Minority opinions, I suppose, but appealingly shrewd. Hamlet is an abominable swine, self-serving, self-dramatizing, priggish, arrogant, arrested in adolescence, the very model of an over-educated narcissist. What’s remarkable is that I knew this the first time I read the play, when still too young to be arrested in adolescence (though, on first reading, I took Stephen Dedalus to be the hero of Ulysses, and Leopold Bloom a drudge). Lear, too, is mired in self. Only with Cordelia’s death does he slip involuntarily into humanity. And yet, if limited to a single book on that bookless island of the damned, I would bring King Lear. I’m convinced Shakespeare reserved his best lines, ruminative and otherwise, for Macbeth.
The writer quoted above is Anthony Powell in the third volume of his journals, covering 1990-1992. At age eighty-five, the author of A Dance to the Music of Time is systematically rereading Shakespeare’s plays, a regimen he has followed unsystematically all his life. The plays and their characters are old friends, and the passages devoted to them flow seamlessly into passages devoted to gossip and the character analysis of real people. Powell the octogenarian is still happily addicted to the lives of others, at his best when writing not about himself but his fellows. Following his illness in late 1990, he writes on April 3, 1991:
“Much relieved to find I can read Shakespeare in bed again, something I found myself too exhausted to do hitherto after turning in, since my indispositions. I was surprised how much I missed this, tho’ it may sound affected.”
The project is more than bookish nostalgia. Powell and his books are suffused with Shakespeare. The four volumes of his memoirs, collectively call To Keep the Ball Rolling, published between 1976 and 1982, take their titles from the plays, as does his first post-Dance novel, O, How the Wheel Becomes It! (1983). In an example selected almost at random, Nicholas Jenkins in The Military Philosophers (1968, the ninth novel in the twelve-novel Dance sequence) observes:
“Our billet was a VIP one, a requisitioned hotel presided over by a brisk little cock-sparrow of a captain, who evidently knew his job. `We had the hell of a party here the other night,’ he said. `A crowd of senior officers as drunk as monkeys, brigadiers rooting the palms out of the pots.’
“His words conjured up the scene in Antony and Cleopatra, when arm-in-arm the generals dance on Pompey's galley, a sequence of the play that makes it scarcely possible to disbelieve that Shakespeare himself served for at least a period of his life in the army.”
By this time in his life, Powell knows his mind and cares little for critical orthodoxies. Much Ado about Nothing he calls “a most unfavourite play of mine, in fact the only Shakespeare play I really dislike.” But for Measure for Measure, “a play I never greatly like,” he discovers a newfound fondness, comparing it favorably to The Tempest:
“I am struck by how the Duke resembles Prospero, especially in certain rather disagreeable aspects, for instance telling Isabella her brother actually has been executed, when it would have been just as good to say question still hung in the balance. Prospero is usually taken to be The Bard’s self-portrait to some extent, so that not for the first time one feels Shakespeare had a slightly sadistic side. Of course an Elizabethan audience may have demanded that sort of situation. Always good on brothel personnel, here Pompey the pimp is funny, as, when being interrogated: `...Now, sir, come on. What was done to Elbow’s wife, once more? Pompey: `Once, sir? There was nothing done to her once.’ Shall reread The Tempest next to check on Duke/Prospero similarity.”
Four months later, in April 1991, he rereads The Tempest, drops the Measure for Measure comparison and notes of my favorite scene in the play:
“Reread The Tempest, which I enjoyed more than usual. What were Miranda’s reactions when she first saw a woman, grasped that she had competitors? Did she still think how beauteous was mankind? Did they leave Caliban on the island, more or less in command, or was he taken back and shown at fairs?”
An attractive, slender volume, one I would happily buy, could be assembled from Powell’s late, pithy assessments of the plays. Powell was born on this date, Dec. 21, in 1905, and died March 28, 2000, at age ninety-four.