Post Number: 81
|Posted on Tuesday, April 20, 2010 - 10:20 am: ||
1. HAMLET'S INDIVIDUALITY
for Dana Gioia
At the beginning of Sir Laurence Olivier's acclaimed film production of Hamlet, a disembodied voice, speaking above an image of clouds, says, "This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind." Someone in the theater at which I saw it answered ironically, "Oh, so that's what it's about."
The meaning of Hamlet and the nature of the central character are by no means as clear as Olivier wished his audience to believe. To call a play Hamlet or King Lear or Richard III or Othello is not so different from calling a television program The Johnny Carson Show or The Bill Cosby Show or Roseanne. The title implies, The Interesting Individual Show. The Renaissance, the period in which Shakespeare wrote his plays, is often described as the great age of individuality and self-assertion. Plays with titles like Hamlet implicitly promise to "tell all" about some central, charismatic character—someone usually portrayed by the most famous actor in the company—to give us a powerful psychological portrait of a fascinating "individual."
Hamlet the character is, we know from hundreds of performances, just such a fascinating "individual"—and he is overwhelmingly real. Yet the moment we try to "explain" his reality—even to explain his essential problem—we find ourselves confused, uncertain. The reason for this is that Shakespeare's extremely memorable characters do not behave consistently according to any system of psychology, whether Renaissance or Modern. Freud was right. There are moments in the play when Hamlet is exhibiting clear Oedipal characteristics. But not throughout the play. Hamlet himself suggests that he is "melancholy"—a psychological condition exhaustively studied by Shakespeare's contemporary, Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy. It's true, Hamlet is melancholy, but not throughout the play. Hamlet also functions as the figure of the Avenger—as in Thomas Kyd's famous revenge drama, The Spanish Tragedy. But, again, not throughout the play. The same character who tells his mother that he "knows not seems" displays a considerable interest in theater (an art of "seeming") and announces that he will put on an "antic disposition" and pretend to be mad—"seeming" to the max. On the other hand, there are several moments in the play when Hamlet really does appear to be crazy.
Nor are such contradictions limited to the character of Hamlet. Polonius is throughout the play nothing but an old fool. Yet his diagnosis of Hamlet as mad for the love of Ophelia is not without some justification in Hamlet's behavior and his "This above all: to thine own self be true" speech is one of the great set pieces of the play, something far beyond the powers of the foolish old man he is everywhere else. (Of course in delivering the speech Polonius is not being "true" to the "self" he regularly displays in Hamlet, particularly when one remembers his usual rhetorical mode: "And in part him; but you may say not well: / But, if 't be he I mean, he's very wild.")
The fact is that Hamlet seems real not because he is a coherent character or "self" or because there is some discoverable "essence" to him but because he actively and amazingly inhabits so many diverse, interconnecting, potentially contradictory contexts. Implicitly promising to tell us all about the interesting "individual" Hamlet, the play Hamlet ends by expressing the possibility that "individuality" (a word derived from the Latin individuus, indivisible)is in fact multiplicity. It is the plenitude of contexts in which Hamlet functions—i.e., his multiplicity—that gives him density. The "To be or not to be" speech is answered late in the play by a statement of vigorous acceptance: "If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all...Let be" (V, ii). Minutes after saying, "Let be," Hamlet (along with a number of the other major characters) will be slain.
Bernard Shaw once remarked that he liked Hamlet because it was so full of
quotations. The play is also full of extraordinarily different, overlapping contexts—"worlds"—which we would reasonably expect to experience quite separately from one another. The strength of the character, Hamlet, like the strength of the creator of the play, Hamlet—who, incidentally, acted the part of the "Ghost"—is that he is able to inhabit all those contexts with such ampleness and such dexterity.
2. SHAKESPEARE AS “POET”
People often remember this passage from Shakespeare's Sonnet 18:
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
What does Shakespeare mean by "eternal lines"? Clearly he is talking about his poetry, though the sense of “lineage” is also present. It is by his poetry that Shakespeare believes that not only his friend but he too will be remembered. In Sonnet 55 he writes,
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme....
As far as we know, when Shakespeare wrote poetry, he published it: publishing seems to have been part of the process of his "lines" becoming "eternal." When we refer to Shakespeare’s “poetry,” we mean the sonnets, of course, but there are also poems such as "The Rape of Lucrece," "Venus and Adonis," "The Phoenix and the Turtle." These are all pieces Shakespeare published, saw through the press. There is no problem with the texts. Shakespeare did not publish his plays, however. They were published after his death, and, as a result, there are problems with some of the texts. Shakespeare’s behavior was scarcely odd: Ben Jonson was one of the few playwrights who actually published his plays. The situation was not unlike that of the present day television writer. We watch television programs, but it is rare that a script will be published. But the fact that Shakespeare, unlike Ben Jonson, didn't publish his plays at least suggests that he viewed them as a little less than "eternal." He staked his reputation not on the plays but on his published poetry.
Suppose we take that idea and think about it a bit. Suppose the plays were performed for a while and then more or less dropped or lost. Suppose our main source of what Shakespeare was like as a writer was his published poetry. What sort of reputation would he have? This is the opening of "The Rape of Lucrece":
From the besieged Ardea all in post,
Borne by the trustless wings of false desire,
Lust breathed Tarquin leaves the Roman host,
And to Collatium bears the lightless fire
Which, in pale embers hid, lurks to aspire
And girdle with embracing flames the waist
Of Collatine's fair love, Lucrece the chaste.
