Today is the second day in the 38 Plays: 38 Days challenge to read a Shakespeare play every day for the next thirty-eight days. This evening I shall be pleasuring myself with The Taming of the Shrew (which is online at e.g. Project Gutenberg; I'm using The Oxford Shakespeare).

Wikipedia's synopsis reads:

The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written between 1590 and 1594.

The play begins with a framing device, often referred to as the Induction, in which a drunken tinker named Sly is tricked into thinking he is a nobleman by a mischievous Lord. The Lord has a play performed for Sly's amusement, set in Padua with a primary and sub-plot.

The main plot depicts the courtship of Petruchio, a gentleman of Verona, and Katherina, the headstrong, obdurate shrew. Initially, Katherina is an unwilling participant in the relationship, but Petruchio tempers her with various psychological torments – the "taming" – until she is an obedient bride. The sub-plot features a competition between the suitors of Katherina's less intractable sister, Bianca.

Pinch, punch, first of the month... And thus the first day in the 38 Plays: 38 Days challenge to read a Shakespeare play every day for the next thirty-eight days (or thirty-nine if we read on and bag The Reign of King Edward III).

Today, we start with The Two Gentlemen of Verona (which is online at e.g. Project Gutenberg; I'm using The Oxford Shakespeare). Wikipedia's synopsis reads:

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a comedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in 1590 or 1591. It is considered by some to be Shakespeare's first play, and is often seen as his first tentative steps in laying out some of the themes and tropes with which he would later deal in more detail; for example, it is the first of his plays in which a heroine dresses as a boy. Two Gentlemen also has the smallest cast of any of Shakespeare's plays.

The play deals with the themes of friendship and infidelity, the conflict between friendship and love, and the foolish behaviour of people in love. The highlight of the play is considered by some to be Launce, the clownish servant of Proteus, and his dog Crab, to whom "the most scene-stealing non-speaking role in the canon" has been attributed.

A question suggests itself -- and I'm certainly not the first to ask it: why in a book ostensibly about Karl Marx does Jacques Derrida divert himself, and us, at such considerable length, considering 'Hamlet'? If we choose not to accuse Derrida of bad faith or wilful obscurantism -- which, anyway, would only show our own bad faith, or an obscure lack of understanding concerning his project -- then we must take him absolutely at his word. We read Spectres of Marx and note that 'Hamlet' allows Derrida to think, and to think of Marx. 'Hamlet' supplies him with the metaphors that allow him to unpack Marx's own metaphors and allow us to see how these metaphors structure Marx, structure 'Hamlet' and could deconstruct (unstructure) our idea both of Marxism and the destructive reality of our capitalist present.

But is something more happening here? Should we ask: can the political only be thought about via/with fictional narrative and the metaphors it lends? Further, can we only think progressively about our collective present and other possible futures if the metaphors we use are deeply embedded in our collective life? Jacques Ranciere, in The Aesthetic Unconscious, problematises our understanding of Freud's use of the Oedipus myth. Did Freud use the Oedipus myth as a metaphor for the unconscious, or was the unconscious already shaped by Oedipus's story? Did Freud use the story or did the story use Freud? Bluntly, I don't think we can think without literature. I don't think we do think without literature. Further, I don't think we can possibly think ourselves out of our current impasse, and the impasse of our thinking, without it.

One of the very many obtuse things about David Shields' obtuse "manifesto" Reality Hunger -- an obtuse book which contains many wonderful quotes about literature and life and which could have been simply a very fine commonplace book -- is its obtuse and strident assertion that the line between the real and the fictive was in any way ever absolute and that the commingling of these two supposedly separate realms will save literature from redundancy.

Mark Fisher describes the foreclosing of (political) thought that could envision different (social) futures as Capitalist Realism. His short book is highly recommended: not least to someone like Shields who seems to think that reality is a given rather than a perpetually socially constructed fiction which we half-wittingly recreate each and every day of our lives.

If the recent banking crisis showed us anything it was that the make-believe is at the heart of what we tell ourselves is real -- and that fiction becomes fact when we have faith enough, or fear, in the (empty) lies that keep us in our places. Those who rule our world kill to maintain the presence of this absence every single day. Every day thousands starve or go cold, kids are bombarded in Iraq whilst neoliberal bloggers cheer, countless bore themselves stupid in offices -- all so that bankers in Saville Row suits are maintained and preserved, and maintain the fiction that thinking beyond a system predicated on their maintainance and preservation is an impossibility.

