“He Has Made Us Who We Are” — 400 Years Later Shakespeare Prevails
By Stuart Mitchner
As Big Ben rang the first hour of January 1, 2014, the skies over London were overwhelmed by a fireworks display of such scope and magnitude, I was sure the occasion had to be something greater than the beginning of another year. At a loss for superlatives worthy of the spectacle, I remembered a night when I stood outside the newly reborn Globe Theatre between acts of As You Like It gazing at the floodlit dome of St. Paul, my head swimming with Shakespeare. Of course, that was it. The only word for all that glory at the midnight hour, in that place, was Shakespeare.
At the time I didn’t know that the year 2014 brought with it the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, a connection also ironically unremarked by the organizers of a New Year’s show that had been touted as “multi-sensory,” an orgy of orange-flavored smoke, strawberry mist, peach snow, and 40,000 grams of edible banana confetti. Whatever it was, celebratory serendipity or a happy coincidence, the timely grandeur of the display made Shakespearean sense. Like any reader who has explored the plays and witnessed time and again the uncanny inner coherence of a literary wonder in which metaphors, themes, motifs, poetry and prose chime, connect, and fall into place, I could appreciate the dimensions of the phenomenon. When I was a grad student in English at Rutgers, the term of choice was “close reading,” but with Shakespeare it was more like theology. In his Memoirs, Hector Berlioz, who composed the choral symphony Roméo et Juliette, writes of the death of his wife, Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress with whom he fell in love watching her play Juliet and Ophelia: “Shakespeare! Shakespeare! I feel as if he alone of all men who ever lived can understand me, must have understood us both; he alone could have pitied us, poor unhappy artists, loving yet wounding each other. Shakespeare! … It is you that are our father, our father in heaven, if there is a heaven …. Thou alone for the souls of artists art the living and loving God.”
Finding a Cure
Although reading Shakespeare was what made me a true believer, it was seeing Hamlet in person that cured me of acute Barditus, a disease that had begun with the condensed versions of Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet in high-school textbooks and my sense, however benighted and uninformed, that the actors performing the plays tended to be a tiresome bunch of preening hams mouthing pompous gibberish. Then, a few years out of college where a deadly dull Shakespeare seminar had done little to ease my bias, I saw, up close, John Gielgud’s Broadway production of Hamlet with Richard Burton and was brought to my so-called senses, eyes and ears wide-open. And it only stands to reason that the crisis of the cure came when Burton’s fantastically potent Hamlet was instructing the players on how to “speak the speech” without resorting to the same excesses, the over-steppings and over-doings, that had aggravated the illness.
Nothing by Shakespeare that I’ve seen since has had the same impact, perhaps simply because the door Burton opened needed to be opened only that once. It’s true that I haven’t seen much live Shakespeare over the years: offhand, after that night at the Globe, I remember Peter Brooks’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Bristol Old Vic’s excellent Troilus and Cressida, Laurence Olivier’s Shylock in an embarrassingly flawed Victorian mounting of The Merchant of Venice. As for Shakespeare on film, there was Olivier’s brilliant Henry V, which I wrote about last year, and of course Orson Welles’s Macbeth, Othello, and, best of the lot, Chimes at Midnight, which will be shown in a newly restored version at the Garden on Monday, May 2.
In addition to various editions of the Works, including my marked-to-the max paperback copies of Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear, the two books I’ve found the most pleasure in during this birth-to-death 2014-2016 celebration are Harold Bloom’s The Invention of the Human and The Library of America’s anthology Shakespeare in America, which has a foreword by Bill Clinton and which Meryl Streep calls a “treasure … full of enthralling stories and weird coincidences.” To Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theatre, it’s a “brilliant anthology, hilarious, heartbreaking, and thrilling” in which Shakespeare becomes a battleground where Americans have “fought about race, anti-Semitism, and gender equality,” debating “class struggle and national independence” while forging “our national identity.” In other words, “He has made us who we are.”
I suppose the making has to include all our heroes and villains, knaves, rogues and peasant slaves, clowns and kings, though I would never blame the Bard for the Donald, the Ted, and the Republican Congress whose members, as Hamlet puts it, “have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of nature’s journeymen had made men and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.”
