Stephen Booth’s “Extremely Close Reading”

Recently I read Ron Rosenbaum’s fantastic book The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups, a history of the cultural and literary wars fought over Shakespeare’s work. It’s a tremendous book, written in almost a frenzied prose (I love how excited Rosenbaum gets about things, I have always loved his op-ed columns for this reason), as Rosenbaum tries to dig his way through all the material, while maintaining not just his love for Shakespeare (that is too gentle a word) – more like his exhilaration, his despair. Marvelous book, highly recommended.

There is a whole chapter devoted to Stephen Booth, a fascinating guy, a giant in the landscape of Shakespeare scholarship, whose edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is still in print, and still the dominant edition to get. It’s the edition I have had since college. I didn’t know anything about Stephen Booth at the time, but that’s the version “to get” – I also have all of the Sonnets in my Riverside Shakespeare, of course, but that book weighs 89 pounds, so if you just want to flip through the Sonnets, or read one of the specific plays on its own, you have to deal with this giant TOME that you can’t take anywhere. That’s why I have all the plays separately, as well as the Sonnets. I have mentioned before that I find reading the Sonnets relaxing when I’m stressed out. I have my favorites, and those aren’t necessarily the ones that speak to me, or seem to reflect my own feelings. Lots of times, they are the ones that baffle me the most, or seem to suggest an entire world in those 14 lines, a world I can only get a glimpse of.

Here’s the thing about Stephen Booth’s version, to give you an idea: There are 154 Sonnets. In the Booth version, you have his edited version on one side of the page, and then the facsimile of the sonnets on the opposite page – so you can see the punctuation/spelling of the original. Booth is not big on messing wtih Shakespeare’s punctuation, as other editors are, adding exclamation points willy nilly. He is very specific on why he edits, what he chooses to edit – his main concern is to try to provide a context where the modern-day reader can perhaps approximate the response of an Elizabethan-era reader.

But one of the most stand-out features of Booth’s version, and why I recommend it above all others, is that he does not concern himself with meaning. That may sound like an odd thing to say with an edition of the Sonnets where the Sonnets themselves take up 130 pages and then there over 400 pages of footnotes. What I mean by my statement is this: too many editions of Shakespeare try to iron out his ultimate meaning, they try to explain to the reader: “Here is exactly what he is saying here.” By doing so, you certainly lessen the poem itself – it’s like taking apart a clock and still expecting it to tell you the time. By trying to nail down ONE meaning, you discount Shakespeare’s propensity for multiple layers, puns, correlations, mysterious things connected. Not to mention the fact that when you try to paraphrase Shakespeare, you completely destroy him. Booth is different from his contemporaries in that his concern is with the MULTIPLE layers of meaning in every word, every phrase – and … AND … he makes no conclusion. He is not interpreting meaning. No. What he is doing is showing us how to do an “extremely close reading” of these Sonnets, and to let the mysteries stand. To not try to stabilize a world which is inherently unstable.

This could be frustrating, I suppose, for a reader who wants to know what the hell Shakespeare is saying.

Rosenbaum discusses Booth’s manner of analysis – taking as an example Booth’s footnotes for Sonnet 40 in The Shakespeare Wars:

Try reading aloud Booth’s seven-part explication of the ambiguities; it’s criticism that rises to the level of poetry itself. Booth’s footnote to line 5 in which he unfolds the dazzling multiplicity of possible meanings of “for”, “love” and “receivest”, and how each shift in meaning in one unfolds multiple shifts in the others, is an example of the polysemous pleasures of his reading of the Sonnets. Pleasures that almost threaten to dissolve not just the singularity of meaning – but the singularity itself.

