Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

"Our Bending Author": Shakespeare Takes a Bow

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

"Our Bending Author": Shakespeare Takes a Bow

Article excerpt

It hapned, that as they passed throow one street, Don Quixote looked up, and saw written upon a doore in great Letters, "Heere are Bookes printed," which pleased him wonderously; for till then he had never seen any Presse; and he desired to know the manner of it.

--Cervantes, Don Quixote

TOWARD THE END OF Don Quixote, the doleful knight wanders into a Barcelona printing house, "where he saw in one place drawing of sheetes, in another Correcting, in this Composing, in that mending: Finally, all the Machine that is usual in great Presses." Here he is introduced to "the Author, a good comely proper man" but "somewhat ancient," whom he wishes luck before asking about the book being printed: "they answered him that it was called The second part of the Ingenious Knight, Don Quixote de la Mancha." (1) What must concern any authorship forum is how the Don wants his book burned. For as Carlos Fuentes observes, this is surely the first time a character learns how he becomes a literary product and is condemned to be a fiction. Thus, "The act of reading is both the starting point and the last stop on Don Quixote's route." For Fuentes, this episode of chill foreboding, published a year after Cervantes' death, marks the birth of the author, as it is when "reality is displaced by another reality made of words and paper. Where are the limits between Dunsinane and Birnam Wood?" Only Shakespeare, says Fuentes, foresees the coming of the book with the sinking feeling that makes Don Quixote so sorrowful. And when Cervantes leaves the page open where the reader knows himself read and the author written, it is easy to imagine that these two who died on the same date in 1616 were the same man, that "Will Shakespeare, the comedian with a thousand faces, wrote Don Quixote." Thus Fuentes likens the sad knight to the Black Prince, who also knows that he is a mere character of "Words, words, words" (Hamlet, 2.2.192). But the alarm-bell at the coming book that for the novelist heralds "the existence of a thing called literature" had been tolled by Shakespeare in 1613 with an even closer parallel to the Barcelona story, when the page Fidele played by Imogen was asked to identify his lost master, and the time frame of Cymbeline was broken with a similarly uncanny reply: "Richard du Champ." (2) For as editors note, this French "champion" translates as Richard Field, the printer of Shakespeare's poems and his Stratford schoolmate, while Field is an anagram of a faithful page. At the time of Cymbeline the King's Men had just occupied the theater right beside Field's printing shop in Blackfriars, where as Adrian Johns remarks, "the topography of print could be measured in feet." (3) Thus, no wonder this most bookish of plays turns on the metaphor of printing as parenting; nor that it is the text where the future Folio is first projected to be "the world's volume" (3.4.137). But what makes Shakespeare here so like his Spanish contemporary is the melancholy with which he laments his faithful printer. For Field would, in fact, never print him again. And without "such another master," Shakespeare's page will never have fidelity to life:

   There is no more such masters. I may wander
   From east to occident, cry out for service,
   Try many, all good; serve truly, never
   Find such another master.

(Cymbeline, 4.2.372-76)

"All that he hath writ / Leaves living art, but page, to serve his wit": the final words on his memorial tablet underline what the bust above commemorates, and critical fashion would now restore: the image of Shakespeare as an author poised quill in hand over a sheet of paper, absorbed in the rapt scene of writing his first editors, Heminge and Condell evoked when they recalled "His mind and hand went together, and what he thought, he uttered with that easiness that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers." (4) This is the myth of the Bard in a trancelike communion with his readers enshrined in portraits like Virginia Woolf's, when her Orlando bursts upon "a rather fat, rather shabby man" sitting at the servants' table, who looks straight through him with "eyes globed and clouded," as he "turned his pen in his fingers, this way and that way . …

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