Shakespeare, Updated

There has been a lot of reaction, good and bad, to the news that the Hogarth Press, an imprint of Random House, plans to commission bestselling authors to write novels based on and updating Shakespeare’s plays. The project has a noble purpose – to honor the upcoming 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death in 1616 – but many Shakespeare fans are appalled that their beloved poet is being sullied.


King Lear, Benjamin West, c. 1788

They needn’t be. It has been ever thus. Case in point: King Lear, which scholars believe Shakespeare adapted from an existing play (The anonymous 1605 King Leir, which was itself an adaptation of the story as it appeared in Holinshed’s Chronicles) and then himself adapted during his life time – there are two distinct versions, one appearing in 1608 and the other in the 1623 Folio, and textual analysis seems to point to the differences in the two versions being attempts by the author to improve the play and also to remove material that had become offensive to the authorities in the politically turbulent decade between 1606 (when it was written) and 1616. Shakespeare also cribbed the Gloucester plot from Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590), thereby adapting a history and a novel into his stage play.

King Lear is an excellent example of Shakespeare’s “updating” of an old story – the legend of King Lyr takes place in prehistoric Celtic Briton, and itself echoes the ancient fairytale motif of the rejected daughter, known variously as “Cap O’ Rushes” and “As Meat Loves Salt.” Shakespeare gave the ancient tale “modern” flourishes, such as naming Lear’s sons-in-law the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany – titles that certainly didn’t exist in Briton 23 centuries before the play’s date. However, these titles were occupied at the time of the play’s first premiere by King James’s sons, Henry and Charles. There are many references to modern courtly manners and political scandals, and even a jab at Jacobean court ladies whose new fashion for low-plunging gowns bared half their torso:


Frances Howard, by William Larkin, 1615

Thou art a lady:
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st
Which scarcely keeps thee warm.

And then the next generation of playmakers further adapted King Lear to their own tastes. The London theaters, shut down by the Puritan Parliament in 1642, reopened with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and Shakespeare was a mainstay of the new stage while re-employed playwrights scurried to pen their own plays. One of these playwrights, Nahum Tate, took it upon himself to “improve” Shakespeare, giving Lear a happy ending in which Cordelia marries Edgar and restores Lear to the throne. ImageThis version was so much preferred by English audiences to Shakespeare’s grim, tragic version, that it was the only version performed until the early 1800s, when the Romantic poets and literary scholars began seeking to “restore” the “original” Shakespeare. Tate was far from the only writer to adapt Shakespeare in Shakespeare’s own century – John Dryden also “improved” several Shakespeare plays to fit the neoclassic unities – Antony and Cleopatra became All for Love, and The Tempest became The Enchanted Island.

King Lear and its tragic vision have survived these “updates” and will continue to – it’s one of the most-filmed of Shakespeare’s plays, and has been adapted by a global cast of great filmmakers. One of the earliest, Re Lear, a 1910 silent Italian film, drops the Gloucester subplot. Grigory Kosintzev’s Korol Lir (1971) added a bleak existential look to the tale, and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) set the story in feudal Japan. Jane Smiley famously adapted the tale in her 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres, turning Lear into the dictatorial wealthy farmowner who sets his three adult daughters against one another, and the play was also adapted into a 2002 made-for-TV version, King of Texas.


Yet the “original” King Lear (whatever that is – any stage director or editor must decide whether to present the 1608 quarto, the 1623 folio, or the more common “conflated” version) lives on. There are powerful “traditional” versions available on DVD – Peter Brooke’s 1950’s version starring Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier’s empathic performance from 1985, Richard Eyre’s beautiful and bleak 2004 production (in which he often rearranges scene order to suit his storytelling), and the recent acclaimed Royal Shakespeare Company production starring Ian McKellan. All are vastly different in style, set in different time periods and countries, and all have managed to keep the play alive for generations of  fans.

So I have no fear that this recent plan to “update” Shakespeare will tarnish the bard’s enduring appeal. 400 years of adaptations haven’t managed to do so yet.

Further Reading:
Grace Ioppolo, Revising Shakespeare, Harvard Univ. Press, 1992.
Gary Taylor and Michael Warren, eds., The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare’s Two Versions of King Lear, Clarendon, 1983.
Steven Urkowitz, Shakespeare’s Revision of King Lear, Princeton Univ. Press, 1980.


Happy Birthday, dear Ben

ImageBenjamin Jonson was born on this date in 1572 in Westminster, England. We are so fortunate to have had a new biography and a new edition of his complete works appear in the last year; perhaps at last he will have a place in the popular imagination equal, if not to Shakespeare’s, at least to his own deserving.

Legacy was all to Jonson. He was obsessed with how he would be remembered and read after he was gone – an unusual attitude for a poet in his time. Jonson was the first major author to self-publish his own collected works in 1616. It seems quite clear that Jonson’s Works were the impetus for Shakespeare’s colleagues to publish a compendium of his plays seven years later in 1623.Image

So why is it that Ben Jonson, a man who singlehandedly spawned a poetic industry, who was the anointed court poet for King James I, who was the most famous author of his age, is so little read today? Literary critics from the 18th century onward have contrasted Jonson and Shakespeare as the poets of intellect and emotion, respectively. John Dryden said of the two, “I admire Jonson, but I love Shakespeare.” In my experience as a teacher, this seems to be a common reaction on the part of students who read both authors. I had a similar outcome when I taught a seminar on Jonson and John Donne, a poet with whom Jonson had much more in common than with Shakespeare, including a birth year. My Jonson/Donne students, asked to write a short final essay on which of the two poets they would continue to read after the course was over and why, overwhelmingly chose Donne.

