I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”
The Dead Father by Donald Barthleme. Penguin paperback, 1986. Cover design by Todd Radom; cover illustration by Lonnie Sue Johnson.
Saturn, Orpheus, Lear, Nobodaddy. A sleeping undead giant, a quest. Good angry fun. I’ll say it’s my favorite Barthelme today (answers will change in the future).
Fathers and Crows by William T. Vollmann. Penguin paperback, 1992. (An enormous paperback—990 pages—it flops slightly on the scanner, refuses to square up neatly). Cover design by Daniel Rembert employing a detail from a painting titled Le Martyrs des missionaires Jesuites (credited to “Anonymous”).
Different fathers, maybe, than the ones celebrated today, Father’s Day, the conceit I’ve lazily tied my Three Books post to…Jesuits. Or maybe they are the fathers. How many times have I tried all of this novel? If you’re interested in Vollmann’s Seven Dreams series, start with The Ice-Shirt or The Rifles instead.
King Lear by William Shakespeare. Edited by R.A. Foakes. Arden, 1997. Cover design by Interbrand Newell and Sorrell; illustration by the Douglas Brothers.
Lear is maybe my favorite fictional father. I don’t know why. The man is a fool, but a pitiable one. Maybe I just love the play that much—its abjection, its darkness, its insanity. Out vile jelly, etc. Happy Father’s Day!
Shakspeare is as much out of the category of eminent authors, as he is out of the crowd. He is inconceivably wise; the others, conceivably. A good reader can, in a sort, nestle into Plato’s brain, and think from thence; but not into Shakspeare’s. We are still out of doors. For executive faculty, for creation, Shakspeare is unique. No man can imagine it better. He was the farthest reach of subtlety compatible with an individual self,—the subtilest of authors, and only just within the possibility of authorship. With this wisdom of life, is the equal endowment of imaginative and of lyric power. He clothed the creatures of his legend with form and sentiments, as if they were people who had lived under his roof; and few real men have left such distinct characters as these fictions. And they spoke in language as sweet as it was fit. Yet his talents never seduced him into an ostentation, nor did he harp on one string. An omnipresent humanitycoördinates all his faculties. Give a man of talents a story to tell, and his partiality will presently appear. He has certain observations, opinions, topics, which have some accidental prominence, and which he disposes all to exhibit. He crams this part, and starves that other part, consulting not the fitness of the thing, but his fitness and strength. But Shakspeare has no peculiarity, no importunate topic; but all is duly given; no veins, no curiosities: no cow-painter, no bird-fancier, no mannerist is he: he has no discoverable egotism: the great he tells greatly; the small, subordinately. He is wise without emphasis or assertion; he is strong, as nature is strong, who lifts the land into mountain slopes without effort, and by the same rule as she floats a bubble in the air, and likes as well to do the one as the other. This makes that equality of power in farce, tragedy, narrative, and love-songs; a merit so incessant, that each reader is incredulous of the perception of other readers.
From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Shakspeare; Or, The Poet.” (And yes, he uses that two-e variant of Shakespeare’s name).
It’s the disconcerting incompleteness of Gustave Doré’s The Spectrum Appearance of Banquo at Macbeth’s Feast that, paradoxically, creates the full, troubling effect of the picture.
“Enter Ghost of Banquo, and sits in Macbeth’s place” (Act 3, Sc. 4)—thus the stage directions from Shakespeare (or the actors who wrote down his words from memory)—and thus Banquo, draped, robed, sullen, taciturn, a marble effigy—but no, lifelike—no?
The Macbeths, shocked—Doré stages Lady M as a shadowy echo/support for Lord M—teeter aslant, Lord M’s left hand braced on the chairback that divides the painting—their faces, the Macbeths’ faces, wholly enshadowed (not wholly; Lady M’s nose peeks out in white silhouette); Lord M’s whole head a gravid mass of dark crowned with an incomplete crown, a broken circle.
