The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Breaks with Shakespeare

Posted on: December 28, 2007

One of the Christmas gifts I’ve been enjoying lately, that offered fresh relief from crazy wizard punching bags, and, a stimulating change when trying to lengthen my time with James Hogg’s more proactive lunatic, is A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse by Ted Hughes, first printed in 1971. I first thought it would contain sonnets, perhaps songs and similarly obvious poetry-like pieces from his drama, and maybe some other poems that I did not know about. Hughes did pick from there but also pulled liberally from Shakespeare’s plays, culling famous passages like “Now is the winter of our discontent” and longer excerpts from works like the Rape of Lucrece ( which I’d never heard of before).

Hughes’ introduction is, in one aspect, what I first imagined introductions to classics were like before I studied them in high school: very light on analysis, brief and, well, introductory. The “Notes”, placed after the main, is where he delves into examining the writer, his time, and his works. I tied this arrangement to Hughes’ opinion that “the great speeches of his [Shakespeare’s] plays…taken out of context…are no more difficult to understand an appropriate than poems by other great poets”. Keeping to that he also left citation of each selections sources to the index, so one is not immediately of which play, scene, or character of any verse unless it is one with which one is already familiar. Hughes even showed how readily and or more understandable Shakespeare’s drama excerpts could be by comparing one from Macbeth with an abstruse Yeats poem.

The lack of visible labelling made me grumble initially but I quickly warmed to it. It’s quite fun trying to figure out which speech is from which play, especially when the lines strum along the neurons easily but I discover that I’ve never read the play before. It was rather uncanny how quickly I connected a soliloquy to Richard III (before he got to the “look how ugly I am” bits) even though he said it, not in his own drama, but in Henry IV.

And afterall, if Shakespeare’s plays really do cover and encompass every human emotion and experience, as its so popularly said, that should make parts of them perfectly suitable for parcelling.

An outrageous conversation on the merits of keeping one’s virginity from All’s Well That Ends Well — “Virginity, being once lost, may be ten times found: by being ever kept, it is ever lost. ‘Tis too cold a companion: away with’t!” — is one of the most memorable I’ve come across so far, but it is the Henry IV excerpts that have my fingers wriggling for a full-length copy. Those, together with the ones from King John, create a picture of an England in turmoil, a beloved country about to or already run over by scum and ruffians, influential persons who lack all good judgement and in no position to offer good stewardship. It’s developed in such a way so as to connect to a higher, more general sense of worldly , even cosmological disorder, and to the characters’ personal, conflicting emotions and dilemmas. All of that hits at my Shakespearean weak spots; contrary to my taste in all other areas of fiction, it is his tragedies and historical dramas that I love. In those worlds the stakes — personal, political, moral, spiritual — are always high and that feeling that world is on the brink of destruction, or at the very least influx, demands my attention and anticipation. The comedies, with their fairies, cross-dressing women and silly forest romps cannot compete with that. (So says I who have only readAs You Like It and part of The Tempest. Yes, I know that the second has a bit of that, especially with the post-colonial readings, but it’s just not the same.)

But it all starts and ends with the lines and, boy, Henry IV is full of it. Not only did Richard III’s “Well, say there is no kingdom for Richard” beat “Now is the winter” in his own self-titled play, I finally got a before and after of the famous “Up, vanity!” which cemented the play’s inevitable addition to my TBR pile. Here was a character who felt as impotent (in this speech, at least) as Hamlet in the face of an usurper, but who registered a pain and rage that felt more red hot and closer to bursting at the tethers. (Granted, Hamlet did seem pretty het up when he caught Claudius praying in the church.) The speech’s closing image in the last two lines of a desolate England was a clincher.

O! thou will be a wilderness again,
Peopled with wolves, thy old inhabitants.

Or what about these in a scene where an obviously older character warns an “ungracious boy” against the company he keeps?