Booth doesn’t encourage one to choose one particular combination of “for”, “love” or “receivest” but rather to contemplate – to revel in – the way the multiple possibilities are choreographed. Change one’s way of looking at one word’s connotation and the other two dance to a new tune. Look at another word through a different lens and the others shift into a new focus. It’s a dizzying but pleasurable destabilization. One won’t crack one’s head open going off this cliff, but it might open the mind in a way it hasn’t been opened before. Something Boothian commentary tries to celebrate. To celebrate the way words and meanings in effect enact a beautiful and pleasurable dance of significations in which one possible meaning of “for” might combine with four other possibilities for “receivest” and then four more for “love” in an exponentially more complex and yet deeply pleasurable way. The way entertaining all possible, that is plausible, meanings at once is preferable to attempting reductively to single out one.

I couldn’t quite have put it into words like that, but I do know that my sensibility is drawn towards possibilities rather than certainty. It’s just the way I’m built, and I respond to things that seem to suggest other things, rather than just state what they are, and demand that you accept it. I’m working on a big post right now about Jeremy Renner and John Wayne that seems to connect to this, but I’ll save that for later. I also haven’t thought a lot about Stephen Booth – until I encountered him in Rosenbaum’s book, even though he’s been on my shelf since college. But I didn’t know who the dude was, didn’t care, I was in it for Shakespeare and this was the best version.

Rosenbaum tries to track Booth down, they share emails, conversation … Rosenbaum basically wants to know what it is like to be able to read like Stephen Booth. What is it like to be able to read so closely? Booth is rather cagey, and yet what I liked so much about him is how much he seems to be about pleasure. You have to listen very closely in order to get that, but it is there. It is one of the things that really sets his work apart. He is against the grain of lit-crit right now – which doesn’t believe in authorship, really, only historical context and patriarchy and all that humorless boring stuff which is trying to iron out the world into a manageable narrative. Booth just never even gives lit-crit Theory the time of day. He doesn’t even engage them. He is on his own. His pleasure from Shakespeare is also refreshing because much of it comes from a few specific memories of seeing Shakespeare productions when he was a kid, and having various “a-ha” moments. Regardless, I won’t summarize Rosenbaum’s chapter on Booth – it should be read all of a piece – but after reading The Shakespeare Wars, I decided to go back and read the Sonnets, in so-called chronological order, and also commit to going through the footnotes, sonnet by sonnet. It is a dizzying experience – and while I have used the footnotes before as reference (ie: what the fuck, Will?) – I haven’t really sat in them, and then gone back to the sonnet, and then back to the footnote, and then back. You really can get lost. There is no “up”, “down”, “left”, “right”. Booth does not give meaning – although I’ve never been into that anyway – what a sonnet “means” is not as important to me as how it is said. Booth gives all possible meanings that he can come up with.

Some of the Sonnets have footnotes that are 5 pages long. One note alone can be two pages long.

This is a volume to literally get lost in, and that’s what I am doing right now. It is overwhelming, and there is a time when the brain basically turns off – becomes saturated – so I have given myself the task of reading one sonnet (and its accompanying notes) per day. It’s a nice morning ritual. Like I said, many of these Sonnets I practically know by heart, and they are things I turn to repeatedly. Not so much for their meaning, but because I find the act of reading them to be comforting somehow.

I’m reading them differently right now – that is my little assignment right now – trying to just follow Booth down the various rabbit holes, and not worry about getting lost in one damn footnote: getting lost seems to be the point.

If you want to understand me, then all you need to know is that I find this stuff as exhilarating as a roller coaster. The challenge is the pleasure. The sheer difficulty of some of it. The arduousness. Flipping back and forth from Sonnet to note and back. I never want it to end.

So I thought I’d give an example of what Booth is about. Here is Sonnet 8. Followed by just one of Stephen Booth’s notes.

1 Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?
2 Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy.
3 Why lovest thou that which thou receivest not gladly,
4 Or else receivest with pleasure thine annoy?
5 If the true concord of well-tuned sounds,
6 By unions married, do offend thine ear,
7 They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds
8 In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.
9 Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,
10 Strikes each in each by mutual ordering,
11 Resembling sire and child and happy mother
12 Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing:
13 Whose speechless song, being many, seeming one,
14 Sings this to thee: ‘thou single wilt prove none.’

