Star-Crossed: William Shakespeare and Vladimir Nabokov, Page 4
25 – Pale Fire: Between Timon and Lear
In a lecture he delivered at Stanford in 1941, Nabokov gives us a premonition of Pale Fire and of Kinbote’s link to Lear.
Nabokov asks us to imagine someone apparently unexceptional: “you happen to meet socially a person of perfectly normal aspect, good-natured although a little seedy, pleasant though something of a bore.” Then you find out that several years ago he was “placed by force of circumstance at the head of some great revolution in a remote, almost legendary country, and that a new force of circumstance had soon banished him to your part of the world where he lingers on as the mere ghost of his past glory.” Your initial impression of banality heightens the double-take, your startled alertness to his consequence: “Immediately, the very things about the man that had just seemed to you humdrum (indeed, the very normality of his aspect) now strike you as the very features of tragedy.” Nabokov then makes the Lear comparison explicit. “King Lear, Nuncle Lear,” he says, “is even more tragic when he potters about the place than when he actually kills the prison guard who was a-hanging his daughter.”
Much of Nabokov’s audience at the time would have understood that the modern Lear he had in mind was Alexander Kerensky. Kerensky’s life and Nabokov’s were intertwined. Kerensky was one of the Russian leaders who, in 1917, carried out the first stage of the country’s revolution. The Tsar was deposed, and Kerensky became the head of Russia’s new Provisional Government in July. He held power until he was overthrown in the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. Nabokov’s father, V. D. Nabokov, was the Provisional Government’s Secretary of State. Cofounder of the Constitutional Democrats in Russia, he supported European-style democratic liberalism. After he left Russia with his family, he died in 1922, in an incident that would send another crucial set of reverberations coursing through Pale Fire. A Russian fascist with Monarchist leanings attempted to assassinate one of V. D. Nabokov’s political opponents. With remarkable courage, V. D. Nabokov attacked the assassin, and was shot by the assassin's accomplice. Nabokov would draw on the murder for John Shade’s death, which in Pale Fire occurs on July 21, the date V. D. Nabokov died. Convinced that he was once the king of the fantastic country of Zembla, Kinbote thinks an assassin, Gradus, was sent to kill him in America and accidentally killed Shade instead. A more likely possibility, though far from the only one, is that an escapee from a mental institute, Jack Grey, shot Shade while confusing the poet with the intended victim: the local judge who had sentenced Grey to the institute.
Though Nabokov didn’t follow his father into politics, the Nazis ensured that his future would continue to move in step with Kerensky’s. For many years, Kerensky and Nabokov belonged to the complexly interwoven Russian émigré circles in Europe. By 1940, both men were in Paris. Both then left Paris for the U.S. that same year, on separate trips. Then in 1955 Kerensky became an academic at Stanford, the same place where Nabokov had given his Kerensky-tinged lecture on tragedy. Kinbote’s dubious history as a deposed leader banished to America, “where he lingers on as the mere ghost of his past glory” as a university professor, was partly an outgrowth of Nabokov’s earlier stylization of Kerensky. Since at least 1941, Kerensky had been in Nabokov’s thoughts as a potential Lear figure.
So is Kinbote a Lear of the States? Not quite. Kerensky’s resemblance to Lear is much greater than Kinbote’s is. Really, Kerensky is to Kinbote as Lear is to Timon. Timon is, famously, Lear’s lesser echo. He’s Lear shrunk to a shriller, shabbier misanthropy. He’s also the main character in a play that poses many of the same textual and authorship issues that Pale Fire poses. We still argue about the degree of Shakespeare’s participation in Timon, and we still worry about the corruption of the text, which seems to be unfinished. And while Lear clings to Nabokov’s conception of Pale Fire, still Timon is the source of the novel’s title. Speaking to some bandits, the embittered Timon says: “Like workmen, I’ll example you with thievery.” The examples include the sun stealing from the sea, the moon stealing from the sun, the sea stealing from the moon: “The sun’s a thief, and with his great attraction / Robs the vast sea. The moon’s an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun. / The sea’s a thief, whose liquid surge resolves / The moon into salt tears.” It’s the moon’s theft from the sun that contains the words “pale fire.” The theft is a reflection, a mirroring, the pale fire of the moonlight that the sunlight makes possible, like the waxwing flying against its reflection in the Shades’ window. But Timon doesn’t place the emphasis on the reflection. He places it on the thievery. The world steals its sustenance from shit: “The earth’s a thief / That feeds and breeds by a composture stol’n / From gen’ral excrement.” The theft is inescapable, innate. “Each thing’s a thief. / The laws, your curb and whip, in their rough power / Has unchecked theft.” Our relationships with others are theft, and anything we steal will be stolen in turn. “Love not yourselves; away, / Rob one another. There’s more gold; cut throats, / All that you meet are thieves. To Athens go, / Break open shops; nothing can you steal / But thieves do lose.”
