“What ho, Pisanio!” — Echoes of Cymbeline in P. G. Wodehouse

P. G. Wodehouse

I can’t prove it, but I feel in my bones that echoes of Cymbeline can be found in P. G. Wodehouse. As I noted in an earlier post, Wodehouse’s stories are full of allusions and quotations from Shakespeare. What would make it unusual is that Wodehouse drew mostly from the best-known Shakespeare plays; I’m not aware of any other references in Wodehouse to Cymbeline

What struck me in Cymbeline, when we saw it performed a week ago at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, were words that fell from the lips of Innogen when she realized (Act I, Scene 6) that Iachimo was a dirty-minded lecher who had been feeding her lies about her husband Posthumus to get her into bed. Innogen calls for Pisanio to show Iachimo the door: “What ho, Pisanio!”

In Wodehouse, of course, Bertie Wooster and his Drones Club friends often greet each other with a friendly “what ho,” as they do, for example, in the 1922 novel Right Ho, Jeeves.  Other Wodehouse characters too, as in Indiscretions of Archie, Chapter XVIII:

Archie was concerned. “Listen, old bean. Make an effort. You must remember that sausage episode? It was just outside St. Mihiel, about five in the evening. Your little lot were lying next to my little lot, and we happened to meet, and I said ‘What ho!’ and you said ‘Halloa!’ and I said ‘What ho! What ho!’ and you said ‘Have a bit of sausage?’ and I said ‘What ho! What ho! What HO!'”

Back to Cymbeline: a few seconds later, the angry Innogen assures Iachimo that her father the King surely won’t stand for a “saucy stranger” who has exposed his “beastly mind” to her as Iachimo has. “Beastly” is another Wodehouse trademark . Bertie Wooster and his pals use it as a all-purpose pejorative, but they are especially apt to apply it (much as Innogen does in Cymbeline) to romantic rivals, with the implication that the motives of those rivals are less than pure.

In chapter 11 of Right Ho, Jeeves, for instance, Tuppy Glossop, rants that if he ever catches up with the unknown “foul blister” who has alienated his girlfriend Angela’s affections, he plans to “to take him by his beastly neck, shake him till he froths, and pull him inside out and make him swallow himself.” Wodehouse used “beastly” six times in Right Ho, Jeeves alone.

It may be only my fancy that Wodehouse drew from Cymbeline, which after all isn’t the only Shakespeare play in which somebody says “what ho.”  Macbeth calls out “Who’s there?  what, ho!” shortly after he murders Duncan.  In Romeo and Juliet, another Wodehose favorite, several citizens of Verona use the phrase, including Capulet (“What, ho! What, nurse, I say!), Romeo (“What, ho! Apothecary!”), and the Prince of Verona, complaining of the brawling in the streets (“What, ho! you men, you beasts . . .”).  In a comment to the original version of this post, Stina pointed out that the use of “beastly” is not terribly uncommon in Shakespeare; it appears about 20 times in various plays. It appears to me, though, that only three times did Shakespeare put the word in a character’s mouth for the purpose of name-calling, the way Wodehouse usually did: in Lear (“you beastly knave”), in Henry IV Part 2 (“Thou, beastly feeder”), and in Cymbeline (“His beastly mind”).

Only in Cymbeline do the Wodehousean words “what ho” and “beastly” appear in close proximity.  Cymbeline isn’t notable for famous lines, but Innogen’s rebuke of Iachimo is a highlight of the play.  It’s easy to imagine not only that Innogen’s speech appealed to Wodehouse, but also that two of its “hottest” words and phrases stuck in his mind, tucked away for future use.

Away! I do condemn mine ears that have
So long attended thee. If thou wert honourable,
Thou wouldst have told this tale for virtue, not
For such an end thou seek’st, – as base as strange.
Thou wrong’st a gentleman, who is as far
From thy report as thou from honour, and
Solicit’st here a lady that disdains
Thee and the devil alike. What ho, Pisanio!
The king my father shall be made acquainted
Of thy assault: if he shall think it fit,
A saucy stranger in his court to mart
As in a Romish stew and to expound
His beastly mind to us, he hath a court
He little cares for and a daughter who
He not respects at all. What, ho, Pisanio!

Cymbeline at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Cara Ricketts as Innogen and Graham Abbey as Posthumus in the 2012 production of Cymbeline at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

It’s doubtful that Cymbeline has a single believable situation.  A few examples: right off the bat we meet a King who’s angry — why would any good father be angry? — with his daughter Innogen for marrying his Posthumus, a manly paragon of virtue, instead of his stepson Cloten, a drunken lout. In the middle of the play, Innogen wakes up to find herself in the mountains of western England — what were the chances? — lying next to the beheaded body of her stepbrother.

