On Sitting down to Read Shakespeare Once Again

Theodore B. Leinwand

One can imagine a typology of the pleasures of reading—or of the readers of pleasure . . .
      —Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text 63

Of course, many of us do not sit down to read Shakespeare. When recently I talked with students in two discussion sections that meet after Shakespeare lectures, I found that at least half of them read Shakespeare lying down in bed or stretched out on a couch. Some say that their bedroom or the bed in their dormitory room is the only place that offers the sort of quiet, more than that, the repose, that reading Shakespeare seems to require. Other discussants could not imagine reading Shakespeare in bed—a desk and a chair, even pacing about, any position that wards off somnolence is imperative. There is much to say about the phenomenology and the physiology (for professional readers, for academics, maybe it is the ergonomy) of reading Shakespeare—our preparations, our posture, our tools (pens, pencils, bookmarks, bookrests), reading silently or aloud (alone or with others), setting, time of day, and so on. We can also say a good deal about the book we hold in our hands: not so much in terms of signally important bibliographical choices (quarto or folio, Folger or Oxford, facsimile or modernization), but more materially, the number of pounds of text (Riverside or Signet), its girth, heft, binding, font, type size, page layout, and paper stock. Cover design and artwork, what we might call overall eye appeal, add to the mix. It is always salutary to be reminded just how much these criteria count for students. They count for us, too. They have always counted.

From Carisbrooke, on 17 April 1817, Keats writes to his “dear [John Hamilton] Reynolds” that he is “about to become settled.” Keats has been domesticating space for reading and for writing. For him as for us this is at once gemütlich and ritualized “work”:

I have unpacked my books, put them into a snug corner—pinned up [Benjamin] Haydon—Mary Queen of Scotts, and Milton with his daughters in a row. In the passage I found a head of Shakspeare which I had not before seen . . .—this head I have hung over my Books, just above the three in a row, having first discarded a French Ambassador—Now this alone is a good morning’s work . . . (5)

Settling in to read, arranging the household gods, something “snug”—all of Keats’s self-critical humor and self-aggrandizing hopes are audible. The “pinned up Haydon” really does call to mind a dormitory room. Keats is nesting, improvising, stalling and puttering and preparing. Later, in 1819, Keats is still “sitting opposite the Shakspeare I brought from the Isle of wight” but now it is draped with “silk tassels” with which the poet’s sister-in-law, Georgiana, had decorated it, maybe affectionately mocked it (214). We should not underestimate the meaningfulness of such a “morning’s work,” this finding the right place in which to settle. For Keats, as for all of us, not just the ways we prepare to write, but the ways we prepare to read, to read in this instance nothing less than Shakespeare, answer to feelings of pleasure and of inertia, of intimidation, even despair (“I never quite despair and I read Shakespeare” [14; my emphasis]). The Carisbrooke head of Shakespeare traveled extensively with the peripatetic Keats, usually finding a place near his books or writing desk. As for reading preparations, also in 1819, Keats went into considerable detail, fantasizing for his sister Fanny about an elaborate, “handsome Globe of goldfish” that he would set before a “handsome painted window” shaded “round with myrtles and Japonicas”: “I should like the window to open onto the Lake of Geneva—and there I’d sit and read all day like the picture of somebody reading” (203). Keats imaginatively constitutes an ideal reading space, then frames it, gliding quietly from subject to object, also reminding us how intensely self-conscious he was not only about his writing, but about his reading, his very posture.

Proust also writes about settling into (s’installer) a chair perfectly positioned for reading:

Who does not remember, as I do, those books read during vacation time, that one used to take and hide, one after another, in those hours of the day that were peaceful enough and inviolable enough to be able to give them refuge. . . . (I settled on a chair near the little wood fire) where I would have as companions, very respectful of reading, only the painted plates hung on the wall, the calendar whose sheet of the previous day had been freshly pulled, the clock and the fire which speak without asking you to answer them, and whose peaceful talk devoid of meaning does not come, like the words of men, to substitute a different sense from that of the words you are reading. (3,5)

Cozy and playful, but also proprietary and suffused with ardor, Proust recalls for us the simultaneous luxury and necessity of his, and he assumes of our, being secretly ensconced, caché and inviolable. The abandon and solace of reading, “un plaisir divin,” are impatient with any “obstacle vulgaire.” Once a space and a spell are initiated, how dismaying it is to have them interrupted: “Before lunch, which, alas!, would put an end to reading, one had two long hours still. . . . Unfortunately the cook used to come long in advance to set the table; if only she had done it without speaking!” (5). Like Keats, along with Milton’s “daughters in a row,” Proust (self-)deprecatingly acknowledges the human comedy: “hélas!”; “the fatal words: ‘Come, shut your book’ “ (7).

