Pop quiz: Whose signature is the rarest in the world? Answer: William Shakespeare’s.
Yes, the playwright who created Hamlet (1603), Romeo and Juliet (1597), and King Lear (1608), irrefutable master of English literature and stronghold of the Western canon, left behind no manuscripts and no letters — no handwritten trace of his copious life’s work, unless you count the long-disputed three pages of a manuscript at the British Library referred to as “Hand D” that may very well be his. Only six confirmed Shakespearean signatures survive, all on legal documents; his will contains the two additional words “By me.”
If any fragment with Shakespeare’s handwriting came to light, it would generate international headlines, and that scrap would be worth millions. In this sense, Shakespeare truly is the “holy grail” of the rare book world — not that anyone is actively looking. Shakespeare died in 1616; as the focus of scholars, collectors, and forgers for nearly 400 years, it’s impossible that anything of his might have slipped by unnoticed.
Or is it?
On the morning of April 29, 2008, George Koppelman, a former IBM software developer who founded Cultured Oyster Books about 15 years ago, ate a late breakfast in his New York City apartment and then sat down at his desk to begin the day’s work. He logged on to eBay and input some search terms that produced a curious result: a 16-century English folio dictionary with contemporary annotations. Neat, but not necessarily remarkable. Except, said Koppelman, the annotations “seemed to me as if they were intentionally entered as poetic fragments.”
The volume was a 1580 second edition of John Baret’s Alvearie, or Quadruple Dictionarie, not a dictionary as strictly defined, but more of a polyglot’s reference — each English word is listed alongside its French, Greek, and Latin equivalents. Whoever had owned and annotated it displayed a keen interest in language, so much so that Koppelman was captivated. He called his friend, Daniel Wechsler of Sanctuary Books in New York City, and told him about the auction listing. It was premature even to utter the name Shakespeare, but between the two of them they decided that “the combination of it being an Elizabethan dictionary with at least some degree of involvement from an owner of the period was enough to spark serious interest, and we had several conversations on how much we ought to bid,” said Wechsler.
Rare booksellers hazard situations like this all the time. “We knew that there was a slight chance it could be very special, but also that there are hundreds, even thousands, of anonymously annotated books from this period that go virtually unnoticed,” said Koppelman.
They placed a high bid of $4,300 and narrowly won it. If it was the Bard’s book, it was certainly a bargain-basement price. When the bubble-wrapped folio arrived in the mail shortly thereafter, both men realized they had a long road ahead — “not days, weeks, or even months, but years,” in Wechsler’s words. As respected dealers (both members of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America), it would have been career suicide to make any hasty pronouncements about having purchased Shakespeare’s dictionary on eBay. Instead, they discreetly dove into the type of meticulous, multifaceted research experienced almost exclusively by PhD candidates.
First, perhaps, to reconcile the history: where was Shakespeare in the 1580s, and could he have owned this book? Shakespeare was born in 1564, raised in Stratford-upon-Avon, and married, at the age of eighteen, in 1582. Few records of his life survive, so his biography is largely the work of scholarly projection. No one knows exactly when he arrived in London, but the mid-to-late 1580s is the accepted estimate. That he worked in the theater and mingled with a “literary” crowd, even among the small circle of commercial printers, is also largely believed. Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker, “The printer Richard Field, a fellow-Stratfordian of around the same age, whose family was closely associated with the Shakespeares, was very likely a companion in Shakespeare’s early London scuffles.” Field didn’t publish the Alvearie — though he did later print the earliest editions of Shakespeare’s two long poems, “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece” — but he likely did lend the playwright editions from his shop, which he used while writing, according to another Shakespeare biographer. Educated guesswork and isolated facts they may be, but it does appear that the Bard was in the right place at the right time to have had access to the Alvearie.
Next, the booksellers explored the handwriting. Elizabethan handwriting appears peculiar, even illegible, to modern eyes. (It’s worth noting that the Wikipedia entry for paleography, the study and interpretation of historic handwriting, is illustrated by a picture of Shakespeare’s will, indicating how difficult the script is to read.) Scholars tell us that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have used secretary hand, a loopy style accomplished with strong up and down strokes of the pen, although there is so little evidence where Shakespeare is concerned that’s it tough to pin down what his penmanship was like. The annotations in the Alvearie, however, are not in secretary hand; they are in the slightly more readable but still sloping italic hand that was just beginning to emerge. Does this alone discount Shakespeare as annotator? The booksellers argue two points: 1) the Alvearie notes are in a mixed hand, and 2) annotations by their very nature are brief, so it makes sense that the annotator would have eschewed the flourishes of secretary hand while jotting in the margins.
Koppelman and Wechsler faced the most formidable — and gratifying — challenge in analyzing the actual text of the annotations. This entailed combing through each line of text, examining every speck of inky evidence. They categorized these annotations as either “spoken” annotations, meaning the annotator added full words, and “mute” annotations, meaning the slashes, circles, and bits of underlining made by him. Additionally, one of the blank leaves at the back contains an entire page of manuscript notes — words, phrases, and translations.
And this is where it got interesting for the duo, because, as Koppelman had noted upon first viewing select annotations, there seemed to be a reason that certain words were underlined or translated. The annotations were enigmatic, but following Koppelman’s earlier hunch about the poetic nature of the fragmentary phrases, the two booksellers have been able to demonstrate connections between some of the odd words and phrases that particularly interested the annotator with similar words and phrases that crop up in Shakespeare’s work. For example, a line in Hamlet reads, “Oh that this too too solid Flesh, would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!” The use of the word “resolve” perplexes in this context, unless you have Baret’s Alvearie handy, which defines “Thawe” as “resolve that which is frozen.” Moreover, the anonymous annotator showed his special interest in this word, inserting a “mute” annotation beside it.
The booksellers can offer up any number of such examples to prove their contention that Shakespeare himself marked up this book — the annotator’s fascination with “dive-dapper,” a small English bird that appears in Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis,” or how the annotator penned the weird hyphenated word Bucke-bacquet, which turns up in The Merry Wives of Windsor six times, on that blank back leaf — but it is impractical to describe the extent of their six-year investigation in a few paragraphs. Which is why they decided to write a book.
In April 2014, Koppelman and Wechsler went public with their findings. They published an illustrated book and accompanying website titled Shakespeare’s Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Light, which boldly claimed that their humble copy of Baret’s Alvearie had languished in obscurity, “never previously studied or speculated upon,” and that having now been discovered and scrutinized was ready to be adored for what it was: a book annotated by Shakespeare. Their goal was to present their argument “in measured and non-polemical ways,” along with illustrations of the annotations that would invite readers to join the debate — but it was a risky proposition.
Before publication they had reached out to a small group of scholars and rare book trade colleagues and were “prepared for a variety of responses, including the most obvious one, which would be disbelief,” said Wechsler. Their reputations as rare book dealers would be put on the line. It was, said Wechsler, “an enormous risk, and that forced me to weigh all of the possibilities very carefully before I came to value the evidence in the annotations as confidently as I do.” Koppelman agreed, adding, “We would have been seriously naïve not to know what we were getting ourselves into. Neither one of us is what you would call an attention seeker.”
That said, the discovery did make international headlines, and the mixed reactions came in rather swiftly. The book world especially awaited acknowledgment from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., home to the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare research material, including 82 First Folios. Michael Witmore, director of the Folger, and Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts at the Folger, issued a joint response called “Buzz or honey?” in which they wrote, “At this point, we as individual scholars feel that it is premature to join Koppelman and Wechsler in what they have described as their ‘leap of faith.’” It wasn’t an outright rebuttal; they noted that, “Shakespeare and other early modern writers used source books like the Alvearie to fire the imagination.” But proving that he used this one, they said, was going to require much more expert analysis.
Fair enough, said the booksellers. They had expected skepticism and even snap judgments, but by throwing the door wide open with a monograph that reproduces the annotations for all to see, they hoped to encourage research and debate. To that end, they update their blog with fresh insights, arguments, and counterarguments. So far, they remain confident that Shakespeare was the mystery annotator. “Of course we don’t deny the difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of ever fully proving our belief,” said Wechsler. “But we feel the argument for our conclusion has only been strengthened with new revelations and further research.”
It may be an insurmountable hurdle for some that this book — found on eBay, no less — contains the Bard’s marginalia. Had it been located in some neglected annex at the British Library, acceptance might have come more easily, but even the idea that an artifact of this caliber has been overlooked for nearly half a century is, perhaps, too much to absorb. Said Wechsler, “I think people fail to realize how many old books have survived and how many discoveries are still possible.”
Still others — a cynical crowd — might imagine that it’s all a ploy, not for fame but for financial gain. After all, if it were Shakespeare’s reference book, it would easily be worth enough to break the auction record for a printed book, currently holding at $14.2 million for the 1640 Bay Psalm Book. (The most expensive First Folio clocked in at $6.2 million, obviously without any authorial notes in manuscript — Shakespeare had been dead for seven years before this authoritative collection of his work appeared in print.) But selling the book quickly was never their aim, according to Koppelman and Wechsler. “Ideally, the book will eventually find a home as an important book in the collection of an institution such as the British Library or the Folger,” said Koppelman. “Regardless of where it goes next, we feel the most important thing is to be patient and encourage debate.”
In October of this year, 18 months after their initial announcement, the booksellers issued a second edition of their findings that includes more textual examples and “evidence that we believe is important to share and helps to solidify and advance the credibility of our arguments and our claim,” according to their blog. Readers who commit to the full 400-plus-page tome will undoubtedly credit the rigorousness of their approach and the guilelessness of their presentation.
As professional booksellers, Koppelman and Wechsler are always on the hunt for rare books. At the same time, this one was perhaps more than they bargained for. If another treasure turned up on his doorstep, what would he do? “As fulfilling as this has been, I would be tempted to put the book down, leaving the thrill of such a discovery for someone else to discover,” said Koppelman. Wechsler concurred. “I think it’s pretty safe to say I won’t ever find myself wrapped up in a find on par with this one.”
It’s true, our bardolatry is such that any discovery associated with William Shakespeare makes international headlines. In November 2014, media outlets clamored to cover the news that Saint-Omer library, a small public library in northern France, near Calais, found in its collection a First Folio (1623), the first published collection of 36 (out of 38) Shakespearean plays. It appears that the Saint-Omer library inherited the book when a nearby Jesuit college was expelled from France centuries ago and left the book behind. According to professor and Folio expert Eric Rasmussen, a Folio comes to light every decade or so, but this one was particularly surprising, and in good condition, even though it lacks the portrait frontispiece that typically signposts a Folio. Like the De revolutionibus editions traced by Owen Gingerich, First Folios are closely tracked, examined, and cataloged for textual or printing variations or marginalia — this one, for example, contains stage directions and the name Nevill inscribed at the front. “It’s a little like archaeology,” James Shapiro, a Shakespeare expert at Columbia University, told The New York Times. “Where we find a folio tells us a little bit more about who was reading Shakespeare, who was valuing him.” This addition brings the total number of extant copies of the First Folio to 233.
Excerpted with permission from Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places, to be published in December by Voyageur Press. Rare Books Uncovered contains 52 remarkable stories of rare books, manuscripts, and historical documents unearthed in barns, attics, flea markets, dumpsters, and other unexpected places.
“All that he doth write / Is pure his own.” So a 17th-century poet praised William Shakespeare. This is not actually true.
Shakespeare was a reteller. Cardenio, also known as The Double Falsehood, which I’ve written about before for The Millions, was a retelling of the Cardenio episode in Don Quixote. As You Like It retold Thomas Lodge’s romance Rosalynde, The Two Noble Kinsmen comes from the Knight’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Cressida from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. The Comedy of Errors is Plautus’s Menaechmi with an extra set of twins. The Winter’s Tale retold Robert Greene’s novella Pandosto without the incest. Much Ado About Nothing is Orlando Furioso, although Beatrice and Benedick are original. King Lear, Hamlet, and The Taming of the Shrew may be simple rewrites of earlier plays. In fact the only of Shakespeare’s plays to have original plots were The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. What makes Shakespeare, well — Shakespeare, is not his plots, but his language.
