Monday, May 30, 2005
The signature on Shakespeare’s will
Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare is one of those touch-point books of literary history & criticism, a volume so successful, both in terms of sales & critical recognition, that it becomes known just for being known. In fact, it’s a brilliant performance, a remarkable reconstruction of a life that about which there is surprising little direct evidence, a page-turner as narrative, always thoughtful, often provocative. Much has been made of Greenblatt’s use of new historical critical methods, the idea that, if Macbeth truly was written with an audience of one in mind, King James, then it is to the history of James’ fascination with witchcraft one should turn in order to understand the dramatic function of the “weird sisters” who set the plot into action.
Greenblatt’s methodology is open to both critique & parody. Not too long ago, a bookseller I know did a great routine on the premise that some line somewhere in Shakespeare might mention a blemish, which, he hypothesized, Greenblatt would take to imply that Shakespeare himself once may have had a zit on his nose, which would then lead to a detailed & learned discussion of skin care strategies in the 1590s. And it is true that some of Greenblatt’s assumptions are so over-the-top (Shakespeare writes King Lear because he’s thinking about retirement) that even if they’re entirely accurate, they’re also beside the point.
But if new historical critical methodology brought the devices & tactics of close reading to non-literary texts, Greenblatt in fact displays its advantages here in both directions, using Shakespeare as a lens to conjure up late 16th & early 17th century England into a remarkably credible diorama, while using the documentary legacy of that period to flesh out the little that is concretely known about the son of the bankrupt glove maker from Stratford. (And, happily, dismissing the “Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare” crowd for the grassy-knoll conspiracy whack jobs that they are.)
But Greenblatt’s most powerful contribution here is his consideration of Shakespeare as a writer, positioning him against not only is closest competitors in the theater of that period, but in the larger context of Elizabethan letters, the bumpkin from the ‘burbs who dared compete with the gentile educations of the so-called university wits. It’s a characterization that reveals the open structures of Shakespeare’s drama in the sharpest contrast with the closed forms of the sonnets that I have ever read. And it’s a strategy that leads Greenblatt to view the evolution of Shakespeare’s works as a series of problem-solving decisions – exactly how the chronology of any writer is best viewed.
Thus, Greenblatt argues, halfway through his career, Shakespeare makes his most important single discovery, that which separates him out from the best of his peers of the Elizabethan period, the construction of character. From Hamlet onward, Greenblatt demonstrates repeatedly, Shakespeare consciously proposes that the most important aspect of a major character in any dramatic work is opacity. Again & again, what distinguishes Shakespeare’s plays from the various sources where he derived his tales is that the earlier sources tie up loose ends neatly, characters have clear motivation, works are balanced & contained. All the elements, I dare say, of the well-wrought urn (not to mention Billy Collins’ sense of accessibility). Shakespeare’s constant revision is to break the mold, to excise motivation, to confound expectation, rendering character (and often plot) mysterious. Thus in the previous versions of Lear, the test of the three daughters’ love for the old king is always predicated upon his having to decide who gets which lands, and how much, whereas, in Shakespeare, the test occurs after those decisions have been made, rendering it capricious & likewise forcing the King to revise his original allotments when he banishes Cordelia. The irrationality of the act becoming a defining aspect of Lear’s character as well as setting the plot into motion.
Similarly, Hamlet’s ambiguous, ambivalent nature is a Shakespearean addition. Here, having already argued that Hamlet’s name & the then-recent death of Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet (which in the improvisatory spelling mode of the 1590s would on occasion have been spelled Hamlet) is far more than coincidence, Greenblatt discusses the impact of this writing strategy:
With Hamlet, Shakespeare found that if he refused to provide himself or his audience with a familiar, comfortable rationale that seems to make it all make sense, he could get to something immeasurably deeper. The key is not simply the creation of opacity, for by itself that would only create a baffling or incoherent play. Rather, Shakespeare came increasingly to rely on the inward logic, the poetic coherence that his genius and his immensely hard work had long enabled him to confer on his plays. Tearing away the structure of superficial meanings, he fashioned an inner structure through the resonant echoing of key terms, the subtle development of images, the brilliant orchestration of scenes, the complex unfolding of ideas, the intertwining of parallel plots, the uncovering of psychological obsessions.
This conceptual breakthrough in Hamlet was technical; that is, it affected the practical choices Shakespeare made when he put plays together, starting with enigma of the prince’s suicidal melancholy and assumed madness. But it was not only a new aesthetic strategy. The excitement of motive must have arisen from something more than technical experimentation; coming in the wake of Hamnet’s death, it expressed Shakespeare’s root perception of existence, his understanding of what could be said and what should remain unspoken, his preference for things untidy, damaged, and unresolved over things neatly arranged, well made, and settled. The opacity was shaped by his experience of the world and of his own inner life: his skepticism, his pain, his sense of broken rituals, his refusal of easy consolations. (324)
It is exactly – exactly! – this “untidy, damaged, and unresolved” aspect of Shakespeare’s late plays that Charles Olson recognizes in Melville’s use of King Lear as the template behind Moby Dick. Olson quotes Melville’s own words from the margins of his copy of Lear:
Tormented into desperation, Lear, the frantic king, tears off the mask and speaks the same madness of vital truth.
Later, Olson notes that
When Edmund is dying he fails to revoke his order for the death of Lear and Cordelia, only looks upon the bodies of Goneril and Regan and consoles himself:” Yet Edmund was belov’d!” This Melville heavily checks. It is a twisting ambiguity like one of his own – Evil beloved.
Melville is dumb with horror at the close, blood-stop double meaning of Shakespeare’s language in the scene of the blinding of
Here’s a touch Shakespearean – Regan talks of ingratitude!
First causes were Melville’s peculiar preoccupation. He concentrates on an Edmund, a Regan – and the world of Lear, which is almost generated by such creatures, lies directly behind the creation of an Ahab, a Fedallah and the White, lovely, monstrous Whale.
Two pages later, Olson will conclude this fateful chapter, noting again (even as he lacks the vocabulary) the importance of opacity both to Shakespeare & Melville:
Shakespeare drew Lear out of what Melville called “the infinite obscure of his background.” It was most kin to Melville. He uses it as an immediate obscure around his own world of Moby-Dick.
Opacity, the infinite obscure, Greenblatt demonstrates, is the line that connects Hamlet, Lear, Othello & Macbeth, the first three primarily through the eradication of motive, the last through devices of plot. It is the same line that Olson draws directly from Shakespeare to Melville – and by implication, to a Maximus not then yet conceived.
Not everybody is comfortable with the “untidy, damaged, and unresolved” as Billy Collins reminded us just awhile back. Indeed, Nahum Tate’s rewrite of King Lear, supplying a happy ending in which Cordelia lives to marry Edgar, was the version habitually performed from the 1680s until the 1830s. This same will to neatness & clarity, and aversion to indeterminacy, opacity & difficulty is at play today in the