Sunday, July 27, 2008
Our book today is After Shakespeare, subtitled "Writing Inspired by the World's Greatest Author" and edited by that greatest of 20th century editors, John Gross. It's a huge and bursting compendium of things written about Shakespeare, and we here at Stevereads can confidently tell you one amazing truth: of all the countless thousands of books written about Shakespeare, this is the first one to have, the one to buy and thumb through and lose yourself in even before you acquire Bradley or Burgess or some collected Coleridge. Gross has done his usual herculean best and brought together such a staggering variety of fun stuff that you'll be happily lost for hours and days before you even think about wandering elsewhere.
Gross is right, in his preface, to say that no author has inspired more writing than Shakespeare (no discernible author, he points out, which is his neat way of not giving Homer the top spot), and the goal of this anthology is to sample from as much of that writing as possible. A million anecdotes are here, and diary excerpts, and poems galore, and even chunks from fictions written about the Bard, all of it presented with a minimal whisking of clarifying footnotes and introductory matter.
Gross laments that only one thing is missing, because he couldn't find it: the reactions to Shakespeare of the so-called Common Reader, although Gross isn't sure this is a bad thing: "The Common Reader is an admirable and indispensable thing, but I suspect that when he picks up his pen or sits down at his word processor, he has a way of turning into the Commonplace Critic." But this confession itself is a little odd, since as readers of Stevereads will know, there exists at least one Common Reader who never hesitated to share his thoughts on the Swan of Avon, as for instance:
September 29 - to the King's Theatre, where we saw "Midsummer Night's Dream", which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life.
Yes, of course, it's Samuel Pepys, and he's liberally quoted in After Shakespeare, despite being denied his Common Reader (and Commonplace Critic) status.
Virtually everybody else is in here too, from the Edwardian actor who sniffingly said, "My Rosencrantz was not up to much, but my Guildenstern was tremendous" to this immortal exchange between P. G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves:
"Remember what the poet Shakespeare said, Jeeves."
"What was that, sir?"
" 'Exit hurriedly, pursued by bear.' You'll find it in one of his plays. I remember drawing a picture of it on the side of the page, when I was at school."
There's Victor Grey's vicious parody of the 'Seven Ages of Man':
Seven ages, first puking and mewling,
Then very pissed off with one's schooling,
Then fucks, and then fights,
Then judging chap's rights;
Then sitting in slippers, then drooling.
Of course, as is only fitting, there's a long passage from Anthony Burgess' great Shakespeare novel Nothing Like the Sun, in which a blithe and slightly stupid Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, cannot see how much Shakespeare, WS, is in love with him:
'Will,' said Harry, 'I am in love.'
WS put down his pen carefully. He stared for full five seconds. 'In love? In love?'
Harry giggled. 'Oh, it is not marriage love, it is no great lady. It is a country Lucrece in Islington. She is the wife of the keeper of the Three Tuns.'
'In love. In love. Oh, God save us.'
'She knows not who I am. I have been with Chapman. She believes I too am a poet. She will have none of me.' He giggled again.
'So the seed stirs at last. Well. He is in love.' Then WS began to laugh. 'And what thinks the husband of all this?'
'Oh, he is away. His father is dying in Norfolk, and yet he will not die. It is a slow quietus. I must have her, Will, before he returns. How shall I have her?'
'I should think,' WS said slowly, 'that your new friends will help you there. The Sussex men are, I hear, a wenching crowd.'
'They are not. They are all for boys. There is a house in Islington.'
'Well. Well, well. In love.' He picked up his pen, sighing. 'I have a poem to write, a commission of your lordship's. My mind is wholly taken up with the harm that comes to those who force the chastity of noble matrons. I should think like harm will come to the author of lowlier essays.'
'You mock me now. Write me a poem I can give to her. You have written sonnets enjoining me to love a woman, now write one that shall persuade a woman to love me.'
'Your friend Master Chapman is perhaps less busy than I that he can take you drinking to Islington. Ask him, my noble lord.'
'Will, I have no taste for this mockery. George cannot write that sort of verse. She would never understand any poem of his.'
The transcribing of Burgess makes us sorry for one exclusion After Shakespeare, one book missing that should have been excerpted: John Mortimer, he of Rumpole fame, wrote the novel that accompanied his BBC mini-series "Shakespeare" many years ago (the mini-series is well worth your time, if you should ever come across it, with Tim Curry like you've never seen him act before, in the title role), and for our money here at Stevereads, his Shakespeare is in many ways the single best Shakespeare novel ever written.
But such lapses are almost unknown in After Shakespeare, which features heaping helpings of just about everybody else, from Frank Harris to Duke Ellington to Herman Melville to Cole Porter to Virginia Woolf, who wrestles with the author in her journal as mightily as Jacob with the angel:
I read Shakespeare directly after I have finished writing, when my mind is agape & red & hot. Then it is astonishing. I never yet know how amazing his stretch & speed & word coining power is, until I felt it utterly outpace & outrace my own, seeming to start equal & then I see him draw ahead & do things I could not in my wildest tumult & utmost press of mind imagine. Even the less & worser plays are written at a speed that is quicker than anybody else's quickest; & the words drop so fast one can't pick them up. Look at this, Upon a gather'd lily almost wither'd (that is a pure accident: I happened to light on it.) Evidently the pliancy of his mind was so complete that he could furbish out any train of thought; &, relaxing lets fall a shower of such unregarded flowers. Why then should anyone else attempt to write. This is not 'writing' at all. Indeed, I could say that Shre surpasses literature altogether, if I knew what I meant.
And of course where would any anthology of Shakespeare writing be without that sprightliest of intellects, John Jay Chapman, writing with his customary verve:
Parts of Shakespeare are ugly, and much of him is whimsical, and some of him is perverted. But his work is all a natural product, like the silk worm's thread. One can never be quite sure that even Thersites may not show under the microscope some beautiful patterns on his back, as Caliban does.
Make no mistake: you should all pull down your Shakespeare and read him first, for pleasure, for education, for the sheer goose-pimply thrill of his brilliance. But if you're in a mood for something connected but different from that great treasure-trove, another such trove awaits you. After Shakespeare will keep you reading, enthralled, until way past your bedtime.