Terence Hawkes

Terence Hawkes is an emeritus professor of English at Cardiff University and general editor of the Accents on Shakespeare series. Shakespeare in the Present is due this year.

Putting on Some English: Eagleton’s Rise

Terence Hawkes, 7 February 2002

In the United States, ‘English’ can mean ‘spin’: a deliberate turn put on a ball by striking it so that it swerves. It’s a subtle epithet, perhaps recording a canny colonial take on the larger distortions inseparable from imperial rule. But the truth is that as the English invented ‘Great Britain’ and then began the process of large-scale...

Until recently, the notion that the academic subject called ‘English’ had any sort of history would have seemed rather odd. Hadn’t it always just, well, existed? Surely, at his Stratford grammar school, the lad Shakespeare mugged up his Chaucer, if not the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads and Pride and Prejudice like the rest of us? How otherwise could he have written plays full of ‘characters’ who, as all O and A-level candidates know, endlessly, remorselessly, ‘develop’? Admittedly, Stephen Potter’s The Muse in Chains had offered to blow the gaff in 1937. But pell-mell postwar expansion, to say nothing of Potter’s decline into a chronicler of comfy national foibles, soon settled its hash. ‘English’ seemed to be just there: as natural as Syrup of Figs or Marmite, and as volcanically cleansing or as briskly bracing as either to the costive national soul. Gloomy siftings of the details of the subject’s invention could be dismissed as further evidence of a crisis whose other barely distinguishable symptoms were marijuana, acne and the vapourisings of feckless French fumisterie.‘

Lore and Ordure: Jonson and digestion

Terence Hawkes, 21 May 1998

In 1616, the year in which Shakespeare died, Ben Jonson became the first English dramatist to publish a collected edition of his own plays. No doubt The Workes of Beniamin Jonson, a folio volume of more than a thousand pages, brought a sharp satisfaction to its author. The indignities of an earlier career as a bricklayer could scarcely have been more roundly redeemed. Only the malice of a contemporary wit,

Hamlet calls death the ‘undiscovered country’, but perhaps the deftness of that description masks a fatal insouciance. True, it isn’t really possible for us to ‘discover’ extinction in the sense of gaining actual experience of the phenomenon. But, as Michael Neill points out, human beings do imagine dying and in the process they inevitably invent a notion of death capable of matching their presuppositions. To that extent, death could be said to be something that each society discovers for itself. As a result, nobody just dies. The icy hand may descend everywhere and indiscriminately, but it does so in specific cultural and historical contexts. In all communities, a high degree of political and economic mediation invariably attends the event which is usually also intensely ritualised. The result, as Neill compellingly argues, is that though all animals die, only human beings ‘suffer death’ in the form of a subjugation to imperatives moulded by their own collective imaginations. And if death is culturally determined, it is also historically specific and thus altogether a more complicated matter than Hamlet allows. Certainly, the Renaissance ‘crisis’ about death, which is at the centre of Neill’s concern, is a quarry worthy of the spry, meticulous scholarship he brings to its pursuit. Webster wasn’t the only Early Modern British dramatist to be much possessed by the topic. In fact, a good deal of Renaissance tragedy could be seen as an instrument by which that culture set out to discover and map new meaning for death.‘

Making = Taking

Terence Hawkes, 31 July 1997

By 1945, a quarter of the aeroplanes visible on Japanese military airfields were dummies. Despite a Goon Show suggestion to the contrary, the Allied air forces did not respond by dropping dummy bombs on them, although the energy of Hillel Schwartz’s argument almost persuades you that they might have done. We belong, his thesis runs, to a ‘culture of the copy’ in which an overt admiration for originality, authenticity, the unique, the one-off finds itself systematically undermined by a covert commitment to reproduction, duplication, the simulated and the subsequent.

Hydra’s Heads

Terence Hawkes, 22 February 1996

Princes of Wales have always been difficult to pin down. National heroes or terrorist thugs? Reasonable coves or domestic tyrants? Friends of the people or pals of Hitler? A sort of duplicity seems to go with the job. The exchange between Owain Glyn Dŵr and Hotspur in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part One –

Dat’s de Truth

Terence Hawkes, 26 January 1995

In 1903, on Locust Street in St Louis, Missouri, two Americans found themselves engaged in complex and fateful negotiations with European culture. One was Scott Joplin, black ‘King of Ragtime’ and already the famous composer of ‘Maple Leaf Rag’, ‘The Entertainer’, ‘Peacherine Rag’ and ‘Elite Syncopations’. (The other can be caught up with later.) The son of a former slave, born in 1868, the year of the ratification of the 14th Amendment, which began the struggle for equal treatment under the law for black Americans, Joplin was a quintessential child of his time. By 1903, he had been in St Louis for two years. After a sojourn in Sedalia, Missouri, whose Maple Leaf Café had inspired his most famous composition, his move to the city confirmed a series of significant developments in African-American music. Ragtime had first begun to make its presence felt at the Chicago World’s Fair (the Columbian Exposition) in 1893, where, at what Susan Curtis perceptively calls a significant ‘frontier of modern culture’, the music of black Americans offered serious competition to the classical music of Europe. Despite an economic depression, people flocked to the ‘midway’ and the sporting house districts where it flourished. By the turn of the century, ragtime was thriving from coast to coast and more than a hundred rags were in print as sheet music. ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ had turned out to be a phenomenal bestseller. Published in 1899, it sold half a million copies in ten years and made Joplin a nationwide reputation.

