The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare

August 4, 2016 at 4:21 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Shakespeare)


I’ve been missing our sojourns to the Folger Theatre, so yea, verrily, I was yearning for the wit, wisdom, and poetry of the Bard…

I got all three on Saturday in the Globe On Tour’s production of The Merchant of Venice at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.

That’s Jonathan Pryce, above, as Shylock, the play’s most famous and controversial character. This was his first appearance in that role and his first time acting with the Globe. When he was first invited to take the part, he said no. He had never had any desire to act Shylock; in fact, he had a positive aversion to the role. But a seed had been planted. He reread the play, changed his mind, and signed on to do it.

It was brilliant. The entire production was brilliant.

This is not a play with which I’m particularly well acquainted. I came to it relatively cold, deliberately. Of course, I knew about Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. To a degree, I braced myself for the ugliness to come. And ugliness there is, but there is beauty also, mainly in the person of three sets of lovers who, this being a comedy, all ultimately attain their hearts’ desires.

Yet Shylock remains the burning center of the action. And, for me at least, his forced conversion at the play’s end was cringe-inducing in its cruelty. (To me, it seemed not only a mockery of Judaism, but of Christianity as well.)

Shakespeare’s comedy is Portia’s play, though some audiences now find it difficult to reach that conclusion.

Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

It begins with boisterous music and dance. There’s also a  fair amount of lighthearted horseplay, supplied mainly by Stefan Adegbola as Shylock’s servant Launcelot Gobbo. Adegbola shouts gleefully, and dashes all over the stage and into the audience, where  he grabs people and pulls them onto the stage and into the action. Adegbola is a gifted comedian; he had the audience in stitches.

Stefan Adegbola as Launcelot Gobbo

Stefan Adegbola as Launcelot Gobbo

The single intermission did not occur until shortly before the famous courtroom scene. By then, the mood had turned decidedly somber.

One of the joys of seeing a Shakespeare play with which you are not all that familiar is the way in which familiar lines of dialog pop up now and then, providing richly rewarding “aha!” moments. A good example of this is Portia’s devastating putdown of one of her more irritating suitors: “God made him, and therefore let him pass for a man” (Act 1, Scene 2).


Portia (Rachel Pickup) enduring the importunities of one of her oily suitors, the Prince of Arragon (Christopher Logan)

Then there’s this:

How far that little candle throws its beams!
So shines a good deed in a naughty world.

(Act 5, Scene 1)

Portia speaks these words almost in a state of wonderment. That second line appears in Judgement in Stone, Ruth Rendell’s masterpiece. In the context in which the late Baroness Rendell places it, the tone is quite different.

Jonathan Pryce as Shylock remonstrates with his daughter Jessica (Phoebe Pryce, who is Jonathan Pryce's daughter in real life)

Jonathan Pryce as Shylock remonstrates with his daughter Jessica, played by Phoebe Pryce, who is Jonathan Pryce’s daughter in real life

In Act Five, the playwright, as if released from some mysterious constraint, bursts forth with some of the most gorgeous poetry anywhere in the canon. Witness the dreamy, lyrical exchange between Jessica and Lorenzo that opens Scene One:

Lor.  The moon shines bright: in such a night as this,
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees
And they did make no noise, in such a night         5
Troilus methinks mounted the Troyan walls,
And sigh’d his soul toward the Grecian tents,
Where Cressid lay that night.
Jes.        In such a night
Did Thisbe fearfully o’ertrip the dew,         10
And saw the lion’s shadow ere himself,
And ran dismay’d away.
Lor.        In such a night
Stood Dido with a willow in her hand
Upon the wild sea-banks, and waft her love         15
To come again to Carthage.
Jes.        In such a night
Medea gather’d the enchanted herbs
That did renew old Æson.

I confess the line I was waiting for was “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank.” It’s spoken just a bit later, in the same scene, by Lorenzo:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patenes of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-ey’d cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

When finally I heard it, I sighed inwardly: how lovely… And I’m delighted by “Sit, Jessica.”  It is a line that’s startling in its contemporary resonance – as when Juliet says to Romeo: “The orchard walls are high and hard to climb.”

As for being Jewish while watching this play – well, I felt strangely ambivalent. My dear cousin, with whom I attended the performance and who is more committed in her Jewish observance than I am, had, I believe, a similar reaction; namely, it is anti-Semitic and it is brilliant. (There’s that word again; no denying it.) You can tell yourself that it is an entertainment of and for the time in which Shakespeare and his fellow players and collaborators lived and worked.

And yet – to quote Shylock:

If you prick us, do we nor bleed?

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“O, for a muse of fire that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention!” – Henry V at the Folger Theatre

February 5, 2013 at 3:27 am (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Shakespeare)

It was Sunday February 3, and I was excited about going to this performance. Was I ever! – especially after reading the glowing review in the Post.

Little did I know , I was in for a unique experience….

