I felt a wave of nostalgia–a Proustian moment–when I opened the package from the used-book company and extracted a pristine copy of Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Seeing the cover portrait of Shakespeare drawn by Ben Shahn took me back to my undergraduate years at Princeton, when my better-read classmates carried that book around. The cover of my copy shows a price of $1.45, and on the back there’s a blurb from Alan Downer, who was chair of the English department in the mid-60s when the book was published, and who taught the undergraduate Shakespeare course that I never took. Mr. Downer was ill by then and not at his best. In all my reading during the last several years, I’ve seen no reference to his work. Sic transit gloria. But Kott’s book stands the test of time.
Kott was born in Poland in 1914, lived in Paris during the 30s and associated with avant guard artists, fought in the Polish army in World War II and then edited an underground newspaper. He was committed Marxist who became disillusioned. “The measure of realism in a literature is the understanding of the historical process in its contradictions and its development, the truth about man who creates history and who is subject to its laws: moral truth and psychological truth…”, so he wrote in 1957. Vulnerable reading seeks this realism that preserves Marx’s core insight that people make their own history, but not in conditions they themselves have chosen. That’s true of both being ill and practicing the healthcare professions. It’s the dual perspective that any medical humanities has to sustain.
Kott’s Shakespeare lives and breathes because Kott reads by seeing a performance, which might be a memory of an actual staging or an imagined performance. He reminds us that Shakespeare did not write texts; he wrote words to be played, and a good deal is left to the players. Kott is good on all of Shakespeare, but I found him most original when he understands King Lear as prefiguring Samuel Beckett. He describes the scene in Act IV when Edgar, now disguised as a peasant, leads his father, the recently blinded Gloucester, toward what Gloucester believes is the cliff he intends as the means of his suicide. “It is easy to imagine the scene,” Kott writes. “Edgar is supporting Gloucester; he lifts his feet high, pretending to walk uphill. Gloucester, too, lifts his feet, as if expecting the ground to rise, but underneath his foot there is only air. The entire scene is written for a very definite type of theatre, namely pantomime” (page 142).
I quote that passage as a model both of critical reading and of care. Kott reads closely, but he doesn’t do what’s usually called close reading. He reads through visual imagination that sees the scene being reenacted; he directs the staging of that reenactment, making himself a participant in the scene. In this instance as elsewhere in Kott’s readings, the actual words play a supporting role to the physical enactment, which the reader is called upon to reenact.
What is reenacted is care. Edgar has been brutally wronged by his father, whom he now he cares for, as later Cordelia will care for the father who wronged her. Edgar allows his father to choose, while deferring what he chooses, which is death. He allows his father to live through his own suicide, to get his wish and then live to think better of what he has chosen. In this version of care, autonomy is honoured by an enactment that defers. The pantomime works. After his supposed fall from the cliff, Gloucester says his great Stoic line: “Henceforth I’ll bear affliction till it do cry itself ‘Enough, enough,’ and die” (IV, 6). Edgar’s care enables Gloucester getting to those words by acting out what he chooses, yet Edgar holds him in that enactment, containing it. The subtlety cannot be described much further. We can only see the scene again and say, this is care.
Kott deserves the last word: “The Shakespearean precipice at Dover exists and does not exist. It is the abyss, waiting all the time. The abyss, into which one can jump, is everywhere” (146).