'Tis in few words, but spacious in effect
During his years in prison on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela and his fellow prisoners found a common ground in Shakespeare. One of them kept a copy of the Bard's works on his shelf disguised by Indian religious pictures. He circulated it and asked the inmates to autograph favorite passages.
In December, 1977, Mandela wrote his name in the margin next Julius Caesar's speech: "Cowards die many times before their deaths;/ The valiant never taste of death but once."
That's one of the many priceless things in John Gross's unique new anthology, "After Shakespeare."
"No writer has served as such a powerful source of inspiration for other writers," he says in the opening, and although he quotes numerous authors, from contemporaries of Shakespeare like Ben Jonson down to the Nigerian writer and activist Wole Soyinka, the anthology as a whole points beyond literature. It is an eloquent collection, which returns one with added relish to Shakespeare's works.
As quoted by Gross, Iris Murdoch may have put her finger on the nub of Shakespeare's popularity: "He writes marvelously about political power, but he does not take politics for granted and he sees its place in human life as problematic. He conceives of the total breakdown of human order."
The order we intuit in Shakespeare's greatest writings is beyond what we conventionally conceive as order, either in literature or politics. It's not only in the heart-breaking tragedies - "Othello," "Lear" - that the "total breakdown of human order" is explored. This theme may be felt in even his nondramatic poetry, even in the beloved Sonnets.
In the one-volume presentations most of us use to read Shakespeare, the nondramatic poetry is often tucked away apologetically. But now a new one-volume presentation should make it impossible to overlook this major aspect of Shakespeare's work.
The editor of this volume, Colin Burrow of Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge, uses his introduction to explore the interplay of language and circumstances in the poetry. In so doing, he presents a vivid outline of Shakespeare's career.
From "Venus and Adonis" (1593) perhaps his most popular poem during the 17th century, to the Sonnets (1609), Shakespeare used nondramatic poetry to test themes which eventually dominated his plays. For example, "Venus and Adonis," writes Burrow, "is founded on the recognition that you can know what is true and still feel the way you feel."
In the poems as in the plays, we are trained to entertain "multiple perspectives" and witness the potential for "self-deception." As for "A Lover's Complaint," the long poem attached to the sonnets but not until recently integrated with them, Burrow argues that the poem "actively seeks enigmas, both in its style and in its themes, and actively wants the ground to move under its readers."
In the poems, as in the plays, human identity seems to be a plaything of shifting circumstances. Burrow shows how the changing circumstances of the poet - several major nondramatic works were produced during a period of blackout in the theaters - forced him to generalize so that his verse would seem to apply to any number of future situations. Since the career of the nondramatic poet depended on patrons, and patrons were themselves not reliable, Shakespeare's "universality" was rooted in the circumstances of his career.
The sonnets are among his most popular works, and the value of an edition such as this must hang on its insight. Burrow's introduction is perhaps the best single essay on the sonnets available. Correcting a wide-spread tendency to read the early sonnets as exhibitions of narcissism, Burrow shows how they "bring about a dramatic interaction between what is said in praise of the young man and the events which seem to surround what is said."
Shakespeare goes beyond a simple conflict of points of view to present "a range of possible worlds which changed with a shift in emphasis on a single word." In short, this edition triumphantly demonstrates that "in their continual counterpointing of language against implied circumstance [the sonnets] are the culmination of Shakespeare's career as a poet." In addition, we now see why the sonnets should be seen in context of the other nondramatic poems.
Finally, an edition lives or dies by the commentary to individual lines. In his notes, Burrow's insights into the tension between language and circumstance are brilliantly demonstrated in large and small ways (words, images, punctuation, etc.). In short, "The Complete Sonnets & Poems" completes the work of many editors in making the case for the centrality of the poems to Shakespeare's legacy, and it makes the poems themselves not only approachable and fascinating but often deeply moving. Even in our modern sense of the word, Burrow's Shakespeare is a great poet.
• Thomas D'Evelyn is an editorial consultant living in Providence, R.I.