MV Dialog

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.358  Thursday, 27 October 2016


From:        William Blanton <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         October 24, 2016 at 1:34:28 PM EDT

Subject:    MV Dialog


Bassanio as Essex [cont. 3]


8. Bassanio/Essex connects to Alcides/Hercules




PORTIA: Now he goes

With no lesse presence, but with much more love

Then yong Alcides, when he did redeeme

The virgine tribute, paid by howling Troy

To the Sea-monster: I stand for sacrifice,

The rest aloofe are the Dardanian wives:

With bleared visages come forth to view

The issue of h’exploit: Goe Hercules,

Live thou, I live with much more dismay

I view the fight, then thou that mak’st the fray.



Jew: If I can catch him once upon the hip



Gratiano: … Now, infidel, I have you on the hip.





Hesione was a princess of Troy, daughter of King Laomedon. One of Laomedon’s uncles was Ganymede, whom Zeus abducted and took to Mount Olympus to be the cupbearer of the gods. Ganymede was a very lovely youth, and Zeus made him his lover. (Ganymede appears as a character at the beginning of Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage.) As recompense for the abduction of Ganymede, Zeus gave his father some special horses, which Laomedon inherited.


When Laomedon began building the walls of Troy, Apollo and Neptune saw that the work was not going well. They assumed the shapes of mortals and arranged with Laomedon to build the walls in exchange for gold. After they had built the walls Laomedon refused to pay.


Neptune punished Laomedon by flooding the entire area around Troy. In addition, he required that Laomedon sacrifice Hesione to a sea monster. Laomedon then bound Hesione to some rocks in the waters and awaited the sea monster.


Hercules came along and saw Hesione’s predicament. He offered to free her in exchange for the special horses. Laomedon agreed, but refused to pay up.


Hercules attacked Troy and killed Laomedon and almost all of his sons. However, Hercules let Hesione ransom one of her brothers and then gave her to Telamon. That brother was Priam, who married Hecuba. The two of them had a son named Paris, who absconded with Helen and caused the Trojan War.




Shakespeare had fun comparing Bassanio/Essex with Hercules. To most people, such a comparison would be a compliment. To the educated elite in the Essex/Southampton crowd, however, the comparison would have had two edges. While Hercules was a great hero, he had a number of faults, which the friends of Essex would have delighted in associating with him. 


The symbol for Hercules was a wooden club. In most of his exploits, Hercules resorted to physical violence — much like the man whose only tool is a hammer [club] sees all his problems as nails. Essex was proud of his physical prowess and his ability as a leader of soldiers. He was constantly advocating for war, primarily with Spain. The Cecils, on the other hand, opposed full-scale war with Spain.


Hercules was the son of Zeus and Alcmena — a mortal woman — both of whom were married to others: Alcmena to Amphitryon; Zeus to Hera. When Hera found out, she developed a hatred for Hercules and decided to persecute him throughout his life, beginning in early childhood. Hera placed two poisonous snakes in his crib, but he killed both of them.


Elizabeth hated Lettice Knollys, mother of Essex. She was a grandniece of Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, and had known Elizabeth since childhood. After Lettice’s husband Walter died, Elizabeth refused to excuse a £10,000 debt (which Walter had incurred in connection with his military mission to Ireland), leaving Lettice and her family in dire straits.


Elizabeth was very close to Robert Duncan, Earl of Leicester. Leicester began an affair with Lettice while she was still married to Walter, much like Zeus had sort of an affair with Alcmena. 


Leicester later married Lettice without Elizabeth’s knowledge and to her great exasperation. Leicester became stepfather to Essex — sort of like Zeus fathered Hercules — and introduced Essex to Elizabeth’s court.


Although Essex became Elizabeth’s favorite after Leicester died, she always kept Essex on a tight leash, knowing that he was totally dependent on her for financial support. She would occasionally do things that humiliated Essex, not quite driving him mad but at least driving him away from court to sulk for a time in private.


After the abortive Essex Rebellion, she had him beheaded, somewhat like Deianira killed Hercules with The Shirt of Nessus.


As a Roman hero, Hercules was quite virile. A certain King Thespius wanted Hercules to impregnate each of his 50 daughters, and Hercules obliged. The 51 sons that resulted colonized Sardinia. 


Essex, too, was virile, cutting a wide swath through Elizabeth’s Ladies-in-Waiting.


As a Greek hero, Hercules (Alcides) was also a pederast. He took his boy Hylas along with him on the voyage with Jason. The Argonauts stopped at the port of Kios. Hylas went off with a pitcher to find a sacred stream so that he could get the right water for Hercules. A water-nymph fell in love with him at first sight and dragged him into the stream. Hercules was distraught, and let the rest of the Argonauts continue the quest while he remained behind to search for Hylas.


