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Chekhov’s Influence on Shakespeare

ISSUE:  Winter 2004

I. Something Recognizably His

It’s a chilly autumn evening in London, and I’ve just returned from a production of Twelfth Night at the Donmar Warehouse, the charming pocket-sized venue where Sam Mendes directed so many memorable plays (of which this is the last) before he decided to give up London theatre and instead make mediocre Hollywood movies like American Beauty and Road to Perdition. All in all, a stunning performance of the best comedy written by the world’s greatest comic writer.

And yet how different this performance was from the other London Twelfth Night that had closed just a few weeks before, the enormously successful all-male production that had run all summer across the river in Shakespeare’s Globe. In fact, if you were Sam Mendes, you might well ask yourself what you had in mind when you decided to go up against this riotously funny people-pleaser.

But that’s what made Mendes such a gifted theatre director: that he chose not to compete with the Globe production but to mount a version that was so opposite as to seem a completely different play. Well, not completely different, but different as a twin is from its sibling, the same thing yet its opposite.

For one thing, whereas the Globe players had audiences capsizing with laughter, the Donmar Warehouse play was wistful to the point of melancholy. When these older actors (most of whom were in their 40s and 50s rather than their 30s and 40s, like the ones at the Globe) agree in II.iii that “Youth’s a stuff will not endure,” that became a main theme in this version, whereas I don’t remember even noticing it in the Globe production. One particularly effective aspect of Mendes’ minimalist set was the use of an outsized picture frame at center rear; when one character spoke longingly or fondly of another, often that other would walk on slowly and then turn and stand in the frame, gazing fondly at the lover as one might from a distance or perhaps even from heaven—the beloved sometimes seem so totally unobtainable in Shakespeare that they might indeed be dead.

In addition to the actors and the set, even the music supported this bittersweet staging. I’ll say more about the Globe’s music later, but suffice it here to say it was raucous and boisterous; you couldn’t hear the rustic trumpets and pipes and drums without thinking of the nonsensical yet expressive word “razzmatazz” as well as its Bronx-cheer cousin “raspberry.” By contrast, the Donmar Warehouse music was honeyed and sorrowful. There were only three instruments there: a piano, a guitar, and, most important, a cello whose low moans and banshee sobs were an aural match for the grays and blacks of the players’ costumes.

Twelfth Night wasn’t Mendes’ only success at the Donmar Warehouse this season. A month earlier, I’d seen a superb Uncle Vanya there. Now Uncle Vanya is universally acclaimed as one of the best plays ever; it’s on most actors’, directors’, and producers’ top-ten lists of plays they want to be part of. But it’s a play that has never really got under my skin. Certainly there are juicy lines, but the characters all seem to come from the same street in the same neighborhood, and the plot goes in one direction until it runs into a (not very imaginative) challenge and then lands quietly, like a plane coming to rest following a bit of midflight turbulence.

In fact, having seen a merely wonderful Uncle Vanya first and an extraordinary Twelfth Night shortly thereafter, I couldn’t help thinking what Shakespeare might have done with Chekhov’s play. With rare exception, he derived all his plays from earlier sources, which he then complicated, sometimes almost beyond recognition. At the very least, he would have added several plot lines to Uncle Vanya as well as the necessary new characters to flesh them out and also sped up the pace.

Now no doubt I was taking my thought a bit farther than other viewers would, but I wasn’t alone in making connections between the two plays. A couple of days after I saw the Shakespeare play, Sheridan Morley noted in the International Herald Tribune how the play staged first affected the one performed second, that this Twelfth Night was “in Russian mood” and therefore was no “mindless frolic of mistaken identity but a strange, soulful tragi-comedy about bisexuality, depression, and misplaced power, closer to the later Shakespeare of Winter’s Tale or Cymbeline in its many moods and internal conflicts.” Of course, the connection was made easier by the fact that the cast was the same in both Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night: Simon Russell Beale was Vanya and Malvolio, Emily Watson was Sonya and Viola, and so on.

No wonder, then, that one viewer might think that, had Shakespeare come across the text of Uncle Vanya in some old book, he might have seen in it the raw potential he saw in so many of his other sources and, with characteristic speed and dexterity, turned it into, not Twelfth Night or even a play as marvelous as that one, but something recognizably his.

II. A Quilt Is One and Many Things

And what would something “recognizably his” be, exactly? What does Shakespeare do that is not only different from what other playwrights do but also better? I can begin answering that question by quoting something I heard a guide say at Shakespeare’s Globe just before the performance there of the other, rowdier Twelfth Night, namely, that, with each play, Shakespeare issued to his audiences “an invitation to an elaborate game that’s both absolutely realistic and total make-believe at the same time.”

Every playwright, filmmaker, and novelist—every mimetic artist, in other words—does this, of course. In Mimesis as Make-Believe, Kendall Walton suggests that literary works are best seen from the point of view of children’s acts of make-believe. Thus a child pretending to build a fort will say, “I built this big fort today” rather than, “I pulled some branches and boards together and pretended it was a fort.” To be effective, though, the totally believable fort must continue to partake of its unbelievable aspects. A child might be delighted momentarily if a millionaire parent had a ready-made fort installed in the backyard, but he or she would probably become bored quickly; hence the truism familiar to every father and mother of the child discarding the expensive toy and devoting hours to play with the box it came in.

