As You Like It - The New Cambridge Shakespeare book coverIn As You Like It, Shakespeare banishes all unhappiness, unless it springs from love.

The play follows a multitude of characters driven from a nobleman’s court to exile in the Forest of Arden, where they find refuge from the ambition, intrigue, envy, and striving of the world.

There a usurped Duke philosophizes on his new freedom; a lord tends his melancholy like a garden; and the clown Touchstone pursues his fooling to the edge of the sublime – but the show belongs to the misery and ecstasy of love and to the superlative Rosalind, mistress of all situations and persons except her own wild heart.

There are familiar Shakespearian tropes in As You Like It. The instantaneous and absolute way love conquers. The woman dressed as a man who hides from her love and is loved by the wrong person in turn. And the character who arranges events to create maximum drama, even as the audience is left wondering what motivates her manipulations.

No matter. The dialogue is superb. Rosalind bewitches men and women, on and off stage, in equal measure. And all ends happy in this most delicate of Shakespeare’s comedies.

Holy cow, he’s rich and handsome. Holy crap, he makes me horny. Holy Moses, he’s got a sex dungeon. Holy f*ck, he can f*ck. Holy sh*t, I have to sign this contract? Holy crap, he’s mysterious and tortured. Ouch! he’s spanking me. Oh, I like it. Holy cow, he loves me for me? Hey! he tied me up. Huh, I like it. Holy crap, I’m meeting his mother. Holy f*ck, he can f*ck. Holy sh*t, shocking personal revelations! Glider. IHOP. Flogger. Handcuffs. Holy crap, he plays the piano too. Such a nice boy. Holy cow, the love of a brave woman should fix any broken man. Ah … aah … aaahh … aaaahhh! … aaaaahhhh!!AAAAAAHHHHH!! 

Matisse Studio Poem

I marked / These reds / On this canvas / In a place and time / Now forgotten by all save / A few dry scholars. But these / Reds are proof of my living hand, / Colors as alive as the taste of warm / Wine in your mouth.

Literary Novels

Do you want to write a Literary Novel but don’t know how to start? Fear not!

Follow these 11 easy steps and you too can write a masterpiece of fiction

Soon, you will enjoy critical praise, fawning audiences, fancy cocktail parties, cushy academic appointments, prestigious fellowships, and modest sales. Does that sound good? Then let’s get it going!

Step 1 – Make your Literary Novel Serious

It’s the rare comic novel that joins the pantheon of literature. Comedy works in your favor if you excel at tragedy too (Shakespeare), if it is suffused with deep undercurrents of sadness (Chekhov), or if it comes with dazzling social insights (Austen). Otherwise, you are condemned to lightweight status no matter how blinding your brilliance.

Step 2 – Make your Literary Novel Sad

A corollary to Step 1. No one who is happy is a serious person. Happiness indicates you are entirely lacking in the basic insight necessary to be sad or that you have been hoodwinked by capitalism, the church, the NFL, Cosmo magazine, the makers of antidepressant medication, or the Republican party.

Step 3 – Make your Literary Novel characters Introverts

Extroverts don’t sit in rooms by themselves reading about other people’s lives. They are out in the world living their own lives. Always make your Literary Novel about your audience. Your audience is introverts.

Step 4 – Make your Literary Novel characters Introspective

A corollary to Step 3. Being an introvert doesn’t do you much good unless you are living your interior life more deeply, more consciously, and more fiercely than everyone else is living theirs. Passionate introspection and self-conscious brooding are to introverts what sky-diving and tech start-ups are to extroverts: high-status ways of demonstrating you are more successful than your peers.

Step 5 – Make your Literary Novel characters Hyper-articulate

A corollary to Steps 3 and 4. It doesn’t do you much good to live a passionate interior life if you can’t get the damn thing out of your head and into the world prancing around impressing people. So make your characters impossibly articulate especially in circumstances that should render them speechless, such as tumbling inside a fatal avalanche or porking the hottie of their dreams.

Step 6 – Make your Literary Novel Big

This is especially important if you are a male writer. Size definitely DOES matter to the male literary novelist and the bigger the better. You don’t want to be dangling some elegant slender volume praised for its jewel-like perfections when you are standing next to Jonathan Franzen, do you?

If you are a woman, you have it easier. You can say exactly what you want to say, in exactly the number of words you need to say it – and no more – and trust the intelligence and good taste of your readers to recognize your qualities. You should also trust you will hear a lot of sniffing about lady writers.

