The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age
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    Ask Me About Shakespeare, Round Two

    So, last year I had an Ask Me About Shakespeare thread that people seemed to enjoy. (Answers to the first round of questions are at the link.) Let's try it again.

    I'll do my best to answer any questions you may have about the subject of Shakespeare (or, what the heck) English Renaissance literature, or I'll explain why I can't answer them. The two usual reasons are either that I need to ask someone more specialized, or that nobody really knows. As usual, the following standard ivory-tower caveats apply:

    1. If I don't know something, I'll say that. And if nobody knows something, I'll say that, too.

    2. I'll probably answer some questions with lots of buts, ifs, and maybes, like stereotypical academics do, because sometimes the only honest answer has a lots of buts and maybes.

    3. I'm more interested in explaining how we know things than I am in giving my opinion. (I have other places to peddle my opinions on this subject.) So when something's a subject of debate I might suggest what I think, but I'm more interested in explaining why different sides think what they do, and what kind of evidence we use to go on.

    Also, any questions that I identify as from ringers, meaning by other professional Shakespeareans, will be identified as such in my replies. Just as full disclosure.

    So, without more ado: lay on, Macduff!


    How close to the people's language were Shakespeare's plays?  Were they looked on as popular entertainment or were they strictly for the elite, much like opera?  Where they performed in other places besides the Globe/London?

    Another question, if I may: What is there about Shakespeare's words that make them so universally loved--if they are?  

    Oh, and one more: Were there other dramatists/story tellers who might have worn that crown, if only. . .?

    (Thanks, Doc.  I love this!  And I don't have to pay tuition!)

    Good questions, Ramona. Let me try to untangle them.

    1. Shakespeare's language is not so different from everyday language, except that much of it is poetry. He sometimes rearranges the usual word order, within the recognized limits of his day, in order to keep his syllables in the rhythm he wants. And there are, you know, lots of figures of speech. But it's a slightly-heightened version of the way people talked.

    (Think about David Mamet's characters cursing along in "everyday" speech, but with it arranged more artfully than a random bunch of guys dropping F-bombs ever manage.)

    Also, within the plays there are different kinds of speech, as various characters speak in different ways. It's often the most humble "everyday" speech that can be hardest to understand, while the lofty poetry is easier to figure out.

    2. Shakespeare's plays were certainly not limited to the elite. We know that he had a very wide range in his audience, from young apprentices to the nobility and the monarch. But the audience at his playhouse ranged from aristocrats to apprentices. Everybody got the same play.

    3. Yes, these plays were performed almost everywhere. They got performed in the London playhouses where Shakespeare was part-owner (the Globe and then later the indoor Blackfriars as well), in the playhouses he worked in before the building of the Globe (the Theater and the Curtain), at the royal court, at the London law schools (the Inns of Court), and occasionally in a rich person's private home.

    But the actors also toured outside London. In fact, the settling in London as a home base was the new innovation; these acting companies were originally designed to tour. Shakespeare's actors took those plays around England, performing at a mix of town guildhalls, inn yards, and aristocratic country houses. They also visited Oxford and Cambridge, although the universities were not always friendly to traveling players.


    Okay, a separate comment for the next questions.

    You mention that "Also, within the plays there are different kinds of speech, as various characters speak in different ways." By modern standards, how good would you rate him as giving different "voices" to different characters within a play? If you consider him adept at that, would you say he broke any new ground? Not knowing much about literature, I can only imagine that initially, most parts in a play would use language similar to that of the author's, and that it must have seemed ground-breaking when someone first thought, "Hey, would a poor orphan really talk like that?" (For example.)

    I would say, by modern standards, he is still exceptional for the range of different tones and registers in his plays. And it is not simply stereotyped by class. Hamlet (the character, and not the play) can speak in lofty ways and extemely coarse straightofrward ways ("I'll lug the guts into the neighbor room," is not H trying to sound like a prince.)

    Breaking new ground? I'm not sure it would be fair to say. English stagecraft develops enormously swiftly during his lifetime, and he contributes to that but he's only one contributor among many.

    4. What makes Shakespeare's words universally (or at least very, very widely) loved? That is a big question. It's a question like, "What makes this composer better than those others?" If I could bottle what made these words famous ...

