Identity of the Clown in Othello

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.122  Tuesday, 12 April 2016


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

Date:         April 11, 2016 at 6:14:50 PM EDT

Subject:    “I am not what I am” is Iago’s code for his being, like Viola……a woman disguised as a man!


A few weeks ago, I wrote:


“…I am not the first to note that Viola and Iago speak the identical words “I am not what I am”. For example, Stephen Booth noted this parallel in 1995, when he wrote the following in drawing a number of surprising parallels between /Othello /and /Twelfth Night/: “To begin with the truly minimal, central deceivers in both /Twelfth Night /and /Othello/ echo and play on “I am that I am” the phrase in Exodus 3:14 by which Jehovah so unsatisfactorily defines himself for Moses. During their second interview, Olivia asks the disguised ‘Viola’ “his” opinion of her and thereby opens the way into an ontological cul-de-sac [”I am not what I am”]…Iago uses the same words in celebrating the difference between what he is and what he appears to be…”


However, where I vigorously disagree with Booth is that I do not consider the usage of that identical God-like pronouncement by both Iago and Viola to be of minimal significance. Rather, I believe this exact quotation is Shakespeare’s way of alerting the reader who treats his entire canon as a kind of “Bible” with dense, thematically significant intertextuality amongst its parts, that Iago and Viola are profoundly similar not merely in their readiness to assume metaphorical disguise to achieve their goals, but in their readiness to assume ACTUAL disguise (Viola presenting herself to the world as Cesario, Iago briefly presenting himself to the world as the CLOWN)!


But it was only as I was finishing this post, that I noticed Shakespeare’s final wink at the parallel between Viola in disguise as Cesario and Iago disguised as CLOWN. It occurs when Viola says to Olivia—“now I am your FOOL”. For Shakespeare, fools and CLOWNs were virtually synonymous. And this is especially the case in /Twelfth Night/, because in the speech attributions and stage directions Feste is always referred to as “CLOWN”, whereas he himself, and the other characters in the play, always refer to him as Olivia’s fool!” 



A wild and crazy idea occurred to me yesterday relative to the above: “What if Iago was not merely like Viola in adopting a physical disguise as another person (the Clown), but was even more like Viola, in being a /woman /who adopts, over an extended period of time, a physical disguise as a man?” I quickly realized that this would provide a much more satisfying explanation than I gave in my earlier post for why Shakespeare caused Iago to echo Viola in uttering that identical parody of God’s words in Exodus. I.e., Viola spends nearly the entirety of /Twelfth Night /disguised as “Cesario”—what if Iago is a woman (whose real name we never hear) doing exactly the same thing in /Othello/?


One argument in favor of this reading is that it is not entirely new. Some quick research showed me that there have been productions of /Othello /over the years in which Iago has indeed been played as a woman disguised as a man, although I cannot discern that this decision was based on a belief that it was fulfilling Shakespeare’s original intention. And I also found a half dozen Tweets in which the same idea has been floated. But…I don’t see that anyone has ever connected the dots between those productions and speculations, on the one hand, and the crucial fact that Iago echoes Viola in that famous line, on the other.Let’s take a closer look, shall we, and see how those dots connect up?


In /Twelfth Night/, Act 3, Scene 1, Olivia is making Viola (“Cesario”) very uncomfortable by coming on to “him” romantically, as a result of which Viola in effect shares a private joke with the audience, that she obviously does not wish to share with Olivia. We in the audience, who witnessed the transformation of Viola into “Cesario” at the beginning of the play, therefore understand “I am not what I am” as Viola’s coded and poignant message that she is not a man, but a woman – and what’s more, a woman in love with a man – Duke Orsino—to whom for whatever reason she does not yet wish to reveal her female identity, when we read:


VIOLA Then westward-ho! Grace and good disposition Attend your ladyship!

You'll nothing, madam, to my lord by me?


OLIVIA Stay: I prithee, tell me what thou thinkest of me.


VIOLA That you do think you are not what you are.


OLIVIA If I think so, I think the same of you.


VIOLA Then think you right: I AM NOT WHAT I AM.


OLIVIA I would you were as I would have you be!


VIOLA Would it be better, madam, than I am? I wish it might, for now I am your fool.


OLIVIA O, what a deal of scorn looks beautiful In the contempt and anger of his lip!

A murderous guilt shows not itself more soon Than love that would seem hid: love's night is noon.

Cesario, by the roses of the spring, By maidhood, honour, truth and every thing,

I love thee so, that, maugre all thy pride, Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.

Do not extort thy reasons from this clause, For that I woo, thou therefore hast no cause,

But rather reason thus with reason fetter, Love sought is good, but given unsought better.


VIOLA By innocence I swear, and by my youth I have one heart, one bosom and one truth,

And that no woman has; nor never none Shall mistress be of it, save I alone.

And so adieu, good madam: never more Will I my master's tears to you deplore.


OLIVIA Yet come again; for thou perhaps mayst move That heart, which now abhors, to like his love.


