Criticizing Classics

Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: / Teaching / Scholarship /
@ K. 1998


Perfect? or Improvable?

In the ‘Sixties, while formulating my thesis on the cybernetic nature of Shakespeare’s sonnets, I kept seeing it expand into a series of scholarly papers not to mention a less scholarly book aimed for a popular readership. Simultaneously, I chaffed at the need for papers and books on another area of Shakespeare criticism: actually, one perhaps better generalized to apply to all supreme artists and geniuses: how do we dare monkey with them?

That thesis, in simple, would argue that:


Yes, we may assume that they are not infallible

We must also acknowledge that in the most important cases, Homer, Sophocles, Chaucer, Shakespeare … we do not have precise knowledge of their actual manuscripts (Homer had none but his mind) …

We may also grant that our notions of supremacy, whatever our rhetoric, are subject to revision: Babe Ruth’s records have been broken … perhaps the snot-nosed kid who annoys you in class may actually surpass Hamlet by the time he’s thirty …



Once an artist has been acclaimed as a supreme genius by a variety of generations and cultures, we should exercise a little caution before believing that we know better, that we can improve the work.

In sum: Yes, there must be flaws; but we should refrain from assuming we can know them. What you see as a flaw someone else may come to see as a major virtue.

All things have an invisible history beyond what we can trace. I recall, for example, listening with interest to James Zito expostulate on how Olivier had taken the known text(s) of Hamlet, shuffled them, and served up a cinematic Shakespearean hash. But I know that my inspiration on the subject clarified for me while reading Marjorie Nicholson on Milton’s Paradise Lost. That influential critic suggested that Milton had missed a great opportunity in not having Satan do something or other at the end of Book II. A responsible critic would find the volume, rescan it, and cite with precision … (Sorry: I regard it more important to make the point at all than to make it with precision. I’ll check it if I ever find the book or the time.) My recollection is that she wanted Armageddon rescheduled. Marjorie Nicholson is perfectly welcome in my mind to produce a movie, Marjorie Nicholson’s Paradise Lost, and do with it what she likes. She can use Milton’s poetry: the copyrights have expired. But she’d better call it her Paradise Lost.

This tendency is especially rife in Shakespeare studies. As an undergraduate I’d had trouble enough reading some of the plays carefully; I certainly couldn’t find time to read any of the criticism. In graduate school, I no longer had that luxury (however little of it I may have actually wound up reading anyway): and much of what I did read drove me crazy.

I’ll return and provide examples, but for the moment I wish to discuss the phenomenon in general. A note here reports recent scholarship on variants among the manuscripts for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. New techniques of dating by bacteria in the parchments suggest that the word “experiment” has more authority versus the normally printed “experience” than formerly thought. Chaucer could well have written both, been unable to make up his own mind. One quarto version of Hamlet has the prince say “solid flesh”; another has him say “sullied.” The change could reflect a slip by Burbage, the actor who played the role. Perhaps the variant was the responsibility of an understudy whose memory was relied on by the printers. Perhaps the change was suggested backstage by Shakespeare himself midway through the third performance. Perhaps Burbage was indulged in using whatever words were comfortable to him at the moment. Perhaps Shakespeare himself made later “corrections” based on such collaboration. Why not? He was the “author” but the company was a team. The one thing that’s clear is that we don’t know. (I know I am not the only person who sat in the Sheridan for The Hostage while author, Brendan Behan, reimprovised the play from the audience.)

I’d been reading the Nicholson not long after attending a film with wife, an old roommate, his sisters, and one sister’s boyfriend. I didn’t care much for it, but the film had won an award. [The Haunting, 1963] We went for coffee. The boyfriend offered that he would have directed the film differently. (Why so would anyone, but hold your solo till it’s your chorus. (And everyone should get a chorus!)) I was annoyed because I believed we should have been discussing the film we’d seen first, and then added whatever we wanted.

Here’s an opportunity to tell in print a long favorite story: Artistic talent and ambition took the young Domenikos Theotokopoulos from Greece to Italy where all such talent accumulated in the middle of the Sixteenth Century. The Counter Revolution was just beginning. Michelangelo’s robustly nude figures were coming to embarrass the incipiently Puritan Church. Proposals were invited from contemporary artists. (The winning bids wound up painting obscene little wisps of drapery over key areas of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.) Young Theotokopoulos suggested that they tear it down and he’d redo the whole thing from scratch. The result was that he was forced to flee to Spain where he came to be known as El Greco.

(I’m glad we still have Michelangelo’s masterpiece, but I’d love to have seen El Greco’s attempt. I do not assume it would not have equaled it. I do not assume it couldn’t have surpassed it. (I do backwards-predict that it wouldn’t have been obscene!) I ardently believe that the young should be given opportunities. [note] I prefer clubs where anyone can sit in over “Carnegie Hall” where you’re normally supposed to shush and passively consume Beethoven’s esthetic experience, however passionate and sublime his composition may have proved.) (Indeed, the reason I’m impoverished is that I have always stood and said “Junk the school system, the universities, the phone system, the libraries, the news-media, the government … I can do it better.”)

Don’t wait for me to return with examples in Shakespeare: find some yourself. One area where you’ll already find examples on both sides, is in Shakespeare’s timing of comic relief: attacked by some; defended by others: the porter in Macbeth, the grave scene in Hamlet


Opportunities: I was once lucky enough to be visiting The Five Spot, Charlie Mingus appearing, three AM, 1961, Percy Heath, finished with the MJQ over at the Vanguard and paying late-night homage to his peer, the only audience prior to me walking in with my girl. The next person to arrive was blind. Actually, he was a whole troop of persons, carrying at minimum a half-dozen instrument cases. A chief go-fer went up to Mingus and asked if this scion could sit in. Mingus knew Heath was there: a pro: another genius. Then there was this oh-fay couple just arrived. Sure, he shrugged.

