Some notes on Shakespeare – The World as Stage

Forgive the dead air around here lately; April really kind of was the cruelest in terms of having time to write, but here I am back again.

It’s sweet and kind of funny when friends who know I’m what Michael Dirda rather brilliantly called a “professional Elizabethan,” friends who are not professional Elizabethans themselves, recommend a book about Shakespeare. The recommendation comes almost flirtatiously, enthusiastic but hesitant, couched in terms of, “Well, you probably already know all this stuff, but I liked it…” In all likelihood, I probably don’t, and sometimes a book intended for the nonspecialist reader is the best place to get a gist to take back to more scholarly reading. There are, of course, some Shakespeareans who might look down their noses at such a recommendation. For ease of use over wine and cheese at conferences or in seminars, I’ve developed a personal classification system for Shakespeare scholars. They can be generally organized into two categories: those who like the Romeo and Juliet movie with Leonardo DiCaprio, and those who don’t. (Don’t for a minute think this division has anything to do with age – I’ve met more young bardolators who turn up their nose at this film than older.) The latter are probably less flexible in their appreciation of the Immortal Bard of Avon (just typing that phrase makes me narcoleptic), possessed of a Malvolian stodginess – the kind of Shakespearean who might be inclined to poo-poo a book on the Great Man intended for little people. I like to think I’m of the former camp – at the very least I happen to think Baz Luhrmann’s movie a frenetic, clever, moving interpretation of a frenetic, clever, moving play. I also like to think of Shakespeare as one of the few genuinely democratic writers in English, both popular and challenging, the maker of, amidst much else, some of the most elegant fart jokes in the language. I would be remiss to ignore a book about Shakespeare written for the widest variety of people when his work, too, was written to appeal to anyone willing to pay for a ticket.

And so I found myself reading (listening to, actually, the audiobook read by Bryson himself) Shakespeare – The World as Stage after having it recommended to me in the manner described above by two friends, a geologist and an animal rights activist. I read Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe a few years ago – somewhere in the hinterlands in Italy, appropriately enough – and enjoyed his amiable humor. I’m tempted to describe it as “like Twain without being mean,” but since that’s impossible I’ll let it pass. Probably the best adjective for Bryson’s wit is “winsome,” which I intend as a compliment, though it could be used easily by friend or enemy alike. There are occasional glimpses of that wit here, but, though it has the light step of his travel writing, Shakespeare is written in a different vein. Bryson’s project is to stick closely to the facts of Shakespeare’s life with limited deviations into speculation or wishful thinking.There is little strictly documentary evidence about Shakespeare’s life, which Bryson rightly points out is true of any of Shakespeare’s non-aristocratic contemporaries as well. The biographer doesn’t have much to work with, but one of the pleasures of reading Shakespeare biographies is the way different writers accentuate different parts of the limited record. James Shapiro’s 1599 unsurprisingly focuses intently on one crucial year in Shakespeare’s life, and on the wider cultural factors that seem to have influenced the writing of Hamlet, As You Like It and two other plays that year. Peter Ackroyd’s portentously-titled Shakespeare – The Biography is very good on his early life, going into wonderful detail about the school curriculum Shakespeare would have studied and evidence in the plays of his memory for the matériel of the glover’s trade (his father’s) and of a childhood spent amongst the flora and fauna of the Midlands countryside. Bryson weights the ages of Shakespeare’s life evenly, and is at his best when gently probing the speculations biographers and scholars have come up with to fill in the many gaps in the documentary record. Ackroyd hints broadly that he of the camp that think Shakespeare worked, during the “Lost Years” of his youth before he showed up in London, at the manor of the Catholic Hoghton family in Lancashire, possibly as a player or teacher. Though a “Shakeshafte” is on the Hoghtons’ employment records during this period, Bryson rightly shows this to be something of a logical, and wishful, leap. Bryson avoids Ackroyd’s stately progress, lightly moving through his own meticulous reading and briefly interviewing a few carefully-chosen and distinctly unspeculative experts along the way. His quick but thorough job makes this a good introduction to Shakespeare’s life without any of the vagaries or fripperies of which scholars (including myself) are fond. The chapter towards the end on the Authorship Question – that is, whether Shakespeare wrote his plays or, indeed, existed – is a particularly effective take-down of this ridiculous non-argument, the Shakespearean equivalent of the Birther movement (for a detailed history of the Authorship Question and the eccentrics who have kept it alive, see Shapiro’s fair-minded Contested Will).

