‘It is the business of the drama to hold the mirror up to nature not merely as she is, but to show her as she ought to be.’
This month sees the publication, for the first time in their entirety, of Leatham’s seventeen Shakespeare Studies and the above quote from Leatham’s study of Henry V lays out his theory of drama. His literary critiques, of which there are plenty, are generally written from a socialist perspective and his Shakespeare studies are no different. As such they offer a quite unusual interpretation of the work of The Bard. That in itself might be justification, as part of the Deveron Press Centenary Collection, for this new edition. By bringing the studies together into one volume the reader is able to engage with Leatham’s theory in a way previously very difficult if not impossible.
Leatham’s studies were commissioned in the early 1900’s for a girls school in Turriff. He explains how and why this commission came about in his autobiography 60 Years of World-Mending:
‘The Westwood Magazine was nominally the school journal of Westwood, an old private boarding and day school in Turriff; but the principal, Mrs Margaret Fergusson, had ideas about education for which the publishers of schoolbooks did not seem to provide. She had lived in England and Australia. She thought that education was not sufficiently literary and that civics were neglected. The Oxford and Cambridge Board, whose examiners periodically visited this school, used to set, as a test of the teachers’ intelligence, many subjects on which no direct help was to be got from the regular school textbooks. It was Miss Fergusson’s idea that these subjects should be discussed in the Westwood Magazine, which might become a lesson book, not only for her pupils, but for those of other private schools supposed to be conducted more or less in accordance with the Oxford and Cambridge Syllabus...’
Over the following decades Leatham’s studies were published and republished – in Gateway and as a small series of pamphlets. There is no doubt they were revised, sometimes substantially between the original versions and those in the second edition of the 1920s. However the focus of this new edition is not to find definitive answers but rather to bring them together as a body of work for a modern reader to reflect on.
To parody a famous quote regarding poetry and pity, in this volume we discover the Socialism that is in the Shakespeare. This comes not just in Leatham’s justification for printing his studies as pamphlets:
‘Schoolbooks have always been comparatively dear, and to have the origins, merits, and upshot of a Shakespeare play discussed in a threepenny magazine or a twopenny pamphlet was an economical way of covering a good deal of ground. It was found that these papers induced quite a proportion of readers to the authors themselves by bringing a Keats, Coleridge, Milton, or Chaucer down out of the rarefied academic air which makes the masterpieces, ‘Eng. Lit,’ thereafter to be forgotten. A busy lawyer said he did not realise how supremely human and racy Shakespeare could be till reading our study of ‘King John’ led him to the original.’
but also in the content of his critiques. Generally the studies run to an average of 2000 words apiece, and Leatham invariably (but not always) starts by giving the background and history of the play to contextualise it. He often criticises contemporary critics and he can’t help but get political about his interpretations. His criticism of Shakespeare is at times unsettling to the modern reader for whom Shakespeare has achieved a revered, beyond criticism status.
Four hundred years on from the death of Shakespeare one thing is certain – Shakespeare has become the ultimate commodity. As such, when we think about how the Bard ‘speaks’ to us today, we have to consider not just the man and his work but also subsequent cliché and commodification. In the 21st century I suggest we tend to use Shakespeare as a mirror – holding him up to our own present condition and trying to retro-fit – much in the way that Shakespeare himself was doing in writing the plays in the 17th century from earlier stories and different times.
But this is not how Leatham sees it. A century ago, Leatham, while appreciating Shakespeare’s genius, does not categorise it or commodify it as we do today, although I suggest that he does point towards the dangers of deifying and commodifying in equal measure.
In Leatham’s Shakespeare Studies we get a different and thought-provoking interpretation, quite unlike the one with which those of us ‘schooled’ in Shakespeare since the Second World War are familiar. Leatham consistently presents a view which I suggest is in keeping with his socialist principles. He can separate morality from creativity without condemnation, as in his study on Hamlet:
‘Morally one brackets Shakespeare the showman with the enterprising newspaper proprietors of the present day...,’
I suggest that in reading these studies you will not find Leatham trying to define or redefine Shakespeare as a socialist dramatist. Rather, he offers a socialist response to the plays. Thus soldiers, and especially monarchs and their behaviour are presented to us in a way quite different to that which was the acceptable response when I was a student of Shakespeare. And that is quite refreshing. One thing I can promise you – whether you agree, disagree, are shocked or charmed by Leatham’s opinions – you won’t have read Shakespeare critiques like these before. And that has to be a good thing.
[This piece is an abridged version of the Introduction to Leatham’s Shakespeare Studies, published by the Deveron Press on 23rd April 2017 and available NOW from Unco.]
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