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J.S. Porter, Hamilton, Ontario – www.spiritbookword.net
When you meet a great poet, rush out to the garden and drive a stake into the ground. Record on the stake the details of your first encounter, as the Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz does in “Précis”. He proclaims the day and month and year of his son’s discovery of William Shakespeare:
on 3rd July 1962
yet another man on earth
of the English dramatist’s existence
Through Różewicz’s informing voice, his son awakens to the greatest body of linguistic vitality to ever fall from a human tongue.
I remember the details of my first encounters with Shakespeare because they came out of my relationship with my father. Shakespeare mattered to him, and because he mattered to him, he came to matter to me. For my father there were two underground rivers that ran through the English language: Shakespeare and the King James Bible. Whenever surface conversation lapsed into drivel, these underground streams would gurgle up and transform staleness into vibrancy.
His prize possession was a green-covered (“green, with the flare of life in it”) one-volume Shakespeare that he underlined, starred and wrote marginalia on. I keep this volume near so as to have a record of my father’s engagement with the King of Speech. He had a small library of works about Shakespeare, and so do I.
Dad offered me an early exposure to Shakespeare’s whoosh — like a suddenly lit fire. He played records of English actors speaking the parts, took me to see Douglas Campbell in Henry VIII at Stratford when I was eleven, then to see the acrobatic Olivier as Othello on the big screen when I was fifteen, and back to Stratford to see a randy Christopher Plummer and a seductive Zoe Caldwell in Antony and Cleopatra in 1967.
Recently I purchased Stratford Gold: 50 Years, 50 Stars, 50 Conversations with Richard Ouzounian and was thrilled to read Plummer and Caldwell waxing retrospectively on Antony and Cleopatra. Plummer describes the play as “about two magnificent failures” – as “the tragedy of ruined greatness.” And Caldwell encapsulates the essence this way: “You see I was always so stunned how so much of the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra could be enacted in anybody’s house. Their fights, their mistrust, their ‘forgive me, forgive me, forgive,’ the many many different aspects of man, woman, living together.”
That’s a central theme in Shakespeare: we’re all tethered together by bonds of blood and friendship, responsibility and interdependence. No man, contrary to Coriolanus, Stephen Harper and those who idolize the free market, is “author of himself.”
Be such a gosling to obey instinct, but stand
As if a man were author of himself
And knew no other kin. (5.3.34-37)
Coriolanus tries to free himself of all bonds – whether social or biological. His goal, like that of fellow narcissists Iago in Othello and Edmund in King Lear, Macbeth and even Hamlet, seems to be to live without connection and intimacy — not to feel, not to be an interdependent human being. Tragedy results in such self-delusion.
To be without intimacy is to be weightless. Think of the George Clooney character in Up In The Air where his highest aspiration is an empty knapsack. Like Coriolanus, he seeks to untether himself from the burdens of friendship and family. He’s most fully alive in an airplane 30,000 feet above the human sweat lodge. Having shunned intimacy throughout his adult life, he floats weightlessly, like a kite without strings. By the end of the film, he stands still, staring at an airport destination board, reflecting on his life for the first time, re-thinking his choices. Can you live without intimacy? Of course. Many, inside and outside of Shakespeare, do. But who in the yearning heart would want to?
If, as Shakespeare scholar A.D. Nuttall insists, playwright Christopher Marlowe asks, “What does it all come down to?,” Shakespeare asks, “What else could be going on?”. Plays within plays, plots crisscrossing plots, characters exchanging identities, there’s always more in Shakespeare— more levels, more intricacies, more life. Superabundance and plenitude abound along with a bottomless depth.
Ron Rosenbaum in The Shakespeare Wars justly asserts: “The works will exhaust us, outlive us before we reach bottom. Not only are there too many ways we can read a line but too many ways we can speak it and too many ways we can act it…”
There’s a stage direction from Timon of Athens that I like to keep in mind as revelatory of how Shakespeare works: “Enter Poet, Painter, Jeweller, Merchant, and others, at several doors.” That’s what happens in Þ Shakespeare – people of mixed class and background enter from many different doors and say many different things in the same theatrical space. He imaginatively pours himself into each character, however humble, wicked or wise, giving each one voice and presence.
The words of Richard II, “a thousand harts are great within my bosom…” and Richard III, “I have a thousand spirits in one breast…” seem appropriate for a poet-playwright who “had a preternaturally sensitive imagination, which could clothe itself in the being of another” according to biographer Peter Ackroyd. “The chameleon poet” (Keats’ defining phrase regarding Shakespeare) has the gift of taking on whatever colour he happens to immerse himself in.
Oh, to sit down over a cup of coffee (or a pint of ale), and do for real what Stanley Wells does in the imaginary dialogue Coffee with Shakespeare and ask at least two questions: How were you able to blow so much life into a page? And, how did that empathetic gift of becoming the other take root in your personality?
J. S. Porter, www.spiritbookword.net
This column appeared in Dialogue,
on p. 35, in Vol. 26, No. 6, May-June 2013
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