What Matters When We Talk About Shakespeare


Outro: All the World's a Grave

Outro: All the World's a Grave

A version of this essay, very much like the below, appeared as an "Outro" to All the World's A Grave.  It occurs to me that I can place it here.  I think I can, right?  I'm also kind of tempted to post the really really long version.  The Word doc. is dated January 30, 2008.  


Gist

 

It is assumed by most of us that Shakespeare is the greatest dramatist in the world …. But take the poetry and the incredible psychological insight away and you have artificial plots that were not Shakespeare's own to start with, full of improbable coincidence and carelessly hurried fifth-act denouements. —Anthony Burgess


Shakespeare's flaws, if unspoken, are self-evident enough. Padded lines. Tangential subplots. Absurd dramatic turns. Interminable speeches. Character and narrative boilerplates. A limited number of dialogue modes: the hero, the fool, the low-birthed, the villain; comedy, drama, exposition.

For all that, the words continually reassert their brilliance. Would Shakespeare's brand of brilliance translate into contemporary letters? A customary if impossible question, given that his method of cut and paste would not. Much has been made of Shakespeare's thievery. Much has been defended. On the merits of the former: true, he stole an enormous amount, from dialogue to characters to themes to plots. On the merits of the latter: so what? Everyone stole back then.

For better and worse, that creative cesspool is no more. Copyright laws make Shakespeare's technique incontrovertibly illegal. An author cannot pluck a bit from here and a bit from there to fashion a work of their own. There are only two exceptions:

1) parody, a shrinking exception, at that;

2) use of work/writing in the public domain;

Which Shakespeare's writing is. (I can hear my high school English teacher, Barclay Palmer, chuckling, "oh, the irony, the irony.") 

And it is precisely because Shakespeare's plays were monsters assembled from other monsters that a fresh monstrosity can be assembled from Shakespeare. And, because of Shakespeare's use of stock players and storylines, a new Shakespearian narrative is equally possible.

Who was William Shakespeare, and how did he work? Perhaps the ubiquity of our questions arises not so much from the mystery as from the cultural divide. Shakespeare's role, as writer, actor, director, producer, is more in keeping with a present-day cinema profession than a reclusive author in his garret. Shakespeare often (if not always, our knowledge of Elizabethan drama and literature is limited) sourced his plays from existing works—very commonly, existing plays. All The World's A Grave draws its architecture from five tragedies and one history by William Shakespeare: Hamlet, Othello, Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Henry V.   

The lineage of Shakespeare's plays is an ongoing discussion, but, take Hamlet: upwards of ten generally agreed upon predecessors—one of which is Thomas Kyd's 1580-something stage play Ur-Hamlet—and, I count, fourteen additional analogues and possible sources. Many of these works interrelate, are translations of each other, borrow from other texts, etc.; and my count is no doubt faulty and incomplete. More than one lifetime has been lost in oblation to the task of sourcing Shakespeare.  

But to accuse Shakespeare of being a re-tooler of old plays, or derivative, is to misjudge Elizabethan authorship. Like a contemporary producer, Shakespeare worked with stories popular to audiences, borrowing from marketplace successes and taking input from actors and other interests.  It's a standard practice in Hollywood, among the very worst, and the very best. And, their argument for collective storytelling is very powerful.

Shakespeare's origin as a populist author has long been overmastered by "high" authorship.  When did Shakespeare become a litmus test for social class/culture? Perhaps the balance between high and low was always pendular, and the tilt to pretension is a function of an increasingly obscure lexicon. To most Shakespeare lovers, the idea that Shakespeare is a populist, and that his work should be treated accordingly, is closely cherished. Paradoxically, the more one knows and understand Shakespeare, the more one appreciates him, and the more one is drawn to those anathema pretensions.     

As Robert Graves expressed it: "He really is very good in spite of all the people who say he is very good."

