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?

Macbeth at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Timothy D Stickney as Banquo

Timothy D. Stickney playing Banquo as a twentieth-century European general in Africa

Macbeth deals with historical figures in 11th-century Scotland, and they call it “the Scottish play.” So why would any director place its setting in central Africa, circa 1950? We knew there couldn’t be any good reason. But we figured something must have triggered director Des McAnuff’s thought process.

Colm Feore as Macbeth with Yanna McIntosh as Lady Macbeth

Colm Feore as Macbeth with Yanna McIntosh as Lady Macbeth

At first we thought this was another unfortunate case of clumsiness in dealing with a racially mixed cast. (The same director bungled this elementary task in 2008’s Romeo and Juliet, as we observed in this post a year ago.) Could McAnuff have thought that audiences would never “get” a Macbeth with black actors in key roles (Lady Macbeth, Banquo, Macduff, and Lady Macduff) unless it were set in Africa?

Anyway, that’s not our theory anymore. We think now that the seed was sown when McAnuff was watching the second season of the sadly short-lived Slings and Arrows television show, which we dug out of our stack of DVDs after we got back from our last visit of the year to Stratford, Ontario.

As many of Emsworth’s readers will know, this Canadian show, which ran for three seasons beginning in late 2003, chronicles three seasons in the history of the fictional New Burbage Shakespearean Festival, an Ontario repertory company that bears hilarious similarities to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The second season of Slings and Arrows deals mostly with the Festival’s production of Macbeth.  As the season begins, the Festival’s artistic director, Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), is being pressured to put Macbeth on the playbill for the upcoming season. Reluctant to do it, he talks it over with his friend Nahum (Rothaford Gray), a security guard at New Burbage who once directed theater himself in his native Nigeria:

Tennant: They want me to do Macbeth.
Nahum: Dammit!
Tennant: Why does that bother you?
Nahum: I do not like that play. It teaches us nothing.
Tennant: It teaches us about evil.
Nahum: No! It shows us evil. It’s a portrait of a psychopath. Where I come from in Nigeria, it is a familiar sight. I’ve had my fill of psychopaths.

Bingo! Nigeria! Macbeth reimagined as the rise and fall of a murderous, monomaniac, twentieth-century African dictator!

MacbethIt wasn’t a good idea, anymore than this sort of thing usually is. (For instance, we’ve talked to several people who were so distracted by the contemporary-ish costumes and machine guns in this year’s Julius Caesar at the Stratford Festival that they seemed not to have noticed how superbly acted that show was; they judged the show a failure based on how it looked.)  Post-colonial Africa had almost nothing in common with eleventh-century Scotland.  Did McAnuff seriously think it would help audiences understand this challenging play to have King Duncan hold a press conference (complete with an array of microphones and photographers with bulky flash cameras) to welcome Macbeth and Banquo back home? Or to have Macbeth’s armies fighting Malcolm’s on a battlefield with an army jeep and soldiers wielding automatic rifles?

And didn’t it occur to McAnuff that audiences would find it odd to hear Banquo’s assassins report to Macbeth that they’d cut his throat, when we’d just seen Banquo mugged and shot?

There was so much good acting in this year’s Macbeth at the Stratford Festival that it’s a shame the overall production wasn’t more satisfying. We found the unmodulated high pitch of the play wearing, not enervating. The sets, the props, the costumes, and the special effects were distracting and incoherent. We were given a series of memorable visual images, which is something, but telling the story of the play seemed to be the last thing on the director’s mind.

The performance we saw got off to a poor start. We could hear only a little of the dialogue in the stage-setting opening scenes, in which many of the play’s principal characters are introduced.

Now, in some Shakespeare plays — Julius Caesar and Richard III, for instance — the playwright helped audiences keep track of who’s who on stage by having the characters repeatedly address each other by name. Unfortunately, he did very little of that in Macbeth, in which help would have been especially welcome because of the play’s large cast of characters. It is therefore all the more important that a director of Macbeth ensure that the opening scenes are not only lively, but audible. But in this show most of the actors in the first scene (after the witches) failed to project well enough for us to hear — and we weren’t far from the stage. Sometimes the problem with audibility was due to the background music, which was a lot like a movie score. Did McAnuff think that would make the play feel more comfortable for theater-goers who are more used to watching motion pictures?