And at the play’s end, the Queen makes a death-bed confession to Doctor Cornelius that she never loved the King, was always repulsed by his body, and married him only for his position. Anyone with a shred of discretion would keep such a revelation to himself, but Cornelius rushes to blab it to the King, word for word. (Cymbeline tells everyone he never had a hint that his wife felt that way about him — who could be so oblivious?)

Geraint Wyn Davies plays Cymbeline, King of Britain

Not just the play’s plot elements, but its themes as well are incoherent.  In the final scene, Cymbeline (Geraint Wyn Davis) announces that Britain will keep paying tribute to Rome (3,000 pounds per year) even though he had just fought and won a war against the Romans over the very issue of tribute.  Not paying tribute had been a matter of principle, patriotism, and pride. As Cloten (Mike Shara) had said,

. . . Why tribute? why should we pay tribute? If Caesar can hide the sun from us with a blanket, or put the moon in his pocket, we will pay him tribute for light; else, sir, no more tribute, pray you now.

(Act III, Scene 1). Cymbeline himself was done with paying tribute:

You must know,
Till the injurious Romans did extort
This tribute from us, we were free:
Caesar’s ambition,
Which swell’d so much that it did almost stretch
The sides o’ the world, against all colour here
Did put the yoke upon ‘s; which to shake off
Becomes a warlike people, whom we reckon
Ourselves to be.

(Act III, Scene 1). Yet tribute is to be paid anyway. It’s as if George Washington, after accepting Cornwallis’s surrender and winning independence for the American colonies, had announced that the United States would go back to paying the tea tax.

The story of Cymbeline is as complicated as it is incredible. Till earlier this year, I’d made several abortive attempts to read it; I kept getting lost in the plot and the multiplicity of characters.  Finally, last winter, facing the prospect of actually seeing the play this spring, I made another essay and found smooth sailing.

This year’s production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival shows that this relatively obscure Shakespeare play is a good tale that makes for a highly satisfying three hours of theater. There are two main storylines and several lesser ones. The first main plot deals with the efforts of Cymbeline, King of Britain (Geraint Wyn Davies) to separate his daughter Innogen (Cara Ricketts) from her new husband, who is also the King’s foster son, Posthumus Leonatus (Graham Abbey). (Confusingly, Shakespeare’s characters sometimes call him “Posthumus” and sometimes “Leonatus.”) Banished by Cymbeline, Posthumus goes to Italy (these are the days of the Roman Empire, with Caesar Augustus as Emperor). Innogen eventually leaves home, disguised as a young man, with the hope of reuniting with her husband.

Tom McCamus

Meanwhile, at a dinner in Italy (this is the second main storyline), where all the men are bragging about their women the way Don Quixote bragged about Dulcinea, Posthumus meets a smooth-talking blackguard who offers to bet that Innogen is not so chaste that he, Iachimo (Tom McCamus), cannot seduce her. Astonishingly, Posthumus not only agrees to the bet, but even gives Iachimo a letter of introduction to his father-in-law. After Iachimo returns to Italy and tricks Posthumus into thinking he’d succeeded in bedding Innogen, Posthumus dispatches his loyal servant Pisanio (Brian Tree) to take the supposedly unfaithful Innogen out into the wilderness and put her to the knife. Posthumus is soon overwhelmed with remorse, believing himself a murderer. In fact, Innogen is still alive.

We learn from Posthumus later in the play that Innogen had for some reason persuaded him to put off consummating their marriage. The playwright is thus asking his audience to believe that Posthumus would have agreed to let Iachimo take a shot at “firsties” with Innogen! However far-fetched the proposition, it lets the audience ponder the contrast between the “purity” of Posthumus’s love for Innogen with the brutishness of the two other men in the play who want her, Iachimo and Cloten (who brags to his friends that when he finds Innogen, he’ll rape her, then kill her).  Shakespeare is not for the squeamish.

My wife, who isn’t a play-reader, told me she found this show unusually easy to follow. The reason, I am sure, is that director Antoni Cimolino had faith in the play that the Bard wrote and didn’t feel bound to tinker with the complicated story or make more or less of it than the text warranted. Mr. Cimolino’s only interpolation is a striking scene at the very beginning of the play that shows Cymbeline dreaming in bed. It’s a nod to the improbability of the play’s twists and turns, which are not unlike the incongruities of our dreams, in which people often behave irrationally and illogically.

Cymbeline has a large cast, but in this production even minor characters like the Roman general Lucius (Nigel Bennett), the fugitive warrior Belarius (John Vickery), and the court doctor, Cornelius (Peter Hutt) project distinctive, complex personalities. I enjoyed all three actors immensely. When I read the play, I didn’t quite grasp that whoever plays Posthumus has the romantic lead; Graham Abbey, a good-looking chap whose physique is positively ripped, nails the part (and set my wife’s heart a-flutter). Each of these actors, not to mention Yanna McIntosh as the Queen, Geraint Wyn Davis as Cymbeline, and Brian Tree as Pisanio, are masters of the difficult art of making Shakespeare’s 400-year-old language immediately accessible.

