Considering Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Paul Kasay, writes…

I used to be relatively confident in my idea of Shakespeare. Or at least I thought there wasn’t much to know, and that seemed almost the same thing as having an opinion. I’m relieved to say I no longer have that kind of confidence. Instead, I have more doubt as to what he meant than ever before: every critic and authoritative text always seeming to offer another lovely contradiction. I’m also more confident in the idea that this kind of doubt is the point.

Much has been said about William Shakespeare: historic analysis from various schools of thought; ideas on the importance of the author; or the importance of his context; or the importance of his later editors; or the influence of his contemporaries. With everything from complex close readings on character intent to the more subtle debates on how to properly act out “Exit, pursued by a bear” (The Winter’s Tale, III, iii). For all that has been said, there are always more words, and always more room for them.

In the end, the questions Shakespeare poses are more powerful when they are considered, not when they are answered: considerations of identity and death, love and folly, the uses of power, and the psychological responses to grief. In every raging soliloquy to every spritely aside, Shakespeare defies the attempts to assign easy morals or quiet conclusions. Whether this is due to the veil of history or the fog of fame or the clear expressions of a master artist, and more than likely it is all of these things, there is always the sense that “this our life exempt from public haunt, / Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones and good in everything” (As You Like It, II, i). A good life is, after all, filled with heroes and villains, the ordinary and the complex, and the odd ways they switch roles.

If mystery most properly describes life, then Shakespeare as an artist, and then as a man, comes as close as possible to saying it truly. In the end, he is one of the only authors great enough to encompass it, touching on more than many can consider. Not simplicity in fiction, but a recasting of life recognizable yet elevated, shown for all its potentially brilliant tragedy and oscillating beauty. Even now, Shakespeare seems far more alive than dead, no matter what you thought of him in high school.

Paul Kasay

De-editing Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Gerald Baker, writes…

I can no longer see William Shakespeare straight, nor feel him any longer on the bone or in the blood. By which I mean that over years (50 last month since I had my first Complete Works) of watching, reading, performing in the plays, and of being in a liberal humanist education (and still today working through a reading list that started when I was 18).

I have been told so many different versions or ideas that I often cannot disentangle my perception or understanding of a scene, or speech, or play, from other people’s reactions. Where I can do so, I find myself querying whether it’s my imagination/sensitivity at fault or merely different.

Case in point: Twelfth Night – for many people their favourite comedy, evoking terms like ‘bittersweet’ or ‘Mozartian’ – for me almost a total blind-spot; toneless, moodless, recycling bits he did better elsewhere (though I very much like the pieces often grouped with it, such as As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing). I know this is a discrepancy, and because I love the companion pieces so much I’m not much bothered about it being a failure or deficiency in me, but I go on giving Twelfth Night chances, attempting to get more from it that I know I can’t find.

And so with others: Coriolanus is firmly on the side of the people, exposing the flaws of the wealthy and individualistic ruling faction; Coriolanus has a proper scorn of the unwashed mob and endorses the virtues and strong leadership of its heroic general. It can’t be both (though it demonstrably is as a script) because Shakespeare the man can’t have been both – everything we know, what little everything there is, tends to place him on the side of the rulers against the people. Therefore the two-sidedness, the multi-facetedness, is a product or function not of Shakespeare’s myriad-mindedness, but of a variety of viewpoints and experiences of the play’s consumers and agents.

Othello is a terrible and poetic tragedy of a noble soul: no, actually, it’s a woman strangled in her marital bed by her bombastic and selfish, brutish husband. Desdemona is the one who undergoes the bloody tragedy, but the script manipulates you to forget or ignore this and foregrounds and privileges the killer. I know this, and nowadays this would not be reckoned a perverse interpretation, but all the time I watch, or read, or think of, Othello, I have this undertow pulling me back of Wilson Knight on “The Othello Music”, of images and reviews of noble Moors and “motiveless malignancy”.

And don’t get me started on Hamlet, and the idealizations and canonizations of the Prince as archetypal modern man, or the “claustrophobia” of Elsinore…

It’s not a universal feeling, and there are still parts of Shakespeare’s work that get to me very directly: the Macbeths immediately after killing Duncan, the moodshift of Marcade’s eleventh-hour irruption (Love’s Labour’s Lost), Lear’s and Timon’s denunciations of how their worlds are organized (King Lear and Timon of Athens), the gracefulness and good humour of As You Like It, the tumbling headlong spillage of images in the language of Antony and Cleopatra. But much doesn’t reach me anymore, and I feel tired, and it feels tired, when we meet.

The delights of Shakespeare are varied and multitudinous, but they are not infinite and he is not comprehensive. Let me suggest that mothers and daughters would not find him very engaged with their interrelated concerns.

Where I am happiest at the moment, and for many years past, with Shakespeare, is on the margins, the bits where there are fewer preconceptions to prejudice or handcuff me: parts of Timon of Athens fascinate me, and I have a disproportionate interest in The Two Noble Kinsmen.

I remember my first postgraduate reading of the May Day scene in Sir Thomas More and being blown away by a new bit of Shakespeare. And as I wrote before, I am trying to make all of this new by going back to facsimiles or lightly edited editions where I can see the scripts unmediated, or much less mediated, at least. And Hamlet makes more sense when you find there’s a case for him being only 18, and one of the greatest but least satisfactory scenes in King Lear (III, vi) is more intelligible when you can see that what we know is in fact a conflation of two quite different scenes in the first two editions of the play.

Scholars and academics have been moving on the margins and “de-editing” Shakespeare for a couple of decades now, at least, but not many of us outside universities have tried scraping the varnish off, I think.

It’s almost as if that whole paramountcy that the First Folio established by preserving 50% of the plays from extinction, and distinguishing Shakespeare by collecting a writer’s plays for the first time,* has actually also made it possible to separate him from his contemporaries, his co-workers and his peers.

What I’m trying to say is that the more I can break Shakespeare down in my head and see him in the same fragmented and partial way we perforce do his fellows, the more I have a direct and personal, excited and engaged, response to the work.

 

*I know the Folio of Ben Jonson’s work came first, but it wasn’t just plays, and more importantly he collected his work himself, whereas other people did it for Shakespeare.

 Gerald Baker