    There are two basic approaches to answering this question. One is to talk about just how intricately crafted the language is, and look at it in loving detail. The problem with this, for blogging and comment-thread purposes, the more you look at the words in detail the more things expand, until you've written an enormous amount of highly specific analysis. There's a common species of college English paper like this: give me five pages of prose on these fifteen lines of poetry. But you don't come away with one magical technique that sets Shakespeare apart from everyone else. You find many, many smaller techniques.

    But of course, Shakespeare isn't the only English poet that you can do this to. You can read Milton or Donne or Spenser, just to pick three examples whose lives overlap with Shakespeare's, forever and keep seeing more.

    The second approach is to say, well, maybe it's not the words, or not just the words. Shakespeare is a very good poet, but at a certain point his reputation started to build on itself and there are social reasons that he's become the Big Kahuna of English lit. Certainly, you can say that Milton or Chaucer are also qualified to be the Greatest English-Language Poet. And maybe if things shook out slightly differently, we would think of one of them as the figurehead for English literature and Shakespeare would be half a rank behind them in the hall of fame.



    5. Were there other playwrights who might have worn that crown? You bet. There were 1. people who seemed on the way to wearing that crown, but died; 2. people who were doing excellent work and who, given a do-over, might have had the talent to come out on top and 3. people who were widely agreed to have taken the crown away from Shakespeare, who were seen as better playwrights at the end of Shakespeare's life and for about 75 years after that.

    Shakespeare's exact contemporary Christopher Marlowe, born only a couple of months before Shakespeare, was clearly the dominant figure when they were in their twenties, and what Marlowe produced before 30 is, overall, much more impressive than what Shakespeare seems to have done before 30. But when they are 29, Marlowe gets stabbed to death, and the rest is history. Maybe Marlowe wouldn't have grown into what Shakespeare grew into, but he was well ahead when his round ended. Another gifted playwright named Thomas Kyd, who like Marlowe was clearly a big influence on Shakespeare, died right around the same time. (Kyd was arrested by the authorities while they were investigating Marlowe, and questioned under torture. He died within a year of that.)

    Shakespeare was part of a very gifted generation (or two, or three) of playwrights. Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher, Thomas Middleton, John Webster, and John Ford all did amazing work, and many others did very strong work. (Another PhD might give you a different list of the amazing and the very good. That was mine.) So Shakespeare's not the only talent.

    At the end of his career, some people talked about Shakespeare as slightly old hat, not as learned or sophisticated as some of the younger playwrights. And that reputation pretty much continued through the rest of the 1600s. John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont, who were known to write as a team, were considered the best playwrights, because their plays were more aristocratic, and Ben Jonson came next because he was the most erudite playwright. Then Shakespeare came third or fourth, depending on how you count. That is hard for us to believe, but it's true. And some people in his lifteime ranked him even lower. The playwright John Webster writes a dedication to one of his plays, he praises a bunch of other playwrights;

    that full and heightened style of Master Chapman; the labored and understanding works of Master Jonson; the no less worthy composures [sic] of the both worthily excellent Master Beaumont and Master Fletcher; and lastly (without wrong last to be named) the right happy and copious industry of M[r] Shakespeare, M[r] Dekker, and M[r] Heywood

    It's shocking to us today to see Shakespeare ranked tied for fifth, but that's what's happening here. Webester puts another self-consciously learned playwright, George Chapman first, followed by the learned Jonson and the gentlemen poets Beaumont and Fletcher. Then Shaksespeare is lumped in with Thomas Dekker and Thomas Heywood, hard-working and unpretentious commercial playwrights whom no one thinks of as immortal geniuses.

    The "happy and copious industry" is basically condescending praise for how hard-working Shakespeare, Dekker, and Heywood are: maybe they're not the smartest or most talented, but they turn out a lot of scripts and they're the hardest-working guys in show business. Not how we think of Shakespeare at all, but clearly how some people in his day did think of him.

    We know now that Shakespeare borrowed story ideas and elements of plots from other writers, like Plutarch and Holinshed.  Were people aware of it in his time and was it a big deal or was it just accepted because Shakespeare was so adept at re-weaving the threads he borrowed into something both different and extraordinary?