Proust read sitting in a chair and he read lying in bed: “sometimes at home in bed long after dinner, the last hours of the evening also sheltered my reading” (21, 23). To the privacy and solipsism of reading to himself, he counterposes a room and a method which vacates the self: “I only feel myself living and thinking in a room where everything is the creation and the language of lives profoundly different from mine, of a taste opposite to mine, where I find nothing of my conscious thought, where my imagination is excited by feeling itself plunged into the depths of the nonego” (17). It follows that we best remember where and when (“the image of the places and the days” [27]) we read, not what we read. Still, with Proust as with Keats, the “non-ego” or “non-moi” (Proustian “negative capability”) hardly entails the reader/writer’s wholesale self-surrender. Proust insists that the reader’s wisdom begins precisely where the author’s leaves off (“notre sagesse commence oú celle de l’auteur finit” [341). Keats, for his part, may fancy Shakespeare his “Presider” (12) and worry that he “has left nothing to say about nothing or any thing” (40), but he writes to his “dear [Benjamin] Bailey” that he is “not old enough or magnanimous enough to anihilate [sic] self” (99).

Reading is at one moment languorous and passive, at another, oppressive and combative. “There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we believed we left without having lived them, those we spent with a favorite book” (Proust, 3). “I . . . for so long a time, have been addicted to passiveness,” Keats acknowledges to his brothers (57). “I have an idea,” writes Keats less than a month later,

that a Man might pass a very pleasant life in this manner—let him on any certain day read a certain Page of full Poesy or distilled Prose and let him wander with it, and muse upon it, and reflect from it, and bring home to it, and prophesy upon it, and dream upon it—until it becomes stale—but when will it do so? Never—When Man has arrived at a certain ripeness in intellect any one grand and spiritual passage serves him as a starting post towards all “the two-and-thirty Pallaces” How happy is such a voyage of conception,’ what delicious diligent Indolence! (65)

Despite “this sparing touch of noble Books” (65), the “Page of full Poesy” has the lineaments of Cleopatra. Keats’s “stale . . . Never” echoes Enobarbus’s “Never” as well as his certainty that “custom” cannot “stale / Her infinite variety.” Keats’s “diligent Indolence” is a reading of Antony (whom Keats was discussing with Haydon as early as May, 1817) as well as Cleopatra. As so often with Keats, the page of poesy turns out to be Shakespeare’s; and so the stakes are as high for Keats, who “look[s] upon fine Phrases like a Lover” (277), as for Antony with Cleopatra. Reynolds may have remembered that three months prior to sharing with him his idea of a “very pleasant life,” Keats had lamented that Shakespeare, Cleopatra-like, “overwhelms a genuine Lover of Poesy with all manner of abuse.”[1] “[H]aunted . . . intensely” (6) by passages from the plays, thinking he will “never read any other Book much” and “very near Agreeing with Hazlit [sic] that Shakspeare is enough for us,” Keats has reason to fear being overcome (14; my emphasis). For now, the best he can muster is, “I am glad you [Haydon] say every man of great Views is at times tormented [by Shakespeare?] as I am” (12).

Reading Shakespeare, then, is for Keats both consoling and vexing. Early on in Keats’s life, Charles Cowden Clarke remembered, when Keats was “reading the ‘Cymbeline’ aloud, I saw his eyes fill with tears, and his voice faltered when he came to the departure of Posthumus” (W. J. Bate 33). A slightly older Keats delighted in reading Shakespeare aloud with Haydon in the latter’s studio. Keats and Reynolds hiked through Hampstead Heath taking turns with what Keats called “my folio Shakespeare” (90). He buoyantly instructed Reynolds to “say a Word or two on some Passage in Shakespeare” whenever he wrote (7). To John

Taylor he proclaimed, “I have great reason to be content, for thank God I can read and perhaps understand Shakespeare to his depths” (70). Even when he felt “rather lonely . . . at breakfast,” Keats needed only to unbox his Shakespeare and, “There’s my Comfort.” However, Shakespeare also could undo a “Man [who] has arrived at a certain ripeness” (65), and the “Comfort” to which Keats referred is of course Stephano’s libation. The youthful doctor self-medicates with an early draught of Shakespeare. A variety of prophylaxis is prescribed: “the poet by one cup should know the scope of any particular wine without getting intoxicated-this is the highest exertion of Power, and the next step is to paint from memory of gone self storm” (Keats’s note in his copy of Hazlitt’s Characters—Lowell 589). If “self storm” is “gone” by afternoon-recollected in tranquility-Keats may then, finally, commence writing (White 183). But does Keats best settle in to write only after a tempest or can he write before he encounters one?

