Olympic Shakespeare //

‘Music to hear’: Shakespeare and Rufus Wainwright //

To go into the Barbican concert hall and see the full forces of the BBC Symphony Orchestra ranged in tiers before you is to see a splendid sight. The auditorium, shaped like a great oyster shell, resembles that of The Olivier Theatre at The National. In both, visibility is excellent from any part of the house. The platform protrudes only slightly – it’s adjustable, I believe – so no members of the audience are disadvantaged by being too far to the side of the performers. The acoustics are splendid too.

Almost all the music in the performance I went to see and hear on Sunday had been inspired by Shakespeare. The Jewish Viennese composer Erich Korngold made most of his money and achieved his greatest fame after emigrating to America in 1938. There he embarked on an immensely successful career as a film composer, most famously for The Sea Hawk (1940), starring Errol Flynn. He also wrote much other music including a fine violin concerto which is often heard in the concert hall. But the Shakespeare music played in the concert I attended was composed when he was only in his early twenties.

Korngold had developed a passion for Shakespeare as a boy, and he composed incidental music for performances of Much Ado About Nothing when he was little more than twenty years old. It’s often played in an arrangement for violin and piano. Colourful, melodious, appropriately theatrical, it’s marvellously well suited to the play. Indeed I remember playing a movement from it to a friend without telling him anything about it and asking him which Shakespeare character it reminded him of. ‘Dogberry’, he said, after a few moments’ thought, and indeed Dogberry is the character whom Korngold was attempting, clearly with great success, to portray in musical terms.

After this came a selection from the far more angular and acerbic music that Serge Prokoviev wrote for a ballet based on Romeo and Juliet. It’s wonderfully vigorous music, also like Korngold’s vividly suggestive of the characters and event of the play. To see rather than simply to hear it performed adds an extra dimension to the experience. The young, highly promising conductor Rory MacDonald was immensely expressive and authoritative in his gestures, and the timpanist really had a ball, bashing away ferociously with both arms flailing in the music’s many percussive stretches.

Even though the evening’s programme centred on Shakespeare it must be admitted that this was not the attraction that caused tickets for the event, which was broadcast live on the radio, to be sold out almost as soon as it was advertised. After the interval, exceptionally, the voice of the announcer Petroc Trelawny filled the hall as he heralded the arrival on stage of Rufus Wainwright.

For some years now this popular and talented singer and composer has been performing and recording his own settings of some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The entire second part of this concert was made up of only five of them, which seemed as if it could be short measure. But in the event it made an excellent climax to the evening.

I knew Rufus’s settings of some of the poems in their versions for voice and piano. But here he sang them with full orchestral accompaniment. And in addition each sonnet was read in advance by Sian Phillips, speaking with exemplary clarity and rhythmic sensitivity. I was especially interested by an unexpected emphasis in Sonnet 20, the one that begins ‘A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted / Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion.’ I have always taken the words ‘as is false women’s fashion’ to imply, misogynistically, that all women are false. But by the way Sian Phillips inflected ‘false’ she suggested that the poet was referring not to the whole of the sex but only to those members of it who are false.

Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets do not lend themselves easily to musical setting. Indeed over the centuries, though the songs in the plays have inspired great settings by a wide range of composers, there have been few memorable songs based on the sonnets. They are so densely written, so finely nuanced, that music can add little to their effect. Perhaps this is why Rufus Wainwright felt that it would be helpful for us to hear them spoken in advance of his performances. But he sang them plangently, sometimes dramatically, deploying the full range of a voice which at times ascends almost into the range of the counter tenor but is capable also of declamatory impact. This was a star performance and it has to be said that in the end the evening’s star was Rufus, not Shakespeare.

The post ‘Music to hear’: Shakespeare and Rufus Wainwright appeared first on Blogging Shakespeare.

Shakespeare Sex and Love – revisited //

Photo. by Christoph Mueller

For an author, the lead up to the date of publication of your book is an exciting and potentially tense time. You’ve received your advance copies and looked fearfully to see if anything’s wrong. There can be. When the first copies of my first solo-authored book Literature and Drama arrived I looked proudly at it only to find that it started with the General Editor’s Preface not to my book but to one in the same series written by a different author. Telephone wires hummed, apologies were made, and publication had to be delayed while the error was rectified. Some unfortunate employees of the publisher had to slice out the wrong preface from every copy that had been printed and paste in a corrected version, known in the trade as a cancel. I still have that first copy with the wrong preface. It would be a collector’s item if the book were one that anybody wanted to collect.