Step 7 – Make your Literary Novel Boring

Never make the mistake of entertaining the reader. You might accidentally become a popular success and popular success is for hacks. (Just ask Shakespeare or Twain or Fitzgerald or Nabokov or … well you get the point.)

The easiest way to make your Literary Novel boring is to assume that every passing thought you have is a rare gift to the world that must be shared. If you’ve ever used social media, this should be simple enough. Another easy way to bore the reader is to avoid plot. Be sure to let people know your book is deliberately boring by giving interviews in which you talk about subverting reader expectations or offering a stinging critique of the zombie-producing distractions of a debased all-for-profit culture.

Step 8 – Use Big Words in your Literary Novel

Hey, we coughed up forty bucks for the hardcover version of your frickin’ doorstop. We want our money’s worth. That means big words and lots of them. Even if they don’t quite work in the sentence.

Step 9 – Use Obscure References in your Literary Novel

A corollary to Step 8. One of the most important reasons people read Literary Novels is to look and feel smarter than people who don’t. Obscure references are essential to this process. So make sure you put in plenty. I mean, you do want to be the next Sirin right? (Did you get my reference? You did? Welcome to the club! You didn’t? Ha ha!)

Step 10 – Criticize Society in your Literary Novel

You should always criticize society in your Literary Novel as long as you are criticizing its insidious lack of liberal progress. Never criticize society for being too progressive. That is not literature!

Express outrage no one has fixed the problems you identify. Imply every problem would magically disappear if it weren’t for the malignant, soul-deadening, tyrannical machinations of the power elite. Do not make the mistake of offering solutions to the problems you see. Literary Novels are not in the solutions business.

Step 11 – Make your Literary Novel Difficult

This is the most important step of all. Your Literary Novel must be difficult to read. Remember, a truly original work of art is indistinguishable from a hot mess to its first audience. Further, no one is going to spend the time carefully reading an interminable and terminally boring new Literary Novel to figure out if it is a hot mess. They are going to play it safe and praise the book instead. This works great for you unless you really are a genius in which case, honey I’m sorry to tell you, you’re screwed.

That’s it! I look forward to your Literary Novel appearing in The New Yorker ten years from now. I did mention these bastards take a long time to write, and cause you unbearable suffering while you write them, didn’t I?


Instagram haiku 03

The wild air tumbles
the autumn leaves like hard seas
batter fragile boats.

With “coven mitts.”

“Texas” (Three Fragments)

Turbines tumble tumble through the hot air,
Like the wings of the archangels who chased
Night and chaos over the rim of the world in
The wrath of God’s creation, and came to rest
In the soft light of the first morning of Texas.

There today the light before light with everything
Quiet except for the birds screaming in the dim
Trees and your thoughts wandering after those
Who have died or who are serving overseas or
What you’re chasing and what it pays and why it’s
Necessary, before you rise and dress and in your
Car rushing rushing with all the rest eight lanes
Of impatience furious to eat the endless distance
Between bed and the towering diamond-blue glass
Fortresses of wealth, the office parks with graceful
Trees and glittering fountains, the new merchant
Plazas on the new black roads, the box stores, the
Strip malls wearied by sun and subsistence, the
Cinder-block workshops, steel-tooled and machine
Oiled, the trailer-offices squatting on the site of
New prospect or old defeat, ragged air appliance
Rasping out feeble cool against vinyl-metal heat,
The heavy industry fairie kingdoms cracking crude
To naphtha kerosene paraffin diesel sulfur and tar,
The glinting purgatories of health, the dingy rooms
Machine bedded and ravaged age, the grey cubicles
Of counseled grief, kitchen, corridor, laundry, house
Children, house children, house children, eight lanes
Of hunger blood throbbing through interstates and
Access roads, vivid desire and dull necessity in metal
Boxes rushing everywhere, life mind heart rushing,
Until day ends, retirement eases, or death comes to
Tally his final accounts.


Nature loves all her children hard, but she loves her
Texas children harder; sends them with a laugh and
A kick out the door to find something for supper.

This rich land will wrestle you, take your youth, take
Your strength, give you cash in cattle, cotton, corn,
Sorghum, and wheat. This hard red earth more scab
Than skin will yield hard living if scraped, pierced,
Worked in dust and heat, through relentless sun,
Asphalt fume, with truck and tool and no excuses:
No one to catch you if you fall and no one asking
To be caught.


