Pop quiz: Whose signature is the rarest in the world? Answer: William Shakespeare’s.
Yes, the playwright who created Hamlet (1603), Romeo and Juliet (1597), and King Lear (1608), irrefutable master of English literature and stronghold of the Western canon, left behind no manuscripts and no letters — no handwritten trace of his copious life’s work, unless you count the long-disputed three pages of a manuscript at the British Library referred to as “Hand D” that may very well be his. Only six confirmed Shakespearean signatures survive, all on legal documents; his will contains the two additional words “By me.”
If any fragment with Shakespeare’s handwriting came to light, it would generate international headlines, and that scrap would be worth millions. In this sense, Shakespeare truly is the “holy grail” of the rare book world — not that anyone is actively looking. Shakespeare died in 1616; as the focus of scholars, collectors, and forgers for nearly 400 years, it’s impossible that anything of his might have slipped by unnoticed.
Or is it?
On the morning of April 29, 2008, George Koppelman, a former IBM software developer who founded Cultured Oyster Books about 15 years ago, ate a late breakfast in his New York City apartment and then sat down at his desk to begin the day’s work. He logged on to eBay and input some search terms that produced a curious result: a 16-century English folio dictionary with contemporary annotations. Neat, but not necessarily remarkable. Except, said Koppelman, the annotations “seemed to me as if they were intentionally entered as poetic fragments.”
The volume was a 1580 second edition of John Baret’s Alvearie, or Quadruple Dictionarie, not a dictionary as strictly defined, but more of a polyglot’s reference — each English word is listed alongside its French, Greek, and Latin equivalents. Whoever had owned and annotated it displayed a keen interest in language, so much so that Koppelman was captivated. He called his friend, Daniel Wechsler of Sanctuary Books in New York City, and told him about the auction listing. It was premature even to utter the name Shakespeare, but between the two of them they decided that “the combination of it being an Elizabethan dictionary with at least some degree of involvement from an owner of the period was enough to spark serious interest, and we had several conversations on how much we ought to bid,” said Wechsler.
Rare booksellers hazard situations like this all the time. “We knew that there was a slight chance it could be very special, but also that there are hundreds, even thousands, of anonymously annotated books from this period that go virtually unnoticed,” said Koppelman.
They placed a high bid of $4,300 and narrowly won it. If it was the Bard’s book, it was certainly a bargain-basement price. When the bubble-wrapped folio arrived in the mail shortly thereafter, both men realized they had a long road ahead — “not days, weeks, or even months, but years,” in Wechsler’s words. As respected dealers (both members of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America), it would have been career suicide to make any hasty pronouncements about having purchased Shakespeare’s dictionary on eBay. Instead, they discreetly dove into the type of meticulous, multifaceted research experienced almost exclusively by PhD candidates.
First, perhaps, to reconcile the history: where was Shakespeare in the 1580s, and could he have owned this book? Shakespeare was born in 1564, raised in Stratford-upon-Avon, and married, at the age of eighteen, in 1582. Few records of his life survive, so his biography is largely the work of scholarly projection. No one knows exactly when he arrived in London, but the mid-to-late 1580s is the accepted estimate. That he worked in the theater and mingled with a “literary” crowd, even among the small circle of commercial printers, is also largely believed. Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker, “The printer Richard Field, a fellow-Stratfordian of around the same age, whose family was closely associated with the Shakespeares, was very likely a companion in Shakespeare’s early London scuffles.” Field didn’t publish the Alvearie — though he did later print the earliest editions of Shakespeare’s two long poems, “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece” — but he likely did lend the playwright editions from his shop, which he used while writing, according to another Shakespeare biographer. Educated guesswork and isolated facts they may be, but it does appear that the Bard was in the right place at the right time to have had access to the Alvearie.
Next, the booksellers explored the handwriting. Elizabethan handwriting appears peculiar, even illegible, to modern eyes. (It’s worth noting that the Wikipedia entry for paleography, the study and interpretation of historic handwriting, is illustrated by a picture of Shakespeare’s will, indicating how difficult the script is to read.) Scholars tell us that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have used secretary hand, a loopy style accomplished with strong up and down strokes of the pen, although there is so little evidence where Shakespeare is concerned that’s it tough to pin down what his penmanship was like. The annotations in the Alvearie, however, are not in secretary hand; they are in the slightly more readable but still sloping italic hand that was just beginning to emerge. Does this alone discount Shakespeare as annotator? The booksellers argue two points: 1) the Alvearie notes are in a mixed hand, and 2) annotations by their very nature are brief, so it makes sense that the annotator would have eschewed the flourishes of secretary hand while jotting in the margins.
