AT THE SHAKESPEARE ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA’S recent annual meeting in Vancouver one of the most frequently repeated buzzwords was “narrative,” always with disapproval, as if “narrative” were a term of disparagement. I’m puzzled why the word has acquired this pejorative connotation. There are of course bad narratives, ones which are misleading or unsupported, or which unreasonably associate unrelated facts, but why would we classify all narratives as bad?
In my own field of literary history, which is really more history than literature, narratives seem necessary. We’re trying to reconstruct long past events based on imperfect information. To make sense of the evidence you must first sift out the irrelevant parts, then organize the rest by topic and chronology. You interpret each relevant piece of evidence and, accounting for all the evidence, use logical inferences to connect it into a coherent whole. The result is a narrative. And the essence of writing history is locating the known facts within convincing explanatory narratives. Without such narratives readers would be left with a jumble of raw, unassembled facts.
Nor are readers defenseless against bad narratives. They naturally subject history writers’ efforts to critical scrutiny, evaluating whether all the relevant evidence is accounted for and reasonably explained. Bad narratives will also generate rebuttals by other scholars.
For reasons I will explain in a moment, I have been prompted to think about this subject by publication of the book, Lost Plays in Shakespeare’s England. I wrote a chapter for the book concerning drama in the decade from 1577 to 1587, and the role in that drama’s development played by Thomas Watson. Scholars almost never consider drama in that decade. We treat Tamburlaine and The Spanish Tragedy, both written around 1587, as if they represent the beginning of modern-style English drama. But Tamburlaine and The Spanish Tragedy clearly were preceded by a vast number of plays. In or near 1577 no fewer than seven performance spaces—four inns and three purpose-built theaters—opened around London. As we know from contemporary records, plays were being performed in those venues throughout the following decade.
We don’t, however, have the plays themselves. Almost none were printed, probably in part because the Episcopal book censors were hostile to popular plays. In my essay I assemble the surviving evidence. I show, I think, that modern-style Elizabethan drama was developing throughout the decade, and that Watson played a pivotal role in that development.
Surviving evidence concerning the topic is of course limited, so inference and interpretation were unavoidable. I did, however, in the body of my chapter, carefully distinguish between inferences and facts in evidence. I took special notice of evidentiary gaps and uncertainties. I used many words—among them “probably,” “should have,” “surely,” and “almost certainly”—both to signal that the statements are inferences, not known facts, and to calibrate the statements’ degrees of probability. I qualified with “no doubt,” for example, the unexceptionable observation that at Winchester College Watson gained a solid foundation in Latin. Why? Just because there is no evidence specifically applicable to Watson. Thus if anyone wants to disagree with me, the tools for them to use are provided right there in the essay.
Nevertheless I wrote the essay with the goal of persuading my readers. I sought to persuade not by directing, but by showing. I arranged the evidence into a sequence persuasive of my submitted conclusions. I asked readers to accept those conclusions based on that evidence.
In his recent RES review of the Lost Plays book, Peter Kirwan rightly praises several chapters reminding us of how little we know regarding lost plays. Then, as a point of contrast, he singles out my chapter at some length. I am accused of “recklessness” and “overconfident extrapolation from weak evidence.” Indeed, it seems that I have committed the crime, “pursuit of a narrative.”
I’ll plead guilty, of course, to pursuing a narrative. I just don’t think that the crime should be on the statute books. As to the charge of recklessness, I’ll plead not guilty on the evidence. Everyone can read my essay and judge for themselves. Let them think how a scholar might write a history of ancient Carthage. Few Carthaginian documents survive, and the Romans famously plowed the city under. Evidence must be assembled from biased Greek and Roman documents and from the circumscribed archeology. But the topic is important, so the history must be written, and the evidence interpreted as best it may. That is precisely the imperative which drove my chapter here.
The proper test for a narrative on such a topic is whether someone can show, for substantive reasons, that your interpretations are unsound. Kirwan points out that I “littered” my chapter with words to indicate degrees of probability, “should,” “surely,” and so on. We might pause to observe that a reckless and overconfident extrapolator would have avoided such expressions of uncertainty. Far more importantly, Kirwan fails to supply a single instance in which he is able substantively to disagree with an inference that I thus qualified, or with any conclusion that I asked my readers to draw.
So Kirwan’s review again prompts the discomfort that I felt in Vancouver. Literature scholarship matters, and could interest a broad spectrum of educated people. To reach those people we must write books and essays that are engaging, accessible and persuasive. And there are only so many essays we can write regarding how little we know. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to figure out things that we didn’t know before, and persuade others that our conclusions are right. To achieve these goals we’ll have to write narratives. Let’s stop disparaging them.