Category Archives: Philosophy

The Game

Warning: spoilers

I watched Ender’s Game last night, and, with only a vague memory of the novel by Orson Scott Card on which it is based, was newly struck by all the moral questions raised by the story. One or two of them – as with most things these days – seemed to connect with a few of the larger themes of my PhD, so I decided to write this post.

Ender’s Game tells the story of Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin, who is part of a cohort of children being trained to lead the Earth’s fleet of spaceships against the Formic menace. Fifty years ago, the Formic (a race, as their name indicates, of ant-like aliens) attacked earth but were repulsed thanks to the heroics of one Mazer Rackham. Now mankind, fearing a return of their fast-rebuilding enemy, is launching a final attack on the Formic homeworld in order to protect the future of the Earth. The plot can be divided into two sections: those moments spent in ‘battle school’ orbiting earth where Ender and the other children learn basic military strategy and Ender marks himself out as a leader; and, then, after some hesitation, Ender’s journey to ‘command school’, not far from the Formic homeworld, where he leads a team through simulated attacks against the aliens.

The twist of the story, however, is that, following Ender’s triumph in the last simulation when he fires a superweapon that erases all life from the planet below, all these simulated combats were in fact real battles. Ender’s game was actually reality, and, eager to show his strategic daring, the child prodigy has both committed genocide and sacrificed many thousands of human lives to do so. Despite knowing that this twist was coming, it still shocked me, while the film’s coda – in which Ender discovers one last Formic and promises to protect the creature – does little to assuage the horror.

This got me thinking. Right at the beginning of the film, and during an important interlude between ‘battle school’ and ‘command school’, Ender explains his tactical brilliance in the following terms:

In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.

What is so terrible about the ruse of claiming that Ender is playing a simulation, therefore, is that it prevents any meaningful contact between the child and his enemy, no matter how much he feels connected to him. The coda tries to redress this, and makes us realise that Ender was indeed slowly building up a rapport with the aliens all along, but this only confirms the ugly logic of it all. The sentiment that when you understand someone well enough to defeat him, you also love him should – one feels – be an argument for pacifism, for restraint based on sympathy. What the imposition of false make-believe has done is to remove that restraint so that the child ends up killing the enemy he has begun to understand and love.

Behind all this, there is the shape of an argument one often hears about video games and other immersive entertainments: that they create arenas of suspended morality, and so corrupt those who spend time in them. This brings me to the PhD, and an antitheatrical argument that has circulated for eons, which runs along similar lines, namely that the theatre exposes its audiences to experiences and ideas that they would never otherwise have had. If some of these ideas are dangerous, then the theatre, for all the safety of theatrical illusion, can still have a corrupting influence on those who watch or, perhaps even more so, on those who act out, night after night, the blinding of Gloucester, the murder of Banquo or any other such scene.

Against this, there is an argument that the theatre promotes sympathy and connection, stretches the emotional fibre of an audience (and an actor) forced to confront extreme situations, and so makes them stronger. What, I suppose, therefore, is ultimately so disturbing about Ender’s Game is how the simulation is used to close down the possibility of emotional development. The suggestion that it is all make-believe makes it easier to do something terrible. The game, the play, for a moment at least, suspended morality as much as it suspended disbelief.

BONUS: Coda on Shakespeare

This has just made me think of Hamlet. Does Laertes need the fencing match in order to kill Hamlet? The standard reading is that Laertes is furious and would attack the prince anywhere, but is restrained by Claudius into making it look like a fencing accident with the use of a sharpened, poisoned rapier. That said, could it not be that the structure, the game, of such a match helps Laertes to commit murder? After all, he has only to convince himself that it is, as it appears, no different from all the sportive bouts we know he has been having as part of his education in France. This would mean that, like Hamlet, Laertes too needs help to kill. Further, it would fit with other moments in the play. After all, even Hamlet, a bit earlier in the plot, seems to have tried to turn fiction to the real-life end of strengthening his resolve by staging the Murder of Gonzago to ascertain Claudius’s guilt…

Syncopation

I’ve been meaning to write this post ever since I went to a seminar on Stein’s idea of ‘syncopation’ in her essay ‘Plays’, and have decided to do it now, even if my memory of what happened is fast fading. Actually, the question of the temporality of response is one that fascinates Stein, so perhaps it’s for the better that I come to give my own response to her at a potentially problematic juncture.

