In October 2015, Hogarth Press from Crown Publishing launched the Hogarth Shakespeare project, an anticipated eight-part series in which best-selling authors retell a Shakespearean classic as a contemporary novel. Jeanette Winterson’s cover of The Winter’s Tale—A Gap of Time—was published first, almost exactly 400 years after the Bard’s death. Five more installments have since been released, with the final one—Gillian Flynn’s cover of Hamlet—expected in 2021. Contemporizing a Shakespearean play is a fairly common undertaking. As the Hogarth Shakespeare’s website notes, Shakespeare’s works have frequently “been reinterpreted for each new generation, whether as teen films, musicals, science-fiction flicks, Japanese warrior tales, or literary transformations.” Reimagining a Shakespearean story can often be a contentious effort as well. Many critics note the difficulty of believably translating a Shakespearean conflict—written centuries before the study of psychology—into a modern setting. Supporters, meanwhile, will often point to William Shakespeare himself and his own aptness to adapt and revise stories from various sources. Regardless of one’s personal thoughts on Shakespearean adaptations, it is hard to overlook their significance to our cultural canon, from musicals like West Side Story and Kiss Me, Kate to films such as 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man. Even having the original texts set in modern circumstances can be incredibly influential and timely, with the Public Theatre’s recent production of Julius Caesar—in which Caesar was modeled after Donald Trump—being the most notorious recent example. As a lover of both Shakespearean drama and contemporary literature, I am an ardent follower of the Hogarth Shakespeare project. However, my interest in the project stems not from a desire to see creatively adapted Shakespearean plots; but, rather, an interest in seeing Shakespearean stories used to examine contemporary political, social, and cultural issues. Each book in the series thus far has had varying success with this. Jeanette Winterson uses her cover of The Winter’s Tale to examine the devastating effects of hyper-masculinity and violence against women, as well as the normalcy of homoeroticism. Shylock Is My Name—Howard Jacobson’s cover of The Merchant of Venice—uses both Shylock himself and his modernized counterpart, Simon Strulovitch, to examine the past and present expectations of Jewish identity. In Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, her cover of The Taming of the Shrew, the Petruchio character attempts to woo Kate into marriage so that he can avoid deportation. The most meta cover version—Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed—has the Prospero character produce The Tempest in a prison. This Tuesday marked the release of Edward St. Aubyn’s Dunbar—his cover of King Lear—which sees Lear reimagined as the head of an international media corporation. Edward St Aubyn’s novel, however, was preceded by Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy, her cover of Othello and Hogarth’s first modernization of a Shakespearean tragedy. Chevalier’s retelling takes place over the course of a single day on a predominantly white elementary school playground, in which Ian, the playground bully, schemes to break up the budding relationship between Osei—a new student originally from Ghana—and Dee, a popular white student. When it comes to contemporizing Shakespeare, Othello tends to be considered one of the most substantial texts to view through a modern lens, generally accompanied by The Merchant of Venice. Although Shylock is presented as the villain of Merchant, the anti-Semitism he experiences allows for a modern writer to examine Shylock’s personal tragedy as a victim of discrimination. Meanwhile, although race is not specifically mentioned as incentive for Iago’s escalating schemes against Othello, the implicit racial politics of both Othello’s interracial marriage to Desdemona and his military success as a man of color provide plenty of contemporary subjects for a modern author to examine. In his recent piece for The New York Times, “Shylock and Othello in the Time of Xenophobia,” Shaul Bassi writes, “If throughout the 20th century ‘Hamlet’ and ‘King Lear’ vied for the title of most topical political allegory, in the new millennium ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Othello’ are the plays that make Shakespeare our contemporary.” The fatal misstep of New Boy, then, comes from the fact that Chevalier chose to set her retelling in 1974 Washington D.C., only 10 years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act and, from Bassi’s perspective, before Othello truly became the relevant allegory that it is today. There are only a few choice nods to early 1970s pop culture such as hippies, Oldsmobiles, and Roberta Flack, and only one fleeting reference is made to Watergate (despite impeachment proceedings presumably taking place minutes away from the playground). Instead, the main aspect of New Boy that gives it a sense of time is the overtness of the racism that it exhibits. Teachers are frequently overheard discussing Osei, expressing their relief that he isn’t in their classroom, sayings things like “This school isn’t ready for a black boy,” and commenting that Osei has given Dee “a taste for chocolate milk.” Osei and Dee’s teacher, a rumored Vietnam War veteran, functions primarily as a racist stock character, lashing out at Osei for minor infractions by calling him “boy” and telling him to watch himself. His arc appears in the final pages of the book, when he