Practice Makes Better (Even Malcolm Gladwell Says So!)

A long, long, long time ago in a galaxy exactly as far away as our own, I promised a discussion of comments made by William C. Carroll, the editor of the Arden Shakespeare Third Edition of Two Gentlemen, in his introduction to the edition. They irk me because while I think I understand why Carroll is making them, his argument proves far too much, marring what is otherwise a valuable introduction. Even more, I think the argument is in the service of a strained interpretation.

The issue is the one I dealt with in my last post on Two Gentlemen; whether it is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and whether its relatively low quality counts as evidence for an early date. The majority, perhaps even the vast majority, of scholars and critics agree to the first proposition, and most if not all of those base their opinion on the second. In a nutshell: Two Gentlemen isn’t very good; Shakespeare tended to get better as he wrote more; therefore, Two Gentlemen dates from a time when he hadn’t written much. Of course I am not a scholar and I do not have a worked-out chronology of the plays, but the crucial premise—Shakespeare, like any other writer, got better as he went along—seems unassailable to me.

I should qualify this right off. I’m not saying that Shakespeare marched from triumph to triumph in uninterrupted succession. That would mean that Shakespeare could never misfire, which plainly isn’t true. King John’s date is in dispute and I would dearly love to call it early because it’s pretty bad, but the consensus seems to be that it comes from the time of King Richard II and King Henry IV, Part 1. If the consensus is right, King John is a counterexample to the general rule that relatively bad work is relatively early work, but nobody is suggesting that this is an ironclad rule.

At least I’m not. All I am saying is that practice makes, if not perfect, at least better. Malcolm Gladwell’s claim that to get good at anything you need to practice for at least 10,000 hours may be fatuous (it’s Gladwell, after all), but you do need to practice. Moreover, later work often builds on earlier work, but for obvious reasons never vice versa. Every writer knows these facts from experience.

In the case of Two Gentlemen, there really isn’t any argument for assigning a date other than perceived quality. We know it existed by 1598 because Francis Meres mentions it in that year. It certainly was not new at that point but there is no other evidence; no documented performance, no quarto or other surviving text before the First Folio, no entry in the Stationers’ Register, no nuthin’. The only way to date it at all is through internal evidence; our intuitive feeling that it is early because it isn’t good, and stylistic/stylometric evidence disclosing patterns characteristic of work considered early on other grounds.

Carroll is having none of this, though. He assails my “unassailable” premise. Twice. Here are the quotes, near the beginning and end of his introduction.

However, many readers and audiences have judged Two Gentlemen, as one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, to be aesthetically inferior to most of his others: “early” comes to connote “immature,” hence relatively incompetent, in contrast to a play written later, which is more “mature” (how could it not be?) and (almost by definition) therefore more successful (2).

               Internal features—such as frequency of rhyme, word-usage, and so on—do not provide significant evidence for dating. For most editors, readers, and audiences, the play feels very early, in part because of the often undistinguished verse, in part because of the relatively underdeveloped characterization of the central characters. The contradictions and anomalies in the plot have also been judged to be signs of “apprentice” work, while the prevalence of “duets”. . . and the relative infrequency and clumsiness of scenes involving more than two characters seem the marks of an inexperienced playwright. These are all assumptions about what characterizes writing as early, but even if they are accepted, there is the further underlying assumption that once Shakespeare showed that he could write more complex characters, he could never fall back on “earlier” habits. This line of reasoning produces a narrative of Shakespeare’s inevitable improvement from play to play the reinforces prevailing ideas about Shakespeare’s career as a writer, but—pace metrical and other technical “tests”—no evidence supports it (128–129).

Note well that Carroll does not deny that Two Gentlemen contains “often undistinguished verse” or that the characterization of the central characters is “relatively underdeveloped” or that the plot contains “contradictions and anomalies.” He admits that the play is inferior by agreed-upon standards of criticism that would, in other cases, be accepted as evidence that it is earlier than other works. Why does he deny that it’s evidence in this case?

