Riff on William Shakespeare

1. William Shakespeare, the Greatest Living American Author, turns 450 today.

2. (There may be some, uh, factual, problems with the preceding sentence, but I’ll let it stand).

3. (After all, to write after Shakespeare requires some gall, a bit of fakery, maybe an outright lie or two).

4. 450! (Could I even hit a 450 points on a riff?)

5. “Shakespeare invented us,” Harold Bloom repeatedly insists in his big fat book The Western Canon.

6. (I might be misquoting; the prospect of putting the effort of fact checking into this riff horrifies me).

7. “Shakespeare—whetting, frustrating, surprising and gratifying,” F. Scott Fitzgerald jotted down in his notebook.

8. We don’t actually have a record of Shakespeare’s birth, although we do know he was baptized on 26 April 1564.

9. And died 23 April 1616.

10. It’s likely that Shakespeare was born on 23 April 1564.

11. Or, perhaps: There’s something symmetrical, neat, poetic about Shakespeare dying on his birthday.

12. Ingrid Bergman died on her birthday.

13. As did Thomas Browne.

14. As did Yasujrio Ozu.

15. And, according to tradition: Moses, David, Mohammad.

16. So why not Shakespeare, born on his deathday?

17. We want a teleological neatness with Shakespeare: We want his last play to be The Tempest, a tragicomedy that somehow synthesizes all before it; we can claim Prospero a commanding stand-in for Shakespeare.

18. (These claims overlooking of course that Shakespeare’s last work was likely a forgettable collaboration with John Fletcher,  The Two Noble Kinsmen).

19. The Two Noble Kinsmen was based on Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale.

20. (Shakespeare of course “based” his works on other works; the man was not one for original plotting (thank goodness)).

21. “Chaucer had a deeper knowledge of life than Shakespeare,” claimed Ezra Pound.

22. “Let the reader contradict that after reading both authors, if he chooses to do so,” he truculently added.

23. To Coleridge though Shakespeare was “myriad-minded Shakespeare” — Our myriad-minded Shakespeare.

24. Dryden credited him with “the largest and most comprehensive soul.”

25. Suggesting also that, “Shakespeare’s magic could not copied be.”

26. I’m not sure about that.

27. How many versions of Hamlet have been attempted?

28. Were not some of these Hamlets magical—magical enough, at least?

29. Ulysses?

30. Infinite Jest?

31. The Lion King?

32. Oedipus Rex?

33. David Markson points out somewhere—forgive me for not rising from my fat ass to go verify—that Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have read Sophocles’ Oedipus as there was no English translation yet available.

34. And how many books did Shakespeare read?

35. (Chaucer, often credited with a library of sixty).

36. Speculation, speculation!

37. Shakespeare Truthers.

38. Or Anti-Stratfordians—whatever you want to call them.

38. Walt Whitman was a Shakespeare Truther.

39. Believing no commoner could write the plays, but “only one of the ‘wolfish earls’ so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works.”

40. Amazing that, that Walt Whitman, who could so bombastically conceive himself every man, woman, child, a cosmos, etc.—that he couldn’t credit a commoner with the depth of imagination to produce the plays that Whitman called “greater than anything else in recorded literature.”

41. David Markson: “Scholars who are convinced that Shakespeare must certainly have been a military man.  Or a lawyer.  Or closely associated with royalty.  Or even a Jew. To which Ellen Terry: Or surely a woman.”

42. For some Shakespeare Truthers, evidence of his lack of authorship is to be found in the different ways he supposedly signed his name!

43. Willm Shakp.

44. William Shakspēr.

45. Wm Shakspē.

46. William Shakspere.

47. Willm Shakspere.

48. William Shakspeare.

49. The last of these from his 1616 will, in which he famously bequeathed his second-best bed to his wife Anne Hathaway.

50. “He was a rich country gentleman, Stephen said, with a coat of arms and landed estate at Stratford and a house in Ireland yard, a capitalist shareholder, a bill promoter, a tithefarmer. Why did he not leave her his best bed if he wished her to snore away the rest of her nights in peace?”

51. The preceding is of course Young Dedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

52. Where the phrase “secondbest bed” occurs seven times.

53. The word Hamlet, 49.

54. Shakespeare, 51.

55. In an interview, James Joyce avered that Ulysses was the “most complete man in literature,” contrasting him with Hamlet.

56. “Hamlet is a human being, but he is a son only,” said Joyce.