This month, Hogarth Press published the first entry — The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson — in a new collection of novels by today’s major practitioners that each rewrite one of Shakespeare’s plays. Tracy Chevalier will be retelling Othello; Margaret Atwood The Tempest; Gillian Flynn Hamlet; Edward St. Aubyn King Lear; Anne Tyler The Taming of the Shrew; Jo Nesbø Macbeth; and Howard Jacobson The Merchant of Venice. This is not a new endeavor, although it does seem to be a uniquely 20th- and 21st-century phenomenon. (The Romantics preferred to think of Shakespeare as an artless genius working under pure inspiration.) But as scholars have begun to recognize the extent of Shakespeare’s own retellings — and collaborations — modern writers have taken a page out of his book by rewriting his plays. (I’ll mention here the newly announced project by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to “translate” Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English, but that seems to stem from a different impulse.)
Perhaps this narrative is too simple. It is not as if, after all, writers in the last century suddenly discovered Shakespeare as a source and influence. For the past 400 years, Shakespeare’s poetry and plays have become as much a part of the common language and mythology as the King James Bible. In a sense, Noah’s flood is as much a foundational myth of our culture as the Seven Ages of Man. Like Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby, we use Shakespeare as a way to understand and connect with each other. There is so much of Shakespeare woven into Moby-Dick, for instance, that the allusions and the words and the quotations feel like the warp and woof of the novel. The same could be said for just about anything by Milton, Dickens, Austen, Woolf, Frost, Eliot — in fact I could name most of the writers in the English and American canons, and, indeed, abroad. Borges, to name just one example, found in Shakespeare a kindred spirit in his exploration of magical realism; and Salman Rushdie’s definition of magical realism as “the commingling of the improbable with the mundane” is a pretty good description of some of Shakespeare’s plays — A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to mind.
Let’s take, for an example, Woolf’s Between the Acts, her last novel. It is a book seemingly made entirely of fragments — scraps of literature spoken and overheard; parts of the village pageant, around which the novel centers, either omitted or the voices of the actors blown away by the wind; characters speaking to each other but failing to understand, or only managing to half-articulate their thoughts. In the midst of all this, Shakespeare is ever-present, a source for the poetry on everyone’s lips, inspiration for part of the pageant, and a symbol of what ought to be valued, not just in literature and art, but in life.
One of these piecemeal phrases that becomes a refrain in the book and in the consciousness of the characters is “books are the mirrors of the soul.” Woolf turns it around from meaning that books reflect the souls of their creators to meaning that the books we read reflect what value there might be in our souls. The person who is drawn to reading about Henry V must have that same heroism somewhere in him; the woman who feels the anguish of Queen Katherine also has some of her nobility. The younger generation of Between the Acts reads only newspapers, or “shilling shockers.” No one reads Shakespeare, although they try to quote him all the time. Shakespeare becomes a substitute for what they cannot put into words themselves, their “groanings too deep for words.” The worth of Shakespeare that emerges in Between the Acts is as a tap for the hidden spring in each of the characters that contains the things they wish they could say, the thoughts that otherwise they would have no way to communicate — instead of mirrors, books are the mouthpieces of the soul.
Shakespeare’s plays are a touchstone, and the way we react to them, the way we retell them, says more about us than about him. For example, Mary Cowden Clarke in 1850 created biographies for Shakespeare’s female characters in The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines. Each are made paragons of virtue and modesty, reflecting Victorian morals and values. But Clarke was also coopting Shakespeare for her own interest in women’s rights, using his stories of women with agency and power, and clothing them in Victorian modesty in order to provide an example and a way forward for herself and her female readers.
To take another example, Mark Twain retold Julius Caesar (actually, just Act III, Scene i) in “The Killing of Julius Caesar ‘Localized,’” but he used it to address the bully politics of his day. Shakespeare’s play becomes a news squib from the “Roman Daily Evening Fasces” and the title character becomes “Mr. J. Caesar, the Emperor-elect.” Twain’s Caesar successfully fends off each would-be assassin, “[stretching] the three miscreants at his feet with as many blows of his powerful fist.” The story also makes a claim about Twain’s status as a writer compared to Shakespeare: by mentioning Shakespeare as a supposed citizen of Rome who witnessed “the beginning and the end of the unfortunate affray,” Twain mocks the popular reverence for Shakespeare; he ceases to be a poetic genius and becomes merely a talented transcriber. But by doing so, Twain mocks himself as well; he is, after all, transcribing Shakespeare.
To turn to novels, I could mention Woolf’s Night and Day, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Robert Nye’s Falstaff, John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius, Rushie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, and a long list of others. In a way these are their own type; rather than appropriating Shakespeare, or quoting or alluding to Shakespeare, they purport to re-imagine his plays. Jane Smiley’s retelling of King Lear is probably the most well-known. A Thousand Acres manages to capture the horror of Lear. It is modern in that there is no ultimately virtuous character. Cordelia, or Caroline, becomes naive and blind and prejudiced as any other character in the play, and Larry Cook’s strange relationship to his daughters and the way it blows up says less about power and pride and love and aging than about abuse and bitterness. It is both horribly familiar and also fits surprisingly well into Shakespeare’s play. It becomes part of the lens through which we now must view Lear. It enriches our reading of Shakespeare while also giving us a new view of ourselves. And oh is it a cold hard view.
For her entry into the Hogarth series, Winterson had first pick, and chose The Winter’s Tale, which she says has always been a talismanic text for her. In The Gap of Time, Winterson has written what she calls a “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale. It’s a jazzy, news-y retelling, set insistently in a realistic world. Whereas Shakespeare takes pains to remind us that his play is just a play, Winterson’s emphatically tries to set the action in our own world. Hermione, for example, an actor and singer, has a Wikipedia page. Her acting debut was in Deborah Warner’s adaptation of Winterson’s novel The PowerBook, and she has performed at the Roundhouse Theatre in London. Leontes lives in London, where he is a successful businessman with a company called Sicilia, and Polixenes, a video game designer, lives in New Bohemia, which is recognizable as New Orleans. The characters are renamed with short, jazzy nicknames: Leontes becomes Leo; Polixenes is Zeno; Hermione is Mimi; the shepherd and clown who discover the lost Perdita become Shep and Clo. Only Perdita and Autolycus retain their full names. (Autolycus is the best translation of the book: he becomes a used car salesman trying to offload a lemon of a Delorean onto the clown.)
Shakespeare’s play is focused almost equally on the parent’s story and then the children’s, but Winterson’s focuses almost exclusively on the love triangle between Zeno, Leo, and Mimi. Whereas Shakespeare leaves open the possibility that Leontes may have some grounds for jealousy (though if we believe the oracle of Apollo, no room for the possibility of Hermione being guilty of adultery), Winterson is explicit that a love triangle does exist, but she inverts it. It is Leo who loves both Mimi and Zeno, Leo who has slept with both. And it’s clear that though Mimi chose Leo, there was a distinct connection between her and Zeno. Winterson even takes a hint from Shakespeare’s source in Pandosto and makes Leo consider romancing Perdita when he meets her. “As someone who was given away and is a foundling, I’ve always worked with the idea of the lost child,” Winterson has said. The part of Shakespeare’s tale that spoke to Winterson was the origin story, why the child was lost.
Shakespeare’s play, because it doesn’t insist upon existing in a realistic world, is full of wonder and mystery. It’s that magic that happens when you hear the words “Once upon a time.” The closest Winterson’s version gets to that place is in the scenes that take place inside of Zeno’s video game, when Zeno and Leo and Mimi play themselves but also become something a little grander, a little wilder, a little more numinous. But there is little of Shakespeare’s language present. Winterson’s The Winter’s Tale is as much a retelling of Pandosto as Shakespeare.
Why do we return again and again to Shakespeare’s plays, why do we keep rewriting them? Is it in hope that some of his genius will rub off? Are we searching for new possibilities for interpretation, hoping to mine new ore out of well covered ground? Or are we going toe-to-toe, trying our strength against the acknowledged genius of English literature? Perhaps it is simply that creativity is contagious. When a piece of art inspires you, it literally in-spires, breaths into you. It makes us want to create new art. Or, maybe it’s a more basic instinct. From the beginning of our lives, when we hear a good story, a story that as Winterson says becomes “talismanic” for us, what do we say? “Tell it again.”
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
It’s a single line of dialog in Ernest Hemingway’s classic story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” but that one line, 11 words, has had an outsized influence on the course of literary titling. It’s spoken by the female character, Jig, as she waits for a train in Zaragosa with her unnamed American man. In the train station they begin drinking, first cervezas then anisette, and soon conduct a suppressed dispute about whether or not to end a pregnancy. Tensions mount, differences are exposed, and with that, Jig utters the legendary line. It’s a breaking point that is as much textual as emotional: “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”
Hemingway couldn’t have known the legacy that line would have — or maybe he did, he famously sought “a prose that had never been written.” When the story was published in 1927, the line broke open a new way characters talked on the page. Exactly four decades later, that groundbreaking colloquy resurfaced as a stylistic approach to the contemporary American literary title. Raymond Carver’s story, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” published in 1967 (the titular collection appeared in 1976), echoed Hemingway’s line, and in turn spawned a subgenre of titling in the vernacular style.
What I’ve come to think of as the colloquial title rejects literary tone for the purely voice-driven. Colloquial titles can be wordy, even prolix, and often make use of a purposefully curious yet catchy syntax. The colloquial title is based in common parlance, but also draws on aphorism, the stock phrase, and familiar expressions. For a more elevated voice-driven title, look to the literary/biblical allusion, the colloquial title’s highborn cousin. With exemplars like As I Lay Dying and Slouching Toward Bethlehem, the allusion-based title has undisputed gravitas, and frankly, when it comes to authoritative tone, is hard to beat. Think of The Violent Bear It Away and A River Runs Through It.
And yet, ordinary language is equally capable of authority. Like any compelling title, those based in the vernacular can deftly portray a sense of foreboding, loss, or lack. Plus, when ordinary language is placed in a literary context, meaning can shift and complicate, taking shades of tone it might not otherwise. It might even be said that, unlike the conventional variety, the colloquial title is captivating even when its message is trouble-free.
There is a certain power in hearing phrases we know and may have used ourselves. When a title speaks to us in everyday language, it’s not so different from any voice aiming to get our attention. I read a colloquial title and hear a speaker with an urgent message. Maybe like Jig’s, its phrasing is odd, idiosyncratic. Or, where one speaker might as easily equivocate, another may cut in, or confess. Or be presumptuous and opinionated. Whatever the persona, the colloquial title leans in close and says I’m talking to you, and I listen, eager to know what lies beyond that strangely familiar voice.
Here then is a sampling of colloquial titles, culled from eight decades of classic and contemporary literature.
1. Classics of the Form
An early example of the colloquial impulse is Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1935). The title of this Depression-era portrait adopts ironic tone to reference the period’s human desolation and the suffering of its characters.
William Gass’s collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968) uses the power of repetition to suggest a journey to the deeper realms of character and place. The recursive device proved influential, as demonstrated by more than a few of the examples that follow here.
Leonard Michaels’s I Would Have Saved Them If I Could (1975) is an exemplar of the colloquial approach. The title seamlessly integrates the prose style of the collection and its mood of uncertainty and pathos.
Charles Bukowski’s You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense (1986). Bukowski’s style pays a debt to the Hemingway prose style, to the confessional tone of the Beat Poets, and, to this reader’s ear, the personalized truth-telling of the ’60s.
David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997). The distinct SoCal syntax and wry tone make this title a classic of the colloquial style.
2. The Aphoristic Vein
Common phrases and well-worn adages make ideal colloquial titles. Somehow, in a title, platitudes and cliché never feel stale, but spark irony and double-meaning.
Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955). The title is drawn from a popular idiom of its day, and the homespun tone runs against the grain of the titular story’s mystical, violent drama.
