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Shakespeare's Lyric Stage: Myth, Music, and Poetry in the Last Plays

Shakespeare's Lyric Stage: Myth, Music, and Poetry in the Last Plays

by Seth Lerer

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What does it mean to have an emotional response to poetry and music? And, just as important but considered less often, what does it mean not to have such a response? What happens when lyric utterances—which should invite consolation, revelation, and connection—somehow fall short of the listener’s expectations?

As Seth Lerer shows in this pioneering book, Shakespeare’s late plays invite us to contemplate that very question, offering up lyric as a displaced and sometimes desperate antidote to situations of duress or powerlessness. Lerer argues that the theme of lyric misalignment running throughout The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, Henry VIII, and Cymbeline serves a political purpose, a last-ditch effort at transformation for characters and audiences who had lived through witch-hunting, plague, regime change, political conspiracies, and public executions.

A deep dive into the relationship between aesthetics and politics, this book also explores what Shakespearean lyric is able to recuperate for these “victims of history” by virtue of its disjointed utterances. To this end, Lerer establishes the concept of mythic lyricism: an estranging use of songs and poetry that functions to recreate the past as present, to empower the mythic dead, and to restore a bit of magic to the commonplaces and commodities of Jacobean England. Reading against the devotion to form and prosody common in Shakespeare scholarship, Lerer’s account of lyric utterance’s vexed role in his late works offers new ways to understand generational distance and cultural change throughout the playwright’s oeuvre.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226582542
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/29/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Seth Lerer is distinguished professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of nine previous books, and received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Truman Capote Prize in Criticism for Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History, from Aesop to Harry Potter, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Myth, Music, and Lyric

Even though the word "lyric" appears nowhere in Shakespeare's verse or drama, it is clear that by the close of the sixteenth century his own and his contemporaries' writings were responding to an idea of lyric poetry as something classical in resonance, musical in origin, and emotively moving in effect. The word comes from "lyre," the instrument of Orpheus and Apollo long associated with celebratory poetry of heightened diction or distinctive verbal craft. With the increasing availability of Greek and Latin literature, the absorption of Aristotle, the renewed attention to Horace, and the commerce in critical theory with Europe, the word "lyric" entered the English language in the 1580s in the wake of a self-conscious classicizing of its heritage. George Puttenham, in his Arte of English Poetry of 1589, looked back on "Lirique Poets" of antiquity: Pindar, Anacreon, and Callimachus in Greek, and Horace and Catullus in Latin. These were the poets of "pleasure," the "melodious poets," whose writings were often accompanied by musical instruments.

But intended musical performance did not necessarily stand behind every poem called a lyric. What came to matter more and more to readers of the later sixteenth century were genealogies of poetry in which the idea of the lyric participated in a history of literary ennoblement. Sir Philip Sidney, in his Defence of Poesy of 1583, had said as much, scripting an inheritance of vernacular verse from Chaucer through Surrey to Spenser keyed to excellence, nobility, and beauty. The Earl of Surrey's "lyrics," he writes, have "many things tasting of a noble birth, and worthy of a noble mind." Lyric poetry may reflect a higher power or a higher birth, but in addition it makes something better of its reader. Poetry enhances us, and there is something that anticipates, in these remarks, what critics of a later century would see as the sublime: the raising up of emotion and sensibility. William Webbe caught some of this notion in his Discourse of English Poetry of 1586. Working from Horace's Ars Poetica, Webb averred that "Sometime the lyric riseth aloft," and it is clear that, by the early seventeenth century, to call a poet "lyric" was to praise not just skill or form, but heritage and effect. The term increasingly became associated with such modifiers as "delicate" and "sweet," with certain poets coming to epitomize its form and function.

But at the heart of lyric form and function are not only legacies of classical performers or the class-shaped codes of courtly conduct, but also the dramas of impersonation. Lyrics may be performances, but they sustain — both often in their content and in their culture — a fiction of performance. The rhetorical trope of prosopopoea centered on "creating a character and performing another's voice." Puttenham rephrased it as "Counterfait in personation," and a species of fiction-making. Lyric performance is, itself, a kind of impersonation, and at the heart of that word lies persona, the Latin term for the actor's mask. To speak in verse, whether on the stage or in the bedroom, was to take on a sense of "person," to assume a character. That lovely moment in Midsummer Night's Dream, when Peter Quince misspeaks his stage direction — "he comes to disfigure, or to present, the person of Moonshine" (3.1.55–56) — brilliantly exposes the frisson of speaking in another's voice. For every impersonation is not just a figuration but a dis-figuration, a making wrong, a counterfeiting in "personation." To write a poem is, in some sense, always to disfigure oneself: to personate, to put a mask before the speaking face. This imagery, so central to early modern poetics, has been revived by the twenty-first-century critic David Orr. Lyric poems, he avers, "don't have characters, they are characters — and characters with an oddly doubled aspect. We hear the voice of the poem, but we also understand that we're hearing a filtered version of the poet's own voice. ... The poet isn't so much taking on a character as donning a mask."

This question of donning a mask, the question of how dramatic a lyric poem may be, lies at the heart of both our own critical assessments of the genre and the early modern practices of poets and editors. Jonathan Culler has summarized a broad inheritance of critical approaches, noting that for all of their apparent voice and drama, lyric poems do not "offer representations of speeches by fictional characters but memorable writing to be received, reactivated, and repeated by readers." In this formulation, he is not that far from Helen Vendler's notion of this kind of poetry "voicable by anyone reading it." With each of those readings, a given lyric may take on a different social purpose, and it is this quality of lyric poetry that made it possible for early editors, anthologists, and publishers to bring together pre-existing texts into new frames of meaning and occasion.

Such anthologizing of short poetry had been practiced from antiquity onward, and much of our surviving classical and medieval vernacular verse comes to us already contextualized in compilations. The idea of the anthology controls much of early English notions of the literary. Not only were short poems brought together into compilations; longer poems were themselves often read as anthologies of a sort, capable of being broken up and rearranged for individual needs (such were the practices with Chaucer's, Gower's, and Lydgate's long poems well into the sixteenth century). Even with the advent of print, the anthologistic impulse controlled much of literature's dissemination, marketing, and critical reception. Often, when individual copies of major, authored poems were produced, readers would bind them together into personal collections (Sammelbände, in the term used by bibliographers), creating clusters of books, each of which came to voice a social purpose or a historical narrative. Texts have their meaning in the codex or the compilation. They are, to some degree, already voiced, already playing roles in assemblies of love, devotion, praise, plea, and desire.

This sense of lyric poems stripped of character or voice ignores the ways in which these works come down to us. What histories of editing and compilation do is constantly refigure these ways, creating in effect not brand-new characters, but layers or echoes of voice and reference. To read selections, say, from Chaucer in a medieval manuscript is to read poems cobbled out of or extracted from earlier works. They are old texts put to new purposes. Their history echoes behind them.

Sixteenth-century anthologists and printers exploited these echoes. The compilers of the Devonshire Manuscript of verse in the 1530s, for example, selected stanzas out of pre-existing poems (Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, most prominently) and made them into new assemblies of amorous conversation. In the mid-1550s, Richard Tottel brought together poems from the age of Henry VIII — most famously those of Wyatt and Surrey — to make courtly verse available to a new generation and a new class. The readers of his Songes and Sonnetts (now known as Tottel's Miscellany) experienced the verse of an earlier generation in a new way: in print, in regularized spelling and meter, and in a particular order keyed to authorship. Whatever the original environments of these poems may have been, in Tottel's book they exist for what he called the "profit and pleasure" of his readership. Each poem has a title now descriptive of a social, biographical, or historical occasion: "The louer comforteth himself with the worthiness of his love"; "Complaint of a dying louer refused upon his laidies uniust mistaking of his writing"; "Of the louers unquiet state." These titles do to lyrics precisely what Vendler says we should not do to them. They create a "social fiction" or a "biographical revelation" for each poem, and in the process they make this book a record of historical performances. The poems of the volume leave the worlds of court and courtesy and enter the marketplace of books and buyers. They come together in new ways, and we may read their sequence, along with bibliographer Paul Marquis, as tracing, now, "the plight of the persona from the private world of courtly love to the public world of politics and religion."

