Stephen Greenblatt on Shakespeare: He had astonishing natural gifts. That is to say, there are things that are difficult to explain other than they must have been genetic accidents — a fantastic alertness to language. And then he found a way of deepening and deepening and deepening his experience and understanding until he could create whole worlds. He has the most — at least, in the English language tradition, the most powerful imagination, the most powerful ability to conjure up human beings in complex, convincing circumstances of any writer in our language.



Merchant of Venice





C Span’s great BRIAN LAMB:  What were Shakespeare’s parents like?

GREENBLATT:  Simple people, at least in their social background.  Shakespeare comes from a modest social family.  One of the reasons we don`t know as much about him as we would certainly like is that this is the family that goes under the radar of the usual 16th century, 17th century attention, not because they weren`t in some way significant — the father was the equivalent of the mayor of Stratford and had other civic offices — but because they`re not aristocratic people, not gentry.
And the father was a glover, made fancy gloves for the trade, and also probably a small-time usurer, also bottom-sold wool illegally, maybe some other things to get by.  His mother came from a farming family.  Actually, the mother`s parents were the yeoman farmers that the father`s father was a tenant farmer for.  So the farmer married up by marrying into her family.

But they`re — compared with other writers from the period, Sir Philip Sidney or Sir Walter Raleigh, these are people of very modest means, modest backgrounds.

GREENBLATT:  Shakespeare’s mother comes from a more unequivocally Catholic family.  The father`s will — her father`s will is manifestly, from its formulas, a Catholic will.  And his mother`s family is related to one of the leading Catholic families in the area, the Ardens of Park Hall, near Birmingham.  So that`s a quite important Catholic connection.  So the likelihood for the mother, though we don`t know, is that the mother`s roots are more decidedly Catholic.

LAMB:  Why has Shakespeare lasted so long?  And everybody — you know, you hear people say it`s the most important writer in the English language.  Do you agree with that?

GREENBLATT:  I do agree with that.  I think, actually, rather few people would disagree with it.  Why has he lasted so long?  Because he is infinitely pleasurable and rich.  It`s not that — we can say lots of wonderful things about him that sound morally uplifting, but it starts with pleasure and interest, not — in my view, not with meaning and truth.  It`s not fundamentally like reading something that`s making a truth claim on you.  The Bible, let`s say, would be an example.  But it`s about giving you pleasure, deep pleasure, complex, rich pleasure.
And Shakespeare was fantastically good at this and was very clever in his own time, and then, astonishingly, turns out to have been good for centuries at doing what looks like an impossible thing, of pleasing the most sophisticated, complex, rafine, complex, demanding literaturs of his time and drawing in hundreds, thousands of ordinary people into the theater.  The theaters depended on bringing 1,500, 2,000 people on in an afternoon.  You couldn`t take 10 people with fancy educations and please them, you had to get a huge crowd in there, paying a penny to stand up to watch the play.  And you had to do both at the same time.  And Shakespeare almost uniquely figured out how to do that.

LAMB:  And what impact did Shakespeare’s 11 year old son’s illness and death have on Shakespeare?

GREENBLATT:  Well, some people say no impact.  Some people say he was a cold bastard who just went on with his work because we know that in the years after the writing of — I mean, after the death of Hamnet Shakespeare, his father went on the write plays like “Much Ado About Nothing” or “Merry Wives of Windsor” or “As You Like It” — that is to say, light-hearted, happy plays with lots of laughter, joy, happy marriages.
But I don`t believe it.  I don`t believe it not for sentimental reasons, really, but because, first of all, in addition to writing those plays, he also wrote “King John,” for example, which has excruciating, beautiful and painful lines about the death of a son, the death of a child.  And he also in 1601, so five years afterwards, he wrote a play that basically bore the same name as his dead son.  Hamlet and Hamnet are basically the interchangeable names in this period and were used interchangeably in the time.  And I think there are many, many fingers of the dead son and of Shakespeare`s grappling with the death of his son in the writing of “Hamlet.”

LAMB:  What was “Hamlet” about?

GREENBLATT:  The play “Hamlet”?  The play that Shakespeare had inherited — Shakespeare tended to use what was given to him, what he could find in his voracious reading, what he could pick up and steal from somebody else.  So the play that he inherited was a revenge story about a son taking vengeance for the murder of his father.  But Shakespeare freighted that story with extraordinary weight, extraordinary material about mourning and grief and loss and what your relationship is with dead people, whether they can speak to you any longer, whether they live in some other place or simply have been erased forever.  And that weight, that extraordinary weight, I think, can be traced back to the experience of this loss.

LAMB:  Of the 38 plays, which one, in your opinion, is the most important, if there such a thing?