Speaking of Congress, our ex-president’s foreword mentions how George Washington “left the haggling at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia” to see a production of The Tempest, a play thought of as Shakespeare’s swan song and said to have among its sources the wreck of a ship on its way to the Virginia colony in 1609. Clinton also refers to the visit to the Bard’s birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon paid by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who “fell upon the ground and kissed it,” according to Abigail Adams.
“The Thing Itself”
One of the anthology’s most fervent appreciations of Shakespeare comes from a young Willa Cather, who writes that if she were asked the answer of “the riddle of things,” she would say “Shakespeare”: “For him alone it was worth while that a planet should be called out of Chaos and a race formed out of nothingness.”
A few years later Cather reviews a touring production of Antony and Cleopatra in which “Kleo-paw-tra” is played by “a coy kittenish matron, bunched up on a moth-eaten tiger stroking Mark Antony’s double chin … I have seen waiters in restaurants who were ten times more queenly. Her movements were exactly those of the women who give you Turkish baths in Chicago …. And the queer little motions she made when she put that imaginary snake in her bosom, it was so suggestive of fleas.”
Cather’s put-down is worth reading if only because it leads her to a celebration of “the only Cleopatra on earth worth the seeing, the royal Egyptian of Sarah Bernhardt,” with her “face of flame, every inch a queen and always a woman.” After rhapsodizing about how “her eyes burned like a tiger’s and her very flesh seemed to cleave to her bones,” Cather appears to give up: “but bah! it is not possible to describe it. It was like the lightning which flashes and terrifies and is gone.” But there’s more, about how Bernhardt makes “you feel within yourself how she loves and how she hates,” giving you “those moments of absolute reality of experience, of positive knowledge that are the test of all great art. The thing itself is in her, the absolute quality that all books write of, all songs sing of, all men dream of, that only one in hundreds ever knows or realizes. It leaps up and strikes you between the eyes, makes you hold your breath and tremble.”
The energy and excitement taking Cather beyond the conventions of a mere review communicate a first-hand sense of the power of Shakespeare flowing through the medium of a great actress, the flame, the lightning, the absolute, “the thing itself.”
The Size of Life
Another American writer who encountered Shakespeare when touring companies came to his hometown was William Dean Howells. And like Willa Cather, he admits there was a supreme moment in his youth when he found himself thinking “the creation of Shakespeare was as great as the creation of a planet.” In the Ohio town where he grew up, where “printers in the old-time offices were always spouting Shakespeare,” Howells knew the plays both on the stage and on the page, when he and a boyhood friend read them together in editions borrowed from the town library. But as much as he liked seeing the plays performed (“There have been few joys for me comparable to that of seeing the curtain rise on Hamlet”), they “are neither worse nor better because of the theatre. They are so great that it cannot hamper them; they are so vital that they enlarge it to their own proportions and endue it with something of their own living force. They make it the size of life.” Referring to people “who say that they would rather not see Shakespeare played than to see him played ill,” Howells finds that the Bard “can better afford to be played ill than any other man that ever wrote. Whoever is on the stage it is always Shakespeare who is speaking to me.”
Shakespeare in America offers a range of witnessed performances, including those of Ira Aldridge, a black actor who played not only Othello but Hamlet and Shylock to great acclaim on the London stage in the 1820s; Edwin Booth, whose mid-19th-century Hamlet “possessed the indescribable poetic element which fascinates, and the spiritual quality which made it the ready instrument of ‘airs from heaven and blasts from hell.’”; the 1922 production of Hamlet featuring John Barrymore (“one of the glories of our theatre”); Paul Robeson’s Othello (“The deeply shaken audience that could not stop cheering the greatest people’s artist of America was at the same time proclaiming an epochal event in the history of our culture”); Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight, as seen in 1967 by Pauline Kael, who finds that Welles “seems to have grown into his voice; he’s not too young for it any more, and he’s certainly big enough …. Though his Falstaff is short on comedy, it’s very rich, very full”; and Hollis Alpert’s take on Marlon Brando as “a magnificent Antony” in the 1953 M-G-M film of Julius Caesar.
Obama at the Globe
As for timing, celebratory serendipity, inner coherence, and happy coincidence, how about America’s April 23 visit to Shakespeare in the person of President Obama? He didn’t buss the boards of the reconstructed Globe like Jefferson kissing the ground at Stratford, but he was on the stage for the 400th anniversary watching actors perform scenes from Hamlet, including a black actor’s recital of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy.