The Shakespeare Wars

Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups
5 Books Donated 20 min

Chapter One

The Dream Induction


On the last evening of the summer of 1970 in the vil- lage of Stratford-on-Avon, birthplace of Shakespeare, I had an experience that changed my life and has haunted me ever since. One that left me, ever after, with a question I’ve been trying to answer: What was that about?


An improbable chain of circumstances had resulted in my witnessing one of the first performances of a now-legendary production of A Mid- summer Night’s Dream, one that I subsequently learned changed more lives than mine: it changed the lives of an entire generation of Shakespearean players and directors, changed the way Shakespeare has been played ever since.


But for me, that Dream—a Royal Shakespeare Company production directed by Peter Brook—was a kind of initiation into a new realm, a realm I’ve sought with mixed success to return to ever after. It was the experience that, for me, gave a lifelong urgency to the conflicts over Shakespearean questions examined in the ensuing chapters.


Perhaps I should introduce the conflicted, divided person I was back then when I piloted my rented Austin Mini into Stratford by introducing the forbidden question that led me to flee graduate school, and indirectly set me on the path to that life-changing experience at Stratford.


Just two years before that I had begun what seemed like a promising academic career at Yale Graduate School’s Department of English Literature. As an undergraduate at Yale, I had studied primarily pre-seventeenth-century literature and had been granted a Carnegie Teaching Fellowship to Yale Graduate School, a fellowship designed to spur those undecided about an academic career to spend a year tasting the supposed fruits of such a career without many onerous responsibilities. I was only required to take one graduate seminar and teach one undergraduate class per semester, in return for which I was given an official-sounding appointment to the Yale faculty and named a Junior Fellow of Jonathan Edwards (residential) College.


The latter made me briefly a colleague of Stephen Greenblatt, also a Junior Fellow there that year. Greenblatt would go on to found the most influential new school of Shakespeare scholarship in America—New Historicism—and like many original thinkers develop a cultlike following. He would of course end up as star of the Harvard English department and the author of a best-selling Shakespeare biography. I’ll never forget an argument Greenblatt and I had that year about the Black Panthers and historical truth, which oddly foreshadowed, in transposed form, our subsequent positions on New Historicism and Shakespeare. (I discuss it further in chapter 4.)


At first things went swimmingly: I was thrilled to find I’d been admitted to a select seminar with Richard Ellmann, the acclaimed biographer of Yeats and Joyce, masterminds of modernism, and felt quite vain when Ellmann singled out a paper I’d read at the seminar, a critique of the determinism of Yeats’s muddleheaded mystical cosmology.


But sometime in the second semester, although enjoying a Shakespeare seminar with Howard Felperin, I lost heart, or maybe it was more that my heart was broken. In point of fact, my heart was broken by a question I asked—and an answer I got—about love.


The occasion was a special, ad hoc, invitation-only seminar I’d been asked to, a presentation by one of the English department’s favorite wunderkind scholars. A paper on Chaucer’s lesser-known love-vision poems, including the Book of the Duchess and The Parliament of Fowles.


Unlike the wild digressive fabliaux of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s love-vision poems are exquisite and mysterious shorter works, and I was looking forward to the occasion, although by this time my disillusion with graduate school life had already begun to undermine the pleasure I felt from the study of literature. The faculty sherry parties had a lot to do with it: watching my fellow graduate students assiduously sucking up to Harold Bloom and other stars of the department, their sherry-flushed faces perspiring from the damp mothball-mildew warmth of their tweeds. While the world outside—it was 1968!—was exploding with fearful, thrilling events.


I’d gotten a taste of the adrenaline-fueled rush of reporting when I’d gotten press credentials to cover the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention for a local daily newspaper. And to return from that history-changing riot to the shallow cynicism of graduate school culture was intensely dismaying. What was wrong with these people? I asked at first. Then: What was wrong with me? Why was I staying there?


The love-vision seminar moment crystallized my doubts. It wasn’t Chaucer who was the problem. Nor was it the wunderkind scholar himself, whose paper I recall to be an intelligent if somewhat overwrought examination of the way in which the narrators of Chaucer’s dream visions consciously re-envision their visions as poetry. Something like that.


No, it was his response to a question about love. It was a question I asked in the discussion period after his presentation. A question about the vision of love in the love-vision poems. I forget exactly what the offending question I asked was, something along the lines of whether love was more than human delusion in Chaucer’s work.


