The Pleasure of Shakespeare

By Dennis Abrams

Hope everybody is enjoying their holiday season.  And while I know I wasn’t going to post anything until next week, I was reading Zadie Smith’s recent piece in The New York Review of Books on “Joy” (a most excellent piece, highly recommended), which got me to thinking about something I’d read in Ron Rosenbaum’s The Shakespeare Wars on “The Anatomy of Pleasure” (are joy and pleasure that far apart?)  At any rate…I thought this might make for some excellent leisure reading:

“I have been thinking about pleasure in Shakespeare, about pleasure in Shakespeare, the pleasures of Shakespeare, and the arguments over it for some time.  Unbearable pleasure is, after all, at the heart of my theory of the rise of Theory in leisure studies:  close reading brought some too close to a core meltdown, so to speak, too close to pleasures whose destabilizing intensity threatens the dissolution of the self.  After all, look at the way pleasure is often described:  ‘giving in to the pleasure,’ ‘giving one’s self up to pleasure.’  Giving up the self:  never a light matter.

One thing all the diverse theorizing methodologies that took over literary studies like a cult with pretensions to science did was distance, protect one’s self from having to ‘give in’ to pleasure, absorption, immersion, contemplation of the bottomless abyss of the text.  Rather the text must be made to ‘give in’ to us, to submit itself to our theoretical constructs, dance (or rather collapse) to our tune.  If as the critic Louis Menard once put it, the New Criticism made things cohere too readily, deconstruction made them fall apart too perfectly and predictably.

And, one could speculate, the peculiar preference for reading Shakespearean biographies, shuffling and reshuffling the same old anecdotes, is another way of avoiding the destabilizing pleasures of reading and rereading the work. Frankly, the little we know about Shakespeare is far less threatening than ‘the Shakespearean’ with its dizzying plentitude.

Pleasure is at the hart of Stephen Booth’s argument about what ‘all the fuss is about’ in Shakespeare, the exhilarating pleasures the mind discovers itself capable of when reading Shakespeare, the pleasures of ‘pole-vaulting on the moon.’

And the more I thought about the subject of pleasure the more I realized there is an argument about pleasure in just about every play in Shakespeare, and in the poems as well, of course.  An argument about pleasure that is laid out in the simplest, starkest terms at the close of Love’s Labour’s Lost in the ‘debate’ between the songs of Spring and Winter.

The Song of Spring

When daisies pied, and violets blue,

And lady-smocks all silver-white,

And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue

Do paint the meadows with delight,

The cuckoo then on every tree

Mocks married men; for thus sings he,


Cuckoo, cuckoo’ – O word of rear,

Unpleasing to a married ear!

It’s impossible not to notice the way the initial ‘delight’ and painted pleasures of spring swiftly slide to words of ‘fear.’  From pleasure to the ‘unpleasing,’ destabilizing hint of jealousy, betrayal, mockery, deceit.

Sometimes pleasure is seen to contain the seed of its own destruction:  the amorous delight of the spring licensing the call of the cuckoo signaling, instigating sexual treachery, cuckoldry and Shakespeare’s virtual obsession with venereal diseases as the consequence of ‘venery,’ veneration of Venus, a savage goddess dangerous to those she loves and those she’s beloved by.

In some plays the argument is divided into clear-cut personifications of pleasure and anti-pleasure:  in Twelfth Night it’s Sir Toby and his relish for a realm of ‘cakes and ale’ counterposed to Malvolio and his penchant for restrictions.

Sometimes it is embodied in one conflicted body as it is in Falstaff and Cleopatra, both conflicted icons of pleasure and indulgence.  Actually they are not conflicted about their pleasures – they regret nothing – but they bear the burden of their indulgences.  In Falstaff, the punishment for pleasure is written, embellished, em-bellied on his body – the burden is physical:  fat and age, alcohol and sexual diseases have made him pay for the pleasures of the flesh.

If there is a defining moment in Shakespearean pleasure, it may be found in Enobarbus’s recollection in Antony and Cleopatra of Cleopatra’s first appearance to Mark Antony in Alexandria.  Here art and nature incite each other to ‘o’er-picture’ the other in the spectacle of Cleopatra resplendent in a golden barge sailing forth to dazzle Mark Antony for the first time.

We are fortunate enough to have the original description from the Greek historian Plutarch, the source Shakespeare relied on (in a translation by Thomas North), and I’ll quote it in a moment, but this is Shakespeare writing about pleasure in perhaps his most sensually pleasurable mode.  And I’d prefer to begin with the final refinement:

The barge she sat it, like a burnish’d throne,

Burnt on the water.  The poop was beaten gold,

Purple the sails, and so perfumed that

The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,

Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made

The water which they beat to follow faster,

As amorous of their strokes.  For her own person,

It beggar’d all description:  she did lie

In her pavilion – cloth of gold, of tissue –

O’er picturing that Venus where we see

The fancy outwork nature.

…At the helm

A seeming mermaid steers; the silken tackle

Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands,

That yarely frame the office.  From the barge

A strange invisible perfume hits the sense

Of the adjacent wharfs.  The city cast

Her people out upon her; and Antony

Enthron’d I’ th’ market-place, did sit alone,

Whistling to th’air, which, but for vacancy,

Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,

And made a gap in nature.

