Today is (supposedly – at least it’s the agreed-upon date) the birthday of William Shakespeare. April 23, 1564.
One of the things I think about when I think about Shakespeare, or one of the things that inevitably comes into my mind, is my late great teacher Doug Moston, who died in 2003 (check out the comments there, too – I don’t know any of those people, but they all had worked with Doug at one time or another and found their way to my post. Beautiful). Moston (an awesome awesome teacher) was responsible for getting Shakespeare’s first folio (from 1623) published in facsimile. In facsimile, people. So it’s basically well-done Xeroxes of the folio’s pages. I own it. It’s indispensable for actors, I think, but would also be fascinating for anyone interested in Shakespeare in general.
Modern versions of Shakespeare, modern editors ironed out his punctuation, regularizing it, etc. But … in a lot of cases, the modern editors are looking at these plays as academic texts, works of literature – as opposed to scripts meant for actors to play. If you have the plays in facsimile (ie: how they looked in the first folio) – you can see an even deeper level of Shakespeare’s intent as a playwright. Modern editors sometimes have added exclamation points, which I find a bit insulting. An exclamation point is an editorial comment – it says: “Here’s how to say this line”. It’s directorial, mkay? You are saying, with that punctuation: “The emotion behind the line should be THIS.” Shakespeare used very little “emotional” punctuation marks in his work. Almost none. He used periods and commas, and that’s pretty much it. I don’t want some EDITOR to tell me how to play Lady Macbeth.
Let’s do a little compare and contrast, shall we?
A couple years ago I wrote about working on a monologue during the time Michael was staying with me, and we talked about it, and it is now known between us as “twixt clock and cock” monologue from Cymbeline. I had the folio by me on the bed – and I wanted to compare it to the Riverside Shakespeare version – and check it out. Line by line. Fascinating. (And yes – “f” are “s”s in the folio. You get used to it after a while.) Here is how the two stack up, side by side. I’ll comment after.
Riverside Shakespeare version:
False to his bed! What is it to be false?
To lie in watch there and to think on him?
To weep ‘twixt clock and clock? if sleep charge nature,
To break it with a fearful dream of him
And cry myself awake? that’s false to’s bed, is it?
Falfe to his Bed? What is it to be falfe?
To lye in watch there, and to thinke on him?
To weepe ‘twixt clock and clock? If fleep charge Nature,
To breake it with a fearfull dreame of him
And cry my felfe awake? That’s falfe to’s bed? Is it?
Let’s look at the differences. The first “false to his bed” in the monologue is NOT an exclamation in the folio -although it appears in the Riverside as an exclamation. In the folio it is a QUESTION. Enormous difference, in terms of the playing of it! Also – in terms of the MEANING. What is Imogen DOING here? What is she actually saying?
My interpretation is: when it’s a question, she – after reading his letter – is still trying to process what her husband just said to her. She is still in a state of shock, where she must just repeat what she just heard. “False to his bed?” She’s stunned, disoriented. She can’t believe this has happened. Whereas, with an exclamation mark, like in Riverside – she immediately jumps to the anger and the hurt. She is pissed, and defending herself. “False to his bed!” (Subtext: the NERVE of that guy!)
But no – the folio has it as a question. HUGE difference.
Also, the last line:
In the Riverside, it’s all one sentence – with commas added.
“that’s false to his bed, is it?”
It’s all one thing, one thought. In the folio – it’s more choppy. “That’s false to his bed? Is it?” Her thought process is still erratic (Olivier was right: the thought is IN THE LINE.) … so she’s asking one question: “That’s false to his bed?” Then she realizes she is not done, and questions again: “Is it?”
To me – the folio is MUCH more plain, in terms of emotion. You can feel Imogen’s processing of the betrayal – in the punctuation. In the Riverside, it’s ironed out a bit – modernized. And so the thought itself has been changed. Tsk tsk tsk.
That’s false to his bed? Is it?
I prefer that one.
Let’s move on.
