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
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
modernity, is always changing. It is as if commentaries must die to keep the
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,
nineteen per working day. Some of these items were about minute textual
or local problems of interpretation, and some were simply trivial. Others
long, ambitious, and serious; but even these confirmed my feeling that much
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
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
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
plenty of people around who think this a perfectly desirable outcome. And
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
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
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
experience. You might argue that in their way these activities at least pay
service to an ideal, but what is one to think of an ideal that deserves
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
case, even when the job is well done, Shakespeare is there primarily as an
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,
His critical friend, the poet Ben Jonson, said he loved Shakespeare 'this
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
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
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
that the notion of there being anything exceptional about him is a delusion
a cheat. Curiously enough, these iconoclastic critics are often academics who
would hesitate to admit ignorance, and might, a little naively, be expected
have a professional interest in attending to the qualities that really do
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
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
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
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
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
all these obscure activities are the plays that we, like his friends and
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
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
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
plays, of 'honest' in Othello or 'sense' in Measure for
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
understand what Shakepeare is doing with the language.
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
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
Shakespeare's great achievements to make deep character possible, which he
by finding out how to represent persons - Hamlet, for instance - in the act
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
in that direction should be asked to look at one of the great
that of Claudius fighting his conscience in Hamlet, and try to explain
quarter of what is going on in that beautifully complex passage.
course that treatment will cure disrespect only if the patients are not
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
or write about something that interests them more. They will not like my
which represents Shakespeare as making quite severe intellectual demands on
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,
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