“Where Shakespeare’s concerned, there’s been such a wealth of scholarship over centuries that everything has already been written. The only choice you have is to refute the most recent definitive text because you don’t like the author, or come up with some outlandish theory and stick to it.”
That’s an old friend, an eminent academic, teaching me the rudiments of classical academia in the deep deep faraway time where my parents were still alive and their full on gung-ho *we must prevent him from being an actor* campaign was flying well. It didn’t work out. I became an actor – sorry, mum and dad.
I usually find when I get to a tricky bit of text that the one thing that is never going to be helpful is Charlie Farley-Buttersedge PhD in the margins. If anything, they’ve already obfuscated the practical meaning to make an academic point, scattering unhelpful commas, changing strange words into familiar versions and generally neutering creativity in a hunt for transferrable concrete meaning.
Why I find this unhelpful is that these texts were conceived at a boundary between oral tradition and printing press. In order to preserve his works, they had to be written and a decision has to be made in spelling, but he wasn’t taking that into account when he wrote these performance texts for his friends. Usually if there’s a word with multiple hearings, Shakespeare means for both to be there simultaneously. “Here/Hear” is a frequent example, mirrored in the House of Commons. In Shakespeare they had to pick a spelling. Language was pleistocene for him, all about word-clay, formless, birthing – an organic tool. And he was writing for people he knew, playing to their strengths.
Hence the incomprehensible foolery. In the original cue scripts he probably put the equivalent of “Robert comes in and does something about relative importance.” And Armin would take the stage and win the house. Sitting with the compositor years later someone says “What sort of stuff did you say here, Rob?” In the cold light of day with no audience but the company the fool attempts to remember his fooling. And 500 years later academics pore over an out of context improv done when cold.
We’ve been mining Macbeth today. It’s The Factory again. We dug into “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”. Such a familiar piece of text. On the surface, easy to academically understand. But as a reaction to your partner’s sudden death it’s endlessly ambiguous. It’s down to the speaker. It’s down to the hearer. Is it despair, impatience, a call to presence? It’s all of these things. It’s beautiful:
“She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
This is towards the end of a play about doomed ambition. Make of it what you will, it’s yours not mine.
Recently Alexander Waugh – the son of the son of the son of the son of the son of the son of etc has demonstrated persistence and remarkable selection bias to create and then crack a code that points to Edward de Vere the son of the son of son of etc etc as the true author of these plays. It’s a man seeking and finding patterns. And we all want the person we admire to be like us. And patterns? If you look for them, you will find them. Think William S. Burroughs and 23.
I’ve eaten a lot of Shakespeare now, over 3 decades from when I first encountered that speech. I hear one voice in his writing. It’s clear, as is the way he writes for those he loves in their best voices. “I’ve got a present for you, James.” He’s cracking wide the human condition, and he’s doing it with a wisdom about the futility of ambition. Antony and Cleopatra has a squeaking boy actor playing Cleopatra say:
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’ th’ posture of a whore.”
Ambition towards posterity is ridiculed. Even the title Antony and Cleopatra is misleading. It’s about the triumvirate, and their union is ostentatiously damaging. It’s not their play even though it’s named for them. It’s why it frequently bombs when you cast two celebs in the title roles. But I’m geeking out.
Live now says this Shakespeare voice. Live in the present. You’re lighting the way to dusty death. You’re looking forward or backward and forgetting where you’re walking. Whoever wrote these huge mischievous works wasn’t concerned about plaudits. He was happy to drown his book.
These endless authorship debates will never be solved. But outside of perpetuation of academia what purpose can they serve? “Ahh but wouldn’t the great author wish to be remembered in posterity?” No. No, I think whoever wrote this stuff wrote it for the writing, not for points out of ten. And earl of Oxford, alienated woman, milliner’s son, space alien – whoever they were I don’t think they care if someone else, seeking the bubble reputation, either says they didn’t write it or says they did and gets some attention and publishes a thesis before the next one comes out.
The fact is this gorgeous stuff got written by someone. We have that voice and that legacy. We can all look at people a bit closer, and we have a master’s example to encourage us not to Truss up our grammar and word use.
Tomorrow morning more Macbeth. It’s nice to be back in the room. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.
I have had to change the photo twice on this blog for reasons important enough to twice openly rebuke me. I remember sometimes in the morning my mother would emerge looking beautiful. “You look great, mum.” I’d say. “Don’t look at me,” she’d respond, and cover herself with makeup. Sorry if I caused anyone discomfort in what should be a safe space. This daily writing carries a weight which I hadn’t expected. We are so used to the written word carrying barbs. Sorry if I caused offence. The only way to remove the Facebook preview is to delete it which I’ve done.