My dream of turning The Play’s the Thing into the ultimate young adult guide to the plays of William Shakespeare is THIS CLOSE to becoming a reality. Want to help (while earning royalties on every copy sold as well as some cool bonus stuff)? Click here for details!
Want to help turn “The Play’s The Thing” into the ultimate young adult guide to the plays of William Shakespeare? Want to earn royalties and some cool bonuses for your investment? Click here to find out more!
For two and a half years, all of you gathered online to ask questions, discuss, and read about some of the greatest plays ever written. It was an extraordinary project, and one that I’m not willing to see come to an end.
So my goal, my dream then, is to convert and rewrite the two and a half years of material and bring it to a young adult audience, readers who might be intimidated to tackle Shakespeare, or who believe that the plays are old, and dusty, and, perish the thought “classic” that have nothing to do with their lives, or, really, the lives of anyone in the 21st century.
But traditional publishing houses have been reluctant to take the project on. So I’m going anon-traditional route, using Pentian.
Here’s how it works:
• Authors such as myself come to Pentian to gather funding for their book’s publishing.
• Readers pledge to support new talent that they discover on the Pentian site.
• Both the authors and readers profit financially when books are sold. (From net profits, 50% goes to financial backers of the book, 40% to the author, and 10% to Pentian.)
It’s a new publishing platform that works. Risky projects (such as mine), get published and marketed just like any other title if they can get public backing that proves there’s an audience for the title. Investors win, Pentian wins, and I win.
And most of all, young adult readers will win. My book, entitled “The Play’s The Thing” (naturally) will contain one essay per play. It’s going to be smart but non-academic, funny and interesting and informal and readable, and will show reluctant readers (of all ages really) that the things that concerned Shakespeare – love won and lost, parents and children, how power is won and lost – are our, are their concerns as well. (And the book’s illustrations, done by well-known comic book artist John Rauch will only add to the book’s appeal)
As I write in my introduction:
“…the problem for so many of us is that Shakespeare has become so “classic,” so much a writer to be studied but not enjoyed, whose characters talk funny and can be difficult to understand, that the sheer enjoyment to be found in reading Shakespeare, in becoming acquainted with his characters, in learning the brilliance of his language has been lost.
The goal of this guide, then, is to turn Shakespeare from somebody you have to read into somebody that you want to read.”
If you’re interested in becoming part of the project, click here.
“We look back at Shakespeare and regret our absence from him because it seems an absence from reality.”
Conclusion to The Play’s The Thing
By Dennis Abrams
Honestly, I can’t believe it’s over. For two and half years, We’ve been reading and talking and thinking about Shakespeare. And to help bring this to a close, I’m going to go through all the plays, with just the first things that come into my head.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona: Light, comedy. Launce and Crab. I confuse it (for some reason) with The Comedy of Errors.
The Taming of the Shrew: Odd, not sure if it works to read it as some sort of proto-feminist play. Funny in parts. And of course, Katherine and Petruchio.
Titus Andronicus: Bloody over-the-top comedy. Liked it much more than its reputation would suggest. “Enter Lavinia, her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, ravished.”
Henry VI Part 1, 2 and 3: Honestly, kind of boring. Largely forgotten except for a few scenes. I can imagine never reading these again.
Richard III: Richard’s a great character, and his soliloquies stick with one, but other than that…Queen Margaret’s rant?
The Comedy of Errors: Light but it works as a comedy, I still confuse it with The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Love’s Labour’s Lost: Words, words, words. As Bloom said, “a festival of language, an exuberant fireworks display in which Shakespeare seems to seek the limits of his verbal resources, and discovers that there are none.” I look forward to rereading this one.
Romeo and Juliet: Better and deeper and more than the simple teenage romance I’d remembered it being. Mercutio and The Nurse.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: As perfect and magical a play as I can imagine. Bottom’s Dream. One to be read often.
Richard II: The first of the history plays that I truly enjoyed and look forward to reading again. Poetic as poetic can be. Richard’s “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the death of kings.”
King John: Much better than its reputation. Phillip the Bastard and Faulconbridge.
The Merchant of Venice: Still hard to believe it’s intended to be a comedy – the great character that is Shylock throws it out of whack. Is Antonio gay? Is the play anti-Semitic? Difficult to read, but very much worth it.
Henry IV Parts One and Two: The best of the history plays, and among Shakespeare’s greatest. Prince Hal and Falstaff. And Hotspur. These will probably be the first of the plays I reread.
The Merry Wives of Windsor: Not among my favorites, by a long shot.
Much Ado About Nothing: A great comedy of “remarriage.” Benedick and Beatrice. I see Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson whenever I think of the play.
Henry V: Patriotic, patriotic, patriotic. Great speeches – but is it a great play? And of course, the death of Falstaff.
Julius Caesar: Dry but an interesting look at Roman power politics. Understandable why it’s usually the first play by Shakespeare taught in school.
As You Like It: Wonderful. It’s Rosalind’s play and we can’t help but fall in love with her. And Jaques.
Hamlet: Like a Russian doll – there’s always more. As great as it gets, and a play I know I’ll be rereading for the rest of my life – and always reading an entirely different play each time.
Twelfth Night: Probably my favorite of the comedies. Identity, sexual identity, comedy – what more could one want? Plus Feste.
Troilus and Cressida: Bitter. Very bitter. It’s a play I respect, but not one to be loved.
Measure for Measure: One of my favorites. Perhaps the most rancid of the so-called “problem plays” but I still love it. Plus Barnardine.
Othello: Still probably my least favorite (although I still love it) of the tragedies. Love Othello, love Iago, love Desdemona, but somehow I still can never quite buy it that Othello descends into jealousy and madness so quickly.
All’s Well That Ends Well: Parolles. And why Bertram isn’t worthy of Helena. Ironic as all get out.
Timon of Athens: Better than I expected, but I’m still not sure if it’s very good. It could be me though, not Shakespeare.
King Lear: The apex, the peak – as majestic and overwhelming a tragedy as one can imagine. Every character counts. Every scene counts. The pinnacle of human drama? Maybe.
Macbeth: Dark, direct, brutal. A suffocating feeling of darkness. Greatness.
Antony and Cleopatra: The glory that is Cleopatra. My “favorite” among favorites? Possibly.
Pericles: An interesting play, well worth reading (and maybe even rereading), but not among my favorites.
Coriolanus: Again, like Julius Caesar, dry. Volumnia is possibly the most memorable character, but one you’d want to meet in a dark alley. Again, a play more to be respected than loved.
Cymbeline: Complicated, beautiful fairy tale. You can see him working on things he’ll do better in The Winter’s Tale.
The Winter’s Tale: My favorite of the “late plays.” Somehow Shakespeare makes bringing a statue to life work.
The Tempest: A play I’d never really appreciated as much as I did this time. Colonialist allegory? I don’t think so. It’s simply magic.
Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen: Interesting, but…not “Shakespeare.”
I noticed that most of my references were to character. Perhaps not surprising.
“The meaning of a word is always another word, for words are more like other words than they can be like persons or things, but Shakespeare hints frequently that words are more like persons than they are like things. Shakespearean representation of character has a preternatural richness about it because no other writer, before or since, gives us a stronger illusion that each character speaks with a different voice from the others. Johnson, noting this feature, attributed it to Shakespeare’s accurate portrayal of general nature, but Shakespeare might have been prompted to question the reality of such a nature. His uncanny ability to present consistent and different actual-seeming voices of imaginary beings stems in part from the most abundant sense of reality ever to invade literature.
When we attempt to isolate Shakespeare’s consciousness of reality (or the plays’ version of reality, if you prefer), we are likely to become bewildered by it. When you stand back from the Divine Comedy, the poem’s strangeness shocks you, but Shakespearean drama seems at once utterly familiar and yet too rich to absorb all at once. Dante interprets his characters for you; if you cannot accept his judgments, his poem abandons you. Shakespeare so opens his characters to multiple perspectives that they become analytical instruments for judging you. If you are a moralist, Falstaff outrages you; if you are rancid, Rosalind exposes you; if you are dogmatic, Hamlet evades you forever. And if you are an explainer, the great Shakespearean villains will cause you to despair. Iago, Edmund, and Macbeth are not motiveless; they overflow with motives, most of which they invent or imagine for themselves. Like the great wits – Falstaff, Rosalind, Hamlet – these monstrous malevolences are artists of the self, or free artists of themselves, as Hegel remarked. Hamlet, the most fecund among them, is endowed with something that looks very much like an authorial consciousness, and one not Shakespeare’s own. Interpreting Hamlet becomes as difficult as interpreting such aphorists as Emerson, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. ‘They lived and wrote,’ something in one wants to protest, but Shakespeare has found a way of giving us Hamlet, who wrote those additions that revised The Murder of Gonzago into the Mousetrap. The most bewildering of Shakespearean achievements is to have suggested more contexts for explaining us than we are capable of supplying for explaining his characters.
For many readers the limits of human art are touched in King Lear, which with Hamlet appears to be the height of the Shakespearean canon. My own preference is for Macbeth, where I never get over my shock at the play’s ruthless economy, its way of making every speech, every phrase count. Still, Macbeth has only the one huge character, and even Hamlet is so dominated by its hero that all the lesser figures are blinded (as we are) by his transcendent brilliance, as we are in particular cantos of the Inferno or the Purgatorio, or in a Tolstoyan narrative like Hadji Murad. Here, if anywhere, the flames of invention burn away all context and grant us the possibility of what could be called primal aesthetic value, free of history and ideology and available to whoever can be educated to read and view it.”
Victor Hugo: “In Shakespeare the birds sing, the bushes are clothed with green, hearts love, souls suffer, the cloud wanders, it is hot, it is cold, night falls, time passes, forests and multitudes speak, the vast eternal dream hovers over all. Sap and blood, all forms of the multiple reality, actions and ideas, man and humanity, the living and the life, solitudes, cities, religions, diamonds and pearls, dung-hills and charnelhouses, the ebb and flow of beings, the steps of comers and goers, all, all are on Shakespeare and in Shakespeare.”
Emerson: “His mind is the horizon beyond which, at present, we do not see.”
Garber: “What is often described as the timelessness of Shakespeare, the transcendent qualities for which his plays have been praised around the world and across the centuries, is perhaps better understood as an uncanny timeliness, a capacity to speak directly to circumstances the playwright could not have anticipated or foreseen. Like a portrait whose eyes seem to follow you around t he room, engaging your glance from every angle, the plays and their characters seem always to be ‘modern,’ always to be ‘us.’”
Pope: “His characters are so much nature itself, that it is a sort of injury to call them by so distant a name as copies of her. Those of other poets have a constant resemblance, which shows that they have received from one another, and were but multipliers of the same image: each picture, like a mock rainbow, is but the reflection of a reflection. But every single character in Shakespeare is as much as individual as those in life itself; it is as impossible to find any two alike, and such as, from their relation or affinity in any respect, appear most to be twins, will, upon comparison, be found remarkably distinct. To this life and variety of character, we must add the wonderful preservation of it: which is such throughout his plays, that, had all the speeches been printed without the very names of the persons, I believe one might have applied them with certainty to every speaker.”