Reading, even the thought of reading, seems to have been able to galvanize Keats. Hence what I take to be the literalness of “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer” (not to mention sonnets to Homer, Chatterton, Byron, Burns, and the like). Keats’s reading often induced writing. He and Clarke sat up all night long in Clerkenwell reading a 1616 folio of Chapman’s Homer; Keats was already composing his sonnet as he made his way home early the next morning (Motion 109). Cowden Clarke crows that he “had the reward of one of his [Keats’s] delighted stares” when Clarke read of Ulysses’s shipwreck (W. J. Bate 85). Hours later, Keats’s “delighted stares” were transforned into those of “stout Cortez, when with wond’ring eyes / He star’d at the Pacific.” Nearly a year and a half later, Keats “sat down to read King Lear . . . and felt the greatness of the thing up to the writing of a Sonnet preparatory thereto” (55). So Keats wrote to Bailey even as brother Tom’s “Spitting of blood continues” (55). George and Tom are told that “the thing appeared to demand the prologue of a Sonnet, I wrote it and began to read” (57). What does Keats mean by “demand”? What does “up to” mean?—“welling up in me to the point that I was moved to write a sonnet,” or “I felt the greatness but only up until I myself began a sonnet of my own”? Keats, who could imagine himself sitting and reading “like the picture of somebody reading” (203) and who thought “it would be a great delight . . . to know in what position Shakspeare sat when he began ‘To be or not to be’ (223), sits down, literally bracing himself against the overwhelming “greatness of the thing.” Posture, deportment, or bearing signify acutely for Keats. His brother and sister are in America, but he writes in late 1818 that he knows the manner of their “walking, standing, sauntering, sitting down . . . You will remember me in the same manner—and the more when I tell you that I shall read a passage of Shakspeare every Sunday at ten o Clock—you read one ‹a›t the same time and we shall be as near each other as blind bodies can be in the same room—” (176).

When we, in turn, “sit to read Keats’ sonnet in Shakespeare’s folio,” writes Randall McLeod, “we sense the immediacy of his body, the position in which he sat, conveyed by the writing, the literal and literary posture in one coherent body which is his text (and their text)” (36). Keats writes in order that he may (re)read, anticipating, perhaps even preempting anxiety of influence. The sonnet that Keats writes after the “FINIS” at the end of his Folio Hamlet and before its Lear—a space on a page McLeod judges one of the most “charged emptiness[es] in English literature”—is entitled, “On sitting down to read King Lear once again.” In the version Keats transcribes in a letter to his brothers (which we know from John Jeffrey’s copy and which I record here), the sonnet is entided, “On sitting down to King Lear once Again”:

O golden tongued Romance with serene Lute!
Fair plumed syren! Queen! if far away!
Leave melodizing on this wintry day,
Shut up thine olden volume & be mute.
Adieu! for once again the fierce dispute,
Betwixt Hell torment & impassioned Clay
Must I bum through; once more assay
The bitter sweet of this Shakespeareian fruit
Cheif Poet! & ye clouds of Albion.
Begettors of our deep eternal theme,
When I am through the old oak forest gone
Let me not wander in a barren dream
But when I am consumed with the Fire
Give me new Pheonix-wings to fly at my desire. (57)

Keats appears to have written his sonnet before “self storm” (“ye clouds of Albion”) even has a chance to arrive. To draft a sonnet (like the morning draught of Shakespeare) is in this instance for Keats to prepare to read, to “burn through; once more assay / The bitter sweet of this Shakespeareian fruit.” The sonnet is a reader’s charm, a talisman, protecting Keats as he wanders “through the old oak forest . . . consumed with the Fire.” Keats’s sonnet, in tandem with another reading of King Lear, will hopefully “Give me new Pheonix-wings to fly at my desire.” The relationship between author and reader is as Proust imagines it: we would like an author to give us answers, but “all he can do is give us desires” (35). Or the relationship between author and author-reader is less sequential than it is coincidental, “Keatspearian,”a s McLeod would have it (33). “[Once more humbly assay” in Keats’s draft loses its humility in the Folio version of the sonnet; Keats also strikes out “this” in the phrase “this eternal theme” in order to substitute “our.” Shakespeare and Keats, if the latter gets his new wings, will labor (beget) in unison. McLeod supposes that if Keats is sitting down not “to read” but simply “to King Lear once Again,” and that if his sonnet is the demanded “prologue,” then Keats has “entered into collaboration with Shakespeare . . . the new Phoenix Wings . . . [are] given even before they were entreated” (33); McLeod does not mention that Keats also transcribed his sonnet “Bright Star” opposite the opening of “A Lover’s Complaint” in the copy of Shakespeare’s Poetical Works that he shared with Reynolds (Motion 544). For the moment, however, writing four letters and this sonnet, not to mention the prospect of working through Lear, temporarily saps Keats’s “determination & strength”: I “feel rather tired & my head rather swimming—so I will leave it open till tomorrow’s post” (57).