What is deconstruction? Or, perhaps, that better question from earlier: what was Derrida saying it was when he wrote a book about Marx that was actually much about 'Hamlet'? He was, surely, demonstrating -- more than that, he instantiated it in the very weft and warp of his argument -- that the political is structured by the fictive; is, indeed, always fictive, and needs to be read and understood like this to be undermined and disbelieved.

Things are ever not right here in the 'state of Denmark'. The palace stinks of corruption. The need for change haunts Elsinore; a ghost harrows the corridors and halls. And a spectre is haunting Europe, too: it is called fiction. It is reality's own bad faith. Pace Shields, there is no need to mash-up the fictive and the real to reinvigorate narrative, but there is certainly a need to read the real as always already fictional and thus detonate reality's murderous presumptions.

I'm not a great one for reading challenges (it is, as I've written before, sometimes quite enough of a challenge simply to read anything at all), but as 2010 has seemingly become my "Year of Shakespeare" I'm thinking of joining the folk over at 38 Plays: 38 Days in their effort at reading each of Shakespeare's 38 plays in as many days...

Yes, it is a somewhat brutal rush through a corpus that should be lovingly savoured but, at the same time, I'm rather excited by the idea that by early April I could have read the whole lot and then I might know which ones I need to return to (to do the loving savouring bit) sooner rather than later.

It is not only in Hamlet that Shakespeare presents us with the travails and terrors of madness: it is a recurrent theme in very many of his plays. (Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest... well, actually, every play of his that I know some little about reflects on madness in some way; I understand that Shakespeare uses the words 'mad' and 'madness' more often in Twelfth Night than in any other work, so doubtless I should focus my attention there soon.) Sadly -- and this has happened to Dickens too, I think -- Heritage stops us seeing Shakespeare for the troubling and unsettling writer that he manifestly is: "The weight of this sad time we must obey; Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say." The times are ever-troubling; and it is always the time to speak in a heartfelt way against the present's deadening cant. These are not sane times; Lear is as untimely as it has ever been.

Shakespeare was writing when what constituted the written English language, what constituted the very tools which he went on to fashion into the best ever expression of those tools, was still particularly unsettled. And how he wields words seems to reflect a view of the self that suggests that what constitutes the self -- fashioned on the stage merely by the playwright's words, of course -- is itself ever-unsettled. Shakespeare’s language is an erratic, antic, fizzing brew which captures, and expresses existentially, a particular take on the non-fixity of the human state. He is a poet not of an age, but for all time because time is written into the ambiguity -- the play -- of his writing, and into the ambiguous, uncertain, unanchored, disarranged characters he sets before us. His language moves -- his characters move -- as we move as time moves...

Fools, as numerous readers have noted, are wont to be wise, and kings can often be very foolish. If he had been fully in his right mind, Lear, surely, should have known that his daughters, Goneril and Regan, were far from virtuous, were far from the ideal caretakers for his Kingdom in his dotage. That is, unless we are to presume that they became so particularly venal only after being gifted a share of their Father's estate -- which pushes our credulity too far, I think, but does reinforce the idea that once Lear's madness is large in the land, other madnesses will be loosed and liberated. Lear's unquieted state is apparent, if not at the absolute moment he begins to divide his Kingdom, certainly at the instant he forgets the previous dutiful, loving nature of his favourite and youngest daughter Cordelia; he certainly fully loses control when her lawyerly response ("I love your majesty According to my bond; nor more nor less") mocks and highlights his frankly ridiculous decision to divest himself of "of rule, Interest of territory, cares of state". (Cordelia, of course, is not quite herself at this juncture either; two suitors await in the wings when she says: "when I shall wed, That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry Half my love with him, half my care and duty.") There is madness in the air, then, as soon as we began to read or watch the play. The moment Gloucester believes of Edmund that his other son Edgar could ever conceive of his murder, we know for sure that the mayhem that has infected Lear's brain will flow through the whole of his realm.

It has been a commonplace since at least Foucault wrote his History of Madness that the pathologising medicalization of several morbid unhappinesses has robbed us of access to the kind of Foolish wisdom that attempts to support Lear and his friends throughout the play in counterpoint to Lear's own self-destructive, but occasionally self-illuminating mania. When a king shows himself a fool it is time for his Fool to show wise counsel. This Foolish, supportive wisdom is echoed in the subplot in which Edgar disguises himself as Tom of Bedlam and guides his now cruelly blinded father to a limited form of spiritual rebirth at Dover Cliff.