And here is Stephen Booth’s note on lines 5-8. Notice the acceptance of ambiguity and multiple meanings, and a complete disregard for the need of tidiness, or A to B paraphrasing:

5 – 8: Shakespeare’s use of language is such that a reader can make no paraphrase that both follows the syntax of the lines and says what he knows the lines mean. One can almost always make a general paraphrase of a Shakespeare sonnet and give a satisfactory gloss for any particular word in it, but if one puts together a new sentence replacing Shakespeare’s word with their glosses, one will often get a sentence that makes no sense at all. Sometimes Shakespeare’s own sentences can be demonstrated to mean nothing at all – even where readers actually understand them perfectly. This second quatrain of sonnet 8 is an excellent example. Lines 5-6 introduce the running theme of the preceding seven sonnets (all of which urge a young man to marry and beget children) by using language that is both musical and marital (e.g. unions, married, and concord [literally “hearts together”]) to say, “If polyphonic music is distasteful to you.” The language of lines 7-8 continues the double frame of reference, music and marriage. Going along at a normal reading speed a reader will presumably recognize an appropriate, if imprecise, metaphor of a musician “bearing a part” (one of the parts) in a piece of polyphonic music and understand who confounds / In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear as a repetition of what several sonnets have just said: “who are doing wrong in remaining single”. Editors and students are pressed for something more specific; the best paraphrase I have seen is this one by Ingram and Redpath (who make a point of its insufficiency): “who, by remaining single, suppress those roles (of husband and father) which you should play.” The clause effectively says much more than that and literally says much less. The coherence of the paraphrase is achieved by means of substitutions whose meanings are not quite those of the original words: confounds is replaced by “suppress” and bear by “play”. The plurality of parts is explained by a reasonable extrapolation, “of husband and father”. The paraphrase gives precise form to the obvious purport of the clause and does so in one of the sets of terms in which the poem operates. The paraphrase is absolutely just, but necessarily ignores several common meanings of “to confound” that also pertain in this context and impinge upon it: (a) “to ruin”, “to destroy” (the sense it has in 5.6); (b) “to waste” (a theme of the sonnets since sonnet 1); and (c) “to throw into confusion,” “to disorder,” “to destroy the harmony of”. Taking parts to mean “roles”, no reader can be expected to understand confounds … the parts as “ruins the parts” or “wastes the parts” or “disorders the parts”, but several other meanings of parts are invoked by this context, and they act to sustain the illusion that the clause actually says what it so obviously means: parts means “talents,” “good qualities,” “abilities” (as in 17.4), and “who waste your abilities” makes good sense until one comes to bear; moreover, parts appears here in context of singleness and gives the lines the pertinent – though logically and syntactically unmanageable – richness of a vaguely meaningful opposition between the unity suggested by singleness and the division suggested by parts as a word meaning “pieces”; moreover, the context of marriage invokes a logically casual play on parts meaning “sex organs” (see 15.6 and note). Similarly, bear, as a word meaning “give birth to”, is substantively irrelevant to this clause but so urgently relevant to its occasion that it gives a feeling of rightness, a sound of sense, to the lines. A complementary and equally easy victory over reasonable probability occurs in the grammatically unusual who confounds (for “who confoundst” – see Abbott, par. 247) and in the oxymoron sweetly chide. The quatrain is an emblem of the paradoxical conditions it recommends, harmony and marriage – unities that supersede common sense in being more unified than singleness, unities made by literally “confounding”, “pouring together”, individual elements and potentially disabled by a confusion that results from failure to mix.

This sort of analysis is, obviously, a jumping-off point, rather than an end-stop, which is why Booth seems so problematic to those who want answers and “translations”, basically.

I also love the depth he goes, digging further and further into one damn word, playing out the possibilities, each one canceling out the one before, and yet nothing specifically wrong or incorrect. The ambiguities are meant to STAND, not be eradicated.

