The following review appeared 15 February 1995 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1995. This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
David Tomlinson <firstname.lastname@example.org>
U. S. Naval Academy
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
Anthony Berret delivered a paper at the Siena College Mark Twain Conference
titled "Mr. Clemens, Mark Twain, and the Bacon-Shakespeare
my primary interests in Twain lay elsewhere, I appreciated Berret's paper
That pleasant experience I expected to be repeated and enlarged upon with the appearance of the book. Sadly, it was not. Instead, I may have learned why no one has written extensively on the connection between Twain and Shakespeare before: there may not be enough solid evidence to support an extended work. If there is, this book does not contain it.
While there is some direct evidence of Twain's use of Shakespeare, Berret introduces little beyond the obvious comments in Is Shakespeare Dead? and looks at the parodies or doctored quotations we all know. What he relies upon most heavily is a series of parallels.
Because so many writers lived between Shakespeare and Mark Twain, the existence of a parallel is not proof that the latter used or was influenced by the former. Berret understands this difficulty; and he is, to his credit, an honest critic. He does not attempt to make more of the meager evidence than he should. He clearly tells the reader when he adduces parallel evidence.
On the other hand, without stronger evidence than such parallels, there is not much of a scholarly argument that Twain depended upon Shakespeare in any substantial or interesting way. Sometimes noticing parallels furnishes an investigator with an idea about which influences to investigate. Diligent searching then occasionally brings out proof of the substantial connection which the parallels hinted at. In the case of this book, however, the parallels do not lead to such discoveries. In the end, we are left with no more than interesting speculations about how the bard might have influenced the American.
The failure to find more than parallels could mean that Berret just did not uncover the evidence. It could mean, however, that substantial evidence is not there to be found. It could be that we have waited more than eighty years since Twain's death for a book linking the progress of his career to his use of Shakespeare because there is no substantial book to be written on the topic.
A second disturbing thing about Berret's book is its organization. The short book contains four chapters labelled biography, comedy, history and tragedy. The author explains this division by saying that a similar schema was introduced by nineteenth century critics, partisans of Darwin and Spencer, who wanted "to describe an evolution in the works of Shakespeare." While Berret recognizes that this scheme does not properly chart Shakespeare's artistic development, he maintains that "it happens to express very well the progression in Mark Twain's use of Shakespeare."
While the chapter titles may look innocent and harmless enough, Berret uses them to give superficial organization to a book which has no real direction. While he states that the book shows the progress of Twain's use of Shakespeare, the first chapter, that on biography, centers on Is Shakespeare Dead? , one of the last of Twain's books. Certainly, progress in artistic development does not begin at the end of a career.
The chapter on comedy only includes those parodies and plays on words which Twain invented in his early newspaper days. Enigmatically, Huckleberry Finn gets consideration in the chapter on tragedy. While Berret argues that the novel is more heavily influenced by Hamlet than commentators have generally recognized, his implication that Twain was writing a tragedy in a book almost universally accepted as a comedy is not likely to gain wide acceptance. What is not clear, however, is whether the chapter titles like "tragedy" are to refer to the materials from Shakespeare which are being used or to Twain's use of those materials. Berret equivocates, using the titles first as one and then as the other.
While one might expect the chapter on tragedy to deal with the last dark period of Twain's writing, nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing after A Connecticut Yankee is considered in that chapter; and the whole book does not deal in detail with any book of Twain's writings after Yankee except Is Shakespeare Dead? .
In sum, while the Twain-Shakespeare connection is an interesting topic for a book, this book neither offers the kind of evidence which instructs us nor the kind of organization which makes its insights accessible.
Contents of Mark Twain and Shakespeare: A Cultural Legacy
Biography, 19Is Shakespeare Dead?, 22Comedy, 51
Delia Bacon and Ignatius Donnelly, 31
The High and the Low, 41
Rhetorical Buffoonery, 54History, 89
Literary Burlesque, 66
The Prince and the Pauper, 93Tragedy
Scott and Howells, 104
Renaissance on the Mississippi, 121
Tom Sawyer's Apprenticeship, 139Notes
Hamlet and Huckleberry Finn, 144
The Father's Ghost, 146
The Play-within-the-Play, 152
The Final Duel, 165
The King and the Duke, 168
The Yankee, the Maid and the Stranger, 178Introduction, 191Bibliography, 207