Of course you never have enough free copies, and you may have ordered a few extra at your own expense. You proudly present those you can spare to your nearest and dearest and to anyone to whom you’re especially indebted for help. If you’re lucky, your publisher will have succeeded in arranging some advance publicity.

For Shakespeare, Sex, and Love I was indeed lucky. Oxford University Press, publishing my book around the date of Shakespeare’s Birthday, had landed two high-profile broadcasts to launch it on its way. One of them was on the Radio Three programme Nightwaves, which I especially admire. On it books often have to share the allotted time with other items – maybe a film, an exhibition, and a theatre performance. But because James Shapiro’s excellent book Contested Will, a brilliant study of the so-called Shakespeare authorship question – I of course don’t think there is one – was to appear at the same time as mine, the entire forty-five minute programme was allocated to the pair of us. The presenter, Matthew Sweet, had received advance copies. One of these he had handed to his producer, who said as I went into the studio that it had been great fun to be seen reading what he called ‘such a fabulously filthy book’ while coming in to work on the tube.

James Shapiro and I had an animated conversation about the subject matter of our books and really enjoyed the occasion. And not only that, OUP had succeeded in getting me on to Andrew Marr’s Start the Week programme on Radio 4. This time four hopefuls gathered in the studio to publicize their work. It was quite an international group. Besides me there were the Indian director of a Bollywood romantic comedy, the French author of a book about philosophy and the Dutch author of one about the politics of charity giving. Each of us was expected to try to make intelligent remarks about each other’s work, and to foregather to do so at a somewhat early hour of the morning. We got through it all without conspicuous mishap.

After the pre-publicity comes the anxious period of waiting for the reviews – well, first of wondering whether there will be any, and if there are, what they will be like. I struck lucky. It happened that the first review of mine appeared in The Guardian on the day of the celebrations for Shakespeare’s birthday, and I nervously got a friend to read it to me as we were sitting outside a coffee bar waiting for the procession to start. Written by Simon Callow, it began by describing my book as ‘the latest in’ my ‘many superb studies of the writer to whom’ I have ‘devoted most of my working life’ and carried on in a vein of eulogistic eloquence such as I should never have ventured to express even if I’d been writing the review anonymously myself, concluding with a reference to my ‘concise and elegantly written book’ which he said, ‘subtly and systematically illuminates Shakespeare’s acknowledgment of the glory and the horror of what it is to be fully human, the unceasing contradictions, the inescapably oxymoronic nature of our life, especially in this area of sex and love.’

After this there came equally good, if less exuberantly expressed reviews by writers such as Charles Nicholl (in The Financial Times) and Robert Maslen in the TLS – a review which placed a degree of emphasis on my treatment of homoerotic issues that, somewhat to my surprise, sent the book rocketing to the top of the Gay list on Amazon for quite a while. And sometimes one gets nice comments in less exalted places – only the other day, a student whom I don’t know tweeted to her followers ‘Shakespeare sex and Love … was really enjoyable! I do like enjoyable homework.’ Which pleased me very much.

Shakespeare Sex and Love is just out in paperback from Oxford University Press.

How to Tame a Shrew? //

Photo. by Christoph Mueller

Our revered guardian of theatrical values, Michael Billington, has recently joined Twitter. The news provoked a flurry of excitement among regular tweeters. His first message to what is already becoming a large band of devoted followers both posed a question and offered a recommendation. ‘Saw the Shrew in Stratford last night. I once called for a ban on the play. Was I wrong? Read my review tomorrow.’ I tweeted back ‘I don’t believe you really think that any play should be banned. But some productions ….’

I feel sure Michael disapproves of censorship on any grounds. But his comment echoes a complaint that was made over a century ago by Bernard Shaw when he wrote of the play ‘No man with any decency of feeling can sit it out in the company of a woman without being ashamed of the lord-of-creation moral implied in the wager and the speech put into the woman’s own mouth.’ For some people Kate’s final speech is as much of an obstacle to enjoyment of the play as for others are the nationalistic sentiments of the final chorus of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger.

