Berryman's Shakespeare

by John Allyn Smith
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1990


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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, noting “Mr. W. H.” is the printer’s, not Shakespeare’s, choice of person to whom the Sonnets are dedicated. “Pathos and Dream” traces Shakespeare’s growth in the years from 1594 to 1600, in which he wrote another of what Berryman calls Shakespeare’s four failures, The Two Gentlemen of Verona (pr. c. 1594-1595), King JohnAll’s Well That Ends Well (pr. c. 1602-1603), and Timon of Athens (pr. c. 1607-1608). However, he also succeeded in Love’s Labour’s Lost (pr. c. 1594-1595),Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596), The Merchant of Venice (pr. c. 1596-1597), As You Like It (pr. c. 1599-1600), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pr. c. 1595-1596), and seven other plays. His comments on the first three of these successes are the special focus of this lecture. He again shines when seizing upon a phrase, a line, or a couplet and explicating it brilliantly while relating it to the fabric of the entire play. The lectures “The World of Action” and “All’s Well” continue the examination of Shakespeare as a successful playwright in the late 1590’s with insightful remarks about the Dream, arguing that it was written afterRomeo and JulietRichard II (pr. c. 1595-1596), Henry VI, Part II (pr. c. 1590-1591) and Part III (pr. c. 1590-1591), and the Shakespearean comedies of the age.

“The Crisis,” “The Tragic Substance,” and “The End” focus on Shakespeare the tragedian, who changes playwriting directions withHamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601), Macbeth (pr. 1606), andKing Lear, explicating lines with considerable ease and sense. Above all, the impression Berryman leaves in his lectures and essays is of a poet sensitive to the moment of creation. He is a scholar trying to fix the moments in Shakespeare’s life when he actually composed his plays and wrote the lines that have become memorable in their four-hundred-year repetitions upon the stage and, latterly, on the screen and in the classroom.

From some time in 1944 through the early 1950’s, Berryman—while certainly engaged in becoming an authentic voice of American poetry—had in mind the monumental project of producing a definitive edition of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The third part of this volume features Berryman’s writing about King Lear, including letters Berryman wrote to other scholars and their replies to him. The first essay in this collection, the announcement of the project in 1944, takes the contemporary reader back to a time when settling upon a canonical text for the play was still a lengthy and sometimes bewildering process, as Berryman explains the Quarto and Folio differences and variations, the source problems, and the vagaries of the play’s early printing and subsequent production and editing histories. His “Textual Introduction,” a precise document some forty pages long, covers some of the ground in the proposal but goes into a full painstaking discussion of the text(s), the provenance of certain phrases and words, the good and bad readings, the choices an informed and scholarly editor must make in probing Shakespeare’s situation, and his thoughts on “The Conceiving of King Lear.” In “Staging” he also leads the reader who is inexperienced in the ways of staging a play to the complex question posed by the Quarto and the Folio: Is there or is there not an inner stage, or alcove, used in certain scenes of the play?

Berryman, the scholar, thinker, poet, and connoisseur of the puzzles of language, is captured in his letters to Van Doren and others but especially in his frequent correspondence with Dr. W. W. Greg, whose replies, in part, are also printed here. Written in an era that preceded the publish-or-perish age, this correspondence shows men of considerable genius sharing discoveries to tease out the meaning of phrases, to redefine the acceptable word as one or two letter changes, and to make a previously obscure or obtuse word take on clarity and force in the text. These gentlemanly, even courtly, letters in which the learned writers disagree as well as agree with and congratulate each other shed light upon the process that occupied Berryman while he was also making a name for himself with Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. The volume certainly profits from the inclusion of these letters, though they may be what the playwright’s Hamlet called caviar to the general, not for everyone.

Part 4 of the edition is composed of one essay, which is already adumbrated in part 1 and the introduction, “William Houghton, William Haughton, The Shrew, and the Sonnets.” Here, Berryman examines the likelihood of the relationships among the three Wills, other friends of Shakespeare, the collaborator on The Taming of the Shrew (pr. c. 1593-1594), the dating of the Sonnets and the order of their composition, and a spectacular explication of Sonnet 73, which is well worth reading to see one poet dealing poetically with the poetry of another.

The volume’s final part contains some reworked material on theSonnets, essays on The Comedy of Errors (pr. c. 1592-1594), which includes biographical speculation worth considering, and an unfinished essay on King John, which follows Berryman’s preoccupation with sources, rewrites, and dates of composition. His essays on Henry VI, Part IIHenry VI, Part III, and Henry IVPart II (pr. 1598), unfinished, are models of his meticulous work on the chronicles and highlight his assessment of the relation of the former two to Richard III. In dealing with the relationship between Prince Hal and Falstaff in Henry IV, Part II, Berryman stumbles upon a happy formulation in the concept that Hal initially regards the merry prankster as a kind of foster father. The unfinished state of the essay does not fully deal with the period in which Hal outgrows his mentor. Berryman also believed in writing about those of Shakespeare’s plays that he did not particularly hold in high regard. Thus, his comments on the weaknesses of the play The Two Gentlemen of Verona, foreshadowed elsewhere in the volume, seem both judicious and measured, in that he does find poetic passages to highlight and embrace.

Berryman’s essay “On Macbeth” is filled with poetic fire, the stuff that makes him notable as an explicator of the centripetal and centrifugal meanings of Shakespeare’s words, the tissues of suggestions, and the ambiguities of the characters and their words forming a speculative artistic whole. Berryman truly burns with a gemlike flame when he explicates even short texts as examples of what one might do with the whole. Thankfully, he departs from wholesale acceptance of Thomas De Quincey’s formula of “comic relief,” which has misinformed so many productions and misled so many actors and students since its formulation in “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” (1823). While it may account for the initial motivation of the Porter’s speech, it does not account for all of it, as Berryman intimates, particularly in a crucial transition actors must achieve in the lines before the Porter decides he will leave off being keeper of Hellgate.

In all, this is a highly satisfactory compilation of the writings of one poet about another, of one scholar about a scholar often mistakenly supposed to have little learning, of a renowned wordsmith of the twentieth century about a wordsmith for the ages.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (January 1, 1999): 819.

Choice 37 (September, 1999): 138.

Library Journal 124 (January, 1999): 95.

New Criterion 17 (May, 1999): 69.

The New York Review of Books 46 (September 23, 1999): 65.

Publishers Weekly 246 (January 18, 1999): 319.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 17, 1999, p. 5.

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