MacbethAt any rate, it was a great relief when Macbeth (Colm Feore) and Banquo (Timothy D. Stickney) appeared on stage. Both have strong, expressive voices, good diction, and the indispensable ability to make Elizabethan English heard and understood in the too-big Festival Theater.  (The talented Feore also had a wonderful role in the second season of Slings and Arrows — but not as Macbeth; he plays a wacked-out marketing consultant hired to “re-brand” the financially struggling New Burbage Festival.)

Macbeth

Tom Rooney as the Porter

rooThey were by no means the only actors we especially appreciated. Tom Rooney was wonderful in his brief appearance as the Macbeths’ porter; now we understand, for the first time, why this comic philosopher’s scene belongs in the play.  Also strong were Geraint Wyn Davies (Duncan in the play; he played an actor playing Macbeth in the second season of Slings and Arrows), Gareth Potter (a much better Malcolm than he was a Romeo a year ago), and John Vickery (Ross), who had the challenging task of breaking the news to Macduff (Dion Johnstone) that his family had been slaughtered.

For all that, the narrative power of the play just wasn’t there. We’ve commented before on the Othello we saw in Chicago a couple of years ago (directed by Marti Maraden, who is, thankfully, returning to Stratford in 2010 to direct The Winter’s Tale). Simply reading the text of Othello, we always found it hard to understand how the noble Moor could so quickly become so morbidly suspicious as to believe Colm Feore as Macbeth that his new wife was doing him dirty. On stage, however, his transformation was absolutely convincing, to the credit of both the director and Derrick Lee Weeden, who played Othello.

We’ve had a similar problem wih Macbeth.  Reading the play, we find it hard to understand how Duncan’s trusted general could so suddenly be overcome by ambition that he would embark on a series of savage murders to achieve what the witches had already pronounced as his destiny. (We don’t buy the notion that a soldier like Macbeth is such a “killing machine” that murdering friends in cold blood isn’t much different from what he does on the battlefield.) We hoped this Macbeth would show us how, but it didn’t.

P. G. Wodehouse quoted from Shakespeare more than any other poet, and (we think) from Macbeth more than from any other work of Shakespeare.  See this post.  Other posts from Emsworth about shows he saw during the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:

Jean Racine’s classic French drama on the ancient Greek tale of Phèdre (see this post)

Anton Chekhov’s wonderful The Three Sisters (see this post)

The Ben Jonson play Bartholomew Fair (see this post)

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see this post)

The folly of suggesting that Shakespeare should be “translated” for modern audiences (see this post)

The marvelous quarrels in Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)

The musical West Side Story (see this post)

Emsworth’s list of his own ten favorite Shakespeare plays (see this post).

The hilarious musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at this post

A pox on Shakespeare in “translation”

Hansel and Gretel

Perhaps high schoolers should simply be issued Little Golden Book editions of Romeo and Juliet

The latest bad idea is that Shakespeare needs to be “translated” for the benefit of bored schoolchildren who can’t make sense of 16th-century English. Reading about this recently gave us a slow burn. Emsworth has put a lot of time into learning to read and understand Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida; now reading Shakespeare is as easy for us as rolling off a log. But what was it all for, if this push for Shakespeare in “translation” catches on?

So we were relieved to see that Antoni Cimolino, boss of bosses at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, is stoutly against it. (See this article.) Relieved, but not surprised: as a classical actor, Mr. Cimolino has a lot more invested in the “original” Shakespeare than we do. Having him on the right side of the issue should guarantee that we’ll be able to hear the immortal and original (if sometimes impenetrable) language of Shakespeare in Stratford, Ontario, for at least a few more years.

Kent Richmond's Romeo & JulietWhat might Shakespeare in translation be like? Well, a fellow named Kent Richmond, who teaches English at some college in Long Beach, California, is already at it. He’s selling “verse translations” of King Lear and several other plays for your Kindle (also in paperback) (here’s his website), and he’s put a little of his new and improved Macbeth online.

Here’s some of it.  Macbeth, Act II, Scene 2. Macbeth has just heard Duncan’s death knell. Spurred on by his loving but bloodthirsty wife, he has gone off in the night to dispatch Duncan to the next world. Back in her chambers, Lady Macbeth wonders aloud how the murder is going. First, Shakespeare’s original:

MACBETH
[Within] Who’s there? what, ho!
LADY MACBETH
Alack, I am afraid they have awaked,
And ’tis not done. The attempt and not the deed
Confounds us. Hark! I laid their daggers ready;
He could not miss ’em. Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I had done’t.