The first half of the play proceeded nicely. Henry V was being forcefully portrayed, although the actor did not resemble Zach Appelman, as he appeared on the cover of the program.  The stage set was impressive; it featured several large wooden beams (or beams that seemed to be of wood). These were alternately raised and lowered at different times during the play. One reviewer expressed some puzzlement concerning this use of the device. It did seem somewhat arbitrary; yet basically it worked, especially when shipboard experience was being evoked. The lighting and the sound effects were  both artfully deployed. This is something you can depend on in a Folger production.

For me, the most resonant part of the play’s first half was the description of the death of Falstaff. Here are Bardolph, Pistol, and Mistress Quickly, all holdovers from the Henry IV plays. Mistress Quickly was a witness to Falstaff’s passing:

A’ made
a finer end and went away an it had been any
christom child; a’ parted even just between twelve
and one, even at the turning o’ the tide: for after
I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with
flowers and smile upon his fingers’ ends, I knew
there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as
a pen, and a’ babbled of green fields.

But I also love the prologue, delivered by the ‘Chorus’ – actually, a solitary individual on stage, whose office it is to set the stage. Longing for “a muse of fire,” he entreat the playgoers to use their imaginations and conjure the scenes in their own minds as the drama unfolds:

Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass:


Intermission went by swiftly. I bolted through the long gallery where the special exhibitions are showcased. I barely had time to register the current one, which is entitled “Nobility and Newcomers in Renaissance Ireland.” But my friend and fellow playgoer Nancy made sure that I saw a newly authenticated painting of Queen Elizabeth I. It seems that this portrait had been hanging for some fifty years in the gatehouse of the Elizabethan Gardens  on Roanoke Island,  North Carolina.

Thanks, Nancy – I might have missed that painting, intent as I was on gaining the gift shop!


So: we’re back in the theatre proper for the second half of the performance. I’m pumped – for now we’re going to hear King Henry deliver one of Shakespeare’s oratorical masterpieces: the great Saint Crispin’s Day speech. But hold – what’s this? Henry V doth stride upon the stage….CLUTCHING THE SCRIPT!! Yes – he has in his hand a spiral notebook  from which he gleans his lines, one by one. For sure, he delivers them with conviction. But the constant need to consult the text in his hand certainly does away with the illusion of spontaneity.  Also, it was just plain distracting.

All became clear at the play’s conclusion. It seems that Zach Appelman, the actor upon whom the Post reviewer had lavished such praise, had been taken ill during  the previous evening’s performance. Andrew Schwartz, listed in the program as playing both the Dauphin and the Duke of Cambridge, had to take over. Thrust suddenly into the starring role, Schwartz had apparently not had time to memorize all his lines. Yet another actor took over Schwartz’s other roles. And the program gives the name of yet another actor – Louis Butelli – as the designated understudy of Zach Appelman.  Rather confusing – a regular comedy of errors, if you will.

When the cast took their final bows, Andrew Schwartz made a gesture of wiping the sweat from his brow. ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,’ as Henry’s own father observed

Zach Appelman as Henry V

Zach Appelman as Henry V

Andrew Schwartz

Andrew Schwartz

So, were we still able to enjoy the play? Yes, despite this odd turn up. (Debbie, my other play going companion, did mention rather wistfully that it would have been great if Andrew Schwartz could have delivered the Saint Crispin’s Day speech from memory. One could not help but agree. And yet he really did a fine job, under the circumstances.)

Life long theater goer that I am, this was a first for me. (The blogger at Italics Are Mine attended the same performance I did and records his observations here.)

The Modern Library’s site has a wonderful feature called 100+ of the Best Books on Shakespeare.   Also PBS is currently running a splendid series called Shakespeare Uncovered.  One of the episodes, hosted by Jeremy Irons,  is about the history plays Henry IV and Henry V.


Here are two of the twentieth century’s most famous depictions of the Saint Crispin’s Day speech delivered by Henry V to his men. They have heard that they will be greatly outnumbered by the enemy, and Henry must use every power he can command to instill courage in their hearts.

This is Laurence Olivier in the 1944 film:

This is Kenneth Branagh in the 1989 film:

Both very stirring, I’m sure you’ll agree. For me, Olivier’s version is somewhat more nuanced, and thus has a slight edge over Branagh’s.

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Beware the green-eyed monster! – Othello at the Folger Theatre

November 15, 2011 at 2:25 am (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Shakespeare)

Owiso Odera as Othello and Ian Merrill Peakes as Iago

The exact words spoken by Iago, as provided by M.I.T.’s Shakespeare site, are

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on….

What a pleasure to hear once again Othello’s extravagant tale of his wooing of Desdemona, culminating in two of my favorite lines in all of Shakespeare:

She loved me for the dangers I had pass’d,
And I loved her that she did pity them.

All of this, to be systematically destroyed by one of the most coldly calculating characters in all of literature. In Shakespeare After All, Marjorie Garber says this of Iago:

Hate for hate’s sake. Motiveless malignity. Iago is successful precisely because he has no second dimension, no doubt, no compassion. From the start he is all action, and he is everywhere. Flattering Othello, and then Rodrigo. Shouting out of the darkness, and calling for light. Yet notice that in fact he does nothing himself.