drops the novel’s one predictable and unnecessary n-word, as he yells to Osei to get off of the jungle gym. Chevalier’s descriptions tend to hinder her storytelling as well. The most significant example of this is in her characterization of Osei’s sister, Sisi, who has begun to follow the Black Panther party back in New York. Her empowerment is described at one point as an “angry black girl performance,” and she is subsequently described as angry so often that her character appears flat and stereotyped. Chevalier’s writing can also begin to feel heavy-handed, with six instances in which characters start to call Osei black before stopping mid-word to correct themselves. Even with this occasional interruption, the word “black” is used so often that it begins to feel artificial and excessive. In Act IV, Chevalier writes: [Osei] did not want to confront her, to have her get in his face, talking to him, telling more lies, treating him like her boyfriend, and then like the black boy on a white playground. The black sheep, with a black mark against his name. Blackballed. Blackmailed. Blacklisted. Blackhearted. It was a black day. So how is it that Hogarth’s cover of The Merchant of Venice was so successful, while their Othello cover fell so flat? The answer appears to be because of writers that were assigned to them. Howard Jacobson is a Jewish novelist best known for writing about the struggles of Jewish characters. Jacobson reportedly asked to cover other plays before being assigned Merchant, indicating that Hogarth thoughtfully assigned the play knowing that he would modernize it in a provocative way. Meanwhile, Tracy Chevalier is a white woman best known for The Girl with the Pearl Earring, set in the Dutch Golden Age, which bares little resemblance to the conflicts of Othello. When asked in an promotional interview for Hogarth as to what attracted her to the text, Chevalier likened Othello’s otherness to that of hers living as an expat in Great Britain. White writers opting to write about a time in the recent past when racism was more deliberate is not uncommon. Abandoning a nuanced discussion of micro-aggressions, structural and institutional racism, and white supremacy in favor of explicit and often dated racial language often simplifies the writing process, and keeps white audiences comfortable as they read. In a similar critique of Hollywood, Kara Brown noted in Jezebel last year, “Right now, Americans are only comfortable with a certain type of black person onscreen.” Although Chevalier occasionally hints at the possibility of a more complex discussion of micro-aggressions—the principal congratulates Osei on being “articulate” before telling the class to welcome him even though he is a “less fortunate” student, despite his father being a diplomat—she ultimately shies away from it. Alternatively, in A Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson uses her own background to add to her source material and intensify the text’s conflict. In The Winter’s Tale, King Leontes rather unexplainably believes that his friend King Polixenes is having an affair with his wife, Hermione. In A Gap of Time, Winterson—known for her autobiographical writing on LGBT issues—creates a previous affair between her Leontes and Polixenes, which, as Dean Bakopoulos points out in his New York Times review of the novel, “makes Leo’s overblown rage and irrational envy at the outset even more credible than it is in the original.” Therefore, although The Winter’s Tale isn’t usually listed with The Merchant of Venice and Othello as one of Shakespeare’s most politically relevant plays, Winterson’s unique additions make it more successful adaptation than Chevalier’s take on Othello, which idly favors a more overt racism than what is featured in her source text. The choices of writers in many cases have led to fascinating twists on Shakespeare’s works, namely Jacobson’s parallel Shylocks in Shylock is My Name and Jeanette Winterson’s gay undertones in A Gap of Time. However, in a 2015 New York Times article detailing the Hogarth Shakespeare project, Alexandra Alter wrote that Winterson’s cover was, “a promising start to an ambitious new series from Hogarth, which has assembled an all-star roster of stylistically diverse writers to translate Shakespeare’s timeless plays into prose.” As the series has gained more traction, it is hard not to notice the word “stylistically” here. Although the writings of the Hogarth team are stylistically varied, their biographies are less so. Three of the writers are American and three are British, leaving Margaret Atwood (who is Canadian) and Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø, whose cover of Macbeth is expected next year. All eight writers are white—five women and three men—with only one under the age of 50 (Flynn is 46), and three writers in their 70s. Although each author did achieve some success within their own adaptation, imagine how rewarding the series would have been had it featured writers whose backgrounds varied more drastically from Shakespeare himself. It is disappointing when a project aims to see “the Bard’s plays retold by acclaimed, bestselling novelists and brought to life for a contemporary readership,” yet the writers selected are not ultimately representative of all that contemporary society has to offer. Image Credit: Wikipedia