Koppelman and Wechsler faced the most formidable — and gratifying — challenge in analyzing the actual text of the annotations. This entailed combing through each line of text, examining every speck of inky evidence. They categorized these annotations as either “spoken” annotations, meaning the annotator added full words, and “mute” annotations, meaning the slashes, circles, and bits of underlining made by him. Additionally, one of the blank leaves at the back contains an entire page of manuscript notes — words, phrases, and translations.
And this is where it got interesting for the duo, because, as Koppelman had noted upon first viewing select annotations, there seemed to be a reason that certain words were underlined or translated. The annotations were enigmatic, but following Koppelman’s earlier hunch about the poetic nature of the fragmentary phrases, the two booksellers have been able to demonstrate connections between some of the odd words and phrases that particularly interested the annotator with similar words and phrases that crop up in Shakespeare’s work. For example, a line in Hamlet reads, “Oh that this too too solid Flesh, would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!” The use of the word “resolve” perplexes in this context, unless you have Baret’s Alvearie handy, which defines “Thawe” as “resolve that which is frozen.” Moreover, the anonymous annotator showed his special interest in this word, inserting a “mute” annotation beside it.
The booksellers can offer up any number of such examples to prove their contention that Shakespeare himself marked up this book — the annotator’s fascination with “dive-dapper,” a small English bird that appears in Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis,” or how the annotator penned the weird hyphenated word Bucke-bacquet, which turns up in The Merry Wives of Windsor six times, on that blank back leaf — but it is impractical to describe the extent of their six-year investigation in a few paragraphs. Which is why they decided to write a book.
In April 2014, Koppelman and Wechsler went public with their findings. They published an illustrated book and accompanying website titled Shakespeare’s Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Light, which boldly claimed that their humble copy of Baret’s Alvearie had languished in obscurity, “never previously studied or speculated upon,” and that having now been discovered and scrutinized was ready to be adored for what it was: a book annotated by Shakespeare. Their goal was to present their argument “in measured and non-polemical ways,” along with illustrations of the annotations that would invite readers to join the debate — but it was a risky proposition.
Before publication they had reached out to a small group of scholars and rare book trade colleagues and were “prepared for a variety of responses, including the most obvious one, which would be disbelief,” said Wechsler. Their reputations as rare book dealers would be put on the line. It was, said Wechsler, “an enormous risk, and that forced me to weigh all of the possibilities very carefully before I came to value the evidence in the annotations as confidently as I do.” Koppelman agreed, adding, “We would have been seriously naïve not to know what we were getting ourselves into. Neither one of us is what you would call an attention seeker.”
That said, the discovery did make international headlines, and the mixed reactions came in rather swiftly. The book world especially awaited acknowledgment from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., home to the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare research material, including 82 First Folios. Michael Witmore, director of the Folger, and Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts at the Folger, issued a joint response called “Buzz or honey?” in which they wrote, “At this point, we as individual scholars feel that it is premature to join Koppelman and Wechsler in what they have described as their ‘leap of faith.’” It wasn’t an outright rebuttal; they noted that, “Shakespeare and other early modern writers used source books like the Alvearie to fire the imagination.” But proving that he used this one, they said, was going to require much more expert analysis.
Fair enough, said the booksellers. They had expected skepticism and even snap judgments, but by throwing the door wide open with a monograph that reproduces the annotations for all to see, they hoped to encourage research and debate. To that end, they update their blog with fresh insights, arguments, and counterarguments. So far, they remain confident that Shakespeare was the mystery annotator. “Of course we don’t deny the difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of ever fully proving our belief,” said Wechsler. “But we feel the argument for our conclusion has only been strengthened with new revelations and further research.”
It may be an insurmountable hurdle for some that this book — found on eBay, no less — contains the Bard’s marginalia. Had it been located in some neglected annex at the British Library, acceptance might have come more easily, but even the idea that an artifact of this caliber has been overlooked for nearly half a century is, perhaps, too much to absorb. Said Wechsler, “I think people fail to realize how many old books have survived and how many discoveries are still possible.”
Still others — a cynical crowd — might imagine that it’s all a ploy, not for fame but for financial gain. After all, if it were Shakespeare’s reference book, it would easily be worth enough to break the auction record for a printed book, currently holding at $14.2 million for the 1640 Bay Psalm Book. (The most expensive First Folio clocked in at $6.2 million, obviously without any authorial notes in manuscript — Shakespeare had been dead for seven years before this authoritative collection of his work appeared in print.) But selling the book quickly was never their aim, according to Koppelman and Wechsler. “Ideally, the book will eventually find a home as an important book in the collection of an institution such as the British Library or the Folger,” said Koppelman. “Regardless of where it goes next, we feel the most important thing is to be patient and encourage debate.”