The frontispiece to Caroline Spurgeon’s Keats’s Shakespeare: A Descriptive Study affords us another way to imagine Keats reading Shakespeare. Spurgeon reproduces a watercolor drawing of Keats by Joseph Severn (to whom, shortly before he died in Rome, Keats bequeathed his copy of Shakespeare’s Poetical Works as well as his seven-volume Shakespeare). Keats is bundled up in an overcoat and leaning back into a deck chair, apparently on the Maria Crowther on his way to Naples in 1820. A folio-sized volume gripped in Keats’s left hand rests on his left thigh, which is crossed over his right leg. Keats’s head is tucked in to his chest, tilted over the book. Spurgeon would have it that “[i]t is noticeable how ill and hollow-cheeked he looks” (vii). At the end of her Foreword, she reproduces a pencil drawing, this time of a fully recumbent Keats, apparently reading in a berth (Marianne Hunt’s 1820 silhouette of the poet, semi-recumbent and again reading something folio-sized, depicts Keats in a posture somewhere between that of the drawing and that of the watercolor [Motion, plate 62]). The drawing is Arthur Severn’s own recollection of a sketch executed by his father—the younger Severn informs Spurgeon that the original was “removed” from a scrapbook in his possession (viii). Keats’s Shakespeare Folio, which he eventually gave to Fanny Brawne, would have required both of his hands for support and might not have given itself to just any reading posture. Keats’s duodecimo Johnson-Steevens edition of Shakespeare (which he had with him on the Isle of Wight and with which he was still traveling when he sailed to Europe) was pocket-sized (4.75 inches by three inches) and would have been manageable in any position. Each of these volumes weighs approximately seven ounces and the entire set weighs a mere three pounds, one and one half ounces. The books fit nicely in one hand and can be held open rather easily with a thumb in the gutter and an index and middle finger offering support from behind. Keats appears to have been right-handed, so he could have held one of the Whittingham volumes comfortably in his left hand and kept a pen or pencil at ready in his right hand (Severn’s posthumous portrait of Keats, sitting reading in Wentworth Place, depicts the poet seemingly oblivious to the painter, leaning his left arm on the back of a bentwood chair with his left hand resting open on his head, his right hand on the recto of an open book supported—this time—by his right thigh crossed over his left leg [Motion, plate 641]. Whether seated, slouching, or lying on his back, whether reading King Lear or reading it once again, we know that Keats “read . . . with his pen, not just his eyes” (McLeod 34). Many of us do the same. Actors certainly do. Students do it all of the time.

In his facsimile of the 1623 Folio, Keats marked up five plays—extensively underlining and five times annotating Troilus and Cressida, underlining much of King Lear and adding notes in addition to his sonnet, underlining and annotating a portion of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and making a few marks in Romeo and Juliet and Henry IV, Part One. Keats’s copy of Shakespeare’s Poetical Works, which he had from Reynolds, is also heavily marked in ink. Spurgeon makes out marks and notes by Reynolds in this volume, also pencil marking by Richard Woodhouse, but thinks that “[by far the greatest amount of marking is by Keats . . . he has scored them [sonnets] all down one side and has in addition marked again certain lines in them” (39). Keats’s markings in his modem edition of the plays are also extensive—most noticeably in The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but they may be found in Measure for Measure, Antony and Cleopatra, and other plays. At times Keats had recourse to a broken or dotted line down the side of a page, at other times he used a solid line, and in either case, he might underline as well. Occasionally we find two solid lines drawn down a margin. Spurgeon believes that this lineation corresponds with “significant” passages, places where Keats “admires an image or expression for its poetical and imaginative value, for vividness or beauty of phrase” (24). No doubt this is so. McLeod nicely suspects that the midline breaks in Keats’s underlinings indicate his “sensitivity to metre (especially caesura) and to rhetorical pauses.” “Keats’ pauses,” he thinks, “may represent something of his actual intonation” (43-44).

McLeod may take us closer to Keats in the act of reading Shakespeare, closer to what Proust called “the original psychological act called reading” (27). But he does not quite get at what I think we are all trying to do when we write in books that we own, our Shakespeares in particular. While a heavily marked-up page is by no means a page that we co-author, it is certainly one that we attempt to take charge of, to overwrite, to master, to make our own. We join, we assist, we decorate and we desecrate (each of these seems to me to describe what Keats and Bailey do when they, like so many others before them, write their names on the wall at the Shakespeare birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon [Motion 193). Often enough when I am reading one of Shakespeare’s plays, I feel as though I simply have to underscore a word or a phrase, insert an asterisk, a bullet, or a caret in the margin. How else, when alone, shy of breaking into song, does one register one’s visceral delight, one’s astonishment and surprise, one’s jouissance? Most of us experience some degree of amusement or embarrassment or surprise when we come upon comments we have written in margins during prior readings. We have second thoughts about lending out books littered with our uncensored annotations. But now here I am pouring over the markings of twenty-one- or twenty-two-year-old John Keats, regardless of his privacy, his embarrassment. There are facing pages in his Johnson-Steevens edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on which every single line of text is marked after one fashion or another. In some instances, a dotted line around the margins partially frames or encages the Shakespearean text. Keats’s copious underlinings break up speeches, redirecting our attention to the fact that the text has passed through Keats’s hands. At rare moments, entire lives come painfully, if momentarily, into view. While looking after his gravely ill brother Tom, who would die in less than two months, Keats underlined (and marked with an x) the words “poore Tom” in his Folio Lear. In between two short, vertical lines in the adjoining margin, he wrote “x Sunday Evening Oct. 4. 1818.” As we read through play after play, we inevitably find ourselves wondering why Keats has failed or refused to put his imprint on particular passages. To read Keats’s Shakespeare is to notice even such unremarked passages.

