Leonard Barkan on Reading Shakespeare Reading Me

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 189

In Hamlet, Shakespeare writes that theater holds a “mirror up to nature.” In his new book, Princeton professor Leonard Barkan tells us that when he reads Shakespeare, it holds a mirror up to Leonard Barkan—and that when you read Shakespeare, it holds up a mirror to you.
When most of us read, Barkan reminds us, we bring our own experiences to the text, asking personal questions like “What about my life?” and “How does this make me feel?” His book Reading Shakespeare Reading Me combines memoir and literary criticism, analyzing ten Shakespeare plays and locating their parallels in the intimate details of his parents’ marriages and early lives, his coming of age as a gay man, and many of the deaths, loves, achievements, and disappointments that have made up his time on Earth. Leonard Barkan is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you find your podcasts.

Leonard Barkan is the Class of 1943 University Professor at Princeton University. He is the author of numerous books including The Hungry Eye: Eating, Drinking, and the Culture of Europe from Rome to the Renaissance; Michelangelo: A Life on Paper; and Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture. Reading Shakespeare Reading Me was published by Fordham University Press in 2022.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published April 26, 2022. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Who Is It That Can Tell Me What I Am?” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edited our transcript. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Josh Wilcox and Walter Nordquist at Brooklyn Podcasting Studio in New York.

Previous: Pamela Hutchinson on Asta Nielsen's Hamlet | Next: Shakespeare and Ukraine, with Irena Makaryk


Excerpt: Reading Shakespeare Reading Me
Read an excerpt from Leonard Barkan's new book on our Shakespeare and Beyond blog


MICHAEL WITMORE: In Hamlet, Shakespeare tells us that theater holds a “mirror up to nature.” In a new book, Princeton professor Leonard Barkan tells us that, when he reads Shakespeare, it holds a mirror up to Leonard Barkan.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.

Leonard Barkan is the Class of 1943 University Professor at Princeton University, where he teaches comparative literature, art history, English, and classics. That pedigree, and his 50 years in the classroom, give him a significant degree of latitude.

So perhaps it’s not a surprise then to learn that Professor Barkan’s new book offers us copious amounts of detail about his own life, and that he lays out all the ways those details correspond to his understanding of the plots and characters in Shakespeare.

The book is called Reading Shakespeare Reading Me. The Shakespeare scholar, Stephen Greenblatt has called it, “a triumphant vindication of critical self-absorption.” The premise is that every close reader of Shakespeare brings along his, her, or their own life experiences when reading. Professor Barkan takes that premise to the N-th degree, analyzing 10 Shakespeare plays and showing where their parallels can be found in the intimate details of his parents’ marriages and early lives, of his coming of age as a gay man, and of many of the deaths, loves, achievements, and disappointments that have made up his time on Earth.

There is a lot to absorb, and Professor Barkan came into a studio recently to give us a good, solid chunk of it all for this podcast which we call “Who Is It That Can Tell Me Who I Am?”

Dr. Leonard Barkan is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


Is reading Shakespeare fundamentally different than reading any other author? By that, I mean, do we insert ourselves or bring our own experience to Shakespeare in a different way than with other texts?

LEONARD BARKAN: First of all, I’d say, of course there are other texts that are as great and that I love as much. But if we’re talking about someone who has accompanied me through my life, the range of experience, the range of character types, the range of language, the scope between farce and tragedy, the breadth of all that… I wouldn’t say unique. I’m very fond of Dante. But Shakespeare, for me as a reader, is my life. That is to say, my life is written out in those pages because I find he, in particular, speaks to my life.

BOGAEV: Okay, you’ve led me to my next question, which is, is that why you write things like, and this is a quote, “I read Shakespeare and I am Cleopatra. I am Mercutio. I am Othello at the same time as I am Iago. Or at the very least, I’m in a small room alone with them and they’re speaking to me, to my life, to my sensibility, to my experience.”

