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Introducing Shakespeare

af G. B. Harrison

MedlemmerAnmeldelserPopularitetGennemsnitlig vurderingSamtaler
1932108,954 (3.29)Ingen
This work provides the background to Shakespeare's plays. The author shows how Shakespeare came to occupy his current position at the pinnacle of English literature, how little we know of his life and how recent scholarship has made immense strides in illuminating his works.

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G. B. Harrison

Introducing Shakespeare

Penguin/Pelican, Paperback, 1964.

12mo. 174 pp. Preface by the author [p. 9]. 2 plates and 5 in-text illustrations.

First published, 1939.
Reprinted, 1941, 1948.
Revised edition, 1954.
Reprinted, 1957, 1959, 1963, 1964.



I. The Legend of Shakespeare
II. Materials for the Life of Shakespeare
III. The Modern Approach to Shakespeare
IV. Shakespeare's Company
V. The Elizabethan Playhouse
VI. The Shakespeare Canon
VII. Development of Shakespeare's Style
VIII. Editing Shakespeare

A Short Reading List


I don't really know what two- and three-star reviewers expected from this book. Presumably they are seasoned Bardolaters with decades of Shakespearean experience and an intimate knowledge of the complete Shakespeare canon. I wish they would share their wisdom about the big shortcomings of this little book.

Now, this uncommonly rewarding for its slimness volume is strictly and exclusively designed for perfect newcomers to Shakespeare. I should have thought this is obvious from the title. So Bardomaniacs should steer clear of it. To neophytes it can't be recommended highly enough.

Since it was first published in 1939 and last revised in 1954, of course it's dated. Or is it really? I would venture the highly speculative and outrageously uninformed opinion that just about the most dated part is the dating of the plays; a couple of dates may be a year or two off, perhaps one or two dubious collaborations or lost works are omitted. Who cares? The book is just over 50 years old. Shakespeare has been dead for nearly 400.

It may in passing be noted that more recent Shakespearean scholarship doesn't necessarily mean "any better than the old school". Why on earth, I wonder, did Penguin have to commission new introductions (and hideous covers!) to all plays for their current (new?) Penguin Shakespeare edition? With very few exceptions among the most obscure plays, this "new" edition reprints the texts and the commentaries from the old New Penguin Shakespeare, most of which first appeared during the period 1967-80 and did indeed contain newly edited texts. All volumes also included lengthy introductions by the editors. These are now dispensed with in favour of the "most up-to-date critical interpretations". Balls! The few examples I have compared so far are as up-to-date as Shakespeare with a laptop.

To get back to this book and the mathematics above, a great deal has happened in these three and a half centuries. Isn't is a little presumptuous to claim that in the last 50 years we have advanced in our understanding of the Bard more than the previous 350 did? Possibly the only advantage of more modern editions and scholarship is the greater respect they pay to the ''originals'' in the course of preparing readable versions in (more or less) modern English. But Mr Harrison certainly seems to have caught the beginning of this Editorial Renaissance in the first half of the twentieth century. He remarks several times that ''today'' early quarto editions and especially the First Folio are regarded with much greater respect than virtually all editors during the past centuries, the nineteenth firmly included.

Fans of the Penguin Popular Classics series would be familiar with the name of George Bagshawe Harrison, or simply G. B. Harrison if you're on friendly terms. (Or simply G.B.H., but that's dangerous because it reminds one of G.B.S.) True to their disrespectful nature, Penguin never bother to credit the editor properly: you have to struggle with the eye-killing font on the copyright page to know who supplied these charming essays on Shakespeare, the Elizabethan stage and the play in question, not to mention the invaluable notes and glossary.

Truth is, G. B. Harrison is quite a notable Shakespearean scholar. Not only did he edit all of the Bard's plays (also available in one volume as "The Complete Works", first published in 1952, I believe), but he actually wrote a number of books on Shakespeare, his working methods and his circle, his plays and his times. When you look inside those garish wonders from the current Penguin Shakespeare, you might be led to believe that Stanley Wells and T. J. B. Spencer, their names printed on the very first page, have originated the Penguin version of Shakespearean scholarship more or less singlehandedly. Not quite. Before them, G.B.H. was the boss in Penguin/Pelican/Puffin/Cockatoo/Woodpecker/Ostrich/Sparrow/Nightingale/Swallow/etc.

Mr Harrison starts (excluding his short preface) with a chapter on "The Legend of Shakespeare", in which he shows by extensive quotes of great authorities (Dryden, Pope, Dr Johnson, Coleridge) how during the centuries Shakespeare was transformed into something much like deity. Make no mistake: Will was fabulously successful, popular and rich in his own time. Yet it wasn't until at least half a century after his death that he started to be considered as worthy of immortality, and a whole posthumous century had to pass until his spirit could be sure of it.