Okay, so we all do that, all of us writers: we all offer readers a paradox requiring a perception of total artificiality combined with an utterly unself-conscious sense of engagement. But what makes Shakespeare’s paradoxes better than my paradoxes or your paradoxes or anyone else’s paradoxes? It’s not as though we haven’t been trying to figure him out for centuries, often throwing in the towel after rounds of futile struggle. Thus Emerson, who, in Representative Men, pronounced Shakespeare “inconceivably wise; the others, conceivably. A good reader can, in a sort, nestle into Plato’s brain and think from thence; but not into Shakespeare’s. We are still out of doors. For executive faculty, for creation, Shakespeare is unique. No man can imagine it better.” I don’t know about nestling into Shakespeare’s (or anybody else’s) brain, but I think I can offer some insight into why he appeals to all sorts of audiences and continues to inspire other artists as no writer has.

Or at least I’d like to try, beginning, since we’re dealing with paradox here, with a fundamental contradiction: this most original playwright’s lack of originality. First, with such exceptions as The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare borrowed his plots from sources contemporary and historical: As You Like It from Thomas Lodge’s 1590 prose romance Rosalynde, Coriolanus from Plutarch, and so on. Indeed, the more dependent he was on sources, the better the play; Merry Wives is a whole lot of fun, but nobody ever called it one of Shakespeare’s greatest. Second, he collaborated; his work with George Wilkins on Pericles and with John Fletcher on Two Gentlemen of Verona, Henry VIII, and Cardenio, the so-called “lost play,” is well documented, but it’s hard to believe that a playwright who was as gregarious as Shakespeare and who had so many playwright friends (Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, Beaumont and Fletcher) didn’t “talk shop” and reap the benefits thereof. Third, he recycled characters (kings, queens, fools, young lovers, heartless murderers, trailer-trash minor nobility), language (“The Wind and the Rain” song in both King Lear and Twelfth Night, almost identical lines in that play and The Winter’s Tale), and plot devices (shipwrecks in a dozen plays, the miraculous off-stage preservation and reappearance of Emilia in A Comedy of Errors and Thaisa in Pericles). I mean, he wrote nearly 40 plays, most of them masterpieces, in a little over 20 years; how could someone write so much and so consistently without borrowing, collaborating, and recycling? The plot of the movie Shakespeare in Love is ludicrous, but the more you find out about Shakespeare’s compositional habits, the more the scenes depicting his writing processes—the starts and stops, the happy accidents, the verbal sparring with peers, the magpie plucking of a line heard here or a character spied there, and above all, the intensely collaborational nature of it all—seem almost documentary.

So there you have the supreme paradox of this most paradoxical of playwrights, that the most original of writers is the least original. No wonder he has not only delighted but baffled (and, in some cases, enraged) his would-be explainers over the years. The quote from Emerson about not being able to nestle into Shakespeare’s brain expresses most of what those who have tried and failed to explain Shakespeare have felt; three stories, the first by Henry James and the other two by Jorge Luis Borges, cover the rest.

In James’s “The Birthplace,” a man named Gedge and his wife become the caretakers of the house in which Shakespeare was born. A capital-B Bardolater, Gedge can’t believe his good fortune: “The shrine at which he was to preside — though he had always lacked occasion to approach it — figured to him as the most sacred known to the steps of men, the early home of the supreme poet, the Mecca of the English-speaking race.” At first, he tells visitors that we know nothing about Shakespeare, and at least one fellow worshipper, a young American, offers a sympathetic ear: “ ‘He escapes us like a thief at night, carrying off — well, carrying off everything. And people pretend to catch Him like a flown canary, over whom you can close your hand and put Him back. He won’t go back; he won’t come back. He’s not’ — the young man laughed — ‘such a fool! It makes Him the happiest of all great men.’” Gedge, however, is the unhappiest of men, since the tourists who visit the birthplace know nothing about the plays yet want to know everything about the man:

“That’s just what They won’t do—not let me do. It’s all I want—to let the author alone. Practically”—he felt himself getting the last of his chance—”there is no author; that is for us to deal with. There are all the immortal people—in the work; but there’s nobody else.”

“Yes,” said the young man—”that’s what it comes to. There should really, to clear the matter up, be no such Person.”

“As you say,” Gedge returned, “it’s what it comes to. There is no such Person.”

The evening air listened, in the warm, thick midland stillness, while the wife’s little cry rang out. “But wasn’t there—?”

“There was somebody,” said Gedge, against the doorpost. “But They’ve killed Him. And, dead as He is, They keep it up, They do it over again, They kill Him every day.”

In the end, though, Gedge gives in. He begins to make up stories about Shakespeare, including details of the playwright’s private life. Of course, he becomes a huge success with the visitors and receives a raise in salary.

There is a similar theme in Borges’s much-discussed story “Everything and Nothing.” The Shakespeare here has acted many parts but has never had a self. He speaks of this to God—if you’re going to have Shakespeare as a character, why not go all the way?—but Borges’s God is a postmodernist. “Neither am I anyone,” says the Deity; “I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no-one.” Borges is typically playful and indirect in his identification of Shakespeare with God and avoids the bluntness of Heine, whose statement in praise of Aristophanes might be paraphrased to say that “There is a God, and his name is Shakespeare.”

