Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
Michael Wood
Basic Books, 2003
352 pp., 29.95

Buy Now
Lectures on Shakespeare (W.H. Auden: Critical Editions)
Lectures on Shakespeare (W.H. Auden: Critical Editions)
W. H. Auden
Princeton University Press, 2002
424 pp., 35.00

Buy Now
Berryman's Shakespeare
Berryman's Shakespeare
John Berryman
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2023
396 pp., 35.00

Buy Now
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human
Harold Bloom
Riverhead Books, 1999
768 pp., 32.00

Buy Now
Nothing Like the Sun
Nothing Like the Sun
Anthony Burgess
W. W. Norton & Company, 1996
240 pp., 22.0

Buy Now
Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist
Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist
Lukas Erne
Cambridge University Press, 2003
300 pp., 114.00

Buy Now
Shakespeare: A Life
Shakespeare: A Life
Park Honan
Oxford University Press, 2000
512 pp., 36.99

Buy Now
The Age of Shakespeare (Modern Library Chronicles)
The Age of Shakespeare (Modern Library Chronicles)
Frank Kermode
Modern Library, 2004
214 pp., 21.95

Buy Now
Gertrude and Claudius: A Novel
Gertrude and Claudius: A Novel
John Updike
Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2001
224 pp., 16.00

Buy Now
Michael Wood
Basic Books, 2003
352 pp., 29.95

Buy Now

By Larry Woiwode

The Faith of Shakespeare

Awe and reconciliation in the work of WS.

I will with care call the person WS, from the lead of Anthony Burgess in his novel, Nothing Like The Sun. Too many variations on his name, often in his own hand, exist to pinpoint its spelling with certainty, though it helps to know that English was in the midst of a sea change in his era, in its shifting mutations to its present state, and he seems to have used the vowels and constants, in his own name, even, that felt right.

He was above all a writer of feeling. The symphonic interchange of emotion between every variation of class and gender in his work, but especially between men and women, yields mouthfuls of magnificent poetry—an achievement in itself. We read him in this century to learn about those relationships in ways that others are unwilling or unable to describe; Freud's grasp was only of an undercurrent in WS.

People and the situations they work themselves into (always of attraction and repulsion) revolved through his mind as the planets of our system revolve around the sun. He had a nearly perfect trust in the fruitful art of the creative process he sensed in himself as the center of the universe. Stars revolved in orderly perpetuation through the seasons as kings and queens and princes and clowns and fools appeared and disappeared and then reappeared again in an endless pageant that swam through his mind and sensitive senses. He watched with the liturgical attentiveness of a spaniel, those same eyes, and then reconstructed actions as songs and translated into words the dreamlike cast of the visions and fantasies of those he observed in the most relaxed and textured containers of measured verse that have ever entered the English language.

He was an actor by trade and a wanderer, anyway in his imagination, setting his plays across the global landscape, and a bardic poet who tried to keep the range of variations he could orate under formal control. He admired Latin poets for their georgics and their agrarian acumen (the pastoral trend in him), plus the oddities of love in Ovid, and the Greeks for their insight into the tragedy of life lived on the earth with no outlet, no hope, no exit. He had an affinity for those who viewed life in such terms, as Marlowe did. Other contemporaries glimpsed the predicament as we tend to define it, but WS faced it head on, with a pacific smile of patience behind his variety of poses. It is his view of that exit, first in furtive glimpses and then fully—all this dramatized in every line of his work, including The Rape of Lucrece and the Sonnets—that allows us to live in hope and leads us to acknowledge him as the master of world literature. Other writers don't seem to sense the intersection of one's words on a page with immortality quite as he did, and his plays can be seen as variations on enacting immortality.

The psychiatrist Gerald G. May notes in the first sentence of Addiction & Grace, "After twenty years of listening to the yearnings of people's hearts, I am convinced that all human beings have an inborn desire for God. Whether we are consciously religious or not, this desire is our deepest longing and most precious treasure."

However an adherent may define the road to faith, that deep longing and treasure, once reached, gives to the inner (if not outer) edges of an otherwise humdrum everyday life a weight of glory and meaning. After more than 40 years of reading WS and enacting roles in which I had memorize his lines, I have come to believe that he, more than any writer in my native tongue, bore this inborn gravitation to God. The will or quest to know Him as fully, through others, as WS was able to do is the enigma that takes a visceral hold on us as we follow him to a play's conclusion through words.

