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Writing to Shakespeare.

By YVES BONNEFOY.

translation by Hoyt Rogers.

SUPPOSING I WROTE you, Shakespeare—but why? If they should bring you my letter—whether on the stage where you speak to your actors, or on the construction site of your theatre, or at the tavern where you trenchantly discuss the events in your society that worry you, as I well know—you would stick it in your pocket, you would forget it. And besides, why should I ask you questions, or make remarks that do not interest you? It isn’t that you don’t care about what gives us pause when we read you ourselves. Still, your way of thinking about it doesn’t lie on the plane of self-aware thought, but in your highly disorganized work on your plays, in those hours when subconscious intuitions or the demands of the unconscious are no longer repressed—at any rate not as severely—by the words and convictions of the intellect.

Shakespeare (Ely)I see you: you’re standing in a corner of the theatre. It’s cold, and a wind seems to be blowing. You’re talking to several men, young and old. One of them will be Hamlet; another, Ophelia. Do you have an idea to explain to them? No. Hamlet is being written here, at this very moment, in the sentences that come to you, that take you by surprise. It’s virtually an improvisation, over several days divided between your table—I don’t know where—and the stage: a text, certainly, but one you cross out off-the-cuff, as when you understand—for example, at this very instant—that your future Hamlet doesn’t grasp all that well what you’re trying to tell him. You cross things out, since you hardly know better than he does what the prince wants—this sketch of a character whose ready responses are still so evasive. What appears of him in your words comes from underneath what you have imagined or projected. And of course, that is because great thought is what I like to call “figural”—made of symbols that catch us unawares, of impressions that inflame our entire body. If you had prepared Hamlet, had meditated on the meaning you would give to its characters and their relationships, we would no longer read you today: you would have produced nothing but a Ben Jonson play. Ah, I see you so well, intuitive as you are, and luckily! You rush through the text as you will later rush through the city, looking for money or adventures. You dash off (as Ben Jonson might say) responses, fears, appeals, soliloquies, because you feel—obscurely, but this is your genius—that you must do things quickly to keep from bogging down in ready-made ideas. I think you wrote Hamlet in just a few days. You won’t refute me.

Did you ever ponder something consciously? Yes, you did, but it was only at the time when you stepped back from your work on the stage—and because certain people fairly near to you, at the University, at the Court, looked down on you. They called themselves poets, and sometimes they were. This happened, I can even make note of it, only a few years before the Hamlet of today, which according to me is the consequence of your thoughts. Your meditation continued for quite a while, and allowed you to understand that you had been right to place your trust in hasty writing, already so easy to discern in your dramas inspired by the history of England.

You became aware of this: that what springs from a poem governed by predetermined forms, closed on themselves, can only be a simplification of feelings and beings…

THIS REFLECTION CAME to you before your new period—the reason we still love you so much today—the phase that begins with Julius Caesar. What was it, then? To start with, you cast a skeptical, ironic eye on the sonnets being written everywhere in those same years, among the lettered and the learned. As you perused Spenser, as you read even the poignant and noble Sidney, and as you skimmed the bloodless pages of their shameless imitators with such impatience and contempt, you became aware of this: that what springs from a poem governed by predetermined forms, closed on themselves, can only be a simplification of feelings and beings—a focus for stereotypes that above all seem laughable, but in fact are dangerous, destructive.

Assuredly, in these fourteen idealizing, exclamatory verses, the grand encounters that you had created—in Richard II, for example, or in Henry V—are quite impossible. In fact they occur often in your history plays: men and women overflowing with desires, passions—unpredictable in that—but allowing us to perceive similar ways of being in ourselves, that this time harbor within them the full and brutal authenticity of life, often unpleasant. Those sonnets are a renunciation of truth. And writing them is easy: you can show that you know how to turn them out as easily and even better than anyone else—better, because you can make harmonics that only you understand vibrate in the sound, the beautiful sound of words. You can write them—harmonious, eloquent, mellifluous, and easy to recall. But this was your spontaneous reflection: that you could verify for yourself, in your momentary adhesion to a fixed form, the illusion that it substitutes word by word for the presence of beings; the temptation that it instills to observe man through the prism of dream, woman through that of prejudice, and society through that of a more or less cynical consent to its injustices.