“Everything and Nothing” is mentioned often in writings about Shakespeare. Yet the more complex and engaging by Borges is “Shakespeare’s Memory,” the narrator of which, Hermann Sorgel, is a Shakespearean scholar. Sorgel attends a conference and meets a man named Daniel Thorpe, a former military physician. In that role, Thorpe once attended a dying enlisted man named Adam Clay in some far-flung outpost of the Empire. Just as Clay dies, he offers Thorpe Shakespeare’s memory, on these conditions: “The one who possesses it must offer it aloud, and the one who is to receive it must accept it the same way. The man who gives it loses it forever.”

Thorpe gives the memory to Sorgel but explains that “The memory has entered your mind, but it must be ‘discovered.’ It will emerge in dreams or when you are awake, when you turn the pages of a book or turn a corner. Don’t be impatient; don’t invent recollections. Chance in its mysterious workings may help it along or it may hold it back. As I gradually forget, you will remember. I can’t tell you how long the process will take.” Among the many things Sorgel learns is that “Shakespeare’s apparent instances of inadvertence … were deliberate. Shakespeare tolerated them—or actually interpolated them—so that his discourse, destined for the stage, might appear to be spontaneous, and not overly polished and artificial… . That same goal inspired him to mix his metaphors: ‘my way of life / Is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf.’” (Or, as Simon Russell Beale said when he came to our Study Centre to talk with the students, “Shakespeare was famously oblivious to his inconsistencies.”)

In the end, Sorgel decides to give the gift away: Spinoza, he remembers, says “the wish of all things … is to continue to be what they are. The stone wishes to be stone, the tiger, tiger—and I wanted to be Hermann Sorgel again.” So he dials telephone numbers at random until he finds someone to give the gift to. First, though, given that he now knows everything about Shakespeare, including what happened during the so-called “lost years”after the playwright-to-be left school and before he appeared on the London scene, Sorgel contemplates writing a biography but ultimately decides not to (significantly, he points out that Daniel Thorpe had and abandoned the same idea). Why? Because “I do not know how to tell a story,” says Sorgel. “I do not know how to tell my own story, which is a great deal more extraordinary than Shakespeare’s. Besides, such a book would be pointless. Chance, or fate, dealt Shakespeare those trivial terrible things that all men know; it was his gift to be able to transmute them into fables, into characters that were much more alive than the gray man who dreamed them, into verses which will never be abandoned, into verbal music. What purpose would it serve to unravel that wondrous fabric, besiege and mine the tower, reduce to the modest proportions of a documentary biography or a realistic novel the sound and fury of Macbeth?

As different as are the Emerson essay, the story by James, and the two by Borges, all four of these—not “attempts to explain Shakespeare” but something like “engagements with the idea of explaining Shakespeare and ultimate rejections of that idea”—not only lead away from the playwright’s life but also point to the text that is, like Poe’s purloined letter, so obviously right in front of our eyes that we keep overlooking it, namely, the plays themselves. The first paradox we have examined here is that Shakespeare achieved originality by being unoriginal; the second is that every single work of his is no single work but a pastiche of sources, plots, subplots, songs and poems, special effects, vaudevillian high jinks, tableaux, set pieces, choruses, and borrowings from himself and others. In other words, Shakespeare is literature’s supreme quilt-maker, and just as a quilt is one thing and many things, so is each of his plays.

III. “Do Not Saw the Air Too Much with Your Hand”

A third sort of paradox in Shakespeare is the one I’ll call the paradox of thematic assymetry, which means that the comedies tend to be marred by unhappiness at the end just as the tragedies usually conclude with some sort of optimistic uptick. To give just two examples from each genre, The Comedy of Errors ends with the reconciliation of the two Dromios but a baffling chill between the two characters named Antipholus; Twelfth Night concludes with marriages all around but also the spiteful handling of Malvolio and his angry vow of revenge. And among the tragedies, Macbeth concludes with bloody deaths as well as Malcolm’s speedy restoration of order and convincing promise of a better day to come; similarly, the final word in King Richard III goes to Richmond, who delivers a virtual state-of-the-union address in which all of Richard’s bloody crimes are erased in the promise of a harmonious future.

But the paradox that is most essential to an understanding of Shakespeare is the one I’ll call twinning. As I’ve said already, a pair of twins is a paradox, one thing yet two. Within the general population, twins exist among us as synecdochic signposts pointing toward the myriad other paradoxes that zigzag through the human comedy as surely as the drips and splashes in a Jackson Pollock painting exist as themselves as well as parts of an aesthetic whole. As the father of the twins Judith and Hamnet, Shakespeare must have had plenty of occasions on which to consider that each pair of twins is a paradox, two creatures yet one. Or, as the astonished Orsino says in V.i of Twelfth Night when Sebastian and Viola are revealed to be brother and sister, “One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons!”At the Globe production, Orsino was played by Liam Brennan with a broad Scottish accent with which he underscored the baffled joy this paradox produces in him (and us), pausing before the last two words, turning to the audience in wide-eyed astonishment, and all but roaring “TWO PAIR-SONS!”