A book that enables us to view WS with renewed clarity found its route via an Oxford bookstore to me. It is by George H. Morrison, MA, DD, who explains its genesis in his preface: "The following pages embody the notes which I used for a series of addresses given in Wellington Church, Glasgow, on Sunday nights at the close of the evening service. The very large attendance, and the keen and unfailing interest displayed, have led me to publish them, in the hope that they may prove helpful to others." That is half the preface. The remainder is a low bow to textual scholars—"those masters of criticism and exposition at whose feet I have sat in discipleship since my college days"—and how he "deliberately confined myself to a few of the greater plays which one might assume to be familiar to an audience gathered from all classes of the community."

However fortune delivered the book to me, I opened it (as now, at random, its insight apparent at every turn), and read:

Lady Macbeth, whatever she may be, is not an utterly callous woman. A careful reading of the play makes that evident. She has to pray to be unsexed (I, v, 42); she needs wine to make her bold (II, ii, 1); she cannot slay Duncan for he is like her father (II, ii, 12-14); after the murder she cannot bear the darkness (V, i, 25-27). And the awful revelation of her sleep-walking [the blood she tries to wash from her hands] betrays a nature different in the deeps from that of an utterly heartless, callous woman.
She was a woman of an indomitable will, who never let "I dare not" wait upon "I would." She has far less imagination than her husband, for Macbeth was of "imagination all compact." [MND: V,i,8] She saw intensely but not imaginatively; she thought that "a little water" would put all things right (II, ii, 67); she failed to picture the remorse and agony that would make bloodstains burn like fire.

The book is entitled Christ in Shakespeare. Its London publisher, James Clarke and Co., provides no date, but evidently it appeared in 1928 (the preface is dated thus) or soon thereafter. Morrison may seem a quaint distance from the our 21st-century American versions of WS, but the comparison isn't entirely to our credit.

America, as it happens, is undergoing a revival of interest in WS, a phenomenon we can date to the Mel Gibson film—not The Passion of the Christ but 1990's Hamlet. Never, since the 18th century, entirely out of fashion, WS nevertheless seems to undergo a revival every few decades, his corpus tottering onstage to be revealed as a young man (or woman) in tights, but a greater momentum is stirring the air this time around. As we become more "global," in the parlance that is popular (which means more than a McDonald's everywhere, as an embassy attachÉ put it), we have come to appreciate more the sanguine wisdom of WS and its application to external and internal affairs, a solid sense of consanguinity with the best and the worst in us.

Gibson's durable Hamlet was truncated to adhere to the theme of revenge—a source of excessive joy to young men, especially when directed against one's father. A year earlier, in 1989—perhaps after all it was this that got the latest revival rolling—Kenneth Branagh had strolled onscreen in Henry V as a star-struck warrior exuding the celestial dimension that royalty once enjoyed, warring in this case against compassion. Then Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing broadcast the magic musicality of the celestial, and then his robber-baron of an Iago, down to his uncut version of Hamlet, into which he seemed to pour personal woes—a slow-mo version redeemed by Claudius, Horatio, and batty little Robin Williams—with little connection to the glory of the celestial, its omnipresence like stars through the text.

Then an intuitive and not unkind look at the fellow himself, in the moving Shakespeare in Love. Academy Awards to Will! And on and on until it seems the producers of films and TV specials and picture books (and picture books of TV specials, such as Michael Wood's Shakespeare) will never rest yet not quite displace the primary occupants of the WS arena, the scholars; rather an outpouring, a widening stream of a variety of books on WS keeps up an ungainly tumble into the present, always redefining and perfecting itself as it grows.

WS was not so omnipresent decades ago, as we hear from our most fruitful and professional American reader, Harold Bloom, in a report from his meditation, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. But with the book-laden current coming at us, another force arrives: the never-say-die anti-Stratfordians, once the Baconians—who for a century insisted Sir Francis Bacon invented WS. A present contender is Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford (Baconians evolving to Oxonions), and one need go no further; one finds their backtrackings and screeds sprinkled through the tidal flood of "Shakespeare" books.

If nothing other rises out of the recent revival than The Invention of the Human, it will have been worth enduring the deus ex machina of Hollywood for it. Bloom sees WS as a nonpareil, the measure of literature since, and Bloom truly is a professional reader, perhaps the best-read man alive, not to mention his acuity, his charm, and the unfazed way in which he looks to the rock bottom of a book, without hauling in a shipload of equipment to create a superstructure that will render him superior to the text. Though I suspect that few doubt (or the too few near his capacious brilliance) how often he is.

His contention is that Hamlet and Falstaff are bipolar representations of the heights and depths the human being is capable of, as we understand humankind down to the present. The thought feels agreeably Platonic, as filtered to us by Aquino-Thomists, but Bloom, mild as a March pasque flower, argues that our conception of our species was forged by WS, and has not been superseded or improved upon. Let me second that, and say that I find most of the observations in his 745-page thunking tome artfully woven and well arranged. For instance:

But that is typical of Hamlet's consciousness, for the prince has a mind so powerful that the most contrary attitudes, values, and judgments can co-exist within it coherently, so coherently indeed that Hamlet nearly has become all things to all men, and to some women. Hamlet incarnates the value of personality, while turning aside from the value of love. If Hamlet is his own Falstaff (Harold Goddard's fine formulation), he is a Falstaff who doesn't need Hal, any more than he needs poor Ophelia, or even Horatio, except as a survivor who will tell the prince's story. The common element in Falstaff's ludic mastery and in Hamlet's dramaturgy is the employment of great wit as a counter-Machiavel, as a defense against a corrupted world.

Well, yes, yet there is a point at which I stick (if I may also), which seems to leak through the last part of this paragraph: Bloom's insistence on "Hamlet As Nihilist" (part 7, first chapter). Hamlet does love Horatio, it appears, or he wouldn't take him into his confidence as he does; and Horatio loves Hamlet as an adoring younger brother might.

In each of his primary speeches Hamlet voices Christian forebodings, as here, at their declaratory source:

Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! Oh, God! God!
   (I, i, 131-132)

an idea alien to a rational nihilist, as the next is not:

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on it! Ah, Fie! 'Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed, things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
   (I, ii, 133-137)

though a good metaphor for the world. Hamlet's reflex-swift response to his father's appearance as a ghost is

Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
   (I, iv, 39)

And when he contemplates the same moment later:

… The Spirit that I have seen
May be the Devil, and the Devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape. Yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me.
   (II, ii, 627-632)

See his speech to the players (II, ii, 305-321) or in that best-known soliloquy, at the turning tide of the play, when he breaks off his contemplation on suicide—the logical conclusion for a true nihilist who wants out—to say instead:

perchance to dream. Aye, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
   (III, i, 65-69)

"Sleep," a new covenant term for death, reminds us how he claims he "could be bound in a nutshell and counted a king of infinite space, where it not that I have bad dreams."

No need to go further restate the obvious, except to note that at the turning point of the play, when Hamlet starts to draw his sword to do in Claudius, he thinks

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying,
And now I'll do it. And so he goes to Heaven,
And so I am revenged. That would be scanned:
A villain kills my father, and for that
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To Heaven.
Oh, this is hire and salary, not revenge.

He would become the Devil's salaried emissary, saving from damnation the one he hopes to damn by execution, and from that moment the play spins from the pivot of "Heaven," circled by the silence of that absent line. In the end Hamlet pays, like Macbeth, not for his inability to wreak revenge (WS's twist on "revenge plays") but for his hapless drive toward murder, dispatching his culture-attuned school chums on the way, harried by the one who has the power to assume not only a pleasing shape—note all the references to Hell—but even the habiliments of one's father.

The British biographer Park Honan is an exemplar of the scholarly tack toward humility that renders scholarship resonant. When he entered graduate school, he told his supervisor, James Sutherland, that he intended to write a biography of WS. Before sending Honan on, Sutherland advised him, "over sherry, to look into other writers 'first.' " Over his academic tenure Honan wrote biographies of Browning, Arnold, and Austen, always researching for the work on WS, and finally when he was a professor emeritus he published the biography he envisioned as an aggressive grad student in postwar London, Shakespeare: A Life.

