This past weekend marked the beginning of the Passover holiday, and it was only when I was deep into my annual preparations that I was alerted to the fact that Saturday April 23rd would be William Shakespeare’s 400th yahrzeit. Which occasion surely deserves to be marked, even if belatedly. I’ll take the occasion of this anniversary of his death to speculate just why it is that Shakespeare didn’t die – why he lives on, seemingly going from strength to strength even as his chosen medium (the theater) has receded from its central place in the culture, as the culture has swung wildly in its own artistic and political enthusiasms, and as the English language itself has evolved far enough from Shakespeare’s own usage that a major North American festival thought it appropriate to translate his plays into contemporary idiom. What accounts for this extraordinary life after Shakespeare’s own death?
As has been noted elsewhere, Shakespeare did little if anything to prepare an afterlife for his works. Partly, this is because at the time plays were not considered serious literature on the level of poetry. But Ben Jonson – Shakespeare’s rough contemporary and sometime rival – famously challenged that view by publishing a folio edition of his work including his plays. We don’t know whether Shakespeare was mulling the same idea before his sudden death, but if he was he showed no signs of it. Does that mean Shakespeare agreed with the contemporary prejudice that plays were not “serious” art?
I suppose that’s possible. One can imagine the author of Titus Andronicus or A Comedy of Errors saying to himself: I’m really quite good at this, but this isn’t meant to last. But it doesn’t take long before you come to works that simply cannot be explained as the product of a hack working for money, not even a naively brilliant hack. Even a relatively weaker early work like the Henry VI trilogy demonstrates a level of ambition impossible to square with being a purely popular entertainer. Henry VI is a sprawling, multi-part saga about a deeply traumatic period in his country’s recent history. Its ambition is to be War and Peace, or at least “Gone With the Wind.” I don’t personally think it reaches that level – but the scale of the ambition is wildly at variance with what you’d expect of someone who saw himself as merely a popular entertainer.
And if Shakespeare’s ambition was obvious at that early point, it only gets more obvious as his career goes on. Shakespeare’s Richard II and Henry V weren’t just far more complex and sophisticated than the three parts of Henry VI – they were far more dangerous, asking quite probing questions about the foundations of political order. Coriolanus contains speeches so dense scholars are still debating what they actually mean, while plays like Measure For Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well are so fundamentally unsatisfying they get classified as “problem plays” – “problem” not usually being a descriptive that producers want to read in a review.
And then there’s Hamlet, a downright bizarre idea for a drama, when you think about it. In the original story, Amleth pretends to be mad in order to fool his usurping uncle into thinking he’s no threat, all the while plotting revenge for his father’s murder. That’s a straightforward story that would be easy to tell – and easy to sell. Instead, Shakespeare makes a quite deliberate hash of it, removing his hero’s obvious motivation for acting mad (because Claudius, at the start, is trying to win Hamlet over, not get rid of him), and then on top of that having his hero mysteriously unwilling or unable to take revenge when the opportunity is handed to him on a platter. In other words, Shakespeare took a story with clear character motivation, strong dramatic tension and robust forward momentum, and turned it into a story about puzzled wills losing the name of action. And, yes, thereby created one of the greatest works of art in the history of Western civilization – but there’s no way he could have known that he’d achieve that, and he would have been mad to want to. What we can surmise, though, is that Shakespeare was motivated by some other ambition than merely to entertain, or why make so many choices contrary to the demands of the genre, or even of good story-telling?
Shakespeare was, indeed, a preternaturally brilliant wordsmith, and if that were all he was then yes, one might imagine that he was a kind of savant, someone who just didn’t know that what he was doing was art. But his thematic, characterological and structural innovations were far too profound to be chalked up to naive genius.
The puzzle, then, is how to square Shakespeare’s obvious artistic ambition with the plain fact that he didn’t do much of anything to ensure that his ambition would outlive him. It’s my belief that part of the answer is simply that Shakespeare didn’t think that plays were things that sat on shelves, nor that he was an “author” as a playwright in the way that he, himself, was when he wrote the Sonnets or The Rape of Lucrece. Every blues tune, every German fairy tale, had an author of some sort at some point, because only people compose tunes or stories. But we don’t think it’s weird that those authors may be lost, or a sign that those authors didn’t care about their work.
If that supposition is correct, then perhaps Shakespeare thought his art was deeply serious – but also essentially ephemeral, like a sand mandala. That may or may not account for certain qualities of his language – but, unintentionally, that attitude may have had another effect. I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, but I think that the peculiar authorlessness of Shakespeare is part of the reason why his art has proved capable of conquering the world the way it has.
