How to Read Shakespeare? Or Anyone Else?
My text is “Appendix B” of Joseph Pearce’s Through Shakespeare’s Eyes, titled “How to Read Shakespeare (or Anyone Else)”. An unashamedly dogmatic, one may say Bellocian, title for an unashamedly dogmatic, very Bellocian piece. And one which, as Pearce well recognizes, is essential to his whole project of “the Christian”, or “the Catholic”, Shakespeare.
In his biographical studies of the Bard, Pearce believes he has proven that Shakespeare was a Catholic—and I will be accepting this in the present essay, for the purposes of argument. Pearce has also concluded that the biographical discovery of Shakespeare’s Catholicism “forces us to reread the plays in an entirely new light”(Through 207); that our interpretation of the plays should be guided, indeed determined, by Shakespeare’s Catholicism. But to get from the premiss of a Shakespeare who was Catholic to this conclusion, requires a particular theory of literary interpretation. A theory which sets out that the meaning of literary texts in general is decided by the author’s biography. “How to Read” is Pearce’s attempt to establish such an account. If this interpretative theory fails, so too does Pearce’s whole “Catholic Shakespeare” programme. I will argue that the interpretative theory does fail.
So how does Pearce attempt to demonstrate his account of literary interpretation? He begins from what he sees as the anarchy of contemporary literary studies. The “doyens of postmodernity”(206) do what they like with the texts, reading them according to their own subjective prejudices. Thus with regard to Shakespeare’s plays, “For the proponents of ‘queer theory’, he becomes conveniently homosexual, for secular fundamentalists, he is a protosecularist before his time”(206-7).
Pearce concedes, nonetheless, that there is a genuine difficulty with literary interpretation. He allows that, if one merely reads Emily Bronte’s great novel, “it is tempting to see
as a sympathetic portrayal of unbridled carnal passion rather than as a cautionary
tale warning against it”(204). Even among readers of good will, there are
unresolved and apparently irresolvable differences in interpretation. Wuthering Heights
The only solution for the confusion, Pearce argues, is to find an authority outside the welter of biases and interpretations, outside the text. We need a fixed point, an Archimedean point, outside literary texts, from which the meaning of the texts can be decisively, objectively determined. And the only fixed point is the perspective of the author. “[W]e should subject our judgement, and that of the critics, to the authorial authority of the person...through whom the work was given life. This is the literary litmus test”(204).
It follows that we can be sure
actually condemns grand Romantic passion, because of “Emily Bronte’s deeply
held Christian faith”(205). In another of Pearce’s examples, J.R.R.Tolkien once
declared in a letter that The Lord of the
Rings is “‘a fundamentally religious and Catholic work’”(205), so the epic
must in truth be informed by deep theology. And since Shakespeare was a
Catholic, the meaning of his plays must be uncompromisingly antimodern. Wuthering Heights
Pearce’s case for his interpretative theory is a form of reductio ad absurdum argument. Our present situation is absurd; there is only one way out: therefore we must embrace extra-textual authorial authority. Of course this argument is unlikely to persuade the “doyens of postmodernity”, who are quite content with the present confusion. But they would be far less happy if their views on multiple meanings were adopted by the bureaucrat writing their paycheques, or the pilot flying their plane. I don’t find it a fatal blow to Pearce’s case that it can only carry weight with people seeking determinate meaning in their literary texts, as in their lives. What I do want to subject to critical examination is whether Pearce’s theory can actually deliver the escape from poly-valency he promises.
The first thing to note about Pearce’s account, is that it is really tough on classical literary studies. We know nothing from extra-literary sources about Homer’s beliefs and the intentions behind his works, for instance;indeed, the existence of “Homer the man” has often been doubted. Authorial authority cannot possibly fix the meaning of Homer’s works. The same holds true, to a greater extent, for all the Greek tragedians, but also, moving forward, for the authors of Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, all those “anon” ballads, etc., etc..
And a little further reflection shows that lack of biographical material is not only a problem in faraway times. Of the millions of books published today, and in all the centuries past, we have substantial information about the writers only in a tiny percentage of cases. Not just classical literature, then, but the overwhelming majority of all literature, must be abandoned to postmodern multiplicity of interpretation.
