Prefaces to Shakespeare

Tony Tanner was the greatest talker of all the literary critics I have known. His hands working like a virtuoso conductor, he would keep five or six thoughts in the air, quoting, confiding, denouncing as he used the full range of both the learned and demotic tongues.

To read this collection of introductions to Shakespeare's plays, more than ten years after Tanner's death, is to be reintroduced to his conversation. For in this, his final and finest critical work, Tanner's writing is at its most brilliant: he can summarise with the utmost economy; he can describe sources with the deftest of touches; he can, in sentences bristling with parentheses and boiling with quotations, develop the most complex of arguments, his own language engaging with Shakespeare's in a graceful dance.

These essays first appeared as introductions to a complete Everyman edition of Shakespeare's plays. David Campbell, who had relaunched the imprint, must be congratulated on his slightly idiosyncratic choice, as Tanner was not a Shakespearean scholar. He was, however, of a generation in which to be a university teacher of English was to lecture on the full range of English literature, from Shakespeare to the present day. And Tanner was the most important figure of his own generation to expand that range.

Having completed his undergraduate education at Cambridge in the late 1950s, he spent two years at the University of Berkeley, California on a Harkness scholarship and discovered the extraordinarily fertile world of postwar American literature. When he returned to Cambridge to both a fellowship at King's College and a lectureship in the English faculty, he became a leading figure in efforts in Britain to introduce American literature on to reading lists. Through the 1960s and 1970s, Tanner turned out books and articles on every aspect of American literature and then, in 1976, after years of hesitation, he finally accepted a post at an American university. This was a disaster, from which he fled back to England almost immediately.

As his much-loved senior colleague George "Dadie" Rylands waspishly remarked: "Ah yes, Tony - went to America the first time, came back with a beautiful American wife and wrote a book called The Reign of Wonder, went off a second time, came back without the wife and wrote a book called Adultery and the Novel." Indeed, the Tony who returned was in many ways a depleted figure. His savage drinking, almost certainly the main factor in him losing his balance, developed into debilitating alcoholism. His case seemed hopeless.

Then a miracle happened - he stopped drinking, reinvented himself as a bachelor don at King's College, Cambridge, and began to write across the range of English literature, notably with books on Jane Austen and Henry James. It was at this moment that the commission from Everyman arrived, and in four years of intense scholarship from 1992 to 1996 he wrote an introduction to every one of Shakespeare's plays. Arguably this was the happiest period of his life. Tanner had always hoped that the introductions would be gathered together into a book and now, 12 years after his death, Harvard University Press has recognised their importance.

Perhaps the first question to be asked is: will anybody ever read the book in its entirety? Certainly it can be recommended as a book. It is an impressive introduction not only to the plays, but also to the whole tradition of Shakespeare criticism from Dryden to Stanley Cavell, from Johnson to Kermode, with Coleridge an especial favourite. There is very little repetition and almost every page contains illumination, from the critical tradition, from the historical context, from contemporary debate.

However, the book's most important uses, and one can imagine this far into the future, will be occasional. If you are an A-level student starting a set text or a Shakespearean scholar preparing a learned lecture on a particular play, if you are a tyro directing your first Shakespeare or a master returning for the umpteenth time to one of the great classics, your first port of call should be Tanner's essay on the Shakespeare play in question.

Tanner's method is to start with the words - counting them, exploring their philology, analysing their place in the play. This goes hand in hand with a gift for quotation. His readings shy away from direct interpretation, but always attempt to emphasise what is being dramatised. To take one example, he starts his analysis of The Merchant of Venice with Portia's question at the beginning of the trial scenes: "Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?" This question makes no sense in relation to a Venice in which Jew and merchant are easily distinguishable by dress, but every sense in relation to a play that constantly explores their equivalences in a new, commercial culture.

Tanner is a generous critic and others are quoted in agreement rather than dispute. But there is a polemical edge very clearly stated in his analysis of Hal's soliloquy in Henry IV Part 1 when the prince reveals that, in consorting with Falstaff, he is merely plotting a more spectacular redemption: "It is, I think, unarguably unpleasant and if it is so for us it is simply calumny to think it wasn't for Shakespeare."

Tanner has no time for historicism either old or new. Neither the conservative idiocies of the Elizabethan world picture nor the radical stupidities of Elizabethan cultural power have any place in Tanner's analyses or bibliographies. This does lead to the one continuous weakness of his readings - almost no role at all for the changing forms of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage. But although important, this does not detract from the value of the book. If you ever go to the theatre to see Shakespeare, or even just read the plays at home, Tanner's introductions are an indispensable guide.

Prefaces to Shakespeare
Tony Tanner
Harvard University Press, 848pp, £29.95

Colin MacCabe is distinguished professor of English and film at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days