Then Mr Harrison goes on to relate briefly all "Materials for the Life of Shakespeare", in other words what we know about him and how we know it. Somewhat surprisingly, Mr Harrison concludes that we know relatively a lot about Will, certainly more than we know about many of his contemporaries, some of them not quite unknown themselves (e.g. Lizzy I or that naughty boy Walter Raleigh). The author also points out, wisely, that not all types of sources are equally dependable: written documents are one thing, printed plays are another, oral anecdotes yet another.

This chapter also contains some important documents reprinted in full. These include Shakespeare's will and the dedications to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, of his two early poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). Will's will is long and tedious, but it offers some important insights about his life and family. Further in the book there are other such historical curiosities that shed a welcome illumination devoid of historical prejudice.

"The Modern Approach to Shakespeare" is the only obviously dated part of the book. Yet it is by no means useless as a historical glimpse. Mr Harrison's point, in a nutshell, is that the world-wide mass depression after Bradley published his sublime lectures on the four great tragedies in 1904 was - well, it didn't last. Bradley is still read rather widely, but hardly anybody considers him the last word on these mighty tragedies. Funny that once upon a time many did.

Among the most fascinating historical bits is Mr Harrison's discussion of Granville-Barker's revolutionary staging of Shakespeare's works, especially Twelfth Night in 1912. Apparently this was the first time in the last century, perhaps the first time since Shakespeare's own times, when the audience was made aware that the Bard wrote not just glorious poetry but exciting theatre as well. Granville-Barker boldly dumped star systems and lavish ''historically accurate'' productions, yet without transforming the stage into the epitome of minimalist ugliness, nor without turning Shakespeare's text into a dramatically irrelevant recitation of poetry.

As a matter of fact, even in this chapter the author deals with a number of issues that are quite relevant regardless of the historical context. For instance, he separates Shakespearean scholarship to three major areas – historical, literary and dramatic – and analyses with admirable succinctness their pros and cons. What impresses me most is the enormous amount of knowledge that any modern editor of the Bard should possess about the Elizabethan era on the whole: politics, society, psychology, wars, plagues, theatres, publishing: all this and a great deal more including, especially, Shakespeare's contemporary colleagues. Only this way can an editor make corrections in the texts that are more than mere whims of the moment or supply some revealing notes. I wonder how many modern editors are that well-versed.

The rest of the book deals with Shakespeare's own company, the Elizabethan playhouse in general, the Shakespeare canon, the developing of the Bard's style and even the ever-controversial subject of editing his "originals". All these essays are very short, but I venture to suggest that none is superficial. Each chapter is packed with stupendous amount of fascinating details, often spiced up with Mr Harrison's sharply blunt opinions.

What makes the book a real pleasure to read is the writing. To put it briefly, Mr Harrison writes with beautiful simplicity and delightful sense of humour. Do you often encounter this combination in Shakespearean scholars? If you do, perhaps you would like to recommend some books to me.

The author, I'm pleased to say, suffers from no form of goofy adulation. Bardolatry, like any other form of idolatry, is a most harmful self-limitation. Mr Harrison would have no truck with those of his colleagues (Harold Goddard, for one) according to whom Shakespeare could neither do any wrong nor write a single superfluous word.

One indeed wonders at such Bardomania. Surely Shakespeare's plays, most if not all of them, are far from perfect. But in this special case you can worship Will as God and yet excuse every fault you find in his poetry/plots/characters/whatever. Just say it was the filthy editors from later centuries, or some nasty bloke among his contemporaries sneaked in after midnight and rewrote this or that speech so that it now makes no sense at all. Why this Bardolatry then?

Never mind. Mr Harrison would have none of it. He makes no bones that Shakespeare, though a gifted writer from the beginning, took quite a few years and quite a few plays to develop the unique blend of word power, striking imagery and psychological depth that have made him - well, what he is, whatever that is. Many passages in Richard III, Love's Labour's Lost and Romeo and Juliet, to name but three examples, are artificial to a fault, reflect Will's childish delight in playing with words for no better reason than mere fun, or simply refer too specifically to topical matters that have long turned to dust.

Mr Harrison calls Lady Capulet's famous comparison of Paris with a book that Juliet may behold "tediously clever". I disagree but I do see his point; and that's a wickedly smart description indeed. Like the old Capulet's comparison of his weeping daughter with a barque at sea, it does look like a contrived self-display of cleverness. It is hardly in character with the rest of the lines given to the Capulets. All the same, I (as a director-producer) wouldn't cut these lines because some prima donna (of either sex) has problems with the pronunciation.

Sometimes the author goes almost too far with the flippancy. One hilarious example is concerned with Shakespeare's aversion to bread, at least if we can judge by two disparaging references from his plays. Mr Harrison observes that this reflects poorly on his digestion and Mrs Shakespeare's baking, but then he immediately chides himself that this is ''perhaps a frivolous way" to look at things. However, such examples are very rare and shouldn't lead to the wrong conclusion that Mr Harrison doesn't take his subject seriously. He certainly does.

