Identity of the Clown in Othello

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.144  Friday, 22 April 2016


[1] From:        Arnie Perlstein <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

     Date:         April 20, 2016 at 7:54:16 PM EDT

     Subject:    Othello's Clown 


[2] From:        John Briggs <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

     Date:         April 21, 2016 at 10:58:13 AM EDT

     Subject:    SHAKSPER: Costume Changes and Exits (was Othello's Clown)




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

Date:         April 20, 2016 at 7:54:16 PM EDT

Subject:    Othello's Clown


Laurie, let me start by thanking you very much for your considered, respectful, and probing disagreements with my (admittedly radical and unprecedented) claim that Iago is disguised as the Clown in 3.1 and 3.4 of /Othello/. It’s exactly the kind of reply I hope to receive, whether in agreement or disagreement, because I must sharpen my argument to keep it viable.


Laurie wrote: “I recall that something very like this was posted in response to Larry Weiss. I admit at the time that I was in transit from Australia to New Orleans for SAA, so I skimmed it, but my memory served me well in thinking that you had not yet addressed 3.1, Arnie”


Laurie, as you discerned, in my early reply to Larry, I wrote “3.4” when I meant to write “3.1”, and I only became aware of the typo when reading, and responding to, your previous reply to me—hence my (silent) correction of that typo in that reply. I apologize for any confusion, and I’m glad you went on to reply to my claim as I originally intended it.


That confusion has an inadvertent silver lining, as it suggests to me another line of rebuttal to your critique of my argument re Iago’s wearing a disguise as a Clown that Iago could readily remove and re-don in a very short time period. I.e., while it appears that the situation in 3.4 is different from that in 3.1 in terms of time lapse, upon examination it is not materially different at all, as I’ll now explain:


On the one hand, in 3.4 there’s clearly plenty of time between the Clown’s exit and Iago’s entrance, to allow Iago to discreetly remove and stow away his disguise as Clown. I imagine that disguise to have consisted of a face-concealing beard—like the one Iago specifically directs Roderigo to wear while in Cyprus—together with some appropriate loose-fitting Clown garb, which Iago could’ve worn right on top of his usual clothing. Such a disguise would have been very easily and quickly removed, and would also have provided an additional benefit—it would’ve concealed Iago’s actual trim soldier’s body shape, making his build appear huskier. And the rest of Iago’s disguise, such as change of voice and gait, would obviously have been instantaneously shed.


In 3.1, on the other hand, it might seem at first glance that there’s not enough time for Iago to pull off the same quick-change, when we read this sequence:


CASSIO Prithee, keep up thy quillets. There's a poor piece of gold for thee: if the gentlewoman that attends the general's wife be stirring, tell her there's one Cassio entreats her a little favour of speech:

wilt thou do this?


CLOWN She is stirring, sir: if she will stir hither, I shall seem to notify unto her.


CASSIO Do, good my friend.


/Exit CLOWN/


/Enter IAGO/


In happy time, Iago.


IAGO You have not been a-bed, then?




Why, no; the day had broke

Before we parted. I have made bold, Iago,

To send in to your wife: my suit to her

Is, that she will to virtuous Desdemona

Procure me some access.


It’s easy to take the path of least resistance, and read “Exit Clown Enter Iago”, as if only a few seconds elapse between these two stage events. However, I suggest that would be an assumption based on no actual evidence. Going further, if we study the above passage, I say it’s more plausible and realistic if there’s a gap of about 30 seconds between that exit and entry. Why?


On the upper side, a gap of more than 30 seconds without spoken dialog or significant action would begin to feel like dead air on the radio—but for 30 seconds, I think it would be dramatically quite effective if, after the Clown enters the castle, we watch Cassio nervously pacing back and forth a half dozen times. Cassio would not expect Emilia to appear instantaneously, because it would take time minutes for the Clown to get to her, to speak to her, and then for her to make her way down to the castle entrance. But Cassio would be very agitated, and every second would feel like a minute to him. That would make good theater, don’t you think? The absence of dialog for 30 seconds would work perfectly.