The Dirty Dozens

Terence Hawkes, 21 July 1994

We haven’t been allowed to forget that 1994 has brought the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings. But their sound and fury masked another, no less fateful event whose anniversary we will probably not be asked to remember. As the Italian campaign of 1943 slowed to a painful crawl, the British found themselves more and more dependent on the Americans both to maintain it and to mount any effective invasion of Northern France in the following year. No conclusive Churchillian thrust into the soft underbelly of Europe remained on the cards. And so at this point, just 50 years ago, the balance of the world decisively shifted. The United States took over the role of premier Western power and it began to dawn on British politicians and their generals that the game was finally up. In any case, Roosevelt had already made it quite clear that the price of the United States’s entry into the war in Europe was that the British should give up their empire. In consequence, as Christopher Hitchens has pointed out in his matchless Blood, Class and Nostalgia (1990), the British underwent a massive and soul-gelding relegation. Harold Macmillan’s remark that ‘these Americans represent the new Roman Empire and we Britons, like the Greeks of old, must teach them how to make it go’ was never anything but whistling in the dark.


Terence Hawkes, 22 February 1990

Few things unhinge the British as much as doublet and hose. The merest hint unleashes golden fantasies of order and well-being, yoking together gentility and free-born earthiness within a deep dream of peace. And so, in 1989, when bulldozers in Southwark accidentally laid bare the foundations first of the Rose Theatre and then of the Globe, a furore began fit to astonish any passing Elizabethan ghost. The possibility that one of these sites might fall prey to property developers generated more squeaking and gibbering in the London streets than you could shake a severed head at. Greenrooms of actors ranged anoraked bodies against the pile-drivers. Guggenheims of scholars jumboed in from North America. There was weeping and wailing and the gnashing of clapperboards for the TV cameras. The air thickened with pronouncements about culture, art, our ‘national heritage’.


Sonic Boom

16 July 1998

John Sturrock (LRB, 16 July) is quite right and his account of the delusions of poor Sokal and poor Bricmont gets to the heart of the matter. Their confident belief in a readily-graspable distinction between ‘discourse and language’ on the one hand and the ‘facts’ to which these refer on the other, indicates simple-mindedness of a rare perfection. No doubt Sokal finds it acceptable...

Knowing What You Like

1 January 1998

According to James Wood, Iris Murdoch just ‘knows’ that Shakespeare and Tolstoy are great artists (LRB, 1 January). The ‘strange, quasi-philosophical circularity’ of this view quite dazzles him. In my experience, it’s the sort of judgment undergraduates come up with all the time. One’s own marginal comments tend to be shorter, and ‘quasi-philosophical’...


22 December 1994

Frank Kermode’s defence of Harold Bloom’s ‘Western canon’ against those who regard it merely as ‘an instrument of cultural, hence political, hegemony’ is characteristically winsome (LRB, 22 December 1994). I’m less sure about his recommendation of Coriolanus as a transparently appropriate text for 15-year-olds. Over the years, this play has persistently attracted...

I spy

10 June 1993

Loved Stanley Fish’s notion that the work of academics can’t be transformed into the currency of politics (LRB, 10 June). I promise not to mention the likes of Norman Holmes Pearson, professor of English at Yale and one-time head of X-2, the counter-intelligence branch of the American OSS (later the CIA). Or Sir John Masterman, eminent Oxford historian and developer of the ‘double...
SIR: You might suggest to Graham Hough (LRB, 17 October) that his monumental world-weariness prevents him from recognising one of the major reasons for the broad appeal of critical theory in some institutions of higher education: underfunded library facilities and the absence of other features which no doubt he would consider essential to the life of the civilised mind. Posh institutions, such as the...

Faculty at War

17 June 1982

SIR: You really must try to curb the hysteria of some of your correspondents. ‘New Accents’ is not, as Tom Paulin claims (Letters, 19 August), ‘flooding the market’. When the series began five years ago, the market was already flooded by material of quite a different sort. That is why we started it. I’d suggest a different metaphor: the series seems to have touched a nerve....


Frank Kermode, 11 February 1993

Faithful readers of this journal will remember Terence Hawkes’s article ‘Bardbiz’, if only because it provoked, between March 1990 and September 1991, one of the most protracted...

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