My grandmother who died, aged 97, three years ago, quite mad from dementia and the attendant ravages of age, was central to my upbringing -- "The oldest hath borne most: we that are young Shall never see so much, nor live so long." She is central still to my moral universe. Her socialistic dictum, that you can only sleep in one bed, the concomitant of which is that those who have more than one bed declare themselves to be embedded in excess, remains core to my worldview. Her degenerative illness manifested itself in many tragic and demeaning ways, but two strange Shakespearian wisdoms arose: she confused family members (I was often thought to be my father, and vice versa); and she disremembered the trivial and the everyday whilst clearly recalling events from 50, 60 and even 70 and more years ago. The pattern, I'm sure, is familiar to everyone with elderly and infirm parents or grandparents. Time's tyranny was now, with her, differently manifest. And, of course, came at a high and often distressing, sometimes comic cost.

I do not believe in ghosts, but during my own recent weaknesses, my grandmother has been fully in my thoughts. So fully that I've smelt her cooking in my flat and, on my pillow, the distinctive, beautiful scent of her face and hair -- a memory which must come from my own now distant childhood. I have, in truth, felt much closer to her than I did during the long years of her failing mental and physical health.

Lear is certainly not a play only about madness, it is, speaking colloquially, a mad play. It is such a beguiling work because it is a bit all over the place. Sometimes, Shakespeare's poetry takes him so far into the human that he feels timeless, but many aspects of Lear can't help but foreground the Jacobean. The messy nature of the play, however, also underscores something very human -- humans are not neat! Their emotions, their desires, their hopes and fears are messy, ridiculous, unfounded, grandiose, illogical, perverse. Their madness sometimes allows them to see the world's madness, sometimes reflects that madness, and sometimes is merely an awful, lonely, destructive vortex...

A kind of order is restored to Lear's domain at the end of the play. But the order comes at a terrible human cost, and the order is itself contingent: Lear dies, whilst humbled and grief-stricken, still haughty and half-mad; his favourite Cordelia dead in his arms; Gloucester is blind; and, of course, Goneril, Regan and Edmund's corpses litter the stage. Humankind cannot bear very much reality and is ever loath to admit that death has undone so very many. We are not only born astride our own graves, but arrive wailing into an overcrowded cemetery: "When we are born, we cry that we are come To this great stage of fools." Learning to live with ghosts isn't an option but an essential life skill. Lear leaves an unstated, dying curse in the air: this is ever his kingdom, and we are never out of it.

It is often quite obvious why a particular text speaks to us in a particularly powerful way at a particular time in our lives. As with anything human, however, the reasons might be obvious, but they are not always clear or clearly linear. We might be sad and look to something uplifting; or we might seek to find consolation in something that mirrors our melancholy.

I have no wish to parade the details of my own recent, continuing and sometimes crippling grief here, but I have been thinking a lot about why certain texts have touched me so profoundly of late and why others have left me cold -- left me, that is, how they found me and offered me no way out of my grief nor any way into themselves with the concomitant comfort that that might gift.

My grief has been all the usual and varied colours of sadness and madness. It has been searing, voluptuous, numbing. I foresaw that it would be -- I have been unhappy, unsettled, unbalanced before (who has not?). I did not foresee that, this time, for much of the time that I was most antic and most lost, most peculiarly undone, I would have taken from me (I would, I suppose, take away from myself) that which had always been of such solace to me. Quite simply, I could not read.

The chapter and verse of what caused this unsettling self-loss, all the tawdry trivia that led me to lose one of the things that has always been one of the anchors by which I keep myself tethered and focussed, are of no importance. But I lost much, not least my home (not my house, this is not a tale of financial woe, corruption or swindling) and my "girls" (my beloved dogs, who now live away from me and with my family) and more besides. These are quotidian losses: people lose more than I lost everyday. Indeed, my loss is hardly fully loss: it is a subtraction of excess tied to a form of self-imposed internal exile. These are slender removals, unrare ravages, commonplace catastrophes. They are, in truth, unworthy of comment or further delay.

Moving away, I presumed a royal road, if not to health, at least to non-grief. I hoped some enforced quiet would allow time for restorative reflection and, almost the same but not wholly synonymous, time for reading. But I could not read. I could not settle. I could not sit still. I could not read. (I could, as ever, drink -- and drink I did.) Later, when I could settle, when I could sit still... still, I could not read. I became adept at staring into space. I hadn't realised it was such a skill. I did not realise that it could become something so exceptionally honed. I never imagined it could be preferred over anything and everything; most especially, over reading. But sitting still and staring is not a story. So I shall move past my unmoving, and move on.

