Saturday 23 April 2016

Shakespeare 400: Jim Newcombe on the Bard

Illustration by Jim Newcombe

Today is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death. (It may also be his birthday, but that remains a matter of tradition rather than confirmed fact.) The multi-talented poet and essayist Jim Newcombe has kindly contributed this piece on the Bard.


on the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death

The marriage of sound and sense, always in crucial harmony in great poetry, seems to find effortless articulation in Shakespeare, who produced so many times what other poets pursue with butterfly nets all their lives.  I have spent much time over the years wondering how so much indelible music and meaning can be enclosed within his “rough music”, often within the collocation of a few syllables.  The impression one has of his lines is not usually that they have been dwelt upon with meticulous deliberation, but rather that they are made “in the quick forge and working-house of thought.”  Perhaps it is this proximity to living speech, of workaday locutions shot through with the light of wise insight and lively expression, that in part gives his work its endurance. 

Homer, Dante and Goethe are reckoned to be the only authors of comparable stature.  One of the things which makes Shakespeare the genius loci of our language, and what sets him apart from those giants, is an unparalleled gift for metaphor, or what he – the term “metaphor” not having been created in his day – would beautifully evoke as “a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.”  This might be said to be the beating heart of any definition of poetry: protean material that transfigures into something weirdly iridescent or luminous.

Yet the work of Shakespeare has not been irrefutably lauded throughout time.  Both Tolstoy and George Bernard Shaw voiced their objections to him.  When Wordsworth, writing of the sonnet form, wrote “with this key / Shakespeare unlocked his heart” Robert Browning wrote in response: “If so, the less Shakespeare he.”  Some of the plays have been bowdlerized:  John Dryden, for instance, reworked King Lear, the play which Samuel Johnson, Shakespeare’s greatest critic (and arguably the world’s), could not bring himself to watch for its harrowing finale.

Shakespeare’s friendly rival Ben Jonson, who gently mocked Shakespeare’s “little Latin and less Greek,” wished Shakespeare had curbed his exuberance:  “I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, ‘Would he had blotted a thousand’… He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped … His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too.”  Shakespeare’s ebullience and fecundity would have seemed excessive to the measured restraint of the classicist Jonson.

Yet Shakespeare is a sun that shines above the other English peaks of Milton, Wordsworth and Blake.  When in Paradise Lost Milton writes of being “imparadised within each other’s arms” the verb is a coinage of Shakespearean genius, more powerfully suggestive than saying “in the paradise of…”  Milton’s work often smells of the lamp and of the archaic majesty of the Ivory Tower: it can be starchy, glacial, monumental, remote, whereas Shakespeare’s is blood-warm, sprightly, inclusive and expansive in its dance, expressing knowledge not just of the court but of the inn and the marketplace, indeed of the whole soiled rabble of humanity itself, like no other writer.  He knows how language works and he is powerfully susceptible, in a super-sensitive way, to the network of duplicitous meanings arising from the taproots of etymology.  He is also aware, long before the age of critical theory, of what writers should be wary of in language: “taffeta phrases, silken terms precise, three-piled hyperboles, spruce affectation, figures pedantical.”

The work of Shakespeare at its best stands rock-sure, foot-firm, and embodies the Socratic trinity of truth, beauty and goodness.  The goodness here is not moral in a didactic sense; there is no moral imperative proffered from the corpus; rather the goodness is one of a fulsome honest portrayal of our complex humanity.  When mere advice comes it is nevertheless wise, even in the mouth of Polonius; but such ethical equations as do arise come implicitly from the circumstances of characters coming into moral collision and the veracity of their actions and wills being tested, as in Measure for Measure, where the virtuous Isabella, who is soon to enter a nunnery, is blackmailed by the strict Lord Angelo to have sex with him in order to save the life of her brother, who is to be executed for having impregnated his lover prior to marriage:


…were I under the terms of death,
The impression of keen whips I'ld wear as rubies,
And strip myself to death, as to a bed
That longing have been sick for, ere I'ld yield
My body up to shame.


Then must your brother die.


And 'twere the cheaper way:
Better it were a brother died at once,
Than that a sister, by redeeming him,
Should die for ever.

Like many others, I didn’t immediately warm to our studies of Shakespeare while at school.  It wasn’t until I read Hamlet that I felt my innermost psychology had been X-rayed and laid bare.  I have seen various productions of the play, including as a groundling in The Globe and at The Minack Theatre in Porthcurno near Land’s End, “swilled with the wild and wasteful ocean”.  I still, however, have never seen, nor ever expect to see, the Hamlet in my head which so impressed me as a nihilistic nineteen-year-old with its titanic articulation.  I still, when prompted and made amenable in my cups, regale people with passages from it, since I believe, as the ancients did, that poetry should be learnt by heart and chanted or sung aloud. 

