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Prof. Marco Mincoff

Alexander Shurbanov

A SHAKESPEAREAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN

(The European English Messenger, Volume 23.1 – Summer 2014, pp. 43-49)

 

mincoff‘His eye for detail is so acute and his understanding of the dramatist’s craft so subtle, he opens up aspects of each play that surprise and persuade… His was a mind that we will miss’, wrote Barbara Mowat in her Introduction to the posthumous American edition of Marco Mincoff’s last critical opus, Things Supernatural and Causeless: Shakespearean Romance (University of Delaware Press, 1992)[1]. In a recent private message to me, Brian Vickers defined Mincoff as ‘a fertile and independently minded scholar’ and added: ‘You must have noticed that I cited his work on several occasions’, which indeed I have, and what is especially clear in my mind are Professor Vickers’ numerous references to Mincoff’s in-depth study of the authorship of The Two Noble Kinsmen.[2] In the mid-1980’s, when I first met Inga-Stina Ewbank in Leeds, she told me that in her early years as a student of Renaissance literature Mincoff’s essay ‘What Shakespeare Did to Rosalynde’ had become an eye-opener and an inspiration for her further work.[3] Two decades earlier, A. D. Nuttall, still a young lecturer at the University of Sussex at the time, was curious to know what kind of person Mincoff was. ‘In Stratford’, he said, ‘I have heard him speak like an Oxford don.’ In the early 1990s Samuel Schoenbaum, in spite of his deteriorating health, came all the way to Sofia to pay his respects to the memory of his esteemed colleague. In Moscow, Alexander Anikst often spoke of Mincoff as the top Shakespearean scholar of Eastern Europe. Helen Gardner, Kenneth Muir, Philip Brockbank, Cyrus Hoy and many others had for him only words of deep appreciation and sincere respect.

In another universe with a different political history, Mincoff might have very well been an Oxford don. In real life, however, it so happened that when the Iron Curtain cut Europe right through the middle he found himself stuck on the wrong side. Born in 1909 in the family of a Bulgarian diplomat and his English wife, the future scholar went to school consecutively in the homelands of both his parents, then studied classical languages and literatures at Sofia University and went through a full course of English philology on a Humboldt scholarship in Berlin, where in 1933 he earned his doctoral degree with a linguistic dissertation. After another six years of high-school teaching in Bulgaria and academic specialization abroad, Mincoff was appointed Associate Professor of English at Sofia University to be promoted to full professorship and to the chairmanship of the newly formed Department of English Philology by the end of the Second World War, an unchallenged position, which he retained until his retirement in 1974. For three full decades he taught all the core language and literature courses of the subject and raised them to a level comparable to that of any respected European University, producing for all of them the necessary textbooks, which have not lost their usefulness to this day. His main efforts, however, were soon focused on the study of English Renaissance drama and, more precisely, on Shakespeare’s part in it.

Mincoff’s broad academic background of an all-round philologist – a type of scholar now unfortunately extinct – led him naturally to a minute exploration of the linguistic texture of the plays. Thus the bulk of his research was to be devoted to stylistic studies illuminating the problems of authorship, collaboration and chronology.[4] Some of their findings have acquired an important place in Shakespearean scholarship worldwide. Another, adjacent research area is the analysis of the plays vis à vis their sources, revealing the dramatist’s characteristic predilections.The slant of these studies is as much stylistic as it is structural and compositional. The latter two are the central preoccupations of yet another group of essays discussing plot construction. In spite of his preference for a close textual analysis, Mincoff was not averse to the search for illuminating generalization about Shakespeare’s dramatic vision and his pervasive aesthetic principles, as long as they were well-grounded in provable facts. ‘The Problem of the Tragic in the Work of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries’[5] and ‘Shakespeare and Hamartia’[6] are good examples of this thematic circle, but its central part is formed by a series of studies starting with the early yet fundamental ‘Baroque Literature in England’,[7] going through ‘Shakespeare, Fletcher and Baroque Tragedy’[8] and permeating most of the critic’s larger works, including his highly original A History of English Literature.[9]These are the writings testifying to Mincoff’s unflagging interest in interpreting Shakespeare’s as well as his contemporaries’ dramatic endeavours as part of a great Wölfflinian transition in sensibility and artistic expression that took place in England during the Bard’s creative years and divided his career into recognizable periods.

In the mid-1970s, Mincoff wrote his first large-scale critical book, entitled Shakespeare: The First Steps[10] and attempting, on the basis of earlier in-depth explorations of individual plays, to sketch out the evolution of the dramatist’s professional craftsmanship as well as the process of his poetic maturing from the late 1580’s until the mid-1590’s, a period of strenuous apprenticeship and trial, encompassing the creation of the first historical tetralogy, the four early comedies and the first tragedy, Titus Andronicus. A second book of a similar range, the above-mentioned Things Supernatural and Causeless: Shakespearean Romance, was written very soon after this but did not see the light of the day until its author was already on his deathbed, in 1987.[11] This is a thoughtful study of the poet’s last dramatic ventures examined against the background of their sources and in the context of contemporary trends in the Jacobean theatre. What it makes abundantly clear is the generic and generally aesthetic divergence of the late romances from Shakespeare’s earlier and, in the author’s opinion, more impressive achievements, as well as the inescapable continuity of his tireless artistic pursuits.It was this last book that had the good fortune of appearing five years later in a new edition in the US and thus acquiring its deserved place in academic libraries abroad. As Barbara Mowat pointed out, ‘Mincoff can spot that which is truly unusual in the romances because of his intensive knowledge of the other drama – other literature – of the period and because of his ability to place the plays within the context of their own time.’[12] This was indeed an integral part of the scholar’s method throughout his career.

The communist regime, established in Bulgaria after the Second World War and fully consolidated by 1947, could not look with a favourable eye at a person of Mincoff’s background: his father’s service to the pre-war bourgeois governments, his own education in Western Europe, his mother’s British nationality and, to top it all, his wife’s German lineage were not the things that might vouch for him to the new authorities. The Professor’s academic prestige was so high that he could not be easily removed and replaced by a more trustworthy substitute, but for years on end he was forced to live and work in virtual separation from the outside world. For a while even the basic course of English literature was taken away from him as an ideologically-charged subject that could not be entrusted to an unreformed teacher of his kind. As a rule, granting the right to attend international conferences or to travel abroad for other professional reasons in those days was carefully dosed. Books shipped from the West were sifted by anonymous censors and sometimes did not reach the addressee, while sending a manuscript for publication in the opposite direction was strongly discouraged by an atmosphere of suspiciousness and red tape.

Mincoff managed to plod through all of this with the pertinacity of someone who was doing his work in spite of the obstacles on the way. He almost appeared not to notice them and certainly did not allow them to dishearten him for a moment. Notwithstanding the constraints, he continued to publish his scholarly articles in the most authoritative international journals and almanacs,[13] which in turn sent him important new books to review for them, thus helping him to keep abreast with the current trends in the field of Renaissance studies.

At home Mincoff’s name was perhaps less well known than in the academic world abroad. His tall gaunt figure, his general aura of a recluse dedicated to an arcane mission inspired awe in both students and teachers at Sofia University. The broader public would have come across his occasional writings addressed to it, the most important of which is perhaps a book called Shakespeare: His Age and His Work, an overall Bulgarian-language popular survey, published in 1946 and containing many of the author’s lasting convictions and views on the subject.[14] A number of anniversary articles in the press and pithy introductions or afterwords in books of Shakespearean translations form over the subsequent years the spreading trail of this early publication. Mincoff’s editorial supervision of Valeri Petrov’s translation of Shakespeare’s entire dramatic canon, mostly produced in the 1970s, is generally considered of decisive importance for its high quality.[15]

The heroic feat of this literary critic and historian consists not only in the fact that he succeeded in making a significant contribution to Renaissance and, above all, Shakespearean studies in spite of his enforced isolation from the scholarly community, but to an equal if not greater extent in that he never succumbed to the crude ideological pressure of the establishment and did not budge from his well-considered convictions. Friedrich Engels had defined the Renaissance as ‘the greatest progressive revolution that mankind had so far experienced’.[16] This phrase became one of the mantras in the Soviet-style construction of history. The extolment of the Renaissance as a decisive break with the past became particularly important to communist ideology, for it found in that age an almost biblical prefigurement of the socialist revolution. In contrast, of course, the preceding Middle Ages had to be construed as the dark period of religious obscurantism. Shakespeare was proclaimed the supreme representative of Renaissance humanism and Hamlet was elevated into a hero struggling for a better world, though unfortunately born too early to be able to materialize his eschatological ideas.

It is instructive to observe how in the teeth of all these shibboleths Mincoff continued unflinchingly to hold his very different and unprejudiced views. The English Renaissance, he argued, inherited and developed the artistic forms of the Middle Ages and that was particularly true in the case of the new popular drama, which is in fact a transformation of the native medieval tradition. Shakespeare himself is not an ideologue or even an original thinker. His primary interest is not in exciting new ideas but in the complexity of dramatic intrigues and the behaviour of the characters involved in them. In the plays he raises difficult questions but does not provide unequivocal didactic answers to them, leaving them to the audience to excogitate. And his choice of a story or a character, or an approach, or a style is more often than not motivated by the changing theatrical fashions of the day rather than by an inner philosophical agenda.

