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.
It feels like this happened last week though it actually happened twenty years ago. Late one wintry afternoon in 1992 I found myself sitting on a sofa in a glass box in midtown Manhattan, trying to figure out how I could possibly stay awake till sundown. I had just enjoyed a long celebratory liquid lunch with Gary Fisketjon, who would soon be publishing my first novel and who, as I’d learned first-hand, is a master of an art that was then dying and is now all but dead – the art of editing fiction, line by agonizing line. Gary had gone over every word of my 362-page manuscript with a green Bic ballpoint pen, sometimes suggesting surgical cuts or ways to improve dialog, sometimes writing long insightful paragraphs on the back of a page. He stressed that these were merely suggestions, that the final call was mine, always. If I had to guess, I would say he improved my book at least by half. As I sat there on the sofa in Gary’s office, my fogged eyes started roaming across his bookshelves…
(As I re-read the preceding paragraph, I realize it’s about ancient history, a long-lost time when book editors actually edited books and they were encouraged to keep their authors fed and watered on the company dime. That paragraph also reminds me of something John Cheever wrote in the 1970s – that his first stories, published in the years after World War II, were “stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.” Gary Fisketjon’s industrious green Bic pen seems even more remote to me from a distance of twenty years than those 1940s radios and stationery stores seemed to John Cheever from a distance of thirty years.)
…so anyway, my fogged eyes landed on a slim volume with one word on its spine: Jernigan. I got up off the sofa, crossed the small office and picked up the book. On the dust jacket the blurry figure of a man stands on a lawn in front of a suburban house. At first I thought it was the liquid lunch affecting my vision, but then I realized the picture was intentionally fuzzy. “What’s this?” I asked.
“That’s a first novel I brought out last year by a wonderful writer named David Gates,” Gary said. “Sonny Mehta, my boss, loves one-word titles. Go ahead, take it.”
I took it. I read it. I loved it. It’s the story of a messed-up guy from the New Jersey suburbs named Peter Jernigan who works a boring job in Manhattan real estate and is dealing with his wife’s death in an automobile accident by dosing himself with gin and Pamprin as his life falls apart. He ends up sleeping with the single mom of his teenage son’s girlfriend. The woman is a survivalist who keeps rabbits in her basement (for meat, not as pets). One day, in an effort to snap out of his spiritual numbness, Jernigan presses the barrel of a gun to the webbing between the thumb and index finger of his left hand, then squeezes the trigger. I’ll carry that image in my head as long as I live.
Ever since I fell in love with Jernigan I’ve been drawn to books with one-word titles – partly because Sonny Mehta loves one-word titles, but mainly because they can be so enviably concise and memorable, so perfect. At their best, one-word titles distill content to its purest essence, which is what all titles strive to do, and then they stick in the mind. Sometimes, of course, they fall flat, and much of the time they’re just lukewarm and vague or, worse, falsely grand.
Over the years I’ve developed categories and a pecking order. Here is my unscientific and by no means exhaustive taxonomy, beginning with the best and ending with the worst kinds of one-word book titles:
1. An Unforgettable Character’s Name
This category begins for me with Jernigan but also includes:
Shakespeare’s Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet (for the last title in this trio of masterpieces I wish he’d gone with Yorick, that “fellow of infinite jest,” which no doubt puts me in a minority of one).
Walker Percy’s Lancelot (the wife-murdering narrator in a nuthouse, Lancelot Andrewes Lamar says many wise and funny things about the decline of America, such as: “What nuns don’t realize is that they look better in nun clothes than in J.C. Penney pantsuits.”)
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (the nymphet who became an icon).
Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree (not my favorite of his novels – that would be Blood Meridian – but the things Cornelius Suttree and his roughneck Tennessee riverfront buddies do while under the influence of alcohol give a whole new kick to the word “debauched”).
Jane Austen’s Emma (I might think Emma Woodhouse is a meddling, coddled ninny, but I wouldn’t dream of saying so).
Stephen King’s Carrie (you’ve got to respect a girl who gets drenched in pig’s blood at the prom and then goes on a telekinetic rampage), Christine (what’s not to love about a homicidal Plymouth Fury?), and It (that maniac clown Pennywise deserves such a tersely dismissive moniker).