One frequently hears that Shakespeare knew everything—from the emotions of a nubile thirteen-year old to the pathology of sociopath Kings. But not even Shakespeare could say everything; his time was rife with political sensitivities, and the ruling class shaped, paid for, approved of, and passed final judgment on all. (To what degree Shakespeare was Bowdlerized in his own time—200 years before Thomas Bowlder—is unknown, and probably unknowable, though the suspicion is, a great deal: Timon of Athens springs to mind.) To this day, Henry V is marched out at wartime, and an appealing male lead is cast to bolster the ranks of the marines. The political right will claim Shakespeare as their own, as will the political left, yet the argument that Shakespeare's attitude towards war was flippant or shallow is a toilsome uphill climb.            

For this particular outing of the bard, there'll be no recruitment table in the lobby.  One associates with Shakespeare's tragedies a mythic, ageless period of love, war and madness.  But these are our times.  In ATWAG, Shakespeare weighs in—in his own words, with his own characters.

Hamlet goes to war for Juliet, the daughter of King Lear. Having captured his bride—by unnecessary bloodshed—Prince Hamlet returns home to find that his mother has murdered his father and married Macbeth. Hamlet, wounded and reeling, is sought out by the ghost of his murdered further, and commanded to seek revenge. Iago, opportunistic, further inflames the enraged Prince, persuading him that Juliet is having an affair with Romeo; the Prince goes mad with jealousy.

It is also just fun. That Hamlet have a reason. That Juliet have an affair, with Romeo. That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have a … relationship. The satisfaction is simultaneously one of creation and destruction: to build a sand castle and kick it down.  To snatch "O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?" from the lips of a pining Juliet, and toss it into the angry mouth of Hamlet, who is searching for Romeo to exact a jealous revenge; to recast the historical "Et tu, Brute?" as the droll (but in context, just as tragic), "Et tu, Guildenstern."

Here's what I did:

I updated the spelling.

I updated a few words and phrases—not too many—when the word was overly puzzling to current speakers of English, or when the swap was reasonably painless. For example: "hoodman blind" to "blindman's bluff; "corse" to "corpse"; "porpentine" to "porcupine." I believe the changes are in service of the original intention, be it humor, or drama.

I dropped some apostrophes/elisions, but not all. For example, I wrote out the suffix "ed," because we no longer pronounce that syllable (Shakespeare's elision indicated that the actor should contract the beat); contemporizing the notation would have required that I insert an accent syllable above every suffix metrically emphasized (a procedure in direct conflict with my "don't be silly" rule). I left such elisions as "o'er," and "ne'er," because the pronunciations were sufficiently foreign to warrant indication.

I made changes to the punctuation: to update it, and to make contextual adjustments.

When faced with a choice of Elizabethan English or today's English, I went with today, and, readability. No "exeunt." I can't see any justification in Shakespeare for unnecessary obscurity.

In a few places, I swapped out a line for a clearer line. For example:


Nay, then, I'll set those to you that can speak. (Hamlet: III, iv)

            to

Witness my tears, I cannot stay to speak. (King Henry VI, part 2; II, iv)


I sometimes swapped out words and phrases to avoid repetition. But, I tried to stay true to Shakespeare's use of repetition. For example: in Hamlet, I count the word "world" twenty-seven times. In ATWAG: twenty-eight times. Or, the word "sweet": forty-two times in Romeo & Juliet; forty-one times in ATWAG.

I did not hobble myself with impossibility, and—as did Shakespeare—adjusted the occasional line, to fit narrative, or scansion.

I kept with Shakespeare's decisions as to what was poetry (line breaks/first word capitalized/meter) and what was prose (no line breaks), based on the source texts I was working with. An example: Shakespeare's Lear, mad, is in a continual flux of poetry and prose (IV, vi); I echoed the pattern. (Ruth Maleczech played Lear's madness brilliantly in the Lee Breuer Mabou Mines production; and it's her voice in my head.) Intermittently, I had to make allowances for dialogue in ATWAG that required verse, or prose, or I had two texts that conflicted: one poetry, one prose. But I endeavored to keep the distinction crisp, and there are very few places in ATWAG where this is the case—the bedroom conversation between Hamlet and Juliet is the primary example—and even so, the seduction scene of Henry and Katherine in Henry V served nicely as a model.

The stage directions are my own. The contemporary standard of stage directions is different than the Elizabethan standard; in contemporary publications of Shakespeare's plays, stage directions are inserted. I did stay terse—tried to keep out of the way—as remains the dramaturgical convention.