My few quibbles with Bryson’s Shakespeare are pretty technical. His treatment of variations in spelling in early modern English – Shakespeare’s signature survives in six places, spelt six different ways – never moves past the “gee whiz, weren’t those Renaissance folks silly?” phase that, it should be said, can clog up general history books. The unspeculative facts are, the relationship between oral and written language, and the conception of how words should be written, was very different in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Shakespeare didn’t spell his name several different ways out of caprice or laziness; he would have thought differently than we do about how his name should be written. Jonathan Hope’s introduction to Shakespeare and Language (2004) and David Crystal’s book Think on My Words: Exploring Shakespeare’s Language (2008) both address this idea with the fullness it deserves in terms anyone interested in language (so, most people reading books about Shakespeare) will understand. Also, while we get some colorful episodes in the history of Shakespeare scholarship – from the brilliant, problematic work of Edmond Malone to the crank eccentricities of Delia Bacon (the Orly Taitz of the Authorship Question) – we get very little idea of what contemporary Shakespeare scholarship looks like. Interviews of eminent scholars like Stanley Wells and Tarnya Cooper are very general, and those of contemporary scholars who shape how we see Shakespeare now (Leah Marcus, Tiffany Stern, Peter Stallybrass, Bruce Smith) are, well, nonexistent. Bryson, whose good-natured clarity allowed him to write a book about the history of science called A Short History of Nearly Everything, surely could have dipped into contemporary Shakespeare studies without impelling the general reader to hurl the book across the room. Bruce Smith’s work on the aural environment of the Globe (The Acoustic World of Early Modern England) – about how contemporary audiences would have actually heard and experienced Shakespeare’s work – would have particularly engaged with the Bryson’s excellent subtitle, “The World as Stage.” As it is, the promise of the subtitle is restricted to the shapeliness of the phrase itself.

I admire Bryson’s painstaking effort – in Gradgrind’s phrase from Hard Times – to stick to “facts, sir, nothing but facts.” He is an affable guide to Shakespeare’s life and times, one who the general or professional Elizabethan audience can follow without wondering what interpretive axes are being ground behind the scenes. Bryson pokes fun at the speculations of foolishly fond Shakespeareans with good reason. That said, speculation is certainly speculation, but some speculation is more equal than others. The best work of Shakespeare biography I’ve read, Charles Nicholl’s The Lodger (recently ranked by the professional Elizabethan and Columbia professor James Shapiro, mentioned above, in a list of his favorite Shakespeare biographies) is built entirely around one document: Shakespeare’s testimony in a 1612 court case about an inheritance involving members of a family from whom he rented a room at the turn of the seventeenth century. Nicholl has a rare feel, as a biographer and a student of the early modern period, for the nuances that are revealed by carefully combing through material evidence, for what can be gleaned by, say, thinking about how Shakespeare signed his name at the bottom of his sworn statement might reveal his frame of mind that day. Nicholl traces the lives of the Mountjoy family, who knew Shakespeare as the middle-aged actor upstairs, through court records of items purchased from their business (they made “tires,” elaborate headdresses worn by actors and aristocratic women, like this one worn by Elizabeth I) to the notebooks of the astrologer and physician Simon Forman to legal proceedings against George Wilkins, a repeat-offending brothel-keeper who, shockingly, co-wrote Pericles, Prince of Tyre with Shakespeare. (This isn’t as shocking when you read Wilkins’ own, perfectly good play The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, and remember the vivid depiction of a brothel in Pericles.)

The documentary trail for most early modern individuals can be fallow ground, but an imaginative approach to the wider culture can make Shakespearean biography into something altogether more rich and strange. Bryson rightly dismisses baseless or wishful speculation as unhelpful; as much as some (myself included) may want Aemelia Lanyer, a brilliant half-Italian poet and court musician’s daughter, to be the Dark Lady of the sonnets, it is unlikely an actual identity will ever be known or is even really necessary. But speculation grounded in an extensive knowledge of Shakespeare’s life and times, girded by imaginative instinct, can be the most useful and stimulating way to color the blanks of Shakespeare’s life.

(Many thanks to Simon and Laura (not that one, the other one – you know who you are) for their recommendations to read this book. This is my somewhat lengthy way of saying thanks!)



“A book is always a communal object, a coalescence of human intentions. If you know enough, every book is alive with the judgments of its makers.”

– Michael Suarez, SJ, director of the Rare Book School at University of Virginia, in an article discussing the legal ruling against Google’s book digitization project.