And then, when Iago suddenly shows up after only 30 seconds, instead of a few minutes, Cassio would be pleasantly surprised, which neatly explains why he says “In happy time, Iago”. This would translate today into “Even quicker than I expected, and just the guy I needed to talk to as well.”


And, in the same vein, there’s nothing in Iago’s “You have not been a-bed, then?” that suggests that Iago, who presumably emerged from Othello’s castle the same way the Clown entered, has encountered the Clown, or that suggests that Iago has any idea that Cassio was going to be there when he walked outside. Yet if Iago and the Clown had bumped into each other, you’d think that the Clown would’ve immediately passed Cassio’s message on to Iago, to in turn pass on to Iago’s own wife, Emilia, right?


And, getting to my main point, if 30 seconds have elapsed between the Clown’s exit and Iago’s entrance, that gives Iago plenty of time to shed his Clown disguise and stow it away safely in a dark hall corner near the castle entrance, where he can quickly get at it again (which he will need to do so after he leaves Othello’s room at the castle at the end of 3.3). And so Iago can then bolster his disguise as the Clown by speaking to Cassio as if he did not bump into the (imaginary) Clown in the hall inside.


Laurie also wrote: “You begin the revised comment with “What if…,” which always concerns me when it is offered for an explanation of what is supposed to be true for the play (in this case, that the Clown’s true identity /is/ Iago). The moment we have to supplement the explicit content of the play with a “what if” explanation to cover what isn’t there, we are moving away from the play, I suggest.”


As I think I’ve already made clear in the first part of this reply, above, when I wrote “What if”, I wasn’t suggesting a departure from what is written in the text of the play, so much as I’m suggesting a departure from reading the stage directions too passively, and assuming Shakespeare always wrote them to be as complete and clear as possible.


I’d also like to answer by presenting my specific claim in larger context.


First, apropos my claim that it’s a normal part of Shakespearean stagecraft for performers to have to answer questions like “how much time to leave between exits and entrances”, correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t believe it was common for Shakespeare to micromanage so closely, as to specify time lapses between the exit of one character followed without intervening event by the exit of another character. My recollection is that Shakespeare did not do this, not because it is unimportant, but because he expected the performer to examine the context of the scene, and to determine what sort of time lapse would make sense. Just as the greatest musical composers left a great deal to the interpretive imagination of the performer in their musical notations.


Second, think about all the careful analysis that any actor must engage in, in order to determine how to deliver lines – again, correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe there are many speeches in the Shakespeare canon in which he micromanages by, e.g., telling actors which lines are meant to be delivered ironically, and which are to be delivered straight. Why is that silence any different from the silence I see regarding time lapses and other similar issues pertaining to entrances and exits?


While it’s beyond the scope of this thread of posts, my research over the past decade has repeatedly suggested to me that, in some very significant aspects, Shakespeare /deliberately /wrote his stage directions with “significant silences”. By this I mean, he didn’t explicitly say there was an implicit gap in those directions to be filled in, but he was (like Iago at the end of /Othello/) going “to never speak word” about that, one way or the other. That leaves it up to the reader of the play to discern what is implicit.


This is the very same methodology that Iago often used, where, like the devil he was, he was happy to avoid outright lying if he could achieve his deceptions by letting his victims make their own false assumptions about what he was telling them. And it’s also the same methodology as is employed by many other Shakespearean characters, like Viola, who, while still in disguise as a man, speaks truthfully but cryptically to Olivia and Duke Orsino about her gender.


In other words, I see myself as extending an old and rich strand of Shakespearean criticism that has seen Shakespeare engaging in metafictional games with his readers. By this I mean, Shakespeare conceived the relationship between himself as playwright, and his readers, as involving the same Machiavellian manipulations of point of view as are employed by a number of his most memorable characters. And there is no character more that way than Iago, so therefore it is particularly fitting that Shakespeare should engage in such subtle misleading in the way Iago is presented to the audience.