Banquo’s eyes: Chilly, stern, accusatory, sad. And over them, thy gory locks. Do they shake at Lord Macbeth?
In The Life and Reminiscences of Gustave Doré, Blanche Roosevelt claims to have “seen no less than six sketches of Macbeth at the banquet, when confronted by Banquo’s ghost.” The biographer continues: “Doré was so original that it was almost impossible for him to repeat himself, even designedly.”
There seems here a condensation of repetitions. Doré’s control is to let loose control: Banquo’s robes are mummy wrappings unraveling: unraveling Lord Macbeth’s consciousness, even, I suppose. Squiggles, pulses, suggesting phantom movement, energy without depth. They unwind from his firm, marble visage—the look, the gory locks that shake, the chin that nods.
Cousin Ross has called out Banquo for his absence, which “lays blame upon his promise,” and of course this is Shakespeare’s big trick, the trick that Doré captures so well here—that Banquo is the most startlingly present absence, the most impossible absence, the absence that proves the radical uncertainty of presence, the present absence that haunts Macbeth, that silently affirms future ghostliness, attesting mutely that “charnel-houses and our graves must send Those that we bury back,” that “our monuments Shall be the maws of kites.”
—A father, Stephen said, battling against hopelessness, is a necessary evil. He wrote the play in the months that followed his father’s death. If you hold that he, a greying man with two marriageable daughters, with thirtyfive years of life, nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, with fifty of experience, is the beardless undergraduate from Wittenberg then you must hold that his seventyyear old mother is the lustful queen. No. The corpse of John Shakespeare does not walk the night. From hour to hour it rots and rots. He rests, disarmed of fatherhood, having devised that mystical estate upon his son. Boccaccio’s Calandrino was the first and last man who felt himself with child. Fatherhood, in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man. It is a mystical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to only begotten. On that mystery and not on the madonna which the cunning Italian intellect flung to the mob of Europe the church is founded and founded irremovably because founded, like the world, macro and microcosm, upon the void. Upon incertitude, upon unlikelihood. Amor matris, subjective and objective genitive, may be the only true thing in life. Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?
What the hell are you driving at?
I know. Shut up. Blast you. I have reasons.
Amplius. Adhuc. Iterum. Postea.
Are you condemned to do this?
—They are sundered by a bodily shame so steadfast that the criminal annals of the world, stained with all other incests and bestialities, hardly record its breach. Sons with mothers, sires with daughters, lesbic sisters, loves that dare not speak their name, nephews with grandmothers, jailbirds with keyholes, queens with prize bulls. The son unborn mars beauty: born, he brings pain, divides affection, increases care. He is a new male: his growth is his father’s decline, his youth his father’s envy, his friend his father’s enemy.
In rue Monsieur-le-Prince I thought it.
—What links them in nature? An instant of blind rut.
Am I a father? If I were?
Shrunken uncertain hand.
—Sabellius, the African, subtlest heresiarch of all the beasts of the field, held that the Father was Himself His Own Son. The bulldog of Aquin, with whom no word shall be impossible, refutes him. Well: if the father who has not a son be not a father can the son who has not a father be a son? When Rutlandbaconsouthamptonshakespeare or another poet of the same name in the comedy of errors wrote Hamlet he was not the father of his own son merely but, being no more a son, he was and felt himself the father of all his race, the father of his own grandfather, the father of his unborn grandson who, by the same token, never was born, for nature, as Mr Magee understands her, abhors perfection.
Stephen Dedalus, holding forth in Ulysses. (Context, if necessary: The referent of He in the second paragraph is William Shakespeare; the play is of course Hamlet).
- William Shakespeare, the Greatest Living American Author, turns 450 today.
- (There may be some, uh, factual, problems with the preceding sentence, but I’ll let it stand).
- (After all, to write after Shakespeare requires some gall, a bit of fakery, maybe an outright lie or two).