The wait was worth it. Honan's Life stands above the tide of numberless others, not only in the way it builds on recorded history recently exhumed—as by S. Schoenbaum in his chronicling of every shred of documentation, legal and otherwise, that exists on WS—but equally in Honan's gentle dispelling of anecdotal and unproved legends and myths, many first formed in a 40-page sketch by Nicholas Rowe in 1709, and clung to as certitude for centuries.

Honan knows Ivor Brown, E. K. Chambers, G. Wilson Knight, A. L. Rowse, Dover Wilson, M. C. Bradbrook, Frank Kermode (whose The Age of Shakespeare is just out), and the rest of the more dependable crowd, besides the naysaying anti-Stratfordians who have raised their voices in protest. Honan presents historical documentation of the era into which WS was born, the matrix in which he lived, so it becomes clear that x and y could not have occurred, because the potential for such an event did not exist at the time, or it is clear that WS experienced x and y, because it was the experience of all Stuart youth in the rigid society of the era—Honan a trustworthy scholar, no sniper at jots and tittles.

Honan's prose is compressed, direct, uncluttered, with a tug to it of wrapping the exact words within a telling phrase, and it registers a probity and sifting acuity that lifts each passage into a realm of luminous accuracy, a book of such finish and precision I've enjoyed it for two years and can't quite finish, due to the angles of thought even a paragraph has the power take me down.

A penetrating glimpse of the history leading up to the Stuart and Jacobite renaissance is rendered by W. H. Auden in his introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Poets:

It is nonsense to say that the men of the Middle Ages did not observe nature, or cared only about their own souls, ignoring social relations: indeed it would be truer to say that their intellectual weakness was an oversimple faith in the direct evidence of their senses and the immediate data of consciousness, an oversimplification of the relation between the objective and subjective world. Believing that the individual soul was a microcosm of the universe and that all visible things were signs of spiritual truths, they thought that to demonstrate this, it was enough simply to use one's eyes and one's powers of reflection to perceive analogies. For example:
As the soul aspires to God, so the stone of the Gothic arch soars.
As individuals and armies fight for territory, so the virtues and vices struggle for possession of the soul …
When Bacon defines science as putting nature to the question—that is, the torture—he is rebuking this trust in direct observation, for he implies that nature is secretive and must be compelled against her will to reveal the truth. Modern science begins when, instead of asking what a thing is like, for which simple observation is enough, one asks how long it is or how heavy, questions which cannot be answered without performing experiments. When the break came it was drastic. Luther denied any intelligible relation between Faith and Works, Machiavelli any intelligible relation between private and public morality, and Descartes any intelligible relation between Matter and Mind. Allegory became impossible as a literary form, and the human Amor seemed no longer a parable of the Divine Love but its blasphemous parody.1

It was into this world that WS stepped, and the path he took has never been so fairly seen as in Honan's Life—my candidate for the definitive biography, insofar as there can be any such, in its unassailable and well-shaped assurance.

Yet it is Bloom who exposes the other side, the ruse that lies beneath academic interest, which tends to avoid the personal diminishment that can arrive from extensive contact with a canonical writer of such a wide-ranging spectrum, such clear mastery, as WS, in its rush toward the generic and fashionably au courant. Distant academies want to keep up with Yale, and yet here is Yale in a Yale professor's words, at a time when interest in WS had waned to the point Bloom describes as a contributor to a Harper's cover story that re-examined the plausibility of de Vere and other pretenders to the throne:

The academy, as everyone knows, is shot to pieces. Even at Yale, I am surrounded by courses in gender and power, transsexuality and queer theory, multiculturalism, and all the other splendors that now displace Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, and Dickens. But the worst may well be over. A decade ago, I would introduce my Graduate Shakespeare seminar (never my Undergraduate) by solemnly assuring the somewhat resentful students that all of Shakespeare, and not just the Sonnets, had been written by Lucy Negro, Elizabethan England's most celebrated East Indian whore. Anthony Burgess in his splendid fictive life, Nothing Like the Sun, had identified Lucy Negro as the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, and thus Shakespeare's peerless erotic catastrophe, resulting in heartbreak, venereal disease, and relatively early demise. Stone-faced (as best I could), I assured my graduate students that all their anxieties were to be set aside, since the lustful and brilliant Lucy Negro actually had composed the plays and Sonnets. Thus they could abandon their political reservations and read "Shakespeare" with assured correctness, since Lucy Negro was, by definition, multicultural, feminist, and post-colonial. And also, I told them, we could set aside the covens of Oxfordians, Marlovians, and Baconians in the name of the defrauded Lucy Negro.