2. Place Names That Drip With Atmosphere
Elmore Leonard’s Djibouti (just saying the word makes it possible to conjure a place full of pirates, thugs, widowmakers, scorching sunshine, and tourists with a death wish; Leonard is a serial user of one-word titles, including the less memorable Raylan, Pronto, Killshot, Touch, Bandits, Glitz, Stick, Gunsights, Swag, and Hombre).
Gore Vidal’s Duluth (alluring precisely because it’s so imprecise – what could possibly be interesting about a Minnesota port town on Lake Superior? Plenty. Vidal is another serial user of one-word titles, including Williwaw, Messiah, Kalki, Creation, Burr, Lincoln, Hollywood, and Empire).
Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (that exclamation point befits the over-the-top setting, a fading alligator theme park in the moist loins of Florida).
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (your first thought is Biblical – balm of Gilead or Mount Gilead – but the title of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the name of a town in Iowa where the God-infused protagonist, a dying preacher, is writing a long letter to his young son; Robinson’s other novels are titled Housekeeping and Home).
Geoffrey Wolff’s Providence (this title, like all good titles, has layers of meaning: the novel is set in the crumbling capital of Rhode Island – “a jerkwater that outsiders bombed past on their way to Cape Cod” – but this Providence is visited by surprising gusts of divine providence, God’s inscrutable ways of touching a menagerie of less-than-perfect characters, including mobsters, thieves, patrician lawyers, cokeheads, and crooked cops).
Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (alas, the title refers to a fictional hippie outpost in northern California, not to that sweaty little armpit in the New Jersey pine barrens – now that would have been a ripe setting for a Pynchon novel).
Marshall Frady’s Southerners (fluorescent non-fiction about the people who inhabit a haunted place, it’s one of my all-time favorite books).
Then, on the downside, there’s James Michener’s Hawaii (a title that’s about as evocative as a pushpin on a map, much like his other generic place-name titles – Chesapeake, Alaska, Poland, Texas, Mexico, and Space).
3. One Little Word That Sums Up Big Consequences
Josephine Hart’s Damage (edited by Sonny Mehta, the novel’s title deftly sums up what results when a member of the British Parliament develops an obsessive sexual relationship with his son’s fiancee; Jeremy Irons, at his absolute smarmy best, plays the MP in the movie version of the book. Hart, who died last year, also published the novels Sin and Oblivion).
James Dickey’s Deliverance (refers to what it feels like to return home to the Atlanta suburbs after surviving a nice relaxing canoe trip in the Georgia woods that turns into a nightmare of hillbilly sodomy and murder).
Martin Amis’ novel Money (a raunchy hymn to the lubricant that greased the Reagan/Thatcher decade, it’s bursting with the things that made America great – “fast food, sex shows, space games, slot machines, video nasties, nude mags, drink, pubs, fighting, television, handjobs”); and his memoir Experience (with a cover that says it all: the future bad boy of Brit letters as a pre-teen towhead, with a scowl on his face and an unlit cigarette plugged between his lips).
William S. Burroughs’ Junky (though written under a pseudonym, the title of this highly autobiographical 1953 novel refers to what you will become if you inject heroin into your veins on a regular basis; a sequel, Queer, was written earlier but not published until 1985).
Harry Crews’ Car (you are what you eat, and Herman Mack, in a twist that out-Christines Christine, sets out to eat a 1971 Ford Maverick from bumper to bumper; rest in peace, Harry Crews).
4. Words That Ache So Hard To Become Brands You Can Practically See Them Sweat
The absolute pinnacle of this bottom-of-the-birdcage category is half-smart Malcolm Gladwell’s runaway bestseller Blink (as in, how long it takes for us to develop supposedly accurate first impressions; for a much more nuanced and intelligent treatment of this fascinating subject, check out Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow).
Not far behind is right-wing goddess Ann Coulter’s Godless (an attempt to prove that liberalism is America’s state religion and its tin gods are recycling, Darwinism, global warming, gay rights, abortion rights, and teachers’ unions. According to this harridan-hottie, “The following sentence makes sense to liberals: President Clinton saved the Constitution by repeatedly ejaculating on a fat Jewish girl in the Oval Office.” Low blow! Monica Lewinsky wasn’t fat!)
