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What Made Shakespeare Laugh?

The final part of our audio lecture series; 'What Was Shakespeare Really Like'

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Professor Michael Dobson, Director of The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham

Hello, everybody. This is Michael Dobson, of the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. It gives me great pleasure to pay tribute to Sir Stanley Wells – whose 90th birthday is next week – at the start of this final lecture in his series ‘What Was Shakespeare Really Like?’ This one is entitled ‘What Made Shakespeare Laugh?

I say ‘pay tribute to Sir Stanley Wells’ advisedly: claiming to ‘introduce’ him would be sheer impertinence.  Professor Wells needed no introduction when I had the amazing luck to become one of his PhD students, back when he was working on his path-breaking Complete Oxford Shakespeare, published in 1986.  After the further decades of publications which have followed it (each combining minute accuracy with a jargon-free freshness and clarity), and with worldwide public honours to his credit, Professor Sir Stanley, CBE, certainly does not need any introduction now.

A ‘tribute,’ though, is another thing to an introduction, and tribute is amply owed to Stanley by countless thousands who have learned from him: students, colleagues, actors, readers, lecture audiences, all of us.  Throughout his career Stanley has excelled across every field of Shakespearean study – whether as textual scholar, editorial theorist, biographer, theatre historian, literary critic, or analyst of contemporary performance – but above all else he is a great teacher.  It’s worth noting, perhaps, that real, school teaching -- as opposed to waiting for a procrastinating doctoral student to submit some writing and then immediately suggesting seven ways in which it might be improved beyond recognition -- was Stanley’s first job. As in Aubrey’s seventeenth-century anecdote about Shakespeare, before he produced the works for which he is so justly celebrated, Stanley too ‘was a schoolmaster in the country.’  It’s perhaps a less well-known aspect of Stanley’s character that the same combination of patient, focussed attention and imaginative, playful empathy which makes him such an exemplary reader of Shakespearean poetry also makes him very good with the young. My own twin daughters, for instance, cherish early memories of climbing onto his lap and pulling his beard – something I have never dared to do myself, I hasten to add, and something I wouldn’t recommend to any of you either, especially if you are conspiracy theorists or sloppy proof-readers.

But perhaps the keynote both of Stanley’s affinity with the work of Shakespeare and of his genius as a teacher is another quality, and that’s generosity. Stanley always sees how much the fine detail matters, and how much may be at stake in a critical argument, or a couplet, or a gag.  But he also understands what ultimately doesn’t matter, what should be let go, what should just be allowed to be itself.  I remember when he and I published a reference book, and it received a sneering review in the Evening Standard, and our editor asked anxiously whether we ought not to respond in some way. ‘O, I already have,’ Stanley replied, ‘I sent the reviewer a box of chocolates.’  Like another natural Shakespearean, his close friend Judi Dench, Stanley knows how to articulate a forgiving, compassionate generosity with a twinkling edge of mischief. I look forward very much to hearing his account of what made Shakespeare laugh. 

Professor Sir Stanley Wells:

For the last of these four talks, ladies and gentlemen, I decided in advance that I wanted to talk about Shakespeare’s sense of humour. I thought I would talk about how – if at all –it is possible to know what made him smile and laugh. And I wanted to think about how this relates to our sense of his overall personality and of how it changed and developed over the years. But when I started actually to try to write my lecture, I began to think it would be a great deal easier to write a whole, rather long book about the subject than to try to encompass it within a talk. I also felt surprise that, so far as I know, no such book exists. Perhaps that is because it is easier to talk and write about tragedy, which we all know is a very serious matter, than about comedy, which it’s too easy to think of as a trivial matter. 

It is easiest to know what Shakespeare finds funny when he is writing as if in his own person, as in his poems, rather than in his plays. There is obvious wit in Venus and Adonis, where he clearly delights in the irony of the goddess of love’s failure to seduce the handsome but adolescent Adonis, even though he also allows the young man the self-defence of acknowledged emotional immaturity: ‘Before I know myself seek not to know me’ (line 525). And there are comic touches such as the picture of Adonis yielding momentarily to Venus’s demand for a kiss:

Upon this promise did he raise his chin,
Like a divedapper peering through a wave,
Who being looked on, ducks as quickly in.
So offers he to give what she did crave,
     But when her lips were ready for his pay,
     He winks and turns his lips another way. (lines 85-90). 

