The cult of Shakespeare is one of the weirdest and most persistent in literature. This spring, Arthur Phillips and Stephen Marche each published books on the obsession. Phillips’s novel The Tragedy of Arthur portrays the son of a con man who attempts to establish whether a quarto of a lost Shakespeare play—reproduced in stunning convincingness in the book—was actually written by Shakespeare. Stephen Marche’s How Shakespeare Changed Everything confronts the various ways that Shakespeare has affected everything, from sex to the English language, the assassination of Lincoln, and the mania for skulls on clothing. They discussed their various journeys into the heart of this cult by e-mail.
Recently a South African archeologist named Francis Thackeray—which to me sounds like the most made-up real name ever—proposed digging up Shakespeare’s body so he could tell whether Shakespeare smoked pot. Two questions occured to me when the story emerged: Why the hell do people keep wanting to dig up Shakespeare? And isn’t there something better we could do with his body than tell whether he smoked pot?
Let’s just stipulate that he did smoke pot. Constantly. Now what? What does that tell us about his working habits? About his daily life? What does that tell us about the plays, poems, et cetera? About Elizabethan theatrical life? Nothing. All it does is make it easier for some despairing high school teachers to feel like they can now “connect” with their kids.
I know. I sort of feel that way at every biographical revelation about Shakespeare. If he was a pot smoker, does that explain how he wrote “Light thickens, and the crows make way to the rooky wood”? I know many, many pot smokers. They do not remind me of Shakespeare. But I felt that way even with Greenblatt’s Will in the World. Lets give him a title: “Catholic.” So what? If he was a Catholic he was just about the most unusual Catholic who ever lived. People seem to want to reduce him, to avoid the mystery of him.
Exactly. Take all the pot-smoking Catholic homosexual wife-abandoning illiterate-daughter-raising people you know. We have gotten no closer to him. Writers come in many varieties. The degree to which their lives infect their works, the degree to which their day-to-day personalities are visible in their works: this is a spectrum. But it seems evident to me that whatever new biograpicho-scandalous tidbits we scrape up, they don’t seem to show us the guy writing the plays. The distance between the man and his work interests me because, egotistically, I think of my daily self as pretty far from my writing or written self. You?
Sometimes I wish there were more distance, but I do what I can. By the way, how unhealthy do you think it is, after your novel, to be an author obsessed with Shakespeare? I find it oddly crippling to read him.
I am fine with reading him and seeing him still—no literary impotence on that front—but I do wish I could move on a little quicker. This last book has stuck in my system longer than usual. The experience of wanting to know him, of feeling like I was getting to know him, was kind of addictive.
One of the best things about doing my book was that I actually went over the scholarship on his biography—what reasonable people believe we can rationally know about this person—and since seeing that it amounts to nothing. We don’t know his date of birth. We don’t know how he spelled his name. We don’t know how he pronounced his name. The story about how he had this wife who was seven years older than him is based on a single inscription on her grave, which could easily be wrong. I don’t know why, but I found that liberating. When I think about other writers, I probably remember their lives more clearly at first than their work—Hemingway in Paris, Joyce in Trieste, all that junk. With Shakespeare, there just is nothing there. I guess I found that liberating because he is so counter to everything that we’re supposed to admire about writers: he wrote for money, he was in no sense an innovator, and he didn’t live this grand amazing life.
That dearth of definite stuff leads to all kinds of results—the loopy world of anti-Stratfordianism, the loopy world of bardolatry, and the loopy world of contemporary novelists concluding (as I’m afraid I did) that he just wasn’t that different from me. I don’t smoke much pot, so that would separate him from me a bit, but otherwise, my delusional projection remains intact …
You’ve never had that moment where you thought, “Well I’m guess I’m not going to be Shakespeare”? I always think of that part in Withnail and I where the dirty uncle says, “Every actor comes to realize they will never get to play Hamlet.”
Oh, absolutely, but it’s the same psychodrama I had over writers I loved more when I was trying to get started writing fiction in the first place: I’m not going to be Mann, Kundera, Hemingway, and on and on and on. For me, writing was coming to terms with all the writers I was never going to be, and being okay with that. Realizing that I didn’t have to write a Thomas Mann book, because he’d already done it for me. So the inferiority complex was confronted and conquered. But the idea, “I guess I’m not going to be Shakespeare” is a loaded one. Is it desire for public worship?
Yes, the “world’s mad love” for him. My whole book’s about it basically, because I find it so bizarre just how much influence he had. For people, like me, who love early-modern drama the way that Dylan fans love Dylan, it’s just weird that theater companies will happily put on Henry VI or King John and never think of The Revenger’s Tragedy or even The White Devil. Thomas Middleton was such a magnificent playwright and there wasn’t even a reliable collected works until 2008. Also, Dante. Dante never had anywhere near the influence of Shakespeare, never mind the other geniuses. The other day, Slate, in commemoration of Stonewall, had a list of the best bar crawls in American history, and the Astor Place riots were second. A fight over Macbeth was the number two bar brawl in American history.
And the explanation is, “Well he’s the greatest genius who ever lived” or “he invented us” or other balderdash. The truth is some enormously complicated, one-in-a-billion odds equation that somehow takes into consideration PR, luck, attitudes, moments of other people’s influence, boredom, habit … none of which is to say he isn’t great. Only to say that nobody ever was or ever will be THAT great.
I don’t know. He’s pretty great. Tolstoy had this habit when he was in the surrounding-himself-with-disciples stage where he would openly declare that you could read any passage from Shakespeare to him and he would explain why it’s so terrible. The problem, he found, was that his disciples would get so taken up with whatever they happened to be reading that they forgot about his initial plan. For some reason, this irritated Tolstoy. On the other hand, there’s that Chinese author whose going to have plastic surgery to turn his face into Shakespeare’s. It’s something like the way teenagers act around nonthreatening boy pop bands, except it’s grown-ups. Sometimes very grown-up people. Like Freud and Harold Bloom.
I can accept “pretty great.” I love him. I do. And while I won’t have plastic surgery, I am strangely fond of the little bookend plaster bust of him that someone gave me.
Those plaster busts always look the opposite of the way I imagine Shakespeare. It’s funny. I suppose there’s no evidence for this, really, but I just assume he slept with virtually anything that walked. Meanwhile he looks like a sort of prosperous butcher. Then Dante, who cherished a Platonic love for a fourteen-year-old girl for most of his life without acting on it, is turned into this icon of the lover. They’re thinking of opening his grave to have a look inside, but I would prefer it if they changed that god-awful statue of him first.
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