Readers of older multi-volume editions of Shakespeare, such as the Arden (which has now almost completed its third series and has already announced a fourth), will remember that a substantial section of the introduction was always devoted to sources, understood as previous works to which Shakespeare was indebted for details of plot and characterization, and for verbal borrowings. A glance at more recent volumes will reveal that such details are now dispersed among other material and that editors have become reluctant to write about sources in this way. The high-water mark of the old tradition was Geoffrey Bullough’s Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, published in eight volumes between 1957 and 1975 and still a standard reference work. Bullough carefully distinguished between “source,” “probable source,” “possible source,” and “analogue,” and his scrupulously detailed commentaries aimed to make it possible to see, as he put it, “Shakespeare the craftsman in his workshop.” Ironically, as John Kerrigan notes in his new book Shakespeare’s Originality, Bullough brought his labors to an end just as new critical fashions were making source study seem outmoded or even futile. The author was officially declared dead, and “intertextuality” was all the rage. Kerrigan is not wholly hostile to intertextuality, but he grants that it “did more for Joyce studies than it ever did for Shakespeare criticism.” His own approach is very broad (the text of the book runs to just over a hundred pages but the notes reveal that it is based on learning both wide and deep) and not easy to define. There are some nods towards convention. “No account of Shakespeare’s originality,” he writes, “would be complete without a claim to have found a new source, or at least a new angle on an old one,” and he duly offers debts in Much Ado About Nothing to parts of Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier,which others have overlooked, as well as (more excitingly) strengthening the case for Shakespeare’s knowledge of Greek tragedy, of which more later. Most of the book, however, is not like that. The basic meaning of “source,” Kerrigan reminds us, is “the fountain-head or origin of a river or stream,” but his readers have to navigate many tributaries on the way.

“Originality,” in our sense of unprecedented artistic achievement, was not at a premium in Shakespeare’s day. It was colored by the etymology of “original,” Latin oriri, “to rise,” and referred to the identification of a prime exemplar. The medieval habit of deferring to an “authority,” even if completely bogus as with Chaucer’s Lollius, was still active: one received a literary heritage from the auctor (the originator) and showed one’s skill in the alterations one made. Imitatio was more prized than inventio; complete innovation was somehow not quite the thing. There are celebrated instances of Shakespeare radically changing his originals --- his refusal to follow the happy ending of the old play of King Leir is often cited, and, conversely, the tragic conclusion of Robert Greene’s Pandosto, the main source for The Winter’s Tale, was replaced by the quasi-miraculous statue scene and the reuniting of the sundered family. But modern scholarship thinks of sources as more oblique and multi-layered, a mosaic rather than a genealogy.

Admiration for Shakespeare’s “natural” genius began with Dryden’s insistence that he “needed not the spectacles of Books” and was given free rein by English Romanticism; nineteenth- century scholarship redressed the balance and gave the cue for Bullough. Yet even Bullough has his limitations, as Kerrigan observes; he neglected the transmission of ideas in favor of the reproduction of plot-lines and the existence of verbal echoes, and the logic of his choices of analogues was not always clear. Since his time, we have gained a better understanding of Renaissance reading practices and of the tangled processes whereby a play manuscript became a theatrical promptbook and then, possibly after revision, a printed text (which has broadened our concept of “authorship” to include collaboration between multiple agencies), and we are better able to compare Shakespeare’s use of previous material with that of his fellow dramatists. Furthermore—I would say crucially—we now recognize that one of the most important Shakespeare sources is Shakespeare himself, who constantly revisited and reworked his previous plays.