Iambic pentameter, that breath of being in the world…is and has to be our key to the essential finitude of life…

Better to flee this supposed poetry, which is only useless literature… And with a renewed confidence in its powers, and thus with a greater ambition—and even, you have come to sense, with a higher one—better to recover on the stage that open, shifting form which the emotions lift but do not break, in constant dialogue with life’s unknowns. This is the vivid, febrile language you had learned to love and practice, fired by the political or martial action of your chronicles. Iambic pentameter, that breath of being in the world, deserves something more than the beauties of simple appearance chiseled by the versifiers: it is and has to be our key to the essential finitude of life, that relation with ourselves which means true joys, true sufferings—true love. And then the work becomes not merely the mirror of society as it is but of life as it ought to be, a lesson of existence.

SUPPOSING I WROTE you, William Shakespeare—no, you wouldn’t read me. You have too much on your hands with this language of truth that has already arisen within you, so to speak, two or three years before the Hamlet of today. Tomorrow and day after tomorrow, it will become Lear’s harrowing cries, Macbeth’s shouts of horror—and also Cleopatra’s sublime declarations, Perdita’s exquisite words. You wouldn’t understand me, and that is certainly a shame; I would have so many questions to ask you. But what I can do, all the same, is to dream that I slip you a note. Yes, take this sheet, folded four ways, asking you a favor: admission to the theatre, one of the evenings when your play will be performed. Admission through some hidden door, if there is one, since we of another time—at any rate your best readers of late, writers, critics, often women—don’t like to mix much with those strapping rowdies, loud-mouthed and easy with their swords, who jostle on the threshold of the Globe. Those fellows don’t make way gladly for people who’re different from them. Unlike you, who have read Montaigne, Ariosto, Machiavelli. Who have even read Goethe or Baudelaire, and taken a look at Freud—though his mode of thought seemed a bit simple to you, if I understand you rightly.

Chandos by LarkinBut there’s the rub: the reason I’m asking you to help me get in this evening is so I can sit near that young man I recognize, Lord Chandos. He comes from another era, and is accompanied by two other gentlemen who also interest me. One of them doesn’t seem to be from London or from your century, any more than I am. His features are marked by the furrows of an unquiet subjectivity. In your time it didn’t surface so clearly on people’s faces—didn’t flare up the same way. At any rate, the portraits we have of you don’t show a trace of it. But the other man is obviously one of your contemporaries, perhaps even one of your friends. Above his small beard, his beaming eyes shift with the mischief of a free and beautiful philosophy. It so happens that the first of the two men holds a letter, still another one, which he is trying to slip into Chandos’s hand—without much success, since the young man visibly has his mind on something else. Take it, he whispers to him; give it to Francis Bacon in a little while: this is the right moment, because we are about to hear a work by Shakespeare. But will Bacon be able to decipher Hofmannsthal’s text? It’s not likely, since these two or three are only—like all of us, this evening at least—shadows among shadows.

I TURN MY eyes to the stage, still empty. Empty? I will even say vacant, offered unreservedly to all the winds of the mind—because there are hardly any objects on these boards. A dodgy chair, that might serve as a throne if need be; a piece of artillery that later you’ll have to keep from noticing too much, since it’s here for another play tomorrow. No stage set, no demands made on facets of the visible world to support the lines of the actors; but on the other hand, this trapdoor in the floor to communicate with the invisible world—in other words, the unconscious.

The GlobeThis stage with nothing but itself—this metaphysical place, in short—mirrors the dimensions of the hope we peg to language. It offers itself unreservedly to what is sought by poets, always much more than the letter of their work. It permits us to glimpse what is unsayable in their perception of the world, or hidden in their relation to themselves: two things that are inexpressible. Their conjunction, their mutual consumption, is the event of poetry: as sometimes in your theatre, for example in the radiant light of certain moments in The Winter’s Tale. —Shakespeare, you are at the Globe before this bare stage. You even have the good luck of the proscenium, which allows Hamlet to move forward into himself, meeting his great questions. Shakespeare, you are alone, deep inside yourself with those questions, those anxieties. Nobody is here to place a small Victorian table next to Hamlet, as if his grand speech needed somewhere to set the skull of “poor Yorick.”

