Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The rhetorical and the serious

The Introduction to my Penguin Shakespeare The Winter’s Tale says that romance is sometimes considered a little too popular: late in his career Shakespeare's longer-lived contemporary Ben Jonson scoffed at two of Shakespeare's late plays, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest,

mocking the fantastic dimension that makes them distinctive. All these complaints derive from Jonson's contempt for the popularity and conventionality - what he considered the vulgarity - of dramatic romance, and they represent a moral objection. He seems to have felt that Shakespeare was squandering his talent by peddling entertaining fantasies; he believed that fiction ought to be instructive, ought to expose the follies and errors of the society for which it was written by showing 'an image of the times', ought to employ 'deeds and language such as men do use' (Prologue to Every Man in His Humour; composed c. 1604-16). To such a neoclassical sensibility, the moral function of drama depended on a credible representation of familiar experience, an illusion of the world in which spectators could recognize themselves and their own culture. Thus Jonson set Epicoene, or the Silent Woman and The Alchemist in the very London neighbourhoods through which the audience had travelled to the theatre. (Russ McDonald, Introduction to The Winter’s Tale, Penguin 1986, xxxiv)

Strangely, that emphasis on familiar language and experience recall the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge, two poets who were precisely not neoclassical.

But whereas Wordsworth followed that agenda in so far as he did write of ordinary people and did avoid the conventional language of much eighteenth century verse, Coleridge and the next generation of Romantics went in for strange tales (‘The Ancient Mariner’, ‘Kubla Khan’, ‘Christabel’…) that were closer to Shakespeare's late plays than to Jonson’s.

A ‘moral objection’ is what Leavis and his followers could be said to have had to novels that didn’t deal ‘seriously’ with men and women and society as they were: they had no time for magic, fantasy and the Gothic. Wuthering Heights maybe but no Frankenstein and no Poe. Nor had they any time for tales that declared their conformity to the conventions of tales: no Conan Doyle, no ghosts, no The Avengers, no Dr Who – no popular culture, in fact.

The agenda of the 1960s-70s version of English built on everyday experience and ordinary vernacular language was informed by something of that spirit, even if it didn’t derive directly from Leavis. The enemy was artificiality: genres that looked like genres and didn’t conceal their conventions and artifice; children’s writing that wasn’t ‘sincere’ and ‘authentic’. Strongly influenced by that ideology in my training, I may have tolerated but certainly didn’t encourage those children who enthusiastically wrote long adventure stories and tales of horror, ponies and space. Only when my pupils were describing their streets and neighbours and examining their relationships would I have been happy for my PGCE tutors and teacher mentors to drop in and see what was going on.

But we don’t now agree with Jonson and most of us very much approve of The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and Cymbeline. And in the same way, while I still cringe at all the Gothic stuff that’s now so big in school and university English, I now feel there was a dimension missing in the ‘realist’ English of 30-40 years ago. Part of me welcomes the postmodern turn to playfulness with language and genre and to the embracing of artifice: I hugely enjoy Marquez, Calvino and Vonnegut and if teaching now would give my younger pupils (‘Key Stage 3’ the absurd UK jargon – what are the off-key stages, I wonder?) loads of Arthurian legend, classical romance (the Odyssey) and Midsummer Night’s Dream; perhaps even ghost stories.

Richard Lanham wrote a few years ago about the alternation in literary history of periods dominated by homo seriosus (Virgil, Milton, George Eliot, D.H. Lawrence) and homo rhetoricus (late Shakespeare, Sterne, Melville, Saul Bellow). We’re certainly now in a more rhetorical era – except that we wouldn’t acknowledge (nor would Lanham, I'm sure) that The Tempest or Much Ado were any the less serious because they were rhetorically playful.

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