Stein’s essay, for those who don’t know, is interesting in that it proposes the idea of ‘syncopation’ as a way of understanding the experience of a spectator at a play. Stein writes,

Your sensation as one in the audience in relation to the play played before you your sensation I say your emotion concerning that play is always either behind or ahead of the play at which you are looking and to which you are listening. So your emotion as a member of the audience is never going on at the same time as the action of the play.

I quote at length here to give you a sense of Stein’s own unique way of writing. In some respects this helps her argument, as it demands an unusual attentiveness from the reader. The key, and hard to miss, point here is that audience response is syncopated with respect to the performance, which is to say, “your emotion as a member of the audience is never going on at the same time as the action of the play”. Such a situation is what, according to Stein, “makes one endlessly troubled about a play”. For while excitement in real life occurs when “people … whom you know behave unexpectedly”, our limited knowledge of those characters we see on a stage prevents familiarity and so causes disquiet. Similarly, while real life provides the “completion of excitement”, the theatre simply allows “relief from excitement”. Behind all this is the larger idea that the stage is out of the audience’s control, so that they are always trying to catch up with it.

Pablo Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906
I don’t want to summarise this essay in too much detail, as it very much deserves to be read in its own right. I just want to finish this post with a few of my own comments on Stein’s idea of ‘syncopation’. First, I was struck by the way Stein’s essay reaches out into other disciplines for language to describe its aims. Music theory gives her ‘syncopation’, but later sections concerning how Stein herself managed the audience’s engagement with a play she wrote talk of “portraits” arranged in a network to create the effect of a “landscape”. Such a spatial model seems designed to resist syncopated responses. These words might also be indicative of the influence of Cubism on Stein’s dramaturgy, or it may simply be a case that Stein’s insights, like so many others’, depend on the importing of one discipline’s theoretical standpoints into another’s.

A second observation about syncopation is the question of whether the actor is as syncopated as the audience member. If the spectator is always trying to catch up, isn’t the actor (if they are not totally lost in the emotions of performance) always trying to prepare for the next line, the next move? Of course, this kind of syncopation, on the modern stage, can be extremely productive: ‘total theatre’ may try and drown out such syncopation on the part of the actors, while Brechtian performance will draw our attention to such tensions as part of its verfremdungseffekt.

I just imagine now the ideal version of a play (as far as such a thing is possible) as a line, a wave moving through time, and with the audience a little behind and the actors a little ahead. Yet the beat is and must be, I guess, always evident. I’ll leave you with that image.

Marian Hobson-Jeanneret and My Thesis

The first page of the book in question.
The first page of the book in question.

Following on from my post on Anne Barton (née Righter), this post is dedicated to Marian Hobson-Jeanneret (née Hobson), and, more particularly, her book The Object of Art: The Theory of Illusion in Eighteenth-Century France, published in 1982. Like Barton’s Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play, this book grew out of Hobson-Jeanneret’s thesis, so I’ll also be trying to work out, as I write, what I can learn from it for my thesis. For the most part, these will be different conclusions from those drawn the last time I did this, as this book is – for want of a better word – much more ‘theoretical’ than Barton’s.

The book’s aim is a large one: to trace the development of theories of illusion in eighteenth-century France across four major domains, the novel, the theatre, poetry and music. Needless to say, the breadth of knowledge demonstrated by such a book is breathtaking: the book’s bibliography exceeds thirty pages of very small print, and the index contains pretty much anyone you could think of as relevant to this topic. At the same time as being wide-ranging, however, Hobson-Jeanneret is also focussed on the topic of illusion, and manages, by the end of the text, to give a convincing account of how this concept evolved, just as Barton, by focussing on ‘the idea of the play’ is at once wide-ranging and specifically deep.