GREENBLATT:  Well, I think “Hamlet” is actually a watershed play.  I mean, it`s hard to decide among — with a playwright who had so many astonishing achievements, whose career is so full of recreating himself.  But I think that “Hamlet” does represent a startling pivot in Shakespeare`s life.  I think if he died before he wrote “Hamlet,” we would think exceedingly highly of him.  I mean, this is a man who had written “Midsummer Night`s Dream” and “Rome and

Juliet” and other magnificent works.  But I think we wouldn`t have guessed that he had in him what then came out after the writing of “Hamlet.”  That is to say, I don`t think we could have predicted that what lay on the other side of “Hamlet,” if “Hamlet” didn`t exist, was going to be “Macbeth,” “Othello,” “Anthony and Cleopatra,” “The Tempest,” “King Lear,” this astonishing outpouring of genius, tragic genius, especially, tragicomic genius.

And I think that “Hamlet” is the pivot point.  And there are other signs of it being the pivot point.  There are — there`s a kind of volcanic eruption of language in “Hamlet,” though he had already written about 20 or so plays.  There are suddenly 600 words not only that he had never used before, but that had never been used before in any printed text that survives in the English language.  That is astonishing.  Something just erupting from him.  And then…

LAMB:  Did he invent the language?

GREENBLATT:  He did largely invent the language.  I mean, he invented it usually — he`s very cunning at telling you what the words actually mean.  When Lady Macbeth says that blood on her hands, that she`s imagining on her hands, is going to make the multitudinous seas incarnadine — incarnadine — the next line is “making the green one red.”  That is to say, incarnadine means making something red.  But Shakespeare, if he`s introducing a very fancy 50-

cent word, will usually give you a five-cent explanation afterwards, so that you`re not completely lost in the plays.

But lots of the — where he does this — I couldn`t off the top of my head recite to you the words that he uses, but many of them are words that we use in the English language now, like “unpolluted,” let`s say, in the — for the first time in “Hamlet.”  People might have known “polluted,” but they wouldn`t have used “unpolluted,” and so forth and so on.  He often plays with language that way.

And then there`s something else that`s going on in “Hamlet” that fascinates me, which I think Shakespeare does here, as far as I can tell, for the first time.  He had been very good at giving motivations to his characters.  If you think back at “Richard III,” for example — quite energetic, a wonderful tragedy — he had — history, tragedy — that he had written, let`s say, a decade, roughly, before he wrote “Hamlet,” he gives you a character who tells you so much about why he`s acting this way.  I`m acting this way, I`m this miserable villain because I have a hunchback, my mother didn`t love me, I can`t get any women, dogs bark at me in the street.  He gives you 58 different reasons why he`s the miserable wretch that he is, murderous fellow that he is.  So you get a very elaborate structure of motivation.

When you get to “Hamlet,” Shakespeare had a play that had a very good motivational structure for what is going on.  The play that Shakespeare inherited from the ancient — from the older medieval Danish source, and then again from the Renaissance adaptation by a Frenchman named Belforet, that source said, look, king`s brother killed him, openly.  King`s brother was not named Claudius in the original thing, but Fing. So Fing kills Horvendil, the equivalent of old Hamlet, openly.  And it`s a Scandinavian world, in which you`re expected to avenge a murder like that.

So naturally if the old king had a son, which he did, named Hamlet, Hamlet would be expected when he grows up to take revenge against the uncle.  And therefore stands to reason that the uncle is no fool, he would want to kill Hamlet as well as killing the father, because he wants to protect his life.

So in the original story, Hamlet has a problem.  He`s a little — he`s basically a little kid, a minor, and he has to live long enough to be able to exact revenge for his father against this miserable, murderous uncle.  And everyone knows what this is about.

So what little Hamlet does is start drooling and acting strangely and behaving like a lunatic, and people laugh at him in a rather coarse way.  People laughed at — at least in those days, people felt comfortable laughing at idiots, and the result is that they let him live, because he`s kind of a trophy of — in the Danish court, and he lives long enough in order to grow up to be — it`s basically “The Lion King” — version of “The Lion King” story.  He grows up to be — to go back and take revenge, kill off his miserable uncle, and exact revenge and become the triumphant prince.

Shakespeare takes the story, makes perfect sense as to why the original story as to why Hamlet is — had to behave like that, that he`s mad.  He takes that story.  He has instead the murder as a secret, and no one knows, they think it`s a serpent that`s killed the old king while he`s sleeping in his garden.  They don`t know that the brother has poisoned him.

The only one who knows is Hamlet, who knows because a ghost has told him, the ghost of his father.  So Hamlet is alone in the kingdom knowing besides the murder himself, knowing the secret.