Since Shaw’s time this complaint has been vociferously echoed by feminist critics, and the view that Kate’s long last-act speech of submission to Petruccio forms a deplorable endorsement of patriarchal attitudes towards marriage has been reflected in numerous productions. Michael Bogdanov’s iconoclastic RSC version of 1978 portrayed Petruccio, played by Jonathan Pryce, as a hell-raising bully from the start, emerging drunk from the audience and demolishing the romantic, Italianate set on to which he climbed after a fake tussle with an usherette. Yet at the end, as Paola Dionisotti’s Kate spoke in praise of marriage and offered to place her hand beneath his foot, he writhed in embarrassment. And other inventive directors have attempted to defend Shakespeare from the charge of endorsing misogynistic values to which they themselves cannot subscribe.

In the production now running at the RSC that provoked Billington’s comment, Lucy Bailey seeks to explain Kate’s apparent submission by ascribing it to sheer lust. She was so keen to get her athletic, tattooed Petruccio beneath the sheets of the vast bed that formed the set that as soon as she had spoken her final lines the couple tore off their clothes and descended into copulatory bliss. This was one way of attempting to excuse Shakespeare from belonging to his time.

But there is a simpler one. The shrew story is framed by that of Christopher Sly, the drunken tinker who in the play’s opening scenes is shown being fooled by a lord and his followers into believing that he is himself a lord, that he has a wife who grieves for his loss of memory, and that the travelling players who come conveniently upon the scene will enact the taming story for his personal entertainment. In the version of the play that was printed in the first Folio of 1623 the Christopher Sly framework is abandoned as the play that is being performed for his benefit progresses, and he fades out of the action. But another play based on the story, and possibly on Shakespeare’s own play, printed in 1594, rounds off the story with a final episode in which Sly is carried back on to the stage ‘in his own apparel again’. A tapster wakes him, he calls for more wine, sees that the players are gone, and asks ‘Am not I a lord?’ The tapster disabuses him of his illusions, and Sly says he’s had ‘the bravest dream tonight that ever thou / Heardest in all thy life.’ Now he knows ‘how to tame a shrew’, and he sets off for home confident that he can tame his wife if she angers him.

Some directors, including Jonathan Miller in both his television version and his RSC production of 1987, in which Fiona Shaw played Kate as an initially neurotic psychopath who finally accepted the status quo as a situation that had to be endured rather than enjoyed, have abandoned the framework altogether. In doing so they have jettisoned some of the play’s finest verse and diminished its imaginative complexity. Most importantly, they have lost a perfect opportunity to redeem Shakespeare from charges of misogyny (supposing they had wished to do so) by presenting the shrew story as a romantic tale of wish fulfilment on the part of Christopher Sly. John Barton did this in his directorial debut at Stratford in 1960. For me this remains the benchmark production. Peter O’Toole and Peggy Ashcroft’s quarrel scenes crackled with wit. The Irish actor Jack McGowran was a credulously volatile Sly. The young Ian Holm played an almost senile Gremio who touched the heart as he said ‘And may not young men die as well as old?’ And Patrick Wymark’s Grumio gave full value to the character’s beautifully shaped prose account of Petruccio’s journey. In the final scene as Petruccio strummed his lute and sang, giving a sense that far more than a hundred crowns hung upon the successful outcome of the wager, we awaited Kate’s entry in delighted anticipation. And finally, as the players packed their costumes and props and wandered back into the night, Sly was left to enjoy the thought that he knew now how to tame a wife.

Send Up for Shakespeare! //

Photo by Christoph Mueller

It’s not new. Individual lines and passages from Shakespeare’s plays were imitated and parodied even in his own time, as in The Knight of the Burning Pestle, where there is a send-up of Hotspur’s lines on honour from 1 Henry IV, and in Beaumont’s comedy The Woman Hater (or is it by Fletcher, or by both of them together?). And in Eastward Ho, ‘made by’ Chapman, Jonson, and Marston, as the title page tells us, there’s a footman called Hamlet who has, significantly, only a tiny part. The first full-scale burlesque of a Shakespeare play, though, is The Mock-Tempest, or The Enchanted Castle, by Thomas Duffett, of 1674, in which Prospero’s island is transformed into a brothel. Obscene, vigorous, and amusing, it burlesques a current production of Thomas Shadwell’s operatic version of the adaptation of The Tempest by Dryden and Davenant. So it’s a sort of bastard of a bastard.