As I am aware, it’s only natural that staging should have made its appearance at the end of the Enlightenment, when…a number of prejudices were unseated from their positions of command over thought.

And I think of that extraordinary invention, staging: when did it come about, and where? This addition of content, schematic from the outset—that profile of a tree on the garden side, that little table on the courtyard side—in this place and at this moment when the actors’ voices are overcome by content, from the depths of a text which is life in the making: those presentiments, those terrors, those vows that no reading of the work could ever wholly identify, ever completely grasp. All the same, the director has an obligation to understand; to pass through meaning before—from time to time—arriving at presence. And when he is great, which may occur, he will know instinctively that for poetry this detour is a peril, one he owes himself to face with a good deal of ardent exigency towards his own unconscious. In fact, as I am aware, it’s only natural that staging should have made its appearance at the end of the Enlightenment, when the audience was banned from seats or small armchairs on the boards, but also when a number of prejudices were unseated from their positions of command over thought. When subjectivity could thus begin to become aware of itself in the Gothic novel and the poetry of those young people we have called the Romantics.

And how many problems arise from this time forward that didn’t exist on your stage in the era of Elizabeth or James! You see, today this late afternoon is autumnal, or so it seems to me; in any case the light outside is already foggy under the lowering sky, and what’s left of it inside the theatre is quite feeble. A torch brought on stage, or the brief flame of a musket, will stand out against this background with all the intensity found in red—all its tragedy, all its appeal to the thought of the tragic. This was perfect for performing Julius Caesar, in which a torch appears at the most decisive moment, when Brutus finally accepts that he must confront his unconscious, must raise the trapdoor. And it works well for performing Hamlet right now, as the watchmen move on the ramparts at night, casting glimmers on the faces of those who arrive. Or when a king who has blackness in his heart calls for torches, still more torches—lights, lights, lights—after which his fascinated witness cries (and this must be marked by a lighting effect again), ‘Tis now the very witching time of night…

NIGHT, DEEPEST NIGHT, with all its meaning, can be signified on your stage, Shakespeare. And by the same token it can denote its contrast as well—through the rebounding of the mind, through hope free at last to express itself. Yes, it also implies the purest day, the light of moments of reunion, of hardships ended, of truth recaptured—of Perdita no longer lost. Your highly intimate experience of light, my friend, the secret vow of your theatre and its denouement—which we possess as a legacy from you—everything that takes place in words is preserved on these boards. They do not substitute any particular content for the universal roots of your English language, as it comes into its own. A privilege, we should note, that painters did not enjoy even in your era. No doubt they had an inkling, in their gaze and in their hearts, of those epiphanies of a truer light in the midst of the everyday. But it was expected of them that for lack of words, they should explain the situations they evoked by means of things—and regrettably, these ran the risk of absorbing our attention.

All the same, they expressed their intuition of the possibilities of life, or at least the greatest of them did. Among your contemporaries, Caravaggio already succeeded—almost as much as the extraordinary Goya, your kindred spirit—in representing night, utter night, and hope in the thick of night. Fittingly, he did so with torches, and faces that suddenly loom in their glow. As to Veronese, or Titian already in his Bacchanal of the Andrians, they almost attained in their own right that irrefutable and irresistible light of fusion, of happiness, of peacefulness that all of us dream about in the heart of night. And to that end they did not take the tragic course of the chiaroscuro painters, which Goya as well still follows at times, in his deaf-man’s house; instead they chose the path—obviously so difficult, so daring—of trust.

