A conversation at the Philoctetes Center of New York City, with Alvin Epstein, Eugene Mahon, Ron Rosenbaum, Daniela Varon and J.P. Wearing.
Robert Brustein: What we’re going to discuss today is the controversial question of Shakespeare’s personality, or Shakespeare’s identity—whether you can possibly reach it through the plays and the poems. Recently there’ve been a number of books, most prominently Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, that have tried to draw a portrait of Shakespeare, who he was and what he thought. Three other books that came out within months of each other—Shakespeare the Thinker, by A.D. Nuttall, which was posthumously published; Thinking Shakespeare (Shakespeare Now!), by Barry Edelstein; and then Shakespeare Thinking, by Philip Davis—show that people are thinking of Shakespeare as a “brainiac.” In other words, they believe he had something on his mind that will enable us to develop some notion of his philosophy and his attitudes toward a variety of subjects.
It’s interesting that Nuttall, in the best of these books, at the end of 448 pages, said we ultimately can’t figure out what Shakespeare thought. So you wonder why he went to all that trouble.
Does Shakespeare have as much biography as the rest of us? Can we can work up a curriculum vitae for him—and beyond that, reach into what he actually believed, discover whether there were concrete beliefs behind his plays? One way to approach these questions is, of course, through his poems, because you can theorize that he was much more subjective, much more personal, much more confessional, in his sonnets, say, than he was in his plays, which were generally more objective and impersonal.
Another criteria that I use is: When something jumps out of a play—for example, Hamlet’s brutalization of Ophelia, which doesn’t seem to fit into the actual structure and conception of that play, and is similar to the misogyny you find in any number of his other plays—you’re prompted to ask, “Was Shakespeare a misogynist?” This comes up in spite of the fact that he wrote some of the most extraordinary, most genial women characters, women who are not simply subordinate but actually have strong personalities. Nevertheless, there’s conflict, there’s anger—especially toward faithless women—that starts in the sonnets and finds its way as a thread through most of his plays until the very end, when they become concerned more with fathers and daughters and reconciliation.
So I’m going to throw out to all of you the idea that there are certain urgent things that through the nature of their frequency seem to obsess Shakespeare, and also things that he seems to share with his time—things that make him part of his time rather than, as is often said, not of an age, but for all time.
Ron Rosenbaum: I would like to speak to the threshold question of whether more harm than good is done by seeking to understand Shakespeare’s work through the extremely sketchy, conflicting factoids that we have about his biography. Consider, for instance, Homer. Would we be better off knowing that Homer had an unhappy marriage or that he had a narcissistic mother? We know nothing about Homer, and yet isn’t that better in a way than trying to make up fables about him?
I totally agree that that there are often consistent themes that leap out in Shakespeare’s plays, but many of those themes—like the faithless woman—are conventions of poetry. And as for the sonnets, Stephen Booth, the editor of the Yale edition of the sonnets, is famous for saying, “Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual.” I believe the sonnets tell us nothing about it. A poet adopts a persona, and we could twist the sonnets, as many have done, into four or five stories. But does that not take us away from the pleasures of diving into the 14-line universes that each poem represents, without connecting them to a man we can never know or a situation that may not exist?
“I think to treat the sonnets as personal diaries rather than great poems is in some way to diminish them.”
Brustein: Ron, what do you do, if I may ask, about the fact that most of the love poems in the sonnets are written to a man? And what do you do about the fact that when he actually discusses sex with that man, he says, in effect, that he can’t make love to him because nature has prick’d him out, as he says, “adding one thing to my purpose nothing.” So it seems very clear, if you’re to accept what is being said in those sonnets, that Shakespeare is attracted to other men but doesn’t have the courage, as it were, or the commitment to be able to make love with them.
Rosenbaum: I would say, first, that the poet of the sonnets is attracted to other men. No one could argue about that. But that does not necessarily tell us anything about Shakespeare’s love life. And as to the impossibility of them making love, homosexuals seem to have found a way over the years to do it, and so I don’t think that’s a big obstacle.
Brustein: It was an obstacle, though, for Shakespeare. The conclusion we draw from the sonnets is that he loved this man but could not express that love sexually.
Rosenbaum: Sure, but why must we assume he is Shakespeare and not a persona created by a poet who might have had a homosexual friend? I think to treat the sonnets as personal diaries rather than great poems is in some way to diminish them.
Brustein: You don’t think great poems have anything to do with the poet who wrote them? Most invariably they do.
Rosenbaum: But is Shakespeare every character in his plays?