On the same shelf as Bloom's Invention you should make room for Berryman's Shakespeare, by the poet John, which has the textual finickiness you might expect from a poet, yet a prayerful admiration; and Auden's lectures, delivered off the cuff at the New School, throw a scattering of sparks from a poetic genius rubbing against his master. Both are books of creators enamored of The Creator, and John Updike, never a laggard in a landslide, contributes his thoughtful but prickly Gertrude & Claudius; he dislikes Hamlet, and has an avowed aversion to rustics and gravediggers, as many intellectuals and anti-Stratfordians (he is not one) do.

It's not the official custodians of high culture, after all, that we have to thank for preserving WS's works in the first place. In Elizabethan England a playwright's position was so low in that laddered society it fell beneath the prostitute—for what was a playwright but an untrustworthy practitioner of scurrilous half-magic that could not be called art, if the practice weren't downright seditious? Jonson was hauled to court on a homicide charge, a valid one, and was released not because he wasn't guilty but because he held a divinity degree from Oxford. He was, however, branded at the base of his thumb with a T, which meant Tyburn, or death at his next capital offense.

The rebellion of the Earl of Essex was ascribed to the effects of performing Richard II, and the Lord Chamberlain forbade WS's company to stage the play for a time. Christopher Marlowe, the only contemporary who seems a contender but who served more as an inspiration to the possibilities of spoken poetry to WS, was stabbed in a pub brawl, a poniard entering an eye socket, according to witnesses. Such was the practice of theater.

So it was players and playwrights, not the court or the academy, who took up the cause of WS. John Hemmings and Henry Condell, fellow actors and managers, gathered the plays extant after his death. Who else dared, given that no one knew how royalty would act next, after Bloody Mary and shilly-shallying Elizabeth (who had Mary Queen of Scots and others beheaded, however, along her tergiversatory route) and then the braying fop who took the throne and seemed compelled to prove via the theology of the Scots Presbyterians he hated, as only an English schoolboy hates a master, that he was equal to the pope. He believed himself superior to British prelates and scholars on the theology of witchcraft, a true Richard II, and proclaimed his intent to publish his own Bible. His interest in it, as with most of his projects except those involving young men, soon waned, and the translation appeared unhindered by his royal touch: the King James Version, as it is called. (WS appears to have had no hand in it, though the rumor is another that has circulated at times.) It wasn't until Victoria, 300 years down the line, that Henry Irving brought such aristocracy to the office that he became the first actor in British history to be knighted, in 1895.

WS appears in the glimpses that remain to have been happy in London, enjoying the work in camaraderie, not only with his players but Jonson, Marlowe, Alleyn, and Kyd spurring him on. The best and worst of the advances in metaphysics and science and Western philosophies and religions were present in the city then, besides a polyglot language of the kind we encounter in Chaucer, with foreign accents and overtones and meanings stirring in every word, so that Defoe, a century later, still referred to it as "your Roman-Saxon-Danish- Norman-English." The residents of Europe's grand city were well aware of Machiavelli's The Prince, that scary treatise on political power that memorialized their fears of royalty; most of them opposed Roman Catholicism as the true church, at least pro forma, but especially in this metropolitan center of a prodigy of a country that was incorporating a dozen languages into its vocabulary and in the midst of managing the spelling and pronunciation and general onrush of it; printing coming into its own, moving from the purview of the church to cut-rate booths encircling St. Paul's, the center of the city—all this present, plus "the little Latin and less Greek" that a rural schoolboy would know, each day a shifting storm of separate cultures you had to name in their manifestations and separate parts, only to find your words melted by the next morning.

The society he observed was composed of the strata of classes that persist even today in England. The fenced-off fortress of privilege, the bastion of the upper class, forbade communication with people one rung below, much less the hayseed no-account who might lead to you the horse you had a servant saddle, all the way down to a household factotum. WS and a few of the backwoods bumpkins he depicted were barely of the class to hold a horse's bridle. No aristocrat would dare imagine or put down on a page such dunderheaded dolts as Dogberry and Verges. Peasants.