But what’s the thievery in Pale Fire? Is Kinbote stealing from Shade? Is Shade stealing from Kinbote? Shade’s poem might really be Kinbote’s poem. Kinbote’s commentary on the poem might actually have been written by Shade. Brian Boyd has provided the fullest explication of the puzzle. Nabokov’s Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery brings the novel’s semi-concealed ghosts to the fore. “Shade composes his poem, dies, and then helps Kinbote orchestrate his Commentary,” Boyd writes. “Behind her father’s life, and before his death, his dead daughter, with help from his dead parents, inspires both Kinbote’s Zembla and through it the controlled convolutions of her father’s poem.” Nabokov’s presence as the overall creator is also considered: “Beyond them all, Nabokov determines the patterns of their world, precisely because he in turn suspects that something beyond him shapes his world and ours.” Boyd’s case is strong, backed up by an exceptionally thorough reading of the book. But it’s not exclusive, and hasn't foreclosed further interpretations. Recently, for instance, Tiffany DeRewal and Matthew Roth have come up with a convincing new theory, “which posits that Kinbote is a secondary, semi-autonomous personality of John Shade -- a personality that arrives on the scene via John Shade's 'heart attack' and finally succeeds in becoming the primary personality at the moment of John Shade's demise on the evening of July 21, 1959.”
Hamlet, as many critics have pointed out, also refers to pale fire. At the end of his meeting with his son, the Ghost announces his departure: “The glowworm shows the matin to be near / And ’gins to pale his uneffectual fire.” The reference to the Ghost supports the view of Pale Fire as a novel devoted to the influence of the afterworld. The Ghost’s qualification of the morning light as “uneffectual fire” recalls his assertion that he must go back to the fires of purgatory during the day. The daylight fire is especially pale and feeble next to the fires of his punishment. He will be confined in those fires “Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purged away.” For the Ghost, “pale fire” conjures the agony he endures for his sins. Kinbote suffers over the past, over failures he can’t forget. Shade suffers too, from his guilt over his daughter’s suicide, and from something less definite, something so intimate he can’t make out what it is. “The wonder lingers and the shame remains,” he says in Canto One, discussing his mystical childhood swoons, when he would feel “distributed through space and time.” The ghosts in Pale Fire imply some larger and more unbearable exposure to shame and remorse, to the despair that, Nabokov has said, will make Kinbote kill himself once the commentary is done. Does the exposure have something to do with the sharing of guilt, the reflection of one person’s suffering in another’s knowledge? The moon steals its pale fire from the sun, and the sea then steals from the moon. The dead reflect the pain of the living, the living reflect the pain of the dead, and the sea takes and resolves the essence of these reflections, the pale moonlight. The afterlife, in Pale Fire, might be Timon’s sea of salt tears, surging with awareness of everyone’s pain.
26 – Daughter in Arms: Pericles and the Late Plays
Pericles is one of the most enjoyable of the late works, though obviously the verse in The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest is quite a bit better and more consistent. A great popular success in its time, Pericles pulls out all the stops in pleasing the audience. It’s easy to believe that Shakespeare collaborated with other writers on the play. Pericles stands many ledges below the cliff-tops of Shakespeare’s greatest art, but it’s effective theater, starting with the decision to make Gower the chorus. Gower’s 14th Century Confessio Amantis is one of the sources for Pericles, and his prologue announces the relaxed, elegiac air that blows through all the late romances: “To sing a song that old was sung, / From ashes ancient Gower is come, / Assuming man’s infirmities, / To glad your ear and please your eyes.” Gower steers us toward a pleasantly archaic, myth-colored world, all grand flourishes and insistently implausible plot twists. Yet we’re no longer being thrown into the middle of the storm with Lear, or fired directly into Hamlet’s confusion and despair. We stand slightly apart from everyone, and see the events from a more appreciative distance, from the perspective of someone who’s perhaps happy just to be alive. Loss here is mellowed by redemption, and redemption is darkened by loss.