In the Western canon, there are really only two other works that rival Shakespeare’s for influence: Homer and the Bible. Both are works of towering genius, of course, and both were backed by large projects of cultural expansion, just as Shakespeare was. As well, though, I don’t think it’s an accident that they are the two other works around which there is a real mystery regarding authorship. In Homer’s case, the text as we have it was written down centuries after its legendary author had died. Before then, it was passed down orally – and we cannot possibly know, therefore, to what degree it was altered and augmented in transmission (not to mention that the Iliad and Odyssey appear to have been part of a larger poetic cycle). As a consequence not only of our ignorance of the author, but also of the mode of transmission itself, Homer’s work has a mystical quality to it, simultaneously seeming to have been authored by someone very specific, with an individual style, and by nobody at all, a beauty like Aphrodite born of the sea itself. Read Homer and Virgil side by side, and it is immediately apparent that the Aeneid has an obvious and self-aware author in a way that The Iliad does not.
The Bible, of course, comes packaged with a proclamation of its divine authorship, notwithstanding that it is manifestly a collection of books compiled over time, that many of those books themselves refer to having specific authors, and that even the core text of the Pentateuch, which tradition ascribes to divine authorship, reads much more like a novel about God than anything plausibly written by God. But that core text, again, contains stories that simultaneously manifest the quality of having been authored by someone very specific, with an individual style, and by nobody at all. Read the saga of Jacob and his sons, and you know you are in the hands of a great writer – but that writer gives none of the signs that he (or she!) is conscious of telling us a story, and wants us to be conscious of it, the way that, say, Ovid is. Again, I suspect this is an artifact in part of the mode of transmission of the text.
The limb I’m going out on is to suggest that something of the same effect is at work with Shakespeare. The very fact that he did not curate his own work – that, instead, it had to be cobbled together from actors’ rolls and the like, and that we have to reckon with Good Quarto and Bad Quarto versions of many of the plays, along with the Folio version – has allowed a multitude of individuals to become co-authors with Shakespeare of his seminal works. And this multitude is layered on top of the fact that many if not most of Shakespeare’s works were adaptations of previous work (only two of Shakespeare’s plays – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest – have original plots, and in both cases “plot” is a generous description of the action), that he more than occasionally collaborated with other writers, and that theater is inherently a collaborative and evolving art form, such that we cannot know whether individual actors made contributions to their roles, or whether Shakespeare – or anyone else – ever altered plays in response to their reception by the public. The result is a body of work that is at once highly individual, with a distinct verse style, distinct thematic preoccupations, etc. – but also strangely authorless, uncreated, eternal.
None of this would have availed were it not for Shakespeare’s genius. But Dante was also a genius; Chaucer was also a genius; Goethe was also a genius; Tolstoy was also a genius; Joyce was also a genius. And while their influences are titanic, Shakespeare’s influence really is different in kind. I cannot think of any other work that so belongs to us, the reader, the audience; of which we feel so free to talk about our versions of the work, as opposed to his, the author’s – to the point where this supreme genius of the English language has seen his work become foundational in entirely foreign tongues. The exception, again, being the Bible (and, in the ancient world, I suspect Homer would have been another exception).
For another point of comparison, take another genius, who died the same day as Shakespeare did – Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes’ influence was, in some ways, as large as Shakespeare’s. He not only arguably invented the novel (though there are clear precursors in the picaresque), he went right on to invent the metafictional novel immediately after, thereby permanently marking the form with a self-consciousness and reflexivity it has never managed to shake. But that very invention of metafiction was prompted by an identity crisis of copyright infringement. Don Quixote and Sancho were so popular that numerous knock-offs were being written about them by all sorts of people – and their creations were plainly inferior to Cervantes’s original. Given the state of the law at the time, there was nothing to do about this but to respond artistically, and so Cervantes did: Book 2 of his master work is an explicit reaction to those knock-offs, and takes place in a world where Quixote and his squire are well-known, and can no longer have naive adventures because they are everywhere recognized.
The result is an absolutely brilliant and supremely fecund piece of invention, but one which makes it all but impossible to avoid Cervantes’s authorship as a fact to be reckoned with. Resisted, perhaps, and there have been numerous attempts at such resistance, most prominently Kafka’s parable and Borges’s story, but these can be understood as somewhat desperate efforts to liberate Cervantes’s much-beloved characters from his authorial grasp, so that they might more directly and completely belong to us, an accomplishment which Shakespeare’s Hamlet achieves without even a hint of a struggle, because it is not the ever-elusive Shakespeare who labors to confine him, but Denmark, that prison, that nutshell whose bounds cannot confine the horror of his dreams. And we are penned in there right along with him.
Woody Allen famously quipped: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality by not dying.” Which – good luck to him with that. Meanwhile, we don’t know why Shakespeare, who was tenacious in other ways to carve out a name that would last beyond his life – carefully and expensively securing a place among the gentry, for example – was so cavalier about the ultimate disposition of his plays. But, in the end, that’s a question primarily of interest to his biographers. From my perspective, we should be thankful rather than frustrated that he was, for perhaps it was this blithe disregard that has made it possible for his work to assume the form, and therefore the status of a kind of secular scripture, and for us to treat it as such, living our lives through his words, his characters, his stories, and so to keep someone we really don’t know at all, alive, four hundred years after his death.