There’s no fair fighting for our hard machines:
Time and earth will take them, concrete, circuit,
Polymer, steel, with one puff float all into endless
Mind, soft seeds blown from the dandelion head;
No fair fighting for our tender bodies, time frail,
Flesh blood bone souls man woman child, all
Floating, angels tumbling tumbling through the
Cooling air, the soft light, the last evening of Texas.

Thanks to Blast Furnace for publishing “Texas” earlier this year.

Benedict Cumberbatch HamletFor nearly four acts, Benedict Cumberbatch, starring in the National Theatre Live broadcast around the world yesterday, is the best adjusted – and best – Hamlet I’ve seen. That the production falls flat in Act V is a disappointment, but does not take away from the many accomplishments of this fine staging.

Any performance of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” succeeds or fails primarily on the strengths of its lead actor and Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is very good indeed. He fully and convincingly engages with all of the character’s emotions: Hamlet’s grief, his sorrow, his anger, and especially Hamlet’s humor which is the lightest and most sparkling of all the readings of the Danish prince I’ve seen.

This is the result of the intriguing choice of making Cumberbatch’s Hamlet extremely well adjusted, considering his circumstances. Hamlet is typically played as having been unhinged by grief over his father’s death, his mother’s quick remarriage, Ophelia’s rejection of his love, and the disturbing appearance of his father’s ghost. (It can be argued that the text demands this reading.)

This leads Hamlet to contemplate suicide and to embrace a half-madness which serves both to disguise the threat a sane Hamlet poses to his uncle’s stolen crown and to disguise the insane parts of Hamlet from easy recognition.

In Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, his madness is all tactic to confuse Claudius. This makes Cumberbatch’s “antic disposition” particularly playful and makes his Hamlet particularly likeable because the whinging, self-importance, and condescension frequently seen in the Danish prince are muted. It does mean, however, that Hamlet’s contemplations of suicide come off as passing thoughts, rather quickly forgotten.

Cumberbatch isn’t the only good performer in this National Theatre Live production. Ciaran Hinds is very good as a false, awkward, and cowardly Claudius unequal to the tasks of playing either the public or the private role of king. Sian Brooke’s is moving as an Ophelia whose vulnerability is evidence from the beginning of the play, and whose descent into madness is credible and heart-breaking. Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude manages to yell at top voice and convince us of her passion in her confrontation with Hamlet.

This is more than I can say for the actors playing Laertes and Horatio both of whom rely on volume when emotional connection with their roles seems to desert them. (Are bellowing Horatios the new style? It’s not a good style.) Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern are played for laughs and deliver. The Player King is meant to be a bad actor and succeeds competently.

Like most staging of most Shakespeare, the National Theatre Live production tries new things, some of which work and some of which don’t. The generally accepted version of Shakespeare’s “original” text has been edited more than usual, with many scenes moved around and lines traditionally spoken by one character often spoken by another. This emphasizes the elements of Hamlet the director seems to want to emphasize and works just fine until Act V (more on that in a minute). For many of Hamlet’s soliloquies, Cumberbatch steps out of the action of a scene and is isolated in a spotlight (very effective). There is at least one instance where the characters are running frantically around on stage while music pounds and strobe lights flash (this should be banned from the stage by statute). The duel scene is so rushed and hugger-mugger that it felt like Gertrude and Claudius were alive one moment and dead the next. When Hamlet is exiled to England, the stage is inexplicably filled with black dirt, a gimmick making pretense toward grand visual metaphor though exactly what the metaphor might be, who can tell?

Finally, there is the problem of the Cumberbatch Hamlet in Act V of the National Theatre production. Or rather the lack of problem. The foundation to Hamlet’s universal appeal is his struggle against a life whose pain and demands are more than he can bear, but whose alternative – death – is unappealing. Hamlet’s personal drama comes from his eventual philosophical acceptance of or passive resignation to this condition (take your pick), culminating in Hamlet’s conversation with Horatio that ends with the words, “Let be.”

Since Cumberbatch’s Hamlet bears up reasonably well under his pain and the task of avenging his father’s murder, he never gets to acceptance or resignation. He simply dies from the machinations of Claudius and Laertes, about as happy and unhappy as he ever was.

This does not detract from my forming conviction that Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is the best and most appealing I’ve seen on screen. Not to mention the sexiest. I hope the National Theatre makes this production of “Hamlet” available for streaming eventually. I’d like to see it again.


shakespeareThe simple answer to that question is “yes” if by “modern audiences” we mean anyone without a BA in English Literature or a natural taste for Shakespeare’s plays. The real question is what needs to be done about it.

The occasion of this question is Professor James Shapiro’s Op-Ed piece in the New York Times on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s decision to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English and the commitment of other companies to produce these versions.