In early December, I picked up a cheap paperback copy of "Hamlet". I'd never read "Hamlet" nor even seen it performed. The play has such cultural weight that a presumption of familiarity is attributed to anyone who might by considered by others to be "well read" (or some such). But the play -- the play that Harold Bloom calls a "poem unlimited" -- had almost wholly passed me by.

I'm not sure why I picked it up. I'm not sure why of the countless books in my book-lined, book-overloaded little flat, this tatty copy of "Hamlet" suggested itself as the book that might awaken me to books. But it did. And it did so insistently. You will all, I'm sure, know the outlines of the story of "Hamlet" better than I did. And, surely, unconsciously, half-consciously, I knew that something in the story of Elsinore's Prince would unsettle my settled misery, would unencumber me of grief's sometimes comforting carapace, would make me aware that my own madness was merely the mildest confusion, a pale mania, cousin to mourning but a distant relation worthy of consideration but not the insistent indulgence I had been giving it.

Hamlet runs ahead of Hamlet. And the rest of the players are, at least, two steps further behind. Why does the Prince overmourn a father it seems likely that he loved dutifully and diligently but not excessively? The Fool Yorick gave him more love as a child than did his uxorious, unfatherly father. It was Yorick who played with him ("He hath borne me on on his back a thousand times") and Yorick who received the child Prince's tender love ("those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft"). And why does the Prince bait and berate Ophelia? Unable to love her, it seems, and able only to play with her feelings (played, perhaps, and perturbed, for sure, by his own feelings) and then able to put on a play for her, Claudius and the court, a play that seems to suggest that our several performances of our own, presumed self-same selves are always aware of an audience and are doubly inauthentic -- to our never self-same selves and to those hypocrite lecteurs ever beyond and baying.

Hamlet is a study in the negotiation we each make with the (in)authenticity of our self, and our grief, and with what that self loses even as it becomes more madly itself via the very losses it witnesses and articulates. Further, we witness the loss that articulation itself is -- and non-articulation too: Ophelia's madness leads to her early ruination and death, and to one of the play's most beautiful set-pieces in Gertrude's speech about her drowning. We witness ambiguous double-binds and, binding, rooted ambiguity.

In my own minimal madness, I read "Hamlet" and I heard Hamlet call. Heard him speak to himself, of himself and half-realise he could hardly keep up with even that utterly, definitionally, self-limiting performance. I realised, along with Hamlet, lesserly, that my own disquiet was perforce undone by its (limited) creativity and coherence: the coherence of my incoherence mocked my incoherence. But, better, more simply, I read. I sat still and I read. And I read some more.

It turns out that almost every other line in "Hamlet" one already knows. The play reads like a sourcebook to all that has been written since. Bloom suggests that Shakespeare invented the human (a sense of the secular, self-questioning subject). I doubt that. Hamlet uninvents the (notion of a) coherent self even as the most fully human character the stage has ever seen steps forth -- at the birth of subjectivity, Hamlet, our extreme contemporary, shows the subject to be a kind of fiction. Hamlet validates and allows for the self's self-incoherence; the undoing of the self is the self's own self-making. My local madness will pass. Our general madness will not. Something comforting therein is almost claimed.

More Shakespeare news via the Guardian:

A team working on the site where Shakespeare learned his trade has discovered a piece of 16th-century pottery that features a face resembling that of the great man.

It was found during excavation work in Shoreditch, east London, at the site of what used to be The Theatre, lost for more than 400 years and where Shakespeare performed as an actor, as well as staging his earliest plays (more...)

Via the Telegraph, "a painting that may be the only surviving portrait of William Shakespeare made in his lifetime" will be unveiled later today:

The picture, from 1610, six years before the playwright's death, has been in the possession of the Cobbe family since the early 18th century.

It was initially kept at a property in Hampshire but more recently in Hatchlands, the family house in Surrey, which is run by the National Trust.

For three centuries the family was unsure of the identity of the figure in the portrait. According to Alec Cobbe, an art restorer, at one time it had been thought to be of Sir Walter Raleigh.

Although the painting has not been proven to be the bard, it has the backing of the world's foremost expert on Shakespeare, Stanley Wells, emeritus professor of Shakespeare studies at Birmingham University and chairman of the Shakespeare Birthday Trust.

Prof Wells believes it was painted when the writer was 46 years old, six years before his death in 1616 (more...)