William Maxwell’s novella So Long See You Tomorrow (1979) and Elizabeth McCracken’s collection Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry (1993). Both operate on the familiarity of common parlance (and what might be called the gravity of goodbye), not to mention direct address: we read “you” and feel at once a stand-in for the addressee.
Jean Thompson’s collection Who Do You Love (1999). While a good number of colloquial titles take the form of a question, Thompson’s intentionally drops its question mark. The lyric from the Bo Diddley song is used without its original punctuation, shifting the phrase to an assertion, a stark refrain that echoes throughout the collection.
Amy Bloom’s collection A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You (2000). Here, aphorism meets avowal and reflects the fierce attachments that occupy Bloom’s stories of youth, aging, loss, and hope.
Adam Haslett’s collection You Are Not a Stranger Here (2002). Another appropriation of dialog. Here, the outsider tone is a salutation that is both welcoming and sorrowful, and likewise defines the collection.
3. Matters of Opinion
This colloquial vein might be called the idiosyncratic declarative, a variety of title distinguished by off-kilter observation, unconventional syntax, and the frequent use of personal pronouns:
In this category, Raymond Carver alone spawns a near-genre of declarative titling. The story collections Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976) and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) and the poetry collection Where Water Comes Together With Other Water (1985), are seminal in their approach. Crucial to the effect is the nonliterary usage, as is repetition. Notable too is the tone of candor, rather than irony.
Lorrie Moore’s story “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People,” from Birds of America (1998) reframes the declarative title as an ironic aside. Likewise, Moore’s formative “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk,” takes the conversational into a uniquely personal lexicon.
William Gay’s I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down (2002), is defined by a plaintive tone and suggestion of intimate disclosure.
Robin Black’s collection If I Loved You I Would Tell You This (2010) is a prime example of a declarative with an artfully placed hanging pronoun.
Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank With You (2014). In the latest installment of the Frank Bascombe saga, an old adage takes the form of wordplay.
Finally, not to be overlooked in this category, Nathan Englander’s collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (2013), a riff on Carver’s iconic title.
4. Be Forewarned
Everyday language can spawn titles of a more unusual sort, whether instructional, cautionary, or sometimes surreal. The style often has a portentous tone, and interestingly, makes frequent use of the first person plural.
Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End (2007). This pronouncement marks many endings within the novel — of a century, a booming economy, a job, a relationship.
Ramona Ausubel’s No One is Here Except All of Us (2012). Here, the title is foreboding, an augur that taps into the novel’s speculative, catastrophic history.
Adrianne Harun’s A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain (2013). Colloquy here takes on a solemn and surreal turn, setting the tone for a tale of tragic disappearances.
Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves (2014). The title is a literary allusion (from King Lear), referencing the novel’s characters who, as Thomas has said, “by dint of circumstances are not allowed to be themselves.” Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013), contains a voice-driven prologue that begins, “Those who know me now will be surprised to learn I was a great talker as a child.” It’s a perfect opening to a novel with a colloquial title that, in typical style, doesn’t hold back.
“The clash of genre values is fundamental to the novelistic experience. That’s how we ought to be thinking about our books. Instead of asking whether a comic book could be “as valuable” as King Lear, we ought to ask how the values of tragedy and romance might collide.” Joshua Rothman writes about the coming “collapse of the genre system” and our own Emily St. John Mandel’s National Book Award short-listed Station Eleven for The New Yorker.
John Steinbeck found Of Mice and Men in a poem by Robert Burns; Joan Didion came across Slouching Towards Bethlehem in one by William Butler Yeats. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was scrawled in the bathroom stall of a Greenwich Village saloon, which Edward Albee entered in 1954. Many of Raymond Carver’s titles were changed by his longtime editor, Gordon Lish — for better (“Beginners” became “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”) or worse (“Are These Actual Miles?” was replaced by the vague and perplexing “What Is It?”). F. Scott Fitzgerald first titled his most famous work Trimalchio in West Egg. Though eventually persuaded that The Great Gatsby was less obscure, easier to pronounce, and much preferred by his wife, Zelda, Fitzgerald maintained that the final choice was “only fair, rather bad than good.”
In lieu of a fateful bathroom visit or an assertive editor, how do authors find their titles? Many plumb the work of Shakespeare (Edith Wharton’s The Glimpses of the Moon and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, as well as a number of titles by Agatha Christie, were all inspired by the Bard); others, religious or not, turn to the old poetry of the Bible. Still more scour their own manuscripts in search of a string of words that might capture the novel’s spirit. And some, like Alice Munro — whose latest title, Dear Life, was taken from a phrase she heard as a child — find that the perfect moniker was in them all along. Still, the process of titling remains individualized and mysterious: methods range from intuition to reason, from revelation to painful labor. Here, five contemporary authors tell us about theirs.
Marie-Helene Bertino, author of 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas:
I knew my debut novel’s title would finish with the clause The Cat’s Pajamas, however I heard the beginning of the phrase only as a rhythm. It sounded like: Something something something The Cat’s Pajamas. When I realized the missing phrase included “2 a.m.” (the time bars close in Philadelphia, where the novel is set), it prompted me to clarify the 24-hour nature of the novel and use hours of the day instead of chapter headings. Then, all I had to do was figure out what happened at that fateful hour. For weeks, this question rotated in my subconscious as I conducted the errands of my life: what happens at 2 a.m.? WHAT HAPPENS AT 2 A.M.? Whatever it was had to synthesize what up until then are disparate story lines while staying true to my desire to keep the stakes realistic. I ticked through all the possible tricks: murder, mass suicide, alien invasion, but knew the answer would be somewhere in subtle middle distance, harder to write, but closer to the way I’ve found life actually works. One of the unexplainable mysteries of writing fiction is that I normally begin already knowing the title and last line. I can’t explain why. It’s a mystery. The stories for which I don’t already know these elements take longer. Perhaps because something hasn’t quite distilled, and my conception is still a piece of sand, battling a shell to turn itself into a pearl.
Ted Thompson, author of The Land of Steady Habits:
When it was finally time to submit my novel to publishers, I had no title. I sat for a full day in utter paralysis, staring at the title page, my cursor blinking in 24-point font. I would type whatever came to mind, most of it nonsense, just to see how it looked, and it all looked ridiculous. I had spent the previous week taking long walks and speaking aloud every term that came into my mind when I thought of the manuscript, an embarrassing voice recording of my attempts to seem smart. I went to Shakespeare — King Lear! I thought, there are some similarities, aren’t there? Old guys, unraveling families. Never mind the fact that I had never really understood that play, not really, and didn’t then when I skimmed it looking for my answer. Finally, I wrote my friend Stuart, who was one of the only writers I knew who didn’t overthink things. He wrote back a few minutes later with a list of trivia about Connecticut. Facts and data, all surface details. Stuff that seemed hopelessly superficial. But there, at the bottom, under a list of nicknames was “the land of steady habits.” And that was that.
Some titles come at me, wham, even before the story. I wrote the story “Welcome to Your Life and Congratulations” after that sentence somehow appeared in my brain, having no idea what the story would be about. Other titles are fought for. For a good while, my first novel was titled The Constellation Makers, which is not a good title at all (I knew that, fortunately). I had a long list of titles but I can’t remember the others because once I thought of No One is Here Except All of Us (which I took from a sentence in the book), I knew it was right and it never changed. However, I assumed that if I was ever lucky enough to get the thing published, surely the publisher would nix my long, complicated title. I assumed they would want something snappy (and that I’d hate it). This is not at all what happened and I was so glad that I had gone for the thing I wanted instead of guessing at the desires of the industry—turns out uniqueness, at least in this case, was an asset. Whatever the journey to a title, whether based on list-making and brainstorming and bouts with Thesaurus.com or one of those beautiful revelatory moments, I know the right title by instinct more than reason.
I titled my short story collection, Brief Encounters With the Enemy after one of the stories, A Brief Encounter With the Enemy. I know this may appear like an uninspired choice—indeed, it took me about one minute to come up with it—but I intended some subtlety behind it. For one thing, pluralizing the title helped to thematically link the eight stories, but more important is that it raised the question: who exactly is this enemy we keep encountering, and why? I’ll leave that up to each reader to decide.
Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves:
I had been working with another title, The Real Estate of Edmund Leary, which I liked for the double-duty “real” was doing, but I didn’t prefer to include the name of a character in the title, particularly when the book was more explicitly Eileen’s than it was Ed’s. While re-reading Lear in preparation to teach it, I came to the line in Act 2, Scene 4, where Lear is wondering why Cornwall won’t appear, even though he’s been ordered to. To explain away the offense to his ego, Lear says, “Infirmity doth still neglect all office/Whereto our health is bound”—i.e., sickness prevents us from doing the duties we’re required to do when healthy. The next line elaborates on this theme: “We are not ourselves/when nature, being oppressed, commands the mind/to suffer with the body.” Lear justifies Cornwall’s flouting of his authority by appealing to the universal experience of being beholden to our bodies: when the body isn’t working, the mind doesn’t work perfectly either. I found rich resonance in the idea of locating both the mind and the body in Lear’s formulation in the brain, so that the body that isn’t working is the mind, in fact — and then positing the mind in Lear’s formulation as what we think of as the spirit, the soul, the personality. When the brain isn’t working at its optimal best — when there’s an obstruction of function through illness, or a fixation or obsession that springs from traumatic early childhood experiences — the animating spirit of the person, what we think of as personality, is impaired as well.
The phrase struck me immediately as being at the heart of my concerns in the book. We Are Not Ourselves suggests characters who are not at their best, who by dint of circumstances are not allowed to be themselves. It also suggests that we’re always learning and evolving, that we’re works-in-progress. We are not ourselves yet, in a sense; there’s hope in that. In a different vein, we are not reducible to whom we appear to be in our biographies. We contain multitudes in our rich internal lives that our lived lives don’t reveal. Another resonance for me is that we need each other to experience the full flowering of our humanity and our greatest happiness. We are not only ourselves; we are not islands unto ourselves. I liked that the phrase opened up fields of interpretation that would extend beyond the more circumscribed concerns of my original title, so I grabbed it and didn’t look back. As soon as I knew it was the title, it was as if it had been the title all along.
Recently, Lynn Stuart Parramore tried to explain “Why a Death-Obsessed Pop Siren Is Perfect for Late-Stage Capitalist America.” She was referring, of course, to Lana Del Rey. Parramore explains that the Ultraviolence chanteuse is only the latest heir to a long lineage of decadent femmes fatales that rise to cultural prominence at moments of perilous social transition or imminent collapse:
This potent combination of women, sex and death is going to be one of the calling cards of late-stage capitalism. We are experiencing fearsome global dislocations and distorted social and economic systems that are killing our life-affirming instincts. The death drive is perennial, but when a society seems to hover on the eve of destruction, these Eves of the Apocalypse — suicidal brides, young women fixated on pain and death — emerge to speak our well-founded anxieties. They signal that just now, the death drive is very strong.
Parramore’s thesis may not seem to have much to do with Ira Glass’s controversial assertion, tweeted after seeing a performance of King Lear, that, “Shakespeare sucks.” But when you consider that one of the late 19th century’s favorite sources of death-and-the-maiden imagery was the drowning Ophelia, weltering picturesquely among the strewn flowers of her fatal madness, the Shakespeare/Del Rey connection becomes more plausible. Just as Parramore (and others) criticize Lana Del Rey for social irresponsibility, for promoting an anti-feminist celebration of sadomasochistic sexuality and for embracing capitalist spectacle unto death, so the most persuasive and compelling attacks on Shakespeare have charged him with amoral aestheticism and a sensationalized skepticism about human potential.
Ira Glass’s infamous tweet complained of King Lear that it had “no stakes” and was “not relatable.” Rebecca Mead and Adam Kirsch have explained at eloquent length why Glass’s expectation that Shakespeare be “relatable” is a naïve and even pernicious application of the narcissistic standards of advertising to serious art. But is Glass’s assertion that King Lear lacks “stakes” really so off the mark? This is a play in which traditional authority and the religious foundation on which it rests have collapsed into nothingness. Its villain, Edmund, worships no god but amoral nature, and its forlorn metaphysical conclusion is, in the words of the brutally blinded Gloucester, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. / They kill us for their sport.” It’s not wrong to say that there are no stakes in the tragedy’s meaningless cosmos. At the play’s conclusion, a set of numb and chastened survivors mutter small consolations in a blasted landscape.