That’s pleasure.  Now, this has been done before, notably by Jonathan Bate, but I want to do it my way, and it can’t be done enough:  comparing those lines above to Shakespeare’s source in Plutarch.

Here’s the Plutarch version of that same scene:

‘She disdained to set forward otherwise, but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poop whereof was of gold, the sailes of purple and owers [oars] of silver which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of the flutes, howboyes [oboes], citherns, violls, and such other instruments that they played upon in the barge.’

[Sorry to interrupt, but I can’t help noting at this point how Plutarch just completely loses focus in this pointless enumeration of the musical instruments.  Compare the way Shakespeare’s oars ‘to the tune of flutes kept of their strokes.’  He doesn’t list the musical instruments, but rather, lets us hear the flutes and their bewitching power to transform the rhythm of the oars into the water back into an erotic engagement.  Back to Plutarch.]

‘And now for the person of her self was layed under a pavilion of cloth of gold of tissue, appareled and attired like the goddesse Venus, commonly drawn in picture’

[Note that ‘commonly drawn’ – one almost thinks Plutarch is consciously resisting the seductiveness of this uncommon Venus.]

‘and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretie faire boyes appareled as painters doe set forth god Cupide, with little fans in their hands, with the which they fanned wind upon her.  Her ladies and gentlewomen also, the fairest of them were appareled like the nymphs.  Nereides (which are the mermaides of the waters) and like the Graces, some stearing the helme, others tending the tackle and ropes of the barge.’

[Look at the way this focus on nautical technique becomes a focus on another kind of technique in Shakespeare:  ‘the silken tackle/Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands,/That yarely frame the office.’  Perhaps the most erotic line in all Shakespeare.  ‘Flower-soft hands!’  Back to Plutarch’s barge…]

‘out of the which there came a wonderful passing sweete savor of perfumes, that perfumed the wharfes side, pestered with innumerable numbers of people…’

Enough!  ‘Pestered’ indeed.  (Yes, it is North’s word, but still…)  But we must be grateful to Plutarch for the plodding template that gave birth, like Venus from the foam, to Shakespeare’s lush, louche, amorous, seductive, near-pornographic excursus on pleasure.  Evoking in words alone the sensual manifestations of eros, it is perhaps the most purely sensual passage in all Shakespeare, perhaps the most intense and exhilarating in the language.  (The ‘hounds and echo’ passage in the Dream, while lovely aesthetically and even sensually, is not necessarily erotic, or if erotic, only in a more distanced estheticized way, although the sound and echoes could prefigure the way the oars and ‘The water which they beat…follow faster,/As amorous of their strokes.’  Echoes are, in a way, amorous followers of the sounds they respond to.)

The Plutarch passage is often compared with Shakespeare’s to demonstrate how often, how blatantly Shakespeare ‘copied’ from his sources.  But the difference between Plutarch and Antony and Cleopatra is all the difference in the world.  All the difference we identify as Shakespearean.

The things being described and the actions being taken are exactly the same in each passage and we get to see how Shakespeare turned the plodding of Plutarch’s reporting into sublimely pleasurable poetry.  And while much of this is infusing, transubstantiating Plutarch’s prose into sensual beauty, barely on the ‘threshold of comprehension,’ there is one addition that is most purely Shakespearean.  While Plutarch has the ‘Cupids’ fanning Cleopatra, Shakespeare had ‘Cupids,/With divers-color’d fans, whose wind did seem/To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,/And what they undid did.’  Glowing the cheeks they cooled, doing and undoing it is Shakespeare alone.

‘What they undid did.’  That ‘undid did’ – the literal pressing together of doing and undoing, being and not-being, the suggestiveness of the verbal sexual coupling, is remarkable.  Echoed, embodied in the image of the way the fans heat to a flushed ‘glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool.’  It’s an endlessly, bottomlessly reciprocating process of inflaming, fulfilling and regenerating desire.  Amazing the pleasure that passage gives.

It is here one can’t help, no matter how one distrusts biographical opportunism, to stop and wonder at what the moment of writing this passage was like for Shakespeare.  The decision to give himself up to pleasurable excess in language, in the attempt to embody the power of Cleopatra’s spell, in the way it bewitches the winds and waves around her.  It is no accident that, when Samuel Johnson sought to find words to condemn Shakespeare for taking too much pleasure in puns and wordplay, he called them Shakespeare’s ‘fatal Cleopatra,’ the embodiment of pleasure taken to illicit excess, pleasure as self-destructive seductiveness.”


To that, I’d like to add this from Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature.  He’s talking about Dickens, but it applies to everything we read, I believe:

“All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over.  Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades.  That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science.  Let us worship the spine and its tingle.  Let us be proud of being vertebrates, for we are vertebrates tipped at the head with a divine flame.  The brain only continues the spine:  the wick really goes through the whole length of the candle.  If we are not capable of enjoying that shiver, if we cannot enjoy literature, then let us give up the whole thing and concentrate on our comics, our videos, our books-of-the-week.”

That “shiver” is pure artistic pleasure.


My next post:  I’ll post something along these lines for this weekend.  Introductory posts to Hamlet begin on January 3rd – reading begins the following week.


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1 Response to The Pleasure of Shakespeare

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