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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

"Shakespeare's Workmanship" by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

This book is based on lectures given at Cambridge and was first published in October 1918. It analyses some Shakespearian plays from the point of view of what Q-C calls the 'workmanship' which involves identifying what Shakespeare as a jobbing playwright was attempting to achieve and then considering how (and whether) he achieved it. So it sort of chimes with what James Shapiro (in, for example, Contested Will) achieves in when he offers detailed evidence to tie the plays with the company of actors that Shakespeare was writing for.

The plays Q-C considers are Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Hamlet, as well as considering the five later plays of Pericles, Henry VIII, The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest both as a group and individually. He makes some brilliant points:
  • The great artist dies into his work, and in that survives.” 
  • "The half of artistry consists in learning to make one stroke better than two. The more simply, economically, you produce the impression aimed at, the better workman you make all yourself.” (C 1)
  • Tragedy demands some sympathy with the fortunes of its hero.”  
  • Shakespeare’s liked to use darkness:
    • R&J: action starts on moonlit balcony, ends in tomb
    • Hamlet starts on battlements at night
    • Othello starts on a dark street
    • King L: dark heath and blindness
    • Macbeth: sleeplessness and sleep-walking, murder at night; darkness pervades MacB
  • In every Shakespeare play there is the Point of Rest, the punctum indifferens: “something apparently insignificant.” (This follows Coventry Patmore’s Principle in Art): “Each of these characters is a peaceful focus radiating the calm of moral solution throughout all the difficulties and disasters of surrounding fate; a vital centre, which, like that of a great wheel, has little motion in itself, but which at once transmits and controls the fierce revolution of the circumference.
    • Kent in King Lear
    • Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet
    • Horatio in Hamlet
    • Cassio in Othello
    • Bassanio in Merchant of V
  • How Macbeth is like a Greek tragedy: “Though it is full of blood and images of blood, the important blood-shedding is hidden, removed from the spectator’s sight ... Duncan is murdered off the stage; Lady Macbeth dies off the stage; Macbeth makes his final exit fighting, to be killed off the stage. There is nothing here like the blood-boltered culmination of Hamlet.”
  • Shakespeare’s uses some typical tricks/ per devices: “Shakespeare, having once employed a stage device with some degree of success, never had the smallest scruple about using it again.
    • The woman disguised as a man
    • Shipwreck
    • Mistaken identity
    • Jealous husband or lover
    • Potion which arrests life without killing
    • Commanded murderer whose heart softens
  • A dramatic author must start by mastering certain stage-mechanicsn. Having mastered them, he must - to be great- - unlearn reliance on them, learn to cut them away as he grows to perceive that the secret of his art resides in playing human being against human being, man against woman, character against character, will against will - not in devising ‘situations’ and ‘curtains’ and operating puppets to produce these. His art touches climax when his ‘situations’ and ‘curtains’ so befall that we tell ourselves, ‘It is wonderful - yet what else could have happened?’” This reminds me of Aristotle who says in the Poetics that when the plot twists we must be surprised and yet realise that this is the only thing that could have happened.
  • Every artist knows ... that the more you complicate your plot - the more threads you tie together in your nexus - the less room you leave yourself for invention and play of character.
  • Shakespeare ... set up a permanent artistic principle in the treatment of history by fiction; ... your best protagonists ...[are] some invented men or women - pawns in the game - upon whose actions and destinies you can make the great events play at will.
  • It is never a test of the highest art that it is unintelligible. It is rather the last triumph of a masterpiece - the triumph definitely passing it for a classic - that all men in their degree can understand and enjoy it.
  • Every artist of the first class ... tires of repeating his successes, but never of repeating his experiments.
  • A great artist, choosing to abandon something he has done consummately for a shot at a longer range, is liable to miss his target.
  • Shakespeare ... was instinctively chary of love-scenes save when he could handle them with raillery.

A great deal of fascinating insight into how a (great) writer works. July 2019; 362 pages

Books about Shakespeare reviewed in this blog include:

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