Star-Crossed: William Shakespeare and Vladimir Nabokov
Each issue the Star-Crossed column chooses two or more writers who were born during a particular month and talks about their work.
William Shakespeare – born April 23, 1564, Stratford-upon-Avon, England
Vladimir Nabokov – born April 22, 1899, St. Petersburg, Russia
Shakespeare's work is full of stories within stories, plays within plays. Repeatedly he turns to devices like the “Pyramus and Thisbe” performance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and “The Mousetrap” in Hamlet. He also likes to let his characters draw our attention to the contrivances and inadequacies of language. Often, especially in the early plays, this is false modesty, the literary convention of mocking literary conventions. Queen Margaret, near the end of Henry VI, Part 3, claims “what I should say / My tears gainsay” in traditional declaration that her grief is greater than she can express. Richard III calls Lady Anne “Fairer than tongue can name thee” before going on to use his tongue well enough to seduce her beside her husband’s corpse. Costard, from Love’s Labour’s Lost, ridicules Nathaniel and Holofernes for having “lived long on the alms-basket of words,” as part of that play’s relaxed skepticism toward words in general. Over time, however, Shakespeare’s dissatisfaction with art and language becomes less facile. His resistance to the routines of his literary forms grows sharper and more restless, just as the plays grow sharper and more restless. They experiment with one approach after another, never settling into any single style or method for long. Like Nabokov, Shakespeare loves wordplay and parody, loves to show off the artifice of his art, the craftiness of his craft. Yet also like Nabokov, he’s determined to take wordplay and parody beyond themselves, to push artifice past its boundaries. In Lear and Lolita, in Hamlet and Pale Fire, Shakespeare and Nabokov pursue some unattainable realm where language might escape its limits. They want to know everything that can’t quite be known. They want to say everything that can’t quite be said.
1 – Open and Shut: The Comedies
Nabokov, of course, is no real match for Shakespeare. Who is? Still, he provides a useful contrast to Shakespeare’s achievement. Nabokov’s work is concentrated. It’s fortified by the narrowness of his passions. Shakespeare’s work is intimate yet epic. The plays carry a charge of life that energizes a great breadth and depth of characters and events. Nabokov is closed, meticulous, ardently set in his ways. Shakespeare is open. He’s improvisational, ready to try whatever might engage or enlarge his many interests.
Nowhere is the difference between Nabokov’s fixations and Shakespeare’s receptivity more apparent than in their depictions of sex and eroticism. In Lolita, Humbert says “sex is but the ancilla of art.” Ancilla means maid, accessory. Sex is art’s servant. Desire breaks from the waterfall of our private imagination, pours from the art each of us puts into experiencing our lives. The dominant sexual streak in Nabokov’s novels, the ancilla found in his published work, is as detailed and repetitive as his descriptions of glass and mirrors, his interest in tricks of reflection and perspective. It remains much the same throughout his career. Many of his male characters are drawn to a series of variations on the gamine woman. Within this series, each woman is highly specific. One of his themes is the friction between the men’s obsessions and the independent personalities of the women they desire. Margot from Laughter in the Dark could never be confused with Sonia from Glory. Armande from Transparent Things is very different from Ada. Ada in turn is very different from her sister, Lucette. Yet if they differ from each other in many ways, all of them are eroticized in startlingly similar terms. The gamine tradition figures in the books as a ravishing fixation, hypnotic in its specificity, like those chapters in Moby-Dick dissecting the nature of the whale. Sexual fixations are usually dull or embarrassing in literature because the writer lacks perspective on them. Nabokov, however, is interested in precisely this imperceptiveness, our entrapment in what Chaucer calls the “cell fantastic” of our compulsions. At his best Nabokov recreates both the heat of overflowing ardor and the coolness of detached observation. It’s part of his daring as an artist that he isolates the creepiest element of the gamine tradition, the potentially pedophilic ingredient in it, and uses it to make Lolita one of literature’s great examinations of self-deception. Lolita has a lot going on in it. One facet of what’s going on, though, is a powerful yet delicate vision of the dangers of projecting our fantasies and cravings onto others.
Artistically Shakespeare is as responsive to different possibilities of sexuality and desire as Nabokov is restricted. Whenever Kinbote’s homosexuality comes up in Pale Fire, you can feel Nabokov’s distaste for it. He can’t see Kinbote’s predilections as anything but a cheap running joke. A certain refined groove of heterosexual passion is sublime for Nabokov. Everything outside that groove is absurd. With Shakespeare, on the other hand, you have the sense he can be turned on by almost anything. He’s capable of finding nearly anyone desirable if he simply concentrates on the person long enough and applies the force of his art to imagining that person erotically. The comedies are full of characters whose appeal is layered, set up to evoke multiple levels of fascination, a lighthearted omnisexuality that delights in the Elizabethan gag of gender confusion. A boy actor plays a woman who plays a man who falls in love with another man who falls in love with the woman. Julia disguises herself as a page-boy in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Caius and Slender in The Merry Wives of Windsor are deceived by boys dressed as girls, and Caius ends up marrying his boy by mistake. Twelfth Night finds Viola feigning the role of Cesario and winning the love of Olivia. As You Like It, the most elaborate handling of the theme, has Rosalind taking on the identity of the young man Ganymede so she can approach her true love, Orlando. In her Ganymede disguise, Rosalind convinces Orlando to woo Ganymede. Orlando, not too convincingly, claims he hopes to cure his love for Rosalind by acting as if Ganymede is Rosalind. This is supposed to give Ganymede the chance to turn Orlando against the memory of Rosalind’s appeal. The Elizabethan audience would have seen, all at the same moment on the stage, a boy actor pretending to be Rosalind, Rosalind pretending to be Ganymede, Ganymede pretending to be Rosalind, and Orlando courting Ganymede by pretending Ganymede is Rosalind. For good measure, much as Olivia falls in love with Viola, the shepherdess Phebe falls in love with Rosalind-as-Ganymede.
