About Frank Kermode
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Author, Frank Kermode

Frank Kermode

About Frank Kermode

An Interview with Frank Kermode

More About Frank Kermode

Frank Kermode is among our greatest contemporary critics. He has written and edited many works, among them The Sense of Ending and Shakespeare’s Language.

What inspired you to write Shakespeare's Language?
I was appalled by the neglect into which the language had fallen, at a time when about 4000 items are published annually on Shakespeare.

Many of us find Shakespeare's language difficult to understand today, but you suggest that his contemporaries would have had similar problems, especially when watching a complex play like Coriolanus. At the same time, we're told that he was a popular playwright. Can you explain this?
A hard one. I suggested people were better trained to be listeners, the society [then] being more oral than ours. And of course by the time of Coriolanus Shakespeare had been educating his audiences for almost two decades. Then again it is generally possible to follow without anything like total understanding.

Do you have a favourite Shakespeare play? Or could you pick out one play which especially inspires you?
Various choices at different times: currently I think The Winter's Tale, but Hamlet is always in one's head.

You have been a scholar and literary critic for over 50 years, how do you see the role of the critic?
Too vast to answer. One part of the job is to help make available the great works to non-specialists. Of course there are also scholarly duties.

Many people say they are put off Shakespeare at school, do you think he should be taught in school? Are there particular plays which are more suitable than others?
I'd be happy if he dropped out of the earlier exams but I think school productions are a good thing and intensive sixth form study, not of plays that look easy, but hard ones.

What are you currently writing?
Some talks I have to give in California.

What are you currently reading for pleasure?
Ave Atque Vale [by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)] and Matthew Kneale.

Another book about Shakespeare? Here, Frank Kermode one of Britain's most respected academics, explains why there's space for one more

There are thousands of books about Shakespeare, the great majority more or less forgotten, not because none of them was any good but because the purpose and the audience they served was of its particular time, and that time is not ours. In due course, probably quite soon, practically everything that is being written about Shakespeare at this moment will also be forgotten. This is something for critics to remember if tempted to sound over-confident.

For oblivion is the fate that all but a very few commentators on the classics must expect. Yet nothing is here for tears. Commentary is the medium in which the classics survive, if we stopped writing and talking about them they would grow old and die. That is the principal use of criticism. The classics need to be kept modern, and criticism, even at the level of unstrenuous chatter, helps to do this. The chatter and the criticism must always be changing because what can be taken as modern, indeed the very idea of modernity, is always changing. It is as if commentaries must die to keep the classics alive.

I'm sometimes asked why at the late stage of my life, I troubled myself to write a book on Shakespeare, especially as I hold the views expressed above. For about half a century I had contributed enough to this output of criticism and chatter to feel that the job of carrying it on should now be left to a younger generation. There was evidently no shortage of willing hands. One annual bibliography of Shakespeare studies includes 4780 items for 1997, about nineteen per working day. Some of these items were about minute textual points or local problems of interpretation, and some were simply trivial. Others were long, ambitious, and serious; but even these confirmed my feeling that much of this criticism was not what was really needed in our time, or perhaps in anybody's time. The feeling is reinforced by my conviction that the classics, whether in literature, music or painting, belong to all educated people and not just to an élite whose members take pride or comfort in talking the specialist language of a clique. Something else seemed to be needed. If in trying to supply it I had to put up with being called old-fashioned, I decided I didn't care.

It is perfectly possible to envisage a future in which Shakespeare will be regarded as no more than an historical figure of very little importance. He might still be studied only as the recondite interest of an informed, enthusiastic minority, rather as minor medieval poets are today. And there are plenty of people around who think this a perfectly desirable outcome. And there are also plenty of people who, while knowing very little about Shakespeare, would profess to be horrified at the thought of his suffering such a fate. On the one side we have the knowing ones, the ones who know enough to have seen through the canonical pretensions of the Bard; and on the other we have the idolaters, the heritage freaks, the quoters of The Seven Ages of Man and five or six familiar lines, the dangerous Shakespeare lovers who love him as they love morris dancing and Elizabethan dinners.

These are the extremes - scholarly self-regard and ill-informed heritage worship, which anybody who wants to maintain a just and sensible attitude to Shakespeare must avoid. Shakespearan idolatry has been around for a long time. It flowered extravagantly in the eighteenth century and still thrives in the unattractive forms I've hinted at. If you want to see what's going on at the Royal Shakespeare Company you may be obliged to visit Stratford, but to get to the theatres you have to get through the town: the shabbiness, the tawdry exploitation of the tourist, the whole dreary business. It can be a depressing experience. You might argue that in their way these activities at least pay lip service to an ideal, but what is one to think of an ideal that deserves nothing better than this kind of recognition?

With a little more diffidence one might ask whether making Shakespeare a compulsory school subject isn't just another form of lip-service. His presence in our schools is required by law, but law cannot do the teaching. The set plays may be taught with intelligence and enterprise; but they may also be reduced to a slow explicatory slog, as if written in a dead language. In either case, even when the job is well done, Shakespeare is there primarily as an item or icon of the national culture, a quasi-religious requirement or duty.

