A Muse of Fire

There’s a lot of Shakespeare about these days – I know, when isn’t there? – but what with the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival (no wet-weather alternatives for most performances, so we can only pray), and the Olympics-related culture-fest, to say nothing of the telly, the man and his works are more omnipresent than usual.

Tennyson adored Shakespeare, and had Steevens’ edition with him on his deathbed. According to Hallam, three plays which he ‘loved dearly’ were Lear, Troilus and Cressida and Cymbeline. I find the last of these interesting (a) because I would agree with him, and (b) because a totally unscientific discovery of my own suggests that the Victorians in general didn’t much read Cymbeline. The evidence is that when we were preparing to reissue four Victorian editions – the ‘Cambridge Shakespeare’, the Henry Irving Shakespeare and the editions by Staunton and Bowdler (in which, famously, ‘Nothing Is Added to the Original Text; but those Words and Expressions Are Omitted which Cannot with Propriety Be Read Aloud in a Family’) – quite a number of plays in each volume of each edition had the pages uncut, but the only play which was uncut in all the editions was Cymbeline. Perhaps it was thought too sexually suggestive? Much of Shakespeare’s bawdy is fairly unintelligible to modern ears and has to be conveyed by a great deal of gurning and gesticulation by the actors, but the voyeurism of Iachimo is very explicit:

‘On her left breast/A mole cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops/I’ the bottom of a cowslip’

though I’m guessing Henrietta Maria Bowdler (or her unfairly more famous brother Thomas) may have changed ‘breast’ to ‘arm’, vel. sim. – I must look it up.

One book on Shakespeare that we would like to reissue is Mary Cowden Clarke’s famous concordance: sadly, so much is crammed on to each page that we can’t scan it adequately with our non-destructive cradle machines –  the text goes too far into the gutter.* We have, however, published her three-volume The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines, imaginative back-stories offering ‘the possible circumstances and influences of scene, event, and associate, surrounding the infant life of his heroines, which might have conduced to originate and foster those germs of character recognized in their maturity as by him developed; to conjecture what might have been the first imperfect dawnings of that which he has shown us in the meridian blaze of perfection’. And Mrs Jameson’s two-volume Characteristics of Women, as well as the editions mentioned above, testifies to a great revival of interest in Shakespeare in the nineteenth century: not of course that the plays had ever ceased to be read or performed. In the eighteenth century, think of Dr Johnson, or George Steevens, whose edition Tennyson knew, but who was later as notorious for his hoaxes as famous for his editing, or the great Shakespeare scholar Edmond Malone, or David Garrick’s performances and his Shakespeare festival at Stratford in 1769.

Controversy around the authorship of the plays and poems, and the authenticity of the various versions, waxed fierce in the nineteenth century: a pamphlet war was conducted among scholars and enthusiasts such as James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps (also, of course, the part-author of Cambridge Jokes), N.E.S.A. Hamilton, and John Payne Collier (described in the ODNB as ‘literary editor and forger’), all of whom managed to infuse a great deal of ad hominem vitriol into their arguments. The pioneering feminist writer Charlotte Carmichael Stopes published what she hoped would be a definitive refutation of the ‘Bacon hypothesis’ in 1889. Tennyson would have approved: ‘I have just had a letter from a man who wants my opinion as to whether Shakespeare’s plays were written by Bacon.  I feel inclined to write back: “Sir, don’t be a fool.” The way Bacon speaks of love would be enough to prove that he was not Shakespeare.’

At the same time, actors were putting their own views of Shakespearian roles into print, and one wonders if this new authorial activity contributed to their increasing respectability and admission into polite society? Mrs Jordan, the greatest Rosalind of her day, was mistress to several gentlemen and noblemen, including the future King William IV, but she hardly achieved the social position of Helena Faucit, Lady Martin. (It helped of course that her husband was knighted for his biography of the Prince Consort.) Irving was famously the first theatrical knight (his edition was praised for ‘his reverent and often acute treatment of the text’) – stand by for the biography by his theatre manager, Bram Stoker, who was equally famous in his day (and more so today) for Dracula.

Biographical works on Shakespeare also flourished in this period: Sir Sidney Lee’s, of 1898, enlarging on the research he had carried out for the DNB entry, is often regarded as the first ‘modern’ biography, and he had preceded it with a book on Stratford-on-Avon which used archival material to chart the history of the town up to Shakespeare’s time. In 1864 there had been a tercentary celebration of Shakespeare’s birth, inspired by Garrick’s festival, and an account, including a short biography, was published by Robert E. Hunter, the secretary to the festival committee.

Tennyson believed that he could detect the ‘genuine’ as against the ‘spurious’ parts of the ‘disputed’ plays: Benjamin Jowett, the legendary Master of Balliol, in a contribution to the Memoir of his great friend, mentions Henry VIII in this context. It would be interesting to know if the Poet Laureate had ever come across  Double Falshood [sic], a play performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in London in 1727 and published in 1728 by the playwright Lewis Theobald. It was described on the title page as ‘written originally by W. Shakespeare’, and has recently been adopted into the ‘canon’ to the extent of being included in the Arden Shakespeare as a version of the lost play Cardenio, by Shakespeare and John Fletcher, performed in 1613, and based on an episode from Cervantes’ Don Quixote. We will be reissuing the 1728 printing soon – more on this in due course!


*We have now done it –  follow the link!

This entry was posted in Biography, English Men of Letters, History, Literary Studies, Printing and Publishing History, Women's Writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A Muse of Fire

  1. Stephen Barber says:

    These are all very well but where is Frances Yates’ A study of Love’s Labours Lost? It is a Cambridge book so there are no copyright problems, it is a classic and it is virtually unobtainable.

    • Hi Stephen,

      Actually, I’m afraid there is a problem with the copyright: Cambridge University Press has to contact Professor Yates’s estate to negotiate terms for any reissue. This book is not, as it happens, under CLC control, but I have urged colleagues who are responsible for the Cambridge backlist to prioritise it as far as they are able.

      Best, Caroline

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