April 29, 2014:
Today is the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth. I think perhaps the date should be an annual and universal holiday, in celebration of the English language, the new lingua franca worldwide, and of that now unfashionable trait, genius. Genius comes out of nowhere, like Shakespeare, and it is part of its definition that it remakes everything in its path. As did Shakespeare. As has English, and the two of them go together; they are inseparable. We have here in Sag Harbor a professional waiter, working at the American Hotel, whose country of origin is Montenegro, in the Balkans. When he first arrived he took a course in English from a friend of ours, not to better perform his job, he said, but to be able to read Shakespeare. The British Empire spread English all over the globe and Shakespeare was part of that process. Salman Rushdie, raised in India, has written a prequel to Hamlet called "Yorick," Aime Cesaire has rewritten The Tempest. And here in America, the scholar Stephen Greenblatt is involved in trying to "write"--well, dream up in some plausible way--a lost play named Cardenio, which Shakespeare is said in contemporary documents to have written with John Fletcher. But these are merely recent engagements with the man's work. The history of rewriting, reinterpretation, adaptation--fooling around, in short, with Shakespeare's texts--would fill whole libraries. A friend here belongs to a Shakespeare reading group that meets monthly and reads a single play for each meeting. They have, I understand, gone through the entire canon four times.
I have not read all of Shakespeare. At grad school at Columbia I specialized in 16th century English literature and decided to avoid joining the "bard biz," not wanting to become just another scholar sniffing out the elusive trail of this extraordinary but largely anonymous man. You cannot specialize in that particular field and totally avoid him, of course, but you can direct much of your attention elsewhere, and that is what I did. My attention went to Sir Philip Sidney, to Edmund Spenser, to Thomas Nashe and John Donne and the fascinating figure of Sir Thomas Wyatt, whom I wrote my Master's thesis on. I did read plays. I had already read all of Christopher Marlowe for a seminar in my undergraduate years, I had read some of Shakespeare, including the three parts of Henry VI, for the Marlowe seminar, three separate plays, among Shakespeare's most obscure, and my teacher told me I was one of perhaps a hundred people in the U. S. who had read all three. They are not his best. He was not always great. He collaborated, too; he was part owner of his acting company, writing was a business for him, he became prosperous doing it, and collaboration was an ordinary part of the process. That fact has set generations of scholars to the task of figuring out what part of which plays Shakespeare wrote, and what his collaborators. Most of the plays written under his own name bear little trace of collaboration, but his hand does appear, not that infrequently, in the works of some of his contemporaries. It is here that the idea of genius disabuses itself of its godlike nature. Shakespeare was no solitary genius standing monumentally above his contemporaries. He was part of their world. Collaboration, indeed, is standard in the theater. The playwright writes, but actors, directors, producers and all kinds of other people get involved in putting the work on. How many times have we read of actors insisting on changing lines, or playwrights rewriting whole scenes in response to the way they played on stage? It's quite common in the movies for three, four, or more writers to work on a script. It was not that much different in Shakespeare's time.
Yet is is quite clear that he was a genius. And he came out of nowhere, a glovemaker's son from Stratford-on-Avon, just as John Keats was the son of a hostler, i.e.someone who takes care of the horses in an inn, and Bob Dylan's family ran a hardware store, and on and on and on. Thus the idiotic but persistent suspicion that Shakespeare could not possibly have written the plays he obviously did, that it must have been someone like Edward de Vere, a nobleman, university educated, or perhaps Francis Bacon or some other notable of the time. Even the remarkable actor Derek Jacobi believes this. We have a good friend who believes it. What they all apparently fail to do is to consider the context--the facts that at the time Shakespeare lived, acting and the writing of plays were not thought of as respectable professions, that no one paid any attention to the personal lives of people in the theater, that literary fame, at a period before novels existed, came from the writing of poetry, and poetry alone. Shakespeare made his bid for that with The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis, which are not plays but long narrative poems; and they appear to be the only works of his that he personally saw through the press. The quarto publications of separate Shakespeare plays were made from actor's prompt sheets, and they were unauthorized--i.e., pirated. Shakespeare did not read proof for them. His collected works, which with some of the plays constituted their first publication in book form, came out seven years after his death.
Part of the problem people have with his authorship is that we know so very little about him, and most of that from legal papers--his testimony in a lawsuit; his application for a coat of arms; things like that. But we know as little about Marlowe and Nashe and John Fletcher and Thomas Kyd and Middleton and Beaumont and on and on and on. Among them all, Ben Jonson was virtually alone in promoting himself in anything like a modern way. The world was not modern yet; the cult of authorial personality had yet to exist; none of these people kept diaries or corresponded with each other in that self-conscious way that looks to ultimate publication. Publication itself was relatively new. Thus this anonymous genius, available only through his work, which is truly transcendent, which displays such incredible insight into human beings and the human condition. Does anyone remember the moment in the movie version of Amadeus where Salieri calls Mozart the voice of God? Oh indeed he was, and yet in the beginning of that movie we first come upon Mozart running around a gathering at some royal palace, giggling, chasing his girlfriend. Of all the modern treatments of Shakespeare the man, I most respect the movie Shakespeare in Love, which makes of him an ordinary person, writing and rewriting while trying to pay his rent and keep his head above water. The fact that Shakespeare didn't do interviews, to put it another way, is a fact to celebrate.
So: Happy Birthday, Mr. Shakespeare. Thank you for living. Thank you for writing. The whole world owes you a debt. You invented us in a way, opened doors inside us we did not know were there, saw us whole, at our worst, at our best, and did not look away. Because we do not know who you "really" were, you reveal yourself in the only way that counts, in your work. And the work is incomparable. No one you wrote about, none of your characters, seems anything but real. They stick in the mind, like so many of the words you put into the language and into our hearts. That we have you is a glorious gift. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you forever.