Now let’s take a look at Iago, who speaks that exact same line but in a very different circumstance. As the play begins, we catch him in mid-conversation defending himself to Roderigo, who is irked because he believes Iago, who has supposedly been acting as Roderigo’s hired “Yenta” for courtship of the rich heiress Desdemona, should have done something to prevent Othello from eloping with Roderigo’s “intended”.


IAGO O, sir, content you;

I follow him to serve my turn upon him: We cannot all be masters, nor all masters

Cannot be truly follow'd. You shall mark Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave,

That, doting on his own obsequious bondage, Wears out his time, much like his master's ass,

For nought but provender, and when he's old, cashier'd: Whip me such honest knaves. Others there are

Who, trimm'd in forms and visages of duty, Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves,

And, throwing but shows of service on their lords, Do well thrive by them and when they have lined their coats Do themselves homage: these fellows have some soul; And such a one do I profess myself. For, sir,

It is as sure as you are Roderigo, Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago:

In following him, I follow but myself; Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,

But seeming so, for my peculiar end: For when my outward action doth demonstrate

The native act and figure of my heart In compliment extern, 'tis not long after

But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve For daws to peck at: I AM NOT WHAT I AM……


Iago’s defense is to explain to Roderigo how much he r/eally/ hates Othello, all appearances to the contrary. He even makes a point of saying that he serves Othello “not…for love”. He uses the Biblical phraseology to explain that he disguises himself as Othello’s honest servant, while secretly using Othello for his own “peculiar end”—but Iago never explains what that “peculiar end” is, and end that would presumably coincide with preventing Othello from marrying Desdemona. How come?


The true motive (or lack thereof) for Iago’s malicious destruction of the happiness of those closest to him has been a mystery that has fascinated and stymied centuries of Shakespeare scholars and ordinary Bardolaters alike. One strand of speculative interpretation has explored whether Iago is a gay man who loves Othello, and therefore (ironically) is motivated by jealousy and a desire for revenge on both the secret beloved who has spurned him, and also on the woman who has stolen his secret beloved’s heart right from under him. That latter motivation sparks even more irony, when we hear Roderigo’s self-pity, because Iago, as longtime unrequited lover of Othello at close proximity, has reason to feel much greater pain upon Othello’s sudden elopement, than Roderigo, whose courtship of Desdemona has existed entirely in his own imagination, as carefully and cynically cultivated by Iago.


I’ve always found great merit in that interpretation of Iago as a gay man, but what if Iago’s “peculiar end” is even more convincingly understood as being the same /exact/ end that Viola seeks? I.e., what if Iago is a woman who impersonates a man because it is the only way /she/ can stay close, in the role of trusted right hand “man”, to Othello, the man /she/ loves? In that reading, Othello would not be Olivia, but Duke Orsino.


The ripple effects of this massive change in understanding the play’s protagonist are enormous, but to take just one, think of the layers of fresh meaning this interpretation brings to the two scenes in the middle of /Othello /during which Iago eventually maneuvers Othello toward a strange “marriage ceremony” .


In Act 2, Scene 3, right after Iago firmly plants the first seeds of jealousy in Othello’s brain, note Iago’s words of love subtly slipped into the mix:


OTHELLO …if thou dost love me, Show me thy thought.


IAGO My lord, you know I love you.


OTHELLO I think thou dost; And, for I know thou'rt full of love and honesty,

And weigh'st thy words before thou givest them breath, Therefore these stops of thine fright me the more:

For such things in a false disloyal knaveAre tricks of custom, but in a man that's just

They are close delations, working from the heartThat passion cannot rule.


IAGO For Michael Cassio,I dare be sworn I think that he is honest.


OTHELLO I think so too.






IAGO Why, then, I think Cassio's an honest man.


OTHELLO Nay, yet there's more in this: I prithee, speak to me as to thy thinkings,

As thou dost ruminate, and give thy worst of thoughts The worst of words.



OTHELLO By heaven, I'll know thy thoughts.


IAGO You cannot, if my heart were in your hand; Nor shall not, whilst 'tis in my custody.




IAGO O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock

The meat it feeds on; that cuckold lives in bliss Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;

But, O, what damned minutes tells he o'er Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!


OTHELLO O misery!


IAGO Poor and content is rich and rich enough, But riches fineless is as poor as winter

To him that ever fears he shall be poor. Good heaven, the souls of all my tribe defend From jealousy!


OTHELLO …. No, Iago; I'll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;

And on the proof, there is no more but this,-- Away at once with love or jealousy!


IAGO I am glad of it; for now I shall have reason To show the love and duty that I bear you

With franker spirit: therefore, as I am bound,Receive it from me. I speak not yet of proof.



IAGO Why, go to then; She that, so young, could give out such a seeming,

To seal her father's eyes up close as oak-He thought 'twas witchcraft--but I am much to blame;

I humbly do beseech you of your pardonFor too much loving you.


OTHELLO I am bound to thee for ever.


IAGO I see this hath a little dash'd your spirits.


OTHELLO Not a jot, not a jot.