The difficulties wrought by insufficient biographical information spread even to the examples Pearce cites in support of his theory, and indeed deepen here. As is well known,
first published under a pseudonym, “Ellis Bell”, in 1847; it was only in 1850
that Emily Bronte claimed authorship. So, on Pearce’s theory, early reviewers
and readers could have legitimately interpreted the novel as a paean to
“unbridled carnal passion”; it was only after the real author and her beliefs
were known that this interpretation became illegitimate. On Pearce’s theory,
interpretations can switch from valid to invalid without the text they are
about changing a jot. Wuthering Heights
Yet the disturbing fluctuations are not limited to the legitimacy of interpretations: they go to the very meaning of literary texts. Let us now turn to Shakespeare, and his biography. A.L.Rowse’s William Shakespeare is a fair representation of the state of Shakespearean biography in the middle of the twentieth century—as I think Pearce would concede, since he states that the facts which establish his different portrait are recent discoveries. For Rowse, Shakespeare was baptized, married, and buried in the Church of England, and consequently was an “orthodox, conforming member”(47) of this church. Interpreting the plays in the 1950s, then, according to the biographical method, we must have found a C.of E. meaning. Indeed, for three hundred and fifty years Shakespeare’s plays, construed in the light of available biographical knowledge, must have had non-Catholic meanings. It is only with the recent discoveries which prove Shakespeare a Catholic, as Pearce believes, that the plays take on a Catholic meaning.
Is this Catholic meaning, though, really any more final than all the other meanings? A crucial piece of evidence in Pearce’s case for Shakespeare the Catholic is the playwright’s purchase of Blackfriars Gatehouse, which had been a centre for recusant Catholic activities, years before. But what if further searches of the records turn up that Shakespeare also owned a house known to be a base for Puritan agitators? What if, in some dusty Tudor attic, a poem by Shakespeare is found which eulogizes Good Queen Bess? The meaning of the plays would again metamorphosize, by Pearce’s theory.
Still for Pearce this is not yet the worst. There is an even more fundamental objection to Pearcean interpretative theory, and it again shows up most spectacularly with Shakespeare. But I want to begin by identifying the issue in the most “water-tight” of Pearce’s exemplars. J.R.R.Tolkien once affirmed that The Lord of the Rings is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work”: Pearce concludes that Lord of the Rings is a fundamentally Catholic work. Surely this is just simple commonsense? I recall, however, reading a non-Catholic critic who noted that the letter in which Tolkien made this avowal was written to a Catholic priest, Father Murray, S.J., and that in the letter Tolkien seems rather eager to please the priest, and perhaps to reassure him about the orthodoxy of the magnum opus. In hundreds of other letters to non-clerics, rather less stress is placed on religious significance. The conclusion was drawn that the letter to Father Murray is less central and decisive than Pearce would have it.
At issue here is not whether this alternative interpretation is the correct interpretation, or even a plausible interpretation, but that it is an interpretation. And so is Pearce’s view. The appeal to authorial authority, recall, was supposed to deliver us from conflicting interpretations. Yet now we find that the author’s intention is itself the subject of conflicting interpretations.
And so on to Shakespearean biography. As we have seen, Rowse records that Shakespeare was baptized, married and buried in the Church of England, and he takes these facts to mean that Shakespeare belonged to the Church of England. Pearce does not, I think, dispute the facts here, but he fits them into a framework where they don’t have the same significance: that is, he interprets them differently. The most distinguished biographer of Shakespeare in contemporary academia, Samuel Schoenbaum, seems aware of most of the evidence Pearce assembles to prove Shakespeare a Catholic, but gives the evidence a different interpretation. Thus we arrive again at conflicting interpretations. According to Pearce’s interpretative model, the only way to resolve conflicting readings of an author’s intentions would be to find an authority outside the author’s biography, which determines the meaning of that biography. But it is difficult to see what this external authority could be—and even harder to see how it could avoid being subject to different interpretations.
The appeal to authorial authority is presented by Pearce as the only way to secure clear-cut meaning from the ravages of postmodernity. But having drawn out the logical implications of Pearce’s account, what we find instead is a phantasmagoria. First classical literature, then the great majority of all literary texts, are surrended to the multiplicity of interpretations. Even with the few texts which remain, valid interpretations switch suddenly to invalid, meanings transform into their opposites, and may always change again. Finally, the proliferation of interpretations spreads to the author’s intentions: what had been advertised as solid ground, the Archimedean point, turns out to be just more shifting sand. Drawing out the implications of Pearce’s theory, we arrive at a situation just the same as that produced by the theories of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Yes, it pains me to say it, but the truth is unavoidable: beneath his conservative rhetoric, Joseph Pearce is just another doyen of postmodernity.
