Every Shakespeare fanatic has his favorite unsolvable mystery. Sigmund Freud’s was why did Shakespeare allow some dead guy to write eleven of his plays? (Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford died in 1604; “Shakespeare” wrote his final play in 1613). T.S. Eliot’s was why was Shakespeare so unaware that Hamlet was “most certainly an artistic failure?” (Very astute, Tommy!) Oscar Wilde’s question was how much did Shakespeare really love those young boy actors who played his most memorable female roles? (According to the Sonnets, the answer to this question appears to be…awkward!) And James Joyce’s question dealt with Shakespeare’s marriage: just how bad was it? Was it simply ordinarily awful, or was Sweet Anne really making the “beast with two backs” with all three of Shakespeare’s brothers? (And come to think of it: exactly how many backs would that beast have? Three? Four? SIX?!)
[To be fair to Anne, I’ll quickly explain why this probably didn’t happen. By the time Shakespeare’s name appeared in London in 1592, Anne was thirty-seven and the ages of her brother-in-laws were Gilbert (twenty-six), Richard (eighteen), and Edmund (twelve). At that stage in life, could a thirty-seven year old woman be sleeping with a twenty-six year old? Maybe. An eighteen year old? Probably not. A twelve year old? Creepy! But hey, mere chronological impossibility never stopped Oxfordians, like Freud, from claiming that The Tempest was written by a corpse that had been rotting for eleven years!]
My favorite unsolvable Shakespearean mystery focuses on the Bard’s retirement. What was he thinking? Who, in 1611, retires? And what the hell did he do with all his free-time? Yes, shuffleboard was invented in 1532, but there is no historical record that a court ever existed in Stratford-Upon-Avon. And the Birmingham Barons didn’t start playing Double-A baseball until 1885. (And by the way: Michael Jordan, what were you thinking?)
I suspect that Shakespeare didn’t so much retire, as he was forced out. After all, he was only forty-seven, and he did write substantial parts of, at least, three more plays in collaboration with John Fletcher: Henry VIII, the lost Cardenio, and The Two Noble Kinsmen. (And yes, it pisses me off to no end that civilization has somehow managed to LOSE a Shakespeare play! It’s called Cardenio. It was last seen in Elizabethan London. Robert Langdon… FIND IT!)
So, in essence, what appears to have happened is that Shakespeare was forced to accept a demotion to Part-Time. As much as I love Shakespeare, I can’t really say that I blame the directors of the Globe Theater for this decision. After all, even though his plays were still wildly popular, he had given up writing for his audience. In other words, he stopped caring what people thought about him or his plays.
For example, upon reading the original script for The Tempest, I envision the conversation between the playwright and the directors of the Globe went something like this:
Director of the Globe #1: [tactfully] You know, Will, Bermuda isn’t really located in the Mediterranean between Italy and Tunis.
Shakespeare: No tongue! All eyes! Be silent.
Director of the Globe #2: [awkwardly] Will, old chap, remember how, in your last performance review, we talked about trying to have a more positive attitude?
Shakespeare: For this, be sure, tonight thou shalt have cramps!
Director of the Globe #2: Well, we’ve decided to cut down your hours to Part-Time, and you’re going to start sharing an office with John Fletcher.
Shakespeare: Thou poisonous slave!
Director of the Globe #1: [suggestively] Or you could just retire.
In 1610, Shakespeare returned to live in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Three years later, he gave up writing completely. And after that, we have no idea how he spent the final three years of his life. According to rumor, the only thing that we know from these three years is that he supposedly planted a mulberry tree in the backyard of his home at New Place. And I question how peaceful this act was. I envision an irate Anne screaming, “Why don’t you get off your LAZY, LITERARY ASS and go plant a Mulberry tree or something!” (And then once poor, retired Will was out of earshot, she whispers to herself, “You know, even though I’m fifty-eight and his brother Edmund is thirty-three, he sure is a hunk!”)
Any critic who seeks to unlock the mystery of Shakespeare’s retirement is inevitably drawn to The Tempest. In The Anatomy of Influence, Harold Bloom dubs The Tempest Shakespeare’s “last and best comedy,” but he also admits that compared to it “Beckett seems straightforward.” Because the play was Shakespeare’s last without the “help” of John Fletcher, and probably had been a success at the Globe, it appears first in the First Folio. But what kind of play is The Tempest? Bloom describes it as a “tragicomedy,” while suggesting that Shakespeare himself would probably have simply described it as a comedy. (I suspect that if asked to define the play’s genre, Shakespeare would’ve angrily muttered, “Who gives a damn!”)
But if The Tempest is a comedy, why does no one ever laugh at it? (Go ahead, next time you attend a performance, observe how little laughter there is.) And why does the play’s ending remind me so much of the title of Modest Mouse’s classic album Good News for People Who Love Bad News?
There are two primarily avenues for trying to unlock The Tempest. The first is through focusing on the play’s association with the Faustus legend. The name Prospero is Italian for the “favored one.” The original “favored one” was Simon Magus of Samaria, who, like Jesus the Magician, was a disciple of John the Baptist. Magus, a central figure in Gnostic literature, traveled to Rome, where he took the Latin cognomen of Faustus (the “favored one”). He then supposedly perished in a levitation contest with Saint Peter. (WHAT? Yeah, that’s weird!) The story of Simon Magus became the basis for Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. But does knowing any of this really explain The Tempest? Or does it simply introduce more questions? For example, why does Shakespeare invoke Marlowe’s play, only to transform it beyond recognition?
