I have done a great deal of reading during the last year. Anyone who knows me, knows that I always read a good deal and always have, but I have managed to spend much of the COVID “lockdown,” quite happily, reading. Yes, I have watched some TV; yes, Bonnie and I have gone to the YMCA for our Aquacise classes (at least since they returned to availability); and yes, we HAVE ventured out occasionally to a store (mostly for groceries) or some few other places. We have even gotten together (under highly controlled situations) with a few people other than Maggi and Brian, whom we consider to be in our “pod.” All in all, however, our “lockdown” has been more than reasonably tight, especially for me, since Bonnie tends to go through the grocery store faster and more efficiently than I do, so she almost always runs these errands herself.
So, I’ve done a lot of reading, even a fair amount of re-reading, since I have never had a problem with returning to a book which I have previously enjoyed. I’m simply not capable of considering a well-written book (or movie or play) to be not worthy of a second (or greater) encounter just because I know how it ends. I’ve never believed that the only excuse for encountering any story, book, movie, or play is to discover the ending. Given the limited number of plots available in the universe, I would argue that most of what differentiates one book, etc. from another has to be the details of how the story is presented. That’s why I have ten DIFFERENT movie versions of Hamlet, for example, and have been involved in productions at least twice and seen the play a couple of other times. Given that I have also studied it in classes, and read and taught about it, I KNOW HOW IT ENDS. Yet every performance of every production is a bit different and almost all of them I have found to have some value. But I’m getting distracted from my point.
In the last few months, I have been reading some books which I’ve gotten from the public library (now back open but still being quite careful about COVID). These are books which have looked interesting, but which I didn’t think I would wish to buy. (Just this winter I have expanded the shelf space of my “stacks,” but they are STILL dangerously close to being crammed, so I have to be careful about purchases.) Anyway, I thought they were worth writing about, but for quite different reasons. Since both have some (distant) relation to Shakespeare, this seemed an appropriate moment to present my thoughts regarding them, with Shakespeare’s birth/death day on April 23 in hand.
The first of these books was HAMNET: A Novel of the Plague, by Maggie O’Farrell. As all Shakespearian scholars know, Will and Anne had three children: Susanna, Judith and Hamnet. Judith and Hamnet were twins, born several years after Susanna, and Hamnet died when he was eleven years old. It is pretty widely accepted that he probably died from the plague, but that’s not provable from contemporary evidence.
I think what I enjoyed about this novel was that while it seemed quite clear to me that O’Farrell was writing about Shakespeare’s family, the character who seems to clearly be based on Anne, is always referred to as “Agnes” and I don’t believe that Will is ever mentioned by name, but he is always referred to as “the Latin tutor,” or “the glover’s son,” or something of the sort.
I found this an effective way to create a sort of Brechtian “distancing” for all of the characters, who are clearly (at least to me) based on the historical figures I know something about. I found that this helped me to ignore the version of the history of Shakespeare which I have concocted from my own studies and to accept this version on its own merits. I first must hastily admit that (without doing a great deal of cross-checking with other sources) I found that the story O’Farrell tells seems to conform to the facts which are known about Shakespeare quite closely. Now, contrary to what some claim, we do have quite a lot of factual data about Will, in particular, but also there are existing records regarding his parents, brothers, wife, children, etc., so I give O’Farrell considerable credit for having done her homework and creating a quite plausible version of the story of Will Shakespeare and his family and what happened to them.
Of course, I would hasten to add that this is fiction. I would agree that it has the established facts right (I think), but no one can say exactly how these people felt or the intimate details of their lives, and deaths. O’Farrell does seem to think that there is some significance to the name of Shakespeare’s son and the title (and lead character of) one of his best-known plays. I found this to be an interesting story and quite enjoyably told, but I also confess to a good deal of skepticism about this presumed relationship.
It IS true that Hamnet and Hamlet were, for all intents and purposes, interchangeable versions of the same name during the period. The same was true of Anne and Agnes. I’m less than sure about other examples of this sort of thing, but I KNOW these two cases are quite well established from numerous sources. It is also pretty widely believed that Shakespeare’s twins were named for their friends (and the children’s godparents) Hamnet and Judith Sadler, who lived in Stratford-Upon-Avon and had known Will since he was a child. Hamnet Sadler was, I believe, a baker with a shop not far from that of Will’s father, so these families almost certainly knew each other for at least most of their lives.