Indeed not. He goads, he taunts, he mocks, he inflames passions, he poisons true feeling.

In the play’s final scene, after Othello has been made aware of Iago’s perfidy, he looks down to see if Iago has cloven hoofs instead of the feet of a human being.. It was a moment that cast me back to my college days and a Shakespeare  class I took at Goucher College with the wonderful Brooke Peirce. He explained that according to legend, the Devil possesses cloven hoofs. But Iago displays no such blatant badge of infamy. He has the feet of a man – an unspeakably evil man.

The final scene in its entirety was so intense that my eyes were stinging. Emerging into the light afterward, I said to my companion, “I feel shattered.”

I want to say a word about the set. At the beginning of the play, the stage resembled a seraglio, with billowing fabrics shot through with color. Later this same material became the sails of a ship in peril. The mariners were pulling at lines that seemed anchored in the theater’s  far upper reaches.

Oweso Odera and Ian Merrill Peakes were both terrific. Odera was born in Khartoum, Sudan, and began his acting career in Kenya. Peakes has several Folger triumphs to his credit. The review in the Washington Post hails him as “one of the finest Shakespearean actors regularly appearing in Washington.”

The run for this production has been extended through December 4. Here’s the trailer:

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Recent articles of interest

July 23, 2011 at 10:17 pm (books, Magazines and newspapers, Shakespeare)

First – This speaks for itself. I found it very moving:

“Site of Holy Ark Uncovered in Excavations of Great Synagogue in Vilnius”


John Granger is obviously a great proponent of the Harry Potter opus. But in “Imagining the World Without Harry Potter,” is he going a bit too far in crediting J.K. Rowling’s magnum opus with saving the habit of reading on Planet Earth? I’m not sure…. (As a great fan of crime fiction, I understand only too well the craving for story  that is ingrained in the human psyche.)

I myself have read only the first of the Harry Potter books – actually listened, to Jim Dale’s marvelous performance on audiobook. When I started the second, I found I was not inclined to go on with it. Nevertheless, I have great respect for Rowling’s achievement, and for the pleasure she’s given to so many readers.

At any rate, Granger’s article is provocative – especially when he castigates the likes of A.S. Byatt, Donald Bathelme, and John Barth – whose Sot Weed Factor I love, BTW – for disdaining the art of storytelling, preferring instead to bore readers senseless with their “literary experiments.”


I feel no ambivalence about Carol J. Adams’s delightful “Five Myths about Jane Austen.” This piece may precipitate yet another Jane Attack. I’ve already read through the entire canon twice; is Round Three in the offing, perhaps..? Revisiting these wonderful works via audiobook is a distinct possibility, I’d say!


And speaking of the canon,  Simon Schama, Britain’s gift to these shores, reminds us in this recent Newsweek article of the continuing – might one say, eternal? – relevance of Shakespeare to American life.


And finally, no one is going to accuse Harold Bloom of reticence in expressing his views on the Zeitgeist in general and  literature in particular. For example, the following appears in How To Read and Why (2000):

…Maupassant is the best of the really ‘popular’ story-writers, vastly superior to O. Henry (who could be quite good) and greatly preferable to the abominable Poe….

Whether Maupassant can make us see what we could never have seen without him, I very much doubt. That calls for the genius of Shakespeare, or of Chekhov.

That’s Maupassant damned with faint praise and Poe dismissed out of hand! Along with many others, I have a deep regard for the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Moreover, in the past year I’ve read a story – “Looking Back” – and a novel – A Life – both by Maupassant and both quite simply superb. I’ll have more to say about them in a later post.

When I found out that Harold Bloom had a new book out – The Anatomy of Influence – I was not sure that I wished to attempt it. But then, upon reading “3 Books on Literary Criticism” by Michael Lindgren,  I thought I might reconsider. This is mainly due to Lindgren’s quoting Bloom’s assessment of contemporary culture; namely, that it is racing “down the cliffs to intellectual suicide in the gray ocean of the Internet.”


In fairness, Harold Bloom wrote one of my all time favorite works of literary criticism:

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Raucous and rollicking: The Comedy of Errors at the Folger

February 21, 2011 at 11:33 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Shakespeare)

Darius Pierce as Dromio of Ephesus and Bruce Nelson as Antipholus of Ephesus

By the time we got to the Folger yesterday afternoon, word was already out: this production of The Comedy of Errors was smashing! And so it proved to be.

The set-up is this: two sets of identical – and identically named! – twins race around the  city of Ephesus sowing discord and confusion. Cases of mistaken identity pile up exponentially. I wouldn’t dream of trying to provide a more detailed plot summary; it all whipped past us so deftly and so swiftly.

The comedy was physical without being slapstick. Darius Pierce, pictured above, was an especial joy to watch. The set was beautiful and at the same time cunningly designed. The Dromio twins kept getting wedged in the too-small doorways. The learning curve was nil!