Here he is on one word-play in Line 14 of Sonnet 8, which, to me, starts to crack the poem open for me. A universe, a solar system, contained in a walnut shell, basically.

14. Sings … single The overt play on sings and single is shadowed in lines 8 and 12. Thou single wilt prove none (1) unmarried – and thus without an heir – your line will become extinct with your death; (2) being single (one, 1), you will turn out to be nothing (zero, 0). (There is incidental allusion here to the ancient mathematical principle that “one is no number,” which – as the embodiment of the quibble on the number “one” and “one” as opposed to a multitude – became proverbial [Tilley, O54, see 136.8]. Another proverb, “One is as good as none” [Tilley, O52], also pertains; Whitney gives it thus: “The proverbe saieth, one man is deemed none, / And life, is deathe, where men doo live alone” [p.66].) none It is possible that Shakespeare had a pun on “nun” in mind. Barrenness suggests nuns to him, and nuns suggest barrenness; see MND I.i.69-78 and the “self-loving nuns” passage in V&A (752-68). For a similarly suggestive use of nun, see Measure II.iv.134-38, Angelo’s attempted seduction of Isabella, a novice from a nunnery: “Be that you are, / That is, a woman; if you be more, you’re none; / If you be one, as you are well express’d / By all external warrants, show it now / By putting on the destin’d livery”; see also Measure III.i.62-62: Claudio. “Is there no remedy?” / Isabella. “None…” (since Isabella is herself the potential “remedy”, her response has something like the effect that occurs in AW I.i.141-42, where Helena asks how a maiden can lose her virginity to her own liking, and Parolles introduces his answer with the expletive “marry”). For a simpler play on “nun” and “none”, see The Jew of Malta, lines 491-92: a “Nunnery, where none but their owne sect / Must enter in ….” (The evidence for the pronunciations of one and none is inconclusive; Shakespeare rhymes one with “sun” and “sun” with “nun”, but he also rhymes both one and none with “bone” and – like Whitney – with “alone”; see the noon / son rhyme in 7.13-14.

This is what I do every morning. My morning meditation.

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12 Responses to Stephen Booth’s “Extremely Close Reading”

  1. Kate says:

    Like the bible! I read it with my kids for history and context; others read for inspiration and guidance – always getting what they need in the moment.

  2. red says:

    Language as prism.

  3. insightful scribblings here, thanks

  4. Frank says:

    I’ve taken both undergrad and graduate poetry classes with Booth at Berkeley. It’s INCREDIBLY refreshing to talk with the guy about literature or hear him talk about poetry, mainly because he actually talks about the words on the page. I work on the 20th century US novel (a world away from Shakespeare generally), but I have a soft spot in my heart for Booth. He’s an iconoclast in the department and a personal hero of mine. I’ll be referencing him in the classroom for the rest of my academic life I think. I talked with my students today about his great essay, “The Function of Criticism and the Present Time and All Others” in fact. It’s a must read for any SBoo fan. Thanks for the post!

  5. sheila says:

    Frank – how cool to hear from someone who studied with him! I am so in awe of him! Best of luck to you in your work – it really sounds fascinating. And I will look up that essay you mention – I have not read it.

  6. Go Bears says:

    Like Frank (who sounds like an awesome teacher himself), I took several classes with Prof. Booth. I was lucky enough to have a freshman seminar with Prof. Booth in spring 1995, and we spent our time considering one central question. What makes great literature great? Why do some works live on for generations, and others fade away? We read Shakespeare sonnets and Romeo and Juliet, William Blake, Poe, and children’s author P.D. Eastman (specifically Go Dog Go). With each work, we endeavored to unpack all of the richness in language, meaning, theme, sound. Sheila, your description and understanding of Booth would make me swear that you were in these classes with me.

    Booth’s work was so fascinating to me as an 18 year old, and still it is today. He is also just a very passionate teacher/learner. We were all engaged in an intellectual exercise together. When we studied Romeo and Juliet, he brought us roses to examine (“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”).