Throughout the comedies, romantic desire involves characters changing from one form to another, containing and revealing more than one identity at a time. The men from Love’s Labour’s Lost pose as Russians while the women wear masks and confuse the men as to which woman is which. The two pairs of twin brothers from The Comedy of Errors enter into a rapid succession of slapstick identity confusions, and the Olivia-Viola story in Twelfth Night is only one of the play’s many identity shifts and misunderstandings. Everyone in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is in a constant state of change. Oberon puts Puck in motion and sets off a domino fall of accidental transitions. Lysander and Demetrius transfer their interest from Hermia to Helena, and Bottom becomes first an ass and then the love object for Titania. As a writer at least, Shakespeare finds metamorphosis beguiling.
Less flashily but even more persistently, you feel that Shakespeare’s sensual and romantic empathy is distributed with remarkable consistency among his comic heroines and his comic heroes. Much Ado About Nothing shows us what’s sexy about Beatrice at the same time as it shows us what’s sexy about Benedick. Shakespeare immerses us in their screwball-comedy dialogues without taking sides or limiting us to Beatrice’s view of Benedick or Benedick's view of her. It’s their combination, the music they make together, that excites Shakespeare. He adores them both, with a fond smile for their follies, and he makes us adore them as well
2 – The Sonnets: Conflicting Desires
The Sonnets tell a fairly kinky story. Shakespeare writes a series of poems to a young nobleman, the Increase Sonnets. These first 17 sonnets argue that the young man should preserve his beauty for future generations by having children. Sonnets 18-126 then trace the ups and downs of Shakespeare’s romantic relationship with the young man. Finally, Sonnets 127-154 describe Shakespeare’s relationship with the Dark Lady. The Dark Lady repulses Shakespeare as much as she attracts him, and eventually she cheats on him by taking the young man as her lover. It’s a love triangle of convoluted torment for the poet: he must absorb the double blow of the Dark Lady and the young man coming together to betray him.
Let’s take a moment to consider Shakespeare’s personal situation. (I don’t buy it when some critics claim that the Sonnets aren’t autobiographical, or that Shakespeare’s love for the young man is platonic.) Here’s a playwright who spends most of his time in London but continues to have a wife and children back in Stratford. He’s unfaithful to his wife with the young man, and at some point he ends up having an affair with the Dark Lady as well. (The order in which Shakespeare wrote the Sonnets is largely unknown, and we can’t build a reliable chronology out of their published sequence, which anyway Shakespeare might not have authorized.) If the Sonnets tell us anything, they tell us just how immoderate and emotionally unstable Shakespeare could be. The anger and outrage in the poems, the hurt feelings and self-pity, spill out in one overwrought line after another. Who is this strange and sometimes off-putting Will, furious that in cheating on his wife he’s humiliated by two of his lovers?
And yet the naked emotion of the Sonnets reveals something we shouldn’t be surprised to find. No matter what he’s feeling, from the joys of early infatuation to the shame of his almost metaphysical regret, Shakespeare experiences it with extraordinary force and full awareness of what he’s going through. When he abases himself in Sonnet 110, when he says he has made himself “a motley to the view,” the abasement is total. When he momentarily redeems himself through his appreciation of the young man in Sonnet 37 (“As a decrepit father takes delight”), the redemption is absolute. Many of the Sonnets repeat the same themes, the same thoughts, as if Shakespeare couldn’t let any of his feelings or ideas go until he had pursued them to the very end, no matter how foolish or discreditable they might be. Whatever’s happening to him, he engages it to its limit. We’ll never know what his marriage was like, of course, and it would be no surprise if, having wed the pregnant Anne Hathaway when he was 18 and she was either 26 or 27, he discovered they weren’t right for each other. It seems equally possible to me, though, that when Shakespeare was around Hathaway, he was just as committed to her, and to his role as husband and father, as he was to his roles as the lover of the young man and the Dark Lady. The Shakespeare who wrote the Sonnets is fascinating, both because of the sheer force of his feelings and because those feelings are often so contradictory and incompatible. Like many of the characters in the plays, the author of the Sonnets is never just one thing. His personality is multiple, intricate, one personality wrapped within another, and with different aspects unfolding together, only to turn back as other aspects emerge and combine.