And to conclude, this from Bloom:
“Immerse yourself, say, for several days together [MY NOTE: Or a couple of years] in reading Shakespeare and then turn to another author – before, after, or contemporary with him. For experiment, try only the highest in each grouping: Homer or Dante, Cervantes or Ben Jonson, Tolstoy or Proust. The difference in the reading experience will be one of kind as well of degree. That difference, universally felt from Shakespeare’s time to now is expressed alike by ordinary and sophisticated readers as having something to do with our sense of what we want to call ‘natural.’ Dr. Johnson assured us that nothing could please for long except just representations of general nature. That assurance still seems unassailable to me, though much of what is now exalted each week could not pass the Johnsonian test. Shakespearean representation, its supposed imitation of what is held to be most essential in us, has been felt to be more natural than anyone else’s mirroring of reality ever since the plays were first staged. To go from Shakespeare to Dante or Cervantes or even Tolstoy is somehow to have the illusion of suffering a loss in sensuous immediacy. We look back at Shakespeare and regret our absence from him because it seems an absence from reality.”
It has been a real pleasure writing about and talking about Shakespeare with all of you. I hope none of you are absent from Shakespeare, for long. And I hope you’ll join me, starting next month, in exploring the works of Haruki Murakami.
See you soon.
Conclusion to The Play’s the Thing
By Dennis Abrams
It’s hard to believe it’s been two and half years since we started our journey through Shakespeare’s plays. For me, it’s been incredibly educational, fulfilling, inspiring, and downright fun. In my last post I’m going to share my final thoughts on all the plays, but for today, I have to give you my beloved Harold Bloom, and his coda to Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, “The Shakespearean Difference,” which I think is direct to the point:
“If there is validity to my surmise that Shakespeare, by inventing what has become the most accepted mode for representing character and personality in language, thereby invented the human as we know it, then Shakespeare also would have modified severely our ideas concerning our sexuality. The late Joel Fineman, questing to understand Shakespeare’s ‘subjectivity effect,’ found in the Sonnets a paradigm for all of Shakespeare’s (and literature’s) bisexualities of vision. Setting aside Fineman’s immersion in the critical fashions that ascribe everything to ‘language’ rather than to the authorial self, he nevertheless had an authentic insight into the link between Shakespeare’s portraits of an ever-growing inner self, and Shakespeare’s preternatural awareness of bisexuality and its disguises.
Here, as ever, Shakespeare is the original psychologist, and Freud the belated rhetorician. The human endowment, Shakespeare keeps intimating, is bisexual: after all, we have both mothers and fathers. Whether we ‘forget’ either the heterosexual or the homosexual component in our desire, or ‘remember’ both, is in the Sonnets in the plays not a question of choice, and only rarely a matter of anguish. Antonio’s melancholy in The Merchant of Venice seems the largest exception, since his sorrow at losing Bassanio to Portia has suicidal overtones. Shakespeare was, at the least, a skeptical ironist, and so his representations of bisexuality hardly could forgo an ironic reserve, more ambiguous than ambivalent.
Nietzsche ambiguously followed Hamlet in telling us that we could find words only for what was already dead in our hearts, so that there was always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking. Before Hamlet taught us how not to have faith either in language or in ourselves, being human was much simpler for us but also rather less interesting. Shakespeare, through Hamlet has made us skeptics in our relationships with anyone, because we have learned to doubt articulateness in the realm of affection. If someone can say too readily or too eloquently how much they love us, we incline not to believe them, because Hamlet has gotten into us, even as he inhabited Nietzsche.
Our ability to laugh at ourselves as readily as we do at others owes much to Falstaff, the cause of wit in others as well as being witty in himself. To cause wit in others, you must learn how to be laughed at, how to absorb it, and finally how to triumph over it, in high good humor. Dr. Johnson praised Falstaff for his almost continuous gaiety, which is accurate enough but neglects Falstaff’s overt desire to teach. What Falstaff teaches us is a comprehensiveness of humor that avoids unnecessary cruelty, because it emphasizes instead the vulnerability of every ego, including that of Falstaff himself.
Shakespeare’s wisest woman may be Rosalind in As You Like It, but his most comprehensive is Cleopatra, through whom the playwright taught us how complex eros is, and how impossible it is to divorce acting the part of being in love and the reality of being in love. Cleopatra brilliantly bewilders us, and Antony, and herself. Mutability is incessant in her passional existence, and it excludes sincerity as being irrelevant to eros. To be more human in love is, now, to imitate Cleopatra, whose erotic variety make staleness impossible, and certitude just as unlikely.
Four centuries have only augmented Shakespeare’s universal influence; it seems accurate to observe that many more have read the plays, for themselves or in schools, than have attended performances, or even seen versions in movie houses and on television. Will that change in the new century, since deep reading is in decline, and Shakespeare, as the Western canon’s center, now vanishes from the schools with the canon? Will generations to come believe current superstitions, and so cast away genius, on the grounds that all individuality is an illusion? If Shakespeare is only a product of social processes, perhaps any social product will seem as good as any other, past or present. In the culture of virtual reality, partly prophesied by Aldous Huxley, and in another way by George Orwell, will Falstaff and Hamlet still seem paradigms of the human? A journalist, scorning what he called any ‘lone genius,’ recently proclaimed that the three leading ‘ideas’ of our moment were feminism, environmentalism, and structuralism. That is to mistake political and academic fashions for ideas, and stimulates me to ask again, Who besides Shakespeare can continue to inform an authentic idea of the human?
Had Shakespeare been murdered at twenty-nine, like Christopher Marlowe, then his career would have ended with Titus Andronicus or the Taming of the Shrew and his masterpiece would have been Richard III. Social processes would have courses on under Elizabeth and then under James, but the twenty-five plays that matter most would not have come out of Renaissance Britain. Cultural poetics doubtless could be as well occupied with George Chapman or Thomas Heywood, since a social energy is a social energy, if that is your standard for value or concern. We all of us might be gamboling about, but without mature Shakespeare we would be very different, because we would think and feel and speak differently. Our ideas would be different, particularly our ideas of the human, since they were, more often than not, Shakespeare’s ideas before they were ours. That is why we do not have feminist Chapman, structuralist Chapman, and environmentalist Chapman, and may yet, alas, have environmentalist Shakespeare.
Shakespeare has had the status of a secular Bible for the last two centuries. Textual scholarship on the plays approaches biblical commentary in scope and intensiveness, while the quantity of literary criticism devoted to Shakespeare rivals theological interpretation of Holy Scripture. It is no longer possible for anyone to read everyone of some interest and value that has been published on Shakespeare. Though there are indispensible critics of Shakespeare – Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, perhaps Samuel Taylor Coleridge – certainly A.C. Bradley – most commentary upon Shakespeare at best answers the needs of a particular generation in one country or another. Those needs vary: directors and actors, audiences and common readers, scholar-teachers and students do not necessarily seek the same aids for understanding. Shakespeare is an international possession – transcending nations, languages, and professions. More than the Bible, which competes with the Koran, and with Indian and Chinese religions writings, Shakespeare is unique in the world’s culture, not just in the world’s theaters.
This book – Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human – is a latecomer work, written in the wake of Shakespeare critics I most admire: Johnson, Hazlitt, Bradley, and their mid-twentieth century disciple, Harold Goddard. I have sought to take advantage of my belatedness by asking always, Why Shakespeare? He already was the Western canon, and is now becoming central to the world’s implicit canon. As I assert throughout, Hamlet and Falstaff, Rosalind and Iago, Lear and Cleopatra are clearly more than great roles for actors and actresses. It is difficult sometimes not to assume that Hamlet is as ancient a hero as Achilles or Oedipus, or not to believe that Falstaff was as historical a personality as Socrates. When we think of the Devil, we are as likely to reflect on Iago as on Satan, while the historical Cleopatra seems only a shadow of Shakespeare’s Egyptian mesmerizer, the Fatal Woman incarnate.
Shakespeare’s influence, overwhelming on literature, has been even larger on life, and thus has become incalculable, and seems recently only to be growing. It surpasses the effect of Homer and of Plato, and challenges the scriptures of West and East alike in the modification of human character and personality. Scholars who wish to confine Shakespeare to his context – historical, social, political, economic, rational, theatrical – may illuminate particular aspects of the plays, but are unable to explain the Shakespearean influence on us, which is unique, and which cannot be reduced to Shakespeare’s own situation, in his time and place.
If the world indeed can have a universal and unifying culture, to any degree of notice, such a culture cannot emanate from religion. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have a common root, but are more diverse than similar, and the other great religious traditions, centered upon China and India, are very remote from the Children of Abraham. The universe increasingly has a common technology, and in time may constitute one vast computer, but that will not quite be a culture. English already is the world language, and presumably will become even more so in the twenty-first century. Shakespeare, the best and central writer in English, already is the only universal author, staged and read everywhere. There is nothing arbitrary in this supremacy. Its basis is only one of Shakespeare’s gifts, the most mysterious and beautiful: a concourse of men and women unmatched in the rest of literature. Iris Murdoch, whose high but impossible ambition has to become a Shakespearean novelist, once told an interviewer, ‘There is of course the great problem – to be able to be like Shakespeare – create all kinds of different people quite unlike oneself.’
What Shakespeare was like, we evidently never will know. We may be incorrect in believing we know what Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe were like, and yet we seem to have a clear sense of their personalities. With Shakespeare, we know a fair number of externals, but essentially we know absolutely nothing. His deliberate colorlessness may have been one of his many masks for an intellectual autonomy and originality so vast that not only his contemporaries but also his forerunners and followers have been considerably eclipsed by comparison. One hardly can overstress Shakespeare’s inward freedom; it extends to the conventions of his era, and to those of the stage as well. I think we need to go further in recognizing this independence than we ever have done. You can demonstrate that Dante or Milton or Proust were perfected products of Western civilization, as it had reached them, so that they were both summits and epitomes of European culture at particular times and particular places. No such demonstration is possible for Shakespeare, and not because of any supposed ‘literary transcendence.’ In Shakespeare, there is always a residuum, an excess that is left over, no matter how superb the performance, how acute the critical analysis, how massive the scholarly accounting, whether old-style or newfangled. Explaining Shakespeare is an infinite exercise; you will become exhausted long before the plays are emptied out. Allegorizing or ironizing Shakespeare by privileging cultural anthropology or theatrical history or religion or psychoanalysis or politics or Foucault or Marx or feminism works only in limited ways. You are likely, if you are shrewd, to achieve Shakespearean insights into your favorite hobbyhorse, but you are rather less likely to achieve Freudian or Marxist or feminist insight into Shakespeare. His individuality will defeat you; his plays know more than you do, and your knowingness consequently will be in danger of dwindling into ignorance.
Can there be a Shakespearean reading of Shakespeare? His plays read one another, and a double handful of critics have been able to follow the plays in that project. I would like to believe that there could still be a Shakespearean staging of Shakespeare, but is quite a long time now since I last encountered one. This book offers what is intends as a Shakespearean reading of the characters of his plays, partly by employing one character to interpret another. Sometimes, I have resorted to a few characters by other authors, particularly by Chaucer and Cervantes, but going outside Shakespeare to apprehend Shakespeare better is a dangerous procedure, even if you confine yourself to the handful or fewer of writers who are not destroyed by being compared with the creator of Falstaff and of Hamlet. Juxtaposing Shakespeare’s characters to those of his contemporary and rival dramatists is ludicrous, as I have indicated throughout this book. Literary transcendence is now out of fashion, but Shakespeare so transcends his fellow playwrights that critical absurdity hovers near when we seek to confine Shakespeare to his time, place, and profession. These days, critics do not like to begin by standing in awe of Shakespeare, but I know of no other way to begin with him. Wonder, gratitude, shock, amazement are the accurate responses out of which one has to work.