1. It was in 2002, while an undergraduate at James Madison University, one of many colleges nestled among the villes and burgs of southern Virginia, that I first discovered the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih. I still have the same copy of his novel, Season of Migration to the North, I purchased from the university bookstore for a world literature course: a burnt-orange Heinemann paperback edition, translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies. On the front cover: the visage of a woman, carved as if from stone, a sun beating like a heart below her throat. On the back, a giant bookstore barcode, above which are the words SALIH USED. What struck me most then, and still does, was the author photograph. It’s a face that reminds me of my father. Both men have the same tight curls of black hair, the same broad noses, the same drooping earlobes. They both wear the same ill-fitting shirt collars, they both wince when they smile, as if hesitant to display happiness. The first time I saw that face, I remember feeling rent by coincidence, by history. There’s me: the first-generation Sudanese immigrant, my genes muddled with those of an American-born mother, barely cognizant of the details of his cultural history. Then there’s my father: now 74, a journalist born in a small Nile village two hours outside of Khartoum. And, between us, there was now Tayeb Salih: the Sudanese novelist whose only relation to us was that same five-letter surname, with the same vowel sandwiched like a tiny person between the “l” and the “h.” I’ve picked up Season of Migration to the North four times in the 15 years since I discovered it; or, rather, since it was thrust upon me by a professor. The first reading was an academic one, in conjunction with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, to which Salih’s novel reads like a direct response, a way for the colonized to seize the narrative from the colonizer and hand it back, pretzel-twisted into something strange and unique. The second reading, in 2007, was prompted by a piece I wrote on overlooked books for the Baltimore City Paper titled "Sexing Up Colonialism: Tayeb Salih’s Novel Plows a Different Organ into Darkness’ Heart." The third reading, seven years after that, was for no reason other than curiosity at seeing the book’s yellowing spine while rearranging my bookshelves. Finally, last month, I opened Season of Migration to the North once again, this time in the company of my father and several other Sudanese immigrants. It was this reading, and the discussion that followed, which gave new meaning, new weight, to the novel’s magnificent opening line, one that captured me from the first time I read it: “It was, gentlemen, after a long absence—seven years to be exact, during which time I was studying in Europe—that I returned to my people.” 2. In the same finished basement in the northern Virginia home where I spent so much of my childhood—playing eight-bit video games at sleepovers, sneaking down to watch soft-core cable porn, sitting at an electric typewriter and writing absurdist stories about my classmates—my father now hosts monthly book club meetings with his Sudanese friends. For several hours, the group of four or five men—journalists, professors—drink tea and coffee, eat cookies and crudité, and talk. The books they discuss are usually political, usually esoteric, always about Sudan, and always read (and discussed) in Arabic. One day, I asked my father why he and his friends never read and discussed novels. He didn’t have an answer for me, so instead he posed a challenge: Find a novel, in English, about Sudan, and we’ll read it. And you can join us for the discussion. Even after decades of voracious reading, my knowledge of Arab literature, like my ability to read and speak the language, is pathetic at best. Everything I know about Arab literature I learned (in translation) from comparative lit classes, where I was first introduced to works like Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun, the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, Emile Habiby’s surreal The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist, Miramar by Naguib Mahfouz, and Edward Said and Jean Mohr’s photo essays, After the Last Sky. But of all these books, it was Season of Migration to the North to which I felt most compelled to return, yet again, like the novel’s nameless narrator who keeps returning, from his adult life in Khartoum, to the village of his childhood. The chance to read this novel outside academia, among the men who actually lived it, who were very much Salih’s contemporaries and who shared the same lives and experiences as the fictional Sudanese villagers who imbue this short novel with so much human force and vitality, was too potent to pass up. It was also, I confess, a blatant effort to come even closer to my own heritage—or as close as I could manage after so many years as a young kid outright rejecting it. Like most mixed-raced children, I was raised in a manner that, for all its inclusiveness, was nevertheless confusing. I never knew to which camp, which tribe, I belonged. Yet I drew my battle lines right from the start, opting to shrug aside as much of my Sudanese self as I could: the Arabic lessons I never took to heart; the Ramadan fasts I always broke during lunch at school; the Sunday visits to the community mosque through which I’d sit and suffer and wait for snack time; the circumcision of my birth name, Zaki, for the more pronounceable, more Americanized “Zak.” Only in college and graduate school, when I came out of the closet and joined another tribe, did I begin to appreciate, to respect, the personal history I’d ignored for so long. Suggesting Tayeb Salih’s novel, joining the late-May book club meeting, sharing my thoughts on the novel not with lit majors and newsweekly readers but with my Sudanese elders—all of this, I suspect, was an attempt to redeem myself, in some small way, from decades of personal neglect and ignorance. 