The finest performance, to my mind, is that of Tom McCamus as the smarmy Iachimo, the Roman who makes a sport of assaulting the virtue of another man’s wife. The dinner party scene in which Iachimo prevails on Posthumus to wager on his wife’s virtue is a highlight of the show. And at our performance, the audience collectively held its breath during the erotically charged, dream-like scene in which Iachimo rises out of hiding in Innogen’s bedroom, steals a clasp from the sleeping woman, and steals a look at her person for an identifying birthmark that would convince Posthumus that Iachimo had, in fact, been intimate with Innogen.

The only performance that did not seem fully satisfactory – why, if I have a reservation about a play at Stratford, is it usually about a younger performer? – was that of Cara Ricketts as Innogen. Ms. Ricketts delivers her lines expressively and audibly, but she delivers them all at the same intense emotional level, like a pianist who plays every phrase of a Beethoven sonata agitato or appassionato.  There were scenes in which dolce or gracioso was called for.

Thanks to my friend Shelly Jansen, who has written a thoughtful doctoral dissertation on the subject, I am now aware that when Innogen finally comes back to Posthumus, she does so as a revenant, a literary type that Dr. Jansen describes as a “spectral being” returned from a kind of death, literal or symbolic. When a character like Innogen is in a revenant state, forgiveness and reconciliation can place — and in all of Shakespeare there is no “group hug” reconciliation scene quite like the one at the end of Cymbeline. Other notable revenants include Hermione, in A Winter’s Tale, and Alcestis, the title character in the play of Euripedes.

Dr. Jansen’s thesis, written last year as part of her Ph. D. work at SUNY Binghamton, is entitled For-Giving: The Economy of the Revenant. The title of every doctoral thesis must include a colon.

As You Like It at Shakespeare & Company (Lenox, Mass.)

Delighted with the Richard III we’d seen in 2010, we went back to Lenox, Massachusetts a week ago to see Shakespeare & Company’s As You Like It. This was Shakespeare without gimmicks — lively, well-acted, well-directed, and low-tech, done by people who weren’t afraid the play itself wouldn’t be enough to entertain an audience. We couldn’t have spent our afternoon better, and the rest of the smiling audience apparently thought as we did.

Orlando (Tony Roach) and his brother Oliver (Josh Aaron McCabe) come to blows in the opening scene. Faithful servant Adam (Malcolm Ingram) is shocked.

The story of As You Like It is fundamentally frivolous, and this company didn’t try to make the play carry more than it could. For many years we had trouble appreciating the Shakespeare comedies; the humor depends so much on now-obsolete turns of phrase. But in this show the gags and laugh lines seemed spontaneous and fresh.

Bare-chested Orlando (Tony Roach) prepares to vanquish the wrestler Charles (Kevin O'Donnell); Rosalind (Merritt Janson), spectating, is smitten.

This play is, we now realize, a love story. We don’t mean the infatuations that flare up like dry grass between Rosalind and Orlando, Celia and Oliver, and the jester Touchstone and the country wench Audrey; we mean instead the solid, sisterly love betweeen Rosalind (Merritt Janson) and Celia (Kelley Curran). Their rapport was transparent; we had no difficulty believing that the affectionate Celia would leave her cushy life at the court to accompany her boy-crazy cousin into exile. Rosalind and Celia will always be best friends, but who would think that the romance between Rosalind and the over-serious, gullible Orlando (Tony Roach), writer of bad love verses, would survive much past their honeymoon?

These actors mined their lines for all they were worth. You may think you know the play, but did you realize that minutes after Rosalind met Orlando, she told Celia that she wanted to have his baby? (It’s ten lines into Act I, Scene 2.) You would if you’d seen this production, and a lot more. And the sight gags were superb. “Liberty” is, of course, one of the play’s great themes — both Rosalind and Jacques rhapsodize about it. But we were struck helpless when, at just the right moment, and for just a split second, Ms. Curran pantomimed the Statue of Liberty. For actresses playing Celia/Aliena, one of the big challenges must be figuring out what to do during the several long scenes in which the character is on-stage without any lines. In Act III, Scene 2, Ms. Curran solved the problem with a rapid-fire series of hilarious, dead-on pantomimes of Rosalind/Ganymede’s descriptions of how she was to cure Orlando of his love-madness.

Director Tony Simotes took especial care to connect the action and the dialogue, sometimes in unexpected ways. In Act II, Scene 3, for instance, Celia calls to Rosalind and Touchstone: “I pray you, bear with me; I cannot go no further.” Touchstone responds with one of the rare Elizabethan puns that still works after 400 years: “For my part, I had rather bear with you than bear you.” In this show, however, Touchstone has already come onto the stage bearing Celia on his back. Later, as the “All the world’s a stage” monologue comes to a close, Orlando helps the old, infirm Adam onto the stage just as the lines “second childishness and mere oblivion/Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” are spoken.