However, the idea that Hamlet is some sort of “tribute” to Will’s lost son simply doesn’t make much sense to me. I’ll admit that the name is, essentially, the same, but I don’t see how that ties into the idea of the play as “honoring” his son. Okay, Hamlet (the character) IS a “good” guy and I have never believed that he was really “crazy” at any point in the play. I also have come to believe that Hamlet (the character) is really supposed to be about sixteen, which is about what Hamnet Shakespeare would have been when the play was written. The character is, logically, not the fully grown man he is all too often portrayed as in performance. (See #74 in the Archives.) I think resolving Hamlet’s age this way helps to explain a lot of the problems within the play which have always seemed awkward to me, but it doesn’t establish any relationship between this name and the play.
There is also, of course, the FACT that the story of the play of Hamlet is NOT something Shakespeare just made up. No, it is clearly established that Saxo Grammaticus told a version of the story of Amleth, a prince whose story parallels that of the play, in books published in the 13th Century and the stories had, apparently been around for a while at that point. It is also a FACT that Shakespeare took many of his plots from stories told by Saxo Grammaticus and a number of other sources. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of ANY Shakespeare plays with an entirely original plot, although there may be some.
In any event, the basics of the story of Hamlet (Amleth) were known at the time Shakespeare wrote it and it is pretty widely believed that this story had been used as the basis for a play (the Ur-Hamlet) which had been performed in London a few years prior to Shakespeare’s version. Now, we can’t PROVE that this ever existed, but there seems to be a fair amount of evidence that the story of Hamlet had appeared on the stage in and around London prior to roughly 1599, when the first version we have of Shakespeare’s Hamlet was (apparently) written. Would I argue that there is definitely NO connection between Will’s choice of this material and the name of his dead son? No, but I see no convincing evidence of any indication that there IS such a relationship.
In any case, I found O’Farrell’s book an interesting read. I’d say it was enjoyable, but that seems a bit crass for a book ultimately about death and grieving. It’s not going into my library. But I’m not at all sorry to have read it and I would suggest it to others as at least worthwhile, if not the pleasantest subject imaginable. It IS an interesting take on the facts.
The other book is A Bright Ray of Darkness by Ethan Hawke. Yes, THAT Ethan Hawke, the movie “star” who thinks he’s a writer, and, apparently, other things, as well. So, he has written this novel about a coked up, sex-driven “star” who is going through a divorce, precipitated by his blatant infidelity, from his equally, if not more famous wife, who ends up cast as Hotspur in a Broadway production of Henry IV, parts 1 & 2 (combined for performance) which stars one of the US’s outstanding actors as Falstaff who is presented as a rather extremely self-centered snob who seems to consider himself “above” everyone else. There are other members of the cast whom have well-established stage credentials, but our lead (the “star”) clearly seems to think he’s really better than the rest of the cast; at least as I read the story.
One really doesn’t have to be terrifically “up” on movie star gossip to recognize that this appears to be more than slightly autobiographical. I don’t even pretend to pay much attention to social media (which I actively ignore) or the “pop” tabloids, but even I recognized this storyline as sounding a bit familiar, and a tiny modicum of research (five minutes tops!) led me directly to the blatant parallels in Hawke’s life. Now if a movie “star” wants to parade his drug and sex problems in public, that’s his business, but I don’t have to pay him to find out about them, and I really don’t wish to do so. I do find it rather annoying, however, when he chooses to make purposely “tacky” comments about other “characters” in his “novel,” when it is pretty blatantly apparent that he is “really” referring to real people who were also involved in this production.
I don’t think I am giving anything away when I point out that I am probably prejudiced. It seems quite obvious to me that Hawke is really writing about himself and the production being described is the 2003 Lincoln Center production of Henry IV which featured Kevin Kline as Falstaff in a portrayal which earned him a Tony nomination for Best Actor in 2004. My prejudice comes to the fore particularly when I consider Hawke’s treatment of Kline.