Kerrigan’s book has four main chapters, three of which focus on Much Ado, King Lear, and The Tempest, while the fourth takes on Richard III and Macbeth. Each contains a remarkable amount of out-of-the-way information, which sometimes seems more divertingly ingenious than permanently enlightening. So, for instance, Greene’s reference to Shakespeare as an “upstart crow” in borrowed plumes, an unoriginal plagiarist, leads by way of the sumptuary laws and theatrical costumes (disguises, borrowed identities) to references to fashion in Much Ado, and thence to play-texts as “fashioned,” pieced together, patched, and re-covered, and Shakespeare’s magpie habits of mind as he borrowed, tried out styles, and satirized excesses of social or intellectual fashion. Then again, the halting gait of Richard III becomes a springboard for speculation about modes of perambulation in Elizabethan life and on stage, the actor’s repertoire of walks suited to character or situation (How should Macbeth approach Duncan’s chamber? How should Lady Macbeth walk in her sleep?), and the rhythmical correspondence, or lack of it, between the feet of the actor and the “feet” of a verse line. This is certainly germane to As You Like It, with its barbed remarks about Orlando’s verses which “had in them more feet than the verses would bear,” and so “were lame.” It’s bracing to watch Kerrigan perform these intellectual gymnastics, but they seem to take us, on occasion, far away from the ostensible concerns of the book.

The discussion of King Lear, however, is in quite another class. Beginning from the oddity that there is both a hill and a cliff at Dover in Act IV, Scene 5, Kerrigan recalls that, in Seneca’s Thebais (Phoenissae), which Shakespeare knew in Latin as well as in a 1581 translation, Antigone leads the blind Oedipus to “a huge promontory” with “craggy cliffs” and suggests that they both jump to their deaths. Shakespeare’s acquaintance with Seneca is widely agreed, but whence that hill? Reviving a neglected suggestion by John Harvey in 1977, Kerrigan argues for the influence of Sophocles’ Oedipus plays on King Lear. This will surprise many, but we are reminded that, despite Ben Jonson’s disparagement of Shakespeare’s classical learning, in the prefatory poem to the First Folio, he went on to call “thundering Aeschylus,/ Euripides, and Sophocles to us” in witness of his friend’s abilities. Kerrigan notes that the hill at Dover recalls Colonus, Oedipus’s destination in Sophocles, which means “hill” in Greek. Once there, Oedipus, like Gloucester, utters prayers, and is led so near the edge by Antigone that the Chorus warns him not to venture further. He is on the brink, psychologically as well as physically, of what Edgar calls “th’extreme verge.”

Lear’s designations of Poor Tom as a “learned Theban” and a “good Athenian” take on new significance in this context, but the route from classical Athens to Shakespeare remains hard to track. One can see the general relevance of the Athenian setting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which law and logic are amusingly undermined by irrationality, and Timon of Athens is, among other things, a scorching critique of the consolations of philosophy, but how might Shakespeare have come across specific Greek plays? (A recent book by Tanya Pollard, Greek Tragic Women on Shakespearean Stages, opens up new possible avenues.) It used to be suggested that Shakespeare could have borrowed them from Jonson’s library. There were editions of Euripides with a facing Latin translation, and quotations, in English, from Oedipus at Colonus and Euripides’ Phoenissae are found in Plutarch’s lives of Antony and Pyrrhus respectively, which Shakespeare certainly read. The Phoenissae quotation refers to the rivalry between Eteocles and Polynices, which foreshadows that between Edmund and Edgar, and Oedipus at Colonus shares with Lear alone the detail that the younger sibling seizes power from the older.

More grandly, Oedipus Tyrannus, and Seneca’s Oedipus plays, could contribute to Lear’stroubled interrogation of causation, knowledge, and freedom of action. Oedipus’s quest for knowledge takes him back to his own origins as well as those of the blight on Thebes, and reveals him as the criminal he must condemn in his role as judge. Renaissance humanist exaltation of enlightened intelligence comes to grief in the wisdom so appallingly attained by Gloucester and Lear. The play entertains varieties of causation only to question them all. Gloucester fears eclipses; Edmund scorns any link between his bastardy and his horoscope; Lear asks, “Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?” At the end of the play, Shakespeare borrows from himself as verbal echoes of Dover Cliff emerge: Albany’s “Fall and cease” recalls Gloucester’s wish, to leap to his death; Edgar says “Look up” to Lear as he had done to Gloucester. But Lear does not look up. Kerrigan comments:

This is the originality of the cliff sequence, and with it the death of Lear, that the problem of what is real and what is not allows the audience to participate in the experience of the ending as a death or the illusion of it, a growing acceptance that what looks like death is death, as it was not at Dover Cliff.

