeare), then Kermode is stretching, and stretches to hold our interest.

But when he's at his best, which is most of the time, he is a wily and funny teacher, able to fill us with one of the greatest delights --- the delight of insight. In fact, he makes it hard for us to forgive those idiot teachers who dragged us mercilessly through the wilds of Shakespeare with little of the hunter's ability and none of the marksmanship that should be required of a master critic.

--- Priscilla Wanders
Go back to Part I

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