Turning the final page of ultraviolent King Lear in a literary anthology, you would expect it to be succeeded not by Milton’s Puritan justification of God’s ways to men or Pope’s Enlightenment assertion that, “Whatever is, is right,” but rather by the God-haunted and God-abandoned worlds of Kafka and Beckett. Shakespeare’s despairing modernity— — if by “modernity” we mean the collapse of all tradition and a resulting ontological insecurity — is uncanny, so uncanny that we can see elements of Lana Del Rey’s persona prefigured in Lear’s daughters: in the desperate and fatal sexual longings of Goneril and Regan, in the mysterious born-to-die intransigence of Cordelia.
This sense of an after-the-deluge world gone wrong, a world where faith, hope, and love are powerless to improve the human condition, has long disturbed Shakespeare’s critics, most notoriously the poet Nahum Tate, whose happy-ending re-write of Lear held the English stage throughout the 18th century.
But there are less moralistic ways to critique Shakespeare than Tate’s bowdlerization. In 1986, the brilliant polymath critic George Steiner gave a remarkable lecture called “A Reading against Shakespeare,” later collected in his No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995. In this densely learned paper, Steiner attempts to synthesize into a coherent and persuasive argument the complaints against Shakespeare made throughout modern history; he focuses particularly on the criticism of Leo Tolstoy and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Tolstoy and Wittgenstein, Steiner explains, implicitly relied on a concept of the poet as spiritual authority and moral prophet. For European thinkers of the 19th and early-20th centuries, it was not enough to be a prodigious coiner of words and creator of spectacle, as Shakespeare undoubtedly was:
Shakespeare is the incomparable Sprachchöpfer, the prodigal wordsmith, the limits of whose language are, in the idiom of the Tractatus, the limits of our world. There is scarcely a domain, constituent of men’s works and days, which Shakespeare has not harvested in language, over which he has not cast the encompassing net of his matchless lexical and grammatical wealth. Disposer of a vocabulary of almost thirty thousand words (Racine’s world is built of one tenth that number), Shakespeare, more than any other human being of whom we have certain record, has made the world at home in the word. This does not, however, make of him a Dichter, a truth-sayer, an explicitly moral agent, a visible teacher to and guardian of imperilled, bewildered mankind. An authentic Dichter, urges Wittgenstein, ‘cannot really say of himself, “I sing as the birds sing”—but perhaps Shakespeare could have said this of himself’ (Milton’s ‘warbling notes of wood-notes wild’ is fairly obviously present to Wittgenstein when he makes this suggestion). ‘I do not think that Shakespeare would have been able to reflect on the Dichterlos’ — a term again resistant to translation into English and into the entire register of Anglo-Saxon sensibility, but signifying something like the ‘calling’, ‘the destined ordnance’ of the poet.
Because his plays express no sense of a nearly divine vocation, of a mission to save humanity by transmitting ethical truths, Shakespeare cannot be the equal of Dante or Milton or Goethe, of the Greek dramatists or the Russian novelists, all of whom wrote to commune with the divine and to bring light to the world. What had in the Romantic tradition long been seen as Shakespeare’s unique strength — what Keats famously called his “Negative Capability,” his capacity for “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” — on this view becomes a liability, a social irresponsibility, a feckless acceptance of humanity’s doomed and ignorant lot without any attempt to improve it. Shakespeare can be seen as the paradigm of the apolitical artist, the dissolute aesthete reviled not only by the religious conservatives of all faiths but also by those who nurse radical political hopes, such as the anarcho-pacifist Tolstoy, the Soviet sympathizer Wittgenstein, and even the socialist-feminist Lynn Stuart Parramore. From this perspective, we find Shakespeare at the origin of that dangerously aloof aestheticism for which Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile has given us the most memorable picture in contemporary letters: the literary soirée above the torture chamber.
Accusing Shakespeare of reactionary politics is a longer tradition that one might expect; it certainly predates those deconstructionists, Marxists, postcolonialists, and feminists that the Bardolotarous Harold Bloom notoriously castigated as the “School of Resentment” in his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.
In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, for instance, Shakespeare’s plays lure Septimus Warren Smith into the Great War to fight for an England he associates with the Bard’s poetic achievement. But after the war, the shell-shocked Smith discovers a different moral in Shakespeare:
Here he opened Shakespeare once more. That boy’s business of the intoxication of language — Antony and Cleopatra — had shrivelled utterly. How Shakespeare loathed humanity — the putting on of clothes, the getting of children, the sordidity of the mouth and the belly! This was now revealed to Septimus; the message hidden in the beauty of words. The secret signal which one generation passes, under disguise, to the next is loathing, hatred, despair. Dante the same. Aeschylus (translated) the same.
While other classic authors are implicated in Septimus’s very 20th-century sense that, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (to quote Walter Benjamin), Shakespeare bears the brunt because he is the British icon whose poetic splendor tricked Septimus and his generation into fighting a nationalist and imperialist war that has destroyed their lives.
In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus makes a similar case in his lecture on Hamlet in the National Library of Dublin. The young colonial intellectual sees Shakespeare as the poet of empire, anticipating the postcolonialist critics of P.C. academe by more than half a century. “Khaki Hamlets don’t hesitate to shoot,” Stephen bitterly observes of the British empire. Joyce’s autobiographical hero imagines the Elizabethan playwright as a litigious capitalist (Shakespeare was part-owner of his own theatrical company and of the Globe theater) who projected his avarice onto Shylock in a classic instance of anti-Semitism. Stephen even pictures Shakespeare as a money-minded hoarder of necessities during famine, an image of horrifying relevance to Ireland:
— And the sense of property, Stephen said. He drew Shylock out of his own long pocket. The son of a maltjobber and moneylender he was himself a cornjobber and moneylender with ten tods of corn hoarded in the famine riots.
Stephen further speculates that Shakespeare’s nihilism was caused by wounded male pride, stemming from a betrayal by his wife, construed by the playwright/investor as yet another piece of his property:
But a man who holds so tightly to what he calls his rights over what he calls his debts will hold tightly also to what he calls his rights over her whom he calls his wife.
To sum up the political case against Shakespeare: his nihilism and skepticism translate directly into a political agnosticism all too willing to collaborate with oppression and injustice, especially when it is in the interests of shareholders. On this reading, what is at stake in Shakespeare is profit. Therefore, comparing him to Lana Del Rey, the putative commodity-image studio creation of the erstwhile Lizzy Grant and her industry collaborators, doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.
“And yet,” as George Steiner likes to say.
G. Wilson Knight wrote an essay in the 1930s reviewing Tolstoy’s polemic against Shakespeare. Knight concludes that, while Tolstoy’s utopianism is admirable, the kind of a purely ethical art he desires will never satisfy us, because audiences require a metaphysical drama that speaks to all of experience, one in which “[p]ersons both satanic and divine will inter-thread its story.” This conclusion, disturbing to moralists of all stripes, recalls another great analysis of Shakespeare by Knight, his classic “The Embassy of Death: An Essay on Hamlet.” (Both essays can be found in The Wheel of Fire: Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Tragedy.)
Knight spends much of “The Embassy of Death” building what looks like another Bardoclastic case, by patiently demonstrating the virtues of every character in the drama besides Hamlet. Claudius is a thoughtful king, committed to resolving international conflict through diplomacy rather than war; Polonius and Laertes are sensible to warn Ophelia away from the unstable Prince; Ophelia and Gertrude are innocent victims of Hamlet’s cruelty. These secondary characters are “creatures of earth,” Knight says, who love life and seek to make it as pleasant as possible, whereas Hamlet is a soul-sick death-bringer among them, a diseased intellect who trails destruction in his wake. Knight seems to make an irreproachable judgment against Hamlet — and, by extension, against the writer who expects us to take this monster for a hero:
He has seen the truth, not alone of Denmark, but of humanity, of the universe: and the truth is evil. Thus Hamlet is an element of evil in the state of Denmark. The poison of his mental existence spreads outwards among things of flesh and blood, like acid eating into metal.
What can Knight say to mitigate this conclusion? Nothing — so Knight surprises us instead: unlike Tolstoy or Wittgenstein, Knight devastatingly concludes, “It is Hamlet who is right.” In other words, the dark Prince’s evil vision has truth, if not morality or good politics, to recommend it.
Without mentioning G. Wilson Knight, Simon Critchley, and Jamieson Webster have come to a near-identical conclusion in their recent book, Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine, a doctrine they define as “the corrosive dialectic of knowledge and action, where the former disables the latter and insights into the truth induces a disgust with existence.” They go on to ask, “What is so heroic about Hamlet’s disgust? Do we even like him?” But that, as Critchley and Jamieson well know, is like asking if Hamlet is relatable. Of course we shouldn’t like him — but on the evidence of the play’s tenacious prestige, we do anyway. The authors of Stay, Illusion earlier relate, “We kept noticing occurrences of the word ‘nothing’ in Hamlet…and discovered that nothing, as it were, structures the action of the play and the interplay between its central characters.”
Hamlet’s — and Shakespeare’s — charismatically demonic knowledge of the void at the heart of reality, the death that is the essence of life, catches something very real in our experience (or mine, anyway), a basic metaphysical uncertainty that should disturb all of us, a faithlessness and despair that no doubt has the poisonous potential to ruin the plans of our reformers and revolutionaries, of our dispensers of Christian charity and our disseminators of socialist-feminist politics, but a grim knowledge that nevertheless murmurs constantly beneath the busy clamor of everyday life and that seeks passionate expression in the face of all protest. Maybe Shakespeare sucks because — and to the extent that — life sucks. It doesn’t and shouldn’t please us if we want to believe in a better world, and it may not cheer the fans of NPR, but Shakespeare’s visionary perception that precisely nothing is at stake in each of our lives will probably continue to worry us as long as there are playgoers and readers to experience it.
Image Credit: LPW
William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday is upon us, and at The Millions we wanted to celebrate it in 21st century American style, by debating which of his 38 plays is the best. (Actually, we might have been even more of our time and place if we’d tried to denote his worst.) This exercise comes with the usual caveats about how every play is special and to each his own when it comes to art. But waffling didn’t serve Hamlet well and it’s no fun in this situation, either! We asked five Shakespeare experts to name their favorite play and defend it as the Bard’s best, and they certainly made good on that request. Below you’ll find five persuasively argued cases for five different plays. These contributions may not settle the matter once and for all (though I was happy to see a very strong case made for my personal favorite play), but you’ll certainly learn a lot from them and likely be inspired to dust off your Shakespeare reader or take to the theater next time a production of [insert name of best play here] comes to town. And, really, what better birthday present could we give ole William than that?
Ros Barber is author of The Marlowe Papers.
I would like to be more daring, but when pressed to name Shakespeare’s best work, I can only argue for Hamlet. You could have asked me which play I consider his most underrated (Cymbeline) or which one I feel most personally attached to (As You Like It). But best? Hamlet is iconic.
From the first report of his father’s ghost to the final corpse-strewn scene, Hamlet epitomizes the word “drama.” Shakespeare’s wit, playfulness, and linguistic skills are at their most honed. Everything Shakespeare does well in other plays he does brilliantly here. His characters are at their most human, his language is at its wittiest and most inventive. The heights he has been reaching for in every play before 1599, he achieves fully in Hamlet. The play contains a line of poetry so famous I don’t even need to quote it. Then there’s “Oh that this too, too solid flesh…” — the finest soliloquy in the canon. The memorable images that arise from Hamlet have soaked into Western culture so thoroughly that even someone who has never seen the play is liable, when presented with a human skull, to lift it before them and start intoning “Alas, poor Yorick…”
The role of Hamlet is the role that every actor wants to play. Supporting roles such as Ophelia and even incidental roles such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have spawned major works of art. And – “the play’s the thing” – the play within a play is called The Mousetrap, and by the influence of its title alone appears to have spawned the longest-running show of any kind in the world. There is some kind of radical energy in Hamlet, and it has been feeding artists, writers, and actors for over four hundred years.