And that’s just zygotic twinship. Other forms of twinning in Shakespeare include literal disguises (Bottom is an ass in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Viola a boy in Twelfth Night) as well as the kinds of disguising that take place from the inside out. Thus there are two Hamlets, the sane one and the one who feigns madness (at least until III.iv, by which time the two Hamlets have become one). And Macbeth not only disguises himself to others but also, in order to accomplish his terrible deeds, to himself, as he indicates when he says, “False face must hide what the false heart doth know” (I.vii) and “Make our faces vizards [visors] to our hearts, / Disguising what they are” (III.ii). Directors can further Shakespeare’s penchant for twinning by giving actors two parts, as in the Albery Theatre production of Macbeth I saw in which Julian Glover plays Duncan and then, just seconds after Duncan is slain, makes an uncanny if appropriate appearance as the drunken Porter who thinks he’s at the gates of Hell. (Afterwards, Glover became a triplet in my eyes as I walked toward the Leicester Square tube station and saw this 60-ish actor duck out of the stage door, don a motorcycle helmet, and roar off on two wheels to skirt the portals of the underworld on London’s crowded, rainy streets.)

And as if the twinning of characters were not enough, Shakespeare makes twins of his plays as well: In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Pyramus and Thisbe playlet, with its comical lovers’ confusion over death and suicide, mimics tragical versions of this same scenario in Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra. And this same playlet at least refers to what might have been a similar scenario in The Mousetrap, the play-within-a-play in Hamlet whose outcome will never be known because the performance is halted by a guilty Claudius. King Henry V begins with a Chorus announces that what follows will be a simulacrum of reality rather than the thing itself, and the entirety of The Taming of the Shrew is preceded by an often-ignored Induction which says that everything which follows is “false.”In Twelfth Night, when Fabian says in III.iv that “If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction,” he winks at us and lets us in on the game at the same time that he is telling us he and the other players can do what they want.

In fact, in the hands of a skilled director, each play is made to become multiples of itself. In the Midsummer Night’s Dream program, notes by Master of Play Mike Alfreds describe his approach to directing, how he not only breaks the play into units (“Theseus expresses his impatience for his and Hermia’s wedding night,” for example) but also rehearses each unit from what he calls a different “point of concentration” each time. Thus, if the actors are rehearsing the scene in which the Rude Mechanicals are practicing their play, the Master might ask the players to concentrate on the fact that they are in a dark wood filled with wild animals but also wondrous fairies. At the next rehearsal, the Master would ask the players to concentrate on a different point: that they are practicing a play which will be presented before the Duke of Athens, whom they are fearful of offending, but whose preferment will assure their success. “The process is a sort of layering,” says Alfreds, in which all the paradoxes of the play are brought to bear even if they are not discussed explicitly in the text.

In live production, even the music can contribute to the perception of doubleness in Shakespeare’s plays. I’ve already pointed out how the wistful string music of the Donmar Warehouse version of Twelfth Night supported the bittersweet quality of the entire production. In contrast, the loud, blaring, period instrument music for the Globe Twelfth Night couldn’t have been more different. The program notes to this production included a discussion of the use of a so-called “broken” consort to accompany the text, one that provided not strict polyphony or “whole noise” but a division of musical labor in which the viol, violin, and flute were responsible for the principal melody while the lute, cittern, and bandora contributed a jazzy ornamentation. Thus, for example, a dance involving both sober and comic characters could be both stately and erratic at the same time.

One of the most interesting types of twinning we see in Shakespeare involves what Harold Bloom calls “self-overhearing” in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. For when we talk to ourselves, we become two people, speaker and listener. All of Shakespeare’s great soliloquies are examples of self-overhearing, but there are opportunities in live production for introducing less obvious examples. Thus, in the Globe production of Twelfth Night I saw, Orsino could be seen to hesitate and search for the right word in his private moments, as did Olivia; both were talking and listening to themselves as they sought clarity in a world of confused identities and muddled love matches. In contrast to these two uncertain, fumbling, self-overhearing characters, the supremely self-satisfied Malvolio did not merely utter his words confidently; no, he all but caressed them, as though each were something separate from himself, a child or darling pet.

It’s important for a director to give actors and audiences this opportunity for self-overhearing. In her 1996 New York Times article “Helping Shakespeare Make an Easy Crossing,” Margo Jefferson observes once that American actors are incapable of saying Shakespeare’s words as English actors do. Her particular focus is on one of those Shakespeare in the Park productions involving a short run and celebrity actors, and it’s easy to see how nervous, overprepared players might speak their lines quickly and unmusically, especially if they’re going to do only a limited number of performances.

Jefferson has a point, but I don’t think she’s quite right. In an essay entitled “All’s Well” (collected in Berryman’s Shakespeare), John Berryman notes that, as Shakespeare developed as a playwright, he came to rely more and more upon timing for his humor. “This is in accordance with life,” notes Berryman, for “the things at which we have laughed hardest are hardly ever worth repeating—it was when they were said, after what, by whom.” (He illustrates his remark with a recollection of Twelfth Night in which Laurence Olivier as Sir Toby Belch and Alec Guinness as Sir Andrew Aguecheek played the drinking scenes so slowly “they might almost have been dead.”) Shakespeare’s plays read quickly; on stage, they play slowly. Or should, as Theseus says in V.i of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And surely Hamlet is asking the Players, in III.ii, to pay attention to their timing when he asks them to “speak the speech … trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.”

