January 6, 2021

Journeys End in Sherlock Holmes or “What You Will”

By Stuart Mitchner

The blind was down and a strong light was burning in the room. The shadow of a man who was seated in a chair within was thrown in hard black outline upon the luminous screen of the window.

—from “The Adventure of the Empty House”

“What are you doing here?” Sherlock Holmes wanted to know.

Two hours into the new year, after online searches linked to combinations of the numbers 2-0-2-1, I encountered a brightly inviting onscreen image of the cover of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Return of Sherlock Holmes, which I’ve been reading. When I clicked on the small red arrow flashing above the title, I was livestreamed into 221B Baker Street, where I found myself facing a facsimile of Holmes like the window-framed silhouette on the front of the book, a replica of the wax bust devised to entrap Dr. Moriarty in “The Adventure of the Empty House.”

After the charged silence that followed my rushed account of how I got there, the shadow spoke: “I see you have your own copy of the 1905 McClure Phillips edition previously owned by a Louise K. Ribsam of Trenton, New Jersey.” Indeed, the selfsame volume lay open on my desk, its front and back covers hanging for dear life from the tattered cliff-edge of the spine. “At the moment,” the elegantly mannered voice continued, “you are feeling the effects of a vile combination of Prosecco, hard cider, and Celestial Seasonings iced tea (the Bengal Spice flavor). You have just commenced work on your weekly column for a newspaper that will appear in print and online Wednesday, January 6, the date that some well-meaning if misguided obsessives have settled on as my birthday. In addition to rereading The Return and watching reruns of the BBC series that bears my name, you’ve been reading Shakespeare’s comedy of sociopathic madness, Twelfth Night, in which everyone except the clown Feste is insane without knowing it, thus the subtitle, Or What You Will.”

Right on all counts except the Bengal Spice. In the spirit of “what you will” and anything goes, I tell myself to go  with the flow and stop worrying about how this cyber sleuth could know so much about me — this is Sherlock Holmes. This is what he does.

Getting Down to Cases

After a brief discussion of Jeremy Brett’s warm, high-energy late-20th-century Holmes and Benedict Cumberbatch’s ingenious 21st-century travesty, Sherlock’s shadow said, “Among other issues, you want to know my thoughts on the Christmas Day bombing in downtown Nashville and how it may or may not relate to the potential for insurrection and unrest in Washington D.C. on the 12th day of Christmas, Feast of the Epiphany, epicenter of Saturnalia, and licensed disorder, and you have a particular interest in a line from Twelfth Night, ‘Journeys end in lovers’ meeting.’”

“Which is the only line from Shakespeare that you quote more than once, leading Sherlockian scholars to deduce that you were born on Twelfth Night.”

“As if it mattered in the least whether I was a flea in Shakespeare’s brain at the end of the Christmas season of 1601 or a full-fledged fictional being in the first month of 1854 at the farmstead of Mycroft, in the North Riding of Yorkshire. The Lord of Misrule is in charge, as always, then and now. But the line quoted does have its own special music. The whole notion of journeys ending in lovers’ or fools’ or mortal enemies’ meetings can be played in many registers, whether I’m casually piping it to greet Inspector Gregson of Scotland Yard in ‘The Case of the Red Circle’ or hissing it at my arch enemy Moriarty in ‘The Case of the Empty House,’ as he struggles like a fly in my web, his eyes fixed upon me ‘with an expression in which hatred and amazement were equally blended,’ as Sir Arthur puts it his Penny Dreadful prose. Rather than giving the Bard credit, the best Holmes can do is ‘as the old play says.’ You may recall that at the top of Watson’s inventory of his roommate’s limits is ‘Knowledge of literature — nil.’ In fact, Sir Arthur so esteemed Shakespeare that he once composed a poem defending him against the ‘false and fanciful’ theory that Francis Bacon was the true author of the plays.”