Comedy of Errors is very early Shakespeare. The date of the first performance is usually given as 1592 or 1593. Could those who were there possibly have had any idea of  the unparalleled brilliance that the author of this frothy confection would soon reveal to the world? One wonders….A mere two (or three?) years later, Romeo and Juliet had its premiere. (And wouldn’t you know it, the line “Dromio, Dromio, wherefore art thou, Dromio” magically found its way into this madcap production!)

The Folger has an outstanding study guide on its site. I highly recommend having a look at it if you’re planning to see The Comedy of Errors. Good luck getting tickets, though – our matinee was completely sold out.

Here’s a quick run-though of the plot, courtesy of cast members:

Here’s the trailer:

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“Wow! What a fabulous show!” – Henry VIII at the Folger Theatre, Sunday November 7, 2010

November 15, 2010 at 7:24 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Shakespeare)

“All good people, /  Pray for me. I must now forsake ye.” Thus does the Duke of Buckingham go to his ordained end.

The Duke’s deeply moving words of farewell are spoken with a quiet eloquence by actor Stephen Patrick Martin. Although he has been falsely accused and convicted, Buckingham faces death with stoic  courage. He is generous and forgiving, which is more than can be said of his scheming adversaries.

The powerful Cardinal Wolsey is also heading for a fall. It’s the way things go at the court of King Henry VIII – on top of the world one minute, awaiting execution the next. Wolsey cannot but reflect bitterly on the irony of a situation brought about by his own overweening actions, freely chosen:

Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies.

Anthony Cochrane, whose sonorous baritone richly conveys the turbulent emotions of Cardinal Wolsey as he contemplates his own ruin

Finally, there’s the noble Katharine of Aragon (Naomi Jacobson), set aside after two decades of marriage so  that the King can marry Anne Boleyn. Like Buckingham, Katharine faces death with a noble mien:

Remember me
In all humility unto his highness:
Say his long trouble now is passing
Out of this world; tell him, in death I bless’d him,
For so I will. Mine eyes grow dim. Farewell,
My lord. Griffith, farewell. Nay, Patience,
You must not leave me yet: I must to bed;
Call in more women. When I am dead, good wench,
Let me be used with honour: strew me over
With maiden flowers, that all the world may know
I was a chaste wife to my grave: embalm me,
Then lay me forth: although unqueen’d, yet like
A queen, and daughter to a king, inter me.
I can no more.

In latter years, Henry VIII has come to be thought of as a problematic play, largely due to its odd structure. In our program, in the “Dramaturg’s Notes,” Michele Osherow informs us that the cast and crew received the good wishes of the Archbishop of Canterbury. His Excellency went on to comment that “Henry VIII is a play very seldom performed these days, in this country at least.” (Osherow notes that the play was, in fact, made part of this past summer season at the Globe Theatre in London.)

In an essay at the back of the Folger edition of Henry VIII, Barbara A. Mowat explains the two different views that critics hold concerning this vexed question of the play’s structure. The first group see in Henry VII what Mowat calls an essentially “providential” element. In this interpretation, the play’s action follows what Mowat terms a

….comic parabola, a progression of events  leading to the play’s significant moment: the birth and christening of Elizabeth and Cranmer’s prophetic vision – a vision of a new Golden Age when the royal infant will grow up to be a “pattern to all princes” and of an England in which, under Queen Elizabeth, “every man shall eat in safety / Under his own vine what he plants / and sing / The merry songs of peace to all his neighbors.”

(A bit of elucidation here: Archbishop Cranmer, played by Nathan James Bennett, is Wolsey’s more biddable successor. His speech predicting great things for the infant Elizabeth is certainly stirring. The first recorded performance of Henry VIII took place in 1613. By that time, Good Queen Bess had been dead for some ten years, her accomplishments already recorded in history’s ledger. Cranmer’s encomium has, therefore, the benefit of hindsight.)

The play appears to other commentators as exemplifying a pattern known as the Wheel of Fortune:

They argue that the play focuses our attention and our sympathy on three of Henry’s victims in turn – Buckingham, Katherine, and Wolsey – and that the unifying design of the play is a series of linked circles, a repeated pattern of rises and falls on Fortune’s wheel, a pattern that the still moment of Elizabeth’s christening interrupts only briefly.

(All this talk of Fortune’s inexorable and cyclical motion put me in mind of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. I looked the piece up on Wikipedia and was greeted with the sight of Fortune’s Wheel, in the form of an illustration that appeared on the original score of this highly original and inventive musical meditation on the inscrutable workings of fate: .  Here is the “O Fortuna” from the Carmina Burana:

Click here for the English translation.)

The “providential” school sees the play as essentially a comedy, with England itself as the hero. The Wheel of Fortune critics tend more toward the tragic view.

At the play’s conclusion, Anne Boleyn is in the ascendant, and we all know what eventually happened to her. O Fortuna indeed… 

I came to this performance never having seen or read Henry VIII. For me, one of the great pleasures of the Folger productions has been the opportunity to approach certain of the Shakespeare plays “cold” and evaluate the experience as a neophyte playgoer.  Two of my favorite occasions that took place along those lines were Measure  for Measure and A Winter’s Tale. In both cases, the Bard worked his magic on me, seemingly without effort.