Tottel's volume had an immense impact on the social and aesthetic sensibilities of readers and writers for the half century since its first edition appeared in 1557. It shaped a taste for commercially produced, printed anthologies of verse that similarly gave a social fiction to aesthetic artifacts. One of the most popular of such publications was The Passionate Pilgrim of 1599: a collection of songs, sonnets, ballads, and brief narratives put together by William Jaggard, with William Shakespeare prominently displayed as the author on its title page. Even though only five of this volume's eighteen poems are unquestionably by Shakespeare (two sonnets and three excerpts from Love's Labour's Lost), the entire book has a "Shakespearean" feel to it: what Colin Burrow describes as a quality that gives its readers "just enough to enable them to believe they are by Shakespeare if they really want to."

The commercial and aesthetic contexts for The Passionate Pilgrim remain transparent: the cultural commodity of Shakespeare's name, the print shop opportunities for bringing out popular verse, the broader climate of poetic identity in the late Elizabethan years. But this book also represents the problem of what I call the displaced lyric. Jaggard's volume, in its printing and reprintings, takes previously circulating poems, removes them from their earlier narrative or dramatic contexts, and creates new sequences for the reader. As I have noted, this action in itself is nothing new. What is different about Jaggard's volume is that it juxtaposes lyrical and dramatic excerpts into new sequences of narrative impersonation. Open the volume and find what we now would recognize as a version of Shakespeare's Sonnet 138, "When my love swears that she is made of truth." Then we will find a version of Sonnet 144, "Two loves I have, of comfort and despair." But then we find Longueville's sonnet to Maria from Love's Labour's Lost, "Did not the heavenly rhetoric of thine eye," and all is different. Today, we read these first gestures for the fact that they are Shakespeare's. And yet, for the early reader, before the Sonnets had been published, just in the wake of Love's Labour's Lost printing in 1598, these moves create a sense that we are reading something more akin to narrative than excerpt — that the voices of the Sonnets and the play have been displaced, removed, and reimpersonated into something else. To paraphrase Peter Quince, they come disfigured, to present the person of the "Passionate Pilgrim."

Throughout this volume, Shakespeare's texts interact with others to contribute to a broader sense of what a lyric sensibility had come to be by the end of the sixteenth century. At stake is not just Shakespeare's impact on potential sales, or our modern judgments of his verse against that of the largely anonymous compeers in the volume. At stake is that this is a book that makes an argument about what lyric is: about its impact on the reader or the listener, about the place of music in poetic performance, and about the idea of authorship itself. The Passionate Pilgrim does not just simply collect texts. It dramatizes them. It takes performances by literary characters and dramatic personae and presents them, anew, as fresh scripts for presentation. The heart of the volume is a set of counterfeits, a series of imagined acts of performing another's voice.

It is precisely this increasing sense of performing in another's voice that makes the lyric moments within plays so acutely difficult and challenging. By the early 1600s, Shakespeare himself had begun dramatizing its effects. Lyric moments in Romeo and Juliet, or Midsummer Night's Dream, or Twelfth Night, or Love's Labour's Lost, seem straightforward: ordered stanzas of heightened language, addressed in dramas of appeal or praise. But when we come to Hamlet, things have changed. Now, poems and letters come to others, stripped of their original voices. Texts are disfigured, some by Hamlet, some by others. Hamlet is of course a play of impersonations, and it has long been seen as a watershed for Shakespeare. Nothing seems the same after it. Gender, genre, sentence, and soliloquy all seem irrevocably different. One area that has been little explored, however, is its new relationship of lyric utterance to dramatic action. Hamlet is a play of old texts in new voices, of poems and letters intercepted and reread, of songs sung by those unqualified to sing them.