And then Hamlet pretends he`s mad.  It makes no sense.  It made great sense in the original version.  It now makes no sense.  And instead of ruining the play, which you would think it might, because the whole play is constructed now around something that is crazy, it actually makes the play the greatest thing that Shakespeare had written up to that point, the deepest, the most complex, the most motivationally maddening, the thing that you can`t completely — I mean, Hamlet is the bone stuck in the throat of Western civilization.  We keep trying to swallow it and spit it out over and over and over again.  It`s everywhere.  It`s in Freud.  It`s in Marx.  It`s the great haunting in our life, and it has to do — it`s not only this, but it has to do with this extraordinary move of cutting out the motivation and throwing it away.

And then he did this again and again in years afterwards.  He discovered that he could do this.  So that if you look carefully at many of the great plays that follow, at “King Lear,” at “Othello,” you find that he does the same thing.

LAMB:  How do you teach this?  What — I don`t want to accuse you of using techniques, but when you`re in a classroom, how do you approach your students and when do you see them getting interested?

GREENBLATT:  Lots of different ways of teaching Shakespeare.  I mean, one of the pleasures of Shakespeare is there are a million different ways of getting into these plays.  I have my students often look at versions of the play, videos.  I have my students sometimes act out things, but mostly we sit and look carefully, try to slow down.  Because I am assuming that my students are perfectly capable of — it`s hard work, of reading the plays through and getting the gist of them.  But it`s the ability to sit and be patient and let it unlock itself, as you can`t do on stage.
On stage or if you watch it in the video, it`s going along at its pace, and that`s fine.  It gives you a wonderful effect.  It`s meant to produce that effect.  But I do with Shakespeare what people with music — who are teaching music do, slow it down.  See what happens, see how it`s put together.  So that`s one way of doing it.

Another thing I often do is to read other things written in the same period that are rather similar and see how — what Shakespeare is doing that the other people aren`t doing, or what changes he`s making to sources, for example.  Have students — we know lots of the sources — have students look at the sources and see what happens when he takes Plutarch and he turns it into “Anthony and Cleopatra” — sometimes very, very close, sometimes very daringly far away.

Or something I have done recently that I haven`t done before is to have students try to think about this as if they were going to try to write some of these plays.  There are a couple of lost plays of Shakespeare.  At least one play we know for sure that he wrote with — in a collaboration with a playwright named Fletcher with whom he had worked on a couple of other plays, and it`s lost now.  But we know the source.  So I have the students start playing with the source and seeing if they can invent scenes that have a Shakespearean feel to them, try to figure out what 10 or 20 or 50 things that Shakespeare characteristically does.  How does he do this?  As if — instead of rolling up one`s eyes and holding up one`s hands and saying this is incomprehensively great, we can actually figure out how this is done, as if it were done by a real human being.

Now, why did they burst into laughter?  They burst into laughter because they thought that he was lying, but specifically, they thought he was making a joke.  And where they had learned that joke was from Christopher Marlowe.  Because Marlowe`s Jewish hero, anti-hero, Barabak (ph), who poisons people, he is a doctor who poisons people, who poisons wells, he does every unspeakable thing.  He`s always making jokes of this kind, “I love you with a burning zeal, enough to burn your house down,” he says, in an aside.  Or someone says, “how much is it going to cost you?”  “Oh, just your life,” he says.  I mean, planning to kill someone, and so forth.  He`s that kind of joker.  So I love you as much as I love Jesus Christ is a Marlovian joke.

And I think Shakespeare was in the crowd watching this execution.  And I think he heard that laughter.  And I think he had two different kinds of responses to the laughter that abraded together in a play that he wrote, that was in effect a response to “The Jew of Malta,” and the play he wrote was “The Merchant of Venice.”

And the two responses are on the one hand, this is a man who makes his profession making people laugh.  He`s interested in crowd laughter and he is excited by the fact that he`s heard this mass response.  And there`s lots of laughter in “The Merchant of Venice.”  “The Merchant of Venice” is obsessed with laughter.  People are always talking about laughing.  When will we laugh again, how can I make you laugh, and so forth and so on?

At the same time, I think he was made tremendously uncomfortable by the laughter at that execution, and I think that that discomfort is eloquently registered in “The Merchant of Venice,” where every time you want to laugh at Shylock, the laughter turns to a kind of gagging in your throat.  This is a very, very complex comedy, as anyone who`s ever seen it or performed it knows.

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One Response to Stephen Greenblatt on Shakespeare: He had astonishing natural gifts. That is to say, there are things that are difficult to explain other than they must have been genetic accidents — a fantastic alertness to language. And then he found a way of deepening and deepening and deepening his experience and understanding until he could create whole worlds. He has the most — at least, in the English language tradition, the most powerful imagination, the most powerful ability to conjure up human beings in complex, convincing circumstances of any writer in our language.

  1. Pingback: Some might find it strange that Joss Whedon’s first movie since “The Avengers” – his 2012 megahit about a team of Marvel Comics superheroes – is an independent adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” B

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