The prologue gives way to the horror-story scene of Pericles trying to guess the riddle to win the daughter of Antiochus. As he faces Antiochus, Pericles is surrounded by the heads of the other men who have sought to make the daughter their bride. “Here they stand martyrs,” Antiochus says, “slain in Cupid’s wars; / And with dead cheeks advise thee to desist / For going on death’s net, whom none resist.” The play’s pervasive father-daughter theme starts with the most destructive perversion of parenthood, the incest between Antiochus and his child. Antiochus is a Humbert with the power to kill his rivals, to punish the men who desire the daughter he molests. He beckons her suitors so he can slaughter them and mount their heads in his court. The riddle he poses can’t be answered without inviting execution. The failure for guessing incorrectly is death; before Pericles, nobody has realized that incest is the puzzle’s solution. Yet Pericles isn’t rewarded for being smarter than his competitors. Once he has divined the truth, he realizes that Antiochus will be determined to kill him.
To survive, he runs away. Eventually he marries another king’s daughter, Thaisa. Then Thaisa and Pericles are on a ship together when the storm comes that breaks up their family. As the ship is battered by wind and water, the pregnant Thaisa goes into labor. Pericles believes she dies giving birth to the child. He agrees to have Thaisa’s body placed in a chest and thrown overboard, to prevent the ship from being cursed. Nobody realizes that Thaisa is still alive, unconscious inside the floating chest. Worried that his newborn daughter won’t survive further perils at sea, Pericles leaves her in the care of the governor of Tarsus. Husband, wife, and child are separated, and must slowly find their way back to each other.
The second half of the play places the lost daughter, Marina, at the center of the drama. In a reprise of her father’s experience with Antiochus, Marina must flee a ruler who wants to destroy her. Dionyza, the wife of the governor of Tarsus, resents Marina’s personal magnetism and beauty, which greatly outshine the qualities of the governor’s daughter. Dionyza arranges for Marina’s murder. Though unaware of what awaits her, Marina knows the general precariousness of her position: “Born in a tempest when my mother died, / This world to me is a lasting storm, / Whirring me away from my friends.” A band of pirates, the same stock characters who perform a similar plot function in Hamlet, kidnap Marina and save her from her death. Dionyza, however, believes the murder has gone forward. She tells Pericles his daughter is dead.
The pirates sell Marina to a brothel. This is when she fully emerges as a young woman of startling intelligence and authority. The virtuoso scene in which she talks a nobleman out of sleeping with her is a direct inversion of Richard III’s seduction of Lady Anne. Just as Richard astonishes us with his eloquence in bringing Anne to accept him, Marina astonishes us with her eloquence in bringing the nobleman to leave her alone. The scene then goes even further. Boult, a servant in the brothel, is ordered to rape Marina and end her resistance to becoming a prostitute: “Boult, take her away; use her at thy pleasure. Crack the glass of her virginity, and make the rest malleable.” But once again Marina uses reasonable, poetic argument to turn Boult around. She convinces him that, in raping her, he would demean himself, make himself the slave and prostitute of the master who orders him to do the rape. In being the servant to a pimp, he is the prostitute’s prostitute, the slave’s slave, without even the excuse of being forced to the lowness of his position: “Thou hold’st a place, for which the pained’st fiend / Of hell would not in reputation change. / Thou are the damned doorkeeper to every / Coistrel that comes inquiring for his Tib; / To the choleric fisting of every rogue / Thy ear is liable; thy food is such / As hath been belched on by infected lungs.”
