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The Greatest!

We all like to think of the Bard as our own. For homosexuals he is undoubtedly one of themselves; soldiers with a taste for scholarship are quite certain he must have been in the army; men of the law point to his remarkable knowledge of their mysteries; aesthetes like Lytton Strachey to what they think of as his later indifference to everything but poetics and style. Politicians used to prefer him to be the wily Bacon; snobs, the Earl of Oxford. Persons of faith know him for a devout Christian, while for unbelievers he was a dedicated atheist. It is not difficult to find what appears to be good evidence for each and every one of these Shakespeares.*

Of recent years he has become increasingly sympathetic to Roman Catholicism, if not actually a Catholic. His father, John Shakespeare, self-described as “Bailiff, Justice of the Peace, the Queen’s Officer and Chief of the Town of Stratford,” undoubtedly was one. Nor was it any barrier to his worldly success, although at the height of his comparative prosperity in 1569 he made formal applications for a family coat of arms and was turned down, for reasons unknown. Not until 1596 did his own increasingly successful playwright son manage to secure the coveted title on his father’s behalf, together with the motto Non Sans Droit. A scornful but possibly envious Ben Jonson joked that it might just as well have been “Not without Mustard.”

But joking apart, the Roman Catholicism of the elder Shakespeare was clearly, in those dangerous times, a serious matter. “Bloody Mary,” Elizabeth’s sister and queen before her, had burned a good number of Protestants, something usually overlooked by those who draw attention to the persecution of Catholics under Elizabeth. Elizabeth in fact was not a persecutor by nature, nor did she wish to make “windows into mens’ souls.” Her view was not religious but practical and political: if some fanatics wanted to do her in, all Catholics then had better watch out; but she would not draw and quarter them for their faith alone, although her more zealous advisers often implored her to do so.

The relevance of this to the latest general study of Shakespeare’s life and work is that Anthony Holden attaches a great deal of importance to the Bard’s paternal provenance, and to his religious sympathies. No harm in that: all surveys of a subject as familiar as this are well advised to home in on some issue. At the start of the book Holden draws attention to “a document of great significance,” discovered a century and a half after Shakespeare’s death, and found hidden in the rafters of his father’s family house. The document, which has since disappeared, became known as John Shakespeare’s “Spiritual Last Will and Testament,” and was shown by a Jesuit scholar to be a copy of an Italian tract translated and disseminated by English priests like Edmund Campion who came to England at the risk of their lives. It seems certain that John Shakespeare obtained a copy, probably through relatives familiar with Campion himself, which he judged it prudent to conceal during one of the periodic witch hunts conducted by the Elizabethan authorities.

This is one of the few certainties, if a significant one, on which a survey of the playwright’s life can depend. Shakespeare’s youthful consciousness must indeed have been soaked in the old religion, as well as in the violence done to it by the new. More than one of his mother’s relatives, the Ardens, had been condemned and executed as recusant Catholics and potential conspirators by the odious Sir Thomas Lucy, MP for Warwickshire, and better known for the legend fostered in the eighteenth century concerning the young Shakespeare’s deer poaching from the Lucy estate at Charlecote Park. Lucy denounced a fellow MP called Parry, who had questioned the severity of the anti-Catholic legislation, and managed to have him judicially murdered with custom-built penalties devised by Lucy himself.

This deplorable affair is certainly reflected in what may be the first play Shakespeare wrote. In the second part of Henry VI, the villainous Gloucester “devises strange deaths for small offences done,” an accusation later repeated and emphasized by the Duke of York: “You did devise/Strange torments for offenders, never heard of….” Under the guise of a history play Shakespeare could safely comment on the behavior of the local magnate, whose preferred reading was Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, a popular manual of the horrors of Marian counter-Protestantism, and a book well known to Shakespeare himself. As for the Bard’s prowess in the pursuit of wildlife, the best comment is probably that of the critic and historian Walter Bagehot, who had been reading the lines about the hare in Venus and Adonis. “It is absurd,” he remarked, “to say we know nothing about the man who wrote that; we know that he had been after a hare.”