It’s quite like a moment from a film, isn’t it? The image of a handsome young man peering upwards like a dabchick raising its head above the surface of what must surely in Shakespeare’s mind have been the River Avon, and instantly plopping back again, has an irresistibly comic quality, and it’s fair enough to identify the comic viewpoint with that of the author.

There are elements of satire and parody too in some of the sonnets. ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun…’, says Shakespeare in Sonnet 130, in a take-off of the conventional hyperbole of the traditional sonneteer. Clearly as he wrote these works he had a keen sense of irony, an awareness of the absurdity of the exaggerations of those who ‘suffer love’ (as Beatrice puts it in Much Ado About Nothing, 5.2.59.).

When we come to the plays things become more complex. He liked to make people laugh. His earliest sole-authored play, I believe, was a comedy - The Two Gentlemen of Verona. As his career developed, he became in an increasingly strong position to set his own agenda not necessarily following theatrical fashion. It is notable, for example, that he continued to write romantic comedies for several years after the vogue for citizen comedies was inaugurated in 1598 with Englishmen for My Money, or A Woman Will Have Her Will, by William Haughton, soon followed by Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour. The Merry Wives of Windsor, which is difficult to date, may nod towards the new fashion, but it is set vaguely in the past rather than in Shakespeare’s own time, and has a thoroughly romantic ending.

Shakespeare’s deployment of comic form is full of variety; every play has its distinct identity. He was never a writer of farce, a genre in which a dramatist’s principal aim is to raise laughter, often at the expense of characterization. The Merry Wives of Windsor is sometimes reduced to a farce in production, but only at the expense of drastic and insensitive cutting along with over-broad acting. The Two Gentlemen of Verona combines broad comedy – especially in the moments with Lance and his incontinent dog – with the comedy of situation that culminates unexpectedly in an episode of attempted rape. The Comedy of Errors, acted in 1594, is often treated as a farce in production but in fact it combines a highly-sophisticated comedy of character and situation deriving from the Roman dramatist Plautus with a romance story which Shakespeare was to dramatize again late in his career in Pericles. When I want to be provocative – as occasionally happens – I say that far from being a farce The Comedy of Errors is the first of Shakespeare’s last plays.

It is true all the same that, although Shakespeare never abandons comedy, he wrote all his predominantly comic plays during the first half of his career, from whenever he started – sometime around 1590 – till about 1600. The lightest-hearted comedies, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream come early, probably up to about 1595.  Some of these comedies include serious elements verging on the tragic. At the conclusion of Love’s Labour’s Lost, for example, a messenger of death overshadows the lovers’ coming together.  Overall, however, these are the happiest of the comedies. 

As I said in talking about how Shakespeare wrote a play, the next five comedies – The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Twelfth Night, and As You Like It – unlike the earlier ones, all include among their casts a comic antagonist – respectively: Shylock, Don John, Falstaff, Malvolio, and Oliver (plus the melancholy Jacques) –  who casts shadows of varying shades of darkness over the mirth. The Merry Wives of Windsor is the lightest of these plays overall, but has its serious side in the threat that Falstaff’s attempts at committing adultery pose to Page’s and Ford’s marriages and in the moving reconciliation of Master and Mistress Ford. I remember the poignancy which Ian Richardson, who had been brilliantly amusing in his disguise as Master Brook, brought to his reconciliation with his wife. In each of the other comedies the antagonist is expelled from the happy ending but with varying degrees of severity. Shylock is mocked by Graziano and other characters and forced to convert to Christianity - a fate better than death which may even be regarded as a blessing. At the end of Much Ado About Nothing Don John is lightly dismissed with the vague threat from Benedick ‘Think not of him till tomorrow. I’ll devise thee brave punishments for him’. In Twelfth Night Orsino recommends that Malvolio, in spite of his vicious threat ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you’, shall nevertheless be entreated ‘to a peace.’ And in As You Like It Oliver, who starts off as a cardboard villain, repents with implausible but dramaturgically convenient suddenness and ends up by being subsumed into the circle of happy lovers.

