What if they gave a party for Shakespeare’s birthday and nobody came? Hard to believe in this moment of Bardic hype, with Shakespeare in Love , Shakespeare in Bloom and all that. Could it be that the sudden fad for things Shakespearean has all the depth and seriousness of one of those revolting Renaissance Faires? So it began to seem to me when I turned up for what had promised to be a serious and thoughtful celebration of the Bard’s birthday-and found that I was virtually the only guest. It was a Friday evening, April 23, the date associated with (although not definitively established as) Shakespeare’s birthday. Lured by a listing in Time Out New York that promised an evening in which anyone could show up and read a sonnet in tribute, I made my way up to Applause Books on West 71st Street, a place which had recently become one of my favorite bookstores for its remarkable collection of arcane and otherwise unavailable works of Shakespearean scholarship.
I spent the entire day agonizing over which sonnet I’d read. Some of my favorites were too knotted in their verbal ingenuity for my limited read-aloud talents. Finally I settled on one that was less difficult to enunciate though not without its complex seductive intricacy: Sonnet 30, the one that begins, “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought/ I summon up remembrance of things past …”
Sure, it starts off on a dreamy, nostalgic note but soon slips, then plunges through successive levels of despair, anguish and memory-torture, a ripping open of long-healed wounds, a reawakening of old hurt and past suffering, of a pain “which I new pay as if not paid before.” I hate when that happens.
And then at the nadir, the ninth circle of that plunge into pain, there is a sharp and not entirely convincing reversal: the sudden, less-than-persuasive consolation: “But if the while I think on thee, dear friend/ All losses are restored, and sorrow’s end.”
Yeah, sure: easy as that. I sometimes suspect that the “dear friend” whose image is conjured up in the last couplet as the only thing that could assuage and transfigure the suffering is actually Death or Suicide personified, the only true “sorrow’s end” for pain this unrelenting. But that could just be me, Mr. Darkness, speaking.
So I was ready; I’d overcome my jitters about getting the iambic pentameter right; I’d marked the stresses I wanted to hit in reading Sonnet 30 aloud, but when I showed up at Applause Books, there was no one else there to read. The man in charge said they’d start “in 10 minutes,” appearing to imply an expected influx, but the small, bare stage looked pretty bleak and it was already 20 minutes after the scheduled starting time.
But I didn’t care, the delay gave me an opportunity to do something I’d come to crave: ransack Applause Books’ Shakespeare scholarship section. Where I came upon what I regarded as a rare treasure, a collection of scholarly papers on the “Hand D” question. You know the “Hand D” question, don’t you? The debate about a 147-line handwritten addition to a bad, probably-never-performed, Shakespeare-era play called The Booke of Sir Thomas More which shows revisions and patches from about seven different “hands.” But “Hand D,” the inscriber of those 147 lines, has been identified-and accepted by most though not all scholars-as the product of Shakespeare’s own hand. Perhaps the only example we have of something Shakespeare composed in his own handwriting.
The book in question, Shakespeare and ‘Sir Thomas More’: Essays on the Play and Its Shakespearean Interest , was a hardcover edition in the New Cambridge Shakespeare Studies and Commentary series, one which is unavailable in paperback and which, unfortunately, was priced for libraries at 70 bucks-and didn’t even reproduce the 147-line Hand D fragment. But for me it was a bargain at almost any price because it sent me back home later to the G. Blakemore Evans edition of Shakespeare’s complete works (the Riverside edition), the only one of the three recent complete works editions that includes the Hand D fragment.
Reading the Hand D passage is fascinating on several levels. If it is Shakespeare’s handwriting, we get to watch him, in effect, in the throes of the creative process-crossing out, blotting out, changing his mind, getting stuck untangling an image-the closest thing, perhaps, to watching his mind at work. But I distrust handwriting identification and computerized “stylometrics,” which have been adduced in Hand D’s favor. Far more interesting is the thematic link between Hand D and other seminal passages in Shakespeare. The way the Hand D fragment addresses the question of unleashed human nature.
The 147 lines of “Hand D” give us a dramatic confrontation between Thomas More (when he was High Sheriff of London) and a mob intent on what can only be called a 16th-century version of ethnic cleansing. A mob of shopkeepers, apprentices and mechanicals, intent on driving the “infection” of foreigners-whom they blame for driving up prices and other economic woes-out of London by violence.