In October of this year, 18 months after their initial announcement, the booksellers issued a second edition of their findings that includes more textual examples and “evidence that we believe is important to share and helps to solidify and advance the credibility of our arguments and our claim,” according to their blog. Readers who commit to the full 400-plus-page tome will undoubtedly credit the rigorousness of their approach and the guilelessness of their presentation.
As professional booksellers, Koppelman and Wechsler are always on the hunt for rare books. At the same time, this one was perhaps more than they bargained for. If another treasure turned up on his doorstep, what would he do? “As fulfilling as this has been, I would be tempted to put the book down, leaving the thrill of such a discovery for someone else to discover,” said Koppelman. Wechsler concurred. “I think it’s pretty safe to say I won’t ever find myself wrapped up in a find on par with this one.”
It’s true, our bardolatry is such that any discovery associated with William Shakespeare makes international headlines. In November 2014, media outlets clamored to cover the news that Saint-Omer library, a small public library in northern France, near Calais, found in its collection a First Folio (1623), the first published collection of 36 (out of 38) Shakespearean plays. It appears that the Saint-Omer library inherited the book when a nearby Jesuit college was expelled from France centuries ago and left the book behind. According to professor and Folio expert Eric Rasmussen, a Folio comes to light every decade or so, but this one was particularly surprising, and in good condition, even though it lacks the portrait frontispiece that typically signposts a Folio. Like the De revolutionibus editions traced by Owen Gingerich, First Folios are closely tracked, examined, and cataloged for textual or printing variations or marginalia — this one, for example, contains stage directions and the name Nevill inscribed at the front. “It’s a little like archaeology,” James Shapiro, a Shakespeare expert at Columbia University, told The New York Times. “Where we find a folio tells us a little bit more about who was reading Shakespeare, who was valuing him.” This addition brings the total number of extant copies of the First Folio to 233.
Excerpted with permission from Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places, to be published in December by Voyageur Press. Rare Books Uncovered contains 52 remarkable stories of rare books, manuscripts, and historical documents unearthed in barns, attics, flea markets, dumpsters, and other unexpected places.
“All that he doth write / Is pure his own.” So a 17th-century poet praised William Shakespeare. This is not actually true.
Shakespeare was a reteller. Cardenio, also known as The Double Falsehood, which I’ve written about before for The Millions, was a retelling of the Cardenio episode in Don Quixote. As You Like It retold Thomas Lodge’s romance Rosalynde, The Two Noble Kinsmen comes from the Knight’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Cressida from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. The Comedy of Errors is Plautus’s Menaechmi with an extra set of twins. The Winter’s Tale retold Robert Greene’s novella Pandosto without the incest. Much Ado About Nothing is Orlando Furioso, although Beatrice and Benedick are original. King Lear, Hamlet, and The Taming of the Shrew may be simple rewrites of earlier plays. In fact the only of Shakespeare’s plays to have original plots were The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. What makes Shakespeare, well — Shakespeare, is not his plots, but his language.
This month, Hogarth Press published the first entry — The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson — in a new collection of novels by today’s major practitioners that each rewrite one of Shakespeare’s plays. Tracy Chevalier will be retelling Othello; Margaret Atwood The Tempest; Gillian Flynn Hamlet; Edward St. Aubyn King Lear; Anne Tyler The Taming of the Shrew; Jo Nesbø Macbeth; and Howard Jacobson The Merchant of Venice. This is not a new endeavor, although it does seem to be a uniquely 20th- and 21st-century phenomenon. (The Romantics preferred to think of Shakespeare as an artless genius working under pure inspiration.) But as scholars have begun to recognize the extent of Shakespeare’s own retellings — and collaborations — modern writers have taken a page out of his book by rewriting his plays. (I’ll mention here the newly announced project by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to “translate” Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English, but that seems to stem from a different impulse.)
Perhaps this narrative is too simple. It is not as if, after all, writers in the last century suddenly discovered Shakespeare as a source and influence. For the past 400 years, Shakespeare’s poetry and plays have become as much a part of the common language and mythology as the King James Bible. In a sense, Noah’s flood is as much a foundational myth of our culture as the Seven Ages of Man. Like Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby, we use Shakespeare as a way to understand and connect with each other. There is so much of Shakespeare woven into Moby-Dick, for instance, that the allusions and the words and the quotations feel like the warp and woof of the novel. The same could be said for just about anything by Milton, Dickens, Austen, Woolf, Frost, Eliot — in fact I could name most of the writers in the English and American canons, and, indeed, abroad. Borges, to name just one example, found in Shakespeare a kindred spirit in his exploration of magical realism; and Salman Rushdie’s definition of magical realism as “the commingling of the improbable with the mundane” is a pretty good description of some of Shakespeare’s plays — A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to mind.
