When in Doubt, It’s from Shakespeare …

How to Read Literature Like a Professor - Thomas C. Foster 2003

When in Doubt, It’s from Shakespeare …

QUICK QUIZ: What do John Cleese, Cole Porter, Moonlighting, and Death Valley Days have in common? No, they’re not part of some Communist plot. All were involved with some version of The Taming of the Shrew, by that former glover’s apprentice from Stratford-upon-Avon, William Shakespeare. Cleese played Petruchio in the BBC production of the complete Shakespeare plays in the 1970s. Porter wrote the score for Kiss Me, Kate, the modern musical-comedy version on Broadway and on film. The Moonlighting episode called “Atomic Shakespeare” was one of the funniest and most inventive on a show that was consistently funny and inventive. It was comparatively faithful to the spirit of the original while capturing the essence of the show’s regular characters. The truly odd duck here is Death Valley Days, which was an anthology show from the 1950s and 1960s sometimes hosted by a future president, Ronald Reagan, and sponsored by Twenty Mule Team Borax. Their retelling was set in the Old West and completely free of Elizabethan English. For a lot of us, that particular show was either our first encounter with the Bard or our first intimation that he could actually be fun, since in public school, you may recall, they only teach his tragedies. These examples represent only the tip of the iceberg for the perennially abused Shrew: its plot seems to be permanently available to be moved in time and space, adapted, altered, updated, set to music, reimagined in myriad ways.

If you look at any literary period between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries, you’ll be amazed by the dominance of the Bard. He’s everywhere, in every literary form you can think of. And he’s never the same: every age and every writer reinvents its own Shakespeare. All this from a man who we’re still not sure actually wrote the plays that bear his name.

Try this. In 1982 Paul Mazursky directed an interesting modern version of The Tempest. It had an Ariel figure (Susan Sarandon), a comic but monstrous Caliban (Raul Julia), and a Prospero (famed director John Cassavetes), an island, and magic of a sort. The film’s title? Tempest. Woody Allen reworked A Midsummer Night’s Dream as his film A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. Natch. The BBC series Masterpiece Theatre has recast Othello as a contemporary story of black police commissioner John Othello, his lovely white wife Dessie, and his friend Ben Jago, deeply resentful at being passed over for promotion. The action will surprise no one familiar with the original. Add that production to a nineteenth-century opera of some note based on the play. West Side Story famously reworks Romeo and Juliet, which resurfaces again in the 1990s, in a movie featuring contemporary teen culture and automatic pistols. And that’s a century or so after Tchaikovsky’s ballet based on the same play. Hamlet comes out as a new film every couple of years, it seems. Tom Stoppard considers the role and fate of minor characters from Hamlet in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. And that bastion of high culture, Gilligan’s Island, had an episode where Phil Silvers, famous as TV’s Sergeant Bilko and therefore adding to the highbrow content, was putting together a musical Hamlet, the highlight of which was Polonius’s “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” speech set to the tune of “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen. Now that’s art.

Nor is the Shakespeare adaptation phenomenon restricted to the stage and screen. Jane Smiley rethinks King Lear in her novel A Thousand Acres (1991). Different time, different place, same meditation upon greed, gratitude, miscalculation, and love. Titles? William Faulkner liked The Sound and the Fury. Aldous Huxley decided on Brave New World. Agatha Christie chose By the Pricking of My Thumbs, which statement Ray Bradbury completed with Something Wicked This Way Comes. The all-time champion for Shakespeare references, though, must be Angela Carter’s final novel, Wise Children. The children of the title are twins, illegitimate daughters of the most famous Shakespearean actor of his age, who is the son of the most famous Shakespearean of his age. While the twins, Dora and Nora Chance, are song-and-dance artists—as opposed to practitioners of “legitimate” theater—the story Dora tells is full to overflowing with Shakespearean passions and situations. Her grandfather kills his unfaithful wife and himself in a manner strongly reminiscent of Othello. As we saw in the previous chapter, a woman seems to drown like Ophelia, only to turn up in a hugely surprising way very late in the book like Hero in Much Ado About Nothing. The novel is full of astonishing disappearances and reappearances, characters in disguise, women dressed as men, and the two most spiteful daughters since Regan and Goneril brought ruin to Lear and his kingdom. Carter envisions a film production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream more disastrously hilarious than anything the “rude mechanicals” of the original could conceive of, the results recalling the real-life film version from the 1930s.