In the Hand D passage, Thomas More manages to halt the raging carnage of this pogrom in the making by an act of imagination: by conjuring up for the mob a mirror in which to see the image and consequences of its actions. I was struck by the eerie presage of Kosovo in his language as he depicts a piteous scene of the mob’s future success: “Imagine that you see the wretched strangers/ Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage/ Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation.”
He shows the mob a future ethnically cleansed, but a future in which unchecked rage and anarchy are enshrined in place of the rule of law, a future in which “Not one of you should live an aged man/ Or other ruffians, as their fancies or with self same hand, self reasons and self right,/ Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes/ Would feed on one another.”
For me, that final image, ravenous fishes devouring each other, is the strongest evidence that Hand D is Shakespeare’s hand. The image of nature, of human nature, in a self-devouring frenzy is one that recurs in Lear , in Othello , in Troilus and Cressida : In Troilus , Ulysses envisions what will happen if all systems of value are negated: “Then everything includes itself in power,/ Power into will, will into appetite,/ And appetite, an universal wolf,/ So doubly seconded with will and power,/ Must make perforce an universal prey,/And last eat up himself …”
That terror of unleashed human nature, the view that without the restraints of the state there is no bar to a savage reign of the strong over the weak, the predator over the prey, seems to be a recurrent Shakespearean preoccupation, one of his deepest and most disturbing fears.
“Hand D” offers another way of looking at what some postmodern ideologues have disparaged as the tendency of Shakespearean drama to legitimize power and authority, the monarchy in particular. A view that ignores the powerful currents within the plays that license a countervailing radical skepticism and subversion of authority, both political and metaphysical; one that sees though the “hollow crown” of kingship. The Hand D passage points to the origin of the attitude toward authority in the plays, one that comes not from a knee-jerk, knee-bending defense of the powerful, but rather from a concern for the weak and powerless, “the wretched strangers, their babies at their back” who are often the first victims of the breakdown of authority and the devolution into selfish anarchy. The wretched strangers whose only protection-for better or worse-is some authority that resists the ravenous lynch-mob lust of unleashed human nature. It’s not an optimistic view of the human spirit-or of authority-but considering Kosovo it might well be a more realistic one. Better an authority like Marshal Tito, Hand D seems to suggest, than the self-devouring anarchy that rushed to fill the vacuum he left behind.
But to return to Applause Books, to the night of the Shakespeare birthday celebration, the sonnet reading that never happened because nobody but me (and one other) showed up. What started out as a fiasco turned into an unexpected and perhaps even more rewarding Shakespearean experience for me when I fell into talking with two of the store’s knowledgeable personnel, Christina de Lancie, who was behind the counter, and Paul Sugarman, the operations manager.
I’d inquired about locating a copy of David Selbourne’s valuable rehearsal diary of the Peter Brook Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Midsummer Night’s Dream , an extraordinary production that had changed my life-and changed the way Shakespeare was staged decades afterward in England. (See The Edgy Enthusiast, “Peter Brook: A Fire on the Stage” and “Trevor Nunn: Something Overwhelming in the Theater,” Sept. 21, 1998, and April 5, 1999-previous columns on the making of that Dream .) I was hoping to see if I could interest Applause’s publishing arm in reprinting Mr. Selbourne’s lamentably out-of-print work for selfish reasons: I couldn’t find a copy for myself and had only raced through the one I found at the Shakespeare Center Library at Stratford-on-Avon, where I’d been studying Peter Brook’s promptbook for the production.
Well, as it turned out, in Applause Books employee Christina de Lancie I’d found another person to add to the list of those I’d met whose lives had been changed, whose experience of Shakespeare had been profoundly shaped by that Dream . She’d seen it three times when she was 14, she said, and had even inveigled a driving-age boyfriend of hers into giving one of its stars, Sara Kestelman (who played Titania), a ride to the airport-leaving Ms. de Lancie with lifelong indelible memories of the performance and the grande dame performer smoking and discoursing in the back seat.
It was the enduring power of that experience, she told me, that led her later in life to abandon a career in theatrical design to become a playwright. She’d won a number of awards for her first play and her second, called Tsunami , was, she said, in many ways a response to the Peter Brook Dream , to the tidal wave of theatrical emotion it had engendered.
