“For years the old Italians have been dying/all over America.” -Lawrence Ferlinghetti
On the second floor of Harvard’s Fogg Museum, in an airy, well-lit, white-walled gallery, near a slender window overlooking a red-bricked Cambridge street, there is a display case holding three portraits on chipped wood not much bigger than post-cards. Of varying degrees of aptitude, the paintings are of a genre called “Fayum Portraits” from the region of Egypt where they’re commonly found. When the Roman ruling class established itself in this Pharaonic land during the first few centuries of the Common Era, they would mummify themselves in the Egyptian fashion while affixing Hellenistic paintings onto the faces of their preserved bodies. Across the extent of the Roman empire, from damp Britain to humid Greece, little of the more malleable painted arts survived, but in sun-baked Egypt these portraits could peer out 20 centuries later as surely as the desert dried out their mummified corpses. When people envision ancient Mediterranean art, they may think of the grand sculptures blanched a pristine white, Trajan’s Arch and the monumental head of Constantine, the colorful paint which once clung to their surfaces long since eroded away. And while the monumental marbles of classical art are what most people remember of the period, the Fayum portraits of Harvard provide an entirely more personal gaze across the millennia.
If white is the color we associate with those sculptures, then the portraits here in Cambridge are of a different hue. They are nut-brown, tanned from the noon-day sun, yellow-green, and olive. Mummy Portrait of a Woman with an Earring, painted in the second century, depicts in egg tempura on wood a dark-skinned middle-aged woman with commanding brown eyes, her black hair showing a bit of curl even as it is pulled back tightly on her scalp; a woman looking out with an assuredness that belies her anonymity over time. Mummy Portraits of a Bearded Man shows the tired look of an old man, grey beard neatly clipped and groomed, his wavy grey hair still with a hint of auburn and combed back into place. Fragments of a Mummy Portrait of a Man represents a far younger man, cleft chinned with a few days’ black stubble over his olive skin. What’s unnerving is the eerie verisimilitude of this nameless trio.
That they look so contemporary, so normal, is part of what’s unsettling. But they also unsettle because they’re there to assist in overturning our conceptions about what Roman people, those citizens of that vast, multicultural, multilingual, multireligious empire, looked like. Our culture is comfortable with the lily-white sculptures we associate with our Roman forebearers which were then imitated in our own imperial capitals; easier to pretend that the ancient Romans had nothing to do with the people who live there now, and yet when looking at the Fayum portraits I’m always struck by how Italian everybody looks.
The old man could be tending tomatoes in a weedy plot somewhere in Trenton; the middle-aged woman wearily volunteering for a church where she’s not too keen on the new Irish priest, and the young man with the stubble looks like he just got off a shift somewhere in Bensonhurst and is texting his friends to see who wants to go into the city. I’ve never seen anyone who actually looks like the statue of Caesar Augustus of Primo Porta carved from white stone, but you’ll see plenty of people who look like the Fayum Portraits in North Boston, Federal Hill, or Bloomfield (the one either in Jersey or in Pittsburgh). When I look at the Fayum portraits, I see people I know; I see my own family.
Despite my surname vowel deficiency, I’m very much Italian-American. Mathematically, twice as much as Robert DeNiro, so I feel well equipped to offer commentary in answering the question with which I’ve titled this piece. Furthermore, as a second-generation American, I’m not that far removed from Ellis Island. My mother’s father immigrated from Abruzzo, that mountainous, bear-dwelling region that was the birthplace of Ovid, and his entire family and much of his fellow villagers were brought over to Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, to work as stone masons, a trade they’d been plying since the first rock was laid in the Appian Way. My grandmother’s family was from Naples, where Virgil was born, a teeming volcanic metropolis of orange and lemon trees, a heaven populated by devils as native-son Giordano Bruno wrote in the 16th century. For me, being Italian was unconscious; it simply was a fact no more remarkable than my dark hair or brown eyes.
Being Italian meant at least seven fishes on Christmas Eve and the colored lights rather than the white ones on the tree, it meant (and still means) cooking most things with a heavy dollop of olive oil and garlic, it means at least once a week eating either veal parmesan, prosciutto and melon, calamari, spaghetti with tuna, and buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes. Being Italian meant laminated furniture in the homes of extended family, and Mary-on-the-half-shell; it meant a Catholicism more cultural than theological, with the tortured faces of saints vying alongside a certain type of pagan magic. Being Italian meant assumed good looks and a certain ethnic ambiguity; it meant uncles who made their own wine and grew tomatoes in the backyard.
Being Italian-American meant having an identity where the massive pop culture edifice that supplies representations of you implies that the part before the hyphen somehow makes the second half both more and less true. My position was much like Maria Laurino’s in Were You Always an Italian?: Ancestors and Other Icons of Italian America, where she writes that “All the pieces of my life considered to be ‘Italian’…I kept distinct from the American side, forgetting about the hyphen, about that in-between place where a new culture takes form.” What I do viscerally remember is the strange sense I had watching those corny old sword-and-sandal epics that my middle school Latin teacher used to fill up time with, a sense that those strangely Aryan Romans presented on celluloid were supposed to somehow be related to me. Actors whose chiseled all-American whiteness evoked the marbles that line museum halls. Sculptures of Caesar Augustus were once a lot more olive than white as well. That classical Greek and Roman statuary was vividly painted, only to fade over time, has been known since the 19th century, even as contemporary audiences sometimes violently react to that reality. Using modern technology, archeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann has been able to restore some of the most famous Greek and Roman statues to glorious color, as he details in his Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World, but as the classicist Sarah Bond writes in Forbes, “Intentional or not, museums present viewers with a false color binary of the ancient world.” We think of the Romans as lily white, but the Fayum portraits demonstrate that they very much weren’t. That the individuals in these pictures should appear so Italian shouldn’t be surprising—Romans are Italians after all. Or at least in the case of the Fayum portraits they’re people from a mélange of backgrounds, including not just Romans, but Greeks, Egyptians, Berbers, Arabs, Jews, Ethiopians, and so on. Rome was, like our own, a hybridized civilization, and it’s marked on the faces that peer out towards us on that wall.