In short, then, I attribute to Shakespeare a didactic motive in leaving silences and gaps in his play texts which invite the sort of inquiry I’ve made in this case, and which provide a great payoff in discovering major, surprising aspects of his greatest characters.


Laurie also wrote: “Yet let us go further. The explanation goes on to say that upon the direction to “exit,” the actor playing the Clown/Iago would not leave the stage, but would still be seen “at the extreme side of the stage, behind some sort of wall …” – I’d be curious to find out where else in the early modern dramatic canon a stage direction to “exit” was expected to be a direction to _not_ leave the stage. This would seem to be a significant departure from the practice of entrances and exits as they have been understood. Even where there have been debates about where an entrance or exit is to be made (Fitzpatrick vs Gurr and Ichikawa, for example), I’ve never heard it said that an exit was actually not an exit at all. I’m also unsure that “some sort of wall” might be built to erect on the Globe stage, or the Blackfriars’ stage, or at court, for the sole purpose of allowing this switch to be made on-stage: does the play offer other situations in which this set element would be used?”


I would guess that there have been such stagings and usage of props, and I ask anyone else reading this with knowledge of stage history (that I lack) to chime in if you know of any.


But let’s assume for purposes of argument that you are correct, Laurie, that my suggestion regarding an exit not being a full exit vis a vis the audience would be unprecedented in the staging of /Othello. /That doesn’t make it incorrect, it may just mean that no one who has previously staged /Othello /has read the stage directions of the Clown’s exit followed by Iago’s entrance from the metafictional perspective I put forward, above. I.e., perhaps my interpretation has always been implicit in the text, but has been hiding patiently in plain sight for four centuries, waiting to be recognized.


But, as I think about it further, my interpretation does not depend upon an exit of the Clown being a partial exit – I can also readily imagine, instead, that Iago (disguised as the Clown) makes his exit, then discards the disguise entirely offstage, and then enters within 30 seconds, appearing as himself. I believe that the actor playing Iago/Clown could easily do things gesturally that would clue the audience into that disguise. For example (and I imagine an experienced actor could think of several ways of pulling this off), Iago, while disguised as the Clown, might have walked with a limp (a fitting idea, given Othello’s later imagining he sees Iago’s hooves!) in order to further distance the Clown’s appearance from Iago’s. But then, as the Clown exits, and Cassio is not looking at him, he might instantly stop limping and give a significant look at the audience as he walks off.


But….I /still/ prefer the idea of the exit that is not entirely an exit, because I still believe it would be more dramatic.Speaking of which….


Laurie also wrote: “I’m sorry, Arnie, but I don’t think that the pause required for the shedding of a disguise (since nothing else happens on stage while this is supposed to take place) lends itself to an electrifying dramatic moment, but that’s a difference of opinion.”


Yes we do disagree, But I guess neither of us will really know unless and until my version is enacted before a real audience, and we observe their reaction!;)


Laurie also wrote: “Of more interpretive importance, I think, is the suggestion that a costume or at least mask and prop change constitutes the “same sort of duping” Iago inflicts on others. I simply don’t see this as anything like the sort of duping to which he subjects other characters in the play, where his arsenal is routinely verbal.”


But you forget—Iago deploys Roderigo in physical disguise as his secret agent! Doesn’t that totally rebut your point, since it shows that Iago’s “toolkit” of deception /does /include physical disguise? And then, it’s a distinction without a difference between Roderigo in disguise at Iago’s direction, and Iago in disguise at his own direction.


And even if it weren’t for that, I’d still aver that knowing Iago to be a master of deception in verbal ways does make it more likely that he’d also achieve deception in nonverbal ways as well.


Laurie also wrote: “The final concern I have relates to the added comment in response to my query: “it’s a giant hint to a creative director” = first, this suggests Shakespeare foresaw the advent of the director as a focus for creative oversight of a production….”


