Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

tree_face
steepholm steepholm
Previous Entry Share Next Entry
Receiving a Brand
Two friends' posts from the last 24 hours intersect in my mind. First, there's papersky's fascinating Wiscon speech on the ways in which authors create characters that readers care about (or writers manipulate readers into caring about). I've nothing to say here about its central subject, but towards the end she mentions how the members of a Trollope list divided sharply on the desirability of footnotes. Do notes add depth to our reading - or at least useful handholds for tyros - or are they a distraction from the immersive experience of fiction?

Then, another friend mentions in a locked post a disagreement about the use of brand names in fiction. When Ian Fleming scatters his books with desirable makes of car, types of drink, etc. he may be a) providing an aspirational roadmap for some of his readers, and also b) evoking a world through an economical shorthand that doesn't unduly hold up the action - but the negative aspect is that the shorthand can become (especially in less skilled, shall we say more Jeffrey Archer-ish hands) a shortcircuit, or at least a cheap off-the-shelf substitute for genuine observational and expressive skill. As if one could become sophisticated merely by driving an Aston Martin!

These things coincide in that it is the brand-name-heavy authors who will (if they are lucky enough to last) need most help from footnotes. Brands come and go and when they've gone they will need to be explained. Even ones with staying power may significantly change their connotations. In one of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads monologues, "A Chip in the Sugar", Bennett's character talks of a man who's "been had up for exposing himself in Sainsbury's doorway. As Mother said, 'Tesco, you could understand it.'" In 1987, when that programme was broadcast, the difference in social standing between Sainsbury's and Tesco was noticably greater - and Mother's remark has the minutely-sifted snobbery you'd expect from Bennett. Today I don't think the line works as well, because the two supermarkets are much more comparable. Substitute Waitrose for Sainsbury's, or Asda for Tesco, and you can recapture the effect to an extent - but it's only an approximation. You can never set foot in the same retail sector twice.

That example makes me wonder how much help footnotes would actually be, but undoubtedly when Talking Heads is studied in 2313 it will be some use to understand in broad terms what kind of establishments Sainsbury's and Tesco were. I've seen this (from the other side, as it were) with A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. For years, I taught city comedies by Middleton and Jonson alongside Shakespeare. Although Shakespeare needed notes, he needed a different kind of note. With Shakespeare you might have to gloss hawks and handsaws, but Middleton was likely to refer to a particular tavern, or a street with a certain reputation, or a piece of topical news - things that were sure to strike a chord with his audience (Londoners who had come to see a play about smarter and wittier versions of themselves) but that render him more opaque today. A Chaste Maid in Cheapside had immediacy, no doubt - whether we complain that it was cheaply won or whether we applaud Middleton for having his finger on the pulse - but that's precisely what limited the time that it could be read and understood without reference to notes. We may become very familiar with the notes, and be confident that we have "got" the joke, and laugh, but there will be a certain deflationary aspect to it, as there is to any joke that has to be explained.

Shakespeare, as far as we know, never wrote a play set in contemporary England. Some have suggested that this was because he wanted to steer clear of controversy - but perhaps he was trying to future-proof his work against just this kind of textual sclerosis? He was profoundly sensitive to the depredations of time and the possibilities of defying them through literature, if we can believe the sonnets. Maybe he saw, consciously or otherwise, that setting his plays in unbranded fantasy lands like Venice and Verona would give them a better chance of survival?
Tags:

Maybe Shakespeare just liked then and elsewhere? Many of us do.

I so love bracketing "A Chip in the Sugar" and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside.

Nine

Shakespeare, as far as we know, never wrote a play set in contemporary England.

Merry Wives of Windsor, one of my favorites. Vastly underrated, no doubt because it's about a community of women.

Arguably, but the presence of a character who's been established as dead by 1415 makes the contemporaneity of its setting ambiguous. (The one stage production I saw, in Stratford a long time ago, had the wives under 1950s hairdryers. It worked very well.)

Well, but Shakespeare isn't known for his continuity, particularly between plays.

He's full of anachronisms, but I can't think of another instance of the same character skipping a couple of centuries from one play to another! You're right of course that Merry Wives appears Elizabethan in many ways - but equally there's not much to tell us that the Boar's Head at Eastcheap is a fifteenth-century pub and not a sixteenth-century one except for the presence of Prince Hal. I suppose the bottom line is that Shakespeare likes (or at least doesn't mind) mixing things up both temporally and geographically - the overall effect being of a drama only provisionally rooted in any one time or place.