Last fall, at a handful of Boston-area colleges just miles from the museum, classical imagery was appropriated for very different means. Students awoke to find their academic halls papered with posters left during the night by members of one of these fascistic groups to have emerged after the 2016 presidential election, a bigotry that has been revealed as if discovering all of the fungus growing underneath a rotting tree stump that’s been kicked over. This particular group combined images of bleached classical sculpture and neo-fascist slogans to make their white supremacist arguments. The Apollo Belvedere is festooned with the declaration “Our Future Belongs to Us,” 17th-century French Neo-Classical sculptor Nicolas Coustou’s bust of Julius Caesar has “Serve your People” written beneath it, and in the most consciously Trumpy of posters, a close-up on the face of Michelangelo’s David injuncts “Let’s Become Great Again.” There’s something particularly ironic in commandeering the David in the cause of white supremacy. Perhaps they didn’t know that that exemplar of the Italian Renaissance was a depiction of a fierce Jewish king as rendered by a gay, olive-skinned artist?
Such must be the central dilemma of the confused white supremacist, for the desire to use ancient Rome in their cause has been irresistible ever since Benito Mussolini concocted his crackpot system of malice known as fascismo corporativo, but the reality is that the descendants of those very same Romans often don’t appear quite as “white” as those supremacists would be comfortable with. This is especially important when considering that the Romans “did not speak in terms of race, a discourse invented many centuries later,” as scholar Nell Irvin Painter writes in The History of White People. Moral repugnance is a given when it comes to racist ideologies, but one should also never forget the special imbecility that comes along with arguing that you’re innately superior because you kinda, sorta, maybe physically resemble dead people who did important things. What makes the case of the posters more damning is that those who made them don’t even actually look like the people whose culture they’ve appropriated.
No doubt the father of celebrated journalist Gay Talese would be outraged by this filching. In a 1993 piece for The New York Times Book Review, he remembers his “furious and defensive father” exploding after he’d learned that the Protestant-controlled school board had rejected his petition to include Ovid and Dante in the curriculum, the elder man shouting at his son that “‘Italy was giving art to the world when those English were living in caves and painting their faces blue!’” A particular twist as the descendants of those same WASPs paper college campuses with posters of Italian sculptures that they somehow claim patrimony from. But that’s always been the predicament of the Western chauvinist, primed to take ownership over another culture as evidence of his own genius, while simultaneously having to explain his justifications for the disdain in which he holds the actual children of that culture.
Since the late 19th-century arrival of millions of immigrants from the Mezzogiorno, American racists have long contrived baroque justifications for why white Anglo-Saxon Protestants are the inheritors of Italian culture, while Italians themselves are not. Some of this logic was borrowed from Italy itself, where even today, Robert Lumley and Jonathan Morris record in The New History of the Italian South, some northerners will claim that “Europe ends at Naples. Calabria, Sicily, and all the rest belong to Africa.” Northern Italians, comparatively wealthier, better educated, and most importantly fairer, had been in the United States a generation before their southern cousins, and many Anglo-Americans borrowed that racialized animus against southerners which reigned (and still does) in the old country.
As Richard Gambino writes in Blood of my Blood: The Dilemma of the Italian-Americans, it was in the “twisted logic of bigotry” that these immigrants were “flagrantly ‘un-American.’ And Italians replaced all the earlier immigrant groups as targets of resentment about the competition of cheap labor.” This was the reasoning that claimed that all Italian accomplishments could be attributed to a mythic “Nordic” or “Teutonic” influence, so that any Mediterranean achievements were written away, orienting Rome towards a Europe it was only tangentially related to and away from an Africa that long had an actual influence. Notorious crank Madison Grant in his unabashedly racist 1916 The Passing of the Great Race claimed that Italians were now “storming the Nordic ramparts of the United States and mongrelizing the good old American stock,” with Gambino explaining that “In his crackpot explanation, Italians are the inferior descendants of the slaves who survived when ancient Rome died.”
Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould writes that Grant’s book was “the most influential tract of American scientific racism” and Adolf Hitler wrote a letter to the author claiming “The book is my Bible.” A lawyer and eugenicist, Grant’s writings were influential in both the Palmer Raids, a series of unconstitutional police actions directed by the Wilson administration against immigrants suspected of harboring anarchist and communist sympathies, as well as the xenophobic nastiness of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act which made eastern and southern European immigration slow to a trickle. Incidentally, it was the Johnson-Reed Act that, had it been passed 10 years earlier, would have barred my mother’s father from entering the United States; a law that former Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions lauded in a 2017 interview with Stephen Bannon, arguing that the banning of immigrants like those in my family “was good for America.”
In Chiaroscuro: Essays of Identity, Helen Barolini writes that “Italian Americans are too easily used as objects of ridicule and scorn,” and while that’s accurate, it’s a rhetoric that has deep and complicated genealogies. Italy has always occupied a strange position in the wider European consciousness. It is simultaneously the birthplace of “Western Civilization,” and an exoticized, impoverished, foreign backwater at the periphery of the continent; the people who first modeled a noxious imperialism, and the subjugated victims of later colonialism. A pithy visual reminder of Italy’s status in early modern Europe can be seen in the German painter Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1533 masterpiece The Ambassadors, which depicts two of the titular profession surrounded by their tools. On a shelf behind them sits a globe. Europe is differentiated from the rest of the world by being an autumnal brown-green, with the exception of two notable regions colored the same hue as Africa—Ireland and Sicily. In Are Italians White?: How Race is Made in America, coedited with Salvatore Salerno, historian Jennifer Guglielmo explains that the “racial oppression of Italians had its root in the racialization of Africans,” something never more evident than in the anti-Italian slur “guinea” with its intimations of Africanness, this implication of racial ambiguity having profound effects on how Italians were understood and how they understood themselves.
In the rhetoric and thought of the era, Italy was somehow paradoxically the genesis of Europe, while also somehow not European. As such, Italians were to be simultaneously emulated and admired, while also reviled and mocked. During that English Renaissance, which was of course a sequel to the original one, books like Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier and Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, with their respective paeans to sensuality and duplicity, molded a particular view of Italianness that has long held sway in the English imagination. Consider all of the Shakespeare plays in an imagined Italy: The Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentleman of Verona, Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus, Othello, Coriolanus, The Winter’s Tale and The Merchant of Venice, not to mention the occasional appearance of Romans in other plays. Shakespeare’s plays, and other icons of the English Renaissance, set a template that never really faded. A simultaneous attraction to and disgust at a people configured as overly emotional, overly sexual, overly flashy, overly corrupt, overly sensual, and with a propensity less cerebral than hormonal. And the criminality.