And I reply: that’s another distinction without a difference! In every staging of a Shakespeare play, going back to his own, someone, whether Shakespeare himself, or a director, or an actor, has to decide how to make performance questions like this one. So whether you want to think of it as a hint to a director, or to an actor, or to whomever else you like, it’s a hint. Sometimes silences can be deafening.


Laurie concluded with: “As I say, then, I’m yet to be convinced.”


If you will favor me with another substantive reply, addressing my further arguments, above, I will be honored. Perhaps I will nudge you a step or two closer to convincing. ;)






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

Date:         April 21, 2016 at 10:58:13 AM EDT

Subject:    SHAKSPER: Costume Changes and Exits (was Othello's Clown)


Arnie Perlstein wrote (in the "Othello's Clown" thread) something which I believe should have wider discussion:

In short, it’s no accident that Shakespeare wrote the entrance of Iago to immediately follow the Clown’s exit, with no gap but also no overlap - it’s a giant hint and invitation to a creative director.


Is this even possible? Could an actor immediately re-enter in a different costume as a different character? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought that the consensus of conventional wisdom (if that’s not a tautology...) was that this was not possible and did not happen?

That is the only reason why I have not so far suggested that the actor who played Maria in Twelfth Night doubled the part of Sebastian. (Maria mysteriously does not appear in Act 5. The two do not appear together in the same scene, but there are instances where one character exits and the other immediately makes an entrance in the next scene.)


John Briggs




Vickers One King Lear

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.143  Friday, 22 April 2016


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

Date:         April 22, 2016 at 2:10:11 AM EDT

Subject:    Re: Vickers One King Lear


The cornerstone of Sir Brian Vickers’s The One King Lear, Richard Knowles’s variorum Lear, and many other studies of Shakespeare’s text is the “foul papers construct,” whereby corruption is subsumed by the author’s careless origination of his plays in rough drafts just crappy enough to account for each play’s idiosyncrasies but marketable enough for a first publication—if the texts had been corrupted by anyone besides Shakespeare (in their creation) or printing-house agents, they could not have served (happily?) as printer’s copy for the 1623 Folio. (I use the term foul papers as a plural in reference to single or multiple texts. As a term, it’s singular; the adjective, probably foul-paper. Whether I’m right or consistent, I don’t know; when in doubt I reword to “rough draft,” or some such, but not to avoid the concept.) 


Historically, recognizing Q1 Lear as a memorial reconstruction or shorthand report threatened F authority unless perceived Q1 anomalies were accommodated in the reprinting of a very good report, either by correction of Q1 or contamination of F, as instances may be. As these Kinds of reporting are not likely to be accurate, the fact that F does reprint Q1 is hard to reconcile to a tradition (with too many exceptions already) that F is faithful to authorial texts: F and Q are too different and too much alike.


The “foul papers” concept allows differences between texts to be laid to an author whose habit was to dash off masterpieces “in the heat of composition,” to perfect them later, but who had the bad luck (posterity-wise) to let the rough drafts get to print. Hypothetical foul-paper texts have an uncanny knack of matching or causing the printed anomalies, as needed.


The decades-old notion that Q1 Lear derived from foul papers got a shot in the arm when PWM Blayney announced his intention to argue as much in a sequel to his bibliographical study. One result was to encourage Two-Versions-By-Shakespeare, culminating in editorial acceptance that Q1 printer’s copy had previously served as the basis of Shakespeare’s revision for the company playbook—which became F’s manuscript printer’s copy. This important sequence removed the necessity of postulating Shakespeare’s annotation or revision of an exemplar of Q1 to further explain an otherwise obvious reprint (F) of a late (1608), corrupt publication.