Now it’s been a long time, but I did know Mr. Kline when we were both students at Indiana University a lot of years ago. I have even been in productions with him in college. I will admit that it is certainly possible that he has become the self-centered egotist which Hawke portrays him as, BUT I find it a bit hard to believe.
Kline’s career is too well established, and he has received too many nominations and won too many awards for a wide variety of movies and theatre productions for his work not to be highly thought of. If he was as big a jerk as Hawke makes him, it would be public knowledge, even if it didn’t affect his career much. I also know a bit (a TINY bit) about the work he has done in support of charities, with the NY Shakespeare Festival, in support of scholarships, etc. to accept the way Hawke portrays him as likely to be accurate. Still, it has been a long time since I last ran into Kevin in Hoey Aud. when he was there with The Acting Company performing in The Three Sisters in 197?, so I DON’T know. I just find it hard to believe.
I am also probably prejudiced by the fact that “William Harding” (the character who seems eerily like Hawke himself) is portrayed as playing Hotspur (the part Hawke played in this production), who seems completely unaware of much of anything about the play he is performing. Late in the book, the character goes to great trouble, and considerable risk to his health, in order to perform at a “school” matinee because he expects the school kids to appreciate him, even if most of the critics thought him in over his head. He also says that he believes that the school kids will enjoy his performance and recognize that he is the true “hero” of the play. Needless to say, he is quite upset when he is booed by them during the curtain call.
I’ve seen and read Henry IV (both parts). To be honest, they have never been huge favorites of mine, but I don’t think one has to be a complete Shakespeare nerd to recognize that Hotspur (the character in the play) is clearly set up by Shakespeare as a contrast to Prince Hal (Henry V to be). Where Hal runs around with commoners, drunks, whores, etc. in Eastcheap; Hotspur is all about “honor,” “war,” “power,” and being a member of the martial nobility. He also seems to be something of a misogynistic jerk in the way he treats his wife, but that may be too modern an idea. Still, even Hal’s father (Henry IV) admires Hotspur as a great example of what a “true” Prince should be.
On the other hand, when Hal is forced to take up his “princely” duties in the course of the action, we find he is a better warrior than Hotspur, whom he defeats in single combat and who clearly understands that his rather happy-go-lucky life with Falstaff and the rest must be given up when the time comes that he will have to assume the throne.
To return to Hawke’s book, however, “William” apparently thinks until at least near the end of the run that, because Hotspur is roundly praised by many characters, he must be the “hero.” Anyone who understands that Hal becomes Henry V, who is clearly shown (at least in HIS play) as possessing all of the best qualities of a “TRUE” king would also understand that Hotspur is NOT the hero of Henry IV. Now that MAY be Lancastrian propaganda, but we are dealing with the sensibilities of Elizabeth I’s England which considered Henry V one of its greatest warrior kings.
Perhaps it’s unfair of me to assume that ACTORS should have some comprehension of the entire play they are performing, but I do think so. I made serious efforts to teach my students that a reasonably thorough understanding of the entire play (ANY play) and how it works is likely to be beneficial in making whatever contribution you are engaged in of ANY play at any time. If you are acting, the character you play may well believe all of the praise heaped on him by the other characters, but I would argue that the actor portraying him should have a better understanding of how the character he is portraying fits into the whole as created by the author. Hal, after all, will become Henry V, whom Shakespeare seems to consider at least close to an ideal monarch and he (Hal) will defeat Hotspur when he rebels against Hal’s father, Henry IV.
All things considered I would NOT suggest Hawke’s book. Perhaps it would sell on a rack at a supermarket checkout line, but I didn’t find it to be a very satisfying read. Then, again, I also have strong reservations about the idea that great performers live a constant life of sex, drugs, and ego. I MAY be wrong, but I doubt it. The few “famous” people I have met were pretty straightforward types of people, who didn’t glory in “stardom” and ego. All in all, I found the book not particularly well written, whiney, self-serving and somewhat adolescent. I’m certainly glad that I didn’t pay for a copy but got it from the library. I would not encourage anyone to waste their time (let alone their money) on it.
Let me know about whatever books YOU have enjoyed recently. I might like them, as well, as I expect I will continue to read a good deal.
P. S. I’m going to TRY to get back to a regular schedule of postings, but I’m not done with the knee “thing” yet, so postings may be a bit irregular for a while yet.