57. In The Confidence-Man, Melville put Hamlet in a class with Don Quixote and Satan.

58. Melville’s narrator suggested that the characters we meet in a work of fiction “can hardly be original in the sense that Hamlet is, or Don Quixote, or Milton’s Satan.”

59. That’s a tough claim to follow!

60. Hamlet, no doubt, is a fine, great play, but it’s not my preference, as instructor, viewer, or reader.

61. I’ll take Lear.

62. Or the Henry IV plays.

63. Or Othello.

64. (By which I mean of course Iago).

65. And of the comedies, The Merry Wives of Windsor.

66. Or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for all its dark destabilizing muddy moony weirdness.

67. And The Tempest.

68. The first time I allowed myself to allow a class to abandon Julius Caesar after Act III.

69. Shakespeare is only translation, never pure, always a performance.

70. Of actors, directors, producers.

71. Stage managers, property managers.

72. Film cameras.

73. Editors, text emenders.

74. Readers.

75. And of course it goes without saying, it’s better to watch Shakespeare, to see and hear it, than it is to read it.

76. (Most of the time).

77. (I think Lear holds up well as a text).

78. (A Midsummer’s Night is dead on the page; any life a reader brings must surely be informed by a superior performance).

79. And all those Hamlets! Which one to watch, aye?

80. “Why did Hamlet trouble about ghosts after death, when life itself is haunted by ghosts so much more terrible?” Chekhov wondered in his notebook.

81. Umberto Eco on T.S. Eliot on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “He attributed its fascination not to its being a successful work (actually he considered it one of Shakespeare’s less fortunate plays) but to something quite the opposite: Hamlet was the result of an unsuccessful fusion of several earlier Hamlets, one in which the theme was revenge (with madness as only a stratagem), and another whose theme was the crisis brought on by the mother’s sin, with the consequent discrepancy between Hamlet’s nervous excitation and the vagueness and implausibility of Gertrude’s crime. So critics and public alike find Hamlet beautiful because it is interesting, and believe it to be interesting because it is beautiful.”

82. “I think you’re getting on very nicely. Just mix up a mixture of theolologicophilolological.”

83. (The above being of course JJ’s SD again).

84. Leo Tolstoy famously attacked Shakespeare’s skill, prominence, canonical place

85. “I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare,” Tolstoy wrote.

86. Continuing: “I expected to receive a powerful esthetic pleasure, but having read, one after the other, works regarded as his best: “King Lear,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium, and doubted as to whether I was senseless in feeling works regarded as the summit of perfection by the whole of the civilized world to be trivial and positively bad, or whether the significance which this civilized world attributes to the works of Shakespeare was itself senseless.”

87. Irresistible repulsion and tedium!

88. Trivial and positively bad!

89. Tolstoy continued: “My consternation was increased by the fact that I always keenly felt the beauties of poetry in every form; then why should artistic works recognized by the whole world as those of a genius,—the works of Shakespeare,—not only fail to please me, but be disagreeable to me?”

90. Poor Tolstoy!

91. But the man kept at it: “For a long time I could not believe in myself, and during fifty years, in order to test myself, I several times recommenced reading Shakespeare in every possible form, in Russian, in English, in German and in Schlegel’s translation, as I was advised.”

92. And: “Several times I read the dramas and the comedies and historical plays, and I invariably underwent the same feelings: repulsion, weariness, and bewilderment.”

93. (Repulsion seems like a fine aesthetic response to me, let me parenthetically append here).

94.Tolstoy the old man, confirms his youthful prejudice: “At the present time, before writing this preface, being desirous once more to test myself, I have, as an old man of seventy-five, again read the whole of Shakespeare, including the historical plays, the “Henrys,” “Troilus and Cressida,” the “Tempest,” “Cymbeline,” and I have felt, with even greater force, the same feelings,—this time, however, not of bewilderment, but of firm, indubitable conviction that the unquestionable glory of a great genius which Shakespeare enjoys, and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits,—thereby distorting their esthetic and ethical understanding,—is a great evil, as is every untruth.”

95. A great evil!

96. An untruth!

97. Why did Tolstoy not go to see one of the plays performed?

98. Or if he did see one performed (how could he not have?)—why did he not mention this in his rant?

99. George Orwell was moved to respond to Tolstoy.

100. “Artistic theories such as Tolstoy’s are quite worthless,” Orwell wrote, “because they not only start out with arbitrary assumptions, but depend on vague terms (‘sincere’, ‘important’ and so forth) which can be interpreted in any way one chooses.”