His vanity stung, Boult is at least minimally receptive when Marina makes a practical proposal to help him act in a less ignoble fashion. She says she can earn more money for the brothel by being a teacher than by being a prostitute, and she pays Boult gold (from the nobleman) as an incentive for him to present the proposal to his master. “Here,” she says, “here’s gold for thee. / If that thy master would gain by me, / Proclaim that I can sing, weave, sew, and dance, / With other virtues, which I’ll keep from boast; / And I will undertake all these to teach. / I doubt not but this populous city will / Yield many scholars.” Boult asks: “But can you teach all this you speak of?” Marina answers that the brothel will lose nothing by giving her proposal a try, since she can always be brought back if she fails: “Prove that I cannot, take me home again, / And prostitute me to the basest groom / That doth frequent your house.” An efficient bargainer, she insists on only one point, but it makes all the difference. As a teacher, she says, she must be placed among women of good reputation, so her own reputation will have some initial credibility. Gower, as chorus, then informs us of the success of her maneuver. She has pulled off something remarkable. She has reasoned her way out of being raped and prostituted, and won the right to earn her living through her knowledge and her abilities.
Marina’s triumph is a fantasy, of course. Shakespeare had two daughters, Susanna and Judith, and Marina's brothel scene has always struck me as a father’s fond and somewhat stubborn act of wish-fulfillment. It’s a fantasy that’s likely to have special appeal for those of us with young daughters of our own (mine are in preschool), because it predicts a world we’ve already seen taking shape around us. Marina’s victory is a premonition of feminism, a forceful vision of a society where a woman can demand the rights she deserves. The victory is, however, very much a father’s idea of feminism, with a father’s inherent blindness built into it. Marina is de-sexed, protected from prostitution maybe less out of the author’s enthusiasm for women’s rights than out of his desire to cut her off from sexuality altogether, to suspend her in permanent childhood. Still, we don’t need Shakespeare to conform to all our beliefs, or to achieve some sort of invincible ideal as a modern role model. We don’t love Shakespeare because he’s perfect. We love him because his grasp of our imperfections helps give us the energy to do better, helps return us to our lives with greater insight and enthusiasm. I never come away from Hamlet or Antony and Cleopatra or The Winter’s Tale discouraged or cynical. I come away excited about how, in our flaws, our cruelty, our silliness, our stupidity, we still have what Shakespeare has in such bounty: the instinct to push further, to try harder. Shakespeare makes us feel -- and it’s a feeling more than an idea -- that our weaknesses are one source of our strength. There might be more value in our failures and follies than we’ve ever quite understood. We might find more inspiration in our disasters and despairs than in our impulses to justify our partial successes as awesome achievements, our self-serving certainties as absolute truth.
Pericles is a crude work compared to the fine-spun splendor of The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, or even compared to the earthier accomplishment of Cymbeline. This is another point of contact with Nabokov. In Ada and Transparent Things and Look at the Harlequins!, Nabokov takes off on his own drift into the sky. He severs his former attachments to the strong, pressing details of Berlin parks, Russian bicycle tracks, Cambridge goalies, bald Parisian dolls, trim New England lawns. With death beginning to approach, with the author apparently more interested in mortality and recollection than in gathering fresh information, the ghostliness buried beneath the thick strata of Lolita or Pale Fire begins to float up and dematerialize the characters. A related dematerialization seeps into The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, divesting them of immediacy but compensating us with a bittersweet haziness, a lovely dissolution. The farewell that Pisanio portrays in Cymbeline might be the summation of all of Shakespeare’s farewells: “he did keep / the deck, with glove, or hat, or handkerchief, / Still waving, as the fits and stirs of’s mind / Could best express how slow his soul sailed on, / How swift his ship.” Ariel, in The Tempest, offers Prospero wraithlike pleasures, “be’t to fly, / To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride / On the curled clouds.” Prospero more or less controls the action on the island. “It goes on, I see, / As my soul prompts it,” he says. But the action itself is flimsy and faint, and the island is strangely immaterial. Even its physical qualities are different for different observers. “Here is every thing advantageous to life,” Gonzalo says. “True,” Antonio replies, “save means to live.” In his satisfactions as much as in his disapprovals, Prospero is past any real engagement with the world. The match between Miranda and Ferdinand pleases him, but distantly. “So glad of this as they,” he admits, “I cannot be, / Who are surprised with all.” Prospero doesn’t resent the insubstantiality and subjectivity of life's cloud-like qualities in the way that Antony does. Prospero yields to those qualities, submits to dispersion, to “the baseless fabric of this vision” with its “cloud-capped towers,” where all the actors are “melted into air.”