Let’s take, for an example, Woolf’s Between the Acts, her last novel. It is a book seemingly made entirely of fragments — scraps of literature spoken and overheard; parts of the village pageant, around which the novel centers, either omitted or the voices of the actors blown away by the wind; characters speaking to each other but failing to understand, or only managing to half-articulate their thoughts. In the midst of all this, Shakespeare is ever-present, a source for the poetry on everyone’s lips, inspiration for part of the pageant, and a symbol of what ought to be valued, not just in literature and art, but in life.
One of these piecemeal phrases that becomes a refrain in the book and in the consciousness of the characters is “books are the mirrors of the soul.” Woolf turns it around from meaning that books reflect the souls of their creators to meaning that the books we read reflect what value there might be in our souls. The person who is drawn to reading about Henry V must have that same heroism somewhere in him; the woman who feels the anguish of Queen Katherine also has some of her nobility. The younger generation of Between the Acts reads only newspapers, or “shilling shockers.” No one reads Shakespeare, although they try to quote him all the time. Shakespeare becomes a substitute for what they cannot put into words themselves, their “groanings too deep for words.” The worth of Shakespeare that emerges in Between the Acts is as a tap for the hidden spring in each of the characters that contains the things they wish they could say, the thoughts that otherwise they would have no way to communicate — instead of mirrors, books are the mouthpieces of the soul.
Shakespeare’s plays are a touchstone, and the way we react to them, the way we retell them, says more about us than about him. For example, Mary Cowden Clarke in 1850 created biographies for Shakespeare’s female characters in The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines. Each are made paragons of virtue and modesty, reflecting Victorian morals and values. But Clarke was also coopting Shakespeare for her own interest in women’s rights, using his stories of women with agency and power, and clothing them in Victorian modesty in order to provide an example and a way forward for herself and her female readers.
To take another example, Mark Twain retold Julius Caesar (actually, just Act III, Scene i) in “The Killing of Julius Caesar ‘Localized,’” but he used it to address the bully politics of his day. Shakespeare’s play becomes a news squib from the “Roman Daily Evening Fasces” and the title character becomes “Mr. J. Caesar, the Emperor-elect.” Twain’s Caesar successfully fends off each would-be assassin, “[stretching] the three miscreants at his feet with as many blows of his powerful fist.” The story also makes a claim about Twain’s status as a writer compared to Shakespeare: by mentioning Shakespeare as a supposed citizen of Rome who witnessed “the beginning and the end of the unfortunate affray,” Twain mocks the popular reverence for Shakespeare; he ceases to be a poetic genius and becomes merely a talented transcriber. But by doing so, Twain mocks himself as well; he is, after all, transcribing Shakespeare.
To turn to novels, I could mention Woolf’s Night and Day, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Robert Nye’s Falstaff, John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius, Rushie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, and a long list of others. In a way these are their own type; rather than appropriating Shakespeare, or quoting or alluding to Shakespeare, they purport to re-imagine his plays. Jane Smiley’s retelling of King Lear is probably the most well-known. A Thousand Acres manages to capture the horror of Lear. It is modern in that there is no ultimately virtuous character. Cordelia, or Caroline, becomes naive and blind and prejudiced as any other character in the play, and Larry Cook’s strange relationship to his daughters and the way it blows up says less about power and pride and love and aging than about abuse and bitterness. It is both horribly familiar and also fits surprisingly well into Shakespeare’s play. It becomes part of the lens through which we now must view Lear. It enriches our reading of Shakespeare while also giving us a new view of ourselves. And oh is it a cold hard view.
For her entry into the Hogarth series, Winterson had first pick, and chose The Winter’s Tale, which she says has always been a talismanic text for her. In The Gap of Time, Winterson has written what she calls a “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale. It’s a jazzy, news-y retelling, set insistently in a realistic world. Whereas Shakespeare takes pains to remind us that his play is just a play, Winterson’s emphatically tries to set the action in our own world. Hermione, for example, an actor and singer, has a Wikipedia page. Her acting debut was in Deborah Warner’s adaptation of Winterson’s novel The PowerBook, and she has performed at the Roundhouse Theatre in London. Leontes lives in London, where he is a successful businessman with a company called Sicilia, and Polixenes, a video game designer, lives in New Bohemia, which is recognizable as New Orleans. The characters are renamed with short, jazzy nicknames: Leontes becomes Leo; Polixenes is Zeno; Hermione is Mimi; the shepherd and clown who discover the lost Perdita become Shep and Clo. Only Perdita and Autolycus retain their full names. (Autolycus is the best translation of the book: he becomes a used car salesman trying to offload a lemon of a Delorean onto the clown.)
