Pericles (Folger Shakespeare Library)

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Mark Haddon’s Latest Curious Incident Sails the High Seas

All of Mark Haddon’s fiction for adults has, until now, been rooted in contemporary realism: emotionally intelligent, yet possessed of a light touch and a sweetly British sense of the absurd. You could argue that his best-known novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is a work of deep imagination; the book, though meticulously realistic, is told from the point of view of a teenager with Savantism. But with his new novel, The Porpoise, Haddon goes deeper still. This time he gives us the gods and goddesses of the ancient world, priestesses and pirates, carnelian and amber. It’s a different kind of storytelling, rich as brocade and powerful indeed.

The Porpoise opens on a present-day setting, though it has a quality of strangeness that, rendered in the author’s somewhat formal language, feels timeless. An extraordinarily rich man named Philippe is married to an actress named Maja, the only person he has ever loved. While very pregnant, Maja takes what should be a short flight in a light aircraft, but the pilot foolishly flies into thick clouds and crashes, killing them both. The baby, a girl Philippe names Angelica, is delivered and lives.

Grief and a monstrous sense of ownership warp Philippe’s mind, and he half believes that Maja lives on in the girl, who he begins molesting when she is small and rapes when she enters adolescence. To keep the nature of their relationship secret, he takes Angelica out of school and moves them around the world. He owns homes in Sri Lanka, Berlin, and Skiathos; he can do what he wants.

The experience of reading Angelica’s story is swiftly engrossing, heady, disorienting—a tumble down a churning whitewater. Her life is a prison, and she feels implicated in her father’s sick need for her. Angelica reads copiously, the escapism of a lonely child desperate to climb out of her circumstance and away from her thoughts. She’s not interested in books other kids her age might read; instead, she plunges into the worlds of myth and legend. As if preparing us for what’s to come, the narrator says:
Her favorite stories are the old ones, those that set deep truths ringing like bells, that take the raw materials of sex and cruelty, of fate and chance, and render them safe by trapping them in beautiful words.
When Haddon’s novel—the book we’re reading—takes us on a similar journey, should we be surprised?

The most distressing parts of the story come out in a rush. A handsome young man comes to the house. The son of a recently deceased art dealer with whom Philippe worked, Darius feels compelled to visit Philippe—not only for business, but because he’s heard about the man’s unusual, beautiful daughter. When he meets the girl and they lock eyes, it takes him only moments to understand that something is very wrong. He tries to rescue her, is nearly killed by Philippe, escapes to the coast, and ends up on a schooner belonging to an old friend who he bumps into by chance. It’s a trippy coincidence that feels just this side of unlikely, even for a rich kid who’s used to things going his way. And sure enough, after Darius sleeps off his injuries, he wakes in a fug of confusion—on a different ship, an unfamiliar one with huge sails. His head swims, full of memories that aren’t his own. He’s still dashing, still hungry for adventure, but he’s become someone else: Pericles, the prince of Tyre, out to sea on his own ship, the Porpoise.

Once we get our sea legs we understand that the novel has become—in fact already was—a retelling of Shakespeare’s Pericles, the story of a young prince who discovered that the King of Antioch was having an incestuous relationship with his daughter and was forced to flee. (The play was itself a retelling of Apollonius of Tyre, a story that was popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime and for centuries before that.)

That’s the thing about legends, ask any scholar of the classics: They get told and retold and will always reflect the attitudes of the place and time of the teller. Haddon makes these characters resonate simply by giving them a “realness” that readers of contemporary fiction crave. They may have old-fashioned names, but they’re bristling with life. When Pericles meets the Queen of Tarsus and she “stands just a little closer to him than is proper, just inside an invisible orbit of which he has never been aware before,” we readers feel the electricity between them. Sex and attraction feature prominently throughout the story, as do birth and death, terror and violence—all the elemental stuff of life that hasn’t changed one bit over the eons—and the drama feels ageless because it is.