Holden’s main theme is to follow that well-worn path, relating moment and utterance in play and poem to what may be conjectured of the life. But he is a sensible as well as a humorous guide, with no patience for any of the multifold interpretations of the Sonnets, reminding us that the notorious “Dedication” to W.H.—“The only Begetter of these ensuing Sonnets”—had nothing to do with Shakespeare at all, and that the poet certainly never intended them for publication. The rest is either nonsense or wishful thinking, as in the case of the recent biographer who espoused the charming theory that the Bard had been waiting for his mother’s death before daring to publish the Sonnets. He conveniently forgot, as Holden dryly reminds us, that Mary Shakespeare was unable to read.

Holden is equally sensible about the so-called “lost years” between Shakespeare’s schooldays and his appearance as a playwright and actor on the London stage in 1592. What was he doing? Did he become a soldier to escape the wrath of Sir Thomas, as Duff Cooper suggested in his book Sergeant Shakespeare? Perfectly possible: but he must have been on leave fairly often in order to get married and have three children between 1582 and 1585. Duff Cooper likes to imagine him carrying a letter home from the Low Countries from the top brass hat Lord Leicester; and it is quite true that Sir Philip Sidney, who died of wounds there in 1586, sent home a letter by the hand of “Will, my Lord of Leicester’s jesting player.”

Much more probable, indeed almost certain, is that thesis of the excellent scholar Ernst Honigmann, who argues that Shakespeare spent much of the lost time in Catholic Lancashire, in the household of Thomas Hoghton, for whom he worked as tutor, secretary, and perhaps actor and even playwright, for this prominent family was “minded from time to time to keep players.” But why Catholic apologists, and champions of Shakespeare as always emotionally and spiritually in harmony with their religion, should consider this sojourn such significant evidence is not easy to say; though it is true that Campion the martyr had left his books at Hoghton Tower before he was arrested. Catholic critics have usually more sense than to see the Bard as ardent in their cause, but they like to think, and with some justification, that he moved in a penumbra of their faith, and mourned desecrated altars and churches, those “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.”

Shakespeare himself however had other things to do in the course of becoming all things to all men. Difficult for a biographer to avoid the obvious here, and Holden accepts the fact as gracefully as he can. Did Shakespeare know all about sexual jealousy? Of course he did, and Othello makes the whole matter hardly worth mentioning; nevertheless what Holden has to say about Shakespeare possibly having been aware of the Moorish ambassador at the Queen’s court is of real interest, as is the remarkable picture of that dignitary reproduced here, and painted when Othello was being written. Oh handsome was he, and with a face so full of life and character, that one can imagine any Desdemona, in Venice or in London, falling madly in love with him. If Shakespeare imagined Othello like that, then la donnée du pièce s’explique, as the French have it.

When in July 1606 the then Queen’s brother, Christian IV of Denmark, paid a state visit, the easy manners of the Danish court seem to have infected the normally staid English courtiers. Ben Jonson presented an elaborate masque, and the results much amused Queen Elizabeth’s one-time godson, the wit Sir John Harington. As a chronicler records,

“Hope” and “Faith” were found vomiting in an ante-chamber; “Victory” expired after trying in vain to present the King with a symbolic sword. “Peace” forgot herself completely, laying about all and sundry with olive branches that formed part of her costume.

If the court ladies made an exhibition of themselves, King Christian was not there to see it since he had collapsed from too much drink earlier in the evening. With a biographer’s cunning Holden has it both ways. “No doubt amused by reports of the evening, Shakespeare would have rested content with getting the ways of the Danish court right five years earlier in Hamlet.” No doubt. And he at least paid King James the proper compliments in Macbeth, performed a few weeks later in honor of the King’s brother-in-law.

In his last phase in the theater, by now indoors at the Blackfriars, Shakespeare made brilliant use in Cymbeline and The Tempest of the contemporary vogue for masque, and continued it in his last play, Henry VIII, written in collaboration with John Fletcher. For the Victorian biographer Edwin Dowden, the playwright had moved from an early period of insouciance and comedy to the dark depths of King Lear, and so to the serene heights and the tranquil farewell of The Tempest. Holden very properly will have none of this majestic and seemly progression and finale, and he is surely right. The Victorians liked to think of the great writer as illustrating the ideal cycle of man’s journey, but the truth is more prosaic. Shakespeare kept going as long as he needed to; and he had enough family and financial problems back home in Stratford to worry him in his last years and months. Like virtually everyone else at the time who reached that age he was very distinctly an old man at fifty-two.

