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.