The other avenue for attempting to understand the play is to view it as a commentary on Shakespeare’s retirement. Within this reading, Prospero functions as a stand-in for Shakespeare, exhibiting all the surliness of an overworked, under-appreciated stage manager. In this reading, The Tempest is Shakespeare’s bitter farewell to the Globe, in essence saying, “Good luck getting a play like THIS from little Johnny Fletcheroo!”
But even this analysis has its flaws. For example, Prospero doesn’t really retire; he actually retires in reverse. He retires from his job as an island magician to re-assume his post as ruler of Milan. On the surface, this appears to be one of the happiest endings for any character in all of Shakespeare’s play. But wait a minute…didn’t Prospero already have one term as ruler of Milan? And didn’t that term end as a spectacular failure? So why should anyone expect him to be a better administrator now? And when he says that, in Milan, “every third thought shall be my grave,” the suggestion is that after he thinks about the governance of Milan (remember: guaranteed failure), his next thought will be of educating Caliban (another guaranteed failure, unless you consider non-consensual inter-species sex between adopted family members a success!) And once he’s thought about these two guaranteed failures, he’ll comfort himself by contemplating death. How’s that for a commentary on retirement? And by the way, how’s that Mulberry tree growing, Will?
And this is where the story would’ve ended had Samuel Beckett not reinterpreted The Tempest in his own play Endgame.
Endgame: (n) the late or final stages of any artistic activity
In Endgame, Ariel and Prospero are reimagined as Clov and Hamm. Within this reimagining, what Beckett cleverly learned from The Tempest is that the end of any creative endeavor (whether it be a play or a career) involves a heavy dose of melancholy, and it is this element that puts the “tragic” in “tragicomedy.” Melancholy can be both sad and hilarious, and this combination makes the emotion extreme volatile. Both Prospero and Hamm (and most likely Shakespeare too) exhibit a temperament that goes from mirth to melancholy back to mirth in a minute. And these swings are so unhinged that the threat of violence always lingers around the edges of any interaction.
A similar feeling of melancholy pervaded my completion of The Minotaur & the Midwest. Begun in Portland, the manuscript was finished in Columbus, Ohio. The conclusion marked the end of a two year endeavor to, as Nietzsche says in the introduction to Ecce Homo, “tell my life to myself.” What had begun as a project of humorous essays in the tone of James Thurber ended much differently.
Here is the conclusion to The Minotaur & the Midwest:
Midwesterners know that they live in a land that was once a savage frontier. Once tamed, this land grew to be great and prosperous. The region once nurtured Presidents and reared men of great renown; it now nurtures no one. Ohio used to produce Presidents; now it only produces produce.
Pondering the tragic fall of the Midwest, I sailed upon a river of road back into the myth of my creation. That October afternoon, I sailed through Pennsylvania. Three hours into my journey, I passed Chambersburg. Two months before the raid on Harper’s Ferry, John Brown met Frederick Douglass, in secret, at an abandoned stone quarry outside of Chambersburg. It was the last time that the two old friends would ever speak to each other.
After outlining his plan to attack the armory, John Brown put his arms around his old friend’s shoulders.
“Come with me, Douglass,” he said. “I will defend you with my life.”
It was a shockingly suicidal plan, and Frederick Douglass refused to participate in it. Their meeting over, Douglass turned to leave. At that moment, he glanced at his friend and travel companion, a fugitive slave from South Carolina named Shields Green. Green stood transfixed. He had met John Brown before at Frederick Douglass’ house in Rochester, New York.
According to Frederick Douglass’ account of the events, Green then surprised both men “by his coolly saying in his broken way, ‘I b’leve I’ll go wid de ole man.’”
Six hours into my journey, I sailed past the Crawford county line. It was here, in the town of Titusville, that John Brown buried the body of his first wife, Dianthe, along with their stillborn son. At the same time that John Brown and Frederick Douglass were meeting in the vicinity, a Civil War veteran named Colonel Edwin L. Drake first struck oil in Crawford Country.
Sailing further into the western wilderness, I passed Hudson, Ohio. In the spring of 1848, John Brown left Hudson to travel to Peterboro, New York, where he met a man named Gerrit Smith. A wealthy abolitionist, Smith had set aside one hundred and twenty thousand acres in the Adirondack Mountains for the resettlement of slaves and their families. The name of this community was North Elba.
During their meeting, John Brown explained to the six-foot, two-hundred pound Smith that he had grown up among the western wilderness. Because of this, he claimed to be “something of a pioneer.”
“I will take one of your farms myself,” John Brown proposed. “Clear it up and plant it, and show my colored neighbors how much work should be done.”
Smith accepted this proposal and sold John Brown two hundred and forty-four acres at the price of $1 an acre. One month later, Brown moved his family out of Ohio for good. From his North Elba farm, John Brown could gaze upon the towering, barren façade of White Face Mountain. He found the surrounding landscape sever, yet enchanting. “Everything you see,” he wrote to John Jr., “reminds one of Omnipotence.”
It is possible to transport one’s self out of the wilderness; just as it is possible to inhabit the small patch of land that was ideologically hewed by John Brown. True to his word, John Brown has shown his neighbors how much work needs to be done. The more people who transport themselves out of the wilderness, the more the wilderness shrinks, and the less terrifying its emptiness becomes. Once this work is begun, it will be possible to survey the surrounding landscape as John Brown himself did on his way to the gallows, seated upon his coffin, his hands and legs bound in irons, and say, “this is a beautiful land.”