Rare is the Shakespeare director who can resist the urge to try something “different” with a familiar play, and Mr. Simotes is apparently not such a director. The novelty in this show was the casting of the philosophic, monastic, misanthropic Jacques as a woman — and not just a woman, but a lesbian with an unrequited passion for Celia/Aliena, which she conveyed through longing glances and gestures. (Celia/Aliena rejected her overtures with an appreciative but it-can-never-be smile.) The gender of Jacques, who wore an androgynous black suit, confused the other characters as well as the audience; a bemused Touchstone (Jonathan Epstein) kept referring to Jacques as “him, or her, or whatever.”

Tod Randolph as Jacques

The main thing in favor of Ms. Randolph’s casting as Jacques was that it afforded an excellent actress an chance at a role otherwise reserved for men. We surely enjoyed her intelligent, witty delivery of some of the play’s best lines. (This was the second fine performance by a woman in a man’s role that we saw this summer; the other was Seana McKenna’s Richard III at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.) It could also be said that conceiving Jacques as a lesbian in a society in which same-sex romances are beyond the pale helps to explain why Jacques is practically the only major character in As You Like It without a romantic partner. Or perhaps it could be said that the erotic attraction of Jacques to Celia served as a foil for the platonic affection between Rosalind and Celia.

On balance, though, this was a variation we could have done without — not having a woman play Jacques, but the conversion of Jacques into a lesbian. We are not of the school that insists that the literature of bygone years needs to be reinterpreted or “corrected” to reflect twenty-first century notions of sexuality.

Johnny Lee Davenport as Duke Senior in the Forest of Ardenne

We were very glad to see several actors we’d seen in Lenox the previous year in Richard III, including Ms. Randolph. Among the most striking feats in this show was Johnny Lee Davenport’s portrayal of both the bad Duke Frederick and his banished brother. In manner and speech, his two characters could hardly have been more contrasting; it hardly seemed possible that both the brutal Duke who banished his niece from court and the mellow, gracious Duke who welcomed Orlando to the Forest of Arden were played by the same actor. Mr. Davenport gained a spot on our list of favorite Shakespearean actors with his delivery of one of our favorite speeches in all Shakespeare: the good Duke’s ode to the pastoral life.

The star of this As You Like It was the winsome Merritt Janson, who played Rosalind as a hyper-active, quick-witted, playful bundle of sexual energy. But we are still looking for our ideal Rosalind. Ms. Janson hardly varied her tempo, and she delivered too many of her lines with the same inflections. We enjoyed Kelley Curran, as Celia/Aliena, very much, and not just for her physical comedy. And we surely hope to see Jonathan Epstein, a top-drawer veteran actor who played a superb Touchstone, in other Shakespeare roles.

Before the show, we (Emsworth and both the eldest and youngest of his three lovely, accomplished daughters) visited the former home of Shakespeare & Company at The Mount, a restored mansion that was designed and built by Edith Wharton in 1902. The Mount is only a mile or so from Shakespeare & Company’s current home at a private boys’ school. Its gardens are lovely. We couldn’t quite figure out where the plays were staged.

Richard III at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Seana McKenna as Richard, Duke of Gloucester

(May 30, 2011) Don’t shy away from seeing Richard III at the Stratford Festival this year for fear that having a woman play the lead role will just be a novelty. Seana McKenna is as fine a Richard as you’ll ever see, a commanding, sometimes terrible presence. This play can seem disjointed, but this production makes it all into a compelling narrative.

Richard III is set in the 1480s, only a little over a hundred years before the play was first presented. Its hero, Richard, Duke of Gloucester bitterly resents everyone around him: his brother King Edward; Elizabeth, the Queen; his other brother Clarence, who stands ahead of him in line for the throne of England; and anyone else who is able to enjoy life the way his own deformed self cannot.

Richard makes up for his defects with cunning, an talent for dissembling, and a preternatural ability to get others to do his bidding.  His undoing is his paranoia and an ever-growing appetite for killing. As Richard, Seana McKenna delivers her lines with clarity, nuance, and depth of meaning, and her Richard is an intelligent, driven personality, a master manipulator with a special relish for irony. This role demonstrates once again why she ranks among the very best classical actors you’re likely ever to see on any stage.

Gareth Potter, as Richmond, dispatches Seana McKenna, as Richard III

There is very little in Ms. McKenna’s appearance to remind the audience that she is a woman. In a loose-fitting coat that hides her figure, makeup that hides her feminine features, and a wig with a bald spot on top, Ms. McKenna looks every bit a man (though not a very tall one). She’s even a credible sword-fighter. Her Richard also has the character’s traditional hunched shoulder and limp (political correctness be damned). Only her voice betrays her, but she exploits its low range well enough to convince audiences that Richard was merely a man with a high voice.

