Amherst Magazine

Shakespearean Questions

By Piers Ingersoll Lewis ’53. St. Paul, Minn.: REP Graphics and Communications, 2007. 234 pp. Paperback, $20 plus $5 shipping and handling. To order, mail a check to Piers Lewis, PO Box 16354, St. Paul, Minn., 55116-0354.

Reviewed by William H. Pritchard ’53

Most professorial writing about Shakespeare these days pays attention to the language of his plays only by way of illustrating a particular idea or theme the professor has discovered. Thus in the same issue of Shakespeare Quarterly (Spring, 1999) we find articles instructing us on “Mamillius and Gender Polarization in The Winter’s Tale,” or “The Bankruptcy of Homoerotic Amity in The Merchant of Venice.” Piers Lewis is a retired professor who taught Shakespeare to undergraduates for decades at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and at Bemidji (Minn.) State University and has now written up some of his conclusions about the plays. Or rather, he has selected the 10 that interest him most—Henry IV Part 1, Hamlet, All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus—and taken us on a guided tour of what he sees and hears in them. I don’t quarrel with his choices (except perhaps for the impossible All’s Well), although the absence of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Winter’s Tale may be regretted. But by limiting himself to 10, he manages to give each of them—especially Troilus, Hamlet and Lear—generous space for treatment.

The treatment is succinct and to the point, always keeping us in close touch with Shakespeare’s language. Lewis’s aim as a critic is to bring out “the wayward and terrible beauty” of the plays, but to do this by writing “in a plain, direct, jargon-free style that encourages and assists the reader.” In the spirit of a now-forgotten book by the music critic B. H. Haggin, Music for the Man Who Enjoys “Hamlet”, Lewis thought of calling his own book Shakespeare for Those Who Enjoy Mozart, an audience that enjoys “beautiful, complicated works of art that demand one’s complete attention.” In each play, Lewis focuses on one or more questions raised and explored by Shakespeare’s “tough, reasonable mind asking tough, reasonable questions”: such as (with respect to Measure for Measure) whether morality can be legislated; or (with respect to Othello) why the play needs “an anti-hero who looms so large, and whose motives are so perplexing.” Shakespeare’s genius was to explore such questions in the company of tough, reasonable readers like you and me. Not that Lewis simply treats the plays as “answers” to the questions they raise. With Macbeth, for example, he notes dryly that, “If there is a question this play answers I can’t think of what it might be.” The book is pervaded by a commonsensical wit that never makes much of itself, as in his response to the question raised by Hamlet, whether “authenticity is compatible with effective political action.” Lewis’s answer: “Not on your life.”

Lewis seldom argues with other critics of Shakespeare and keeps his attention rather on specific moments or sequences in the play at hand. But as one can see from his judicious and useful footnotes, he has done wide reading, not just of Shakespeare critics but of men of letters generally—the likes of Montaigne, Goethe, Samuel Johnson, Kant. That is, there is authority behind his judgments. At one point I was pleased to see him gratefully acknowledge Reuben A. Brower, an Amherst and Harvard professor who taught both of us and whose essay on Troilus Lewis admires, even as he provides his own most interesting chapter on that strange and difficult play. Troilus, Lewis notes, used to be called a “problem” play, but is now an “experimental” one since, he suggests, no one knew exactly what the problem was.

Shakespearean Questions is an old-fashioned book in the best sense: it keeps its head always, it is governed by a sense of relevance and it is consistently thoughtful about its subject. T.S. Eliot once asked, perhaps mischievously, “Who, for instance, has a first-hand opinion of Shakespeare?” Lewis’s book may count as such an instance.

Pritchard, the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, is a widely published critic of literature and poetry and the author of several books.