3. Published in 1966 and translated into English three years later, Season of Migration to the North begins with a return: that of the nameless narrator to Wad Hamid, the Sudanese village of his birth, after years of study in Europe. There, he encounters the mysterious, Kurtz-like character of Mustafa Sa’eed—himself returned from years abroad in Europe, albeit under more sinister circumstances. Sa’eed shares the story of his life in 1920s London as a scholar of English literature and a rampant womanizer who feeds off the cultural fetishes of London women. These lovers, invariably, end up destroying themselves. Two of the women commit suicide; the third, Jean Morris, is murdered by Sa’eed in a scene that recalls William Shakespeare's Othello (or, just as well, the icepick murders in Basic Instinct). A testament to one’s maturity is being able to discuss such frank sexual matters in the company of one’s father and his friends. But there’s no way to sidestep the issue; Season of Migration to the North is suffused with psychosexual themes. As Sa’eed suggests, his reckless relationships are revenge for the infractions of European colonialism, and throughout the novel you find the common colonial trope of land as a fertile woman waiting to be seeded. In many ways, Sa’eed’s adventures in London fulfill the anxieties one finds in late 18th-century works inspired by the fear of reverse colonialism: H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, to name but two. Consider one of the novel’s most chilling lines, spoken by Sa’eed: “I’ll liberate Africa with my penis.” After serving a prison sentence in England, Sa’eed returns to Wad Hamid, remarries, and lives a traditional life. Soon after sharing his story with the narrator, however, Sa’eed disappears (it’s implied he drowns himself in the Nile). The narrator is left with the terrible knowledge of the poisonous relationships between men and women, between East and West (or, in this case, south and north), between colonizer and colonized, between tradition and modernity. The narrator—like my father, like his friends, like myself—is torn between a life in the West and the traditions of his village. Then there’s the troubling legacy of colonialism. As a college student dabbling in cultural relativism, I would shudder to hear my father speak about how grateful he felt toward British colonialism: to the river steamers, to the railways, to the British educational system. I thought he was insane. And yet, it was this very system that allowed my father to go to college, to study abroad in America, to create for himself his own destiny outside the doum trees and mud-and-brick huts of his village. A reading of Season of Migration to the North disrupts this idea, however much truth there is to it. Addressing the court during his trial for the murder of Jean Morris, Sa’eed says: The ships at first sailed down the Nile carrying guns not bread, and the railways were originally set up to transport troops; the schools were started so as to teach us to say “Yes” in their language. They imported to us the germ of the greatest European violence, as seen on the Somme and at Verdun, the like of which the world has never previously known, the germ of a deadly disease that struck them more than a thousand years ago. Yes, my dear sirs, I came as an invader into your very homes: a drop of the poison which you have injected into the veins of history. 4. There were four of us in the basement that Saturday afternoon, sitting at polite distances from one another on the curving sofa, sipping pitch-black coffee from tiny cups and saucers, holding our respective copies of the novel (a handsome reprint by NYRB Classics, a floppy paperback in Arabic, my own well-worn Heinemann edition). The conversation was decorous, respectful. In the presence of my elders I felt quieter than usual; I felt like the narrator does when listening to the conversations between his grandfather and other villagers, among them the hyper-sexed Wad Rayyes and the uninhibited Bint Majzoub. I felt like an eavesdropper or worse, a tourist, obliging these men to speak in English instead of Arabic. At one point, a small argument sprang up between two of my father’s friends over the politics not of Salih’s novel but of his life. Mr. Shuaib, born in Darfur, toothpick-slim and militant in a snug green jacket, insisted at great length that we not forget the author’s faint praise of Sudan’s military regime and that this colored one’s reading of the novel. Mr. Babiker, born in a Khartoum suburb, relaxed in cargo shorts and t-shirt, decried such a political reading, insisting we should enjoy Season of Migration to the North on the merits of its language as opposed to its politics. I debated lobbing some hefty rock of literary theory into the conversation, the “death of the author,” perhaps. Instead, I just listened as the two men argued over whether or not Salih’s work for Gulf-state rulers somehow discredited his literary ideas about the world being big enough for everyone. Then there was my father, who reminded me of Tayeb Salih in looks and, more importantly, in the trajectory of his life from Sudanese village to Western metropolis. This is where I learned my father had met the author twice. The first meeting was in the late 1960s, while my father was a journalist in Khartoum working for the newspaper al-Sahafa. He managed to squeeze in a few minutes of conversation with Salih, who was there being interviewed by the paper’s books editor. My father’s