Shakespeare: Where Is the Life?

Written by: Simon Palfrey


Simon Palfrey, the author of Shakespeare’s Possible Worlds, breaks down the barriers of Shakespeare's complicated play world and the language holding it together.


When I meet people and they hear that one of the things I do is write about Shakespeare, their response is often instantly skeptical. Hasn’t it all been done already? Surely there is nothing new left to say?

In other words, hasn’t literary criticism done its dash, leaving nothing to do but fill-in the contexts that surrounded the great man?

I think almost the opposite. I think the possibilities of literary criticism have barely been scratched. And I think the same about our understanding of Shakespeare. As I say in my new book, Shakespeare’s Possible Worlds:

If we do not see or hear something, does it mean it does not exist? Conversely, if we do notice something, do we therefore give it life?

Imagine that we have never seen these things before (perhaps we haven’t). How else to feel what the possibilities are? Allow them to be new, or strange, or changed. There is no detail unworthy of our attention.

The only way of going further or deeper than we have before is by going back to basics. We should not presuppose anything. We should not rely on what we take to be common-sense, or probable, or tasteful, or even reasonable. Shakespeare sometimes conforms to these standards, but not reliably.

We need to attend to the particulars of speech and scene, and to feel their movements as though they have never happened before. After all, each moment in a playworld is new each moment it is attended to – just as it is for those it happens to in the playworld.

Close reading is sometimes thought of as old-fashioned or conservative. And it is true that sometimes it can be boring and staid, especially if the text is used as a static object to be deciphered – an exercise that invariably ends up disciplining and inhibiting both the reader and the play. But Shakespeare’s playworlds are anything but static. They are better thought of as collections of subjects, or indeed as subjects themselves, rather than as objects to be appraised. Or perhaps as organic machines, alive with multiplying processes, often overlapping and interrupting, often very difficult to hear all at once.

To read Shakespeare closely – or, perhaps better, to listen closely – means far more than analyzing his imagery. It requires technically-informed imagination, and unsleeping alertness to the unique event of a play. Some things – like rhymes, or even the fact of scenes – work differently in plays than in poems or novels. Other things cannot really be tracked as we listen, but are crucial to the unexhausted life in a dramatic instant – things like actor’s cues; or the subterranean passages of metaphor. Hearing cannot all happen in the moment.

In Shakespeare, everything breathes with life – not just the characters, but also the instruments that express them. If we start imagining this – that cues are alive, and metaphors, and scenic breaks, and the gaps at the end of each line – then we might begin to tap into the principles of Shakespeare’s creation. In Shakespeare’s Possible Worlds I call these instruments formactions – a neologism intended to recover the vital life in Shakespeare’s forms, and the strange fact that all action in a playworld is at once in-the-moment and pre-formed – and therefore necessarily for the future as well.

At every moment in Shakespeare there is a lot going on. Far more than we can see; often far more than we can hear (indeed I would suggest that there is no such thing in Shakespeare as true silence). This makes his work as challenging and surprising as it is exciting. But you can’t really have one without the other.

We mustn’t shy away from Shakespeare’s difficulty. And this means not shying away from the fact that Shakespeare writes differently from all of his contemporaries. No other playwright writes dialogue that nobody – not the actor, character, reader, audience, teacher – can be sure they fully understand, and certainly not in the moment of its speaking. There is too much going on!

But almost no one asks why Shakespeare wrote like this; or what it might mean to compose a world half-made up of words and motives that lurk unnoticed or neglected.

Might there be ethical or political implications of creating worlds in this way, in the attention that they require from us, and in the repeated return to the source that they invite?

If we do not see or hear something, does it mean it does not exist? Conversely, if we do notice something, do we therefore give it life? Does this mean that, in a playworld, knowledge and being are the same things? Surely not! But if things are not noticed, are they differently alive than things that are clearly seen? What responsibilities does this entail about the act of giving our attention? Looked at in this way, close reading is far more than dry formalism. It entails the most basic questions of life: to be, or not to be, might just be in our hands.

Enjoyed reading this article? Share it today:

About the Author: Simon Palfrey

Simon Palfrey is the author of Shakespeare’s Possible Worlds. He is Professor of English Literature at Oxford University. He is the founding editor of Shakespeare Now! His long list of books include 'Shakespeare in Parts' (with Tiffany Stern, 2007 – winner of a...

View the Author profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!