Monthly Archives: April 2012

TV Alert: Shapiro Does BBC Four

If you are in the United Kingdom, or otherwise have access to the BBC iPlayer, you owe it to yourself to check out The King and the Playwright, a three-part series starting tonight (when else?) with James Shapiro, the superlative Columbia scholar I’ve praised many times on this blog. I expect this will be the video version of his forthcoming 1610, so it can’t help but be both enlightening and entertaining. Somehow the best work on Shakespeare combines these qualities, following the unparalleled example of its subject.

Anyway, just watch it. And do feel free to thank me for the heads-up.

Happy 448th, Will! #happybirthdayshakespeare

Every year the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust invites the public to join in the celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday with a blog post or an audio or video clip. Here’s my contribution. It wasn’t entirely clear to me how the Trust is supposed to know that this is the birthday post, which is why the hashtag #happybirthdayshakespeareis all over the place. Whatever: let’s party!

EDITED 24 April to correct the hashtag and to insert a link to; check out the many others who are joining in!

Apart from the famous musical parody of Hamlet in Gilligan’s Island, my early memories of Shakespeare are better left repressed. Rote memorization in high school and a year-long college course from a professor so dull he had three last names left my with a distinctly unfavorable impression.

What changed that? Shame. Years later, living in New York City, I thought I had recovered from my school experiences. I went to museums, theater, and concerts. I listened to National Public Radio. I’d seen my share of Shakespeare productions, including some breathtaking, celebrated ones: Kevin Kline as Falstaff at Lincoln Center, the all-male Antony and Cleopatra at Shakespeare’s Globe. I thought I was a pretty cultured guy. But then I read about P.G. Wodehouse who, it is said, read the complete works every year or two. Every year? How did he find time to read anything while writing ninety-six books? I’d only read about half the plays, and I had not written even one book. I thought I was literate; in truth I was a poseur. The only solution was to do what Wodehouse had done—read all the plays in a year. (I’m hardly the only one to have done that, I know; not even the only Shakespeare’s Birthday blogger.)

I did it; that’s why my blog is called “shakesyear.”

I wish I could tell you that reading Shakespeare changed my life; that it got me out of a dead-end job, brought Hollywood sniffing around, and whitened my teeth. Nothing of the sort happened. Cole Porter notwithstanding, the women were not wowed. Something’s very wrong, though, if you read Shakespeare looking for pickup lines or neatly packaged Life Lessons. At least half of what he’s doing when he puts “To thine own self be true” in the mouth of that sententious old busybody Polonius is mocking anybody who imagines that life can be summed up in an aphorism or two. Gilligan’s Island was wiser than you thought.

Why bother to read Shakespeare at all, then, or see his plays produced? Can we say anything more than Italo Calvino’s sly remark that reading the classics is always better than not reading the classics? There are many reasons—I have a list—but one above all seems central to me. In 1610 the title of a poem by one John Davies of Hereford addressed Shakespeare as “our English Terence.” I choose to believe that Davies was not comparing Shakespeare to Terence as the Roman playwright who bored me to tears in third-year high-school Latin, but as the man who said “Nihil humanum a me alienum est” (or something similar)—“Nothing human is alien to me.”

It’s very conventional to praise Shakespeare for that inclusiveness. But it’s equally conventional to disparage the aspect of it I like the best; his constant mixture of humor with seriousness. Almost never do I find myself agreeing with Samuel Johnson, but his response to this criticism of Shakespeare seems to me unanswerable as far as it goes:

Shakespeare’s plays are not in the rigorous or critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which, at the same time, the reveller is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolick of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design.

“The reveller is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend” is so beautifully put I almost hate to observe it doesn’t go far enough. Those who complain about Shakespeare’s mingling of the serious and the silly do so in order to defend the Serious from the threat of belittlement, to save the beleaguered High from the attack of the Low, the Adult from the Childish. I value Shakespeare’s mingling of the comic and the tragic on both a personal and a political level. Personally, those who think the Serious needs defense from the Funny (having presumed to tell the rest of us what is Serious and therefore really worth caring about) are more likely than not to lack a sense of humor, and secretly to fear that others’ laughter is directed toward themselves. (This is implicit, I think, in Orwell’s occasionally insightful critique of Tolstoy on Shakespeare.) Politically, Shakespeare is subversive. Not in the sense of openly challenging the Elizabethan police state, of course, but in the sense that power depends on convincing the powerless that servitude is their lot. From childhood, a tremendous portion of institutional endeavor is devoted to grinding the joy at being alive, the curiosity, out of each of us, shaping us into instruments fit only for labor. Drawing sharp distinctions between people, to drive them apart, is one of Authority’s sharpest tools in this endeavor. Shakespeare undermines Authority’s whole way of looking at the world by knocking over distinctions between serious and silly, good and evil, male and female, noble and common, and undermining our certainties about everything we see and believe—all while continuing to entertain us. The boy who said the emperor had no clothes undoubtedly suffered a painful, lingering death the next day, but once his subjects laughed at the emperor, the slow path to revolution was under way.

Shakespeare is alive, and more than alive, to me because the plays are the work of an individual fully engaging with his world to a degree unique in world literature. To experience his work forces us to engage with the world, too; to be more alive. Shakespeare isn’t great because he gives us Insight Into The Great Questions of Existence or any such folderol. He’s great because above all other writers he exemplifies Terence’s motto. And he makes us laugh. Happy 448th, Will!

Romeo and Juliet—The Comedy of Capulets

After the searing intensity of what I’ve come to call Juliet’s Immolation Scene, a mental curtain drops. Whatever happens next on the stage has got to be a letdown, trivial by comparison. And so it is; it’s Old Capulet lording it over the wedding preparations.

Come, stir, stir, stir! the second cock hath crow’d!
The curfew bell hath rung, ’tis three o’clock.
Look to the bak’d meats, good Angelica:
Spare not for cost.

As he says, it’s three a.m., and things are getting frenetic. But what is startling about the next scenes—so startling some readers, directors, and editors haven’t been able to handle it—is that Shakespeare amplifies his effects by incorporating a comic dimension throughout the entire scene.

The Nurse is here, impudent as ever:

Go, you cot-quean, go,
Get you to bed. Faith, you’ll be sick tomorrow
For this night’s watching.

The servingmen, who served for comic relief way back before the banquet in Act I scene v, are also around (IV.iv.14-18; one Peter is summoned at line 16 and, typically, does not appear until line 100), and the Capulets , in their heavy-handed way, are bantering:

No, not a whit. What, I have watch’d ere now
All night for lesser cause, and ne’er been sick.

Ay, you have been a mouse-hunt in your time;
But I will watch you from such watching now.

A jealous-hood, a jealous-hood!

Lady Capulet means that her husband used to stay up all hours like a tomcat preying on mice, i.e. girls—and that she will play the watchful cat now. Even the most straight-laced Capulet is getting in on the fun.

Why would Shakespeare resort to broad comedy with Juliet lying upstairs, dead to all appearances? The effect is very complex.

First, we need something to lighten the mood after the potion scene—and giving us a chance to catch our breaths will make the inevitable discovery of Juliet that much more powerful. As we’ve already seen time and again in this play, Shakespeare is a master of structure, and in this respect he knows exactly what he’s doing.

Second, the near frivolity of this scene tends to trivialize Old Capulet and his obsession with marrying off his child. We’ve seen that so far from being the old fool we might have imagined, he is a ruthless and powerful man; my mob boss comparison, way back, really does turn out to hold water. Yet Shakespeare shows us in the most literal and blatant way that he is completely ignorant of what really matters: the seemingly dead girl upstairs.

Third, at the same time, by  showing the servants up to the antics they pulled off yesterday and will pull off tomorrow, Shakespeare achieves the nearly opposite effect of showing how the world will go on without Juliet—as it will go on without each and every one of us, one day. I find the effect comparable to that of Breugel’s “The Fall of Icarus,” as famously explicated by W.H. Auden in “Musée des Beaux-Arts.” With your permission (if you happen to be Edward Mendelson, executor of the Auden estate, I mean that literally):

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
. . .
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

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Romeo and Juliet–“Romeo, Romeo, Romeo, here’s drink! I drink to thee!”

Things are starting to move fast. Very fast. As Juliet returns from Friar Laurence’s Old Capulet is making wedding preparations (“Sirrah, go hire me twenty cunning cooks” (IV.ii.2); there’s still room here for the Capulet servants to provide a spot of comic relief). Her faux-penitent return backfires badly, spurring him to even more urgent action:

Pardon, I beseech you.
Henceforward I am ever rul’d by you.

Send for the County, go tell him of this
I’ll have this knot knit up tomorrow morning.

This is still Tuesday, so the wedding has just been moved up to Wednesday—despite Old Capulet’s former conviction (expressed to Paris the preceding evening, identified as Monday) that it was too soon after Tybalt’s death. (Lady Capulet seems not to have been listening, because immediately afterward, when Juliet asks the Nurse to come to her room “To help me sort such needful ornaments/As you think fit to furnish me tomorrow” (IV.ii.34-35) her mother replies “No, not till Thursday. There is time enough” (II.ii.36).)

But there isn’t. In fact there is no time. Juliet gets her mother and the Nurse out of her room to be alone with the potion. The woman is determined to carry out her plan. The child is terrified. This is a very long speech—over forty lines—but as with several others we’ve seen, Shakespeare doesn’t waste a word and it is difficult to know what to cut. Attend particularly to how he captures the tug of war between Juliet’s resolve and her fear, and to how she conjures spectres even more terrifying than when she implored Friar Laurence to help her:

Farewell. God knows when we shall meet again.
I have a faint cold fear thrills through my veins
That almost freezes up the heat of life.
I’ll call them back again to comfort me.

The girl doesn’t really call out, because the woman immediately thinks better of it:

What should she do here?
My dismal scene I needs must act alone.
Come, vial.
What if this mixture do not work at all?
Shall I be married then tomorrow morning?

Truly a fate worse than death in the woman’s view, and she is ready to cut it off:

No! no! This shall forbid it. Lie thou there.

There is no stage direction in the earliest printed texts, but Samuel Johnson added “She lays down a knife.” Professor Levenson’s Oxford edition notes that the First Quarto line is “Knife, lie thou there,” so the direction is plainly justified, and it sets up the first of several dramatic ironies in this soliloquy:

What if it be a poison which the Friar
Subtly hath minister’d to have me dead,
Lest in this marriage he should be dishonour’d,
Because he married me before to Romeo?

If only Juliet had acted on this acute psychological insight! As you’re probably tired of hearing me repeat, to us Friar Laurence is at best a deeply equivocal figure, one who doesn’t entirely even mean well; but this is the only time in the whole play one of the characters suggests as much. But this would vitiate the plan altogether, so the woman represses the fear with the conventional response:

I fear it is. And yet methinks it should not,
For he hath still been tried a holy man.

Having persuaded herself that Friar Laurence is not out to kill her, from this point on Juliet is nearly overwhelmed by the horrors that could befall her if she doesn’t die from the potion:

How if, when I am laid into the tomb,
I wake before the time that Romeo
Come to redeem me? There’s a fearful point!
Shall I not then be stifled in the vault,
To whose foul mouth no healthsome air breathes in,
And there die strangled ere my Romeo comes?

This speech is a playground for an accomplished actor, perhaps nowhere more than in the following; notice how Juliet keeps piling on the terrors until she has to interrupt herself and start her thought over again:

Or, if I live, is it not very like,
The horrible conceit of death and night
Together with the terror of the place,
As in a vault, an ancient receptacle
Where for these many hundred years the bones
Of all my buried ancestors are pack’d,
Where bloody Tybalt yet but green in earth
Lies festering in his shroud; where, as they say,
At some hours in the night spirits resort—

“Like” means “likely” here, so Juliet is saying “Isn’t it likely that, with all these terrifying things—“

Alack, alack! Is it not like that I
So early waking, what with loathsome smells,
And shrieks like mandrakes’ torn out of the earth,
That living mortals, hearing them, run mad—

Again, she’s so scared herself that she loses the point. The mandrake is especially rich in frightening allusion; as Juliet notes, when this root is pulled from the ground it is reputed to emit a shriek that causes madness or death in its hearers; it is also reputed to grow where executed murderers are buried, particularly at crossroads. (I can’t easily find a date of composition of John Donne’s poem that begins “Go and catch a falling star/Get with child a mandrake root,” so it’s amusing to wonder whether it was circulating in manuscript when Shakespeare was writing Romeo and Juliet.) But the worst is yet to come as Juliet finally completes her thought:

O, if I wake, shall I not be distraught,
Environed with all these hideous fears,
And madly play with my forefather’s joints,
And pluck the mangled Tybalt from his shroud,
And, in this rage, with some great kinsman’s bone
As with a club dash out my desperate brains?
O look, methinks I see my cousin’s ghost
Seeking out Romeo, that did spit his body
Upon a rapier’s point: stay! Tybalt, stay!
Romeo, Romeo, Romeo, here’s drink! I drink to thee!

Imagine the force of will by which the woman Juliet masters her fear, in a final triumph of her love for Romeo over her affection and grief for Tybalt. I don’t know of any similar scene of comparable intensity before Brünnhilde.

Great Timing, Arden Shakespeare!

Just so you know, there was supposed to be a narky “<sarcasm>” tag surrounding the title of this post but WordPress would not recognize it as something printable. The sarcasm is justified by this announcement that the Arden Third of Romeo and Juliet is finally coming out in May, just in time not to do us any good. Yes, possums, I foresee that we will actually come to the end of our traversal of the play this month. One down, 36 to go; at this rate we’ll be done before 2050!

I mean, I’m gratified that according to the blurb, “This major new edition of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy of love argues that that play is ultimately Juliet’s”—isn’t that what I’ve been saying all along?—but I wish Rene Weis, the editor, had been a little snappier about his task, so that we could have benefited from his insights. It would have been good, too, to have some fresh scholarship and analysis to work with. The Arden Second is perfectly serviceable—we have, of course, been using it throughout—but it’s one of the older remaining seconds, dating from 1980, and the editor, Brian Gibbons, is sometimes—well, let me tell you a story recounted in Stanley Wells’s Shakespeare, Sex, and Love:

The actor Roger Allam once played Mercutio who has, as he writes, to speak ‘a string of extremely explicit jokes’. He goes on to remark that ‘Brian Gibbons, the Arden editor, uses the somewhat understated phrase “with a bawdy quibble” to indicate this. It made us laugh very much in rehearsals. We invented a pastiche Elizabethan song called “with a bawdy quibble” which was sung in cod operatic tones to the guitar. It made us laugh even more’ (148-149).

A little of that stuff goes a very, very long way with me (there was a time when I frequented science fiction conventions, so I know from filk) but I wouldn’t have minded hearing “With A Bawdy Quibble” while I was working on the Mercutio posts of this blog.

Professor Weis is probably best known for his Shakespeare Revealed (published in the United States under the perhaps more sensational title Shakespeare Unbound: Decoding a Hidden Life), which I haven’t read and don’t plan to because it sounds from its blurbs like an example of the biographical fallacy even wilder than Will in the World. But I’m sure that Weis, like Greenblatt, is capable of marvelous interpretive work in spite of believing that the plays encode recoverable biographical details, and I look forward to his edition.

Romeo and Juliet–The Return of the Foolish Friar

Juliet’s world is shattered. Is it any surprise she makes the worst possible decision?

I’ll to the Friar to know his remedy.

You—well, I—want to shout at her “Don’t go there, girl!”  but can you really blame her? Who else does she have to turn to now?

Yet she can’t even talk to him at first, for she interrupts a conference with, who else, the County Paris. Aren’t you amazed she doesn’t scream?

They’ve met, if at all, only offstage, at the Capulet party, and we have to wonder whether that introduction went like this:

Happily met, my lady and my wife.

That may be, sir, when I may be a wife.

That may be must be, love, on Thursday next.

What must be, shall be.

That’s a certain text.

 When Juliet met Romeo their conversation formed a sonnet. Here Juliet and Paris also speak in stichomythia (one line, one line, back and forth) but the dialogue refuses to get off the ground. Juliet’s answers to Paris form couplets, which previously were associated with inauthentic feeling (Romeo’s “passion” for Rosaline) and here express barely concealed loathing. Meanwhile Friar Laurence is so perfectly in character, completing Juliet’s line with a sententious platitude that also brings the verse to a thudding halt. (Read these lines out loud and see if you get a sense of how bad the rhyme is. “Next” and “text”? Really? Note also Paris’s “may be must be, love”; you can just hear him patting himself on the back at getting off this line whose rhythm is clunkier than he thinks it is.)

Writers are always being told to show, not tell. Here’s how it’s done. Shakespeare shows us how disastrously matched Juliet and Paris would be through their verbal Ping-Pong. Here’s another exchange, to give you the flavor:

Come you to make confession to this father?

To answer that, I should confess to you.

Do not deny to him that you love me.

I will confess to you that I love him.

So will ye, I am sure, that you love me.

The plays on “confess” (in the sacramental sense to Friar Laurence, in the colloquial sense to Paris) and “love”—let alone the “him” in “I will confess to you that I love him” that doesn’t refer to Friar Laurence—are typical Juliet, but unlike her exchanges with Romeo you can feel the words being dragged out of her. Worse, Paris isn’t getting the jokes. He only has one thing in mind.

That is no slander, sir, which is a truth,
And what I spake, I spake it to my face.

Thy face is mine, and thou hast slander’d it.

It may be so, for it is not mine own.

Paris and Old Capulet agree: Juliet is a piece of property. A feisty one, though, who is suddenly getting Paris out of the way by asking whether Friar Laurence has time for some private devotion.

Spare the old priest a smidgen of pity. What a terrible moment this must be for him too. His dream of being Verona’s peacemaker lies shattered, and he’s trapped in his own chamber with a hysterical girl waving a knife around and threatening to kill herself with it (“If in thy wisdom thou canst give no help,/Do thou but call my resolution wise,/And with this knife I’ll help it presently” (IV.i.52-54), and a bit later “Give me some present counsel, or behold:/’Twixt my extremes and me this bloody knife/Shall play the umpire . . .” (IV.i. 61-63; in Juliet’s mind the knife is already bloody—shades of the Macbeths). He must be a little flustered. But the scheme he proposes has all the earmarks of something he’s carefully considered over some little while:

If, rather than to marry County Paris,
Thou hast the strength of will to slay thyself,
Then is it likely thou wilt undertake
A thing like death to chide away this shame
. . .

Juliet responds with the white-hot eloquence we’re getting used to. The macabre settings she describes are more terrifying here than they will shortly be when they become reality:

O, bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,
From off the battlements of any tower,
Or walk in thievish ways; or bid me lurk
Where serpents are. Chain me with roaring bears,
Or hide me nightly in a charnel-house
O’ercover’d quite with dead men’s rattling bones,
With reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls.
Or bid me go into a new-made grave,
And hide me with a dead man in his shroud—
Things that, to hear them told, have made me tremble—
And I will do it without fear or doubt,
To live an unstain’d wife to my sweet love.

Alas, the “roaring bears” cannot be the ones in the bear-baiting pits around the Globe, since Romeo and Juliet was performed before the Globe was built in 1599 (the First Quarto dates from 1597). But observe how expertly Juliet conjures the very terrors Friar Laurence has in store for her. “Chapless,” that is, jawless, skulls would have made more immediate sense to the world premiere audience; “chap” meaning “jaw” was then a usage less than fifty years old, and everyone would have seen paintings littered with such skulls, memento mori. But it’s “reeky shanks” that seems to me to have a touch of genius. A charnel house, as you’ll recall from your H.P. Lovecraft, is a building that holds the remains of exhumed dead (ah for the days when Venice had a whole charnel island, Sant’Ariano). We would expect it to contain not just whole floors paved with chapless skulls but gobbets of decaying—reeky—flesh. “Reeky” is not just superbly evocative, more than “decaying” or “rotting” and, in its slight strangeness, even more than “reeking”; it plays off the k sound in “shanks” (and further down the line in “skulls”) to evoke the sound of “dead men’s rattling bones.” Admit it: now that you’ve heard the phrase you’ll never forget it.

But I digress. Here comes Friar Laurence’s cunning plan. (Yes, Percy, of course that’s a Blackadder reference.)

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