Robin Cook’s Contagion (possibly a Freudian slip, the title might refer to what all brand-name authors like Cook secretly hope their books will induce in readers: a rapidly spreading, uncontrollable itch to spend money on schlock).
5. One-Letter Titles
You can’t get any poorer than dead, as Flannery O’Connor reminded us, and if you’re a book title you can’t be any more concise than a single letter. Writers who have boiled the contents of their books down to a single letter tend to be in the high-literary camp, which would seem to suggest, counter-intuitively, that one-letter titles are the work of expansive, not reductive, imaginations. Here are a few, from A to Z:
Andy Warhol’s A (you’d have to be zonked on some killer shit to make any sense of this gibberish, but let’s be charitable and remember that Warhol was a great artist).
Fred Chappell’s C (this writer of glorious poetry and fiction is celebrated in his native South but criminally under-appreciated in other quarters of the country; his title is taken from the Roman numeral for 100, which is the number of poems in this superb collection).
Tom McCarthy’s C (the third letter of the alphabet is used more nebulously in this novel, which brims with cats, cocaine, cocoons, and code as it travels to Cairo with a protagonist named Serge Carrefax; McCarthy’s first novel was titled Remainder).
John Updike’s S. (it’s the initial of the novel’s protagonist, Sarah Worth, part superwoman and part slut, a disaffected wife who leaves her husband and her home on the North Shore to pursue her guru at a commune in the Arizona desert).
Thomas Pynchon’s V. (no, Pynchon’s first novel is not Vineland minus the i-n-e-l-a-n-d; it’s a woman’s initial, or is it the shape the two storylines make as they converge?).
Georges Perec’s W (the name of an allegorical island off the coast of Chile that resembles a concentration camp).
Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z (the last word, or letter, on political thrillers, it’s about the 1963 assassination of leftist Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis; Costa-Gavras made it into a hit movie starring Yves Montand).
In closing, I should note that seven of the 32 books on the current New York Times hardcover fiction and non-fiction best-seller lists – a healthy 22 percent – have one word titles: to wit: Betrayal, Drift, Imagine, Wild, Unbroken, Quiet, and Imperfect. Turns out Sonny Mehta was on to something. Concision, like sex, always sells.
Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays famously opens with the question, “What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.”
I’m one of the people who asks. Samuel Coleridge might have called the search for Iago “the motive hunting of motiveless malignity,” but I lack the capacity to accept that certain truths are just inscrutable. I reason that because fictional characters are born in the mind of the author, their actions must necessarily stem from something resembling Kantian categorical imperatives. Within the confines of their own logic, their actions make perfect sense. There is internal consistency and cause and effect. The system is governed by rules; the game is to discern exactly what those rules are.
It’s a cliché that nothing is more interesting to people than other people, but in essence, those of us who ask about Iago do so because he is not so different a puzzle from human beings. He is only a more tantalizing one, because his author has deliberately controlled what we see and know of him, as though dispensing clues. But the prize for solving a literary conundrum is the same as for solving a human one: if I can figure out Iago, I can figure out Hamlet, I can figure out anyone and I can figure out you.
1. As An Aside
Having searched for Iago predominantly throughout other works of fiction, I think it is worth pointing out that I’m aware of the tenuous merit of this project. It’s considered fairly dubious practice to explain the motivations of real people via fictional characters. But what about explaining the motivations of fictional characters via other fictional characters? Let alone fictional characters created long after the fictional characters in question? Won’t that turn into something of an analytical Ponzi scheme?