Essex, too, had a gay side.


Hera caused Hercules to go mad and to kill his family. As punishment, Hercules had to serve King Eurystheus for twelve years, and to perform twelve labors, some of which were: 


Kill the Hydra, which eventually resulted in the Shirt of Nessus.


The Hind of Ceryneia. This was a female deer with hoofs of bronze and horns of gold. (The Golden Hind was the name of Drake’s ship.) This hind was sacred to Diana (Elizabeth).


The Erymanthean Boar. On the hunt for the Boar, Hercules shot Chiron (the centaur who raised Jason) with an arrow dipped in the blood of the Hydra. (Chiron gave his immortality to Prometheus.)


In various of his Labors, Hercules won a number of wrestling matches, with gods, men, and dangerous creatures. This reference probably applies more to Shylock/Jacob than it does to Bassanio/Essex.


The Duke of Alençon — whom Elizabeth almost married — was originally christened Hercules. However, he was so short and puny that the name became an embarrassment and was changed to Francis. This may have nothing to do with Bassanio/Essex; however, I figure that if I have made such an association with Hercules at this remove in time, then Shakespeare would certainly have been aware of it.


BASSANIO: How many cowards, whose hearts are all as false

As stayers of sand, weare yet upon their chins

The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars,

Who inward search, have lyvers white as milk,

And these assume but valors excrement,

To render them redoubted.





Like Bassanio, Essex was contemptuous of those courtiers who were not real soldiers, which he considered himself to be.







Marlowe and Shakespeare 2

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.357  Thursday, 27 October 2016


From:        Michael Luskin <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         October 25, 2016 at 11:36:13 AM EDT

Subject:    Marlowe and Shakespeare 2


New Oxford Shakespeare Edition Credits Christopher Marlowe as a Co-author

By Christopher D. Shea 

Oct. 24, 2016


LONDON — Shakespeare may have had a little more help than previously suspected.


The New Oxford Shakespeare edition of the playwright’s works — which will be published by Oxford University Press online ahead of a worldwide print release — lists Christopher Marlowe as Shakespeare’s co-author on the three “Henry VI” plays, parts 1, 2 and 3.


It’s the first time that a major edition of Shakespeare’s works has listed Shakespeare’s colleague and rival as a co-author on these works, the volume’s general editor, Gary Taylor, said in a phone interview.

“No one has had the confidence to put the name actually on the title page,” Mr. Taylor said. “Which is perfectly reasonable because the only reason that we can do it now is because Shakespeare has entered the world of big data.”


The “Henry VI” plays have long been believed to be the work of more than one author. Names floated by scholars in addition to Marlowe’s include Robert Greene and George Peele.


Speculation on whether Marlowe collaborated on the plays stretches back to the 18th century. About two dozen scholars contributed research for the new volume. They used the latest tools in text analysis to investigate the works.


For the New Oxford Shakespeare scholars ran tests to determine whether authors like Marlowe could be reliably identified by the ways they used language — like frequent use of certain articles, and certain words commonly occurring in a row, or being close to each other in the text. Once this was determined, researchers applied these patterns back to texts, to see if they suggested an author other than Shakespeare. If results came out positive, further tests were run.


Mr. Taylor said that the exact nature of the playwrights’ collaboration cannot be certain, but that they did not necessarily work together in person. Scriptwriting at Shakespeare’s time was often structured similarly to how movie writing happens now: One author would earn an advance for writing a plot outline, and theaters would hire other authors to write other scenes, according to their strengths.


It’s possible that this is how the “Henry” plays were written, Mr. Taylor said, noting that some playwrights also collaborated by hashing through ideas in pubs.


Marlowe appears to have written most of “Henry VI, Part 1,” while Shakespeare wrote the largest share of Part 3. Lead authorship on Part 2 is harder to identify.


Oxford University Press is known for bold interpretations of Shakespeare and authorship. In 2005 it attributed two plays with disputed authorship — “The Reign of Edward III” and “Sir Thomas More” — to Shakespeare. The New Oxford Shakespeare edition attributes “Arden of Faversham,” which also has a disputed source, to the playwright and a co-author.


“We don’t expect that this will be the end of the conversation,” Mr. Taylor said of the findings being published in the new edition. “If we ever stop arguing about Shakespeare, then Shakespeare will be dead.