    Booth is an amazing teacher, and a kind soul. I wrote him some years after graduating to thank him, and he responded so kindly. Nice to see he is still inspiring others through his writings and teachings.

    • sheila says:

      Go Bears – he brought roses to class to examine? This guy is off the charts – that is so incredible. I am very moved.

      I am saddened that I have never taken a course with him. Thank you so much for sharing your memories.

  7. Cal 99 says:

    I took a poetry class with Professor Booth as a junior and I enjoyed it more than any class I had ever taken. I was then lucky enough to get into a Junior Seminar, for a topic I had no interest in, but I was still very pleased to have more instruction from him. On the first day of class he suggested I leave because if I had taken one class with him, I shouldn’t take another, regardless of the subject. He would say that he taught us how to read these texts, and he didn’t focus on the interpretation of the texts themselves. He thought that once you had been exposed to this instruction it wasn’t necessary to repeat it. When I told him I was staying, he said, “So, you will quietly step over my dead body”.
    Most of the other students enjoyed these classes as much as I did, and the majority of students in that Junior Seminar later applied for his Senior Seminar as well. In class he stated that he was flattered, but that he would not allow us into the Senior Seminar, and we would all be put on a wait list. This basically meant you had no chance of getting in.
    He did announce that I was at the top of the wait list, and told the class that it was because my application proved that I was either very smart, or I had learned nothing from his previous classes. The Senior Seminar was on Paradise Lost, and I had stated in my application that the biblical subject matter of the text was of specific interest to me in my studies. I knew that this might upset him and catch his eye because, as he said, the subject matter wasn’t important.
    A few weeks later I looked at the list of students accepted into the class and saw that I was at the top of the wait list. Later that day I found him directing students in a Shakespeare play at the Memorial Glade, and I walked up to him hoping to pressure him into letting me in the class. He stared at me, paused and then said a name of a person, which I didn’t recognize. Then as he was walking away he said loudly, “…doesn’t exist”. It took me a few hours, but then it hit me. I walked back to the list, and that name was one of the accepted students. To state the obvious, he had reserved a spot for me. I’m not sure if he knew that it was my intention to weasel my way in, and I don’t think I am remembered one of his best students, but I really enjoyed that interaction.
    All of this to say, Booth was a sharp-tongued genius, and the best professor I ever had.

    • sheila says:

      Great great stories – wow, thank you so much for sharing them!

      I admire the work that he does so much and am envious (in a friendly way) of all of those who get to study with him.

      Thanks again!

  8. Jack G Aubert says:

    Yes, it is absolutely essential to read Booth if you love the sonnets enough to read them all seriously — and I have. But the physical binding of the paperback makes it much harder than it should be. I would love to be able to buy and willing to pay quite a bit for a nice signature stitched and properly bound version that would open up flat enough to read easily.

  9. Kevin says:

    All we have in common is the text, the written words. However, an informed S-spearian actor friend says “Don’t read S-speare – as literature!” He means the plays and the cue-scripted form. But with the Sonnets and poems we can. Close reading is what my brain loves so… Auditing uni classes, I find S-speare, to anyone who even knows anymore , is the films and not the texts. Who reads anymore?
    I find the Sonnets very wacky and brilliant. To me, they seem written, in the rush of adolescent hormones by a bookkeeper. The trope of “You owe” happens over and over. To me, they are awful about “love” as is the rest of Will’s work. I doubt he was ever in love. Will’s plot strength was really 2D guys characters harming themselves and everyone around them – even Romeo! But his women characters are brilliant.
    The Sonnets do contain the line: “Desire is death.” Really!?
    PS I audited a course from one of SB’s PhD students – he was less enamored…

  10. kevin says:

    Oh yes, let me recommend some younger women scholars who are doing great – what I would call “forensic” – work on the who, what, where, when and how of the production of ancient religious texts.
    I am not at all religious but keenly interested in how great art/literature/science, and popular culture products, gets actually done by everyday folks.
    Robyn Faith Walsh, Candida Moss and

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