Elsheimer's Judith.These are your contemporaries, Shakespeare: Caravaggio, Veronese. Caravaggio is painting at this very moment, in Rome. He has placed his confidence in religion: in his Vocation of Saint Matthew the light comes from without, from the upper right side. But other works will follow, tremendous zigzags; and perhaps in desperation, he will die on that savage coast in the very days when you are writing The Winter’s Tale, your vision of true resurrection, your victory. And I perceive that you have essential links with him, but even more so with one of his disciples, Adam Elsheimer—who also died in 1610, strangely enough. In my view, Elsheimer pondered the night of being more deeply than Caravaggio. And this is because he had in mind the buried light that you, ultimately, will know how to deliver from the quicksand of language. I look at his Judith, which he will paint next year, or two years from now. She’s your Lucretia! With the same idea of murder but—no matter how scorned she may be today, or tomorrow—the same faith in life. Shakespeare, this painter is similar to you, the dramatist: you foresee that your moment in history, when Galileo returns the sky to us, might open on this intuition, on poetry itself. With that conviction unknown to your conscious thought, but exigent and bold, in a while you will descend from the high ramparts of Elsinor into utter blackness—where you will found the world anew.

I LOOK AT this stage where members of the audience are taking their seats, but which is empty, metaphysically—empty as the blank page where the human voice risks itself in poetry, though so full of disquiet, so deeply wounded, so ridden with doubts. A last pale ray of this sun from who knows where, in the city where my dream still lingers…But there’s already enough penumbra to allow someone hard to discern—in the presence of someone else who is just as hard to read—to cry out Who’s there? After which the action will begin: the dead king will appear with his ambiguous claim, the archaic element of the world will reaffirm itself for a moment, only to go swiftly out of joint when shadows emerge on the boards of the theatre within the theatre—shadows within shadows. They as well will sink so fully into the commonplaces of language—a last glance at the sonnet, no?—that they cannot help this time but beg from us the question of words within words… And those torches then, do they really come forward? No, because Hamlet sees the clouds drifting by in the sky, taking whatever shapes—a weasel, a whale—that words may want. The very witching time of night? The abyss, are we meant to understand, that is the core of language? I say to myself that your bare stage was your good fortune, Shakespeare, preserving for you—who was worthy of that gift—the great, the only true possibility of words. Were you an eclectic spirit, passing from comedies to tragedy, from Venus to Lady Macbeth, from contented bodies to the worst sufferings anyone could evoke? No, you thrust your hands into language, stirring up felicities and afflictions, surprises and certainties, good and evil, senselessness and the hopes that persevere.

And how did those hands go about moving this mud, these colors, this coldness, these mysterious beginnings of warmth—I’d very much like to ask you this. That was the reason for my letter. Or no, instead I’d like to tell you what I think, to explain to you what you did; after all, I have my idea about the matter, and perhaps you would acquiesce… But this isn’t the moment, as I can readily see. Other members of the audience have already sat down next to us on the stage, and I look at Chandos—it’s you he’s watching, in fact. Distractedly, he sticks the letter in his pocket, the letter that someone from another era, like me, caused him to write. The shadow spreads over my page as well, in my words. And someone—is it you?—has called out Who’s there? The performance has just begun.

The French text of this work is here.


port1prwrfestYves Bonnefoy has published nine major collections of verse, several books of tales, and numerous studies of literature and art. He succeeded Roland Barthes at the Collège de France and his work has been translated into scores of languages. In addition, he himself is a celebrated translator of Shakespeare, Yeats, Keats, and Leopardi. Most recently, he has added to his long list of honors the European Prize for Poetry (2006) and the Kafka Prize (2007).  His latest books to appear in English are an anthology, Second Simplicity: New Poetry and Prose, 1991-2011 (US link) (Yale University Press, 2012), Beginning and End of the Snow (US) (Bucknell, 2012), The Present Hour (US), and The Digamma (US), both from Seagull.  He lives in Paris.

The Fortnightly‘s Bonnefoy dossier is here.

Hoyt Rogers, a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review, is the author of a collection of poetry, Witnesses, and a volume of criticism, The Poetics of Inconstancy. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in many periodicals. He translates from the French, German, Italian, and Spanish. His translations include the Selected Poems of Borges and three books by Yves Bonnefoy, The Curved Planks, Second Simplicity, and The DigammaOpenwork, an André du Bouchet reader, was recently published by Yale. He lives in the Dominican Republic and Italy.

More: Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Lord Chandos’s Letter to Francis Bacon (Univ. Washington).

Note: The title of this article has been changed after publication to correct an error.

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