I like to think that when Shakespeare started the Increase Sonnets, maybe commissioned by the young man’s relatives due to their worry that his sexual tastes would keep him from ever having children, the poet didn’t really know the young man and wasn’t in love with him. (Just to be clear: this is completely idle speculation. For one thing, Shakespeare might not have written the Increase Sonnets until he was already involved with the young man.) It was the actual process of writing the Increase Sonnets, in this scenario, that would have brought the young man to Shakespeare’s proper attention. In effect Shakespeare takes up the perspective of someone who sees the beauty of being impregnated by the young man. “From fairest creatures we desire increase” is the Sonnets’ first line. In context, that “we” definitely includes the poet: he’s transfixed by the idea of the young man as the source of a child. It would have been poetically appropriate if Shakespeare’s love for the young man had sprung from a writing assignment, from Shakespeare’s assumption of the viewpoint of those who might “desire increase” from the young man’s beauty. It would also fit our sense of Shakespeare as a person who could, through his art, enter nearly any identity, from Coriolanus to Cleopatra, Othello to Lady Macbeth, Falstaff to Marina. Moreover, this might help explain the exorbitant sense of personal shame the Sonnets convey. A truly multiple person, pulled in many conflicting directions by many conflicting desires, would live in a constant state of guilt. And the guilt would only be stronger if, as we find in the Sonnets, each of the desires is deep and sincere.
3 – Early Nabokov: Mary and King, Queen, Knave
Mary, published in 1926, is the first of the nine novels that Nabokov wrote in Russian. It’s modest and short. It feels like one of those Turgenev novellas that get mixed up in your imagination, so that you end up crossing the characters from one story with the plot from another. Ganin, a young Russian émigré in Berlin, learns he will soon have a chance to see his first love, Mary. Over the course of four days, while he waits for her to appear, he recalls their relationship. They dated before the Revolution, and their love mingles with Ganin’s attachment to the Russia he left behind. Ganin’s private recovery of Mary is also a private recovery of the Russia he carries in his memories. “The only paradise,” Proust writes, “is a lost paradise,” and for Nabokov the great lost paradise is the Russia of his childhood and youth.
The Proustian note is struck most clearly at the novel’s end, though it’s altered in a way that heralds the later Nabokov works. Proust’s tragicomic view is that love is always a form of delusion. You don’t see the person you love so much as you see your own desires and misconceptions. Your lover doesn’t exist except in your mind. For Nabokov, this is a possibility but not an inevitable or complete one. He assumes we can and should look beyond our presumptions and self-interest. For the more fortunate Nabokov characters, love transcends deception. Happily married to the remarkable Vera Nabokov, a Russian writer’s wife to match Sofia Tolstoy or Anna Dostoevsky, Nabokov excels at describing couples who love each other: Fyodor and Zina in The Gift, John and Hazel Shade in Pale Fire, even Vadim and the final “You” in Look at the Harlequins! In Mary, Ganin hasn’t quite reached the position of these older, more established couples, but he partakes of some of their enchanted satisfaction. In the end, after sating himself on his memories, he decides not to meet Mary again. Too many years have passed, and he realizes “with merciless clarity that his affair with Mary was ended forever.” Apart from his memories of her, “no Mary existed, nor could exist.” Yet this isn’t, as in Proust, an admission that Ganin never made any true contact with Mary. Instead, it’s an admission that the contact he made with her was so precious -- the first love of teenagers in a different time and place -- that any attempt to repeat it can only lead to diminishment. In place of returning to the past, he pushes toward the adventurous future, much as Nabokov was to do. He buys a ticket, boards a train. Then he thinks “with pleasurable excitement how he would cross the frontier without a single visa; and beyond it was France, Provence, and then -- the sea.”
King, Queen, Knave starts where Mary ends: at a train station. But this is a train station with a difference. Everything here is dead, a faux-German setting that exists partly in the geographical Berlin and partly in some substitute Berlin of Nabokov’s imagination. “The huge black clock hand is still at rest,” Nabokov begins, “but is on the point of making its once-a-minute gesture; that resilient jolt will set a whole world in motion.” This can be taken either as a metaphor for the train being about to leave the station or as part of the novel’s larger image of a Berlin filled with living mannequins, a toy-like city that doesn’t exist until the clock sets it running. One of the things I like about the novel is that it never quite clarifies this: it never quite lets you decide how to accommodate its more fantastic comparisons.
The king and queen of the title are Dreyer, a businessman, and his wife Martha. The knave is Franz, a provincial young man who falls in love with Martha. Together Martha and Franz plot to kill Dreyer for his money.
Dreyer is the character who makes the novel worth reading. An artistic person who ended up as a businessman, Dreyer has created much of his fortune “in a year of freakish luck -- at a time when luck, a light touch, and his special kind of imagination were needed.” He runs a men’s clothing store so over-the-top that it achieves a kitsch magic: “despite the baroque nonsense there was something about the angular reflections and surrounding spectral abyss, where vague fabrics that had been handled and re-handled during the day reposed in weary attitudes, which long remained in Franz’s memory.” As he tries to teach Franz a lesson in salesmanship, Dreyer’s bouncy and mischievous bent takes over: “he jumped off the counter, gesticulating grotesquely, impersonating a customer irritated by everything he was shown.”
