Review of Andrew Murphy: Shakespeare for the People: Working-Class Readers, 1800-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xi + 242. Cloth £52.00.
For his account of the entire history of Shakespeare publication (Shakespeare in Print, 2003), Andrew Murphy made detailed study of the nineteenth-century explosion in cheap editions. His new book puts that explosion within the context of the working-class readers newly enabled to enjoy Shakespeare. Murphy begins with celebrations of the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth, of which working men's groups made a better fist than the official committee. To explain how this came about, Murphy offers chapters on 'The Educational Context' and 'The Publishing Context' as preparation for excerpts from working-class autobiographies (some hitherto unpublished) that convey individual readers' responses to Shakespeare. He is particularly interested in how political radicals understood Shakespeare (mainly as one of their own, it turns out), and the role that the drama played in the struggle for intellectual and political freedom.
Mass literacy grew in the late-eighteenth century because religious groups offered free education, especially in the form of Sunday Schools. The education was not of a high quality--some teachers thought that only reading, not writing, should be taught on the Sabbath--but the movement primed the pump for later systematizations of educational provision. The ruling class were torn between fearing that mass literacy would give the working class access to seditious literature and hoping that it would instil society's values and promote social cohesion. The state was involved in schools' funding from 1833, in return for imposing standards, and the 1870 Education Act put it all on the firm footing of local taxation. Soon, attendance was compulsory and by 1900 literacy was virtually universal. Until the middle of the nineteenth century educational books were almost entirely religious, but with state involvement came secularism and a focus on Shakespeare in particular.
Turning to his established expertise, Murphy surveys the cost of publication in the nineteenth century. Cheap pamphlets and periodicals provided a new medium for political agitation, and government attempts to limit this by taxing publication were largely futile. Although English publishers were slow to exploit the new technologies, such as stereotyping, that lowered costs, the landmark legal ruling of 1774 that copyright was not perpetual put many works into the public domain, stimulated publishing and lowered the price of books, although pamphlets and periodicals remained by far the most affordable reading material. Murphy offers fascinating accounts of how avid working-class readers found ways to acquire books. The hero of this part of Murphy's story is John Dicks, who published in 1867 a complete works of Shakespeare for one shilling, equivalent to about two pounds today.
Murphy's central chapter, on 'Reading', gives working-class readers' own accounts of their responses to what they read. Particularly amusing is Thomas Carter's self-depracatory admission that he did not at first realize that the books of the bible were telling the same story ("I supposed there had been four crucifixions, four resurrections") and that the contents of a volume of the Spectator were written by more than one person (p. 101). Murphy tells several charming tales of spousal companionship in reading and wittily characterizes one reader's account of the spirit of the Elizabethan age ("Authority had fallen, and men held themselves free", p. 124) as sounding like someone "sketching out a very early rough draft of Radical Tragedy" (p. 125). As Murphy notes, there are few continuities between the various working-class readers' stories: they each had their own reasons for liking Shakespeare. Being relatively low-class made Shakespeare co-optable as the poet of the people, and Chartists in particular liked to quote him without much consideration of dramatic context: they just used his sententiae to their own ends.
Murphy's final chapter, 'Decline and Fall', relates how Shakespeare lost popularity amongst working-class readers when he began to be drilled in compulsory education, which actively hindered autodidacticism. The provision of scholarships to enable working-class children to attend grammar schools and enter the middle class was politically divisive. Moreover, twentieth-century schools and universities demanded responses to Shakespeare rather more sophisticated than the rapture reported by many working-class enthusiasts of the preceding century. Studying Shakespeare becomed professionalized and required knowledge of the critics' views as well as the plays. In a fascinating new line of argument, Murphy points out that nineteenth-century spectacular theatre was so expensive to mount that productions had to be sure of a mass audience if the investment was to be recouped, whereas the new twentieth-century aesthetics of progressive, minimalist and original staging enabled productions to aim for a niche market. Paradoxically, a back-to-basics approach à la William Poel helped make Shakespeare an elite pleasure.
According to Murphy, modernism itself was an attempt to keep the riff-raff out of culture and the Arts Council helped by focussing of on metropolitan theatrical standards rather than promoting widespread interest in theatre. Sport, newspapers and fiction became the bases of twentieth-century working-class culture, at the cost of poetry and drama. Then came cinema, radio and television, and the rot really set in. By the law of unintended consequences, the involvement of religious groups in nineteenth-century education made early-modern English familiar to working-class people (via compulsory reading of the King James bible), whereas secularized twentieth-century education made it alien, hence the decline in comprehension and appreciation of Shakespeare. Murphy cannot easily decide if this is a bad thing, but concludes that since Shakespeare constitutes cultural capital working-class people should not cede knowledge of his works to the middle class.
This is an immensely enjoyable book written in an informal style by a scholar able effortlessly to convey complex historical narratives without simplification. The material on which it is based is fresh and the insights highly thought-provoking. I spotted only two of the tiniest errors: the play is The not A Winter's Tale (p. 174) and Alan Sillitoe's novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is not about "northern . . . life" (p. 198), but set in the East Midlands. In typically scrupulous fashion, Murphy provides appendices that make it easy for anyone to research further the autobiographies he has used.