After that there are numerous parodies of individual passages and scenes from Shakespeare, but the heyday of burlesques adopting the entire framework of a Shakespeare play doesn’t come till later. Curiously, some of the most popular plays were burlesqued in Vienna around the turn of the eighteenth century, and a few years later, in 1810, was published John Poole’s Hamlet Travestie, with ‘Burlesque Annotations, after the manner of Dr Johnson and Geo. Steevens Esq. and the various Commentators.’ It parodies and paraphrases the play in rhyming couplets and incorporates songs set to popular tunes. This is essentially a literary burlesque, intended for reading, and includes hilarious mock annotations, but it has often been performed, frequently as a way of making fun of individual actors. In fact my interest in the burlesques, which led eventually to the publication of a five-volume collection which I edited in 1974, was first piqued by a reference in a biography of Henry Irving to the fact that his performance of Hamlet had been sent up in a burlesque acted at a minor theatre while he was playing Hamlet at the Lyceum. Poole’s play has been produced in recent times, too, usually by people who’ve been under the impression that they were the first to discover it.

The heyday of the burlesque came during the middle of the nineteenth century, and there are some delightful examples by writers such as Francis Talfourd and the brothers Henry and William Brough. I’m particularly fond of the Broughs’ charming Perdita, or the Royal Milkmaid, of 1856, which is a direct send-up of Charles Kean’s then current production of The Winter’s Tale. As well as being entertaining in their own right, these burlesques are a marvellous source of information about the theatrical and social scene of their time. There’s an excellent study of them by Richard Schoch, called Not Shakespeare: Bardolatry and Burlesque in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 2002). A late example of the genre is a one-act burlesque by David Piper, sometime Director of the National Portrait Gallery, called Shamlet; A Drammer, acted in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in 1944. Michel Dobson, in Shakespeare and Amateur Performance (p. 129), writes that in it ‘Shakespeare and the sods’ opera came together.’

Gilbert’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, like Poole’s Hamlet Travestie, was written originally for publication, in three consecutive issues of a magazine called Fun in December 1874, at a time when Irving was playing Hamlet with sensational success at the Lyceum. Gilbert himself did comic drawings for it, under his pseudonym of ‘Bab.’ He had just begun to collaborate with Arthur Sullivan. In some ways it’s untypical of the majority of burlesques. Gilbert greatly alters the plot, and there are no songs – sadly from Sullivan’s great librettist. The guilty secret in this Claudius’s life is that, when young, he wrote a five-act tragedy – which flopped. He has decreed that any of his subjects found sneering at it should be executed. Rosencrantz is in love with Ophelia, and the passage in which she describes Hamlet glances at both the oddities of actors and the disagreements of scholars, describing the favourite theory about the play as:

‘Hamlet is idiotically sane
With lucid intervals of lunacy.’

There’s little direct parody of the original, though the play includes a pastiche of Shakespearian prose imitative of Hamlet’s advice to the players which is revealing of Gilbert’s principles of comic writing. The First Player politely suggests to Hamlet that he and his fellows know their job, and he has no more right to instruct them in the rules of acting than they to instruct him on the duties of the heir-apparent.

Gilbert’s play was not acted until 1891, and after that it was several times revised in order to enhance its topicality. Gilbert himself appeared as Claudius in amateur productions, when he ‘wore his royal robes as to the manner born, looking much more like a Shakespearean than a burlesque figure.’ A variorum edition has not yet appeared. Maybe next week’s production at The Shakespeare Institute will stimulate one. If this happened, and if Gilbert – who was no great admirer of Shakespeare – knew about it, his comments would be worth hearing.

There is a rare opportunity to see a staging of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on Saturday 11 February from 7.00pm at The Shakespeare Institute, Church Street, Stratford-upon-Avon. It’s being presented to raise money for the Lizz Ketterer Trust.