Shakespeare’s play is focused almost equally on the parent’s story and then the children’s, but Winterson’s focuses almost exclusively on the love triangle between Zeno, Leo, and Mimi. Whereas Shakespeare leaves open the possibility that Leontes may have some grounds for jealousy (though if we believe the oracle of Apollo, no room for the possibility of Hermione being guilty of adultery), Winterson is explicit that a love triangle does exist, but she inverts it. It is Leo who loves both Mimi and Zeno, Leo who has slept with both. And it’s clear that though Mimi chose Leo, there was a distinct connection between her and Zeno. Winterson even takes a hint from Shakespeare’s source in Pandosto and makes Leo consider romancing Perdita when he meets her. “As someone who was given away and is a foundling, I’ve always worked with the idea of the lost child,” Winterson has said. The part of Shakespeare’s tale that spoke to Winterson was the origin story, why the child was lost.
Shakespeare’s play, because it doesn’t insist upon existing in a realistic world, is full of wonder and mystery. It’s that magic that happens when you hear the words “Once upon a time.” The closest Winterson’s version gets to that place is in the scenes that take place inside of Zeno’s video game, when Zeno and Leo and Mimi play themselves but also become something a little grander, a little wilder, a little more numinous. But there is little of Shakespeare’s language present. Winterson’s The Winter’s Tale is as much a retelling of Pandosto as Shakespeare.
Why do we return again and again to Shakespeare’s plays, why do we keep rewriting them? Is it in hope that some of his genius will rub off? Are we searching for new possibilities for interpretation, hoping to mine new ore out of well covered ground? Or are we going toe-to-toe, trying our strength against the acknowledged genius of English literature? Perhaps it is simply that creativity is contagious. When a piece of art inspires you, it literally in-spires, breaths into you. It makes us want to create new art. Or, maybe it’s a more basic instinct. From the beginning of our lives, when we hear a good story, a story that as Winterson says becomes “talismanic” for us, what do we say? “Tell it again.”
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) is an exhaustive dissection of the physical, mental, and behavioral causes of an epidemic disease, a massive project that also manages to anatomize the folly of the author who undertook it. In The Anatomy, Burton provides specific suggestions to mitigate melancholy through one’s diet, “the mother of diseases, let the father be what he will.”
This so-called “Robert Burton Diet” is as relevant today as it was in the 17th century, for who among us can claim to be entirely free of the melancholic affliction? Atkins, South Beach, Microbiome, Paleo: all these faddish regimens might slim you down, but can they regulate your humours? I think not.
Therefore, without further ado, I give you the Robert Burton Diet.
Only those with strong constitutions should partake of beef, which engenders “gross melancholy blood.” If you must, find a cow from Portugal to eat, preferably one that is gelded or, alternatively, an old sad one that has “been tired out with labor.”
Pork is also off the menu, especially for those who “live at ease” or are otherwise “unsound of body or mind” — that is, most of us. But it’s so moist! Precisely the problem. Pork is too moist and “full of humours,” which upset sensitive stomachs and could bring on the dreaded “quartan ague,” which recurs every 72 hours.
Need we even mention goats? These “rammish,” bearded beasts clearly “breed rank and filthy substance.” For goat-lovers, a kid is best, the younger, cuter, more tender, and less rammish the better.
“All venison,” pleasant meat though it may be, “is melancholy, and begets bad blood.” Should you decide to treat yourself, break out those bows or rifles, because hunted deer is supposedly better than store-bought for those of melancholic disposition.
Anything is preferable to hare, a “black meat, melancholy, and hard of digestion” that breeds incubus and “causeth fearful dreams.” (Burton doesn’t say whether these nightmares will be worse if you kill the rabbit yourself.)
And what of heads, feet, bowels, brains, entrails, marrow, fat, blood, skins, inward parts (heart, liver, spleen, etc.)? Sure, if you want to keep moping around forever, dig in.
OK, so meat is pretty much verboten. Perhaps we should look elsewhere in the animal kingdom for sustenance?
Don’t even think about fowl, especially those morally suspect avian creatures flying in from Northern Europe and Russia: “Though these be fair in feathers, pleasant in taste, and have a good outside, like hypocrites, white in plumes, and soft, their flesh is hard, black, unwholesome, dangerous, melancholy meat.” If there’s one thing I can’t abide eating, it’s a dissembling bird.
The Burton Diet doesn’t sound great so far, but maybe fish will provide us with sumptuous delights…
Easy on the seafood, which yields “little and humorous nutriment.” You don’t want to end up like the Carthusian monks, who are “subject to more melancholy than any other Order” because of their fish-eating and solitary living.
