- Shakespeare's Lyric Stage: Myth, Music, and Poetry in the Last Plays by Seth Lerer
While Innogen sleeps, Iachimo slowly opens the chest in which he is concealed, creeping out into her bedchamber. As he looms over her somnolent form, the audience at the performance I attended at the 2012 season of the Stratford Festival held its collective breath—except, that is, for the stranger sitting beside me. She, as Innogen lies vulnerable under Iachimo's gaze, whispered vehemently, "That bastard!" Shakespeare's last plays, as Seth Lerer [End Page 241] aptly demonstrates in Shakespeare's Lyric Stage, "ask what it means to listen, see, and feel" (xvi), and as I witnessed at that performance of Cymbeline, evoke a visceral and fervid reaction.
Lerer weaves a complicated web in his monograph, uniting arguments about lyric, Orpheus and Ovid, the life of lutenist John Dowland, and the publication of the First Folio. All of the threads appear in the first chapter, "Myth, Music, and Lyric," where the author introduces lyric poetry as "classical in resonance, musical in origin, and emotively moving in effect" (1). After Hamlet, he argues, Shakespeare's lyrical performances are marked by "ironic distance," culminating in the late plays and their pronounced "artifice" (8). Lerer locates the "mythical" quality of lyric poetry in the Ovidian and Chaucerian stories of Orpheus, Ceyx and Alcyone, and Midas, all of whom appear throughout the monograph as an echo or chorus. Dowland, he explains, is a kind of early modern Orpheus, and "he provides a backdrop for the later Shakespearean sense of artistry and patronage, performance and preferment" (19). The final thread of the monograph is the First Folio, which Lerer carefully considers as a material object with meaningful editorial interventions and a revelatory organization.
In the following chapters, the author analyzes individual plays, beginning with The Tempest because of its position in the First Folio. In chapter 2, "An Elegy for Ariel," Lerer leaves aside Prospero and focuses instead on Ariel as a mythic hero, metamorphosed at the play's conclusion. The next chapter, "Poetry and Performance in The Winter's Tale," sees The Winter's Tale as a pair with The Tempest, for both are invested in "the force of theatre and the poetics of metamorphosis" (73). The Winter's Tale is a play reflecting its Jacobean context, not only in the popular ballads of Autolycus, but also in the figure of Leontes, who must "become not just a better king but a better actor" (101).
Lerer's fourth chapter, "Pageantry, Power, and Lyricism in Henry VIII," is particularly valuable, for he sets aside questions of authorship to consider the play's remarkable music, masques, and metamorphoses. Wolsey demands much of his attention, but Lerer's arguments about Queen Katherine are particularly poignant. Her call for music, he tells us, is the one time in Shakespeare's canon that a woman plays music at another woman's command. Her story, and her departure from stage, is particularly emotive, reflecting a long history of lyric farewells. "Taken as a whole," Lerer concludes, "Henry VIII stands as a powerful Jacobean commentary on the whole Shakespearean tradition: on its emotions of wronged or wronging women, on its claims for lyric artistry as stanching social chaos, on its insistent meta-theatrics of the court" (139). Lerer thus transforms Henry VIII from a barely Shakespearean outlier to an opportunity to reconsider what makes Shakespeare's plays "Shakespearean."
The next and final chapter, "Aesthetic Judgment and the Audience in Cymbeline," continues to braid together Orpheus (and Catullus), music, and Dowland, and it concludes by wondering why Cymbeline ends the First Folio. The play leaves readers and audiences with more questions than answers, but Lerer asks us to hear "the pure rhyme that ends the last page, cease and peace, a lyric harmony beneath our fingers as we close the book" (177). That sentence neatly concludes his book as well, except that his final chapter is followed by a lengthy epilogue, "Lyric Recognition and the Editorial Romance in Pericles and...