In the same way that Shakespeare does not overdo it in terms of exclamation points and emotional punctuation, there are no stage-directions in his plays (as written) except for: Enter and Exeunt. (Of course there is a notable exception from Winters Tale, which my sister Siobhan has called “the funniest stage direction ever”: Exeunt pursued by bear.) But for the most part, Shakespeare put all of the stage directions INTO the language. Fascinating. If someone needs a torch to see through the darkness, Shakespeare will have the character say something along the lines of, “I can’t see. It’s too dark. Hand me that torch.” The action (“hand me”), the props (“torch”), the motivation (“I can’t see”), everything, is all in the language. Modern playwrights would add a stage direction to fill in the blanks: Horatio picks up a torch and squints through the darkness. See the difference? Although it’s funny, I knew a playwright once who took the cue from Shakespeare, merely because she had been burned so many times with productions of her plays not being true to her intent. She said, “I have learned that if you want a character to be drinking a cup of coffee during the scene, if you think it is crucial to your plot that your character be drinking coffee – as opposed to tea, or as opposed to not drinking anything at all – you have to have the character say, ‘I am going to have a cup of coffee’ or something thereabouts. It has to be in the language, not in the stage directions- because then they can’t cut it.”
Shakespeare’s plays, back in the day, were not extensively rehearsed. There wasn’t much planning out beforehand. There was a troupe of well-trained actors who could learn things quickly, and knew, basically, how to project their voices, how to fight with swords, and how to play make believe. And because paper was expensive and scarce, they wouldn’t be given the whole script – they would only be given their part. Imagine!! So you have to fit it in to the whole, you have to know how to do that. That’s where the word “role” comes from: each part was written out on a “roll” of paper, and so you would be handed your “roll” to learn. Moston, as an experiment in classes, would do the same thing … he would have parts written out on “rolls” and you would have to get up with other actors … and try to make the scene happen, the way they did back in the day. I mean, people make jokes about Shakespeare’s “O! I am slain!”s at the end of sword fights, but if you think about it: that is a stage direction. That is telling the actor (who might not have the whole play at his disposal) Okay. Die now. Those actors at the Globe were pros, man, they knew how to do crap like that … You see “O I am slain” and you know: Yup. Time to die. Shakespeare doesn’t write as a stage direction: Elaborate sword fight. Macbeth eventually dies. Everything you need to know (as an audience member, and as an actor playing it) is in the language of the play. Marvelous.
I am so grateful that I studied under Doug Moston, that I worked on Shakespeare, using the folio as opposed to modern versions of the script.
In honor of the Bard, here is a huge post, made up mostly of excerpts from other people.
But first – let’s look at what the facsimile looks like, what you will get if you look at the folio:
I’ll start with a wonderful excerpt from the book Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, by Stephen Greenblatt.
Here he discusses Midsummer Night’s Dream. One of the cool things about Midsummer is that, of all of his plays, it is the one where scholars have been unable to find a souce for it. Shakespeare did not invent plots, he used stories that were already in existence. But scholars believe that Midsummer may very well be the only one of his plays directly from his imagination.
By 1595, Shakespeare clearly grasped that his career was built on a triumph of the professional London entertainment industry over traditional amateur performances. His great comedy [Midsummer] was a personal celebration of escape as well as of mastery. Escape from what? From tone-deaf plays, like Thomas Preston’s A Lamentable Tragedy, Mixed Full of Pleasant Mirth, Containing the Life of Cambises, King of Persia, whose lame title Shakespeare parodied. From coarse language and jog trotting meter and rant pretending to be passion. From amateur actors too featherbrained to remember their lines, too awkward to perform gracefully, too shy to perform energetically, or, worst of all, too puffed up with vanity to perform anything but their own grotesque egotism. The troupe of artisans who perform “Pyramus and Thisbe” — the weaver Nick Bottom, the bellows-mender Francis Flute, the tinker Tom Snout, the joiner Snug, the tailor Robin Starveling, and their director, the carpenter Peter Quince — are collectively an anthology of theatrical catastrophes.
The laughter in act 5 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream — and it is one of the most enduringly funny scenes Shakespeare ever wrote — is built on a sense of superiority in intelligence, training, cultivation, and skill. The audience is invited to join the charmed circle of the upper-class mockers onstage. This mockery proclaimed the young playwright’s definitive passage from naivete and homespun amateurism to sophisticated taste and professional skill. But the laughter that the scene solicits is curiously tender and even loving. What saves the scene of ridicule from becoming too painful, what keeps it delicious in fact, is the self-possession of the artisans. In the face of open derision, they are all unflappable. Shakespeare achieved a double effect. On the one hand, he mocked the amateurs, who fail to grasp the most basic theatrical conventions, by which they are to stay in their roles and pretend they cannot see or hear their audience. On the other hand, he conferred an odd, unexpected dignity upon Bottom and his fellows, a dignity that contrasts favorably with the sardonic rudeness of the aristocratic spectators.