The 1814 Whittingham edition does not offer a reader much room for marginalia. It is a delightful, miniature traveling companion, but as a consequence, its margins are scant. A typical page left Keats perhaps one-quarter to three-eighths of an inch at the top, one quarter of an inch at the bottom, perhaps five-sixteenths of an inch at the left of each verve, and anywhere from one-quarter of an inch to one and one-quarter inches (in the event of a short line) along the right of each recto. This edition entertained Keats with “Two hundred and Thirty Embellishments”—engravings on each volume’s title page (one of the seven ages of man for each of the seven volumes), at the start of each play, and at the start of each act of each play. Keats stood his best chance of getting in his own two-pence worth at the end of a play, where there is generally an extended note of either Johnson’s or Steevens’s, and then often some blank page. One finds that Keats regularly upbraided Dr. Johnson in saucy handwritten responses to Johnson’s comments. He effaced large swatches of these comments with vigorous, curling, swirling, looping, seemingly manic lining out. Spurgeon aptly notes the mixture of “Keats’s humorous impatience and scorn of Dr. Johnson’s measured and matter of fact criticism of the plays” (29). At the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Whittingham edition appends the following:

Wild and fantastical as this play is, all the parts in their various modes are well written, and give the kind of pleasure which the author designed. Fairies in his time were much in fashion; common tradition had made them familiar, and Spencer’s [sic] poem had made them great.

Keats unfurls two broad spiraling lines that seem to run from left to right across the whole of this comment, set midway down the page. Just to the left of “JOHNSON” Keats writes “Fie” and he fills up the bottom half of the page with his versions of four passages from the play separated from one another by short horizontal lines:

“Such tricks hath weak imagination.”
“To kill Cankers in the Musk rose buds.”
“The clamorous owl that hoots at our quaint Spirits”
“Newts and blind worms do no wrong
Come not near our faery queene”

Page 64 of this edition of Dream, then, consists of Puck’s “If we shadows have offended” speech in italics down to almost the middle of the page, then a simple horizontal ornament, next Johnson’s roughed-up comment followed by Keats’s one word dismissal, and finally, at least a third of a page of Keatsian refutation in the form of citational graffiti.

This is by no means the only time that Keats first cancels out Dr. Johnson and then turns the Bard against him. Keats foregoes the swirl and instead lines through and then crosses out separate parts of the final paragraph of Johnson’s long comment at the end of Measure for Measure. In Act 2, Scene 2 of the play itself, Keats had underlined Isabella’s lines about “proud man.” Now these same lines (in Keats’s adaptation: “But Man! Proud Man! / Drest in a little brief authority / Plays such fantastic tricks before high Heaven / As makes the Angels weep.”!!! ) are copied out by Keats in pitying and caustic response to Johnson’s reservations about Shakespeare’s art and plotting. Keats is terse but still laughing after he has scrolled through a few lines of Dr. Johnson’s at the end of The Winter’s Tale. Just below and to the left of “JOHNSON” he writes, simply, “lo fool again”! The helical, corkscrewing lines that Keats scratches through Johnson’s words following As You Like It seem to be especially agitated. Spurgeon imagines an “exasperated” Keats writing, this time pointedly asking JOHNSON, “Is Criticism a true thing?” (31). The last words on the final page of each of these plays, then, are no longer Johnson’s but Keatspeare’s. “We read fine--------things,” Keats wrote to Reynolds, thinking of Hamlet in particular, “but never feel them to thee [sic] full until we have gone the same step as the Author” (93). Hence the familiar Keats whose poetry reveals him to be influenced by, borrowing from, echoing and responding to Shakespeare; but also Keats the reader of Shakespeare who ventriloquizes, underscores, comes as close as he can, as close as he dares, to going the same step as the author.

There are still other points at which Keats responds to Johnson, and to Steevens too, often continuing to deploy Shakespeare’s words in his own defense. He also annotates both his Whittingham edition and his facsimile of the Folio. Responding to Antony’s final lines in 1.1, Keats notes “[h]ow much more Shakespeare delights in dwelling upon the romantic and wildly natural than upon the monumental.” Monumental is counterposed to “Fie, wrangling queen!,” the phrase next to which Keats places his x or asterisk. Keats the reader-poet also responds to what he calls “bye-writing” in a note in his Folio Lear. There, four rather undistinguished lines from Regan, Gloucester, and Edmund elicit from Keats a small burst of professional admiration: “This bye-writing is more marvellous than the whole ripped up contents of Pernambuca—or any buca whatever—on the earth or in the waters under the earth.” For whom is Keats writing the phrase “or any buca whatever”? Is this his sense of humor or his self-consciousness, his intimation that we will one day come upon his commentary? Like Shakespeare’s, Keats’s words—even in his marginal notes, his “bye-writing”—are at once “wildly natural” and carefully wrought. He has a sense that his letters might be monuments that will one day be read by another—why not his annotations, and why not by Shakespeare himself? “What would Rousseau have said at seeing our little correspondence!,” he writes to Fanny Brawne, “I don’t care much—I would sooner have Shakspeare’s opinion about the matter” (362). To turn Shakespeare’s words against Johnson is to enlist the former’s sentiments at the expense of the latter, something perhaps less daunting than Shakespeare’s opinion of Keats.

