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Introduction to Notes Upon Some of Shakespeare's Plays. Warner, Elizabeth Anne.
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Introduction to Notes Upon Some of Shakespeare's Plays

By Elizabeth Warner

Notes Upon Some of Shakespeare's Plays is one of Frances Anne "Fanny" Kemble's lesser-known works. She is more often remembered for her public readings, her stage performances, and her journals of her life experiences. But Notes Upon Shakespeare is inspired by her work on the stage and her ability to feel characters in the moment of performance and merits serious attention. In Fanny's interpretations, the characters are real people, with real motivations and real consistency in their actions. Her natural ability to capture characters, which proved remarkably useful to her during her stage careers, comes through in her readings of certain characters. Lady Macbeth, for example, to whom Fanny devotes an entire chapter of the text, cannot be redeemed or experience deep regret, according to Fanny's reading of her remorselessness: Never, even in her dreams, does any gracious sorrow smite from her stony heart the blessed brine of tears that wash away sin; never, even in her dreams, do the avenging furies lash her through purgatorial flames that burn away guilt; and the dreary but undismayed desolation in which her spirit abides for ever is quite other than that darkness, however deep, which the soul acknowledges, and whence it may yet behold the breaking of a dawn shining far off from round the mercy-seat. (52) Fanny's readings often rely on feelings of the characters, rather than directly on textual evidence, so they may strike some modern readers as unsubstantiated. But it is important to keep in mind that Fanny had evidence, nevertheless, on which to make her claims—years of experience in acting and reading these characters in front of audiences throughout Europe and the United States. The Notes are a remarkable record of a remarkable period in Shakespearean performance—a gust of energy from the Victorian return to Shakespeare's texts.

Fanny's prose also retains some of the same quality that made her a successful poet during her lifetime. There is an intensity and a passion to her writing that enlivens many passages, making what could have been dry interpretation become a kind of poetic enterprise of its own. For instance, as she writes of the experience of reading or performing Macbeth, she notes its effect on the hearer or reader: To every human soul it tells the story of its own experience, rendered indeed more impressive by the sublime poetry in which it is uttered; but it is the truth itself, and not the form in which it is presented, which makes the force of the appeal; and the terrible truth with which the insidious approach of temptation—its imperceptible advances, its gradual progress, its clinging pertinacity, its recurring importunity, its prevailing fascination, its bewildering sophistry, its pitiless tenacity, its imperious tyranny, and its final hideous triumph over all moral sense—is delineated, that makes Macbeth the grandest of all poetical lessons, the most powerful of all purely fictitious moralities, the most solemn of all lay sermons drawn from the text of human nature. (21-22) It may well be her experience in journal writing and in recording life experiences that gives this passage—and many others—its power. For who does not hear, in this delineation of the progress of temptation, something true to human experience? Even the measured way in which she describes its progress adds conviction and recognition.

While she works from feeling and knowledge gained on the stage for many of her early interpretations, her two chapters on The Tempest are different. Here, Fanny takes on the eminent—now notorious—Shakespeare scholar John Payne Collier, who in 1853 had published with great éclat, an edition of Shakespeare's Second Folio of 1632, incorporating thousands of "emendations" in an unknown "contemporary" hand, which came to be known as the "Old Corrector." The emendations were eventually exposed as forgeries (though opinion still differs), but the volume that Collier published based on what was known as the "Perkins Folio" had considerable popularity after its publication.

Methodically moving from emendation to emendation, Fanny tests each out, based on her own sense and theatrical tradition, often comparing Collier's emendations with those in an oft-overlooked edition from the 18th century, the Oxford Edition of Shakespeare. She writes with authority, and a surprising amount of it, considering the time period and the long history of male-dominance in Shakespeare scholarship. For instance, as she discussions a change in Act 1, Scene 2 of The Tempest, a substitution of "prevision" for "provision," Kemble pronounces, very directly and succinctly: "I do not agree to the value of the change. It is very true that prevision means the foresight that his art gave him, but provision implies the exercise of that foresight or prevision; it is therefore better, because more comprehensive" (112).

The exact publication history of Notes Upon Some of Shakespeare's Plays is uncertain. Some chapters were published in magazines in the 1860s—including The Atlantic Monthly, Cornhill Magazine, and Harper's New Monthly Magazine. The essays were finally collected and published in 1882, in the edition reproduced here.

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