Indeed, it struck us that director Miles Potter purposely chose to downplay the circumstance that a woman was playing Richard.  The casting could, of course, have suggested any number of offbeat interpretations of the character, like the flamboyantly gay Richard that Richard Dreyfuss was called on to play in the movie comedy The Goodbye Girl. But only sparing notice is given to the actor’s gender. At two or three points, the script refers specifically to womanly qualities (as when Buckingham flatters Richard by referring to his “tenderness of heart/And gentle, kind, effeminate remorse” (Act III, Scene 6)); the actors emphasize the key words just enough to convey to the audience the inside joke. At any rate, Ms. McKenna plays Richard as a man, and not even a womanish man. As one might expect from a royal male, her Richard is an effortlessly natural commander of men and women alike. Overall, this was a very traditional Richard III, without transporting the play to a different time period or country, and without unconventional interpretations of characters or scenes — all of which we applaud. The director concentrated on doing Richard III well rather than doing it differently.

True, hearing Richard’s treble voice, our fancy couldn’t help speculating that a hormonal deficiency may have contributed to Richard’s shocking misogyny.  When he confesses to the audience in his opening speech that he wants “love’s majesty/To strut before a wanton ambling nymph” (Act I, Scene 1), is he telling us that his physical deformity extended to his sexual organs?  Did Richard hate women all the more because he was impotent?  Might this account for Richard’s singular determination to confuse, subjugate, humiliate, and drive Lady Anne (Bethany Jillard) to an early grave — Lady Anne, who “never yet one hour in his bed . . . enjoy’d the golden dew of sleep” (Act IV, Scene 1).

There are a lot of characters in Richard III, and although we’ve read the play several times, we still have trouble keeping track of the complicated fourteenth-century family trees of the House of York (Richard’s people) and the House of Lancaster (Richmond’s people). It says something for Shakespeare’s audiences that the playwright could assume that they would know who all these fifteenth-century personages were. Fortunately, one need not know much of it to get the gist of the play. Its interest doesn’t depend on placing the characters in the right faction, but lies instead in the emotional trajectory of Richard’s downfall.

Ms. McKenna is supported by a strong cast, including a remarkable trio of veteran Stratford Festival actresses: Martha Henry as the vindictive Queen Margaret, Roberta Maxwell as Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, and Yanna McIntosh as the highly political wife of King Edward. We especially enjoyed Nigel Bennett as the badly miscalculating Hastings and Wayne Best as the disappointed Duke of Buckingham. Not so satisfactory, though, was Bethany Jillard’s Lady Anne, who delivered her lines loudly and clearly but with little expression.

When the powers at the Stratford Festival put Richard III in the Tom Patterson Theatre, they may have been afraid that one of Shakespeare’s “history” plays wouldn’t attract enough patrons to fill one of the larger theatres. We think they miscalculated, because this show is bound to have full houses every night by the end of the season, just from word of mouth, as A Winter’s Tale did in 2010. (There were only a handful of empty seats at the early preview performance we saw.) At any rate, we were glad to see Richard III in the Tom Patterson, because we still think there’s no better venue anywhere for Shakespeare.

For ourselves, we wish the history plays were performed more often at Stratford. It’s been too long since Richard II, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V were done. We have no inside information, but we fearlessly predict that Henry V will be on the Stratford Festival’s menu for 2012, that it will be in the Festival Theatre, and that Ben Carlson will be addressing the troops on St. Crispin’s Day. [Update (6-6-11): We were right: The Stratford Festival announced its 2012 season over the weekend, and they will indeed be doing Henry V in the Festival Theatre. Casting isn’t set yet.] [Further update (11-1-11): We were wrong: Aaron Krohn will play the title role. Carlson will play Fluellen.]

This is the second time we’ve seen a major Shakespearean male character played by a woman; a few years ago another of our favorite actresses, Kelli Fox, who will appear in The Misanthrope at the Stratford Festival later this year, played Hamlet very ably in a production at Geva Theatre here in Rochester, New York several years ago. On this blog Emsworth has carped from time to time about how “nontraditional” casting can distract and detract from a play (here’s what we said about it in connection with the Shaw Festival’s current production of Shaw’s Candida). But ordinarily, when it’s done with Shakespeare, we’re not likely to care one way or the other. Shakespeare’s world was indeed multi-racial, as Othello and The Merchant of Venice show. And we know that in Elizabethan times the female roles were played by men; it’s not much of a stretch for a male role to be played by a woman.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Stratford Festival

We’d never seen The Two Gentlemen of Verona on stage and had no particular expectations, but it was easy to see that the Stratford Festival’s production was trying something new with it.  It worked well, and we thought it was a lot of fun.