Dreyer’s carefree and inventive attitude, his belief that his days are a game to enjoy and not a trial to endure, exposes how grim and shallow his would-be murderers are. Martha and Franz try to conform to the rules of mannequins, and undermine their humanity in the process. Committed to doing what they think is practical and realistic, they can’t understand the wafts of unexpected imagination and fun that Dreyer keeps bringing for them to reject.
“Nothing was known,” Dreyer thinks, “and anything was possible.” Martha and Franz go forward with their plot, but Dreyer’s sense of surprising possibilities turns out to be more accurate than his killers’ trite viciousness. It’s Martha, not Dreyer, who finally dies. Franz, more than a mannequin after all, is left devastated, laughing in hysteria at the cruel joke that chance has played on him.
4 – Spiders and Roses: The Histories
The Henry VI trilogy is part of Shakespeare’s earliest work, and it’s not very good. Shakespeare does the main thing: he keeps the battles and rebellions and scheming in juicy, melodramatic movement. Yet it’s all a bit of a mess. Shakespeare wrote Part 2 first, followed by Part 3. Queen Margaret is a terrific scenery-chewer, and the scene of Cade’s followers running back and forth in Part 2 makes for wonderful comedy. Part 3 culminates in the horror all the preceding horrors have been leading to: Queen Margaret watches her son Edward being stabbed to death in front of her. Margaret, the queen monster in a realm of lesser demons, is heartbreaking in her grief, even if the verse isn’t up to the occasion (“O Ned—speak to thy mother, boy”). Then in the prequel, Part 1, Shakespeare goes back to earlier events, particularly Talbot’s clashes with Joan of Arc. Joan is, as usual, a magnetic character, though here she’s presented as a villain and a witch. She calls forth evil spirits and offers to give them “my body, soul, and all— / Before that England gave the French the foil.”
What’s missing from the trilogy is the Shakespearean sensibility that gathers up and unifies the historical material in the later plays, drawing their scattered elements together for something more than pageantry and Grand Guignol. Shakespeare probably worked with collaborators on portions of the trilogy, and the structure often has the unfocused feeling of a roundtable discussion. The choppiness of the Henry VI plays is undeniable. They jerk from one incident to the next, and help you appreciate how much better Shakespeare became at combining many contrasting textures and tones.
All the same, the trilogy must have been a tremendous workshop for the young Shakespeare to pursue his skills. Historical sources force a writer to develop in ways that nothing else quite does, because history crosses the usual lines between the personal and the political, the private and the public. With Shakespeare, it seems to have been critical to bringing out his probably innate talent for seeing everyone and everything in relationship to each other, of dramatizing how each action is part of the actions that surround it. I sometimes wonder if American literature has been impoverished by our discouragement of serious novels about, for instance, the progressive yet weirdly puritanical politics of Susan B. Anthony or the byzantine machinations of Ike and FDR. Gore Vidal has given us first-rate fiction devoted to Burr and Lincoln, but few American literary authors have been willing to take up his example. (This might be changing, with books like Thomas Mallon’s Watergate and Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife.) Also, our current assumptions about poetry don’t leave much space for the weak patches and lame rhetoric that Shakespeare deploys to get through his crowded storylines. One of Shakespeare’s advantages, I imagine, is that he wasn’t really expected to produce enduring art. He was able to mess around and make mistakes, try things out, see what worked, what didn’t, how he might do better next time. In some ways, his position was closer to a modern filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino or Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese than it was to the respected poets of his time, like the rarefied Spenser or the aristocratic Sidney. The fascination of the extreme violence in Casino or The Godfather isn’t all that different from the fascination of the extreme violence in the histories or Titus Andronicus. Popular entertainers usually crave respect, as the Shakespeare of the Sonnets seems to have done, but they still need to please at least some portion of the groundlings, and Shakespeare had too busy a schedule to even attempt perfection. He grows in front of us, and all his mistakes are there for us to watch along the way.
Richard III is the first Shakespeare play I saw, and it’s one of his most reliable entertainments. The dark ironies that struggle to escape the mishmash of the Henry VI trilogy now find their voice in Richard’s cool malevolence. The more horribly Richard behaves, the more charming and amusing he becomes, and the closer we feel to him. The story moves along swiftly and confidently, carried by Richard’s ambition and paranoia. It’s not a play of great depth or great poetry, but there’s wit in Shakespeare’s conception, and a roundabout integrity in Richard’s uncompromising cynicism. Margaret, no longer queen, sees her own ruthlessness in him: she can call him a “bottled spider” because it takes one to know one. As in all the best Shakespeare plays, this one is full of nice internal balancing acts. The seduction of Anne, when she moves from hatred to surrender, is counterweighted by the scene where Clarence nearly talks the Murderers into letting him live. Margaret’s promise that Elizabeth will someday join her in cursing Richard is fulfilled, and Margaret’s curse turns out to be soul-shriveling, a curse on the curser: “Compare dead happiness with living woe; / Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were, / And he that slew them fouler than he is.” The smug superiority of Richard’s opening soliloquy disintegrates, after he’s visited by the ghosts of those he has slain, into the self-hatred that’s been waiting to reject him: “Fool, do not flatter. / My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, / And every tongue condemns me for a villain.”