questions, he told us, were anything but literary. Was it true the London buses ran on time, and that Londoners could set their watch according to the bus schedule? Was it true the British had stiff upper lips? (Of course, as he put it, my father shied away from the real questions he wanted to ask: What were white Western women like? Did Mr. Salih really know women like Mrs. Robinson? Did he sleep with women like Isabella Seymour, like Ann Hammond, like Jean Morris?) In the early 2000s, my father met Tayeb Salih for the second and last time. Over the intervening decades, my father had followed in the author’s footsteps somewhat, traveling to America on a loan from the government to study political science and journalism at Indiana University (where he finally met, and married, a white Western woman, my mother), opting to stay in the U.S. instead of going back to Sudan, working as a Washington correspondent for Arab newspapers and newsmagazines. During this second meeting, my father was less concerned about the West and more concerned with the East, with questions about what it meant to be a Muslim, about the anxiety of return. Midway through the conversation, a fourth person came down into the basement: a young professional, American-born, in his early 30s, named Mr. Elrayah. When prompted to share his thoughts, Mr. Elrayah spoke of how the novel evoked the experiences he’d had every summer as a young boy during his visits to Sudan, how Salih’s novel suggested the courtyards, the palm trees, the raucous and ribald conversations in his village of El-Kadarou. I sat there, watching him speak, thinking how far removed even this experience was from my own. I’d only been to Sudan twice in my life. The first time was in 1989, when I was seven years old and too young to remember anything but the vaguest sensations of interminable air travel. The second was a decade later; I was 17 and in a state of contemptuous despair at being forced to come to Khartoum, this strange land that was so far removed from the comforts of my unassuming suburban life. (I remember with shame how I bawled when we’d missed our first return flight back to the U.S., terrified I’d be trapped in my father’s village for the rest of my life.) Everyone else in this room had palpable connections with their Sudanese histories. And what did I have? After all the years of neglect and disinterest in my Sudanese heritage, all I had was this slim paperback novel I kept rolling and unrolling in my hands. I put on a good face and, when it was my turn to speak, gave my usual undergraduate talking points on post-colonial literature, on the anxieties of reverse colonization. Underneath, however, I felt like more of an outcast than I ever had. I felt distraught, displaced. I felt, appropriately enough, like the novel’s narrator, who finds himself caught in the middle of the Nile: half-way between north and south. I was unable to continue, unable to return. I turned over onto my back and stayed there motionless, with difficulty moving my arms and legs as much as was needed to keep me afloat. 5. Season of Migration to the North ends with the narrator’s weak suicide attempt in the Nile, a cri de couer that’s also a cry for help. In all my years of reading, it remains one of the most palpable, affecting endings to a novel I’ve yet encountered. Then my mind cleared and my relationship to the river was determined. Though floating on the water, I was not part of it. I thought that if I died at that moment, I would have died as I was born—without any volition of mine. All my life I had not chosen, had not decided. Now I am making a decision. I choose life. I shall live because there are a few people I want to stay with for the longest possible time and because I have duties to discharge. It is not my concern whether or not life has meaning. If I am unable to forgive, then I shall try to forget. I shall live by force and cunning. I moved my feet and arms, violently and with difficulty, until the upper part of my body was above water. Like a comic actor shouting on a stage, I screamed with all my remaining strength, “Help! Help!” The tenuousness, the tension of the narrator trapped in the middle of the Nile—Will there be anyone to help save him from drowning? How much longer can he stay afloat, stay alive, on his own?—is what makes it so arresting, so haunting. In the weeks since my father’s book club meeting, I’ve reread, once again, Season of Migration to the North—as well as Salih’s collection of short stories on village life, The Wedding of Zein. Taken together, they’re a portrait of a world and a time that I’ll only ever know through literature and through the shared experiences and stories of my father and his contemporaries. I suppose it was enough for me to connect with others, for a few brief hours, over what these pages mean, why I keep returning to them after all these years. This is what we mean when we talk about the consolation, the community, literature provides. Season of Migration to the North is a 169-page umbilical cord connecting me not just to my Sudanese side but, in a more direct manner, to my 74-year-old father who has managed to survive—and thrive—suspended between two worlds. It’s his suspension, this thrilling existential high-wire act, which inspires my own. It’s also a suspension that, as it does for the novel’s narrator, requires outside assistance. Just a few days ago, working on this piece, I had a few questions. So I called the only person I could think of. The phone rang twice, then the familiar voice, rich with age and experience, said hello. “Dad,” I said, “I need your help.”
