A Textual Critic Takes on Shakespeare

BOOKS

UNTIL now anyway, Gary Taylor has been known mostly for inserting a lyric of great ingenuity but little other interest into the Shakespeare canon. Which is to say, Gary Taylor is not a household name, even among literary types. His feeling that this poem is by Shakespeare is not shared by many, but because Taylor is in charge - along with Stanley Wells - of the Oxford edition of Shakespeare's poems, the poem is now included in the complete works of Shakespeare. This tiny episode in the history of Shakespeare's poems is pocketed in a parenthesis in Taylor's ``cultural history,'' called ``Reinventing Shakespeare.'' As one of two Oxford editors of Shakespeare, Taylor can do what he wants with the Bard. Oxford publishes the most popular Bible and the most popular dictionary. Oxford represents what Taylor calls ``the world view'' of the English-speaking establishment.

This big book, which is getting lots of critical attention, was written by one of the more anonymous workers in the fields of humane culture. The textual critic is not a book-reviewing critic, but he is a critic nonetheless. If there are several possible texts for a play, poem, or novel, it's up to him to pick the best one to publish. What makes it best involves the art and science of textual criticism.

In Shakespeare's case, as Taylor has shown in his practice as well as now in his lively history, textual critics have conspired to make Shakespeare into something else in the English-speaking world: the arbiter of taste and opinion for over 300 years. Taylor is far from sympathetic to the world view of Shakespeare as it's been defined in the past. His radicalism is not simply warmed over youthful rebellion. It's based on the facts of his life as a textual critic. Shakespeare left no personal copy of his plays and poems. Every text called his is the result of the cultural process of which Taylor is only the latest practitioner.

In terms used by Taylor in his introduction to an earlier book, ``William Shakepeare: A Textual Companion,'' we may have some foul papers - drafts used to wrap other drafts, if not fish - but we have no fair copies, or copies in a legible, unrevised hand of Shakespeare himself. As a working actor, producer, and playwright, Shakespeare did not think of himself as a book writer. On top of all this, Shakespeare revised his plays so that a good edition of Shakespeare sometimes has to print two variations, as does the new Oxford.

So it's very hard to decide what Shakespeare said. Still, Shakespeare is quoted on every occasion. Actually, we are quoting his characters, not him as a man speaking to men and women. And the opinions ascribed to Shakespeare may be debatable. As Taylor shows, Shakespeare's reputation grew with the national might of England. It grew because of many different factors, and Taylor gives a fascinating account of the impact of actors, editors, marketing schemes, feminist critics, copyright laws, thought schemes like Freudianism, and so on: ``Reinventing Shakespeare'' is a lively tour of Anglo-American culture.

Attacking Shakespeare is now in vogue. In the academic debate over what to teach, and how to rank authors, Shakespeare has taken a beating. As King of the Mountain, he has proved a slippery eminence. Like most modern humanists, Taylor embraces pluralism, a pluralism based, as we've seen, on his practice as a textual critic. Pluralism in the canon means that Shakespeare should not have preeminence: Nobody should.

Reasons why Shakespeare is objectionable are not hard to find for Taylor. Aside from his preeminence, Shakespeare stands for monarchy, for patriarchy, for tradition over revolution. Shakespeare is the sacred book of Anglo-American culture: Taylor's zeal as a textual and cultural critic is parallel to Darwin's vis-`a-vis the Bible. Beyond that and personally, Taylor says he misses fantasy. In an eloquent concluding statement, Taylor mentions Aristophanes and Joe Orton as playwrights who turn the world upside down in a way Shakespeare never does.

Not only has Taylor organized masses of details without obscuring them, he has also done so in an engaging manner. He is in one sense a satirist and spares no one. Of the great Oxford Shakespearian, A.C. Bradley, whose ``Shakespearian Tragedy'' (1906) is still in print, Taylor writes: ``Bradley has had so many followers because his meaning is so easy to follow.''

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