Marlowe and Shakespeare 1

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.356  Thursday, 27 October 2016


From:        Bo Bergstrom <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         October 23, 2016 at 5:56:52 PM EDT

Subject:    Marlowe and Shakespeare


Christopher Marlowe credited as one of Shakespeare's co-writers

Dramatists to appear jointly on title pages of Henry VI, Parts One, Two and Three in the New Oxford Shakespeare after analysis by team of 23 academics


The long-held suggestion that Christopher Marlowe was William Shakespeare is now widely dismissed, along with other authorship theories. But Marlowe is enjoying the next best thing – taking centre stage alongside his great Elizabethan rival with a credit as co-writer of the three Henry VI plays.


The two dramatists will appear jointly on each of the three title pages of the plays within the New Oxford Shakespeare, a landmark project to be published by Oxford University Press this month.


Using old-fashioned scholarship and 21st-century computerised tools to analyse texts, the edition’s international scholars have contended that Shakespeare’s collaboration with other playwrights was far more extensive than has been realised until now.


Henry VI, Parts One, Two and Three are among as many as 17 plays that they now believe contain writing by other people, sometimes several hands. It more than doubles the figure in the previous Oxford Shakespeare, published 30 years ago.


Marlowe’s hand in parts of the Henry VI plays has been suspected since the 18th century but this marks the first prominent billing in an edition of Shakespeare’s collected works.


A team of 23 academics from five countries completed the research, headed by four professors as general editors: Gary Taylor (Florida State University, US) John Jowett (Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham), Terri Bourus (Indiana University, Indianapolis, US) and Gabriel Egan (De Montfort University, Leicester).


Publication of the New Oxford Shakespeare’s four volumes, as well as a digital edition, is staggered between 27 October and December. It includes the complete works in both original and modern spelling and punctuation, explanatory notes and essays and an authorship companion, with research in attribution studies.


Among texts that have never before been in a complete works of the Bard is Arden of Faversham, which was anonymously published in 1592. Now it is jointly credited to anonymous and Shakespeare.


Taylor said: “People for centuries have argued about whether Shakespeare is in some way connected to that play. We’re identifying it as an early collaborative play of Shakespeare’s. We’re identifying him in several of the middle scenes. There is very strong, compelling evidence. We have provided a lot of new evidence.”


They are yet to identify the other author, but have ruled out previously suggested candidates such as Marlowe and Thomas Kyd.


The difficulty is that the majority of plays written in the 1570s and 1580s have not survived and are known only from their titles. Much of what does survive is anonymous.


Expanding the Shakespeare canon, the new study marks the first time that a complete works has included additions to Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, identifying Shakespeare as the author of the painter’s scene.


Decisions have been swayed by a complex jigsaw of different kinds of evidence. The researchers believe that computerised textual analysis is now so sophisticated that they can even distinguish between Shakespeare writing under Marlowe’s influence and Marlowe writing alone.


One piece of evidence identified five “Shakespeare-plus words”: gentle, answer, beseech, spoke, tonight. Taylor explained: “What we mean by Shakespeare-plus is that we’ve looked at the frequency of certain words which might seem commonplace like ‘tonight’ in all the plays of that early period, say up to 1600. Anybody could use any of these words. They’re not words that Shakespeare invented. But we can say Shakespeare used ‘tonight’ much more often than other playwrights in those 20 years.


“Shakespeare-minus words … are much less likely to appear in a Shakespeare play. So, this is a statistical argument … not simply statistics about individual words, but combinations of individual words. With Marlowe, for example, combinations of words such as ‘glory droopeth’ appear to be unique to him in that period.


“Recent studies by specialists already agree that Shakespeare did not write the passage where Joan of Arc pleads for help from demonic spirits and then is captured by the English [Part One, 5.3, 5.4]. We have added new evidence from ‘unique n-grams’: that is, phrases that occur in the passage being tested. Marlowe’s works contain many more such parallels than any other playwright,” Taylor added.


Other words and phrases identified as commonly occurring in Marlowe works include “familiar spirit, cull out, regions under earth, oh hold me, to your wonted, see, forsake me, droopeth to, curse, miscreant, ugly, change, shape thou, change my shape, suddenly surprise, your dainty, fell and enchantress”.


Taylor acknowledges that doubts may be cast on their conclusions: “You can’t say anything about Shakespeare without somebody disagreeing with you … But our knowledge of the past increases by debate of this kind.”


Marlowe’s life of myth and mystery

The life of Christopher Marlowe has long been pored over for evidence that he wrote a handful of William Shakepeare’s works. The scholar JB Steane said in 1969 there were so many rumours it would be absurd to dismiss them all as part of the “Marlowe Myth”.


