Friday, November 10, 2017

Maynard Mack (1909 - 2001)

Maynard Mack

[Image source:]

Maynard Mack was a professor at Yale, born in Michigan. Mostly remembered as an Alexander Pope scholar, but he was interested in Shakespeare too, and I've been reading him on Shakespeare's tragedies.

Samuel Johnson, it's said, never read a book through. I begin to recognize this behaviour in my own life. Increasingly my contacts with authors are  becoming more fleeting, usually far less than a whole book. In this case, it's a paper from 1960, "The Jacobean Shakespeare: Some Observations on the Construction of the Tragedies", which was included as an appendix to the Signet Othello that I picked up in a charity shop yesterday lunchtime. (Edition by Alvin Kernan, another Yale academic; it was published in 1963.)

Mack writes about patterns that the tragedies have in common.

The hyperbolic tendencies of the hero(es). "Comic overstatement aims at being preposterous. Tragic overstatement aspires to be believed."

The hero's down-to-earth foil (Horatio, Kent, Iago, Enobarbus, Menenius, Mercutio, Cassius).

Or, say, Desdemona talking to Emilia. "The alabaster innocence of Desdemona's world shines out beside the crumpled bedsitters of Emilia's --  ... but the two languages never, essentially, commune -- and, for this reason, the dialogue they hold can never be finally adjudicated."

Dramatization of the conflict between the values of the individual ( integrity, to be oneself) and the values of the social ( accommodation to existing circumstance, to survive).

Mack also writes about "indirections": ways in which one part of the action mirrors another, or one character's words are seen to illuminate another. So that Edgar and Gloucester and the Fool, all speaking for themselves, yet somehow illuminate Lear too. Likewise the three sons Fortinbras, Laertes and Hamlet illuminate each other.

Mirrorings: Bianca's appearances shedding light on Othello's dimming view of Desdemona.

Mirror scenes: the opening scenes and what they introduce about the field of action of the rest of the play. Hamlet (mystery, solving), Othello (manipulation), Lear (hierarchical nature, bestial nature), Antony and Cleopatra (the great debates of lovers).

Symbolic entrances and exits: the emblematic deaths that tell us about someone else's experience: John of Gaunt, Mamillius, Eros.

Motifs:  the three Poisonings in Hamlet Act I, Act III, Act V: Claudius' corruption of an entire society.

The transforming journeys (Hamlet to England, Macbeth's re-visit to the Witches, or Lear and Gloucester to Dover).

The cycle of change in which the hero becomes the hero's antithesis: the perfect, accomplished courtier Hamlet becomes obscene and cruel and dithering; the supremely self-possessed Othello raves, rolls around, and hits out;  the majestic Lear becomes a deranged wanderer; These transformations reveal, however, a potential that always lay within them.

The madnesses of the tragic heroes. But let's hear some of Mack's own words:

"Moreover, both he [Lear] and Hamlet can be privileged in madness to say things -- Hamlet about the corruption of human nature, and Lear about the corruption of the Jacobean social system (and by extension about all social systems whatever), which Shakespeare could hardly have risked apart from this license. Doubtless one of the anguishes of being a great artist is that you cannot tell people what they and you and your common institutions are really like --- when viewed absolutely -- without being dismissed as insane. To communicate at all, you must acknowledge the opposing voice, and it is as deeply rooted in your own nature as in your audience's. "

Their madness is like Cassandra's. [It] "contains both punishment and insight. She is doomed to know, by a consciousness that moves to measures outside our normal space and time; she is doomed never to be believed, because those to whom she speaks can hear only the opposing voice. With the language of the god Apollo sounding in her brain, and the incredulity of her fellow mortals ringing in her ears, she makes an ideal emblem of the predicament of the Shakespearean tragic hero, caught as he is between the absolute and the expedient."

Mack's essay leads up to the proposal that Jacobean drama (meaning Webster as well as Shakespeare) is obsessed with acts of self-will , especially when the agents are "stripped to their naked humanity and mortality, and torn loose from accustomed moorings". He suggests this obsession was premonitory of the upheavals and conflicts of the coming century. 


Many illuminations, then. I find something deeply attractive in the essay, though I'm hard-pressed to put my finger on it.  The prose-style is workmanlike but not particularly elegant or breathtaking. Perhaps it has something to do with the essay coming out of a past era, with the natural interest attached to reading something that nobody reads any more. It's also the kind of work that I steadfastly neglected back in 1976 when I began my degree studies in Eng Lit , when Mack and Frye and Brooks and Abrams and all the others might well have been my daily bread .... but I usually preferred reading more Lit  -- more plays, more poems --  rather than getting a handle on the critical conversation of my own time. Only now, it seems, do I begin to feel curious about the person behind the eminent name... What did they look like, who were they?

Mack's bigger assertions don't seem especially persuasive -- about Jacobean drama, for instance: you want to ask, What about Jonson, What about Philaster? If the tragedians' debate about self-will was so socially urgent, how did it come to be displaced by tragicomedy and masque?

And then, you remember the stark differences between the plays. Mack recognizes those stark differences, as who could not,  but his essay purposely looks for common patterns. Fair enough, but take this matter of madness, for instance. Othello behaves as madly as any other of the tragic heroes, but his madness seems especially un-Cassandra-like. It intuits nothing -- nothing true, that is -- , but, on the contrary, comes before us expressly in the form of delusion, error, utter blindness.

And again, concerning self-will, our primary sense of Othello is how, on the contrary, he's bent to someone else's will...

The themes of multi-culturalism, ethnicity, xenophobia, that bulk so large in the Othello criticism of today, and in my own reading of it, are completely absent from Mack's account. (Though I found myself pausing at the choice of "alabaster" to describe Desdemona's innocence.)  In the context of his own times there's nothing in the least unusual about this. It's remarkable, considering that, how much the play says to him, and how much he can tell us us about it.

Maybe this is what I find attractive about his essay, a feeling of being in such sure-footed company, of someone who knows every scene so well, whose quotations are always apposite, who sees no need to limit himself to only one aspect (imagery, or plot, or performance, for instance); who's always intelligent, agreeable, never perverse. It disarms me, I don't feel like being very critical.

Maynard Mack (possibly in 1942?)

[Image source:]

I was surprised - maybe I shouldn't have been, but I was -  how few on-line pics there are of such an eminent scholar.  These three are the only ones I could find.

Maynard Mack

[Image source:]

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