Obviously, I didn't keep all of the narrative and dialogue; that would mandate a transcription of the complete works of Shakespeare. I imagine there will be exclusions that Shakespeare purists will mourn. For example: the dialogue between Hamlet and Juliet, at their first meeting in ATWAG, does not unite to form a sonnet. But, in keeping with this being a war story first (a love story second), I decided to give Iago the sonnet—however malicious, he is the conscience of the play. Furthermore, when Hamlet and Juliet first share a scene in ATWAG, it is not their first meeting.

And, always, I had fun. Developing themes (for example, around the word "gold" or "satisfaction"). Referencing Shakespeare unspoken in ATWAG (for example, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, III, ii—I "slandered Valentine," or, Juliet is a rose "untimely plucked," poem X, or, Hamlet's "soldier's kiss" is "rebukeable," Antony & Cleopatra, IV, iv). Riffing on well-known words or lines (for example: my use of "fair," "foolish," "foul," and "fancy," or the transposition of Richard III's parallel declarations "The king is dead" and "The dog is dead" to "The king, the dog, is dead"). Foreshadowing narrative elements through my revisions (examples: my Hamlet's "true friends" are "foul words" in IV, i of Loves Labour's Lost). Punning (often Shakespeare's own puns: Cymbeline's, IV, ii, "fear no more the heat o' the sun," is directed to the son, Hamlet). Looking for a grin (for ex: a line from II, iv of Macbeth, "Upon a thought he will be well again" is revised to pertain to drunkenness, "upon a meal he will be well again".

The outward structure? 

In keeping with Shakespeare: five acts, five to seven scenes per act. Overall, the number of scenes, at twenty-nine, is on the high side for Shakespeare, who averaged about twenty scenes per play—but Shakespeare's Antony & Cleopatra clocked in at forty-two scenes. I do pick up the pace—more plot, faster—to keep up with the twenty-first century (thus the high number of scenes). Nonetheless, the scene lengths in ATWAG end up being typical of Shakespeare. There are a few short scenes, but nothing to match IV, vii of Antony & Cleopatra, which is only seventeen lines, or V, ii of Julius Caesar, which is a mere six lines. A consensus on the total line count of any Shakespeare play is impossible—but ATWAG is in the neighborhood of Coriolanus, Cymbeline and Richard III, at 37-3800 lines. That's a few hundred lines shorter than Hamlet, Shakespeare's longest work, which is particularly difficult to tally. At roughly 27,000 words of dialogue, the word count also matches up well with Coriolanus, Cymbeline and Richard III.  

(For the sticklers who want to know why an exact word count/line count of Shakespeare is impracticable: 1} most of the stage directions are written by editors, and therefore vary; 2} formatting in a reader's text adds additional lines; 3} dialogue written in prose has no fixed lineation, and varies by format; 4} lines divided by stage directions add additional lines; 5} there are different versions of the plays.)

Why a reader's text?  A full-length production of Hamlet, or Richard III or any of the longer works is extremely rare. Usually, the text is cut by a third. (A 20,000-word "Quarto" edition of ATWAG has been prepared for the stage.  It exists in two formats: a list of edits to the Penguin edition, which can be found at alltheworldsagrave.com; and a transcript, also available, for theatrical and academic use, through the website.)  Convention would see a production of ATWAG well before publication; but an abridgement—by as much as a third—would do grave injury to the work. It might produce a fine play—many will now argue that the first Quarto edition of Hamlet effects a utilitarian functionality. But without the Folio edition of Hamlet, and the other plays included in the Folio—a print edition intended for readers—think what not only readers, but performers would have lost.

The characters …

My Hamlet: "a prince of blood." To me, the added dimension takes easily. Othello, III, iii:

 

Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!

Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars …

 

Hamlet's conscience, guilty, is a driving force in Hamlet's actions—and, in that, he is as much to blame for his undoing as Iago.

