Shakespeare’s plays and poems are, I believe, Britain’s biggest gift to the world. What gift might rival them? The industrial revolution, Newtonian physics, parliamentary democracy (did we invent that?), the Empire (certainly not that), or language. It could perhaps be language, but surely any language could have served as well as a global language, whereas Shakespeare provided something wholly unique. He even, according to Harold Bloom, “invented the human.”
Anyway yesterday was the 400th anniversary of his death, and you couldn’t escape it, not that I wanted to. It was on the radio and television, in the newspapers, and everywhere on the streets of London. Together with Chicken (for part of the way), and Bennett the philosopher I did the “Shakespeare Walk.”
The huge influence of Delacroix
More of that in a moment, but first we went to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery. It was mostly a disappointment, with few pictures that transfixed. The only picture that transfixed me was not even by Delacroix but by one of his many admirers, Cezanne. It was a nude, and Ioved how solid and heavy she felt—and I liked the blues in her skin.
The exhibition, although dull, taught me something—that Delacroix had a huge influence on late 19th century painters—Cezanne, Gauguin, the Impressionists, Courbet, Vin Gogh, Sargent, and others. The influence came partly from the pictures he exhibited (the colours, swirling action, and the rapidity with which he painted some of them) but more from the sketches found in his studio after his death and the 1400 pages he wrote on colour and the theory of art. How on earth, I wondered, could he write so much on the theory of art? And how could it have so much influence? Surely a painter should paint not write.
Doing the Shakespeare Walk
We left the National Gallery, took the tube to Tower Hill, walked past Traitors’ Gate thinking of Ann Boleyn, crossed Tower Bridge, and began the Shakespeare walk with the film of his last play, The Tempest. The walk comprised 37 films, one for each of his plays. We did the walk backwards, ending with Two Gentlemen of Verona, his first play. Bennett and I were obsessive in our walk, backtracking to catch films we’d missed. Some of the films—As You Like It, Henry V, and Midsummer Night’s Dream—were not working, but the films were mostly arresting. To do the whole walk and watch every minute of every film would have taken six to seven hours; we took about three, including a cup of hot, spiced cider in Borough Market.
Most of the speeches were familiar, and I lingered with Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello, the quintessence of Shakespeare for me, and revelled in Falstaff chasing two widows with horns on his head. But I’ve not seen all of the plays, and I was arrested by two speeches—one on death from Measure for Measure and a rant, delivered splendidly by Simon Russell Beale, from Timon of Athens.
Here’s the death speech. It’s first sentence is Montaigne’s philosophy on death captured in 13 words. Montaigne lived from from 1533 to 1592, dying 24 years before Shakespeare. Did Shakespeare read Montaigne? I type those words into Google and discover:
He very much did, as did all the intellectuals of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. The essay mentions that Shakespeare drew on Montaigne for both The Tempest and King Lear. It doesn’t mention Measure for Measure, but it’s clearly another example.
Be absolute for death; either death or life
Shall thereby be the sweeter. Reason thus with life:
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep: a breath thou art,
Servile to all the skyey influences,
That dost this habitation, where thou keep’st,
Hourly afflict: merely, thou art death’s fool;
For him thou labour’st by thy flight to shun
And yet runn’st toward him still. Thou art not noble;
For all the accommodations that thou bear’st
Are nursed by baseness. Thou’rt by no means valiant;
For thou dost fear the soft and tender fork
Of a poor worm. Thy best of rest is sleep,
And that thou oft provokest; yet grossly fear’st
Thy death, which is no more. Thou art not thyself;
For thou exist’st on many a thousand grains
That issue out of dust. Happy thou art not;
For what thou hast not, still thou strivest to get,
And what thou hast, forget’st. Thou art not certain;
For thy complexion shifts to strange effects,
After the moon. If thou art rich, thou’rt poor;
For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,
Thou bear’s thy heavy riches but a journey,
And death unloads thee. Friend hast thou none;
For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner. Thou hast nor youth nor age,
But, as it were, an after-dinner’s sleep,
Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youth
Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms
Of palsied eld; and when thou art old and rich,
Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,
To make thy riches pleasant. What’s yet in this
That bears the name of life? Yet in this life
Lie hid moe thousand deaths: yet death we fear,
That makes these odds all even.
I keep reading this speech and finding more and more.
I’ve had more trouble finding Timon’s rant, and it is spread through a long scene that I must read carefully. But here’s some of it:
You must eat men. Yet thanks I must you con
That you are thieves profess’d, that you work not
In holier shapes: for there is boundless theft
In limited professions. Rascal thieves,
Here’s gold. Go, suck the subtle blood o’ the grape,
Till the high fever seethe your blood to froth,
And so ‘scape hanging: trust not the physician;
His antidotes are poison, and he slays
Moe than you rob: take wealth and lives together;
Do villany, do, since you protest to do’t,
Like workmen. I’ll example you with thievery.
The sun’s a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea: the moon’s an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun:
The sea’s a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears: the earth’s a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stolen
From general excrement: each thing’s a thief:
The laws, your curb and whip, in their rough power
Have uncheque’d theft. Love not yourselves: away,
Rob one another. There’s more gold. Cut throats:
All that you meet are thieves: to Athens go,
Break open shops; nothing can you steal,
But thieves do lose it: steal no less for this
I give you; and gold confound you howsoe’er! Amen.
Surfeited with poetry and me underdressed and cold to my marrow, Bennett and I caught the bus home and feasted on kipper kedgeree.