BARKAN: That is why. But in a sense, I make that statement as a description of reading in general. And I think that’s an important part of the book. We teach from grade school on, we teach reading of literature as a matter of learning how to do it. It’s very important to learn how to do it, and there are a lot of facets to learning how to do it, and you can do it wrong. It’s possible.

At the same time, the real act of reading, the person who reads for pleasure, who reads a lot is not being a technical reader, is not saying, “What did the author intend or mean here?” That person is saying, “What about my life? Why am I in love with Rosalind and loathe Olivia?” or whatever it may be. Not, “In 1600, what did they think about that?”—that’s very advanced—But what about, “How does it make me feel?” That reading is encountering another voice as you would encounter another person.

BOGAEV: Well, as you said, your connection to Shakespeare seems to go back to the very earliest times in your life. One of the things you write about in the book that pertains to that is your reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

You write that you have a personal attachment to the changeling child in Midsummer because of the unusual circumstances concerning your mother when she was pregnant with you. Very intriguing. But first, remind us, briefly who the changeling child is and how it functions in Midsummer.

BARKAN: If you look in the cast list of Midsummer Night’s Dream for the changeling child, you will be very disappointed. The changeling child does not appear in the play. But in a sense, he is the pivot of much of the action.

It seems that the queen of the fairies, Titania, had a beloved companion who gave birth to a child and then died in childbirth. She wanted Titania to raise this changeling child as her own. Now, Titania and Oberon, this sort of warring married couple, are fighting over the child. Titania has him, and much of the action of the play depends on what Oberon does in order to get the changeling child loose from Titania and into his hands.

It’s always played as a very charming sort of a fairy story, but when we get closer to it it’s a little bit weird. I mean, why do they want this child? And it’s even weirder because the way that Oberon finally gets the child is by substituting not a childlike object but a sexual object—a sort of absurd sexual object, that is to say, Bottom. But you know, through his various means, he makes Titania fall in love with Bottom and lose interest in the changeling child. So, first, the sort of creepy thing about all this, as I say in book, is this change from a maternal object to a sexual object.

So the changeling child is at the center of everything, yet we never meet him, we never see him. In fact, the term changeling child is itself historically a very important term but usually doesn’t apply to this kind of situation. It’s a child stolen; that the fairies steal your beautiful baby and replace it with an identical-looking baby who’s actually a demon. This is what, you knowparents when their children misbehaved said, “You’re a changeling. You’re not really my child. You’re the simulacrum that the fairies left and you’re a monster.”

BOGAEV: Right, it’s an alternative to threatening the boogie man or something. But connect those dots for us then, how does your personal connection and your personal history illuminate the text or vice versa?

BARKAN: Well, I’m glad you choose this instance, it’s certainly one of the, sort of, the trickier instances in the book. I never mean to say that my life is exactly like Shakespeare. It isn’t. What I mean always to say is, “This is how my reading of Shakespeare broadens from my own experience.”

It was the case that I was born at the beginning of October and my mother discovered she was pregnant at the end of July. I always say at that point, “You do the math.” In other words, she didn’t know she was having a baby for most of her pregnancy.

BOGAEV: That’s six months or so.

BARKAN: Correct.  


BARKAN: This is all true. I didn’t make it up. One of the most important things about this, for the purpose of my book, is that this story was told all the time over and over to strangers, to guests, to relatives, in my presence. That’s really where we get to the changeling child aspect. In order for a child to hear that story, it opens up vast caverns of mysterious matter as to where do babies come from, what’s pregnancy, how long does it take, why is six months not, you know, to be discounted?

So, my coming into the world was a family joke. What was contained in that joke was all the mysteries of where do babies come from, which all the grown-ups sort of seemed to know. But I was sort of scanning all of this for information that, you know, everyone knew and it made me feel—that’s part of it. The other part of it is it made me feel, maybe, was I or wasn’t I this woman’s child? That’s where the changeling comes in.

BOGAEV: But how does it then give you an in to an interpretation of Midsummer Night’s Dream?

BARKAN: Well, I think it is no very direct way, I should admit right away.


BARKAN: I think what this means is that, one of the ways you have to understand—that’s why I started by talking about the way this changeling child isn’t, as it were, the normal changeling child of that culture.

It gives you a sense that there’s a mystery about the way in which babies come into the world. And in the same way that the changeling child turns out to be a sort of strangely mutable token in the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

And I think throughout the book, my personal intersections with Shakespeare brings me to some understanding.

BOGAEV: Well, let me ask you this then. If you hadn’t had this particular history with the circumstances of your birth, would your reading of Midsummer have likely had a different focus?

BARKAN: My answer is all about the word “reading” there. The word “reading” is in my title, and it’s very important. One way to define reading, the professional way—and I’m a professor of literature—is to say “a reading” is an interpretation. Translating the experience of a literary text into some kind of discursive piece of prose thinking. So, that kind of reading, not so much. I mean, I do arrive at interpretations in that sense, but reading in the sense that reading is absorption, reading is living in the life of the text. I would have missed out actually on a lot of the mystery of the changeling child if it hadn’t occurred to me at some point that the experience of the changeling child in the play—this sort of mysterious wavering, uncertain, he’s there-but-he’s-not-there, he’s the pivot of all the action but we never see him. I think sort of glomming onto that as a central fact of the play has something to do with my long pondering of the relativities of mothers and sons.

BOGAEV: Well, let’s look at a different example. I particularly like your writing about Merchant of Venice. Your focus is on Antonio and what you call the “gayest moment in Shakespeare,” when Antonio confesses that he’s depressed. Tell us more about that moment and your interpretation of Antonio.

BARKAN: Well that gives you—this is the case where I’m now able to give you what you wanted in the Midsummer Night’s Dream. That is to say, that was real experience for me, no doubt about it. I’m going to get very personal, but so does the book. I mean, actually, the book has more personal than I’m about to be now, but I’m open to it.

I’m a gay man who has been an out gay man for many decades and did not meet his life partner until just after my 55th birthday. Now, more than 20 years ago, just so you can do the math, on my age.

For someone like me—but of course, not only me—a lonely gay man, the opening ten minutes of The Merchant of Venice they can only mean one thing. Antonio says he’s sad, and his hanger-on friends say, “Well, of course you’re sad. You have all these ships, they’re traveling all over the world. You’re worried about ships.” And he says, “No, it’s not that. I’ve diversified,” as we would say. “I have ships in all different oceans and so on.”

Then they say, “Why, then you’re in love.” And he says, “Fine” and sort of drops the subject. The next thing that happens is that Bassanio and other people come on, and all the friends who have been there so far say, “Oh, now that Bassanio’s here, you know, we’ll leave you two together.” I don’t think you have to be a gay man to see what’s going on.

I mean, even without the hindsight of the fact that Bassanio is there to borrow money so he can woo Portia—you know, not very useful to Antonio, though Antonio bankrolls it—but I think the pathos of that… and of course also the famous line from Oscar Wilde’s lovers poem, “The love that dare not speak its name.”

This is—forget Oscar Wilde, who certainly spoke its name—this is the love that dare not speak its name, and it dare not speak its name in the play, except again from offstage when two sort of choric characters who tell us the things we need to know, when they describe the parting of Antonio of Bassanio as tearful and affectionate and when Antonio then, again, offstage we hear his letter. So, the bond between Antonio and Bassanio is insisted upon throughout the play but never spoken. It’s never allowed to be spoken directly.

BOGAEV: Do you remember the first time you read the play?


BOGAEV: When did you come to this reading? When did it hit you with that force?

BARKAN: At a very young age. I mean probably by the time I was in college. By the earliest, I would have been reading it in the late ‘50s, maybe. It was certainly kosher to say that it was something a little sexually fluid about the Shakespearean imagination.