King John and Richard II are two of the more neglected plays. King John is a botch apart from the Bastard (“Mad world, mad kings, mad composition!”) and some of the king’s observations (“I am a scribbled form, drawn with a pen / Upon a parchment, and against this fire / Do I shrink up”). Richard II is much better, a quiet meditation on failure. It lyricizes an incompetent ruler’s fall, a devastation that prefigures, in a gentler vein, Lear on the heath. The forceful Bolingbroke, mistreated by Richard, comes back to lead a revolt, and Richard is so unconfident, so hollowed out, that he starts conceding failure before the fight has begun. When he later gives up the crown, he tells Bolingbroke: “You may my glories and my state depose, / But not my griefs. Still am I king of those.” For the rest of the play he wanders in his new kingdom of grief: “Sometimes I am king. / Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar; / And so I am. Then crushing penury / Persuades me I was better when a king.” This only leads, though, to another turn of his person, emptied to total absence: “Then am I kinged again; and by and by / Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke, / And straight am nothing.” His final recognition assents to the justice of his desecration: “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” The only situation where Richard rouses himself to true action comes at the end, when he attacks the Keeper and resists his murderers. “Patience is stale, and I am weary of it,” he says. But it’s too late, and his final act as he dies is to predict the years of conflicts ahead and proclaim “the King’s blood” has “stained the King’s own land.”
Shakespeare caps the bulk of the histories by moving away from a preoccupation with irony and pessimism and making art out of full-bodied jingoism. He traces the rise of Hal through the two parts of Henry IV, and then offers Hal’s invigorating apotheosis in Henry V. Falstaff is the wild card of the first two plays: his amiable, big-bellied rumble offsets the usual battles and power shifts. Falstaff’s relationship with Hal, and Hal’s sharp severing of that relationship, a verbal beheading, sets the essential angle on the prince’s youthful exuberance and eventual assumption of authority. Henry V then lifts the tale to a surprisingly pure poetic triumphalism. Frank Kermode, in Shakespeare’s Language, considers the often-asked question of why Shakespeare’s original audiences were so appreciative of the difficult weave of his verse. Kermode’s tentative answers include the habit of listening to long and complex sermons, the tolerance for language that was more evocative than clear, the admiration for eloquence. Shakespeare’s verse might have been the Elizabethan equivalent of the computer-imagery and special effects in our Hollywood films: exciting because it was fresh and different, an imprimatur of quality and prestige, full of subtleties that couldn’t be caught in a single performance. In college I knew a guy who kept Blade Runner and Vertigo on his laptop so he could constantly go through each shot and appreciate the complexities stuffed into every frame. He believed visual sophistication was more profound than verbal sophistication, felt a director like Godard or Wang Kar-wai communicated greater insights visually than any poet could communicate with words. I’m not so sure about that, and anyway words and visuals don’t need to be opposed to each other, especially when, as Shakespeare proves, they can work quite well combined. But it’s easy to believe the Elizabethans experienced Shakespeare’s writing with as much excitement and repetitive pleasure as moviegoers now experience the flourishes of their favorite directors. In Henry V, the verse is lush and sophisticated, but it also has the special drive and assurance playwrights reveal when they know they’re making a direct connection with their audience. Watchers who experienced the clean patriotic uplift of the St. Crispin’s Day speech might well have been so moved they would have been willing to follow Shakespeare anywhere after that. Like Henry himself, Shakespeare gathered his followers and primed them to be led toward harrowing victories the likes of which they had never seen before. In the plays to come, he delivered.
5 – Checkmates: The Luzhin Defense and The Eye
If he had written nothing but The Luzhin Defense, we would still be reading him. It’s a clean, solid piece of work, inspired yet disciplined. Luzhin, the chess prodigy, is so unattractive physically and so awkward socially that we come to feel protective of him. We also come to feel protective of his strong-minded, compassionate wife. She's moved by the gap between Luzhin’s genius at chess and his ineptitude at everything else. Her love for him isn’t enough, however, to prevent his dissolution during his match with the grandmaster Turati. The thought of chess won’t leave Luzhin alone. Chess invades his mind, dogs him everywhere. It finally takes crushing possession of his imagination and forces him to jump to his death, falling toward the pattern of a chessboard.
The Eye is even shorter than Mary, but it’s one of Nabokov’s key works. The Luzhin Defense, written in the third person, maintains a tone of crisp, measured control. The Eye, however, has a first-person narrator, and the change from the tone of Nabokov’s earlier works is startling. Early in the story, after a personal humiliation, the narrator kills himself. Once he’s dead, he claims his thoughts live on by momentum. This detached bundle of mental impetus begins to wander around Berlin. He introduces us to the character of Smurov. His first impressions of Smurov are highly favorable. They’re much like the view you might expect any young man would want others to have of him. Then Smurov becomes better-acquainted with the people around him. Their opinion of him is very different from the narrator’s opinion. At some point the reader starts to suspect that Smurov and the narrator are the same person. The narrator’s efforts to build a new and more impressive persona for himself falter and then fail, exposing him to the same bitterness and despair that drove him to his original suicide attempt. Smurov’s pain and loneliness are moving, and so is his terrible, self-imposed fate as someone who “only exists as he is reflected in other brains.”
