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.


King of Players, Player of Kings

ImageToday is the birthday (in 1566) of James VI & I of Scotland and England. Although Shakespeare and Jonson are classified as Elizabethan poets, it was under the reign of James, and under his personal patronage, that they both did their greatest work.

James called himself  “The Cradle King,” quite accurately, because he took over the monarchy of Scotland at the tender age of thirteen months, when his infamous mother, Mary, either eloped with or was abducted by the Earl of Bothwell, to make a bid for taking the crown of England away from her cousin Elizabeth.

James, of course, didn’t actually start to rule until his teens, and he was raised with all the advantages of a humanistic education, learning to “speik Latin ar I could speik Scotis.” As he matured, he asserted his absolute right to kingship and resisted both his mother’s and his cousin Elizabeth’s interference in the chaos of the civil war between powerful Scots families, and between Catholic and Protestant factions. His chief supporter, the charismatic Esmé Stuart, has been identified by some biographers as James’s first great love, but James was accustomed to calling the political shots long before he assumed the throne in earnest at the age of 22.


His marriage to Anna, princess of Denmark, was the stuff of storybooks – he claimed to have survived a witchcraft-caused storm at sea to reach her side to solemnize their marriage in Denmark. The alleged attack by the Berwick Coven was taken very seriously by James, whose fascination with witch-hunting he detailed in his own book, Daemonologie

James had won Elizabeth’s trust by agreeing not to protest her execution of his mother in 1587. Although she never formally named him her heir, her counsel assumed he was the best possible Protestant choice, and England welcomed him and his attractive family joyfully in 1603.

One of James’s very first actions as king was to take the most successful theatrical company into his household. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, headed by Richard Burbage and William Shakespeare, became the King’s Men, and scholars agree that all the plays Shakespeare wrote after 1603 are essentially written with the King in mind as his primary audience.

Jonson, too, thrived under James, quickly stepping up to become James’s chief maker of masques and entertainments –


Masquing girls – costume design by Buontalenti, courtesy of

— a relatively new art form imported by Anna from the continent in which courtiers danced and displayed themselves to the accompaniment of music and recited poetry, before a powerful invited audience of courtiers. James did not perform in the masques but his wife and children all did, and Jonson perfected the art of flattering the king while gently instructing the court on what qualities good nobles should possess.


For all his strengths, however, James soon became unpopular with the English people. He was extravagant, condescending, antisocial, and physically awkward (he suffered from nervous twitches and had a speech impediment); he was overly attached to a series of handsome male “favorites,” but worse than his possible homosexuality, in the eyes of his subjects, was his pacifism. He refused to fight on behalf of the European Protestants against Catholic Spain, preferring to create alliances through marriages to his children than take up (expensive) arms.

He was intensely aware that kingship was a form of performance, writing in Basilikon Doron, his book of kingly advice to Prince Henry, “It is a trew old saying, That a King is as one set on a stage, whose smallest actions and gestures, all the people gazingly doe behold”

This fact is frequently noted when scholars investigate his commitment to drama in spite of his own distaste for theaters and public appearances. Shakespeare’s Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure is often assumed to be imitating James when he says,

I love the people,Image But do not like to stage me to their eyes:
Though it do well, I do not relish well
Their loud applause and Aves vehement;
Nor do I think the man of safe discretion
That does affect it.

In spite of his distaste for “staging,” Vincentio disguises himself as a monk to spy on his people — alluding, possibly, to James’s own unsuccessful attempt  to visit the Royal Exchange while disguised as a commoner, in order to investigate the business dealings of the merchants occupying this early version of a shopping mall.

A complex and contradictory man, James – even more than his predecessor Elizabeth – can be credited with inspiring the greatest plays and characters to appear on the English stage. Macbeth, Volpone, Othello, Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Justice Overdo – all the figures who use their wits to negotiate the shifting tides of power in spite of their flaws and passions – are in some ways aspects of James.

Further reading:
James Stewart, The Cradle King: A Life of James VI & I, Chatto & Windus, 2003.
Jonathon Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature, Stanford Univ. Press, 1989.
Alvin Kernan, Shakespeare, the King’s Playwright, Yale Univ. Press, 1997.
Kristen McDermott, Masques of Difference: Four Court Masques by Ben Jonson, Manchester Univ. Press, 2007.
Gary Wills, Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Oxford Univ. Press, 1996.

Jonson, Shakespeare, and Fathers


Walter Ralegh and his son, Wat

Ben Jonson was particularly interested in fatherhood, but most of his experiences were sad ones, not really appropriate for this day on which we celebrate our fathers. His most famous poem, surely, is his elegy for his eldest son, Benjamin, who died at the age of seven, while Ben was away visiting a wealthy patron on his country estate. Whether or not his illegitimate children were comforts to Ben in his later years is a matter for pure conjecture – what is known, is that Ben thought of his poems as his “children”:

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
Oh, could I lose all father now ! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,
And if no other misery, yet age!
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
As what he loves may never like too much.

Jonson shared the tragic experience of losing a young son with his friend and colleague, William Shakespeare, who lost his 11-year-old son Hamnet in 1596. Shakespeare, however, had two daughters that he saw reach adulthood and marry, and some of his most poignant scenes include the loving relationships between fathers and daughters in his later plays:

Miranda: Alack, what trouble
Was I then to you!
Prospero: O, a cherubim
Thou wast that did preserve me. Thou didst smile.
Infused with a fortitude from heaven,
When I have deck’d the sea with drops full salt,
Under my burthen groan’d; which raised in me
An undergoing stomach, to bear up
Against what should ensue.                     (The Tempest, I.2.261-9)

Parenthood in the early modern world was a melancholy business – so many children did not survive to be adults, and the religious and moral teachings of the day warned parents not to be too fond of their offspring, that too much affection would make them immoral. That advice was rarely heeded, however – the literature of the time is filled with the joys and sorrows of parenthood. Here are some useful books on the subject:

David Cressy, Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England, Oxford University Press, 1997.

Tom Macfaul, Poetry and Paternity in Renaissance England: Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, and Jonson, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500–1800. 1979.

Bruce Wilson Young, Family Life in the Age of Shakespeare, Greenwood, 2009.

And the Newberry Library in Chicago has a great collection of primary documents related to the topic: Marriage and Family in Shakespeare’s England.

I’ve discussed Jonson’s interest in parenthood in my own scholarly research:

“’He may be our father, perhaps’: Paternity, Puppets, Boys and Bartholomew Fair,” in Critical Essays on Ben Jonson, ed. Robert N. Watson (New York: G.K. Hall): 60-81.


Jonson’s Gossips and the Stuart Family Drama,” Early Theatre 9.1 (Summer 2006): 61-83.

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.

Back in Print

“O merchant fortune! Do not run away.”

After a brief hiatus that unfortunately included both the 2012 holidays and Shakespeare’s birthday 2013, William Shakespeare: His Life and Times is back in print in the US! Here’s a sample:

25 February, 1613

My Child,
I am coming home, and to stay this time.
Thou marvell’st at my words! I know. I have spoken of it for nigh ten years now, and you and Mother grow weary of my promises. But I speak true as Troilus, and you will see me before Shrovetide so that we may share our Lenten pancakes together.
‘Now my charms are all o’erthrown.’ Thus begins the end of The Tempest, my last play. My Prospero shall speak these lines (and more, when I finish them!) as he retires from his island, abandons his magical arts, and returns to his life at home. I write this missive to you with the selfsame words ringing in my ears…