That would be another reason to reject the ending of King Leir: its providentialism, with its cushioned sense of virtue rewarded and justice meted out, bore no resemblance to the world Shakespeare wished to depict. In this case, Kerrigan’s patchwork approach to source-study pays off, and one emerges with a real sense of new understanding.

The chapter on The Tempest, however, does not maintain that level. Few scholars nowadays would endorse the old position that Shakespeare completely invented its plot (Kerrigan ruefully cites his younger self doing just that). It has been the “original” of many later works, from the imbecilic travesty of Dryden and Davenant’s The Enchanted Island (1670) to Garrick’s opera of 1756 (Kerrigan’s end-point) and beyond. Kerrigan’s discussion homes in on Montaigne on cannibals, as is customary, but he also finds overlooked relevance in the Bermuda pamphlets and Virgil’s Georgics in their treatment of the balance between labor and leisure in a new world ripe for economic exploitation. Prospero is Virgilian in his dual role as mage and natural philosopher. The wedding masque in The Tempest explores these ideas, celebrating husbandry, agricultural improvement, and plenteous harvest: yet the masque turns out to be an illusion, like the banquet that is snatched away before the courtiers can eat it. (Shakespeare’s own dealings with grain, malt, and land, Kerrigan reminds us, were unattractively tight-fisted.) The island on which the action takes place is hardly rich or lush; Ferdinand must bear logs, Caliban must dig for groundnuts and fetch firewood. Everyone except Caliban, in fact, can’t wait to set sail for somewhere else.

This is all probing and interesting, especially because the masque has worn badly by comparison with the rest of the play, is usually cut from modern productions, and is in need of intelligent advocacy. Subsequently, however, Kerrigan does one of his spring-heeled leaps, this time into ecocriticism. The year 1610, when The Tempest was composed, is, he tells us, a probable start to the “Anthropocene Period,” as the colonization of the Americas sparked off unprecedented population movement and trade networks. Thus “power relationships within empire, economic growth, globalization, and the use of fossil fuels” all assume major significance. Viewed in this light, Prospero’s obsessive stockpiling of wood becomes irresponsible deforestation, and Ariel’s toil in “the veins o’th’earth” a prospector’s quest for iron and copper. My own veins may be hardening, but this seems to me an oddly skewed perspective on the play. At any rate, it faded out; the wedding masque is cut by Dryden and Davenant, and with it all such georgic material. To Ariel’s promise of a feast, Gonzalo responds with “O for a heavenly Vision of Boyl’d,/ Bak’d, and Roasted!” Evidently the roast beef of Old England has ousted corncob from the menu. Later still, Garrick’s Tempest imagines fruition in the newlyweds’ bed, rather than in the bed of earth.

The Romantic identification of Prospero with Shakespeare further shifted attention, from husbandry to wizardry. At the same time, criticisms of the eighteenth-century adaptations promoted new respect for the integrity of Shakespeare’s original work. Charlotte Lennox’s Shakespear [sic] Illustrated (1753/4) was one of the first anthologies of sources, and Dr. Johnson, who wrote the dedication to her book, turned an editorial eye to the authentic texts in his 1765 edition. Lennox’s criticisms of Shakespeare’s derivative plots obliged Johnson and his successors to argue for the dramatist’s originality on the grounds of characterization and natural imaginative endowments. As a play apparently exempt from Lennox’s objections, The Tempest, whose debts to the Bermuda pamphlets remained unknown until Edmond Malone identified them in 1808, became the ultimate proof of Shakespeare’s creative genius. If we now know better, that is not to deprecate his almost alchemical power of transmutation.

Kerrigan’s short but packed book leaves me with mixed feelings. Ironically, it may be that its origin as lectures has led to undue compression, and that, given more space, he could make some of his speculations more convincing. He is a highly respected scholar with a welcome ability to uncover fresh approaches to standard texts rather than indulging in the graceful rearrangement of commonplaces that often constitutes Shakespeare studies. Nobody should deny him his own originality.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 8, on page 74
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