A final (and crucial) form of twinning in Shakespeare comes in the language of each play itself, and here each of us lucky enough to have English as our native tongue must thank Harold for taking that arrow through the eye at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. When William the Conqueror’s Norman troops occupied England, they combined with the native population rather than supplanting it, and the result is a language that has all the advantages of an Anglo-Saxon vocabulary as well as a Latinate one. (I’m not just being patriotic here; when Gabriel Garcia Marquez said he preferred the English translations of his novels to the originals, he made a comment about the supple expressiveness of English that no Anglophone could.) What Shakespeare does is use both types of vocabulary in a studied yet graceful way. In his 1990 Virginia Quarterly Review article “Shakespeare and the Norman Conquest: English in the Elizabethan Theatre,” George Watson argues that the playwright tosses a bone to educated courtiers and groundlings alike when he uses a polysyllabic Latinate word and then a crisp Anglo-Saxon synonym; thus in II.ii of Twelfth Night, Sir Andrew Aguecheek listens to a song sung by Feste and pronounces his voice “mellifluous” and then, in his next line, “sweet.”
Like Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man” speech in II.ii, twins are a reminder of everything that is remarkable about humanity. A twin is part of a whole that is always threatening to break into its parts, and from that tension spring all the surprises that define the human comedy.

IV. The King’s English

As one pauses in this consideration of Shakespeare’s myriad tricks to catch one’s breath and dry one’s eyes of the tears that come from laughing or weeping or both, it becomes easy to see how the playwright may come to stand for too much of a muchness in the minds of those who don’t like to chuckle or cry or wheeze—who, for whatever reason, simply don’t like Shakespeare. The antis can be divided into two large groups. The first, the anti-Stratfordians, be they Oxfordians, Baconians, or of some other ilk, can be disposed of briefly. The questioning of Shakespeare’s authorship didn’t begin until the mid-19th century; if this skepticism is valid, why doesn’t it occur earlier? Delia Bacon is a representative if poignant example of one of the early anti-Stratfordians; convinced that the true author of Shakespeare’s plays was Francis Bacon (to whom, incidently, she was not related), she traveled to England, and, with the bemused support of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who recounts his time with Delia in Our Old Home, undertook several late-night vigils to Shakespeare’s tomb, where apparently she awaited an announcement from the spirit world that she was right and the collected works hadn’t been penned by someone she described as a “stupid, ignorant, third-rate play-actor.” Delia died believing she was the Holy Ghost surrounded by devils, which pretty much says everything we need to know about her.

Unfortunately, she has been replaced by numberless latter-day skeptics acting under the guise of sanity. One of these, a professor in another discipline, cornered me at a party recently and asked, “But how do we know that Shakespeare wrote any of these plays at all?” I include the question mark here as a point of standard punctuation, but there was no rise at all in the professor’s voice at the end of his statement; the question was a rhetorical one, and it was accompanied by a raised-eyebrow gaze which suggested that the mere asking of it was enough to torpedo centuries of scholarship on the subject. I began by pointing out that Ben Jonson and plenty of Shakespeare’s other contemporaries refer to him and his work plentifully, but the owner of the eyebrows merely lowered and raised them in a dismissive flourish before going in search of another drink.

What makes the anti-Stratfordian view particularly repellent is its built-in snobbery, its assumption that, because somebody didn’t get his Ph.D. from an Ivy League university, he couldn’t have written the plays—as though, in order to be able to write the plays, the playwright would have to have an education equal to that of those who have been trained to interpret him. (This view means that Keats, Dickens, Twain, and Whitman couldn’t have written their work, either.) Probably the first to turn up his nose at Shakespeare’s resume was his contemporary Robert Greene, who sneered that he was “Maister of Artes in Neither University,” though apparently this enmity didn’t bother Shakespeare, who cheerfully filched the plot of The Winter’s Tale from Greene’s Pandosto: The Triumph of Time.

But despite the gaps in his biography, the historical record is quite clear on just how well Shakespeare, like other middle-class boys of his day, would have been schooled. A. L. Rowse’s Shakespeare the Man tells how, in elementary school, Shakespeare would have learned his ABCs and numbers; more important, he would have been required to memorize the catechism with its big questions of creation, resurrection, and so on, as well as Psalms—all this before turning seven and going on to grammar school, where he would have studied classic plays (the comedies of Terence and Plautus, the tragedies of Seneca) and mastered the rules and practices of Rhetoric.

Too, he would have learned to converse in Latin; in Shakespeare for All Time, the most recent Shakespeare biography, Stanley Wells gives evidence for the currency of Latin in this period by noting the existence of a 1599 letter in Latin to Shakespeare’s Stratford friend Richard Quiney from his 11-year-old son asking that Quiney bring some books of blank paper from London for the boy and his brother. After Shakespeare dropped out to help his beleaguered father with his glovemaking business, the schooling ceased, but not the education: Wells suggests that Shakespeare joined an acting troupe during the so-called “lost years” and learned everything he could from his fellow thespians before finding out he was better as a writer.