Long before Mario Puzo or The Sopranos, Renaissance English writers impugned Italians with a particular antisocial perfidy. Such is displayed in Thomas Nash’s 1594 The Unfortunate Traveller: or, the Life of Jack Wilton, which could credibly be called England’s first novel. In that picaresque, the eponymous character perambulates through the Europe of the early 16th century, encountering luminaries like Thomas More, Erasmus, Henry Howard, Martin Luther, and Cornelius Agrippa, and witnessing events like the horrific siege at Munster in the Low Countries. Most of Nash’s narrative, however, takes place in “the Sodom of Italy,” and an English fever dream of that country’s excess settles like a yellow fog. One Englishmen laments that the only lessons that can be learned here are “the art of atheism, the art of epicurizing, the art of whoring, the art of poisoning, the art of sodomitry.”
From Nash until today there has often been a presumption of vindictive relativist morality on the part of Italians, and it has slurred communities with an assumption of criminality. In the early 20th century sociologists claimed that the dominant Italian ethic was “familial amoralism,” whereby blood relations had precedence over all other social institutions. Nash’s nobleman is the great-grandfather to Michael Corleone in the collective imagination. Do not read this as squeamish sensitivity, I’d never argue that The Godfather, written and directed by Italians, is anything less than an unmitigated masterpiece. Both Puzo’s novel and Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation are potent investigations of guilt, sin, and evil. I decided not to join the Sons of Italy after I saw how much of their concern was with stereotypes on The Sopranos, which I still regard as among the greatest television dramas of all time. I concur with Bill Tonelli, who in his introduction to The Italian American Reader snarked that “nobody loves those characters better than Italian Americans do,” and yet I recall with a cringe the evaluation of The Godfather given to me by a non-Italian, that the film was about nothing more than “spaghetti and murder.”
Representations of Italianness in popular culture aren’t just Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano, there’s also the weirdly prevalent sitcom stereotype of the lovable, but dumb, hypersexual goombah. I enter into consideration Arthur “The Fonze” Fonzarelli from Happy Days, Tony Micelli from Who’s the Boss?, Vinny Barbarino of Welcome Back Kotter, and of course Friends’ Joey Tribbiani. Once I argued with my students if there was something offensive about The Jersey Shore, finally convincing them of the racialized animus in the series when I queried as to why there had never been an equivalent about badly behaving WASPs called Martha’s Vineyard?
Painter explains that “Italian Americans hovered longer on the fringes of American whiteness,” and so any understanding must take into account that until recently Italians were still inescapably exotic to many Americans. Tonelli writes that “in an era that supposedly values cultural diversity and authenticity, the portrait of Italian Americans is monotonous and observed from a safe distance.” The continued prevalence of these stereotypes is a residual holdover from the reality that Italians are among the last of “ethnics” to “become white.” Tonelli lists the “mobsters, the urban brute, the little old lady shoving a plate of rigatoni under your nose,” declaiming that “it gets to be like a minstrel show after a while.”
Consider Judge Webster Thayer who after the 1921 sham-trial of anarchists Barolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco would write that although they “may not have committed the crime” attributed to them, they are “nevertheless morally culpable” because they were both enemies of “our existing institutions… the defendant’s ideals are cognate with crime.” Privately, Thayer bragged to a Dartmouth professor, “Did you see what I did to those anarchistic bastards the other day?” As late as 1969, another professor, this one at Yale, felt free to tell a reporter in response to a query about a potential Italian-American New York mayoral candidate that “If Italians aren’t actually an inferior race, they do the best imitation of one I’ve seen.”
But sometime in the
decades after World War II, Italians followed the Irish and Jews into the
country club of whiteness with its carefully circumscribed membership. Guglielmo
explains that initially “Virtually all Italian immigrants [that] arrived in the
United States [did so] without a consciousness about its color line.” Victims
of their birth nation’s rigid social stratification based on complexion and geography,
the new immigrants were largely ignorant of America’s racial history, and thus
were largely immune to the anti-black racism that was prevalent. These
immigrants had no compunction about working and living alongside African
Americans, and often understood themselves to occupy a similar place in
But as Guglielmo explains, by the second and third generation there was an understanding that to be “white meant having the ability to avoid many forms of violence and humiliation, and assured preferential access to citizenship, property, satisfying work, livable wages, decent housing, political power, social status, and a good education, among other privileges.” Political solidarity with black and Hispanic Americans (we forget that Italians are Latinx too) was abandoned in favor of assimilation to the mainstream. Jennifer Gillan writes in the introduction to Growing up Ethnic in America: Contemporary Fiction about Learning to be American that “American have often fought bitter battles over what it means to be American and who exactly get to qualify under the umbrella term,” and towards the end of the 20th century Italians had fought their way into that designation, but they also left many people behind. In the process, a beautiful radical tradition was forgotten, so that we traded Giuseppe Garibaldi for Frank Rizzo, Philly’s racist mayor in the 70s; so that now instead of Sacco and Vanzetti we’re saddled with Antonin Scalia and Rudy Giuliani. As Guglielmo mourns, “Italians were not always white and the loss of this memory is one of the great tragedies of racism in America.”
If there is to be any anecdote, then it must be in words; where literature allows for imaginative possibilities and the complexities of empathy. What is called for is a restitution, or rather a recognition, of an Italian-American literary canon acting as bulwark against both misrepresentations and amnesia. Talese infamously asked if there were no “Italian-American Arthur Millers and Saul Bellows, James Baldwins and Toni Morrisons, Mary McCarthys and Mary Gordons, writing about their ethnic experiences?” There’s an irony to this question, as Italians in the old country would never think to ask where their writers are, the land of Virgil and Dante secure in its literary reputation, with more recent years seeing the celebrated post-modernisms of Italo Calvino, Primo Levi, Dario Fo, and Umberto Eco. In this century, the citizens of Rome, Florence, and Milan face different questions than their cousins in Newark, Hartford, or Providence. Nor do we bemoan a dearth of examples in other fields: that Italians can hit a baseball or throw a punch can be seen in Joe DiMaggio’s homeruns and Rocky Marciano’s slugging; that we can strike a note is heard in Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin; that we can shoot a picture is proven by Coppola, Brian DePalma, and Martin Scorsese.