Dean Gabourie

The plot of The Two Gentlemen of Verona is thin (even by the undemanding standards of Shakespeare comedies), the situations are formulaic, and some episodes don’t really have anything to do with the story.  Director Dean Gabourie’s bright idea was to suppose that Shakespeare conceived Two Gentlemen as a variety show, with song-and-dance numbers, comedy skits, animal acts, and scenes from well-known plays, and so on.  This sort of entertainment was apparently usual in the late sixteenth century, as it was 200 years later when Nicholas Nickleby joined Vincent Crummles’s troupe of players (see this recent Emsworth post; we’ve been reading Dickens) and through the vaudeville era (see this post). 

In this show the two young “gentlemen” and the women they love appear as vaudeville performers; the show opens with bosom friends Proteus (Gareth Potter) and Valentine (Dion Johnstone) dancing in striped suits, tophats, and canes.  Valentine is on his way to Milan to get on in life and make new friends; Proteus is content to stay in Verona because of his infatuation with Julia (Sophia Walker).  

Once in Milan, Valentine promptly falls for Silvia (Caire Lautier), whose father wants to bestow her on another man, the wooden Sir Thurio (Timothy Stickney).  When Proteus follows Valentine to Milan, he too falls in love with Silvia, forgetting all about Julia, with whom he exchanged rings before he left. 

In this show the story moves along briskly despite interspersed songs and comic vignettes from the gentlemen’s servants, Speed and Launce, whose dog Crab is played by a lethargic, short-legged, decidedly male beagle.  As a bonus, Mr. Gabourie throws in a melodramatic rendition of the murder of Desdemona from Othello, in which Timothy Stickney plays Sir Thurio playing Othello and Stacie Steadman plays Silvia playing Desdemona). This interpolation was purely Mr. Gabourie’s idea, but it’s undoubtedly Shakespearean (think of the play scene in Hamlet) and fully in the vaudeville tradition.

The entire cast is fine, but the characters we found the most fun were Julia’s mildly disrespectful maid (Trish Lindström), Silvia’s strutting, self-important father (John Vickery), the quipster Speed (Bruce Dow), who pronounces that “love is blind,” and the philosophical dog-owner Launce (Robert Persichini). 

Robert Persichini

Despite its vaudevillian trappings, this production gives us Shakespeare’s language in full flower, especially as it comes from the mouths of Ms. Walker (Julia has the most poetic lines in the play) and Mr. Persichini, who delivers the play’s wonderful comic monologues to the dog Crab.  (These really come alive in performance; the lines seem disjointed on the printed page.)  One of the things that make some of the Shakespeare comedies difficult for some people, including Emsworth, is that the jokes tend to be based on wordplay involving words that aren’t part of our vocabulary anymore.  But a reasonably acute playgoer is likely to “get” the puns and malapropisms of the comic characters in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, as when Launce refers tells us he has received his “proportion,” like the “prodigious son.”

Several years ago, here in Rochester, we saw a community theater version of Edward Albee’s bizarre play The Goat, or Who is Silvia?, which is about a man who falls in love with a goat.  We now realize for the first time that the title of the play was taken from a song Proteus sings under Silvia’s balcony, “Who Is Silvia.”  But we still don’t get the connection.

Peter Ackroyd’s case for the Stratford man

We hardly ever buy books when they’re freshly published, which is why we’re only now getting around to Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare: The Biography, which came out in 2005. It was a Father’s Day gift this year from our Goneril, the eldest of our three daughters.

Now, Emsworth has grave doubts as to whether the subject of this “biography” was actually the author of the “Shakespeare” plays and poems. (See this post, and this one too.) We think it far more likely that Hamlet and The Winter’s Tale were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), one of Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers.  But we still think Ackroyd’s book is a worthy read.

Peter Ackroyd is a Stratfordian, and like most of his kind he deals with the “authorship” question mainly by pretending to ignore it. His book barely mentions Oxford at all. But Shakespeare authorship was surely on his mind, because good portions of this “biography” amount to an advocacy brief on behalf of the traditional candidate.

The Cobbe Shakespere portrait

Not that it’s a bad brief. We grant that Ackroyd cites a few circumstances that affirmatively tend to link the Stratford man to the writing of the plays. But they’re not nearly enough, in quality or quantity, to convince Emsworth. A lot of what Ackroyd gleans about the writer from the internal evidence of the plays and sonnets — which is his main technique — simply can’t be related to the man from Stratford. Indeed, Ackroyd sometimes admits as much.

For instance, Ackroyd says there is so much woodland imagery in As You Like It and other plays that the playwright had to have been a country boy (as the Stratford man was), not a city boy. There are so many references to gloves and how they’re made, he says, that the playwright must have known a glover (it’s known that William Shakespeare’s father was a glover).

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

That is the sort of thing Oxfordians do, too. They point out (to take two examples out of a great many) that whoever wrote Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew almost certainly had first-hand knowledge of the geography and customs of Italy (as de Vere did) and that the playwright had first-hand knowledge of the ways of royals and noblemen (as de Vere had).