    Yes, everyone knew, because everyone else was doing it too. It was how everyone wrote plays. Playwrights adapted everything that wasn't nailed down: history books, pamphlets, non-dramatic poems, the classics: everything.They were churning out new plays to satisfy a hungry audience, and there was no copyright.

    People did it to Shakespeare, too. The playwright Thomas Heywood took big chunks of Shakespeare's poem The Rape of Lucrece for Heywood's own play The Rape of Lucrece. That's just the way things went.

    Also remember, the 16th and 17th centuries didn't have our emphasis on originality. Writers were steeped in a culture of imitatio, imitation of the classics. Rewriting and modifying things that had gone before wasn't cheating or plagiarizing. It was the ideal form of writing.

    If I'm sued over my next play, "Death of a Salesperson", I'm going to use the "Imitatio Defense."

    Well, good luck with that.

    Sir Francis Drake was allowed to commit piracy on the high seas and call it "privateering." Some of the rules have changed.

    Modern rules allow pirating by corporates, not by individuals. Not a lot of originality in those troves. Did Sam Goldwyn really say "get me that Shakespeare on the phone"?

    It sounds apocryphal, but I don't know. I'm not an expert on studio politics in the golden age of Hollywood.

    Almost certainly is apocryphal, but funny just the same - "hey, this Hamlet's pretty good..." Of course he wasn't Bergman doing Seventh Seal but Billy Wilder doing Sunset Strip - even Faulkner couldn't survive Tinseltown.

    In Alan Moore's Keague of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Prospero is a super-hero. In Sandman, Puck is a fierce devil. What's your favorite use of Shakespeare characters out of Shakespeare, excluding Stoppard?

    Good question. Maybe the hospital ward for bad Richard the Thirds in Monty Python.

    Or, to go old school, John Fletcher's sequel to Taming of the Shrew, in which Petruchio's second wife vows not to be treated like the first.

    Audrey Hepburn puts Rex Harrison in bondage gear? Forces him to actually sing rather than his pedantic pseudo-melodic lecturing? And the scrub the floor with a push me-pull you?

    If someone wants to write that kind of sequel to My Fair Lady/Shaw's Pygamalion, I'm all for it.

    Of course Shaw let her walk away; Warner Brothers had her come back.

    What's your favorite Shakespearesque non-Shakespeare work?

    I think everybody has their own idea of where "Shakespearesque" begins and ends. i guess I'd go with Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese ("How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.")

    Ah, we come full circle to the poetry.

    Well, for some people a costume drama that seems brainy feels "Shakespearesque," so that Shaw or A Man for All Seasons hits the sweet spot.

    For some people it's something like House of Cards or even Game of Thrones, which seem to echo some of the history plays.

    For others, a verse drama feels more like Shakespeare Under Milkwood or even Hogan's Goat.

    I understand where all those reactions come from. But for me, there isn't that huge genre-mixing range that Shakespeare (and other playwrights of his day) get. So none of those things feel that "Shakespearesque" to me.There are plenty of plays I love, but nothing written after around (when the London theaters were all closed during the English Civil War) so has the vibe that plays written before then have.

    People writing sonnets can sometimes get closer to the vibe of Shakespeare's sonnets. Those poems are, on a very basic level, the same form Shakespeare was using. But play from the last 300 years isn't quite using the same form as a play from 400 years ago.

    My comment wasn't criticism, just observation/bemusement as your last piece was about the lack of oral rendition of Shakespeare of late vs. the literal deconstruction. Yes, Browning does feel quite Shakespearean in this (I would probably have misidentified this particular poem having been some 30+ years since I read her....)

    Oh, I didn't take it as criticism. I was just trying to think through what "Shakespearesque" means to me, and what it seems to mean to others.

    My university has a nice little database of Shakespeare production photos, which I really enjoy. (The photos are all from the archives of Cleveland newspapers, so some are just publicity photos from Broadway shows or national TV broadcasts, but there are also some local gems, including young Tom Hanks as a Shakespeare-repertory player.) But the librarians who originally put the resource together threw in a few other plays that seemed "Shakespearesque" to them, and I'm always thrown by what they chose to include.

