What Shakespeare may (perhaps) have thought about

“Never trust the teller, trust the tale,” D. H. Lawrence famously said, adding, rather interestingly, that it was the critic’s job “to rescue the tale from the teller”. Given how far just about every major writer falls short of their creation – some, admittedly, more than others – I have always found this a useful thing to bear in mind: it’s the work we have to deal with, not the author, and if what we know of the author’s personal defects and shortcomings gets in the way of our appreciation of the work, it is indeed the critic’s job to focus the reader’s attention on what really matters.

But it is no more than natural curiosity to want to know something, at least, of the person who could create those works that we admire so much, and, when it comes to Shakespeare, we are for ever at a dead end. We have a few scraps of facts about his life, but nothing, really, that tells us what kind of person he was. And while part of me thinks that just as well, there’s another part that can’t help questioning what exactly was going on in that strange mind of his. And all we are reduced to on this point is, I think, conjecture.

Not that this has stopped people from making claims on this matter. I don’t think there’s a single religious or political or social orthodoxy, or, for that matter, heresy, that has not claimed Shakespeare as a fellow-traveller. Even leaving aside partisan accounts of Shakespeare’s ideologies (assuming he had any), there seems no shortage either of commentators who seem also to know for sure what Shakespeare had intended for his plays, as far as performance is concerned. He had, apparently, intended his plays to be seen and not read: that mantra is repeated with such tiresome frequency that I have now given up arguing against it: it is, in practice, simply an excuse not to read the plays. He had also, apparently, intended his texts to be no more than blueprints for performance, and had fully intended them to be adapted with more or less complete freedom. And if this means the kind of adaptation we seem to be witnessing all too frequently these days, with those long boring speeches cut out and long boring scenes cut and spliced together so as to accommodate audiences who find that sort of thing tedious, then, yes, Shakespeare had intended that also. The question “How do we know?” never seems to arise. We may, I suppose, point to historical evidence that suggests that adaptations, sometimes even radical adaptations, were common practice in the Elizabethan and Jacobean playhouses, but I doubt even that takes us too far: for how can we tell whether Shakespeare had approved of such practice? If, as is generally agreed, Shakespeare had an extraordinary mind, is it not one of the attributes of extraordinary minds that they could look beyond the mores of their own time?

That is not to say that we slavishly follow the texts: we couldn’t even if we wanted to, as the existing texts, where they exist in more than one version, often vary quite considerably, and are, further, bedevilled with printing errors: all of this has kept armies of scholars busy for a few centuries now. Of course the texts are to be adapted for performance; but if certain kinds of adaptation turn what is a miracle of the human imagination into something that, frankly, isn’t, then the question “why bother?” most certainly comes to mind. Shakespeare may indeed, for all I know, have approved of such adaptations; but, then again, he may not. As ever, we can never know what was going on in his mind. We have to examine the texts ourselves, and use our own judgement. And, comparing the texts I read to some of the adaptations I have seen, I can’t help wondering what judgement would step from this to this.

But none of this answers the question that continues to press upon us: what did Shakespeare actually think about? While awareness of the cultural and political background of Shakespeare’s times certainly helps, we must, I think, rely primarily on the internal evidence of the plays themselves. In short, those dreaded texts. But here too we have problems: rather inconveniently, he was a dramatist, and spoke through different people, and we have no idea whether he used any of his characters as mouthpieces for his own views. There are the sonnets, of course, with which, Wordsworth claimed, Shakespeare unlocked his heart. Perhaps. But, given the endless interpretations and speculations regarding these sonnets, they seem to complicate rather than clarify matters. I personally tend to see most of the sonnets as, as it were, dramatic monologues, spoken by specific characters who may or may not be the poet himself, and the whole sequence, rather than a set of personal confessions, as more an extended and varied meditation on love, sex, and death. Such a way of looking at these sonnets may or may not have been what Shakespeare had intended, but, as ever, we can never know. The texts are there, and we interpret them as best we can; as to what they tell us about Shakespeare as a person – well, who knows?