As you might expect from a professor of English at an Ivy League school, Shapiro thinks this is a horrible idea. And I agree with the reasons why he thinks it is horrible. We will lose “hints of meaning and shadings of emphasis.” We will certainly lose the “music and rhythm” of the poetry. We will lose the “resonance and ambiguity.”

Professor Shapiro does concede that some of Shakespeare’s language is “difficult” which he qualifies with the word “deliberately.” Then he goes on to make a very particular argument, which is that the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our Shakespeare – and not in our audiences – but in our actors and directors who “too frequently offer up Shakespeare’s plays without themselves having a firm enough grasp of what his words mean.”

As proof of this thesis, Shapiro presents the example of a performance of “Much Ado About Nothing” at Rikers Island during which the inmates were “deeply engrossed” and “visibly moved”.

Well. I would expect that a Columbia professor would not make arguments in the Times featuring holes big enough to sail a New Panamax ship through but as is frequently the case in life, my expectations were disappointed.

On actors and directors lacking a “firm enough grasp” of Shakespeare’s words, the question is How does Shapiro know this? Has he administered a test to a representative group of actors and directors which reflects the critical consensus of the various professions concerned and which was constructed by psychometricians to ensure its validity?

As you can probably guess from the sarcastic tone of my question, the answer is “no” or Shapiro would have told us about his data. Which makes this statement an opinion though I suppose, based on the professor’s profile, an eminent one.

Opinions are fine of course, and many can be convincingly proven, but one anecdote doth not an argument make, as I would hope any professor teaching any subject at any college would realize, and one anecdote about one performance of one play is all Shapiro offers.

Further, we don’t know if the audience was truly “engrossed” and “moved” as Shapiro claims unless he conducted a survey of the inmates afterwards and like my hypothetical test above, didn’t bother to tell us about it. Otherwise, we are going on his perception, which may very well be correct. I certainly find it plausible that people in prison would respond to a play with great jokes and the suffering of a monstrously misaccused and slandered young woman.

Now Shapiro is surely right that a good performance of a play can make the text transcendent just as a bad performance of the same play can make the text opaque, ridiculous, and tedious. But it is both grossly unfair and grossly simplistic to lay the blame for all the difficulties with Shakespeare’s difficulty at the feet of actors and directors, who have the courage to go out night after night and risk spectacular failure before a live audience, all in pursuit of the elusive alchemy of the sublime.

The fact is that some of Shakespeare’s poetry is difficult to follow on first and second and sometimes third hearing to most people. That is often the nature of poetry. If Hamlet had nothing more to say than “Dude, life sucks” he wouldn’t be worth paying attention to once much less repeatedly. Shakespeare is full of archaic words and ideas and concepts and allusions and references which are simply unfamiliar to audiences 400 years later and not every line is like Hamlet’s “when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin” which is at least amenable to the actor producing a knife and holding it to his throat. (Whether this gesture works or is laughably literal is another matter.)

Finally, many of Shakespeare’s plays feature complicated plots with large numbers of characters that might take a person seeing the play for the first time a couple acts to sort out; and while Shakespeare could count on at least some people in his audience knowing enough about the War of the Roses to make sense of the stories of Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II, and Henry V easily enough, for example, you are only going to stumble across the occasional modern audience member who knows enough about English history to recognize the characters by name when they first walk on stage.

To put it succinctly in the contemporary vernacular, Shakespeare has a “Who the f**k is that guy and what the f**k is he saying?” problem.

When these issues are ignored or dismissed or denied or excused, as Shapiro largely does in his piece, the net effect is to limit the audience for Shakespeare to intelligent, well educated men and women with a fair amount of specialized knowledge. That is a model that may work to keep your lecture hall full at Columbia but I suspect it is not working for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. If it were, would they bother rewriting the plays?

Shapiro’s model also has the fault (or is it virtue?) of restricting the audience for Shakespeare to an elite minority. Now many of the members of the elite minority seem to like this situation just fine, and I know people who continue to reflexively dismiss anything popular long after they should have outgrown such pathetic adolescent posturing.

But if the job of teachers and performers includes introducing great works of art to new people – rather than just preserving them as exclusive objects of status for the privileged few – then the efforts of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival look rather noble, even if the results horrify folks like me and Shapiro.

After all, if lots of people see the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s modern language Shakespeare, and some of these people decide to try the real Shakespeare, and some of these come to love the real Shakespeare when they would not have come to love him otherwise – is that such a bad thing?


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