Monstrous Criminality

“As for the curious business in Nashville,” the voice resumed. “A man blows himself up after playing a recorded warning over loudspeakers, followed, just before the blast, by a Petula Clark song from the sixties that begins, ‘When you’re alone and life is making you lonely you can always go down-town.’ Now that’s fiendish, and if I could examine the forensics, I suspect I’d discover the fine Italian hand of Dr. Moriarty. But why did he have the man give sufficient notice for police to clear the area, saving numerous lives? Of course he always did delight in making a mockery of civility, like saying ‘so sorry my mistake’ as he elbows you into the abyss. No, I prefer to think that this is exactly the sort of confused, petty malfeasance Dr. M. has been reduced to in a nation infatuated with lawlessness, where monstrous criminality is embodied by the president himself. Make no mistake, if I thought Moriarty were capable of creating the perfect storm of political perfidy that put he-who-shall-not-be named in office four years ago, I would take off my deerstalker’s hat to him. Still, it’s hard to imagine Shakespeare wasting his time with someone so lacking in substance, yet so unhinged that he might well run away with the play. Well, actually, that’s what almost happened. Or what may be happening in a country that at this moment is deranged and divided by the antics of a poor man’s Malvolio, Twelfth Night’s vainglorious egomaniac ‘trapped in the dark house of his obsessive self-regard’ while the pandemic he politicized kills hundreds of thousands of Americans.”

Speaking for Shakespeare

The voice I’ve imagined speaking for Holmes isn’t that of any of the actors who have portrayed him, from Basil Rathbone to Benedict Cumberbatch, it’s the voice I’ve heard ever since I first read all the stories in my father’s massive one-volume edition of the Works.

Out of all the speaking shadows in cyberspace, however, the one I go to most often, particularly for his thoughts on Shakespeare, belongs to Harold Bloom, who died on October 14, 2019. The “dark house” of Malvolio’s “obsessive self-regard” is taken from Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Riverhead 1998). Bloom comes closest to voicing the magnitude of Shakespeare, the sense that his plays and poetry are “here, there, and everywhere at once,” like, in Bloom’s words, “a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go.” The plays “abide beyond the end of the mind’s reach; we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us.” These claims sound less and less extreme the more you read of “an art so infinite that it contains us, and will go on enclosing those likely to come after us.”

It’s quite a jolt to descend from those rhetorical heights to pompous Malvolio preening about in his cross-gartered yellow stockings, gulled into thinking he’s an object of desire in the eyes of a countess; as Bloom puts it, what matters most about him is not that he’s Olivia’s household steward “but that he so dreams that he malforms his sense of reality” and so falls victim to his enemies’ “shrewd insight into his nature.”

Malvolio’s “Depraved Will”

The reference to a malformed sense of reality sends my thoughts back to the expensively pomaded, yellow-coiffed malcontent who refuses to admit that he’s lost. Imagine a nightmare of Twelfth Night where Don Malvolio has the power and resources to achieve, paraphrasing Bloom, “the triumph of his depraved will.” Imagine him strutting about spouting delusional nonsense, as in the “Be not afraid of greatness” sequence where Olivia’s “What mean’st thou by that?” inspires him to declare, “Some are born great … Some achieve greatness … And some have greatness thrust upon them.”

Even after Olivia announces, “Why this is very midsummer madness,” and forthwith has him put away in “a dark house, for therapy,” Malvolio sinks all the deeper into the delusion that nothing can come between him and the “full prospect” of his hopes. In the end, instead of running away with the play, he runs offstage shouting: “I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you!”

New Year’s Eve

My wife and I spent New Year’s Eve watching Sherlock, a series we’d sampled years ago and dismissed as “over the top,” and so it is, over the top and then some, “What You Will” with a vengeance. But we’d come in at the wrong place (the last episode of the second season), and at the wrong time, and with fond memories of the Granada series featuring Jeremy Brett’s passionately, warmly alive Holmes. Playing a man who is notoriously closed, Brett draws on his own intelligence when the essence of a problem possesses him; it’s the hectic fever in his eyes and the play of nerves and muscles in his face, especially in the odd, twitching half-smiles that are among his rare flashes of civility. His Holmes storms around the flat at 221B Baker Street like a caged tiger; you can almost see the walls shaking, and his “filing system” is a masterpiece of mad-genius chaos.

Cumberbatch’s Holmes owes a lot to Brett’s, except that he takes all that energy to another level. Like Brett’s Holmes, he prefers to jump over things rather than walk around them. Wit and style appear to be the saving graces of the BBC series created and produced by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, who plays Sherlock’s suave, sinister older brother Mycroft. The relationship between Cumberbatch’s Holmes and Martin Freeman’s Watson, with its marital overtones, has enough human-comedy charm to offset Sherlock’s speedy, chilly, self-described “functioning sociopath” persona. At the moment, we’re looking forward to the fourth and fifth seasons. The series is available on Netflix.