By Chris Wallace
I saw the ghost of Robert Menzies last Saturday night in Melbourne. No, not because of too much cheer at Florentino but rather in the Melbourne Theatre Company production of Hamlet in which Ming’s grandson, the actor Robert Menzies, plays the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father.
Robert Menzies the politician was one of those rare people who knew when to give it away. So was Shakespeare who put down his quill in his late forties, three years before his death, never publishing another word. Absent of new documentary evidence – a letter, a diary or similar – we’ll never know why.
Literary critic Harold Bloom spends a chapter of his new book The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life speculating on Shakespeare’s mysterious retirement.
Bloom dismisses novelist Anthony Burgess’ belief that the Bard had syphilis and withdrew to Stratford ill. Burgess based his conclusion on Sonnets 153 and 154, on degenerate “Pandarus” in Troilus and Cressida who wishes upon the audience his many diseases, and on Timon’s tirades against prostitutes in Timon of Athens. Challenged on this, Bloom says Burgess conceded there were alternative interpretations of those parts of Shakespeare he relied on to draw his conclusion. Burgess clung to the belief nevertheless.
Bloom points to others who argue that having made his pile in London theatre, Shakespeare retired in Stratford simply because he could afford to. This is too prosaic for Bloom, however, to whom “Shakespeare is God (and the) First Folio (the) First Testament”. He draws a parallel between Hamlet and the Gospel of St Mark. In The Anatomy of Influence, Bloom declares quite seriously: “I preach Bardolatry as the most benign of all religions…”
Bloom’s theory on Shakespeare’s retirement is subtle and intriguing. His argument is, essentially, that the Bard hid from us all his life, a master of restraint and personal absence in the midst of the richest, most complex cast of characters any playwright ever created. “Shakespeare is the major dealer in ellipsis among all the great writers,” Bloom writes. Ellipsis? You will know it as the three dots (…) that mark omission, which is what the Greek root of the word actually means. What is Bloom on about?
Bloom relies mostly on the Sonnets to make his point. There are as many “I’s” in the Sonnets as there are sonnets, he quotes Richard Lanham as saying as part of Lanham’s overall argument that Shakespeare “lent his pen but not his mind” to his writing. A certain detachment, a holding back, an absence of judgement characterises the Bard’s oeuvre, Bloom writes, as “the poet remains sequestered”. And what is retirement if not an ellipsis? “Only the force of Shakespeare’s own mind could defend it from itself,” Bloom writes. Retirement to Stratford was, he implies, a necessary act of self-preservation for someone who touched “very near the limits of art”.
Why and when anyone retires is a mystery really – on time, too late or never. Some, like Margaret Olley who died last month with paint on her hands, are right to keep going. Others like John Howard (the politician, not the actor) fail to heed their purported role model (PM Robert Menzies) and instead hang about like they’ve got nowhere else to go – sad because a good exit is a classy thing.
The exit of “Hamlet” in the Melbourne Theatre Company production does justice to Shakespeare’s play. The bodies pile up in one spectacular involuntary retirement after another. There are more corpses than in an early episode of Taggart.
It does raise a troubling casting question though. The intense Ewen Leslie plays “Hamlet” and was a crowd pleaser on the night, but it was a bit like watching Al Pacino play the Danish prince. When Grant Cartwright’s “Horatio” makes his passionate speech with the dead “Hamlet” in his arms, it’s hard not to think he would have been better suited to the main role than Ewen Leslie. “And let me speak to the yet unknowing world,” says “Horatio” famously:
How these things came about: so shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook…
No wonder it was in Shakespeare’s time as in ours his most popular play. Why ever he did it, Shakespeare had earned his retirement.
This first appeared in the Canberra Times on 6 August, 2011