6 – Hamlet: The Tragedy of Transformation
Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in the Golding translation, is one of the books that most influenced Shakespeare, and metamorphosis is as much a part of the great tragedies as it is of the comedies. But if in the comedies the transformations of cross-dressing and mistaken identity are lightly romantic, the transformations of loyalty and resolve in the tragedies are often terrifying and destructive.
“Lord, we know what we are,” Ophelia says, “but know not what we may be.” How do we plan a future based on today’s passions and beliefs when the solidity of those passions and beliefs can collapse before we understand what’s happening? What does it mean to love or to stand up for a cause when one love might dissolve into another, one cause decay as a new one takes its place? Mona Van Duyn once wrote a poem prefaced by an epigraph stating that the matter in the human body undergoes a complete changeover every seven years. Even physically, you’re not the same person you were seven years ago, or will be seven years from now. You’re shedding yourself, cell by cell, and replacing the old you with new cells all the time. What is it that holds you together? We have medical, genetic answers for the body, but what about the personality and the spirit? Are they also shedding themselves all the time? And if they are, what’s replacing them? How much of you are you losing every day, and who are the strangers you’re always in the process of becoming? At the same time, who are all these aliens surrounding you, these pod people who have taken over the bodies of the parent, the lover, the friend you used to know?
Almost nothing holds still in Hamlet. Everything contains multiple possibilities, and shifts from one possibility to another. The very kingdom of Denmark is fluid. At the start of the play, just after the Ghost’s first appearance, Horatio explains how Hamlet’s father defeated in single combat the father of Fortinbras, who then had to give over all of his land to Denmark. Horatio also explains that the son of Fortinbras has “Sharked up a list of lawless resolutes” in order “to recover of us by strong hand / And terms compulsory, those foresaid lands / So by his father lost.” Denmark is more than it was, transformed by the size of the territory taken from old Fortinbras. Part of the play is devoted to the question of what Denmark will now become, how it will continue to evolve.
The marriage of Gertrude and Claudius so soon after the death of Hamlet’s father is, of course, the transformation that most ravages Hamlet. The marriage isn’t, however, the simple rash decision of two insensitive lovers. It’s partly an act of statecraft, a way of defending the lands that Hamlet Senior brought into the kingdom. Gertrude and Claudius stand together in their opening scene at court so Claudius can demonstrate his political skill in addressing the Fortinbras threat, and can prove that Denmark isn’t open for outside exploitation. This would also explain why Claudius was elected to the kingship so quickly, and why there doesn’t seem to be any public outcry against him taking Gertrude as his wife. The two of them demonstrate their continuity with the old regime’s strength and authority. Hamlet, though, takes no note of any political necessity for the marriage, or of how the marriage honors Hamlet Senior by preserving the legacy of the father’s victories. Hamlet’s grief and anger blind him to the importance of dealing with Fortinbras. He assumes that the timing of the marriage is, for both Gertrude and Claudius, more nakedly narcissistic or lust-crazed than it actually is.
For all his intelligence, Hamlet has a habit of misinterpreting people. He not only misunderstands their motives but misses their strengths and exaggerates their weaknesses. He’s not alone in this: nearly everyone in the play misunderstands, in whole or in part, everyone else. But because Hamlet is so perceptive, his mistakes about other people are particularly interesting. When Gertrude asks Hamlet not to return to Wittenberg, Hamlet says he will obey. Claudius, performing for the court, turns Hamlet’s response into another moment of political theater. He pronounces that “in grace” of Hamlet’s decision, each toast the King makes today will be accompanied by a cannon firing into the clouds. The political message, proclaimed to the court, is that each cannon firing will be a reminder of how pleased he is that Hamlet isn’t leaving. Then that night, as Horatio and Marcellus take Hamlet to see the Ghost, Marcellus hears the firing sounds when Claudius drinks, and asks Hamlet if this is a custom. Hamlet doesn’t admit that the firing is offered partly in his honor, doesn’t mention it even to dismiss it as hypocritical or insincere. Instead, he launches on his reverie about “the stamp of one defect,” the tragic flaw that corrupts all of a person’s good qualities, all their “virtues else, be they as pure as grace.” It’s a curious statement for him to make about Claudius, for a couple of reasons. First, by ignoring that Claudius is using the gesture to show public respect for him, Hamlet seems to find this side of Claudius either invisible or too offensive to recognize. Second, it’s the only time in the play that Hamlet suggests Claudius might have any virtues to corrupt. Usually, Hamlet’s contempt for Claudius and his abilities is sweeping: he’s a “satyr,” a king “of shreds and patches,” a “mildewed ear,” characterized by drunken revelry and lechery. The creature who passes for Claudius in Hamlet’s mind is the “bloat King,” irresponsibly swinish and intoxicated. When he isn’t “drunk asleep,” he’s “paddling” in Gertrude’s neck “with his damned fingers” while offering “reechy kisses.” But the Claudius we find in the play is competent, efficient, and extremely controlled. We never see him drunk. Rather, we see him use drinking and celebrating as effective political tools. He employs his evening revels to show public favor and offer public reward. When Voltemand and Cornelius return with the news of their successful diplomatic mission to deflect the planned attack by young Fortinbras, Claudius expresses his pleasure with them by saying “at night we’ll feast together.” (Shakespeare is careful to give Claudius the credit for the diplomatic success: the king prepared detailed instructions for Voltemand and Cornelius, and denied them any right to deviate from those instructions.) It’s characteristic of Claudius that his backup plan for killing Hamlet is to poison the drink provided for Hamlet’s refreshment. Moreover, Claudius uses the act of toasting Hamlet as the chance to place the poisoned pearl in Hamlet’s cup. At the same time, it’s equally characteristic of Hamlet that he doesn’t spot the deliberation behind the toast, the political willpower that only feigns satyrism to hide calculation. If he weren’t so determined to dismiss Claudius as a drunken, irresponsible pig, Hamlet might have been on guard against that toast, and might have saved at least his mother’s life if not his own.