    Anyway, probably the thing that feels most "like Shakespeare" to me is a Marx Brothers movie.

    One of things about Shakespeare is that there's always more than one genre happening at the same time in one of the plays. There's a lot of comedy in the histories and tragedies, and not just from the clowns (Hamlet himself can be very, very funny). And the comedies have some tragic undertones to them, but more importantly for me they have two very different kinds of comedy going on (sometimes more than two): the love-plot comedy that provides the formal ending, and a much more anarchic clown comedy. It's like you took When Harry Met Sally and put The Blues Brothers inside it. They really don't make them that way anymore.

    Most plays and movies today stick closely to one genre, and a pretty narrow range of tones. Even "serio-comic" movies don't have the full range of different things going on.

    Brecht, with all the self-awareness and experimentation, gives me a tiny taste of that feeling I get from Shakespeare. And the Marx Brothers feel in some ways like one of his more manic comedies; there's the standard-issue boy-girl plot, offloaded onto Zeppo, and then there's the inspired anarchy of Harpo, Groucho, and Chico. There's that playfulness with form, somehow both self-aware and extremely fresh. And you have the silly and the sublime right next to each other.

    Shakespeare wrote some great romance-comedy plots, too. Benedick and Beatrice, or Rosalind and Orlando, aren't characters you farm out to someone like Zeppo Marx. But there are Shakespeare comedies where he seems to have no more interest in the marriage plot than Animal Crackers does. Fenton in Merry Wives of Windsor is pretty much the Zeppo du jour, while the rest revolves a bunch of lunatics, eccentrics, and conniving fraudsters.

    It's not the same. I would never say it was the same. But I feel similarities between the two, while your average highly-literature costume drama doesn't give me much "Shakespearesque" vibe at all.

    Okay, now that you've opened & daresay violated Pandora's, er, Box, let's get your opinion on:

    a) what Shakespearean secret was Harpo hushing up? [Da Vinci code II?]

    b) the Shakespearesque qualities of the 3 (actually 5) Stooges, and speaking of Stooges (not Iggy) & Marxes,

    c) was there any notable Jewish influence surrounding Shakespearean theater, aside from the scandalous Merchant?

    a. The rest is silence (Hamlet V.ii)

    b. The Stooges, whom I also like, aren't so Shakespearean. They're more like Moliere.

    c. Merchant wasn't scandalous at the time, and since Jews were legally forbidden from living in England at the time (from the late 1200s until sometime in the 1650s), no. No Jews involved in Shakespeare's theater.

    But some people have written about the persecution and execution of Elizabeth I's ethnically-Jewish converted-Protestant physician, Dr. Lopez, which happened very publicly in 1594. He was convicted on (totally bogus) charges of attempting to poison the (not-poisoned) Queen, and a whole lot of anti-Semitism was on display

    Shakespeare's plays seem to succeed even when translated into other languages, or when updated into modern English (West Side Story).  So it's not just a question of Shakespeare's poetic language.  There's something about the dramatic structure of the plays that still works.  I can't imagine that an updating of The Jew of Malta, or The White Devil would do as well.

    Care to comment?

    There is. I wouldn't fault his dramatic structure, either. I don't think of these plays as simply poems.

    But then, I would also point out that those adaptations change the dramatic structure, too. West Side Story is not a straight remake of Romeo and Juliet and a lot of the dramatic structure gets changed.

    And if The Jew of Malta hasn't been adapted successfully, I think lots of people have done remakes and updates of Doctor Faustus.

    I think people are borrowing genuinely effective passages from Shakespeare for their updates. But I also think part of the pleasure that readers and audiences get is from recognizing the borrowings. The thing about West Side Story is you always know it's a version of Romeo and Juliet. If you're watching The Lion King with your kids, you can appreciate that it's borrowing from Hamlet. The sheer fame of the earlier works helps the process along. (You don't see remakes of Timon of Athens or Two Gentlemen from Verona, because who would notice?)

    There are teen rom-com films based on Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night, but (and here the question of dramatic structure vs fame becomes pretty clear) most modern adaptations of Taming of the Shrew only take the first two acts and drop the rest of the play like it's radioactive. We like the beginning of Petruchio's wooing of Kate. We don't want anything to do with the middle or the end. Oh, hell no.

