A man died four hundred years ago today. The man was an English playwright named William Shakespeare. His plays wouldn't become works of literature until two of his friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, went to considerable expense to publish his plays seven years after his death. On the day he died, according to Shakepeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, there was no great outpouring of public grief. In fact, no one paid more than passing attention to Shakespeare's passing.
Two days ago, Queen Elizabeth II's 90th birthday was observed with general congratulatorial appeal. And the R&B singer Prince was pronounced dead of, as yet, unexplained causes to general outpourings of shock, grief, and praise. There will be no such displays of emotion today, despite Shakespeare's towering reputation as the greatest writer in English.
Some people, however, don't even think Shakespeare wrote any of the plays attributed to him. Stephen Greenblatt has called them "Shakespeare deniers," and has even remarked that their skepticism is in some way comparable to Holocaust denial. In a recent essay for The New York Review, however, Greenblatt insists that Shakespeare can't be found in his plays, that, unlike Marlowe or Jonson, he is one of those writers whose biography is of no importance to the plays. "It is not really necessary to know the details of Shakespeare's life in order to love or understand his plays."(1) This may be a problem for some people, for whom the artist must always supercede the art. The history of art, as an astute observer once described, started with works whose creators were anonymous, deliberately or otherwise, and ends with the works being supplanted by the reputation of the artist. An unsigned painting, sculpture, or cathedral replaced by a monumental signature. This is how a heretofore nondescript canvas in an storage room whose value has always been considered low has recently been discovered to be a Caravaggio, valued in hundreds of millions. Why did the painting's value AS A WORK OF ART suddenly shoot up merely because its creator is now believed to be Caravaggio instead of some unknown master? I admit that this is a silly question since money, which spoils everything, has long since despoiled the world of art.
Greenblatt now insists that Shakespeare's passing four hundred years ago passed unnoticed by the public because the plays are what matters, and the plays have only increased in vitality in four hundreds years. To an ultimately unimportant majority of people, Shakespeare's plays are inaccessible, what with all of those THEEs and THOUs. As everyone who has seen one of his plays performed knows all too well, Shakespeare's language is strikingly and magnificently clear. How else could he have been so popular in his day?
Greenblatt argues that "the real 'life' of the characters and their plays lay not in the texts but in the performances of those texts. The words on the page were dead letters until they were 'revived' by the gifted actor. This belief should hardly surprise us, since it is the way most audiences currently respond to plays and, still more, to film."
In his classic study Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster wondered how the dramatist's art could survive the onslaught of actors who "appear to side sometimes with the characters they represent, sometimes with the play as a whole, and more often to be the mortal enemies of both."
"Is it not extraordinary," Forster asks, "that plays on the stage are often better than they are in the study, and that the introduction of a bunch of rather ambitious and nervous men and women should add anything to our understanding of SHakespeare and Chekov?"(2)
But Greenblatt insists the opposite: "We speak of Shakespeare's works as if they were stable reflections of his original intentions but they continue to circulate precisely because they are so amenable to metamorphosis." It is a commonplace of Shakespeare productions for the past fifty years to set Timon of Athens not in ancient Greece but in the Havana, Cuba of 1959 or to set Richard III not in 15th century England where there was an actual king named Richard III but in Nazi Germany. Whenever I read the play, I read of an old Saxon king named Lear roaming, half-crazed, across an all-too-genuine English heath or a Roman general named Marc Anthony, familiar from Hollywood films, throwing off his armor to embrace Cleopatra in the Alexandria, Egypt. Certainly the context in which we find his plays allows for plenty of imaginative exercise. But the insistence that it is better to set Macbeth in Brooklyn because audiences will somehow comprehend what is happening is a disservice both to Shakespeare and to the audience.
So, so what if we know so little about William Shakespeare's life except the barest of essentials, registered dates and signatures on titles and deeds? Why should it lead some people to suppose that his obscurity was deliberate instead of a natural condition? Anthony Burgess once claimed that if he had to choose between the discovery of a lost play by Shakespeare or Shakespeare's laundry list, he'd go for the dirty laundry every time. But why? Obviously (to me anyway), the play's the thing. Shakespeare is dead. His bones - sans his skull, as recent ground-penetrating radar revealed - are buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-on-Avon. His plays can be found everywhere in the world.
(1) The New York Review, April 21, 2016.
(2) Aspects of the Novel, Harcourt Inc., 1927.