Then I spoke to Mr. Sugarman, the store’s operations manager, about the innovative Shakespearean publishing program the bookstore has embarked upon in the past decade. Founded by Glenn Young in 1980, Applause is best known for its extensive collection of contemporary theater and film books, for the scripts, screenplays and performance tapes it stocks, as well as for the impressive list of theater and film books it publishes on its own. But in Shakespearean circles, Applause Shakespeare Library, a publishing arm of the bookstore, has made a name for itself for publishing original and reprinted works of Shakespeare scholarship, particularly in the growing field of performance history and performance criticism. Under the auspices of the influential scholar John Russell Brown, they’ve also been releasing a series of editions of the individual plays that offer, in addition to the usual textual and critical notes, facing-page commentary on the performance history of a play-how the most brilliant actors and directors have realized it on the stage over the centuries.
But Applause is also engaged in another remarkable publishing program of a very different kind of Shakespeare edition from any other out there, one that could reshape the way Shakespeare is read and played: individual editions of the First Folio texts of the major Shakespeare plays, with the original spelling and punctuation. I’ve written before about the thrill of reading Shakespeare in the facsimile edition of the First Folio, the one compiled for W.W. Norton by the extraordinary textual scholar Charlton Hinman from photographic reproductions of the 1623 folio text. I’ve written about the way that immersing oneself in the unfamiliar orthography and typography of the facsimiles of the 1623 folio serves to defamiliarize the often too familiar sense of the texts. Looked at through the lens, the shimmering distance, of five fathoms of time, so to speak, they come alive again, transformed to something rich and strange once more.
What Applause has issued are not facsimiles of the 1623 folio, but modern-type versions of the original spelling texts (under the direction of-and with commentary by-the scholar Neil Freeman). Versions designed not just to be read but to re-create for actors and directors something closer to the unmediated playscripts used by Shakespeare’s own company. To strip away the accretions of overpunctuation, of act- and scene-divisions imposed by later editors; to recapture the feel of the plays’ first performances. The Applause first folio editions have been praised by luminaries such as Mark Rylance, the actor and now the artistic director of London’s Globe Theater, who called them “the greatest thing to happen for Shakespearean actors at the end of this century.”
Not all scholars agree that the folio text necessarily captures the grail of Shakespeare’s “final intentions” for his plays. But Mr. Sugarman believes that stripping away the trappings of overpunctuation and overregularization has already revealed to some actors new ways of reading such knotty passages of poetry as Leontes’ self-devouring jealousy in the opening act of The Winter’s Tale . (Too often, Mr. Sugarman said, are the maimed lines and irregular metrics regularized, normalizing the enormity of Leontes’ self-laceration.)
And he spoke of the long prose passage that opens As You Like It -Orlando’s epic recollection of his mistreatment and its origins. Most editors, he said, take the long 25-line passage that in the folio consists of only three sentences, and break it up into as many as 10 sentences by adding periods. This repunctuated and regularized version, when played, gives more an effect of wistful nostalgia than the punctuation-stripped original folio version which gives rein to a far more frenzied and intemperate outpouring of painful memories, a less controllable grief. A slippage similar to the one that takes place in Sonnet 30 when it slides from the nostalgic “sessions of sweet silent thought,” to the bitter audible moans of reinscribed pain.
Which is where I came in, when I came into the bookstore with Sonnet 30, the night of Shakespeare’s birthday, hoping to find fellow readers but finding instead two devoted Shakespeareans and an all-too-familiar drama: a bookstore in peril. I’d been troubled in my last two visits to the store by what seemed to be a dwindling in the number of scholarly books on their Shakespeare criticism shelves. And it turns out that while the publishing arm of Applause is flourishing, the bookstore may be in danger. Maybe it’s the chains, maybe it’s the lack of seriousness of a professed Shakespeare-loving public that settles for Harold Bloom to figure it all out for them. Perhaps not enough people know about Applause Books.
But in any case, as faithful readers of this column know from my efforts on behalf of the beautiful, doomed Books & Company, a threat to a unique bookstore causes me to slip from nostalgia to bitterness and then into print. I’m told that Glenn Young, the commendable owner of Applause, is now actively seeking partners to keep the store going, that its future is not assured. I hope this column might have some effect in inspiring Shakespeare lovers and theater lovers of all kinds to pay a visit to Applause or to attend one of its readings. And that it might even smoke out some altruistic investors to come forward and become culture heroes by giving the store the fiscal fresh blood it could use to restock its inventory. The loss of this store would, in a limited but not inconsiderable sense, be a Shakespearean tragedy of a sort. So I’d like to ask my readers who responded with such alacrity in the noble battle to save Books & Company to do the same here: Give a hand to Applause.