Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Impressive Shakespeare

Reviewed by Juliet Fleming

Harry Newman, Impressive Shakespeare: Identity, Authority and the Imprint in Shakespearean Drama (London: Routledge, 2019), xvi+199 pp., ISBN 9781472465320, £105.00 (hbk).

[1] Impressive Shakespeare, which grew from a meticulously researched dissertation, gathers power and becomes more provocative as it proceeds. Following some introductory remarks, three early chapters detail ‘the language of impression’ (that is, Shakespeare’s use of the terms and images of stamping, sealing, coining, and printing) in Coriolanus, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Measure for Measure respectively. Already this is more than a study in Shakespearean imagery, for Newman is arguing that, because metaphors ‘impress,’ metaphors of impression are designed to draw attention to the ways in which theatrical efficacy depends on the series of technologies that may be subsumed under the concept of ‘impression’. As a result, each chapter allows Newman to gain new purchase on the play in question.

[2] For example, investigating the ‘impressive’ power lent to the figure of Coriolanus by the injuries he will not reveal in public, Newman inverts critical consensus by suggesting that, rather than revealing Coriolanus’s humanity, his wounds can be read as a display of the replicable marks that create a theatrical character and endow it with the power to make an impression on audiences. Similarly, Newman argues that a marked and deliberative concern with wax sealing is used in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to ‘advertise its own poetry as impressive and transformative’ (81); while ‘the motif of counterfeit coinage in Measure’ is working to label the play as ‘a counterfeit comedy coined by the King’s Men (158).’

[3] So, as he explains in his final chapter, Newman’s first argument in his book is that Shakespeare deploys the language of imprinting/impression ‘as a self-reflexive trope in order to advertise the “impressiveness” of his plays to audiences and readers’. His second, equally audacious argument, is that this strategy worked: ‘consciously or not critics have reproduced the logic of this trope, appropriating the language of impression to capture the value of Shakespearean drama in relation to ideas of character, poetry, genre and literary authorship.’ Indeed, to the extent that ‘these ways of thinking and writing about Shakespeare have persisted,’ Shakespeare can be said to be still ‘participating in his own canonization as an “impressive” dramatist’ (158). Newman’s penultimate chapter makes a focused and compelling case for this last claim by arguing that not only Heminges and Condell, but also Digges and Jonson, seem to have had The Winter’s Tale in mind as they prepared the prefatory material for the First Folio. Pointing out that in late 1623 the King’s Men had just re-licensed the play, and were then preparing to revive it for a court performance early in the new year, Newman notes that The Winter’s Tale is ‘deeply invested’ in the tropes and metaphors of printing and prefacing, and argues that it ‘offered rhetorical models to Ben Jonson and the Folio’s other prefatory writers as they negotiated the collective transition of Shakespeare’s plays from stage to page, and constructed the “printed worth” of Shakespearean drama on a kind of ‘paper-stage’ (120).

[4] Impressive Shakespeare thus sits very nicely within Routledge’s Material Readings in Early Modern Culture. Newman’s readings of his four chosen plays are at once meticulous and suggestive, and they clearly open new space for thought there. But the conceptual framework that has produced these local readings is probably not secure enough to be a paradigm for future work. Many readers will find themselves wondering why Newman chose these four plays for his investigations, and not any of the others that spring to mind as bearing an equally heavy freight of ‘impressive’ terms. The reason these other works seem to be calling for attention is that the concept of impression is ubiquitous, not only in the work of Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists, but also, from Plato’s tupoi [imprints, casts] onwards, in our entire philosophical tradition, where it functions as an only slightly specialized way of registering relations between mind and body, and even, before that, of cause and effect. Newman’s claim that early modern writers ‘increasingly deployed’ the languages of stamping, sealing, coining, and imprinting can be neither proved nor disproved: for how, across the myriad, overlapping, and sometimes interchangeable technologies of impression, and the metaphors that are taken from them, could we hope to quantify their use at any given historical moment? The fact that ‘impressive’ language is everywhere doesn’t lessen the achievement of Newman’s local readings; but it does upset his claim that early modern writers deployed it ‘figuratively to represent impressions of mind, body and soul, yet almost always with an awareness that they were applying a technological lexicon to human experience’ (3). Can the lexical play that Newman has revealed really be regarded and explained as a matter of authorial intention? And what becomes of his own ambition to ‘focus on the relationship between language, materiality and history’ (7) when this relation is repeatedly, and bathetically, understood as the deliberate ‘application’ of a ‘technological lexicon’ to ‘human experience’? Here the concept of impression, which might illuminate the ‘relationship’ between language and ‘materiality’ by suggesting that these are not in fact distinct, is used only to reiterate an unexamined distinction between them.

[5] In fact, what Newman’s exemplary attention to the chain of linked terms that are his focus reveals is something of more general significance than the arguments he lays claim to: which is that these terms comprise a system that is so wide-spread and ramified that they cannot be taken individually any more than their concatenated presence can be explained as resulting from the intentions of this or that author. The language of impression is, as Newman himself has shown, inordinately rich, but it is so rich that its individual figures are necessarily overdetermined – at any given moment its motifs, which are all versions of each other, will appear at once ancient and new, familiar and strange, natural and technological. Used by writers, including Shakespeare, who may or may not have seen, and who may or may not have intended others to see, the semantic corridors that link each meaning to its others (corridors that remain open whether or not they are being used at any given instance) the language of impression constitutes a semantic field bristling with interpretative possibilities that can never be closed.

[6] To read Shakespeare ‘responsibly’ (if that is still our aim, and if we knew with some precision what we meant by it) might well require the demanding work of reconstituting the semantic networks which make his writing reverberate wherever it is touched. To do this well, as Newman has done, will always require principles of selection and limitation: and it is to this problem that he turns in his last chapter. Beyond the scope of Newman’s work, but necessarily within the plays he studies, Shakespeare’s ‘impressive’ language implicates a series of more ‘oppressive’ social practices than those that are his own focus, such as the impressing of vulnerable youth into military and sexual services, and the torture, still on the books when Shakespeare wrote, of peine forte et dure. Newman does not go there, but in his final pages he turns to consider what a less sunny reading of Shakespeare’s ‘impressive’ language might have revealed, noting that its terms ‘engage with ethical debates, and [are] sometimes ethically dubious’ (164). His worry is that ‘morally questionable’ figures of impressive thought or speech can pass from Shakespeare’s text into the language of his critics, and there shape the terms of his reception: so for Newman the fact that ‘Shakespeare’s dramatization of “printer’s tales” seems to have shaped ideas about the reproduction of Shakespeare as a literary father in the First Folio and beyond is a cause for concern’ (164-65). But the use of the figure of paternity to describe the relation between author and text, and its survival to the present moment, cannot be ascribed to or reserved for Shakespeare alone. At the end of Impressive Shakespeare Newman seems anxious to recant some of his earlier critical gestures, or at least recalibrate their mood: ‘My suggestion is not that rhetorical transmission between Shakespeare’s corpus and criticism of that corpus is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ but that it involves a two-way ethical mingling of Shakespeare and the critic which makes it more difficult to distance ourselves morally from Shakespeare than from his contemporaries. Metaphors can achieve important critical work, but in making Shakespeare’s metaphors our own, we make ourselves part of their complex moral histories.’ (167) Here, Shakespeare’s metaphors are imagined to be exceptionally impressive, and also his sole property, as if he was the first and last writer to use them. The work of an ethical Shakespeare criticism might be conducted more smoothly outside such assumptions.

New York University, March 2021

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