Jacob Burkhardt, a rather distinguished Old Historicist, has just one mention of Shakespeare in his masterwork, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), but is quite devastating to Renaissance Italy, and to its Spanish overlords. That Shakespeare’s timing and location were immensely fortunate has to be granted, but then several other dramatists in his generation had the same advantages. Burckhardt’s true point was ‘that such a mind is the rarest of heaven’s gifts.’ Together with his younger colleague at Basel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jacob Burkhardt revived for us the ancient Greek sense of the agnostic, the vision of literature as an incessant and ongoing contest. Shakespeare, though he has to begin by absorbing and then struggling against Marlowe, became so strong with the creation of Falstaff and Hamlet that it is difficult to think of him as competing with anyone, once he had fully individuated. From Hamlet on, Shakespeare’s contest primarily was with himself, and the evidence of the plays and their likely compositional sequence indicates that he was driven to outdo himself.
Charles Lamb, admirable critic, has been much denigrated in this century for insisting that it was better to read Shakespeare than to watch him acted. If one could be certain that Ralph Richardson or John Gielgud or Ian McKellan was to do the acting, then argument with lamb would be possible. But to see Ralph Fiennes, under bad direction, play Hamlet as a poor little rich boy, or to sustain George C. Wolfe’s skilled travesty of The Tempest, is to reflect upon Lamb’s wisdom. When you read, then you can direct, act, and interpret for yourself (or with the help of Hazlitt, A.C. Bradley, and Harold Goddard). In the theater, much of the interpreting is done for you, and you are victimized by the politic fashions of the moment. Harry Berger, Jr., in a wise book, Imaginary Audition (1989) gives us a fine irony:
‘It is no doubt perverse to find that desire of theater burning through Shakespeare’s texts is crossed by a certain despair of theater, of the theater that seduces them and the theater they seduce; a despair inscribed in the auditory voyeurism with which the spoken language outruns its auditors, dropping golden apples along the way to divert the greedy ear that longs to devour its discourse.’
Presumably, this ironic perversity stems from Shakespeare’s apparent fecklessness as to the survival of his plays’ texts. The creative exuberance of Shakespeare doubtless suggested carelessness to the superbly labored Ben Jonson, at least in some of his moods, but ought not to mystify us. There is indeed a bad current fashion among some Shakespearean scholars to reduce the post-dramatist to the crudest texts that somehow can be deemed authentic. Sir Frank Kermode has protested eloquently against this destructive practice, which can be seen at its worst in the Oxford Editions of Gary Taylor. Charles Lamb was amiably seconded by Rosalie Colie, who reminded us of the advice given by the editors of the First Folio, Shakespeare’s fellow actors, Heminges and Condell. ‘Read him, therefore, and againe, and againe.’ Cole added the fine reminder that ‘no excuse is needed for treating Chaucer’s work as read material, although we know he read it aloud, as performance, at the time.’
Shakespeare directing Shakespeare, at the Globe, hardly could supervise performances of Hamlet or King Lear in their full, bewildering perplexities. As director, even Shakespeare had to choose to emphasize one perspective or another, the limitation of every director and of every actor. With dramas almost infinite in their amplitude, Shakespeare (with whatever suffering, or whatever unconcern) had to reduce the range of possible interpretation. The critical reading of Shakespeare, not by academics but by the authentic enthusiasts in his audience, had to have begun as a contemporary concern, since those early quartos – good and bad – were offered for sale, sold, and reprinted. Eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays had appeared in separate volumes before the First Folio of 1623, starting with Titus Andronicus in 1594, the year of its first performance, when Shakespeare turned thirty. Falstaff’s advent (under his original name, Oldcastle), in 1598, was attended by two quarto printings, with reprintings in 1599, 1604, 1608, 1613, and 1622, and two more quartos followed the First Folio in 1632 and 1639. Hamlet, Falstaff’s only rival in contemporary popularity, sustained two quartos within two years of his first stage appearance. The point is that Shakespeare knew he had early readers, less numerous by far than his audience, but more than just a chosen few. He wrote primarily to be aced, yes, but he wrote also to be read, by a more select group. This is not to suggest that there are two Shakespeares, but rather to remind us that the one Shakespeare was subtler and more comprehensive than certain reductionists care to acknowledge.
William Hazlitt, in 1814, wrote a brief essay called ‘On Posthumous Fame – Whether Shakespeare Was Influence by a Love of It?’ One can wonder at Hazlitt’s conclusion, which was that Shakespeare was wholly free of such egotism. Nowadays, many critics like to think of Shakespeare as the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day, coining money and allowing posterity to care for itself. This seems very dubious to me. Shakespeare was not Ben Jonson, but he was much in Jonson’s company, and probably he had too keen a sense of his own powers to share in Jonson’s or George Chapman’s anxieties about literary survival. The Sonnets of Shakespeare are very divided on this, as on most matters, but the aspiration for literary permanence figures strongly in them. Perhaps Coleridge, in his transcendental intensity, got this best: ‘Shakespeare is the Spinozistic deity – an omnipresent creativeness.’
Spinoza said that we should love God without expecting that God would love us in return. Perhaps Shakespeare, as such a godhead, accepted his audience’s homage without giving it anything in return, perhaps indeed Hamlet is Shakespeare’s authentic surrogate, provoking the audience’s love precisely because Hamlet palpably does not need or want its love, or anyone’s love. Shakespeare may not have been strong enough not to need the poet-dramatist’s equivalent of love, an intimation of the applause of eternity. Yet so ruthless an experimenter, who increasingly declined to repeat himself, who used the old almost always to make something radically new, seems as a playwright to have consistently quested for his own inward interests, even as he took care to stay ahead of the competition. The essence of poetry, according to Dr. Johnson, was invention, and no poetry that we have approaches Shakespeare’s plays as invention, particularly as invention of the human.
There is the heart of the matter, at once the subject of this book and the mark of my difference from nearly all current Shakespearean criticism, whether academic, journalistic, or theatrical. It is most possible that Shakespeare was unaware of his originality at the representation of human nature – that is to say, of human action, and the way such action frequently was antithetical to human words. Marlowe and Jonson, in their different but related ways, can be said to have valued words over action, or perhaps rather to have seen the playwright’s proper function as showing that words were the authentic form of action. Shakespeare’s apparent skepticism, the opening mark of his difference from Marlowe and Jonson alike, asks us to observe that we act very unlike our words. The central principle of Shakespearean representation at first seems a more-then-Nietzschean skepticism, since Hamlet knows that what he can find words for is already dead in his heart, and consequently he scarcely can speak without contempt for the act of speaking. Falstaff, who gives all to wit, can speak without contempt, but he speaks always with ironies that transcend even his pupil Hal’s full apprehension. Sometimes I reflect that not Hamlet and Falstaff, but Iago and Edmund are the most Shakespearean characters, because in them, and by them, the radical gap between words and action is most fully exploited. Skepticism, as a term fits Montaigne or Nietzsche better than it does Shakespeare, who cannot be confined to a skeptical stance, however widely (or wildly) we define it. The best analyst of this Shakespearean freedom has been Graham Bradshaw, in his admirable Shakespeare’s Skepticism (1987), one of the half-dozen or so best modern (since A.C. Bradley, that is) books about Shakespeare.
For Bradshaw, Shakespeare’s mastery of ironic distancing is one of the poet-dramatist’s central gifts, creating a pragmatic skepticism in regard to all questions of ‘natural’ value. I would alter this only by swerving away from such skepticism, as I think Shakespeare himself did, by giving up all rival accounts of nature through an acceptance of the indifference of nature. We can surmise that Shakespeare, with nature’s largeness in him, testified to nature’s indifference, and so at last to death’s indifference. Yet Shakespeare, with art’s greater largeness also in him, is neither indifferent nor quite skeptical, neither a believer nor a nihilist. His plays persuade all of us that they care, that their characters do matter, but never for, or to, Eternity.
Sometimes these personages matter to others, but always finally to themselves – even Hamlet, even Edmund, even the wretched Parolles of All’s Well That Ends Well and the rancid Thersites of Troilus and Cressida. Value in Shakespeare, as Jane Austen admirably learned from him, is bestowed upon one character by or through another or others and only because of the hope of shared esteem. We are skeptical of Hamlet’s final estimate of Fortinbras, even as we are somewhat quizzical as to Hamlet’s perpetual overestimation of the faithful but colorless Horatio. We are not at all skeptical of Hamlet’s own value, despite his own despair of it, because everyone in the play even Hamlet’s enemies, somehow testifies to it.
We cannot get enough perspectives on Hamlet, and always want still more, because Hamlet’s largeness and his indifference do not so much merge him into nature as they confound nature with him. Falstaff’s equal circumference of consciousness suggests that nature can achieve mind only by associating itself with Falstaff, and thus acquiring something of his wit. Edmund mistakenly invokes nature as his goddess, whereas his actual, negative achievement is to tender nature into a devouring entity, a mind (of sorts) that excludes very nearly all affect. Iago, more accurately invoking a ‘divinity of hell,’ succeeds in his brilliant project of destroying the only ontological reality he knows, organized warfare, as epitomized by the war god Othello, and replacing it with an anarchic incessant warfare of all against all. Iago does this in the name of a nothingness that can compensate him for his own wound, his sense of having been passed over and rejected by the only value he has ever known, Othello’s martial glory.
Shakespeare’s representation of the human is not a return to nature, despite the startled sense that has prevailed from Shakespeare’s contemporaries to the present, which is that Shakespeare’s men, woman, and children are somehow more ‘natural’ than other dramatic and literary characters. If you believe, as so many apostles of ‘cultural studies’ assert they do, that the natural ego is an obsolete entity, and that individual style is an outmoded mystification, then Shakespeare, like Mozart or Rembrandt, is likely to seem interesting primarily for qualities that all artists share, whatever their relative eminence. Disbelief in a self o one’s own is a kind of elitist secular heresy, perhaps only available to the sect of ‘cultural studies.’ The death of the author, Foucault’s post-Nietzschean invention, convinces academic partisans gathered under Parisian banners, but means nothing to the leading poets, novelists, and dramatists of our moment, who almost invariably assure us that their quest is to develop further their own selfish innovations. I don’t want to blame postmodernist Paris upon Freud, but I suspect that the master’s sublime confidence at inventing inner agencies, and ascribing independent existence to such gorgeous fictions, is the foreground to the ‘death of the subject’ in the poststructural prophets of Resentment. If the ego can be predicated or voided with equal ease, then selves can be shuffled off with high cultural abandon.