The introduction to The Object of Art contains a table, laying out some of the conceptual framework Hobson-Jeanneret has created for the discussion of illusion. I’ll reproduce it here:

S1: simulation
making itself like something which is not there
Adequatio
A1: seeming
the work seems (to be) (like) – it is not really
Contrary of Adequatio
S2: dissimulation
hides itself by some diversionary behaviour
Contrary of Aletheia
A2: appearing
shows itself, and points to something beyond
Aletheia

This framework, elaborated with the help of Gombrich, Hamon, Derrida and Plato, demands study. I can only get a grip on it by setting one side against the other: S1 vs A1 shows the importance of “it is not really”, and S2 vs A2 the importance of a direct relation to aletheia. The important S1 vs A2 (adequatio vs aletheia) distinction is explained by Hobson-Jeanneret as follows: “our attention is relayed by the appearance towards what is pointed at” in aletheia, while “adequatio, on the contrary, seeks a replica, a simulation, it excludes what is not truth, it presents the alternatives”. Such distinctions, and other new concepts introduced here (like papillotage), become clearer as the book dives into the worlds of writing around novels, plays, music and poetry, but this way of beginning a book is, I find, quite remarkable. It asks a lot of the reader, but does provide the tools the reader will learn to use better as they go on with the text. On top of this, such an interpretative grid, established before really entering into the eighteenth-century material, claims the potential for being extracted and used in other debates over ‘illusion’. Ultimately, therefore, as well as having a broad corpus of texts, Hobson-Jeanneret’s tight focus on illusion is, from the outset, itself aiming at broader applications.

With regard to my own work, I don’t know whether such a thing would be possible. At the moment, I don’t really have a single concept open to such anatomisation as Hobson-Jeanneret performs. I suppose I could obtain one by taking the concept of ‘performance’ and then breaking down the various ways of understanding it in the period, ranging from the ‘execution’ of a task to the mere appearance of doing something (doing it / feeling as though you’re doing it // not doing it / not feeling it). I suspect that if I took this road, the concept of ‘performance’ would become the limiting factor, the tight focus of my thesis, and so replace Shakespeare’s reception. Studying the concept of ‘performance’ in the eighteenth-century reception of Shakespeare would only provide me with a body of texts both too small and too unrepresentative to work with.

I’ve just been using The Object of Art to help me prepare my paper for Yale. Upon returning to the book, I noticed a few other things about the way it is written that might come in handy for my own work. The first of these is the density of Hobson-Jeanneret’s text, which is not so much the result of her style, but rather the sheer inter-connectedness of her way of writing. Individual points are hard to extract as each point grows out of another. This means that she is very hard to argue against, as each point justifies and is justified by another, with the whole ensemble serving as the foundation for her choice of subject. If I can get anywhere near such interrelation with my own writing, I will be very happy indeed. To be more precise, though, what is specifically striking is not so much the creation of a network, with lots of cross-references (although this is also present), but rather the linear way each point leads to the next, and this new topic then drives us forward into another. To be able to do this demands more than a grasp of a wide range of material, but a powerful logical approach to them as well.

My second main observation, and the last I will detail in this post, is Hobson-Jeanneret’s flair for neat and memorable expression. The chapter on plays (in the section on illusion and the theatre) concludes with a memorable use of the word ‘ogle’ in the summary of how perceptions of what plays should be evolved (from aletheia to adequatio, as defined above):

Conventional tragedy refers away from what it is: it ogles a meaning which is not within it; like certain scurrilous novels it is often à clé; it clearly accepts theatrical convention and sharpens it to an extreme of artificiality; its defenders use the theory of voluntary illusion. The reform of drama, on the contrary, tries to make meaning and play coincide: signs are to be eliminated in favour of the thing signified.

Another example, and one I’m currently quoting in a draft of the NEASECS 2013 paper, is Hobson-Jeanneret’s description of Garrick’s role in Diderot’s thought about the theatre:

Just as Chardin’s [i.e. a painter’s] work and talk may have forced Diderot to recognise the role of technique in creation, so it is round the figure of Garrick that the recognition that the art object is imaginary crystallises

Overall then, whether it encourages me to think of my research in more abstract terms, or provides an example of powerful and memorable argumentation, The Object of Art has been pretty useful for my thesis. This is, of course, without even really mentioning the many detailed and clear observations it makes on eighteenth-century material that have been extremely useful for my general understanding of this area. I suspect that I may have portrayed Hobson-Jeanneret as too theoretical here, and so it’s important to note in this final sentence that, like all good concept-heavy approaches, this one also has deep textual roots.