This piety may have evil consequences; it can breed distaste and disillusion, and put students off for life. They have been compelled to make obeisance to a cultural idol, perhaps reluctantly, perhaps without much consideration; and even if the outcome is good there is something wrong with the compulsion, whether it produces boredom or uncritical adulation, idolatry. His critical friend, the poet Ben Jonson, said he loved Shakespeare 'this side idolatry'. He admired him enough to declare him 'not for an age but for all time', but that did not mean he could escape censure when he was careless and hasty. Dr Johnson, who also knew how to temper admiration with a just severity, thought Shakespeare a wonderfully gifted, but not always a very good, writer. And the most eminent of twentieth-century critics, A.C. Bradley, called him 'a great but negligent artist'.

Indeed the best qualified critics are never idolaters, and that is not surprising, since idolatry is always ignorant; worse still, it constitutes an invitation to those who want to cut Shakespeare down to their size, to suggest that the notion of there being anything exceptional about him is a delusion or a cheat. Curiously enough, these iconoclastic critics are often academics who would hesitate to admit ignorance, and might, a little naively, be expected to have a professional interest in attending to the qualities that really do give Shakespeare his continuing importance as a writer.

Over recent years academic literary criticism has rapidly grown more and more arcane, less and less concerned to interest the intelligent non-professional reader, more and more prone to depend on smart but unexamined assumptions. Thus it can be claimed that the prestige of Shakespeare was a product of an imperialist effort that began in the eighteenth century, when it appeared that an increasingly large empire needed a correspondingly large imperial poet, whose fame should now be allowed to fade as the empire has faded. The superiority of Shakespeare over his contemporaries, to say nothing of all the other claimants, is mere hallucination, the result of assiduous brainwashing, and only now has it become possible for the gifted critic to see through the hoax.

This claim is sometimes accompanied by another, even more radical, which, in essence, denies that any one piece of writing can properly be thought more valuable than any other - denies, indeed, that there is any such thing as literary value, which is regarded as part of an aesthetic myth now at last identified as such. Of course these claims contradict each other, but both proceed from a determination to discredit what used to be thought of as literature - not just Shakespeare, but all of literature, a word often now regarded as no more than a monument to a dead idea.

It is even said to be improper or at least archaic to make the simple assumption that an individual known as Shakespeare was in some obvious sense the author of the works attributed to him. This isn't the old Baconian or Oxfordian theory, but something far more sophisticated. The plays attributed to Shakespeare, it is argued, have no single author; they are the product of collaborations, of theatrical and printing-house practices and processes over which no one person had control. There is some truth in this, but the result of all these obscure activities are the plays that we, like his friends and first editors, Heminge and Condell, have known by the name of Shakespeare. It seems convenient to carry on doing so. 'Shakespeare' is a convenient label for the thirty-six or thirty-eight plays so long associated with the name. It even seems legitimate to divine in the plays the presence of a presiding personality; indeed it is almost impossible not to do so. This is common sense, and not, as the iconoclasts suggest, idolatry.

How are we to avoid idolatry on the one hand and iconoclasm on the other? The answer, it seemed to me as I began my book, was to redirect attention to Shakespeare's language. Critics who seek to define the exact historical position occupied by his writings, their response and resistance to the oppressive politics of his age (an important modern preoccupation) usually pay very little attention to his language, to his poetry, as if to do so would be to make a disastrous concession to an aestheticism they deplore.

Such attitudes, now prevalent, would, if persisted in, deny us the instructive pleasures to be had from the best and most intelligent criticism of our age. Consider, for example, William Empson's intensive study, in his book The Structure of Complex Words, of the senses of particular words in the plays, of 'honest' in Othello or 'sense' in Measure for Measure. That such an example exists makes the deafness of Empson's successors the more remarkable and its remedy the more urgent. What is needed is a determination to understand what Shakepeare is doing with the language.

This resolve should be accompanied by a willingness to admit that, on occasion, he can be accused of not doing it very well. For Shakespeare was great but negligent, and we should be prepared to say so. He was often tiresomely obscure. He himself made Isabella remark in Measure for Measure, 'it is excellent/ To have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous/To use it like a giant', and this censure can be justly applied to the author himself. Hence those passages which unnecessarily bewilder a modern audience, and must even have passed the first audiences by. They have bad repercussions, for they can obscure and distort character, though it was one of Shakespeare's great achievements to make deep character possible, which he did by finding out how to represent persons - Hamlet, for instance - in the act of thinking.

These faults should be noted, for they serve as a check on idolatry. But, on the other hand, ignorant disrespect is never in order. Anybody tempted in that direction should be asked to look at one of the great soliloquies, say that of Claudius fighting his conscience in Hamlet, and try to explain a quarter of what is going on in that beautifully complex passage.

Of course that treatment will cure disrespect only if the patients are not deaf or prejudiced. They are being invited to participate in something unique, something that offers them a model of strenuous intellectual activity, but if they simply can't hear the result will be negative; they will go away and think or write about something that interests them more. They will not like my book, which represents Shakespeare as making quite severe intellectual demands on us. I admit that it has faults and failings, but it is not deaf and it is not idolatrous. It tries to be useful by attending to the poetry, and I believe that to be the prime need of Shakespearian criticism, at the present moment, if not always.

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