Those are just a few of the uses to which Shakespeare’s plots and situations get put, but if that’s all he amounted to, he’d only be a little different from any other immortal writer.

But that’s not all.

You know what’s great about reading old Will? You keep stumbling across lines you’ve been hearing and reading all your life. Try these:

To thine own self be true

All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet

What a rogue and peasant slave am I

Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!

Get thee to a nunnery

Who steals my purse steals trash

[Life’s] a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing

The better part of valor is discretion

(Exit, pursued by a bear)

A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers

Double, double, toil and trouble; / Fire burn and cauldron bubble

By the pricking of my thumbs, / Something wicked this way comes

The quality of mercy is not strained, / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

O brave new world, / That has such people in’t!

Oh, and lest I forget,

To be, or not to be, that is the question.

Ever heard any of those? This week? Today? I heard one of them in a news broadcast the morning I started composing this chapter. In my copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, Shakespeare takes up forty-seven pages. I will admit that not every one of the citations is all that familiar, but enough of them are. In fact, the hardest part of compiling my list of quotations was stopping. I could have gone on all day expanding the list without getting into anything too obscure. My first guess is that you probably have not read most of the plays from which these quotations are taken; my second guess is that you know the phrases anyway. Not where they’re from necessarily, but the quotes themselves (or the popular versions of them).

All right, so the Bard is always with us. What does it mean?

He means something to us as readers in part because he means so much to our writers. So let’s consider why writers turn to our man.

It makes them sound smarter?

Smarter than what?

Than quoting Rocky and Bullwinkle, for instance.

Careful, I’m a big fan of Moose and Squirrel. Still, I take your point. There are lots of sources that don’t sound as good as Shakespeare. Almost all of them, in fact.

Plus, it indicates that you’ve read him, right? You’ve come across this wonderful phrase in the course of your reading, so clearly you’re an educated person.

Not inevitably. I could have given you Richard III’s famous request for a horse from the time I was nine. My father was a great fan of that play and loved to recount the desperation of that scene, so I began hearing it in the early grades. He was a factory worker with a high school education and not particularly interested in impressing anybody with his fancy learning. He was pleased, however, to be able to talk about these great stories, these plays he had read and loved. I think that’s a big part of the motivation. We love the plays, the great characters, the fabulous speeches, the witty repartee even in times of duress. I hope never to be mortally stabbed, but if I am, I’d sure like to have the self-possession, when asked if it’s bad, to answer, “No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door; but ’tis enough, ’twill serve,” as Mercutio does in Romeo and Juliet. I mean, to be dying and clever at the same time, how can you not love that? Rather than saying it proves you’re well-read, I think what happens is that writers quote what they’ve read or heard, and more of them have Shakespeare stuck in their heads than anything else. Except Bugs Bunny, of course.

And it gives what you’re saying a kind of authority.

As a sacred text confers authority? Or as something exquisitely said confers authority? Yes, there is definitely a sacred-text quality at work here. When pioneer families went west in their prairie schooners, space was at a premium, so they generally carried only two books: the Bible and Shakespeare. Name another writer to whom high schoolers are subjected in each of four years. If you live in a medium-sized theater market, there is precisely one writer you can count on being in production somewhere in your area every year, and it is neither August Wilson nor Aristophanes. So there is a ubiquity to Shakespeare’s work that makes it rather like a sacred text: at some very deep level he is ingrained in our psyches. But he’s there because of the beauty of those lines, those scenes, and those plays. There is a kind of authority lent by something being almost universally known, where one has only to utter certain lines and people nod their heads in recognition.