I recently had the privilege of participating in a panel at the Center for Fiction. The topic was "Modern Family," and the moderator posed the question: "What literature influenced you as a young person?" My fellow panelists -- the amazing Alden Jones, Min Jin Lee, and Tanwi Nandini Islam -- named beloved, important books and authors. My answer -- which I think came as a surprise to most -- was that I hardly read as a child and youth. My parents are immigrants -- English is not their first language -- and neither are they readers or cultural mavens. We did not have many books in the house, and I was not read to as a child. I do recall a Disney picture book involving a scroogey Donald Duck character that I liked to read over and over -- something about soup made from a button. Once I started school, there were of course books assigned, and I read them obediently if not enthusiastically. Mine was a somewhat typical suburban childhood: I watched a lot of TV and ate a lot of Doritos. The first book I read out of inner compulsion, as opposed to externally-imposed obligation, was Annie Dillard's A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This was my junior year of college -- relatively late for someone who now writes and reads "professionally." Reading Dillard was (and continues to be, in fact) a truly ecstatic experience -- I must have reread every single page as I went along, pausing to stare into space or jot things down in my journal or just shake my head in awe -- and it took me quite a long time to finish even as I couldn't put it down (by the end, incidentally, I had decided I had to be a writer; or die trying). Where had this kind of reading been all my life? I realized for the first time that there is reading, and there is reading. The kind of reading that counts, that really matters, is what I'd call whole-soul reading. In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes about "mystical susceptibility," the experience of books and language as "irrational doorways... through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, [steals] into our hearts and [thrills] them." I'm so grateful to have had that intense conversion moment -- because I have brought that expectation and susceptibility with me to every book I've picked up since then. It's true that I have often felt at a disadvantage for embarking on my reading life so late. I wrote about this a few years ago -- the project of frantically "catching up" with my peers once I set myself on the path of literary life. But mostly that underdog status has been a positive motivation. I am an omnivorous reader and have not lost that addiction to mystical thrill -- in James's words, "states of insight and depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect... illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain" -- when reading. In 2016, thanks to a semester sabbatical, I read more than usual. Canonical books I read for the first time -- "catchup" reading I'll call it still -- captivated me utterly and reminded me that, truly, there is never a "too late" (in fact, there may be a "too early") when it comes to the reading life. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Raymond Chandler said it best: "Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley ... He wrote for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there . . . He had style, but his audiences didn't know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinement." I was struck especially by the female characters Brigid O'Shaughnessy and Effie Perine: just when you thought you were going to have to excuse this old-fashioned author's concessions to gender stereotypes, both the characters and the plot (by which I mean Hammett, of course) would subvert that concern. Incidentally, I also read The Big Sleep but didn't take to it as much as Hammett. I've just started reading The Glass Key (on Chandler's recommendation) and may be starting on a Hammett binge. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Of course this is a book I felt like I'd read because I know so much about it. At some point I may have half-watched on an airplane the film that stars Winona Ryder. I was sure I'd identify with Jo -- if you're reading the book at all, you're Jo! -- but was surprised (and not a little dismayed) to see a lot of myself in Amy. It was also interesting to recognize that the novel is as much about money as it is about being female -- a reminder of the inextricability of economics and gender. Lady Chatterley's Lover by DH Lawrence. You know, it's all relative I suppose, but given our enlightened times, wherein heterosexual relationships are more holistic and less physically driven, I found the sex here -- four score and a decade later -- still pretty racy. Perhaps our advantage as modern readers is that none of it is shocking, and so the novel's themes -- social class, integrity, the relationship between love and lust, human wholeness -- have room to come forward. King Lear, Othello, and The Winter's Tale, by William Shakespeare. I wasn't actually sure if I'd read King Lear previously; again, I knew the story so well, in an ambient, abstract way. But once I started actually engaging the language, I knew that even if I'd "read" it, I definitely hadn't read it. Here I offer another mode of reading, which is via audio: because Shakespeare is intended to be performed, an audio reading experience, sans visuals, is actually a spectacular way to immerse in Shakespeare's dramatic and linguistic brilliance. Yes, I would sometimes need to rewind and relisten to confirm who was speaking, but all the better. I continued on with audio readings of Othello and The Winter's Tale (irrational male jealousy is a theme I hadn't ever before associated with Shakespeare, hmmm) and am ready, I think, for the historical-political plays -- Henry IV is currently on deck. Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin. At a different time in my life, I might have read the former as a categorical rejection/denouncement of Christianity. But I was struck by Baldwin's stunning feats of compassion -- for Gabriel, the character based on his strictly religious, and hypocritical, father, especially: "Then, he began to cry, not making a sound, sitting at the table, and with his whole body shaking...finally he put his head on the table, overturning the coffee cup, and wept aloud. Then it seemed that there was weeping everywhere, waters of anguish riding the world --" (Also, we do well not to divorce Baldwin from religion, lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater with regard to our best spiritual writers.) Giovanni's Room as a kind of personal and artistic experiment -- Baldwin writing about love, sex, desire, identity, money, integrity, and family without writing explicitly about blackness -- inspires me and, especially in this moment of controversy over cross-racial writing, stirs so many questions. I'm still asking them. The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Another oldie that struck me as relevant and very now. Women still struggle to be "selfish," which is to say centered around one's creative and sensual imperatives. Chopin's/Edna's attraction to heterogeneous culture -- cultures of color, of mixedness, of social fluidity and possibility -- is arguably a little icky, yet not so removed from what we today call "gentrification": affluent whites from homogeneous backgrounds wanting to increase their quality of life by stirring up their privilege with urban history, cultures that emerge from struggle, intersectional experience (I live in West Harlem, can you tell?). Chopin's descriptions of Edna's nascent self-centering resonated with me over and again: "There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested...Even as a child she had lived her own small life within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life - that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions." Chopin provides a definition of mystical experience -- those moments when the inward life questions -- that James himself may have appreciated. The Awakening is an adult coming-of-age story in its pursuit of integration -- collapsing the outward and inward existences. I love the notion of every book we read -- whole-soul read -- being a part of this process: a quiet, private evolution, toward a more complete self, and in a world we must all work to make more hospitable to such evolution than was Edna Pontellier's. Image credit: Wikipedia
"How had no one ever told me about (Othello's) Emilia, who, in only a couple of lines, brings down one of the most conniving, merciless villains in all of Western literature? How had no one told me about this fantastic female character who defies not one but two sword-wielding men in order to make sure Desdemona, her mistress and friend, receives justice? I wanted to rip up my diploma. I wanted to start over as a freshman and devote my entire undergraduate career to the Gospel of Emilia." On Othello's Emilia and her refusal to be silenced.
1. “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. 2. 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.
I thought of Shirley Jackson’s short story "The Lottery" as I watched the opening sequence of Ex Machina, a new film by Alex Garland. Caleb, played Domhnall Gleeson, peers into his computer in a techy looking office. He receives a message that he has won a lottery. As text messages pour in to congratulate him and co-workers clap his back, a look settles onto his face. Just as the opening of "The Lottery" glorifies our pastoral past too perfectly with flowers, “blossoming profusely,” Caleb, lit by the glow of his screen, seems to question. In a post-Edward Snowden world where our identities are tracked and online movements are monitored, is there such thing as random selection? After his win, Caleb is flown by helicopter to a remote spot in the mountains and told to follow the river, which isn’t easy with a rolling suitcase. He finds the house of the CEO Nathan, played by a perfectly hollow-about-the-eyes Oscar Isaac, and is asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Nathan’s house is actually a high tech research facility and Caleb has been brought in to conduct a test of a machine’s intelligence ability to pass as human, a Turing test. The rest film is structured around Caleb’s testing of Nathan’s artificial intelligence, Ava. Ava, in a subtle performance by Alicia Vikander, is visibly robotic, though parts of her have soft, perfect skin. Her arms, legs, and waist show her mechanics, shaped curves hug her breasts and bum. When I first saw her, with my tongue in cheek I thought: Ah, a female character reduced to the important parts. And in this kind of reaction lies the cleverness of this film. It plays out as a test of theory of mind, or "awareness of mind" as the film calls it -- the ability to understand your own beliefs, intents, and desires, but also to understand that someone else has a different set of the same. Robin Dunbar, a British evolutionary psychologist who specializes in primate behavior, studies how we hold several people’s intentions in our minds at the same time. In his book, Lucy to Language, he uses the example of Othello, that the plot requires audiences to