The Winter's Tale is less overtly fantastic than The Tempest, but it holds us at an even greater remove from its characters. It gathers up some of the most violent emotions of the earlier plays: Othello's jealousy, and Lear's unfounded rage at Cordelia. Leontes, however, is given many years to regret his anger and its consequences. The play doesn't build toward death. It builds toward forgiveness. Even so, the moment when the statue of Hermione comes to life, closing out the long period of mourning for Leontes, is stylized and formal, closer to dance than to traditional drama. The emotions involved are less important than the transformation of the characters' feelings into magic, ritual, pattern. And yet The Winter's Tale isn't cold. Its beauty derives from the paradoxical warmth of its detachment, the sympathy that somehow resides in its aloofness. Leontes is presented without sentimentality but also without contempt. He must endure the knowledge of how he has wrecked his life and the lives of the people he has loved, and even his best memories of Hermione are always mingled with his remorse. In looking back on his past, he finds that his sadness contains his happiness, and his pleasures hold his guilt. “Whilst I remember / Her and her virtues I cannot forget / My blemishes in them,” he says. Part of his family comes back to him eventually: his lost wife and his lost daughter. But his son is gone forever, and the years of desolation can never be reclaimed. As Leontes leads his wife and child away with him, he can't forget the damage he has done to his family, “the wide gap of time since first / we were dissevered.”
27 – Tesla in Ada and Pale Fire
Nikola Tesla invented the alternating current electrical system, the system that has made it possible for ordinary people to use electricity for their everyday activities. Born to a Serbian family and raised in what is now Croatia, Tesla was famous as both a genius and an eccentric. His life has a number of things in common with Nabokov's, and a number of things in common with John Shade's. It also casts an interesting light -- an electric light -- on the whole of Ada, in which the absence of electricity is an important topic.
Nabokov definitely knew Tesla's work. It would've been unusual if he hadn't. From the time Tesla created the first major hydroelectric power station at Niagara Falls in 1896 until his death in 1943, he was one of the most famous inventors in the world. A reckless self-promoter, he loved to tease the press with outlandish statements about how he was going to revolutionize society with limitless energy taken from the electromagnetic currents of the earth and sky. His brilliance shaded into craziness, his craziness into nonsense. He talked about plans to create electric devices that could eliminate any target anywhere, and he claimed he could, if he chose, destroy the world through the misapplication of electricity. The Waltz Invention, one of Nabokov's Russian plays, is plainly based on Tesla's military boasts. Waltz offers a totalitarian government a device that, like Tesla's death-ray, can effortlessly wipe out an entire mountaintop at a single stroke.
But the more interesting Tesla connections start with Pale Fire. Tesla published his autobiography in 1919. It's a short book, and covers many subjects that come up in John Shade's poem. Shade suffers from childhood visions, moments when he seems to fall out of ordinary reality and into a state where he feels connected to the universe. Tesla also had mystical childhood visions, attacks that would come over him the whole time he was growing up. Gifted with synaesthesia (as Nabokov was), Tesla could imagine objects in three dimensions, could see his mind's projections as if they were physically present. The ability was helpful for his engineering work but also sometimes made it hard for him to tell whether he was encountering reality or an especially vivid spasm of his imagination. Moreover, Shade's skeptical but obsessive interest in spiritualism after the death of his daughter is very much like Tesla's skeptical but obsessive interest in spiritualism after the death of his mother. On the night his mother died, Tesla had a vision of her coming toward him. At first he believed it was a genuine encounter with her ghost. By the time of his autobiography, however, he wrote that he had developed a simple physical explanation for the encounter: he had seen a painting that put the idea of her ghost in his head, and his hyper-vivid imagination and a high fever had done the rest. In trying to find a way to reach his dead daughter, Shade conducts his own investigation into spiritualism and ghosts. He has what seems to him a vision of the afterlife, and thinks the vision is confirmed by a newspaper account of another woman's vision. Later, he finds that the key point of resemblance between her vision and his was a mistake, a misprint in the article. Yet the move from belief to skepticism isn't the end of the process, either for Shade or for Tesla. Pale Fire is haunted by ghosts, real or imaginary, long after Shade rejects most mysticism as a fraud. By the time of Tesla's death, it was well-known that he had never given up his interest in séances and his attempts to communicate with the dead. His skepticism, like Shade's, could never quite stop him from going back to spiritual interests that he worried were a form of self-delusion. Pale Fire seems to make use of the extreme combination of brilliance and crankery in Tesla, his fusion of a Shade-like creator and a Kinbote-like madman in a single person. And just as it's never clear what the relationship is between the genius and the lunatic with Shade and Kinbote, it's never been clear what the relationship is between the genius and the lunatic in Tesla.
Tesla worshipped electricity, and made elaborate claims for it. He felt it was the secret to life, the key force in the universe. It's a notion that Shade adopts. Electricity in Pale Fire is presumed to have some special connection with the dead, to maybe even embody their spirit. Kinbote's commentary contains a poem by Shade that states: “The dead, the gentle dead—who knows?— / In tungsten filaments abide, / And on my bedside table glows / Another man's departed bride.” Shade says that Shakespeare's electrical spirit possibly “floods a whole / Town with innumerable lights, / And Shelley's incandescent soul / Lures the pale moths of starless nights.” Electric light also figures in Hazel Shade's nighttime barn investigations, which might or might not reveal something about the afterworld.
In Ada, the long novel that Nabokov published in 1969, electricity offers a clue to the hell of the story's environment. If electricity is somehow representative of or necessary for the spirit, the absence of electricity might be a spiritual catastrophe. Ada supposedly begins after something called the L disaster, which stands for “electricity disaster.” The novel never explains what the L disaster involved, but the world in which the story is set, Antiterra, was struck by some awful event in which electricity played a major part. Electricity is largely banished from Antiterra now, and either the L disaster was responsible for removing electricity from the world or for making electricity so terrible that nobody wants anything to do with it anymore. Antiterra is, as its name suggests, an Earth that has been reversed against itself, and Tesla used to talk vaguely about splitting our planet in two with his electrical knowledge. Somehow this has happened in Ada, and the characters are all banished to a world without electricity, a world without the spirit or life that electricity carries. Antiterra is a soulless place, based largely on cruelty, the absence of mercy or pity. Despite some superficial beauties, Antiterra is grotesque and monstrous, and the absence of electricity has something to do with its horrors.
I've always assumed that Ada's science fiction and fantasy elements are a screen for something else. I doubt we're supposed to take Antiterra seriously as an alternate world, just as I doubt we're supposed to believe in Kinbote's Zembla, which might be his warped reconfiguration of Russia. Van Veen is in his late nineties when he's writing Ada, and maybe Antiterra and the entire story derive from his senility or his final mental breakdown, the hell of his guilty conscience. So whatever Antiterra is, and whatever the meaning of the absence of electricity, the Tesla influence is probably not literal but suggestive, not a pseudo-rational explanation but a poetic evocation clothed as science.
Van's guilt revolves largely around his mistreatment of Ada's sister, Lucette. Brian Boyd, with his usual intelligence, has written extensively on Lucette in the second volume of his Nabokov biography. One of his points is that Ada and Van are so narcissistic they don't let us see how cruel they're being to Lucette until it's too late to save her. The novel's final paragraph, Boyd notes, invokes Lucette's death and the mistreatment she endured as a girl with Van and Ada. The connection is made through the mention of “a pretty plaything stranded among the forget-me-nots of a brook.” I would only add that the sentence continues with a brief but noteworthy allusion to “The Rape of Lucrece,” Shakespeare's early narrative poem. Nabokov offers a last example of pictorial detail: “a doe at gaze in the ancestral park.” In “The Rape of Lucrece,” Shakespeare enters Lucrece's mind after she has been raped, and compares her to a deer at gaze. Her thoughts are suicidal, and parallel Lucette's thoughts when she kills herself on the ocean cruise with Van: “As the poor frightened deer that stands at gaze, / Wildly determining which way to fly, / Or one encompassed with a winding maze, / That cannot tread the way out readily, / So with herself is she in mutiny, / To live or die which of the twain were better / When life is shamed and death reproach's debtor.” Lucette is a doe rather than a deer to make the connection to her clearer by stressing that the deer is feminine. (Nabokov did something like this in Lolita, when he changed Poe's “kingdom by the sea” to “princedom by the sea” in recognition of Humbert's youth.) The doe at gaze is Nabokov's method of directing us toward the pain of Lucette's death, as she tries to determine what to do, and can't find her way out of the winding maze of her emotions.