What happens to Sir John Falstaff if we deny him an ego? The question is doubly funny, since some of us would shrug and say, ‘After all, he is just language,’ and a few of us might want to say that the vivid representation of so strong a selfhood dismisses all skepticism as to the reality of the ego. Sir John himself certainly feels no self-skepticism; his gusto precludes Hamletian waverings as to whether we are too full or too empty. There is an abyss of potential loss in Falstaff; he senses that he will die of betrayed affection. Empson, determined not to be sentimental about fat Jack, wanted us to think of the great comedian as a dangerously powerful Machiavel. Empson was a great critic, but nevertheless he forgot that Shakespeare’s major Machiavels – Iago and Edmund – know themselves to be ontologically nil, which is not exactly a Falstaffian malady. In vitalistic self-awareness, Falstaff surely is the Wife of Bath’s child. He would have liked Henry V to fill his purse, but his killing grief at being rejected is not primarily a worldly catastrophe.
Is it possible to account for Shakespeare’s universalism, for our sense of his uniqueness? I grant that America’s Shakespeare is not Britain’s, nor Japan’s, nor Norway’s, but I recognize also something that really is Shakespeare’s, and that always survives his successful migration from country to country. Against all of our current demystifications of cultural eminence, I go on insisting that Shakespeare invented us (whoever we are) rather more than we have invented Shakespeare. To accuse Shakespeare of having invented, say, Newt Gingrich or Harold Bloom is not necessarily to confer any dramatic value upon either Gingrich or Bloom, but only to see that Newt is a parody of Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice, and Bloom is a parody of Falstaff. A nouveau historicizer would dismiss that as a politics of identity, but I dare say it was the praxis of the audience at the Globe, and of Shakespeare himself, who gave us Ben Jonson as Malvolio, Kit Marlowe as Edmund, and William Shakespeare as – There you take your choice. The playwrights in Shakespeare are inspired amateurs: Peter Quince, Falstaff and Hal, Hamlet, Iago, Edmund, Prospero – and I suspect that the highly professional Shakespeare has no surrogate in that rather various group. The only parts we know for sure that he acted were the Ghost in Hamlet and old Adam in As You Like It. One gathers he was available to play older men, and we can wonder how many English kings he portrayed. A number of critics suggestively have called Shakespeare a Player King., haunted by images akin to those assumed by Falstaff and Hal when they alternate the role of Henry IV in their improvised skit. Perhaps Shakespeare played Henry IV, we do not know. To be a player clearly was for Shakespeare an equivocal fate, one that involved some social chagrin. We do not know how closely to integrate Shakespeare’s life and his sonnet sequence, but critics have intimated, to me convincingly, that Falstaff’s relation to Hal has a parallel in the poet’s relation, in the Sonnets, to his patron and possible lover, the Earl of Southampton. Whatever it was that Shakespeare experienced with Southampton, it clearly had a negative side, and too searingly reminded him that he was indeed a player and not a king.
Why Shakespeare? He childed as we fathered; he cannot have intended to make either his characters or his audience into his children, but he fathered much of the future, and not of the theater alone, not even of literature alone. Almost the only lasting human concern that Shakespeare can be said to have not affected is religion, whether as praxis or as theology. Though his care was to avoid politics and faith alike, for his-neck’s sake, he has influenced politics considerably, though far less than he has shaped psychology and morals (circumspect as he was to morality, at least in his fashion). As much a creator of selves as of language, he can be said to have melted down and then remolded the representation of the self in and by language. That assertion is the center of this book, and I am aware that it will seem hyperbolical to many. It is merely true, and has been obscured because we now assert far too little for the effect of literature upon life, at this bad time when the university teachers of literature teach everything except literature, and discuss Shakespeare in terms scarcely different from those employed for television serials or the peerless Madonna. What runs on television, or with Madonna, is akin to Elizabethan bear baitings and public executions; Shakespeare indeed was and is popular, but was not ‘popular culture,’ whether then or now, at least not in our curious, current sense of what increasingly has become an oxymoron.
Why Shakespeare? Who could replace him, as a representer of persons? Dickens has something of Shakespeare’s global universalism, but Dickens’s grotesques, and even his more normative figures, are caricatures, more in the mode of Ben Jonson than of Shakespeare. Cervantes is closer to an authentic rival: Don Quixote matches Hamlet, and Sancho Panza could certainly confront Falstaff, but where are Cervantes’s Iago, Macbeth, Lear, Rosalind, Cleopatra? Chaucer, I suspect, comes closest, and Chaucer is Shakespeare’s authentic precursor, more truly influential on Falstaff and Iago than Marlowe (and Ovid) could ever be on any Shakespearean character. Doubtless we read, and even go to the theater, in quest of more than personalities, bust most human beings are lonely, and Shakespeare was the poet of loneliness and of its vision of mortality. Most of us, I am persuaded, read and attend theater in search of other selves, larger and more detailed than any closest friends or lovers seem to be. I hardly think that makes Shakespeare a substitute for life, which, alas, so often seems an inadequate substitution for Shakespeare. Oscar Wilde, with his canny observation that nature imitates Shakespeare, as best as it can, is the proper guide to these matters. The world has grown melancholy, Oscar murmured, because a puppet, Hamlet, was sad. Other poets have made a heterocosm or second nature, Spencer and Blake and Joyce among them. Shakespeare is a third realm, neither nature nor second nature. This third kingdom is imaginal, rather than given or imaginary.
By ‘the imaginal,’ I here mean Shakespeare’s idea of the play, which has been subtly expounded by a number of critics since Anne Barton. Even as a growing uneasiness gradually removed much of Shakespeare’s pride in the theater, an implicit confidence in his own power of characterization partly took the place of a waning contact with his audience. Acting and harlotry blend into each other in Shakespeare’s disillusionment, and he recoils from the mix only to suggest that plays themselves, as deceits, are ghostlike imitations of sordid realities. But what of those greater shadows, the men and the women of the ‘dark comedies,’ the high tragedies, and the tragical comedies that we (not Shakespeare) call ‘late romances?’ To turn against representation is to renew Plato’s polemic against the poets, yet we do not sense any transcendental element in Shakespeare’s dialectical revulsion from shadows. Transcendentalism, in Shakespeare, tends to be available only in its withdrawal and departure, as when we hear the music of the god Hercules abandoning his favorite. Antony. Shakespeare, even at his darkest, is reluctant to abandon his protagonists. We cannot imagine Shakespeare, like Ben Jonson, collecting his own plays in a large folio entitled The Works of William Shakespeare, and yet Prospero is hardly a figure of diminishment, however he chooses to conclude. We do not see the Shakespearean magus very plainly on our stage these days, because more often than not he is presented as a baffled white colonialist who does not know how to cope with a heroic black insurgent (or even two, if George C. Wolfe’s fancy about Ariel as a defiant black woman should prove contagious). Still. Prospero abides as an image of Shakespeare’s pride (somewhat equivocal) in his own magic of creating persons.
Leeds Barroll, in a persuasive revision of Shakespearean chronology, argues that Shakespeare produced King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra in about a year and two months – in 1606-7. This extraordinary pace, again according to Barroll, was also standard for Shakespeare, who wrote twenty-seven plays in the decade from 1592 to 1602. Still, it is a kind of shock to envision the composition of King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra in just fourteen months. And yet, each time I read King Lear, I am startled that any single human being could compose so vast a cosmological catastrophe in any time span. I think we are returned to the basis for now unfashionable Bardolatry: we find something preternatural about Shakespeare, as we do about Michelangelo or Mozart. Shakespeare’s facility, marked by his contemporaries, seems to us something more. Whatever the social and economic provocations that animated him, they could scarcely differ, in kind or in degree, from the precisely parallel stimuli upon, say, Thomas Dekker or John Fletcher. The mystery of Shakespeare, as Barroll implies, is not the composition of three tragedies in sixty weeks but that the three comprised Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra.
I have been chided by my old friend Robert Brustein, the director of the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard, for suggesting that we might be better off with public readings of Shakespeare, on screen as on stage. Ideally, of course, Shakespeare should be acted, but since he is now almost invariably poorly directed and inadequately played, it might be better to hear him well rather than see him badly. Ian McKellan would be a splendid Richard III, but if his director insists that McKellen portray Richard as Sir Oswald Mosley, the English would-be Hitler, then I would prefer to hear this remarkable actor read the part aloud instead. Laurence Fishburne is an impressive-looking personage, but consider how long one could listen to his reading of Othello’s part aloud. Shakespeare’s texts indeed are somewhat like scores, and need to be adumbrated by performance, but if our theater is ruined, would not public recitation be preferable to indeliberate travesty?
It is a commonplace that there is even more commentary on Shakespeare than there is on the Bible. For us, the Bible is the most difficult of books. Shakespeare is not; paradoxically, he is open to everyone, and provocative to endless interpretation. The prime reason for this, put most simply, is Shakespeare’s endless intelligence. His major characters are rich in multiform qualities, and a mixed few of them abound as intellects: Falstaff, Rosalind, Hamlet, Iago, Edmund. They are more intelligent than we are, an observation that will strike a formalist or historicist critic as Bardolatrous nonsense. But the creatures directly reflect their creator: his intelligence is more comprehensive and more profound than that of any other writer we know. The aesthetic achievement of Shakespeare cannot be separated from his cognitive power. I suspect that this accounts for his mixed effect on philosophers: Hegel and Nietzsche celebrated him, but Hume and Wittgenstein regarded him as overesteemed, possibly because a human being as intelligent as Falstaff or Hamlet seemed not possible to them. Falstaff is at once a cosmos and a person; Hamlet, more enigmatic, is a person and a potential king. The equivocal Machiavel, Prince Hal, is certainly a person, and becomes a formidable king, but he is considerably less of a world-in-himself than are Falstaff and Hamlet, or even Rosalind. Iago and Edmund each is an abyss in himself, fevering to a false creation.
A.D. Nuttall, one of my heroes of Shakespearean criticism, wonderfully tells us that Shakespeare was not a problem solver, and cleared up no difficulties (which may be why Hume and Wittgenstein undervalued the maker of Falstaff and Hamlet). Like Kierkegaard, Shakespeare enlarges our vision of the enigmas of human nature. Freud, wrongly desiring to be a scientist, gave his genius away to reductiveness. Shakespeare does not reduce his personages to their supposed pathologies or family romances. Freud, wrongly desiring to be a scientist, gave his genius away to reductiveness. Shakespeare does not reduce his personages to their supposed pathologies or family romances. In Freud, we are overdetermined, but always in much the same way. In Shakespeare, as Nuttall argues, we are overdetermined in so many rival ways that the sheer wealth of overdeterminations becomes a freedom. Indirect communication, the mode of Kierkegaard, so well expounded by Roger Poole, was learned by Kierkegaard from Hamlet. Perhaps Hamlet, like Kierkegaard, came into the world to help save it from reductiveness. If Shakespeare brings us a secular salvation, it is partly because he helps ward off the philosophers who wish to explain us away, as if we were only so many muddles to be cleared up.
I remarked earlier that we ought to give up the failed quest of trying to be right about Shakespeare, or even the ironic Eliotic quest of trying to be wrong about Shakespeare in a new way. We can keep finding the meanings of Shakespeare, but never the meaning: It is like the search for ‘the meaning of life.’ Wittgenstein, and the formalist critics, and the theatricalists, and our current historicizers, all join in telling us that life is one thing and Shakespeare another, but the world’s public, after four centuries, thinks otherwise, and they are not easily refuted. Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s shrewdest friend and contemporary, began by insisting that Shakespeare wanted art, but after Shakespeare’s death, Jonson felt differently. Advising the actors on how to edit the First Folio of Shakespeare, Jonson must have read about half of the plays for the first time, and he seems to have come around to Shakespeare’s own view that ‘the art itself is nature.’ David Riggs, Jonson’s biographer, defends Jonson from Dryden’s accusation of insolence toward Shakespeare, and shows rather that the more neoclassical poet-playwright changed his mind when the full range of Shakespeare was made available to him. What Jonson discovered, and celebrated, is what common readers and common playgoers keep discovering, which is that Shakespeare’s personages are so artful as to seem totally natural.