IAGO I' faith, I fear it has. I hope you will consider what is spoke

Comes from my love. But I do see you're moved:I am to pray you not to strain my speech

To grosser issues nor to larger reachThan to suspicion.


…..[Going] My lord, I take my leave.


OTHELLOWhy did I marry? This honest creature doubtless

Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds.


And then, we reach the culmination of this strange romantic arc in an /ad hoc/ ceremony improvised by Iago and Othello in Act 3, Scene 3:


OTHELLO: Never, Iago: Like to the Pontic sea, Whose icy current and compulsive course

Ne'er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due onTo the Propontic and the Hellespont,

Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,Shall ne'er look back, ne'er ebb to humble love,

Till that a capable and wide revengeSwallow them up. Now, by yond marble heaven,




In the due reverence of a sacred vowI here engage my words.


IAGO Do not rise yet.


/Kneels /Witness, you ever-burning lights above, You elements that clip us round about,

Witness that here Iago doth give up The execution of his wit, hands, heart, To wrong'd Othello's service! Let him command, And to obey shall be in me remorse, What bloody business ever.


/They rise/


OTHELLOI greet thy love,Not with vain thanks, but with acceptance bounteous, And will upon the instant put thee to't:Within these three days let me hear thee sayThat Cassio's not alive.


IAGOMy friend is dead; 'tis done at your request: But let her live.


OTHELLODamn her, lewd minx! O, damn her!Come, go with me apart; I will withdraw,

To furnish me with some swift means of deathFor the fair devil. Now art thou my lieutenant.


IAGOI am your own for ever. /Exeunt/


Not exactly a traditional exchange of “I do’s”, but it’s the best Iago can get, right?


And realize that this arc of Iago’s heterosexual love for Othello began when Shakespeare gave us that first, unambiguous signal that Iago is a woman, prompting us to recall Viola speaking specifically about /her /disguise as a man. It makes perfect sense that this echo be sounded at the moment when we’re first introduced to Iago in Act 1, Scene 1, of /Othello/, even before we have any idea at all about Iago’s character.


By the end of Act 1, Scene 1, we know that disguise is Iago’s middle name, so to speak, so such a physical disguise would fit perfectly with such a character. And then, when we get to Act 3, Scenes 1 and 4, we’re already primed to think about Iago as a master of disguise, and so we in the audience would have a good chance of hearing the Clown’s Iagoishness, and then guessing that Iago was /also/ the Clown in disguise, making it a disguise of a disguise! We know by then that Iago’s art of disguise has no limits, in his behavior, his speech, and/or his garb—it is all part and parcel of the essence of the satanic shapeshifter he so clearly was.


And all of the above would be enough to make this line of inquiry worthwhile, but here’s where Iago as a woman gets more interesting still. Through my brief study this morning, I quickly found that there’s /another /significant echo in /Othello /of that above quoted exchange between Viola and Olivia – in fact, it occurs a mere three /lines/ earlier than Viola’s “I am not what I am”—it’s the line in which Olivia flirts with “Cesario” in a very particular way:




VIOLA That you do think you are not what you are.


OLIVIA If I think so, I think the same of you.


VIOLA Then think you right: I AM NOT WHAT I AM.


OLIVIA I would you were as I would have you be!


VIOLA Would it be better, madam, than I am? I wish it might, for now I am your fool.


I realized as soon as I read that exchange with /Othello /specifically in mind, that I had just seen something exactly like that in /Othello/, because I had just discussed the following exchange in Act 2, Scene 1, in one of my posts over the weekend just ended!:




IAGOO gentle lady, do not put me to't; For I am nothing, if not critical.


DESDEMONA Come on assay. There's one gone to the harbour?


IAGO Ay, madam.


DESDEMONA I am not merry; but I do beguile The thing I am, by seeming otherwise.



Is it just a coincidence that Iago and Desdemona /both /strongly echo in the above quoted passage the distinctive lines spoken by Viola and Olivia in their short exchange? Of course not!! Shakespeare was NOT /that/ unconscious an artist! No, I claim he very much meant for those who read his plays as a unified canon like the Bible, or even those who had only seen /Twelfth Night /on stage, and then were attending a performance of /Othello /two years later/, /to notice this striking double parallelism, and then, to ask themselves: what might this mean? And seeing Iago as a woman becomes even more interesting when we see Desdemona’s echoing Olivia in the above scenes, in terms of what it suggests to us about both Iago and Desdemona.


Olivia has no conscious awareness that “Cesario” is actually female, but it is also plausible to speculate that Olivia’s strong attraction to Viola is based at least in part on an unconscious lesbian attraction she feels for Viola (and perhaps vice versa as well?). This all lays the groundwork for Olivia’s abrupt transfer of her affections to the very masculine Sebastian (who, by the way, used the assumed name “Roderigo” while on the voyage to Illyria), who somehow manages to resemble Viola very strongly, at the end of the play.


