William Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616—four hundred years ago. Today’s show is a salute to his continuing life. (His baptismal date was April 26, 1564; birth date unknown.) Wikipedia: “an English poet, playwright, and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England’s national poet, and the ‘Bard of Avon.’ His extant works, including collaborations, consist of approximately 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and a few other verses, some of uncertain authorship. His plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright.”
On today’s show, Jack reads a few pieces about Shakespeare’s work. Here is some of what you will hear:
Hamlet the character is, we know from hundreds of performances, a fascinating “individual”—and he is overwhelmingly real. Yet the moment we try to “explain” his reality—even to explain his essential problem—we find ourselves confused, uncertain. The reason for this is that Shakespeare’s extremely memorable characters do not behave consistently according to any system of psychology, whether Renaissance or Modern. Freud was right. There are moments in the play when Hamlet is exhibiting clear Oedipal characteristics. But not throughout the play. Hamlet himself suggests that he is “melancholy”—a psychological condition exhaustively studied by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy. It’s true, Hamlet is melancholy, but not throughout the play. Hamlet also functions as the figure of the Avenger—as in Thomas Kyd’s famous revenge drama, The Spanish Tragedy. But, again, not throughout the play. The same character who tells his mother that he “knows not seems” displays a considerable interest in theater (an art of “seeming”) and announces that he will put on an “antic disposition” and pretend to be mad—“seeming” to the max. On the other hand, there are several moments in the play when Hamlet really does appear to be crazy.
Nor are such contradictions limited to the character of Hamlet. Polonius is throughout the play nothing but an old fool. Yet his diagnosis of Hamlet as mad for the love of Ophelia is not without some justification in Hamlet’s behavior, and his “This above all: to thine own self be true” speech is one of the great set pieces of the play, something far beyond the powers of the foolish old man he is everywhere else. (Of course in delivering the speech Polonius is not being “true” to the “self” he regularly displays in Hamlet, particularly when one remembers his usual rhetorical mode: “And in part him; but you may say not well: / But, if ’t be he I mean, he’s very wild.”)
The fact is that Hamlet seems real not because he is a coherent character or “self” or because there is some discoverable “essence” to him but because he actively and amazingly inhabits so many diverse, interconnecting, potentially contradictory contexts. Implicitly promising to tell us all about the interesting “individual” Hamlet, the play Hamlet ends by expressing the possibility that “individuality” (a word derived from the Latin individuus, indivisible) is in fact multiplicity.
If the poetry Shakespeare actually published were all that existed for us to read, what would be the status of his “eternal lines”? I don’t think we would rate them very high. He might have the reputation of, say, John Donne, whose work sometimes resembles Shakespeare’s sonnets; certainly not of Milton. Even if we grant that the sonnets are uniformly magnificent—which they are not—I don’t think that would change things very much. Sir Philip Sydney wrote a wonderful sonnet sequence, “Astrophel and Stella.” Do people read it? Is Sydney generally thought of as one of the greatest English poets?
What made Shakespeare into the great poet he is were the plays—which Shakespeare never bothered to publish. Why?
This paper, written many years ago, is based on the Platonic notion that, in Elizabethan sensibility, everything tends towards the divine, which is “realer” than anything else—which is in fact the source of reality…Shakespeare sees Rome as the Earthly City. England—“This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” (Richard II)— he imagines to be at least on the way towards the possibility of being the City of God. Because of the revelation of Christ, England, a Christian nation, can be closer to the real than Pagan Rome. The Classical World is a kind of false version of reality, with gods like Jupiter, but, at the same time, insofar as it exists—like any other world—it also reflects reality. In order to “exist,” to be “real,” a thing has to partake of “reality.” So the Classical World, which is “false,” is also—like theater—a kind of skewed mirror of the real, a dark glass, a “shadow,” a word which in Shakespeare’s time could mean an imitation, a copy, a duplicate. Jupiter (who is “false”) reflects (but not exactly) God the Father (who is “real”). Thus, Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue can be understood as a prophecy of the Christian New Heaven and New Earth—and the “boy” in it as a prophecy of Jesus, though Virgil himself was, as a Pagan, completely unaware of such implications. To put it another way, Virgil thought he was functioning in one context; Christians thought he was functioning in another. The vatic capacity of poetry places the poet in contact with a world that his actual circumstances may have no way of understanding. The false yearns towards the real just as the Christian soul yearns towards God. Shakespeare may have regarded theater as a similar yearning. “The best of this kind,” he writes of actors in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “are but shadows”—and the word is repeated at the end of the play: “If we shadows have offended….” People, existing beings, are not fully real though they reflect the real; for such creatures, life may be no more than “a midsummer night’s dream”… It is in this sense that we should understand the famous assertion—a Renaissance commonplace—made in As You Like It.: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.” The actors in a play, who perform roles, are less real than the audience that watches them—but the audience too is made up of “players.” A play is a fiction; it is less real than “life”—but life is a fiction too, a stage.
All other May shows pre-empted for fund raising.