Vulnerable readers, whose needs are the topic of this blog, need consolation. I realize how, without much thought, I have defined vulnerability as a need for consolation. My question has then been what sorts of consolation can be offered by reading generally, and by participating in Shakespeare specifically. So, imagine my sense of anticipation when I saw that the Folger Shakespeare Library has in its excellent podcast series Shakespeare Unlimited an episode titled “Shakespeare and Solace”, posted online last April. It’s an unusual episode, longer than most and including multiple contributors rather than a single interviewee. Michael Witmore, the current Folger director, and Gail Kern Paster, Director Emerita, are interviewed by regular host Barbara Bogaev, with contributions from multiple actors, directors, and other previous guests on the podcast. I recommend listening to it; some of the readings from Shakespeare are wonderful to hear.
What interests me in this posting is how, as I listened, I realized that I hadn’t distinguished between two complementary but significantly different ways that people find solace in Shakespeare–how the plays console. I realized that how I look for consolation in the plays is not how most people find solace. That difference is my topic.
Both Paster and Witmore speak of specific lines as a source of consolation. Paster: “lines emerge in your head or they come out of your mouth without you’re ever really thinking.” Witmore follows by saying: “I tend to think of short phrases. They sometimes jump out at me, and they’re not really…what I want to hear from them or not the same as what they mean in the passage” (ellipsis in original transcript). What I think he’s getting at, although they don’t specify it, is the difference between how Shakespeare’s words and phrases can sound out of context, versus how we understand them as spoken by a particular character who’s in a specific situation. Let me offer an example that is not in the podcast, but it speaks to both solace in Shakespeare’s lines and the difference between a line in or out of context.
In David Schalkwyk’s Hamlet’s Dreams: The Robben Island Shakespeare, he quotes Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, where Mandela talks about the solace he found in Shakespeare’s line, “Be absolute for death; for either death or life shall be the sweeter.” In prison, facing the possibility of death every day, Mandela lived the truth he found in this line. But, the line’s from a speech in Measure for Measure, and in that context, it’s layered in complicity. The Duke, disguised as a Friar, tells Claudio to be absolute for death. The disguise is one level of falseness. Another level is that the Duke has no intention of letting Claudio die; he has a plan that will rescue him (although that doesn’t work out as he anticipates, but that’s another issue). And then it matters that Claudio rejects the speech, and his speech about the utter finality of death possibly trumps the Duke’s eloquence, especially because Claudio is actually scheduled to be executed. Schalkwyk describes the context as the Duke’s “cynical manipulation of Claudio” (64), which sums it up well. And then, after discussing another of Mandela’s favourite lines from Shakespeare, Schalkwyk concludes, and I agree: “Mandela pays little attention to the context of the speeches from which he draws his lessons or comforts” (65). But that isn’t a mistake Mandela makes; it’s not a shallowness of reading. Instead, and going back to what Witmore says about lines out of context, how Mandela uses Shakespeare is more than fine: he takes what he needs, and Shakespeare lends his words to that purpose.
Paster’s example is the Duke in As You Like It saying “Sweet are the uses of adversity.” She adds that in the play, “it comes off as sheer rationalization,” which might be a bit strong but she knows far more than I. What she adds is a fine example of vulnerable reading: “I think for those of us who are trying to cope with isolation and solitude, we better find the sweet uses of adversity or else we’ll be really in a bad place.” Her context is speaking about a month into the lockdown resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, a time when everyone was learning a whole new dimension of vulnerability in their lives, as we still are when I write this.
The complementary but different form of consolation finds its source not in individual lines from Shakespeare but rather from the adaptability of Shakespeare’s stories, most of which are already adaptations. I’ve written (in Literature and Medicine) about how the character of Hamlet consoles, on the one hand, by mirroring the plight of someone who is thrown into a situation of irresolvable conflict, and on the other hand, Hamlet also consoles by being a cautionary example of how not to respond when finding oneself suddenly vulnerable. Or to go back to Measure for Measure, in a short piece I co-authored in the medical journal The Lancet, we write about how the play describes different characters’ struggles to maintain integrity in situation of endemic craziness, and as such, the story can be a survival guide to those who work in hospitals. In reading for the story, if individual lines are remembered, they matter as part of telling that story, although that story can morph into one’s own story.
The consolation of what we can call reading for the story can take the form of fan fiction, which has a considerable tradition in the production of Shakespeare. Until the mid-18th century, those performing Shakespeare felt free to rewrite to an extent we today would find simply wrong. Mostly famously, the poet Nahum Tate revised King Lear so that Cordelia lives, marries Edgar, and reigns as Queen. That version (1681) remained the standard performance text for a century and a half (although Tate died in hiding from his creditors, so maybe some higher power disapproved). My point is that any reader of Shakespeare can adapt the story to fit her or his needs: write yourself a new part in the story, or adapt a character to be your alter ego and change how she or he acts. Make the story be what your consolation requires. You will be doing a version of what Shakespeare did, and as long as you’re not planning on producing your version in public, there’s no criterion of how well you do your adaptation.
I was writing recently to a friend who’s a therapist. I compared the space in which therapy takes place to the Forest of Arden, from As You Like It. The Forest of Arden is not filled with spirits–no Puck or Ariel–but it has its own magic. The deposed Duke and later his exiled daughter Rosalind go there in desperation. Rosalind plays with her identity: she dresses as a young man, Ganymede; for a while, she is a man, albeit a man whose main occupation is to teach another man how to properly love the woman whom he is infatuated with, who is of course Rosalind. You go to the Forest of Arden in your complete vulnerability; it shelters you, and it offers a space for identity play that becomes transformation. It is being in the Forest that consoles. Not quoting the story, but being in the story, as a space that holds you and frees you–the freedom depends on the holding.
People need both modes of consolation, reading for lines and reading for the story; both have value. But it’s useful to recognize their difference.