- 450! (Could I even hit 450 points on a riff?)
- “Shakespeare invented us,” Harold Bloom repeatedly insists in his big fat book The Western Canon.
- (I might be misquoting; the prospect of putting the effort of fact checking into this riff horrifies me).
- “Shakespeare—whetting, frustrating, surprising and gratifying,” F. Scott Fitzgerald jotted down in his notebook.
- We don’t actually have a record of Shakespeare’s birth, although we do know he was baptized on 26 April 1564.
- And died 23 April 1616.
- It’s likely that Shakespeare was born on 23 April 1564.
- Or, perhaps: There’s something symmetrical, neat, poetic about Shakespeare dying on his birthday.
- Ingrid Bergman died on her birthday.
- As did Thomas Browne.
- As did Yasujrio Ozu.
- And, according to tradition: Moses, David, Mohammad.
- So why not Shakespeare, born on his deathday?
- 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.
- (These claims overlooking of course that Shakespeare’s last work was likely a forgettable collaboration with John Fletcher, The Two Noble Kinsmen).
- The Two Noble Kinsmen was based on Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale.
- (Shakespeare of course “based” his works on other works; the man was not one for original plotting (thank goodness)).
- “Chaucer had a deeper knowledge of life than Shakespeare,” claimed Ezra Pound.
- “Let the reader contradict that after reading both authors, if he chooses to do so,” he truculently added.
- To Coleridge though Shakespeare was “myriad-minded Shakespeare” — Our myriad-minded Shakespeare.
- Dryden credited him with “the largest and most comprehensive soul.”
- Suggesting also that, “Shakespeare’s magic could not copied be.”
- I’m not sure about that.
- How many versions of Hamlet have been attempted?
- Were not some of these Hamlets magical—magical enough, at least?
- Infinite Jest?
- The Lion King?
- Oedipus Rex?
- 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.
- And how many books did Shakespeare read?
- (Chaucer, often credited with a library of sixty).
- Speculation, speculation!
- Shakespeare Truthers.
- Or Anti-Stratfordians—whatever you want to call them.
- Walt Whitman was a Shakespeare Truther.
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- For some Shakespeare Truthers, evidence of his lack of authorship is to be found in the different ways he supposedly signed his name!
- Willm Shakp.
- William Shakspēr.
- Wm Shakspē.
- William Shakspere.
- Willm Shakspere.
- William Shakspeare.
- The last of these from his 1616 will, in which he famously bequeathed his second-best bed to his wife Anne Hathaway.
- “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?” Continue reading “Riff on William Shakespeare”
From Stephen Dedalus’s strange thesis on Shakespeare in episode 9 of James Joyce’s Ulysses–
— And the sense of property, Stephen said. He drew Shylock out of his own long pocket. The son of a maltjobber and moneylender he was himself a cornjobber and moneylender, with ten tods of corn hoarded in the famine riots. His borrowers are no doubt those divers of worship mentioned by Chettle Falstaff who reported his uprightness of dealing. He sued a fellowplayer for the price of a few bags of malt and exacted his pound of flesh in interest for every money lent. How else could Aubrey’s ostler and callboy get rich quick? All events brought grist to his mill. Shylock chimes with the jewbaiting that followed the hanging and quartering of the queen’s leech Lopez, his jew’s heart being plucked forth while the sheeny was yet alive: Hamlet and Macbeth with the coming to the throne of a Scotch philosophaster with a turn for witchroasting. The lost armada is his jeer in Love’s Labour Lost. His pageants, the histories, sail fullbellied on a tide of Mafeking enthusiasm. Warwickshire jesuits are tried and we have a porter’s theory of equivocation. The Sea Venture comes home from Bermudas and the play Renan admired is written with Patsy Caliban, our American cousin. The sugared sonnets follow Sidney’s. As for fay Elizabeth, otherwise carrotty Bess, the gross virgin who inspired The Merry Wives of Windsor, let some meinherr from Almany grope his life long for deephid meanings in the depths of the buckbasket.
I think you’re getting on very nicely. Just mix up a mixture of theolologicophilolological. Mingo, minxi, mictum, mingere.
Book shelves series #33, thirty-third Sunday of 2012
This is the end cap shelf of the coffee table in our family room, which is really the room where the kids play.
Mostly old ratty Shakespeare paperbacks and other slim volumes. Some of the hundreds of CDs I have that I haven’t played in ages.
I reread Henry IV last year, using these editions; still one of my favorite plays.
Contains some of my favorite moments in literature (I especially love the part where Falstaff calls his soldiers his “rag of Muffins”):
Shakespeare has given several allusions to the old customs associated with drinking, which have always varied in different countries. At the present day many of the drinking customs still observed are very curious, especially those kept up at the universities and inns-of-court. Alms-drink was a phrase in use, says Warburton, among good fellows, to signify that liquor of another’s share which his companion drank to ease him. So, in “Antony and Cleopatra” (ii. 7) one of the servants says of Lepidus: “They have made him drink alms-drink.”
By-drinkings.This was a phrase for drinkings between meals, and is used by the Hostess in “1 Henry IV.” (iii. 3), who says to Falstaff: “You owe money here besides, Sir John, for your diet, and by-drinkings.”
Hooped Pots.In olden times drinking-pots were made with hoops, so that, when two or more drank from the same tankard, no one should drink more than his share. There were generally three hoops to the pots: hence, in “2 Henry VI.” (iv. 2), Cade says: “The three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops.” In Nash’s “Pierce Pennilesse” we read: “I believe hoopes on quart pots were invented that every man should take his hoope, and no more.” The phrases “to do a man right” and “to do him reason” were, in years gone by, the common expressions in pledging healths; he who drank a bumper expected that a bumper should be drunk to his toast. To this practice alludes the scrap of a song which Silence sings in “2 Henry IV.” (v. 3): “Do me right, And dub me knight: Samingo.” He who drank, too, a bumper on his knee to the health of his mistress was dubbed a knight for the evening. The word Samingo is either a corruption of, or an intended blunder for, San Domingo, but why this saint should be the patron of topers is uncertain.
Rouse.According to Gifford,  a rouse was a large glass in which a health was given, the drinking of which, by the rest of the company, formed a carouse. Hamlet (i. 4) says: “The king doth wake to-night, and takes his rouse.” The word occurs again in the following act (1), where Polonius uses the phrase “o’ertook in’s rouse;” and in the sense of a bumper, or glass of liquor, in “Othello” (ii. 3), “they have given me a rouse already.”
Sheer Ale. This term, which is used in the “Taming of the Shrew” (Induction, sc. 2), by Sly—“Ask Marian Hacket, the fat ale-wife of Wincot, if she know me not: if she say I am not fourteen pence on the score for sheer ale”—according to some expositors, means “ale alone, nothing but ale,” rather than “unmixed ale.”
Sneak-cup. This phrase, which is used by Falstaff in “1 Henry IV.” (iii. 3)—“the prince is a Jack, a sneak-cup”—was used to denote one who balked his glass.
From Thomas Firminger Thiselton-Dyer’s indispensable volume Folk-lore of Shakespeare.
162. Effect of Quantity. —The greatest paradox in the history of poetic art lies in this: that in all that constitutes the greatness of the old poets a man may be a barbarian, faulty and deformed from top to toe, and still remain the greatest of poets. This is the case with Shakespeare, who, as compared with Sophocles, is like a mine of immeasurable wealth in gold, lead, and rubble, whereas Sophocles is not merely gold, but gold in its noblest form, one that almost makes us forget the money-value of the metal. But quantity in its highest intensity has the same effect as quality. That is a good thing for Shakespeare.
From Human, All Too Human, Part II by Friedrich Nietzsche.