It is during this period too that Shakespeare makes most use of the conventions and techniques of comedy in plays based on English history, drawing primarily on his imagination for their comic episodes, above all those portraying Sir John Falstaff, who is also of course the central character of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The turning point comes with or around the time of Hamlet – the chronology is uncertain - the most comic of the tragedies, and the only one with a hero who in happier circumstances might have starred in a romantic comedy. Hamlet the man is in a direct line from Biron of Love’s Labour’s Lost, through Benedick of Much Ado About Nothing, to Jaques of As You Like It.  He uses his mordant wit to pierce through the bland compromises of Claudius, to diffuse Polonius’s sycophancy. And the gravediggers’ down-to-earth reality about the hard facts of death provokes a great burst of Hamlet’s hectic imaginings.

As Shakespeare grows older his use of comic form becomes darker, more deeply fused with moral complexity and with the possibility, at least, of unhappy endings which, in the late romances, only near-miracles or divine intervention can avert. Some of this may be attributable to external factors such as changes in dramatic fashion, collaboration with Middleton and Fletcher, and the moral, even philosophical climate of the times. But it is natural to ask whether the darkening of the dramatist’s palette reflects changes within Shakespeare himself. In this later part of his career all his plays in or approximating to comic form – Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest - are deeply concerned with serious moral issues. In them the anti-comic forces, previously concentrated on a single figure, are more broadly diffused, and comic antagonists become more morally complex, more threatening, less easy to identify. He was getting older. Was he also becoming gloomier? Do the changes in his use of comic form reflect changes in his personality and in his response to life events? His son Hamnet died in 1596, an event that might have been expected to darken his mood, yet he went on writing comedies. Anyhow, even if he became less cheerful as the years passed, his creativity, so far from diminishing, grew in inventiveness, in emotional power, and in profundity. Maybe, as is true in a different medium with Beethoven, suffering brought him ever-growing depths of emotionally expressive power. It’s as far a cry from the high spirits of Beethoven’s first symphony to the profundity of his late quartets as it is from The Comedy of Errors to The Winter’s Tale.

Whatever the truth about Shakespeare’s later development and its inner causes, and however subtle and profound his use of comic resources became in his post-Hamlet period, it seems clear that in earlier years he felt that his natural bent was for comedy, and in the rest of this talk I shall concentrate on this period.

We have to allow for the fact that dialogue apparently intended to amuse audiences may not directly reflect the author’s own sense of humour; he may have hoped it might make other people laugh even if he himself found it unfunny. He may deliberately cause characters to make what we now might call ‘groan-jokes’, where amusement arises from disbelief that anyone should be so stupid as to find them funny. Notoriously, some of the repartee in, especially, Shakespeare’s early comedies is liable to strike modern audiences as forced and dated, and it may have had the same effect on Elizabethan playgoers. For instance, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona Lance, talking of the lovers - his master Proteus and Julia - says to his fellow servant Speed:

Lance Marry, thus: when it stands well with him, it 
stands well with her.

Speed What an ass art thou! I understand thee not.

Lance What a block art thou, that thou canst not! My 
staff understands me.

Speed What thou sayest?

Lance Ay, and what I do too: look thee, I'll but lean, 
and my staff understands me.

Speed It stands under thee, indeed.

Lance Why, stand-under and under-stand is all one.

(2. 5. 20-29).

It seems likely that Shakespeare expected his audience to laugh at Lance for his simple-minded punning, and at Speed for his failure to see the joke, as well as to admire his own skill at portraying their naiveté.  Still, Shakespeare himself may have groaned as he wrote it.

Though he may have used devices to amuse his audience which reflect his cold-blooded professionalism rather than revealing what would have aroused his own spontaneous laughter, it seems all the same to be worth trying to identify some of his principal comic techniques in the hope that these may cast at least an oblique light on his sense of humour.

He is notoriously fond of puns and wordplay. Dr Johnson famously wrote that ‘A quibble [by which he meant a play on words] was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.’ That sounds more like a rebuke than a compliment: clearly, punning jokes did not appeal to Johnson’s neo-classical sympathy. Wordplay take many forms and can be variously complex. Shakespeare uses a simple form of it in revealing the pomposity and self-importance of a character such as Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing as he responds to Conrad’s assertion that he is an ass:

Dost thou not suspect my place? Dost thou not suspect my years? O that he were here to write me down an ass! (4.2.72-4).