But he was an astute businessman and manager; two of his acting companies enjoyed the royal prerogative, employed by two separate courts; both incarnations of his Globe Theatre prospered. Through all this he kept investing in his home place, Stratford. He saw to it that his father, John Shakespeare, was granted a shield of arms; he bought New Place in Stratford in 1597, a commodious manor of ten rooms, "much as it was in the poet's youth," Honan observes; his wife Ann was able to move their three children from his father's house; he is listed by the Queen's Council as one of the hoarders of barley in Stratford in 1598, owner of 80 bushels; and in the only extant handwritten letter to WS, two Stratford alderman beg him for a loan. Sharers in his acting company, Honan writes, "were earning about L1 a week (perhaps the equivalent of L500 or more in London at the end of the twentieth century). This was four times the fixed wage of a skilled city worker, and his income would have been between L100 and L160 a year from all sources." In his will, WS left tokens of the time, memorial rings, to Hemmings and Condell, among others; they are also listed (with W. Shakespeare) in the court records of Elizabeth I and James I, as members of The Lord Chamberlain's Men, later altered, in honor of the odd monarch from Scotland, to The King's Men.

Note to the anti-Stratfordians: It would require a conspiracy of infinite devising to deceive two royal courts, attended to by influential hangers-on and gossips, or to delude the Lord Chamberlain, responsible for every entertainment held in Britain; both monarchs commissioned performances by WS's companies.

Robert Frost, who hoped to shape American blank verse into a form as subtly complex as the work of WS, and whose poems tend toward the dramatic, either internally or in the form of dialogues or mini-dramas or masques, said, "I look at a poem as a performance. I look on the poet as a man of prowess, just like an athlete. He's a performer." He also notes that "probably way back somewhere" somebody noted that poetry is "the marrow of wit. There's got to be wit."2 About Bacon, considered as rival for authorship, we can say that the wit in him is conjured from eloquence—he smells of the closet of ratiocination—while WS, even in the midst of tragedy, keeps weaving through it the balancing antidote of wit. The "meaning" of most of his tragedies, and many comedies, too, is made plain to any in the audience by the base, simplistic, even obnoxious words and gestures of clowns, rustics, and unfettered spirits of fun.

That was the route WS continually took, an irritant to those who expect him to be a stoic classicist. Louise Bogan pictures him better in a quatrain entitled "To An Artist, To Take Heart":

Slipping in blood, by his own hand, through pride,
Hamlet, Othello, Coriolanus fall.
Upon his bed, however, Shakespeare died,
Having endured them all. 3

The master-maker, in Bogan's suggested serenity at his death, or anyway his ability to endure the onslaughts on personality and conscience and consciousness that the production of his characters—the release of them! the outpouring of them!—must have caused, overarches every iota of his accomplishment. His smile assumes the enigmatic lines of the Mona Lisa, a retreating gaze in a face like a mask, so that WS as elusive person becomes the subject of inexhaustible fascination. He continues to set off electricity along our edges from his assured residence within the immortality he best describes himself (see Shakespeare as Literary Artist, by Lukas Erne, or the strange story of the likeness of him in Stephanie Nolen's Shakespeare's Face).

He understood his characters from the inside, liked to mimic them (through the characters in low-comedy scenes), and knew how to enact them; few ring false notes, as actors affirm. He had an affinity and affection for all of his characters, every one. Yet in many ways, as an artisan, he is as distanced from them as from the people he brushed by each day on London streets, those we never hear about, and so was detached as he needed to be, poking fun at one aspect or another of a character in a few lines, consistently hitting a sort of sore comic hot spot.

Precision of focus underscores tragedy, as WS seems to have recognized early, perhaps as he copied out a Latin poem in Stratford day school or, better, as most boys in middle schools had to do to the time of Randall Jarrell and Auden, translate a poem from Latin into his own verse; as a country boy he was attuned to Latin pastoral poetry. He delivered gloves for his father, and one of his trips likely took him to the Hathaways, at Shottery, just beyond where, today, soccer fields border Stratford and the woods begin. If we try to enter him, in the way he did his characters, an apt analogue might be a person in prayer entering the presence of God. Writers in English sooner or later have to acknowledge that anything estimable they achieve somehow has its origins in him, considering his efforts to straighten and broaden a language inclusive of multitudes, his unabashed double-entendres centuries before Freud, the ease of his mastery over the simplest yet most complex phrase, especially in the years after Hamlet, the play in which he unloaded most of whatever in him remained unresolved in a rat-pack of words, then moved on.