So, what is Shakespeare suggesting to us about Desdemona, by drawing this surprising parallel between the recently married innocent bride of Othello, on the one hand, and the worldly, provocative, desirable unmarried heiress Olivia, on the other? Desdemona explains her teasing questions posed to Iago as an innocent way for her to reduce her anxiety for Othello’s safe return from the wars. After all, Desdemona knows Iago to be Othello’s right hand “man”, and so who would be a safer man to mildly flirt with?


How can she even guess that such flirting will both exacerbate Iago’s jealousy of Othello, but also reveal to his sharp eye her vulnerability to defamation. Iago will take that innocent flirting by Desdemona, and weave it into a narrative of wanton adultery. And perhaps, even in the innocent young woman, might there also be, some subconscious sexual attraction felt by Desdemona to Iago, similar to that felt by Olivia toward “Cesario”? or even similar to the way Duke Orsino sees “Cesario”? Many questions, no clear answers—but I hope you’ll agree that the meme of Iago as a woman opens up some fruitful avenues for fresh interpretation of the entirety of /Othello./







A Conversation Piece

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.121  Monday, 11 April 2016


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

Date:         April 9, 2016 at 8:58:15 PM EDT

Subject:    A Conversation Piece


While the world wonders at the serendipitous recent find of a copy of F1 on the Isle of Bute, this Conversation piece by David McInnis might give us pause: 


Food for thought, perhaps, or at least a timely reminder of the work that remains to be done in historical scholarship.


Laurie Johnson


We’ve found a Shakespeare folio but a swag of original plays are still missing


Almost 400 years ago, on 23 April 1616, William Shakespeare died. Perhaps the looming anniversary is what prompted a search through the library of Mount Stuart House on the Isle of Bute, Scotland, where a valuable copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623) has recently been discovered.


As Eric Rasmussen predicted in 2014, the chances of more folios turning up are reasonably good. This newest folio brings the grand total of known copies to 234, out of approximately 750 originally printed. Although this latest discovery is a welcome addition, Shakespeare’s First Folio is hardly a rare book.


By contrast, latest estimates suggest that whilst 543 plays survive from the commercial theatres of Shakespeare’s London, a staggering 744 remain known by their titles or descriptions of them only. At least two of them (there might be more) were by Shakespeare: Love’s Labour’s Won, and Cardenio. In other words, only the minority of drama from Shakespeare’s day survives.


New research on the lost plays shows how interconnected the drama of the day was, with rival playing companies emulating each other’s successes and replicating their own blockbusters with serials and spin-off plays.


Today we celebrate Shakespeare as one of the greatest writers of all time. But the survival of his plays – including masterpieces such as Antony and Cleopatra and The Comedy of Errors – was more precarious than you might think.


Only around half of Shakespeare’s plays were printed during his lifetime. Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and others appeared in cheap print “quarto” editions, but some of the earliest printings did not even include Shakespeare’s name on their title pages.


Titus Andronicus (1594), two of the Henry VI plays (1594, 1595), Richard II (1597) and Richard III (1597) all advertised the name of the companies who performed them, but not the playwright who wrote them.


Although the print run of plays published in quarto would have comprised several hundred, no copies of the first quarto of Hamlet were known until 1823 (we now have two copies, at the British Library and the Huntington).


Only a single copy of the first quarto of Titus Andronicus has survived (now at the Folger Shakespeare Library) – and it was only discovered in 1905, in a Swedish cottage.


The first plays to be published with Shakespeare’s name were the 1598 editions of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Richard II, and Richard III.

The 1598 quarto of Love’s Labour’s Lost says that it was “Newly corrected and augmented By W. Shakespere”, hinting at the possibility of an earlier publication (which may have borne the author’s name too). Remarkably, Shakespeare seems to have written a play called “Love’s Labour’s Won” (possibly a sequel or spin-off play), and that play even appears to have been printed, but has since been lost altogether.


He must have written it by 1598, when the Elizabethan schoolmaster Francis Meres praised Shakespeare as amongst the best of the English writers of comedy and tragedy, citing “his Loue labors lost, his Loue labours wonne” and other plays as examples.


In 1953, a second reference to this lost play was discovered in a bookseller’s list dated 1603. Perhaps, like the unique copy of Titus or the Mount Stuart House library’s First Folio, a copy of “Love’s Labour’s Won” will turn up in an attic or basement one day too: possibly someone has already seen it, and the likely absence of that magic word “Shakespeare” on the title page has prevented further interest.


The first edition of Henry IV, Part 1, was also nearly lost; indeed, remains mostly lost. Only a four-leaf fragment survives, having been found in Bristol, in the binding of another book. Luckily Henry IV, Part 1 seems to have been immensely popular, appearing in 9 quarto and 2 folio editions before 1660.


Occasionally a character gets lost too. A stage direction at the start of Much Ado About Nothing reads: “Enter Leonato gouernour of Messina, Innogen his wife, Hero his daughter, and Beatrice his neece, with a messenger”. “Innogen” (or “Imogen”) is never heard from or seen again.