But here’s something you might not have thought of. Shakespeare also provides a figure against whom writers can struggle, a source of texts against which other texts can bounce ideas. Writers find themselves engaged in a relationship with older writers; of course, that relationship plays itself out through the texts, the new one emerging in part through earlier texts that exert influence on the writer in one way or another. This relationship contains considerable potential for struggle, which as we mentioned in the previous chapter is called intertextuality. Naturally, none of this is exclusive to Shakespeare, who just happens to be such a towering figure that a great many writers find themselves influenced by him. On intertextuality, more later. For now, an example. T. S. Eliot, in “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917), has his neurotic, timorous main character say he was never cut out to be Prince Hamlet, that the most he could be is an extra, someone who could come on to fill out the numbers onstage or possibly be sacrificed to plot exigency. By invoking not a generic figure—“I am just not cut out to be a tragic hero,” for instance—but the most famous tragic hero, Hamlet, Eliot provides an instantly recognizable situation for his protagonist and adds an element of characterization that says more about his self-image than would a whole page of description. The most poor Prufrock could aspire to would be Bernardo and Marcellus, the guards who first see the ghost of Hamlet’s father, or possibly Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the hapless courtiers used by both sides and ultimately sent unknowing to their own executions. Eliot’s poem does more, though, than merely draw from Hamlet. It also opens up a conversation with its famous predecessor. This is not an age of tragic grandeur, Prufrock suggests, but an age of hapless ditherers. Yes, but we recall that Hamlet is himself a hapless ditherer, and it’s only circumstance that saves him from his own haplessness and confers on him something noble and tragic. This brief interplay between texts happens in only a couple of lines of verse, yet it illuminates both Eliot’s poem and Shakespeare’s play in ways that may surprise us, just a little, and that never would have been called into existence had Eliot not caused Prufrock to invoke Hamlet as a way of addressing his own inadequacy.

It’s worth remembering that comparatively few writers slavishly copy bits of Shakespeare’s work into their own. More commonly there is this kind of dialogue going on in which the new work, while taking bits from the older, is also having its say. The author may be reworking a message, exploring changes (or continuities) in attitudes from one era to another, recalling parts of an earlier work to highlight features of the newly created one, drawing on associations the reader holds in order to fashion something new and, ironically, original. Irony features fairly prominently in the use not only of Shakespeare but of any prior writer. The new writer has his own agenda, her own slant to put on things.

Try this for slant. One of the powerful voices to come out of resistance to apartheid in South Africa is Athol Fugard, best known for his play “Master Harold” . . . and the Boys (1982). In creating this play Fugard turns to you-know-who. Your first instinct might be that he would grasp one of the tragedies, Othello, say, where race is already at issue. Instead he turns to the history plays, to Henry IV, Part II, to the story of a young man who must grow up. In Shakespeare, Prince Hal must put his hard-partying ways behind him, stop his carousing with Falstaff, and become Henry, the king who in Henry V is capable of leading an army and inspiring the kind of passion that will allow the English to be victorious at Agincourt. He must learn, in other words, to wear the mantle of adult responsibility. In Fugard’s contemporary reworking, Henry is Harold, Hally to the black pals with whom he loafs and plays. Like his famous predecessor, Hally must grow up and become Master Harold, worthy successor to his father in the family business. What does it mean, though, to become a worthy successor in an unworthy enterprise? That is Fugard’s question. Harold’s mantle is made not only of adult responsibility but of racism and heartless disregard, and he learns to wear it well. As we might expect, Henry IV, Part II provides a means of measuring Harold’s growth, which is actually a sort of regression into the most repugnant of human impulses. At the same time, though, “Master Harold” makes us reexamine the assumptions of right—and rights—that we take for granted in watching the Shakespearean original, notions of privilege and noblesse oblige, assumptions about power and inheritance, ideas of accepted behavior and even of adulthood itself. Is it a mark of growing up that one becomes capable, as Harold does, of spitting in the face of a friend? I think not. Fugard reminds us, of course, even if he does not mention it directly, that the grown-up King Henry must, in Henry V, have his old friend Falstaff banished. Do the values endorsed by Shakespeare lead directly to the horrors of apartheid? For Fugard they do, and his play leads us back to a reconsideration of those values and the play that contains them.

That’s what writers can do with Shakespeare. Of course, they can do it with other writers as well, and they do, if somewhat less frequently. Why? You know why. The stories are great, the characters compelling, the language fabulous. And we know him. You can allude to Fulke Greville, but you’d have to provide your own footnotes.

So what’s in it for readers? As the Fugard example suggests, when we recognize the interplay between these dramas, we become partners with the new dramatist in creating meaning. Fugard relies on our awareness of the Shakespearean text as he constructs his play, and that reliance allows him to say more with fewer direct statements. I often tell my students that reading is an activity of the imagination, and the imagination in question is not the writer’s alone. Moreover, our understanding of both works becomes richer and deeper as we hear this dialogue playing out; we see the implications for the new work, while at the same time we reconfigure our thinking, if only slightly, about the earlier one. And the writer we know better than any other, the one whose language and whose plays we “know” even if we haven’t read him, is Shakespeare.

So if you’re reading a work and something sounds too good to be true, you know where it’s from.

The rest, dear friends, is silence.