There are, however, some points where Shakespeare clearly speaks as a poet. We know, for instance, that Shakespeare may well have felt constrained by censorship (“And art made tongue-tied by authority”, from Sonnet 66). And also that Shakespeare knew well just how good he was. For instance:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme…

(Opening lines of Sonnet 55)

That Shakespeare knew well the value of his writing does, incidentally, make it all the more unlikely that, as is sometimes contended, he wouldn’t have cared too much about how his works were adapted. But leaving that aside, these little glimpses tell us little of what kind of person he was, of what he actually thought. And this, I don’t think we can ever know. However, in observing the themes and motifs that recur in his work, we can, I think, reasonably infer at least some of the matters that preoccupied his mind.

He seemed, for some reason, to be taken with the idea of a guiltless woman falsely accused of infidelity. This occurs most spectacularly in Othello, of course, but it had also occurred earlier in Much Ado About Nothing, where it had drawn what had appeared till then to be a sunlit and happy play into a more tragic direction. It had appeared again in two of his very late plays, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale. And it had appeared in a comic key in The Merry Wives of Windsor. That Shakespeare kept coming back to this does indicate that it was a matter of some importance to him, but when we wonder why, we, as ever, draw a blank.

Another of his favourite themes was that of brotherly hate – of brother overthrowing brother to take, or usurp, his place. We see this in Richard III, As You Like It, Hamlet, King Lear. But once again, when we ask ourselves why Shakespeare kept returning this matter, we run up into that brick wall: we simply don’t know, and there’s little point trying to conjecture.

There is a third recurring theme that I can spot, and here, enquiry is, perhaps, a bit more fruitful, and that is the theme of reconciliation, both in terms of people thought lost now restored, and, also, in terms of the healing of past breaches. One of his earliest plays, The Comedy of Errors, ends with people reconciled who had long been thought dead. Of course, reconciliation is the traditional end for a comedy, but Shakespeare, it seems to me, went much further than merely the demands of the comic form; in particular, even while depicting reconciliation, he depicted also its impossibility. What sort of reconciliation can there be when there are those who will not, cannot, be reconciled? Or when the breaches of the past are so vast that they cannot be healed? Shakespeare seemed to consider this matter so seriously that he would unbalance the harmony of comedy rather than be untruthful: the fall of Shylock in the fourth act of The Merchant of Venice is so seismic, that all else seems, to me at least, to become unsettled. For Shylock cannot be reconciled: the breaches made are too wide to be smoothed over, now or ever.

In his next comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare kept his villain, Don John, a relatively minor figure, and had him conveniently removed from the dramatic action before the end, so that his downfall is, in dramatic terms at least, off-stage, and not something that interferes greatly with the general reconciliation at the end. But this reconciliation remains problematic for different reasons. Can reconciliation really be complete given what has happened? Given how Claudio has behaved, even while under a misapprehension? Shakespeare parked this particular question for the while, but was to return to it again in The Winter’s Tale. In As You Like It, Jaques, the man who cannot be reconciled, withdraws voluntarily from the reconciliatory celebrations, thus avoiding the question; but there’s no evading the issue in Twelfth Night: Malvolio is urged to forget all that has happened, and when he refuses, Olivia sends after him to ask him to return; but the very fact that the characters on stage can’t see why a man who has been sexually humiliated in public cannot return tells us all we need to know about why the reconciliation is impossible. These characters on stage may be able to forget about Malvolio in time, but we, the audience, cannot.

This discrepancy between, on the one hand, our profound desire for reconciliation, and, on the other, the impossibility of achieving it, seems to be present just about everywhere one looks in Shakespeare. Prince Hal is reconciled with his father, but that reconciliation necessitates a breach with Hal’s other father, Falstaff: the drama ends not with reconciliation, but with the cruellest of rejections. Prince Hal’s more neurotic Danish cousin, Hamlet, is not reconciled to his father, much though he longs to be: his father had died while he had been at university in Wittenberg, and when he meets his father’s ghost, there seems to be no expression of love or of tenderness on either side. Hamlet is tormented with questioning that the meeting with his father’s spirit does nothing to allay, but he must learn to live with those questions unanswered. Even at the end, there is no answer to these questions, no resolution: once life has ebbed away, the rest is mere silence.