Keats’s Folio marginalia sometimes look like his own version of textual notes. Early in Troilus and Cressida he dismisses “the Commentators [who] have contrived to twist” and so to have “hocus pocus’d” Shakespeare’s “a scorn” into “a storm.” Other notes, however, again bring us close to Keats actually reading or “about to become settled” with his Folio. He underlines, double underlines, and rules down the margin alongside Ulysses’s strictures on Achilles, asterisks “blowne up,” and observes: “One’s very breath while leaning over these Pages is held for fear of blowing this line away—as easily as the gentlest breeze—despoils Robs dandelions of their fleecy Crowns” (my emphasis). Is this Keats perched over the large-format text? Or does Shakespeare’s line “ouer-bulke vs all,” stopping Keats’s breath before it can despoil the line? Keats writes to George and Georgiana, “I throw [corrected from through] my whole being into Triolus [sic]” (170). No doubt this is figurative, as is Keats “with Achilles shouting in the Trenches” or Keats “repeating” Shakespeare’s lines only to “melt into the air with a voluptuousness so delicate that I am content to be alone” (170). But the conjunction of feasible behavior (holding one’s breath, shouting, repeating a line, being alone) and metaphorical behavior (blowing away a line, melting into the air) lessens the distinction between the two even as it reconfirms for us the bodily dimensions of Keats’s “psychological act called reading.” “Prostrate,” in Keats’s note to a Folio passage from Troilus 1.3, positions Keats every bit as much as it does “intellect”: “The Genius of Shakspeare was an inate [sic] universality—wherefore he had the utmost achievement of human intellect prostrate beneath his indolent and kingly gaze.” Glimpses of Keats sitting, settling, leaning, holding his breath, and prostrate allow us to elaborate both a meaningful physiology of reading and a variety of “stances” toward Shakespeare, any one of which may be our own. But prostration, in particular, indicates the full psychosomatism of reading Shakespeare: at once a posture and a form of address, something either voluntary or involuntary, both devotion and depletion, possession and forfeiture.

Moreover, prostration leads one to consider precisely how much any of us thrills to the prospect of sitting down to read Shakespeare once again? What is the ratio of work to pleasure, or of exhaustion to rapture? Virginia Woolf, whose one criticism of Harley Granville-Barker’s” de-Luxe” edition of the 1623 Folio Midsummer Night’s Dream was that it was “a trifle too broad for the ordinary size of human hands” (3.438), particularizes the required expense of energy:

Anyone who is left alone in a tumultuous frame of mind is quite likely to read Shakespeare, choosing that one of the plays is an effort. It is One must make the plunge; it is an effort> which most agrees or most contrasts with his mood. However in ten minutes or so the personal cobwebs are blown clean away. The vigour of the language is too overwhelming . . . Every ounce of energy is used up in realizing the perpetual succession of images which coin even the thinnest pencilled thoughts on the borderlands or our consciousness into robust highly coloured shapes. Merely to throw ourselves this way and that with the emotions of the different speakers gives the illusion of violent physical exercise. To seize the first phrases of each character . . . requires the utmost agility of imagination. The vitality, the intensity, the compression and pressure of each page keep one on the stretch almost to the exclusion of comment . . . (3.496; my emphasis)

The reader will have noticed that Woolf (knowingly?) reproduces Keats’s “overwhelms” and his “blowing . . . away,” his sense of “highest exertion,” even Shakespeare leaving them “nothing to say about nothing.” Keats threw his “whole being into” Troilus; Woolf has the play she recollects raising a thousand questions “in which we may become absorbed . . . . The exercise has been continuous without interruption and always a full pitch” (3.497). Several years later, she would couple Shakespeare and Keats in one sentence, writing about the “intoxication and intensity” of the body when reading their poetry (4.396). Like Keats, Woolf gives us no sign that she is exaggerating when she writes that “it is clear that reading is one of the most arduous and exhausting of occupations” (4.393).

