Wednesday, May 20, 2009

4/30/09 continued: Three Blind Bards

(Continued from here.)

“Where should I begin?” I ask, dreading the answer. “Let’s start with Chapter 18,” says Homer. I turn to page 307 and begin to read.

"Chapter 18. AFTER MACHIAVELLI. “‘Shakespeare’s writing career may have begun in 1589, as he waited for the Lambert case to come before the Lord Chief Justice’s court at Westminster.’ Oh bollocks.” "Something wrong, Will?" asks Homer with a smile. “What’s the Lambert case?” asks Dorothy Milton. I ignore Homer and answer Dorothy. “A lawsuit between my father and the Lambert family over a piece of property my other used to own,” I say, not wanting to go into the details of a complicated lawsuit which was incredibly important in 1589 and now only memorable because John Shakespeare’s son Will was involved in it. “And is that when you started to write?” Anne Milton asks. “I was writing almost the moment I became an actor,” I reply with some peevishness, “and I was an actor for a good three years before any of my work was good enough for Lord Strange’s Men to perform. To think that I started writing because of that damned Lambert lawsuit, --” “Can we continue?” Homer says mildly, clearly enjoying my burst of temper. “Oh most assuredly,” I reply, and pick up where I left off.

“‘It was probably some time earlier that year -- to judge from a topical allusion to the assassination of the Duke of Guise, leader of the Catholic faction in the French civil wars of religion -- that Christopher Marlowe’s hugely popular Jew of Malta had its premiere. Shakespeare was probably not in the cast, but he was certainly at some point in the audience.’ Jesus wept,” I cry, “if you take the word probably out of the English language none of these books would ever get written. And how can an actor see another actor’s plays when he’s performing in a rival play across town? Send his twin brother?” I take a deep breath and continue reading. “‘His Aaron in Titus Andronicus is a part written in response to Marlowe’s Ithamore, and his Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is his answer to Barabbas the Jew, with the play’s resolution achieved through a courtroom instead of a boiling cauldron and a bloodbath.’” And then I emit a wordless scream of frustration. “My ‘answer to Barabbas the Jew?’ Ignorant fecking coont. I had nothing to do with it at all. It was because of Marlowe. Marlowe and that bloody fool Lopez.”

"Ah yes -- Lopez," says Milton. "Lopez?" asks Anne. And Milton proceeds to tell her about Doctor Roderigo Lopez, a Spanish Jew who was Elizabeth's personal physician, and how Essex hates him so much that he accused the poor trusting fool of trying to poison the Queen at the behest of the King of Spain. In December of '93, he was on top of the world; one month later he was arrested, two months later he was convicted, and on the 7th of June in '94 he was hanged, drawn and quartered, to the laughter and delight of the watching crowd. And what was also getting a lot of laughter and delight was Henslowe’s revival of poor dead Marlowe’s Jew of Malta during all this. It was so successful that Gus Phillips and the rest of the sharers said,“We need a Jew play!” “They’re cleaning up at the Rose!” “Nobody wants to see shrews tamed any more!” “We need a Jew play, Shakebags!” (That from Will Kempe.) And then they started thinking of ways to top Marlowe's grand finale, in which his Jew is boiled in a cauldron. "We want a boiling scene." "No -- something bigger!" "Draw him and quarter him!" "Stick a spit in him and roast him!" "No -- even better -- crucify him!"

I sat there listening to my brother Christians devising new and exciting tortures for the Jew in whatever play I wrote, and I said nothing and made notes, as I always did whenever we had those meetings, and then I used some of their dialogue for the Christians in the Shylock scenes when I finally wrote the play. But because they were so insistent on a play about revenge, I wrote a play about mercy; and because they were so insistent on making it topical, I threw together three hoary old folk tales as the plot: the pound of flesh story, the caskets whopper, and the ring gift howler. Then because they took it so seriously and I could have cared less, I titled it The Merchant of Venice, as if it was about Antonio. They were not happy. "You play the Jew," they said, and immediately advertised it as The Jew of Venice. And the rest is history, or at least it would be if the facts had survived. The play, with its three silly plots, was an even bigger success than R&J, or at least it was until Doctor Lopez watched his intestines being cooked in a brazier before his dying eyes. By the autumn of '94, the Rose was doing The Venetian Comedy, The Massacre at Paris, Cutlack, and Palamon and Arcite; we were doing Shrew, Two Gents, Hamlet and Humpbacked Dick; and I was making notes on how to make Shylock more sympathetic (because if I was stuck playing him then I was going to make God damn sure I had something to play besides a cartoon), which meant reducing Lancelot Gobbo's part by two-thirds to make room for the changes. Which succeeded in doing two things -- it won me the undying hatred of Will Kempe, who played Gobbo, and it totally ruined the play.

After Milton explains all this, or as much if it as he knows, I read some more from Chapter Eighteen of The Soul of The Age (which barely has half a dozen mentions of Merchant in its index) until I hear Homer sigh. “Nobody writes to be read aloud any more,” he says sadly. “I’m doing the best I can,” I protest. “Oh it’s not you,” he says, “not even the best actor in the world could save writing like this. It’s the writer. He’s writing to be read in the classroom, not sung in the court, or the courtyard. Doesn’t any writer sing any more?” “Well,” I begin, “if you’d just let me bring in my copy of Burgess’ biography,” but Homer cuts me off the moment Burgess’ name leaves my lips. “Poor John here probably doesn’t even know what we’re talking about. You never had your works spoken aloud, did you, John?”

It’s a good thing Homer is blind, because the glare from Anne and Dorothy would scale the sight from hundred-eyed Argos. “As a matter of fact, they were,” Milton says mildly. “I couldn’t write Paradise Lost, so I dictated it. Had it read back to me. Made changes.” “Had it read back to him again,” said Anne. “Made even more fucking changes,” said Dorothy. “Have you ever heard a three-year-old boy practice on the piano?” said Anne. “Wrong note after wrong note after wrong note?” said Dorothy. “False start after false start after false start?” said Anne. “That was me,” Milton said proudly. Dorothy rolls her eyes; Anne gives him the finger; and I think wistfully of my own daughters. "I never knew that," Homer says. "How could you not know that?" Milton replies. "Everybody knows that. The life of Milton is an open book. Too open," he says with a sigh. “I would kill to have someone write a worshipful biography of me.” Homer grunts in agreement. “I would kill to have someone write a fictional biography of me,” he says. “And that is the only biography I ever get,” I say. "The grass is always greener," says Homer. "Not when you're blind it isn't," says Dorothy.

And I reflect on the fact that both these men are jealous of something I have which they don't, something I think is worthless and beneath me. Which, if they had it, would make them supremely satisfied. Or would it? I wonder. Are we not all blind to what we have, until we see it through someone else's eyes? Is not value measured as a slight thing on our own personal scales until we see how weighty it is in the world's scales? And if we do change our opinion, does that not mean that we have come to worship the opinions of others more than our own? Perhaps that is why I have never valued my own biographies. I worship something different, something more personal. So my disdain for these so-called lives of mine? My dismissal of them, my condescension? Chalk it up to Will’s God. As opposed to God’s will.

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