What P. G. Wodehouse learned from Macbeth

It would be a joy to read Wodehouse even if his stories didn’t have more ingenious poetic allusions than there are stars in the sky. On the latest of our many happy passes through The Code of the Woosters — perhaps the very best of the Jeeves and Wooster novels — we started taking inventory.

Wodehouse starts with a taste of Keats on the very first page, as Jeeves tells Bertie Wooster, “There is a fog, sir. If you will recollect, we are now in Autumn — season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” A few pages later, Sir Watkyn Bassett, a country magistrate who has it in for Bertie, assures Roderick Spode that time in prison won’t prevent a man from “rising on stepping-stones of his dead self to higher things.” That’s from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.”

Bertie Wooster doesn’t know as much poetry as his friends, so his allusions are often accidental, as when he tells Madeline Bassett what he thinks of Gussie Fink-Nottle’s diffident personality,

Bertie: A sensitive plant, what?
The Bassett: Exactly. You know your Shelley, Bertie.
Bertie: Oh, am I?

(The poet Shelley wrote “The Sensitive Plant.”) A Robert Browning allusion also goes over Bertie’s head. As he and Bertie arrive at Totleigh Towers, where trouble lurks, Jeeves pronounces, “Child Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Bertie tells us, “what he meant I hadn’t an earthly.”

Robert Browning

Robert Browning

There’s more Browning farther along in the story, as Madeline Bassett explains to Bertie why he reminds her of the hero of “Rudel to the Lady of Tripoli.” Wodehouse tosses in Longfellow, too: “I Shot an Arrow into the Air” and “The Wreck of the Hesperus” both get nods.

Like Emsworth, Bertie sometimes has trouble remembering where phrases came from. Explaining to Jeeves why Stephanie Byng is the most dangerous young woman he’s ever had to deal with, he asks, “Who was the chap lo whose name led all the rest — the bird with the angel?” “Abou ben Adhem, sir,” Jeeves reminds him. The poem was Leigh Hunt’s “Abou Ben Adhem.”

Kipling

P. G. Wodehouse must have read a good deal of Rudyard Kipling in his youth

But for all his fuzziness, Bertie has clearly read a lot of literature.  Nearly everything reminds Bertie of something out of a poem; he tells his readers: “And then out of the night that covered me, black as the pit from pole to pole, there shone a tiny gleam of hope. I thought of Jeeves.” Somewhere, Bertie had read William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus”! Later, in low spirits, Bertie tells Jeeves, “You see before you, Jeeves, a toad beneath the harrow.” The reference was to Kipling’s “Pagett, M.P.”

And Wodehouse calls on Browning again to help close out The Code of the Woosters. His problems all neatly sorted, Bertie says, “This is the end of a perfect day, Jeeves. What’s that thing of yours about larks?” Jeeves has Browning’s lines from “Pippa Passes” on the tip of his tongue.

Those are some of the allusions we spotted; there were many more. In this one short novel Wodehouse also mentions A Tale of Two Cities, Poe’s story “The Purloined Letter,” Reginald Heber’s hymn “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” (“Totleigh Towers might be a place where Man was vile, but undoubtedly every prospect pleased”), Robert Louis Stevenson’s story “The Cargo of Champagne,” and Gerald Fairlie’s now-forgotten 1929 novel The Muster of the Vultures (tracking that one down wasn’t easy!)

But of all the poets, a reader of Wodehouse is far more likely to encounter Shakespeare than anyone else. In The Code of the Woosters alone, Wodehouse invokes King Lear, Macbeth, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Hamlet (three different references to the “To be or not to be” soliloquy). Wodehouse even has Gussie Fink-Nottle quote Matthew Arnold’s sonnet entitled “Shakespeare.” (Calling Bertie Wooster a “muddle-headed ass” for forgetting to bring him a book, Gussie comments sarcastically, “Others abide our question, thou art free.”)

Of course, Bertie himself rarely knows what’s Shakespeare and what isn’t. In The Code of the Woosters he misattributes Sonnet 33 to his valet:

I remember Jeeves saying to me once, apropos of how you can never tell what the weather’s going to do, that full many a glorious morning had he seen flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye and then turn into a rather nasty afternoon.

And like so many people, Bertie thinks Shakespeare wrote things he didn’t:

Bertie: You don’t mean you have an idea?
Jeeves: Yes, sir.
Bertie: But you told me just now you hadn’t.
Jeeves: Yes, sir. But since then have been giving the matter some thought, and am now in a position to say “Eureka!”
Bertie: Say what?
Jeeves: Eureka, sir. Like Archimedes.
Bertie: Did he say Eureka? I thought it was Shakespeare.