Wordplay can be a fruitful source of bawdy comedy, and it may come from the lips of aristocrats and courtiers well as of pimps and clowns. There is no filthier scene in Shakespeare than that in Love’s Labour’s Lost, act four, scene one, in which the clown Costard and the courtier Boyet comment jestingly on a conversation among the Princess’s waiting women. Boyet, commenting on their proficiency in archery, says, ‘A mark! O, mark but that mark! A mark, says my lady! Let the mark have a prick in’t, to mete at, if it may be.’ To which Maria replies: ‘Wide a’ the bow-hand! I’ faith, your hand is out.’ Costard comments, ‘Indeed ’a must shoot nearer, or he’ll ne’er hit the clout.’ Boyet comes back at him with ‘And if my hand be out, then belike your hand is in’, and Costard says, ‘Then will she get the upshoot by cleaving the pin’ (which means, putting it simply, that she will cause him to ejaculate by masturbating him). It is no wonder that Maria then says, ‘Come, come, you talk greasily, your lips grow foul.’ It’s worth remembering that these lines were written at the time when Shakespeare was also writing some of his Sonnets that are profoundly concerned with sexual dilemmas.

In post-Freudian times serious wordplay has become recognized as a means of evoking the workings of the subconscious mind and of suggesting the complexity of human experience. Shakespeare’s use of the device grows in subtlety and depth; it is a far cry from Lance’s ‘My staff understands me’ to Hamlet’s ‘Do you think I meant country matters?’(3.2.116), to the bitter wordplay of the Fool in King Lear, and to the dying Cleopatra’s ‘Husband, I come’ (5.2.282) – if that is indeed intended as a pun.

From time to time Shakespeare employs anecdotes in which, often, the humour lies not just in the story itself but also in its aptness to the character of the person who tells it. These occur in the tragedies as well as in the comedies. In Romeo and Juliet, the Nurse’s anecdote about how her husband reacted when the infant Juliet fell over is funny because of the way it is told, and the light that this sheds on the Nurse’s character, as much as for the inherent comedy of what happened: it shows us a Shakespeare who can use art – the speech is written in blank verse (though it was first printed as prose) – to depict artlessness:

And then my husband—God be with his soul!
He was a merry man—took up the child.
“Yea,” quoth he, “Dost thou fall upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit,
Wilt thou not, Jule?” and, by my holy dame,
The pretty wretch left crying and said “ay.”
To see now, how a jest shall come about!
I warrant, an I should live a thousand years,
I never should forget it. “Wilt thou not, Jule?” quoth he.
And, pretty fool, it stinted and said “ay.” (1.2.41-50).

In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff’s rueful account of how he was thrown into the River Thames along with the dirty washing from a buck-basket is complicated by the character’s self-aware enjoyment of his discomfiture:

’Sblood, the rogues slighted me into the river with as little remorse as they would have drowned a blind bitch’s puppies, fifteen i’th’litter! And you may know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking. If the bottom were as deep as hell, I should drown. I had been drowned, but that the shore was shelvy and shallow – a death that I abhor, for the water swells a man, and what a thing should I have been when I had been swelled? By the Lord, a mountain of mummy! (3.5.8-17).

The comedy of the speech derives partly from the fact that Falstaff can see himself from the audience’s point of view – he is simultaneously the suffering victim of his plight and the amused commentator on its ludicrous aspects.

Anecdotes may be emotionally complex, as in Henry V is Mistress Quickly’s unwittingly bawdy and characteristically garrulous yet also intensely poignant account of the death of Falstaff.  ‘Falstaff, he is dead’, says Pistol, ‘and we must earn [that is ‘grieve’] therefore.’ Bardolph says, ‘Would I were with him, wheresome’er he is, either in heaven or in hell!’, to which Mistress Quickly replies:

Nay, sure, he's not in hell: he's in Arthur's bosom, if ever man went to Arthur's bosom. A' made a finer end and went away an it had been any christom child; a' parted even just between twelve and one, even at the turning o' the tide: for after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers and smile upon his fingers' ends, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and a' babbled of green fields. 'How now, sir John!' quoth I 'what, man! be o' good cheer.' So a' cried out 'God, God, God!' three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a' should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So a' bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone. (2.3.9-25).