Edited at 2013-06-01 04:49 pm (UTC)

If Shakespeare doesn't think that pub life had changed much in two centuries - and that's a reasonable thing for him to have thought, given how little the modern idea of rapid societal change existed then - then, by that same token, his 15th-century plays ARE contemporary to him, at least as much as the 25-year-old stuff you discuss in your main post is contemporary to us, and the topicality issue is just as relevant to Shakespeare as it is to Middleton and Jonson.

I accept your premise, but not your inferences. Continuity and contemporaneity are not the same, and I see no reason to think that Shakespeare would have regarded people who lived two hundred years earlier as his contemporaries, however similar their ways of life to what he saw about him. Even if that were the case, however, it would hardly be a reason for considering him to be concerned with topical reference in the way that Jonson and Middleton (or Bennett) are: rather the reverse, since one part of history would look pretty much like another, and the point of topicality (which lies in the ability to isolate the ephemeral and unique) would be lost.

What kind of contemporary references are we talking about? Current politics and whatever the 16th century had for celebrities is one thing - though I should note that scholars have found plenty of exactly that sort of contemporary references even in his Roman plays.

But if we're talking the Elizabethan equivalent of Tesco and Sainsbury's, which is what your post was about, then if, as you say, "there's not much to tell us that the Boar's Head at Eastcheap is a fifteenth-century pub and not a sixteenth-century one," then anything Shakespeare might say about a 15th-century Tesco would be equally applicable to a 16th-century Tesco.

I wasn't particularly thinking of political references. They were a dangerous subject, and Shakespeare's reasons for staying clear of them (insofar as he did)* may have been largely expedient.

However, the point I was making about Bennett's reference to Sainsbury's and Tesco was that, because he was relying on topicality (in the sense not of headline-grabbing events but of a shared recognition of a transient aspect of contemporary culture), even in 25 years the point of his joke has become at the very least blunted. Whereas, say, Hal and Poins's teasing of Francis the drawer in 1 Henry IV 2.4 is a joke that transfers without loss of meaning from one century to another, because waiting to get served is a perennial situation. So yes, anything Shakespeare tells us of that sort about a 15th-century pub will apply to a 16th-century one. Contrariwise, if he had made a joke in 1 Henry IV based on (say) the high price of Rhenish wine in 1597, it might have got a big laugh in the Theatre but it would have had a very short shelf life and would soon have required footnotes. That's the kind of humour you often see in Middleton, but rarely in Shakespeare. When he does do it it's often through the clown characters, who are more likely to break the fourth wall.

*Of course, there are political references in Shakespeare: some are explicit (the Earl of Essex's Irish expedition in Henry V), some are implicit (flattery of James VI & I in Macbeth), some were illuminated by circumstance (Elizabeth's "I am Richard II, know ye not that?"). But I doubt Shakespeare would ever have written a topical political play like Middleton's A Game at Chess.

But the price of Rhenish wine in a particular year is an inherently unstable situation, unless Rhenish wine is always inexpensive/expensive, in which case the joke won't go blunt. While the relationship between Tesco and Sainsbury's may change, or it may not. And, because of the premise I set forth two comments ago which you accepted, Shakespeare would be likely to think that their social status today would have been true a century ago, whether it actually was, or not.

On top of which I emphatically agree with vschanoes' premise that Shakespeare did not consciously think of Merry Wives as taking place in the past, and he probably didn't think of the aspects of the Henry plays that weren't Actual Historical Events as being in the past either. That is, he wouldn't feel obliged, if, say, making a movie of The Great Gatsby, to constantly remind you that it's the 1920s by filling it with 1920s music.

And neither did the people who actually just made one, so the heck with it.

But the price of Rhenish wine in a particular year is an inherently unstable situation.

That's exactly the point I'm making - along with the observation that Shakespeare tends on the whole to steer clear of jokes that depend on inherently unstable situations - whereas for Middleton, Jonson and Bennett capturing such situations at a particular moment in time is part of their stock in trade (or at any rate much more so).

Shakespeare did not consciously think of Merry Wives as taking place in the past, and he probably didn't think of the aspects of the Henry plays that weren't Actual Historical Events as being in the past either. That is, he wouldn't feel obliged, if, say, making a movie of The Great Gatsby, to constantly remind you that it's the 1920s by filling it with 1920s music.

Despite the appositional "That is", these seem to me very different kinds of statement. While I agree with the second - there's plenty of textual evidence for it - the first seems to me highly speculative. You might argue on similar evidence that the medieval western-European artists who drew the inhabitants of first-century Palestine in medieval western-European clothes thought of them as their neighbours and contemporaries. And possibly they did - but I can think of several other explanations that are at least as plausible. They drew them like that because they weren't sure of sartorial practices in the time of Jesus. They drew them like that because they wanted to make the picture comprehensible and immediate to their viewers. They drew them like that because they saw the events depicted as having a transcendental significance beyond history altogether. Etc etc.