Lady Macbeth by George Cattermole

A scene from Macbeth by the nineteenth-century British painter George Cattermole, who also illustrated Dickens

More often than not, the Shakespeare that Wodehouse pulls out of his hat is Macbeth.  This was surely the Shakespeare play he knew best. In fact, seeing the Scottish play at the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario) a couple of weeks ago (see this post), we found that we weren’t fully feeling the terror and tragedy because so many of the play’s best lines reminded us of what Wodehouse had done with them. When Lady Macbeth shooed Macbeth’s dinner guests away with “Stand not upon the order of your going,” for instance, we couldn’t help hearing Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Dahlia using the line to tell Bertie to make himself scarce.

In Macbeth, Banquo shakes his gory locks at Macbeth’s grand feast twice, then disappears for good. Throughout the collected works of P. G. Wodehouse, the ghost of Banquo materializes so often that he’s practically a regular. We think, though we’re not sure, that Banquo’s first appearance in Wodehouse was in his 1914 short story “The Man, the Maid, and the Miasma” (in The Man Upstairs); he pops up in Wodehouse’s very last novel, The Cat-Nappers (1973) (published in England as Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen). Our favorite sighting of Banquo is in the 1950 short story “The Shadow Passes” (in Nothing Serious):

I don’t know if you ever came across a play of Shakespeare’s called Macbeth? If you did, you may remember this bird Macbeth bumps off another bird named Banquo and gives a big dinner to celebrate, and picture his embarrassment when about the first of the gay throng to turn up is Banquo’s ghost, all merry and bright, covered in blood. It gave him a pretty nasty start, Shakespeare does not attempt to conceal.

Macbeth also has what must have been Wodehouse’s favorite line from Shakespeare, one he used in one story after another. Early in the play, as everyone knows, Lady Macbeth loses patience with her husband for hesitating to murder his royal guest and eggs him on to the crime:

Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem?
Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would,”
Like the poor cat i’ the adage.

Macbeth, Act I, Scene 7. In The Code of the Woosters, Bertie Wooster has almost exactly the same problem as Macbeth: his Aunt Dahlia is insisting that he steal a cow-creamer from his host’s collection at Totleigh Towers. Like Macbeth, Bertie can’t steel himself to the crime:

Bertie: That is the problem which is torturing me, Jeeves. I can’t make up my mind. You remember that fellow you’ve mentioned to me once or twice, who let something wait upon something? You know who I mean — the cat chap.
Jeeves: Macbeth, sir, a character in a play of that name by the late William Shakespeare. He was described as letting ‘I dare not” wait upon ‘I would,’ like the poor cat i’ th’ adage.
Bertie: Well, that’s how it is with me. I wabble, and I vacillate — if that’s the word?
Jeeves: Perfectly correct, sir.

Not for the first or last time, Bertie Wooster was in the same pickle as Macbeth: a strong-willed woman was demanding that he do something he knew he shouldn’t. What better to fall back on than Macbeth?

October 30, 2009

See this post for Emsworth’s decidedly mixed feelings about this year’s Macbeth at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

Although Wodehouse clearly drew a good deal from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this Emsworth post), one doesn’t find direct allusions to Wilde’s plays in Wodehouse’s stories (only to Wilde’s serious novel The Picture of Dorian Gray). Then again, why would one comic writer allude to another?

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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. A thoroughly researched piece, if piece is indeed the word I want.

  2. Very nice. Enjoyed it. Wodehouse did his best to preserve and promote the Western Canon. And to use it for his purposes.

  3. Terrific article! So many of my favourite passages culled into one space.

  4. Glad you enjoyed it!

  5. Just wonderful. I’ve rarely enjoyed a blog post more. Thanks for all the methodical digging up of literary references — they’re extra special now after Bertie’s mangling.

  6. Wodehouse’s genius was to realise that in the absence of parents, sex or religion, Bertie’s public school upbringing, with its Classics force-feeding, was always going to create the texture of his mind. That and the racetrack.

  7. Reblogged this on honoriaplum and commented:
    A wonderful piece from the excellent critic, Emsworth.

  8. Excellent piece. I’ve noticed Wodehouse’s literary references over the years, but haven’t examined them as systematically as you have. (‘You know your Shelley, Bertie.’is my favourite one of all)

    best wishes

  9. Vast as the internet is, I’ll bet discussions of Abou Ben Adhem were few and far between. Do read Wodehouse. You might start with Carry On, Jeeves.

  10. Interesting! I never read any of the Jeeves books, but I noticed their reviews, in TIME magazine, 50 or so years ago. I ran onto this site, while looking for information about “Abou Ben Adhem.


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