I wrote ‘A Note’ in 1951, when I was touring with Anew McMaster, the Shakespearean actor-manager, throughout Southern Ireland. We presented a different play every night (seven nights a week and two matinées) and our repertoire included Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, As You Like it, Macbeth, King Lear and Othello.
Mac generally took two nights off a week when the rest of the company performed plays like The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband, Rope and An Inspector Calls but Shakespeare dominated our lives. I had in any case been obsessed with him in the preceding four years but to find myself actually performing in his plays with the extraordinary Anew McMaster was an electric experience. Anyway, this ‘Note’ came out of an active and living engagement with the work in hand both on the page and in the theatre.
The mistake they make, most of them, is to attempt to determine and calculate, with the finest instruments, the source of the wound.
They seek out the gaps between the apparent and the void that hinges upon it with all due tautness. They turn to the wound with deference, a lance, and a needle and thread.
At the entrance of the lance the gap widens. At the use of needle and thread the wound coagulates and atrophies in their hands.
Shakespeare writes of the open wound and, through him, we know it open and know it closed. We tell when it ceases to beat and tell it at its highest peak of fever.
In attempting to approach Shakespeare’s work in its entirety, you are called upon to grapple with a perspective in which the horizon alternately collapses and reforms behind you, in which the mind’s participation is subject to an intense diversity of atmospheric.
Once the investigation has begun, however, there is no other way but to him.
One discovers a long corridor of postures; fluid and hardened at the quick; gross and godlike; putrescent and copulative; raddled; attentive; crippled and gargantuan; crumbling with the dropsy; heavy with elephantiasis; broody with government; severe; fanatical; paralytic; voluptuous; impassive; muscle-bound; lissom; virginal; unwashed; bewildered; humpbacked; icy and statuesque. All are contained in the wound which Shakespeare does not attempt to sew up or reshape, whose pain he does not attempt to eradicate. He amputates, deadens, aggravates at will, within the limits of a particular piece, but he will not pronounce judgement or cure. Such comment as there is is so variously split up between characters and so contradictory in itself that no central point of opinion or inclining can be determined.
He himself is trapped in his own particular order, and is unable to go out at a distance to regulate and forestall abortion or lapses in vraisemblance. He can only rely on a ‘few well-chosen words’ to bring him through any doubtful patch.
He belongs of course, ultimately, to a secret society, a conspiracy, of which there is only one member: himself. In that sense, and in a number of others too, he is a malefactor; a lunatic; a deserter; a conscientious objector; a guttersnipe; a social menace and an Antichrist.
He is also a beggar; a road sweeper; a tinker; a hashish-drinker; a leper; a chicken-fancier; a paper-seller; a male nurse; a sun-worshipper and a gibbering idiot.
He is no less a traffic policeman; a rowing blue; a rear gunner; a chartered accountant; a best man; a bus-conductor; a paid guide; a marriage guidance counsellor; a churchgoer; a stage carpenter; an umpire; an acrobat and a Clerk of the Court.
His tongue is guttural, Arabic, pepperish, composed, parsimonious, voluminous, rabid, diarrhoetic, transparent, laundered, dainty, mellifluous, consonantal, stammering, scabrous, naked, blade-edged, one-legged, piercing, hushed, clinical, dumb, convulsed, lewd, vicious, voracious, inane, Tibetan, monosyllabic, epileptic, raucous, ministerial, sudden, Sudanese, palpitating, thunderous, earthy, whimsical, acrimonious, wintry, malicious, fearsome, blighted, blistered, mouldy, tantalizing, juicy, innocent, lordly, gluttonous, irreverent, blasphemous, avaricious, autumnal, blasted, ecstatic, necromantic, gentle, venomous, somnambulistic, monotonous, uproarious, feverish, austere, demented, deathly, fractious, obsessed, ironic, palsied, morbid, sanctimonious, sacrilegious, calm, cunning, cannibalistic and authoritative.
He moves through all with a vehement and flexible control. He turns and bites his own tail. He defecates on his own carpet. He repeats the Bible sideways. He disdains the communication cord and the lifebelt. He scratches his head with an iceberg. But the fabric never breaks. The tightrope is never at less than an even stretch. He aborts, he meanders, he loses his track, he overshoots his mark, he drops his glasses, he meets himself coming back, he digresses, he calumniates, he alters direction, he sinks in at the knees, he rolls over like a log, he forgets the drift, he drops someone flat, he exaggerates, oversimplifies, disrupts, falsifies, evades the issue, is carried home drunk; he dawdles, he dwindles, he trips over his own feet, he runs away with himself, he implicates others, he misses the point, he ends up at the same place, he falls back on geometry, he cheats, he squanders, he leaves it at that; he gets in his own way, he burns his fingers, he turns turtle, he stews in his own juice, he loses all hands; suffers fire, arsony, rape, loot, ravage, fraud, bondage, murder, interference, snobbery, lice, jealousy, snakebites, damp beds, falling arches, jugglery, quackery, mastoids, bunions, hailstones, bladder trouble, fainting fits, eye strain, morning sickness, heat, dirt, riot, plague, suicide. He suffers, commits and survives them all.
The fabric never breaks. The wound is open. The wound is peopled.
Image © Joe Campbell