    And, to be fair, there is some selective memory here, in that we remember the hits. There are plenty of unsuccessful attempts to adapt Shakespeare, and a bunch more that are just okay. We remember West Side Story but not remember The Boys from Syracuse (a Broadway musical based on The Comedy of Errors). We also might forget that Ben Jonson's Volpone became a Broadway play called The Sly Fox, but that play was successful enough in its day just like The Boys from Syracuse was.

    "You don't see remakes of ... Two Gentlemen from Verona, because who would notice?"

    Hey, I love that quirky, hippy musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona with music by Galt MacDermot and book and lyrics by John Guare and Mel Shapiro.  It won the Tony award for best musical in 1971.  

    Ah! You got me there!

    I love this thread, Doc, even more than last year's. Has it been so long already? Wow.

    Follow up on your fascinating response to Mona: When and how did Shakespeare climb from fifth-place also-ran to the Greatest English-Language Poet?

    Thanks, Michael. I'm glad you're enjoying it. And an excellent question, which I'm going to have to take a deep breath to answer.

    The when part of the question is easier: Shakespeare climbed to his current height of reputation over stages, from something like the lowest ebb in 1660 to established King of all media in the mid-1700s, and finally to his absolute apex in the second half of the 19th century, by which point he was a secular idol. How is harder to answer, because it's tied into the question of why, and there's ongoing debate about that. My own answers inevitably reflect my positions in those debates.

    I want to point out one basic thing before I get really rolling: the list of Greatest Writers is constantly shifting, slowly but endlessly, and the list of "All-Time Greatest," especially, changes over time. You'll notice that my list of English playwrights with Shakespeare stuck in Third-and-a-Half position doesn't feature Christopher Marlowe at all. But by the twentieth century, Marlowe had clearly become English Renaissance Playwright Number Two, next-best after Shakespeare. John Donne has clearly been a Top Ten Renaissance Poet for the last hundred years, but didn't rate anything like that high over the previous centuries. This goes for classical Latin and Greek, too. The canon of Latin and Greek poets that were considered most important in Shakespeare's lifetime is not the canon we have today, although there is some important overlap. A bunch of classical works and poets we consider minor were much bigger deals to Shakespeare's generation. In four hundred years, the list of Most Important Greeks and Romans will probably look different again.

    So, anyway:

    In 1660, the London theaters reopened after an 18-year closure (Civil War + government by theater-hating Puritans), and Shakespeare's acting company was gone by then. Shakespeare was English Playwright #3 or #4 (and note that we're talking about English playwrights, not English poets) after Beaumont/Fletcher and Jonson. He's not as hip or as intellectual as the others: there's something faintly middlebrow about liking him. But he's still a substantial figure: after all there were only three-and-a-half playwrights who rated a big, fat volume of collected plays (Beaumont and Fletcher shared a collection), so the sheer fact that you could get all of dramatic Shakespeare in one place helped ensure his importance. He was no longer as big a deal as he used to be, and he was kind of square, but you remembered that he had been a big deal once upon a time.

    Two new London acting companies formed in 1660 on royal authority, and those authorities divided up all the old plays between those two new groups. The favorite company, the new King's Men, got the "best" plays, meaning almost all of the Beaumont/Fletcher and the Jonson, with only a couple of Shakespeare pieces. (Seriously, they took Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew because it was part of a set with Fletcher's sequel to Taming of the Shrew. It was really like that.) The second-favorite company, the Duke of York's Men, got the leftovers that the top company didn't want, including almost all of Shakespeare. But over time, the Duke of York's Men turned out to be far and away the better, more innovative acting company. They adapted the hell out of Shakespeare to fit current tastes; their leading man became a huge star with a career of almost half a century, the first great "Shakespearean actor" who hadn't acted for Shakespeare's original company; eventually the "senior" company collapsed completely and the "junior" company absorbed them.