Prior scholarship had “conflated” editions by supplementing F with extensive Q-only text and preferred variants while accepting F as the more authoritative (though heavily edited) of the two. Few were comfortable with a finalized text dependent on a bad quarto for the additions and the apparent fact that F was itself largely printed from quarto copy. Too much agreement between non- and authorized texts risks F’s authority. The worse a bad quarto is, the easier to accept an actor’s recollection (MR), which excuses Shakespeare’s “non-continuing presence” (until safely back under the Folio jurisdiction.) But it’s hard (for Shakespearians of most stripes) to grant a probability that F reprints a ‘gooder’ bad quarto, which discontinues his subscription.


As it happens, Peter Stone concluded (1980) not only that F (in effect) reprints Q1 (a theatrical report) but that F changes are non-Shakespearean. “The whole congregation was adulterated!” Peter Blayney independently disallowed Shakespearean revision. However, the already budding “Two Versions” movement welcomed only Blayney’s Q1/foul-paper opinion, which would seem to be essential to authorial revision; luckily, they were relieved of a need to “prove” foul papers behind Q1, as Taylor and Wells affirmed, even though Blayney never made a case.


Howard-Hill described long ago how Two-texters also made use of Stone’s meticulous analysis. As for his conclusions: what safe, and nicely they might well disdain, they spurn. Conflationists (one-text “reactionaries”) were reduced in influence by editorial acquiescence in Q1’s “rough draft” and revision as the basis of the players’ “book,” from which F was putatively partially and (ongoingly) authorially derived. Q1 evidence didn’t have much to do with these considerations.


Reactionary or not, defenses of conflation (despite their distance in time and a lack of current interest) presented the stronger cases. As Vickers reports, authorial revision by cutting is not much of a foundation. Nevertheless, the opponents agree that foul-paper proveniences feel better than reported text; Knowles accepts foul papers whole-heartedly and they are essential to Vickers’s case that Q1 omissions are recovered from the company playbook. That brings the two early texts together even more, especially when Sir Brian acknowledges hands of meddling editors in F’s production. He also takes the position that King Lear in each version was too long to be played, which (only if true) precludes memorial transmission.


Before proceeding to Vickers’s treatment of foul papers, I’ll review a few of my current guesses. Defense of conflation primarily defends Q1 itself, where most of the text comes from in the first place; F adds very little of consequence. I’m not opposed to the hypothesis that F restores some Q1 omissions. I suspect the Q1 printer’s copy survived long enough to enable a fuller redaction of the text than has been supposed, though I follow Stone. Vickers merely asserts that Q1 copy was destroyed but alternative explanations are essential to inquiry. The F text is so beholden to Q1 and Q2 that its alterations could not escape their influence. Q1 is a stenographic report of performance, which makes a Shakespearian revision unthinkable. F Ms. printer’s copy derives from Q1 by redaction, probably in stages beginning with the Q1 publisher’s agency and ending with F’s stated resolve to “cure” stolen texts. Q1 and its copy-text were all the printers ever had by transmission. There was no company playbook available, but F would be meant to resemble one in any case.


The foregoing and following notwithstanding, I dislike to write or think about foul-paper printer’s copy. But the “biographical imperative” demands it to block inquiry right at square one. It’s not quite a chicken-or-egg thing; those items are documented. Vickers’s One Lear theories depend on foul papers, whether hypotheses came first, or not. One cannot grant the basis of his argument for argument’s sake if it ignores alternative solutions to Q1 at the outset.


Gerald E. Downs




Podcast about Shakespeare and Cognition

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.142  Friday, 22 April 2016


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

Date:         April 21, 2016 at 10:14:18 PM EDT

Subject:    Re: Podcast about Shakespeare and Cognition


A follow-up on last week’s podcast:


Neema delves deeper into the topic of cognition with Laurie Johnson from the University of Southern Queensland, who explains the distinction between “embodied cognition” and “distributed cognition” and how these terms relate to Shakespeare and the early modern theatre.




Shakespeare or Batman?

