David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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?


  1. Benjamin Cole

    24 July 2011 at 06:02

    Posts like this are the reason why I read your blog.

  2. In the Norton Shakespeare, the really good footnotes (even when I disagree, which is a lot) are Greenblatt’s. Cohen’s are okay; the others pretty bad. The best footnotes I’ve ever read, but I only came to realize this in the last few years, are Bloom’s in the Oxford Anthology of English Literature. Visionary Company vintage, but amazing examples of transparent concision and depth: the only thing not transparent is how concise and deep they are.

  3. Whereas Bloom’s notes to the collected William Blake — well, this unusually straightforward sentence may serve as self-critique:

    “The ‘Giant dance’ (Blake may have thought that the meaning of Stonehenge) is a dance into madness by the Sons of Albion, and is a large metaphor for the deathly autointoxication of spectral reason.”

  4. As the Yiddish translator of Shakespeare said when his production was booed on the Lower East Side, “Consider the material.” Bloom’s about as good at getting Blake into a nutshell as anyone, but you may crack your teeth a lot before either nut breaks. I agree — the notes on the Erdman Blake are unusually unhelpful.

  5. David Auerbach

    24 July 2011 at 22:30

    That is an amazing quote, and surely foreshadows Bloom’s later science-fiction chef d’oeuvre, The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy. The Four Zoas crossed with A Voyage to Arcturus.

    Which, come to think of it, is a point of commonality between you and Bloom, B!

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