My Iago is evil, manipulative and highly sarcastic. Not too different from Shakespeare's Iago, but more justified. He is damaged by war—his deeds might be seen in the light of delayed stress syndrome. His revenge on the Prince—though he is unconscious of it—an act of war on war. His sense of humor is dark and manic (and I adore it): "Via!" he says, "Bestride your foaming steed!" As in Othello, Iago's asides (as I meant them) are directed at the audience with shining malignancy. I once saw a short Iago, with a Napoleon complex, and I loved it. The diminutive actor played the part marvelously. The performance indelibly influenced me (it's the origin of ATWAGS's "little soldier," III, i), though I've had no luck figuring out who the actor was. It may have been over the summer of 88—when, at nineteen, I had holed up to write in the attic of a cabin in Camden, Maine. A theater group gave on-the-green performances there.

Due to the laws of Elizabethan London, boys played the parts of female characters. I would contend that led Shakespeare to focus on the male roles, which would be handled by more experienced actors. I've tried, in ATWAG, to add complexity to Juliet and "The Queen," who (spoiler warning) I based not only on Lady Macbeth and Gertrude, but Lady Anne. That Juliet (as Ophelia and Desdemona) also has a streak of sado-masochism gives body to her relationship with Hamlet, who is similarly possessed. Gertrude, as knowing, and Lady Macbeth, as loving, make for the two sides of a character that is conflicted, appealing, and repugnant. (I am smitten.) Probably, she is right to think that by having an affair, "All the argument is a cuckold and a whore," and she has no choice in proceeding with the bloody business. My Macbeth, in the end, has a spine—and one can see how he ended up king. Lear is Lear. The Weird Sisters are the Weird Sisters. And Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—I've outed them. If I were an actor, I would jump at the project; the roles are entirely new, but the stuff of Shakespeare after all—real and throbbing and complex.

Footnotes to this edition—fairly complete, but not exhaustive—are posted at alltheworldsagrave.com. They index the provenance of the words, how they came from Shakespeare to ATWAG: poem, play, line.

What versions of the works did I use? Many. All public domain, which was part of the point of this whole thing. For the plays that don't have acts and scenes aside from editorial approximations—no act or scene breaks in the original text—I used the editorial approximations. (If anyone has trouble with these references, at the very worst, a Shakespeare search engine will do the trick.)

I footnoted locations; all are sourced from Shakespeare.

I referenced a little of the unspoken language, but not always; I didn't want the footnotes to get overburdened by references that weren't immediately correlative. 

Sometimes, when there were many references, I chose the one that more accurately matched the meter, or most completely duplicated the phrasing. Sometimes I just noted, "frequent," because I thought the language was common enough to Shakespeare that the footnote was getting silly.

I didn't footnote, for example, "my lord" for "good sir" or vice versa, unless there was a compelling reason to do so.

I didn't footnote narrative and plot elements—the task was as daunting as footnoting the text, and would have required commentary, which was where I drew the line. For people familiar with the plays, my narrative use of Shakespeare is pretty straight-forward.

I occasionally footnoted the meter of an irregular line, but not always; the meter is usually right there in the text I'm borrowing from, and if it's not, and I haven't marked it, it probably means I judged the formulation too widespread to cite. There's nothing that couldn't be pulled up from a Shakespeare search-engine, or Shakespeare software, in swift dispatch.

My use of software: I didn't use any software, but I did use search functions and search engines. I put together Act One in 2003, without the use of a computer—aside from transcription—and that was not easy, or successful. In 2006, I blocked out the next four acts (from the six primary plays) using Microsoft word and downloaded source texts from gutenberg.org; the first draft had plenty of holes and an initial word count of 39,000+ words. As I tightened up the draft, and needed specific lines, I used searches more. For footnoting, I used them extensively, which saved a great deal of time. Imperfect as they are, I spent several months on the footnotes.

 

 

& Gybe


A personal confession: when I was thirteen years old, I walked through the line twice at Shakespeare in the Park (Central Park), in an attempt to secure two of the coveted free seats. (A pair of pretty women asked me to do it.) I took off my jacket to alter my appearance, and the Caligula at the gate called me on it, refusing to bestow on me a second ticket. Eventually, a pair of middle-aged women (who looked just like the pretty ones, coincidentally, but were older) gave me their extra ticket, and I was permitted to enter with my father and his party.