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.141  Friday, 22 April 2016


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

Date:         Wednesday, April 20, 2016 at 3:27 PM

Subject:    Shakespeare or Batman?


I’m a writer for FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver’s website that focuses on data and quantitative journalism.


The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death is Saturday.


I want to do a post off of this fun Sporcle quiz, asking respondents whether quotes are from Shakespeare or from Batman movies:


I’m asking several Shakespeare scholars and aficionados to take the quiz and send me the results, including a screenshot of your results page on Sporcle, for a light 400th anniversary piece about which kinds of quotes seem to trip people up. I’d include your name and results, unless you’d prefer I not, in which case I could keep you unnamed.


Are you up for doing it? The quiz takes just 6 minutes — less if you’re fast — and my colleagues and I found it to be a lot of fun, and surprisingly tough.


And if you have any comments about the quiz, and what makes it possible to confuse Batman with Shakespeare or how they differ, please do send those along, too!


Also let me know if there’s any other Shakespeare scholar you think would enjoy this exercise, or pass this along to them and ask them to email me.


My deadline is Thursday morning at 10 am ET (GMT-4), so I hope you’re looking for a quiz to procrastinate with by then!


Thanks very much,





FYI: “A new book argues that every other country is better at bringing Shakespeare’s plays to life”

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.140  Friday, 22 April 2016


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

Date:         April 21, 2016 at 6:00:47 PM EDT

Subject:    FYI: “A new book argues that every other country is better at bringing Shakespeare’s plays to life”


The Least British Shakespeare:

A new book argues that every other country is better at bringing his plays to life. 

By Morten Høi Jensen

New Republic, April 20, 2016



In the summer of 2012, the English journalist Andrew Dickson sat down to watch the Olympic opening ceremony on TV from his London apartment. The Danny Boyle-helmed spectacle, titled “Isles of Wonder,” was supposed to be Shakespeare-themed, yet it opened with a rural panorama of Brit kitsch: maypoles, cricket, rugby, “Danny Boy.” Then, just a few minutes in, the veteran actor Kenneth Branagh appeared amid a phalanx of iconic London stagecoaches dressed as the nineteenth-century civil engineer Isambard Brunel. To the music of Edward Elgar, Branagh recited Caliban’s famous “Be not afeard” speech from The Tempest. Dickson dryly remarks: 


Words spoken by an oppressed and imprisoned slave, Caliban, in a play, The Tempest, that dwells at length on the costs and consequences of colonialism, were being repurposed as a eulogy for the British Empire, placed above music by Edwardian England’s most patriotic composer and replayed for the watching world.


Dickson wonders how on earth the British acquired such a “curious, conflicted attitude” to their National Poet—how they became so uncritical that the irony of choosing Caliban’s speech to celebrate the British Empire was apparently lost on the organizers.


Earlier that summer, Dickson says, he’d seen The Comedy of Errors performed by the Afghan theatre company Rah-e-Sabz, whose space at the British Council in Kabul had been destroyed a year earlier in a suicide bombing. It was an eye-opener for Dickson: An itinerant group of Afghans transformed Shakespeare’s “creaky and mechanistic farce” into a rueful meditation on exile and separation. And then here come the British, quoting The Tempest in imperialist regalia, broadcasting their National Bard to millions of viewers across the globe. Where the Afghan interpretation revealed the urgency and universality of Shakespeare, the British wielded him like some cultural prop, designed to reflect what is significant about Great Britain. Of the many things wrong with this spectacle, Dickson writes, the most obvious one is that “there was never anything especially British about William Shakespeare.”