BOGAEV: Well, I was going to say, absolutely you’re not alone in taking this angle, since, exactly, about the ‘50s scholars have interpreted the character, some of them, as gay. And others have said, “No.” That platonic love between men was the highest ideal of love, it even trumped…

BARKAN: Right, I wrote a book about that.

BOGAEV: Exactly, exactly. But I’m thinking back to Al Pacino’s Merchant of Venice in which he leans that way. Also, I think the actor Joseph Fiennes took that approach in A Merchant of Venice in the 2000s. And I’m guessing you know the poem by Jason Schneiderman, The Sadness of Antonio.

BARKAN: I don’t know it, actually. No.

BOGAEV: Oh, my goodness. Then I’m going to send it to you.

BARKAN: Please do.

BOGAEV: Because it is exactly about that. There’s a wonderful part of the poem where he imagines, with his assistant, who is also gay—they’re teaching Shakespeare—he imagines creating a whole 1990s version of Merchant of Venice that could open with Antonio breaking the silence and conclude with an Act Up demonstration.

But as we’re saying, you’re not alone in this. Not to minimize your own personal experience.

Well, getting back to what you were speaking about earlier, in this deep emotional connection to the play, what does it illuminate in your experience? Or what did your experience illuminate in Merchant? In this resonance?

BARKAN: I guess—I’ll start—because it’s easier… It means, very early in my life, figuring out who I was, and what that meant about my connections with other people, and how I might treat them or serve them or support them. The play, the way I read it, was very revealing about that.

As far as the revelation in the other direction, it’s in a sense built-in now. It enables me—I’m not the only one to see these things in the play, obviously—but it enables me to feel the richness of the tension in the play around Antonio versus Portia. Which, you know, is not in any straightforward sense what the play tells. I mean, gold, silver, and lead are set up in opposition to each other. Antonio and Portia seem to be on different planes in some sense. But from that opening moment, especially when all the friends say, “We’ve established that he’s not sad about his ships and that he seems to be avoiding the question of whether he’s in love, or whatever, [he] certainly does not invite a discussion of it.”

And then immediately after when the other friends come on, they say, “Oops! I see Bassanio is her. We can leave now and leave you two to yourselves.” I mean, what does that mean? You know, why would you do that? Why are they doing that? Based on what are they doing that? Perfectly clear to me!

BOGAEV: When you teach this play, do you reveal this kind of personal history or do you encourage your students to?

BARKAN: I reveal it and I do not—Well… I reveal it certainly. I mean, I don’t make a big deal out of it, but I don’t avoid it, let’s put it that way.

Encouraging my students… it’s interesting you say that, I mean, I’m now teaching a graduate seminar which is designed to involve—the first half of it is really a quite traditional cultural study of the development of the first person, of “I,” as the right of an author to speak in the first person.

The second half of it is getting the students to do first-person readings of whatever. I specialize in the early modern period, the Renaissance, so I hope they’ll choose things from before 1700. But getting students to write what is now—I actually had no idea of this, but suddenly it’s everywhere, and it’s called “autocriticism”—nothing to do with, you know, your Oldsmobiles.

It’s a joke now that every time I open PMLA [the journal of the Modern Language Association of America] or one of these, there’s something, you know, about where the critic is out on the page in his or her own life. It makes me feel a little cheap, but…

BOGAEV: I think it’s the zeitgeist. I think you’re very with it, actually. You’re an influencer.

BARKAN: Well, I’ve never been with it before so I’m glad.

BOGAEV: A Shakespeare influencer.

BARKAN: But I certainly have never asked students to say, “Are they gay?” when we read The Merchant of Venice.

BOGAEV: Well, you are anticipating my next question, which is, is this book more of an exercise in writing a memoir or autobiography or is it an exercise in modeling a way of reading Shakespeare?

BARKAN: Yes, is the answer to that alternative. It’s relentlessly trying to do both of those things. Sometimes I would explain from the bottom up that connection and sometimes I would not. And sometimes they—I mean the interweaving of Richard II and RuPaul’s Drag Race at the end.

BOGAEV: Which I particularly appreciated.