Often as not, though, what Ackroyd takes from the plays doesn’t match up to anything we know about the life of the actor from Stratford, which of course isn’t much. Because the plays are riddled with references to falconry, Ackroyd says, the playwright must have known a lot about it — so he infers that, at some point, William Shakespeare must have worked as a tutor for a nobleman who kept falcons. And from the fact that there’s a lot of legal terminology in the plays, Ackroyd concludes that William Shakespeare must have spent time as apprentice to a solicitor in Stratford.

The world’s best-known female lawyer was a fictional character in The Merchant of Venice. This “Portia” is by the Victorian artist Henry Woods.

This is just guesswork. There’s no other evidence that the Stratford man ever worked as a tutor or ever studied law. On the other hand, it is known that as a boy Edward de Vere was tutored by Sir Thomas Smith, who was devoted to falconry, at Smith’s estate at Ankerwycke. It is also known that de Vere was actually admitted to Gray’s Inn in 1566 to study law.

Some of Ackroyd’s other points are a bit of a stretch, too. For instance, stage directions are sparse in the Shakespeare plays, from which Ackroyd infers that the playwright himself was at the company’s rehearsals to tell the rest of the players what to do. But that’s something that might strike you only if you already assumed that William Shakespeare, the actor, wrote the plays.  Ackroyd correctly notes that strife between brothers is a theme in Shakespeare plays (for instance, Edgar and Edmund in King Lear, Prospero and Antonio in The Tempest, Orlando and Oliver in As You Like It) — from which he posits that William Shakespeare, the eldest boy in his family, had trouble with his younger brothers. It’s pure speculation; there’s no other evidence of it.

For all this, we don’t hesitate to recommend Shakespeare: The Biography. Peter Ackroyd is a gracious writer; we know him from of old as the author of our favorite biography of Charles Dickens. Like all Shakespeare “biographies,” only a fraction of his book deals directly with its ostensible subject; this book is essentially a history of the London theater from 1580 to 1620.

But it’s still full of interesting things we didn’t know. And many of the chapters of this book are excellent essays about the plays; Ackroyd’s pleasure in writing about something he loves is transparent.

A new take on Hamlet: John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius

For years I was engaged in a hopeless contest with John Updike as to whether he could churn out new books faster than I could read them. The author was ahead by a dozen lengths when his death in January 2009 gave me a sporting chance at catching up.  Gertrude and Claudius had been sitting patiently on my shelves for nearly ten years, and it was one of the first unread Updike titles that I tackled.

I remember hesitating over whether even to buy it in the first place.  The novel’s premise seemed like a pretentious gimmick that I wouldn’t like: Updike had borrowed both the plot and the characters from Shakespeare’s best-known play.

How wrong I was! I enjoyed Gertrude and Claudius tremendously, and all the more so because I had spent so much time in the preceding year boning up on Hamlet, which we saw on a Stratford Festival stage (Stratford, Ontario) in the summer of 2008 (see Emsworth’s report on that fine production).

Gertrude and Claudius is the back-story of Hamlet, as imagined by Mr. Updike.  If you know Hamlet, you know that a lot has already gone down before the play begins. Prince Hamlet has been at Wittenberg long enough to become a perpetual student, he and Ophelia are already an item, his father had died suddenly for no apparent reason, and his mother and his uncle Claudius are newly married.  The novel starts thirty years before the action of the play when Gertrude was a teenager; it takes us through the wedding of Gertrude and Claudius in Hamlet, Act I.

Thanks to Updike, we now know that Elsinore was Gertrude’s father’s castle, and that she was a mere 17 years old and motherless when her first marriage was arranged.  We know the real reason Claudius didn’t come to his brother’s wedding.  We know that King Hamlet was too drunk to consummate his marriage to Gertrude on their wedding night, and we know just how well their marriage turned out. 

And Gertrude and Claudius answers most the questions you might ever have had about Hamlet. Exactly how innocent was the relationship between Gertrude and Claudius before the murder of King Hamlet, and how long had that been going on?  Where did Claudius learn about exotic poisons?  And what might Polonius have had in common with a certain character in Troilus and Cressida?

Hamlet and his mother Gertrude as conceived by Delacroix. Polonius is behind the curtain.

Modern playwrights specify what their characters should look like, but Shakespeare didn’t, and Updike helps us out here as well. He gives us Gertrude as a copper-haired beauty who’d become plump by the time she married Claudius in her late forties, Hamlet as a curly-haired, bearded redhead. 

In writing Gertrude and Claudius John Updike was showing off.  He must have thought it good sport to set about writing a novel based on the characters of Hamlet that would not only meet his usual high standards of storytelling and character development, but would also amount to a scholarly “interpretation” of the play.