Cowardice, mother of cruelty

In a week when the news cycle is dominated by news of uprising and violent retribution in Libya and Bahrain – and the spectre of the West’s violent intervention in the former – these thoughts by Michel de Montaigne about tyrants, from his essay “Cowardice, mother of cruelty,” seem to have something useful to add to the discussion. Aside from the informal, fluid style of the translation, the best thing about the Everyman’s Library edition is that it marks at what stage in the revision process Montaigne added to his original essay. Originally published in 1580, Montaigne revised the Essays in 1588 and added more notes in the margins to the second edition until his death in 1592. I mention this because it’s important to think of these essays as a project Montaigne returned to again and again over the course of twenty years – adding, rearranging, changing his mind – which lends them their fluid and happily contradictory character.

In the quotation below, the sentence after the line from Claudian (a late Roman poet) was originally written in the margins of the second edition sometime after 1588. After that sentence, the remainder reverts back to the original 1572 edition. The way the essay wends its way backwards and forwards through time is pleasing – Montaigne in the late 1580s writing to himself in early 1570s, roping in Claudian from the fourth century AD, providing us a way to think about tyranny in 2011.

What makes tyrants so bloodthirsty? It is concern for their security, and the fact that their cowardly heart furnishes them with no other means of making themselves secure than by exterminating those who can injure them, even to the women, for fear of a scratch:

He strikes all things because he fears all things. (Claudian)

The first cruelties are practiced for their own sake; thence arises the fear of a just revenge, which afterward produces a string of new cruelties, in order to stifle the first by the others.
Tyrants, in order to do both things together, both to kill and to make their anger felt, have used all their ingenuity to prolong death. They want their enemies to be gone, but not so fast that they may not have leisure to savor their vengence. Thereupon they are in great perplexity; for if the tortures are violent, they are short; if they are long, they are not painful enough to suit them. So they go dispensing their instruments of torture. We see a thousand examples of it in antiquity, and I know not whether, without thinking about it, we do not retain some trace of this barbarity.

All that is beyond plain death seems to me pure cruelty.

(The quotation is from p. 641-3 of Donald Frame’s translation of Montaigne’s Complete Works, Everyman’s Library, 1943 (reprinted 2003). The painting above is Massacre of the Innocents (c. 1566) by Pieter Brughel the Elder, Montaigne’s rough contemporary. In a similar act of using the antique as a gloss for the contemporary, Brueghel sets King Herod’s mass murder of children from Matthew 2:16 in the Netherlands, with an army of Spanish colonizers bearing down on them. It hangs in the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace, and is one of the most transfixing and appalling paintings I’ve ever seen.)

Gossaert and the Merchant, Shakespeare and the Grocer

When I was in New York in November, at the Met even, I managed to miss Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance, which is now headed to London. (I’m always a complete nerd for conservation videos, so here’s one from the Met about restoration work done on a few of the Gossaert pictures before the exhibition.) Maev Kennedy wrote a pretty conventional if interesting article about the London show in the Guardian recently, highlighting that the secular, sensual touch Gossaert brought to the conventional religious material of the early Renaissance is what makes his work really interesting. His work was also something of a bridge between southern and northern Renaissances – after visiting Rome in 1508 and internalizing the lightness and vividness of Michelangelo and Raphael, he brought this sensibility to the more reserved, mannered style of the Low Countries. I was also drawn to the readily identifiable emotions of some of the subjects in the gallery from the Guardian piece, the tender indulgence of the mother in “Virgin and Child” (#1 in the gallery), and especially to the dead-tired figure of Christ in “The Mocking of Christ” (#4), so vivid among the two-dimensional ignoramuses who mock him, his eyes raw from crying, dark from lack of sleep, but still hopeful – he looks to me (and I mean this with all respect and empathy) like a drag queen the morning after a bad night.