Few outside of Chicago had heard of Roland Kirk at the turn of the decade. Well, we heard plenty from him after that. The blind guy stood while his friends hooked a variety of reed instruments around his neck. Everyone, Mingus, the guy’s in the band, Heath, me, Alice looked quizzical. What the hell is going on?

Mingus nodded, Danny Richmond helped him kick into a blues … and all hell broke loose. The blind guy stuck two or three of the reeds into his mouth and started some funky honking. Mingus’ jaw dropped open. He stopped played and just watched and listened. Then he spun his bass back into position. He’d been playing hard before, as always; but now he tripled his attack. I’ve heard Mingus play great bass before, but never the equal of what followed. The other horns got into it. The blind guy certainly wasn’t holding anything back. It was like a life’s genius squeezed into one solo. The ideas, the rhythms, they cascaded … Mingus embraced the guy, said, “You play with me … we make one, two million dollars … one or two days.”

Fact is, I had heard of Roland Kirk before that. I’d had a classmate at Columbia, a certain Frank … He was a case. A pusher, bragged about his guns and his victories: a compulsive liar, I knew; but I also never knew how much of his line might be truth. One thing was for sure: he didn’t just play Blakey-like drums and a mean, historically informed piano (once he played a seminar for me in chronologically ordered jazz piano styles), he knew more about jazz than anyone I ever imagined. And other music(s) too: one day in 1958 or so I’m trying to tell him about Ravi Shankar. “Oh, man, you must mean Ali Akbar Khan, maybe his father, Abdul: those old guys cook, but there’s this young guy …” And it turned out he meant Shankar too. I try to tell him about Georges Brassens … “Oh, man, those French: bouncy-bouncy … and that stupid cigar he smokes in a pipe …” So, he didn’t like it, but he knew him.

Frank had been the first guy to tell me when Ornette Coleman hit town. Brand new to the “world,” but Frank had his history. So on another day Frank says, “You talk about who’s best: there’s a guy in Chicago … No one’s ever heard of him outside Chi, but he’ll cut most and match almost all the rest …” And now here he was on the stand of the Five Spot. Nothing exaggerated.

My point is about opportunity, but having introduced this cast of characters, I can’t resist another couple of fast stories: Speaking of Coleman, in the later ‘Sixties I visited an old girl friend. She’d been my first real love and we checked on each other every few years. Guy walks into the room in a stove pipe hat. Looked familiar. Yeah, she’d been giving Ornette a place to stay for some time. By the ‘Eighties I learned that Alice had lived with him too: for years. Jackie, then Alice: taking care of Ornette.

Jealous? No, proud. I never paid much attention to one girl I kept finding in my bed in the later ‘Fifties until she told me she’d had a fantasy about Horace Silver.

Once more memory of Alice. Once at the Gate, I sat her in front of Elvin Jones. “You can’t help pay attention to ‘Trane: pay attention to Elvin too.” She did. Within a few hours, she had a glow on her, a radiance. Jones saw it. He grinned as he stepped in front of us on the way out. Thought he’d wet his whistle for sure. “Some set, man.” And we walked around him.

(Speaking of Brendan Behan, he was another who’d been repulsed from her pants. With Alice I think that was a matter of timing: he may have been accepted on another occasion. On another occasion she might have ditched me and gone with Elvin. You never knew what was happening with Alice.)

Chaucer MS Variants: “Experience” has not only been the authoritative opening word for Chaucer’s Prologue to the Wife of Bath’s Tale throughout my life; it’s been the only serious candidate. No longer. Science News, Sept 26, 1998 reports scholars using their knowledge of microbial evolution to review the authority of the 58 variant MSS of the Wife of Bath’s Tale. “Experiment” now seems to be a legitimate contender.

Naturally, I hated it. For about thirty seconds. Then I thought, Wait a minute: That’s almost as good. That’s just as good! By God, the Renaissance was aborning. Roger Bacon had already done experiments: a century earlier. The variant is not necessarily a scribal error; Chaucer himself could have written it both ways. It could have been his first choice.

In the context of my point about nominalism, the meaning is the same.

Scholars will recognize what I’m talking about without further explanation. But even they should appreciate what a nice job SN did with the concept:

Recently, literary scholars got help from an unlikely source — a pair of biologists who have used computers to track microbial evolution. Adrian C. Barbrook and Christopher J. Howe of the University of Cambridge in England had previously constructed family trees showing how sets of species were related to common ancestors. Howe, who has an interest in medieval manuscripts, hit upon the idea of using the same software for a new application, tracing the evolution of the varying Chaucer texts. …

The early copyists, who were probably working from various drafts of Chaucer’s never-finished manuscript, introduced errors, which Barbrook likens to genetic mutations. Other scribes made additional copies of those copies, and changes to the text persisted and multiplied. Gradually, distinct versions evolved — the literary equivalent of new species of life, he says.


Poor us. Samson would have be drilled as a youth that there was only one God. But when he courted Delilah he would have encountered another score of them. Catholics were introduced to a single Latin Bible but it’s six hundred years since its Greek course was in danger of being rediscovered. I was raised knowing of a score of Bibles, but disdained to read any but the King James version. The trusting public picks up a copy of Hamlet, believing it to be by Shakespeare. And so it is. But exactly what he actually wrote we don’t know. The published book is some scholar’s (some stack of scholars’) more or less educated guess.

2013 11 22 I’m glad to get this scribble back up but I’m embarrassed at how much more work it needs.


About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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