Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 143
Do you have a passage from Shakespeare that you return to in difficult times? Is there a sonnet or soliloquy you keep coming back to for comfort or wisdom?
This episode of Shakespeare Unlimited will be a little different. We sat down with the Folger’s director, Michael Witmore, and his predecessor in that office, Director Emerita Gail Kern Paster, to talk about the bits of Shakespeare that bring them solace. We also reached out to a few friends of the podcast and asked them to share a little Shakespeare with us. Past guests Molly Booth, Ian Doescher, Lauren Gunderson, Keith Hamilton-Cobb, Derek Jacobi, Iqbal Khan, Fran Kranz, Ryan North, James Shapiro, Paul Werstine, Casey Wilder Mott, and Stephan Wolfert all shared some words they’ve been pondering in these troubling times. We hope you'll take some solace in those words too. Paster and Witmore are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
From our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published April 28, 2020. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “One Thing to Rejoice and Solace In” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer.
MICHAEL WITMORE: In times like the ones we're facing now, what artists do you turn to when you need some comfort? If the answer is Shakespeare, you've come to the right podcast.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger's director. We're doing things a little differently in this episode. It's a special edition of Shakespeare Unlimited for what we might call special times. The conversation among friends on the idea of turning to Shakespeare for comfort in times of stress and uncertainty.
You'll also be hearing from a number of friends of the podcast and people who've appeared here before. We ask them to share the Shakespeare passages they turn to when times are rough. You'll hear those throughout the show.
As always, Barbara Bogaev is our host. And—surprise!—one of the guests is me. The other is the woman who preceded me in the Folger Director's office, our Director Emerita and the editor Shakespeare Unlimited, Gail Kern Paster.
We call this podcast episode “One Thing to Rejoice and Solace In.” And now, Barbara, I'm going to toss it to you as I always do. Take it away.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Oh, thank you so much, Mike. And first, it is so nice to have you on the podcast with Gail as well. And both of you…
GAIL KERN PASTER: Delighted.
BOGAEV: I am so glad to have you here. I hear both of you are in good health, which of course is the very first thing I wanted to know. It's just an embarrassment of riches. Welcome to the show.
WITMORE: Thank you.
PASTER: Thanks, Barbara.
BOGAEV: Okay, first I have to admit, I had to look up whether “embarrassment of riches” came from Shakespeare.
PASTER: And it doesn't.
WITMORE: L'Embarras des richesses.
BOGAEV: Why don't we start with a really basic question before we get to our wonderful passages. Because I don't think it is a forgone conclusion that you would look to Shakespeare for solace necessarily. I mean, do you both find yourself turning to Shakespeare in times of crisis, and if you do, what are you looking for?
WITMORE: Why don't you start, Gail?
PASTER: I go in my imagination, I think, to Shakespeare. That is to say, I don't really go to the books. But I go to my head. And in my head, I think of characters. I think of lines. I think of moments that give me pleasure, bring me good memories, and I think that's where I find the solace.
BOGAEV: In your memories? Oh, that's interesting. Mike, what are your thoughts?
WITMORE: Yeah, I think Shakespeare has actually got a pretty grim view of what human beings are capable of. So he might not be the first person you go to. But alongside that, there's a real hopefulness and a belief that the human imagination is something that ennobles us and lets us make a different world. Sometimes I think his realism probably makes us more successful primates, but it's the dreaming that he does that makes us really human.
BOGAEV: Oh, yeah. And you get both from it. I mean, I was thinking on a much more basic level, which makes sense. I think anyone who listens to this podcast has caught on that I am no Shakespeare scholar. And there are a couple things I was thinking that you wouldn't want to turn to something that you do professionally for comfort.
PASTER: Well, you know, one of my kids once said to me, "Mom, can't you turn it off?" And the truth is at a certain point, you just can’t.
BOGAEV: The Shakespeare.
PASTER: I mean, lines emerge in your head or they come out of your mouth without you're ever really even thinking.
BOGAEV: And Mike, I know you have a whole list of zingers, really.
WITMORE: Well… Yeah.
BOGAEV: What lines came to you?
WITMORE: I do have a list because when things get tricky or when it feels like we're living in another reality, I do think about Shakespeare. I can't stop, and 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.
WITMORE: But that's okay. I think Shakespeare gives us wonderful short verses of words that really spur us on. So if you want to hear some, I'll tell you about it.