101. Orwell again: “There is no argument by which one can defend a poem.”

102. And: “It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible.”

103. And: “Like every other writer, Shakespeare will be forgotten sooner or later.”

104. Melville worried that too many misread Shakespeare, praised him out of ignorance.

105. “And so, much of the blind, unbridled admiration that has been heaped upon Shakespeare, has been lavished upon the least part of him,” wrote Melville, comparing him to his friend and neighbor Hawthorne.

106. “And few of his endless commentators and critics seem to have remembered, or even perceived, that the immediate products of a great mind are not so great, as that undeveloped, (and sometimes undevelopable) yet dimly-discernible greatness, to which these immediate products are but the infallible indices,” Melville continued.

107. Melville seems to cite Lear as a source for Ahab: “Tormented into desperation, Lear the frantic King tears off the mask, and speaks the sane madness of vital truth.”

108. Robert Graves echoed Melville’s concern that Shakespeare’s greatness was misunderstood.

109. “The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good – in spite of all the people who say he is very good,” said Graves.

110. Of course, we all wish to believe that our understanding is the true, real, deep, honest understanding of the text.

111. That our reading is the good reading.

112. Or maybe the not-bad reading.

113. But are good and bad the same?

114. “Therefore good and ill are one,” said Heraclitus.

115. “There’s nothing either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so,” Shakespeare writes in the second act of  Hamlet.

116. And, some years later: “Well, um, you know, something’s neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so, I suppose, as Shakespeare said,” paraphrased Donald Rumsfeld.

117. Harold Bloom: “No poem, not even Shakespeare or Milton or Chaucer, is ever strong enough to totally exclude every crucial precursor text or poem.”

118. “If everything were lost that has ever been preserved to usof this kind of writing,the arts of poetry and rhetoric could be completely restored out of this one play.”

119. The above: Goethe on Henry IV.

120. (How is that for a precursor text!)

121. It occurs to me, now—occurs is not the right verb—I get tired now, I have work to do—

122. It occurs to me now that a 450 point riff has too many points!

123. It occurs to me now that I must cheat a bit to get to 450.

124. It occurs to me now that Shakespeare was responsible for inventing hundreds of English words, and that I might list some, borrowing liberally from online sources that I know of.

125. So here we go.

126. (Readers may wish to skim down to point

127. Abstemious.

128. Academe.

129. Addiction.

130. Aerial.

131. Alligator.

132. Amazement.

133. I’ve become bored again.

134. In fact, I’ve decided that 450 points is too many points—maybe 150?

135. The list of words Shakespeare coined is long, and, alphabetically, concludes with Zany.

136. Which Shakespeare stole from Italian and wedged into Love’s Labour Lost.

137. Wayne Koestenbaum: “When Shakespeare commits lexical excess (by coining new words, by larding a simple thought with plump, dense sounds and metaphors, by hyper-enlivening every sentiment with figurative language), English becomes a body punctured by his violent actions.”

138. Koestenbaum contrasts Shakespeare’s “apex virtuosity—language creaming, ascending, and thickening with “Bare, desiccated language—Samuel Beckett’s … shorn, Samson-like.”

139. Lear is the precursor text for Godot.

140. (A claim I won’t bother to support with any details).

141. (But: Beckett seems to me the most legitimate dramatist to write after Shakespeare—another claim I’ll leave unsupported).

142. Shakespeare, who originated so many words, was a fabulous con-artist, a synthesizer who, interested in crafting some lines of love, or despair, or just plain wit, or a dirty joke, borrowed plots, images, characters, pasted them together in a mélange that, living, breathing, hangs on its constituent players to live.

143. A conduit for culture; a creator of culture.

144. A living writer then, alive today, tomorrow too (perhaps).

145. (“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”!).

146. So: There, there’s some (admittedly rhetorically tricky, devious, maybe not-clever) support for the claim that Shakespeare is a Living Author.

147. Did I also append American there? –I did? Ridiculous, of course.

148. But didn’t Shakespeare invent America? Did Harold Bloom write that, claim that somewhere? I’m sure he must have, and if he didn’t, he should have.

149. After all, isn’t that what The Tempest is somehow about—America? (No?).

150. So then yes—Happy Birthday to William Shakespeare, the Greatest Living American Author.



  1. jochen · April 23

    I think you meant, he was born April 23rd, 1564.


  2. Anon. · April 23

    9.5. Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same date, but not on the same day (Julian vs Gregorian calendars).


  3. Ian Leader-Elliott · April 23

    I do like your suggestion that Shakespeare invented Donald Rumsfeld.


  4. Pingback: Shakespeare: The Obscure & The Elusive (A Biography) | Wandering Mirages

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