La Haine de Shakespeare

There’s  a conference this December entitled ‘La haine de Shakespeare’, part of a larger research project at the Sorbonne on ‘La haine du théâtre’. After going to one of their colloques, I really wanted to take part myself, and was glad of what seemed like an ideal opportunity.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t come up with a reasonable idea for a paper. Almost all my research is about people’s adoration of Shakespeare, not the reverse. I guess I could have written on how the lovers of the bard portray (and to a certain extent, create) anti-Shakesperians, but this seemed at the time both an obvious and difficult approach.

Thankfully, I got a little extra time from the conference organisers, and used it to put together a rather different proposal, one which plays upon the ambiguity of the French title for this event. ‘La haine de Shakespeare’ means, of course, both ‘the hatred direct at Shakespeare’ and ‘the hatred directed by Shakespeare’. It’s the latter I’m going to focus on in nine months’ time, following – more or less – this tardily-submitted abstract:

Shakespeare’s Hatred of the Stage

In a recent work on philosophy and love, Ruwen Ogien points out that while “le problème épistémologique de l’amour c’est qu’il existe une infinité de raisons d’aimer qui peuvent faire le travail de justification”, there are “peu de raisons de haïr qui suffisent à faire le travail de justification”. Hatred is hard to justify. This paper argues that several English editors of Shakespeare’s plays in the eighteenth century found in their material a rich source of justifications for their own hatred of performance, and other, less literary aspects of the playtext. Searching for the intentions of the author, they imagine Shakespeare’s own hatred of the theatre as a cover to their own dislike of performance.

With regard to “la haine de Shakespeare”, this paper does not, therefore, deal with an editorial hatred of Shakespeare but rather with editors’ attempts to show both what Shakespeare hated and how such sentiments coincide with their own anti-performance sympathies. Alexander Pope, in the preface to his 1725 version of the plays, is the first to extrapolate authorial antipathy from Hamlet’s wish that “those who play the Clowns wou’d speak no more than is set down for them”. In so doing, Shakespeare, speaking through the mouth of a danish Prince, supports the editors view that the “interpolations of the actors” are to blame for the manifest corruption of the transmitted text.

After Pope, both William Warburton (1747) and Samuel Johnson (1765) hypothesise about Shakespeare’s hatred. Warburton’s suggests that, in Hamlet, the Player’s account of Priam’s death is no parody but rather a way for the author to “upbraid the false taste of the audience of that time”. Johnson, for his part, finds that in the portrayal of Bottom “Shakespeare takes advantage of his knowledge of the theatre, to ridicule the prejudices and competitions of the players”.

All these examples and more feed into a polarisation of literary editing. While some editors of this period, like Nicholas Rowe and Lewis Theobald (both dramatists as well as editors) were keen to emphasise how performance may have been beneficial to Shakespeare’s work, many more, from Pope onwards, concentrate on Shakespeare the poet. An important part of this emphasis is the exclusion of other agents from the creation of the plays: what better way to do it than with authorisation from Shakespeare himself?

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