It’s a Crying Schama (2 of 2): Simon Schama’s Shakespeare, Part 2

After two posts on the subject you may be thinking, “But Diamond Jim, tell us what you really think about Simon Schama’s Shakespeare.” Well, since the transition from Elizabeth to James is a good place for it, I do; I will.

First, this series has no reason to exist. Yes, Auntie Beeb is saturating the airwaves with Shakespeare in 2012, but it’s already done a three-part series by an actual Shakespeare scholar, James Shapiro’s The King and the Playwright, that covers much of the same material. Moreover, Shapiro has written some of the best general-audience books about Shakespeare of our time. Schama is not a Shakespeare scholar and, despite his pretensions, is not the sort of omnicompetent intellectual whose opinions on anything are worth listening to. What was the BBC thinking when it commissioned two hours by this popinjay even though it already had three from a real expert?

Second, when Schama does try to say something interesting about Shakespeare, he makes questionable claims and relies on dubious sources. I’ll talk about some of these later in this post.

Third, and most important, Schama’s interpretive approach is fatally flawed. For somebody who published a scathing review of Anonymous, he shares that film’s assumptions to a surprising degree. To see how, let me pick up where I left off in the last post. Schama says that once James I named the Lord Chamberlain’s Man, Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, Shakespeare was “officially the court playwright” [my emphasis] His fresh opportunities to observe James closely led him to “explore the hearts and heads of kings,” focusing on such themes as madness versus sanity, good versus evil, the corrupting nature of ambition, and revenge. Of course, he hadn’t lost the common touch, as Schama claims Hamlet shows. According to Schama, Hamlet is about James’s youth; James’s’ father was assassinated and his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, married the suspected murderer with unseemly haste. The performance of Hamlet at court in 1603 therefore shows that Shakespeare had not “lost his edge,” and James’s head must have been spinning to see the crime of his youth not just enacted on stage but reenacted again within the play by the Player King and Queen.

This discussion of Hamlet so perfectly shows what is wrong with Schama’s whole series that I couldn’t have done better if I’d tried. Have you ever heard of this suggestion that Hamlet is the young James, the Ghost his father, Gertrude Mary Queen of Scots? Neither had I. Surprisingly, as a little research shows, it turns out to have had a long history, going back to the end of the eighteenth century. It’s plainly a crackpot theory, with no support or credence from actual Shakespeare scholars, and wouldn’t be any less so if its best-known adherent weren’t the Nazi historian Carl Schmitt. (Schmitt aside, isn’t the genesis of Hamlet better explained by the conventional account that notes the existence of the Hamlet legend going back to Saxo Grammaticus and the popularity of the so-called ur-Hamlet, which some think Shakespeare himself wrote? Not that I agree with that last claim, but do we have to reach to cobble up an allegory about James that, just by the way, involves the claim that Shakespeare made an otherwise undocumented visit to Scotland?) But is it so very much more crackpot than the theory that Hamlet is really about dynastic intrigues in Elizabeth’s court, that Polonius is a thinly disguised Lord Burghley, and that Hamlet—well, you know who Hamlet is on this theory.

You see where this is going. Schama is getting perilously close to Anonymous territory. But my problem is not so much with this particular interpretation of Hamlet, ridiculous though it is, as with the general interpretive approach. Though he may thunder in the Guardian against the Oxfordians, Schama shares their fatally flawed assumption. For him, as for them, the plays are not plays, they are some sort of Great Cryptogram under which Shakespeare was transmitting a secret message to the secret audience of these texts.

The only thing that separates Schama from the Oxfordians he despises is his proposed secret audience—James I. Yet bizarrely for all his protestations that Shakespeare was a champion of the common Briton, Schama shares the Oxfordians’ drive to convert him into a courtier. For Schama, the author of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear is the official court poet. I don’t really see what separates Schama from Delia Bacon, the first great exponent of the view that Francis Bacon wrote the plays, when she said that the author “carries the court perfume with him, unconsciously, wherever he goes.” The only difference—and it’s immaterial in the end—is that for Schama, it is Shakespeare the man from Stratford who stinks of the court perfume. In this documentary Schama accomplishes the astounding feat of becoming the first Stratfordian Oxfordian.

There’s one other point it seems Schama is almost daring us to observe as he moves from one outrageous interpretation to another. It would have been foolhardy for Shakespeare to have composed the great tragedies as the transparent, univocal political commentary Schama suggests they are—but insane to go on and present them at court. Even if you had a good explanation of why Shakespeare would write a play about questionable incidents in James’s youth (several years before James took the throne), you’d still need to explain why he dared rub the king’s nose in it—let alone why James forbore to have his head. I almost never make biographical claims about Shakespeare, but one thing we can certainly say about him (and Schama does, in another context) is that he was politically cautious and canny. He navigated the treacherous Elizabethan waters that pulled Marlowe and Kyd under; why would he take crazy risks under James? Schama’s comment that he must have been thrill-seeking just doesn’t cut it. (Schama’s view is not based on his own original scholarship, of course, so these remarks apply equally to his source, which I suspect but can’t prove is Alvin Kernan’s Shakespeare, The King’s Playwright.)

Once Schama’s assumption that Shakespeare is sending secret messages to James is rejected, as it must be, do his more specific interpretations of Macbeth and Lear have a leg to stand on? No, although to my surprise I find myself warming to aspects of what he says about Macbeth. Here, if anywhere, you would expect Schama’s theory to find purchase, because pretty much everybody except the Oxfordians agrees that Macbeth, written in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, contains flattery of James, specifically the vision of Banquo’s descendants stretching out indefinitely as kings of Scotland (especially significant because the Stuarts in fact claimed a lineage that stretched all the way back to Banquo). Yet even here Schama seems compelled to say things that are absurdly untrue, such as his claim that Macbeth is about “the anarchy engulfing a country after the murder of its king.” Since Macbeth rules as a tyrant once he takes the throne, this is just wrong on its face.

When I spoke of “warming” to Schama, I meant that he touches on one of the most interesting and fascinatingly complex strands of Macbeth, its treatment of sexuality and its relation to power. Yet even here Schama botches the discussion. The most obvious and important aspect here is the reversal of conventional sexual roles between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but Schama misses that the resulting sexual charge is all on Lady Macbeth’s side. I would be very interested to see an actual argument for Schama’s claim that “the connection between sex and power is at the heart of Shakespeare’s play”; I seem to recall that Polanski took this interpretation (surprise!), although I haven’t seen his film adaptation since it was originally released.

Here is one way to test your views about the role of sexuality in Macbeth. What do you think happens in bed between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth after Duncan’s murder—more or less in the gap between Act II and Act III? Be downright pornographic if you like; whatever you come up with is sure to teach you something. Do feel free to post your results in the comments. Hints at my answer follow immediately.

So, sex and power, fair enough; but almost as if he doesn’t even care what’s issuing from his mouth, Schama then comes up with remarks like “Macbeth and his wife lust for the throne” or “The sexual rush of killing is at the heart of Macbeth.” Lady Macbeth can be said to lust for the throne and feel a sexual rush at the idea of killing—her dialogue after Duncan’s murder is positively postcoital—but the whole point of the play is that Macbeth doesn’t share those feelings. If he did, Lady Macbeth would not need to spend an act and a half persuading him, nor would he have given the great speech that ends

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

You could perfectly well argue that, goaded by the Weird Sisters, Macbeth has made up his mind that he wants the throne and that Lady Macbeth’s ardor only helps him screw up his courage to the sticking place where he can do what he has already decided to do—but I wouldn’t call that “lust for the throne.” That Schama uses this phrase in connection with Macbeth strongly implies that he isn’t even paying attention.

That impression is confirmed when Schama discusses Lady Macbeth’s tremendous speech in Act I scene v, just before Macbeth returns but after she has read the letter in which he relates the Weird Sisters’ prophecy:

The raven himself is hoarse,
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you Spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood,
Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse;
That no compunctious visitings of Nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’ effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murth’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on Nature’s mischief! Come, thick Night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of Hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor Heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’

To me, this is the most terrifying moment in the whole play, far more than the somewhat comical appearances of the Weird Sisters. They are external, or at best external projections of inner forces; Lady Macbeth herself is the force here, something far more powerful than the three so-called witches. The key is her plea to the “spirits” to “unsex me here”; to divest her of what makes her human, to transmute her sexualized passion for power into something beyond sex, something beyond human, to make her a being that can say, as she shortly does to Macbeth:

I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this.

Schama spends some time on the “unsex me here” speech—he can hardly ignore it, given what he has said about the warped sexuality of the Macbeths—but he misses its power completely. (That it is given to Judi Dench to recite doesn’t help; she may be a great actress, and by report she was a great Lady Macbeth back in 1975, but her colorless reading here doesn’t even hint at the speech’s otherworldly passion.) For Schama, the speech merely means: take away all the qualities of the “right kind of woman”–chastity, humility, obedience—and the result is exactly what male moralists of the time would have predicted: madness, insomnia, suicide. It’s as if Christopher Sly had woken up to watch the wrong play. Lady Macbeth is not imploring the “spirits” to make her a shrew; she wants to be one of them—that is, inhuman.

After all this it is pretty easy to imagine what Schama has to say about Lear, so I’ll be brief. Kings must be reduced to destitution before they can see the truth about themselves and their place in humanity. If this were really what Shakespeare was trying to say, one has to wonder why he would bother saying it to James, who—as Schama elsewhere notes—was the least likely person in the kingdom to listen (and, we might add, the most likely to misunderstand, to the messenger’s possibly fatal cost).

Let’s step back for a minute. Is this a false account of Lear? Certainly not, as far as it goes. Lear is reduced to destitution and worse, and comes to see his place in the world clearly. And for all any of us know, Shakespeare was in fact trying to send a message to James. But is it anything like enough to leave it at that? Does Schama begin to explain why Lear is one of the canonical works of world literature? Of course not. We will spend quite a while on Lear, five or ten years down the road, but for now I would say that its staggering power rests in its depiction of an arrogant old man so blind to his own world that he rejects love and truth in favor of their opposites; in losing everything he thought he had, material and otherwise, he finds his whole being turned inside out. And it still isn’t enough. You can see that something has to be desperately wrong with Schama’s interpretation from the fact that he doesn’t even mention the ending—and he can’t, really, because on his view once the king has returned from madness and now understands his place as a mere man just like the rest of us, well, Happy Ending! Only it isn’t. Oh yes, we want it to be with our whole hearts and souls. Oh yes, it was in Shakespeare’s source material, the old Leir play. Oh yes, we want Cordelia to live and our sense of the world as a good and ordered place where at least sometimes people learn from their mistakes in time to save their lives is confirmed. But in one of the bravest acts of literature anybody has ever committed, Shakespeare refuses us the comfort of a happy ending.

Never, never, never, never, never.

Why do we read or perform or watch Lear over 400 years after it was created (whereas we never bother with Leir except as an appendage to Shakespeare)? For those five words. Lear’s soul may have been turned inside out on the blasted heath but these “never”s come from the bottom of all of our souls. It is here that Lear becomes truly human.

This then is my real problem with Simon Schama’s Shakespeare. It shares the fundamental assumption of Shakespeare deniers and Bardolaters alike that the plays require some kind of secret decoder ring to be understood. And by adopting the specific view that Shakespeare, especially under James, was essentially a courtier—a de Vere without a dukedom, sending coded messages to the king about kingship—it renders us unable to understand why Shakespeare is now—or was in his time—of any greater general interest than Castiglione. To repeat, any interpretation of Lear that doesn’t even feel it’s necessary to mention the ending need not detain us.

I’ll conclude with the observation that it’s amusing that given his antiroyalism in this series, Schama is the BBC’s go-to guy for color commentary about royal events. He was there at the Royal Wedding, he was there at the Diamond Jubilee; would he seriously suggest that Elizabeth II needs to be stripped and left on a blasted heath, and Princess Anne hanged, before the queen understands that she is but one human being among others?

And yet there’s one thing you can always say on Schama’s behalf:

He ain’t David Starkey.

And with that, let’s move on. We’re still two—but only two—posts away from a new play!

One response to “It’s a Crying Schama (2 of 2): Simon Schama’s Shakespeare, Part 2

  1. Excellent analysis. Schama is a popular historian, with occasional good insight. But as you rightly state: a Shakespeare scholar he is not. He simply regurgitates dubious opinions that have either been long refuted or never acknowledged. But give me Schama any day rather than Starkey.