BARKAN: It’s obviously funny, I hope so.


BARKAN: But for me, very fundamental.

BOGAEV: It’s a tightrope walk and I see you walking it chapter to chapter because your emphasis really varies. For instance, your King Lear chapter is more about you than it is about King Lear but then you go to the Midsummer chapter and it’s more about Midsummer than it is about you.

It made me wonder what determines the balance for you? Is it just a chance of your own history or do you see patterns in what plays you relate to more personally?

BARKAN: Well, all of these plays, you know, I do relate to personally or they wouldn’t be in the book. But I think it’s what I felt the play demanded and what kind of relation I had over the years to the play.

You know, talking about A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the occasion of talking about my own intellectual development. That may not be as exciting as being gay or whatever, but it’s part of my life and it’s very important to this book, to say how is it that I wrote a book about metamorphosis and that I got interested in the Warburg scholars and in that kind of cultural study of the early modern period which mixed philosophy, literature, and the visual arts. Those sorts of questions are less, you know, gutsy, less kind of tearing my soul. I mean, the King Lear chapter tears not only my soul but my family’s.

But I wanted very much… I mean, if I’m doing Reading Shakespeare Reading Me, a part of it is reading Shakespeare. And the other part of it is, how did I come to be a person who reads Shakespeare? Not just, what did I read when I saw him?

I know, already, from people’s reactions—and people have been very, very nice. I mean they’ve been lovely about the book—But I know that this sort of, “I’m gay, I’m Jewish, I’m this,” you know, those are going to be more exciting things in some ways than, “I’m a scholar, I’m a self-made art historian.” But I wanted there to be all of those because all of it can be mapped on my relationship to Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: In terms of reading—a little bit of a devil’s advocate question—is there a downside of inserting our personal lives or circumstances too much into what we read?

To give you an example, I often read Hamlet or Macbeth, and I identify so much with the female characters. Where I identify with them as a mother and a wife that I overlooked the subtleties of meanings inherent for princes or kings.
BARKAN: That’s fascinating because, of course in both of those plays, I do the same thing that you do. That is to say, you know, they appear in the chapter on mothers and sons, and I’m speaking now especially of Hamlet and Macbeth. You know, I insist on following Gertrude through the play and eventually exposing the kind of little vignettes of my mother, and saying, the way Hamlet treats his mother in the closet scene—I say, I think he’s despicable. But that’s not your question.

BOGAEV: Which is nothing any of my professors in college ever said to me.

BARKAN: I know that, yeah. I mean I frame it carefully around that particular matter, and after a whole chapter about mothers and sons, and the varieties. But it makes no expletive-deleted sense, what he says to her in that scene, about her crime. That’s just—I think the reading of that play from the 18th century on has read it as though we should believe everything Hamlet says, even if we wish he didn’t say it: That we should not judge it negatively.

BOGAEV: What I hear you saying is, thank god we bring ourselves as a corrective to the text.

BARKAN: Exactly.

BOGAEV: Or to the history in the text.

BARKAN: But of course we can. You know, I say at the beginning that I began teaching in 1970s southern California, and to get students to say anything other than what it meant in their lives—never mind that it was written in the 16th century—that was a bridge too far to expect them to take. Just to see it as, you know, they weren’t in the play, it was very difficult. So, of course, you can do that too much, and that is step one of reading.

But my view is it never really leaves us anyway. I want us to admit to it and say, not just, “I’m in the play,” but to judge the characters by that, and also to say, “Well this is not how I am… I’m worried that I treated my mother a little bit as badly,” you know?

I have Hamlet berating Gertrude for her—I mean, really unspeakable things he says to her, as a way of saying, “I should be thinking about myself at that point.” Whether or not that is a reading of the play, whatever we mean by reading, it’s certainly part of the legitimizing the experience of great literature, is to say, “Am I like that? Do I want to be like that?”

