::Literate Blather::
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
5 Questions About: Shakespeare

(It’s the characters that bring you back to Shakespeare: Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, Othello, Juliet, and Falstaff. DaRK PaRTY felt extremely erudite and approached Professor Jennifer Formichelli at Boston University about the Bard. Professor Formichelli earned a BA in literary history from Boston University, and a PhD in English literature from the University of Cambridge, England, where she was awarded the Charles Oldham Shakespeare scholarship in 1998. Her research and writing interests are in English poetry and verse drama from the 16th--20th centuries, with particular emphasis on Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot. She currently teaches in the Core Curriculum at Boston University, and is working on a book on Shakespeare and lying.)

DaRK PaRTY: First, let's talk about Shakespeare the man. Mark Twain once compared Shakespeare's biography to putting together a dinosaur from a few scraps of bone adhered together with plaster. What do we really know about the Bard?

Jennifer: Well, Schoenbaum has written an excellent biography, “Shakespeare's Lives,” which is put together with sound scholarship, and which does a fine job of knitting up the existing bones into a pleasant skeleton. We know that Shakespeare was a successful entrepreneur with some acting ability, who cared a good deal about property and money, and left his older wife his second-best bed (probably not a bad inheritance, however it sounds).

He had three pleasant years as a prosperous man in Stratford after the Globe burnt down, and died at a not very advanced age. He was survived at his death by his wife, daughter and son-in-law, so that his name was not carried on. He wrote 37 plays that were preserved – wonderfully -- by the publication of the First Folio in 1623. So, on the one hand, we don't know very much about Shakespeare's life, though at the same time we know all we need to know.

As T.S. Eliot remarked, if you look for Shakespeare, you will find him not in one of his characters, but in all of them. He is everywhere and nowhere.

DP: What do you think is the biggest misconception about Shakespeare?

Jennifer: In short, that he wasn't himself. I find these various theories, such as the idea that Marlowe was Shakespeare, or, on the other side, that Shakespeare was in fact the Earl of Oxford, or Francis Bacon, or whomever, silly and tiresome. The second biggest misconception -- though you didn't ask -- is that he didn't write any prose, when he was probably the finest prose writer in Renaissance England: for instance, much of “Henry IV” is prose, and “Hamlet,” like many of the plays, shifts between prose and verse in compelling ways, creating a perfect rhythm, a new sound.

DP: As an introduction to Shakespeare which play would you recommend first and why?

Jennifer: That's easy: “Hamlet,” because to my mind, it is not only the greatest play written in English, but the greatest play ever written. From a technical point of view, it also contains a mix of Shakespeare's old style and his new style, falling on the hinge of the 17th Century, and ushering in the wonderful tragedies. And also because you can't read it and help but want to read everything; it's the play that makes you understand, in a way, that, as Eliot put it, 'the whole of Shakespeare's work is one poem'.

DP: Yale professor and literary critic Harold Bloom is fond of saying that Shakespeare created characters more real than living human beings. Which three Shakespearean characters do you consider the most alive and why?

Jennifer: I admire Harold Bloom, and I understand the justness but not the justice of that comment. I would say that it lessens, in a way it oughtn't to, the accomplishment of creating characters as real as human beings, though perhaps inhabiting different realities. That being said, here you are:

Hotspur in “Henry IV,” that brave heart who, with his comedic, choleric temper and his disastrous disregard and dislike for flattery, is a worthy opponent to Hal, and who speaks so real one can hear him talking; Rosalind in “As You Like It,” because, in disguise, she gets to tell inconvenient truths, such as 'Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love'; and Lance, that dog at all things from “Two Gentleman of Verona,” because his mutterings to himself, his clumsiness, and his love of his dog Crab show-- even at the early stages -- Shakespeare's unique ability in creating characters who are both ordinary and extraordinary.

That rich and strange combination is one of the lovely things, to my mind, about literature.

DP: Which three of Shakespeare's plays are your favorites and why?

Jennifer: It is hard for me to rank most of Shakespeare's plays, as I tend to think of them together (excepting “Titus Andronicus,” which has always seemed to me quite crude and which is also likely a collaboration). But to have a good-spirited go at favorites, I would say the following.

“Hamlet:” first for love of the thing; second for he ways in which it gives me pause every time I read or see it; third for its beautiful and generous displays of friendship; and fourth because it is a profound exploration of the many different kinds of realities one can countenance.

Next, “Measure for Measure” because it asks questions that it has the courage to not answer patly, and considers fair-mindedly beliefs with which it does not agree; and “Macbeth” for the astonishing versification and speed of the play, and for its candid and searching presentation of a man who, not unlike Othello, is destroyed by the very things that make him great, his sense of honor and his conscience.

Read our essay "The Undiscovered Country" here

Read our interview about Charles Dickens here

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