understand, “that Iago intends that Othello imagines that Desdemona is in love with Cassio.” William Shakespeare requires the audience to understand four levels of mental representation. He raises it to a fifth level when, “Iago is able to persuade Othello that Cassio reciprocates Desdemona’s feelings.” To Dunbar, that is how Shakespeare weaves a narrative spell. Ex Machina works on a similar level. Without spoiling the plot, the fun of the film lies in that Nathan intends that Caleb imagines that Ava is or is not feeling about Caleb, who may or may not believe Nathan. Kyoko, Nathan’s servant becomes involved, the plot gets another twist. Dunbar makes an interesting point about writing. Most of us can follow to the fifth level of intention and enjoy a good story. However, far fewer have the ability to compose an interesting tale because the fifth level is most people’s natural limit. The ability to work at the sixth level, what makes a really interesting story, is rare. Shakespeare was able to, “intend that the audience believes...” Garland also successfully works a level higher and this is where the film soars. In taking and subverting current ideas about gender, sci fi, and the thriller genre, he gives us a sharp tweak and delivers a film about theory of mind that is deliciously hard to read. Garland is author of The Beach, a novel that defined the darker side of backpacking in the 1990s and later became a movie staring Leonardo di Caprio. His next novel, The Tesserat, was called “taut, nervous and often bloody,” by The New York Times and was an early sign of his willingness to play with structure. He wrote the script for Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and adapted Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for the screen. As an Ishiguro fan, I asked Garland about adapting Never Let Me Go. He was able to form an accurate belief about my intentions and said he felt “an acute sense of duty." He had moments where he wondered why he could not just leave it as a novel, but, as with any project he works on, “it’s not a calculation, it’s a compulsion. You do it because you have to.” With Ex Machina, Garland wrote the script and directed the film as well. At first he said it was a bigger step to go from novelist to screen writer, whereas moving from writing to directing felt smaller. The more we talked, however, the more Garland came around to seeing his work in novels and on the screen as very similar: “You start with a blank page. You engage the imagination. The problems of how it hangs together are the same.” Like the best short stories, Ex Machina is sparse, taut, and precise. Every word of dialogue has weight and each shot has a purpose. As with Jackson's "The Lottery," the film ultimately shows the power of thinking about what we are doing and why. While the action in Ex Machina shifts in sharp pivots, many of the scenes play out almost as if they are on the page with Caleb and Nathan debating the philosophical implications of artificial intelligence. In other words, it’s fascinating.
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? Hamlet 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. The Winter’s Tale 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. Henry V 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. King Lear 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. Othello 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
Reese wrote in with this question:I'm a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA focusing mostly on literature. Over the summer I'm attempting to do an independent study of suicide in art and literature. The only thing is, I'm having trouble formulating a reading list. While I can certainly think of a lot of novels that feature a suicide or two in them, I'm really looking for books that focus prominently on the subject. So far all I've got is John Barth's The Floating Opera and Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides, in addition to A. Alvarez's study of suicide, The Savage God. Any suggestions? I'd be much obliged.One of my favorite short poems is Langston Hughes' "Suicide's Note":The calm,Cool face of the riverAsked me for a kiss.And I offer it as an epigraph to our reader in search of literary works that take suicide as a central theme or plot event. Here, with a few notes, is a (by no means comprehensive) list in roughly chronological order.Sophocles' Oedipus and AntigoneVirgil's Aeneid (Dido's suicide in the fourth book)Shakespeare's Othello, Hamlet (Ophelia's suicide), and Romeo and JulietFanny Burney's late eighteenth century novel Cecilia has a striking public suicide in one of London's pleasure gardensAnna Karenina, which pairs nicely with James Joyce's micro-Anna Karenina "A Painful Case" in DublinersWilkie Collins' The Moonstone has a suicide involving a quicksand pit called "The Shivering Sands"The Suicide Club, Robert Louis Stevenson (three short stories)The Awakening and "Desirée's Baby," Kate ChopinVirginia Woolf's Mrs. DallowayVladimir Nabokov's Pale FireAlice Munro's "Comfort"Sylvia Plath is the patron saint of suicide lit: The Bell Jar and, among her poetry, particularly "Lady Lazarus" (But you might also check out Anne Sexton's work and that of Ted Hughes' second poetess-wife to die by her own hand, Assia Wevill)"A Perfect Day for Banana Fish" J.D. SalingerAh, yes, and Dorothy Parker's "Resumé" - as beloved as the Hughes and almost as short:Razors pain you;Rivers are damp;Acids stain you;And drugs cause cramp.Guns aren't lawful;Nooses give;Gas smells awful;You might as well live.Happy Reading![Ed note: got more suggestions? Leave a comment]