But this being me, what fascinated me most was the “Portrait of a Merchant” (c. 1530), pictured above, the materials of writing it depicts, and the insights into early modern books and writing it allows.
(Below the break, paper and binders and grocers, oh my.)
Read more…

In Our Time, the 500th time

Today marks the 500th episode of the unapologetically high-brow, but somehow accessible, BBC Radio 4 show In Our Time, hosted by the whip-smart and endearingly irascible Melvyn Bragg – listening to him herd his academic guests being one of the main pleasures of the show. The concept of In Our Time is to highlight the wealth of knowledge welling up at British universities by allowing said academics, media-savvy professors and lowliest lecturers alike, a weekly voice on the prestigious airwaves of Radio 4. (For an American equivalent, think NPR, The New York Times and a pre-Murdoch Wall Street Journal – basically as serious and agenda-forming as journalism gets while still being listenable – and you’ll get close to what Radio 4 means in Britain (well, especially London, but that’s a whole other thing).) Since its higher education system really is Britain’s greatest asset and export – something the Tory government doesn’t at all understand – fostering understanding of its place in the UK’s culture is a great service In Our Time provides. I’ve often thought, probably naively and certainly fondly, that if there were a similar program for American intellectuals there wouldn’t be quite as great a divide between academe and the rest of American culture – maybe (and this is certainly naive) even a better understanding of the value of all research.

In Our Time has been for about four years the only podcast I listen to regularly, partly because no others have hooked me and, since I usually listen to it at the gym or on long car trips, it’s nice to feel smart when you’re sweating or blankly staring at the highway. Also, though I unsurprisingly prefer the episodes about literature and intellectual history, listening to intelligent conversation about the nervous system, the age of the universe, and other diverse topics hasn’t done me any harm. The whole archive of 500 programs is available to listen to on the website, and the podcast updates regularly. I really hope someday they will open up the whole archive in podcast form. Recent highlights include an episode about the Ancient Greek oracle at Delphi, and the only bum episode I recall in four years was the one last fall about unicorns – Bragg and the guests seemed to be talking from completely different sets of notes. This underscores, though, how brilliant the show’s producers are at background research and, crucially, getting academics who are actually great on air. Having worked in public radio briefly, I can tell you this is no mean feat.

Egg-headed In Our Time certainly is, but listeners fostering a connection to the intellectual work of their bookish countrymen is a good thing and, as Telegraph writer Lindsay Johns put it, there is value in being talked up to. Johns gets a bit fawning, but I’ll let him have the last word:

In today’s relentlessly lowbrow public broadcasting culture, this is a milestone which deserves serious applause. The truth is that no one has ever suffered from being talked up to. […] Week in, week out, Bragg and his guests do precisely that to us, with great chunks of humbling erudition and a no-nonsense discussion of the history of ideas. Lord Bragg deserves the plaudits that come his way. He walks ahead of us as our genial, moderately opinionated guide to the intellectual riches of the past. He is the Statius to our Dante, holding his lantern aloft so that we might see better through the purgatory of the mid-week grind.

That’s a bit rich – I think the derisive snort I just heard came from his Lordship’s nostrils – but no less true for that. I’ll have my own last word hopefully this weekend with an essay inspired by a recent episode of In Our Time.

Dante’s Commedia. Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1502 [Book Porn]

Above is the unbelievably beautiful title page of a 1502 edition of Dante, interesting for a number of reasons. For one, the title The Divine Comedy or at least its usual Italian title, La Commedia (Boccaccio added Divina), is nowhere to be found. Rather, on the verso (left-hand) page it’s referred to as Le Terze Rime di Dante, which refers to terza rima, the complex, interlocking rhyme scheme Dante used in which the second line of each three-line unit (tercet) rhymes with the first and third lines of the tercet before it: aba, bcb, cdc. So, the first two tercets of the Inferno run (in Aldus’s edition):

Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura;
Che la dirittia via era smarrita:

Et quanto a dir qual era, è cosa dura
Esta selva selvaggia et aspra et forte;
Che nel pensier rinova la paura.

Longfellow translates it like this:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

Most importantly, this edition, owned by the Newberry Library in Chicago, was published by Aldus Manutius, one of the most influential printers in Early Modern Europe. We can thank him for introducing italic type, but in the Renaissance (and still among bibliophiles) he was best known for publishing beautiful, accessible editions of Greek and Roman classics in relatively inexpensive octavo form – about the size of modern paperbacks. The site where I found this picture, from a Dante exhibition at Notre Dame, has a great little blurb about this edition’s history. The first piece on the new blog Anchora, written by book historian Adam Hooks, talks more about Aldus Manutius and has some more great pictures. I’m looking forward to keeping up with his blog.

