The bor­row­ing bard

John Mul­lan ad­mires a study of the Bard’s com­plex pat­tern of bor­row­ing to make fresh drama

The Guardian Weekly - - Weekly Review -

Shake­speare and his lit­er­ary re­cy­cling

Shake­speare’s Orig­i­nal­ity by John Ker­ri­gan Ox­ford, 192pp

For a long time, the sed­u­lous stu­dent who wants to see Shake­speare in the act of cre­ation has been able to go to the ex­tracts con­tained in the eight fat vol­umes of Ge­of­frey Bul­lough’s Nar­ra­tive and Dra­matic Sources of Shake­speare. Here you can find the sto­ries that he pil­fered and changed. You can see how he twisted two com­pletely sep­a­rate tales to­gether to make The Mer­chant of Venice, for ex­am­ple, or de­cided to kill Lear and Cordelia at the end of King Lear when in his chron­i­cle source both sur­vived, or made Othello Des­de­mona’s murderer, when in Cinthio’s orig­i­nal Ital­ian story, it is Iago who does the deed. The vol­umes give a dizzy­ing sense of the play­wright’s nar­ra­tive dex­ter­ity as you see him weld­ing to­gether el­e­ments from oth­ers’ nar­ra­tives.

Read John Ker­ri­gan’s in­tense, con­densed ac­count of the play­wright’s cre­ative bor­row­ing and the dizzi­ness only in­creases. Fo­cus­ing on a hand­ful of plays, Ker­ri­gan, one of the world’s lead­ing Shake­speare schol­ars, shows that Bul­lough has recorded only the more ob­vi­ous half of it. Ker­ri­gan takes us be­yond Shake­speare’s pri­mary sources into the deeper tex­ture of his al­lu­sions and pas­sages of im­i­ta­tion. His orig­i­nal­ity, by this ac­count, was largely a gift for the al­chem­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of what he had read, heard re­cited or re­mem­bered from his days on a hard bench at Strat­ford gram­mar school.

Ker­ri­gan’s in­tro­duc­tion ru­mi­nates about the mean­ings of orig­i­nal­ity, a con­cept un­known to crit­ics be­fore the later 18th cen­tury. Shake­speare in­hab­ited a lit­er­ary cul­ture in which im­i­ta­tion of ear­lier models was ap­plauded. Rhetoric (the Re­nais­sance ver­sion of cre­ative writ­ing) ap­proved of “in­ven­tion”, but spec­i­fied that this meant the clever com­bi­na­tion of in­her­ited el­e­ments. Yet Shake­speare is also dif­fer­ent from his con­tem­po­raries: he is not show­ing off his lit­er­ary knowl­edge but adapt­ing nar­ra­tive pat­terns and frag­ments of di­a­logue lodged in his mem­ory. Ker­ri­gan quotes Emer­son ob­serv­ing that “All minds quote”; yet most of Shake­speare’s quo­ta­tions – or in­ven­tive mis­quo­ta­tions – would not have been spot­ted by his first au­di­ences.

A chap­ter de­voted to Much Ado About Noth­ing re­veals a play that is “pieced and patched and re­cy­cled” out of var­i­ous Ital­ian tales, its rad­i­cal nov­elty a mat­ter of the “piece­meal su­per­flux” of reused ma­te­ri­als. You will have to read slowly – and maybe Google – to un­der­stand the va­ri­ety of ma­te­ri­als that go into this nearly tragic com­edy. The re­ward is a vivid sense of how orig­i­nal it was to bor­row.

Tra­di­tional as­sur­ances that Shake­speare knew next to noth­ing of Greek tragedy are up­ended in an anal­y­sis of King Lear and its re­la­tion­ship to Sopho­cles’s two Oedi­pus plays. Shake­speare had ac­cess to these via widely avail­able Greek/Latin par­al­lel texts. In par­tic­u­lar, he found his way back to Greek tragedy via Seneca’s Latin ver­sions of Greek orig­i­nals. The scene on Dover Cliff, where the blind Gloucester thinks he has been led by Edgar, the son he does not recog­nise, has its “orig­i­nal” in Seneca’s Phoenis­sae, where Antigone leads Oedi­pus in search of a con­ve­nient precipice. “Lay­ers of im­i­ta­tion res­onate back to an­tiq­uity.”

In his fi­nal chap­ter, Ker­ri­gan tack­les one of the few Shake­speare plays sup­posed to have no spe­cific source, The Tem­pest. He finds here not only echoes of con­tem­po­rary writ­ing about the coloni­sa­tion of Vir­ginia and Ber­muda, but also the reuse of sen­ti­ments culled from Vir­gil’s cel­e­bra­tion of the pow­ers of agri­cul­ture, his Ge­or­gics. Where Shake­speare is sup­posed most nat­u­ral he is in fact most lit­er­ary.

The book is un­re­pen­tantly eru­dite, but the eru­di­tion is as di­vert­ing as it can be daunt­ing. There are di­gres­sions into men’s hair­styles in Re­nais­sance Eng­land (es­sen­tial to some of the jokes in Much Ado), con­tem­po­rary agri­cul­tural ex­per­i­ments (ditto The Tem­pest), or man­ners of walk­ing on the stage (where ac­tors strut­ted or “jet­ted” or jigged or “tripped” or – like Richard III – bale­fully limped). The chap­ter on Much Ado, a play in which a ser­vant al­most trig­gers a tragedy by dress­ing up as her mis­tress, traces its reliance on con­tem­po­rary pub­li­ca­tions about fash­ion­able dress. El­iz­a­bethan Eng­land still had sump­tu­ary laws, plac­ing stern lim­its on the wear­ing of lux­u­ri­ous ap­parel. “Ac­tors were an af­front to these rules,” elab­o­rate cos­tum­ing be­ing one of drama’s es­sen­tial re­sources. How ex­cit­ing it was to see some­one fla­grantly dressed in the wrong clothes!

The four main chap­ters be­gan as lec­tures, and Ker­ri­gan clearly ex­pected his lis­ten­ers to con­cen­trate hard. He is con­fi­dent he can use words such as “sti­comythic” and “harus­pi­ca­tion” with­out fur­ther ex­pla­na­tion, that Euripi­des and Vir­gil are our fa­mil­iars, and that the plot de­tails of Shake­speare’s plays are hard­wired in our heads. The text bris­tles with end­note num­bers, tak­ing the reader to a com­pen­dium of Shake­spearean lore at the back of the book. But the trust in our lit­er­ary cu­rios­ity is in­tox­i­cat­ing. Who wants Shake­speare to be made easy when he was so beau­ti­fully and orig­i­nally com­plex?

His orig­i­nal­ity was largely a gift for the al­chem­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of what he had read or heard re­cited

Tris­tram Ken­ton

The­atri­cal mag­pie … Tim­o­thy West as King Lear and Rachel Pickup as Cordelia – the char­ac­ters die in the Bard’s play but both sur­vive in the source ma­te­rial; (left) his Third Fo­lio

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