Saturday, 8 May 2021

Jonathan Bate: counter-voices in Shakespeare

In The Genius of Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate pretends to raise the question of what’s special about Shakespeare when he almost never comes up with his own plot for the plays, and answers it in a chapter called “Shakespeare’s Peculiarity”. As that’s not the point of this blog post, I’m not going to answer the question or write much about Bate’s chapter, but he makes an interesting point when comparing Shakespeare’s As You Like It and the source book Rosalynde by Thomas Lodge: 

“Shakespeare complicates Lodge for purposes of critique. He introduces the foppish Le Beau in the first act in order to mock at the pretensions of the court. He introduces Jaques in the second in order to mock at the pretensions of pastoral idealization. Duke Senior regards the forest of Arden as untainted, redolent of the Golden Age; Jaques points out that whilst the wicked Duke Frederick has usurped his brother’s place at court, Duke Senior and his men have usurped the stag’s place in the forest. Shakespeare introduces the loutish William and Audrey in order to juxtapose a realistic view of country people against the literary view provided by the shepherd-in-love he inherits from Lodge. As for Touchstone, he is introduced in order to mock at everybody – yet his sophisticated court mockery is itself mocked by the dignity with which Corin speaks for honest country values.

The characters invented by Shakespeare may be described as ‘counter-voices’. Lodge’s story is controlled by a narratorial voice which leads the reader to make discriminations and moral judgements. Shakespeare’s dramatic form means that there is no single authorial voice; the play’s succession of mockings, ironic juxtapositions and unresolved debates render its world ‘open’. Even when ‘closure’ is reached with the multiple marriages, Jaques stands off against the resolution. This openness means that ample space is left for the intervention of the audience. We step in to continue the unresolved debates: that is one of the things which makes Shakespeare so performable, so discussable.” (Ch.5)

Later on, Jonathan Bate speaks again of counter-voices when discussing Shakespeare as the central point of world literature: 

“Because he was hardly ever narrowly topical in his own age and culture, Shakespeare has remained topical in other ages and cultures. Because he addresses great political issues rather than local political circumstances, his plays speak to such perennial problems as tyranny and aggressive nationalism. Because his own positions are so elusive, because every one of his voices has its counter-voice – Fluellen his MacMorris, King Harry his Michael Williams, Prospero his Caliban – he has become the voice of many positions.” (Ch.8)

This, I think, is the greatest strength of Shakespeare—not only is there a wide range of voices and points of view across the Shakespeare plays, but in each play, each voice also has a counter-voice. This is why Shakespeare is so popular and appeals to people across the political spectrum. This is why Shakespeare continues to be loved and adapted and analysed today. 

Reading these passages, I can’t help thinking about the bad films or TV series I’ve seen lately—a film or TV drama is similar to a play in that it has no narratorial voice as in a novel, but in some cases, it’s easy to tell that the screenwriter has some underlying moralism, sides with a specific character, and doesn’t give some other character’s lines equal force, and that is the sign of a weak screenwriter. 

Later on in the book, Jonathan Bate writes more about the opposing voices and the appeal to different people: 

“Since the eighteenth century, Shakespeare has been admired above all for two things: the range of his characters and the inventiveness of his language. The two go closely together, for it was by investing so many of his dramatic persons with memorable language that Shakespeare animated more voices than did any of his contemporaries. And because he animated so many opposing voices, he has been able to speak to many later dispositions. 

[…] For Hazlitt, the key to Shakespeare’s genius was his open-mindedness, his lack of egotism, and freedom from bias, his capacity to see both sides of a question and to empathize equally with all.” (ibid.)

Among the writers I’ve read, I think only 2 writers are comparable to Shakespeare in range of characters, and they are Tolstoy and Cao Xueqin. In Hong lou meng, Cao Xueqin seems to depict all kinds of people, of different sexes, of different classes, and from different backgrounds, and he has compassion for them all—there are a few pairs of characters who are similar, but they’re all distinct and lifelike. Hong lou meng makes most novels appear small and limited in comparison, and the author is invisible and self-effacing, not an egotist. But if Cao Xueqin is comparable in terms of range and breadth, he is not in terms of depth and complexity—his characters are not as deep, multifaceted, and self-contradictory as Shakespeare’s or Tolstoy’s characters, with the sole exception of Wang Xifeng. Wang Xifeng is his greatest creation, because there are many sides to her and there can be different responses to her (though if you say you adore her, I’d ask what’s wrong with you). 

Tolstoy can inhabit many different characters’ minds to the extent that I’ve not seen matched by any other novelist, and I think Shakespeare and Tolstoy are the 2 writers with the greatest understanding of human nature and human behaviour. The difference in Tolstoy is his egotism and didacticism—when the artist in him triumphs over the preacher, he is extraordinary, but often you may clash with his narrative voice and his personal views.

To go back to Jonathan Bate’s book, he quotes William Hazlitt:

“The striking peculiarity of Shakspeare’s mind was its generic quality, its power of communication with all other minds – so that it contained a universe of thought and feeling within itself, and had no one peculiar bias, or exclusive excellence more than another. He was just like any other man, but that he was like all other men. He was the least of an egotist that it was possible to be. He was nothing in himself; but he was all that others were, or that they could become. He not only had in himself the germs of every faculty and feeling, but he could follow them by anticipation, intuitively, into all their conceivable ramifications, through every change of fortune or conflict of passion, or turn of thought. He had ‘a mind reflecting ages past,’ and present: – all the people that ever lived are there. There was no respect of persons with him. His genius shone equally on the evil and on the good, on the wise and the foolish, the monarch and the beggar.” (ibid.) 

That’s a great passage. 

If you’re interested in Shakespeare, you should read The Genius of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate. It makes me love Shakespeare even more. 

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