Hamlet has a similarly self-indulgent misconception of Polonius, and it produces even more disastrous results. Shakespeare takes great pains to enlarge our view of Polonius and his relations with his children, Ophelia and Laertes. We’re allowed to glimpse far beyond Hamlet’s prejudices, and to discover some of the tiers of personal traits in an old man Hamlet recklessly dismisses and even more recklessly murders. Indeed, Polonius has a number of things in common with Hamlet. Both of them are suffering from mental problems, problems that they don’t quite recognize because they remain able to act with subtlety and intelligence. Polonius is afflicted with some form of Alzheimer’s. He regularly loses track of his thoughts, and can be especially ridiculous when, with great pomposity, he tries to organize his ideas through sheer willpower. (“Mad call I it, for, to define true madness, / What is’t but to be nothing else but mad?”) Yet if his judgment is ponderous and erratic, it’s not deranged or psychotic. He’s mistaken to think that Ophelia is the cause of Hamlet’s change, and he’s stubborn in sticking to a single-shaded perception of a multi-shaded dilemma, but he’s not on entirely the wrong track. Hamlet’s feelings for Ophelia are an important and puzzling part of the prince’s transformation. She can’t be left out of our understanding of his pain, and Polonius is the only person in the court who has an inkling of this. His concern for his daughter is genuine, as is his concern for Laertes: Shakespeare makes Polonius a loving father, sometimes silly, sometimes cruel, but deeply human and caring even in his shortcomings. During the scene with Reynaldo, Polonius sets forth a plan to investigate Laertes’s activities in France. Polonius orders Reynaldo to go around suggesting that Laertes is indulging in youthful indiscretions, so that any rumors of the boy’s actual indiscretions will come out. The elaborateness of the plan indicates how shrewd and detail-oriented Polonius must have been before his dementia set in. It also gives us the cast of his cunning: “Your bait of falsehood take this carp of truth, / And thus do we of wisdom and of reach, / With windlasses and with assays of bias, / By indirections find directions out.” The method, lying to get at the truth, isn’t so different from Hamlet’s stated intention of feigning madness to disguise his actual purposes, or of tricking Claudius into attending “The Mousetrap.” Hamlet has no right to feel his own tactics are more honorable or more honest than Polonius’s. Both of them use deception in much the same manner, for much the same purposes. We have no evidence that Polonius knows about Hamlet Senior’s murder, so the support Polonius gives Claudius is sensible and honorable. Hamlet’s view of Polonius as a “rash, intruding fool” is more self-serving than illuminating. Absorbed in his own feelings, Hamlet can’t be bothered to perceive that Polonius is undergoing a tragedy as well. Once reliable and trusted, a man the king recognizes as having never said that a thing was true when it was not, Polonius is now losing himself. He’s becoming somebody he doesn’t know, somebody whose mistakes are possibly undoing a lifetime of hard work. In his most famous line, the line many productions highlight to emphasize that he’s more than a doddering bureaucrat, Polonius ends his platitudinous advice to Laertes with a final, more piercing bit of counsel: “To thine own self be true.” We can believe this has been Polonius’s motto throughout his life. It must also be part of why Laertes will prove to be so direct in seeking revenge against Hamlet. Laertes has been raised by Polonius with the idea that there’s a core self, a stable identity you must always preserve. But Polonius, like Hamlet, is in the middle of enduring a nightmarish challenge to that idea. “To thine own self be true,” yes, but Polonius can’t remember quite what his self is anymore, can’t quite find the self he has always taken for granted. And this breakdown of the self, which should inspire Hamlet’s compassion or at least his understanding, moves him merely to amusement and disgust.
7 – On the Move: Glory
Glory, from 1932, is a gentle novel about a young man who always seems to be on the verge of slipping away from everyone else, and finally does. We’ve all known somebody like Martin. Many of us have been him at one time or another. He’s that new arrival who’s not an outcast but somehow separate, isolated, no matter how much effort he makes with us or we make with him. In art, the situation is usually played for pathos: the alienated outsider, the sensitive rebel persecuted by local bullies. Nabokov, however, sees the beauty of Martin’s experiences. Martin’s life is splendid even in its deprivations, its tender sadness. The novel locates the grandeur in Martin’s loneliness, the majesty of an imagination drifting loose from the usual lines of engagement with other people. The glory that Martin feels is seeded with melancholy. The melancholy blossoms, however, in a peculiar form: a private loveliness suffused with gloom, a secret fulfillment saturated with loss.