Nothing is more difficult for scholars of Shakespeare to apprehend and acknowledge than his cognitive power. Beyond any other writer – poet, dramatist, philosopher, psychologist, theologian – Shakespeare thought everything through again for himself. This makes him as much the forerunner of Kierkegaard, Emerson, Nietzsche, and Freud as of Ibsen, Strindberg, Pirandello, and Beckett. Working as a playwright under Elizabeth I, and then under James I, Shakespeare necessarily presents his thoughts obliquely, only rarely allowing himself a surrogate or spokesperson among his dramatic personages. Even when one may appear, we cannot know who it is. The late novelist Anthony Burgess judged Sir John Falstaff to be Shakespeare’s prime surrogate. Myself a devout Falstaffian, with a passion against the novelists who lack gratitude for Falstaff, I want to think that Burgess was right, but I cannot know this. I tend to find Shakespeare in Edgar, perhaps because I locate Christopher Marlowe in Edmund, but I do not wholly persuade myself. It may be that no character – not Hamlet, nor Prospero, nor Rosalind – speaks ‘for’ Shakespeare himself. Perhaps the extraordinary voice we hear in the Sonnets is as much a fiction as any other voice in Shakespeare, though I find that very difficult to believe.
Shakespeare, canny and uncanny, played with almost every ‘received’ concept that was available to him, but may have been persuaded by none of them whatsoever. If you reread his plays incessantly, and ponder every performance you attend, you are not likely to think of him either as a Protestant or as a Catholic, or even as a Christian skeptic. His sensibility is secular, not religious. Marlowe, the ‘atheist,’ had a more religious temperament than Shakespeare possessed, while Ben Jonson, though as secular a dramatist as Shakespeare, was personally more devout (by fits and starts, anyway). We know that Jonson preferred Sir Francis Bacon to Montaigne; we suspect that Shakespeare might not have agreed with Jonson. Montaigne was a kind of tenuous link between Shakespeare and Moliere: Montaigne would be all that they might have had in common. His motto, ‘What do I know?’ is a fit epigraph for both playwrights.
Whatever it was that Shakespeare knew (and it seems not less than everything), he had generated most of it himself. His relation to Ovid and to Chaucer is palpable, and his contamination by Marlowe was considerable, until it was worked out by the triumphant emergence of Falstaff. Except for those three poets, and for a purely allusive relationship to the Bible, Shakespeare did not rely on authorities, or on authority. When we confront the greatness of his tragedies – Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra – we are alone with Shakespeare. We enter a cognitive realm where our moral, emotional, and intellectual preconceptions will not aid us in apprehending sublimity. When acute scholars pratfall into the trap of assuring us that Shakespeare somehow trusted in ‘a universal moral order which cannot finally be defeated,’ they lose their way in King Lear or Macbeth, which are set in no such order. The man Shakespeare, cautious and diffident, wrote only one play taking place in Elizabethan England, the not-very-subversive farce The Merry Wives of Windsor. Shakespeare was too circumspect to set a play in Jacobean England or Scotland: King Lear and Macbeth keep an eye upon James I, while Antony and Cleopatra avoids any too close resemblances to James’s rather dubious court. The death of Christopher Marlowe was a lesson Shakespeare never forgot, while the torture of Thomas Kyd and the incarnation of Ben Jonson doubtless also hovered always in Shakespeare’s consciousness. There is little authentic evidence, in the plays, that Shakespeare strove either to uphold or to subvert, however covertly, the established order.
The Sonnets seem to manifest a profound chagrin at being what we call an entertainer, but I think that Shakespeare might have felt even more chagrin had he found himself to be what we call a moralist. Insofar as Marlowe was his forerunner, Shakespeare desired to hold an audience even more firmly than Marlowe held them. Shakespeare railed against the actors, but never – like Ben Jonson – against the audience. Jonson’s trauma was that his tragedy Sejanus had been hooted off the stage at the Globe. Shakespeare, acting in the play, must have reflected that he had had no similar experience, and he never would. His audience loved Falstaff and Hamlet from the start. Doubtless, the groundlings hissed Sejanus for some of the same reasons that caused Jonson to be summoned before the Council, there to be accused of ‘popperie and treason,’ but probably they also found it as boring as we do. Jonson – a magnificent comic playwright in Volpone, The Alchemist, and Bartholemew Fair – alas was a pedant of a tragedian. Shakespeare, who bored none, took care not to offend ‘the virtuous’ in his England; that came later, and has achieved it’s apotheosis now, in our humorless academy. That Shakespeare reigns still as the world’s universal entertainer, multicultural and amazingly metamorphic, returns us to the unsolved secret of what it is in him, that transcends history.
To call Shakespeare a ‘creator of language,’ as Wittgenstein did, is insufficient, but to call Shakespeare also a ‘creator of characters,’ and even a ‘creator of thought’ is still not enough. Language, character, and thought all are part of Shakespeare’s invention of the human, and yet the largest part is the passional. Ben Jonson remained closer to Marlowe’s mode than to Shakespeare’s in that Jonson’s personages also are cartoons, caricatures without inwardness. That is why there is no intergenerational contest in Jonson’s plays, no sense of what Freud called ‘family romances.’ The deepest conflicts in Shakespeare are tragedies, histories, romances, even comedies: of blood. When we consider the human, we think first of parents and children, brothers and sisters, husband and wives. We do not think of these relationships in terms of Homer and of Athenian tragedy, or even of the Hebrew Bible, because the gods and God are not primarily involved. Rather, we think of families as being alone with one another, whatever the social contexts, and that is to think in Shakespearean terms.
Change – of fortune, and in time –is Shakespeare’s largest commonplace. Death, the final form of change, is the overt concern of Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories, and the hidden preoccupation of his comedies. His tragicomedies – or romances, as we now call them, treat death more originally even than do his high tragedies. Perhaps all sonnets, being ultimately erotic, tend to be elegiac; Shakespeare’s appear as the shadows of death itself. Death’s ambassador to us uniquely is Hamlet; no other figure, fictive or historic, is more involved with that undiscovered country, unless you desire to juxtapose Jesus with Hamlet. Whether you subsume Shakespeare under nature or art, his peculiar distinction prevails: he teaches us the act of dying. Some have said this is because Shakespeare approximates a secular scripture. It does seem more adequate, to me, to take Shakespeare (or Montaigne) as such a text than it would be to take Freud or Marx or Franco-Heideggerians or Franco-Nietzscheans. Shakespeare, almost uniquely is both entertainment and wisdom literature. That the most pleasure-giving of all writers should also be the most intelligent is almost a bewilderment to us. So many of our ‘cloven fictions’ (as William Blake called them are dissolved by Shakespeare that even a brief listing may be instructive: affective versus cognitive; secular versus sacred; entertainment versus instruction; roles-for-actors versus characters and personalities; nature versus art; ‘author’ versus ‘language’; history versus fiction; context versus text; subversion versus conservation. Shakespeare, in cultural terms, constitutes our largest contingency; Shakespeare is the cultural history that overdetermines us. This complex truth renders vain all our attempts to contain Shakespeare within concepts provided by anthropology, philosophy, religion, politics, psychoanalysis, or Parisian ‘theory’ of any sort. Rather, Shakespeare contains us; he always gets there before us, and always waits for us, somewhere up ahead.
There is a fashion among some current academic writers on Shakespeare that attempts to explain away his uniqueness as a cultural conspiracy, an imposition of British imperialism, and so a weapon of the West against the East. Allied to this fashion is an even sillier contention: that Shakespeare is no better or worse a poet-playwright than Thomas Middleton or John Webster. After this, we are taken over the verge into lunacy. Middleton wrote Macbeth, Sir Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford wrote all of Shakespeare, or whole committees of dramatists wrote Shakespeare, commencing with Marlowe and concluding with John Fletcher. Though academic feminism, Marxism, Lancanianism, Foucaultianism, Derrideanism, and so on are more respectable (in the academies) than the Baconians and Oxfordians, it is still the same phenomenon, and contributes nothing to a critical appreciation of Shakespeare. This book commenced by turning away from almost all current Anglo-American writing about, and teaching of, Shakespeare; I mentioned it as rarely as possible, because it cannot aid any open and honest reader or playgoer in the quest to know Shakespeare better.
The wheel of fortune, time, and change turns perpetually in Shakespeare, and accurate perception of him must begin by viewing these turnings, upon which Shakespeare’s characters are founded. Dante’s characters can evolve no further; Shakespeare’s, as I have noted, are much closer to Chaucer’s and seem to owe more to Chaucer’s mutable visions of men and women than to anyone else’s, including biblical portrayals or those of Shakespeare’s favorite Latin poet, Ovid. Tracing Ovid’s effect upon Shakespeare in his study The Gods Made Flesh, Leonard Barkan observes, ‘Many of the great figures of Ovid’s poem define themselves by their struggle to invent new languages.’ Metamorphoses in Shakespeare are almost always related to the playwright’s endless quest to find distinct language for every major and many a minor character, language that can change even as they change, wander even as they wander. Turning around, in Shakespeare, frequently takes on the traditional image of wheeling, the wheel sometimes being Fortune’s emblem of extravagance: of roaming beyond limits.
Shakespeare’s own audiences chose Falstaff as their favorite, even above Hamlet. Fortune’s wheel seems to have little relevance to others; Falstaff is ruined by his hopeless, misplaced paternal love for Prince Hal. Hamlet dies after a fifth act in which he has transcended all his earlier identities in the play. Falstaff is thus love’s fool, not fortune’s, while Hamlet can only be regarded as his own fool or victim, replacing his father surrogate, the clown Yorick. It is appropriate that the antithetical figures of Lear and Edmund both invoke the image of the wheel, but to opposite effects and purposes. Shakespeare’s plays are the wheel of our lives, and teach us whether we are fools of time, or of love, or of fortune, or of our parents, or of ourselves.”
My next (and last post) Thursday evening/Friday morning.
“O you heavenly charmers,/What things you make of us! For what we lack/We laugh, for what we have we are sorry; still/Are children in some kind.”
The Two Noble Kinsmen
By Dennis Abrams
Act Five: Palamon and Arcite, each accompanied by three knights, separately pray for success, while Emilia prays that whoever loves her best will emerge victorious. Back at the jail, the Doctor’s “treatment” of the Jailer’s Daughter seems to be working, and he encourage the Wooer to sleep with her. At court the contest begins, but Emilia refuses to attend and its progress is reported to her. Though at first it seems that Palamon will win, he is eventually defeated: Arcite wins Emilia’s hand while Palamon and his knights are condemned to death. But…just as Palamon is about to be executed, news arrives that Arcite has been fatally injured in a riding accident. The two noble kinsmen are briefly reunited, and Arcite “gives” Emilia to Palamon with his dying breath.