Few undisputed facts exist about the playwright’s life, but he was baptised in Canterbury on 26 February 1564. The son of a shoemaker, Marlowe attended the King’s school in Canterbury before being awarded a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he received his BA degree in 1584.


Marlowe took lengthy absences and the university was about to refuse him a master’s degree when, in 1587, the Privy Council wrote to compliment his “good service” to the Queen on “matters touching the benefit of his country”. The letter prompted the theory that he had been a secret agent for Elizabeth I’s “spymaster”, Sir Francis Walsingham.


His plays were wildly popular for the brief period that he was on the Elizabethan literary scene. Dido, Queen of Carthage is thought to have been his first. Tamburlaine the Great, among the first English plays in blank verse, was written around 1587; the Jew of Malta, is thought to have been written around 1589, and Doctor Faustus was first performed between 1588 and 1593.


His death in Deptford in May 1593, aged 29, has provoked years of speculation, from the Queen ordering his assassination because of his atheism, to his being killed by a love rival.


In 1925, the scholar Leslie Hotson published the coroner’s report in his book The Death of Christopher Marlowe. Witnesses testified that he was stabbed in the eye during a fight over payment of a bill and died instantly. The document did not end speculation, with some supporting the theory that Marlowe faked his death and continued to write as Shakespeare.


Frances Perraudin




Why Rewrite Shakespeare?

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.355  Thursday, 27 October 2016


From:        Bo Bergstrom <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         October 21, 2016 at 7:18:42 PM EDT

Subject:    Why Rewrite Shakespeare?



October 17, 2016 Issue 


Why Rewrite Shakespeare?

When psychological novelists adapt the Bard’s plays, they impose a value system that he didn’t share.

By Adam Gopnik


The revived Hogarth Press, in London, with ambition and audacity and what must also be a very large fund for advances, has commissioned a series of novels by famous novelists that retell tales from Shakespeare. The novelists include Howard Jacobson, who has done “The Merchant of Venice” (as “Shylock Is My Name”); Anne Tyler, who’s done “The Taming of the Shrew” (as “Vinegar Girl”); and now Margaret Atwood, doing “The Tempest” (as “Hag-Seed”). Retelling Shakespeare’s stories, albeit in honor of the four-hundredth anniversary of his death, seems an odd enterprise at first, given that Shakespeare grabbed his stories more or less at random from Holinshed’s history of Britain and Plutarch and old collections of Italian ribald tales. As the “ordinary poet” of a working company of players, he sought plots under deadline pressure rather than after some long, deliberate meditation on how to turn fiction into drama. “What have you got for us this month, Will?” the players asked him, and, thinking quickly, he’d say, “I thought I’d do something with the weird Italian story I mentioned, the one with the Jew and the contest.” “Italy again? All right. End of the month then?” These were not the slow-cooked stories and intricately intertextual fables of the modern art novel.


One thing Shakespeare certainly never did is what all the novelists adapting him for Hogarth must have done, and that is worry at length about whether or not it would be an interesting artistic challenge to adapt a classic. Homer, Plutarch, Holinshed, Menander—Shakespeare just did them and dropped them. (Though, like the novelists, he was surely glad to get paid once he had got it done.) And then the story content of a Shakespeare play is the least content it has. Saluting Shakespeare with new versions of his stories is a bit like saluting Mozart by commissioning Philip Glass to write a new opera to the plot of “Così Fan Tutte,” with its disguised Albanians and absurd coincidences. Shakespeare’s music counts for far more than his material. Adaptations of Shakespeare, from “West Side Story” to “The Boys from Syracuse,” have flourished from time to time, but it is notable that the early, more strongly plotted plays are remade most persuasively: the musical adaptation of “Othello” (which starred, of all people, Jerry Lee Lewis) remains a memorable oddity. “The Tempest” has been retold many times, from science fiction (“Forbidden Planet”) to dense philosophical poetry (Auden’s “The Sea and the Mirror”), but the retellings all tend to force one back to the original.


Most of the authors in the Hogarth series, to their credit, aren’t so much “reimagining” the stories as reacting to the plays. They’ve taken on not the tale itself but the twists in the tale that produced the Shakespearean themes we still debate: anti-Semitism in “Merchant of Venice,” the subjugation of women in “The Taming of the Shrew,” art and isolation in “The Tempest.” Each of the novels gives us a revisionist account of the central Shakespearean subject, and asks us to think anew about that subject more than about the story that superintends it.