Shakespeare’s Many Moods of Love //

The great actor Sir Ian McKellen, who is also well-known as a gay activist, was recently quoted in the press as saying that Shakespeare himself was probably gay. Invited to comment on this, I pointed out that there was nothing new in the idea, which for a long time has been frequently expressed especially because some of his sonnets are clearly addressed to a male. Nevertheless none is explicitly homoerotic in the manner of some of his contemporaries such as Christopher Marlowe, Richard Barnfield, and Michael Drayton, or for that matter of some modern poets such as W. H. Auden or Thom Gunn. All those that are clearly addressed to or written about a young man, or ‘boy’, are among the first 126 to be printed in the 1609 volume. Yet Number 116, ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment ….’, one of the most famous love poems in the language, is frequently read at heterosexual weddings. And other poems in the first part of the sequence – such as No. 27 – could even be love poems addressed to the poet’s wife.

Shakespeare’s most idealized sonnets fall among those that are either clearly addressed to a male, or are non-specific in their addressee. His explicitly sexual sonnets, all concerned with a woman and all among the last 26 to be printed, suggest severe psychological tension in a man who has to acknowledge his heterosexuality but who finds something distasteful about it, at least in its current manifestation. An example is Sonnet 147, which begins:

‘My love is as a fever, longing still,
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
Th’uncertain sickly appetite to please.’

None of the poems that celebrate love between the poet (whether we think of him simply as an identity assumed by Shakespeare for professional purposes or as Shakespeare speaking in his own person) and a ‘lovely boy’ is explicitly sexual in the manner of the frankest of the ‘dark lady’ sonnets.

But many of these poems would have had, and continue to have, a special appeal to homoerotic readers, and also that they have met with castigation from homophobic readers for this very reason, as the history of their reception over the centuries makes abundantly clear. And a number of the Sonnets addressed to a male are deeply passionate if idealized love poems which one can easily imagine being addressed to a young man with whom the poet was having a physical as well as a spiritual relationship. Consider for example Sonnet 108:

‘What’s in the brain that ink may character
Which hath not figured to thee my true spirit?
What’s new to speak, what now to register,
That may express my love or my dear merit?
Nothing, sweet boy; but yet like prayers divine
I must each day say o’er the very same,
Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,
Even as when first I hallowed thy fair name.
So that eternal love in love’s fresh case
Weighs not the dust and injury of age,
Nor gives to necessary wrinkles place,
But makes antiquity for aye his page,
Finding the first conceit of love there bred
Where time and outward form would show it dead.’

That poem, explicitly addressed to a ‘sweet boy’, gives an echo, as Viola says in Twelfth Night, or What You Will, ‘to the very seat / Where love is throned’ (2. 4. 20-1). It expresses an intensity of love that knows no limits.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets transcend the boundaries of sub-divisions of human experience to encapsulate the very essence of human love.

Stanley Wells’s book, Shakespeare Sex and Love, is due out in paperback from Oxford University Press on 14 February 2012.

What Larks! Shakespeare and Dickens //

Photo by Christoph Mueller www.muellerchristoph.com

Although I’ve devoted most of my life to Shakespeare, Dickens was my first literary love, and provides my earliest bookish memory. It must date back to around 1940, when I was ten years old, a primary school child in Yorkshire. I remember spending much of a weekend sitting behind a sofa reading The Pickwick Papers to myself, constantly erupting into laughter and giggles, to the complete bemusement of the rest of the family. It was a pretty well bookless home, and I’ve no idea where the copy I was reading came from. But I do remember afterwards that a friend of my father’s, the editor of the local newspaper, offered to sell us a set of the novels for £5, and I suppose my father must have bought it for me.

Since then I’ve read, and sometimes re-read, all the novels and much of the miscellaneous prose, and enjoyed them in a variety of ways. I remember writing an essay on Dickens and the drama when I was an undergraduate. In it I made much of the theatrical quality of Tulkinghorn’s melodramatic death: ‘Mr. Tulkinghorn’s time is over for evermore, and the Roman pointed at the murderous hand uplifted against his life, and pointed helplessly at him, from night to morning, lying face downward on the floor, shot through the heart.’

Joining the RAF for my National Service I packed Nicholas Nickleby in my knapsack along with Keats’s poems as consolatory reading. When I became a schoolteacher I often read extracts from the novels to my pupils. Sometimes I drew on the anthology compiled by the actor and playwright Emlyn Williams for his dramatic readings. Again Pickwick came in especially handy – the skating episodes were great favourites – useful particularly for Friday afternoons when I no less than the pupils was too tired for clause analysis and parsing and comprehension exercises. And more seriously I taught the whole of Great Expectations for their Ordinary Level exam, reading it aloud with them, to the greater pleasure of some than of others.