BOGAEV: You know, at this point, it’s hard for me to imagine reading not as an exercise in empathy and not bringing my life experience to what I read. But I did study literature in the 1980s, and I got a good dose of deconstructionist literary theory which doesn’t ascribe to all of that. It made me wonder what kind of reaction you have gotten from people who approach reading texts differently from you, or reading Shakespeare differently from you.

BARKAN: So far they’ve been kept from me mostly, and long may that wave. I think one thing to say about it is that it’s a little out of fashion now. I’m not, you know, beating my breast with joy about that. Deconstruction was very important to me and to a lot of people because it opened up the possibilities of what reading was, and that’s what I’m mostly interested in. Because it was a theory on the basis of which interpretation became freer, while still connected to a certain sort of theoretical logic. That logic had to do with language and the way it works and so on.

That’s not exactly where I get my permission to do it, but it was the place that it gave us all permission. You know, then deconstruction, in particular, emerged as something linguistic and in certain ways kind of puritanical and very excluding.

I’m not in mourning for its receding from the center of the scene. But this is what we share, is the sense that there is, in the experience of writing and the experience of reading, there is more than one way to understand the transaction.

BOGAEV: This is on a very different tack but reading your book, I wondered whether you had a list of moments in your life that you wanted to write about and you realized they corresponded to your understanding of the plays or they intersected with the plays? Or whether you started with a list of plays and moments in the plays that you wanted to write about that provoked these memories?

BARKAN: That’s the great question. I mean the short answer is no. Mostly I started with the plays. This is a book about Shakespeare. He comes first in the title, and he should come first. I went into these plays—and some of them like Lear and The Merchant of Venice, sort of that process kind of built itself—but I always started saying, “What’s in the play? And what has affected me the most? What have I connected to most in the play?” And, you know, I mean I can go through them all and sometimes that link is stronger or not. Sometimes it’s just narrative, you know, seeing Richard II and going back every night of the week to see it again.

Obviously all the mothers and sons, queer—I mean all of those things—some of those things are, I already said, you know… Antonio looks very familiar to me. And, I took some of the plays that mean the most to me and said, you know, essentially in the prep, I said, “Why do they mean the most to me?” Sometimes that was obvious: I’m a homosexual. Sometimes it wasn’t obvious.

BOGAEV: I talk to a lot of writers and they talk about being surprised, by the time they get to the end of the whole process. How it’s changed them or surprised them. Has this experience of writing about your life in connection with Shakespeare significantly changed the way you interpret any play or any of your personal background, your history?
BARKAN: I’ll start with the easy thing. It certainly gives me a sense of privilege. I seize the privilege of saying, “I am a reader, and therefore I am part of this transaction.” And not only because I have a PhD and so forth and I’ve spent 50 years in the classroom. But anybody! That goes for any reader who reads carefully. So, I have the right to read my life and the text at the same time.

As far as what one might call the move in the opposite direction, I don’t know. I mean, actually, your question—maybe not audible in this form—makes me sort of emotional. You know, I’m in my 70s and I think it’s a part of, you know, a view back on one’s own life with some of the same questions that a professional like me raises when he looks upon fictional lives written by great authors.

I think, certainly, writing the book has required me to do a self-analysis. I mean, you’ve got to say I’ve come to a point where I say, “This moment feels very intense to me.” And I have to say, “Well, why is that?”

BOGAEV: Well, thank you so much for the close readings and for the generous conversation. I appreciate it.

BARKAN: Wonderful questions. Thank you.


Leonard Barkan is the Class of 1943 University Professor at Princeton University. He is the author of numerous books including The Hungry Eye: Eating, Drinking, and the Culture of Europe from Rome to the Renaissance; Michelangelo: A Life on Paper; and Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture. His latest book, Reading Shakespeare Reading Me, was published by Fordham University Press in 2022.

Our podcast, “Who Is It That Can Tell Me Who I Am?,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez.

We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Josh Wilcox and Walter Nordquist at Brooklyn Podcasting Studio in New York.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a positive review on Apple Podcast. Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.