A School for Hazlitt

I am not a Hazlitt specialist, but I do enjoy reading and studying his writing a great deal. So I spent Saturday 14th September at UCL listening to a series of lectures on ‘Hazlitt and the Theatre’. They were all good, and, as a consequence, there is no way I could summarise them all here. I’ll settle for noting that I learnt from Claire Sheridan some of Hazlitt’s techniques for criticising utilitarianism; from John Stokes, the correspondences between Hazlitt and Oscar Wilde; from Marcus Risdell, so much about ‘theatrical performance portraiture’; and from Peter Thompson, the curiously parallel lives of Hazlitt and the actor who so often inspired him, Edmund Kean: ‘Aut Caesar aut nihil’ as they both said, for example. I’ll now give the rest of this report to Tom Lockwood’s talk on reading and performance in Hazlitt’s lectures, which was the first of the day, and, as luck would have it, relevant to the work I’m currently doing for NEASECS 2013.

William Hazlitt, Self Portrait, c. 1802

The central point of the talk was that Hazlitt’s last lecture series ‘On the Dramatic
Literature of the Age of Elizabeth’ is remarkable for taking the relationship of page to stage as one of its topics and so containing no small element of self-scepticism. Because of this, the lines between reading and performance blur: how does Hazlitt read/perform his long quotations from Elizabethan drama? Does he sing the songs his lecture cites? We will never know, but what is clear is that so many of the comments he makes about the plays and their writers prompt reflections on the lecturer as well. The clearest example of this was the juxtaposition of the following two passages.

First, from an analysis of Webster:

The author’s power is in the subject, not over it; or he is in possession of excellent materials, which he husbands very ill.

Then from Hazlitt’s own exhausted conclusion to the lectures:

I have done: and if I have done no better, the fault has been in me, not in the subject.

Both quotations show, of course, the same ideas: a writer possessed of great material, but unable to make the most of it. Lockwood remarked that the year Hazlitt gave these lectures (1820) was also the last year Coleridge lectured, making it seem as if an era of criticism was ending. Looking back over the handout from the event, it certainly seems that way, so many of the passages quoted sound tired and drained: “I have half trifled with this subject”, “the great characteristic of the elder dramatic writers is, that there is nothing theatrical about them”.

That last citation brings me to the apsect of this talk, more than the others, that caught my attention: the overview Lockwood gave of Hazlitt (and Lamb’s) antitheatricality. Lamb is important here as he lent Hazlitt most of the materials for these lectures, not to mention corresponding about and talking through them with his friend. Perhaps as a result of the increasingly melodramatic acting style of the early nineteenth century, perhaps for other reasons, both Hazlitt and Lamb argue that many of our great plays are best appreciated as we read them and not as we see them acted. Another quotation is in order here, this time from Lamb, on King Lear

So to see Lear acted, – to see an old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick, turned out of doors by his daughters in a rainy night, has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting. We want to take him into shelter and relieve him. That is all the feeling which the acting of Lear ever produced in me. But the Lear of Shakespeare cannot be acted.

The master-stroke of Lockwood’s talk was to connect this hostility to the stage, the uncomfortable focus on the ‘walking stick’ and the worry about the actor, with the self-critical atmosphere of Hazlitt’s own lectures, as they blurred the distinction between reading and performing. A description of the lectures survives, for example, which has a similar balance of emotions to Lamb’s writing about Lear, the same nagging attention to the material. With it, I’ll end this report, conscious that I, like W.H. have perhaps been leaning too heavily on citations in this post:

He was not so nervous as he had been on the two prior occasions; but a person who was present tells me that he hitched up his knee-breeches continually in a very distressing manner, for they kept slipping over his hips through the want of braces, and disclosing bits of shirt.