As the tournament draws near, the two rivals prepare themselves for combat. Once again gesturing toward the stylized devices of masque, the play has them perform elaborate (and lengthy) rituals of preparation (rituals that also guarantee theatre goers some impressive special effects): Arcite prays to Mars to the sound of clanging armor, Palamon invokes Venus accompanied by strains of mystical music – and even Emilia calls upon Diana for guidance, being rewarded with a blossoming rose tree that springs from the altar at which she kneels. Even when the competition finally arrives, though, the audience is kept guessing. The fight takes place off stage, with only background noise indicating what is going on. At first it seems that Palamon is winning, but then the cries for “Arcite” begin to filter through. When the news becomes more certain, the fretful Emilia greets the news with joy. ‘Half sights saw/That Arcite was no babe,’ she exclaims.
God’s lid, his richness
And costliness of spirit looked through him – it could
No more be hid in him than fire in flax.,
Than humble banks can go to law with waters
That drift winds force to raging. I did think
Good Palamon would miscarry, yet I knew not
Why I did think so.
She accepts Arcite gladly, and Theseus concurs, announcing that ‘the gods by their divine arbitrariment/Have given you this knight’ (5.5.107-8).
But in the play’s lurching final move Shakespeare and Fletcher show that the gods’ will is not always so easily interpreted. Palamon is about to be beheaded when a messenger bursts in, calling on the executioner to halt. Pirithous breathlessly follows, with news that it is Arcite who is on the point of death: the “hot horse, hot as fire” bestowed upon by Emilia as a token of her love has bolted, and crushed the victorious knight. In a supreme but troubling sacrifice that directly recalls the first play we read, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the dying Arcite insists that his kinsman should take his place: against all expectation it is Palamon, not his cousin, who is to marry Emilia. If the gods have declared their wish, as Theseus insisted before, their messages are very difficult to interpret. The Duke is permitted to address them one last time. “O you heavenly charmers,” he calls,
What things you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh, for what we have, are sorry; still
Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful
For that which is, and with you leave dispute
That are above our question.
This scene is probably by Shakespeare, and as a conclusion to his career these halting words of Theseus are infinitely more painful than anything voiced by Prospero at the close of the Tempest. Everything is provisional, they seem to imply – and the human condition is one in which comedy and tragedy are so closely entwined that we may never finally know which is which.
Helen Cooper, “Jacobean Chaucer: The Two Noble Kinsmen and Other Chaucerian Plays”:
“Palamon’s unexpected salvation from execution is not the metaphorical resurrection of Shakespeare’s other late plays, but just one more turning that will delay for a little his arrival in the marketplace of death.”
From Marjorie Garber:
“The battle that will be the play’s denouement is also, curiously enough, an ‘unscene,’ only reported to us – and to Emilia – by a servant (5.5). While this denies the audience the full enjoyment of a pageant and a rousing fight, it increases the sense of random chance, and also of the untrustworthiness of report. (A good comparison here is the early ‘unscene’ in Julius Caesar, in which Caesar is three times offered a crown – offstage – while the onstage characters try to guess at the tone and import of the events at one remove.) Emilia’s excuse is that she cannot bear to watch either of these brave men die. instead of following the hardier Theseus and Hippolyta, the audience is left behind with her, and gets its information from the servant and from period offstage shouts of “a Palamon’ (i.e., the fight is going Palamon’s way), “Arcite, Arcite! And finally – or apparently finally – ‘Arcite, victory!’ Emilia, like a sports fan listening to an event on the radio rather than watching it on television, is moved to supply her own mental pictures. One of these, of the two kinsmen merged into a single ‘composed’ entity, is memorable in its own right and closely akin to a phrase in another play by Shakespeare and Fletcher, Henry VIII, describing another heroic offstage encounter. Here is Emilia:
Were they metamorphosed
Both into one! O why? There were no woman
Worth so composed a man: their single share,
Their nobleness peculiar to them, gives
The prejudice of disparity, value’s shortness,
To any lady breathing –
And here is a passage from Henry VIII, in which the Duke of Norfolk describes how the two kings of France and England met on the Field of the Cloth of Gold:
I was then present, saw them salute on horseback,
Beheld them when they lighted, how they clung
In their embracement as they grew together,
Which had they, what four throned ones could have weighed
Such a compounded one?
(Henry VIII 1.1.8-12)
Arcite is the victor, and Palamon must die. But once Arcite has claimed his garland and his bride, and has departed the stage to be replaced by the pinioned Palamon and his knights, the play presents its audience with yet another reversal. Palamon, onstage, is generous in the face of death, giving money to the Jailer as a dowry for his daughter – Palamon’s knights following suit – and laying his head on the execution block, only to be rescued at the last minute by Pirithous and a messenger, who run in, the messenger crying, ‘Hold! Hold!’ ‘What/Hath waked us from our dream?’ asks Palamon, echoing a familiar Shakespearean theme that is also the theme of Calderon de la Barca’s La vida es sueno (Life is a Dream). The story is a tragic one, yet again recounted rather than shown: Arcite had been presented by his newly betrothed Emilia with a spirited black horse in honor of his victory. The horse, frightened by a spark, bucked and threw his noble rider to the ‘flinty pavement.’ The dying Arcite now requests to be brought to his cousin’s side:
O miserable end of our alliance!
The gods are mighty. Arcite, if they heart,
Thy worthy manly heart, be yet unbroken,
Give me thy last words. I am Palamon,
One that yet loves thee dying.
And with her all the world’s joy. Reach thy hand –
Farewell – I have told my last hour. I was false,
Yet never treacherous. Forgive me, cousin –
One kiss from fair Emilia – (they kiss) ‘tis done.
Take her; I die.
Those audience members familiar with Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” would perhaps recall that Palamon and Arcite are there distinguished by their differing allegiances to the classical gods. Palamon prays to Venus, the goddess of love, while Arcite swears fealty to Mars, the god of war. In the poetic logic of the tale, both of them ‘win’: Arcite is the victor in the battle, Palamon gets the girl. In Shakespeare and Fletcher’s dramatized version, some of the hieratic ‘appropriateness’ of this division of spoils is inevitably lost, and the two kinsmen in this play have, it not more ‘personality’ in the modern sense, at least more homely and confiding moments, suitable for sustained dramatic action. Palamon does see Emilia first, which may give him a prior claim, assuming the lady has no opinion in the matter. So in this sense the play’s ending not only echoes Chaucer’s but is in some slim way ‘just.’
But poetic justice is not, or not always, dramatic justice. After witnessing the mad affections of the Jailer’s Daughter and Palamon’s admirable and stoic deportment at the supposed moment of execution, we are vouchsafed a glimpse of Palamon through others’ admiring eyes. And Theseus tries to shore up this sense in his closing words:
Your kinsman hath confessed the right o’th’ lady
Did lie in you, for you first saw her and
Even then proclaimed your fancy. He restored her
As your stol’n jewel, and desired your spirit
To send him hence forgiven. The gods my justice
Take from my hand, and they themselves become
The executioners. Lead your lady off,
And call your lovers from the stage of death,
Whom I adopt my friends…
Palamon and his knights (‘your lovers’) are freed and rewarded, and Theseus will make the best of the situation, decreeing ‘[a] day or two’ for the funeral of Arcite and then – shades of Gertrude and Claudius – moving right along to the marriage. His scene-clearing gesture, ‘Let’s go off/And bear us like the time’ (5.6.136-137), is a familiar gesture but also a somewhat unsettling one, since so much has happened so quickly, and one virtually identical suitor has been replaced by another. Emilia, we may recall, could not bring herself to choose between them, though she expressed to herself a strong preference first for the one, then for the other. The final love tableau, though, remains a triad rather than a dyad. Arcite takes Palamon’s hand, and Emilia’s kiss, before giving them to each other.
This play, written by two authors, seems to have as its ideal the melting of two (kinsmen, authors) into one. This would eliminate friction and rivalry but at the price of a death. It is fitting that the final tableau displays both the triangle of rivalry and, in the end, the death that thus anchors union.”
“After the furious Duke threatens the two erotic madmen with the prospects of death or banishment, a tournament is agreed upon, each duelist to be backed by three knights of his choice, the victor to receive Emilia, the loser (and his supporters) to suffer beheading, so that Theseus is bound to achieve his dubious satisfaction. Shakespeare thus gets to write Act V (except for Fletcher’s weak second scene), and to improve on Chaucer only by giving both Arcite and Palamon wonderfully outrageous prayers delivered receptively to Mars and to Venus before the tournament begins. These two ghastly invocations are followed by Emilia’s chaste prayer to Diana, which can hardly compete with a Shakespeare wholly bent upon mischief in the prior effusions. Arcite begins with a preliminary virtual cheerleading, urging his knights (‘yea, my sacrifices’) to ready themselves for invoking Mars:
Our intercession, then,
Must be to him that makes the camp a cistern
Brimmed with the blood of men, give me your aid,
And bend your spirits towards him.
‘A cistern/Brimmed with the blood of men’ prepares us for the climax of Arcite’s rhapsody, where a Shakespeare who clearly enjoys being wicked goes almost too far to be funny.
O great corrector of enormous times,
Shaker of o’er-rank states, thou grand decider
Of dusty and old titles, that healest with blood
The earth when it is sick, and curest the world
O’th’plurisy of people; I do take
Thy signs auspiciously, and in thy name
To my design march boldly. Let us go.
Shakespeare’s disgust with the London of James I, from which he is self-exiled, peeps through these hyperboles, which would have been excessive even for Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great. The ‘enormous’ times are at once disorderly and unnatural, and the ‘o’er-rank states’ which include James’s notorious court, so overripe that it is rotten. To heal ‘with blood’ refers to the bad medicine of bloodletting, and the memorable phrase ‘plurisy of people’ plays upon both overpopulation and inflammation, a nation both too many and too diseased. The Falstaffian Shakespeare, subtle in his worries in Henry V, overreachers here to considerable effect, yet only as a warm-up to his most unsavory utterance, surpassing his own Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, and yet all an idealistic paean. Here is Palamon celebrating Venus.
Hail, sovereign queen of secrets, who hast power
To call the fiercest tyrant from his rage
And weep unto a girl; that hast the might
Even with an eye-glance to choke Mars’s drum
And turn th’alarm to whispers; that can’st make
A cripple flourish with his crutch, and cure him
Before Apollo, that mayst force the king
To be his subject’s vassal, and induce
Stale gravity to dance; the polled bachelor,
Whose youth, like wanton boys through bonfires,
Have skipped thy flame, at seventy thou canst catch,
And make him, to the scorn of his hoarse throat,
Abuse young lays of love. What godlike power
Hast thou not power upon? To Phoebus thou
Addest flames hotter than his; the heavenly fires
Did scorch his mortal son, thine him; the huntress
All moist and cold, some say began to throw
Her bow away and sigh. Take to thy grace
Me thy vowed soldier, who do bear thy yoke
As ‘twere a wreath of roses, yet is heavier
Than lead itself, stings more than nettles.