You appear to be claiming that Shakespeare didn't think of the past as different from the present because he didn't know what the past was like. I dispute this. My understanding of the situation is that, to one extent, he considered the past to be indistinguishable from the present - the price of wine is like the weather (it's hot because it's summer; come winter it'll be cold again) except more predictable. And to another, more important, extent he didn't consider his plays, Merry Wives in particular, to be set in the past. The idea that it must be set in the early 15C because it has Falstaff in it suggests what I believe in the UK is called an anorak-wearing obsession with consistency of minutiae which is entirely alien to Shakespeare.

You appear to be claiming that Shakespeare didn't think of the past as different from the present because he didn't know what the past was like.

I'm not claiming either of those things. I'm beginning to wonder whether we're talking at cross-purposes, so I want to retrace steps a little.

On the first ("You appear to be claiming that Shakespeare didn't think of the past as different from the present"), I accepted your earlier premise that Shakespeare didn't think pub life had changed much in 200 years on the grounds that, for the reason you gave, it probably hadn't (at least as far as I know - I'm not an expert on the subject). That's not at all the same as saying that Shakespeare in general terms believed the past to be the same as the present.

The second part ("he didn't know what the past was like") is true to an extent for all of us, but much more true for Shakespeare with some plays than others. Shakespeare couldn't have known much about life in the time of King Lear, for example, because nobody did - so he superimposed a basically Renaissance court. Still, he was as well informed about the past as most people of his time, and with the histories in particular (both English and Roman) there's plenty of evidence that he did as much research as could be expected for a busy playwright/actor/businessman (though obviously far less than Jonson did for Catiline), in Holinshed, Hall, Plutarch and the like - easily accessible sources in English. Nevertheless, as we know from the Peacham drawing, when they came to stage Titus Andronicus they gave the Roman soldiers halberds. Does that mean that Shakespeare didn't know Roman soldiers didn't use halberds? Not at all: the possible explanations I gave for the medieval painters using contemporary clothes apply here too, in addition to which one must remember the non-infinite nature of the Lord Chamberlain's Men's props cupboard.

My understanding of the situation is that, to one extent, he considered the past to be indistinguishable from the present - the price of wine is like the weather (it's hot because it's summer; come winter it'll be cold again) except more predictable.

I agree with you that he thought there were aspects of the past that were like the weather, and I agree with him that there are. If everything changed and in unpredictable ways, the literature (and life) of the past would quickly become incomprehensible. The point I'm making (and I can't help feeling it's not the one you think I am) is simply that Shakespeare tended more than some of his contemporaries to steer clear of those aspects of the past that are not constant (like gravity) or perennial (like the weather) but on the contrary are obviously transient - such as the fact that a particular butcher might be known for his excellent pies. For someone wishing to conjure the contemporary experience of visiting Bartholomew Fair for a contemporary audience, by contrast, that kind of detail is just what you want. Jonson does that, Shakespeare mostly doesn't.

This isn't to say, of course, that even things that appear perennial don't change over the long term. Eliot used "oyster shells" in Prufrock as a metonym for working class seediness - today they're a metonym for the high life, something he couldn't reasonably have predicted but which (for comprehension by today's readers) nevertheless requires a footnote. In the UK, the drinking of wine has changed in my own lifetime from something most people do only on special occasions to an everyday pursuit for the masses, and to be honest I'm not entirely certain how much of a class marker it is in Shakespeare.

The idea that it must be set in the early 15C because it has Falstaff in it suggests what I believe in the UK is called an anorak-wearing obsession with consistency of minutiae which is entirely alien to Shakespeare.

I agree, and I didn't say that at all. I said the inclusion of a character from that time - a very major and popular character, note, who's been shown taking part in well-known historical events - makes the contemporaneity of Merry Wives ambiguous.

Edited at 2013-06-03 07:35 am (UTC)

That's not at all the same as saying that Shakespeare in general terms believed the past to be the same as the present.

It isn't, but that doesn't mean the statement can't also be true, regardless. My understanding is that people of that far back, not just Shakespeare personally, had much less of a sense of societal change than we do, simply because there was less of it.

he did as much research as could be expected ... in Holinshed, Hall, Plutarch and the like ... Nevertheless, as we know from the Peacham drawing, when they came to stage Titus Andronicus they gave the Roman soldiers halberds. Does that mean that Shakespeare didn't know Roman soldiers didn't use halberds?

Shakespeare's research was on the course of the historical events that made up his plots, not on what life in the past was like. The answer to your question is, probably not; the question probably never even occurred to him.