Anne Barton and My Thesis

I came across Anne Barton’s Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play on a nicely named ‘local interest’ shelf at the Chaucer Head bookshop, Stratford-upon-Avon. The title immediately leapt out at me, as it offered a way of formulating my own thoughts on Shakespeare and drama in the eighteenth-century: the phrase ‘the idea of’ neatly allows Barton to both talk about concrete realities of the stage and the metaphorical uses of such realities, something I’d very much like to do in my own research. Turning the book over to look at the blurb, I noted that this book started life as Barton’s thesis, something at once encouraging (a real book may come of a thesis on Shakespeare and the stage) and frightening (this thesis book was not only published in 1962, but then reissued into this Penguin Shakespeare Library edition five years later, presumably because of its popularity). Needless to say, I bought the slim volume for £3.75 (it was originally five shillings), eager to find out what Barton had to say, but also how she says it, given the similarity of our interests, if not of our time periods.

Barton’s approch is impressive. She divides the book into two halves, the first offering an insightful description of how plays from the thirteenth century to the mid-1500s speak about the nature of plays themselves. A lot of this section is to do with audiences, how they were first deeply implicated in the religious blend of drama and ceremony of medieval texts, before shifting to be represented by a ‘double’, the ‘Mankind’ or ‘Everyman’ of morality plays. The over-arching theme becomes the question of how the audience is excluded or included in the world of the play, with Elizabethan drama reaching the precarious equilibrium whereby the ‘play world’ excludes the audience at the same time as recognising its presence. A typical paragraph from this half of the book, stunning in the breadth of knowledge that must underwrite all such apparently simple description, merits quotation.

Half ceremonial, half drama, the guild plays which developed outside the Church were poised precariously between ritual and art. The people who crowded about the pageant on the feast of Corpus Christi formed an audience, certainly, but an audience actively involved in the performance of a community rite, a re-accomplishment of sacred history. By the fifteenth century, the special demands of the Morality form had produced an alteration in this relationship of actors and audience. The audience now depended upon a double, in the form of the central character for its part in the action. It was granted a second role as well, that of enlightened Mankind, which permitted it a greater measure of distance from the events of the play. Gradually, the spectators assumed possession of reality, while the world of the stage dwindled. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the tradition of the audience as actor became more a hindrance than an asset.

Once she has brought the narrative up to the dawn of Shakespeare’s time, Barton closes the first half and devotes the rest of the book to a close reading of Shakespeare’s use of ‘the idea of the play’. This remains more or less chronological, allowing her to trace Shakespeare’s artistic debts and innovations, as well as his development. Beginning with the early comedies, she then analyses the motif of the ‘player king’ (very much a Shakespearean innovation, albeit connected to such ancient tropes as the ‘May King’) before tackling Hamlet and Julius Caesar as the apogee of Shakespeare’s confidence in the power of the stage. Next she identifies a decline in such confidence, with unflattering portraits of players and audiences in Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and more. This then gives way to a new approach in the ‘romances’, particularly The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, where illusion tends to become reality: Perdita, for example, plays the role of a queen at the shepherds’ festivities, only to be discovered an actual princess a few scenes later. This point about the ‘romances’ is very similar to one made by Barton at greater length in Essays, Mainly Shakespearean, which I discovered as an undergraduate.

The final few pages describe the way in which Shakespeare’s late plays break down the barriers and subterranean connections between stage and reality, notably in Prospero’s “Our revels now are ended” speech. This sweeping away leads directly into the Jacobean fondness for masques, whose involvement of audience and actors in a mix of drama and ceremony brings us almost full circle, back to a secular version of the medieval plays Barton began with. Such a relation between plays and reality destroys the fragile and productive equilibrium of Shakespeare’s stage, meaning that this aspect of the golden age of British play-writing, even before the closure of the theatres in 1642, was “gone beyond recall”.

What did I learn from Barton’s methods? First, that despite the title’s emphasis on ‘Shakespeare’, she is not shackled to the bard, and her book is all the better for being about more than just William. In my own work, I should also be prepared to dive into the prehistory of each area before examining Shakespeare’s place within it: the French sources of English acting manuals, or the methods of classical scholarship that informed the editing of Shakespeare.