Although I was not especially au fait concerning the niceties of the intrigues at the King’s court, I of course knew the broad outline of the story of King Henry VIII. This is no doubt true of even casual students of English history. The drama inherent in Henry’s  struggle to put by his loyal and long suffering queen so that he can marry his would-be paramour is justly famous. On one level, it is a very human tale; on another, because of the dramatis personae and their importance on the world stage at the time, the outcome was bound to be, as they say nowadays,a  game changer.

Religious conflict was at the heart of this seismic overthrow, but you would not necessarily know that watching this play. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom observes:

Shakespeare, with his customary political caution, avoids any suggestion that Henry is particularly culpable when his favorites fall, though the playwright also never quite exonerates the king. Even the Catholic-Protestant confrontation is so muted that Shakespeare hardly appears to take sides.

I loved this production; so, for the most part, did the reviewers. Mark Lee Adams begins his write-up in ShowBizRadio with the exclamation “Wow! What a fabulous show!” Peter Marks’s review in the Washington Post was somewhat less effusive but still, on the whole, positive. And click here for Robert Aubrey’s enthusiastic rave on About Town.

Fabulous costumes; terrific acting – Ian Merrill Peakes excels once again in the lead role – and of course the inimitable poetry of William Shakespeare made for a wonderful theater going experience.


Thomas Cromwell is a minor figure in this play, but he is the chief protagonist in Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Through Cromwell’s eyes we see the destabilising chaos caused by Henry’s obsession with Anne Boleyn and his equally obsessive fixation on the need to provide a male heir to England’s throne. Mantel’s riveting novel was much on my mind as I watched the doings on stage.


During the initial performance of Henry VIII (alternatively titled All Is True), the Globe Theatre caught fire. Several eyewitness accounts of this event survive, probably the best known being contained in a letter from Sir Henry Wotton to a friend:

“… I will entertain you at the present with what happened this week at the Banks side. The King’s players had a new play called All is True, representing some principal pieces of the reign of Henry the Eighth, which set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty even to the matting of the stage; the knights of the order with their Georges and Garter, the guards with their embroidered coats, and the like: sufficient in truth within awhile to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous. Now King Henry making a Masque at the Cardinal Wolsey’s house, and certain cannons being shot off at his entry, some of the paper or other stuff, wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the thatch, where being thought at first but idle smoak, and their eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground. This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabrick, wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw, and a few forsaken cloaks; only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broyled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit, put it out with a bottle of ale.”

One especially appreciates that last bit. Can’t you just see a contemporary headline: “Man with Pants on Fire Doused with Beer!!”

For more on this – the actual fire, I mean – see the Globe Theatre site.


The Folger production of Henry VIII has extended its run through to November 28. Therefore: hie thee with all due haste to the Folger’s box office! Should you obtain tickets, the schematic below may be of use to you:

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Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

July 23, 2010 at 2:00 pm (Book review, books, Shakespeare)

Thus did a female character idly wonder in a play from the year 1759 called High Life Below Stairs. When told that the real author was Ben Jonson,  she disagrees vigorously:

“‘Oh no! Shakespeare was written by one Mr. Finis, for I saw his name at the end of the book.’

This delightful bit of drollery is recounted by James Shapiro in the endlessly fascinating and eminently readable Contested Will.

author James Shapiro

The subject is a serious one, though. The Shakespeare plays reign supreme among the great works of Western literature. Who, then, is the true author of these masterpieces? And why has this question arisen in the first place?

A little more than a century after the Bard’s death, scholars and others began searching for documents that would illuminate his life. What did they find? First of all, his will, in 1737, where he famously left his wife his “second best bed.”  Sixteen years later, a mortgage deed for a London property was unearthed. A letter to Shakespeare from Richard Quiney, his neighbor in Stratford, was found in 1793 by the leading Shakespeare biographer and scholar of the day, Edmond Malone.

And that was about it.

And that’s where the trouble started.

Where were the manuscripts in Shakespeare’s own hand? Where was the information about the books he must surely have owned? Where were the letters, which might provide some key to the sources of his inspiration?

Nowhere to be found…

Edmond Malone was the first person to attempt to formulate an accurate chronology of the plays. This scholarly exercise was quickly followed by efforts to deduce biographical or topical (meaning contemporary) meaning from those same plays:

‘Malone’s argument presupposed that in writing his plays, Shakespeare mined his own emotional life in transparent ways and, for that matter, that Shakespeare responded to life’s surprises much as Malone and people in his own immediate circle would have.

And what’s wrong this this approach? Plenty:

‘…there was no effort to consider that even as literary culture had changed radically since early modern times, so too had a myriad of social customs, religious life, childhood, marriage, family dynamics, and, cumulatively, the experience of inwardness. The greatest anachronism of all was in assuming that people have always experienced the world the same way we ourselves do, that Shakespeare’s internal, emotional life was modern.