I can understand. The exuberant passion and playfulness that Shakespeare and Donne share in their poetic styles is muted and rigidly controlled in Jonson. Ben’s own contemporaries joked that “Shakespeare’s works are plays, but Jonson’s plays are work.” Not that Donne is easy to read – far from it. Even Jonson predicted, “Donne[‘s poems], for not being understood, would perish.” But perhaps it all comes down – as many things do – to sex.

Donne’s poems reward the attentive reader with provocative meditations on sexual passion and the mysteries of carnality. Shakespeare’s extravagant lovers have become the models for countless romantic tales. Jonson presents young lovers only as plot devices, reserving his detailed characterizations for conmen and witty manipulators.

I don’t think it was because Jonson was not interested in love, however. I think it was because he didn’t think poetry – a form he valued for its control and refinement – could represent something as messy and boundless as human love. Jonson, unlike Donne and Shakespeare, drew a clear boundary between the heart and the head. Not that he didn’t value the heart – in fact, he valued it so highly that he didn’t think poetry could capture it adequately.

In this, he expressed the values of his own age, but these values were supplanted in later years by the ideals of the Romantics, who passionately argued that the heart and the head were not and should not be separate from one another. They embraced Shakespeare as their patron saint at the same time that they created the English Literary Canon.

It’s too bad. What I love about Jonson’s works is exactly what makes them less successful on the stage – you can see Jonson in each of his characters, hear his own fierce intellect in each of his lines. To read Jonson is to know the man. Shakespeare, trained as actor, famously disappeared within his characters – there is no poetic personality, it seems, standing between us and Hamlet, Cleopatra, Macbeth, Lear, Juliet. Each character lives his or her own life. But Volpone, Face, Subtle, Adam Overdo, Pug the Devil – all these characters are aspects of Jonson himself, birthed whole from his forehead. You have to love Jonson himself to love his characters, and he was not an easy man to love. He was belligerent, adulterous, arrogant, insecure, self-destructive – “passionately kind and angry,” as his friend William Drummond put it, “a great lover and praiser of himself, a condemner and scorner of others, given rather to lose a friend than a jest, jealous of every word and action of those about him (especially after drink, which is one of the elements in which he liveth).” However, he never stopped trying to make himself and his world a better place. He also never hesitated to admit his own failures to do so. I love Shakespeare and Donne for their art, but I love Jonson, in all his messy humanity, for himself.

The poem that clinched it for me was this one, in which Jonson worries that the woman he met and fell for in Scotland found him too fat and ugly to love. He wishes that she could love him like she loves his words:

I now think, Love is rather deaf than blind,
For else it could not be,
That she
Whom I adore so much, should so slight me,
And cast my suit behind:
I’m sure my language to her was as sweet,
And every close did meet
In sentence of as subtil feet,
As hath the youngest he
That sits in shadow of Apollo’s tree.

Oh! but my conscious fears,
That fly my thoughts between,
Tell me that she hath seen
My hundreds of gray hairs
Told seven and forty years,
Read so much waste as she cannot embrace
My mountain belly and my rocky face,
And all these, through her eyes, have stopt her ears.

These are the words of a man who knows himself, and his value, even when the rest of the world doesn’t.

Happy Birthday to a Reverend Head

ImageMay 2 is the birthday of that great antiquarian, teacher, and scholar, William Camden (1551-1623), the man we can fairly give credit for the mind and career of Ben Jonson. Camden was the usher of The Westminster School when Jonson was a pupil there, and probably sponsored the bright bricklayer’s stepson as a scholarship boy. Camden took on the huge task of surveying all England for his monumental Britannia, which combined history, topography, and description to create a deep understanding of his beloved native land. He was a chronicler of his own time as well as an enthusiastic student of myth and folklore. Jonson remained devoted to Camden for the historian’s entire life, as the myriad exclamation points in his Epigram XIV demonstrate.

CAMDEN!  most reverend head, to whom I owe
All that I am in arts, all that I know;
(How nothing’s that?); to whom my country owes,
The great renown, and name wherewith she goes!
Than thee the age sees not that thing more grave,
More high, more holy, that she more would crave.
What name, what skill, what faith hast thou in things!
What sight in searching the most antique springs!
What weight, and what authority in thy speech!
Men scarce can make that doubt, but thou canst teach.
Pardon free truth, and let thy modesty,
Which conquers all, be once o’ercome by thee.
Many of thine, this better could, than I;
But for their powers, accept my piety.

Happy May Day

Image“GET up, get up for shame, the blooming morn
Upon her wings presents the god unshorn.
See how Aurora throws her fair
Fresh-quilted colours through the air :
Get up, sweet slug-a-bed, and see
The dew bespangling herb and tree.
Each flower has wept and bow’d toward the east
Above an hour since : yet you not dress’d ;
Nay ! not so much as out of bed?
When all the birds have matins said
And sung their thankful hymns, ’tis sin,
Nay, profanation to keep in,
Whereas a thousand virgins on this day
Spring, sooner than the lark, to fetch in May.”

— Corinna’s Going A-Maying

Robert Herrick (1591-1674), though a bachelor and a country parson most of his adult life, was a tremendous fan of rural fertility festivals and all the joys that came along with them. Scholars have long struggled to reconcile his religious profession with his frankly erotic verses (see “The Vine” for a poem that would make any modern teenager blush), but I see no contradiction here. Herrick lived during a time when everyone knew that life was short and pleasures few. The delights of the imagination, he suggests, are innocent, and beautiful, sensual language only honors the gifts of the creator. Herrick wrote his sermons for God but for himself he indulged in playful verse that celebrated life, love, food, and festivity.