Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Shakespeare's flowers

Recently started reading The Shakespeare Riots, by Nigel Cliff, my new second-favorite book about Shakespeare, although it's not actually so much about Shakespeare himself or his plays; it's about the mania and passion for Shakespeare and the theatre in early Nineteenth Century America and how it led to mayhem and violence in the streets of New York in 1849.

My favorite book about Shakespeare is about him and his plays. James Shapiro's A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599.

So, at any rate, I'm reading along in The Shakespeare Riots and I came across a passage that reminded me of comment Lou left here a couple of weeks ago on my post The past is another country. Responding to something I wrote about people who think that Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare because the real author of the plays knew too much about the intimate lives and thoughts of kings and queens to have been a mere commoner from the sticks, Lou wrote:

I'd turn your observation about Shakespeare around about the realism of his portrayals of court. I've always dismissed the conspiracy theorists because the funniest and most realistic of his characters always were his commoners. Would someone who spent all their life at court be able to do that? Servants can observe the habits of their employers pretty closely. The employer (or at that time, master) seldom knows a thing about the servant.

I tend to agree with Lou, but it's a debatable point. If the portraits of Henry V, Prince Hal that was, and Hamlet are portraits of noblemen by a fellow nobleman then they are portraits of two noblemen who could have written very well about the lives and thoughts of commoners by a nobleman who could write very well about commoners himself. (Untangle that sentence, and good luck to you if you try, and you'll see there's a point in it somewhere.) But there's a larger point in Lou's argument that isn't as debatable: There is more in Shakespeare than is dreamed of in your philosophy.

That is, Shakespeare knew about a great many things, far more things than intrigues and romances at court. He knew about flowers, for one thing. And not any flowers. He knew what grew and thrived in the fields and woods and gardens around Stratford. Michael Wood makes this point in his documentary In Search of Shakespeare. Based on evidence from the plays, it's clear that whoever wrote them was from the country, and from a particular part of the country.

Shakespeare didn't just know what the countryside around Stratford looked like and what grew there. He knew what it was like to live there. He knew the rhythms of speech and accents and habits of thought of country people. He knew their folktales and folk wisdom, their work, the comings and goings in their daily lives.

Trying to explain in The Shakespeare Riots why Shakespeare's plays were so popular on the American frontier, Nigel Cliff finds the answer in Shakespeare's being a rude, indifferently educated, half-wild boy from the country---that is, Americans living two-hundred years after he died saw him as something of a proto-American pioneer:

His plays, the settlers saw, were too vital to be mired in respectability. Shakespeare's imagination might have spanned the world, his ear might have caught the legion tones of life, but hte country boy from the English Midlands was also wild, vulgar, and bloody; his goriest scenes, the eye gougings, child murders, and wife suffocations, were too much even for frontiersmen and were banished offstage or whisked behind a curtain. His writing was rooted in the countryside and its folklore, its witches, monsters, and spirits; throughout the plays, the daily rhythms of shepherds, fleeces, and feed, of foot soldiers, gravediggers, and pimps, of merchants, markets, and hard-won lives, act as a check on the elevated stories of lords, ladies, and kings. Macbeth has its drunken porter; King Lear finds its heart in a hovel on a storm-torn heath.

To put it another way. Whoever wrote this:

No matter where; of comfort no man speak:
Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let's choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke's,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?

Also wrote this:

When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp'd and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu-whit;
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
When all aloud the wind doth blow
And coughing drowns the parson's saw
And birds sit brooding in the snow
And Marian's nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu-whit;
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

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