BOGAEV: Oh yeah, yeah, hit us.
WITMORE: Sure. Okay, well, my first one is one of my favorites. "Action is eloquence.” Get going. You can do it and you should do it. So, now's the time. Another one…
BOGAEV: Okay, that's bracing. You carry that around with you as like kind of like a mantra for you?
WITMORE: Oh, I love that. Oh, I love eloquence because that's what Shakespeare was good at. But action makes the point. And now's the time for us to do things.
BOGAEV: Okay. I want to hear more.
WITMORE: So, let me give you a couple of others. These are what you would call commonplaces. In the Renaissance, people like me would have their own book and you'd write the short phrases under little headings. And you'd take those phrases and recycle them. I'm giving you more of my commonplace book.
Here's another one. "They do not love that do not show their love." I recall this one when I'm thinking, “Boy, there's no sense in keeping to yourself. It's time to connect. And don't be subtle. Great Shakespearean monosyllables. All right.”
BOGAEV: Oh, that really speaks to right now too. Yeah.
WITMORE: Yeah. It's time for us to show that we still think of each other.
PASTER: And at seven o'clock, you can bang your pot.
WITMORE: That's right.
BOGAEV: Or get on Zoom.
PASTER: To show your love. Show your love and thanks.
BOGAEV: Okay, I'm loving these short ones. What else?
WITMORE: Okay, I'm going to give you a couple more short ones. One of my favorites, this is from Troilus and Cressida. "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin." We're all human. Every one of us, but we share a common nature and this is what draws us together. I do feel like it speaks to my desire to feel like I'm in the boat with everybody else.
And then this is my favorite one I think, "Truth makes all things plain." “Truth makes all things plain,” does what it says. It's simple. It's direct, and so are the facts. And in this particular moment, we really do need facts. It's the thing we long for in addition to connection. So that's my favorite five word phrase for the thing we're experiencing now.
BOGAEV: Oh, I love that. I mean, facts in this case, they kind of buffet us. I feel myself buffeted on the winds of fact as they come at us. It seems like they're contradictory, but I also cling to them. And what else do we have? Gail, what are your favorite passages? What's hitting you?
PASTER: Well, one of them is kind of odd at this moment because it's the Duke in As You Like It. He says to his exiled band of courtiers, "Sweet are the uses of adversity." And in the play itself it comes off as sheer rationalization, but 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.
BOGAEV: Oh, that's beautiful. It's so interesting. Everyone has a different take and I'm thinking now let's hear some of the passages that our guests have sent us, because they also really run the gambit. Here's the first one.
[CLIP: Recording by Ian Doescher]
IAN DOESCHER: Hi, this is Ian Doescher, the author the William Shakespeare's Star Wars series and the Pop Shakespeare series. A quote from Shakespeare that has always brought me solace is from Hamlet, Act 5, where Hamlet and Horatio are speaking just before the duel with Laertes. Hamlet says to Horatio—he's talking about for accepting the things that are going to come his way no matter what they are…This is a quote that's been with me for a long time and I hope you enjoy it as well.
If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.
I hope that that brings you some solace during this time.
BOGAEV: Now that is a very famous passage, and there's a lot to be said about that. I think this is one of your go-tos, Gail. Is that right?
PASTER: It is absolutely one of my go-tos, and I think it's important to put it in the context of the play, which is that Hamlet has been trying to figure out what he ought to do: what his mode of action or inaction ought to be. He's been perplexed by the ambiguity that he sees in the world around him. Here, speaking to Horatio, is the moment where he says, "I accept the limits of my knowledge, and I bow to circumstance. And yet, I am ready for circumstance." To me, that's what I hug to my heart. I think “the readiness” says almost everything I want to say.
BOGAEV: I have nothing to add to that. It is both comforting and inspiring. Moving on, here's someone who's so well-known, I guess he barely needs an introduction. But I'll give it anyways. The long-time Royal Shakespeare Company member, and an actor who starred in a lot of films and television, including Masterpiece Theater’s I, Claudius… it's the lovely Sir Derek Jacobi. Here's what he sent us this weekend.
[CLIP: Recording by Sir Derek Jacobi]
DEREK JACOBI: This is Shakespeare’s Sonnet #30.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since canceled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I knew pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.