Brustein: We’re talking about lyrics now, not about drama.
Rosenbaum: Okay, but I consider the sonnets in some way dramatic—they could be seen as dramatic poems as well. A poet adopts a persona, perhaps for dramatic purposes, but what does that gain us if we attempt to map that persona onto a kind of jerry-built notion of Shakespeare’s life?
Brustein: Well, we’ve studied other poets—Keats, Joyce, Strindberg—and we detect or extract these writers’ lives from their works. Stephen Dedalus is an extension of James Joyce, and quite often you’ll find that in literature the work is the extension of the worker.
Rosenbaum: So is our job to reason back from the poems, to construct a portrait of the poet, or is it to read the poetry?
Rosenbaum: I feel life is short, art is long. If one has a choice, I would rather spend it rereading King Lear 15 times than spending one afternoon worrying about how homosexual the person who wrote it was. King Lear is an example of Shakespeare’s work that one could profit more from reading and rereading than one could from biographical speculation.
Brustein: But you can speculate from that play about the time when Shakespeare wrote it, about his concept of the universe, his concept of creation, his concept of nature—
Rosenbaum: —and we can do that without Shakespeare, without making up a Shakespeare, can we not? Why do we need to create a fictive Shakespeare, or reason backwards? Homer, once again, demonstrates that the poet’s idea of the nature of the universe, human tragedy, human character, etc., etc., is what is more at issue than the actual personality of the poet.
Eugene Mahon: Let me break into this with a little-known fact about Shakespeare—that he had twins. One of those twins, Hamnet, died in 1596 at age 11. I took the mandate seriously that we were trying to explore the intersection between Shakespeare’s life and Shakespeare’s art. Now, this is not the first time that the idea has come up that the death of Hamnet in 1596 might have influenced the writing of the play Hamlet in 1599 or 1600. It’s not possible, of course, to follow the thread with great clarity. But there are two issues in Hamlet that are particularly connected to the concept of twinning: First, there are some slips of the tongue in Hamlet; and there are also, as you probably know, 66 examples of the figure of speech hendiadys, which if you remember is from the Greek hen-dia-days, “one through two,” meaning that you capture the meaning, the essence of something, using two words rather than one—“sound and fury,” “hearth and home.” The only other play that comes close to it is Othello, I think, in which there might be 30. But the fact that Shakespeare really began to use hendiadys in 1599, it seems to me, is suggestive maybe of the idea that there could be a kind of a twinning wordplay that he became fascinated with in 1599—and doesn’t that connect to the idea that a twin died four years prior to that?
This is highly speculative, obviously. But about those slips of the tongue—there’s an intriguing one in the first soliloquy, where Hamlet says of his father, “That it should come to this! But two months dead, nay, not so much, not two.” Now, Hamlet has slipped—he says the father died two months ago, when it’s actually one month. Here again I think there is that notion of playing with two and one. What is the point? Is Shakespeare perhaps using language of wordplay, twinning, in some way as an expression of a terrible tragedy that occurred when his son died at age 11?
I have made my very speculative point and I will be silent.
Alvin Epstein: Very nice reading. I think that the problem of whether Shakespeare is revealed through his plays, or whether the plays mask him, is related to the question of whether Shakespeare really wrote the plays or not. I think it’s an effort to establish that there really was such a person—an identifiable person who left traces through his work. And it may be a useless occupation, or preoccupation, but it’s like a compulsion, a mystery we have to do our best to find out the answer to. Was there really this man, and should his plays and his sonnets prove it to us? And if there was, did he really write those plays and sonnets?
Brustein: There’s no question he wrote the plays. And the best proof is that Ben Jonson said he did, because Ben Jonson is the most envious playwright who ever lived, and if Shakespeare had not written those plays he would have been the first to say so. It’s just people in the 20th and 21st centuries who think that you can’t write unless you have a Ph.D. from Harvard or Yale. You’ve got “a foolish piece of fool’s cap,” as I put it in my play, The English Channel, if you believe that Shakespeare couldn’t write great plays unless he had this advanced education.
“Shakespeare wasn’t just really good at iambic pentameter—he blew up iambic pentameter.”
J.P. Wearing: Could I throw another wrinkle into the mix? All but about four of his plays are not Shakespeare’s plots. He is a great adaptor, and not only the histories but the great tragedies have stolen plots. This makes me think that he must have been a very practical kind of playwright, as all playwrights and directors and actors must be: If I’m going to take on this trade, how do I make it work in the theatre? It seems to me that the man who wrote this kind of stuff, turning them out at the rate of two, sometimes three a year, was a very practical chap who happened to have a great facility at writing iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter happened to be Shakespeare’s facility, and when he writes prose it’s a very straightforward, very ordinary kind of prose.
And, of course, we shouldn’t forget that he was also for a good part of his career an actor. Since we don’t have a great many stage directions in his plays, it seems pretty clear that he was there on the job helping the other actors out, discussing parts even as he was writing them. All this kind of stuff takes a great deal of time and effort and practicality. Then when you get to The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline and The Tempest, Shakespeare goes back to what I think haunts all members of the theatre trade, which is the nature of the art. He writes three different kinds of plays, each of which explores a different kind of theatrical illusion—the time gap, for instance, in the middle of Winter’s Tale, or the unities of The Tempest and Cymbeline.
Daniela Varon: Well, I can jump in, because J.P. talked about iambic pentameter. You know, Shakespeare wasn’t just really good at iambic pentameter—he blew up iambic pentameter. Marlowe wrote plays that have thousands and thousands of lines of unvaried iambic pentameter, which is the most organic rhythm of spoken English. Most of us speak in iambic pentameter much of the time and don’t notice. We speak about 10 syllables and take a breath—it’s the rhythm of the human heart, you know, ba-bm, ba-bm, ba bm, ba-bm, ba-bm.
But what Shakespeare does is to take this iambic pentameter that Marlowe sort of introduced as a form of verse for the English drama, and he starts doing brilliant things to it that really reflect the emotional changes in his characters and what’s happening to them, and the rhythm starts shifting and changing and becoming un-iambic. This isn’t just sort of crafty playwriting. It’s a kind of genius to have somebody like Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, who thinks his wife has been unfaithful to him, who’s extremely upset, say, “Too hot, too hot! To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods. I have tremor cortis on me: my heart dances: But not for joy, not joy.” That’s not iambic pentameter. That’s—that’s fibrillation. That’s cardiac arrhythmia. And he not only speaks that way, but he diagnoses it as he’s speaking it. So you have a playwright who has an understanding of the organic rhythms of the human body and of the human psyche that’s far in advance of his time.
For me, what’s remarkable is that anybody wrote these plays—whether it’s a genius like Shakespeare, who had a grammar-school education, which was actually quite a good education, or whether it’s a more aristocratic genius with a higher level of education. So I actually am with Bob, because I like to think that genius can come from humbler sources, and that it’s inexplicable. I’ve actually heard Bob Brustein posit the theory that Shakespeare was an alien—he said it jokingly, but it doesn’t matter if it was Edward de Vere, the aristocrat, or the glover’s son from Stratford, which I like to think it was. Whoever it was was way ahead of his circumstances and his time, and had a considerably different understanding of psychology and how the psyche works than did than most of his peers.
Rosenbaum: I’d like to take up the alien theory.
Brustein: I once did a production of Macbeth in which the three witches were aliens, but I didn’t actually say that Shakespeare was—
Rosenbaum: No, no, I totally understand the metaphoric implications and not the literal E.T. implications of this. But a really interesting question about Shakespeare the person is the exceptionalist question: Was he on the continuum of other great writers, just on the far, far end—very, very, very, very great? Or did he represent something alien, something beyond what had been seen before or has been seen after? I remember Peter Brook, the British Shakespearean director, saying to me, “I don’t understand it. Most of us walk around one percent alive. Here was this person walking around London who was a million-percent alive, and what does that mean?” Is Shakespeare in some different category from other writers?
Brustein: Well, writers may be 100-percent alive when they’re writing and when they’re dreaming, but a lot of them goes into the work, and it leaves them drained as human beings. So I don’t know if Shakespeare was 1-million-percent alive. The question is whether you think of Shakespeare as a vivid, vital, dynamic individual that everyone wanted to be friends with—or did he put most of his energies into his work?
Mahon: Would you put him at the center of the canon, as Harold Bloom does, and agree that every other subsequent writer is measured against the quality of his writing?
Brustein: Well, he’s the greatest writer that ever lived—I think we can say that. It’s hard to choose the greatest composer who ever lived. There are a number that compete, Mozart and Beethoven, what have you. But Shakespeare does pretty much stand alone, followed hard upon by a number of very brilliant writers.