When I wrote The Marlowe Papers, whose premise is that William Shakespeare was a playbroker who agreed to “front” for Christopher Marlowe after he faked his death to escape execution, I knew from the outset that I had to elevate this already genius writer to the point where he was capable of writing Hamlet. Not Othello, not King Lear, but Hamlet. It’s the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s artistic achievement. Hands down.
Rev Dr Paul Edmondson is Head of Research for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. His current projects include www.shakespeareontheroad.com, a big road trip of Shakespeare festivals across the United States and North America in Summer 2014. You can follow him on Twitter at @paul_edmondson.
For emotional high-points, it doesn’t come much better than The Winter’s Tale: the evocation of the loving friendship between the two kings; the sudden and expressionistic jealousy of King Leontes and his cruel treatment of Queen Hermione; her tender moments with her son, the young Prince Mamillius; her trial and condemnation; her death quickly followed by the death of Mamillius; the banishment of her baby, the new princess; the bear that chases Antigonus off the stage. And then the passage of time.
I love the way that, every time I see it, this play manages to convince me I’ve entered a whole new world in its second half, a pastoral romance, and that I’ve left behind the tragedy of the earlier acts. And then it all comes magically back to where we started from, with new people who have a different stake in the future. We are sixteen years on but when we return it’s as if we know the place for the first time.
Then the final moments when the statue of Hermione comes to life. It’s a magical story and a miracle of a moment, not least because of the physical challenges it places on the actress to stand as still as she needs to. For these reasons it is the Shakespeare play above all that I find to be genuinely the most moving. The director Adrian Noble, when asked which was his favorite Shakespeare play used to reply, “You mean after The Winter’s Tale?” When this play is performed I see audience members reaching for their handkerchiefs and walking out of the theatre with tears in their eyes. “You can keep your Hamlets, you can keep your Othellos,” a friend of mine once said to me at the end of one performance, “give me The Winter’s Tale any day.” And I agree with him.
Laura Estill is Assistant Professor of English, Texas A&M University, and editor of the World Shakespeare Bibliography.
Of course there is no single best Shakespeare play: there is only the play that speaks best to a reader, scholar, theatre practitioner, or audience member at a given moment. Today, the play that speaks most to me is Henry V. Henry V is not just a great history play — it is a play about how we create and encounter history and how we mythologize greatness. Throughout the play, a chorus comments on the difficulties of (re)presenting history. The prologue’s opening lines capture the play’s energy:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Henry V is part of a series of four Shakespeare plays, the Henriad, named for Henry V. The Henriad traces Henry’s claim to the throne and his calculated move from a carousing youth to a powerful leader. Henry V brings together threads from the earlier plays in the tetralogy (Richard II, 1 & 2 Henry IV) and is haunted by the ghost of Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most endearing characters. The play has meaning not just as a standalone piece, but as part of a network of texts, including other contemporary history plays and the historical accounts that Shakespeare used as his sources (notably, Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland).
Shakespeare’s plays reflect the preoccupations of their readers and audiences; it is the multiple interpretations (both by scholars and performers) that make these works valuable. The counterpoints that Shakespeare presents in Henry V invite the audience to consider how we think of ourselves and what it means to be a strong leader. Shakespeare contrasts Henry’s moving and eloquent speeches (“we few, we happy few, we band of brothers”) with the toll of war on common people (“few die well that die in a battle”). Some people see Henry as the greatest English king; others point to Henry’s threat to impale infants on pikes. The epilogue raises Henry as “the star of England” yet also reminds audiences that his son will lose everything Henry has fought to gain.
Although all of Shakespeare’s plays can be approached from multiple angles, not all have remained perennially popular like Henry V. Whether it stars Kenneth Branagh (1989), Tom Hiddleston (2012, The Hollow Crown) or Jude Law (2013, Noel Coward Theatre), Henry V is a great play because it raises more questions than it answers.
Doug Lanier is Professor of English and Director of the London Program at the University of New Hampshire. He’s written Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture (2002) and is working on a book on Othello on-screen.
King Lear is the Mount Everest of Shakespeare – often forbiddingly bleak and challenging, but for those who scale it, it offers an unparalleled vista on man’s condition and its own form of rough beauty. More than any other Shakespeare play, Lear exemplifies what Immanuel Kant labeled the “sublime,” by which he meant those objects that inspire an awe that simply dwarves us rather than charms.
King Lear explores human identity stripped of the trappings of power, civilization, comfort, and reason, what Lear calls “unaccommodated man,” the self radically vulnerable to the vagaries of an indifferent universe and the cruelties of others. That Shakespeare’s protagonist is a king and patriarch, for early modern society the very pinnacle of society, makes his precipitous fall all the more terrifying. The image of Lear huddled with a beggar and a fool in a hovel on a moor while a storm rages outside is one of the most resonant – and desolate – literary representations of the human condition. Equally bracing is Gloucester’s reward for loyalty to his fellow patriarch: in one of Shakespeare’s most daring onstage moments, Gloucester is blinded before our eyes, an instance of cruelty which even today has the power to shock.
How to live on with knowledge of our fundamental condition is the play’s central preoccupation. Paradoxically, it is precisely the world’s bleakness and our own vulnerability that makes the ephemeral glimmers of love within it all the more valuable. Lear opens the play by asking his daughters to display their love, and his painful recognition of who truly loves him drives the action of the play. Love is so ineffable in Lear that it is typically expressed in minimal language, as if almost beyond words. Cordelia says “nothing” to Lear’s demand for love, and later when her father asks her forgiveness, she replies with understated poignancy, “no cause, no cause.” At play’s end Lear’s anguished love for the dead Cordelia is expressed in a single, excruciatingly repeated final word – “never, never, never, never, never” – in a line which captures at once his guilt, his need for love, his protest against the cruel circumstances of existence, his irremediable pain.
What makes King Lear difficult is its virtue: Shakespeare’s willingness to look a comfortless cosmos directly in the eye and not to turn toward easy consolation. Lear’s world is recognizably our own, our own terrestrial hovel in the dark cosmic storm. And the play’s exceptional power remains its capacity to remind us that hope and love, however fleeting, remain that world’s most precious resource.
Elisa Oh is Assistant Professor of English at Howard University. She has published articles on King Lear, The Tragedy of Mariam, and Wroth’s Urania, and her current book project explores representations of race and gender in early modern dance.
Choosing my favorite Shakespeare play is like choosing my favorite child. However, for the sake of the argument, I throw down the gauntlet in favor of Othello. This is why it’s great: First, Othello shows us how language and stories create reality; second, the play reveals both heroic loyalty and the vengeful, perverse underbelly of same-sex friendship; and finally, it challenges us to realize how easy and harmful it is to racialize and essentialize others’ identities.
Language itself manipulates reality with powerful effects throughout Othello. Language causes characters to fall in love and to fall in hate with each other. Desdemona falls in love with Othello’s stories of wartime adventures, and Othello falls into an obsessive jealous hatred through Iago’s stories of Desdemona’s imagined liaison with Cassio and others. Othello wants “ocular proof” of her infidelity, but he ultimately accepts Iago’s words in place of seeing an actual illicit sex act, and then Othello begins misreading outward signs of innocence as evidence of inner corruption, because he already “knows” the truth. Iago’s diabolical success and sinister final silence demonstrate the ultimate incomprehensibility of evil, which may exceed the bounds of linguistic articulation.
Desdemona’s loyalty to Othello, even when he mistreats and kills her, and Emilia’s loyalty to Desdemona, even when speaking in her defense results in Emilia’s death, cause us to admire their transcendent steadfastness and to question the proper limits of self-sacrifice. Though “race” had less stable meaning for Shakespeare than it does for us today, the play continues to generate important conversations about how we “racialize” others or define them as possessing certain essential inner qualities based on exterior features, religion, ethnicity, or nationality. Even the venomous serpent of internalized racism uncoils itself in Othello’s self-recriminations following his murder of Desdemona.
Witnessing the dis-integration of Othello’s love and trust in Desdemona is not a pleasant experience; if the criteria for “greatness” included audience pleasure, then one of the festive comedies would certainly come before this tragedy. However, taking each step down that sickening descent into murderous jealousy with Othello has the painful but useful result of making us question why and how this was possible with a passionate intensity bred out of a sense of injustice. The play serves as a magnifying glass that focuses conflicts about belief and disbelief; language and silence; loyalty and revenge; love and lust; blackness and whiteness with a growing intensity that becomes excruciatingly brilliant, unbearably burning, and finally cathartically destructive and revelatory.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Today we celebrate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. Why are we celebrating it? A simple answer is that Shakespeare’s plays still speak to us. But for me, as for so many women since Shakespeare wrote his first play in around 1590, my response to his plays is complicated by my gender. Virginia Woolf wrote in the first draft of To the Lighthouse that “man has Shakespeare & women have not.” This is true. At the same time, this is not true.
Women Making Shakespeare, a new anthology from The Arden Shakespeare series edited by Gordon McMullan, Lena Cowen Orlin, and Virginia Mason Vaughan, illustrates both sides of this paradox. The anthology was designed as a tribute to Ann Thompson, the general editor of the Arden series, who edited the massive Arden volume of all three texts of Hamlet with Neil Taylor, and who throughout her career has broken new ground in feminist criticism of Shakespeare, especially with her 1997 anthology (with Sasha Roberts) Women Reading Shakespeare 1660–1900. Thompson has also, in her role as general editor of the Arden series, dramatically increased the number of women editors of Shakespeare’s plays. Her work and her influence are worth celebrating because even today’s statistics on the numbers of women editors and commentators of Shakespeare are as damning as the VIDA statistics.
The anthology contains short essays on anything related to women and Shakespeare — as characters, as actresses, as critics and scholars, as educators, as suffragists and feminists, and as readers — over the past 450 years. I would like to pose some questions that plumb the variety the anthology offers: what does reading Shakespeare mean for women? Was Shakespeare proto-feminist or patriarchal? Has anything changed in 450 years?
We might investigate these questions through the history of Juliet. Shakespeare’s Juliet is bold, Romeo’s equal. She initiates their relationship, telling Romeo “take all myself” before she even knows for certain of his interest or commitment, bubbling over with her desire past the bounds of what might be considered correct behavior, and yet her frankness, as she calls it, is what makes her magnetic. And she talks and talks — of all Shakespeare’s heroines, only Cleopatra and Rosalind have more lines. Juliet might be another Rosalind, were this not a tragedy; I can imagine her saying, with Rosalind, “Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.”
Juliet defies her father’s plan to arrange her marriage, equivocating to Paris to avoid suspicion, and bravely agrees to the Friar’s plan to fake her death and rescue her from her family’s tomb. Shakespeare lets Juliet, rather than Romeo, describe their wedding night: “O, I have bought the mansion of a love / But not possessed it.” And in the last couplet of the last scene, the play becomes the story of “Juliet and her Romeo.” While the Friar chides Romeo for his “womanish” tears, Juliet stands out as the more mature partner. This is Juliet’s play.
Juliet’s equality with Romeo may have been underscored at its original performances by the fact that young men played both roles. But the thing about Shakespeare’s women, the reason why we still love Rosalind and Juliet today, is that they don’t read on the page or on the stage like young men in drag, trying to show what a second gender is. These are true-hearted women. Juliet is frank, and petulant, and brave, and chatty, and loving. She is authentic.