BOGAEV: I know. Wow. Great. And while he's reading…
WITMORE: That's the person you want to have reading to you.
PASTER: Yes. Yeah. Invite him to dinner. Get him over here.
WITMORE: Oh, lord. The way he hits that last couplet, which is a wonderful mixture of an argument and emotion together. And at that last two lines, as Derek read it, there's the moment that you think upon someone that you really care about, and you get this sense of something being restored. I think it's so touching.
PASTER: I think it's so perfect.
BOGAEV: It is. There's such a tenderness and a lightness in his presence.
PASTER: There's a real perfect uplift, you know. I mean, the trajectory of that sonnet is from a very dark place to liberation and release. There is a certain amount of wishing in that couplet, “All sorrows end,” but it still speaks so powerfully to the power of connection with one human being to another. I think that's what we need to take from it at this moment.
BOGAEV: Mmm, yeah. Allowing yourself to feel, despite all that. The line was hitting me differently than when I read this in the past. As he was reading the, “For precious friends hid in death's dateless night.” Dateless time.
WITMORE: Pure oblivion, right there.
BOGAEV: Yeah. He was very young when he wrote this.
PASTER: Oh, he was in his 30s, I would say. That sounds pretty young to me.
BOGAEV: Yeah. Yet he really knew death. I'm…
PASTER: Well, let's not forget that Shakespeare, like everyone who lived in England at that time, was well acquainted with periodic visitations of the plague. And the plague would… first of all, it would close the theaters. Second of all, it would confine everybody into the city. So he knew plague well, better than we.
BOGAEV: Have you been thinking of this sonnet in these past few weeks, either one of you?
WITMORE: You know, when I heard Derek read it, it reminded me of this… I wouldn't immediately have gone to it because it is so deep in the darkness of death. Only a really great performer can make those two last lines become a lift, but they really are.
BOGAEV: Well, we had Shakespeare scholar and writer, James Shapiro on the podcast not too long ago, and he also suggested to us a passage that is a very stark reckoning with death. He's not reading this, it comes from the Arkangel Shakespeare series, which you can find online.
Jim says that he finds himself recalling this next passage on a daily basis because he lives in New York, and he passes a refrigerator truck by a hospital on his daily masked walk past it. It's near his home. And he thinks of these lines from Cymbeline, which he finds strangely comforting.
[CLIP: “Fear no more heat o’ the sun” from Cymbeline]
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers come to dust.
Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant's stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The scepter, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.
Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renowned be thy grave!
BOGAEV: I get why Jim said he found these lines strangely comforting. I do love this active ending—the caring expressed in it. Mike, can you remind us what the context is for this in the play?
WITMORE: Well, it's actually a duet. It's delivered by two brothers who are actually royal princes… but they don't know that. So they live lives of rustic shepherds. This piece is delivered as a kind of a performance. It ends with a benediction. But the first part is really about the oblivion that comes from death, and the fact that death annihilates all forms of honor and achievement.
It's really interesting that in the end, it switches into this almost benediction, which says, “Go forth, fear no more, have no harm,” and that consummation at the end which is going to be peaceful is actually death. So this is a passage that would actually prepare you for more life, or for the end of life.
BOGAEV: Mmm. Gail, thoughts?
PASTER: Well, I think this is how we talk to the dead. This is how we both comfort ourselves by knowing what our loved ones—who may have been suffering before they died—what they are being spared from. “Fear no more.” And that the death—there's a kind of safety in death. And they are safe from harm. I think that the benediction is the benediction that we give to the dead when we consign them either to the afterlife or within ourselves, because they are safe from harm within ourselves.
BOGAEV: Oh, that is beautifully put. I mean, I was thinking along those lines in that you don't stop caring for your loved ones after they die. You still have this relationship. You still talk to them. But the benediction does give you some closure. It is so interesting what people find consoling. Let's listen to another one of our guests, director Iqbal Khan.
[CLIP: Recording by Iqbal Khan]
IQBAL KHAN: Hello, my name is Iqbal Khan, and I'm a theater director based in the UK. I've worked with the works of Shakespeare for most of my life. They have always provided consolation to me and do so now in these very difficult times.
However, the lines that give me particular comfort are often those that articulate hard-earned compassion in a world that's often inexplicably cruel. As in this extract from Lear. This is Lear talking to the blinded Gloucester.