Okay, so Shakespeare didn’t go to Cambridge—Marlowe did, but then Marlowe but wasn’t as good a dramatist. As for those who claimed Christopher Marlowe faked his death in 1593 but continued to ghost-write Shakespeare’s plays thereafter, they’d have to believe that someone as volatile as Marlowe would have provided Shakespeare with, by my count, 33 plays without winking at least once or twice and saying, “I’ faith, I wrote Hamlet and—promise not to tell?—Lear, Macbeth, and Othello, among others.”

In addition to the anti-Stratfordians, the second big group of Shakespeare denigrators is made up, and here’s another paradox for you, of those who teach him. Not that these people are picking on Shakespeare, of course; to them, all writers (except themselves) are frauds. Thus Christy Desmet, in Shakespeare and Appropriation, which she edited with Robert Sawyer: “The author, no longer regarded as the origin of writing, becomes simply a proper name by which we describe a piece of discourse.” (Italics mine.) This sounds a bit like what Michel Foucault says in his esssay “What Is an Author?” though even Foucault points out that it will not do to “repeat the empty affirmation that the author has disappeared.”

Besides, his reputation being what it is, Shakespeare is a little harder than other writers to reduce to “simply a proper name.” Thus, in William Shakespeare, Terry Eagleton sandwiches his dismissal between the bread of praise when he says, “though exclusive evidence is hard to come by, it is difficult to read Shakespeare without feeling that he was almost certainly familiar with the writings of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein and Derrida. Perhaps it is simply to say that though there are many ways in which we have thankfully left this conservative patriarch behind, there are other ways in which we have yet to catch up with him.”

Those are my italics again in that last sentence, with an apology, though it’s hard to resist emphasizing just how laughable some of these learned anti-intellectuals can be. There’s an essay in Shakespeare and Appropriation entitled “The Incredible Shrinking Bard” by Gary Taylor, a curious piece through which the author’s sickly smile may be seen as he argues, unconvincingly but with a perverse joy, that Shakespeare is declining in popularity. As co-editor of Shakespeare’s works and director of a prestigious Renaissance studies center at the University of Alabama, Taylor is, along with Stephen Greenblatt and Harold Bloom, one of the three dominant figures in the field today; all the odder, then—and the more unnecessary—that he argues for “polybardolatry,” as though enjoying Shakespeare will keep readers away from Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Jane Smiley, and other writers he mentions. But isn’t that what coffee is for? So we can wake up earlier, stay up later, and read everybody?

People who can fix their mouths to call Shakespeare “this conservative patriarch” remind me of the art critics—and this includes most of them, as far as I can tell—who complain about Picasso’s misogyny. Sure, Picasso expresses an anger toward women that borders on violence, but mixed with that is playfulness, humor, eroticism, and deep love. Or they’re like the diner who choked and coughed and spat out the wine he’d ordered and who, when asked if it was sour, said no, he simply couldn’t stand the stuff.

Hey, if you don’t like wine, don’t order it. But then if you got tenure and regular merit raises for guzzling something you couldn’t stand, you’d probably do it, too. In “Alas, Poor Shakespeare! I Knew Him Well” (also in Shakespeare and Appropriation), Ivo Kamps points out that Shakespeare is big box office not just for his admirers but for his detractors as well. You’d think a radical scholar would base a career on a revolutionary author like Brecht. But there’s no money in Brecht. Instead, it makes sense to attach oneself to Shakespeare and chip away at him; the strategem increases one’s visibility and, since the host is indestructible, he’ll never disappear, no matter how many parasites attach themselves. This is why, says Kamps, “feminists, Marxists, and cultural materialists seem very much at home these days in the reading rooms of the Folger Shakespeare Library—and I do not see any of them trying to tear the place down, the way Protestant reformers smashed Catholic icons, nor close it down as Stalin did the churches.”

Of course, Shakespeare helped his critics by his indifference, like that of every other playwright of the era, to the publication of his plays. In Shakespeare Alive! Joseph Papp and Elizabeth Kirkland note how Elizabethan acting companies violently opposed the printing of texts; in an era without copyright laws, publication amounted to giving a popular play to a rival acting company for nothing. Thus Shakespeare’s body of plays didn’t appear until seven years after his death. John Fletcher, who succeeded Shakespeare as ordinary poet for the King’s Men, was equally indifferent. And their contemporary, playwright and actor Thomas Heywood, noted in the preface to his 1624 play The English Traveller that his plays weren’t published because his acting company “think it against their peculiar profit to have them come in print”; in addition, says Heywood, “it was never any great ambition in me, to be in this kind voluminously read.”

In the end, the truest thing one can say about Shakespeare’s detractors has already been said by Kingsley Amis in The King’s English, namely, “To say or imply that the man of this name is not our greatest writer marks a second-rate person at best.”

