“A playwright, a priest, and a prostitute walk into a genius bar singing their same old songs. Only one, with a cast of like-minded characters, is singing of Love. The others are merely play-acting.”
That anecdote formed in my mind as I considered William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, and yes, the playwright in that anecdote is Will himself. We have only his art as a window into the soul of the man and I have come to see that, while some assert ‘Literature isn’t for everyone,’ literature was definitely a guiding force in Will’s life long before he made it his profession.
The literature presented to Shakespeare and his grammar school friends was poetry, poetry in another language. The language of the arts and sciences and history was Latin. It was the language of the family Bible. The stories in literature washed over these grammar school children in waves of meter and rhyme. Their minds learned to work in both Latin and English, their native tongue, and perhaps some Greek.
Working with multiple languages attuned their ears and minds to relationships between language and what it represented, between nouns and actions, between actions and time as represented in tenses. By extension, then, the students would have also experienced this with respect to their native tongue.
Language, the government of the tongue, is one of the first and most powerful ways a person governs their world. And stories, stories are the way a person understands their world and progresses in governing it. The stories studied in the 16th century grammar schools presented the ‘slings and arrows’ of life in metaphor and allusion, and helped the children order the reality of their world.
Religious discord, fear, and suspicion had shaken this world since Will’s memory began and stretched back for decades prior to his birth. How could he bring concord to the discord of his world? It may very well have been that the rhythm of a certain Bible verse, 1 John 4:16 (NKJV), which states in part, “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him,” stilled the argument for him. If he owned a personal Bible did he note the verse? Star it? Draw a pointing hand in the margin?
When Will reached adulthood he ordered his world through the art of language, declaring himself in Sonnet 76: “And you and love are still my argument.” Love was the pride of his verse, of his drama.
There are, however, nuances to that word “argument” which make me wonder if he had addressed some other argument in that line besides the civil discord of the time. At first glance the line indicates the declaration that a person and a topic, a subject, are yet his argument, the reason for his art. In the course of researching and organizing this post, however, that line appeared elsewhere out of context and, at a glance, I read it as, “And you and love still my argument.”
The verb of being, ‘are’, fell away and the adverb ‘still’ became the verb. He gave us a word picture of his love life. His ‘Dark Lady’ and ‘love’ stilled the arguments he experienced in his domestic life with his lawful wife. He affirmed this further in another sonnet, fleshing out the image considerably: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediment.” (Sonnet 116)
Sonnet 116 contains several images which evoke for me Odysseus’ journey and his marriage with the Lady Penelope. This is, I believe, evidence that Will Shakespeare turned to Homer’s epic poetry as a guidebook to set out on his adult life. Will wrote of love as “the star to every wandering bark”; love “looks on tempests and is never shaken”; “Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks/Within his bending sickle’s compass come;/Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,/But bears it out even to the edge of doom.”
I certainly see storm-tossed, brine-soaked Odysseus in those lines. Just as the marriage Will depicted was one of true minds, the Lady Penelope was obviously an intellectual match for Odysseus as she was able to hold the suitors at bay for so many years.
The turbulent landscape of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” also resonated with Will. Everything and everyone was shaken. Too, I think he quickly and happily noted the image of his surname, Shakespeare, in the references to the mighty warrior Ajax who “shook aloft his dart with deadly grace.” (George Chapman’s translation of “The Iliad, Book Vii.187. Robert Fitzgerald translates it explicitly as “He shook his long spear …” Vii. 250-1) I imagine he acted out portions of these epic stories for his young son and did so with a special gusto.
He saw the shaken spiritual security of those epics as he walked the countryside. The chapel walls whitewashed of their celestial courts were all the Achaean courts whose lords had gone to war to retrieve the abducted queen. The constancy of war perched on his doorstep like those insatiable suitors with murderous intent.
His pairing of ‘love’ and ‘argument’ is a signal, I believe, that for all he may have tried to love the mother of his children he could not still the arguments and, at some point, decided to seek his livelihood farther away from home and hearth. It was an astonishing act of courage to defy convention and choose the life of a playwright. Among other things, plays were not considered literature. Yet that was the predominant medium of his art, art centered around love.
In an article in VICTORIA magazine (March 2003) Diane Ackerman wrote of Will Shakespeare: “Something about his brain was gloriously different. Something about the radar-net of his senses was different.” I agree. Given the hints in his art I have to say it seems his lawful wife also considered him ‘different,’ but not ‘gloriously’ so. If I had to guess I would say his wife, Anne, considered his artistic notions ‘nonsense’ and ridiculed ‘such shaping fantasies,’ since she and he were not of true mind.
In reading, translating, and sharing Homer’s epics, I believe will internalized the message of self-mastery underlying the whole of “The Odyssey.” He took to heart, as well, the message that it is he who reconciled the Masculine with the Feminine in themselves, in their life, in their situation, who set things in order. I suspect he experienced this first hand with his twins, a son and a daughter, who, like all children, changed the meaning of order in the household.
Once a part of a company of players he then saw the reconciliation of Masculine and Feminine manifested when males – the only people permitted to act on stage – brought feminine characters to life. He saw that convincing portrayals were the result of more than just wigs and costumes and makeup. They began with the art in his language.
Relatively early in his career as a playwright Will Shakespeare crafted a portrait of his love, the star guiding his wandering bark, in the character of Juliet. She was wisdom and light in his life. “Words are small shapes in the chaos of the world” (Ackerman) but he used them to portray a woman worthy of, but who rejected, Homer’s Paris.
One of the stunning features of Juliet’s character is the glimpse she offers of Will’s lawful wife and his domestic situation: “My only love sprung from my only hate.” (I.v.152) The image is subtle, but it becomes evident when first we recall that very often ‘Hathaway,’ his wife’s maiden name, was pronounced ‘Hate-way.’ Secondly, we call up a translation of the past participle ‘sprung’ to indicate having been sprung from prison or captivity rather than having sprung or grown up from the enemy’s family.
This is a vivid counterpoint to the image of a marriage of true minds!
In the ‘Dark Lady’ he recovered the goddess. Where Odysseus encountered numerous celestial women, each with her own agenda, Shakespeare encountered a woman – a mover and shaker in her own right, a woman with an intellect to rival his own – who loved deeper than he thought possible.
He knew, “A self is a frightening thing to waste, it’s the lens through which one’s whole life is viewed, and few people are willing to part with it, in death, or even imaginatively in art. …… He would have known how alien he was. How human, in a hundred familiar ways, but also how different. It would have been both his privilege and his burden to be extraordinary. More of everything. More hearing, seeing, feeling, smelling, more imagining, and perhaps more hurting, thrilling, angering.” (Ackerman)
In discovering his true self Will Shakespeare discovered that the marital bed can be a place of union rather than strife. I suspect that the tremors he experienced with his Dark Lady were sources of healing and joy and inspiration.
Finally,I strongly suspect that when he was with his love he always had in mind Odysseus’ glorious description of the bed he built. That, I believe, is why Will Shakespeare willed his second-best bed to his wife.
Barbara Butler McCoy, c. April 2014
Bibliography: Ackerman, Diane. “Still the Best.” VICTORIA Magazine, March 2003; Homer. “The Iliad.” (Robert Fitzgerald, transl.) New York: Farrar, Straus and Girous, 1974; Nicoll, Allardyce. “Chapman’s Homer: The Iliad.” Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956; Shakespeare, William. “Romeo and Juliet.” New York: Washington Square Press, 1992; Shakespeare, William. “The Sonnets.” New York: Barnes and Noble, 2007.