Doing Shakespeare by Simon Palfrey.

Above my desk is a postcard which reads: “A library may be very large; but if it is in disorder, it is not so useful as one that is small but well arranged.” It’s from Schopenhauer in an essay on thinking for onesself. He continues: “In the same way, a man may have a great mass of knowledge, but if he has not worked it up by thinking it over for himself, it has much less value than a far smaller amount which he has thoroughly pondered.” The Eggheads might have a thing or two to say in contradiction to that, but it’s quite possible to think of Shakespeare’s writing in those terms.

As well as a collection of forty-something dramas, these are also texts filled with poetry and a depth of meaning few brains can totally comprehend. The work of critics and historians mirrors that of archivists and librarians attempting to apply some order to the chaos through interpretation. Like the man in the second quote most of them can only become experts in one small part, but collectively they have managed to create a certain agreement as to how the texts were assembled, from word to word, verse to verse, character to character, story to story. Which makes Simon Palfrey’s Doing Shakespeare, the literary criticism equivalent of a classification system.

Generally ignoring an appreciation of the plays in performance, Palfrey seeks to strip the text down to its essentials and confront, oscillating between simple explanations and deep investigation, the various elements of Shakespeare’s writing, answering a series of why questions. Why metaphors? Why hendiadys? Repetition? “High style”? Rhyme? Prose? Puns? Characters? Soliloquies? This the academic equivalent of Arden’s other far lighter Miscellany with far less interest in trivia and focusing on the construction of the writing, grasping towards the reason why the plays went from the playhouse to the printed book.

As Palfrey explains in his introduction, the book's structure demands a reader dips in and out, reads the chapters in any order. Doing Shakespeare can’t be usefully ploughed through from cover to cover. Each chapter is set out in a very particular way, with a basic introduction to the topic, an explanation, then contextual discussion, a dense ransacking of often just a few words, revealed to be packed with meaning. Through this method, the author hopes that we’ll then be able to look at similar usages elsewhere in the canon and have a greater understanding of what Shakespeare is trying to achieve.

Of the chapters I have had a chance to dip into, the overall message is that there are few words or speeches in Shakespeare that haven’t been carefully thought through and which don’t have some implication for our understand of not just the story but the speaker. Even during his lifetime, Shakespeare was criticised for overwriting, in some cases offering pages of lines when a few world communicate the same information. What Palfrey demonstrates is if a character like Canterbury in Henry V does offer what looks like great oratory over a relatively small matter, it’s Shakespeare very specifically giving that character that mode of speech.

If you’re prepared to attack it with a fresh brain, the book can be highly rewarding. Palfrey dedicates four pages to Macbeth’s oft quoted and usually in the wrong context “If it were done, when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well / It were done quickly.” As he indicates there are two ways to interpret the central clause. This could be Macbeth stuttering over his words, replacing the inherent element of doubt within “if” with “when”. But this could also be Macbeth simply repeating the same phrase for emphasis. Indeed the phrase is pregnant with the predestination at the centre of the play, that when Macbeth meets the witches nothing he could do would change matters. He is a broken human the instant they hail him.

As you would expect, Hamlet is covered in some detail, the best section considering Ophelia’s sexuality. As Jonathan Bate describes in The Genius of Shakespeare, the genius of Shakespeare is the apparently deliberate ambiguity within the text and characters but within very specific options. In this case, have they or haven’t they? This is one of the few occasions when Palfrey holds his hands up and suggests that it is something which can’t be developed from the text, that the answer hovers somewhere between the page, interpretation and performance. Even in a library, it’s impossible to satisfactorily classify every book. All the cataloguer can do is make an educated guess.

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