Gifts from Wainwright and Shakespeare

Yeah, I’m a Marlowe fan, and I object to bardolatry — to the mindless worship of William Shakespeare as some sort of demigod, faultless in his work, all sunshine and rainbows spilling out of a vacuum. I particularly object to calling Shakespeare ‘The Bard’, as the definite article there declares no other bard could exist. Ai. Such an approach to Shakespeare denies history — he came out of no vacuum — and also denies the thinker not only exposure to Shakespeare’s peers who influenced him in a long, ongoing cultural conversation, but also a more nuanced experience of Shakespeare’s work that allows for, considers, and accepts that sometimes he fucked up and failed. His failures only deepen his triumphs .

None of this means I dislike Shakespeare’s work. Far from it. Some of those plays deserve their status, their vigorous lives; they show us something about ourselves, over and over. And the verse — dear God, the verse.

Which Christopher Marlowe mastered first.

Honest, though, I’m flapping my gums about Will today, about his sonnets. I don’t know them all, and the ones I do know I could know better. I like colliding with art. I’m not interested in sitting down all passive and respectful as some Serious Ac-tahrs declaim the Bard … that is, recite lines and then stoop to hand me the spit-warm marbles from their mouths. Most of the Shakespeare videos I had to watch in high school felt like that. I can’t think of a quicker way to turn people off those plays than productions which take as their aim the delivery of culture.

When I collide with Shakespeare — or with O’Connor, Melville, Kafka, Marlowe, Chaucer, Lowther, Donne — when I’m knocked on my arse by beauty and strength, when I’m startled out of complacent delusion that I’ve already read this, already experienced this … when that happens, so much opens up. It’s not rainbows and sunshine; it’s blazing starlight.

I’ve just collided with Rufus Wainwright’s album Take All My Loves, which is different arrangements of nine of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The project includes my long-beloved Sonnet 29, and my new favourite, Sonnet 40. Wainwright and his collaborators, for the most part, allow the words to work through them, versus try to impose their egos on the words. Yet the artists not passive vessels. In the most intriguing pieces on the album, I find hybrids, fusions. Track 3, ‘Take All My Loves’, the arrangement of Sonnet 40, could be done by no one else but Rufus Wainwright and Marius de Vries.

I said things open up for me. A specific example: my new and developing understanding of Sonnet 40, thanks to Wainwright and de Vries, is spilling into a new fiction project, deep into the novel’s conflicts, themes, and characters.

That arrangement of Sonnet 40 is playing out here now, layers and echoes: a conversation.





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