Even as he called attention to the distance between himself and the rustic performers, then, Shakespeare doubled back and signaled a current of sympathy and solidarity. [Note from Sheila: It occurs to me that this is what Christopher Guest accomplished in Waiting for Guffman. Anyone who has been an actor has suffered through shows like that one. Most of us have done loads of community theatre. You can scoff at it, and scorn it … and there’s a lot to scorn. But Christopher Guest approaches it with affection. Which is why I think that movie is so wonderful. Yes, we laugh at those people, but we love them too. Okay, back to Will.] As when borrowing from the old morality plays and folk culture, he understood at once that he was doing something quite different and that he owed a debt. The professions he assigned the Athenian artisans were not chosen at random — Shakespeare’s London theatre company depended on joiners and weavers, carpenters and tailors — and the tragedy they perform, of star-crossed lovers, fatal errors, and suicides, is one in which the playwirght himself was deeply interested. In the period he was writing the “Pyramus and Thisbe” parody, Shakespeare was also writing the strikingly similar Romeo and Juliet; they may well have been on his writing table at the same time. A more defensive artist would have scrubbed harder in an attempt to remove these marks of affinity, but Shakespeare’s laughter was not a form of renunciation or concealment. “This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard,” Hippolyta comments, to which Theseus replies, “The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them.” “It must be your imagination, then, and not theirs,” is her rejoinder (5.1.207-10) — the spectators’ imagination and not the players’ — but that is precisely the point: the difference between the professional actor and the amateur actor is not, finally, the crucial consideration. They both rely upon the imagination of the spectators. And, as if to clinch the argument, a moment later, at the preposterous suicide speech of Pyramus —
Approach, ye furies, fell.
O fates, come, come,
Cut thread and thrum,
Quail, crush, conclude and quell
— Hippolyta finds herself unaccountably moved: “Beshrew my heart, but I pity the man” (5.1.279).
When in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the thirty-year-old Shakespeare, drawing deeply upon his own experiences, thought about his profession, he split the theatre between a magical, virtually nonhuman element, which he associated with the power of the imagination to lift itself away from the constraints of reality, and an all-too-human element, which he associated with the artisans’ trades that actually made the material structures — buildings, platforms, costumes, musical instruments, and the like — structures that gave the imagination a local habitation and a name. He understood, and he wanted the audience to understand, that the theatre had to have both, both the visionary flight and the solid, ordinary earthiness.
That earthiness was a constituent part of his creative imagination. He never forgot the provincial, everday world from which he came or the ordinary face behind the mask of Arion.
I think that’s kind of a beautiful analysis of that play.
Additionally, I’m going to post a couple of quotes from a book I positively adore: Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets.
What’s really great about this book (a survey of English-language poets, from Richard Rolle of Hampole to Les Murray – quite a wide span of time) – but what’s great about it is that Michael Schmidt is not an academic. He has nothing to do with academia. He is a publisher, and a reviewer. He is a poetry fan. He doesn’t write from the dusty halls of a university, and he is not trying to impress. He chooses poets he loves, and tells us why he loves them and why he thinks so-and-so is important. It’s a wonderful book, really accessible.
How he deals with Shakespeare is especially interesting. Because this book spans so much time, Shakespeare is just another name on a long long long list … and yet … of course … he overshadows pretty much everything. His shadow even goes backwards, so that the poets that came just before him don’t stand a chance either. It’s very interesting.
In Michael Schmidt’s view, the poet whose legacy suffers the most is Ben Jonson. Here is what he has to say about that:
Jonson suffers one irremediable disability: Shakespeare. Alexander Pope underlines the point in his Preface to the Works of Shakespeare (1725): “It is ever the nature of parties to be in extremes; and nothing is so probable, as that because Ben Jonson had much the more learning, it was said on the other hand that Shakespeare had none at all; and because Shakespeare had much the most wit and fancy, it was retorted on the other, that Jonson wanted both. Because Shakespeare borrowed nothing, it was said that Ben Jonson borrowed everything.”
In the plays the proximity of Shakespeare does Jonson the most harm, though he writes plays so different from his friend’s that they seem distinct in kind and period. Part of that difference is Jonson’s poetic balance, deliberate artistry: he knows what he wants to say and has the means of saying it, no more or less. He speaks for his age, while Shakespeare speaks for himself. Jonson’s art is normative, Shakespeare’s radical and exploratory. In Jonson there’s structure and gauged variegation, in Shakespeare movement and warmth. Coleridge disliked the “rankness” of Jonson’s realism and found no “goodness of heart”. He condemned the “absurd rant and ventriloquism” in the tragedy Sejanus,staged by Shakespeare’s company at the Globe. At times Jonson’s words, unlike Shakespeare’s, tend to separate out and stand single, rather than coalesce, as though he had attended to every single word. His mind is busy near the surface. He is thirsty at the lip, not at the throat….