So Shakespeare, the would-be teacher of the proletariat in his official representation, was unceremoniously stripped of his mentor’s gown and exposed as a mere public entertainer. What is more, his belonging to the only ‘progressive’ kind of art, Realism, was cast doubt upon. In a well-balanced answer to Tolstoy’s anti-Shakespearean invective, Mincoff wrote: ‘Realism is not the one and only literary principle, neither is it the most precious one, and it would have been reckless in a poet capable of affecting the emotions as directly as Shakespeare did to entangle himself in the chains of realism. Tolstoy’s criticism is rooted in a misunderstanding, for which he in fact cannot be held responsible. The culprits are above all those critics who, in their blind idolatry, have chosen to admire Shakespeare’s psychological truth, the profundity of his thought, his realism – things that are often rather illusory and in which he is surpassed by many quite mediocre modern writers, – instead of stressing his lyrical power and the beauty of his poetry.’[17] This went directly against the Marxist high praises of Shakespeare’s realistic method and threatened to problematize a basic critical assumption of the new aesthetics.

But Mincoff’s most decisive blow was levelled at the textbooks’ heroic construction of Hamlet as a revolutionary. He never tired of reminding his readers that the Prince of Denmark was first and foremost a study in melancholy, a fashionable mental aberration in Shakespeare’s time, which had found its projection on the stage in the stock character of the vacillating malcontent. And in Mincoff’s popular introductions to the play we often come across the warning that Hamlet is a deeply disturbed man, whose views, attitudes and reactions should not be accepted uncritically. Almost in the same breath however, the critic admits that the Prince’s feelings are so forcefully expressed by poetic means that we cannot help empathizing with him. In this paradox Mincoff discerns a sign of Shakespeare’s unusual ability to live himself into a character and endow it, almost in spite of himself, with unfading vitality. Such an ability is, of course, basically psychological, but its immortal products are licked into shape by the author’s extraordinary poetic talent. In Mincoff’s view, Shakespeare was a greater poet than a dramatist or psychologist and his lasting impact is mostly due to his lyrical power, although the combination of all these gifts was of paramount importance for his achievement. There are, regrettably, not many literary critics who have Mincoff’s keen sense of the subtleties of poetic language, a deficiency that often deprives Shakespearean criticism of its most essential focus.

In his writings for the academic audience, Mincoff’s sound commonsense attitude was no less refreshing and salutary. He consistently appreciated the Bard’s genius ‘on this side idolatry’ and was not prepared to admire indiscriminately everything written by him, an inclination which he found and detested in some current publications. Shakespeare’s gradual growth of artistic skills from the early years of apprenticeship to the peak of his powers around 1605 was traced by the scholar with a critical eye. The late romances seemed to him a period of decline and enforced accommodation to new trends in the theatre, which the dramatist could not fully internalize. With this estimate Mincoff went staunchly against the current interpretations of his day. His uncompromising clear-sightedness, however, only helped him to discern the extraordinary achievement of the great artist where it truly lay. And at such points he was not stingy of strong words, which acquire even greater worth from the fact that they had never been unthinkingly squandered and that they came from one who was at home with the whole of world literature. Of Shakespeare’s mature tragedies he said without qualms that they formed ‘an absolute summit in the history of the drama’.[18]

Mincoff was similarly impatient with another persistent tendency in Shakespearean criticism, that of creating an arbitrary theory or scheme and then struggling to ram the material of the plays into it. Neither could he tolerate the vagaries of biographical speculation used to explain various aspects or details in the works through references to the poet’s emotional life and his supposed associations with other people. He repeated again and again that pre-Romantic poetry did not tend to be self-exploratory but audience-oriented and therefore focused on aesthetic perfection rather than on personal confession. Along with this Mincoff cast aspersion on the endless conspiracy theories about various ghost-writers who had allegedly done Shakespeare’s work for him. Such hypotheses, he concluded, are only maintained ‘by amateurs lacking the necessary philological background and by irresponsible journalists’.[19] Sadly, their market value has proved so high and tenacious that they keep proliferating.[20]

Mincoff’s life story can be said to be one of incessant struggle in the name of lofty intellectual and professional principles. The question must after all be asked: did he never compromise on anything at all. One would expect that he must have done so to make his survival possible, but it did not show on the outside. Perhaps concessions were made in some small, insignificant things, though even then he found a way of disowning the compromise. This is, for instance, how in the Preface to the 1970 edition of his History of English Literature he managed with characteristic laconicity, cautiously yet clearly enough, to express in conclusion his inacceptance of both the academic isolation he had been forced to work in and the pressure to comply with ideological tenets he had nothing to do with:

