Our book today is Shakespeare, which Anthony Burgess wrote one morning in 1970 after a 40-pint evening. The morning was raw and scratchy, one imagines, and our author, not at his best, needed some task to distract him before his four-course breakfast and pick-me-up whiskey was ready. The afternoon was already planned: a TV show appearance talking about Truffaut’s cinematic legacy. And the evening was locked up as well: dash off a treatise on pornography and then attend a Jonathan Cape literary soiree and get to work on the night’s 40 pints. But all that still left the pre-breakfast window open, and hence: Shakespeare.
As with virtually everything Burgess wrote, the resulting work is half rubbish and half genius – and even the rubbish half is so good you’ll want to re-read it periodically for the rest of your life. In fact, the process of re-reading Burgess rubbish can act as a kind of barometer of one’s own progress as a reader: when you encounter his bloated, rattly, off-the-cuff pomposity as a teenager, it strikes you as the most worldly and profound stuff any writer has ever written – it glows with that particularly Burgessian quality of feeling like it was written solely for you. Then as your reading widens and deepens and you revisit those passages (or whole books, or whole trilogies) now knowing a bit about St. Augustine or diacritical marks or the philosophy underpinning Gotthold Lessing, you start to squint a bit and pick a bit – you start, in other words, to wonder if Burgess quite knows what he’s talking about, whether he’s trying to fool himself or only his readers. And finally your life and your reading sharpen to actual expertise on some subject or other (not as many expertises as Burgess managed to accumulate, probably, because not many people manage to do that even without the 40 pints, but some) and you revisit those blunderbuss passages fully armed to tear them to pieces. But you don’t tear them to pieces, because by then, if you’ve got a soul at all, you’re so well aware of how much you owe this author that you’re willing to smile with pure affection when you see him bluffing or misunderstanding or hustling for a paycheck. You end up hoping you’re able to do any of those three things as magnificently as he always did. It’s only those people who don’t continue growing as readers who can ever attack Burgess in earnest, and he’s invulnerable to their attacks, because he’s having more sheer fun than they ever will, and his certainty of that shines in every word he wrote.
There’s a great deal of bluster and rubbish in Shakespeare, although here at least it’s all got a very long provenance. The sum total of what we know about Shakespeare could be written comfortably on one blank sheet of paper, so any 300-page book about him is going to consist of one part biography, four parts historical background, and five full parts rubbish. The problem is unavoidable; the question is only ever: how well done is the rubbish?
So Burgess can give us lines of complete fiction, such as “Will was now sixteen, well set-up physically, with a beard coming. His jerkin, trunks and hose were not new, but his gloves were. His brothers and sisters must also have had a look of shabby gentility.” But he can also give us a picture of London in Shakespeare’s time that’s not only a very good evocation of the place but also a hilariously self-revealing one:
It was a city of loud noises hooves and raw coach-wheels on the cobbles, the yells of traders, the brawling of apprentices, scuffles to keep the wall and not be thrown into the oozy kennel. Even normal conversation must have been loud, since everybody was, by our standards, tipsy. Nobody drank water, and tea had not yet come in. Ale was the standard tipple, and it was strong. Ale for breakfast was a good means of starting the day in euphoria and truculence. Ale for dinner refocillated the wasted tissues of the morning. Ale for supper ensured a heavy snoring repose.
Burgess takes us through the standard outline of Shakespeare’s life and times: his marriage, his children, his acting, his plays, his contemporaries, his career success, his retirement, his death, his legacy, and along the way he touches on all the customary side-questions, including whether or not a boy possibly educated no further than a Stratford grammar school could have written the plays we ascribe to Shakespeare, or whether we might be wiser to attribute them to a hyper-educated writer like Sir Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford. Burgess is very firmly a Stratfordian, and he indulges in a swipe at the intellectual timidity of people who aren’t:
The Baconians and the rest of the heretics are deluded into thinking that a work of art is of the same order as a work of scholarship; this play shows a knowledge of the law, therefore the playwright must have studied the law; that play is set in Upper Mongrelia, therefore the playwright must have travelled thither. There are no Baconians among the practising literary artists, and there never have been: they knew too much about the workings of the mind of professional writers.
And littered all throughout Shakespeare are the moments Burgess-readers come for, the moments of brilliance that dogged this writer even at his most hurried or derivative. Those moments crop up often in this book in connection with comments about the individual plays, but they’re by no means confined to such catechisms. On the subject of what Elizabethan audiences actually heard when they attended a Shakespeare play, for instance, Burgess the linguist briefly elbows aside Burgess the raconteur:
See and sea were not homophones; love and above rhymed with prove and move; the r-sound was always pronounced; a word like noble carried a noble round low vowel, not the pinched high-dipthong of today. A provincial-sounding language, then, but one, as Hamlet shows, capable of bearing a limitless burden of cosmopolitan complexity.
As with so much of Burgess, you want such stuff to go on forever. But alas, the book soon wraps to its end, and the author is out of bed and off to the BBC studios, chain-smoking and constantly talking the whole time, thoughts turning always to the next item on the writing docket. When you read his throw-off line in Shakespeare about the 1593 outbreak of plague in London, you want to wince away from the words: “This plague was a great nuisance but, like cancer of the lung, it was probably only there to kill other people.”
Not always other people, no, but at least we’ve got his 500 books to keep him among us, and re-reading this one always perks me up.
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