Despite evidence to the contrary, I maintained, protested, my innocence. Of course, I was lying, knew I was wrong, but some piece of me always thought I was more sinned against than sinning. I couldn't articulate it then, but as of today, I believe it was this: Shakespeare, free to all, had nonetheless been reduced to elitism. Go to Central Park, wait in line for your ticket, sniff sniff your way to the summer stage—the air of it is unmistakable.

Flash forward: twenty years later, I sit in a playhouse balcony, wishing that someone were juggling chainsaws, or cats, or anything dangerous, dastardly or comic, in lieu of the God-awful Elizabethan tragedy [JR1] to which I was subjected.

I complained bitterly, much to the consternation of my host, who had footed a sizable bill for the outing. But this time, I was right. The later Shakespeare drama, or part Shakespeare drama, or hardly any Shakespeare at all drama, was not only poorly executed, but poorly conceived, imagined and written. With all the great literature published and forgotten every season, we had to dirty ourselves in the dustbin of history for this? This ... garbage?

Should there be doubters as to the great literature published today, I propose a challenge. If you can spend a morning in the basement of The Strand (Strand Books on 13th and Broadway), perusing the new books of the previous year, A to Z, and still bemoan the quality of contemporary letters, I'll concede the point. Many times, I've visited this humbling experience upon myself, and I've always been blown away by how many fascinating, accomplished books I never heard of—and I never got past the letter B.

Would it be too contentious to claim that the entire canon of literature might be replaced every year with the books that molder in the basement of The Strand? Perhaps. Perhaps we might spare a few leather bound tomes from the bonfire. But certainly, there is kindling. For me, the first combustible is Kierkegaard's Diary of a Seducer, which I read in college. As immature as I was, I was astonished by the immaturity of the "paper" (Soren was thirty when he authored the work, and far too old for such pap), which had no redeeming qualities whatsoever, except that a well-known philosopher had written it, and that is was public domain, and a free acquisition to the publisher. On the flip side, Kierkekaard had written it before his philosophy was known (or even dreamed up, I suspect), and far better books are public domain (and out-of-print).

Shall we share in a small act of revolution? If you could take your hours back from one book—get back your afternoons of reading—what title springs to mind? Go get a pen, or, just make a mental note in the space provided.

 

______________________________________

 

Now, I'd like you to replace that title with a lesser-known contemporary book, one that you hold dear:

 

 ______________________________________

 

Surprising how easy, how satisfying that was, no?

ATWAG is a celebration of Shakespeare, but also a protest, a literary sit-in. Or, if you want to be disagreeable about it, I'm the heckler in the gallery—or, in the Elizabethan theater, in there with the groundlings.

Greatness is a myth—and one that very few people in the arts can take seriously. But it is a cancer of our cultural mechanism. The artist as hero, the artist as individual/persona. It was a strange feeling, when I first drafted ATWAG: to have it on my computer—a new play by William Shakespeare that nobody had seen. I could touch it, I could put my cup of coffee on it—and even if I couldn't fully metabolize its creation, and experienced zero sense of propriety, it was there. I feel a sense of marvel, when I flip through it; but there is also something blunt and pragmatic about it—this is how it was done, and here it is, again.

War, parody, the question of what is authorship, sex and exploitation, the current Shakespeare fracas, the long history of Shakespeare adaptations, Shakespeare and Hollywood, the Public Domain, the literary canon, the state of contemporary letters in relation to "great" works, the creative future we bequeath our children: the litmus test here, in keeping with Shakespeare's original productions, favors immediacy to exclusivity—questions less academic than pandemic.

My first love was literature: even the love of loving literature was achingly seductive. Fahrenheit 451: the end-time of a world without books. Portrait of the Artist (and derivatives): the heroism of the written act itself. In college, I spent three days in bed, reading Moby Dick, and, by the end, had a respectable whale imitation going. But despite all that love, and the life I've given to books, if I could make one enduring contribution, it would be to assist in the end of literature as we know it. The shelf space is hoarded by mediocre classics, and we have hobbled our culture, and our creative culture, with received wisdoms.