Shapiro points out that, at least in England, people were not in the habit of writing memoirs, no matter their fame or station in life. It simply wasn’t done. The keeping of diaries or journals was equally rare. The word “biography” did not even enter the language until the 1660s.

The sonnets were subjected to the same sort of scrutiny. Malone was nothing if not persistent. In his efforts to write a definitive biography of Shakespeare, he held to the conviction that a commonplace book, diaries, and/or letters would at some point surface. They never did. And the biography was never completed. After Malone’s death in 1812, James Boswell the Younger was given  the task of finishing the work. But upon examining the material, Boswell realized that he was not merely in need of some material to fill in the lacunae; rather, he was faced with what a called a “chasm.”


Shapiro goes on to explain the way in which questions about Homer’s authorship of The Iliad and The Odyssey fueled the questions then arising about Shakespeare’s authorship. Likewise the explosion of Biblical scholarship. As the nineteenth century got under way, fresh intellectual inquiries were calling old verities into question. One of those verities had to do with the Shakespeare plays. Among the major reasons for the questioning in regard to Shakespeare are his lack of a university education and the lack of evidence that he ever traveled outside of England. Shapiro then focuses on two of the chief contenders for the crown of authorship: Sir Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

One of Bacon’s most ardent proponents was Delia Bacon, an American. No relation to Sir Francis, although she probably entertained the fantasy. (Actually she entertained many fantasies, as, in the course of her short life, her state of mind became increasingly precarious.) Hers is an interesting, if poignant, story.

I had never heard of Delia Bacon, but I was surprised to encounter, in the course of this narrative, some quite famous personalities. None other than Henry James weighed in as a doubter. Along with Delia Bacon and others, he fervently believed that The Tempest is Shakespeare’s most autobiographical play, where he sets the stage for the leave-taking of his creative life. In an introduction to a new edition of that masterwork, James set forth the issues that bothered him:

“…how could the genius who wrote [The Tempest] renounce his art at the age of forty-eight and retire to rural Stratford to ‘spend what remained to him of life in walking about a small, squalid country-town with his hand in his pockets and ear for no music but the chink of the coin they might turn over there?’

Mark Twain weighed in on the controversy with Is Shakespeare Dead? (rather oddly subtitled, From My Autobiography). Is Shakespeare Dead? was published in 1909. In that year, Twain received a visit from his friend and correspondent, Helen Keller. Keller herself was also skeptical of the claims of the Bard.


Digression alert: I was talking to my friend Evelyn, a children’s librarian, about the fact that Helen Keller seems not to be as well known today as she was at mid-century. We agreed that when we were growing up, we all knew about her and her achievements. And we had all of us seen the film version of William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker. Its climax, when Annie Sullivan finally breaks through to the young Helen, is one of the great moments of stage and film:

A foundation for research into the prevention of blindness and hearing loss is named in honor of this remarkable woman.

Mark Twain and Helen Keller, circa 1899


By the time Twain published his book, the Bacon faction was on the wane. And a different candidate was gaining in credibility. This is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Shapiro’s chapter on Oxford begins with Sigmund Freud. I know – I had the same reaction – “Sigmund, what are you doing here?” But it behooves us to recall Freud’s famous analysis of Hamlet; namely, that the Prince of Denmark was afflicted by an unresolved Oedipal fixation on – who else – his mother. The theory, and the play, made much more sense if the author were a man of breeding, education, and mystery. Oxford, a well placed aristocrat, was a good fit – certainly a better one than the man from Stratford.

This section is complex and fascinating and pretty much takes us into the present era of authorship study. It is followed by an even more absorbing section, the final section, in which Shapiro presents “The Evidence for Shakespeare.”  I don’t want to give away the  nature of that evidence, except to say that in my opinion, he makes an extremely persuasive case for Shakespeare as the author of the Shakespeare plays. (Only not Shakespeare alone – but you’ll just have to read the book to discern my meaning! Hint – the word “collaboration” is very key….)


When I was telling her about this book, Evelyn remarked that it would be terrible if it turned out that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays and poetry. She said she would feel betrayed by such a revelation. I think she need not worry. Certainly de Vere still has his adherents, and there are other candidates as well. Among these is Christopher Marlowe, who, according to certain conjectures, was not killed in that altercation in a tavern but was secretly spirited away to a hiding place, where, among other things, he could write plays and poetry in relative peace and quiet.

(This puts me in mind of a scene in the film Shakespeare in Love. Viola is grief-stricken, thinking that her beloved Will has been killed. But she has misunderstood – it is Marlowe who has been murdered. When she and Will are at length together again, he declares to her that Christopher Marlowe was England’s greatest playwright. She says that she has not heard him utter such praise of Marlowe before. He responds ruefully, “He was not dead before.”)


At any rate, surely the greatest cause for wonder is how these plays could be so profoundly beautiful, so eternally relevant. I think back on what a reviewer said of Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: that the real mystery is not how little we know for certain about William Shakespeare some four hundred years after he lived but how, all those many years ago, he knew so much about us.


