Winners by a paragraph

21st June 1996 at 01:00
SHAKESPEARE, APHRA BEHN AND THE CANON. Edited by W R Owens and Lizbeth Goodman, Routledge Pounds 45, paperback Pounds 12.99

Rex Gibson considers how some writers come to be held in the highest regard

Like Lear and Cordelia, the editors of this fascinating book take on the mystery of things: "Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out". Their subject is the literary canon. Shakespeare won, and is in. Aphra Behn lost,and was out, but after two centuries of neglect is now achieving higher cultural status. Why?

What are the factors that make one author more valued than another? The question is tackled by case study. Discussions of three Shakespeare plays are set beside accounts of Aphra Behn's life (1640-1689) and her play The Rover (the full text of which is provided). The collection begins and ends with essays on the idea of the canon.

Much importance is given to the contribution of gender, race, politics, history, bardolatory and "Englishness" in determining whether a work achieves acceptance. Questions of literary quality receive less direct attention, but insightful consideration is given to the function of performance in establishing esteem.

The difference between the chapters reveals the sheer variety of what counts as studying literature. Stephen Eliot's discerning exploration of the themes of Henry V is entirely innocent of critical references. In sharpest contrast, Roger Day's chapter on Othello zestfully rounds up the usual suspects (Bristol, Leavis, Kott, Empson, Hapgood etc), implicitly revealing the role of the critical industry in establishing any canon.

There's a further contrast in Kate Clark's approach to As You Like It. After a discussion of familiar topics (Romantic poetry, marriage, disguise and gender confusion and so on), her chapter flowers animatedly in the sections on production history. Here, students are invited to "read" still pictures from the OUBBC production.

A similar vivacity typifies the two contributions on Aphra Behn. Students are urged to imagine how scenes might be performed. John Barton's judgments on Behn's writing are sharply criticised ("extremely patronising not to say arrogant").

Best of all, there is evident disagreement between the editors on the quality of the 1994 production of The Rover commissioned by the Open University. Again, the still pictures are put to excellent use. In a book so alert to performance it's a pity that practice was not extended to all the Shakespeare illustrations. Every one is immensely "readable".

This is undoubtedly a most helpful introductory book, written in a friendly and conversational style. The editors clearly want students to make up their minds on matters of the canon, literature and drama. But that admirable intention is undermined by the pedagogy (this is a teaching text). With relatively few exceptions the method is explanatory, even didactic.

The baffling nature of what are called "practical exercises" puts into question how far students will feel that they really can make their own interpretations. There are more than 100 such activities, all posed as questions. Every one is immediately followed by the answer. "Who would you identify as the third main character, the 'ringleader' in the play?" gets the instant reply "Iago is the ringleader . . .".

What's going on? Whatever, it is, it makes the activities look like a token gesture towards student centredness.

The problem is compounded by use of the pernicious tradition that bedevils criticism: the consensual imperialism of the first personal plural. It's worrying when students are asked "What do we learn?", "How do we respond?", "What does it tell us?", "contribute to our understanding?", and so on. Such "we" questions simply fly in the face of the experience of theatre and of Shakespeare.

It is even more worrying when such questions are followed by answers that tell how "we" feel, respond, understand. The implied authoritarianism (certainly unintended by the contributors), must surely inhibit many examination candidates who will read this otherwise welcome book ("Is this how I'm supposed to feel?").

Even the solitary activity that invites students to speak aloud 11 lines can't resist telling them that "the final four lines are deeply memorable". There's canon-building quietly at work. Why not invite students to make their own judgments?

The covert shaping of student judgment is perhaps most evident in the sentence that begins "Above all it [Henry V] is about . . .". Well, ask 50 leading Shakespeare scholars to complete that sentence and you'll get 50 different replies. Maybe that's why Shakespeare is so firmly at the centre of the canon.

Rex Gibson is editor of the Cambridge School Shakespeare (CUP)

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