Othello does not even look for reconciliation by the end. Though Desdemona has miraculously forgiven him, seemingly even from beyond death, Othello cannot believe there can be any reconciliation given what he has done. His despair is not merely for this world:

… when we shall meet at compt,
This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven,
And fiends will snatch at it.

And even the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia, ineffably moving though it is, is not beyond questioning. Lear imagines spending the rest of his life happily in prison with Cordelia: this may be fine for him, but hardly the life that Cordelia, for all her forgiving nature, may want for himself. And as Lear ecstatically describes the joy of spending the rest of their lives together in prison, Cordelia remains tantalisingly silent. But even Lear’s vision of happiness in a prison does not come to fruition. Lear dies knowing that Cordelia is gone, and will never come again – “never, never, never, never, never”: no reconciliation then, either in this world, or in the next.

This theme of reconciliation unmistakably comes up to the surface in the three plays often regarded (quite reasonably, I think) as Shakespeare’s last dramatic testament – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest. Cymbeline is essentially a fairy-tale, and the ending, appropriately, is a fairy-tale like ending, with the good people united and happy, and the malefactors punished (and since these malefactors are mere fairy tale villains, their punishments don’t really cast any significant shadow over the happiness of others, as the fate of Shylock had done in the earlier play). But matters are considerably more complicated in the next two plays.

In the final scene of The WInter’s Tale, miraculous in all respects, we are given what is, essentially, a vision of the Resurrection itself. As with the reconciliation scene between brother and sister towards the end of Twelfth Night, time itself seem to stand still as those who had been thought dead are restored once again to life. I find it hard, even when reading it at home, not to feel here a sense of solemn awe. And yes, there is, indeed, forgiveness, as the play that had contained so much turbulence comes to a glowing and serene end. But what sort of reconciliation is this? It is very subdued. This is not the occasion for torchlit processions of triumph through the streets. Mamilius remains dead; the years of separation and of grieving cannot be called back; all losses aren’t restored, and neither do sorrows end. But this is the best we may hope for, even with the promised Resurrection: the breaches in nature we have made in the course of our lives cannot entirely be healed.

And in The Tempest, there is no reconciliation. Prospero “forgives” only in the sense that he decides not to punish: he has clearly not, nor cannot, forgive the man “whom to call brother would even infect my mouth”. And neither is there contrition on the other side: the evil has not been defeated, and nor can it be – it continues to exist, maybe to erupt again some later day. If this is the resolution of the tempest that had raged in Prospero’s mind, then the resolution is bleak. And if this is indeed, as is often claimed, Shakespeare’s final message for posterity, I can see nothing in that message in which we can take any kind of comfort.

So what kind of man was he? What did he think about? I’m not sure any of us is sufficiently qualified to answer such questions, not even the greatest of Shakespearean scholars. Even when we think we are familiar with his work, we find ourselves, on re-reading, taken quite unexpectedly into quite unfamiliar areas. At least, I do: I freely confess that I can’t keep pace with the workings of this man’s mind. But I do think that he pondered long and hard on the question of reconciliation, on whether the brokenness of life can ever be put right, either in this world or in the next. And, if his last plays are anything to go by, I don’t think he was too optimistic on that score. There is no assurance.

Or maybe there is, and we remain most ignorant of what we’re most assured. But if there is, such assurance is beyond even Shakespeare’s vision.

