Prestige and Profit
Review of Reinventing Shakespeare by Gary Taylor
Encounter, July-August 1990
Gary Taylor’s Reinventing Shakespeare certainly delivers the promised goods, and rings many a bell. Startled citizens have answered angrily; it was not what they bargained for, and they had no wish to be disturbed. But the approach is indeed bold and stimulating, as the blurb claims, and the 450 pages are packed with detailed and often unfamiliar data, which constitute an impressive tribute to modern storage and retrieval technology. There are occasional lapses. Thus there is no reason to attribute the early Hamlet to “Thomas Kyd”; Pepys kept his diary in shorthand, not cipher; the important name of the Tonson family, whose role in early Shakespeare publishing is well documented here, has been omitted from the index. But in general the facts are cogently selected and processed into a coherent chronological account covering the abilities and attitudes of Shakespeare editors over the last three centuries, from Pope and Johnson to such names as Wells and Taylor. There is a parallel history of performances, adaptations and critiques from Betterton to Eagleton. Much of this will interest the general reader (who should however be warned that Chapter 6, on conferences and controversies, is about academic studies and chairs, all very far removed from the Shakespearean in the street).
The whole book expounds and exemplifies the thesis that Shakespeare is the central figure in a power-struggle for prestige and profit. His own part is purely passive; he is reinvented by each era for its own ends. The existence of other motives and factors is not denied; but nor are they seriously considered. The world of poetic and dramatic art is conceived as subordinate to fashions and trends, supposedly set and adjudicated by such abstractions as "the academic community". The vital topic of aesthetic criteria is sometimes teasingly touched upon; but Professor Taylor realises that these realms are remote from his own fields of interest and competence. Instead of philosophical reflection, we are offered the source-material for a class project, complete with copious and lively comments and illustrations. Shakespeare is nothing like as good and important as he is cracked up to be: discuss.
The package aims to displease, or at least to provoke, and hence to gain wide publicity. Thus the main thesis is once again proved. This particular reinvention topped the best‑selling non-fiction list for a time, and was warmly received by the popular press as novel, salutary, and instructive.
So it is, and diverting too. Everyone enjoys iconoclasm, except idolaters. Gary Taylor's viewpoint finds and identifies feet of clay overlooked by most other observers.
"Shakespeare does not seem to have struggled. to have been outraged or oppressed by the confines of his times; and without such struggle facility becomes facile, the poet contracting to a mere technician of language."
This expression of personal belief in the socio-political function of poetry is as permissible for Taylor as for Tolstoy; and Shakespeare's failure as a progressive artist follows logically enough, once the unargued assumption is accepted. But it levels downwards; and the up-market pundits rejected it, with a ferocity unparalleled in my experience. Not even A. L. Rowse has aroused such rage and resentment. “Pseudo-Marxism . . . self-conceit . . . puerility . . . posturing . . . junk scholarship” were among the many brickbats hurled. So massive a fund of ill-will must surely owe much to professional jealousy.
The young Gary Taylor was taken in by the Oxford Shakespeare, and soon took over. He became Joint General Editor at the age of thirty-one, in 1984. By 1987, with the publication of his Textual Companion, he stood revealed as the brains behind the entire Oxford edition’s canon, chronology and criteria. Unfortunately (as I have publicly and repeatedly pointed out without a word of rational rejoinder), its resulting 2,000 pages are so catastrophically misconceived as to be good for little but pulping and recycling. Senior professionals such as Steven Urkowitz, Brian Vickers, and Paul Werstine have also noticed and reported (in The Shakespeare Newsletter, Review of English Studies, and Shakespeare Quarterlyrespectively) that something is ominously amiss with the Oxford approach. Its treatment of dissenters is especially invidious; thus the work of the rival Cambridge editor, Philip Edwards, is dismissed as worthless trash. That vendetta is pursued in this book also. Its author overtly relies on the prestige attached to “the most thoroughly-researched edition ever published”. He feels assured of its "predictable profitability", and seeks to trade on its presumed success.
And, in principle, why not? He has been hailed as Gary Superstar in The Times Literary Supplement. No one should grudge his glitter, or any gold that may be going. Let market forces decide. By the same token, though, let sellers as well as buyers beware. The Oxford spec shares are already tumbling, because of what Professor Taylor himself calls the current crisis of Shakespeare scholarship, in which he claims to have played some part. He is too modest; he has caused it. Everyone who bothers to look will see that his fashionable fantasies about "memorial reconstruction", "collaboration", and so forth — obstinately reasserted as facts in this book - are themselves reinventions of exactly the kind he describes.
Yet the academic reviewers cannot bring themselves to believe that any justified criticism of the brash young American author, on whom they instinctively look down, must also apply to the experienced Oxford editor, to whom they instinctively look up. Indeed, William Scammell in The Listener was disposed to deny this self-evident identity. In Reinventing Shakespeare, we are told, Taylor’s evidence is “partial, one-sided, deliberately incomplete or wrenched out of context", while his arguments are "largely compounded of rhetoric”. We also hear of his “smearing” tactics. In the same breath, the Oxford Shakespeare is puffed, as though these were ideal qualifications for the academic editor.
But of course personal opinions are partial, in every sense. Autobiographical works like this volume are the right vehicle for the individual reinventing voice; scholarly editions are not. I share the down-to-earth view of the down-market press. Here is a bumper fun book, a welcome corrective to academic Bardolatry. No such claim can be made for the same author's Oxford Shakespeare.
I should declare an interest. I am rebuked in this book for my so-called aggrandising impulse, which allegedly leads me to “give Shakespeare sole credit for every play included in the First Folio” and a few others besides. I do indeed seek to restore to Shakespeare all the thousands of world-famous lines that the Oxford editors have spent ten years taking away from him and handing over to such eerie hallucinations as "X", "Y", and "George Wilkins". Yet I am smeared as "Baconian", as if I were the one disputing Shakespeare's authorship. Whatever Professor Taylor's other deficiencies, he does not lack gall.