Howard Jacobson, who is famous as a sort of English Philip Roth (though often making one more grateful than ever for the American one), was a natural for Shylock. His version of “Merchant” has a plotline so complicated, so overpopulated with players and ideas and unrelated riffs, that I will confess I had to go back and reread it before I could make sense of it. We meet both a contemporary British Shylock, an art collector named Simon Strulovitch, and the original Shylock, teleported forward to our time, into whose monologues we peer, and with whom Strulovitch has intense exchanges about money-lending, circumcision, and Jewishness generally. The dramatis personae, augmented by these twin Shylocks, include an English professional footballer who has disgraced himself, as some French footballers have done in life, by offering the “quenelle,” the ambiguously inverted Nazi salute. The central action turns on the footballer’s proposal to Strulovitch’s daughter, and on Strulovitch’s insistence, as a conscious parody of the demand of Shakespeare’s Shylock for a pound of flesh from Antonio, that the Gentile athlete be circumcised. There is a large cast of secondary, mostly Jewish-British characters, including an irresistible Nigella Lawson-like figure named, in a Joycean sideswipe, Anna Livia Plurabelle.

Jacobson has an unmatched reputation in his homeland as a humorist, but not all of it translates for an American reader, since the jokes seem to depend more on extreme aggravation of tone than on close observation of life. Everything in Jacobson sounds as if it should be read out loud by Alan Rickman, as when Strulovitch speaks to Shylock about his daughter’s suitor:

Here I’ve been steeling myself against the next over-principled, money-hating, ISIS-backing Judaeophobe with an MA in fine art she’s going to bring back from college and she hits on someone who’s probably never opened a book and certainly never heard of Noam Chomsky—a hyper possessive uneducated uber-goy from around the corner. I’ve no idea how or where she met him. At a wrestling match, is my guess, or at the dodgems. . . . If I hadn’t frightened her off Jewish boys by telling her she had to find one she might have met a nice quiet embroiderer of skullcaps.


At one point, Jacobson uses the word “sarcastic” to describe a speaker’s tone, and he is often sarcastic, instead of, in Roth’s American way, mordantly ironic; his tone can become tetchy and irritable as a result. Irritability is an odd trait for literature, but it seems a dominant one in contemporary English fiction, at least that written by men. We even have, in Glen Duncan’s “Bloodlines” trilogy, an irritable werewolf.


The best things in the book are often the most discursive, the philosophical-historical exchanges between Strulovitch and Shylock. Shylock has a wonderful riff, concerning Strulovitch’s art dealing, about why words are, for Jews, always more fundamental than images: “God had spoken the world into existence—Let it be—he had not painted it. Had God been a painter the world would have been other than it is. Better or worse? Well, less disputatious and declamatory, which might not have suited Shylock.” (A reader may have the satisfying suspicion that Jacobson, like a few other contemporary novelists, would actually rather be a magazine writer, since the riffs are usually more compelling than the relationships.)


Much of “Shylock Is My Name” is, indeed, taken up with set-piece discourses on the perils and pleasures of being an English Jew; though the book takes us in the end to Venice, most of it is set in Manchester. These things are ordered differently in England, one sees. American Jewish writers once faced the double comedy of being outsiders to Gentile culture writ large and outsiders to English literature specifically, thus producing the kind of pathos that the critic Lionel Trilling felt so keenly in his life, trying to be a gentleman devoted to Matthew Arnold as a moral tutor while living a mixed-up Jewish life on the Upper West Side. British Jews, one feels, reading Jacobson, have long been more at home with the language of Shakespeare and more uneasy as patriots and citizens. A British Jew couldn’t begin a book, Augie March style, with “I am an Englishman, Manchester born.” They seem to enter Shakespeare with ease but English football with difficulty, where American Jews enter the ballpark nonchalantly, Shakespeare aspirationally.


Though the apparatus of Jacobson’s novel can be exhausting, several lovely turns and switcheroos lead us to a genuinely touching scene in which the original Shylock returns to Venice and paraphrases Portia’s great speech on mercy (rachmones, in Yiddish), reclaiming it as a Jewish invention:


No man can love as God loves, and it is profane of any man to try. But you can act in the spirit of God’s love, show charity, give though it is gall and wormwood to you to give, spare the undeserving, love those that do not love you—for where is the virtue merely in returning love?—give to those who would take from you and where they have taken do not recompense them in kind, for the greater the offence the greater the merit in refusing to be offended. Who shows rachmones does not diminish justice. Who shows rachmones acknowledges the just but exacting law under which we were created.


Shakespeare’s anti-Semitism, Jacobson insists, is simply a category error; the morality in his play derives from his villain’s religion. With mercy and charity claimed as Jewish specificities, the sarcasms of the book at last rise and resolve into something like poetry.