Yet in the literary arts no equivalent names come up, at least no equivalent names that are thought of as distinctly Italian. Regina Barreca in the introduction to Don’t Tell Mama!: The Penguin Book of Italian American Writing says that there is an endurance of the slur which sees Italians as “deliberately dense, badly educated, and culturally unsophisticated.” By this view the wider culture is fine with the physicality of boxers and baseballs players, the emotion and sensuality of musicians, even the Catholic visual idiom of film as opposed to the Protestant textuality of the written word, so that the “intellectual” pursuits of literature are precluded. She explains that what remains is an “idea of Italian Americans as a people who would never choose to read a book, let alone write one,” though as Baraca stridently declares this is a “set of hazardous concepts [which] cannot simply be outlived; it must be dismantled.”
I make no claims to originating the idea that we must establish an Italian-American literary canon, such has been the mainstay of Italian-American Studies since that field’s origin in the ’70s. This has been the life’s work of scholars like Gambino, Louise DeSalvo, and Fred Gardaphé, not to mention all of the anthology editors I’ve referenced. Tonelli writes that “Our time of genuine suffering at the hands of this bruising country passed more or less unchronicled, by ourselves or anyone else,” yet there are hidden examples of Italian-American voices writing about an experience that goes beyond mafia or guido stereotypes. For many of these critics, the Italian-American literary canon was something that already existed, it was merely a question of being able to recognize what exists beyond the stark black and red cover of The Godfather. Such a task involved the elevation of lost masterpieces like Pietro di Donato’s 1939 proletarian Christ in Concrete , but also a reemphasis on the vowels at the ends of names for authors who are clearly Italian, but are seldom thought of as such.
That Philip Roth is a Jewish author goes without saying, but rarely do we think of the great experimentalist Don DeLillo as an Italian-American author. A restitution of the Italian-American literary canon would ask what precisely is uniquely Italian about a DeLillo? For that matter, what are the Italian-American aesthetics of poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jay Parini, Diane Di Prima, and Gregory Corso? What can we better say about the Italianness of Gilbert Sorrentino and Richard Russo? Where do we locate the Mezzogiorno in the criticism and scholarship of A. Bartlett Giamatti, Frank Lentricchia, and Camille Paglia? Baraca writes that “Italian Americans live (and have always lived) a life not inherited, but invented,” and everything is to be regained by making a reinvention for ourselves. Furthermore, I’d suggest that the hybridized nature of what it has always meant to be Italian provides a model to avoid the noxious nationalisms that increasingly define our era.
Guglielmo writes that “Throughout the twentieth century, Italian Americans crafted a vocal, visionary, and creative oppositional culture to protest whiteness and build alliances with people of color,” and I’d argue that this empathetic imagination was born out of the pluralistic civilization of which the Italians were descendants. Contrary to pernicious myths of “racial purity,” the Romans were as diverse as Americans are today, drawing not just from Italic peoples like the Umbrians, Sabines, Apulians, and Etruscans, but also from Egyptians, Ethiopians, Berbers, Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Anatolians, Gauls, Huns, Dacians, Franks, Teutons, Vandals, Visigoths, Anglo-Saxons, Normans, Iberians, Jews, Arabs, and Celts, among others. A reality quite contrary to the blasphemy of those posters with their stolen Roman images.
Rome was both capital and periphery, a culture that was a circle with no circumference whose center can be everywhere. Christine Palamidessi Moore in her contribution to the Lee Gutkind and Joanna Clapps Herman anthology Our Roots are Deep with Passion: Creative Nonfiction Collects New Essays by Italian American Writers notes that “Italy is a fiction: a country of provinces, dialects, and regions, and historically because of its location, an incorporator of invaders, empires, and bloodlines.” Sitting amidst the Mare Nostrum of its wine-dark sea, Italy has always been at a nexus of Europe, Africa, and Asia, situated between north and south, east and west. Moore explains that the “genuineness of the ethnicity they choose becomes more obscure and questionable because of its mixed origins; however, because it is voluntary, the act of choosing sustains the identity.”
The question then is not “What was Italian America?” but rather “What can Italian America be?” In 1922 W.E.B. DuBois, the first black professor at Harvard, spoke to a group of impoverished Italian immigrants at Chicago’s Hull House. Speaking against the Johnson-Reed Act, DuBois appealed to a spirit of confraternity, arguing that there must be a multiethnic coalition against a “renewal of the Anglo-Saxon cult: the worship of the Nordic totem, the disenfranchisement of Negro, Jew, Irishman, Italian, Hungarian, Asiatic and South Sea Islander.” When DuBois spoke against the “Anglo-Saxon cult” he condemned not actual English people, but rather the fetish that believes only those of British stock can be “true Americans.” When he denounced the “Nordic totem,” he wasn’t castigating actual northern Europeans, but only that system that claims they are worthier than the rest of people. What DuBois condemned was not people, but rather a system that today we’ve taken to calling “white privilege,” and he’s just as correct a century later. The need for DuBois’s coalition has not waned.
Italian-Americans can offer the example of a culture that was always hybridized, always at the nexus of different peoples. Italians have never been all one thing or the other, and that seems to me the best way to be. It’s this liminal nature that’s so valuable, which provides answer to the idolatries of ancestry that are once again emerging in the West (with Italy no exception). DuBois offered a different vision, a coalition of many hues marshaled against the hegemony of any one. When I meet the gaze of the Fayum portraits, I see in their brown eyes an unsettling hopefulness from some 20 centuries ago, looking past my shoulder and just beyond the horizon where perhaps that world may yet exist.
In October 2015, Hogarth Press from Crown Publishing launched the Hogarth Shakespeare project, an anticipated eight-part series in which best-selling authors retell a Shakespearean classic as a contemporary novel. Jeanette Winterson’s cover of The Winter’s Tale—A Gap of Time—was published first, almost exactly 400 years after the Bard’s death. Five more installments have since been released, with the final one—Gillian Flynn’s cover of Hamlet—expected in 2021.
Contemporizing a Shakespearean play is a fairly common undertaking. As the Hogarth Shakespeare’s website notes, Shakespeare’s works have frequently “been reinterpreted for each new generation, whether as teen films, musicals, science-fiction flicks, Japanese warrior tales, or literary transformations.” Reimagining a Shakespearean story can often be a contentious effort as well. Many critics note the difficulty of believably translating a Shakespearean conflict—written centuries before the study of psychology—into a modern setting. Supporters, meanwhile, will often point to William Shakespeare himself and his own aptness to adapt and revise stories from various sources.
Regardless of one’s personal thoughts on Shakespearean adaptations, it is hard to overlook their significance to our cultural canon, from musicals like West Side Story and Kiss Me, Kate to films such as 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man. Even having the original texts set in modern circumstances can be incredibly influential and timely, with the Public Theatre’s recent production of Julius Caesar—in which Caesar was modeled after Donald Trump—being the most notorious recent example.
As a lover of both Shakespearean drama and contemporary literature, I am an ardent follower of the Hogarth Shakespeare project. However, my interest in the project stems not from a desire to see creatively adapted Shakespearean plots; but, rather, an interest in seeing Shakespearean stories used to examine contemporary political, social, and cultural issues.
Each book in the series thus far has had varying success with this. Jeanette Winterson uses her cover of The Winter’s Tale to examine the devastating effects of hyper-masculinity and violence against women, as well as the normalcy of homoeroticism. Shylock Is My Name—Howard Jacobson’s cover of The Merchant of Venice—uses both Shylock himself and his modernized counterpart, Simon Strulovitch, to examine the past and present expectations of Jewish identity. In Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, her cover of The Taming of the Shrew, the Petruchio character attempts to woo Kate into marriage so that he can avoid deportation. The most meta cover version—Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed—has the Prospero character produce The Tempest in a prison. This Tuesday marked the release of Edward St. Aubyn’s Dunbar—his cover of King Lear—which sees Lear reimagined as the head of an international media corporation.
Edward St Aubyn’s novel, however, was preceded by Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy, her cover of Othello and Hogarth’s first modernization of a Shakespearean tragedy. Chevalier’s retelling takes place over the course of a single day on a predominantly white elementary school playground, in which Ian, the playground bully, schemes to break up the budding relationship between Osei—a new student originally from Ghana—and Dee, a popular white student.
When it comes to contemporizing Shakespeare, Othello tends to be considered one of the most substantial texts to view through a modern lens, generally accompanied by The Merchant of Venice. Although Shylock is presented as the villain of Merchant, the anti-Semitism he experiences allows for a modern writer to examine Shylock’s personal tragedy as a victim of discrimination. Meanwhile, although race is not specifically mentioned as incentive for Iago’s escalating schemes against Othello, the implicit racial politics of both Othello’s interracial marriage to Desdemona and his military success as a man of color provide plenty of contemporary subjects for a modern author to examine. In his recent piece for The New York Times, “Shylock and Othello in the Time of Xenophobia,” Shaul Bassi writes, “If throughout the 20th century ‘Hamlet’ and ‘King Lear’ vied for the title of most topical political allegory, in the new millennium ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Othello’ are the plays that make Shakespeare our contemporary.”
The fatal misstep of New Boy, then, comes from the fact that Chevalier chose to set her retelling in 1974 Washington D.C., only 10 years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act and, from Bassi’s perspective, before Othello truly became the relevant allegory that it is today. There are only a few choice nods to early 1970s pop culture such as hippies, Oldsmobiles, and Roberta Flack, and only one fleeting reference is made to Watergate (despite impeachment proceedings presumably taking place minutes away from the playground). Instead, the main aspect of New Boy that gives it a sense of time is the overtness of the racism that it exhibits. Teachers are frequently overheard discussing Osei, expressing their relief that he isn’t in their classroom, sayings things like “This school isn’t ready for a black boy,” and commenting that Osei has given Dee “a taste for chocolate milk.” Osei and Dee’s teacher, a rumored Vietnam War veteran, functions primarily as a racist stock character, lashing out at Osei for minor infractions by calling him “boy” and telling him to watch himself. His arc appears in the final pages of the book, when he drops the novel’s one predictable and unnecessary n-word, as he yells to Osei to get off of the jungle gym.
Chevalier’s descriptions tend to hinder her storytelling as well. The most significant example of this is in her characterization of Osei’s sister, Sisi, who has begun to follow the Black Panther party back in New York. Her empowerment is described at one point as an “angry black girl performance,” and she is subsequently described as angry so often that her character appears flat and stereotyped. Chevalier’s writing can also begin to feel heavy-handed, with six instances in which characters start to call Osei black before stopping mid-word to correct themselves. Even with this occasional interruption, the word “black” is used so often that it begins to feel artificial and excessive. In Act IV, Chevalier writes:
[Osei] did not want to confront her, to have her get in his face, talking to him, telling more lies, treating him like her boyfriend, and then like the black boy on a white playground. The black sheep, with a black mark against his name. Blackballed. Blackmailed. Blacklisted. Blackhearted. It was a black day.
So how is it that Hogarth’s cover of The Merchant of Venice was so successful, while their Othello cover fell so flat? The answer appears to be because of writers that were assigned to them. Howard Jacobson is a Jewish novelist best known for writing about the struggles of Jewish characters. Jacobson reportedly asked to cover other plays before being assigned Merchant, indicating that Hogarth thoughtfully assigned the play knowing that he would modernize it in a provocative way. Meanwhile, Tracy Chevalier is a white woman best known for The Girl with the Pearl Earring, set in the Dutch Golden Age, which bares little resemblance to the conflicts of Othello. When asked in an promotional interview for Hogarth as to what attracted her to the text, Chevalier likened Othello’s otherness to that of hers living as an expat in Great Britain.
White writers opting to write about a time in the recent past when racism was more deliberate is not uncommon. Abandoning a nuanced discussion of micro-aggressions, structural and institutional racism, and white supremacy in favor of explicit and often dated racial language often simplifies the writing process, and keeps white audiences comfortable as they read. In a similar critique of Hollywood, Kara Brown noted in Jezebel last year, “Right now, Americans are only comfortable with a certain type of black person onscreen.” Although Chevalier occasionally hints at the possibility of a more complex discussion of micro-aggressions—the principal congratulates Osei on being “articulate” before telling the class to welcome him even though he is a “less fortunate” student, despite his father being a diplomat—she ultimately shies away from it.
Alternatively, in A Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson uses her own background to add to her source material and intensify the text’s conflict. In The Winter’s Tale, King Leontes rather unexplainably believes that his friend King Polixenes is having an affair with his wife, Hermione. In A Gap of Time, Winterson—known for her autobiographical writing on LGBT issues—creates a previous affair between her Leontes and Polixenes, which, as Dean Bakopoulos points out in his New York Times review of the novel, “makes Leo’s overblown rage and irrational envy at the outset even more credible than it is in the original.” Therefore, although The Winter’s Tale isn’t usually listed with The Merchant of Venice and Othello as one of Shakespeare’s most politically relevant plays, Winterson’s unique additions make it more successful adaptation than Chevalier’s take on Othello, which idly favors a more overt racism than what is featured in her source text.
The choices of writers in many cases have led to fascinating twists on Shakespeare’s works, namely Jacobson’s parallel Shylocks in Shylock is My Name and Jeanette Winterson’s gay undertones in A Gap of Time. However, in a 2015 New York Times article detailing the Hogarth Shakespeare project, Alexandra Alter wrote that Winterson’s cover was, “a promising start to an ambitious new series from Hogarth, which has assembled an all-star roster of stylistically diverse writers to translate Shakespeare’s timeless plays into prose.” As the series has gained more traction, it is hard not to notice the word “stylistically” here. Although the writings of the Hogarth team are stylistically varied, their biographies are less so. Three of the writers are American and three are British, leaving Margaret Atwood (who is Canadian) and Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø, whose cover of Macbeth is expected next year. All eight writers are white—five women and three men—with only one under the age of 50 (Flynn is 46), and three writers in their 70s. Although each author did achieve some success within their own adaptation, imagine how rewarding the series would have been had it featured writers whose backgrounds varied more drastically from Shakespeare himself. It is disappointing when a project aims to see “the Bard’s plays retold by acclaimed, bestselling novelists and brought to life for a contemporary readership,” yet the writers selected are not ultimately representative of all that contemporary society has to offer.
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“At first blush, bringing an eight-year-old to one of William Shakespeare’s quirkier plays in an effort to help her see herself, an Asian American girl, in popular culture did seem a rather odd decision.” Nicole Chung for Hazlitt on The Winter’s Tale, representation, and parenting in the age of Trump. And wouldn’t you know it, we have a piece specifically about that very play – “three/fifths wintry tragedy, two/fifths vernal comedy, and wholly a masterwork” – right here.
I recently had the privilege of participating in a panel at the Center for Fiction. The topic was “Modern Family,” and the moderator posed the question: “What literature influenced you as a young person?” My fellow panelists — the amazing Alden Jones, Min Jin Lee, and Tanwi Nandini Islam — named beloved, important books and authors. My answer — which I think came as a surprise to most — was that I hardly read as a child and youth.
My parents are immigrants — English is not their first language — and neither are they readers or cultural mavens. We did not have many books in the house, and I was not read to as a child. I do recall a Disney picture book involving a scroogey Donald Duck character that I liked to read over and over — something about soup made from a button. Once I started school, there were of course books assigned, and I read them obediently if not enthusiastically. Mine was a somewhat typical suburban childhood: I watched a lot of TV and ate a lot of Doritos.
The first book I read out of inner compulsion, as opposed to externally-imposed obligation, was Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This was my junior year of college — relatively late for someone who now writes and reads “professionally.” Reading Dillard was (and continues to be, in fact) a truly ecstatic experience — I must have reread every single page as I went along, pausing to stare into space or jot things down in my journal or just shake my head in awe — and it took me quite a long time to finish even as I couldn’t put it down (by the end, incidentally, I had decided I had to be a writer; or die trying). Where had this kind of reading been all my life? I realized for the first time that there is reading, and there is reading. The kind of reading that counts, that really matters, is what I’d call whole-soul reading. In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes about “mystical susceptibility,” the experience of books and language as “irrational doorways… through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, [steals] into our hearts and [thrills] them.” I’m so grateful to have had that intense conversion moment — because I have brought that expectation and susceptibility with me to every book I’ve picked up since then.
It’s true that I have often felt at a disadvantage for embarking on my reading life so late. I wrote about this a few years ago — the project of frantically “catching up” with my peers once I set myself on the path of literary life. But mostly that underdog status has been a positive motivation. I am an omnivorous reader and have not lost that addiction to mystical thrill — in James’s words, “states of insight and depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect… illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain” — when reading.
In 2016, thanks to a semester sabbatical, I read more than usual. Canonical books I read for the first time — “catchup” reading I’ll call it still — captivated me utterly and reminded me that, truly, there is never a “too late” (in fact, there may be a “too early”) when it comes to the reading life.
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Raymond Chandler said it best: “Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley … He wrote for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there . . . He had style, but his audiences didn’t know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinement.” I was struck especially by the female characters Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Effie Perine: just when you thought you were going to have to excuse this old-fashioned author’s concessions to gender stereotypes, both the characters and the plot (by which I mean Hammett, of course) would subvert that concern. Incidentally, I also read The Big Sleep but didn’t take to it as much as Hammett. I’ve just started reading The Glass Key (on Chandler’s recommendation) and may be starting on a Hammett binge.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Of course this is a book I felt like I’d read because I know so much about it. At some point I may have half-watched on an airplane the film that stars Winona Ryder. I was sure I’d identify with Jo — if you’re reading the book at all, you’re Jo! — but was surprised (and not a little dismayed) to see a lot of myself in Amy. It was also interesting to recognize that the novel is as much about money as it is about being female — a reminder of the inextricability of economics and gender.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence. You know, it’s all relative I suppose, but given our enlightened times, wherein heterosexual relationships are more holistic and less physically driven, I found the sex here — four score and a decade later — still pretty racy. Perhaps our advantage as modern readers is that none of it is shocking, and so the novel’s themes — social class, integrity, the relationship between love and lust, human wholeness — have room to come forward.
King Lear, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare. I wasn’t actually sure if I’d read King Lear previously; again, I knew the story so well, in an ambient, abstract way. But once I started actually engaging the language, I knew that even if I’d “read” it, I definitely hadn’t read it. Here I offer another mode of reading, which is via audio: because Shakespeare is intended to be performed, an audio reading experience, sans visuals, is actually a spectacular way to immerse in Shakespeare’s dramatic and linguistic brilliance. Yes, I would sometimes need to rewind and relisten to confirm who was speaking, but all the better. I continued on with audio readings of Othello and The Winter’s Tale (irrational male jealousy is a theme I hadn’t ever before associated with Shakespeare, hmmm) and am ready, I think, for the historical-political plays — Henry IV is currently on deck.
Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. At a different time in my life, I might have read the former as a categorical rejection/denouncement of Christianity. But I was struck by Baldwin’s stunning feats of compassion — for Gabriel, the character based on his strictly religious, and hypocritical, father, especially: “Then, he began to cry, not making a sound, sitting at the table, and with his whole body shaking…finally he put his head on the table, overturning the coffee cup, and wept aloud. Then it seemed that there was weeping everywhere, waters of anguish riding the world –” (Also, we do well not to divorce Baldwin from religion, lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater with regard to our best spiritual writers.) Giovanni’s Room as a kind of personal and artistic experiment — Baldwin writing about love, sex, desire, identity, money, integrity, and family without writing explicitly about blackness — inspires me and, especially in this moment of controversy over cross-racial writing, stirs so many questions. I’m still asking them.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Another oldie that struck me as relevant and very now. Women still struggle to be “selfish,” which is to say centered around one’s creative and sensual imperatives. Chopin’s/Edna’s attraction to heterogeneous culture — cultures of color, of mixedness, of social fluidity and possibility — is arguably a little icky, yet not so removed from what we today call “gentrification”: affluent whites from homogeneous backgrounds wanting to increase their quality of life by stirring up their privilege with urban history, cultures that emerge from struggle, intersectional experience (I live in West Harlem, can you tell?). Chopin’s descriptions of Edna’s nascent self-centering resonated with me over and again: “There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested…Even as a child she had lived her own small life within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life – that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.”
Chopin provides a definition of mystical experience — those moments when the inward life questions — that James himself may have appreciated. The Awakening is an adult coming-of-age story in its pursuit of integration — collapsing the outward and inward existences. I love the notion of every book we read — whole-soul read — being a part of this process: a quiet, private evolution, toward a more complete self, and in a world we must all work to make more hospitable to such evolution than was Edna Pontellier’s.
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“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.”
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William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday is upon us, and at The Millions we wanted to celebrate it in 21st century American style, by debating which of his 38 plays is the best. (Actually, we might have been even more of our time and place if we’d tried to denote his worst.) This exercise comes with the usual caveats about how every play is special and to each his own when it comes to art. But waffling didn’t serve Hamlet well and it’s no fun in this situation, either! We asked five Shakespeare experts to name their favorite play and defend it as the Bard’s best, and they certainly made good on that request. Below you’ll find five persuasively argued cases for five different plays. These contributions may not settle the matter once and for all (though I was happy to see a very strong case made for my personal favorite play), but you’ll certainly learn a lot from them and likely be inspired to dust off your Shakespeare reader or take to the theater next time a production of [insert name of best play here] comes to town. And, really, what better birthday present could we give ole William than that?
Ros Barber is author of The Marlowe Papers.
I would like to be more daring, but when pressed to name Shakespeare’s best work, I can only argue for Hamlet. You could have asked me which play I consider his most underrated (Cymbeline) or which one I feel most personally attached to (As You Like It). But best? Hamlet is iconic.
From the first report of his father’s ghost to the final corpse-strewn scene, Hamlet epitomizes the word “drama.” Shakespeare’s wit, playfulness, and linguistic skills are at their most honed. Everything Shakespeare does well in other plays he does brilliantly here. His characters are at their most human, his language is at its wittiest and most inventive. The heights he has been reaching for in every play before 1599, he achieves fully in Hamlet. The play contains a line of poetry so famous I don’t even need to quote it. Then there’s “Oh that this too, too solid flesh…” — the finest soliloquy in the canon. The memorable images that arise from Hamlet have soaked into Western culture so thoroughly that even someone who has never seen the play is liable, when presented with a human skull, to lift it before them and start intoning “Alas, poor Yorick…”
The role of Hamlet is the role that every actor wants to play. Supporting roles such as Ophelia and even incidental roles such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have spawned major works of art. And – “the play’s the thing” – the play within a play is called The Mousetrap, and by the influence of its title alone appears to have spawned the longest-running show of any kind in the world. There is some kind of radical energy in Hamlet, and it has been feeding artists, writers, and actors for over four hundred years.
When I wrote The Marlowe Papers, whose premise is that William Shakespeare was a playbroker who agreed to “front” for Christopher Marlowe after he faked his death to escape execution, I knew from the outset that I had to elevate this already genius writer to the point where he was capable of writing Hamlet. Not Othello, not King Lear, but Hamlet. It’s the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s artistic achievement. Hands down.
Rev Dr Paul Edmondson is Head of Research for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. His current projects include www.shakespeareontheroad.com, a big road trip of Shakespeare festivals across the United States and North America in Summer 2014. You can follow him on Twitter at @paul_edmondson.
For emotional high-points, it doesn’t come much better than The Winter’s Tale: the evocation of the loving friendship between the two kings; the sudden and expressionistic jealousy of King Leontes and his cruel treatment of Queen Hermione; her tender moments with her son, the young Prince Mamillius; her trial and condemnation; her death quickly followed by the death of Mamillius; the banishment of her baby, the new princess; the bear that chases Antigonus off the stage. And then the passage of time.
I love the way that, every time I see it, this play manages to convince me I’ve entered a whole new world in its second half, a pastoral romance, and that I’ve left behind the tragedy of the earlier acts. And then it all comes magically back to where we started from, with new people who have a different stake in the future. We are sixteen years on but when we return it’s as if we know the place for the first time.
Then the final moments when the statue of Hermione comes to life. It’s a magical story and a miracle of a moment, not least because of the physical challenges it places on the actress to stand as still as she needs to. For these reasons it is the Shakespeare play above all that I find to be genuinely the most moving. The director Adrian Noble, when asked which was his favorite Shakespeare play used to reply, “You mean after The Winter’s Tale?” When this play is performed I see audience members reaching for their handkerchiefs and walking out of the theatre with tears in their eyes. “You can keep your Hamlets, you can keep your Othellos,” a friend of mine once said to me at the end of one performance, “give me The Winter’s Tale any day.” And I agree with him.
Laura Estill is Assistant Professor of English, Texas A&M University, and editor of the World Shakespeare Bibliography.
Of course there is no single best Shakespeare play: there is only the play that speaks best to a reader, scholar, theatre practitioner, or audience member at a given moment. Today, the play that speaks most to me is Henry V. Henry V is not just a great history play — it is a play about how we create and encounter history and how we mythologize greatness. Throughout the play, a chorus comments on the difficulties of (re)presenting history. The prologue’s opening lines capture the play’s energy:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Henry V is part of a series of four Shakespeare plays, the Henriad, named for Henry V. The Henriad traces Henry’s claim to the throne and his calculated move from a carousing youth to a powerful leader. Henry V brings together threads from the earlier plays in the tetralogy (Richard II, 1 & 2 Henry IV) and is haunted by the ghost of Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most endearing characters. The play has meaning not just as a standalone piece, but as part of a network of texts, including other contemporary history plays and the historical accounts that Shakespeare used as his sources (notably, Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland).
Shakespeare’s plays reflect the preoccupations of their readers and audiences; it is the multiple interpretations (both by scholars and performers) that make these works valuable. The counterpoints that Shakespeare presents in Henry V invite the audience to consider how we think of ourselves and what it means to be a strong leader. Shakespeare contrasts Henry’s moving and eloquent speeches (“we few, we happy few, we band of brothers”) with the toll of war on common people (“few die well that die in a battle”). Some people see Henry as the greatest English king; others point to Henry’s threat to impale infants on pikes. The epilogue raises Henry as “the star of England” yet also reminds audiences that his son will lose everything Henry has fought to gain.
Although all of Shakespeare’s plays can be approached from multiple angles, not all have remained perennially popular like Henry V. Whether it stars Kenneth Branagh (1989), Tom Hiddleston (2012, The Hollow Crown) or Jude Law (2013, Noel Coward Theatre), Henry V is a great play because it raises more questions than it answers.
Doug Lanier is Professor of English and Director of the London Program at the University of New Hampshire. He’s written Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture (2002) and is working on a book on Othello on-screen.
King Lear is the Mount Everest of Shakespeare – often forbiddingly bleak and challenging, but for those who scale it, it offers an unparalleled vista on man’s condition and its own form of rough beauty. More than any other Shakespeare play, Lear exemplifies what Immanuel Kant labeled the “sublime,” by which he meant those objects that inspire an awe that simply dwarves us rather than charms.
King Lear explores human identity stripped of the trappings of power, civilization, comfort, and reason, what Lear calls “unaccommodated man,” the self radically vulnerable to the vagaries of an indifferent universe and the cruelties of others. That Shakespeare’s protagonist is a king and patriarch, for early modern society the very pinnacle of society, makes his precipitous fall all the more terrifying. The image of Lear huddled with a beggar and a fool in a hovel on a moor while a storm rages outside is one of the most resonant – and desolate – literary representations of the human condition. Equally bracing is Gloucester’s reward for loyalty to his fellow patriarch: in one of Shakespeare’s most daring onstage moments, Gloucester is blinded before our eyes, an instance of cruelty which even today has the power to shock.
How to live on with knowledge of our fundamental condition is the play’s central preoccupation. Paradoxically, it is precisely the world’s bleakness and our own vulnerability that makes the ephemeral glimmers of love within it all the more valuable. Lear opens the play by asking his daughters to display their love, and his painful recognition of who truly loves him drives the action of the play. Love is so ineffable in Lear that it is typically expressed in minimal language, as if almost beyond words. Cordelia says “nothing” to Lear’s demand for love, and later when her father asks her forgiveness, she replies with understated poignancy, “no cause, no cause.” At play’s end Lear’s anguished love for the dead Cordelia is expressed in a single, excruciatingly repeated final word – “never, never, never, never, never” – in a line which captures at once his guilt, his need for love, his protest against the cruel circumstances of existence, his irremediable pain.
What makes King Lear difficult is its virtue: Shakespeare’s willingness to look a comfortless cosmos directly in the eye and not to turn toward easy consolation. Lear’s world is recognizably our own, our own terrestrial hovel in the dark cosmic storm. And the play’s exceptional power remains its capacity to remind us that hope and love, however fleeting, remain that world’s most precious resource.
Elisa Oh is Assistant Professor of English at Howard University. She has published articles on King Lear, The Tragedy of Mariam, and Wroth’s Urania, and her current book project explores representations of race and gender in early modern dance.
Choosing my favorite Shakespeare play is like choosing my favorite child. However, for the sake of the argument, I throw down the gauntlet in favor of Othello. This is why it’s great: First, Othello shows us how language and stories create reality; second, the play reveals both heroic loyalty and the vengeful, perverse underbelly of same-sex friendship; and finally, it challenges us to realize how easy and harmful it is to racialize and essentialize others’ identities.
Language itself manipulates reality with powerful effects throughout Othello. Language causes characters to fall in love and to fall in hate with each other. Desdemona falls in love with Othello’s stories of wartime adventures, and Othello falls into an obsessive jealous hatred through Iago’s stories of Desdemona’s imagined liaison with Cassio and others. Othello wants “ocular proof” of her infidelity, but he ultimately accepts Iago’s words in place of seeing an actual illicit sex act, and then Othello begins misreading outward signs of innocence as evidence of inner corruption, because he already “knows” the truth. Iago’s diabolical success and sinister final silence demonstrate the ultimate incomprehensibility of evil, which may exceed the bounds of linguistic articulation.
Desdemona’s loyalty to Othello, even when he mistreats and kills her, and Emilia’s loyalty to Desdemona, even when speaking in her defense results in Emilia’s death, cause us to admire their transcendent steadfastness and to question the proper limits of self-sacrifice. Though “race” had less stable meaning for Shakespeare than it does for us today, the play continues to generate important conversations about how we “racialize” others or define them as possessing certain essential inner qualities based on exterior features, religion, ethnicity, or nationality. Even the venomous serpent of internalized racism uncoils itself in Othello’s self-recriminations following his murder of Desdemona.
Witnessing the dis-integration of Othello’s love and trust in Desdemona is not a pleasant experience; if the criteria for “greatness” included audience pleasure, then one of the festive comedies would certainly come before this tragedy. However, taking each step down that sickening descent into murderous jealousy with Othello has the painful but useful result of making us question why and how this was possible with a passionate intensity bred out of a sense of injustice. The play serves as a magnifying glass that focuses conflicts about belief and disbelief; language and silence; loyalty and revenge; love and lust; blackness and whiteness with a growing intensity that becomes excruciatingly brilliant, unbearably burning, and finally cathartically destructive and revelatory.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
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.