There is no one Shakespeare. People invent the plays, the poetry and the man from the words on the page, be they recited in the resonate chamber of a major playhouse, whispered or giggled at in a high school classroom, or only heard as an internal monologue within one’s own mind. How a person comes to Shakespeare also matters. Writers, actors, directors, readers and viewers all arrive at Shakespeare from different personal and professional perspectives. Regardless of expectations or starting point, Shakespeare usually fulfills the expectations thrust upon him.
And so it is in Vintages’s latest collection of Shakespearian recollections, Living with Shakespeare, edited by Susannah Carson, that the likes of James Franco, Joyce Carol Oates and Camille Paglia share their very different relationships with the Bard of Avon.
“Shakespeare is my deer and I need to kill him to make the blood flow. So I’m aiming for the heart.” Thus begins Karin Coonrod’s essay “Killing Shakespeare and Making My Play”. Coonrod goes on to say “Whenever I’ve directed Shakespeare…I’ve never wanted simply to do another Shakespeare play, rather, I’ve always wanted to identify what, for me, is the essential line or scene that distinguishes each one.” For Love’s Labor’s Lost where does Coonrod seek connection? — in the “remarkable mirroring between the repartee of the new generation and that of Shakespeare’s dialog. I see a log of wit in today’s texting—a lot of sharp, direct, back-and-forth.” Coonrod finds in Love’s Labor’s Lost a contemporary connection that circles and encircles the young love portrayed by a young Shakespeare.
Coonrod’s essay assumes knowledge about actors and staging and music that the reader has not seen, explaining more in the essay about the play than about her process. She sees the play as the thing, but the performance she staged as personal and internal (as when she mentions Tony Geballe’s haunting music — which I have no knowledge of). She has transformed her act of directing into an alternative form of the play. Shakespeare remains Shakespeare, Coonrod’s instantiation is something else.
James Proaek, sees in Shakespeare a companion in the naming of the world and the exploration of the inability of the English language to do so with accuracy—and when it does, often with artifice. Proaek is not concerned with plots or characters, but with names. His essay makes the Folio sound much more like a concordance than a collection of plays. As Proaek seeks to understand the human ability to name things and the meaning of the act, if not the value of the names themselves, he does indeed find in Shakespeare a taxonomic confidant. For Proaek, in this essay, Shakespeare is not a dramatist but a wordsmith—he has adjusted his lens to see what he needs to see, and Shakespeare reflects back a rich and meaningful image.
Living with Shakespeare is filled with personal connections, attachments and obsessions. Ralph Fiennes shares how he finds playing Coriolanus “curiously addictive”. He says he likes “the outrageous anger and his contempt for people. It’s rather cathartic to express that extreme, obscene outrage.” F Murray Abraham talks to playing Shylock, not through method, intimately imaging the resident of the Venice Ghetto, but rather from personal experience of living in ‘50s Juárez, where he and his friends were mocked by authorities for their accents. Abraham discovers a uniquely American Shylock.
James Earl Jones invokes the Shakespeare of the corn fields of Michigan where Shakespeare was spoken by common people with no training and little education. From that humble beginning Jones sees through Shakespeare an Iago that “encapsulates the hurt of the modern man.” He finds him “the most understandable character in this age. When all of us can, if we’re not lucky, have the experience of being passed over of of not having the change to get ahead in society.”
And finally the actor James Franco finds a poignant moment of recollection of a stunning River Phoenix portraying Mike Waters, aka Ned Poins, a Prince Hal sidekick transformed into My Own Private Idaho, which he remixes into a focused portal in My Own Private Phoenix. Franco concludes his essay by saying, “Shakespeare creates such a vivid, rich, and complex world that we can fruitfully focus on just one part of it and find inspiration for a whole variety of artistic endeavors…”
Will Living with Shakespeare add new insight for readers? Of course it will. The book paves a path toward new perspectives, even providing permission to see Shakespeare as the reader needs or wants to see him. Perhaps readers will find an essay that particularly resonates with their own views or cravings or desires or biases. Perhaps they will find a reinforcement of some hope that their interpretation profoundly ridiculed in a college literature class does after all hold with more than one adherent. Perhaps for the first time, a reader will feel free to find their own Shakespeare, given that Living with Shakespeare presents 38 different Shakespeares, each with its own subtlety, enigma, purpose or use.