It may also be worth noting that real world psychology, if not always an exact science, is farther along than any such fictional goose chase. Iago might simply be found in the entry under “Antisocial Personality Disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV for demonstrating “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.” Real world sociopaths have been described in detail in nonfiction, from Charles Manson in Helter Skelter to Dick Hickock in In Cold Blood. Dick Hickock has “one of those smiles that really work,” an IQ of 130 and the sort of toughness that “existed solely in situations where he unarguably had the upper hand.” Dick even looks exactly how Iago should look: “his own face enthralled him. Each angle of it induced a different impression. It was a changeling’s face, and mirror-guided experiments had taught him how to ring the changes, how to look now ominous, now impish, now soulful …”
But I’m not interested in diagnosing Iago, per se. I’m not trying to discern what he looks like, or what his childhood practices might have been. I am searching for the emotional truth of his nature, which (as Tim O’Brien famously opined) may be better found in another fictional story than in facts.
2. Excerpts From A Guide To Literary Sociopaths
The sort of villains in popular fiction that enjoy the same level of celebrity as Iago include the likes of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector, Cormac McCarthy’s Anton Chigurh and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. The common thread through many a literary sociopath is, as you may have noticed, that they have extremely evil-sounding names. Sociopaths in fiction are often intended to either appeal to readers’ fantasies that good and bad could be so easy to identify in real life, or are so absurdly riddled with diabolical clichés that they are parodies of themselves (like the pantheon of villains in Pynchon’s and Heller’s comic masterpieces, or Jasper Fforde’s Acheron Hades, who explains in his memoir, “Degeneracy for Pleasure and Profit,” that the “best reason for committing loathsome and detestable acts – and let’s face it, I am considered something of an expert in the field – is purely for their own sake.”)
But there is something far more understated, and sinister, about Iago as a villain. Like Zoe Heller’s Barbara Covett from Notes on a Scandal, Daphne Du Maurier’s Mrs. Danvers, or perhaps even Brontë’s Heathcliff, the real evil that Iago inflicts is upon the people to whom he is closest. He is the godfather of villains who rot from the inside out.
Destroying those to whom one is closest reeks of a certain sort of motivelessness. Kevin Frazier, in his excellent essay on A.C. Bradley here at The Millions, points to the following discussion of Iago from Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy:
To ‘plume up the will’, to heighten the sense of power or superiority—this seems to be the unconscious motive of many acts of cruelty which evidently do not spring chiefly from ill-will, and which therefore puzzle and sometimes horrify us most. It is often this that makes a man bully the wife or children of whom he is fond. The boy who torments another boy, as we say, ‘for no reason’, or who without any hatred for frogs tortures a frog … So it is with Iago. His thwarted sense of superiority wants satisfaction.
What strikes me most about this passage is that the examples chosen for being akin to Iago’s cruelty suggest that Iagoesque cruelty is almost commonplace. Horrifying though it is, there is nothing particularly rare or exotic about a man bullying a wife or child, or about thwarted superiority craving satisfaction. The implication is that it might not be such a mystery why Iago’s victims line up so willingly to be abused. Likewise, there might be nothing so superhuman about Iago’s power to abuse them. From Katherine Dunn’s sublime novel Geek Love, the following description of Arturo Binewski, the book’s megalomaniacal villain, struck me as pure, undifferentiated Iago: “He seems to have no sympathy for anyone, but total empathy.”
Empathy is a curious source of power. Relatively speaking, it is unglamorous in the extreme – it is of the sort best suited to Dostoevsky’s contention in Crime and Punishment that “Power is only given to those who dare to lower themselves and pick it up.” Far more than any sheer irresistibility, the ingratiating, servile role Iago must steadfastly play for both Desdemona and Othello is the key to his seductiveness. Othello the Venetian general might be a natural leader, but Iago cannot be puppet master without being puppet himself. He succeeds as long as he does solely because the near-sightedness of his victims prevent them from asking – not “why would he lie?” but – “why doesn’t he have any life of his own?”
3. How I Picture Iago When He Is Off-Stage
In Geek Love, while attempting to gain total control over his family, Arturo Binewski starts bugging the room of his sisters Iphy and Elly. Reports his documentarian Norval:
I find this depressing. The idea of Arty sitting and listening to hour after hour of footsteps, pages turning, toilet flushing, comb running through hair. Elly’s conversation has been reduced to the syllable mmmmmm and Iphy is not in the mood for song. Her piano is covered with dust … and Arty is listening to her file her nails.