Midway through The Taming of the Shrew, the character called Hortensio is a suitor to Bianca Minola, but is frequently left out of the conversations about her known suitors; worse, another suitor, Tranio, seems to be allocated lines intended for Hortensio.


In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare died, his friends and colleagues assembled the collected works commonly referred to as the First Folio. The Folio “saved” some 18 of Shakespeare’s plays from possible loss, in that it printed them for the first time. Macbeth, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night and 14 others may never have made it to us if they hadn’t been preserved in 1623.


But printed plays from Shakespeare’s period are the minority, and we don’t know why some plays were printed and others not. Shakespeare co-wrote a play called “Cardenio” with fellow King’s Men dramatist, John Fletcher, sometime around 1613, when court records show that it was performed at Whitehall Palace.


Most scholars assume this play was based on a subplot from Don Quixote: perhaps in 2016 we should be commemorating the death of Cervantes (who was buried on 23 April 1616) and Shakespeare together.


Four centuries on, Shakespeare’s plays continue to bring us joy on stage, page, and film, thanks to their memorable characters, lines, unique words and powerful insights into the human mind. That – and the fact that so much of his work survived at all – is something worth celebrating.




Shakespeare Now

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.120  Monday, 11 April 2016


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

Date:         Monday, April 11, 2016

Subject:    Shakespeare Now


How Shakespeare Lives Now

By Stephen Greenblatt


Shakespeare’s death on April 23, 1616, went largely unremarked by all but a few of his immediate contemporaries. There was no global shudder when his mortal remains were laid to rest in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. No one proposed that he be interred in Westminster Abbey near Chaucer or Spenser (where his fellow playwright Francis Beaumont was buried in the same year and where Ben Jonson would be buried some years later). No notice of Shakespeare’s passing was taken in the diplomatic correspondence of the time or in the newsletters that circulated on the Continent; no rush of Latin obsequies lamented the “vanishing of his breath,” as classical elegies would have it; no tributes were paid to his genius by his distinguished European contemporaries. Shakespeare’s passing was an entirely local English event, and even locally it seems scarcely to have been noted.


The death of the famous actor Richard Burbage in 1619 excited an immediate and far more widespread outburst of grief. England had clearly lost a great man. “He’s gone,” lamented at once an anonymous elegist,

and, with him, what a world are dead,
Which he revived, to be revivèd so
No more: young Hamlet, old Hieronimo,
Kind Lear, the grievèd Moor, and more beside
That lived in him have now for ever died.


William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, was so stricken by the actor’s death that months later he could not bring himself to go to the playhouse “so soon after the loss of my acquaintance Burbage.” It was this death that was publicly marked by him and by his contemporaries, far more than the vanishing of the scribbler who had penned the words that Burbage had so memorably brought alive.


The elegy on Burbage suggests that for some and perhaps even most of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, the real “life” of the characters and their plays lay not in the texts but in the performances of those texts. The words on the page were dead letters until they were “revived” by the gifted actor. This belief should hardly surprise us, since it is the way most audiences currently respond to plays and, still more, to film.


There was also a social dimension specific to the age. A grand aristocrat like William Herbert could acknowledge his acquaintance with a celebrity actor like Burbage (though his father was a carpenter) far more readily than he could show a connection to a social nonentity—a bourgeois entrepreneur and playwright without Oxbridge honors or family distinction—like Shakespeare. A hidden connection may all the same have existed: William Herbert is one of the perennial candidates for the sonnets’ “Mr. W.H.” But it would not do to display it in public.


Though Shakespeare’s theatrical artistry gave pleasure, it was not the kind of pleasure that conferred cultural distinction on those who savored it. He was the supreme master of mass entertainment, as accessible to the unlettered groundlings standing in the pit as to the elite ensconced in their cushioned chairs. His plays mingled high and low in a carnivalesque violation of propriety. He was indifferent to the rules and hostile to attempts to patrol the boundaries of artistic taste. If his writing attained heights of exquisite delicacy, it also effortlessly swooped down to bawdy puns and popular ballads.


In Twelfth Night, one of those ballads, sung by a noisy, festive trio of drunkard, blockhead, and professional fool, enrages the censorious steward Malvolio. “Is there no respect of place, persons, nor time in you?” he asks indignantly, to which he gets a vulgar reply—“Sneck up!”—followed by a celebrated challenge: “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?” Shakespearean cakes and ale may have been beloved by the crowds drawn to the Globe, but they were not fit fare for the champions of piety or decorum. The pleasure they offered was in indefinable ways subversive.


It was not until seven years after his death that Shakespeare’s comedies, histories, and tragedies were gathered together by his friends John Heminges and Henry Condell in an expensive edition, dedicated to William Herbert and his brother, that first laid claim to their status as high culture. And it was only then, in his commendatory poem to the volume, that Ben Jonson for the first time evoked a larger landscape in which to understand the significance of Shakespeare’s career, one that would make it appropriate for a nobleman to acknowledge a connection to a middle-class writer of popular plays. “And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,” Jonson wrote, “I would not seek/For names; but call forth thund’ring Aeschylus,/Euripides, and Sophocles to us.” These immortals could worthily bear witness to the greatness of Shakespeare as a tragic playwright; as for his comedies, Jonson added, these surpass everything “that insolent Greece or haughty Rome/sent forth.”


