the philosopher of human possibility

A.D. Nuttall – Shakespeare the Thinker

Language most shows a man: speak that I may see thee. - Ben Jonson

Shakespeare the thinker? Better say, Shakespeare the Bandersnatch. Nuttall's title is mischievous – Puckish, if you will – but lodged within it is a profound, unexpected idea. No suggestion that Shakespeare was a 'thinker' in the sense that Francis Bacon was a thinker, or Sir Thomas More. Root around for a systematic programme of 'thought' in the plays and you'll return empty-handed: this much is a truism. Rather, the late A.D. Nuttall, in this, his last study of the playwright, contends that the Shakespearean corpus can be read as an extended essay on the essential peculiarity of our being in the world.

Ted Hughes believed that the plays formed a coherent, mythopoeic whole: Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being – gloriously crackpot, unacademic, a rattle bag of unorthodox insight – unlocked the psycholinguistic genome buried within the poetry and plays, the Tragic Equation (as Hughes termed it) out of which the work sprang. Shakespeare's drama feels at times so inexhaustibly various, so prodigal, that it seems a natural response to want to codify and contain it. (Coleridge spoke of Shakespeare's 'myriad-mindedness'.) For Hughes, in spite of the boundlessness of Shakespeare's creative resources, a single unitary impulse was at work in them. The plays could be read as one poem, one narrative, ramifying endlessly from a kind of internalised creation myth. A.D. Nuttall would quite possibly have objected to this reductionism, for much the reason that he objected to the reductive procedures of the New Historicism. He stresses the thought-in-motion aspect of the plays: like Donne's poetry, Shakespeare's work – play by play, scene by scene, line by line - is the time-lapse record of a thinking mind, in all its exploratory fluidity and dynamic restlessness. He might not have set down a final, definitive summa of his ideas on art, politics, history – as had Ben Jonson in his 'Timber: or Discoveries' and the 'Conversations with William Drummond' - but Shakespeare can be caught thinking, consistently and subtly, throughout. “His thought,” Nuttall puts it, “is never still.”

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Poignantly – he died in January of this year – Nuttall relates a chat with an acquaintance, met in the street, in the preface to Shakespeare the Thinker: “I said, 'I'm writing an unforgivably long book on Shakespeare,' and then added, 'You know how there's a tradition whereby formerly lively minds produce in old age unduly mellow books on Shakespeare.' This was his cue to say, 'Oh, yours won't be like that.' Instead, he looked gravely at me and said, 'When you find yourself writing about his essential Englishness, you must stop.'” Frank Kermode likewise produced an 'unduly mellow book' in his Shakespeare's Language: with no axes to grind, no tenure to negotiate, no one to impress and nothing to prove, Kermode gave us one of the most uncomplicatedly valuable books of Shakespearean criticism we yet have. How does Nuttall fare?

Shunning the Grand Narrative gambit so favoured by the New Historicists, Nuttall primes the critical pump with a series of lightsome readings of the earlier plays – lightsome, but not superficial. He possessed the deepest acquaintance with the work. He understood, too, that Shakespeare was learning his craft on the hoof. Examining the progression from Shakespeare's apprentice work – the early chronicle plays are a kind of point d'appui, because they show the playwright to be trying to balance formal with imaginative claims most simply – Nuttall traces filaments of growth binding the first suite of plays together, and nudges us towards a notion that, even in the first flush of creativity, they 'speak' to one another. Themes that will preoccupy Shakespeare through his career begin to emerge, fold around one another and fade. Nuttall is also very good on what he describes as the 'scandal.. of Shakespeare's disorderly plenitude.' Yet Shakespeare's intellectual substance remains elusive. Nuttall starts off – with seeming arbitrariness – by looking at a critical moment in a critical scene: 1 Henry IV, II-iv, the rose-choice in the Temple Garden. Nuttall demonstrates an extraordinary degree of political sophistication in the tyro playwright. Shakespeare “...makes reality succeed and transcend any formal description of that reality.” Of a piece with Nuttall's rejection of the manifold -isms whose proponents have hijacked Shakespeare, this unfashionable stance seems borne out by the depthless variability of human motive presented through the work. “Shakespeare, the supreme dramatist, is strong both on what would happen and on what could happen. He is the philosopher of human possibility.” Implicitly, one question posed by the body of work, with gentle insistence, is that of the nature of self: not merely the subjecthood of the dramatis personae, but of Shakespeare himself, of any and all of us. The impulse to locate and isolate a core of being in the plays somehow chimes with our natural predisposition to regard the self as a closed system, internally consistent and intelligible. Shakespeare teaches us that much of what governs our worldly existence is obscure, unavailable even to the deepest introspection. Human agency is an inexhaustible paradox. Being is improvisatory, ad hoc, flawed; more properly described as an endlessly postponed coming-to-being: for Nuttall, Shakespeare's intelligence hinges on this insight, and, by extension, his supremacy.

John Berryman, in one of his astonishing Shakespearean lectures, observes:

...not unnaturally Shakespeare is hard to believe in, either as an author or as a man ... Our incredulity, to tell you the truth, does us small credit. It savours of what Kierkegaard called “playing the game of marvelling at world history.” It betokens inexperience, and perhaps it is a little unmanly.... [b]efore not only the grand mass of this creation but before some detailed triumph of imaginative design within the play, we do reasonably pause with astonishment. Sometimes, without warning, in a short speech, the soul of a man seems indeed to surface, for an instant, before it returns forever to the depths. Sometimes a series of this poet's phrases will drag at our profoundest thought as if, truly, we overheard the soul of the world murmuring truths to herself.

After a lifetime studying Shakespeare, reckoning with Shakespeare, A.D. Nuttall would restore the numinous to these plays, reminding us of their singularity, and that, in spite of our ingrained scepticism, our unfoolable knowingness, something of a miracle can be found in Shakespeare. There are still mysteries.

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