4. A Comic Detour
That villainy can be pathetic is a well-explored contradiction in fiction. Brett Easton Ellis’ oddly beloved misanthrope and American Psycho Patrick Bateman and his ilk suffer from the incurable disadvantage of being impossible to take seriously. Their particular breed of literary sociopath consists, perhaps naturally, of comic characters, because there is something so pathetic about hating absolutely everyone. Grandiose ambitions aside, these characters are as paralyzed by issues as Phillip Roth’s Portnoy, and just about as menacing. In Sartre’s darkly funny “Erostratus,” the narrator sends out over a hundred letters announcing the following:
I suppose you might be curious to know what a man can be like who does not love men. Very well, I am such a man, and I love them so little that soon I am going out and killing half a dozen of them; perhaps you might wonder why only half a dozen? Because my revolver only has six cartridges. A monstrosity, isn’t it? And moreover, an act strictly impolitic?
Now, there is a relationship between the extent to which someone declares themselves to be a particular thing, and the extent to which he or she actually is that thing – and that relationship is plainly inverse. The comic sociopaths are so desperate to be taken seriously that they can never be taken seriously, and so fumbling and impotent in their attempts that you know they will only get themselves into trouble.
Returning now to Othello and the genre of tragedy, if you subtract the comedic element from being pathetic, who are you left with?
5. The Regular Joe
I suppose I always knew I’d arrive here at the end.
Dunn gets here first, of course. In one of Geek Love’s final notes on Arturo, his documentarian writes:
General opinion about Arty varies, from those who see him as a profound humanitarian to those who view him as a ruthless reptile. I myself have held most of the opinions in this spectrum at one time or another … however, I come to see him as just a regular Joe – jealous, bitter, possessive, competitive, in a constant frenzy to disguise his lack of self-esteem, drowning in deadly love, and utterly unable to prevent himself from gorging on the coals of hell in his search for revenge.
What Dunn so evocatively indicates is that the trick to the complexity of characters such as Arturo is that there is no complexity. The documentarian’s final notes on him ring of disgust upon making this discovery – self-disgust, and perhaps even a little disgust for his subject.
Likewise, we build a labyrinth of motive and mythology around Iago because for all of his manipulation and the epic destruction it causes, we believe – or hope – he must be a monster. We are wont to compare him to the vilest of both real world and fictional sociopaths. We resist stripping away at him, knowing we will be sorely disappointed by what we find underneath.
I’m guessing that most readers these days know A. C. Bradley secondhand, through the excerpts and quotes found in the study materials for the Arden series and the other popular editions of Shakespeare’s plays. This is a shame, because Bradley is a better critic in full than he is in bits and pieces, and Shakespearean Tragedy continues to be an exciting book for anyone interested in literature.
Bradley’s specialty is the passionate discussion of literary characters in vivid, consuming detail. He feels that exploring the mind and actions of Hamlet or Iago is worth every last bit of effort we can give it. He has a point—one that applies to the work of many modern writers as much as it does to Shakespeare. It would be fascinating, for instance, to see the Bradley touch brought to bear on books like Underworld or Infinite Jest.
In the history of literary criticism, Bradley is a worthy successor to Johnson and Coleridge, two of the earlier writers whose names and opinions spring up repeatedly in Shakespearean Tragedy. Like his predecessors, Bradley still instructs and amuses long after most of the general literary theories of his time have fallen away.
The first edition of Shakespearean Tragedy came out in 1904, and is based on work Bradley prepared for teaching at Oxford, Liverpool and Glasgow. The volume takes the form of a set of imaginary lectures, largely a series of detailed examinations of the most important characters from Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear.
Bradley’s learning is formidable. He has an easy acquaintance with the imposing German tradition of Shakespeare scholarship, along with an elegant, lightly-worn knowledge of the many influences Shakespeare drew upon for his writing.
At heart, though, Bradley’s method is personal. He says what he thinks of Shakespeare’s characters, and why he feels they matter to our understanding of life. Obviously, this approach exposes him to ridicule. His only real shield against failure is his own insight into people, based on his inevitably dated and incomplete notions of human nature. In the end, he can’t begin to tell us more about Hamlet or about the world than Shakespeare tells us himself. Bradley knows this, and his modesty is appealing. He assumes that good literature always has more to give us than even the best critics can express in topic sentences and abstractions. And it’s precisely Bradley’s humility—his willingness to embrace his ultimate defeat—that allows him to polish and display certain facets of Shakespeare we aren’t likely to have seen so sharply on our own.