Jonson made Shakespeare into a global artist. Not in the sense that he imagined his work was or would ever become famous outside of England, but that he insisted it could bear comparison with the best that the world of letters had ever brought forth. Even if nothing in Shakespeare’s personal circumstances—his birthplace, parentage, education, affiliations, and the like—bore recording, he was nonetheless a national treasure. “Triumph, my Britain,” Jonson proclaimed, “thou hast one to show,/To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe.” To this proud boast he added the famous line: “He was not of an age, but for all time!”


The enduring and global success of Shakespeare’s work is due in part to his willingness to let go of it, a willingness perhaps conveyed by titles like As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, What You Will (the subtitle of Twelfth Night), and All’s Well That Ends Well. It is as if he were refusing to insist upon his own identity and proprietary claim. It goes without saying that Shakespeare was a genius who left his mark on everything he touched. But there is also a strange sense that his characters and plots seized upon him as much as he seized upon them.


Even at this distance in time, Shakespeare’s greatest contemporary playwrights, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, both seem directly and personally present in their work in a way that Shakespeare does not. In the case of Jonson—too eager to display his scholarly mastery over his source materials, too bound up with the drama of his own life, and too anxious to retain absolute control over his own finished work—that presence is explicitly avowed in a variety of prefaces, prologues, and authorial interventions, with the result that his work, though splendid, seems entirely of a particular time and place and author.


Shakespeare seems to have felt no comparable desire to make himself known or to cling tenaciously to what he had brought forth. The consequence is that it is not really necessary to know the details of Shakespeare’s life in order to love or understand his plays. This does not mean that Shakespeare was not present in every moment of his work. On the contrary, his vocation obliged him to use his personal experience, and his mastery of his medium meant that he managed to use an uncanny amount of it, mixing it with what he had read and observed and digested.


He was an expert—perhaps the greatest expert the world has ever known—in what the brilliant English anthropologist Alfred Gell called “distributed personhood.” Gell’s interest was exclusively in visual representations, paintings, sculptures, and the like. But the core of what he discovered in the analysis of Polynesian tattoos or Malangan carvings may be found as well in literature: the ability of an artist to fashion something—Gell called it an “index”—that carries agency, his own and that of others, into the world where it can act and be acted upon in turn.* A part of the personhood of the creator is detached from his body and survives after he or she has ceased physically to exist. Transformed often out of recognition, feared or attacked or reverenced, these redistributed parts live on, generating new experiences, triggering inferences, harming or rewarding those they encounter, arousing love.


Shakespeare created out of himself hundreds of secondary agents, his characters, some of whom seem even to float free of the particular narrative structures in which they perform their given roles and to take on an agency we ordinarily reserve for biological persons. As an artist he literally gave his life to them.


We speak of Shakespeare’s works as if they were stable reflections of his original intentions, but they continue to circulate precisely because they are so amenable to metamorphosis. They have left his world, passed into ours, and become part of us. And when we in turn have vanished, they will continue to exist, tinged perhaps in small ways by our own lives and fates, and will become part of others whom he could not have foreseen and whom we can barely imagine.


On April 23, 2014—the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth—a company of actors from London’s Globe (the modern reconstruction of the Elizabethan playhouse) embarked on a two-year tour with the ambition of performing Hamlet in every country of the world. The project makes vivid what has already been happening for a very long time. Shakespeare’s works have been translated, it is estimated, into more than a hundred languages. They have profoundly shaped national literary cultures not only in Great Britain and the United States but also of countries as diverse as Germany and Russia, Japan and India, Egypt and South Africa.


A few years ago, during a merciful remission in the bloodshed and mayhem that has for so many years afflicted Afghanistan, a young Afghan writer, Qais Akbar Omar, had an idea. It was, he brooded, not only lives and livelihood that had been ruthlessly attacked by the Taliban, it was also culture. The international emblem of that cultural assault was the dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas, but the damage extended to painting, music, dance, fiction, film, and poetry. It extended as well to the subtle web of relations that link one culture to another across boundaries and make us, each in our provincial worlds, feel that we are part of a larger humanity. This web is not only a contemporary phenomenon, the result of modern technology; it is as old as culture itself, and it has been particularly dense and vital in Afghanistan with its ancient trade routes and its endless succession of would-be conquerors.


Omar thought that the time was ripe to mark the restoration of civil society and repair some of the cultural damage. He wanted to stage a play with both men and women actors performing in public in an old garden in Kabul. He chose a Shakespeare play. No doubt the choice had something to do with the old imperial presence of the British in Afghanistan, but it was not only this particular history that was at work. Shakespeare is the embodiment worldwide of a creative achievement that does not remain within narrow boundaries of the nation-state or lend itself to the secure possession of a particular faction or speak only for this or that chosen group. He is the antithesis of intolerant provinciality and fanaticism. He could make with effortless grace the leap from Stratford to Kabul, from English to Dari.