    By the time the 18th century rolled around, and increasingly so, Shakespeare's plays became the backbone of the English theatrical repertory, while the other pre-Civil-War playwrights fell into less favor. By 1769, the great actor David Garrick decided to hold a big "Shakespeare Jubilee" at Stratford-on-Avon, the first time the cult of Shakespeare got rolling in the birthplace. You'll notice that Garrick didn't have the idea in time for Shakespeare's 200th birthday in 1764; and in 1664, celebrating a hundred years of Shakespeare wouldn't have crossed anyone's mind. By the 300th birthday in 1864, Shakespeare was basically the sacred embodiment of English culture.

    And by the Victorians, Shakespeare had not just emerged as Playwright Number One but Poet Number One. He wasn't just considered better than Jonson, Beaumont, and Fletcher, but as bigger than Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton, all of whom would make a perfectly good National Poet. Chaucer, who could be called the Father of English Literature, had the disadvantage of being much harder to understand than Shakespeare (because English changed more between 1400 and 1600 than it has changed from 1600 until today). The choice of national poet came down to Shakespeare or one of the lofty, highly-learned epic poets, Spenser and (especially) Milton. Milton's the last one Shakespeare passed; in the late 1700s, you were still not allowed to say bad things about John Milton without people losing their minds. If you didn't like Milton, you basically weren't English.

    Why did Shakespeare win? Partly because he was popular, in the sense of fun and playing to a broad audience instead of just the elite. He had highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow appeal. Shakespeare performances weren't just for the elite in the 1800s, either. They were still popular entertainment. And there were all kinds of adaptations and spinoffs. He was basically King of All Media. On the other hand, there's not a more fun, lowbrow version of Paradise Lost. It's always a sublime and lofty epic. Milton is High Art, and even the dirty jokes, which are few and far between, don't feel especially naughty to everyone.

    Another reason that Shakespeare won out (and there are lots of reasons or arguable reasons, more than I could ever cover here), is nationalism. He became recruited as a symbol of Great Britain. John Milton is also a good nationalist figure, but Shakespeare has an advantage in the very things that once made him look lowbrow compared to Fletcher and Jonson. Shakespeare doesn't follow the classical literary rules for writing plays. He mixes comedy and tragedy! He has multiple plot threads! He keeps switching tone! In 1660, this made him a crude, unpolished artist who didn't understand The Rules the way Jonson did. Bu the 1700s, this made him a "natural genius," who lacked education but did it all through his amazing artistic instincts and intuition. But by the middle of the 1700s, and definitely in the 1800s, it made him essentially English, doing things in his own English way and ignoring all those classical rules that the French, for example, were obsessed with. Shakespeare got turned into the most English of English writers, who set his own national standard.

    Anyway, those are parts of a long, complicated story.

    The Disney formula: something for the kids, something for the parents. A good fight, a bit of humor, and if lucky a little (implied) toss in the hay. 

    Fascinating and revelatory (to me at least)! Thanks so much for the detailed explanation.

    You seem to play down Shakespeare's violation of classical rules by describing England's belated appreciation for him as "nationalist," which makes the sentiment seem artificial, even pernicious. But couldn't it be the other way round? That English art culture was too conservative and elitist to fully appreciate Shakespeare before the 18th century? We often talk that way about transformative artists who were not appreciated until after their deaths--we say that the world wasn't ready for them.

    Both sides of the argument have ulterior motives, and both sides of the argument are responding to genuine artistic values. I don't mean to make one side the party of enlightenment who appreciates real art and the other the side of politically-motivated Philistines. People's responses to art are always both real AND influenced by the society around them.

    I like Shakespeare's artistic approach myself, and I am not a British nationalist. Nationalism is certainly not the only reason to appreciate him. But much of the case that got made in the 18th and 19th century for why Shakespeare breaking the classical rules was made on *explicit* nationalist grounds. People would write that English genius could not be constrained by a foreigner like Aristotle, blah blah blah, or they would especially contrast Shakespeare's practice to those decadent, neo-Classical French. Shakespeare's non-classical approach became a way to contrast British culture from French culture during height of the British and French Empires' rivalry.

    Got it. Thanks!

    Last year was less interesting because we got into a long diversion about who actually wrote Shakespeare's plays. This year we're all pretending agreeing that that fraud Shakespeare wrote the plays. wink


    Thanks, everyone.

    I'm going straight from work to the airport today, so my responses will slow down after this. But thanks for making the thread fun.

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