Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University

11 THINGS I LOVE
ABOUT SHAKESPEARE


1) De Vere Studies

I avoided Shakespeare as an undergraduate and I didn't "get" how to read plays. The first time I taught a semester of Shakespeare, only a few years ago, the class voted for reading All's Well That Ends Well because it sounded upbeat. The play made absolutely no sense. I could not tell whose perspective I should be crediting, who was a nitwit, what was the relationships between characters and their attitudes. I was lost.

I had a couple hours between tour guide duties in Ashland at the Shakespeare Festival and checked out the bookstore. The authorship question looked interesting, but I couldn't see shelling out $40 or $50 for the Ogburn book, The Mysterious William Shakespeare. But next to it was a much thinner Richard Whalen book, Shakespeare: Who Was He? for only a fraction of the price. Most importantly, though, I saw from the index that it contained a short section on All's Well. I bought it, went outside, sat down in the green as Prince Hal played frisbee with Hotspur, and read. Essentially, the book told me that the play makes little sense unless read as semi-autobiography. It's like Hamlet in that latter regard, but Hamlet was revised in ways that make it universal and relevant whereas All's Well doesn't seem to have gotten that dimension. Of course I read the whole book, and it wasn't long after getting home that I ordered that Ogburn book, and subsequently everything I could get my hands on regarding the case for the Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the author of the plays.

Now this stuff makes sense. It's exhilarating knowing that this work emerged out of real experience, real pain, real concerns -- out of someone's real life -- instead of out of the blue. And from his own life he made art of this caliber! "Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one" (Stella Adler).


2) Enobarbus

First, the name itself is a joy. One can very effectively annoy people by saying this name for no other reason than to indulge in the sound of it. A few years ago I swore I was going to name my next cat Enobarbus, but alas this did not come to pass at the time, since even at a few weeks old he was clearly destined to be a "Spike." However, early in 2008 another brother/sister pair joined the household: Cleopatra and Enobarbus. This one definitely is an Enobarbus.

I inconsistently list it as reason #312 in the discussion of Antony and Cleopatra, but perhaps my favorite line from Shakespeare is Enobarbus' response to Cleopatra's languid question: "What shall we do, Enobarbus?" He answers, "Think and die" (III.xiii.1-2). That may be what indeed happens to Enobarbus in the play.


3) Alcohol

As the elder Ogburns note:

There are many passages in both plays and sonnets ... which testify to the poet's acquaintance with insomnia. It is natural that with his impressionable and abnormally stimulated mind, he found sleep tormentingly elusive and was often tempted to court relaxation with drink. Iago implies this when he says of Cassio: "'Tis evermore the prologue to his sleep; / He'll watch the horologe a double set, / If drink rock not his cradle" (II.iii.130-132). This was patently not characteristic of Cassio, who has to be urged to take wine; but it is easy to picture a high-strung poet like Oxford watching the clock round twice before sleeping. (509)
Shakespeare is ambivalent about alcohol. He clearly finds it delicious, of course, but recognizes and abhors its consequences to "self." In Twelfth Night, when asked by Olivia, Feste says that a drunken man is "Like a drown'd man, a fool, and a madman. / One draught above heat makes him a fool, the second mads him, and a third drowns him" (I.v.131f). One wants to maintain that "heat," but the scales are easily tipp(l)ed.


4) Time

The experience of life vs. time, or self vs. time -- who has conveyed that better than Shakespeare in a play like Macbeth? I read once that all mystical people have particular trouble with the concept of time, or getting past it. And the famous soliloquy from Macbeth really is less about idiocy than about time:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
(V.v.19-28)
The passage makes Charlton Ogburn weep.


5) The Reduced Shakespeare Company

See the video of their version of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).


6) "'Sneck up!"

The exclamation occurs in Twelfth Night when Sir Toby's carousing is interrupted by the puritanical Malvolio (II.iii). It's simply a contraction for "His neck up!" (i.e., "Hang him!"), but it sounds a lot cruder. You can get away nicely with saying this: people don't know what you mean exactly, but they can catch the drift from the sound of the phrase itself.


7) St. Crispin's Day

Henry V's glorious inspirational speech is the most delightful pile of fine-sounding rhetoric in the language. Who in hell ever heard of St. Crispin's Day?! What a joke! St. Crispin is the patron saint of shoemakers! How arbitrary can you get?

When Gwyneth Paltrow hosted SNL and pretended to be British (because of her several movie roles), she indicated that Englishness was essentially "having tea and scones on St. Crispin's Day." It's even a goofy sounding name for a saint. What's not to love?


8) Harold C. Goddard

He was the chair of the English Department at Swarthmore College from 1909 to 1946 and died a few years later, but he was in the process of publishing his thoughts and lectures on Shakespeare at the end. His publisher named the work The Meaning of Shakespeare (1951) and its insightfulness is almost always superb. All the best bits in that Bloom book come from Goddard, not always acknowledged. Normally I am repulsed by intertextual allusions, but Goddard refers to and actually makes me want to find the time to read Dostoevski. Other Oxfordians sing his praises, and I'm sure if he were alive we'd be succeeding in bringing him over to our side.