Keeping up with the times has not been easy, and no doubt there are many gaps where I should have been happy to use other material if it had been available. The reading lists themselves are extremely eclectic. Partly they consist of works that happen to be available here, but also of some that are not, partly of works to which I owe a particular debt, and also of some to which I rather obviously owe none.[21]

This is as proud a declaration of dignity unbroken under duress as one can come upon. The international Shakespearean community, I feel, owes Marco Mincoff special recognition, not for the merits of his accomplished work alone but also in consideration of the circumstances under which he carried it out staunchly to the bitter end.

 

[1] Barbara A. Mowat, Introduction, in: Marco Mincoff, Things Supernatural and Causeless: Shakespearean Romance, Newark: University of Delaware Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1992, p. 10.

[2] See Brian Vickers, Shakespeare, Co-author, Oxford University Press, 2002.

[3] ‘What Shakespeare Did to Rosalynde’, Shakespeare-Jahrbuch, Heidelberg, 1960, pp. 77-89

[4] For lack of sufficient space, the titles of Mincoff’s numerous journal publications, with few exceptions, are not quoted here. A detailed account of his work can be found in: Alexander Shurbanov and Christo Stamenov, ‘English Studies in Bulgaria’, European English studies: Contributions towards the History of a Discipline, edited by Balz Engler and Renate Haas, Published for the European Society for the Study of English by the English Association, Printed in Great Britain, 2000.

[5] “Проблема трагического в творчестве Шекспира и его современников”, Вильям Шекспир. К четырехсотлетию со дня рождения (1564-1964), Moscow: The Academy of Sciences of the USSR Press, 1964.

[6] ‘Shakespeare and Hamartia’, English Studies, vol. 45, no. 2, 1964, pp. 130-136.

[7] ‘Baroque Literature in England’, Годишник на Софийския университет[The Yearbook of Sofia University], vol. XLIII, 1947, pp. 1-71.

[8] ‘Shakespeare, Fletcher and Baroque Tragedy’, Shakespeare Survey, vol. 20, 1967, pp. 1-15.

[9] A History of English Literature first appeared in 1947 as a mimeograph textbook for the students at Sofia University under the title A Survey of English Literature from the Beginnings to the Close of the 17th Century. A regular printed two-volume edition under the present title was produced by the Naouka i izkustvo publishing house in Sofia in 1970. The second volume was a new extension of the original survey, covering the developments during the eighteenth century and the Age of Romanticism. In 1998 the Pleyada publishers in Sofia produced a single-volume edition of the entire book.

[10] Shakespeare: The First Steps, Sofia: Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, 1976.

[11] Things Supernatural and Causeless: Shakespearean Romance, Sofia: Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, 1987.

[12]In the above-quoted Introduction toMarco Mincoff, Things Supernatural and Causeless: Shakespearean Romance, p. 10.

[13]The bulk of these dispersed publications are now collected and made readily available to all interested in a facsimile single-volume edition, issued on the occasion of the centenary of the author’s birth by St. Kliment Ohridski University Press: Marco Mincoff, Studies in English Renaissance Drama, Sofia, 2009.

[14]Шекспир. Епоха и творчество, Sofia: State Publishing House, 1946.

[15] This edition of Shakespeare’s dramas was published in seven volumes by the Narodna kultura publishing house from 1970 to 1981.

[16] Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature, 1883 (Introduction).

[17]Шекспир. Епоха и творчество, p. 182.

[18] A History of English Literature, vol. 1, p. 375.

[19]Шекспир. Епоха и творчество, p. 65.

[20]It is curious how close to Mincoff’s indignation – after nearly seven full decades – sounds the recent reaction of the Director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, Professor Michael Dobson, to Roland Emmerich’s film Anonymous (2011), which presents the Earl of Oxford as the author of Shakespeare’s plays: ‘Taken as a serious account of real history, this is so plainly daft, and so wildly at variance with all the copious evidence we have about Shakespeare, the Elizabethan theatre, Oxford, Elizabeth and Southampton alike, that it is beyond rational refutation. Taken as a version of one of our culture’s perennially recurring daydreams, however – the tale of the oppressed rightful prince, wickedly deprived of his true heritage and recognition – it ought to give us serious food for thought about the ease with which fantasy, in some minds, can prove far more compelling than mere truth’ (http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/oct/26/shakespeare-is-no-fraud).

[21]A History of English Literature, vol. 1, p. 6.

 
 

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