A shocked silence ensued among the other grad students and faculty, and I realized I had committed a terrible solecism, a faux pas of Richter-scale proportions, in asking such a naïve question. I had expressed interest in the ostensible subject matter of the poem!


With a wan, disdainful smile and dismissive wave of his nicotine-stained fingers, the wunderkind scholar informed me that “Love is such an uninteresting question.” The truly interesting questions raised by the love-vision poems, he said, were not about love but about “the making of poetry.” This meta-poetical question, newly fashionable at the time, was far more significant than something as trivial as the nature of love.


All the other acolytes nodded and chuckled. Of course! How naïve! The making of poetry, yes!


“Sez who?” I muttered to myself—one of my father’s favorite Brooklynisms—as I slunk off.


What am I doing here, I thought to myself as I drove back out to the house on the Sound I’d rented with some friends. That night I stayed up late, desperately searching the classified job sections of the papers for something, anything, even a traveling salesman job that would get me out of the sherry parties and on the road.


Two years later, through a couple of lucky breaks, which began with reading the classified ads that night, I was on the road, heading for Stratford-on-Avon. I’d become not a traveling salesman but something analogous: a journalist. A journalist who wanted to write about cops and criminals, under- world and undercover types. I wanted to live life among Falstaffian rogues rather than read about them. But I was still under the spell of literature, a spell graduate school had not broken. So in September 1970 I found myself driving through the English Midlands having decided to undertake a reverse pilgrimage, a pilgrimage from Chaucer’s Canterbury to some of the icons of my academic literary past, my abandoned academic self.


I headed north toward my first stop, Winchester, where I went to some effort to locate the ridge in the rolling countryside where Keats stood on September 19, 1819, and gazed at the sunset vista on the penultimate day of summer, a vista that gave rise to the haunting and lovely ode “To Autumn.”


I arrived there that same day, September 19, and found the landscape had not been altered: that one could still see exactly what Keats saw. I could understand for the first time the line “While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, / And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue.” I saw those stubble fields! I felt the “soft-dying” end-of-summer melancholy Keats evoked with its intimation of mortality, of the autumnal harvest and the more final harvest of death to come.


An ordinary ecstasy IN NEW HAVEN


And with that cheerful iconic vista under my belt, I headed farther north to Stratford, to the birthplace of William Shakespeare. I should say I was not a Shakespearean obsessive at that point. I had taken a graduate seminar on Shakespeare at Yale with Howard Felperin, a seminar that focused on the relationship between Shakespeare’s Tragedies and his Late Romances. Felperin would later become an avatar of stringent Derrida deconstructionism, although he still made sense to me at the time (and later renounced his deconstructionist perspective). But I hadn’t even read all the plays, I can’t recall whether I’d seen more than a few productions, I didn’t carry around copies of the plays the way I did the works of Keats and Donne, say. I’m not even sure if, when heading up the motorway toward Stratford, I knew that one of the most influential productions of the twentieth century, Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, had just opened. Frankly, I’m not even sure if I knew they put on plays there. The only thing that I was sure of was that it was the birthplace of Shakespeare, and I felt a pilgrimage might in some way help me connect with what I’d been missing.


It’s true I had had one extraordinary, puzzling, almost mystical experience of Shakespeare before then. It happened during the seminar on literature I was teaching at Yale. I had assigned my class Shakespeare’s Sonnets. They were not particular favorites of mine at the time; when it came to love poems, I preferred the more knotty and overtly intellectual lyrics of John Donne and the other seventeenth-century Metaphysical poets to the Sonnets.


But there had been a moment when . . . Well, I recall standing at the blackboard in the seminar room. I had written out one of the Sonnets on the blackboard and was leading the class through its flickering ambiguities. I think it could have been either Sonnet 44 or 45, both of which play upon the themes of absence and presence: how two united as one in love can both be, and not be, apart (can both “two be” and not “two” be). In Sonnet 45 the speaker tells an absent loved one how his thought and desire are “present-absent.”


How he’s there, one with the distant lover and thus absent from himself; but to be absent from himself is to be two selves, one there and one not there, although the one not there actually is there—one with the absent lover—so really it’s one self at two different places. Is that all clear?


He’s not split into two so much as flickering in and out of being one and two selves. Not just back and forth from being at one with—to being—the loved one, but “with swift motion sliding,” shifting back to being himself. He’s not just being in two places at once, he’s two beings in alternation. Two be and not two be.