V. All Roads Lead to Shakespeare

And yet, and yet … the snobs and the School of Resentment types are right, in a sense, when they say there’s no such person as Shakespeare, just as Harold Bloom, the greatest of all living bardolaters, is wrong when he says that, in Shakespeare, “here at last we encounter an intelligence without limits.” Because it’s the plays that have limitless intelligence, not the playwright. He wrote them, sure, but when the curtain comes down and we professors begin chatting, Shakespeare remains the dreaming gray man in Borges’s story “Shakespeare’s Memory,” and it is his dreams that contain more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

Another way to answer the question of Shakespearean biography is to say that, if he’s nobody, then he’s everybody. And here I invite readers to take their pick, to associate Shakespeare with anyone and everyone he bears some kind of relation to. Conventionally, he’s put in the same pigeonhole as the other great poets (Virgil and Dante), the other great English authors (Chaucer and Milton), the other great humorists (Moliere and Mark Twain). But why stop there? The final Shakespearean paradox is that our greatest writer communicates directly with the least of us, so that this exercise in associating him with others is one that cannot fail.

Just in the few months I’ve been in London, I’ve thought of Shakespeare in the same breath as, for example, Pontormo, the eccentric Renaissance artist of whom Vasari wrote that he “had strange notions” but “when he had made up his mind he was not deterred by anything from carrying out what he had proposed, like a clever and skilful man.” I think of Pontormo not when I think of the majestic or tragic or even the comic Shakespeare but when I think of the one who’s odd and goofy (and mixes his metaphors, for example, or refers in The Winter’s Tale to “the seacoast of Bohemia”) yet who, for all that, makes big statements about his time as well as ours. The greatest of Pontormo’s paintings is the Deposition in the little church of Santa Felicite in Florence. A deposition is a depiction of the removal of Christ’s body from the cross, typically a solemn, formal, somewhat abstract event akin, say, to the state burial of a revered leader. But the Deposition of Pontormo is another matter altogether. Whereas many church paintings are dark, heavily varnished, or otherwise obscured by the exigencies of age, this one is light, bright, and colorful; it is as though Pontormo used not paint but melted Life Savers to daub his figures with lime, pomegranate, peppermint. And the figures themselves are the precise opposite of the bold, resolute ones we see in other Renaissance paintings. The two who hold Christ’s body and are closest to the spectator have a decided caught-in-the-act air to them; they look over their shoulders at the viewer as though to say, “What do we do now?”

And I’ve thought of Shakespeare as akin to Giovanni Battista Piranesi, mainly because, during my stay in London, there was an exhibit of Piranesi’s engravings of imaginary prisons in the British Museum that I used to go down and look at during my lunch hour. Speaking of twinning, there were actually two sets of engravings; the first were done in 1749-50 and the second, in which Piranesi added line and detail to the originals, in 1761 . In their creation of fantastic architectural interiors, the first engravings are remarkable on their own. But in the second set, the artist added not only prisoners being guarded and punished and even tortured but also depth and shadow that give these drawings a solidity that the originals lack. As I looked at the individual engravings, each of which is displayed side by side with its twin, I thought of the interior worlds of Richard III and Iago and Edmund and Macbeth. I also thought of the process of revision and how Piranesi had changed his original conceptions eleven years later. Shakespeare, too, began with a few strokes on the page and then more and more, though Shakespeare’s revisions came all at once, the terrible shadows appearing as suddenly as a thunderstorm on a sunny London day.

In fact, Shakespeare’s breathtaking speed (Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night in one year, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth in another) reminds me of Jackson Pollock, whom I’ve mentioned earlier. And since, thus far, I’ve mentioned only the visual artists Shakespeare reminds me of whose names begin with P, let me avoid a bookish consistency by saying also that he makes me think of Algonquin J. Calhoun, the verbose lawyer of The Amos and Andy Show, who dazzled his opponents with new coinages and is the only person I know of, fictional or real, to have used the verb “absquatulate,” a dog-Latin formation meaning “to depart in a hurry,” “to die,” and, in the sense in which Calhoun uses it in the episode I recall, “to argue.”

The American Heritage Dictionary
from which these definitions come notes that there is a precedent for jocular pseudo-Latin words “in the language of Shakespeare, whose plays contain scores of made-up … words.” Thus, in A Winter’s Tale, Antigonus declares that, could he identify the villain guilty of slandering the virtuous Hermione, he would “land-damn” him. According to the note in the little pocket edition of the play I took with me when I went to see it performed in Stratford, the origin of this phrase is likely “landan,” identified by the editor as a Gloucestershire word still in use which describes “the punishment meted out to slanderers and adulterers by rustics traversing from house to house along the country side [sic], blowing trumpets and beating drums or pans and kettles; when an audience was assembled the delinquents’ names were proclaimed, and they were said to be landanned.” Okay, but obviously the original word wasn’t up to snuff, so Shakespeare altered it so that its meaning would be clearer and that we’d know Antigonus is so angry he wants to find out who the slanderer is and then “damn him throughout the land.”

One afternoon during my fall in London, I took the tube downtown to see a Brazilian movie that sounded promising, though when I arrived at the theatre, I found the listing in Time Out had been wrong and something else altogether was playing. As I walked around Soho, wondering how to amuse myself, I found myself in front of the Prince Charles Theatre, where Mamma Mia was playing. Like most people who listened to their car radios during the ’70s, I can sing the chorus and a verse or two to half a dozen Abba songs, but I wasn’t really interested in going in until, at exactly 2:56 p. m., a well-turned-out woman from Ketchum, Idaho, asked if I’d give her 30 pounds for her ailing husband’s 40-pound ticket. Shortly after the three o’clock curtain, then, I too found myself clapping to and singing along with the cheesy but irresistible score in the company of approximately 1,500 of my fellow theatre lovers.