The book in question, Anne Barton being Anne Righter before marriage.

Second, the organisation of this book in chronological order, paired with a division into two parts, each with their own chapters and sub-chapters, makes this text very easy to read, with a clear sense of one’s position in the argument. Part 1, Chapter 1, Sub-section 3 is on early drama, specifically mystery cycles and morality plays, and even more specifically on the ‘tyranny of the audience’ over how things could be represented. Such organisation is again testament to Barton’s formidable command of her material, but also an awareness of the needs of an academic reader of any level. If I can, I would like to bring some chronological organisation to my work, although (given my current skeleton) this will be at a chapter and not at a thesis-wide level. Similarly, I will certainly need to break chapters down into subsections, not just for my own sanity but also to provide a logical and clear map to any reader.

Last, but not least, I enjoyed Barton’s willingness to let the texts speak for themselves. She quotes a great deal, and lets what she means by ‘the idea of the play’ emerge naturally as something multifarious and constantly evolving. In part, this is because other elements of her study are very clearly defined: she sticks closely to theatrical texts, with only brief sallies into Plato, Francis Bacon and other prose thinkers. In the Shakespeare section, she focuses all her attention on the text, avoiding discussion of staging or other theatrical conventions unless they are built into what Shakespeare wrote. There is nothing here on collaboration, for example. I suppose the lesson here involves what one must sacrifice to get a coherent narrative, the importance of something stable (i.e. the focus on the playtext) in the telling of a complex narrative. As things stand with my thesis, I suspect that I still have too many moving parts: potential simplifications could involve the concentration on the figure of the ‘Shakespearean Actor’, removing anything on ‘dramatic illusion’ unless directly relevant.

As well as all this thought about the ‘how’ of Barton’s book, I also picked up some useful ‘what’. I’ll summarise it here in a few bullet-point observations with no particular order:

  1. The eighteenth-century interest in the connection between actor and dramatist (Garrick being seen as Shakespeare’s double) pulls against what Barton identifies as a tendency in Elizabethan drama to connect dramatist and audience. That said, Prospero is both actor in and dramatist of his own world, proving Shakespeare’s own evolution.
  2. Shakespeare was very unusual amongst his contemporaries for rarely including references to contemporary theatrical conditions. I guess this made him “not for an age, but for all time”…
  3. Many of the plays Elizabeth Montague discusses in her Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare are grouped by Barton as evidence of Shakespeare’s most unique responses to the idea of the play: the player king in the histories, Brutus and Cassius’ descriptions of themselves as actors, and Hamlet’s use of illusion as a weapon.

Points one and three fit into a chapter on dramatic illusion, while point two doesn’t yet have a home unless it be the introduction. Whether I use the material or not, Barton’s book has already taught me a lot.

What an actor knows…

Kemble as Hamlet in 1802

In 1785, Thomas Whately was persuaded to publish something he’d first drafted in the 1760s and put back in the cupboard in order to work on a treatise on Modern Gardening. This was his Remarks on the Characters of Shakespeare, which, when it finally did appear, had some success (whether more or less than the gardening manual, I don’t know), a third edition being published in 1839, and many of Whately’s points incorporated into Steevens’s annotated edition of Shakespeare’s plays in the final few decades of the eighteenth century. The text has some similarities to Richardson and Morgann’s ‘character criticism’. It caught my interest, though, for the scathing critique published of it by the actor John Philip Kemble in 1786, which brings to bear the authority of what an actor knows to counter the critic.

In Whately’s defence, he begins his book with the stage. Connecting his study of ‘character’ in Shakespeare to the foundations of successful performance.

[…]there is, within the colder provinces of judgment and knowledge, a subject for criticism, more worthy of attention than the common topics of discussion: I mean the distinction and preservation of character, without which the piece is at best a tale, not an action; for the actors in it are not produced upon the scene.

Having made this point, however, Whately then studies the characters of Macbeth and Richard III in a vacuum (not, as Morgann and Richardson call them, ‘dramatic’ characters). He reaches the following conclusion:

In Richared it is intrepidity, and in Macbeth no more than resolution: in him [Macbeth] it proceeds from exertion, not from nature; in enterprise he betrays a degree of fear, though he is able, when occasion requires, to stifle and subdue it

Enter Kemble.