The novel’s only obviously contemporary note is Haddon’s insistence that a female perspective shine through the stories, even—or especially—the ones that depict male cruelty toward women. One character, Chloë, is a princess who dies at sea but is pulled ashore and comes back to life, later becoming a priestess who gives the local people advice and guidance. When discussing women’s lot in life, she’s a straight shooter: “Girls have secrets…And there are plenty of men who consider their good name more valuable than a girl’s life.” Does the weight of her words come down like a hammer because Haddon is unsubtle in giving the myth a twist of modern feminism? Or is it because they’re that weighty and timeless and true? It’s stirring either way. And frankly, sometimes subtle just isn’t the way to go.

Likewise, in one of the book’s most haunting passages, Haddon floats a theory for Philippe’s abuse of his daughter.
Does he know, in some corner of his mind, that what he is doing is wrong? Or, if you have never been forbidden absolutely, if you have never been harshly criticized by someone whose opinion genuinely matters to you, if you have never had to face the consequences of your own mistakes, does the quiet, critical, contrary voice at the back of the mind grow gradually quieter until it is no longer audible?
Well shit, the author seems to say. Here we (still) are.

In a brief author’s note, Haddon—who is stunningly sensitive to not only the plight but also the interiority of all his female characters—writes that there is only one version of the Pericles story, a Breton lai written in the early 14th century, in which the princess is the hero, so to speak. Rather than serving as a plot “instigating device,” he says, she is the one at the center of the story who travels around and has “adventures.” I like the way the word adventure is used throughout this novel: It serves as a stout reminder that true adventure is dangerous and experience hard-earned.

Ultimately, the purpose of this beautiful novel is to remind us—to prove to us—that emotional truths are ageless and universal, the bedrock on which our supposedly real lives are built. The thing is, a retelling of an old story is in some ways just an update, a variation on a theme. But when it’s done very well, it’s more like a translation. The meaning of the strange symbols, which can be hard to parse across centuries and cultures, becomes plain. Maybe a woman whose coffin is fished from the ocean can’t come back to life and morph into something new. But perhaps a woman who has experienced a great trauma can walk away from it, change her circumstances in order to survive, and thereby be reborn—first in her mind and then in reality.

The Writing of ‘Hand D’: On Shakespeare’s Collaborative Career

In 1592 in London, a pamphlet called Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, bought with a Million of Repentance was published, supposedly containing the bitter last words of Robert Greene, a member of the group now known as the “university wits,” writers and playwrights who had been educated at Oxford and Cambridge and who had written, individually and collaboratively, many of the best plays of the previous decade. Greene had died in poverty a few months before, and the Groatsworth contains a letter addressed to his fellow wits, Marlowe, Nashe, and Peele, warning against “those puppets” and “apes” (the actors) who not only didn’t pay their writers enough but who even had the audacity to “newly set forth” the wits’ old plays, adding a few new scenes or retouching some passages and then claiming sole authorship, and sole revenue. Greene holds a grudge against one writer in particular:
Trust them not, for there is an upstart crow beautified with our feathers that, with his ‘Tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide’, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.
Shakespeare. In 1592, he was 28 and had probably been in London for three or four years, starting out as an actor of bit parts and perhaps then trying his hand at mending a few speeches here and there during rehearsals. Starting around 1590, he began writing his own plays.

Establishing a composition date for Shakespeare’s early plays is tricky, but by 1592 he had at least written the three plays in the Henry VI cycle (Greene quotes from Part Three above), and possibly also Titus Andronicus. Parts two and three of the cycle, written first, were wholly by Shakespeare, though Part One, first performed in March 1592, could  be Shakespeare’s revision of an earlier play by Nashe, and Titus is now thought to be partly by Peele. The notoriety these plays gave Shakespeare is perhaps what earned Greene’s ire.

The popular image of Shakespeare’s career is that he collaborated on a few plays as a young man, as a kind of apprenticeship. Proving his ability, he went on to eschew collaboration for most of his career, until just before his retirement he again collaborated on a series of plays with his own apprentice and successor, John Fletcher. Broadly speaking, this is true. But it doesn’t explain why Shakespeare, after the runaway successes of Henry VI parts two and three would collaborate on the prequel, writing only about 20 percent of it, or why in the middle of his career, he would collaborate with Middleton on Macbeth and Timon of Athens, and George Wilkins on Pericles. And then there’s the issue of the four plays from the 1580s and early 1590s — a tragedy about Hamlet, prince of Denmark, Victories of Henry the Fifth, King Leir, and The Taming of a Shrew — none by Shakespeare, but all curiously related to his own later plays.