Restoration theater brought women actresses onto the stage for the first time — a woman played Desdemona for the first time in 1660 — but it also brought changes in how women were presented on stage. The prologue to the 1660 Othello declared: “I come . . . To tell you news, I saw the Lady drest; / The woman playes to day, mistake me not, / No Man in Gown, or Page in Petty-Coat; / A Woman to my knowledge.” Thus began the tradition in which actresses’ bodies were voyeuristically put on display and actresses became equated with prostitutes. At the same time, Juliet’s frankness, especially about sex, became seen as unseemly. A 1679 version of Romeo and Juliet, Thomas Otway’s Caius Marius, cut the wedding night speech and instead called marriage “lawful Rape.” Lavinia, the Juliet-figure, wakes just before her lover’s death, but in a state of confusion that elides Juliet’s strength and intelligence.
In 1744, Theophilus Cibber’s abridged Romeo and Juliet kept Otway’s alterations and, further, condemned Juliet’s exchange with Romeo in the balcony scene; her mother, suspicious of Juliet’s aversion to marriage with Paris, supposes it must be because Juliet has done something to compromise her chastity: “What sensual, lewd Companion of the Night / Have you been holding Conversation with, / From open Window, at a Midnight hour?” she demands. To be disobedient is to be unchaste.
Both Cibber and David Garrick, in his 1750 version, rewrote the closing couplet, deleting the line that foregrounds Juliet “and her Romeo,” and Garrick further deleted any hint that Juliet knows anything about sex. By 1797, with Ann Radcliffe’s novel The Italian, a retelling of the play, Ellena is propriety itself when she learns that her lover has overheard her beneath her balcony. She turns pale, shuts her window, and doesn’t speak to him. In 1845, Charlotte Cushman played Romeo to her sister Susan’s “beautifully confiding and truly feminine” Juliet — in other words, perfectly demure, perfectly silent, a model of Victorian womanhood.
Shakespeare was increasingly appropriated around this time to provide models for womanhood. Often these were paired with arguments for better access to education for girls, Kate Chedgzoy argues in her essay in this anthology, as with Mary Lamb, who composed her Tales from Shakespeare (1807) with her brother Charles partly as a way of “redressing the limitations of the education on offer to girls.” Girls could not read Shakespeare directly (what if they read Juliet’s wedding night speech?), but they could read the tales as mediated through an educator. Lamb herself later became a tutor to Mary Cowden Clarke, teaching her Latin and to read verse. Cowden Clarke’s The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines (1850) had a similar aim, but it is worth noting that each girl’s story is framed as a march from girlhood to education to marriage. The purpose of education is not, at least primarily or overtly, to give women a voice and power for self-definition; the track of womanhood offered through these Shakespeare tales is girl to teacher of children (or apprentice mother) to mother.
In Juliet’s case, as treated by Cowden Clarke, her education is at fault for her eventual tragic end. Ignored by her parents through her girlhood, her faulty education accounts for her outspokenness and self-will, and it is these qualities, not her star-crossed fate, that lead to her death. This was the same period as Henrietta and Thomas Bowdler’s The Family Shakespeare (1807), in which many of Juliet’s lines are scrubbed and she becomes more submissive; and of Helen Faucit, an actress who, at the same time that William Charles Macready was restoring the performance of Shakespeare’s original texts, deleted even more of Juliet’s lines than usual. Her performances were called “types of noble womanly nature” and a reviewer commented: “her delicacy of taste and elevation of thought have succeeded in banishing from [Shakespeare’s] characters…all that, from the change of manners, sometimes in the hands of others, has become painful. Such is the atmosphere of purity with which she is surrounded, that nothing at variance with it can enter…” And yet actresses at this time were still equated with prostitutes.
The idealization of Shakespeare’s heroines as “types of noble womanly nature” had the effect, as Lois Potter notes in this anthology, of simplifying, Bowdlerizing, the plays. But it also simplified and silenced the women. A noble, virtuous Juliet, as in Faucit’s portrayal, was, compared to Shakespeare’s original, a silent woman. Let me return to one of my original questions: was Shakespeare a proto-feminist or was he patriarchal? My history of Juliet thus far suggests that he was, somehow, a sixteenth century feminist. Now let’s look at The Taming of the Shrew.
It is almost unbelievable that Katherina does not have more lines than Juliet or Rosalind. She is outspoken. She is argumentative. She is everything we love about Juliet and Rosalind cranked up a few notches. But on her character and her play, female editors have been almost universally silent. There have been two female editors of the play so far: Ann Thompson and, commissioned by Thompson for the Arden series, Barbara Hodgson.
What do we do with Shrew? A woman is physically abused by her husband until she shows symptoms of Stockholm syndrome, and only then, the play seems to suggest, will they live happily ever after. Bianca, the woman who is not abused during her wooing and wedding, shows signs of becoming a shrew and a scold afterward. Which method is being held up as ideal?
Farah Karim-Cooper’s essay in Women Making Shakespeare notes that some modern productions have found the only way to make the play palatable to modern audiences is to set it in the past. The guilt we feel over Katherina’s treatment by Petrucchio is only palatable at a distance of 450 years. But she also provides some hope in context: ideal sixteenth century wives were both obedient and silent. Obedient Katherina becomes, but never silent; the play ends with a lengthy speech from Katherina. She has a voice! It is possible that Shakespeare is unravelling the courtship rituals that called for a false hierarchy between men and women that would be immediately undermined or reversed within marriage. Bianca has the appearance of submission — but which would you rather have as a marriage partner? Nevertheless, there remains the troubling feeling that this play, and therefore Shakespeare, approve of Petrucchio’s behavior, and the abuse and silencing of a woman in the name of ruling a wife.
When actresses were first allowed to perform publicly in England, they generally did not address the audience directly in a prologue or epilogue. As Sonia Massai notes in this anthology, when they did, their speeches stressed the “exceptional quality” of the occasion. Then, as this essay traces, for much of the history of women’s performance of Shakespeare, actresses were associated with prostitutes, even up to the Victorian era. Ailsa Grant Ferguson’s essay takes this history up to World War I, talking about Gertrude Elliott’s work to legitimize female performance and management through the creation of “the Shakespeare Hut” to entertain soldiers passing through London. This all-female Shakespeare was acceptable because it was “war work,” because it was patriotic, and because, the actresses for the most part being middle aged, their performances were positioned as maternal care, and thus a-sexual, for the very young men about to go to the front.
One of the last essays in the anthology, by Kevin A. Quarmby, talks about the contemporary performance trend of “sexing up” Goneril in King Lear, and suggests that both in contemporary criticism and in performance, transgression by a woman, even political transgression as in Goneril’s case, is still seen as equivalent to sexual transgression. Because Goneril betrays a man (Lear) politically, therefore she is also a whore. This makes her little better than a cipher — sexualizing her deprives her of her right to a legitimate political voice, and therefore silences her.
What has changed in 450 years of performing, reading, writing Shakespeare? The history of women interacting with Shakespeare’s plays is also the history of women’s rights, suffrage, and of the feminist movement. It is a history of women being silenced and of finding ways to speak out anyway. Shakespeare has been, and is, an uneasy ally in this history. He complicates but also enriches our idea of what a woman is. Too often we are still Katherinas, forced to compromise our dignity in order to retain our voice, or else our insistence on speaking is blamed for our tragedies, like Juliet. But the reason why we still read Shakespeare’s women, is that they are women. Goneril, Juliet, and Katherina are finally not ciphers. Whatever else they may be, they are true women, and they have true voices.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
You are sitting with the Great Man, and he is holding forth. He made the Greatest American Film of All Time when he was just twenty-five (he has the Newsweek notice from John O’Hara memorized, and he will repeat it for you with only a slight addition here or there, with no prompting.) He’s a legend, an idol, a God of Cinema. He is Orson Welles and, my God, he is such a bitch.
Whether or not to read Peter Biskind’s My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles is simply decided: do you care, at all, about continuing to admire Orson Welles as an actual person and artist, or are you happy to have that illusion exploded by a sad, embittered caricature performing great feats of persona for a sycophant with a hidden tape recorder?
The “conversations” (90% Welles monologue) in Lunches with Orson provide entertaining, salacious reading for those of us who enjoy old Hollywood gossip delivered with exquisite nastiness (Paulette Goddard “was a wonderful girl, but she’s a living cash register, you know.”) And if the aim of the book is to show the absurd, monotonous viciousness of Hollywood and its poisonous characters, it’s an unqualified success. Yes, it’s repetitive, and it drags, but so does the life of Welles at Ma Maison, the restaurant where he and his tiny dog, Kiki, held forth for the adoring filmmaker Henry Jaglom between the years 1982 and 1985, when Welles died. They spent these luncheons eating California nouvelle cuisine while trying, endlessly, to fund, cast, or complete any Welles project. In the midst of plotting future works, Welles was happy to tell stories of his greatness and dish outrageously petty dirt on any person, film, or concept imaginable.
The gossip is endless, and endlessly amusing: Humphrey Bogart, “both a coward and a very bad fighter, was always picking fights in nightclubs.” Katherine Hepburn “laid around the town like nobody’s business.” “Larry [Olivier] is very– I mean seriously– stupid.” Chaplin is also “deeply dumb” and Garbo is “a big-boned cow.” Lest you think him petty, he shares his generous pimping efforts on behalf of a young starlet named Marilyn Monroe: “I would point Marilyn out to Darryl [Zanuck], and say, ‘What a sensational girl.’ He would answer, ‘she’s just another stock player. We’ve got a hundred of them. Stop trying to push these cunts on me. We’ve got her for $125 a week.’ And then, about 6 months later, Darryl was paying Marilyn $400,000 and the men were looking at her — because some stamp had been put on her.”
After a certain point in the book, one is very much reminded of the recurring motif within Vertigo (a movie Welles hated, along with most Hitchcock films): are we fated to forever return to same conversation about the myriad betrayals Welles has endured? Are we still waiting for Welles’s 16 millimeter, black and white King Lear to be financed by the French? Is it still so important to claim ownership of every single aspect of Citizen Kane? (His sensitivity over the writing credit is understandable, as Paulene Kael’s 1971 piece for The New Yorker, Raising Kane, put forth the widely accepted — though since debunked — theory that Welles had claimed credit for a script actually penned by Herman J. Mankiewicz. But must Welles also claim sole responsibility for lighting and editing the film, and boorishly refuse to call film in any way collaborative?) Everyone “loves” his new script for The Dreamers, but will anyone actually buy it? Lunches with Orson, with their clear routine of gossip, pontificating, and money-hustling, are repetitive, and never go anywhere. The depressing stagnation and inertia of Welles’s later life is on full display here, and all the fawning and flattery and promises Jaglom offers cannot move Welles’s career forward, or undo his tremendous self-sabotage.
Jaglom claims to have done everything he could to help Welles find funding, but The Great Man’s reputation as a temperamental egotist who never finished a project continually frustrated their efforts. While it seems clear that Welles was often stymied by the profit-driven dullness of the movie industry, he also never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. There are numerous instances in which Welles talks himself into and out of a deal in one breath (the French have offered him a blank check for Lear…but he cannot stomach filming in France; he could direct The Cradle Will Rock…but he cannot in good conscience direct something he does not have full writing credit on), and any eavesdropper (which, of course, any reader is) might find themselves tempted to suggest, “just do it, you indecisive blowhard!” upon the fourth or fifth dissection of a possible funder’s motives and/or creative purity.
In the book’s most telling instance of self-sabotage, Welles begins to pitch a miniseries about Acapulco to a very receptive HBO executive, Susan Smith. Within minutes of beginning, Welles throws a massive tantrum, insulting Smith and refusing to even speak with her after she expresses interest in a Dominican Republic setting. After Welles has dismissed Smith as someone who simply does not understand his vision, Jaglom tells him how a recent biographer has “put the lie to the myth of your self-destructiveness.” But what have we just seen, if not a frankly ridiculous act of creative immolation?