Since I have kept this information secret until now from family and friends, I reveal it here only to advance my argument, which is that, once you know what Shakespeare’s up to, it’s impossible not to see virtually everything else as a forerunner to his plays. Mamma Mia is a play about marriage, as are, one way or another, most of Shakespeare’s plays; its plot is built around identity confusion, as are virtually all of his comedies; and it’s set in Greece, one of Shakespeare’s favorite settings. Shakespeare could have easily improved the simple story line of Mamma Mia with several more characters and a couple of additional plot threads—indeed, it’s inconceivable that he wouldn’t have. It also goes without saying he would have complicated the script verbally, leaving in many of the original broad jests but layering the language elsewhere and thus creating subtler wordplay. If, as is said, Shakespeare used 21,000 words and Racine around 4,000, the Mamma Mia writers used—well, no more than Racine, let’s say.

In good conscience, I can’t really recommend Mamma Mia, at least not at full price. There are too many wonderful West End productions of great plays, classic and modern, as well as all the cheap, energetic fringe productions that cost practically nothing and take place in truly bohemian venues, more often than not a black-walled room with a few benches situated over a noisy pub. Still, hundreds of thousands of Americans flock to London every year to see such perennials as Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables (which the English, with their talent for deflation, call “The Glums”), and other shows they can more easily see at home. I mean, why not see Chicago in Chicago?

But here I’m making an objection that Shakespeare wouldn’t. For just as he loved the court, he loved all things outdoors, and as he knew how to keep the nobility happy, so too did he show, again and again, his abiding affection for ordinary people. This universal applicability explains why Shakespeare not only inspires others as no other artist has but also brings out the best in them. Thus Verdi’s greatest operas are based on the stories of Macbeth, Othello, and Falstaff, and there are hundreds of ballets, symphonies, and other musical pieces which derive from the plays, not to mention sculptures, paintings, films, and musicals like West Side Story and Kiss Me Kate. The two greatest U.S. novels would not be the same without Shakespeare’s influence. Huckleberry Finn would have been a mere sequel to Tom Sawyer had not the two Shakespearean actors the King and the Duke appeared to put a smiling face on evil. And Melville was all set to write yet another travel book when he discovered Shakespeare and created Ahab. If Faulkner had not encountered Macbeth, at least The Sound and the Fury would have had a less memorable title. In the realm of oratory, it’s difficult to say which is quoted more, Shakespeare’s work or the Bible, though it’s easy to remember that the latter is the work of many hands instead of one. When Saddam Hussein learned that Yemen had sided against him in the recent weapons inspection dispute, he said, “Et tu, Brute?” When the BBC aired the Shakespeare segment of its Great Britons series, it was reported that Nelson Mandela and the other political detainees in their South African island prison maintained their civility in the face of state barbarism by reading to each other from a copy of the collected plays.

In the course I taught in London this fall, I ended with a play by Shakespeare’s collaborator John Fletcher called The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed. My intention was to show that Shakespeare couldn’t be improved upon, and my students agreed, though by this point in the term, Fletcher struck me as a better playwright than I’d thought earlier. The women characters are magnificent, and if the writing is not up there with that of the great tragedies, it’s certainly as good as any in the mid-rank comedies. Of course, I argued that, Fletcher’s achievement notwithstanding, the fact that he started with The Taming of the Shrew must have had more than a little to do with the success of his sequel.

The text of the Fletcher play we used is in an anthology edited by Daniel Fischlin and Mark Fortier entitled Adaptations of Shakespeare: A Critical Anthology of Plays from the Seventeenth Century to the Present. If that title sets up an echo, if it seems a twin of one that came earlier in this essay, that original would be Desmet and Sawyer’s Shakespeare and Appropriation, the essay collection whose contributors, like many critics these days, appear baffled by, irritated at, envious of, and, in their more extreme expressions, contemptuous toward their subject. Like the good-bad twins of the Superman comics, the books exist as though in parallel universes. The one is populated by those who love the plays but probably give little thought to “the gray man who dreamed them,” whereas the other is the world of those who use the plays as indictments against a “conservative patriarch” they should ignore but can’t.

Fletcher’s The Woman’s Prize is the first play in the anthology; from this simple one-to-one twinning, the Shakespeare corpus splinters into a funhouse mirror of replicas, from Nahum Tate’s “improved” version of the Lear story, The History of King Lear, to Lear’s Daughters, which is by the Women’s Theatre Group and Elaine Feinstein. The other plays in it include a Zulu version of Macbeth, Welcome Msomi’s uMabatha; Heiner Muller’s Hamletmachine; Paula Vogel’s Desdemona; and other reinventions of Shakespeare by Keats, Lorca, and Brecht, among others. This is to say that somehow the narrowminded bigot that hard-core theorists denigrate yet cling to is still able to speak to women and men of every color, in every country, in every period of time from his own until now.

One last paradox, then, one final twinning: if it’s true that all roads lead to Shakespeare, it’s equally true that Shakespeare leads to all roads.


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