The discussion of Shakespeare's style is one of the highlights of the book. It's a rich well to dip into when re-reading any of the plays but particularly the ''Big Four'' of the tragedies – Othello, Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth – and the finest of the early plays, Romeo and Juliet. Mr Harrison states that Shakespeare's style was ''quite distinguished'' from the very beginning, yet it progressed greatly from, say, Richard III to Henry IV, Part I, which the author declares to be his first mature work. Mere five years or so separate both plays, but it's no longer very easy to guess that they were written by the same man.

Shakespeare, of course, went a great deal further, if not in technique at all events in depth. Mr Harrison considers Othello and Antony and Cleopatra to be the Bard's most accomplished creations, although he all but waxes lyrical about King Lear and Macbeth where Shakespeare's imagery and metaphors try to express what is quite beyond words. Hamlet seems to inhabit the no-man's-land in between and that may be one of the reasons for its overwhelming popularity.

Each point Mr Harrison makes is lavishly illustrated with extensive quotes from the plays. Very few of his observations are without interest, indeed some of them can change your next reading profoundly. For example, I didn't notice at all that in King Lear Shakespeare is kind of obsessed with two words, namely ''nature'' and ''nothing''. But now that Mr Harrison has mentioned it, well, it opens grand vistas of shameless and intensely personal speculation. But that's another story!

Many of Mr Harrison's points are rather subtle and hardly for beginners; some of them will no doubt be recognized by the avid readers of Penguin Popular Classics. For example, part of the perceptive discussion about the expressive purpose of different types of speech in Othello can be found in his notes to this play, while his speculative staging of Romeo and Juliet based on careful analysis of the detailed stage directions in the early quartos even enjoys a separate essay in the corresponding volume. The former is of special interest, even if the author's conclusions about the relationship between form and emotion are rather controversially exact. All the same, next time I read Othello I will certainly pay special attention to Shakespeare's use of lyric poetry, prose, rhymed and blank verse.

An even more extreme example of Shakespearean subtlety is Mr Harrison's quoting the famous speech of Antony "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears" twice – nearly all of it! – the differences being only in the punctuation. (What exactly is the dramatic difference between colon and semicolon? Or between comma and semicolon?) He concludes that some editors should be beaten into pulp (or other words to that effect anyway) for meddling with things they don't understand. Whether Shakespeare had anything to do with the punctuation in the First Folio is hotly debatable (he most probably didn't), but it's rather irrelevant all the same. The punctuation is dramatic, designed for reading of the text aloud; that's why Mr Harrison thinks it should be kept intact, and changed only when really necessary for dramatic reasons (which is not often). He even goes on to compare both versions of the speech to the same piece of music played by a master and by an amateur. Striking comparison!

So, where were we? Yes, at the conclusion. So, are you a newly converted Shakespearean maniac cynical enough not to regard the Bard as Godhead, yet quite smitten with his plays, who needs a brief but brilliant introduction to the subject by an eminent scholar who happens to be a fine writer as well? If yes, then this is the perfect book for you. Don't rush for Bill Bryson; you can read that later. Second-hand copies of Mr Harrison's book are widely available for a pittance. Be sure to get a (post-)1954 edition and enjoy.

Note on the edition

It's a cute little vintage Penguin/Pelican paperback. The cover design with Will and the Globe, like many other old covers, is far superior to many a modern counterpart (just have a look at the Penguin Classics edition of On the Origin of Species and you will know what I mean). On the back cover you get the very, very rare opportunity to see Mr Harrison himself. It's a small, rather bluish, photo portrait from which a somewhat stern man (but that's an illusion!) with horn-rimmed glasses and well-trimmed moustache is looking at us. It's reprinted here by courtesy of the University of Michigan where Mr Harrison taught between 1949 and 1964. He died in New Zealand in 1991, aged 97.

I wish the book contained more than two plates. They are reprinted on thick, glossy paper and in excellent quality. One is the famous Droeshout portrait, the one that appeared in the First Folio (1623). The other shows a magnificent university hall whose purpose remains a little unclear. The in-text illustrations are almost exclusively concerned with the enigmatic looks of the Elizabethan theatre. Among them is the wonderful reconstruction which you can find in every Penguin Popular Classics volume dedicated to Shakespeare. It seems that the opening sequence of Olivier's Henry V (1944) is as historically accurate as possible. ( )
2 stem Waldstein | Nov 7, 2012 |
Goed beknopt overzicht van leven en werk, maar een beetje levenloos. ( )
  bookomaniac | Aug 19, 2010 |
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This work provides the background to Shakespeare's plays. The author shows how Shakespeare came to occupy his current position at the pinnacle of English literature, how little we know of his life and how recent scholarship has made immense strides in illuminating his works.

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