This is, of course, the privilege of the “artist” in film: to flirt with or deny based on feeling, or temperament, or vision. But the capriciousness of the visionary, when coupled with a sympathetic producer’s pragmatism, can wield great (or at least produced) works. Welles has no such partner here. What he has is Jaglom, a disciple with a vested interest in Welles as the misunderstood, noncommercial artist. Jaglom uses Welles’s dismissal of John Huston as an opportunity to point out what he finds truly rare about Welles: “You mean because [John Huston] doesn’t have a need to really be the creative artist. The fact that you’ve not been able to do that is testimony, in many people’s minds, to a kind of — you’re gonna hate this word — purity. It comes from a kind of insistence on making your own films…” This is lovely talk from an admirer, less useful from a person charged with finding money for your films. After years of teasing, Jack Nicholson finally killed Welles’s “The Big Brass Ring” (his salary needed to be more 1980s, less 1960s), but what could have been if Jaglom had pushed back against Welles’s absurdly racist reaction to the idea of casting Hoffman, Pacino or De Niro in the role of an American president? When Jaglom suggested that these stars had expressed interest, Welles responded, “Not your friend Dusty Hoffman. No dwarfs. Besides, they’re ethnic…No dark, funny-looking guys.”
Ah yes, old man Welles, the lovable old bigot you never knew. Though Welles himself sees through the moral bankruptcy of excusing abhorrent behavior because of artistic greatness (when he rightly criticizes Elia Kazan, who named names for HUAC, Jaglom protests, “You don’t make allowances for people with talent, like Kazan?”), the reader of My Lunches with Orson is urged to excuse what Peter Biskind calls Welles’s “politically incorrect opinions.” In his introduction, Biskind lets the reader knows that he knows that Welles will be surely read as “sexist, racist, homophobic, vulgar (let’s be kind, call it Rabelaisian),” but that he is certain that it was driven by Welles’s “impish” nature. Yes, surely it was his “impishness” that made Welles refuse to hug Jaglom in 1985, saying, “I haven’t gone through my life to be felled by some gay plague.” One can almost see the scampish twinkle in his eye as he pronounces, “no female has guilt. That’s why the Bible is so true!” And any idea that he might be prejudiced (against, for instance, the Irish, Hungarians, Jews, Italians, or Russians, all of whom he neatly reduces into “Rabelaisian” stereotypes) is undone by his many experiences! “I love Hungarians to the point of sex! I almost get a hard-on when I hear a Hungarian accent.” He certainly couldn’t be racist, as he dated Lena Horne! His way of getting back at a racist club-owner who didn’t want him being seen publicly with her was to find a “big, black mammy, like Aunt Jemima, a Hattie McDaniel type, coal black,” send her obscene letters and harass her, then make it appear that the club owner was in fact her deranged stalker. Great prank, Orson!
In the end, the reader of My Lunches With Orson is left with the queasy, hollow, particularly guilty feeling one gets from too much misanthropy; from imbibing too much bile. Welles is petty and vindictive, and though he is an astute critic of the nastiness, solipsism, and viciousness of Hollywood, he is absolutely of it as well. Reading My Lunches With Orson is akin to spending a long three hours with your amusing, gossipy, bigoted old grandpa.
But of course, your grandpa was probably more than just stupid Hungarian jokes (“How do you make a Hungarian omelet? First, steal two eggs. Korda told me that.”) Lost in this book is any sense of a “real” Welles. Though Jaglom claims they are great friends, Welles generally performs his “Welles bear show,” says incendiary things about various groups, and tells fantastic stories about famous people. Yes, yes, the argument goes: was there a “real” Welles? Aren’t we all performing? Did he not amuse? But this is the kind of tiresome and ultimately lazy dehumanization with which Biskind and Jaglom seem too comfortable. Granted, Welles acts more like a caricature than like a man, but he is not treated like a man either. He is treated as an idol, an embodiment of radical cinema, auteur theory, as a living cautionary tale.
The sadness that runs throughout the book is tangible, and even when we are driven to distraction by the unbelievable amount of pretension and egotism on display (it’s like being seated next to a massive blowhard — who also happens to have the voice from Transformers — yelling about how he’s an expert on everything from the Renaissance to Latin American politics, for 14 hours), the overwhelming feeling is one of pity. Pity that this man could not be a man, but had to be an idol, and pity that he did not have better, more human friends. The reader senses the weariness of this Welles pose, the expectation of constant persona becoming too great for him to escape. As they wait for the Lear money to come in (it never does), Jaglom suggests Welles make a short, experimental film “in the meantime.” In one of the rare glimpses of the humanity and desperation behind the Great Man persona, Welles responds,
There is no meantime. It’s the grocery bill. I haven’t got the money. It’s that urgent. That what drives me off my…nut. I can’t afford to work in hopes of future profits. I have to hustle now. All I do is sweat and work. I’m imprisoned by a simple economic fact. Get me on the screen and my life is fuckin’ changed.
This is the real, de-auteured reality of Welles in his last years. Here was a man who had to shill for Paul Masson wine (and then beg to shill again), do voice-over for Magnum P.I., and haggle over a possible Love Boat appearance; the man who wished, bitterly, that he could land a McDonalds campaign like his nemesis John Houseman.
And in the end, no matter how Jaglom protests that Welles knew of the Ma Maison lunch recordings and approved of their eventual use, we are left with Welles’s own words on the foolishness of “knowing” your Gods. Welles had recently read biographies of Isak Dinesen and Robert Graves, his own “Gods.” Though the Graves book was written by an admirer, Welles says:
I learned a lot of things about him I didn’t want to know. If you do the warts, the warts are gonna look bigger than they were in life. If these people were my friends, the warts wouldn’t be as important to me as they seem in the book. We all have people that we know are drunks, or dopeheads or have bad tempers or whatever, and they’re still our friends, you know. But in the book, you focus on it. And these biographies have diminished these people so much in my mind. They deny me someone who I’ve loved always. I like Dinesen a lot less, now. In other words, Dinesen was brilliantly careful to present herself as the person I wanted to love. And if she was somebody else, really, I’m sorry to know it. And I suddenly think to myself, “You know, there’s no such thing as a friendly biographer.”
Image via Wikimedia Commons
My reading of Shakespeare tends to be seasonal: comedies in the spring and summer, histories and tragedies in the fall and winter. There are exceptions. A hot, sweaty tragedy like Othello or Antony and Cleopatra reads better in hot, sweaty weather, and a “problem” comedy like Measure for Measure seems less problematic during an autumn chill. I persist in this folly even when confronted with The Winter’s Tale, three/fifths wintry tragedy, two/fifths vernal comedy, and wholly a masterwork, because Shakespeare seems to me more rooted in the earth and its rhythms than any other writer. Samuel Johnson believed that “Shakespeare is, above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature.” Johnson was speaking primarily of human nature, but if we extend the term to mean the other kind too, we get a little nearer the mark. Shakespeare is the poet of everything.
What then is the optimal time to read The Winter’s Tale – in winter if you feel the burden is primarily tragic, in spring if you feel the opposite pull, or maybe (if you feel the issue is eternally undecided) in a blustery week in late March when the crocuses have begun to push through? (The logical solution – to read the first three acts in the winter and save the last two for warmer weather – is, alas, a reductio ad absurdum. Not that I haven’t tried.) Theater people don’t have the luxury to be so choosy, and I’ve seen excellent productions of The Winter’s Tale at all times of the year, the most recent being a (winter) performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music starring Simon Russell Beale and Rebecca Hall that left me in tears. A local high school production probably would have done the same. In my experience, The Winter’s Tale plays more effectively on stage than more celebrated works like Hamlet or King Lear, which are sometimes doomed by theatrical self-consciousness and present obstacles to staging (the storm on the heath, for instance) difficult to surmount. In particular, Act IV of The Winter’s Tale is so perfectly conceived that it seems as much carnival as theater. Slapstick, satire, music, dance, suspense, disguise, romance, bawdry, philosophy, sleight-of-hand: one mode of performance succeeding another, and all stage managed by the greatest dramaturge of them all. So yes, Shakespeare was a playwright – an actor, a director, a producer, in fact a man wholly of the theater – and The Winter’s Tale is a play. But we can’t always have the benefit of an actor as skilled as Simon Russell Beale interpreting Leontes for us, and even then, it’s his interpretation, not ours. When we read the plays, we’re actor, director, and lighting designer at once. And what we’re reading, it’s worth pointing out, is very largely poetry.
Seventy-five point five percent poetry, to be precise. The Winter’s Tale is just about the golden mean – 71.5% blank verse, 3.1% rhymed verse, and 25.4% prose, plus six songs, the highest number in the canon, and appropriate for the genius of wit and improvisation who sings them, the “rogue” Autolycus. How I love Shakespearean metrics! Iago has 1097 lines to Othello’s 860, 86.6% of The Merry Wives of Windsor is in prose, King John and Richard II have no prose whatsoever, 45.5% of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is in rhymed verse, there are 150 named female characters in the canon as opposed to 865 male, and the actor who plays an uncut Hamlet has to memorize 1422 lines. (Cordelia, by contrast, makes her overwhelming presence felt with a mere 116 lines.) If there were a way of computing the Bard’s earned run average, I would want to know that too.
Clinical as they might seem, these statistics do remind us of a salient fact: three quarters of Shakespeare’s dramatic writing is poetry. (The other quarter is pretty good too. Shakespeare wrote the best prose as well as the best verse in the English language, and if there were anything other than prose and verse, he would have surpassed everyone at that as well.) Polixines’s first lines in The Winter’s Tale are, “Nine changes of the wat’ry star hath been / The shepherd’s note since we have left our throne / Without a burden” (I.ii. 1-3). That’s a long way from, “It’s been nine months since I’ve been away from my kingdom.” Even if Shakespeare had phrased the lines in prose, they would have been suitably orotund, something like the courtly politesse Archidamus and Camillo speak in the opening scene. (“Since their more mature dignities and royal necessities made separation of their society, their encounters (though not personal) hath been royally attorney’d . . . “) Nevertheless, they are in verse. No prose could match the effect of the bold initial spondee balanced by an unstressed pyrrhic before catching up with the regular iambic rhythm of the pentameter line. (“NINE CHANG/es of/the WAT’/ry STAR/hath BEEN . . .”) It’s like a bell going off. Surely what’s greatest about Shakespeare is not that he knows where to put his iambs and trochees but that he writes so expressively within character. Polixines’s periphrastic way of saying what could have been said much more simply is more than the eloquence one would expect of a king taking leave of another king. In evoking the moon and the waters and the shepherd’s eternal rounds, Polixines conjures the elemental, folkloric realities that the play will traffic in. There will be shepherds, long passages of time, lots of water, and boy will there be “changes.” Plus, this being Shakespeare, Polixines’ lines are almost gratuitously beautiful. He just couldn’t help it.
On the other hand, beauty has a job to do. It compels attention, and if you’re paying attention to the words, chances are you’re also paying attention to what words do: tell stories, define characters, establish themes, orchestrate emotions, explore ideas. Not that it’s as easy as all that. There are times in The Winter’s Tale when it’s maddeningly difficult to figure out what the hell the characters are talking about. You are ill-advised to attend any production cold.
Harold Bloom has grumpily admitted to boycotting most productions of Shakespeare out of frustration with tendentious interpretations. For me the problem is less directorial overkill than the sheer difficulty of doing Shakespeare at all – finding actors who can speak the verse properly, trimming the texts to manageable lengths, not overdoing the dirty jokes, and so on. I usually attend three or four productions a year and happily settle for whatever patches of brilliance (sometimes sustained for nearly a whole evening) I can get. And yet I wouldn’t want to deprive myself of the pleasure of unpacking the involutions of Leontes’s soliloquies in The Winter’s Tale at my leisure and with text in hand – partly because in the theater it’s so hard to follow what this lunatic is actually saying. Even his faithful courtier Camillo at one point has to confess that he’s mystified as to precisely what dark “business” his Highness is hinting at:
Leon. Was this taken
By any understanding pate but thine?
For thy conceit is soaking, will draw in
More than the common blocks. Not noted, is’t,
But of the finer natures? By some severals
Of head-piece extraordinary? Lower messes
Perchance are to this business purblind? Say.
Cam. Business, my lord? I think most understand
Bohemia stays here longer.
