When I started out in publishing in 1991, I was an editorial assistant at Harcourt Brace. My boss, the late Anne Freedgood, was a legend when I got there, having made her name working with Faulkner and discovering Alex Haley. In my three years working for her, I helped edit Dorothy Dunnett’s unfortunate final book—the fortunately forgotten thriller Send A Fax to the Kasbah—and saw her be the underbidder on both Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy and EM Thomas’s The Hidden Life of Dogs. It was an amazing education for a fresh, ambitious English major.
But the most interesting project I worked on during those years was Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. I’d read Bloom in college and knew he was a Yale School semiotician (kind of) who wrote long, windy, and clearly brilliant treatises on language and literature. One day Anne bounded up to me (and at 77, after 20 years of two-martini lunches, she didn’t bound often), manuscript box in hand (before emails, the slush pile was indeed a PILE of manuscript boxes), and said “I’ve got IT, and those sons of bitches in San Diego (the HB business office, who were ALWAYS sons of bitches) won’t stop me. They WON’T! I’ve got the WESTERN CANON and who’s going to tell me it’s not going to SELL?”
It was Harold Bloom’s latest manuscript, his list of the “best” books in the history of the Western world. I’m not going to get into the list, because while I have first editions of a number of long-pulped midlist literary novels, I somehow don’t have my copy of The Western Canon. But it really doesn’t matter. According to Bloom, trumpeted proudly by Anne Freedgood, none of the rest of the books on his list ultimately mattered, because everything before Shakespeare led inexorably to Shakespeare, and everything after is merely imitation or derivative of the Bard. As Anne put it: It all comes back to Shakespeare.
In my adult life, I’ve been lucky enough to see a whole lot of Shakespeare performed in a whole lot of ways. In addition to the Strict Constructionists—the Ian McKellans, the Derek Jacobis—who recite the words with feeling and understanding as well as studied reverence, I’ve had the chance to see some rather unconventional renderings of different plays. On our honeymoon in London, my wife and I, on consecutive days, saw Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Co and, in a tiny stage above a pub in North London, a bunch of young Brits affecting Brooklyn accents and playing Julius Caesar as the Godfather (“Amici! Romani! Concittadini!”).
Now that I have kids, I’m starting to see the cycle reboot. Our son played an enthusiastic Puck in a zoot suit in a somewhat randomly Motown-based middle school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We saw, and then my wife took our son, to the Shakespeare in the Park’s American Reconstruction version of as You Like It, where he sat rapt, partly because he could understand just how damn clever the words STILL are, as they were recited in accents he could comprehend.
Last summer, on a vacation in London, we took all three kids to see the reconstructed Globe Theater on the South Bank of the Thames, where they saw a company rehearsing and where the ensuing swearing has led them to retell the story hundreds of times just so they can use the “S” word and not get criticized. Tomorrow night we are going to see Alan Cumming perform Macbeth as a one-man show in an insane asylum. (I’m hoping he will he break out of character, arch one eyebrow, and leer “Welcome…to Masterpiece Mystery…”) My wife Amanda is CONSTANTLY shoving entertainment sections in my face and telling me “Hey, you see this? They’re doing Troilus and Cressida in Armenian in Queens!” (Last year, after seeing four plays in two weeks, I finally begged to go to a rock show.)
This summer London, in addition to hosting the Olympics, is going to be the venue for the World Shakespeare Festival, where different countries will be putting the, say, Bollywood-inspired Much Ado About Nothing up against the Russian Midsummer Night’s Dream (in Russian). Again my son will be able to absorb it, on a Bar Mitzvah trip to England with his grandparents, and I’ll bet he’ll have some advice for the Indian Puck.
Finally there are the tributes, from theater (West Side Story) to ballet (Romeo and Juliet et al) to all those movies (not to mention Dire Straits’ brilliant Romeo & Juliet—“You and me, Babe, How ‘bout it…”) I represent a sequel to Macbeth (Tania Roxborogh’s epic ”Banquo’s Son” Trilogy), which bears no resemblance to Jane Smiley’s Lear-inspired Midwestern tragedy “A Thousand Acres.”
OK, so this is no great newsflash. Shakespeare has never gone away for the last 500 years. Reading his work manages, like hearing Beethoven or seeing the Coliseum in Rome, to be timeless and yet not overrated. And like Harold Bloom said, “Shakespeare is the true multicultural author. He exists in all languages. He is put on the stage everywhere. Everyone feels that they are represented by him on the stage.” Whether as Bollywood or Bernstein or Banquo’s Son, it truly all comes back to Shakespeare.