Full fathom five

Twitter is something of a vast wasteland, mirages of connection popping up in the “@Mentions” tab only to be revealed as (in my case) yet another scam-bot saying, “Writers Needed.” We needn’t mention more of @CharlieSheen than his crazy, crazy name. But since getting back on Twitter a few months ago I’ve been heartened by the number of Shakespeareans who post funny, insightful things about our shared intellectual obsession in 140 characters or less (I curate a partial list of – count ’em – 36 Shakespeare nerds here). Lately I’ve been particularly encouraged by Rebecca May, a college student who is hacking her way through all of Shakespeare in 2011 and writing about her responses (as of right now she’s in Act 3, Scene 7 of Richard III). And I’ll admit I like reading posts by Stanley Wells, Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and Grace Ioppolo, a leading expert on how Shakespeare wrote and revised his work, not only for their warm, unpretentious voices but because it means they waste time just like mere mortals like me.

Today I was reminded of the value of Twitter as a source for wonderful reading material – far more surprising than an RSS reader you yourself have set up, infinitely less mundane than Facebook status updates – when D.C.’s Folger Shakespeare Library posted a link to an obituary in The Washington Post of Irvin Matus, an independent scholar whose unconventional life nearly merits the adjective “picaresque.” (Just look it up.) First, cheers to Matt Schudel for writing maybe the least formulaic obit I’ve ever read, one that really does justice to this colorful character about whom I’d never heard before. With only a high school diploma, Matus spent a life researching Shakespeare, shuttling back and forth from the Library of Congress to the Folger, writing two-well regarded books without holding a regular job and, for a time, being homeless. The intellectual battle of his life, the subject of his books, was to prove that Shakespeare did write his work, not the Earl of Oxford, or Christopher Marlowe, or Francis Bacon, or Donald Duck, or whoever. Since arguments against Shakespeare’s authorship are frequently based on the classist fallacy that someone without a college education from a rural backwater could not have acquired the breadth of education that informs his plays, defending Shakespeare must have felt personal to Matus. In his recent, very approachable guide to the 300 year-old authorship debate, Contested Will, James Shapiro refers to Matus’s Shakespeare, In Fact as one of “the strongest arguments in favor of Shakespeare’s authorship” and – even better – ultimately sides with him, too.

But it is rare, at least nowadays, that a scholar’s life is as interesting as his work, and Matus’s certainly is that. It’s worth reading the whole thing through, but these are my favorite bits:

He seldom had a paying job – mostly out of stubborn pride – choosing instead to spend the past 25 years as an independent scholar of the life and works of William Shakespeare. He showed up each day at the Library of Congress or Folger Shakespeare Library to conduct his research, then slipped away in the evening to cadge food from Capitol Hill cocktail receptions, striding in as if he were a congressman.
Whether from inner confidence or an oversized chip on his shoulder, he steadfastly refused to conform to the standards of the workaday world. “Get a 9-to-5 job?” he mused when asked by People magazine in 1989. “No way. When you have a mind like mine, such a wonderful mind, well, to have it virtually imprisoned in the boring, trivial and mundane would be torture.”
Mr. Matus continued to visit the Library of Congress two or three times a week until last year. When Metro fares went up, he could afford to make only one trip a week. “He was living that close to the bone,” Mann said. “But he did every day what he wanted to do.”

And, most importantly, from Thomas Mann, a reference librarian at the Library of Congress and a longtime friend:

“For him, Shakespeare was an avenue of insight into life. It wasn’t an academic exercise.”

This is the approach to Shakespeare, to a reading life at all really, I admire in people like Irvin Matus, or Stanley Wells, or some of the other Shakespeareans I’ve met through Twitter and elsewhere. There is valuable subtext in the story of Irvin Matus’s life for the importance of libraries, which allow the underprivileged free access to books, even priceless ones from the seventeenth century, and for libraries’ purely utilitarian value as a warm, safe place for the homeless to spend the day reading or just warm and safe. As a great BBC article from yesterday (which, again, I found via the lovely Early Modern scholar @DaintyBallerina) points out, we underestimate the intellectual lives of the homeless, and the help that books might bring to them. Reading groups for homeless people at libraries and support centers can provide the escape from everyday life we all need and, even more, help change their lives for the better. One homeless man said of his reading group at Manchester Central Library, “A lot of homeless people have to go to some effort to keep away from drink and drugs, or people who are involved in drink and drugs, so it was also setting a social norm, if you like – there is more to life.”

“More to life,” “an avenue of insight into life” – these are the legacy of Irvin Matus, and the institutions that kept his intellectual life warm. The title above is from The Tempest Act 1, Scene 2, and it’s a fitting (not to mention beautiful) memorial for a Shakespearean:

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell.
Hark, now I hear them – Ding dong, bell.