If thou wilt weep my fortunes, take my eyes.
I know thee well enough; thy name is Gloucester.
Thou must be patient. We came crying hither;
Thou know’st the first time that we smell the air
We wawl and cry. I will preach to thee. Mark.
When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.
BOGAEV: That scene just slays me.
PASTER: It's really hard to talk about without choking up. I think what's important to remember here is the journey that Lear has been on. It's a journey from narcissism and self-pity where the only person he could feel sorry for was himself.
He comes face-to-face with a blinded Gloucester. Here is a moment of relatively few in the play, but this is a moment of great compassion and empathy. And we recognize the full force of this turn outward to recognize the suffering of another.
WITMORE: Yeah, it really is the Shakespearean journey, especially for older men where they have to make this transition from being self-absorbed to actually becoming undefended and connecting with someone else who has just a pure need. And that's certainly what Gloucester presents.
I really love the monosyllables, again. When Shakespeare uses those short words, he's saying something ultimate. And this idea that we're all born in the same circumstances, I think, is another one of those equalizing statements. That is what sickness and ultimately what death can do. But it's also what sympathy and empathy can do. It can put us all on a level.
BOGAEV: No, that's true. And most of us remember, I mean, the famous line is, “To this great stage of fools”, but it's the, “If thou wilt weep my fortunes, take my eyes.” The way Iqbal Kahn read that, oh.
WITMORE: Mmm. Oh yeah.
BOGAEV: What do you both think? Do you find yourself reading Lear when you are sad or facing hard times? What about you, Gail?
PASTER: You know, it's interesting. Charles Lamb said that the play was unstageable because it was so full of pain. I will say that every time I taught it, the pain in that play—which is overwhelming—just was born in upon me. It didn't make it hard to teach, but it is the most painful of the plays. You just need to recognize that agony and recognize that the agony doesn't really end at the end of the play.
And when Lear says, “What cause and nature makes these hard hearts,” and he's talking about Regan and Goneril… the answer this play gives you is kindness and cruelty are equally part of the of human nature; that we are as cruel—we are as capable of cruelty as we are of kindness.
BOGAEV: Right. And you have to stare both of them down. Mike?
WITMORE: Yeah, I think staring and staring both of them down is right. It's a godless play and, in a way, it shows that human beings—particularly our capacity for real sympathy and also just facing up to things—it is in a way the main show because we're alone out there on the plane. I'm sure there are other ways of reading the play, but for me, it's full of ultimates. And, actually, this is about the biggest dose of Lear that I would like right now.
PASTER: Because it's so tough. I think one of the things about Lear and one of the reasons that Shakespeare puts him out in the storm is that Shakespeare is really trying to draw a distinction between the suffering that you get from the natural world and the suffering you get at the hands of others. It's a very clear distinction in this play, and the worst is the worst we get from each other.
WITMORE: Yeah. That's right. One other thing to say about that passage is that a play like Lear shows that human beings are maybe most themselves when they're at their most extreme and it's these big trials that bring those extremes out. I do think that's part of what we're facing today.
BOGAEV: Well, if you'll forgive me, Mike, we do have another Lear quote, but it's a good thing that it's a positive one and it's strange that…
WITMORE: I told you I can't take it. I can't take it.
BOGAEV: Well as everyone says, Lear encompasses everything, but…
WITMORE: It does.
BOGAEV: This one is just strangely resonant in this quarantine time. And it comes from actor Fran Kranz. He was in Joss Whedon's Much Ado, and Casey Wilder Motts’ Midsummer Night's Dream, and also the Hollywood feature film, one of my favorite movies, Cabin in the Woods.
[CLIP: Recording by Fran Kranz]
FRAN KRANZ: Hello Shakespeare Unlimited and Folger fans. This is Fran Kranz. Today I've selected a passage from King Lear that I'd love to read. It's a favorite passage of mine and not only gives me comfort, but has come to mind many times in the last month and a half. I actually played King Lear in high school, and there was one passage in particular that, at the time, I felt like I never really connected with this moment of the play.
Later in life, you know, when I… well, when I became a father, and I remember I was speaking to a high school class and I got it all of a sudden. Then as a father, there's really nothing you'd rather do than be with your child. And in these difficult times under quarantine, finding the positive side of things can be challenging, but when you're home alone with your child, you're doing all that matters. So this is the passage I'm going to read, and enjoy.