9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mudpuddle on May 3, 2020 at 3:30 am

    “Shakespeare’s Imagery” by Caroline Spurgeon… i liked it, but i’m just an amateur…

    Reply

    • Spurgeon’s book is still regarded as a classic of Shakespeare criticism, I think. And I’m very much an amateur too – but, as I keep telling myself, why shouldn’t we amateurs enjoy talking about Shakespeare too? 😀

      Reply

  2. Posted by David Gouldstone on May 3, 2020 at 3:43 pm

    Another theme that crops up several times is that of the relationship between fathers and motherless daughters. Sometimes, as in ‘As You Like It’, the wife/mother (or in this case wives/mothers) simply aren’t mentioned at all. Or in other plays, such as ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and ‘King Lear’, the fact that she once existed is briefly acknowledged but then forgotten. This theme also crops up in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (the relationship between Egeus and Hermia isn’t explored in detail but it is one of the key plot devices), ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (Leonato/Hero), and ‘The Tempest’. Mothers are also ignored in ‘Twelfth Night’: Viola/Sebastian share memories of their father, but don’t think it worth mentioning their mother.

    Is this just because women were of less account than men, so they were easily overlooked? Volumnia in ‘Coriolanus’ seems to suggest otherwise. Why does Shakespeare make Leonato a widower? You might think that his wife would have been a useful character to have in his armoury.

    It’s tempting – but dangerous and ill-advised – to think biographically. Shakespeare had two grown daughters but no grown son. His daughters were not, of course, motherless. Practically, they were mostly fatherless, as he would have spent most of his life away from home when they were growing up. Was he making up for his perceived negligence by creating Prospero and Leonato? Punishing himself by creating Lear and Duke Frederick? Speculation like this is fruitless (though fun).

    Reply

    • Yes, you’re right. Since reading your comment, I’ve been trying to think of mother-daughter relationships in Shakespeare, and the only one I could think of was Juliet and Lady Capulet, but I don’t think there’s much there. It’s not because Shakespeare didn’t have good enough boy actors available: the scenes between Helena and the Countess in All’s Well That Ends Well indicate otherwise. (And I suppose the relationship between those two could be deemed a loving mother-daughter relationship, even though they are not biologically related.)

      But father-daughter relationships are everywhere, and they’re as likely to be unpleasant as otherwise. Capulet is hardly the best of fathers to Juliet, and Leonato’s speech to his daughter after she is publicly humiliated I find almost too terrible to read. Neither is the relationship between Shylock and Jessica the warmest.

      It’s all very strange, isn’t it? Why did Shakespeare keep coming back to this? As ever, we are left merely with Speculation.

      Reply

  3. Posted by alan on May 3, 2020 at 3:44 pm

    Interesting thoughts from you about brother betrayal. Fathers and father figures also seemed important to him, especially in Henry lV one and two.
    As to the poetry:
    “When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
    So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
    is about as arrogant as you can get.
    So maybe Shakespeare was aware of how good he was and for the most had the sense to keep it under control – I suspect that he would have been less well regarded had he not done so. There’s also the benefit with drama as opposed to poetry in that the authorial voice is more difficult to bring into the foreground.

    Reply

  4. It’s a fascinating topic. It seems to me that most Shakespeare scholars try to ignore it and prefer instead to peddle the ludicrous idea that these were plays written solely for commercial interests, thus, in effect, downsizing and diminishing the awesome achievement of the works, painting a picture of the author as a mercenary writer, creating these great plays for box office and the mass entertainment of a Globe Theatre audience, and as one who had no real regard for his work outside of what worldly advantages it would bring.
    It seems clear to me at least that all we know FOR CERTAIN about the Stratford man, “William Shakspere”, is not at all compatible with the works traditionally attributed to him.
    Thanks for this interesting post.

    Reply

    • Yes, I often feel that while, in the 19th century, there was much romanticising of Shakespeare, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction now, and that to insist on seeing Shakespeare as someone writing purely for commercial reasons is indeed diminishing the works.

      With many other writers, what we know about them as persons does not seem very compatible with what they produced. I don’t know how the creative mind works, but somehow, the person who lives their day-to-day life is not always the same person who sits at the desk to write. And it is perhaps a blessing that it’s really the writing and not the writer we have to deal with.

      Reply

      • Thanks for the reply. Can you give me an example of another writer whose person is not compatible with their works?

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