Omar did not wish to put on a tragedy; his country, he thought, had suffered through quite enough tragedy of its own. Considering possible comedies, he shied away from those that involved cross-dressing. It was risky enough simply to have men and women perform together on stage. In the end he chose Love’s Labour’s Lost, a comedy that arranged the sexes in distinct male and female groups, had relatively few openly transgressive or explicitly erotic moments, and decorously deferred the final consummation of desire into an unstaged future. As a writer, Omar was charmed by the play’s gorgeous language, language that he felt could be rendered successfully in Dari.


The complex story of the mounting of the play is told in semifictionalized form in a 2015 book Omar coauthored with Stephen Landrigan, A Night in the Emperor’s Garden. Measured by the excitement it generated, this production of Love’s Labor’s Lost was a great success. The overflow crowds on the opening night gave way to ever-larger crowds clamoring to get in, along with worldwide press coverage.


But the attention came at a high price. The Taliban took note of Shakespeare in Kabul and what it signified. In the wake of the production, virtually everyone involved in it began to receive menacing messages. Spouses, children, and the extended families of the actors were not exempt from harrassment and warnings. The threats were not idle. The husband of one of the performers answered a loud knock on the door one night and did not return. His mutilated body was found the next morning.


What had seemed like a vigorous cultural renaissance in Afghanistan quickly faded and died. In the wake of the resurgence of the Taliban, Qais Akbar Omar and all the others who had had the temerity to mount Shakespeare’s delicious comedy of love were in terrible trouble. They are now, every one of them, in exile in different parts of the world.


Love’s labors lost indeed. But the subtitle of Omar’s account—“A True Story of Hope and Resilience in Afghanistan”—is not or at least not only ironic. The humane, inexhaustible imaginative enterprise that Shakespeare launched more than four hundred years ago in one small corner of the world is more powerful than all the oppressive forces that can be gathered against it. Feste the clown at the end of Twelfth Night sings a farewell ditty:


A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done.


For a split second it sounds like it is all over, and then the song continues: “And we’ll strive to please you every day.” The enemies of pleasure beware.




Donald Trump Performs Shakespeare’s Soliloquies

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.119  Friday, 8 April 2016


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

Date:         April 7, 2016 at 8:14:24 PM EDT

Subject:    Donald Trump Performs Shakespeare’s Soliloquies


Donald Trump Performs Shakespeare’s Soliloquies


By Aryeh Cohen-Wade

New Yorker, April 6, 2016




Listen—to be, not to be, this is a tough question, O.K.? Very tough. A lot of people come up to me and ask, “Donald, what’s more noble? Getting hit every day with the slings, the bows, the arrows, the sea of troubles—or just giving up?” I mean, smart people, the best Ivy League schools.


But I say to them, “Have you ever thought that we don’t know—we don’t know—what dreams may come? Have you ever thought about that?” Ay yi yi—there’s the rub! There’s the rub right there. When we shuffle off this mortal whatever it is—coil? They say to me, “Donald, you’ve built this fantastic company, how’d you do it? How?” And I say one word: “leadership.” Because that’s what it’s all about, is leadership. And people are so grateful whenever I bring up this whole “perchance to dream” thing. So grateful.


And on and on with the whips and the scorns of time and the contumely and the fardels and the blah blah blah.


Then I see a bare bodkin and I’m like—a bodkin? What the hell is this thing, a bodkin? Listen, I run a very successful business, I employ thousands of people and I’m supposed to care whether this bodkin is bare or not? Sad!


And when people say I don’t have a conscience—trust me, I have a conscience, and it’s a very big conscience, O.K.? And the native hue of my resolution is not sicklied o’er, that’s a lie! If anyone tells you that the native hue of my resolution is sicklied o’er, they’re trying to sell you a load of you-know-what. And enterprises of great pith—listen, my enterprises are so pithy. So pithy. Fantastic pith. But sometimes, hey, they lose the name of action, right? I mean, it happens—it happens.


“Romeo and Juliet”


Quiet, quiet—shut up, over there! What’s coming through that window? A light, it is the east, and Melania—you know, people are always telling me, they say, “Mr. Trump, you’ve got a wonderful wife”—Melania, she’s sitting right there. Stand up, sweetheart. Isn’t she a beautiful woman, Melania? Gorgeous. I love women, they love me—and I think we all know what I mean, folks! I’m gonna do so well with the women in November. So well.


Melania’s the sun, is what a lot of people are saying. Hillary Clinton? I mean, with that face? She looks like the moon! She’s very envious, if you ask me, very envious, but can you blame her? Visit Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue—which is the best street in New York, by the way—I mean, who wouldn’t be envious? This moon, Hillary, is sick and pale with grief when she compares herself to Melania, who is a very beautiful woman, I have to admit.