No, no, no, no. Come, let's away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we'll talk with them too—
Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out—
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God's spies. And we’ll wear out,
In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by th’ moon.
BOGAEV: I love that Fran sent us this. I mean, he set it up so well and it really speaks to the fraught, the conflict of enjoying this time despite this horrible backdrop of suffering and pain and death. If you are lucky enough to have a home, and food, and family, and creature comforts because you feel guilty if you enjoy that, but really it's all that matters. Can I ask you, I love the line, “As if we were God's spies,” but I'm not sure what it means.
WITMORE: I think it means they're set up at one remove from the world and they're looking on, instead of being forced to act and live out the drama that they're seeing.
PASTER: There's a hard way to read this passage too, because he is so clearly kidding himself. Kidding himself, and Cordelia, in terms of their circumstances. So I think that there's a kind of a yin/yang in the passage, and probably, to be fair to the passage, we ought to acknowledge that.
BOGAEV: Yes, but you gave us license to take what we want from Shakespeare. Take away what we want—
PASTER: I did.
WITMORE: Because that is what we do.
BOGAEV: That's right. Although in the play, you're right. You feel like, “Oh, there's his delusion speaking. That's what's so heartbreaking.” Well, okay, that's enough Lear for everybody.
Moving on, one of our guests look to Shakespeare for, really…for a call to arms. Keith Hamilton Cobb created American Moor. It's a one-man show about a black actor auditioning for a white director who just… he just doesn't get it. about Othello and blackness.
[CLIP: Recording by Keith Hamilton Cobb]
KEITH HAMILTON COBB: I'm Keith Hamilton Cobb. When I was asked to contribute a piece of Shakespeare, I found it difficult because so much of the language of Shakespeare that is most attractive to me reflects the darkness of humanity and the human condition. And it is that darkness and human nature that I think has really contributed so much to creating a situation that we are all navigating right now. So I did not want to further contribute to that by reciting a dark piece. So I looked and looked and I found something that I think, ultimately, is about not hiding one's light under a bushel, but being proactive. Being big, being bright, being forward, thinking forward, moving, going out into the world and creating change for the good.
And that is from Troilus and Cressida—the piece I found. It is Ulysses speaking to Achilles in the Grecian camp. The situation is that Achilles has taken to his tent because he is jealous of Ajax. Ulysses goes to him and he says:
Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,
A great-sized monster of ingratitudes.
Those scraps are good deeds past, which are devoured
As fast as they are made, forgot as soon
As done. Perseverance, dear my lord,
Keeps honor bright. To have done is to hang
Quite out of fashion like a rusty mail
In monumental mock’ry. Take the instant way,
for honor travels in a strait so narrow
Where one but goes abreast. Keep, then, the path,
For Emulation hath a thousand sons
That one by one pursue. If you give way
Or hedge aside from the direct forthright,
Like to an entered tide they all rush by
And leave you hindmost;
Or, like a gallant horse fall’n in first rank
Lie there for pavement to the abject rear,
O’errun and trampled on. Then what they do in present,
Though less than yours in past, must o’ertop yours;
For Time is like a fashionable host
That slightly shakes his parting guest by th’ hand
And, with his arms outstretched as he would fly,
Grasps in the comer. Welcome ever smiles,
And farewell goes out sighing.
BOGAEV: You know, I've always thought of this passage that it's as if Shakespeare gave himself the writing prompt, “Don't rest on your laurels. Now go.” But Mike, maybe you can tell me what I'm missing.
WITMORE: You're getting a lot. I think that sometimes Shakespeare isn't writing with a motto in mind, but here there's an argument, and the main argument is “Perseverance keeps honor bright.” Keep doing the things that are the right things to do, even if it means that you're on a very, very narrow path. This is his Don't Let Up speech. I'm so glad that Keith picked it because it does require the energy and the drive of the speaker, and he delivered it well, but it also makes demands on us.
BOGAEV: Oh, now that is a really good message for now. Just a moment ago—a few moments ago, we heard from Fran Kranz. He was in director Casey Wilder Mott's Midsummer. Now we have this from Casey.
[CLIP: Recording of Casey Wilder Mott]
CASEY WILDER MOTT: Hi, this is Casey Wilder Mott. I directed an indie film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and I've chosen a passage from The Tempest. It's something that I really like in times of difficulty because… well, it speaks to, I think, the capacity for wonder and beauty to be in all things. So this is Caliban from The Tempest.