The Hamlet lectures are the standouts here. Bradley highlights Hamlet’s disastrous failure, which leads not only to his death but to the deaths of many others, including his mother and the young woman he has loved—a domino fall of wasted lives that goes far beyond the intended murder of Claudius.
Mentally and emotionally, Hamlet is both overwhelming and exasperating. His mind whirls with all the clashing thoughts and passions that come out in the abrupt swerves of his thrilling verbal agility. Whatever the motives for his delays and decisions, we never doubt his intelligence or the complexity of his feelings. He has always been one of Shakespeare’s most popular characters, even though I suspect most of us would rather see him from the safety of the audience than change places with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for some of those abusive conversations at Elsinore.
Bradley confronts us with one of the play’s many mysteries: Why does Shakespeare show us this smart, resourceful, startlingly changeable young man destroying himself and everyone around him? Elizabethan tragedy is a long way from our modern appetite for uplifting stories about sympathetic people overcoming adversity. In Hamlet, nobody overcomes adversity—everyone is crushed by it. Yet Hamlet remains an exhilarating play, and Hamlet an exhilarating character. He isn’t likeable in any narrow sense, but his flaws are electric, a high-voltage display of humanity at its most disorienting.
For Bradley, Hamlet’s key mistake is his failure to kill Claudius while the king is praying. At this point, Hamlet has seen Claudius’s reaction to the play-within-the-play and has confirmed that Claudius is the murderer of Hamlet’s father. With loving attention to counterarguments and conflicting evidence, Bradley sets forth the different possible reasons for Hamlet’s hesitation, from his stated refusal to kill someone in the middle of a prayer to the less conscious repulsion that Hamlet now feels for all human action. “His whole mind is poisoned,” Bradley says. In Bradley’s view, Hamlet is serious about his stated reasons, yet he also follows emotional, philosophical and mystical impulses that he barely comprehends.
It’s characteristic of Bradley that he chooses less to limit the possible interpretations here than to open them up and allow a wide and sometimes contradictory range of options. Many modern critics are so polemical that they sound like lawyers defending a consortium of tobacco companies. Bradley, in contrast, takes an inclusive approach that seems nicely suited to fiction in general. Fiction writers have the advantage of not needing to settle on a single explicit thesis. Instead, they can grow as many vines and branches of motive and implication as a story allows. Few authors are better at this than Shakespeare: it seems to have been a natural part of the way he thought about life. This is one reason his poetry tends to be so suggestive, filled with images that unfold in many different directions at once.
At any rate, Hamlet’s refusal to kill the praying Claudius is, Bradley claims, the turning point of the play:
So far, Hamlet’s delay, though it is endangering his freedom and his life, has done no irreparable harm; but his failure here is the cause of all the disasters that follow. In sparing the King, he sacrifices Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes, the Queen and himself.
Bradley feels that, from this scene on, Hamlet’s melancholy combines with the circumstances around him to bring about the story’s increasingly out-of-control destruction—starting, of course, with the reckless murder of Polonius. Have you ever wished that, just once, the gun-toting hero of an action movie would accidentally shoot the wrong person during a car chase and spend the rest of the film facing the consequences of his mistake? Well, that’s a bit what Shakespeare does with Hamlet’s killing of Polonius, which leads to Ophelia’s suicide, the executions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the quadruple slaughter of the swordfight scene.
Bradley believes that all this devastation throws into high relief the waste of Hamlet’s special alertness to the world and its mysteries. “Hamlet most brings home to us at once the sense of the soul’s infinity, and the sense of doom which not only circumscribes that infinity but appears to be its offspring,” Bradley writes. Hamlet is, in Jamesian terms, an unusually vital vessel of experience, and the waste of his life is a more catastrophic version of the waste of all our lives, all our potentials:
We seem to have before us a type of the mystery of the whole world, the tragic fact which extends far beyond the limits of tragedy. Everywhere…we see power, intelligence, life and glory, which astound us and seem to call for our worship. And everywhere we see them perishing, devouring one another and destroying themselves, often with dreadful pain, as though they came into being for no other end. Tragedy is the typical form of this mystery…and it makes us realize so vividly the worth of that which is wasted that we cannot possibly seek comfort in the reflection that all is vanity.