Take, for example, that remarkably complex and layered moment in act 2 when Polonius opens Hamlet's letter to Ophelia and reads and interprets it before the King and Queen. Polonius reads, "To the celestial and my soul's idol, the most beautified Ophelia." Then he interrupts: "That's an ill phrase, a vile phrase, 'beautified' is a vile phrase." And he goes on. He reads the poem Hamlet wrote — to us, a strangely conventional bit of rhyming, full of echoes of old styles, most notably those of the lovers in Love's Labour's Lost. "Doubt thou the stars are fire ..." He reads. But he also impersonates.

Polonius avows, "I will be faithful." His is a protest about not political fidelity to court but textual fidelity to poem. He is faithfully reading what has been written, faithful to this script. Here is the courtier as an actor: the man who, later in act 2, will recall how he had himself played Julius Caesar, the man who sees all forms of politics as performance. "He will not miss this chance to perform," notes Marvin Rosenberg. "Polonius may well try to act Hamlet's letter in the accent and manner of the young man himself. Olivier's old Polonius read the poem like a young lover."

This scene illustrates how lyrics come, increasingly in Shakespeare's later work, to signal generational distance. We hear the lover, not in his own voice, but in that of an old man — an actor, using Hamlet's script now, giving us a taste of how he might have played a lover in his youth. So, too, at the play's close, we hear an old song in another old man's mouth. In act 5, Hamlet shows up at the cemetery, to hear the Gravedigger recall a lyric from his youth.

In youth when I did love, did love Methought it was very sweet To contract — O — the time for — a — my behove,
O, methoutht there — a — was nothing — a — meet.

These garbled, halting lines, as generations have known, draw on "The aged lover renounceth love" from Tottel's Songes and Sonettes, and the Gravedigger's two subsequent forays into song come from the same poem. Scholars have identified the differences between Shakespeare's version and the text printed in Tottel, and the poem itself (attributed to Lord Thomas Vaux) circulated in at least two other versions in late sixteenth-century collections. But there is more to this association than source-mongering. It dramatizes, once again, the displacement from one to another. Tottel's book, nearly half a century in circulation by the time of Hamlet, represents an earlier generation of literary performance: one held up, now, as fodder for tired clowns, rather than for aspirant courtiers. Tottel himself had dug up treasures (as he put it in his preface) hoarded away by others. The Gravedigger unearths the skulls of courtiership. With each verse, we imagine, he throws up another skull, until, of course, he gets to Yorick's. And when Hamlet picks up the skull, reflecting on the passage of time and the loss of youth, he shows us all that time has passed — that the gambols and gibes, the songs and flashes of merriment, are not just buried in the ground with Yorick but past purpose in the present. Taken in all its parts — the shards of Tottel's Songes and Sonettes, the reflections on the courtly life, the understanding that a generation has now passed — this episode distances the present world of the play of Hamlet from the past world of earlier Tudor performance. The culture of courtly song has now been buried with the courtier's skull, only to be exhumed for sad nostalgia.

Hamlet is a turning point in Shakespeare's lyric theater. After it, there is an increasingly ironic distance in lyrical performance. The Fool's songs in Lear ring uneasily in the ear. In Macbeth, the Witches' poetry stages itself as a performance for the audiences in the play (indeed, some of that poetry was probably by Middleton, whose songs were later included in the play's text and performances). The quality of lyrical anxiety and self-conscious theatrical distance emerges full force in Antony and Cleopatra, as the queen — played at this moment by one of the great boy actors of the company — dies, lamenting that her future will be the province of "scald rhymers," and "quick comedians," with a "squeaking Cleopatra" left to "boy my greatness."


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Table of Contents

Preface vii

A Note on Texts, Editions, and Critical Traditions xix

1 Myth, Music, and Lyric 1

2 An Elegy for Ariel 40

3 Poetry and Performance in The Winter's Tale 69

4 Pageantry, Power, and Lyricism in Henry VIII 102

5 Aesthetic Judgment and the Audience in Cymbeline 140

Epilogue: Lyric Recognition and the Editorial Romance in Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen 178

Acknowledgments 203

Notes 205

Index 239

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