I think I know why. First, in the beginning of the second quote, he is setting himself against stylometric analysis—at least the use of stylometric analysis to date a text. I suspect he does so because he believes that the only acceptable evidence for dating one of Shakespeare’s plays is external; a documented first performance, a dated quarto, a reference to an external event such as a shipwreck in Bermuda, and so on. Unfortunately, he does not explain here why this should be so; he just asserts it dogmatically. (Note that even external evidence can only give us a latest possible date, a terminus ad quem; if a play was printed or performed or mentioned by Francis Meres on date Y, it must have been created on a prior, undocumented date X.)

I am not aware of a stylometric argument for the date of Two Gentlemen, and I wouldn’t expect one to be very cogent. If nothing else, because Two Gentlemen first appeared in the First Folio, we cannot tell whether characteristics of Shakespeare’s earlier style were not effaced in the process of later publication. I could easily be mistaken in thinking that Carroll is moved by a rejection of stylometry. What is more important here is the pattern of argumentation he attributes to his opponents in the first paragraph I quoted. According to Carroll, their argument goes: Early, therefore immature, therefore relatively incompetent. This would be begging the question in the correct sense of that phrase; assuming what was to be proven. In fact the argument, at least as I would frame it, is precisely the opposite: Relatively incompetent, therefore immature, therefore early. Again, this is a probabilistic argument; on balance, if a work is relatively incompetent (relative to a specified other work or group of works), it is relatively immature, and therefore more likely to be early than late. Again, practice makes better. Note also, as I said, that Carroll does not deny that Two Gentlemen is relatively incompetent; he denies that relative incompetence is a ground for assigning an early date. As a writer himself, he should know better.

As a writer myself, I am particularly vexed by Carroll’s assertion that his opponents make the “further underlying assumption that once Shakespeare showed that he could write more complex characters, he could never fall back on ‘earlier’ habits.” The sort of bad writing that comes from inexperience is not a “habit” and it is simply not something real writers “fall back on.” Once real writers learn from a mistake, they see no reason to make it twice. Again, this is not to say that writers invariably exhibit a trajectory of improvement. But I challenge Carroll to name a writer whose works can be dated and who visibly reverted to apprentice characteristics; who made old mistakes again after learning how to avoid them.

Something else has to be going on, and I think I finally figured it out after much thought. Spoilers ahead, though I’ll try to minimize them.

As we shall see, the ending of Two Gentlemen is intensely controversial and requires some kind of special pleading to make it, and Shakespeare as a playwright, acceptable. Carroll wants to rescue Shakespeare from criticism by saying that the ending is a sophisticated Ovidian deconstruction of the gentleman/brother friendship tradition. (Never fear: all will be explained in due course.) But this line of argument raises the question “How can an otherwise crude, amateurish, apprentice, and on the nose play have such a conceptually sophisticated ending? Carroll does not respond directly; instead, he changes the subject by saying there is no hard evidence for the play’s date. Without offering a date himself, he insinuates that the play was written later than most scholars think, allowing a more mature Shakespeare to make a sophisticated thematic point with the ending. But since he doesn’t deny the crudities of the play, he must account for them as a reversion to “earlier habits.”

That’s the only way I see to account for what Carroll says. For my part, I think it would be equally cogent to argue, assuming he is right that the ending is a rejection of the friendship tradition, that it shows this play is early. For on Carroll’s view Two Gentlemen is fundamentally didactic: Shakespeare has a point of view about the notion of male friendship, and he is using his characters to illustrate it. As Carroll reads Two Gentlemen, Shakespeare’s undermining of the bromance tradition is the whole point of the play. But the mature Shakespeare never writes didactically. Of course he has plenty to say about human beings and the world in which they find themselves, but any messages you care to extract from him are always subordinated to character—and entertainment.

If Shakespeare had wanted to write a critique of the male friendship tradition in European literature, he would have done so. But he wasn’t a philosopher; he was a jobbing playwright whose livelihood depended on putting asses in seats. And I am sure that then as now, audiences would choose a light romantic comedy over a searching examination of the contradictions of a refined literary tradition they would not even have seen as flawed.

Therefore, assuming Carroll is right that Two Gentlemen is intended to build up to its didactic ending, that is a craft defect Shakespeare learned to rectify and never repeated. However inadvertently, Carroll just might have the best argument for the view that Two Gentlemen is actually Shakespeare’s earliest play.

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