Keir Elam: Shakespearean Without Taste

J.W. Lever’s Arden edition of Measure for Measure was a great help to me when I was writing that last post, and his, ahem, measured prose made for pleasant reading.

Now I’m going to pick on Keir Elam a bit, because his recent Arden edition of Twelfth Night bugs me. He writes in a verbose, inexact style that seems to be striving for cleverness but makes little effort in that direction.

Consider the lead sentences from various sections of Elam’s Twelfth Night:

Preface: “Editing a play, like staging a play, is a collaborative enterprise.”

Introduction: “A play, like a cat, has several lives.”

Gloss on First Line of Play: “1 music It is not by chance that this is the comedy’s opening noun.”

Appendix 1: “The script of a play is never definitive. It is a metamorphic creature, destined to undergo continuous change.”

Appendix 3: “Music is not a decorative addition to Twelfth Night but an essential part of the play’s dramatic economy.”

Or Elam’s fondness for ill-thought-out analogies and cliches:

Everything in a play text is filtered through language, the most important weapon in the dramatist’s armoury.

Twelfth Night is a play unusually aware of its destiny as a script for performance.

In the case of Twelfth Night, the spectator plays the part of co-protagonist.

Antonio’s homoeroticism is an open secret in contemporary performances.

The comedy offers a veritable anatomy of the most fashionable of humours, melancholy.

The liver, organ of passion, works overtime in Twelfth Night.

The play’s economy of space feeds into its poetics of place.

Or how about this one?

The body in Twelfth Night is not always an edifying text; it sometimes resembles an epidemiological treatise.

An unedifying treatise, I guess?

And sometimes Elam’s writing is just leaden:

The success of Twelfth Night onstage is in part demonstrated by the sheer number and frequency of productions.

A particularly important discursive role in the comedy is played by doors, virtual and (in performance) actual.

I love that parenthetical.

What these quotes raise is not a question of content or interpretation, or even of terminology, but a question of taste. Are we to entrust ourselves to a guide who writes like this? Can we expect him to be sensitive to the nuances of Shakespeare’s language and meaning when his ear for rhetoric appears hopelessly deficient?