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Vol. LXII, No. 17
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
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Book Review

Celebrating the Birth of a One-Man Festival of the Arts

Stuart Mitchner

Today is William Shakespeare’s 444th birthday. It’s also the 392nd anniversary of his death. Little has been made of the fact that he died on the day he was born (such phrasing might have amused Hamlet or any of Shakespeare’s philosophical cynics), that being April 23, 1616.

The Bard’s birthday partners make an odd lot: Sandra Dee and Shirley Temple, Vladimir Nabokov and Warren Spahn, J.P. Donleavy, Bernadette Devlin, and Roy Orbison. While most creative people would surely enjoy the idea of sharing a birthday with the deity of creation Berlioz prayed to (“Thou alone for the souls of artists art the living and loving God”), Nabokov seems to have been the only one to have gone on record to that effect by welcoming the Gregorian/Julian calendar shift that gave him the same birth-date. He was born under the Julian calendar on April 10, 1899, which at the time would have been April 22 by the Gregorian calendar — except that Russia remained on the Julian calendar until 1918, and by then the Gregorian date equivalent to April 10 had shifted to April 23. On his 72nd birthday, he referred to his longevity as “a feat of lucky endurance, of paradoxically detached willpower, of good work and good wine, of healthy concentration on a rare bug, or a rhythmic phrase.” Knowing Nabokov, the play on “Will” in “willpower” was no accident.


It’s said that J.M.W. Turner, the painter Tennyson called the “Shakespeare of landscape,” whose birthdate is given as April 23, may have chosen to partner with Shakespeare since his specific day of birth has apparently never been documented. If you look at his painting, Juliet and Her Nurse (1836), which, from the title, sounds as if it might be atypically intimate, you get prime Turner, which is to say a vast “Shakespearean” work. Juliet and the nurse are barely in the picture, two tiny figures in the right foreground on a balcony overlooking an immense, radiantly smoldering Turner sky above a misty vision of Venice, where a fiery celebration is illuminating St. Mark’s Square. (Not surprisingly, the artist got some flak from Shakespeare purists for moving the scene from Verona to Venice.)

If the term “Shakespearean” is large and elastic enough to encompass the grandeur of a Turner landscape, it slips no less comfortably into T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” after a little tinkering with the spelling (“O O O O that Shakespeaerean Rag — It’s so elegant/So intelligent”). (And there really was a song in the 1920s called “The Shakespearean Rag.”) The first time I read Melville’s Moby Dick, one passage that received a full bouquet of penciled exclamation points describes the sperm whale’s brow: “Few are the foreheads which like Shakespeare’s or Melancthon’s rise so high, and descend so low, that the eyes themselves seem clear, eternal, tideless mountain lakes; and above them in the forehead’s wrinkles, you seem to track the antlered thoughts descending there to drink, as the Highland hunters track the snow prints of the deer.”

Now that’s Shakespearean!

The Bard Goes West

You could probably find some hint of at least an awareness of the Shakespeare connection in most educated members of the April 23 club, however famous or obscure, but consider this male child of Swiss Italian descent born April 23, 1893 into a large immigrant family in Salt Lake City. It’s hard not to think that there was at least a touch of Shakespeare behind the urge that sent Frank Borzage running away from home to join an acting troupe at age 13. Though that particular company went bust, he eventually spent his adolescence barnstorming all over the West with another troupe, acting in Hamlet (among many lesser dramas and farces) in front of mining camp audiences that reportedly shouted “Kill yourself and get it over with!” instead of “Bravo!” as the Dane declaimed “To be or not to be.” Since it was a small company, the young actor played numerous roles, including Rosencrantz, Osric, and (at the tender age of 17) the Gravedigger. When he landed in Hollywood in 1912, he played cowboy heroes and a few villains and romantic leads until he started making his own movies, eventually becoming one of the highest paid and most celebrated directors in Hollywood, and the first winner of the Academy Award, for 7th Heaven.

Working at the same studio where Borzage made 7th Heaven was his friend, John Ford, who probably heard his fellow director’s colorful accounts of trouping through the west and may have had them in mind when he filmed the Hamlet scene in My Darling Clementine (1946). For all the great action sequences in Ford, what makes his work so memorable is the way those scenes are balanced with intimate moments like the one where a medicine show ham (Alan Mowbray) stands on a table reciting the “To be or not to be” soliloquy while an unseen pianist plays discreet accompaniment with a dance hall flavor. The actor is in Hamlet regalia, a “suit of sables” with a royal medallion around his neck, and he’s being eyed none too benignly by the Clanton gang, who draw their guns and are about to rudely interrupt him (“You don’t know nothin’ but them poems. You can’t sing. Maybe you can dance”) when Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) tells them to leave him alone. Both he and Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) have been intently attending to the speech. When the flustered actor appropriately falters at the line, “Thus doth conscience make cowards of us all,” he looks to his audience for help and Doc Holliday picks up where he left off. It’s one of Mature’s finest moments in one of his finest roles — until a coughing fit (he has tuberculosis) drives him into the street. When one of the Clan-tons grabs the actor, yelling “Yorick stays here” (how does he know who Yorick is, anyway?), he gets gunned down by Fonda, who, without saying a word, is Mature’s equal in the sequence, simply putting his courage, integrity, and appreciation of the moment into several reaction shots. You can see the scene on YouTube.

New Books

Among recent additions to the world of response Shakespeare has created is Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife (Harper $26.95), which some reviewers claim says more about Ms. Greer than about Anne Hathaway. British critics were apparently upset by her claim that, rather than Shakespeare’s fellow players, Mrs. Shakespeare was responsible for publishing the First Folio of 1623. Stanley Wells ends his long piece in The New York Review of Books by calling the book “an example of an emerging subspecies of Shakespearean biography,” along with another newly published work, Charles Nicholl’s The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street (Viking $26.95). Wells thinks that by approaching Shakespeare’s life story “partially or obliquely,” the subspecies may be “all the more illuminating than cradle-to-grave accounts.” He also notes that Greer “is often unnecessarily, stridently, and self-defensively combative.”

Shakespeare in Palmer Square

Next Saturday, the great Communiversalist will be in Princeton in spirit to help celebrate. With National Poetry Month also on the calendar this month, it’s only right that Pulitzer-prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon, will be reading from the sonnets during Princeton Rep’s annual Shakespear-e-thon as part of the Communiversity Street Festival on the Palmer Square Green from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Readers, writers, actors, poets, singers, and anyone else who loves Shakespeare will contribute to the afternoon’s festivities, either by reading favorite selections from the Bard or from favorite poets on Shakespearean themes.

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