Greene called Shakespeare “an upstart crow beautified with our feathers,” an allusion to a passage from Horace warning against poetic plagiarism. Part of Greene’s problem was that Shakespeare was not a university man, and therefore not a gentleman. He was an “ape” who was stealing not only the vocation and the paychecks of gentleman playwrights, but also, according to Greene, plagiarizing them. Shakespeare was stung by Greene’s accusations, somehow getting Henry Chettle, who had prepared the Groatsworth for the press, to print an apology. Greene was bitter and likely unstable, but his accusations and Shakespeare’s reaction do lead to the question: how often did Shakespeare “mend” plays? It was common practice for theater companies to bring back old plays in repertory with a few new ones each year, sometimes updating and revising older plays to fit a current vogue. In his position for most of his career as company dramatist, first for the Chamberlain’s Men and then the King’s Men, wouldn’t Shakespeare have done some of this updating?

A new anthology collecting those plays that may contain evidence of this kind of work, William Shakespeare & Others: Collaborative Plays, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen and designed to be a companion to the RSC anthology of Shakespeare’s works, provides just this kind of portrait of Shakespeare the working playwright. It is the first collection of plays on the fringes of the Shakespeare canon — those plays, in other words, that may or may not have been collaborations in which Shakespeare took part — in 100 years, since C.F. Tucker Brooke’s The Shakespeare Apocrypha in 1908.

It includes some usual suspects. The riot scene in Sir Thomas More is now included in the acknowledged Shakespeare canon and is frequently included in anthologies of Shakespeare’s works. More is one of the few plays from that period to survive in manuscript form, and it is doubly unique for containing the handwriting of playwrights Anthony Munday, Henry Chettle, Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker, court censorer Edmund Tilney, and William Shakespeare. The pages containing “Hand D” (Shakespeare’s) are among the most precious pieces of literary history, and are housed in the British Library in London. Other than six signatures, they contain the only samples of Shakespeare’s handwriting to have survived.

The evidence for Shakespeare being Hand D rests on the comparison of the handwriting to the surviving signatures, which share with it unique letter forms (a spurred a, a strange flourish on the k) unlike the handwriting of any other Elizabethan or Jacobean writer, and also on stylistic evidence. Will Sharpe’s exhaustive “Authorship and Attribution” essay at the end of the anthology explains the authorship studies done on each of the plays included in the collection, as well as giving an overview of the history of authorship studies on each. Computer analysis has made authorship studies easier and more accurate, allowing quick searches through the entire corpus of drama from the period. Stylistic evidence relies on matching an anonymous passage to the stylistic fingerprints of one author. Fingerprints could be the use of contractions (i’th or in the), oaths (‘sblood, zounds), prepositions (amongst or among), pronouns (you over ye), verb forms (hath over has), and metrics (adding extra syllables to poetic lines). Added to the evidence of vocabulary, spelling, dating, and which theater company performed the play (if any), it is sometimes possible to identify the author.

In the case of Hand D in More, the internal evidence of handwriting, spelling, and poetic style is a slam dunk. The trouble is that it doesn’t fit the traditional picture of Shakespeare. More is a play that, given everything we know about Shakespeare, he should never have been involved in.

More was originally written circa 1600 by Anthony Munday, possibly collaborating with Henry Chettle. It was part of a mini-vogue of plays about Henry VIII’s councillors and dramatizes Thomas More’s rise to power after helping to quell the Ill May Day riot of 1517 against foreigners living in London and his fall after refusing to sign the Act of Succession. But the reason for his fall is necessarily fuzzy, since it was the Act of Succession that recognized the legitimacy of the then-reigning monarch, Elizabeth I. In addition, the 1590s had seen a series of riots and hostilities against foreigners in London that seemed to echo the riot the play presented. For these reasons, censor Edmund Tilney refused to let the play be performed, writing on the front leaf of the manuscript, “Leave out the insurrection wholly with the cause thereof…at your own perils.”