Contested Will has an extremely lengthy and comprehensive bibliography. For Shakespeare resources on the internet, I like Shakespeare online. Click here for more posts on various aspects of Shakespeare. The majority are reviews of productions I’ve been privileged to attend at  the Folger Shakespeare Theatre.


The Chandos portrait of Shakespeare. It hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery.

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Hamlet: “As a meditation upon human fragility in confrontation with death, it competes only with the world’s scriptures.”*

May 25, 2010 at 1:52 am (Hamlet, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Shakespeare)

On Sunday May16, we “Folger friends” saw a new production of Hamlet. Someone asked me how many times I have seen this play. My answer: not sure, perhaps seven or eight. But I never miss a chance to see it again, because with every new production, I gain new insight. Hamlet is a bottomless well of profundity.

I am always thrilled to hear my favorite lines spoken once more:

“For this relief much thanks; for it is bitter cold and I am sick at heart.” What is the secret sorrow that so oppresses Francisco? And why should I care – He is a minor character; this is, I believe, his sole appearance in the play.

“Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” Hamlet’s sarcastic  rejoinder to his friend Horatio.

‘And then it started like a guilty thing / Upon a fearful summons.’  Horatio describing the ghost as it hears the crowing of a rooster at dawn.

There is yet more concerning the significance of the crowing of the cock. Horatio goes on to say that he has heard tell that once this sound is heard at break of day, any ghost or spirit walking abroad must at once quit the land of the living and flee “To his confine” – wherever that may be; we are not told.

Another of the guards, Marcellus, confirms that the ghost vanished when the crowing of the cock was heard. He then launches into one of those tangential disquisitions that are, for me, one of the special joys of Shakespeare:

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

Well! what of that? Horatio’s brief response is both cautious and tantalizing:

So have I heard and do in part believe it.

Which part do you believe, Horatio? And which part do you doubt? I have long been intrigued by the singular lack of religious sensibility evinced by most of Shakespeare’s characters. Here is a notable exception. Another thing fascinates me about this exchange. Hamlet was written around the year 1600. The Middle Ages, with their admixture of religious fervor and superstitious terrors, had been left behind. But powerful remnants still trouble the minds of those who have come of age in supposedly more enlightened times. And of course, these men have just seen an amazing apparition and are trying to make some kind of sense of the experience.

Horatio follows his terse response to Marcellus, quoted above, with two of the most ravishing lines of poetry imaginable:

But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill:

Whenever I think of these lines, I see some kind of giant, with majestic mien, his face turned upward, his magnificent cape swirling about him as he strides among the hilly summits.

Now here’s an odd thing: I was listening for this portion of dialogue between Horatio and Marcellus. I was listening – but I did not hear these lines at this performance. Does that mean they were not actually spoken? Not necessarily, I suppose. I only know that I was primed to hear them – and did not.


This production of Hamlet was  set in modern times. There appears to me some kind of military dictatorship in power. The set was stark; some, but not all, of the male characters were attired in uniform. The ghost of Hamlet’s father is so attired. His make-up was such that he looked rather ghastly, quite ghostly – and believably deceased.

Here is a video trailer for this production. Graham Michael Hamilton plays Hamlet:

In this video, director Joseph Haj comments on his vision of the play:


After the play we were waiting, on the wide steps outside the Folger, for our group of four to assemble. There were quite a few other people there as well. After an uncertain start to the day, the weather had become glorious. Suddenly out through the theater’s doors strode Graham Michael Hamilton. If recollection serves, he had his head down. He may have been hoping to escape unnoticed. No chance – the crowd burst into spontaneous applause. A woman rushed up and threw her arms around the young actor. Along with many others, I went up to him and complimented him on his performance. His smile was absolutely radiant.


*From Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, by Harold Bloom

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A (mostly) joyous romp: Much Ado About Nothing at the Folger

November 18, 2009 at 11:41 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Shakespeare)

We’re in the Trinidad neighborhood of Washington DC. Residents are making preparations for the Caribbean Carnival, a yearly festival. Against this backdrop, the fate of two couples – Hero and Claudio, and the ever-warring Beatrice and Benedick – plays out. There’s a whole host of secondary characters on hand to liven up the action.

In the program notes, director Timothy Douglas states that he wanted the female perspective in Much Ado About Nothing to be given its proper weight. In addition, he was looking for an effective way to tie the production to the Washington DC of the present era:

“While I give the men of this cast their due props, I believe even they would acknowledge that the talents of  their women in this production inspire much of the ado, which honors Shakespeare, the dance of love, the Caribbean community, and the urban diversity that makes up metropolitan DC.

As is to be expected with Shakespeare, tragedy – or at least, the potential for tragedy – is woven into what is essentially a comic scenario. Outraged by word of Heros’ infidelity, Claudio repudiates her on their wedding day. Inevitably, Claudio is made to pay for his rash rejection of a good and blameless woman: information is given out to the effect that Hero has died, her heart broken by the cruelty of her erstwhile beloved. This intelligence happily proves false, but not before Claudio has  been suitably chastened.