28 – Darker by the Lightning Flash: Edward III and the Fletcher Collaborations
Of the three late-career collaborations that Shakespeare is thought to have done with Fletcher, the most interesting is also the most elusive. Cardenio is taken from a more-or-less detachable section of Don Quixote: a protracted love story that basically excludes both Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. It's not clear, though, if we have the play in anything even vaguely resembling its original form. In 1728, Lewis Theobald claimed to publish a “revised and adapted” version of Cardenio, which he called Double Falsehood. Since 2010, the Arden series has cautiously included Double Falsehood as part of the Shakespeare canon. The Arden editor, Brean Hammond, expresses sensible doubts about the authenticity of Double Falsehood. Even if he didn't, though, the Theobald version is disappointing, and pales next to what Cervantes did with the story. (Should Arden have published Double Falsehood? Absolutely, especially since Hammond has done such a terrific job of presenting all the authorship evidence. In addition, Hammond's discussion of Theobald's rivalry with Pope is wonderful, and much more interesting than the play.) The other two generally accepted Shakespeare-Fletcher collaborations, Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, are mixed bags. It's nice that Shakespeare was able to round out his histories by bringing us up to the birth of Elizabeth. Also, I'll always have a soft spot for any play that allows the bizarre Thomas Cranmer to take the stage. But Henry VIII is another disappointment. It's like one of those albums middle-aged rock groups produce in an effort to recapture the sound of some classic disc from their past. The play is too self-conscious, both in repeating some of Shakespeare's old hits (the plotting behind Buckingham's arrest for treason) and in straining for something new (Wolsey's claim of “a still and quiet conscience” in his conversation with Cromwell).
The Two Noble Kinsmen, on the other hand, is a much more successful return to one of Shakespeare's earliest themes: the conflict between love and friendship. The play matches up not only with The Two Gentlemen of Verona but also with A Midsummer Night's Dream. Fletcher and Shakespeare pick up right after A Midsummer Night's Dream leaves off, with the wedding procession for Hippolyta's marriage to Theseus. Arcite and Palamon are the story's main characters. They're cousins, young men, aspiring to the mature and tested friendship of the older Theseus and Pirithous. Emilia is the woman Arcite and Palamon both love: eventually the two men face each other in a tournament for her hand. The outcome is unexpected and moving. Arcite wins the fight. Palamon is about to have his head cut off for his defeat. Then the announcement comes that Arcite has been seriously injured. He has been thrown from his horse. It's a jolt of pure chance, and it jars us much as Charlotte's car accident does in Lolita. Arcite dies while blessing the relationship between Palamon and Emilia. Palamon laments: “That we should things desire, which do cost us / The loss of our desire! That nought could buy / Dear love, but loss of dear love!” Many of us have had friends or loved ones who died unexpectedly early, and The Two Noble Kinsmen captures some of the haunting strangeness of that experience, the discovery that someone you expected to know and care about for years to come is abruptly and permanently gone.
One other potential Shakespeare collaboration should be mentioned. First printed anonymously in 1596, Edward III is often considered to have a better claim to authenticity than Double Falsehood does. Intriguingly, Edward III contains an echo or prefiguring of Sonnet 94, “They that have power to hurt.” Kyd is thought to have been Shakespeare's most likely collaborator on the play, which concerns the period before Richard II. Edward was crowned in 1328. Much of the early part of the play addresses his attempts to control the fighting along the Scottish border, and his desire to seduce the Countess of Salisbury. Edward commands Warwick, the father of the Countess, to convince his married daughter to sleep with the king. Warwick agrees to talk to his daughter but refuses to compel her to betray her husband. He's proud of her when she says she won't go along with Edward's request. This is where Warwick speaks the lines that link up with Sonnet 94: “That poison shows worst in a golden cup; / Dark night seems darker by the lightning-flash; / Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds; / And every glory that inclines to sin, / The shame is treble by the opposite.” In Sonnet 94, Shakespeare takes this image of festering lilies and sets it in a much more intricate contemplation of power and kindness, of mercy and force. The lines recall Hamlet's mingling of cruelty with understanding, and Humbert's twisting of tyranny with tenderness. The poem marks one of the crucial places where Shakespeare and Nabokov meet, and where they speak most compellingly to each other:
They that have power to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven's graces,
And husband nature's riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others, but stewards of their excellence.
The summer's flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.