That's not awful but it isn't really very good either. Besides, we don't need it. We have Edmund Spenser, whom Shakespeare is imitating and who did that sort of thing better. The same thing is true of "Venus and Adonis," "The Phoenix and the Turtle," etc. If these works were not by Shakespeare, no one would be reading them today. In fact, many people who believe they have "read Shakespeare" haven't read these poems. True, there are some beautiful sonnets--wonderful, brilliant things--but the sonnets are not all wonderful and brilliant. If the poetry Shakespeare actually published were all that existed for us to read, what would be the status of his "eternal lines"? I don't think we would rate them as high as we do if we include the plays in our estimation. Shakespeare might have the reputation of, say, John Donne, whose work sometimes resembles Shakespeare's sonnets; certainly not the reputation of Milton. Even if we grant that the sonnets are uniformly magnificent--which they are not--I don't think that would change things very much. Sir Philip Sydney wrote a wonderful sonnet sequence, "Astrophel and Stella." Do people read it? Is Sydney generally thought of as one of the greatest English poets?
What made Shakespeare into the great poet he is were the plays which Shakespeare never bothered to publish. Why? Did he believe his poetry by itself--his "eternal lines"--would make him one of the greats of English literature? Did he rate his plays lowly? What are the differences between a play and a published poem? Were the plays--or perhaps the situation of writing them--able to release something in Shakespeare which the poems could not? Did he recognize this something? Finally: Did he become a great poet precisely by turning away from "poetry"?
These are all questions which I think should be raised about Shakespeare and which, as far as I know, haven't been.
Post Number: 82
|Posted on Tuesday, April 20, 2010 - 09:48 pm: ||
Note: Shakespeare's birthday is celebrated as April 26.
Here is some doggerel:
ah, willie the shakes
willie the shakes
he gives us a lot--
far more than he takes
he wrote quite a number
of beeyootiful lays
and of course is renowned
for his superdo plays
"small latin, less greek"
said ben jonson (the geek!)
and his comment, it oiks
but will had what it takes
to give us the woiks--
made the others seem fakes
did willie the shakes--
his Collected's not slim
god I wish I was him
Post Number: 83
|Posted on Thursday, April 22, 2010 - 11:59 am: ||
A POSTSCRIPT TO ALL OF THE ABOVE: SHAKESPEARE'S TWIST OF THE KNIFE...
Saint James was famous because he drove the Moors out of Spain. Saint James / St. Jacques / San Diego / Santiago. Sant (Saint) Iago.
Othello: Iago is a "James" (pace Mr. Alsop!)who drives out a Moor.
Melanie L Huber
Post Number: 208
|Posted on Thursday, April 22, 2010 - 12:24 pm: ||
In what way did Shakespeare "turn away" from poetry?
The performance of his plays, you could argue, was the original "spoken word." Isn't there a "something" else going on in his work besides essence and multiplicity in the characters (Freud Schmeud.) which creates the universal appeal and long lasting shelf-life? The situations Hamlet was put into by Shakespeare "seemed" outlandish as many of his characters, yet many of his works were based on historical happenings. Instead of making an epic about history and flowering it up for court, which most of the poets of his day were doing... he was bawdy, brash, and in your face. A rebel. Different.
But if a poet has a "function" in society isn't it to stir things up. So, well, I just don't see how he turned away from poetry just because he wasn't the one speaking or acting out the words he wrote or just because he didn't actively try to publish his work...>? That doesn't make sense to me. Printed work on a page do not equal immortality by any means. It's the thing the paper, words evoke, tap into that create that immortality which already exists outside the page just sometimes we're lucky enough to grab onto its foot.
(Note the purposeful non-use of the word "essence.") Which I may begin to replace with the word "scent" for fun.
Thanks, interesting read.
Post Number: 84
|Posted on Tuesday, April 27, 2010 - 04:56 pm: ||
He "turned away" from poetry as such insofar as he became a playwright. Poetry was something one published, plays were not--though the plays are of course filled with "poetry" and deal with it as a subject. Shakespeare became a very well-established dramatist. (Someone called him "The Neil Simon of his day.") I think Elizabethan itinerent ballad singers were far closer to "spoken word" than established dramatists were. And one can question whether Shakespeare was in any way "A rebel. Different." He did what many others were doing--and he made a fair amount of money doing it. Of course he did it better than other people, but that doesn't make him a rebel.
I have a fantasy about God talking to Ben Jonson. "Ben," says God, "the good news is that you will be a playwright of genius. The bad news is that you be an exact contemporary of William Shakespeare."
Essence/scent. Dr. Samuel Johnson, who bathed only occasionally, was on a coach with a lady who noticed that fact. The lady said, "Dr. Johnson, you smell." Always the grammarian, Johnson corrected her: "You smell, Madam. I stink!"
Melanie L Huber
Post Number: 214
|Posted on Wednesday, April 28, 2010 - 12:52 pm: ||
Very funny Jack. Well, the debate about Shakespeare's worth, character, and all that had gone on years before us, and will no doubt continue years after. I didn't know the man personally, so how can I judge really?
But, I don't think changing writing forms from poetry to play writing (in which there was a lot of poetry, yes) can be construed as him "turning away" from poetry. If you only define poetry as "something one published" well...yeah, he turned away. But, I know that you know that poetry is more than just what's in print and what's not.