Getting back to what Shakespeare believed, or certain prejudices that he had—one of them was about effeminacy. I’m not talking about homosexuality, I’m talking about effeminacy. The Osrics, the Oswalds…remember Hotspur on the battlefield being so contemptuous of the lord who was taking a pouncet box to his nose when the corpses were smelling too much. This contrasts with his idea of masculinity, which is embodied in the Kents and the Enobarbuses, the plain-dealers who are honest and blunt, and believe in this notion that one should expend one’s blood on the battlefield rather than the bedroom. You know, the humors theory of the time was that semen was dried blood, and if you didn’t expend your blood in some way it would dry up and you’d have to make love. So the courtier was the very opposite of the soldier in that regard. And the courtier was not homoerotic so much as he was heterosexual, and excessively so, with the court ladies. You can see from play to play that this remains a consistent idea in Shakespeare. Is it a prejudice? I don’t know, but it’s an idea that doesn’t seem to vary.
Mahon: Would you agree with Nuttall et al that from play to play he’s constantly thinking out the piece that he left over from the previous play—so that if he writes about mercy in The Merchant of Venice, in Measure for Measure he’s writing about justice, and he’s trying to figure out the complicated interdigitation between too much mercy or too much justice? The idea is that there’s a developmental thread running through the thinking, which would be somewhat the opposite of your saying that he stuck with this effeminacy idea—
Brustein: No, I think certain things changed. Those ideas didn’t change, but his attitude toward the universe changed, his idea toward the creation of the world changed. His idea about whether there is a transcendent God in the universe, I think that changed—in Lear, certainly. I think that, to his horror, he agrees with Edmund that nature is all there is. And if nature is all there is, then conscience avant—that’s a word that cowards use.
Rosenbaum: And then where does the redemption in the later plays come from, a conversion of some sort or—?
Brustein: The redemption comes from personal relationships—between fathers and daughters.
Varon: But until those late plays, he (or whoever wrote these plays) seems to very much believe in the hierarchical view of the world the Elizabethans had—the great chain of being, in which everybody has a place that’s determined by God, and you belong in a particular place, and if you try to step out of that place it’s ambition, it’s pride, it’s things that lead to a fall. This was the worldview he was born into. It comes from the Middle Ages. And he’s constantly showing characters who are fighting against that worldview—and they always get in trouble. So it’s not that he’s a great democrat. He does show us the desire for upward mobility that’s becoming big in the Renaissance as people begin these voyages of discovery and begin to be able to step out of their narrow little worlds and advance by making money, as opposed to living according to where they were born. So we see that he’s very much of his time.
Brustein: Alvin recently played both Lear and Prospero, his second cousin. From the actor’s point of view, is that true, that the redemption is in relationships?
Epstein: I don’t know. I’m an actor, and I think that one of my acting techniques is to forget everything that I have just done and go onto the next one—which means I have very deep feelings about everything that’s been said here, but I can’t come to conclusions. Speaking about iambic pentameter: For me, there isn’t any Shakespeare without it, and it’s the groundwork, the basis of the whole thing. As I’ve worked on the texts, studying and learning them through the iambic pentameter, I little by little realize—and this is what is so absolutely extraordinary with Shakespeare—that it suddenly seems like the surface that’s created by the iambic pentameter becomes transparent, and there are deep things underneath that rise to the surface, and you don’t know where they’re coming from. I have found this in just about everything of Shakespeare that I’ve ever acted, and I’ve done quite a lot of them. But I’m not able to make a theory out of it.
Varon: Well, lots of other people have. But I agree, the language is extraordinary—not just the rhythm, not just the pentameter, but the images, the metaphors, the figures of speech, the antitheses. All the things that he does so brilliantly in the language are his clues about what these characters feel, not just what they think and what they say. The actors who worked together in true repertory (a fading thing in our culture) could pick up these texts, these sides, and because of the structure of the language know what they were meant to feel and where they breathed and where they paused and where they got more emotionally plugged in and found that incredible transparency. Don’t you think?
“We’re always in dialogue back and forth with this man, regardless of who he was or whether we know who he was.”
Mahon: It feels to me we’re in a constant dialogue with Shakespeare in our culture. We’re talking about him, we’re talking to him, and he’s talking to us. I completely agree with Ron that we have to look at him in the context of his times. If you look at a play like The Taming of the Shrew, a very controversial play, from a 21st-century point of view, it’s about an abused wife with Stockholm syndrome. But that’s if we look at it just from now. In the context of when it was written, it’s not a play written by a misogynist—it’s written by a man who has an extraordinarily humane vision of how to tame a shrew, compared with the shrew legends that abounded at the time, where women who spoke up or were considered scolds or nags were treated with unbelievable physical brutality. That’s what the people of his time were familiar with. So he writes a play in which someone tames a shrew with kindness and by training her like you train a falcon, which is a radical idea for the time—a man who actually helps a woman become someone who can function in her society when she couldn’t before.
So we have to look at it in the context of its time, but we can only play it in ours, and we live in a post Freudian world—so it’s his words, but it’s our actors. What I mean is that we’re always in dialogue back and forth with this man, regardless of who he was or whether we know who he was.
Brustein: One issue that is not discussed enough in relationship to this period and to Shakespeare is the powerful anti-court animus that begins to run through the drama. After 1599, after the Bishop’s edict bans satire, the satirists went into the theatre, bringing their particular prejudices, one of which was a hatred of the court and everything associated with the court. Shakespeare never actually wrote an Italianate court play, unless it’s The Murder of Gonzago in Hamlet. But Hamlet itself is an Italianate court play, and the assumption is that these courts are driven by dissimulation, by Machiavellianism, by adultery, by intrigue, by poisonings. All of these things of course are in Hamlet, but they’re also in every other playwright at the time—in Webster, in Middleton, in Tourneur. And this ultimately I think leads to 1642 and the Puritan revolution and the end of the court for 18 years—the end of the theatre, too, for 18 years. I find these developments very pervasive in Shakespeare, in spite of his aspirations toward being a gentleman.
Wearing: And the coat of arms business had actually more to do with his father than himself. I’m sure that when he went to court that he touched his forelock if Her Majesty came along and said some kind words after a court performance—if indeed she would even bother with the riff-raff. Remember, they were rogues and vagabonds. They were constantly banned. Books were banned. Books were burned. So Shakespeare’s job was a practical job, and he was exceptionally good at it, thank goodness. But he was a practical guy.
Varon: I agree with you—one of his big successes was Titus Andronicus, which was a great, Grand Guignol potboiler, without great psychological depth or philosophy, just lots of arms and heads being lopped off and rapes and—
Wearing: That’s what folks wanted.
Varon: Yes. And that was his biggest hit of his early years.
This roundtable discussion was organized by the Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of Imagination at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and held on Oct. 3, 2008. © The Philoctetes Center, reprinted by permission.
Robert Brustein is distinguished scholar-in-residence at Suffolk University, senior research fellow and former professor of English at Harvard University, and past dean of the Yale School of Drama. He was the founding director of Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theatre, where he continues to teach students. He has been theatre critic for The New Republic since 1959 and is the author of 15 books on theatre and society. His newest, The Tainted Muse: Prejudice and Predispositions in Shakespeare’s Life and Times, will appear in April of next year.
Alvin Epstein appeared as Nagg in the recent production of Endgame at Brooklyn Academy of Music. He made his New York stage debut in 1955 with Marcel Marceau, then appeared as the Fool in Orson Welles’s King Lear. He went on to play Lucky in the American premiere of Waiting for Godot and to act in more than 150 productions on and Off Broadway and in regional theatres. He was a founding member of the American Repertory Theatre, where he acted for 25 years.
Eugene Mahon is a training and supervising analyst at the Columbia University for Psychoanalytic Training and Research who practices child and adult psychoanalysis in Manhattan. He has published extensively in major psychoanalytic journals on a wide variety of topics and is the author of several plays, including Yesterday’s Silence, A Mouthful of Air, Anna and Sigmund at the Rue Royale and In the Company of Ghosts.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of seven books, including The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His essays and journalism have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, Harper’s, The Atlantic and The New Yorker, among other periodicals. He writes a bi-weekly cultural column for the online magazine Slate and has taught at Columbia, New York University and the University of Chicago.
Daniela Varon is a theatre director, acting teacher and longtime member of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass. She has directed Shakespeare productions from coast to coast, as well as a broad variety of other plays in New York and regionally. She was associate director and co-founder, with Kristin Linklater and Carol Gilligan, of the Company of Women, which produced all-female productions of Shakespeare’s plays and created Shakespeare-based outreach programs for women and girls in the 1990s. She is a teaching artist and Shakespeare specialist for Lincoln Center Theater and the director of the recent New York premiere of Robert Brustein’s The English Channel at the Abingdon Theatre Company.
J.P. Wearing is professor emeritus of English at the University of Arizona, where he taught courses on Shakespeare and modern European drama. He is the author of 15 books, including The Shakespeare Diaries: A Fictional Autobiography, Bernard Shaw and Nancy Astor, the 16-volume The London Stage 1890–1959 and critical editions of plays by Shaw and Arthur W. Pinero.
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