A passage like this is obviously overreaching, but it’s overreaching in a way that feels entirely appropriate to Hamlet. Bradley risks bombast in criticism of this sort, but so does Shakespeare in most of his best plays, and critics need to throw off their restraint sometimes and write as freely as Bradley has written here. We can quarrel with his language, we can disagree with some of his assumptions, but this passage has more than enough insight in it to excuse its flaws.
Bradley loves guiding us through the tragedies scene by scene, giving us his views on the characters’ words and acts. Every page hums with energy: Bradley has an expert sense of pace, and carries us along from one brisk comment to the next.
He has much to say on Othello, all of it interesting. Although most of the criticism is delightfully specific, Bradley also does what Shakespeare surely wanted us to do, and draws from our encounters with Iago a fuller attention to certain forms of cruelty:
To ‘plume up the will’, to heighten the sense of power or superiority—this seems to be the unconscious motive of many acts of cruelty which evidently do not spring chiefly from ill-will, and which therefore puzzle and sometimes horrify us most. It is often this that makes a man bully the wife or children of whom he is fond. The boy who torments another boy, as we say, ‘for no reason’, or who without any hatred for frogs tortures a frog, is pleased with his victim’s pain, not from any disinterested love of evil or pleasure in pain, but mainly because this pain is the unmistakable proof of his own power over his victim. So it is with Iago. His thwarted sense of superiority wants satisfaction.
Later, in his lectures on Macbeth, he teases out the title character’s thread of dark inner poetry:
Macbeth’s better nature—to put the matter for clearness’ sake too broadly—instead of speaking to him in the overt language of moral ideas, commands, and prohibitions, incorporates itself in images which alarm and horrify. His imagination is thus the best of him, something usually deeper and higher than his conscious thoughts; and if he had obeyed it he would have been safe.
In addition, Bradley is as good on the tragedies’ secondary characters as he is on Hamlet and Iago. He stands up for Ophelia against the old charge that her mental collapse is a result of her personal weakness:
…her critics hardly seem to realize the situation, hardly to put themselves in the place of a girl whose lover, estranged from her, goes mad and kills her father. They seem to forget also that Ophelia must have believed that these frightful calamities were not mere calamities, but followed from her action in repelling her lover.
Similarly, with Kent in King Lear, he clarifies that character’s particular mix of nobility and foolishness:
One has not the heart to wish him different, but he illustrates the truth that to run one’s head unselfishly against a wall is not the best way to help one’s friends.
In the years after his death in 1935, Bradley took some beatings for his belief that Shakespeare’s characters can be treated as people and not as fictional conceits. Looking back on these complaints now, they seem overstated. Any extended character study, with its presumption that a character has some independent life or personality outside the text, relies as much on imagination as on scholarship. Bradley isn’t merely critiquing Shakespeare—he’s writing a fiction of his own. Still, to critique one fiction with another fiction is both defensible and potentially exciting, and shouldn’t bother readers who enjoy Borges or Nabokov or Sebald. If we take Bradley as an artist—a role his modesty would probably deny—his fictional versions of Shakespeare’s creations are rich achievements. Besides, Bradley always sticks closely to the plays themselves, and grounds his speculations in his intimate study of the tragedies’ theatrical and poetic details.
I suspect that Bradley would want us to end by giving less credit to him and more to Shakespeare. Again and again, Bradley takes up these four tragedies and uses them to bring his personal observations about the world into focus. He approaches the plays as if they were a collection of powerful lenses, and puts them on when he wants to look at things that are too distant or too obscure for his unaided sight to make out as clearly as he would like. This is one of the ways that many of us use good writing, and Bradley’s method has a straightforward intelligence to it that still impresses, and always entertains.