Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Bothered by the Bard: Or, What Shakespeare Doesn't Mean to Me (1)

Yesterday I bought a complete edition of the works of William Shakespeare. It was very cheap, and it has no introduction or essays or footnotes. It's not the first complete edition of Shakespeare that I've bought. Some years ago I bought the Riverside Shakespeare, which comes with all the trimmings you could wish for. But (despite its great bulk) it has disappeared somewhere or other.

Shakespeare has been a problem all my life. Even before I had read a single line of him, he loomed large in my imagination. I had the combined benefit and curse (mostly benefit, of course) of having a father who was a wonderful salesman for the experience of life. He hyped everything. I definitely remember him hyping Shakespeare. I remember him explaining to me once that, "Shakespeare was like a sponge-- he took in all of human experience". Or something like that. He definitely used the word "sponge" and I knew exactly what he was conveying.

He also recited poetry to me, and I can remember vividly the time he quoted me the famous words from Macbeth:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

I can remember being powerfully struck by the opening lines and the closing lines. In fact, though I have read a lot of poetry since those days, this soliloquy has always remained with me as a candidate for the most profound and sublime piece of writing ever. I got it.

I can also remember a season of Shakespeare plays shown on BBC television (or perhaps on some other English channel), that was screened some time in my childhood. My father was watching them, though he doesn't remember them now. All I can remember is that they were shown over several days at least, and-- most importantly-- they were played against a background of perfect darkness. (At least, that's how I remember them. I doubt it's an accurate memory) Nothing could have been more guaranteed to fill me with a sense of wonder and awe. The darkness behind and around the actors seemed to make the drama intensely more significant, as well as more timeless and more serious. I can't remember anything at all of the actual content-- in fact, I think I didn't watch them, simply presuming that they would be way above my head. But they added to the mystique of Shakespeare that was already building up in my mind. The works of Shakespeare, I understood, were something definitive.

Another memory; we had a school copy of Hamlet lying around the house, probably from one of my elder brothers' or sisters' years in school. I read the introduction and one particular line-- "Hamlet is a prism through which the reader sees his own self", or something like that-- excited me greatly. I think it was the first time I had come across that prism metaphor, and it was not a cliché to me, but a startling and novel idea. (I don't think I even knew what a prism was, but I guessed from the context.) The idea that literature could be, so to speak, interactive-- that a reader could have a relationship with it, and a writer could be so wise and deep that his words might say different things to different people-- exhilarated me. But I still didn't read Hamlet. Or maybe I started it and put it back down, frightened to plunge into those deeps.

Then, when I was fifteen (which has been my favourite age so far), the time came to study Shakespeare in school. It was The Merchant of Venice. (I remember one girl, when the teacher told us what books we had to acquire, innocently asked who wrote it. I can remember the derision the poor girl provoked with her question, and how my embarrassment on her behalf was mingled with Schadenfreude.)

My feelings on finally studying Shakespeare were exactly those C.S. Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy, when he recounts how his tutor told him that they would begin studying Homer in the morning. "Now for Homer. Golly! The name struck awe into my soul". That was how I felt. "Now for Shakespeare. Golly!"

I think my class-mates must have felt the same, because I remember noticing-- even at the time-- how the first lines of The Merchant of Venice seemed to stick in all our minds:

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.

I can find nothing especially memorable in those lines, yet I seem to remember them being rather bandied about that year, and I remember one boy quoting the first line when we eventually came to studying Hamlet, two years later.

We were all keyed up for Shakespeare, and we were already inclined to see him as super-human. When the teacher started to discuss the anti-Semitism in the portrayal of Shylock, and to explain to us the anti-Semitic assumptions of Shakespeare's time, one student said: "But maybe Shakespeare knew people would read the play differently in the future." Like myself, she (or he-- I can't remember who it was) automatically assumed that Shakespeare was above the prejudices of his day. Without ever encountering Ben Jonson's claim that "He was not for an age, but for all time", we had imbibed the idea.

We studied The Merchant of Venice pretty intensively. We watched a video, we memorized passages, we even had an acting company come to perform it in the school. And my nervousness before Shakespeare evaporated somewhat. It was comprehensible! It was entertaining! And the teacher's analysis of it-- all the talk of character and themes and dramatic tension-- made sense to me.

But more than anything else, I found that I really did thrill to much of the poetry. Memorizing Portia's famous "quality of mercy" speech was not at all difficult-- the lines engraved themselves on my memory, and mentally reciting it moved me to tears.

I also remember that, as part of my personal strategy of making school lessons more appealing to myself (a strategy that involved coming up with pleasant imaginative associations), when we studied The Merchant of Venice, I would always imagine the smell of coffee and spices on the air, the kind of aroma that seemed appropriate, not only to the Venice of the play, but to the sensual, worldly richness of Shakespeare's worldview.

But a sourness was already entering my relationship with the Bard of Avon. At this time, I was discovering poetry, and slowly and methodically going through Palgrave's Treasury. I found myself falling in love with the poetry of Yeats, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Hardy, Housman, Larkin, Swinburne, and many others.

But some poets, no matter how lauded they were, just didn't appeal to me. Alexander Pope and John Dryden, with their clanging heroic couplets, were two examples. John Donne was another. And then there were Shakespeare's sonnets.

I knew Shakespeare's sonnets were meant to be the summit of Mount Parnassus, but I just couldn't bring myself to admire them. They seemed (dare I even write it?) sickly sweet, laboured, overdone, conventional to a fault. Even the rhyming scheme displeased me; the closing couplet seemed irritatingly trite and pretty.

Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter
In sleep a king, but waking, no such matter.

Ding-a-ling! It seemed infinitely inferior to me to the ending of a Petrarchan sonnet, with its gracefully delayed final rhyme:

Or like stout Cortez, when, with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific; and all his men
Looked at each other, with a wild surmise
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Not that I disliked all of the Shakespeare poems that appeared in the Palgrave Treasury. I loved "Fear no more the heat o'the sun", which seemed entirely different from the courtly, contrived, affected style of the sonnets-- it was earthy, direct, elemental. Qualities which applied even more to "When icicles han by the wall":

When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail;
When blood is nipt, and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl
Tu-whit! tu-whoo! A merry note!
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

This was the poetry of the workaday world and the soil, of cold and hard and stubborn and ruefully humorous things. It seemed so much fresher and keener to me than the tedious compliments of the sonnets.

If I was less than impressed by the sonnets, that certainly didn't apply to what I considered Shakespeare's real poetry-- that is, his matchless soliloquies. Here I had no problem at all echoing the applause of the ages. It seemed to me that, once Shakespeare went from rhyme to blank iambic pentameter, he soared into heights almost too dizzy to bear.

I remember the first time I came across Prospero's great speech from The Tempest-- I was seventeen years old, I was spending the first ten pounds I had earned in my life (for cleaning a shed), and I was standing in the second-hand basement of a bookshop and reading my planned purchase, The Library of World Poetry. And my soul melted in bliss at the lines:

The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

It occurs to me now, right now, that the reason I loved the great soliloquies is because nearly all of them are making a philosophical point-- they are great thoughts, expressed more magnificently there than anywhere else. And not only are they great thoughts, but they are great thoughts on the deepest and most consequential themes in human life. The "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" speech expresses the idea of the absurd, of nihilism, much better than any existentialist writer ever did. Prospero's "we are such stuff as dreams are made on" speech expressed an idea that has always haunted humankind, and that occurs independently to most of us in childhood-- much the same idea that is often labelled the "brain in a vat" or "evil demon" theory, and that in the twenty-first century became rebranded as the "Matrix" theory-- the theory that we are simply figments of somebody's imagination, that this world that seems so sturdy may be simply a computer programme or an idea in the mind of God. And this isn't just an idle fancy-- everybody at some time really feels that the world is as airy and as fleeting as a dream, even if we don't seriously believe it's a hallucination.

As for Hamlet's great "to be or not to be" speech, this deserved its pride of place because it tackled the prime existential question, the question that transcends every circumstance of history or fortune or personality: why should we go on living? Why should existence itself continue? You could hardly get more primal than that.

Jacques's "All the world's a stage" speech from As You Like It takes up another theme of universal and grand human relevance, the theme of transcience. I remember a substitute English teacher-- one I had an enormous crush on-- writing that single word, Transcience, in chalk on the blackboard during one English lesson. This was when school was hastening to its end, and I was feeling sick at the onrush of the unknown future. I remember thinking that, even when the word "transience" was written in white chalk on a blackboard, I still couldn't really grasp it. I knew school was ending and that youth was passing away, but I couldn't really believe it or appreciate it. I stared at the word as at something alien and dreadful.

The amazing thing about the "All the world's a stage speech"-- just like the "unto every thing there is a season" passage from Ecclesiastes-- is the strange and counter-intuitive comfort that it instils in the reader. Why should a speech that ends in one of the bleakest and most brutal lines imaginable, the line describing extreme old age--

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything--

Fill us with a strange serenity? I think it might be because of its sheer matter-of-factness. When we read it, we seem to be looking down on human existence from such a lofty height that even our own impending decrepitude is not distressing. We feel equal to reality.

Then there is the "course of true love never did run smooth" speech from A Midsummer Night's Dream, which captures a sentiment that anyone with a drop of red blood has felt poignantly at one time or another.

(It's true that some of Shakespeare's great soliloquies don't share this trait of universality. King Henry's great speech before Agincourt may be the most eloquent expression of the thirst for military glory ever, but military glory is a passion that animates relatively few of us. Mark Antony's defence of Julius Caesar-- the "Friends, Romans and countrymen" speech-- seems very much tied to the circumstances of the story. But I think my observation is true of most of Shakespeare's celebrated speeches.)

When I was seventeen, in my penultimate year in school, we took on Hamlet-- and this really felt like going into the deep end of the pool, like the stabilisers were off the bicycle. I even remember how the grey-blue, gun-metal colour of my edition seemed appropriate to the dark, adult, no-holds-barred atmosphere of the play. We weren't kids any more, and we were ready for Hamlet.

I remember that there was a meningitis outbreak in Dublin that year, and we heard about real deaths-- real deaths of people our own age, people who were on the brink of adulthood just like we were. I remember listening to my class-mates talking about this before an English class and feeling (without thinking of it consciously in these terms) that it was strangely consonant with the spirit that Hamlet had dispersed through the class-room-- the sensation that we had come face-to-face with ultimate things, with death and sex and adulthood and the fabric of reality. And, of course, with Hamlet.

But I have already written more than I had expected to, and I have only made a start on describing my troubled relationship with the Swan of Avon. The rest will have to wait for another post; soon, I hope.


  1. Wonderful post, but it doesn't show me that you are conflicted about the Bard. It just seems to show that you don't like his sonnets...

  2. As an "American Papist", I'd like to know your thoughts on "Shakespeare the Catholic"? There is evidence that he was Catholic, but I'd like to know your point of view just based on your reading of the plays... Rob

  3. Thanks for your comments! I'm sorry they took a while to be approved, I have just gone to comment moderation and I expected that Blogger would email me with comments submitted-- only saw them now.

    I have more to say about Shakespeare. As for his supposed Catholicism, I've always been rather unsure what to make of this. All I can make of it is that Shakespeare's plays seem to exhibit a balance, a realism and a joy in physical reality that many people associate with the Catholic worldview. But I could just be missing it. I don't even see a Christian worldview in his plays-- they seem cheerfully heathen to me.

  4. Yes, sorry about the approval thing. I'm not sure how to reply without being anonymous. I don't fit any of the profiles. I'll try a different profile this time. Maybe Name/URL. (I tried it--couldn't do it)

    "Cheerfully heathen" is certainly how many, many scholars (generally after 1960) view Shakespeare (WS). To me, this is hardly unusual. People tend to see a reflection of themselves when they look at the Bard. For example, I've never seen him as cheerfully heathen. It's hard to watch certain plays (Hamlet and Measure for Measure come to mind) and still view WS as comfortable with an amoral or hedonistic world view. His perspective is specifically Christian, which makes sense, given the central importance of religion 400 years ago. The only question for me is: Catholic or Protestant or (as some suggest) a hybrid.

    I agree with your view of Macbeth's nihilism--very consistent with Nietzsche or other atheistic existentialism. But Macbeth is not a hero in his play, as he would be if Nietzsche had written it, I suppose. He's a villain. Shakespeare seems to condemn his actions and his attitudes.

    This is not something a cheerful heathen would do, is it? I know that in his other works, WS does have his heathen moments, but if they are merely "moments" and not overall themes, perhaps they are consistent with a Catholic perspective.

    Rob Crisell