Eliot used "oyster shells" in Prufrock as a metonym for working class seediness - today they're a metonym for the high life

In the opposite direction, Cole Porter wrote, "You're the top, you're a turkey dinner," at a time when poultry was far more expensive than beef. Also, cellophane, then a novel and precious item.

Jonson does that, Shakespeare mostly doesn't.

Mostly, no. But you also wrote, "Shakespeare, as far as we know, never wrote a play set in contemporary England," and there you were mistaken.

I said the inclusion of a character from that time - a very major and popular character, note, who's been shown taking part in well-known historical events - makes the contemporaneity of Merry Wives ambiguous.

No, it doesn't, really. Look at the play. Either the author doesn't care one whit what historical events this character had been involved in in other plays, in which case the setting is contemporary, or else he doesn't think life has changed one whit in nearly 200 years, in which case the date question is moot.

Shakespeare's research was on the course of the historical events that made up his plots, not on what life in the past was like. The answer to your question is, probably not; the question probably never even occurred to him.

I think that's quite an assumption. There's certainly a case to be made that people's sense of historical change was different then from what it is now, but that case (and the evidence for it) can be overstated. There's a danger too of conflating two assumptions - the idea that the pace of change was actually slower (which in many respects - not all - it was) and the idea that people had less of a concept of social change altogether. However, while pubs might have stayed much the same over the preceding century, I've no doubt that Shakespeare was well aware of the huge top-to-bottom changes that separated the pre-Reformation world of his grandparents from his own: how could he not have been? This is the guy who wrote about bare, ruined choirs, after all. The idea that such an observant and intelligent man might have failed to register the effect of the Reformation on the ground because he lacked a sense of historical change strikes me as highly implausible.

Either the author doesn't care one whit what historical events this character had been involved in in other plays, in which case the setting is contemporary, or else he doesn't think life has changed one whit in nearly 200 years, in which case the date question is moot.

There is a third possibility, which is that he left the question vague and ambiguous - as he did with the settings of many of his comedies. Not only comedies, in fact (I'll probably expand on that statement wrt Hamlet shortly).

I think that's quite an assumption.

Well, OK, but you were describing Shakespeare doing that research in Holinshed, Hall, and Plutarch. I admit not having read them in detail, but from the excerpts I've seen, mostly in books about Shakespeare's sources, they seem to be narrative histories of major events and great men's biographies, and not social histories, along the lines of What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, that would tell you whether Roman soldiers used halberds or not.

It's true they're basically elite-centred histories, but they also spend quite a lot of time on military matters. If you've done several years of Latin as Stratford Grammar and you've read what Plutarch has to say about Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, you should have a pretty good grasp of how a Roman army went about its business - certainly enough to know that halberds didn't figure in their armoury.

I admit this isn't a knock-down argument: you might reasonably reply that in order to pick up on this would require just the kind of sensitivity to and interest in historical change that you contend Shakespeare lacked. But equally, I'd like to see more substantial evidence that he lacked it, or in which areas he lacked it, or how completely lacked it. More properly, I suspect it's a case of his understanding historical change differently than of his not being aware of its existence - but that goes some way beyond the scope of this thread.

are you talking about footnotes other people add to an author's work? i appreciate it when authors make contemporary cultural references in their works. i may have to work harder to understand the context, but i like that i also learn more about the place and time through those kinds of references.


i also like the use of footnotes as a literary conceit! like pratchett's earlier discworld stuff (since it seems to have fallen off in usage in the last few books) and susanna clarke's jonathan strange & mr norrell.

I was thinking more about the first kind of footnote. I like them too, and the kinds of text that precipitate them. I certainly don't believe that what we may call the vagueness of universality is superior simply because it may be easier for people nowadays to understand without recourse to scholarship. "Not for an age but for all time" is a fatally ambiguous phrase, and Jonson of all people wouldn't have used it to praise Shakespeare on the grounds of his lack of historical and geographical specificity. On the contrary, Jonson criticised him for precisely that (e.g. giving Bohemia a sea coast in A Winter's Tale).

I like Middleton and Bennett both - and when I say (which I didn't but I will now) that they are liable to "date" more than some other writers I don't mean that as a value judgement but simply as an acknowledgement of the techniques through which they achieve their distinctive effects, to criticise which would be like saying that Van Gogh can't be a great artist because his paintings have faded since he painted them.

hahaha shakespeare did WHAT that is hilarious!


also that's really interesting about van gogh! it's like the grecian/roman statues, where for ages everyone thought they WERE white and then equated white with purity and classiness and superiority but then it turns out they'd painted them garish blues and reds.

?

Log in

No account? Create an account