When I became a university teacher, though I never lectured on Dickens I gave tutorials on some of the novels. Once the BBC invited me to record a conversation about one with Edward Blishen, then a popular broadcaster and autobiographer, and again I chose Great Expectations. I suppose this has to count as my favourite, though over the years I have continued to read unsystematically through the canon, especially for my winter reading, sometimes at the same time as a friend has been reading the same novel, for the sake of sharing the pleasure. And of course I have often seen films and television dramas based on Dickens. James Hayter seemed a definitive Pickwick in the 1952 film; just to read its cast list, which includes such great performers of the past as Donald Wolfit, Joyce Grenfell, Hermione Baddeley, Hermione Gingold, and Kathleen Harrison is to be reminded of the wonderful opportunities Dickens gives to character actors. Now Simon Callow – a joyous Micawber on television – follows in Emlyn Williams’s footsteps – and, of course, in those of Dickens himself as a solo reader.

I have read biographies – Edgar Johnson’s, and very recently Clare Tomalin’s, as well as her book about Ellen Ternan. I supervised a Ph. D. dissertation on Dickens and Shakespeare, by Valerie Gager, published by C U P, which reveals well over a thousand quotations and allusions. Writing about Shakespeare in the nineteenth century in my book Shakespeare: For All Time (2002) I discussed the performances of The Merry Wives of Windsor that Dickens organized (and took part in – as Justice Shallow) in the hope of establishing Sheridan Knowles as curator of Shakespeare’s Birthplace. I have used extracts from the novels and the essays – especially from Sketches by Boz – for party readings, and I’ve taken part in readings, most recently a jovial pre-Christmas occasion when a group of us read the whole of A Christmas Carol, fuelled by mulled wine and hot sausages. And on a visit to New York last year, I had the pleasure of examining the precious original manuscript of the book, marvelling at the sense of a creative mind working at white heat revealed by the author’s cancellations and interlineations and substitutions. So far as I know, no one has ever undertaken what would admittedly be the heroic task of trying to trace his creative processes by unravelling them.

Dickens can be sentimental, diffuse, sententious, preachy, muddly in his plotting, overlong. But I value him for the abundance of his imagination, the variety and warmth of his characterization, his inconsequentialities, digressions and irrelevances, the resonance of his prose, the vitality of his dialogue, the piquancy of his observation, his depth of human feeling. When all is said and done, for me he’s second only to Shakespeare.

Making Shakespeare //

My recent reading has included two biographies, both of men who, like Shakespeare, did not go to university. Ben Jonson, son of a clergyman who died a month before the boy was born, and stepson of a bricklayer – a calling which Ben himself followed for some years – attended Westminster School, in London, but did not proceed to university – though both Oxford and Cambridge awarded him honorary degrees in later life. Ian Donaldson’s excellent new biography (which I was delighted to be asked to review for the New York Review of Books) is able to draw on fascinating, recently discovered material about Ben’s famous walk from London to Scotland, at the end of which he stayed for a couple of weeks with William Drummond of Hawthornden. His host’s account of their unbuttoned, probably bibulous conversations provides us with invaluable information about many of his literary contemporaries (Jonson was also rather rude about his host’s verses.)

Charles Dickens, whose admirable biography by Claire Tomalin formed, appropriately, most of my Christmas reading, left school when he was only fifteen, and was sent to work pasting labels on containers in a shoe-blacking factory – a cruelly formative experience which embittered him and is reflected in some of his novels, especially David Copperfield. It is of course far easier to find reflections of a novelist’s life in his work than in that of a dramatist, whose very art lies in hiding himself behind his characters.

But the new book that has enthralled me most is Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, subtitled How the Renaissance Began. Greenblatt is a brilliantly readable writer whose work combines wide-ranging and deep scholarship with an exceptional gift for narrative. At the centre of his book is the long, philosophical Latin poem De Rerum Natura – ‘about the nature of things‘ – by the pre-Christian Roman writer Titus Lucretius Carus – always known simply as Lucretius. Admired and influential in its day, it fell out of circulation for centuries, surviving only in manuscripts which lay unread in monastic libraries until a Florentine scholar, Poggio Bracciolini, travelling in Germany, came upon a manuscript of it, read its opening lines, realized that this was an important find, and ordered a scribe to copy it.