Presenting politically sensitive material in a play was grounds under Elizabeth for arrest or imprisonment, and quite a few of Shakespeare’s colleagues at one time or another found themselves in hot water for their writing — Marlowe, Kyd, and even Ben Jonson — but never Shakespeare. So why would Shakespeare involve himself in trying to patch up a play already rejected by Tilney for containing dangerous material, and not only be involved, but agree to write one of the stickiest scenes in the play? It certainly challenges popular conceptions of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare & Others claims Shakespeare’s presence in More and Edward III, another common candidate for Shakespeare’s involvement. It is now generally accepted that Shakespeare contributed the countess scenes in Edward III (I.ii-II.ii and IV.iv) and that the rest of the play is by Kyd, Peele, or Nashe. Both plays are now included in anthologies of Shakespeare’s works. Shakespeare & Others also, however, puts forward Arden of Faversham, The Spanish Tragedy, and Double Falsehood (which I have previously written about for The Millions) as “almost certain” to contain passages by Shakespeare.

Arden of Faversham, written around 1590, is the earliest example of a domestic tragedy in English drama, as well as the first example of a detective procedural. Most of the play concerns the attempts by Alice Arden and her lover Mosby to hire someone to kill her husband, including two villains named Black Will and Shakebag (surely there’s a joke there). They finally kill Master Arden themselves, and the end of the play shows Arden’s friend Franklin uncovering the clues to their guilt. Shakespeare & Others suggests Shakespeare’s involvement in scene 8, in which Mosby and Alice quarrel and then reconcile in what is surely the sexiest makeup scene of the 1590s, and which contains stylistic and linguistic similarities to Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece, written at about the same time.

The Spanish Tragedy is Thomas Kyd’s masterpiece of a revenge drama, and influenced Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Hamlet. It is usually anthologized in its late-1580s version, and it is less-known that someone revised it a decade later for the Chamberlain’s Men, adding new scenes that increased the part of Hieronimo, the Marshal of Spain who feigns madness to gain revenge for his son’s murder. Shakespeare & Others attributes the additions to Shakespeare.

Double Falsehood is a different animal entirely, being perhaps the 1728 revision by Lewis Theobald of a Restoration-era revision by Thomas Betterton of a circa 1612 play by Shakespeare and Fletcher, Cardenio, based on an episode from Cervantes’s then newly-published Don Quixote. This anthology agrees with recent scholarship, including that of Brean Hammond, who edited it for the Arden Shakespeare series, that the play does represent, as it were, the grandchild of an authentic Shakespearean play.

Also included are Mucedorus, a play the editors describe as “worth considering” as partly-Shakespearean, as well as four plays they have determined are most likely not Shakespearean collaborations at all: A Yorkshire Tragedy, The London Prodigal, Locrine, and Thomas Lord Cromwell. The editors’ criteria for the table of contents of this anthology, therefore, seems to be the best of those plays that have, at some point in the past 400 years, been suggested by some scholar as possibly Shakespeare’s, or in other words, the best of those plays that belong to the group known as the “Shakespeare Apocrypha.”

The title of the anthology is therefore somewhat misleading. It does not present plays by “Shakespeare & Others” but by “Shakespeare, & Others.” However, presented this way, those plays that Shakespeare does appear to have a hand in are freed from the heavy trappings and gravitas the “Works” volumes lend, and can be examined not only for their literary qualities, which in the plays here are sometimes great, but also for the evidence they contain about Shakespeare the working writer. These plays can now more usefully be compared to the other canonical and collaborative plays, like Timon of Athens and Pericles and Macbeth. More attention to Shakespeare’s collaborative career, now known to be larger than was thought, may yield a new portrait: a playwright who was also a shrewd businessman and a company man, who likely spent more time in the day-to-day thinking about the bottom line than the immortality of his verse. And that is a more likely and more useful way to think about the man from Stratford.

Shakespeare as God

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.

(I.ii. 222-30)
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).

(I.ii. 138-46)
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.

(I.ii. 186-196)
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.

(IV.iv. 134-46)
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.

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