Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Nicholas Royle: How to Read Shakespeare

My review will appear in Practical Philosophy.

Nicholas Royle
How to Read Shakespeare
London: Granta Books, 2005
ISBN-1-86207-730-4 (pb), pp. xii + 130

Of the books I have seen so far from Granta’s How to Read series, the Shakespeare volume is the most directly engaged in teaching its audience how to read texts. Nicholas Royle is not interested in working out what Shakespeare thought about any particular issue; rather, he seeks to help us recognize some of the ways that Shakespeare uses and manipulates words in order to create various effects. Although the author has written extensively on literary theory (including, among other works, a book on Derrida) the present book is blessedly uninterested in that topic. Instead of talking about talking about how to read Shakespeare, Royle never strays far from the actual words and passages from Shakespeare which are under discussion. Neither does he offer any abstract arguments for the validity of the interpretive strategies that he uses. Instead, we are tacitly invited to pragmatically judge his methods by their fruits; those who find Royle’s readings enlightening will no doubt follow in his footsteps. I personally found most of what he says agreeable, although he may occasionally read too much into certain details of the texts (if one is allowed to suggest that Shakespeare may be over-interpreted!). Some readers may also be annoyed when Royle indulges in a bit of his own faux-Shakespearian word play.

Each chapter of the book works like a microscope, zooming in and out on its subject at different degrees of magnification. At one level, a chapter is devoted to a particular play; at another level, it contains a close reading of a particular passage from that play; and finally, each chapter examines the role of a particular word as it appears in the passage, in the play, and throughout the Shakespearian oeuvre. Chapter seven, for example, discusses Antony and Cleopatra. More particularly, it analyzes a bit of dialogue that takes place between Antony and his loyal follower, Eros, which is found in act four, scene fourteen of that play. There Antony describes how, when looking at a cloud, we might see in it a “blue promontory with trees upon’t that nod unto the world.” Royle zooms in on the word “nod,” explicating its use in the passage against the background of its use in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Julius Caesar, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Other chapters treat passages from The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth.

There is certainly much to be gained from this short book and it does inspire one to read or reread the works it discusses. Clearly this is what Royle hopes for, and he ends his book with a few useful pages of “Suggestions for Further Reading,” which describe editions of the plays, critical works, philological works, biographies, and websites that can all be of help and interest to budding Shakespearian scholars.

I do have two inter-connected quibbles with this book, both of which probably reflect my own preference for philosophy over literary criticism. Royle appears at times to be guilty, simultaneously, of both over-interpretation and under-interpretation of the texts he discusses. On the one hand, he finds great significance in the way Shakespeare uses particular words in different contexts. On the other hand, he rarely comes up with much in the way of clear conclusions about exactly what Shakespeare is trying to achieve or express by using words as he does. Lacking definite theses, the discussion sometimes descends (or ascends, according to taste) into a free-wheeling interpretive improvisation.

Royle writes in his introduction that, “My principle aim is to register and explore the strangeness [Royle’s emphasis] of Shakespeare’s writing… - its capacity to surprise and alter our sense of the world” (pg. 3). The book does reveal all manner of word-play and strangeness in Shakespearian texts, but there is a danger here: any natural human use of language can be shown to be quite strange and ambiguous when placed under a sufficiently powerful exegetical microscope.

Does Shakespeare merely want to play verbal tricks on us, or is he actually trying to say something? Royle offers some direction regarding certain themes that we should be looking out for. He points, for instance, to the tendency of Shakespeare’s dramatis personae to reflexively allude to the fact that they are merely actors in a play. However, while readers of his book will come away with new appreciation of Shakespeare’s language, they will not have gained any real understanding of his importance for western culture. Royle has convinced me; Shakespeare’s language is stranger than I had thought. However, it was not strangeness of language that inspired T. S. Eliot to write, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them, there is no third.” To understand Shakespeare’s greatness, we must look beyond this book.

Berel Dov Lerner
Western Galilee College,
Akko, Israel

No comments: