William Shakespeare: 400 Years of Life After Death

 

Billy

This morning, I admit, I feel more like Duke Senior than Hamlet. I enjoy my weekly ritual of yard work, the quiet, the smell of water on the garden soil. Like the Duke, I find “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything. / I would not change it.”

I’m glad the celebration in which I took part happened yesterday. I’m glad today––the actual day––is restful and contemplative.

As I read about the various celebrations happening throughout the world, I feel very connected. I see myself in others’ love for and dedication to the truly astonishing plays and poems of this un-universitied actor from Stratford on Avon.

I know the jealous and the ignorant have long thrown around words like “bardolotry,” but these people have not really looked at the work––not deeply. There is nothing in the world like the body of work written by William Shakespeare. I spend as much of my free time as possible reading poems, plays, and novels, and so I know excellent writing abounds. And I also know that one thing that ties so many of the great writers together is the way they often quote or talk about Shakespeare. He looms. Four hundred years after his death, he still looms.

Right now I am directing Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, and I have not been surprised to find a phrase here or a line there that is clearly influenced by Shakespeare. I see this often in English translations of ancient works. In this way, Shakespeare continues to improve stories that came before him. I can’t help but think he is somewhere smiling about that.

Waterford Final Scene of Reversed Roles Hamlet
Hamlet, 2012

Perhaps the most thrilling part of this celebration is to see the way Shakespeare is already alive in another generation. I love to see my children and my students fall in love with him as they play his characters. I love to see his words in their mouths like flames on their tongues. Though they do not yet fully comprehend the flame, the pleasurable burn of it will likely never be quelled.

Appropriately, this entire year has been set apart by Shakespeare lovers as a year of celebration. I will add my voice this fall with the first of three plays about Shakespeare, The King’s Men. (The other two are called Sycorax and Kempe.) The King’s Men will be my small offering, my mask on the Dionysian altar. THE KING'S MEN ANNOUNCE

Four hundred years ago today, the man who wrote the greatest meditation on death set out for that undiscovered country. The shakey signature on his will leads me to believe that he knew it was coming. I wonder: as he contemplated death, did he perhaps consider revising some of Hamlet’s words? Or did he think them through and decide they still rang true?

*

To be or not to be––that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep––
No more––and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to––’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep––
To sleep, perchance to dream. Aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the poor man’s contumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Southern Utah Yorick

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Non Sanz Droict

In celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday, the fine people at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have asked bloggers to write about how Shakespeare changed their lives.

Here it goes.

A few years ago I was asked to take part in a panel discussing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The panel consisted of two PhDs and myself (MFA in acting from The Old Globe). I was to be the creative voice in the discussion. Despite the fact that I had understudied one production of Midsummer and played Oberon in another, I allowed myself to get inordinately nervous about the whole thing. The other men were older; they were professors; they had written books. I was in my early thirties; I acted in and directed Shakespeare’s plays. I knew I was qualified to be there, but my guts teemed with insecurity.

Everything was fine, of course. The conversation was easy and enlightening. But about halfway in, something extraordinary happened. One of the men made a tangential comment about the unsatisfactory forgiveness scene in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. It was just a quip. If I hadn’t been paying close attention, I might have missed it. But I did hear it, and it led to an epiphany: I had an insight into Shakespeare’s plays that this man might never have. As an actor, I understood the final scene of Two Gents because I had played Valentine. I knew why and how Valentine forgives Proteus because it was my job to do it. Each night, during the run of the show, I had to stand there, raw, under the weight of the violence he attempted to inflict upon Sylvia and the betrayal he had enacted upon me. And then I had to forgive him. Which meant I had to create a character capable of that forgiveness. Each night, in the midst of all that hurt, I had to say the words “Then I am paid.” Each night, I had the privilege of feeling the way mercy bursts forth and flows when the stakes are that high. I had never delivered a paper on Valentine. But I had been Valentine.

Of course, I didn’t say any of this. But my contribution to the discussion became more robust as the obvious came into sharp focus: when discussing art, the artist’s perspective is particularly valuable. This was the moment I realized I did not need the permission of the academic and/or critical worlds to discuss––indeed, to do––my work. I say realized, but I mean finally felt, finally understood, finally believed.

Academia is appendant to the the art world at best. It’s not the other way around, as so many aspiring artists learn while in college. I realize this might sound obvious, and, yes, we all know it intellectually. But most young artists receive their first training in a hyper-critical, overly-academic world. It’s like having the grotesque beast-child of Harold Bloom, Kenneth Tynan, and that freshman film major that thinks he knows everything about every piece of art ever created constantly breathing down your neck. You might be surprised by how many young playwrights reflexively refer to Aristotle, only to produce yet another mediocre play. But while Aristotle is available as an occasional prescription, Shakespeare is ever-present as structural scripture. Prescriptions are set; scripture can be interpreted in many ways.

I changed my approach. I no longer wasted time reading every scholar’s point of view on a forthcoming character or play. I knew how to create a character. I knew how to direct a play. It turned out I was the expert––the artist, who actually acts, who actually directs, who actually creates. The characters got better. The plays got better.

I even changed the way I used director’s notes. I only wrote them if I felt they were actually useful to the audience. Other than that, I simply found poems that helped set a particular tone. Here’s an example from a recent production of Pericles:

No one believes in the calm
of the North Wind after a time
of rage and depression.
No one believes the sea cares nothing
for the shore or that
the long black volcanic reefs
that rise and fall from sight
each day are the hands
of some forgotten creature
trying to touch the unknowable
heart of water.

––Philip Levine

This fragment of poetry came to mind after repeatedly hearing Marina deliver her lovely line, “When I was born, the wind was north.”

Around this same time, I had been thinking about the inscription on Shakespeare’s coat of arms: Non Sanz Droict. Not Without Right. It seemed so insipid for the world’s greatest writer. I knew the history, and perhaps why Shakespeare wanted to use it, but becoming a gentleman certainly wasn’t novel within his circle of friends. Was it a request from his father? I didn’t know, but it just didn’t sit right. I almost fell in with those who believe he abandoned it at the outset. But then there was that pesky joke in Ben Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour. I found it unlikely that even a man with an ego the size of Jonson’s would use a joke that the vast majority of the audience wouldn’t get. I believed Shakespeare must have used the inscription, at least for a time. But why?

Then it occurred to me that the direct translation we have all learned was probably not the actual sentiment of the phrase. I did some searching and quickly found that others felt the same. Of all the similar suggestions out there, this one stood out: Of My Own Merit. This was the William Shakespeare I had come to know: the man who did not need the safe harbor of the “university wits,” and so quickly abandoned their style; the man who constantly defied the rules of dramatic structure, and so let loose the greatest plays in history; the romantic among classicists; the writer and speaker of that gutsy alternate epilogue in Henry IV, Part II; the man who knew he needed nobody’s permission to do his work.

Non Sanz Droict became my motto, my slogan, my mission statement, my credo. That’s one way Shakespeare changed my life.

“Shakespeare Was Shakespeare” or “Edward de Vere Wrote This Blog Post More Than 400 Years Ago”

William Shakespeare, The Cobbe Portrait

The movie Anonymous will be released tomorrow. Apparently it has been pulled from its original wide release, and will now only show in two hundred and fifty theaters. The official reason goes something like this: people don’t seem to know what the movie is about, and so interest is low. (This might have something to do with the title.) Also, early audience surveys suggest most people simply don’t care.

But I care. The movie is Shakespeare related, and so I’m part of the conversation. I act in Shakespeare’s plays. I direct his plays. I teach a class on Shakespeare. Every year I set aside the month of June to read nothing but books about Shakespeare. Shakespeare is one of my life’s passions.

Now in case you don’t know, Anonymous is a rehash of the old conspiracy theory that claims Edward de Vere was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. The contention is that a country bumpkin like Will Shakespeare could not possibly have written works of such towering genius. The works must have come from a university educated, well traveled aristocrat. Enter Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford––the most popular candidate among conspiracy theorists these days. (In reality, he is just one of seventy seven other candidates suggested since Delia Bacon first questioned the authorship in the late 1840s––230 years after Shakespeare’s death.)

At this point I’d like to make it clear that I am not afraid of people seeing Anonymous. In fact, I encourage it. I think it will be good for people to see first hand just how absurd the conspiracy theory is. Rather than convert anyone to the Oxfordian cause, I’m confident it will lead many Oxfordians to the light.

Now where was I? Ah yes: Though Edward de Vere was suggested as a candidate by Delia Bacon, it wasn’t until 1920, when J. Thomas Looney published his book Shakespeare Identified, that he began to take his place as the poster boy of the authorship question. And, yes, you read that right: Looney. Other defenders of the conspirator’s faith include George M. Battey and Sherwood E. Silliman. So for those of you keeping score, that’s Looney, Battey, and Silliman. What does this prove? Nothing really––except maybe that God believes Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

Like all the others, the Edward de Vere theory is dead on arrival. Edward de Vere died in 1604. That’s close to a decade before Shakespeare stopped writing. Macbeth, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and several other Shakespeare plays were written after 1604. I have listened to more than one de Vere supporter say with a straight face that de Vere planned it that way. He had all these plays sitting around and had his co-conspirators release them over a given number of years.  And he was such a genius that he referenced events that happened after his death. Not only did he know the gunpowder plot was going to happen, but he also knew the gunpowder plot conspirators would be labeled “equivocators.” Genius indeed.

Another immediate problem for de Vere supporters is that Edward de Vere wrote plays and poems to which he signed his name. There goes the idea that he couldn’t let people know he was a playwright. None of the plays survive, but we know they were comedies. So, apparently, he wasn’t worried about people thinking he wasn’t a serious aristocrat. De Vere supporters then claim that the “Shakespeare” plays were too politically controversial for de Vere to be identified with. Really? Then why wasn’t Shakespeare arrested and beaten on a weekly basis?

De Vere’s poems, on the other hand, do survive. Unfortunately for de Vere supporters, they are nothing but uninspired drivel. This is not just my opinion. Everyone seems to agree––even the conspiracy theorists. They explain this by saying that the poems are the product of his youth. But we know some of them were written when he was about forty years old. When Shakespeare was forty he had already written Hamlet.

You can read a few of Edward de Vere’s poems here. You can find Shakespeare’s poems and sonnets all over the internet. Here’s one. Read some de Vere. Then read some Shakespeare. You’ll feel embarrassed for de Vere. It’s like reading a Hallmark card poem, and then reading, well, Shakespeare.

The conspiracy just gets more and more absurd. And the movie is, apparently, quite unashamed of this. Edward is shown to be the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth, but they (mother and son) have sex, and Elizabeth gives birth to Southampton. I’ll stop there, but it gets even dumber than that. I have read a couple of de Vere supporters lament that the movie delves into this part of the theory. They wish it would have simply focused on “Shakespeare” being a pen name for de Vere. What they don’t understand is that these ridiculous fantasies are the direct result of that simple idea. Because when the pen name idea is confronted with very basic facts, the conspiracy theory must then spin into further absurdities to cover its baseless bases. This is how all conspiracy theories work.

I want to backtrack a moment and address the idea that Shakespeare’s plays were politically controversial. In the movie, the de Vere character says: “All art is political, otherwise it would just be decoration. And all artists have something to say, otherwise they’d make shoes.” This is not just a gross misunderstanding of Shakespeare’s genius, it is a gross misunderstanding of art and the artistic process. Consider the words of the poet John Keats:

“…at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

Negative Capability. The ultimate achievement of vulnerability, allowing the artist to surrender prejudices, and therefore disappear from, or get out of the way of, a work of art. Keats says Shakespeare possessed this quality enormously. I would say no other artist has possessed as much of it. Ironic, then, that the writer of Anonymous creates a de Vere character that holds the exact opposite view of art. Of course he does. The uninspired mind always believes the message is paramount in art, because the uninspired mind can’t conceive of an experience beyond the message. Messages in art are usually reductive and insipid, and Shakespeare had little use for them.

Don’t believe me? What’s the message of Hamlet? Or King Lear? Or A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Don’t know? Don’t worry. Nobody knows. Not one single person. But, you ask, what about all the books and theses and essays on subversive this-and-thats in such-and-such-a-Shakespeare-play? Every claim about the social, political, religious, or sexual perspective of William Shakespeare derived from his plays or poems can be countered with the opposite view also derived from the plays or poems. As soon as you think he sides with Catholics, he lampoons them, but as soon as you think he’s a Protestant, he skewers them. Well then, he must be an atheist. Not so fast: God is now central to the resolution of the play.

Look at Henry V, for example. Was it written in subversion of the war in Ireland, or does it celebrate England’s God-endorsed military might? It seems capable of doing both quite beautifully. But if it is essentially celebratory, does that mean Shakespeare supported Elizabeth or Essex? If it means he supported Essex, did he disapprove of Elizabeth, or did he just support England? (When he performed Richard II at the behest of Essex––and, by the way, the movie changes this to Richard III––did that mean he supported the attempted coup, or was it just because he had no choice in the matter?) But if Henry V was essentially subversive, does that mean Shakespeare was against Elizabeth, or Essex, or England, or just war? And on and on it goes. There is simply no answer. Henry V reveals nothing about Shakespeare’s personal convictions about the war in Ireland or even war in general. Because Shakespeare gets out of the way, you can take from the play what you will. That’s what great artists do.

I do not mean to suggest that Shakespeare wasn’t interested in politics or current events. On the contrary, I think he was immensely interested in them. Many of plays contain clear references to current events. But he was no miserable writer of political tracts pretending to be art. He did not package nice little messages for us. Shakespeare was writing for our guts and our souls. If that’s just decoration, then give me decoration any day.

One last question for de Vere supporters: why? In a time when the majority of published plays were published without the playwright’s name, why on earth would you bother to attach another’s name to your work? If the secret was so important, wouldn’t the chances of discovery go up exponentially by letting another (or others) in on it? Of course they would. If the genius behind the works of Shakespeare wanted to keep his identity a secret, he would have simply kept his name off the plays. He would have left them––say it with me––anonymous.

If you want to read a conclusive dismantling of Shakespearean authorship conspiracies, I highly recommend Shapiro’s Contested Will. Not only does it give you the history of various theories, but also it seeks to understand the psychology behind such theories. Other great resources are shakespeareauthorship.com and 60-minutes.bloggingshakespeare.com.

In the end, all conspiracy theories are born out of fear. The Shakespeare authorship conspiracy theories are no different. For what structure and safety can there be in a world where the man who wrote Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Measure for Measure and Twelfth Night came from the country, was not university educated, and was concerned with money and social status? Shakespeare refuses to conform to our ideals. True, his grammar school experience was probably better than yours and mine when it comes to the use of words, but that doesn’t account for what he accomplished. The simple fact is he was a true genius. He had an astonishing gift. He was––and, at this point in history, still is––the best. Apparently nothing is more unforgivable than that.

So for the anti-Shakespearians out there, let me sum up:

Shakespeare was Shakespeare. He came from a small town in Warwickshire, called Stratford upon Avon. His father, a glover by trade, was the high bailiff (mayor) of Stratford. Shakespeare never went to college. He got a girl pregnant when he was still a teenager. They got married, had two more kids, and then Shakespeare went to London. He was an actor, a playwright, and a poet. He seems to have been the first person to realize that Aristotle was not a playwright, and therefore his observations on dramatic structure were not sacred––or even necessary. If you tried to take his theatre, he’d take up arms against you. He was a savvy businessman, and he made a lot of money in his adult life. He’d loan you money and collect interest on it. If you didn’t pay, he’d take you to court. He was a celebrity in his own time. He was better than any writer you’ve ever read. Deal with it.

***

Update (July 2013): I recently read the new collection of essays Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells. The essays address the authorship issue from several different angles, including collaboration, stylometrics, Elizabethan grammar school, the Elizo-Jacobean theater scene, and many others. I recommend it. It’s well worth the read.