9) Music

Not just the "Hey nonny nonny" song from the Branagh Much Ado About Nothing and "Hey ho, the wind and the rain" song from the Renaissance Films Twelfth Night, but the implications that the plays contain original lyrics and ample evidence that Shakespeare knows music thoroughly. The De Vere Studies Conference lately features madrigals and the proposition that English Renaissance music is another thing Shakespeare invented, transforming what he'd heard in Italy. Where is the Shakespeare music? Published under pseudonyms, of course ... again.


10) Animal Rights?!

Among its other "beef-witted" failures, orthodoxy tends to treat Ovid's Metamorphoses as merely a compendium of classical myths. They discuss Ovid's style instead of his perspective -- indeed, no acknowledgement is given regarding any real perspective on the poet's part. So excerpts seem arbitrarily selected in anthologies of ancient hits. I've even seen many anthologies without any trace or acknowledgement of Book XV where Ovid's perspective finally does emerge quite powerfully.

In his jagged mythohistorical chronology, Ovid takes wide side-step in the last book of Metamorphoses to Pythagoras. We generally know only that theorem regarding hypotenuses and that rubbish, but Pythagoras was known for his views on metempsychosis (the transmigration of souls) and animal rights. A hundred years ago, vegetarians were known as Pythagoreans. The perspective is poignantly given, and at great length, by Ovid. The Romans go back to killing animals in the remainder of Book XV, but the long section on Pythagoras serves as Ovid's commentary on the natural world: Metamorphoses has already told us that it is filled with souls. It's not necessarily that we need to subscribe wholeheartedly to Pythagoras' philosophy and way of life, although it's a good idea for a myriad of reasons -- it's not that we should respect a tree or a bird because it might be the reincarnation of Aunt Millie; rather, we should respect that tree or bird because it too has a life story.

Some extreme English teachers claim that we are our stories, that all we have is our stories. This sounds a bit batty, and a literal reception of Metamorphoses, even in this respect, is suffocatingly anthropocentric. But understood on these human terms, and granted some tolerance for the dramatic nature of them, the stories of Metamorphoses are the stories behind various flora and fauna -- the things on earth that do indeed have life and with which perhaps we can occasionally empathize.

Oxford read this part of Ovid too -- not just Pyramus and Thisby and some other bits. In the climactic scene in The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is unmoved and the butchery is prepared for. Gratiano claims that he is partially persuaded by Pythagorean notions of the transmigration of souls, since Shylock clearly has a dog's, or wolf's -- and Gratiano here is royally missing the point of even the "pagan" Pythagoras, who proposed an appreciation for the souls of all things. It's another moment in the play where Shakespeare dramatizes the hypocrisy of Christians.

A scene usually omitted from productions of As You Like It follows up on the early woodland scene of Duke Senior noting a touch of regret for hunting down the native inhabitants of the forest -- the deer. This is when Jaques' similar sensitivity is mentioned and, we initially think, being mocked for being so squeamish and effete (II.i). But later (IV.ii), there's a scene in which the Duke's men have killed a deer. This first might be passed off as a literalization of the hunting of the "hart" -- a long-time metaphor with an obvious pun in the realm of love literature. But this is an actual kill. So Jaques dripping with sarcasm probably unappreciated proposes that the murderer of the deer be pompously paraded back to camp as "a Roman conqueror" (IV.ii.3-4) and that he wear the horns upon his head as a sign of victory (a depiction of a fool, the ubiquitous joke about cuckoldry in Elizabethan literature), and also that we provide a glorious song: "'Tis no matter how it be in tune, / so it make noise enough" (IV.ii.8-9). The would-be foresters sing a stupid fruity court song about horn-wearing -- another standard courtly trope that seems rancid and moronic in light of the kill. I say non-anachronistic kudos to Jaques for being nauseated by macho hunting b.s.

This comes as a surprise because who in Elizabethan England would have considered this perspective? Not the normal nobility. Certainly not a butcher's son who made dramatic speeches while hacking away at corpses in the backyard.

Sir Andrew in Twelfth Night is astoundingly stupid, so his speculations that he is "a great eater of beef" and that he thinks "that does harm to [his] wit" (I.iii.85-86) might be dismissed as an idiotic idea circulating in the 1580s. But Thersites in Troilus and Cressida calls Ajax a "beef-witted lord" (II.i.13) quite convincingly.

Associations between meat-eating and anger (choler, and/or violence) show up in The Taming of the Shrew. Caesar's chicken sacrifice for omen reading seems pretty moronic in the play, and sacrifice (and humans associating it with the gods) is condemned by Ovid's Pythagoras. Fleshpeddling, albeit the flesh of animals, is an issue in Merchant and a disturbing comic banter with a dark underside in As You Like It.

I continue (finally, I don't know why I didn't bother until now) pursuing these animal and culinary issues in the canon. Given what I know of Medieval and Renaissance food history, I'd have to say finally that Oxford was not vegetarian. Drat. The options just weren't there. But if they had been ... !

Who else in his period and circumstances even considered these matters?!


11) The Little Things

Instead of saying, "I don't know," one gradually finds oneself saying, "I know not that." Wanting to go inside and saying, "I am too much in the sun." Pondering the phrase "an allowed fool." Thinking at family reunions, "A little more than kin and less than kind." Being able to curse with panache: "Wasn't it Shakespeare who said, 'O hell'" (Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream: "O spite, o hell!"). There's so much that this begins another list, I suppose.

In the meantime, here's another bardolatristic essay from a former student: "O the Humanity!"


Shakespeare Index