Dickson’s remark comes just a few pages into Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe, his globe-trotting cultural history, and it sets the tone for what is an exhaustive, and often exhausting, exploration of how “Shakespeare went global.” In a series of spirited accounts, Dickson traces the transmutations of Shakespeare’s plays across national and cultural borders. He journeys to Gdańsk to witness the unveiling of a new Shakespeare theatre; through centuries of German history, where Shakespeare has repeatedly been claimed as an essentially German writer; to the American frontier, where Richard III and Julius Caesar were staples among gold-mining pioneers; to the spangled film industry of Mumbai, where Shakespearean dramas are disassembled and raided for their plot; to apartheid-era South Africa, where Shakespeare passed like samizdat between political prisoners on Robben Island (including Nelson Mandela); and finally to Maoist China, where “Shashibiya” (the Chinese name for Shakespeare) was condemned as an anti-revolutionary influence. Dickson shows us the many ways in which Shakespeare repeatedly thwarts geographical, linguistic, and political barriers—how little, in historical terms, he belongs to any single culture or nation.


Dickson, a broadcaster and features journalist, charges fearlessly through centuries of scholarship and history. He meets and interviews a who’s-who of international academics and experts, as well as accomplished filmmakers and fledgling dance troupes. At times, it must be said, the search for Shakespeare seems indistinguishable from the lifestyle of a peripatetic fine art dealer. Dickson pops up at various private receptions, museums and arts festivals, enjoys a post-flight drink on a hotel roof bar in Mumbai, and mingles with a group of festivalgoers at a throbbing nightclub in central Taipei. There is frequent talk of being jetlagged.


Worlds Elsewhere is cheerily lighthearted in tone, and part of its pleasure lies in its commitment to stories of wide-eyed eccentrics and enthusiasts. Along the way, we encounter Henry Clay Folger, the first president of Standard Oil New York, who along with his wife Emily became a compulsive collector of Shakespeareana, accumulating the world’s largest collection of First Folios (“Perhaps needless to say, they remained childless,” Dickson dryly remarks). We meet Delia Bacon, author of The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded (1857), one of the founders of the Shakespearean authorship conspiracy—a phenomenon Dickson provocatively argues was “largely an American invention,” foolishly encouraged by the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman.


In many of these instances Dickson is unexpectedly reminded of what attracts people to Shakespeare—the way in which he becomes a writer of urgency to American pioneers or postcolonial Indian filmmakers. His dramas of exile and loss, power and ambition, prove especially popular in these former colonies, where national and cultural identity is still mutable. What was a lump of idolatry in the hands of the British suddenly quickens with fluid relevance.


But it’s also true that a revitalized, reinterpreted Shakespeare is not always a force for good. Shakespeare seems to “creep up in German history whenever there is a change,” the scholar Ruth von Ledebur tells Dickson during a visit in Munich. The most ominous of those changes is the rise of the National Socialist Party, and the subsequent “grim proximity” of culture and barbarism in the Third Reich—a proximity pointedly encapsulated by the phrase Buchenwald liegt bei Weimar (“Buchenwald lies near Weimar”). Even the Nazis, it seems, wanted to claim Shakespeare for themselves: In the 1930s they gradually subsumed the venerable German Shakespeare Society, turning its yearbook into a venue for crackpot theories about Shakespeare’s commitment to racial purity and eugenics. Gradually, the society’s remaining Jewish members were forced to resign. Among them was the playwright Ludwig Fulda, who in 1939 was denied a visa to the United States. He killed himself not long thereafter.


But, for all the wealth of historical anecdote it gathers, Worlds Elsewhere is an unwieldy, infuriating thing. With a look, perhaps, to Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, Dickson figures too fully in his own narrative, and wants to discharge his discoveries on a jet stream of rambling, discursive comedy. Dickson reveals a disconcerting appetite for hyperbole and Martin Amisisms. The Washington Monument is “cool white against a bouillabaisse-coloured sky”; San Francisco is “pimpled with theatres,” while the Library of Congress is “crowned with a squat pimple of a dome.” When he isn’t straining for high literary effect (his prose bristles with a thousand unnecessary adjectives), Dickson unleashes a heap of noir-like clichés: “Before I lit out for the Nevada foothills in pursuit of the actors, I had a date”; “It wasn’t until I stumbled across a slim pamphlet that the pieces began to slot into place”;  “Something told me he would make it to the White House.” Is Philip Marlowe doing the audiobook?


At some point I began to wonder how Shakespeare fits into all this, except as a kind of ghost on the periphery. The most affecting parts of the book certainly have little to do with him. There’s a very moving and informative account of the life of Solomon Plaatje, the South African linguist and civil rights activist, who undertook to translate The Comedy of Errors and Julius Caesar into Tswana, and who quotes (once) from King Lear in his book Native Life in South Africa (1916). Eventually even Dickson concedes that Shakespeare is, at best, only marginally relevant to Plaatje’s story: “Plaatje’s Shakespeare translations weren’t really about Shakespeare at all. Shakespeare was being hitched to a much braver ideal: saving an entire culture.”


Shakespeare’s influence becomes more and more intangible as the book goes on, leading Dickson to extend, or modify, the notion of Shakespeare’s “benign universality”—his appeal to our “common humanity”—that he began with. It might be more accurate, he decides, to “describe him as a Rorschach blot that never looked the same twice,” or possibly even as a “multinational brand, a free-floating symbol that transcended national borders and could attach itself to many different kinds of cultural artifacts.” A little while later, sitting at a French wine bar in Hong Kong, he muses on themes of travel and migration—applauding Shakespeare for his receptiveness and curiosity, his flexibility and porousness. Then, exhausted, he flicks “a wad of Hong Kong dollars on to the counter and slid, somewhat unsteadily, off my stool. Time to think about going home.” The gesture is woefully blasé. And yet it seems appropriate to the spirit of Worlds Elsewhere that Dickson, by way of the Third Reich, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and Apartheid South Africa, should finally arrive at a Shakespeare as smoothly global, as complacently universal, as an airport bar. Benign universality indeed.


Dickson’s Shakespeare is indeed a writer of benign universality, but only if by universality you mean appeal. Dickson imagines he can explain Shakespeare by identifying this appeal, the infinite mutations and interpretations. In order to avoid conflating this with greatness (because greatness implies a value judgment) Shakespeare is praised for his mutability, the ease with which he can be reconfigured to accommodate the needs of different countries, languages, and historical circumstances. Additionally, it absolves Shakespeare from being “a reliable piece of colonial equipment.”    


Such an argument, if you can call it that, has the luxury of being untethered to the knotty intricacies of text. Dickson, as he jets around the world, never pauses to do any close reading—Shakespeare’s texts, in Worlds Elsewhere, are not really important at all. Thus Hamlet “works equally well” as “a Goethean Bildungsroman, as a Parsi-influenced Hindi movie, a Wild West swashbuckler as well as a deconstructed piece of Regietheater.” But surely it is possible to guard oneself against the notion of an “essential” Shakespeare, rigid with interpretational fixity, without thereby accepting the idea that the value of Shakespeare’s plays are merely the sum of their various interpretations, transformations, and performances. If they can mean everything they mean nothing.


There is an irony here: Worlds Elsewhere ends up inadvertently legitimizing the imperialist Shakespeare it set out to dissolve. For if Shakespeare is both anti-apartheid activist and American pioneer, then why not also the bard of British colonialism?—or, for that matter, a Nazi eugenicist? And if all these interpretations are representative of Shakespeare’s global appeal—if he is merely an instrument we use to create cultural meaning, as the literary theorist Terence Hawkes argued—then why do we keep returning to him and not, say, Dante or Cervantes or Scheherazade?


Answering these questions would mean treating Shakespeare as a writer, and not merely a global brand. It would mean identifying literary qualities, not just cultural mileage. It would mean accepting that although Shakespeare is “one storyteller among many,” his popularity and appeal cannot be explained by culture, politics, or geography alone. 



Morten Høi Jensen is a writer from Copenhagen, Denmark. He has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books,, and Bookforum, and is currently writing a biography of the Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen. He lives in New York City.


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