(Here is yet another frequently utilized trope of Shakespeare’s. I was reminded of  The Winter’s Tale, in which the supposedly deceased Hermione, initially appearing  as a life-size statue, is reanimated and steps back into the land of the living.)

This is the darkest moment in what is essentially a sunny play. The sparring of Beatrice and Benedick is never anything we’re expected to take too seriously; we know how it will end. (This is one of my favorite fictional set-ups: two people fight and fight and then they give in to the inevitable and get radiantly married. One of my favorite examples of this paradigm can be found in Crocodile on a Sandbank, the delightful first entry in Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody series.)

I was reminded of the need, in contemporary Shakespearian productions, for the actors to signify with inflection and gesture the obscure meaning of some of the play’s lines. Most of the time, though, at least where this play is concerned, this was not necessary. Here, for instance, is an exchange that elicited knowing laughter from the audience:

Don Pedro: I think this is your daughter.

Leonato: Her mother hath many times told me so.

I particularly enjoyed Doug Brown in the role of Leonato. The acting in general was up to the Folger’s usual high standards. I also want to single out Alex Perez as Dogberry. He had us in stitches! I’d forgotten what a treat it is to see a natural comedian give full scope to his gifts.

Rachel Leslie as Beatrice and Doug Brown as Leonato

Alex Perez

I remember studying Much Ado About Nothing decades ago at Goucher College. It was on the syllabus of a course in Shakespeare’s comedies, and our professor was the wonderful Brooke Pierce. I distinctly recall his pointing out to us the frequency with which characters spoke of “noting” the statements and actions of others. The play’s title, he observed, could almost have been “Much Ado About Noting.”

The production concludes with an exuberant wedding scene, at the end of which the performers danced down the center aisle and out into the lobby.

And that was it! I half expected to catch sight of them there as we were exiting the theater, but they were nowhere to be seen…


Much Ado About Nothing is running until November 29. My suggestion: Hie thee to the Folger and see it!

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From Christie to Shakespeare, in one easy leap

October 5, 2009 at 11:50 am (books, Mystery fiction, Performing arts, Shakespeare)

So there I am, happily engrossed in this book: caribbean . My reading of A Caribbean Mystery followed our viewing of the film:

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple in A Caribbean Mystery

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple in A Caribbean Mystery

This in turn had followed my listening to the audiobook, read by –  who else:  Caribbean-Mystery-N41110L There was something curiously mesmerizing in Ms. Hickson’s narration. A story which in itself is not remarkable became, at least for this listener, imbued with a deeper meaning.  (On the back of the book on tape, an Audio Editions Mystery Masters production, we are informed of the following:

“This audio performance is unique in that the recordings were made at Miss Hickson’s home when she was approaching her 90th birthday. Just as Miss Marple is an octagenarian, she is perfectly portrayed by an octagenarian par excellence.

Scroll down to the  bottom of this post, and you’ll see video of Joan Hickson being interviewed at a celebration of Agatha Christie’s one hundredth birthday. This video also features a segment in which Ms. Hickson and David Suchet, in character as Hercule Poirot, meet for the first time.)


Here’s the set-up for A Caribbean Mystery: following a severe illness, Miss Marple is treated by her nephew Raymond to a stay at the Golden Palm resort on the lush ( and fictitious) Caribbean island of St. Honore. She’s not been there long when an elderly guest dies suddenly. Miss Marple has her suspicions regarding this death, but she is not sure whether she should communicate them to those in authority. At one point in her cogitations, she reflects on these lines from Shakespeare: ‘Duncan is dead. After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well!’

That first sentence is not rendered correctly: the exact words are “Duncan is in his grave.” The quote is from MacBeth; it occurs about midway through the play. MacBeth is already beginning to feel like a soul in torment. Speaking to his wife, he declaims these bitter words:

…better be with the dead,
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave;
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well;
Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further.

This is an amazing speech. Here is a murderer, envying his victim the peace conferred by death – a death that the noble Duncan neither sought nor desired. It is as good an indicator as any of the moral cesspit into which MacBeth has already sunk.

And I can’t resist adding that where I come from, this would be called the ultimate in chutzpah!


Here is the review I wrote of the Folger Theatre’s stunning 2008 production of “the Scottish play.” This performance is now available on DVD.

These images appear on the Folger site:

Henry Fuseli. Macbeth consulting the vision of the armed head.

Henry Fuseli. Macbeth consulting the vision of the armed head. 1793

Kenny Meadows. Lady Macbeth. Engraving, 1850.

Kenny Meadows. Lady Macbeth. Engraving, 1850.

 William Shakespeare. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies: published according to the true originall copies. London, 1623.

William Shakespeare. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies: published according to the true originall copies. London, 1623.

There is seemingly no end to Shakespeare’s power to astonish (or in Agatha Christie’s power to entertain and oftentimes, to provoke).

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