In telling the story of the poem’s discovery, Greenblatt uncovers fascinating information about the significance of monastic libraries, the magnitude and importance of the copying industry in the centuries before the invention of the printing press, and the intellectual dedication of scholars of the Italian Renaissance who sought to discover as much as they could of the life and thought of antiquity. ‘The act of discovery’ performed by Poggio, writes Greenblatt, ‘fulfilled the life’s passion of a brilliant book hunter. And that book hunter, without ever intending or realizing it, became a midwife to modernity.’ His discovery heralded a cultural shift, a ‘swerve’ – hence the title of the book – in the human consciousness which has had a profound impact on thought and art ever since.

Shakespeare is part of the intellectual movement that Poggio’s discovery heralded. Greenblatt sees reflections of Lucretian thought in Romeo and Juliet, and says that Shakespeare ‘shared his interest in Lucretian materialism with Spenser, Donne, Bacon, and others. Though Shakespeare had not attended either Oxford or Cambridge, his Latin was good enough to have enabled him to read Lucretius’s poem for himself.’ In any case, he ‘could have discussed Lucretius with his fellow playwright Ben Jonson, whose own copy of On the Nature of Things has survived and is today in the Houghton Library at Harvard.’ It is good, at a time when we tend to value Shakespeare primarily as an entertainer, to see this acknowledgement of his participation in the major intellectual currents of his time.

Shakespeare and the Senses: The Pain of Seeing //

Paul Edmondson and I gave a talk at Shakespeare’s Globe recently on Shakespeare’s sonnets and the senses. We shall probably blog about it all before long, but in the meantime here are a few thoughts about Shakespeare and sight which didn’t go into our talk.

Shakespeare’s writings are packed with references to the value of sight, to what Romeo calls ‘the precious treasure of his eyesight.’ Goneril in King Lear declares hypocritically that her love for her father is ‘dearer than eyesight, space, or liberty.’ Loss of eyesight is portrayed in the plays as the extreme of physical suffering. In King John the young Prince Arthur, learning that Hubert has undertaken to ‘burn out both his eyes with hot irons’, pleads that ‘none but in this iron age would do it. / Then iron of itself, though heat red hot, /Approaching near these eyes would drink my tears, / And quench his fiery indignation / Even in the matter of mine innocence, / Ay, after that, consume away in rust, / But for containing fire to harm mine eye.’ In this play the situation is somewhat laboriously milked for all the pathos it can evoke.

But then in King Lear the apogee of physical suffering, portrayed in parallel with Lear’s mental anguish, is reached in the far more economically written and thus even more devastatingly horrifying scene of Gloucester’s blinding which, someone recently tweeted, is far more appalling than all the long sequence of horrors portrayed in the R S C’s recent production of the Marat/ Sade. There are few more chilling lines in drama than Cornwall’s command ‘Turn out that eyeless villain.’

But eyesight is at the centre too of Shakespeare’s portrayal of love. In his mind sight and love were inextricably linked. Proverbially, love enters through the eyes – as the song in The Merchant of Venice puts it, ‘It is engendered in the eyes, / With gazing fed.’ Romeo falls in love with Juliet as soon as he sees her: ‘O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!’ And when she is about to appear on the balcony, he speaks of the bright light that she casts before her: ‘But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.’

In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Biron, in one of Shakespeare’s most eloquent and deeply considered paeans in praise of love, declares that ‘love’ is first learned in a lady’s eyes’ and goes on to say that it ‘adds a precious seeing to the eye, / A lover’s eyes will gaze an eagle blind.’

And in the tragedies, Lear’s ultimate expression of love for Cordelia comes as he looks into her eyes, desperately seeking for signs of life ‘Do you see this? Look on her. Look, her lips./ Look there, look there.’

Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Arthur //

Photo. by Christoph Muller

Stanley Wells has been reading Arthur Phillips’s novel The Tragedy of Arthur which is presented as an introduction to a newly discovered Shakespeare play. The play itself forms the second part of the book, they play also being written by Arthur Phillips.

Here’s what Stanley has to say about it.

Arthur (mp3)

Arthur Phillips’s The Tragedy of Arthur is available from The Shakespeare Bookshop. To order a copy simply send an e-mail to bookshop@shakespeare.org.uk