Sunday, March 29, 2009


My high school English professor used to say that if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing soap operas. (I’m more of the opinion that it would be Law & Order.) At the very least, he has inspired a fair amount of melodrama, as set forth in Ron Rosenbaum’s new book, The Shakespeare Wars. The book serves mainly as a fantastic clearinghouse for just about every petty and fanatical tactic ever deployed for, against, and by the adherents of the Bard.

Make no mistake, Rosenbaum does put pretty much everything in: actors, critics, movies, gossip, journalism, trivia. I was unaware that the antidote to the “dark spell” of Macbeth (and the prohibition against actors naming it) is to instantly recite some verse from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was however, immensely charmed to hear that on the British version of The Weakest Link, a British actor was disqualified because he insisted on answering a question with “the Scottish play” instead of “Macbeth.” Take that, popular culture.

There are far more strange doings in the Elizabethan Land that I was aware of. Hamlet is now (well, always was, sort of) three distinct textual kingdoms: The Bad Quarto, Good Quarto, and Folio. 230 lines in the Quarto are absent from the Folio, and 70 lines in the Folio are absent from the Quarto. In the Folio, Hamlet’s “The rest is silence” is followed by “o,o,o,o”. As Grey’s Anatomy would say, “Seriously? …Seriously?”

Pursuit of the definitive spellings, lines, and so forth has led to some excesses. Charlton Hinman went so far as to invent a sort of special Shakespeare collating machine, a cybernetic contraption with magnifying glasses that has been likened to “riding a stationary bicycle with flashing lights and mirrors.” Perhaps aerobic oxygen deprivation is responsible for such barn-burning analysis as this:

"Hinman himself observed that Compositor E was demonstrably very much more influenced by previously typeset copy than either A or B was… the extent of E’s conservatism can be quickly demonstrated by an analysis of the Folio punctuation of the plays he has known to set from printed copy… The very first page that Compositor E is agreed to have set in the Folio, pp 4 of Titus, he retained Q3 punctuation 77 times and altered only 12 times, on the next page he retained punctuation 126 times and altered it 36 times."

Makes your heart pound, doesn’t it? Stick in an interrobang, and you’d have textual nuclear fission. But this isn’t to say that some Hamlet variance isn’t sexy:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your/our philosophy

You answer with an idle tongue
You answer with a wicked tongue

And would it were not so, you are my mother.
But would you were not so. You are my mother.

O, that this too too sallied/sullied/solid flesh should melt…

I guess it’s not terribly surprising that having texts that change based on the whims of typesetters would produce some… well, rather irregular interpolators. Rosenbaum recounts the peregrinations of a young prodigy named Teena Rochfort-Smith, who was adopted “professionally and romantically in the early 1880’s by F.J. Furnival, an original sponsor of the Oxford English Dictionary, a Victorian Gentlemen who had a penchant for sponsoring ‘young ladies’ rowing clubs’ and becoming involved with the young ladies.” Yes, the Victorians. They did have a way of euphemisms, didn’t they?

The precocious Teena Rochfort-Smith undertook, at the tender age of twenty-one, to issue the four-text Hamlet in parallel columns, the three original Hamlet texts joined by a fourth, conflated one. The text itself must be quite an artifact, with four different colors of ink, three different underlining styles, six different typefaces, and asterisks, daggers, and other innumerable signs and symbols. She met her end when she accidentally set her dress on fire while burning some letters with a candle. Rosenbaum also postulates that John Berryman’s suicide in the 70’s was in part engendered by his continuing failure to complete an edition of King Lear, which he began in the late 1930’s.

Such crankiness… it rings through the ages. Rosenbaum marvels at one Lear scholar who is moved to deploy a classical Greek obscenity (that translates as “goatsucker”) against one of his allies. I think that would liven up some academic panels. But the book is dominated by a takedown of critic Donald Foster, who made his bones by claiming a rather dreary elegy was actually Shakespeare’s. His “proof” was mathematical validation by his super secret SHAXICON, a digitized database of renaissance-era literature. Foster, of course, rode high for a while, happily accepting the mantle of a master of forensic linguistics and the world’s “first literary detective.” His fame was such that he was brought on to decipher the letters from the 2001 anthrax mailings and the ransom note from the Jon-Benet Ramsay case. At one point, Donald Foster cheerily warns Mr. Rosenbaum that “I could destroy you.” He is eventually brought down, and the elegy generally agreed to be the product of John Ford.

Some of the strongest parts of the book are Rosenbaum’s accounting of the various antics of Shakespearean actors, beginning with Will himself, who knew a good racket when he saw it. According to legend, he espied a would-be groupie who was evidently overcome by the force of Richard Burbage’s Richard the III and wanted to express her appreciation intimately. Will got there first, however. Burbage arrived after Shakespeare was already occupied with the groupie, and banged on the door, declaiming, “It is I, Richard the Third.” To which Shakespeare allegedly replied, “William the Conqueror came before Richard the Third.”

Subsequent actors also had their day, so to speak. The legendary eighteenth-century actor, David Garrick played Hamlet so well in Drury Lane that the critics were actually convinced that he made the temperature of the theatre go down. The same Mr. Garrick relied on some outside help in adding verisimilitude to his performance, engaging a wigmaker who would make his hair stand on end when he saw the ghost.

Modern actors have gone a little more organic in their efforts. Olivier recreated such an authentic ecstatic fit in his Othello that he actually achieved climax on the stage. Our contemporaries have been equally zealous, as in the case of Steven Berkoff, whose Hamlet engaged in a little frottage during his bedroom conformation with Gertrude. While holding her down, he did more than just enunciate as he declaimed “It shall go hard, / but I shall delve one yard below their mines , / and blow them at the moon”. So when he stood up, some, uh, aftereffects flowed down his leg. Which I’m sure the groundlings would have enjoyed.

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