I have never been foul-mouthed against the law;
Ne’er revealed secret, for I knew none; would not,
Had I kenned all that were; I never practiced
Upon man’s wife, nor would the libels read
Of liberal wits. I never at great feasts
Sought to betray a beauty, but have blushed
At simpering sirs that did; I have been harsh
To large confessors, and have hotly asked them
If they had mothers – I had one, a woman,
And women ‘twere they wronged. I knew a man
Of eighty winters – this I told them – who
A lass of fourteen brided. ‘Twas thy power
To put life into dust; the aged cramp
Had screwed his square foot round,
The gout had knit his fingers into knots,
Torturing convulsions from his globy eyes
Had almost drawn their spheres, that what was life
In him seemed torture. This anatomy
Had by his young fair fere a boy, and I
Believed it was his, for she swore it was,
And who would not believe her? Brief, I am
To those that prate and have done, no companion;
To those that boast and have not, a defier;
To those that would and cannot, a rejoicer.
Yea, him I do not love that tells close offices
The foulest way, nor names concealments in
The boldest language, such a one I am,
And vow that lover never yet made sigh
Truer than I. O then, most soft sweet goddess,
Give me the victory of this question, which
Is true love’s merit, and bless me with a sign
Of thy great pleasure.
(Here music is heard and doves are seen to flutter. They fall again upon their faces, then on their knees.)
O thou that from eleven to ninety reignest
In mortal bosoms, whose chase in this world
And we in herds thy game, I give thee thanks
For this fair token, which, being laid unto
Mine innocent true heart, arms in assurance
My body to this business. Let us rise
And bow before the goddess. [They bow.]
Time comes on.
At sixty-seven I wince as I read this, its visions of seventy, eighty, and ninety partly reminding me that Shakespeare, at forty-nine, does not seem either to anticipate or to welcome reaching such gladsome stages of existence. This astonishing hymn to Venus is beyond irony, and is a negatively sublime coda to Shakespeare’s quarter century of dramatic poetry. How does one catch up to Shakespeare in what looks like a new mode even for him, and one that he declined to develop? No critical method will aid us to confront and absorb this perpetually new poetry, the farewell voice of the poet so much stronger than all others ever that his difference in degree from them works as a pragmatic difference in kind. And if men wince as they read Palamon’s prayer (and they should), it must be because it activates an all-but-universal guilt and shame. No passage in all of Shakespeare impresses me as being at once so painful and so personal, since Palamon speaks only for innocents like himself, and not for the rest of us, Shakespeare included. Suddenly, Palamon is endowed with personality, and is radically distinguished from Arcite, and from the male audience, except for some tiny saving remnant, if they are there. We live now in what is at once a shame culture and a guilt culture, and this uncannily powerful speech certainly will provoke both shame and guilt in many of us, if we have inner ears left after the visual assault that is our era. I am not exactly a moral critic, and my Bardolatry emanates from an aesthetic stance, so I turn now to a more purely aesthetic appreciation of this superb speech.
The terrible power of Venus is described here almost entirely in grotesque and catastrophic images, and yet Venus is being absolved of victimizing us, even as our wretchedness is so memorably portrayed. Chaucer has taught Shakespeare a final lesson beyond mere irony; Palamon is wholly admirable, but he does not quite know what he is saying, and only an authentic exemplar of the chivalric code could speak with his peculiar authority and not sound absurd. If Venus is not culpable, and only we are responsible for the insanity she provokes in us, then we need to ask (as Palamon will not) why we are unable to sustain her sway without disasters and disgrace. Palamon may possess original virtue, but most of us between eleven and ninety do not, and nothing in this play or in all the rest of Shakespeare gives support to a Pauline-Augustinian doctrine of an erotic original sin. On the probable evidence of The Two Noble Kinsmen and the Funeral Elegy for Will Peter, Shakespeare himself was well enough battered to be able to be out of it all, but simply to urge ‘true love’s merit’ upon us does not seem suitable for the ambivalent husband of Anne Hathaway. Palamon is an erotic realist, who precisely estimates and describes Venus’s dreadful power over, and terrible effects on, males from eleven to ninety, even as he rightly protests his merit as her chaste votary. Shakespeare does not allow one nuance within the speech to betray its grandest more-than-irony: like Emilia just after him, Palamon might as well be invoking Diana, since she is really his goddess.
Palamon has a double vision of Venus; Shakespeare, like most of us, is an erotic monist, and though he preserves Palamon’s speech from any shadows of rhetorical irony, he takes care to gives us an undersong that severely qualifies this paean to a guiltless and flawless Venus. Chaucer, for all his ironic mastery, might not have trusted his auditors (to whom he read aloud, at court and elsewhere) as much as Shakespeare seems to trust the audience here, though I think it likelier that Shakespeare had despaired of all audiences by now, and composes the paradox of Palamon’s speech for himself and a few confidants. Such an attitude would lead to no more plays, and this indeed is Shakespeare’s prelude to the three years of dramatic silence that concluded his life. Chance is the presiding deity of The Knight’s Tale; Venus rather than Mars or Diana is the tyrant governing The Two Noble Kinsmen. In regard to Palamon’s grand oration, we should trust the song and not the singer, totally devout as this young warrior thinks himself to be. His Venus destroys inwardly, as Mars does outwardly; the litany of obliterations is absolute as Venus hunts all of us down. Wasted ole men (‘stale gravity’) perform the dance of death. Bald bachelors of seventy hoarsely sing love songs. Cripples cast their crutches aside. Phoebus Apollo dotingly allows his son Phaeton to drive the sun’s chariot, a fatal venture. Diana falls in love with Endymion and discards her bow. Best of all is the ‘anatomy’ of eighty with his bride of fourteen; here we are given the parody of God creating Adam in Venus’s ‘power/To put life into dust,’ resulting in a deliberate ugliness surpassing anything like it in Shakespeare.
the aged cramp
Had screwed his square foot round,
The gout had knit his fingers into knots,
Torturing convulsions from his globy eyes
Had almost drawn their spheres, that what was life
In him seemed torture.
Eyeballs popping, feet and hands distorted, the lust-driven ‘aged cramp’ appears more a victim of torture than an enjoyer of pleasure. Palamon’s accent registers scorn, yet we feel terror. The angriest reaction to this provocative passage was that of Talbot Donaldson:
‘What part of Palamon’s prayer is not devoted to Venus’ power to humiliate and corrupt is devoted to praise of himself for never having conspired sexually against women or made lewd jokes about them, constantly reminding himself, like a good boy, that he had a mother.’
It is certainly a question of Shakespearean distancing, which here evaded a Chaucerian ironist. Following Chaucer, Shakespeare grants victory to Arcite, and Theseus implacably prepares to execute Palamon and his three champions. But Arcite’s horse throws the triumphant rider, and the fatally injured disciple of Mars graciously yields Emilia to Palamon. Since Shakespeare has emphasized that the heroine’s heart is in the grave with the eleven-year-old Flavina, we hardly rejoice at this turn of fortune. The last words are given to Theseus, who seems finally to be aware of the absurdity of it all, thus merging himself with Shakespeare:
A day or two
Let us look sadly, and give grace unto
The funeral of Arcite, in whose end
The visages of bridegroom we’ll put on
And smile with Palamon; for whom an hour
But one hour since, I was as deadly sorry
As glad of Arcite, and am now as glad
As for him sorry.
This amiable revisionism yields to the wonderful closing passage, in which Theseus seems to have vanished, and Shakespeare himself says goodbye to us forever:
O you heavenly charmers,
What things you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh, for what we have we are sorry; still
Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful
For that which is, and with you leave dispute
That are above our question. Let’s go off,
And bear us like the time.
Those ‘heavenly creatures’ scarcely seem Venus, Mars, and Diana; something more whimsical is being evoked. Palamon, Arcite, Emilia, Theseus – all these cartoons have been dismissed, and what remains is Shakespeare and ourselves. He had learned to laugh for what he lacks, and to be sorry for what he has: both lack and possession are very light, as in our own best moods when we were, or still are, children. The rest is not quite silence, for bearing us like the time means sustaining not just a particular moment but whatever time still remains. No concluding lines elsewhere in Shakespeare seem to me nearly as comforting.”
And that is that – our last play. What did you think? I’m going to have two more posts – Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning and Thursday evening/Friday morning, trying to sum up the last two years.
The Two Noble Kinsmen
By Dennis Abrams
Act Four: The Jailer’s Daughter, now completely mad, is reunited with her father. Observing her behavior, the Doctor advises that the only possible remedy is if a former suitor (the Wooer) simply pretends that he is Palamon. In the meantime, Emilia is still unable to choose between her two suitors – so the contest between the two rivals must proceed.
The plight of the Jailer’s Daughter, in loving someone socially beyond her reach, is rather unusual in Shakespeare (Helen in All’s Well is her closest relative) – Shakespeare’s women seem to marry beneath them – unusual enough for the Restoration dramatist William Davenant to enhance his status in his adaptation so that she can marry Palamon after all. (Davenant called his adaptation The Rivals. As with his other reworkings of Shakespeare’s plays, this bulldozed many of the play’s more unsettling aspects and turned it into a straight comedy. Arcite is spared death while “Celania” (equivalent to the Jailer’s Daughter in the original play) is magically cured and married to “Philander,’.)
But The Two Noble Kinsmen does not permit itself such a tidy conclusion, and in this play, the remainder of the daughter’s experience is fairly wretched. A doctor persuades her father that the best cure for her illness is simply for the man who was wooing her previously (the script just calls him “Wooer”) to seize advantage of her mental imbalance. “Take upon you, young sir,” he tells the Wooer,
the name of Palamon; say you come to eat with her, and to commune of love. This will catch her attention, for this her mind beats upon…Sing to her such green songs of love as she says Palamon hath sung in prison; come to her stuck in as sweet flowers as the season is mistress of, and thereto make an addition of some other compounded odours which are grateful to the sense. All of this shall become Palamon, for Palamon can sing, and Palamon is sweet and ev’ry good thing.
“It is a falsehood she is in,” the Doctor smartly concludes, “which is with falsehoods to be combated” (4.3.90-1), and many real-life Renaissance physicians would probably have agreed with his treatment. Even so, the tone of the play is, I think, difficult here to read, balanced between comedy and something incalculably more perplexed – as it was a few scenes earlier, when the Daughter happened upon a group of country folk who took advantage of her insanity by getting her to join their chorus line and perform for Duke Theseus. While the rustic performance is of course another nod to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the suggestion in Kinsmen that it doesn’t really matter whom the Daughter loves, Palamon or another man pretending to be him, also plays some of the Dream’s comedy concerns, but in a much darker key.
A little earlier the Jailer’s Daughter is reported as having attempted to drown herself: death is a nagging theme in the play. Having opened on a scene in which three widowed queens plead with Theseus for their slaughtered husbands to be given a decent burial, the play has a finale, which resolves the conflict between Palamon and Arcite only in the messiest of ways, that is equally gruesome. Finding the two kinsmen fighting illegally in the woods, Theseus decides that unless Emilia can decide between them, they must face each other in combat one last time, with whoever losing facing execution. In what is probably a nod to the masques increasingly popular with the King’s Men’s royal employer, this climactic contest – like the queen’s formal appeals to Theseus – will be performed with plenty of courtly, pseudo-medieval trappings. Each combatant is attended by three knights, and Theseus orders that whoever succeeds in touching a pyramid he sets up (an ancient symbol of success) will win the lady’s hand. Yet, at the heart of these intricate performances like a stark emotional crisis. Emilia has no answer to the quandary she faces, and in a later scene she is movingly depicted debating which of the two men is better (she ultimately can’t decide – and how can she? They’re basically the same.) Earlier Arcite had declared with characteristic fervor that to be removed from her sight would be ‘death/Beyond imagination’ (2.3.4-5), but here the risk he and Palamon face is painfully real: Emilia’s inability to choose between her suitors guaranteed that one of them must die.
“One of the play’s many pleasures is the way it juxtaposes the ‘high’ courtly and triangulated romance of Palamon, Arcite, and Emilia with the ‘low’ story of the Jailer’s Daughter and her Wooer. The fact that these country characters have labels rather than names – not unusual in plays of the period – underscores their difference from the nobility. Yet the Jailer’s Daughter, and indeed the Jailer himself, are in some ways far more vivid characters than their courtly counterparts. The Daughter falls in love with Palamon after at least slightly more acquaintance than the noble kinsmen have with Emilia, and Emilia, for her part, reenacts that scene of falling-in-love-from-afar in a comical replay in act 4, after she has told them both to forget her and then agreed to marry whichever wins the contest. ‘Enter Emilia with two pictures,’ says the stage direction, and the lady proceeds to admire first one, then the other, than the first again. ‘What a sweet face has Arcite!’ she rhapsodizes (4.2.7). ‘Palamon/is but his foil’ (25-26). And then, ‘I have lied so lewdly/…On my knees/I ask thy pardon, Palamon, thou art alone/And only beautiful’ (4.2.35-38). ‘Lie there, Arcite,’ she says, putting down his picture. ‘Thou art a changeling to him, a mere gypsy,/And this the noble body. I am sotted,/Utterly lost’ (4.2.43-46). Ultimately she confesses to herself that she is unable to choose. ‘What a mere child is fancy,/That, having two fair gauds of equal sweetness,/Cannot distinguish, but must cry for both!’ (4.2.52-54).
Emilia’s dialogue with the two pictures (presumably miniatures, of the soft often given as love tokens) will remind a modern Shakespeare audience of the more famous scene in Hamlet, where Hamlet challenges his mother to see the dissimilarity between her two husbands, old Hamlet and Claudius, who are also, technically, ‘noble kinsmen’ (‘Look here upon this picture, and on this,/The counterfeit presentment of two brothers’ [Hamlet 3.4.52-53]). The stage echo of Hamlet is given more pertinence by the fact that in the previous scene (4.1) we hear of the madness of the Jailer’s Daughter, presented, like that of Ophelia, in a long set piece, an ‘unscene’ narrating events that have taken place offstage and out of our sight. The lovesick girl is described as singing songs – including Desdemona’s ‘Willow, willow, willow’ — unbinding her hair (loose hair was a classic stage sign of madness in women), plucking flowers, and speaking aimlessly of her father’s death and burial. But the Daughter will live to marry her faithful Wooer (in his therapeutic disguise as “Palamon’), and the Jailer will not meet Polonius’s ignominious end. Like many of the last plays in which Shakespeare had a hand, and especially his late romances, this play seems to cite, quote, and excerpt from key moments in earlier Shakespearean plays, especially those that were – and are – memorable onstage. And as was the case in those late other plays, the citation (for example, Leontes’ jealousy of Hermione, compared with Othello’s jealousy of Desdemona) is briefer, less motivated, and slightly more distanced from character and personality than its tragic original. It has, in short, become a trope, a figure in this case not so much ‘of speech’ as ‘of stage,’ recognizable as a Shakespearean minigenre.”
And from Frank Kermode:
“The Two Noble Kinsmen breaks the association of Shakespeare with the original Globe Theatre; it may have been performed in the new one, opened in June 1614, but it was probably performed at the Blackfriars. It must have been liked, since it was known to have been played in 1619, and the Quarto edition was published as late as 1634. As with Henry VIII, the question of authorship and shares remains contested, but it seems that in general Shakespeare is to be credited with Act I and the first scene of Acts II, III, and V, and the last two scenes.
Charles Lamb may have overstated the contrasts, but his comparison between the manner of Fletcher and that of Shakespeare has some justice: ‘[Fletcher’s] ideas move slow; his versification, though sweet, is tedious, it stops every moment; he lays line upon line, making up one after the other, adding image to image so deliberately that we see where they join: Shakespeare mingles everything, he runs line into line, embarrasses sentences and metaphors; before one idea has burst its shell, another is hatched out and clamorous for disclosure.’
The terms of the comparison may be too favorable to Shakespeare: The Two Noble Kinsmen is a romance, light in texture and sometimes rather silly, and the style preferred by Lamb seems unsuited to it. A recent editor suggests that at this stage of his working life, almost at its end, Shakespeare was somewhat under the influence of Donne, who had the habit, as Coleridge put it, of wreathing iron pokers into true love knots. It has been argued, defensively, that ‘the age often found in incomprehensibility a positive virtue.’ But Donne was not writing for a theatre audience.
The speeches of the Three Queens at the beginning of the play have a right to be impassioned, as they communicate their desire to buy their husbands, but they tend to be complicated in expression:
O, my petition was
Set down in ice, which by hot grief uncandied
Melts into drops; so sorrow wanting form
Is press’d with deeper matter.
She means that in her earlier plea she had spoken too coldly; now her grief has melted the ice and she weeps. So far so good; Shakespeare more than once thought of ice as candy, as we have seen in Antony and Cleopatra. But what follows is very obscure and, if puzzled out, adds little to the sentiment; it seems to offer the generalization that sorrow is harder to bear if it cannot find a form of expression. This Third Queen is particularly hard to understand:
There, through my tears,
Like wrinkled pebbles in a glassy stream,
You may behold’em, Lady, lady, alack!
He that will all the treasure know o’ th’ earth
Must know the centre too; he that will fish
For my least minnow, let him lead his line
To catch one at my heart.
What are to be beheld are presumably ‘eyes’; but ‘’em’ has no plural antecedent. The remainder of the statement is presumably meant to suggest the depth of her grief by comparing it to the centre of the earth, and by saying that to fish for it you would need to weight the line. There are more examples of unprofitable complexity in this play. here Arcite addresses his friend and enemy Palamon in V.i:
I am in labor.
To push your name, your ancient love, our kindred,
Out of my memory; and i’ th’ self-same place
To eat something I would confound. So hoist we
The sails that must these vessels port even where
The heavenly limiter pleases.
The verb ‘port’ and the noun ‘limiter’ give the expression of this perfectly understandable idea connotations more obscure and mysterious than its occasion seems to require. The general idea is expressed by a confusion of the figure of labour pains, the figure of ships sailing in different directions, and the idea that he wants to put in the place of his friend Palamon an enemy of the same name. But even this last notion is not clear, for he presumably does not want the enemy only in his memory.
Arcite’s speech to his knights (V.i.34ff.) contains lines that have baffled commentators, lines of which an audience would deserve congratulations if they caught the general drift. Some compensation may be found in the fineness of his address to Mars, with its odd reminiscence of Macbeth:
Thou might one, that with thy power hast turn’d
Green Neptune into purple, [whose approach]
Comets prewarn, whose havoc in vast field
Unearthed skulls proclaim, whose breath blows down
The teeming Ceres’ foison, who dost pluck
With hand armipotent from forth blue clouds
The mason’d turrets, that both mak’st and break’st
The stony girths of cities: me thy pupil,
Youngest follower of thy drum, instruct this day
With military skill, that to thy laud
I may advance my streamer, and by thee
Be styl’d the lord o’th’ day.
The incantatory, almost liturgical purpose of the speech limits the scope of involution; there is no doubling back, but a cumulative celebration of the destructive power of war; the battlefields are strewn with unburied corpses, the ruined harvests, the cities besieged and destroyed; and finally there is apt petition for ‘military skill,’ and the dedication of success to the praise of the god. The strange words – ‘armipotent,’ ‘laud,’ and ‘streamer’ [pennon] – are all slightly out of the common way yet within reasonable intellectual compass; ‘the lord o’th’ day’ gives the sense to a festive combat or tourney, which, despite its homicidal purpose, this joust amounts to. The passage is indebted to Arcite’s prayer to Mars in Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, but, it is grander and has its own rapt quality.
Since she is the sister of the military Hippolyta, Emilia, for the fight between the kinsmen is perhaps entitled on occasion to speak with the masculine persuasive force of Shakespeare:
That Arcite was no babe. God’s lid, his richness
And costliness of spirit look’d through him, it could
No more be hid in him than fire in flax,
Than humble banks can go to law with waters
That drift-winds force to raging.
Emilia’s oath ‘God’s [eye]lid’) has surprised the commentators, and might seem to fall under the ban of the Act of 1606, but the terms in which she praises Arcite are even more striking. ‘Costliness,’ a redundant reinforcement to ‘richness,’ is odd, as it applies to his spirit, not his fine dueling clothes; the notion of a fine spirit looking through a person’s body is now more familiar from some familiar lines of Donne, written and published at just this time. (We understood/Her by her sight; her pure and eloquent blood/Spoke in her cheeks, and so distinctly wrought/That one might almost say, her body thought.’ Of the Progress of the Soul, 1612) Emilia, having expressed this idea, finds two similes to reinforce it: the fire in the flax and, more remote, the impossibility that riverbanks can go to law against flood ties. This last comparison is bizarre enough without the added difficulty that the rush of water is due to ‘drift winds.’ Editors plausibly guess that the word ‘drift’ means ‘driving’; indeed, it is hard to see what else it could mean, but the usage is apparently unique; and considering Shakespeare’s ease in converting nouns to verbs, it may be worth while occasionally to consider that the effect, though undoubtedly striking and ‘muscular,’ is sometimes merely distracting. ‘Waters/That drift winds force to raging’ might be defended on the ground that the language itself is being driven and forced, in imitation of flood water in spate; but in the end the inability of the banks to do anything about it has hardly any relation to the original idea, that Arcite’s noble spirit ‘look’d through him.’
Sometimes it seems that Shakespeare, in these latter years, is simply defying his audience, not caring to have them as fellows in understanding. One finds editors reduced to saying, ‘The idea is clear…but it is hard to make grammatical sense out of the lines.’ It is a price we have to pay. Consider this:
Here we are,
And here the graces of our youths must wither
Like a two-timely spring. Here age must find us,
And which is heaviest, Palamon, unmarried.
The sweet embraces of a loving wife,
Loaden with kisses, arm’d with thousand Cupids,
Shall never clasp our necks; no issue know us;
No figures of ourselves shall we ev’r see
To glad our age, and like young eagles teach ‘em
Boldly top gaze against bright arms, and say,
‘Remember what your fathers were, and conquer!’
This is the soft, explicit Fletcher, admirably skilled with his dying falls and his willingness to spell everything out. Presumably the managers of the King’s Men could have made him a collaborator with Shakespeare, fifteen years his senior, and the author who, for fifteen years, had so astonishingly enlarged the drama and educated its audience. It must have been a strenuous experience for everybody involved. But now those who could afford it might relax at the Blackfriars to the tunes of Fletcher. Shakespeare sounds still as if the work of transformation was not done, that the testing of the audience (and himself) must go on. Did he overestimate their endurance, and ours; did he perhaps even exaggerate his own?”
Our next reading: Act Five of The Two Noble Kinsmen
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning. And, after that, I’ll have posts (two or three, I’m not sure yet) summing everything up.
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.