Of course, for someone who could write three brilliant sequels to a masterpiece of his own (Rabbit, Run), a “prequel” to someone else’s masterpiece probably wasn’t that much of a stretch.  I enjoyed Gertrude and Claudius not only because I was already intensely interested in its characters (I fell for Updike’s gimmick, after all), and not only because of its many happy allusions to the language of the Bard, but also because this novel was a riveting tale on its own merits.

Was P. G. Wodehouse squeamish about sex?

We don’t mean this in a negative way, but the fact can’t be avoided: the Master wasn’t comfortable with sex. Not once in dozens of comic novels and hundreds of short stories with romantic plots, does any P. G. Wodehouse character indulge in the carnal passions, on-stage or off.  Considering that people probably joke about sex more than anything else, it’s almost astonishing how well Wodehouse got by as a comic writer without it.

Wodehouse wasn’t prudish in other respects. Bertie Wooster and his fellow Drones drink themselves silly, commit petty burglaries, fritter money away at casinos, resort to blackmail at the drop of a hat, and concoct hilarious frauds. And as the twentieth century wore on and the rules against explicit language in literature relaxed, so, in a modest way, did Wodehouse’s vocabulary. An occasional “hell” and “damn” sometimes crept in, and in The Mating Season (1950) characters use the words “bitch” and “bastard.” (The words jar when you read them; perhaps feeling that for once he’d struck sour notes, Wodehouse never used them again.)

But for all the romances that blossom and flourish in Wodehouse’s stories, no Wodehouse lovers ever wind up in bed. They’re not even seen (as in Viagra commercials) heading for the bedroom with amorous intentions. One finds no evidence that any Wodehouse character even thinks about having sex.

In fact, Bertie Wooster — the Wodehouse character in whom the mindset of the author can best be discerned — becomes nervous when conversation merely threatens to have anything to do with sex:

“Oh, Bertie [said Madeleine Bassett], you remind me of Rudel.”
The name was new to me. “Rudel?”
“He lived in the Middle Ages. He was a great poet. And he fell in love with the wife of the Lord of Tripoli.”
I stirred uneasily. I hoped she was going to keep it clean.

(The Code of the Woosters, ch. III.)  In Wodehouse, sexually aggressive females invariably involve men in folly.  When (in The Mating Season, ch. 10) Corky Pirbright “shamelessly” flirts with Gussie Fink-Nottle and makes him forget that he’s already engaged, Bertie reflects:

Oh, Woman, Woman, I said to myself, not for the first time, feeling that the sooner that sex was suppressed, the better it would be for all of us.

Was Bertie speaking for Wodehouse himself?

Nor are Wodehouse characters comfortable with nudity. The closest Wodehouse ever comes to portraying sensuality — not that it comes close at all — is his occasional use of nude portraits as Macguffins in his elaborate plots. But the fate of the nude painting in his story “Jeeves Makes an Omelette” is characteristic: it so disgusts one character that it destroys his appetite, and Bertie ends up cutting it into small pieces and throwing them into the fire. In one of his last books (written when Wodehouse was 89 years old), one of the characters gets the idea that he wants a Renoir-like portrait of a woman, but ends up announcing, “I don’t want the damned thing. And it beats me how I ever got the idea I did. It makes me sick to look at it.” The telling American title of his novel was No Nudes is Good Nudes.

In his later years, when many bestsellers were full of four-letter words and explicit love scenes, Wodehouse complained of “smutty” books. Curiously, though, the ribaldry in Shakespeare’s plays — and Shakespeare was Wodehouse’s constant companion — apparently never bothered him.  Shakespeare seems to have been obsessed with reproduction; it’s the theme of a number of sonnets, and in his plays too characters are urged to marry and beget children, as Viola (Cesario) does to Olivia in Twelfth Night (Act I, scene 5):

Lady, you are the cruell’st she alive,
If you will lead these graces to the grave
And leave the world no copy.

But the very idea of reproduction was embarrassing to Bertie Wooster, as in this passage from Jeeves, in which Bertie’s Aunt Agatha is haranguing him about finding a wife:

“It is young men like you, Bertie, who make the person with the future of the race at heart despair. You do nothing but waste your time on frivolous pleasures. You are simply an anti-social animal, a drone. Bertie, it is imperative that you marry.”

“But, dash it all . . .”

“Yes! You should be breeding children to . . .”

“No, really, I say, please!” I said, blushing richly. Aunt Agatha belongs to two or three of these women’s clubs, and she keeps forgetting she isn’t in the smoking room.

In story after story, Bertie Wooster manages to escape the terrors of matrimony and its bedroom duties.

Wodehouse was already 42 years old and had been married for nine years when he published Jeeves (his first masterpiece) in 1923. He and his wife Ethel never had children and may never have tried; Wodehouse’s biographer Robert McCrum refers to him as “sexless” (he may have been sterile or impotent as a result of adolescent illness) and reports that and and Ethel always occupied separate bedrooms. Did Wodehouse think of himself as a drone? That would explain a lot.