Where are today's Dostoevskys? Where are today's Virginia Wolfs? To ask is to confess an absence of engagement with contemporary letters. Those books are out there, many of them, languishing

(I can hear the atavists harping: "William Faulkner lost to Toni Morrison! Chaucer, erased from the syllabus!" Well, first: Faulkner hasn't been forgotten, and neither has Chaucer. Second: every Faulkner title pushed a title off the list, which caused someone like you, back then, to whine. Third: Beloved was first published in 1987, The Bluest Eye in 1970—as such, Morrison is hardly a paradigm of new and unproven. Fourth: the assumption that what you've read is the best there is to read is an untenable arrogance. Fifth: Faulkner, Chaucer, Milton—whoever you want to name—these authors would be the last to lobby for the relegation of contemporary letters to a secondary status.)

To commend one classic to oblivion, or even a whole shelf of classics, would not precipitate the downfall of literature. Far from it. The impact on the total number of titles—especially with the archiving and availability of public domain books on the web—would be zero. But maybe it could help to shift the emphasis. Let's say a few more people wander out of bookstores with four brand-new first editions under their arm; that is a fine feeling. And we've made the world a brighter place. The irony that Penguin is publishing this work is not lost on me, or any of the people who worked on the publication of this book, who I am indebted to (neither is it lost on anyone at MTV that my third novel, which they published, was a parody of MTV). Penguin does have a major reprint business—but with the internet, and print-on-demand, etc., it seems feasible that we're moving away from bookstores filled with public domain books. Much to the delight of editors everywhere, I should add.

This essay, and my copyedits, are due today.  I have asked for a few days extension, which I'll take regardless, but it's surely not enough.  Publishing is a hurry-up and wait process that is not conducive to the patience, the vainglorious introspection of authorship.  It's Monday—on Friday, I got an email asking me for a catalog photo.  A personal panic, but I finally came up with something; I'm in the country, in a tan suit, standing in front of a barn painted in the stars and stripes of the American flag.  As I hunted through my archives, I also stumbled across a beach photo, of me in my American flag bathing suit.  (I have a fashion weakness for the American flag, which endures.)  I bought the bathing suit in France, and very much identified myself as having a classic American perspective; about the time that snapshot was taken, I said, in the publicity for my first novel (a Civil War novel) that what I really wanted was for other people to get what they wanted.  I now find the answer embarrassing, but I fear it's still true—that I had picked up on a core identity that hasn't changed all that much.  I may resist it now, I may be mortified by it, I may have the presence of mind to know that some of it, a large serving of it, was an incidental result of alcoholism—the kids grow up to be overly facilitating adults—but it is still there. 

An optimistic young American, on the beach. 

The discovery that I have made since then: my identity as an author is not the same as my identity as a person.  With my second novel—Snowball's Chance, a 9/11 update of Animal Farm—I prompted a good deal of animosity.  As an author, I had never been happier, more content. 

Those many years ago, as I walked up from the surf at Coney Island (or was it Southampton?), I had a nice smile, a nice profile. Now, my nose has been broken so many times that I can't be bothered to fix it. (My daughter, three, asked a few days ago, "Is that twisted into a nose?") From martial arts, my ears are cauliflowered, my left front tooth is chipped, and I've burst a blood vessel in my left eye, which has never completely healed.

The best compliment ever paid me:

I was standing in a circle of people—too talkative to be called a party, too dark to be called a cocktail party, too personal to be called an event—and some skeptical dude in a suit said that it looked like I had been punched one too many times. And then a wonderful girl replied, "Yeah, but it looks like he punches back."

I hate (is it love?) to be the bearer of bad news, but my beginnings are too humble, and I am too bruised, to be the good guy. It is almost surely a losing battle, to descry the value of today's literature. But I know that it's true, as much as it pains me to say it: for all the intellectual calcification, for all the marginalization of contemporary authors, and the contemporary experience; for all the disinterested and angry students who make solid arguments as to why books are not for them; for all that, I know we would be better off without the literary canon. Were we to lose every single title exalted in the volumes of the Harvard Classics, we would be better off. We would thrive.

 

Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;

Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes

Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,

Let's choose executors and talk of wills:

And yet not so, for what can we bequeath

Save our deposed bodies to the ground?

                                                            —Richard II: III, ii

 

So, choose the one—make it your favorite title, or make it your most reviled—anoint it with oil, place it on the alter, and set it alight: a sacrifice to the future. The kingdom is come.



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