Holden writes admirably, and his book is full of common sense as well as the scholarship the subject requires. He has his quirks of course; notably the emphasis on the playwright as Catholic sympathizer, covertly detesting the memory of the renegade Henry VIII and none too keen on commemorating his famous daughter, Elizabeth. Kipling by contrast portrayed in his last story, “Proofs of Holy Writ,” a staunch Anglican Shakespeare, happily employed in polishing up a version of the Psalms for the Bench of Bishops. The fact is that Shakespeare and his private feelings can be found everywhere and nowhere, like the music in The Tempest, and it was a happy idea on Holden’s part to invest the Whitsun memories of the old shepherd in The Winter’s Tale with a nostalgic Bard creating connubial domestic pleasures he’d probably always missed. The passage is in any case a marvelous one, redolent of Shakespeare’s last and most supple style.

This day she was both pantler, butler, cook,
Both dame and servant; welcom’d all, serv’d all;
Would sing her song and dance her turn; now here,
At upper end o’ th’ table, now i’ th’ middle;
On his shoulder, and his; her face o’ fire
With labour, and the thing she took to quench it
She would to each one sip…

“Was he offering Anne an oblique apology,” asks Holden, “trying in his long-distance way to atone for his own inadequacies as husband and father?” Well, why not?

Such nostalgic speculation is not to be found in Shakespeare’s Language by Frank Kermode, the austere critic to whom Holden’s biography is dedicated (and who partly dedicates his book to Holden). One could start by putting a complex matter simply, and saying that the language of its greatest poet shows just what language can do. Such a poet reveals to his countrymen how extraordinary is the tongue of which they are all, one way or another, in possession. Mere study of the language cannot reveal this: only poetry can. Dante did it for the Italian tongue, Goethe for the German. Pushkin is the most astonishing case of all, since without giving up the international eighteenth-century ideal of clarity and economy of language he astonished his hearers with the richness and subtlety of their own speech—its uniquely Russian personality—just as surely as Shakespeare had compelled his audiences to listen to the words they were hearing. Kermode quotes the distinguished director Sir Richard Eyre, who observed that “the life of the plays is in the language, not alongside it, or underneath it.” And the Elizabethan audience, he goes on, “were an audience who listened.”

Some of the modern audience may be listening but most are not, and it is for the benefit of the larger group that Shakespeare’s plays today are mostly acted and directed. Many modern productions take the defeatist line that the words as such are best left on the page, and not carefully articulated on the stage. They have to be spoken as a kind of accompaniment to what is going on, but no one need be expected to see how and why they work, and what a perspective of meaning there is within them. In mature Shakespeare their complexity is designed to fuse meaning simultaneously with expression and emotion. But actors today are afraid of words and their meanings: with relief they regard what they are doing as a different kind of activity, one more suited to the modern stage. Although even Shakespeare’s first editors, it should be remembered, had begun to see him as a writer to be read, as much as an actor and playwright to be listened to in the theater, an attitude which would strengthen during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries until it became the accepted method of getting in touch with the language of the plays. Shakespeare’s mystery as a man of words that were to be heard and wondered at solely in “the wooden o’ the Globe” had begun to diminish even while he still lived.

And his own progress in language had been vertiginous. An Elizabethan audience, groundlings and all, adored the way his words could build pictures and comparisons, as a master builder fashioned a house or a rhetorician an argument. As he went on Shakespeare forsook this building process for one of free association as rapid as thought itself. Richard II in an early play invites our participation in his thinking process as if it were a formal game:

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world;
And for because the world is populous,
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.
My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father, and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts;
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humors like the people of this world….