Anne Tyler’s take on “The Taming of the Shrew” is, predictably, winsome, straightforward, and smart. Instead of making her Kate into, say, a caricature feminist professor, as might have seemed tempting, Tyler seizes on a less obvious but essential part of Kate’s psychology—her social awkwardness and her complicated relationship with Bianca, here represented as a sexy younger sister called Bunny. It is the fate of Tyler’s Kate not to be tamed, certainly, but to be socialized—in this case, by a still more socially awkward Russian-émigré biologist named Pyotr. From Shakespeare’s fable, Tyler has gracefully distilled a congruent but very different one—not one in which Kate needs to be “tamed” by a masterful man but one where she becomes more herself by being made to engage with someone as odd as she is.


The tone is Austen-Trollope, light and stinging and socially secure. The characters are assumed to be doing something important, even if they do it comically: Kate’s father, Dr. Battista, who urges Pyotr on her in order to keep him in his lab, is a bit of a clown, but also an important immune biologist. Searching for the equivalent of an arranged marriage in our romantic day, Tyler ingeniously has found the one situation in which arranged marriages are acceptable in American life—in order to get a green card for a deserving alien.


Tyler’s quiet and quirky comic gift is on display throughout the book. The scenes in the kindergarten where Kate works have a delightful, slightly Salingeresque tang, and the wedding—taking place shortly after experimental mice in the laboratory Pyotr shares with Dr. Battista have been kidnapped—is a lovely scene in a Laura Linney comedy:


Pyotr was walking him towards the front of the chapel now, his hand still resting on Dr. Battista’s shoulder. “I wake up early,” he said. “I think I will go to lab early so I am in time for wedding. I get to door; is locked the same as always. I punch combination. I go inside. I go to mouse room.”


They slowed to a stop a few feet from the altar. Uncle Theron and Kate and Bunny stayed where they were, watching. Then Pyotr turned to look back at Kate. “Where are you?” he asked her.




“Come on! We get married.”


“Oh, well,” Dr. Battista said, “I don’t know if that’s really. . . . I think I’d just like to get on down to the lab now, Pyoder, even if—”


But Kate said, “Wait til we say our vows, Father. You can check the lab afterward.”


Just as Jacobson takes Portia’s famous mercy speech and paraphrases it for modernity, Tyler, as the arranged marriage becomes a love match, takes Kate’s notoriously servile final speech on men (is there something in the Hogarth contract that says you have to rewrite the big speech?) and re-orchestrates it to become at once a feminist statement, a love letter, and a musing on the perils of modern masculinity:


It’s hard being a man. Have you ever thought about that? Anything that’s bothering them, men think they have to hide it. . . . They’re a whole lot less free than women are, when you think about it. Women have been studying people’s feelings since they were toddlers; they’ve been perfecting their radar—their intuition or their empathy or their interpersonal whatchamacallit. It’s like men and women are in two different countries! I’m not “backing down,” as you call it; I’m letting him into my country. I’m giving him space in a place where we can both be ourselves.


For Tyler, the very idea of the taming of the shrew is obviously defunct. But the shaming of the true—our struggle with the truth that only authentically facing another can enable any of us to be ourselves—continues.


In contrast to the elaborate po-mo agonies of Jacobson and the neat undermining charm of Tyler, Margaret Atwood’s “Hag-Seed” lays out a satiric account of contemporary plays and players. Setting her tempest within a production of “The Tempest,” she brings us to what any Canadian reader will recognize as the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where an artistic director is elbowed aside by his aide—Stratford can be a bloody place—just as he is about to mount a full-court-press “modernized” production. (“His Ariel, he’d decided, would be played by a transvestite on stilts who’d transform into a giant firefly at significant moments.”) Sent into the cultural wilderness—a comfortable Canadian cultural wilderness, to be sure—he returns, twelve years later, with a revival of his production staged within the walls of a prison. 


And let us add to the Hogarth series another hot British retelling, “Macbeth, Macbeth” (Bloomsbury), by the Shakespeareans Ewan Fernie and Simon Palfrey. The point of the exercise—immensely pleasing to the neo-Marxist Slavoj Zizek, who calls it “a miracle”—is that it opens up the play’s “absences,” telling the human tales of all the little people whose fate Shakespeare leaves out of his tragedy. It is a solemn version of the joke that James Thurber played so well, decades ago, in “The Macbeth Murder Mystery,” in which a hidden pattern involving obscure rustics is found within the play. Here the hidden pattern is that of the cruelty, starvation, and pervasive oppression of ordinary people, pushed to the fringes by Shakespeare’s concentration on the élite.