In Hamlet as elsewhere Shakespeare seems to be transfixed by adultery and incest.  When he writes “O most wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets,” the line, rammed with plosives, almost has to be spat out, his disgust snaking into a sibilance and hissance of fricatives before rounding on the powerful compression of a transferred epithet.  Here words themselves almost become incestuous and lascivious, and as so often in Shakespeare it is as if language is viewing itself in a mirror.  There is in him, as perhaps in all of us, a moral dilemma or crux between reason and animal physicality:  “Die for adultery? No. The wren goes to’t, and the small gilded fly does lecher in my sight. Let copulation thrive …”

One thing I have noticed time and again, though which, given the volume of academic study devoted to Shakespeare, must have been commented on before, is his liking for a kind of ring-shaped figure of speech to suggest avaricious craving or augmenting bounty: “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm;” “an autumn ‘twas / That grew the more by reaping;” “The cloyed will, – / That satiate yet unsatisfied desire, that tub / Both filled and running;” “Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.”  It is this figure of speech, this serpentine circularity of metaphor, which we find in the description of Cleopatra:

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies;

and in Juliet:

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.

It is as if the whole world of nature, politics and the carnal appetite of mankind were a burgeoning richness that is fulfilled by its own generosity or else a monstrous orgy of surfeit which needs constant feeding and finds only momentary and spasmodic appeasement, if at all, in the flux and continuation of its addictions.  The figure of speech resembles the serpent with the tale in its mouth or the gullet of Erysichthon.  In the end it is expressive of the frantic deadlock between Eros and Thanatos, endlessly devouring and regenerating: “being full of your ne'er-cloying sweetness / To bitter sauces did I frame my feeding.” 

Images of abundancy and repletion seem consonant with the author’s own seminal prodigiousness:

...those that feed grow full, as blossoming time
That from the seedness the bare fallow brings
To teeming foison, even so her plenteous womb
Expresseth his full tilth and husbandry.

Where is the presence of Eros in Wordsworth?  It seems peculiarly absent.  It is powerfully present in the bawdy poetry of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, indeed with such ribaldry that it is a wonder the Victorians didn’t bury his poetry altogether. 

There are passages of sexual revulsion and jealousy in Cymbeline, in A Winter’s Tale and King Lear.  Tempting though it might be to descend into unscholarly speculation about his attitude to his wife living in Stratford while he made his living in London, if we are to ascribe autobiography to passages in the plays then this would by extension make him culpable of murder and regicide and so much besides.  How autobiographical are the sonnets?  Sonnet 129 nails within its frantic rhythms possibly the best and wisest expression of desire expressed in poetry, which is conceivably the culmination of his dwelling bitterly on the sexual triad alluded to in sonnets 133, 134 and 144, where the dark mistress, it would seem, has slept with the ambiguous and sexually ambivalent young man, “the master-mistress of my passion.”

It is tempting to wonder whether the self-loathing expressed in the sonnets, the fixation with promiscuity, is what finds tortured expression in Othello, unpleasant in its dramatic greatness:

Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore,
Be sure of it; give me the ocular proof;
Or, by the worth of mine eternal soul,
Thou hadst been better have been born a dog
Than answer my wak'd wrath.

Tantalising, yes, but in the end futile to give weight or credence to such speculations, though I cannot altogether agree with those who believe that Shakespeare’s greatness merely came of his having to produce plays regularly for his livelihood, for surely genius transcends the workshop and the hireling.  Dramatis personæ no doubt afforded him considerable licence, for it is one thing to put the words “I dare damnation” into the mouth of a character, quite another to speak them of yourself.  In terms of autobiography or even authorship, it is enough to know that it was the man from Stratford who wrote the plays: we know this not only because there are country puns in the plays and names for flora and fauna which are distinct to his geographic origin but because there isn’t a shred of sensible evidence to suggest that somebody else penned them.  He not only wrote plays but acted in them: we know he played the ghost of Hamlet’s father (this is perhaps telling, as is the fact that Shakespeare’s only son, who was to die aged eleven, was named Hamnet).  Also Ben Jonson would certainly have had something to say about it if Shakespeare was anyone other than he claimed to be.  The anti-Stratfordian conspiracies are built on quicksand.  Of autobiography it has been remarked that if ever we detect the real man within the plays then it is surely within these tender lines:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form…

I don’t know what writers can usefully learn from Shakespeare: he is so vast, so varied, his tracks melt when we try to map his whereabouts.  Again Samuel Johnson says it best: “The irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight a-while, by that novelty of which the common satiety of life sends us all in quest; but the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth.”

In this short essay I have attempted to concentrate on a very small corner of a very vast field.  I would like finally to express gratitude to the two men, Heminge and Condell, who first collected the plays into the First Folio, rescuing them from the Elizabethan disdain for plays as reading material and therefore saving them from oblivion, for the English language became planetary in the wake of the publication of the plays.  I like Heminge and Condell all the more that their enterprise was “without ambition either of self-profit or fame, only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was our Shakespeare.”

Nobody in the English tongue has before or since quite matched him. That our greatest playwright should also be our greatest poet is an extraordinary phenomenon; that a species could evolve to produce the work of Shakespeare at all is awe-inspiring.  He is, for my money, the authorial mirror in which humanity’s innermost being is even now most accurately and fully reflected.  I salute him on his 400th anniversary for making a rich world richer still.

Jim Newcombe
London, April 2016

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