An Elizabethan audience would have followed this with fascinated attention, as they would have followed the formal steps of the language game when young Arthur in King John tries to persuade Hubert not to blind him. Formality, Kermode points out, is often used in early to middle Shakespeare to make a ghastly situation bearable and beautiful, even strangely touching, as when Marcus in Titus Andronicus finds Lavinia raped, her hands cut off and her tongue cut out:

Fair Philomela, why, she but lost her tongue,
And in a tedious sampler sew’d her mind;
But, lovely niece, that means is cut from thee.
A craftier Tereus, cousin, has thou met,
And he hath cut those pretty fingers off
That could have better sew’d than Philomel.
O, had the monster seen those lily hands
Tremble like aspen leaves upon a lute,
And made the silken strings delight to kiss them,
He would not then have touch’d them for his life!
Or had he heard the heavenly harmony
Which that sweet tongue hath made,
He would have dropp’d his knife, and fell asleep,
As Cerberus at the Thracian poet’s feet.

Beautiful high-flown language blends with mythology to create a tapestry of the scene rather than the scene itself. In Shakespearean language and its multiple effects the contrast with the scene of Gloucester’s blinding in King Lear is obvious. Language there makes no attempt to get between the audience and the raw reality of what goes on. Instead it ensures that the audience see the vile act for what it is.

In Antony and Cleopatra the mythological and historical are dissolved by an extraordinary use of words into a similar reality of emotion and passion. Unique, abruptly coined words are repeated to emphasize the distraction and obsession. When Antony calls her “cold-hearted,” Cleopatra passionately protests her love, as if the words were tumbling out of her with an incoherence which becomes miraculously meaningful in the act of speech:

Ah, dear, if I be so,
From my cold heart let heaven engender hail,
And poison it in the source, and the first stone
Drop in my neck; as it determines, so
Dissolve my life!

“Determines” her, as Kermode points out, relates to an almost chemical sequence of melting and dissolution; and when Cleopatra refers in another stunning word coinage to “the discandying of this pelleted storm,” Antony will take it up, after he has lost his last battle, in an outcry eloquent of desertion and despair:

All come to this. The hearts
That spannell’d me at heels, to whom I gave
Their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets
On blossoming Caesar; and this pine is bark’d,
That overtopp’d them all.

A bizarre and wonderful mixture of metaphor! Hearts (as in a phrase like “brave hearts”) are like dogs slavering over the sweetmeats given them by their new benefactor, Caesar, a tree in blossom compared with Antony, once the tallest tree but now one dying with its bark stripped off. Kermode ingeniously suggests there is a hint here “of the usual attention dogs give to trees,” but he does not mention the Reverend Walter Whiter, the equally ingenious eighteenth-century clergyman who first and brilliantly suggested that Shakespeare’s creative forces at this period worked by means of lightning verbal association. With his mind “in a fine frenzy” working on dogs, the word “barked,” albeit in a quite different sense, naturally tumbled out of Shakespeare’s verbal cornucopia. But the main point, as Kermode observes, is that melting and dissolution are Antony’s fate. Like the great and vivid rhetorical hero that he is, he will melt away in a golden syrup of words. “The crown o’ th’ earth doth melt” laments Cleopatra.

Kermode suggests that “become” and “becomings” (“My becomings kill me,” says Cleopatra, “when they do not/Eye well to you”) are the key words of the play: but one would have thought “melting” the much more obvious candidate, and one, moreover, which impresses itself in the acting of the play rather than in a thoughtful and concentrated reading of it. Many critics, notably Caroline Spurgeon, have sought to find such key words in each of the later plays, but critics are apt to forget that the kind of attention they give to the words on the page is not really the kind that even an Elizabethan could and did give in the theater. It remains true, nonetheless, that an audience can pick up an atmosphere, a motif, a phrase, or word coinage, subliminally and half-consciously, as if under the same spell which the playwright may have been under when he composed them.

An example of what can occur in an artist’s use of words and language is illustrated by Kermode from the modern age:

Shakespeare’s use of a particular word or set of words to give undercurrents of sense to the dramatic narratives is, of course, a device used in later literature—it is a feature of E.M. Forster’s novels and a trick also of Virginia Woolf’s. Bernard, the writer in The Waves, says he is tired of stories and longs “for some little language such as lovers use, broken words, inarticulate words, like the shuffling of feet upon the pavement.”

James Joyce may be said to have carried this process to his own kind of conclusion in Finnegans Wake, that inspired thesaurus of Shakespearean wordplay. But the fact that Antony and Cleopatra’s golden rhetoric can also be a form of little language, “such as lovers use,” shows the astonishing range and variety of the mature Shakespeare’s verbal eloquence.