The tenderness of Mistress Quickly’s semi-articulacy in this multi-faceted serio-comic anecdote shows Shakespeare’s surely unique ability to combine satire with pathos in a profoundly humane manner.

Shakespeare was skilful too in arousing laughter by devising situations of contrived discomfiture. Think for example of the brilliant episode in Love’s Labour’s Lost in which Lord Biron tricks his three friends, the King, Lord Dumaine, and Lord Longueville, who have sworn to abjure the society of women, into revealing that they, like him, have fallen in love and into successively reading aloud the poems they have addressed to their mistresses, thus revealing their apostasy. I vividly recall the mounting and delighted glee of a young girl in the audience of a production long ago as she wriggled in her seat, stuffing a handkerchief into her mouth to stifle her laughter as she anticipated the successful outcome of Biron’s trick. And there are similar episodes in later plays, such as the more emotionally loaded overhearing scenes in Much Ado About Nothing, Troilus and Cressida, and, in a tragic vein, in Othello and King Lear.

Another way in which Shakespeare raises laughter is by devising situations in which, for example, a character may make a fool of himself or may be comically embarrassed as a result sometimes of accident, at other times by having a trick played upon him, as, in Twelfth Night, when Malvolio is deluded into supposing that his mistress, Countess Olivia, is in love with him or, more seriously when Paroles is tricked into revealing his cowardice in All’s Well That Ends Well. But it is characteristic of Shakespeare’s ability to let us see situations in the round, from multiple points of view, as it were, that Malvolio is allowed his comeback – ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you’ – and that Paroles rapidly recovers his sangfroid with:

Captain I’ll be no more.
But I will eat and drink and sleep as soft
As captain can. Simply the thing I am
Shall make me live. (4.3.332-335). 

And a trick may result not just in comic discomfiture but in a significant gain in self-knowledge, as in Much Ado About Nothing when both Benedick and Beatrice successively are tricked into believing – or into acknowledging - that the other is in love with them.

Shakespeare clearly takes pleasure in depicting episodes in which pomposity is deflated by wit: ‘I can call spirits from the vasty deep’, says Glyndwr in Henry IV Part One, ‘Why, so can I, or so can any man; / But will they come, when you do call for them?’ is Hotspur’s riposte (3.1. 51-2). And  sometimes he raises laughter by comic business that does not depend on words. I think for example of Falstaff’s appearance in disguise as the Old Woman of Brentford, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, or the carefully prepared-for appearance of Malvolio wearing cross-gartered yellow stockings in Twelfth Night.


One could go on, but it seems appropriate to end these lectures with some sort of a summing up, one final attempt at a character sketch of the man who himself created, as we say, such a memorable gallery of characters who have enriched the imaginations of readers and theatregoers over the centuries since his own imagination - stimulated as we have seen by many writings on which he was able to draw and also by his own acute powers of perception - brought them to imaginative life. So I end with a last attempt to answer the question with which I began: ‘What was Shakespeare Really Like?’

I see Shakespeare as an essentially modest man, even humble, unflamboyant in his way of life, lacking personal vanity. His genius was at the service of his art. He was a team player, working with the same company of actors pretty well throughout his career, and serving his colleagues’ needs as well as his own. No doubt he enjoyed the applause of the audiences who came to see his plays. He must have rejoiced in the company’s many appearances at the court of Queen Elizabeth I and in their appointment when King James came to the throne, in 1603, as the King’s Men, acknowledging their status as the leading theatre company in the land. But this was just the icing on the cake. During his active career he had little concern for his literary reputation. He was a man of the theatre rather than a man of letters. We can say this because- unlike some of his contemporaries – Ben Jonson is a conspicuous example –  he did not seek any form of publication for his plays other than performance. Only about half of his plays appeared in print during his lifetime and he appears to have had nothing to do with their publication.

That Shakespeare was a hard-working man is beyond doubt. I hope this is obvious not just from his consistent productivity but also from what I said about the amount of sheer hard work that went into the composition of his plays.  And their intellectual and imaginative scope, especially in the later part of his career, shows that he was both intellectually and artistically ambitious, never content to rest on his laurels, but continually experimenting, stretching both himself and his audiences.