Be not afeared. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.
WITMORE: Oh, that's so poignant. It speaks to hope, but it also speaks to escape. His dreams are so rich that when he wakes up, he cries because he wishes he could dream again. And that resonates with me because I think there are moments when I really do just want to be taken away into a story and I don't want to read the news. I really want some other source of diversion, or some other source of insight.
PASTER: I think too that one of the things that makes this passage so hopeful and beautiful at this moment is that it's really hard not to experience the world as toxic. The moment we walk out our doors, we feel as if we're in a toxic place. What this passage reminds us of is how beautiful our world is. And even in a time like our time, in a moment of plague, we cannot—we should not forget that we live in a very, very beautiful world. That's what I think.
WITMORE: Oh gosh. Take what Gail said.
BOGAEV: I'm thinking that, here we are looking to Shakespeare in our time, but did people do this way back when? I mean, Mike, you started our conversation talking about commonplaces; that people will write down lines and quotes and maybe use them in their own writing or use them at dinner parties. But did you look to fiction—to literature for comfort, because wasn't that what the Bible was for, in religion?
PASTER: Well, that is what the Bible was for. If you were an Elizabethan in a difficult moment, you might have your little pocket copy of the Psalms. We have many beautiful copies at the Folger Library of little pocket psalters. And that's for your pocket. You put it in your pocket and when you have a quiet moment, you can pull it out and read a psalm and get some solace from that. You might look to theology. I mean, most of the titles in the rare book vault of the Folger Library are really books of theology. And that's where your comfort comes.
I think you might get it from poetry because one of my favorite copies of rare books in the library is the poetry of John Dunn. And at the very back there is an index of passages by topic: age, death, deaths, discipline, fortune, and with the page numbers of the poem that the writer wants to return to. What you would not do is go to the place of Shakespeare. You wouldn't go to anybody's place, I don't think. You might read the histories to read about your history, but I don't think you would go there for spiritual comfort. What we really have done, starting in the 19th century, really, is to have Shakespeare occupy the place in our souls, really, that the Bible also occupies. And sometimes Shakespeare replaces the Bible for us.
BOGAEV: Well, on a different tack, some of our friends of the podcast picked up on this theme of being isolated from each other and our means of making sense of the world; as in going to the theater, and going to movies, and group events, and culture. One of them is Lauren Gunderson. She wrote the play of The Book of Will, about the creation of the First Folio. She sent us something that speaks to this.
[CLIP: Recording from Lauren Gunderson]
LAUREN GUNDERSON: My name is Lauren Gunderson and I'm a playwright. The opening prologue to Henry V has been so much on my mind these days because of the way that Shakespeare enlists the audience into completing the story he's about to tell. He asks the audience to use their power of imagination and invention to complete the story, which we do all the time in the theater, but so much more now because that's the only way to give life to these plays in our separations.
Shakespeare asks us to directly put our creative minds to work to help him tell the story. I hear that as such an intimate direction now than I've ever heard it before. It makes me believe that all we need to do to have great theater is to have artist, audience and language.
O, for a muse of fire that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention!
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraisèd spirits that hath dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object. Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O pardon, since a crookèd figure may
Attest in little place a million,
And let us, ciphers to this great account,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high uprearèd and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder.
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance.
Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ th’ receiving earth,
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there, jumping o’er times,
Turning th’ accomplishment of many years
Into an hourglass; for the which supply,
Admit me chorus to this history,
Who, prologue-like, your humble patience pray
Gently to hear, kindly to judge our play.
BOGAEV: I love hearing that in isolation. I mean often I'm still kind of getting into my seat and getting into my Shakespeare head when you get to hit with that prologue in the theater, but here you can really dwell on it
PASTER: I think it really speaks to the fact that theater creates community. So to celebrate community, as Lauren just did, at a time when we're longing for community and we're missing community, we need to be reminded. As this passage, I think, really does remind us so powerfully of the part that we all play in the building of community.
BOGAEV: Yeah. And also, just our work. I mean, it's so many of us don't have our work and how that brings us back to ourselves.
We have another former guest, Ryan North, who sent us something that also relates to his craft. He's a writer. Let's listen.
[CLIP: Recording by Ryan North]
RYAN NORTH: Hi, I'm Ryan North and I am the author of two volumes of choose-your-own-path Shakespeare. One is called To Be or Not To Be, which is an adaptation of Hamlet obviously. The other is called Romeo and/or Juliet, and it is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.
I wanted to read to you a passage from Shakespeare that I always find comforting, and it's probably not for the reason you expect. So this is perhaps the most famous passage, which is the, "To be, or not to be," speech from Hamlet. What I love about it is how good it is, but also how bad it could have been. And we can see a taste of that. If you look at the “Bad Quarto,” or the first publishing of the play, which was probably a pirated version. It's really bad. So I'll read you the good version first, and you've heard it before. It goes like this.
To be or not to be—that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep—
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
Very familiar words, beautiful words. I find it comforting to know how bad they could have been, because we all start with bad words when we're writing. So here's the bad quarto version.
To be, or not to be, ay, there's the point,
To die, to sleep is that all? Ay all:
No, to sleep, to dream, ay marry, there it goes,
For in that dream of death, when we awake,
And borne before and everlasting judge
From whence no passenger ever returned,
The undiscovered country.
And we're already ahead of where the play actually gets in the good version. It's comforting for me to know that even Shakespeare can be bad, and that first drafts can be bad and we can get better—even though this wasn't a first draft. It’s just a knockoff, half-remembered version of his play.
For some reason, seeing the bad version makes me appreciate the good version even better. And I hope, you know, perhaps it's a bit on the nose, but seeing the bad version of reality right now will make us appreciate the good version when it comes back, and we can hug our neighbors again all the more. Thanks.
BOGAEV: Just… when we thought of the show, I never expected someone to send in Shakespearean schadenfreude. [LAUGHS]
WITMORE: I think a lot of people have actually memorized at least the first couple of lines of that speech. So it is one of those things we carry around with us. But I'm glad he pointed us to the both the good version and then the one from the so-called “Bad Quarto,” which really is… it's almost like a CliffsNotes summary of a very important argument about how we make decisions. Big ones like, “Do I stay and persist? Do I keep going, or do I just look into the future that I cannot really know?” You know, the future could be death, in which case all questions come to an end. And I think that's a real possibility in this speech.
But I think more generally it just talks about the fact that we really don't know what's next. Because of that, the heartaches and the shocks could come just from being alive one day after another. I do think Hamlet comes down on the side of persisting.
BOGAEV: Well, this is a good time, I think to play a selection from our guest, Molly Booth, because she chose something that speaks to really universal global uncertainty.
[CLIP: Recording by Molly Horton Booth]
MOLLY HORTON BOOTH: Hi, my name is Molly Horton Booth and I'm the author of Shakespeare inspired YA books, Saving Hamlet and Nothing Happened. I'm also the founder and artistic director of the LGBTQ-inclusive educational theater nonprofit Brave New Shakespeare.
I think one of the most difficult things about the coronavirus quarantine we're going through right now is the uncertainty. This is such a scary time and we all want to know when it will be over and how it will work out. So I'm going to read a passage from Shakespeare's comedy Twelth Night, that deals with a complicated situation.
In Act 2, scene 2, Viola has just discovered that she's in love with Orsino. Orsino is in love with Olivia, and Olivia is in love with her. This monologue ends in one of my favorite lines in all of Shakespeare. Viola realizes that she doesn't have control over any of it, and she just has to wait. This speech is always comforting for me, but I guess especially right now, so I wanted to read it and share it in hopes that it brings you some comfort too.
I left no ring with her. What means this lady?
She picks up the ring.
Fortune forbid my outside have not charmed her!
She made good view of me, indeed so much
That methought her eyes had lost her tongue,
For she did speak in starts distractedly.
She loves me, sure! The cunning of her passion
Invites me in this churlish messenger.
None of my lord’s ring? Why, he sent her none!
I am the man. If it be so, as ’tis,
Poor lady, she were better love a dream.
Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness
Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.
How easy is it for the proper false
In women’s waxen hearts to set their forms!
Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we,
For such as we are made of, such we be.
How will this fadge? My master loves her dearly,
And I, poor monster, fond as much on him,
And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.
What will become of this? As I am man,
My state is desperate for my master’s love.
As I am woman (now, alas the day!),
What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe!
O Time, thou must untangle this, not I.
It is too hard a knot for me t’ untie.