Though classical opinion varies widely, Burton is willing to roll the dice on lobster, crab, and lampreys, quoting Paulus Jovius’s opinion that none speak against the latter but inepti [fools] and scrupulosi [the scrupulous].” Far be it from me to gainsay Burton, but after Googling an image of a lamprey, I wouldn’t eat one.
I know what you’re all dying to ask: Can I eat carp? Unfortunately, for once Burton doesn’t have the answer. Who would have thought that this lowly fish could stump one of the most learned minds in Europe? “Carp is a fish of which I know not what to determine,” Burton admits with an air of melancholy resignation.
Depressed yet? Well, nothing cheers one up quite like milk and cookies, but only if it’s asses’ milk washing down those chocolate chips. Every other milk increases melancholy.
And cheese-lovers beware, because the older, stronger, and harder cheeses are especially troublesome for the melancholic. If you’re hankering for a slice, make it Banbury, which Shakespeare lovers will instantly recognize from this memorable burn delivered to Slender in The Merry Wives of Windsor: “You Banbury cheese!”
Denied as we are most meats, fish, and dairy products, perhaps adherents of the Burton Diet can compensate with fruit?
Fruits “infect the blood, and putrefy it.” (Though apples, along with pearmains and sweetings, are “good against melancholy.”)
Are leafy greens and garnishes similarly infectious?
Herbs, Roots, Vegetables, and Spices:
Cucumbers, melons and gourds are “disallowed,” but cabbage is the worst, causing troublesome dreams and bringing “heaviness to the soul.” (I always knew there was a scientific reason I hated it.) Moreover, before eating what Horace calls “bloodless meals,” recall what the great Roman poet said of such demeaning feasts:
Their lives, that each such herbs, must needs be short,
And ’tis a fearful thing to report,
That men should feed on such a kind of meat
Which very juments [beasts of burden] would refuse to eat.
Oh, and no peas either, whether eaten properly with a fork or gauchely with a knife.
Parsnips and potatoes barely make the cut, but I hope you like your food bland, because garlic and onions send “gross fumes to the brain” and “make men mad.” Pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, dates, oil, vinegar, mustard, and sugar are out, as are all sweet, “sharp and sour things.”
Surely Burton would allow us some salt? He’s not a monster after all.
Alas, salt and salt-meats, being “great procurers of this disease [melancholy],” should be avoided. We need only look at those Egyptian priests who abstained from salt so “that their souls might be free from perturbations” to see the folly of our ways.
Those “perturbations” are starting to sound preferable to a life of deprivation. At any rate, give me unlimited bread and a cold one and I’ll make do.
Bread and Beer:
Hallelujah! On the controversial subject of bread, Burton proves less dogmatic than some gluten-free advocates. While warning of the “melancholy juice and wind” bread can produce, he nonetheless appears to endorse oaten loaves.
A pint isn’t great for the melancholy — a cup of cold wine is more salubrious — though imbibing black Bohemian beer, a “monstrous drink, like the River Styxx,” has an “especial virtue against melancholy” if the drinker is accustomed to such waters as plied by the ferryman Charon.
And what of all those treats not mentioned by Burton? Can we eat those?
Watch the master puncture some more dreams:
To these noxious simples we may reduce an infinite number of compound, artificial, made dishes, of which our cooks afford us a great variety, as tailors do fashions in our apparel. Such are puddings stuffed with blood…baked meats, soused indurate meats, fired and boiled, buttered meats, condite, powdered, and over-dried; all cakes, simnels, buns cracknels made with butter, spice, etc. fritters, pancakes, pies, sausages, and those several sauces, sharp or over-sweet…[that] do generally engender gross humours, fill the stomach with crudities, and all those inward parts with obstructions.
I’ll see you in hell, Burton.
The Burton Diet seems excessively restrictive, if not sadistic, but we should remember that Burton, despite his obsessive nature, is also a flexible thinker. “There is no rule so general as not to admit of some exception,” and as for diets, Burton allows that “custom doth alter nature itself.” After all, the Emperor Montezuma ate “man’s flesh raw and roasted” and Mithridates trained himself to drink poison, so how bad could some soused indurate meats be?
If we are used to certain foods, or if we particularly delight in them, then abstaining from them would mean we choose to live in “mere tyranny [to] the strict rules of physic.” And that, presumably, would only increase our melancholy.
So treat yourself to the incubus-breeding hare, to that hypocritical bird, and to that confounding carp. It would be infinitely sad, and a folly, not to.
Image Credit: Flickr/asbruff
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.
When you read a book, it is a story within the story. The French call this mise-en-abîm: the condition of being between two mirrors with an abyss of yous staring back.
