Is Shakespeare’s music the great bar to entry when it comes to appreciating Shakespeare?
To begin lets look at “On My First Son” a short poem not by Shakespeare but by his close friend and rival Ben Jonson:
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy.
Seven years tho' wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon 'scap'd world's and flesh's rage,
And if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask'd, 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.
The year was 1603 and the plague had just struck again. Shakespeare may very well been hard at work on a revision of Macbeth when Jonson wrote this poem; perhaps Will was thinking of his friend’s torment when he wrote the scene where Banquo’s son Fleance is murdered. Maybe Jonson played Banquo.
Every time now when I read this poem out loud to a class, I tell my self I have read it too many times to get choked up. Then before I finish the second line, I work to keep my voice from breaking.
But let’s set aside the poem’s effect and look at the language. There are some odd inversions here, at least to us now—I thee pay instead of I pay thee, but basically the diction is fairly straight forward, as is the vocabulary, and the sum makes for a poem that is, I think, as readily comprehensible as any twentieth century poem. (Surely Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” or Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” two deserved favorites are at least as complex.)
One need only look at this poem to realize that Shakespeare could have—and often, in fact, does--write his plays in prose as simple and current as this bit by Jonson. This poem also makes clear why—especially after the Romantic revolution—we have all been conscripted into the Tribe of Ben.
Shakespeare’s allegiance lay elsewhere. He is a wayward son of Edmund Spenser. (Keats was too.) Constantly Shakespeare fights the urge to candy up the language a la Spenser.
Early on he simply can’t resist. The results, typically, are plays that are overwritten.
Love’s Labor’s Lost for instance is so ornate that the best way to make it work now is as a Cole Porter musical (as Branagh did). To see what I mean, consider one speech, where Berowne (the play’s hero) celebrates Rosaline, his beloved “dark lady.” It comes in response to a round of ribbing from his buddies. The guys have just discovered that the stoic Berowne is in love! And with—of all women—one “black as ebony” is what the King says --black as “the badge of Hell”—so black that she shines not, is not, is a nothing in the dark sky.
It is all a set up for one of Shakespeare’s favorite bits, where the lover defends his beloved with a dark lady sonnet:
"My eyes are then no eyes, nor I Berowne."
The speech begins. And then 14 lines:
"O! but for my love, day would turn to night.
Of all complexions the cull'd sovereignty
Do meet, as at a fair, in her fair cheek,
Where several worthies make one dignity,
Where nothing wants that want itself doth seek.
Lend me the flourish of all gentle tongues,--
Fie, painted rhetoric! O! she needs it not:
To things of sale a seller's praise belongs;
She passes praise; then praise too short doth blot.
A wither'd hermit, five-score winters worn,
Might shake off fifty, looking in her eye:
Beauty doth varnish age, as if new-born,
And gives the crutch the cradle's infancy.
O! 'tis the sun that maketh all things shine!"
It even breaks cleanly into Petrach's pattern of 6 and 8. And keep in mind the major conceit of Berowne’s speech: Rosaline is so beautiful, he says, that an old man looking at her eyes becomes a child. Now compare it with Spenser’s Amoretti VIII, which ends:
You frame my thoughts and fashion me within,
You stop my tongue, and teach my heart to speak,
You calm the storm that passion did begin,
Strong through your cause, but by your virtue weak.
Dark is the world, where your light shined never;
Well is he born, that may behold you ever.
Shakespeare fell in love with the way Spenser uses the technique of “chiasmus” (crossing patterns, X) as modeled above. In the key line, the alliteration and the syntax shifts dance or "cross": YOU FRAME . . . FASHION ME.
Shakespeare always wants to come back to this music. His finest achievement, from this perspective, is probably Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. There its nearly all in couplets and he just about succeeds. But the cost is great: the lovers lose nearly all characterization so that the only way I think you save the play is to make Shakespeare’s point a romantic or a cynical one: love, we think its about that special someone, but in the end every lover is the same, every happy couple too.
When you read Shakespeare, you always watch him dance with this early love of Spenser. As he ages he often steps on his muse’s throat. Beatrice and Benedick, for example, in Much Ado is flat prose. There he finally got the hell out of the way of his characters, and clearly, listened to his fellow actors.
Shakespeare is most Jonsonian in Lear:
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life
And thou no breath at all. Thou will come no more
Never, never, never, never, never
Where decades before the sight of Lavinia, raped, and without hands or tongue, is greeted by her Uncle Marcus thus:
Speak, gentle neice: what stern ungentle hands
Hapth lopp’d and hew’d, and made thy body bare
Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments
This early bit is pure Spenser. The disjunction between the ornate and the macabre is the frisson, the engine that makes Titus Titus. Before they said it was the worst play Shakespeare wrote, and even mounted extended campaigns to remove it from his works. Now it stands supreme with Coriolanus as capturing in advance our current reality.
Shakespeare has his own living sound. To the novice he is difficult largely because he begins as a writer who favors the courtly style in conjunction with intricate plots (Spenser). And he rewards largely because he is always moving toward modern simplicity that maximizes impact (Jonson).
In my next blog I will pivot from Shakespeare to Austen via 12th Night.
Causes Matthew Biberman Supports