Dryden’s criticism is telling at one point: Jonson “weaved” the language “too closely and laboriously” and he “did a little too much Romanise our tongue, leaving the words he translated almost as much Latin as he found them.” Dryden ends with the inevitable verdict: “I admire him, but I love Shakespeare.”
The following excerpts are from Schmidt’s chapter on Shakespeare.
When drama began to be printed, blank verse was an ugly medium. Printers did their best to set it out prettily but got little enough thanks for their labors. Not wholly unconnected with this, some of my predecessors harbored bad feelings about William Shakespeare. About the work and the way it broke upon the world. Not about the man, born in the same year as Marlowe yet somehow seeming his junior an dhis apprentice. The great painter William Turner once said of Thomas Girtin, who died at twenty-seven, “Had Tommy Girtin lived, I should have starved.” But Girtin died, Marlowe died; and Turner lived, Shakespeare lived. Laurels are awarded accordingly.
Poems vs. the plays – here’s what Schmidt has to say:
The greatest poet of the age — the greatest poet of all time, for all his corruptions — inspires in publishers and in other writers a kind of vertigo. For Donald Davie Shakespeare represents “a vast area of the English language and the English imagination which is as it were ‘charged’, radio-active: a territory where we dare not travel at all often or at all extensively, for fear of being mortally infected, in the sense of being overborne, so that we cease to speak with our own voices and produce only puny echoes of the great voice which long ago took over that whole terrain for its own.” This is true of the plays. But had Shakespeare produced only the epyllia, the Sonnets and the occasional poems, we’d have a much more proportioned view of him, smaller in scale than Jonson, Donne, Spencer and Marlowe. The poems are excellent, but it is the language and vision of the plays that dazzles. The slightly absurd scenario of Venus and Adonis, the excesses of Lucree and the unevent brilliance of the Sonnets would not by themselves have changed the world. Venus and Adonis was, it’s true, Shakespeare’s most successful poem. By the time he died, ten editions had been published, and six followed in the two decades after his death. There was money in that large, bossy, blowsy goddess almost eating alive the pretty lad. Nowadays it is read because it is by Shakespeare. And Lucree, with its cruel eloquence, its harsh tracing of one of the most brutal tales of rape in the classical repertory, while better balanced and constructed, touches unreflectingly on matters that require a less restrained psychology than the poet can provide…
This is a story about poetry, not drama or literal prostitution; the plays I’ll leave to someone else. I’m concerned with “the rest”, a handful of works that the poet took most seriously; the epyllia Richard Field published, the 154 Sonnets and “The Phoenix and the Turtle”. I could add songs from the plays, but once you dip into a drama, where do you stop? A monologue is like an aria, a description can be like a whole pastoral or satire. And which songs are Shakespeare’s, which did he pull out of Anon.’s bran tub? Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love’s Lavours Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venic, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, Measure for Measure, Cymbeline, A Winter’s Tale and The Tempest all include detachable songs, but the plays snared them and that’s where they belong.
Shakespeare is so much at the heart — is the heart — of this story that even by skirting around him we take his measure. Apart from his genius, Shakespeare had some real advantages. The world for him was new, as it had been for Chaucer. There were the navigators’ discoveries, there was the rising power of the monarch, new industry, new learning.
Here Schmidt talks about the mystery hidden within the Sonnets:
The Sonnets have attracted a critical literature second in vastness only to that on Hamlet, and so various that at times it seems the critics are discussing works entirely unrelated. They contain a mystery, and the critic-as-sleuth is much in evidence. Unlike sonnets by his contemporaries, none of these poems has a traced “source” in Italian or elsewhere; most seem to emerge from an actual occasion, an occasion not concealed, yet sufficiently clouded to make it impossible to say for sure what or whom it refers to. Setting these veiled occasions side by side can yield a diversity of plots: a Dark Lady, a Young Man, now noble, now common, now chaste, now desired, possessed, and lost. All we can say for sure is that desire waxes and wanes, time passes. Here certainly, the critic says, are hidden meanings; and where meanings are hidden, a key is hidden too. Only, Shakespeare is a subtle twister. Each sleuth-critic finds a key, and each finds a different and partial treasure. A.L. Rowse found his key, affirming that Shakespeare’s mistress was the poet Emilia Lanyer (1569 – 1645), illegitimate daughter of an Italian royal musician and also an intimate of the astrologer Simon Forman, who gives a brief picture of a brave, cunning operator. Her 1611 volume of poem includes ten dediocations and cleverly celebrates the Dowager Countess of Cumberland, the poet’s particular quarry, in company with Christ and biblical heroines. The words she attributes to Eve are the first clear glimmer of English feminism in verse. Eve may — almost innocently — have handed Adam the apple, but Adam’s sons crucified, in the bright light of day and reason, Jesus Christ. “This sin of yours hath no excuse, or end.”
There is a further mystery: Who is “the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets Mr. W.H.” to whom the poet (or the publisher?) wishes “all happiness and that eternity promised by our ever-living poet”? The T.T. who signs the dedication is Thomas Thorpe, publisher-printer in 1609 of the poems: W.H. may have been his friend, who procured the manuscipt, or Shakespeare’s lover, or a common acquaintaince – William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke? Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton (dedicatee of the two epyllia)? William Hervey, Southampton’s stepfather, getting the poet to encourage his stepson to marry? Much passionate energy is expended on a riddle without a definitive answer. Thomas Thorpe was a mischievous printer. I suspect he knew what he was doing: no title page in history has been more pored over.
You can tell Schmidt is a publisher, right?
Here’s more on the Sonnets:
There is not a linear plot to the sequence of the sonnets. Ther are “runs”, but they break off; other “runs” begin. Is it a series of sequences, or a miscellany of them? Some editors reorder the poems without success. Sonnets 1 – 126 are addressed to a young man or men; the remainder to a Dark (-haired) Lady. There may be a triangle (or two): the beloveds perhaps have a relationship as well. The poems are charged with passionate ambiguities.
Those who read the poems as a sonnet sequence were for a long while baffled. The Sonnets were neglected, or virtually so, until 1780, when they were dusted down and reedited. They did not immediately appeal, but gradually, during the 19th century, they caught fire — fitfully, like wet kindling. Wordsworth, Keaths, Hazlitt, and Landor failed to appreciate them. Those who love them properly are fewer than those who enjoy them. Those who love them properly are fewer than those who enjoy arguing about them. W.H. Auden argues (credibly) that “he wrote them … as one writes a diary, for himself alone, with no thought of a public.” T.S. Eliot suggests that like Hamlet they are “full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art. And when we search for this feeling, we find it, as in the sonnets, very difficult to localise.” Now the public clambers over them, prurient, with several dozen authoritative guides.
And now (you can sense reluctantly) Schmidt talks about the plays.
Drama could be profitable: this discovery coincided with “the coming into the field of the first pupils of the new grammar schools of Edward VI”, men who did not resent or distrust commerce and entrepreneurship. A new class of “mental adventurers”, the classically educated sons of merchants, made the running. Marlowe was the son of a cobbler, Shakespeare of a prosperous glove maker of Stratford-on-Avon, where the poet was born in 1564. Both were provincials, one educated at the grammar school at Stratford, the other at King’s School, Canterbury. They were harbingers of the social change that would culminate in the Commonwealth.
One of Shakespeare’s advantages was an apparent disadvantage. He was not university-trained. “When Shakespeare attempts to be learned like Marlowe, he is not very clever.” That is part of the problem with his epyllia. But Ford Madox Ford reminds us that he had “another world to which he could retire; because of that he was a greater poet than either Jonson or Marlowe, whose minds were limited by their university-training to find illustrations, telles quelles, from illustrations already used in the Greek or Latin classics. It was the difference between founding a drawing on a lay figure and drawing or painting from a keen and delighting memory.”
Sidney advises: “Look in thy heart and write.” In the Sonnets, Shakespeare takes Sidney’s counsel without the platonizing the great courtier intended. The heart he looks into is singularly complex and troubled, and the poems he writes from this impure “I” are as full of life as the plays.
I’ll let Puck’s words that end Midsummer close this post. They seem appropriate:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
Came across a very fun article which lets you know only a couple of the phrases (and words) invented (or co-opted) by Shakespeare :
Eaten out of house and home
Pomp and circumstance
The makings of
Method in the madness
Neither rhyme nor reason
One fell swoop
Seen better days
It smells to heaven
A sorry sight
A spotless reputation
The world’s (my) oyster
And don’t forget:
Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.
Thanks, Bill, for your greatness. Maybe you were born to it. Maybe you achieved it. Maybe it was thrust upon you. Or maybe Christopher Marlowe wrote all the plays, and you just get all the credit. I doubt it, but who knows. Thanks anyway. And happy birthday.