Melania, she’s got a great cheek, it’s a wonderful cheek, a bright cheek, everyone knows it, the stars ought to be ashamed of themselves, ashamed. The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars. As daylight doth a lamp! Look at this, folks, how she leans her cheek upon her hand. If I were a glove upon that hand—first, let me tell you, I think we all know what I would do, because I bought the Miss Universe Pageant, very successful, so I know a thing or two about gorgeous women. And all this stuff about the gloves, and my hands—I have great hands, O.K.? Gimme a break.


“Julius Caesar”


Friends, Romans, folks—listen up. The reason I’m here is to bury Julius. It’s not to praise him. It’s just not. Brutus over there—we all know he’s a good guy, right? And he says Julius was low-energy. Is it a crime to be low-energy? Well, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t—who knows?


The point is, Brutus is a good guy, all these guys over there, the ones who did this, they’re all good guys—and Julius, Julius was my friend, a really terrific friend to me.


Julius—he brought a lot of captives home to Rome, filled a lot of coffers. Really fantastic coffers. Does that sounds low-energy to you? And when the poor people, regular, hardworking, everyday Romans, cried—Julius did, too. He cried. I saw it with my own eyes—many, many times. But Brutus—Brutus says Julius was low-energy. And everyone knows that Brutus is a good guy, right?


You all saw that on the Lupercal, three times—three times—I tried to give Julius a kingly crown. And you should’ve seen this crown—this was a great crown, O.K.? Very, very kingly. And three times he said, “Nope.” Is this low-energy? Yet Brutus says he was low-energy—and, sure, sure, Brutus is a good guy.


I’m not here to say Brutus is lying, but I am here to speak what I do know. You all loved Julius once—so why not be a little sad, now that he’s dead? Just a little sad.


I’m sorry to say that the Roman Senate has been run by a bunch of morons for a long, long time. Morons! A lot of bad decisions—these guys, they’re like a bunch of animals. It makes me so sad. So sad. And I’m looking here at the coffin of my good friend, Mr. Caesar. Just a minute. (He pauses to wipe a tear from his eye.)


So we’re gonna build a wall! And who’s gonna pay for it? (The crowd shouts, “The Visigoths!”)




Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and yadda yadda, the days are going by—what I’m saying is this is gonna last a long time, believe you me. Long. I see this candle, and I say—should I blow it out?


Should I? Because, when you think about it, and there’s been some great polling on this, in fact there’s a new poll out from the Wall Street Journal—which is a terrific paper, by the way, they’ve won a lot of prizes—listen to this, they say blow out the candle. They do, they say blow it out.


People come up to me and say, “Mr. Trump, life is like a shadow,” and I’m like, “What? A shadow? I don’t get it, and, listen, I went to Wharton, O.K.—the top business school in the country. So I’m a smart guy, I’m a smart guy, it’s no secret.”


And what’s really interesting is I like to talk, and tell a tale, and that tale is gonna have a whole lotta sound, and a whole lotta fury, because that’s what the American people want to hear! They want to hear some sound and some fury sent to Washington for once in their lives, and, I mean, is that too much to ask? They want to hear me tell it, and they can decide what it signifies, but I’m saying right now—it’s gonna sound great, I guarantee it. Absolutely, a hundred and ten per cent, just really, really great. O.K.? 




Bute First Folio

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.118  Friday, 8 April 2016


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

Date:         Friday, April 8, 2016

Subject:    Bute First Folio



Shakespeare First Folio Discovered on Isle of Bute, in Time for an Anniversary


By Jennifer Schuessler

April 6, 2016


Just in time for the global commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, a stately home on a small Scottish island is announcing a surprise party gift: the unveiling of a previously unknown First Folio.


The book, owned by the seventh Marquess of Bute, Johnny Dumfries, had been shelved in the library at Mount Stuart House, an enormous Gothic revival pile and tourist attraction on the Isle of Bute, in the Firth of Clyde, about 60 miles west of Glasgow.


“Finding it right now is almost crazy,” said Emma Smith, a Shakespeare expert at the University of Oxford who authenticated the Folio during a visit to the house in September. Discovering a new First Folio, she added, is “like spotting a panda.”


The First Folio, published in 1623 — seven years after Shakespeare’s death — in an edition of roughly 750, contains 36 of his plays, including 18 that had not been printed in his lifetime. The announcement of the Scottish copy, which goes on public display at Mount Stuart on Thursday, brings the number of known surviving First Folios to 234.


While the copy has yet to be examined by the broader scholarly world, Eric Rasmussen, a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, who authenticated a First Folio found in northern France in 2014, called Ms. Smith’s research, which is to be published on Thursday in London in The Times Literary Supplement, convincing.


“I think this is absolutely the real deal,” Mr. Rasmussen said. “All the pieces fall into place.”


The copy in Scotland was not, strictly speaking, totally unknown. It had been listed in the typed catalog of the Bute family library as early as 1896, but its existence seems never to have been made public, even after a census of First Folios in 1902 by the scholar Sidney Lee led more than one millionaire to complain that his prize treasure had not been listed.


[ . . . ]




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