(These, we trust, are the lines we’ll hear later this summer in Stratford, where by coincidence Macbeth is on the playbill along with Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)  But here is Mr. Richmond’s “verse translation”:

MACBETH
[from beyond the door] Who’s there?—What’s that?

LADY MACBETH
Oh, no! I am afraid they’ve woken up
And it’s not done. Attempt without the deed
Will wreck us.—Listen!—I laid out their daggers.
He couldn’t miss them.—Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I would have done it.

See how much better it can be said?  We don’t.  Mr. Richmond apparently thinks that the meaning of the phrase “What ho!” has become obscure over the centuries.  But P. G. Wodehouse, master of 20th-century colloquial English, clearly didn’t think so; in stories written from 1920 to 1965, his character Bertie Wooster  said “What ho!” all the time.

And who, really, would fail to understand Lady Macbeth when she says, “Alack, I am afraid they have awaked/And ’tis not done”? And what sort of person would want to banish “alack” from our vocabulary?  It’s a pearl of a word!  And who wants to pay good money to see Macbeth and hear Lady Macbeth say “Oh, no!”

And does Mr. Richmond really think that audiences will understand “Attempt without the deed/Will wreck us” any easier than Shakespeare’s original?

We have a few more questions. First, isn’t Shakespeare suspiciously popular for a playwright that audiences don’t “get”? Know how many theater companies exist mainly to put on the works of Shakespeare? Nearly 200 of them in the United States alone! (They’re listed here on playshakespeare.com.) Why try to fix something that ain’t broke?

Here’s another: When did Shakespeare suddenly become so hard to understand? Standard English really hasn’t changed much for nearly two hundred years. No one literate enough to read Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982) comfortably will have any trouble with Mrs. Gaskell’s Cranford (1851).  Pride and Prejudice (1813) is read and loved more than ever.  If kids today have more trouble making sense of Hamlet than they did 100 years ago, the reason is not that the American language is changing, but that the kids aren’t being given the intellectual challenges that might prepare them for Hamlet.

John Mcwhorter

John McWhorter

One of our favorite thinkers, the usually sound John McWhorter, has unfortunately come out on the wrong side of this. In an article in The New Republic (here it is), McWhorter says that we’re so far away from Shakespeare’s time that “we cannot understand what the man is saying.” Understanding Shakespeare, he says, “has become too much of a challenge to expect of anyone but specialists.”  But he makes his case, in part, by quoting an  article in an 1898 issue of The Atlantic in which someone complained about a puzzling passage in Hamlet.  We say: if it’s been a problem that long, it’s one we can live with.

True, we’ve sat through Shakespeare performances ourselves (even at Stratford) where, for a minute or so, we didn’t understand what the actors were saying.  But more often than not the problem lies with inexperienced actors who (a) don’t seem to fully understand their lines and (b) merely speak the words without giving the audience the inflections, the pauses, the gestures that communicate meaning where mere words don’t.

When Shakespeare is acted well, one hardly notices obsolete words and phrases. Several years ago at Stratford, when the late William Hutt appeared in The Tempest, Prospero was as easy to understand than Walter Cronkite delivering the evening news.   We can almost say the same of this year’s Julius Caesar at Stratford (see this Emsworth review), so well acted that we don’t think there was a single line whose meaning that escaped us.

Why would anyone want to settle for Shakespeare filtered through someone else’s sensibilities? We don’t love the Shakespeare plays for their plots, but for the beauty and power of the language and for the playwright’s insights into human nature. But Shakespeare’s language, by definition, won’t survive a translation (you saw what happened to Macbeth!). And the insights won’t be the same either; language and ideas are too closely connected. We won’t have Shakespeare unalloyed anymore. No matter how beautifully a “verse translation” of Shakespeare turns out, there will be too much of the translator and not enough of Shakespeare.

Other posts from Emsworth about shows in the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:

The musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (see this post)

The Ben Jonson play Bartholomew Fair (see this post)

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see this post)

The marvelous quarrels in Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)

The musical West Side Story (see this post)