Why dost thou converse with that trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of bestliness, that swoln parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloakbag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that grey iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years? Wherein is he good but to taste sack and drink it? wherein neat and cleanly but to carve a capon and eat it? wherein cunning but in craft? wherein crafty but in villainy? wherein villanous but in all things? wherein worthy but in nothing?

Wow. In the boy’s place I’d probably pledge to drop all unapproved pals immediately. (Naturally, the hyperbolic vitriol calls it all into question. Still, imagine standing in the onslaught of that tirade.) Lest you think Henry IV is all spit-flying rage and animosity, Hughes also selected a hilarious monologue on “a good sherris-sacks“‘ positive mental and physical effects (spoken by the fellow excoriated in the previous passage).

The sonnets astonish with their cleverness, as usual, but rarely ever rise to the enviable position of favourites. I leave you with some lines that hint at the possibility that I underestimate the comedies’ potential. I was certainly surprised when I flipped to the index to find their source. (Probably false advertising. No doubt they’re doing a jig while they sing accompanied by a kazoo or something.)

Now the hungry lion roars,
And the wolf behowls the moon;
Whilst the heavy ploughman snores,
All with weary task fordone,
Now the wasted brands do glow,
Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,
Puts the wretch that lies in woe
In remembrance of a shroud.
Now it is the time of night
That the graves, all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In the church-way paths to glide:
And we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecate’s team,
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolic; not a mouse
Shall disturb the hallow’d house;
I am sent with broom before,
To sweep the dust behind the door.


8 Responses to "Breaks with Shakespeare"

Thank you for this. It sounds like it would serve as a good introduction to Shakespeare for kids, so they can get a sense of why people make such a fuss about him before they have a teacher force-march them through Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet.

Reading it must be a bit like listening to something called Broadway’s Greatest Hits would be for me (someone who doesn’t like musicals as a rule yet who has an appreciation for certain songs from musicals). Personally, I’m not a big fan of the history plays, but–does Hal’s/Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech rock, or what? (I assume that’s among Hughes’ selections.)

Sorry for the prattling. I was just surprised, like you, that I’d find myself thinking a book like this would be a good idea.

Having been brought up only an hours bus ride from Stratford (and the bus did literally stop at the end of the road) I have been lucky enough to be in a position to develop a close knowledge of the plays on stage and to have seen several cycles of the histories that have in one form or another made just the point you do; namely that they are evidence of Shakespeare’s ‘love affair’ with England and his cry of horror at how it had been abused by the people with power. I love them. I also love the Comedies including the one from which you have taken your final extract. The same character’s final words “give me your hands if we be friends and Robin shall restore amends” is so open-hearted that I’ve never known an audience not to react with gusto, even if the production has been less than stunning.

A totally random comment here to wish you a happy happy 2008! I was sweating in the last week of ’07 because I thought I had failed to read all of my books for the outmoded challenge, it took until the 31st for me to realize that I had another two months! Happy reading and happy blogging in 2008, Imani.

John B. you’re welcome! I think that it would works as a great introduction too, especially since most are pretty understandable without copious footnoting all around to emphasize how much one doesn’t understand. (Or it may be hard for me to tell not being a new comer.)

Taking a look at Hughes’ arrangement is interesting too and serves up some food for thought, even without necessarily being familiar with the plays. Haven’t reached the St. Crispin’s Day speech yet, but am now looking forward to it!

I like prattling in my comments section – no need for apologies. 🙂

Ann for a minute there I thought you were in Southern Ontario until I remembered that your country has a Stratford too. 😉

As for the histories it’s great that you pointed Shakespeare’s “love affair” out. I have read a very small number of his plays, really, and was therefore not in a position to detect any overarching themes — it was really Hughes’ particular choices in the first part of the book that highlighted this.

Right now he’s knee deep in all of Shakespeare’s ruminations on the (primarily ruinous) effects of time.

Ted thank you and a Happy New Year to you as well! You really shouldn’t worry about the number of books for your Outmoded challenge — I made it so lenient after all. 😀

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