We too may wonder for what percentage of a mornings, even an hour’s, reading are we spellbound, and for what percentage are we fidgeting, distracted, and distractable (“Suddenly the book becomes dull as ditchwater and heavy as lead,” Woolf writes. “We yawn and stretch and cannot attend” [4.393])? If we commence with a facsimile of the first Folio in our hands (too broad?, then in our laps), what happens when we trudge off in the snow to Starbucks? Do we switch to a Folger paperback? Would you mark up your expensive folio edition, and if so, would you not have an inkling that it will pass someday into the hands of another and still another reader—something that might never enter your mind as you clutter your deteriorating Signet edition with its latest round of marginalia? How is it that we feel “the greatness of the thing”? Is this a global or a local feeling; is it sonic, phonic, ideational? What keeps us from being overwhelmed or overbulked, and should we even resist? I have felt like I was going to explode, trying to sit through hour after hour, explicit, uncut word after word of Branagh’s film version of Hamlet. It just keeps coming and coming, all of those close-ups of mouths mouthing all of those famous, you-know-them-in-advance-but-they-still-come-at-you-in-an-assault words of the Bard’s. In the theater, which in McLuhan’s terms is a cooler medium than the cinema, one can at least tune out, turn away, redirect one’s focus. Perhaps reading still further levels the playing field—the one on which Shakespeare plays for one side and we play for the other. We can turn ahead or back, set the book aside, mark it, stick it in a briefcase, govern our own progress. Roland Barthes would have it that a text produces pleasure “if it manages to make itself heard indirectly; if, reading it, I am led to look up often, to listen to something else. I am not necessarily captivated by the text” (24). Or perhaps this is inappropriate macho talk of agon and resistance and capture where bliss ought to prevail. Perhaps one gives oneself up to the text, enters into it, meets it halfway: “the one that contents, fills, grants euphoria . . . that one that imposes a state of loss” (14). Barthes’s “state of loss” returns us to Proust’s “non-moi”; but just how easy is it to imagine such self-abnegating bliss when I am a teacher and what lies ahead is a class, a student and what lies ahead is an examination, an actor and what lies ahead is a performance? Meredith Skura writes trenchantly of the (Shakespearean) actor’s hostility toward the audience as well as the actor’s fear of retaliation and of shame. But Skura has nothing to say about our or the actor’s, let alone the student’s, hostility toward, and shame in the face of, Shakespeare. How do we act on these feelings, how do we hold our own?

The poet, the stage director, and the filmmaker, each has a way to take on the ever-resilient Bard, to bend and to mold, to break and to deform, to honor and to obey him. But what is the reader’s recourse? pleasure? power? “The pleasure of the text: like Bacon’s simulator, it can say: never apologize, never explain. It never denies anything: ‘I shall look away, that will henceforth be my sole negation”’ (Barthes 3). Does Shakespeare, following Barthes, “drague” (11; “cruise”) his reader; and if so, what if I look away? According to Barthes, “(t)he text you write must prove to me that it desires me” (6). But do we not often feel that the text Shakespeare has written is one that we must prove we desire? I am in the somewhat aggressive habit of telling students that if a tragedy like Lear or Antony and Cleopatra fails to achieve tragic dimensions for them then it is their fault, not Shakespeare’s. In fact, I generally describe this in terms of posture. If they sit on high in judgment of the likes of Lear or Antony, there can hardly take shape for them anything like a tragedy. A diagnosis, perhaps. Some smug or complacent verdict. But tragedy asks, even expects us to abase or humble ourselves. To look up in awe. To reserve judgment. To speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. Tragedy overbulks us, and so perhaps our best posture is, after all, sitting down, or fully prone.

Thus braced, we may, I imagine, find ways to even the odds. With Barthes, we may assert our prerogative to savor the text less for its content or structure than for its abrasions: “What I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions [éraflures] I impose upon the fine surface: I run on, I skip, I look up, I plunge in again” (11-12). This seems to me to answer nicely to the way I feel when, time after time, I come upon certain words in the Shakespearean text, words I very well know lie in wait, but words which nonetheless catch me off guard every time. Indignant, self-righteous, slightly defensive Hotspur describing a certain lord’s “bald unjointed chat” (1.3.65). Antony calling the queen of Egypt his “chuck” (4.4.2). Lear’s hand, that “smells of mortality” (4.6.132). The hard “t” in “chat” seems at once a complete surprise and an inevitability. It is a form of “writing aloud” that as much as forces an actor’s hand or voice. “Writing aloud . . . its aim is not the clarity of messages . . . what it searches for . . . [is] the language lined with flesh . . . the patina of consonants, the voluptuousness of vowels . . . the articulation of the body, of the tongue, not that of meaning, of language” (Barthes 66-67). “Chuck” (“ça granule, ça grésille” [1051; “it granulates, it crackles”) is both intimate and absurd. That we should (over)hear Antony speaking this way to Cleopatra is almost perverse, voyeuristic. But as Ted Hughes has written, “Shakespeare is doing this, just slightly, constantly, and it is this . . . which gives his language the air of being invented in a state of crisis, for a terribly urgent job, a homely spur-of-the-moment improvisation out of whatever verbal scrap happens to be lying around, and this is exactly what real speech is” (Hughes 11). Of “smells,” I can only say that we are at some terrible limit of the imagination. Barthes offers this account of what I feel, and of what it may mean:

