Book review: Shakespeare's Originality, by John Kerrigan

It is one of the first things that schoolchildren learn about Shakespeare. He didn't make much up. Even the examples I was given '“ Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream or Prospero, Caliban and Ariel in The Tempest '“ have been chiselled away by scholarship. At university, this shifted towards an appreciation of what Shakespeare had read and how he had adapted his sources. I have fond memories of Geoffrey Bullough's eight-volume Narrative And Dramatic Sources Of Shakespeare. We learned about his use of Holinshed's Chronicles and North's translation of Plutarch, Arthur Brooke's The Tragicall Historye Of Romeus And Juliet and that before King Lear there was a play called King Leir, with a much happier ending. More recently, critical concentration has looked into Shakespeare's collaborative work, how he worked with George Wilkins on Pericles, Prince Of Tyre or maybe with Thomas Middleton on Macbeth. The most recent new edition of Shakespeare, the New Oxford Shakespeare, makes various attributions '“ to Christopher Marlowe, contentiously '“ and even adds in plays like Arden Of Faversham. Even last month, a study using plagiarism software found similarities between several parts of different plays to an unpublished manuscript, George North's A Brief Discourse Of Rebellion and Rebels. Whenever we think Shakespeare studies are exhausted, they prove inexhaustible.
John KerriganJohn Kerrigan
John Kerrigan

John Kerrigan is, to my mind, one of the most incisive and subtle contemporary writers on Shakespeare. His study of oaths and swearing – Shakespeare’s Binding Language – is magisterial. This book comprises versions of his Oxford Wells Shakespeare lectures and looks, closely, at this trickiest of questions: how original was Shakespeare? It takes in textual sources, innovation in stagecraft and the history of when Shakespeare became both the great original and the best of adaptors.

The book contains four essays or speeches: one on Much Ado About Nothing and Shakespeare being twigged by Robert Greene as an upstart crow, beautified with the feathers of others, and how Shakespeare may have responded; another on Richard III and the nature of “walking” or “limping” (taking in Lady Macbeth and As You Like It, and featuring a number of ingenious puns: a foot is a metrical measure as much as a way of crossing a stage); a bold piece on King Lear that tracks the origins back as far as the Oedipus myth; and a finale on The Tempest, a play which latterly became a metaphor for Shakespeare himself, the Prospero who consigns his magic staff to the deep at the end of his career (patently untrue: Shakespeare wrote at least three plays afterwards – The Two Noble Kinsmen, Henry VIII or All Is True and the lost Cardenio, which was almost certainly based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but it may well have been Fletcher that knew that work).

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Kerrigan is exceptionally good at unpicking how ideas of originality change. To go back to origins or to imitate was once thought a literary virtue. In the Romantic period, innovation and being an original, rather than drawing on origins, rose to the ascendance. Of particular interest, and an area I would like to see Kerrigan explore further, is the role of the 18th century novelist Charlotte Lennox, who wrote a book called Shakespear Illustrated: Or The Novels And Histories, On Which The Plays Of Shakespear Are Founded. Given Lennox’s most famous book is deliberately derivative and subversive – The Female Quixote – one wonders why she was so adamantine in “uncovering” Shakespeare.

There are points where Shakespeare’s first viewers would have easily recognised his source materials. Given it was a school text, at least some of the audience would realise that The Comedy Of Errors is based on the Menaechmi of Plautus. But Shakespeare doubles the twins. Likewise, Titus Andronicus is clearly indebted to Ovid and Seneca, but ups the ante again. It is as if Shakespeare was taking classical models and saying “anything you can do, I can do better”. It might be what pricked Greene into his snide rant against Shakespeare.

In his conclusion, Kerrigan says – I think quite correctly and eloquently – “We still have a need, it seems, to believe in original genius… I hope that this book has shown, not exactly how misguided this impulse is, but how much light and shade and depth and nuance are needed to comprehend Shakespeare’s use of sources, and how his recognizably early modern versions of originality are worth thinking about not because of the questions they answer but because of those they raise”. Hurrah to that, and would that each and every university took it as policy.

Yet the question remains: serial pilferer or “that darling child of Nature… always original, always new”? Given we live at a time where there are Fawlty Towers dinner parties and remakes of films that weren’t worth making in the first place, the question seems moot. We are used to the reboot and the remix and the remake. Kerrigan gives intellectual ballast to this idea. Whatever sources he took Hamlet from, only Shakespeare could write “To be or not to be, that is the question”. Or “taH pagh taHbe’, DaH mu’tlheghvam vIqelnIS” as it is in the original Klingon.

Shakespeare’s Originality, by John Kerrigan, Oxford University Press, £25