It’s true that the density of this language depends at least as much on formal rhetoric – all those tropes and devices that Shakespeare had drilled into his head as a schoolboy – as on versification. But what the poetry gives us that prose could not (or not so well) is a sense of formlessness within form. Leontes is falling apart. His jealous ravings feed on themselves in an ever more frenzied cycle of psychological dislocation. You might call it a nervous breakdown. Yet no matter how feverish his utterances, they all stay within the strict boundaries of ten or sometimes eleven syllables. If you’re losing your mind in iambic pentameter, your mode of expression is necessarily compressed. No wonder Leontes is so hard to understand:
Affection! thy intention stabs the centre.
Thou dost make possible things not so held,
Communicat’st with dreams (how can this be?),
With what’s unreal thou co-active art,
And fellow’st nothing. Then ‘tis very credent
Thou mayst co-join with something, and thou dost
(And that beyond commission), and I find it
(And that to the infection of my brains
And hard’ning of my brows).
To my mind, no one has ever satisfactorily explained the meaning of the first line, but the sense of psychic violence is clear enough, as is the sense of delusion that Leontes unwittingly demonstrates in the following lines – he perfectly illustrates what he thinks he’s criticizing. Hard as it is to follow this soliloquy on the page, it’s that much harder in the theater, which doesn’t allow for second readings or leisurely reflections on dense ambiguities. Unlike the pattern of some other geniuses, the movement of Shakespeare’s late work (at least verbally) is toward an increasing complication rather than a simplicity or clarity of expression. Those Jacobean groundlings must have had remarkable attention spans, and no wonder. The linguistic transformation that they witnessed, according to Frank Kermode in Shakespeare’s Language, “happened in the writing of Shakespeare and in the ears of an audience he had, as it were, trained to receive it.”
Dense, compressed, harsh, impacted: these qualities don’t stop Shakespeare’s later dramatic verse from being magnificent. Has anyone ever rendered the grosser tendencies of the male imagination with more obscenely “reified” imagery? What makes Leontes’s ravings especially sickening is that he pronounces them in the presence of his innocent son Mamillius:
Inch-thick, knee-deep, o’er head and ears a fork’d one!
Go play, boy, play. Thy mother plays, and I
Play too, but so disgrac’d a part, whose issue
Will hiss me to my grave: contempt and clamor
Will be my knell. Go play, boy, play. There have been
(Or I am much deceiv’d) cuckolds ere now,
And many a man there is (even at this present,
Now, while I speak this) holds his wife by th’ arm,
That little thinks she has been sluic’d in ‘s absence,
And his pond fish’d by his next neighbor – by
Sir Smile, his neighbor.
When Simon Russell Beale spoke these lines at BAM, that “sluic’d” went through the audience – or at least through me – like a wound. Sometimes it’s hard to believe just how graphic Shakespeare’s imagery can be. As a woefully inexperienced undergraduate, I thought Pompey’s description in Measure for Measure of Claudio’s offense against sexual morality – “Groping for trouts in a peculiar river” – vaguely amusing. Amusing yes, vague no. There are some things no book can teach you.
The simplicity that many people would like to find in late Shakespeare as they do in the closing phases of Beethoven or Michelangelo is in fact there but selectively deployed and as much a matter of technique as of vision. Hermione’s protestations of innocence during the horrendous trial scene have a dignified plainness in contrast to the casuistry with which Leontes arraigns her. (“Sir, / You speak a language that I understand not.”) The language relaxes in the last two acts, as we move from suspicion and sterility to rebirth and reconciliation. Yet touches of lyricism occur earlier in the play (as in Polixines’s “We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ th’ sun, / And bleat the one at th’ other”), just as echoes of Leontes’s rhetorical violence occur later in Polixenes’s rage at the prospect of a shepherdess daughter-in-law (“And thou, fresh piece / Of excellent witchcraft, whom of force must know / The royal fool thou cop’st with”). Our Bard, who knew rhetorical tricks from hypallage to syllepsis, was not likely to disdain something so basic as plain contrast. Consider this contrast: Leontes, who earlier expressed the most extreme repugnance toward almost any form of physicality, now uses the homeliest of similes to express his wonder at the “miracle” of Hermione’s transformation from statue to living creature in Act V: “If this be magic, let it be an art / Lawful as eating.” Eleven lines later the loyal retainer Paulina, who has brought off the whole improbable spectacle, speaks the half line that is, for me, the most wrenching moment in the whole play: “Our Perdita is found.” How like Shakespeare – to expand emotionally by contracting linguistically. (Compare the lonely, cuckolded Bloom’s “Me. And me now” in Joyce’s Ulysses – the emotional heart, in four words, of a novel much given to logorrhea.) To gloss such a line would be almost an impertinence, except to say that being lost (“Perdita,” analogous to “perdition”) and found is in some sense what the play is all about. It’s not just Leontes who, rediscovering his wife and daughter, finds himself. Ideally, at a performance or in a reading, so should we.
Self-discovery can be a pretty scary experience, which is why Tony Tanner in his Prefaces to Shakespeare wrote that the proper response to this play is one in which awe borders on horror: “It does not merely please or entertain. It should leave us aghast, uncertain of just what extraordinary thing we have just witnessed.” Iambs and trochees will get you only so far. They signify that Shakespeare thought poetically, and thinking poetically means expressing experience in a highly concentrated manner. It’s curious that as Shakespeare’s language grew increasingly dense and demanding, his plots moved in the opposite direction – towards the deliberate improbabilities of folklore and fable. Shipwrecks, foundlings, treasure chests, prophecies, oracles, and hungry bears: if the plot of The Winter’s Tale were to be retold stripped of its poetry, it “should be hooted at / Like an old tale,” as Paulina says of the biggest improbability of them all – the apparent transformation of the martyred queen from cold statue to living flesh. To the disappointment of some, the patterned contrivances of the four late “romances” (Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest) necessarily entail a slackening of authorial interest in the particulars of character development. Othello’s jealousy is motivated point by excruciating point; Leontes’ jealousy just is. Sometimes it’s well to think back to Samuel Johnson’s point of view. Shakespeare is the poet of nature, and all that naturalism shines out amid the archetypal movements and resolutions of the late romances. Certainly these plays have evoked unusually personal responses. Northrup Frye, no critical slouch, wrote of The Tempest, it is a play “not simply to be read or seen or even studied but possessed.” When Eric Rohmer wanted to depict a transfiguring moment in the life of his heroine in A Tale of Winter (Conte d’hiver, 1991), he did so by having her attend a regional production of The Winter’s Tale and training the camera on her face during Hermione’s transformation scene. Nothing like seeing a clunky, old-fashioned version in French to make you understand what Shakespeare can do without language.
Another curiosity about the romances is the degree to which they turn on the concept of forgiveness. “Pardon’s the word to all,” says Cymbeline late in the play of that title, jauntily brushing aside five acts worth of treachery, corruption, murder, and deceit. Was there something in Shakespeare’s experience that turned his thoughts in his last years to the possibility of forgiveness? Had his many years as an absent husband and father begun to gnaw at him as he contemplated retirement and a return to the wife and family he had clearly neglected? Or had his wife Anne – perhaps understandably in the light of their long separation – been “sluiced” in his absence, and had he, with all his attendant guilts and slippages, to pardon her for that? Was he thinking of the Catholicism he might secretly have been raised in and of the doctrine of grace that – it could be argued – subtly informs these plays? Or was it something simpler and even more personal – namely, brooding on the usual fuckups that everyone racks up over time and hopes to be forgiven for? Virtually nothing is known of the man’s inner life, but few people dispute the semi-autobiographical nature of The Tempest, with its sense of a valediction to the theater he had known and loved. So why not extrapolate a little from the work to the life?
Depends on whose life, I guess. While I’m very much interested in Shakespeare’s life, I’m more interested in my own. What I extrapolate from The Winter’s Tale is that if Leontes deserves a break, so do I. There came a time in my life when I needed to be forgiven. I wasn’t. If I must take my consolation from a play rather than from any flesh and blood Hermione, that’s not quite so bleak as it sounds. Yes, I would have preferred real forgiveness to the literary kind, but I find it no small consolation that at the end of his life the world’s supreme imaginative writer returns again and again to a basic home truth: we must forgive each other. For me, reading Shakespeare is like going to church, except that in place of a God I could never and wouldn’t want to believe in, I “commune,” so to speak, with a mind that seems to comprehend all others and enforces no doctrinal obedience. This community of believers embraces anyone who has ever seen, heard, or read a word of Shakespeare’s and been moved to wonder and reflection. That’s what I call a catholic church.
The forgiveness I’ve spoken of is not without cost. Antigonus and Mamillius die, and when Hermione steps off that pedestal, she speaks to her daughter, not to her husband. Part fairly tale, part moral exemplum, The Winter’s Tale is what religion would be if it could free itself of those hectoring, incomprehensible Gods. In the unveiling of the supposed “miracle” in Act V, the sage and long-suffering Paulina speaks the lines that could serve as the epitaph for all of late Shakespeare: “It is required / You do awake your faith.” The fact that the miracle turns out to be completely naturalistic (the “resurrected” Hermione has been hidden away for sixteen years and has the wrinkles to prove it) means only that the faith required transcends any particular religious dispensation. It’s a faith, first of all, in the reader’s or spectator’s willingness to enter without quibbling into the imaginative world that Shakespeare has created, but more than that, it’s a faith in life itself – in the human imagination, and in our capacity for endurance, transformation, and renewal. As Leontes exemplifies, our capacity for hatred, rage, and murderous insanity is pretty impressive too. To see whole and to understand these contradictions – that too is an act of faith.
I don’t presume to know what this or any other play by Shakespeare ultimately “means.” They will not be reduced to “themes.” Obviously, the plays and sonnets teem with ideas, a few of which are near and dear to my heart, but I could no more sum up the “themes” of Shakespeare’s work than I could sum up the “themes” of my own life. If his work has any unity of meaning, it is simply that of life itself – its abundance, its ongoingness. In Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, Caroline Spurgeon wrote that “The thought constantly in Shakespeare’s mind,” in The Winter’s Tale, is:
the common flow of life through all things, in nature and man alike, seen in the sap rising in the tree, the habits and character of flowers, the result of the marriage of base and noble stock, whether it be of roses or human beings, the emotions of birds, animals and men . . . the oneness of rhythm, of law of movement, in the human body and human emotions with the great fundamental rhythmical movements of nature herself.
Spurgeon was writing in 1935. We tend to be skeptical of such claims now. There are no universals; or, as Terry Eagleton bluntly put it apropos of a couple of poems by Edward Thomas, “If these works are not ‘just’ nature poems, it is because there is no such thing” (How To Read a Poem). If language and culture mediate everything we can know, why should Shakespeare, the playwright-businessman writing for a motley provincial audience of sensation seekers and esthetes, be exempt? Wouldn’t he be just as blinkered by the social prejudices of this time, just as imprisoned by the reigning discourse, as anyone else? So it would seem – until we turn to the plays themselves. There we find that our hearts speak to us in a different register than our minds do. There we find, as in Florizel’s wooing Perdita, precisely that sort of “universality” that is supposed not to exist:
What you do
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,
I’ld have you do it ever; when you sing,
I’d have you buy and sell so; so give alms;
Pray so; and for the ord’ring your affairs,
To sing them too. When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that; move still, still so,
And own no other function. Each your doing
(So singular in each particular)
Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds,
That all your acts are deeds.
Ever been in love? Florizel speaks courtly Renaissance verse because he’s a prince. The shepherd’s son, who isn’t even granted the dignity of a name (“Clown”), woos the shepherdess Mopsa in rustic comic prose. Although Shakespeare grants Clown the full measure of his country kindness and courtesy, he won’t let him talk like Florizel. Such were the parameters of the Jacobean worldview. I doubt any lover anywhere has ever spoken so beautifully as Florizel, but if you have been in love you’ll recognize the feeling – the idealization that has yet to withstand the test of time but nonetheless ennobles both the lover and the beloved and creates, as it were, its own truth. How did the groundlings and the nabobs respond when they first heard those words at the Globe Theatre in 1611? My guess is that some of them reacted much as I do. They wept.