BOGAEV: I love this passage. It's a curious one.
WITMORE: What a great speech.
BOGAEV: Yeah. I mean, curious one to choose for this time. What do you guys think?
WITMORE: I love this speech. It's one of my favorite speeches in Shakespeare. You just imagine Viola emerging from the sea. She thinks she has lost her brother. She's in a new land. She has no idea where she is, and she has to improvise.
This is such a great speech and it captures the actual thought process of someone figuring out, “I really don't know how this will turn out.” And she concludes by saying, “I can't figure it out.” Soon she is in her new role. She's improvising. She's making choices without having all the information. And that is life, and it's really life now. I think that's why this speech is so good.
BOGAEV: Oh, that is wonderful. Why don't we stay with, not only this theme of uncertainty, but also in this place of love since we're winding down. That's the subject of the next quote that we have from Paul Werstine. And Gail, I think no one is more qualified to explain who Paul Werstine is than you. So take it away.
PASTER: Paul Werstine is the general editor of the Folger Shakespeare editions. He was the co-general editor with Barbara Mowat, who died in 2017. The two of them created this magnificent monument that we call the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions. He's a very distinguished Canadian textual scholar. He teaches at the university of Western Ontario and he is very brilliant.
[CLIP: Recording by Paul Werstine]
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O, no, it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
BOGAEV: I love that sonnet.
PASTER: Well, this of course is the sonnet that one hears at weddings a lot. I think that perhaps the reason Paul picked it is that one of the contrasts that the sonnet is built around is between what changes and what doesn't change. What the speaker wants to say is that there is a north star; there is an unchanging in the world and we can attach ourselves to it, and that is love. Love, “which does not alter when it alteration finds.” And I do think that in a time of tremendous uncertainty, being reminded of that which we can count on, and that is the love that we give and the love we receive is really an important thing to hang on to.
BOGAEV: Yeah, I think that's what really speaks to me from it now. That compassion, it's always necessary, but it's so much more necessary in a crisis that you just give that every extra inch because we're all under so much stress.
WITMORE: I love this sonnet because it says love has the capacity not to change, and people's feelings change and the world changes a lot. So this is a very special kind of love that the writer is tapping into. I think it's rare, even in the best of times.
BOGAEV: Well, this is so wonderful and comforting. I hate to think of this coming to an end, but we are coming to an end. Our last thought comes from our guests, Stephan Wolfert. Let's hear what he's been thinking and doing these days.
[CLIP: Recording by Stephan Wolfert]
STEPHAN WOLFERT: My name is Stephan Wolfert and I run the DE-CRUIT program that uses Shakespeare to heal trauma in fellow veterans—military veterans like myself. During this time we're teaching the online DE-CRUIT classes.
The passage we've been ending class with, after 90 minutes in isolation where we're disembodied heads on Zoom—and we were so often feeling like, as Antonio Damaso puts it, “Descartes’s Error,” and we are the epitome of Descartes's Error, being these disembodied heads—that we end with a positive statement of Shakespeare's, in his rhythm, while we're making contact with our own bodies and even seeing other people.
The passage we've been ending class with, so that after 90 minutes of sharing all of this, something to change our view perhaps about ourselves is three lines from Richard III, and it's just… it seems perhaps ironic, but it's just the lifted three lines, more about the change of reflection, because there's so much coming at us and we can feel so down. The passage is:
I do mistake my person all this while!
Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot,
Myself to be a marv’lous proper man.
And the reason I like that is because it changes… it's the obvious—it's changing our view. But it's been a really powerful passage to reinforce our 90 minutes together, and to carry through until the next time we see each other. To remember that we can view ourselves positively, as others see us in a positive frame.
BOGAEV: Mike, Gail, you are both marvelous, proper humans and I thank you so much for this. Also, thanks to all our contributors who took the time to record these messages and readings. And maybe Mike, you could you could take us out with the credits to our podcast. Thank you again.
PASTER: Thank you, Barbara. It was such a treat.
WITMORE: Thank you, Barbara. It was a great idea and it was really fun and I'm so glad that Gail and I could do the two-hander on this. It was just really great.
Our podcast, “One Thing to Rejoice and Solace In” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical assistance from Paul Luke and Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.
As always, if you're enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited and you want to tell people who don't know about it yet, please leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts.
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 in 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.