Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
On January 7, 1972, poet and scholar-adventurer John Berryman jumped off a bridge over the Mississippi River and ended his life at age fifty-eight. The author of the critical biography Stephen Crane (1950) and a posthumously published novel, Recovery (1973), as well as a book of essays and stories, The Freedom of the Poet (1976), Berryman is best known as a premier mid-twentieth century American poet whose thirteen published poetry collections include Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956), Berryman’s Sonnets (1967), and Seventy-seven Dream Songs (1964), which, with His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968), make up The Dream Songs (1969). In this collection Professor John Haffenden presents the body of Berryman’s writings on Shakespeare—some previously published, some hitherto uncollected—to present a unified vision of a poet engaged with the writings and the mind of one of the world’s most revered poets and playwrights.
Berryman’s mature engagement with Shakespeare and his work likely began in the 1930’s when he studied the Bard under Mark Van Doren, a poet and professor at Columbia. Under Van Doren’s tutelage, Berryman became a genuine, passionate scholar who would go on to win the prestigious Shakespeare Prize at England’s Cambridge University and spend the remainder of his life pondering the history, contexts, sources, analogues, dates of composition, intellectual milieu, and the very words and their variants of Shakespeare’s creations.
The volume is arranged into five sections, along with a rather lengthy introduction, a brief appendix, and a full forty pages of notes to the text, forming a more impressive critical apparatus than appears in many scholarly works. The work could, however, profit from an index and also from some rearrangement of material, possibly in chronological order to view the growth of the writer and his steady preoccupations with his subject. For example, part 1, which was written from 1969 to 1970, is followed by part 2, in which lectures from the 1950’s share much of its content. A heavier editorial hand might also have obviated the numerous repetitions of phrases, sentences, and some lengthier passages that seem to influence Berryman’s thoughts at several stages in his writing. Perhaps it is precisely the recurrent themes and expressions that serve to mark Berryman’s recursive thought at several periods in his life which the editor wishes to place before a new readership. As it is, the reader who is interested in the progression of thought, the sequences of brilliant discoveries about texts, must shuttle back and forth in the book to understand the chronology.
That said, the work is a mine of information, a trove of treasured insights into Shakespeare, and a lucid guide to some of the very knotty problems that beset the Shakespeare reader as well as the actor and director who must perform and produce Shakespeare’s plays based upon the best available evidence of their meaning in historical, cultural, and social contexts. For example, part 1, “Shakespeare’s Early Comedy,” represents one of Berryman’s last complete forays into Shakespeare criticism. This essay deals not so much with Shakespeare as a writer of comedies (five pages out of the essay’s twenty-five) as with situating Shakespeare, the man, in his times, his youth in Stratford, the London theatrical world and touring company, and the products of Shakespeare’s early writing, namely the chronicle or history plays. Here, Berryman is at his best and most cogent when dealing with what appears to be his favorite of these plays, Richard III (pr. c. 1592- 1593). He characterizes Richard’s special gifts as hypocrisy and a brutal sincerity and engages the important, if arcane, examination of the precise date of composition of King John (pr. c. 1596-1597). Moreover, his comments on the early comedies are right on the mark and show an incisive mind at work that gets to the core of the dramatic action and the center of what makes comedy work not only in Shakespeare’s time but universally.
Berryman’s eight lectures forming part 2 divide the playwright’s life into seven ages, with a coda, “Shakespeare’s Last Word,” which serves as an examination of The Tempest (pr. 1611). Interestingly, Berryman begins his series of lectures with the Janus-like “Shakespeare at Thirty,” which sums up his career to 1594 and looks forward to the later achievements. Curiously, the lecturer cites his subject’s thirtieth birthday as April 22, not April 23, the traditional birth date (as well as the death date in 1616). He begins to build a life around him as he celebrates his achievements, including the Sonnets (1609), which Berryman thinks he wrote mostly from 1586 to 1588. He also corrects Oscar Wilde,...
(The entire section is 1990 words.)
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