Is there then really no way out of the disarray of contemporary literary criticism? Must we simply stop worrying and learn to love indeterminacy? I don’t believe so. But since the matter is very complex, the limitations of an essay, as well as severe limitations in my abilities, mean that I will only be able to gesture in the direction of a solution. An excellent example of the type of interpretation I am looking towards is provided by the reading of
Lost in the essay “Dante’s Assent”, in the book Literary Giants, Literary Catholics. By a certain Joseph Pearce.
Now since the type of interpretation Pearce practices in this essay is clearly
contrary to the methodology we have seen preached by Pearce, to avoid confusion
I will call the interpreter of “Dante’s Assent” Pearce, the author of “How
to Read” being Pearce. Milton
John Milton would seem an ideal subject for Pearce’s authorial authority model. There is an immense amount of evidence, both from his life and non-fictional writings, that
a Puritan, Protestant Christian. (For present purposes I won’t consider
alternative biographical interpretations, which would hardly appeal to either
Pearce.) Subjecting judgement to these biographical facts and interpretation,
Pearce is committed to reading Paradise
Lost as a Puritan, Protestant Christian text. But Pearce takes a very
different line. Milton
This version of Pearce agrees with Blake that “ ‘
Milton wrote in
fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils &
Hell’”(371); he contends that “ ’s
heaven is a military dictatorship with Satan as the leader of an army of rebel
freedom fighters”(371). So has Pearce thrown over the objectivism of his
doppleganger , and given himself over to the zeitgeist? Not at all. Rather, he recognizes that Milton Milton’s
authorial intention is at odds with what ’s
poetry achieves—with what is actually there in the text. And since the goal of
Pearce, as literary critic, is comprehension of the literary text, he
follows the meaning of the text over Milton ’s
intentions. To Pearce, it is the text which is the “literary litmus test”. Milton
This alternative theory of interpretation may be formulated by considering literary criticism as a branch of scientific, experimental reasoning. The critic’s interpretation is his hypothesis, the text constitutes the factual matter he is attempting to explain. If in a critical “experiment”, a confrontation of interpretation and text, it is found that the interpretation does not account for elements of the text, or accounts for them inadequately, the interpretation must be modified, or abandoned. The validity of an interpretation is dependent, wholly objectively, on the text: it must conform to the text, as the ultimate authority.
In my opinion such an interpretative methodology underlies a great deal of literary criticism, even today. As a consequence, there is in literary studies a significant convergence of interpretations—though rarely, it is true, to the point of complete agreement. As for the remaining large areas of conflict, which so trouble Pearce: there is as much disagreement in history, sociology, philosophy, and always has been, before postmodern and even modern times. It has not stopped practitioners of these disciplines from continuing to argue their positions.
Moreover to a substantial degree disagreement in these disciplines, and in literary criticism, is due not to the perversity of one or other party, but to actual, objective complexity of the subject matter. Despite Pearce’s castigation of those who resist his “Christianizing” interpretations, I believe this is true of most of his examples of disputed texts. In Wuthering Heights highly charged Romantic passion is front and centre, while the “deeply held Christian faith” of Emily Bronte is not conspicuously present. A critic attempting to demonstrate an underlying Christian structure to the novel has to work against the apparent meaning.
There are also real complexities present in the disputes of Shakespearean criticism involving the “queer theorists” and secularists. If a male author chooses to write, in the first person, passionate love sonnets to a beautiful young man, critics can hardly be blamed if their thinking turns in a certain direction—even though these interpretations may eventually turn out to be mistaken, or exaggerated. Then with the battle over Shakespeare’s proto or anti secularism, consider the example of King Lear. This play clearly contains Christian themes, such as Lear learning compassion through suffering. But it also contains elements that are far from obviously Christian—the murder of the innocent Cordelia, Lear’s agonized death—elements which even the great Doctor Johnson considered unChristian—Doctor Johnson who was neither a postmodernist, a secularist, nor a fool. If a “Christianizing” critic wants to argue, say, that the tragic ending of Lear echoes the Crucifixion, and so reveals a more profound understanding of Christianity, he will have to point to textual components that his theory can explain, while rival theories cannot. Strident insistence that Shakespeare the man was a Catholic, and so “must have” intended the Christian meaning, will not cut it. For this is not how to read Shakespeare, or anyone else.
Pearce, Joseph. Literary Giants, Literary Catholics.
: Ignatius Press, 2005. Kindle e-book file. San
Pearce, Joseph. Through Shakespeare’s Eyes: Seeing the Catholic Presence in the Plays.
: Ignatius Press, 2010. San Francisco
Rowse, A.L.. William Shakespeare: A Biography.
The New English Library, 1967. London