In any case, I recall standing at the blackboard in that seminar room on Prospect Street in New Haven attempting to unfold for my students this shifting, this flickering-back-and-forth effect, this dual prospect, conjured up not just by this Sonnet but by so many others. In which embracing one aspect of a verbal ambiguity and then shifting back to its counterpart involves something more than a shift in meaning in the poem, but a shift in the reader’s being. In effect you are not merely reading alternative meanings into the poem, the poem is reading alternative meanings, alternative identities, into you.


But suddenly that day this became more than an abstract insight. I recall banging the chalk in my hand on the blackboard, back and forth from “present” to “absent” in the phrase “These present-absent with swift motion slide”—and suddenly experiencing something strange. In some peculiar but pronounced and dramatic way, my self, my identity seemed to be shifting, sliding back and forth from presence to absence, from being there in that classroom to being somewhere absent, looking back on my presence, and then “with swift motion sliding” back to where I was standing again. I was no longer reading alternative meanings into the Sonnet, I felt like the Sonnet was shifting me back and forth between alternative selves, almost physically. I was standing inside and outside myself.


It wasn’t an intellectual experience, or it was disturbingly, mysteriously more than an intellectual experience. An ecstatic experience in the original meaning of the word “ecstatic”: standing outside oneself. It was almost an out-of-body experience, or an in-and-out-of-body experience. I came to think that at least in part this flickering-back-and-forth effect is one thing the Sonnets are about: the attempt to induce this state, which as Stephen Booth points out, is not unrelated to the shifting, flickering state of being in love.


I’ve subsequently also come to believe that this ecstatic experience of identity change and exchange, of what might be called an alternating current of two-ness and oneness, can be found recurrently throughout Shakespeare’s plays and poems. It is embodied most explicitly in his often overlooked mystical love-vision ode, “The Phoenix and Turtle.” A poem that seems to express directly some powerful visionary sexual and metaphysical experience of oneness and two-ness that is echoed elsewhere in his work.


In any case, that moment of transport, or transposition, one might say, was unlike anything I’d experienced before, certainly not reading poetry. And I never experienced anything like it again—until that night in Stratford-on-Avon.


As I said, I had no such expectation as I drove into Stratford. I was unaware how lucky I was to get tickets to both productions playing at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre that weekend: Trevor Nunn’s staging of Hamlet and Peter Brook’s of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


The Hamlet was memorable, one of the very best I’ve ever seen. But it was the Dream that changed my life. I count it one of the greatest blessings of that life to have been there for that moment. I’d never experienced anything of such radiant clarity. To say it was “electrifying” does not capture the effect; it was more like being struck by lightning. I felt “transported” in the literal sense of being physically as well as metaphysically lifted from the muddy vesture of the earth to some higher realm.


It was a lifelong love potion. It was a lens through which I could not help see all Shakespeare, indeed all literary art, ever after. It was: “Oh, that’s what the fuss is about.”


It was more than merely the shock of a “first time.” It was more than the fact of its being my first experience of Shakespeare played by great Shakespeareans because in the decades that followed I’ve never seen Shakespeare to equal it. I’ve seen great Shakespearean moments, great Shakespearean performances, unforgettable scenes; I’ve had illuminations reading passages in Shakespeare, some in other writers. But nothing like the total experience of that Dream. Ever after I’ve sought in vain for something to equal it. I’ve rarely found it in art, I’ve rarely found it in life. There’s nothing like it, the initial falling-in-love business, is there? But it doesn’t last, alas, nothing like that does. This Dream did.


When I say it changed my life let me elaborate a little bit. For one thing it changed the way I came to experience Shakespeare. Suddenly it changed on the page; the words became charged with that electricity I’d felt transmitted to me by that Dream experience. I began to read, I began to hear Shakespeare when reading, in a way I never had before. I began a cycle of reading and rereading all of the plays, sometimes in rough chronological order, sometimes all histories, then all comedies, then all tragedies, sometimes whatever emerged on top of a collapsing pile of editions. Sometimes I’d read through the slender, elegant, sparsely annotated Penguins and Pelicans, sometimes the substantial footnote-fattened Ardens, later the often- exciting new Oxford and Cambridge editions, the Facsimile of the First Folio, the ever trustworthy Folger, Riverside and Bevington Complete Works. And every edition of the Dream, which I’d read over and over with an ever deepening sense of wonder: What happened that night?