In his native isolation and affinity for the actual, the original, the primitive, he is the best linguistic guide to entry into the English language, and we step into his provinces by his words and their rhythms and the multitude of characters he fitted together as messengers for his many permutations. Through them, in a further way, he speaks to us as an integrated bearer of the ultimate Good News. Above all, he placed the impress of Christ, whose outlines are love and mercy and reconciliation, into more universally appealing characters than any other writer in English in the history of the Western world.

Lore has him returning home at least once a year, and it is likely he went back in spring to check on how the lamb crop came in (along with perhaps cattle, possibly swine) and to oversee the seeding of his barley and wheat; he would want to be present in late summer or early fall as well, for harvest. He seems to have known from the start that Stratford (its farming populace and handicraft merchants) was the source of his accomplishments, and he paid it homage, dying in New House only blocks from where he was born, leaving a largesse for Stratford's poor. Only a person who was nurtured by and nurtured the earth over its diurnal and seasonal changes could have written his plays—rural boy that he was, farmer or farming-inclined son of a rural tradesman and farmer.

The older, unmarried Hathaway daughter had a way about her that caught his shopkeeper-herdsman's eye, a sharp-tongued beauty, Beatrice to any Benedick. He talked to the older woman—she was 26—lying at her feet along the Avon, perhaps (a courtly country swain if not yet a courtier), head propped on a hand propped by his elbow, and perhaps only intimated that they might try a non-marital yet marital relation before they were betrothed, just once—WS in love; the try and just once gaining him leverage—and when she turned up pregnant and they married (both were from churchgoing families, WS's father in a quandary that may have included WS over the Catholic Church, or so recent evidence suggests), it was for life.

She, the older, wiser woman, should have known better and couldn't quite forgive him; she told him so and didn't care if he moved out; she let him know her mind, as Beatrice did, and would endure what she must with his black spot of tuppery shadowing her. In The Winter's Tale we receive a sense of how he gained forgiveness: let her thaw from his separation (and perhaps defensive accusations) and begin anew. She added verbal fire to his feminine edge, and by the time she started asking him to spend time away from the house, now that her female organs were ruined by the birth of twins (still living with his parents), he had every scene with her set in his mind on his first long walk to London.

The most violent of his lover's spats, from The Taming of the Shrew to Winter's Tale, were sweetened at the end through reconciliation, and the way he reconciled himself to the city, to its artistic and cultural ambiance, while separated from his wife and family, is yet another mystery, although a compressed sonnet, dating from his early career, before success fully struck, offers an array of clues:

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me more like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

He was a tender and gardener, and on his walks in rural Stratford he observed flowers and crops and wildlife with the eye of an ecologist; it is doubtful you will find in any writer so many varieties of plants given voice in their seasonal differences and profusion. What he saw once he preserved in an unassailable ether inhabiting his mind.

He saw himself as disunited, out gathering blackberries when he would rather hunt a buck; from the beginning viewing himself as filled with pinpoints and fissures and cracks of little meaning (except for the light they shed on another of the characters he released as an analogue)—or anyway saw himself as no better than any he mocked and so entered their tableaux and served at the foot of kings, a durable Stratford lad, the internal equipoise he seems to have found in himself (or perhaps felt set for him), and, as gladly as he could when the torrent of words arrived, tried again to reinvent himself as integrated and whole, the Many in the One.

Larry Woiwode, novelist and poet, is the author of many books, including most recently What I Think I Did (Basic Books), the first volume in a projected trilogy of memoirs. The second installment, My Dinner with Auden, is scheduled for 2005.

1. Medieval and Renaissance Poets, ed. W.H. Auden and Norman Holmes Pearson (Viking Portable Library, 1957).

2. Writers at Work: Second Series, ed. George Plimpton (Viking, 1963), p. 30.

3. Louise Bogan, The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923-1968 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968).

Most ReadMost Shared