Kemble’s problem with Whately is simple enough: if Whately is right and Macbeth such a man, then the audience would not connect with the performance and the stage offer no moral instruction. Kemble puts it better than I can.

If Macbeth is really what Mr Whately and Mr Steevens would have him pass for, we must undergo our virtuous satisfaction in his repugnance to guilt, for it arises from mere cowardice; nor can we take any salutary warning from his remorse, for it is only the effect of imbecility. The stage will not conduce to our improvement, by presenting to us the example of a wretch who is uniformly the object of our contempt.

From this dilemma, the course of Kemble’s response is clear: he must prove Macbeth a better person that Whately makes him out to be. To do this, Kemble begins by assembling descriptions of Macbeth by other characters in the play. One might object here that these descriptions are hardly trustworthy, but Kemble answers this critique with an actor’s awareness of Shakespeare’s dramatic economy.

The shortness of the time allotted for the performance of a play, usually makes it impracticable to allow the principal personages space sufficient for their unfolding themselves gradually before the spectator; it is, therefore, a necessary and beautiful artifice with dramatic writers, to bring us in great measure acquainted with them, before they are visibly engaged in action on the stage; where, without this previous delineation, their proceedings might often appear confused and sometimes perhaps be unintelligible.

Needless to say, Kemble extracts a great deal in favour of his reading of Macbeth from the comments of others. He then furthers his argument with reference to Banquo and Macduff, comparing their behaviour to Macbeth’s. At one point, criticising Whately’s analysis of Banquo, Kemble goes so far as to blur the lines between watching a play and reading it.

A play is written on some event, for the purpose of being acted; and plays are so inseparable from the notion of action that, in reading them, our Reflexion, necessarily bodying forth the carriage which it conceives the various characters would sustain on the stage, becomes its own theatre, and gratifies itself with an ideal representation of the piece: This operation of the mind demonstrates that Mr Whateley has, in this place, once more misconstrued Shakespeare; for there is no risk in saying, that the eye of a spectator would turn, offended, from the affront offered to credibility, by the impassive levity of manner set down for Banquo in the Remarks.

The point of this passage is to offer a model for close-reading, that of close observation at the theatre, where Kemble’s superior knowledge as an actor allows him to crush Whately’s point. If we imagine the performance of the play we’re reading, then it follows that Kemble’s reading of Macbeth will be superior, so superior that any errors of interpretation would be just as evident as they would be on the stage.

Not content, however, with trouncing Whately. Kemble wages another war in his footnotes. Here, and I am now quoting from a later, expanded edition of Kemble’s pamphlet, he is keen to defend Heminge and Condell – the actor-editors, maligned by Johnson – and Steevens, who recycled Whately for his notes.

If Heminge and Condell were, in fairness, chargeable with all the faults which Mr Steevens, their unsparing censor, industriously lays to their account; still they have not done Shakespeare half the injury he would receive, if the interpolations, omissions, and transpositions of the edition of 1803 should ever be permitted to form the text of his works. […because] Mr Steevens had no ear for the colloquial metre of our old dramatists: it is not possible, on any other supposition, to account for the whimsical desire, and the pains he takes, to fetter the enchanting freedom of Shakespeare’s numbers, and compel them into the heroic march and measured cadence of epic versification. The native wood notes wild that could delight the cultivated ear of Milton, must not be modulated anew, to indulge the fastidiousness of those who read verses by their fingers.

Again, there is another example of the actor’s superior knowledge: the actor hears Shakespeare’s lines, whereas the editor is reduced to the dull labour of regularising meters better left irregular.

I’m yet to find other texts like Kemble’s pamphlet. It is a rare example of a performers disdain for those writing on Shakespeare without an actor’s knowledge of the stage. It would be such a pity if such texts did not come down to us, when so much editorial quibbling does. In fairness, neither Kemble nor Garrick were above such quibbles in their writing, but that’s a story for another day.