In his private life I think that by natural instinct he was a family man. At various points in his career he provided amply for the welfare of both his immediate and his extended family through his very substantial investments in property and land in Stratford-upon-Avon, not least – but not only – the purchase and development of New Place from 1597. From around 1604, it seems likely that he spent more time in Stratford than in London. His will, made a couple of months before he died, is very much centred on his hometown. He makes careful and ample provision for the welfare of his sister, his daughters, and his granddaughter. Legacies to friends and neighbours demonstrate his commitment in his final years to the community into which he had been born. But during his working years he had not taken an active interest- as his father had for at least part of his life - in municipal affairs. His attitude to the Welcombe enclosures suggests that in this instance an instinct for self-protection overcame more altruistic impulses.

Shakespeare is, I believe, the only playwright of his time not to base himself entirely in London. But whatever his devotion to Stratford-upon-Avon and to his family, his profession as actor, playwright, and theatrical entrepreneur required that he spend much of his time in the capital. During the 1590s, and later, he seems to have moved several times from one establishment to another. Did he do his own laundry? Maybe Mrs Mountjoy was a motherly sort of person who looked after the material welfare of her lodgers. Did she cook for him? More seriously, where did he do his writing? Most of it didn’t come straight out of his head, in the way that Keats sat down in his garden one morning and wrote ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. Shakespeare needed books, he needed a desk, an inkwell, and a reliable supply of quill pens. In some plays, such as Henry V and Antony and Cleopatra, it’s clear that he had a big book – Holinshed’s Chronicles, Plutarch’s Lives – open before him as he wrote. Well, I suppose Mrs Mountjoy’s kitchen table might have served, but I find it easier to imagine him writing in the study at New Place in the relative peace and quiet of Stratford, especially while the theatres were closed for long periods during the bouts of the plague.

He had no permanent address in London. This is why one could call him our first great literary commuter. Did he own a horse, which would have required stabling, to take him to and from Stratford? Sonnets 50 and 51 are written as it were on horseback may recall his journeying between Stratford-upon-Avon and London. In the first of them he bemoans the distance that he is putting between himself and his unidentified friend, and in the second he looks forward to spurring his horse towards the friend. In his journeys between Stratford and London (surely a time when he was composing lines, speeches, and plots in his head), and as he walked between his London lodgings and the theatre, he would have had ample opportunity to observe and reflect upon the behaviour of the men and women he encountered, gathering material for his portrayal of the great gallery of human beings who people his plays.

What did he do for recreation? He was, surely, a musical man, as we can see from direct references to music in the Sonnets as well as the plays, and the churches as well as the theatres of his time resounded with great music. But he seems to have found time, too, for less high-minded pursuits. The anecdote from the diary of John Manningham that I quoted in my first lecture about Shakespeare taking Richard Burbage’s place in a sexual assignation may seem too funny to be true, but is enough to suggest that in the capital he had a reputation as a ladies’ man. Far more serious are the implications of the Sonnets.

Not everyone shares my belief that by and large the Sonnets are autobiographical. John Carey, for instance, in his Little History of Poetry, writes that even though some of the sonnets ‘seem clearly personal’ still ‘Shakespeare was a playwright. He spent his life making up speeches for imaginary people, and that is what these probably were.’ Well, as I hope I made clear in my lecture on these poems, I disagree. I am with William Wordsworth, who wrote ‘with this key Shakespeare unlocked his heart.’ And if we see the Sonnets as autobiographical we must assume that their author had extramarital affairs, and that he was what we would now term bisexual.

I think Shakespeare had consummated love affairs with men and women and that he anguished over them in a manner that is reflected in the tormented self-laceration of Angelo in Measure for Measure. But I don’t think Shakespeare entered into affairs at all lightly. The clearest evidence for his private, emotional and sexual life derives from the Sonnets. Although some of them express anguish about his passionate and deeply serious relationships with one or more women and men, none of them appear to express guilt about marital infidelity.