In an old text I have just read . . . occurs a naming of foods, milk, buttered bread, Chantilly cream cheese, preserves from Bar, Maltese oranges, sugared strawberries. Is this another pleasure of representation . . .? But I have no fondness for milk or so many sweets, and I do not project much of myself into the detail of these dishes. Something else occurs, doubtless having to do with another meaning of the word “representation.” When, in an argument, someone represents something to his interlocutor, he is only alleging the final state of reality, its intractability. Similarly, perhaps, the novelist, by citing, naming, noticing food (by treating it as notable), imposes on the reader the final state of matter, what cannot be exceeded, withdrawn . . . That’s it! [C’est cela!l This cry is not to be understood as an illumination of the intelligence, but as the very limit of nomination, of the imagination(.4 5)

When Keats reads Shakespeare, pen in hand, looking “upon fine Phrases like a Lover,” he too must be responding to such éraflures. He too is in Egypt, where the “stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch” (5.2.294), where one holds one’s breath and where one feels the friction of the text. Barthes calls this sensation, this response to or relation we have with what we read, “(t)he brio of the text . . . just where it exceeds demand, transcends prattle [dépasse le babil], and whereby it attempts to overflow” (13). Where the Shakespearean text “o’erflows the measure” (Antony and Cleopatra, 1.1.2), there is “gusto,” “the tingling sensation” or the “sting” to which Keats, following Hazlitt, quickened (Hazlitt 77). “The infinite quantity la variation on Cleopatra’s “infinite variety”] of dramatic invention in Shakspeare takes from his gusto” (Hazlitt 79). “The sensual life of verse springs warm from the lips of Kean . . . There is an indescribable gusto in his voice” (Keats, “Mr. Kean,” in Jonathan Bate 201). “[D]épasse le babil”—“indescribable”—Barthes and Keats respond at the limit of nomination, at which point it may be easier to run a line down the side of the page, to underline a passage or asterisk or highlight it, than to say what one means or feels. Woolf: “It is clear that the greater part of what we feel when we read Shakespeare is incommunicable”(3.497). Keats: “[h]e has left nothing to say about nothing or anything” (40).

Which is precisely what students say every day. Which is why the actor is off the hook, having only to repeat Shakespeare’s words (with gusto!). Which is why we have not only comic book Shakespeares and the Marowitz Shakespeares, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, but The Skinhead Hamlet, all 64 lines of which are a rush of “fucks” resigned and raging in the face of the overbulking übertext. Keatspeare, the fantasy of sitting down to King Lear once again, gives way to the less grand fact of sitting down to read King Lear once again. Not quite “nothing to say,” we still have “C’est cela!” The director, the actor, the filmmaker, the cartoonist, the latter day playwright, even the belated poet, each has the wherewithal to transform the Shakespearean text. The reader has but his or her voice, a repertoire of postures, and pens and pencils with which to underscore, annotate, and decorate the written text. These are our media of response, of appreciation or adulation, of dazzle or dismay. They afford us a kind of kinship with Shakespeare, the wright, and with a vast cadre of readers now centuries old. Of course the life of the reader transpires mostly in the mind, but Keats is only one among many readers who confirm that the voice, the hand, the whole body count for a very great deal.


[1] For a Keats who is “haunted” by Antony and Cleopatra and who must defend himself “against Shakespeare’s overwhelming consciousness,” see Flesch, 162 and 163. Flesch’s essay is our most sophisticated and astringent account of Keats’s belatedness in relation to Shakespeare and of the defensive tactics with which Keats experiments.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Le plaisir de texte. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1973. The Pleasure of the Text Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975. I have silently made minor changes to Miller’s often-cited translation.

Bate, Jonathan. The Romantics on Shakespeare. London: Penguin Books, 1992.

Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1963.

Flesch, William. “The Ambivalence of Generosity: Keats Reading Shakespeare.” ELH 62 (1995): 149-69.

Hazlitt, William. Characters of Shakespear’s Plays. 1817. Rpt. New York: Dutton, 1964.

Hughes, Ted. A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse. London: Faber and Faber, 1971.

The Letters of John Keats. Ed. Robert Gittings. London: Oxford UP, 1970.

Lowell, Amy. John Keats. 2 vols. 1925. Rpt. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1929.

McLeod, Randall. “UnEditing Shak-speare.” Sub-stance, 33/34 (1982): 26-55.

Motion, Andrew. Keats. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

Proust, Marcel. “Sur la lecture.” Proust’s preface to his translation of John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lillies (Sésame et les Lys, Paris 1906). See facing French and English in On Reading, translated and edited by Jean Autret and William Burford. New York: Macmillan Co., 1971.

Skura, Meredith Anne. Shakespeare the Actor and the Purposes of Playing. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

Spurgeon, Caroline F. E. Keats’s Shakespeare: A Descriptive Study. 1928. Rpt. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1966

White, R S. Keats as a Reader of Shakespeare. Oklahoma: U of Oklahoma P, 1987.

Woolf, Virginia. The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Vol. 3, 1919-1924. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988. Vol. 4, 1925-1928. London: Hogarth Press, 1994.

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