Kermode has interesting things to say about the role of silence in Shakespeare’s dramatic language. The concept of silence as a gift of speech might be thought paradoxical, but it makes sense if we consider the case of Cordelia in King Lear, Queen Hermione as a statue brought to life in The Winter’s Tale, or the rebel Coriolanus confronted by his mother at the gates of Rome, the city which has banished him and on whose destruction he is now bent. This tense situation gives rise to the longest stage direction in the plays: “Coriolanus, holding her by the hand, silent.” Laurence Olivier daringly prolonged this silence to very nearly two minutes, and during that time you could have heard a pin drop in the theater. Silence worked here for a situation where any quantity of the hero’s tormented rhetoric would have been out of place. At the end of it Coriolanus calls off the attack on Rome and leads the Volcians back to their city where, as he must know, certain death awaits him.

Confronted by her father’s demand for fulsome speech Cordelia can say nothing; and this silence is prolonged in the senses of the audience throughout the play, as if drama of any kind, and the dramatic verse that goes with it, is totally false and out of place in the world of horror and devotion which the play will reveal. “No poetry after Auschwitz” may have been an inept and wrongheaded slogan, but it expressed an instinct of the time which was not so far from an audience’s sense that only Cordelia’s silence can be ultimately appropriate to a world like the one which is presented to us in King Lear. It seems to me Shakespeare’s most astonishing feat of technical discernment, for in all previous dramatic versions of the King Lear story Cordelia is as much of a chatterbox as are her sisters and the rest of the cast.

Like other scholars and editors Kermode is a shade severe on the implications of Shakespeare’s growing linguistic complexity. One modern editor has remarked despairingly that a line in a famous speech from Measure for Measure “is not susceptible of rational explanation.” Another laments about a speech in a later play that though “the idea is clear…it is hard to make gram-matical sense out of the lines.” The play in question here is The Two Noble Kinsmen, which is now generally accepted to be born of a collaboration between Shakespeare and his younger colleague at the Globe, John Fletcher. Shakespeare is credited with Act I and six or seven more scenes, including the last, his hand in the piece being all the more detectable by reason of the sharp contrast between his style and the softer, more obvious melodiousness of Fletcher.

Charles Lamb’s account of the contrast gives an admirable description of the Bard’s ultimate technique. Fletcher’s ideas, he says, “move slow; his versification, though sweet, is tedious; it stops every moment; he lays line upon line, making up one after the other, adding image to image so deliberately that we see where they join.” But Shakespeare “mingles” everything. “He runs line into line, embarrasses sentences and metaphors; before one idea has burst its shell, another is hatched out and clamorous for disclosure.”

Exactly. And I should think audiences who listened complacently to Fletcher’s deft expositions would have been on the edge of their seats (the play was performed indoors at Blackfriars) to catch Shakespeare’s fireworks. But Kermode is not so sure. He takes a decidedly negative view of what he calls “the unprofitable complexity” of the Bard’s more dazzling speeches in The Two Noble Kinsmen. A recent editor has even detected in them the influence of Donne’s poetry, which, as Coleridge exclaimed, “wreathes iron pokers into true love knots.” Kermode’s own concluding sentences are by no means happy about this:

Sometimes it seems that Shakespeare, in these latter years, is simply defying his audience, not caring to have them as fellows in understanding…. [Or] did he overestimate their endurance, and ours; did he perhaps even exaggerate his own?

A sour note to end on. The greatest poetry in English is not like prose. It need not be fully understood, as prose has to be, in order to be wholly appreciated. Most lovers of Shakespeare’s language surely would feel that it can never be too outrageously startling and inventive; never too full of words and images that baffle our minds even as they both stir up and satisfy our own appetite for poetry, the speech that most perfectly reveals what a language can do.

  1. *

    In Law and Love: The Trials of King Lear (Yale University Press, 2000), Paul W. Kahn concentrates on Shakespeare as lawyer and a political theorist, reading King Lear as “a meditation on political psychology.” In Shakespeare’s Feminine Endings: Disfiguring Death in the Tragedies (Routledge, 1999), Philippa Berry reads the playwright in terms of “feminist theory and postmodern thought.”