My grandmother had a dressing room wallpapered in mirrors. As a child, I liked to stand in the center and slowly move my arms up and down. Like synchronized swimmers in underwater flight, an infinite number of mes moved as one. It made me question my reality like Alice through the looking glass. Was I me? Or was that me once reflected? Twice reflected? Three times? Maybe they thought they were me just as much as I did. Maybe those mes had their own adventures. It was the first time I felt fully confronted by the unsettling nature of existence and its possible layers of life.
Being a reader is similar. You turn the page of the fictional story while an hour of your own passes. The characters breathe, laugh and cry, and so do you. When you finish their tale, you close the book and set it aside, dreaming of their ever-after, while stepping out into yours. But you don’t leave the story as you found it. No, it’s forever changed. The evidence is there: a chocolate smudge, a tea stain, beach sand, dandelion spores, a stray hair, a note, a name, a message. The story has been splintered into a duplicate image, a reflection of you in bits between the pages.
My eighth-grade English teacher decided it’d be a good idea for us to do an introductory unit on Shakespeare. The directions were simple: pick a play and read it. My family owned a weathered volume of The Complete Pelican Shakespeare on the highest shelf of our bookcase. I’d never cracked the spine, favoring colorful copies of Judy Blume and Sweet Valley High still smelling of press glue and Scholastic shipping peanuts. TCPS was my dad’s college copy from the United States Military Academy at West Point. It looked similarly militant, bound in tar black and as thick as a Bible. Nonetheless, I was excited. It was an emblem of maturity to read Master Shakespeare, and I knew exactly where I was headed: Romeo and Juliet.
So I climbed the bookcase and freed the old whale from its dusty catacomb, carried the thing to my bedroom and plopped it open on my desk. What I first remember was how thin the pages were—like edible rice paper. It was this gossamer taction that made a pulpy envelope stand out. It bulged the fine print from fifty pages deep. There, between the Merry Wives of Windsor and All’s Well That Ends Well. I pulled it free and felt the weight of age, ripe for the booklouse taking. The bottom edge had yellowed where it’d spent decades with a foot outside the covers. It was addressed to my father. The seal torn open. A moment of distinct deliberation. It was not my letter to read. However, simply putting it back and moving on to “Two households, both alike in dignity” seemed an insurmountable task for a curious thirteen year old.
I carefully unfolded the letter and recognized my mother’s handwriting. Dated November 1, 1976. Two years before my parent’s marriage and four years before my birth. My stomach double-dipped. “My Love,” it began and went on to speak of longing across great distance, present obstacles, and promises of eternal devotion. Such things I’d only ever heard in epic ballads and fairy tales. I knew my parents loved each other, but up until that day, I’d thought it rather orthodox—their love story. Nothing like the ardor of Penelope and Odysseus, the fire of Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy, the potency of Scarlett and Rhett, or the yearning of Daisy and Gatsby.
Understand, I kept a journal list of eulogized paramours. Marianne Dashwood was my literary kindred, both of us basing our amatory knowledge on illusions. Yet here was reality, and I reimagined my mother: young, beautiful, unmarried and besot with an equally young, handsome lieutenant hundreds of miles away. No bestselling romance couldn’t equal such ripe character fodder.
I tried to move on to Romeo and Juliet, but my mind was far from Verona. It’d taken root in an austere military dorm where my father must’ve run his fingers over that very page, read the words and felt his heart hiccup, then quietly tucked it away beneath layers of sonnets and what some consider the greatest love story ever told.
I had cried every time I’d seen Romeo and Juliet performed, but the first time I read it, my emotions seemed corked. They were tapped later when my father kissed my mother as she served steaming plates of rice and beans. Perplexed but knowing my penchant for pathos, she merely shook her head and said, “Sarah, eat your supper, love.”
I’m drawn to used bookstores like a fruit fly to summer cantaloupe. I seek out these harvest stalls and spend hours flittering about the book rinds, deciding which to crack open and possibly drown in.
In Norfolk, Virginia, my one-bedroom apartment was on the city’s only cobblestone street appropriately named Freemason. Within a week of moving in, I discovered a used bookstore two blocks over called Bibliophile Bookshop. Its entrance was blockaded by hundreds of dog-eared books, a “4 for $1” cart outside, and a salty-haired proprietor who kept the door open in the balmy harbor July and played concertos on his radio.
On one such sticky afternoon, I buzzed the stacks. You’ve got to go deep for the good stuff. All the pretty, contemporary titles are placed at the front for the quick buyer, who is not me. I dig, burrowing down to the pappy volumes that smell like they’ve been dipped in lake water. It was here in the dredges that I found my piece of gold. A vermilion cover plucked from the pile; its inner pages hung on by sinewy threads. The thing looked a bloody mess. I could barely make out the title from the pockmarks, scuffs and stains: Anna Lombard by Victoria Cross. Two strong female names that deserved attention. But before I’d read one word penned by Ms. Cross, a penciled dedication brought me to a full stop. Unmarred by all that had injured the rest of the book, it read: To Edith, Always remember. Love, Mummy. The kind of simple inscription anybody might write. It was the “Always remember” that resonated. Always remember what?
