A Stirling Conference (III)

This wil be my last post, and will be just as egocentric as the last two. It will also deal with plenaries. Following on from de Grazia, the next eminent scholar to speak was Colin Burrow of All Souls, Oxford (charmingly mis-titled, All Scouts’ College). He spoke on ‘Shakespeare’s Authorities’, and made five “crazy” (his word) claims, which the audience, I’m sure, all believed by the end of his ninety-minute session.

  1. We should talk of Shakespeare’s authorities, not Shakespeare’s sources.
  2. The distinction between narrative and non-narrative sources is useless.
  3. Plays can be seen as an ‘argument’ of interacting authorities.
  4. Some of Shakespeare’s authorities were in Latin.
  5. Textual authorities often cluster around other moments of authority.

In terms of pure technique, it is interesting to note that Burrow, like de Grazia, also operated by elaborating the ramifications of a change in terms: ‘modernisms’ replaced ‘anachronisms’ earlier, and now ‘authorities’ replace ‘sources’.

It was only as I was going over my notes from this session that something very useful for my own work emerged from Burrow’s fifth bullet point. His idea that textual authorities cluster around moments of authority might make for an interesting way of thinking about adaptations of Shakespeare. Burrow’s point is best illustrated by his observation that it was common in Shakespeare’s time to multiply references to other texts as a way of multiplying the emotional impact of a specific moment. Hence we find lots of instances where Lear half-remembers Seneca’s De Irae or De Beneficiis; or Hamlet Thyestes.

Now, it is an idea of mine that adaptation of Shakesepare in the eighteenth century paid particular attention to the creation of powerful moments of emotional transition. Just as in Shakespeare’s time, moments of emotional intensity give rise to battlegrounds of textual authority. Of course, many adapters simplify Shakespeare into sentimental caricature and so eliminate his polyphonous use of other texts, but sometimes, those adapters also turn to authorities of their own, be they textual or, perhaps more commonly, performance. Garrick inserts an emotional climax to Macbeth, a scene where he, as the hero, would die on stage, and this insertion represents a conjunction of theatrical, physical, performance authority and emotional intensity.

I realise that I have wandered far from Colin Burrow’s original ideas here, but this is the fun of such things. It is also, I suppose, a sign that I should bring this series to an end. I hope you enjoyed reading it.


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