What began as a summer project and now looks as if it will take me into next spring has recently made its debut on John King’s website, The Drunken Odyssey. For reasons I explain in the first post, I’ve been reading all of Shakespeare’s plays in (presumed) order of composition and writing 600-word blog posts about them, starting with Henry VI, Part 1. As I write, I’m five plays ahead of the postings, which means I just finished Titus Andronicus. So far its been a great summer adventure of reading, responding, and writing.
Reading Titus Andronicus, which is supposed to have been partly written by George Peele, I was reminded of something I wrote a while back about Shakespeare’s relationship to the “university wits.” It was part of a longer piece (well, rant) about the effect of college playwriting programs on the kinds of plays we were seeing, but the Shakespeare stuff is here:
In a way, it’s an old story. Shakespeare was condescended to by the University Wits, Jonson, even in encomium, slighting his “small Latin and less Greek.” It is an indignity from which he still suffers. One of the oddest arguments of the anti-Stratfordians is that he couldn’t have written his plays because he didn’t go to university. This seems to me such a coarse misunderstanding of the sources of art in general and playwriting in particular as to overleap all but the most high-flying of the absurdities by which that curious faith is promulgated. And in light of what I’ve been discussing it seems just about exactly untrue. Isn’t there, to Jonson and even to Marlowe, a sheen of the academy, which would detract from Shakespeare’s unruly engagement with life as it is lived, as it is felt, as it is endured? Isn’t it possible that Shakespeare was better spared the university?
Here’s a story I love about Shakespeare. Many years after Shakespeare’s death, Jonson delivered another of his left-handed panegyrics. While avowing that he loved Shakespeare “this side idolatry,” he throws in, “Many times he fell into those things could not escape laughter: as when he said in the person of Caesar, one speaking to him, ‘Caesar, thou dost me wrong,’ he replied ‘Caesar did never wrong, but with just cause,’ and such like, which were ridiculous.”
Imagine it. It’s opening night of Julius Caesar, and here’s Jonson congratulating Shakespeare in the time-honored manner of rival playwrights. Jonson says whatever is the Elizabethan equivalent of “Really, really interesting, Will,” and then slips in his, “Oh, by the way…” And Shakespeare, irritated and abashed, sensitive about his lack of a university education as he is about his doubtful coat of arms, inwardly resolves to change the line. As he apparently did, at least if Jonson is quoting him correctly, since it has come down to us in different form.
But, of course, Jonson was wrong. Yes, the line is a rhetorical absurdity, a flagrant violation of whatever Elements of Style Cambridge was circulating at the time. But it is the line’s queasy failure to mean that captures the casual corruption of political speech. It leaps the centuries. Who in this year, this week in the life of the ailing American experiment can fail to recognize the rhetorical slippage whereby a leader never does wrong but with just cause? When we speak of the genius of Shakespeare, this is what we’re talking about. And it’s not something easily taught or even nurtured at the conservatory.