I laxly flipped Anna Lombard pages, my imagination spinning its own tale of what Edith’s Mummy wanted her to remember. Then something fell out. My instinct assumed I’d broken the last bit of binding and the rest of the pages would soon flutter to the floor. I was wrong. At my feet was square, sepia photo with scalloped edges. I saw the back script before the image: Mummy & Loretta before she passed. 1941. On the flipside were two women sitting on a park bench, faces mapped with laugh lines, arms pretzeled to each other. One of these women was Mummy. I studied the faded expressions, and despite rational deduction that both were now deceased, I agonized over to whom the message referred. Who was the “she” that passed? Loretta or Mummy? It ached to think it was the latter—Edith’s Mummy who wrote that she must “always remember”… something, which had to be of great meaning, sentimental or profound, for her to have said so.
I tried to read the first chapter of Cross’s novel but couldn’t sympathize with the main character, Gerald Ethridge, and his faithful love to Anna Lombard. My head and heart were already immersed in another narrative: Mummy and Edith and Loretta. Women who lived real lives and left the tangible proof of their story here—in my hands.
I wanted that book. I still want it. Years later, I can’t get it or them out of my mind. But I didn’t buy it for the proprietor’s $8 price tag. I worried that if I took it from that place, moved it with me to another city or state or country, whatever it was that Mummy wanted Edith to remember, wouldn’t be. Maybe Edith or her kin were somewhere still in Norfolk. This book with all its treasures belonged to them. So I lodged the photo as securely as I could deep inside, wrapped the cover over and placed it on a high shelf where I thought it’d be safe from further ruin or imprudent hands. Someplace where if the right person saw the crimson spine and title, they would remember whatever it was they were to always.
Some will say it’s narcissism and perhaps they are correct, but I leave breadcrumbs of myself in every book. Train and plane tickets are my favorites. I use them as bookmarks and then purposely abandon them.
Recently, I let a friend borrow Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski. When returning my copy she asked, “Were you in Dallas last September?” She was surprised when I said I wasn’t. “It’s just—I found this in your book.” She thumbed through my copy and retrieved a ticket stub. I eyed it and remembered that I’d transferred planes in Dallas on my way home to Virginia. I read the novel on the flight, I explained. She sighed. “Mystery solved!”
I laughed and then felt bad. I hoped her imagination hadn’t been as relentless as mine—that she’d been able to fully engage in Berlinski’s novel without my story nagging at the edges of her dreamscape. But my friend is very much like me, so she’d probably stayed up pondering my mysterious travels more than the fictional Dyalo village and the Walker family trials. I made a mental note to siphon my books’ contents before lending—for the sake of my friends’ reading experiences more than myself.
And yet, my habit continues. I was at a café reading and eating grilled chicken skewers not too long ago. At the end of the meal, I slipped my sauce-splattered receipt in the back of the book. For safe keeping, I told myself, but truthfully hoping that one day, years from now, I’ll rediscover it and remember the taste of sweet rosemary and hickory smoke, the heated blue of El Paso summers, the person I was when I first ventured into that novel’s territory.
These bits of my day-to-day are life fragments, evidence that I was here. My library isn’t simply a collage of ink and paper. It’s stuffed with these secret stashes. And I use a variety of items: empty envelopes, expired coupons, recipes, gum wrappers that make the pages fruity fresh, photographs, baggage claims, postcards, birthday cards, To Do lists, sticky notes scribbled by my husband with messages ranging from Gatsby’s out of dog food to I love you, have a beautiful day. All stuck in the pages.
I’d never consciously appraised this book littering behavior until the Berlinski episode. I wondered if I was alone in my bizarre fascination, then I was introduced to the Forgotten Bookmarks blog. Michael Popek, a used-bookstore bibliophile, posts all the lovely discoveries he finds in his shop’s acquisitions. I spent more time than I care to admit scrolling through his online treasure chest, captivated by the notes, tickets, letters, photographs, drawings and recipes—the layers of stories in the stories at large.
As an author and reader, I’m routinely juggling viewpoints, seeing through the eyes of my characters, others’ characters and my own. It’s a somewhat schizophrenic existence. So I question where I stand in the mise-en-abîms: At the top of the watery abyss looking down or at the bottom looking up? Or maybe I’m one of the many reflections between, moving her arms in rhythm with the others, yet uniquely me with a story indelibly my own.
[Image credit: Stephanie]