Better than any of these, though also outside the Hogarth estate, is Ian McEwan’s “Nutshell” (Doubleday), a short, modern-dress take on “Hamlet,” in which the tale is narrated by the fetus of the Prince, observing life from the womb as his mother, Trudy, and uncle, Claude, plot to poison his father. (Their prize in this case is not the Kingdom of Denmark but something far more valuable: a prime bit of London real estate.) Though the names and many of the details are taken from the play, “Nutshell” would succeed as a story even if the connection to Shakespeare were made far more subterraneanly. It’s essentially an extreme closeup study of how mad, adulterous passion leads to murder, with the evil couple being caught at the end more efficiently than they are in the play—a tale on the whole closer in tone to James M. Cain than to Shakespeare. For a reader utterly innocent of its source, the book would still work, though many of the details are cunningly punned: the unborn Hamlet conspires to revenge his father’s murder with a fiendish touch of his fingernail, sending Gertrude into labor just as the couple are about to abscond, a detail surely meant to invoke the foil by which, in the play, the Prince also brings justice to that pair.


The device of the omniscient fetus is one that McEwan takes up with a comic flair more darkly mischievous than McEwan fans, accustomed to his usually melancholic-meditative tone, might expect. The consciousness that McEwan provides for the unborn babe is, once one accepts the premise, persuasive in that he knows a lot but not too much—he is innocent of the difference between green and blue, but does know everything political passing in the world, evidently from hearing the BBC all day and night. Many beautiful notes register, as with the embryonic Hamlet’s fine palate for the wines he consumes through the plumbing of his guilt-racked mother. (This, of course, is the one sensual detail that a hyperliterate fetus would be expert in.) One also suspects that, in addition to the ghosts of Shakespeare, the book is haunted by John Updike’s earlier, sympathetic take on the story of Gertrude and Claudius, in his 2000 novel of that name. Certainly the marked tone of serene sexual relish seems deliberately Updikean, particularly in our womb’s-eye view of the lovers’ ruttings. (There is also the telling little detail that the good father, a poet, is identified by his psoriasis, the skin signature of the bard of Shillington.) 


The book, despite its small size, eventually bursts at the seams a bit with occasional essays and drive-by editorials, though for the most part McEwan curbs the inevitable aging-novelist’s need to register opinions on contemporary absurdities, or what seem so. An exasperated digression into the stupidity of safe spaces and trigger warnings resolves into a beautiful meditation on time and temperament, with Gertrude embodying the instantly achieved innocence of the postmodern mind, against her consort’s darker guilt: “Her grief, her tears, are proof of probity. She’s beginning to convince herself with her story of depression and suicide,” imputed to the man they’ve poisoned. “Claude, unlike Trudy, owns his crime. This is a Renaissance man, a Machiavel, an old-school villain who believes he can get away with murder. The world doesn’t come to him through a haze of the subjective; it comes refracted by stupidity and greed, bent as through glass or water, but etched on a screen before the inner eye, a lie as sharp and bright as truth.” 

What would Shakespeare make of all this revision? We are supposed to say that he would be pleased, but in truth he would be puzzled. A long stretch of literary invention lies between him and us, and it involves both the internalization of action into psychology—a thing he is taken to have begun but not completed—and the overcomplication of narrative. The low-key, chastened, anti-dramatic movement of Anne Tyler’s imagination—no marvels or events, really, just inner action rebounding off half-spoken idea—would have baffled him. This sells? He was used to getting half of London on their asses for a play, and he knew you needed bloody scenes and children baked in pies to do it. And then to the inner consciousness of the modern novel we add the extreme self-consciousness of the postmodern one, as in Jacobson, with the insistent mashup of forms and genres and characters. Shylock in Manchester now? Oh, right, nice move. Shakespeare is a dramatic poet rather than a psychological novelist or a self-conscious critic of texts, and his imagination runs in broader, potent strokes that are not so much illuminated as belied by the inward-turning ironies of the modern psychological novel.


Shakespeare’s poetic imagination runs on such bold lines that we assume his moral imagination must, too. But that is a modern assumption: if we had asked Shakespeare or any of his company what to think about Shylock, we would have been told that it’s a great part—giving full scope to human behavior, a mirror held up to nature—but not that he’s a sympathetic man. The empathy that Fernie and Palfrey ask us to feel for Macbeth’s victims is not part of Shakespeare’s vision. We feel sorry for poor old Polonius being killed by accident, but when Hamlet says he’ll lug the guts out of the room after he’s killed him we are not meant to feel the chill sense that Hamlet is a psychopath (though by our standards he behaves like one, offing Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern without much more than a morbid pun or two). He’s still a hero. Shakespeare’s heroes kill innocent people.