It looks as if he led a double life between Stratford and London. Whether his wife knew about this, and if so whether it mattered to her, we simply don’t know. This is the premise of Ben Elton’s script for Kenneth Branagh’s film All is True, though Elton portrays Shakespeare as being away from Stratford for much longer periods of time than I find plausible. Wherever Shakespeare was, he lived a life of abounding imaginative creativity. His nature was, as he himself writes in Sonnet 111, ‘subdued’ to what it worked in, ‘like the dyer’s hand’. He was able, with what John Keats – who understood him to his depths – calls his ‘negative capability’, to live what Keats also called ‘a life of allegory.’ We can hope best to know and understand him not through an account of the material facts of his life, but through the writings which record an imaginative and spiritual journey more vividly and profoundly than those of any other writer.

What of Shakespeare’s religious sensibilities? Outwardly he appears to have been a conforming Christian. He and his family were baptised into the Christian faith, married into it, and were buried according to its rites. A number of his sonnets show a deep awareness of the transience of human life, sadness because  ‘that churl death my bones shall cover’ (32), and in Measure for Measure he vividly juxtaposes the Duke’s Christian consolation ‘Be absolute for death’ with Claudio’s horror of going ‘we know not where ... to lie in cold obstruction and to rot.’ In his later plays especially he shows profound concern with mortality. In Hamlet Horatio hopes that ‘flights of angels’ may sing the Prince to his rest, but King Lear offers no such consolations.  In that play’s closing moments the old enfeebled King, cradling his dead daughter in his arms, poses the ultimate existential question ‘Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life / And thou no breath at all?’ The later plays, however, may suggest some degree of resolution, or at least of resignation. Prospero ends The Tempest by asking the audience to pray for him:

And my ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults. (Epilogue). 

So maybe the plays – especially the tragedies and the late romances – along with their consistent aim to entertain and engage the audiences of his time, also chart a spiritual journey. Again I find an analogy with the great composers, especially Beethoven and Schubert, whose works demonstrate ever-deepening levels of engagement with the most fundamental concerns of the human condition. 

I hope I’ve made it clear that I see Shakespeare as essentially a private man in spite of the public nature of his profession. He could put on a show of sociability, could work as one of a company, could mingle with his fellow actors, and with the members of the aristocracy and the intelligentsia who attended performances at court. But he needed privacy for reading and thinking, and prosperous though he became, he was content to live modestly in London while maintaining an establishment befitting the holder of a coat of arms in his hometown. He must, I think, have been a pretty self-sufficient man, able to fend for himself.

It seems likely, judging from how many plays he wrote, that Shakespeare enjoyed good health for most of his life. The fact that from around 1607 he started collaborating again with younger authors, first with Thomas Middleton, then with the more romantically inclined John Fletcher, with who he probably felt a clear imaginative sympathy, may suggest a dwindling creative impulse; and the burning down of The Globe in 1613 may have had a traumatic effect.

Finally, we might ask ourselves: what is it that makes so many people think of Shakespeare as the greatest of writers? Partly it is his craftsmanship, grounded in an intellectual mastery of the principles of his profession. Partly it is his ever-developing powers of linguistic expression, ranging from complex rhetoric to the clear-talking simplicity of some of his most powerful utterances, which enabled him to give voice with sympathy and admiration to an extraordinary wide range of characters. And this is grounded in a profound imaginative understanding of his fellow human beings, enabling the characters of his plays to speak with their own individual voices, free from judgement.

It is a long journey from The Two Gentlemen of Verona to The Tempest, a journey that takes us through courtship and marriage, through battles and warfare. I think Shakespeare’s depth of feeling, his need for friendship and for love, results from a need to understand and to forgive himself. He was, as we can see from the Sonnets ‘desperately mortal’, like Barnadine in Measure for Measure (4.2.147). He could say, like Richard II, ‘I live with bread, like you, feel want / Taste grief, need friends.’(3.2.171-172). But he had, too, a sense also of the ideal, the possibility of transcendence, that though we ‘golden lad and girls all must / As chimney-sweepers, come to dust’ (Cymbeline 4.2.263-264), yet there is hope. And in The Winter’s Tale Hermione’s apparent statue returns to life because Leontes awakes his faith. It is because Shakespeare was so much ‘of an age’, so deeply immersed in the life of his time, so vulnerable to temptation and open to experience, that he is also, as Ben Jonson put it, ‘for all time.’

A talk by Stanley Wells, for reference purposes only; not to be copied or reproduced

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