The novel tumbles through Martin’s childhood, starting with “the gentle nudge that jars the soul into motion and sets it rolling, doomed never again to stop.” Above his baby crib is “a watercolor depicting a dense forest with a winding path disappearing into its depths.” Martin associates the watercolor with a story of a boy who gets out of bed and steps into a similar picture. At the end of the novel, Martin will vanish into his own version of the painting, into the final “dark path” that “passed between the tree trunks in picturesque and mysterious windings.” Glory has no real plot. It travels the dark path from the watercolor above Martin’s crib to the path’s vanishing point, on the last page, in the windings of the forest.
Martin’s father dies when the boy is fifteen, during the Russian Revolution. A teenager cut off from his homeland, Martin worries less about politics than about his perceived lack of “genuine, innate sang-froid.” He notes that “on occasion he was so afraid of seeming unmanly, to become known as a coward, that he involuntarily reacted just the way a coward would -- the blood left his face, his legs trembled, and his heart pounded tightly in his chest.” Robbed at gunpoint on a path one night (that path again, no matter what country he’s in), Martin is ashamed of his cowardice, his fear of an absurdly incompetent criminal. Nabokov takes Martin’s insecurities seriously, but also sees the humor in them. The humiliating robbery isn’t mythologized in the Nick Adams manner, as an austere rite of masculinity. Rather, Nabokov fondly observes Martin “embellishing in retrospect the rather insipid nocturnal incident,” making “the stranger more sober, his revolver more functional, and his own words wittier.”
Martin has “a passion for trains, travels, distant lights, the heartrending wails of locomotives in the dark of night, and the waxworks vividness of local stations flashing by, with people never to be seen again.” On a cruise ship, in the passage from Turkey to Athens, he has his first affair, with an older married woman, Alla. The affair, like many of Martin’s connections with other people, begins promisingly but goes nowhere. It ends when Martin realizes the husband knows all about it and is simply accommodating a common detail of the marriage. Yet Martin remembers Alla lovingly, through a haze that Nabokov compares to the gauze paper on the frontispiece of an old novel.
Martin studies at Cambridge, where his many embarrassments are sweetly described. Raised in an “Anglomaniac” Russian home, he’s unprepared for the differences between his old imported England and the England at hand. “From his semi-English childhood,” Nabokov writes, “he retained only such things as had been relegated by native Englishmen of his age, who had read the same books as children, into the dimness of the past properly allotted to nursery things.” Darwin, a fellow student, tries to educate him about the Cambridge traditions, including the tradition of not following the traditions too closely, but Martin never quite gets the hang of it. Darwin amazes Martin by “his sleepiness, the sluggishness of his movements, a certain comfortableness about his whole being.” Martin assumes that Darwin is a homebody, relegated to his place in British society, and feels sorry for him. Then Martin learns that Darwin not only spent three years as a decorated soldier in World War I but has published a successful collection of short stories. One of Martin’s nice qualities is his lack of pettiness: he reads the stories, loves them, feels embarrassed about his initial arrogance, and quietly humbles himself. Coming across Darwin again, Martin “silently walked beside him, falling in with Darwin’s indolent but swingy step.”
A young Russian woman Martin has known from before, Sonia, visits him at Cambridge now and then. Martin is infatuated with her, but so is Darwin, and she shows just enough interest in Darwin to cause a short-lived break between the two men. Yet Nabokov gives less emphasis to the college relationship dramas than to the private off-ramps of Martin’s life. Most of one chapter, for instance, covers him climbing a slope and working his way along the ledge of a cliff. Then the Cambridge section is over, passing away just as everything else has for Martin. He’s alone again, on the move for the novel’s home stretch.
He travels to Berlin. Sonia is there. They spend time talking, invent an imaginary country, Zoorland. A Marx Brothers nation, Zoorland has “a law that all inhabitants must shave their heads,” and embodies much of the egalitarian propaganda of the Soviet Union. At first Martin believes that all the Zoorland talk creates a bond between Sonia and him. Yet he quickly finds he’s making more out of it than she is, and he leaves for Strasbourg.
He has already begun planning his disappearance, though it takes time for him to develop the idea. On the train out of Berlin, he reflects: “it seemed as if he had never left a fast train, had merely wandered from car to car.” He feels that one of the cars “was occupied by young Englishmen, among whom was Darwin in the act of solemnly taking hold of the emergency cord.” Meanwhile, in another car “were Alla and her husband; or else the Crimean crowd; or snoring Uncle Henry; or the Zilanovs, her father with his eternal newspaper, and Sonia, her velvet-dark eyes staring through the window.” He thinks of himself as preparing to cross the Zoorland border, preparing to enter Russia and then return to Europe for the sheer adventure of it. It will be an exploit deliberately devoid of any practical or political purpose.
When he actually disappears, Darwin tries to find out what has happened to him. Nobody can explain why Martin would sneak back into Russia. We know Martin well enough by now, though, to appreciate both the motive and the mystery within that motive. He’s been drawn to this vanishing act, which is almost certain to result in him being shot as a spy, because the entire momentum of his life, “the gentle nudge that jars the soul into motion,” has led him to it. He has continued along the path of the painted forest until he has twisted down the windings and walked out of the frame. Darwin, smoking his pipe in the woods, can’t see him anymore, and neither can we.