Shakespeare believed in fate, order, and forgiveness; we believe in history, justice, and compassion—three pairings so similar as to sometimes seem the same, though they are not. The novelistic, psychological work of explaining why evil people are evil gets very little energy from him. His villains are the products not of trauma and history but of nature and destiny. He amputated Iago’s motive for malignancy from the Italian story where he found Othello’s tragedy, in order to make the evil more absolute. Even to ask if Shylock’s graspingness is a product of his people’s history of exclusion would not have seemed important to him. He wasn’t looking for causes. Though not satisfying to our modern sense of “psychology,” this is actually psychologically quite satisfying. The malevolent people we encounter in life are mostly just like that. They don’t have a particular trauma that, if addressed and cured, would stop them from being evil. They were creepy, malignant kids, too.


And Shakespeare believed in order as an absolute good. His most eloquent speeches are given to singers of well-ordered communities, as with Canterbury’s speech on the beehive in “Henry V,” or, most memorably, Ulysses in “Troilus and Cressida”: “Take but degree away, untune that string / And, hark, what discord follows! / Then every thing includes itself in power, / power into will, will into appetite / And appetite, an universal wolf” devours all. Maybe he felt this way because the circumstances of the religious wars filled his youth, but even to put it like this is to show our prejudice for anachronistic historical or biographical explanations. He liked order. Most people do. He was perfectly aware that the social order he saw before him was arbitrary and unjust, but he was convinced that its absence would lead to chaos and cruelty, not to liberation and kindness. Although modern scholars like to pretend that this is one point of view among many on offer in the plays, any sensitive reader recognizes in the eloquence of the argument the pressure of personal faith. 


But Shakespeare also believed in forgiveness in a way that we don’t. Really rotten people get forgiven, in the comedies and romances, at least, in ways that still make us uneasy. In “The Tempest,” “As You Like It,” “Twelfth Night,” bad actors get easy outs. Even Shylock isn’t killed. Dr. Johnson thought the moment when Hamlet delays killing Claudius in order to deprive him of any chance of forgiveness was “too horrible to be read or to be uttered.” We are much more ostentatiously compassionate and much more effectively vindictive. Small incidents of plagiarism end careers—not a rule that Shakespeare himself would have escaped—and sexual sins can place their perpetrators forever beyond the bounds of redemption. In Shakespeare, rotten people do rotten things, but if they stick around and say they’re sorry they are forgiven. By contrast, we feel everyone’s pain, forgive no one’s trespasses.


Our novelists aim at modernizing Shakespeare by adding history or a greater sense of justice or more compassion to plays that seem to lack them. We are asked to feel for Macbeth’s victims’ plight; given a discursive explanation of how Shylock came to behave as he does; presented with an understanding of why a woman might seem shrewish when she is only shy; shown Gertrude and Claudius grappling with their erotic compulsion toward each other in a manner essentially sympathetic to their entrapment. We apply our dutifully expansive moral imagination to the plays, and, while this makes them seem fuller to us, it brings us no closer to Shakespeare. Our effort, in the end, is hardly different from the eighteenth century’s insistence on tacking a happy ending on to “King Lear,” wishful thinking in the guise of an improvement. 


If Shakespeare is our contemporary, it is not because he shares our attitudes but because he shares our agonies. A production of “The Merchant of Venice” that treats Shylock as anything other than the most interesting person in the play will always fail. But one that makes him into its hero has to fight so hard against the text that it will fail, too. Kate is persecuted and oppressed in horrible ways, but she lives as she is. Tell students that “Hamlet” is a study in the horizons of personal liberation, and they will fall away, puzzled. Tell them that it’s about a man who can’t decide whether to obey his father’s revenge rituals or kill himself first, and they vibrate.


Speaking for humanity, Shakespeare spoke for the dehumanized. But it would take a tortured reading of the text to find within it a message of equality or of what we understand to be human freedom. A permanent Shakespearean paradox remains: his people continue to haunt us after the social and ethical structures that held them up have disappeared. It turns out to be just as possible to find persuasive human beings in a world governed by fate and order and forgiveness as in one governed by trauma and justice and compassion. Shakespeare offers not so much an argument for universality as evidence for it. The settings change. The roles don’t, because the players can’t. 




2016 Critical Language Scholarship Program

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.354  Thursday, 27 October 2016


From:        Laura Paul <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         October 24, 2016 at 8:15:41 AM EDT

Subject:    2016 Critical Language Scholarship Program


Critical Language Scholarship Program is available for the U.S. citizen who are enrolled in an undergraduate (associate’s, bachelor’s) or graduate (master’s, doctoral, professional degree) level program.


The Scholarship Deadline is November 16, 2016.


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