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Shakespeare: ‘When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state…’
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Sonnet 29, written around 1592, finds William Shakespeare, then in his late 20s, in a highly melancholic state. He is worried about failure. He is contemplating a future in which he will be a social pariah, where his mention will be enough to provoke revulsion. He will be in agony, pondering his stupidity and bad luck. He will lament that he can’t practice the job he most enjoys – and he will look around and feel desperation and envy at all those who remain so much more successful than he is and who will still enjoy esteem and their good name.
It is – of course – a paradox that the most acclaimed writer in English literature should have worried so acutely about failure, that he should have been so like us in fearing that he would one day – through a mixture of his own idiocy and unfortunate outside events – be a disgraced nobody. Then again, ‘greatness’ in literature doesn’t come from living pompously among high flown abstractions; great writers are ultimately simply those who know how to speak with special honesty about the panic and sadness of an ordinary life.
What had brought Shakespeare to this anxious vigilant state? Why was he so afraid he was going to lose it all? Partly, because he was not yet very well established. He’d only written Richard III and the three parts of Henry VI. In the coming years, he would write – in quick succession – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. But these would – as yet – have been, at best, mere sketches in his mind. There was another problem. Shakespeare had a famous and very vicious enemy who was spreading rumours about him and seemed determined to bring him down. He was a fellow playwright called Robert Greene.
Greene loathed Shakespeare. He wrote an open letter warning that ‘There is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you.’ He nicknamed him ‘Shakescene’, that is, a show off and a popularising fool, and, to further rub in how untalented he was, a jack of all trades or ‘Johannes Factotum’. In different circumstances, and with equal unfairness, we all have Robert Greenes around us. The world abounds in them and makes life a good deal more terrifying and nasty than it should be.
The London theatre world was small, mean and very gossipy. This kind of review from a respected playwright was intended to damage and it would have done huge harm. One can imagine Shakespeare, still young and finding his feet in the capital, panicking at how bad the sniping was getting, worrying that such insults would never stop, knowing how many people had had a mean laugh at his expense, fearful that his good intentions would never surface and that he would forever be known as a cheap, unscrupulous idiot.
Furthermore, there was a bad plague on. The bubonic plague returned continually to England in the Elizabethan age. The year before Shakespeare’s birth, an outbreak had killed 80,000. And now it was back. Between August 1592 and January 1593, 20,000 people died in the south east of England, 15,000 of them in London. There was rioting in the streets and Queen Elizabeth moved out to Windsor castle for safety. The government shut down all pubs and theatres for six months. Every actor and playwright was out of work. Not only was his name being trashed, Shakespeare was facing financial ruin.
How to bear the terror of failure? With Shakespeare as our guide, though the impulse may be to turn away from fear, what can calm us down is to sit with what scares us most. We should dare to investigate the terrifying scenario so as to drain it of its strangeness, and stop apprehending it only through the corners of our eyes in shame. Shakespeare openly meditates on what might happen: he pictures the worst that could unfold in order to see how it might be borne. He also renders himself cathartically vulnerable in the process; he makes no bones about his suffering, to us in the future and – one imagines – the people more immediately around him. He is going to admit just how bad things are for him in order to break his isolation and sense of unacceptability. He will try to universalise what could otherwise feel like only a very personal and embarrassing affliction. He will dare to see if anyone else has ever suffered as he has – and hold out an imaginary hand of friendship to all his readers, as writers will.
But then comes the core of the consoling move. He recognises implicitly that what is driving his wish to be successful is the desire to be respected and liked. It is money and fame he is drawn to, but beneath these, there is another hunger: to be treated well and avoid humiliation. There is a quest for love hiding within the drive to be somebody. Once that idea is established, a deeply redemptive manoeuvre comes into view. We don’t actually ever need the whole of society to love us. We don’t have to have everyone on our side. Let the Robert Greenes of this world – and their many successors in newspapers, living rooms and social media down the ages – say their very worst and nastiest things and be done with them. All that one needs is the love of a few friends or even just one special person – and one can survive.
The love of a single sensitive and intelligent being can compensate us for the loss of love from the world; one can, as Shakespeare says, with such a gift, be in a better place than ‘kings’. Popular success is an unreliable goal at the mercy of fickle fortune: there are so many jealous people and we are prone to make mistakes that they can use to bring us down. What we must therefore try to do – and look forward to leaning on – is the affection and regard of sympathetic companions. Others may be scoffing, others may sneer every time our name comes up in conversation, but we will be secure; we will be somewhere far from the gossipy and plague ridden city, living quietly with those who properly know us and for whom we won’t need to do anything to deserve a place in their hearts.
Shakespeare’s sonnet 29 has been prized for four centuries because it latches on with such sincerity to an anxiety that afflicts us all – and proposes a solution that we know must be correct. In the end, things may turn out alright: the plague might recede, business may pick up, the rumour mill may die down and leave us alone. But if none of this happens, if it does all go wrong and we become a definitive byword for awfulness, then in our moments of high anxiety, especially late at night, we should know the fallback: a few generous, sincere, emotionally mature souls who know about forgiveness and kindness, sympathy and charity, who won’t reduce us to one horrid nickname, who will love us with the complex regard that a parent might bestow on a child or a god on its creations. Love will redeem us. We may well fail; but we don’t need to fear it will be hell – and so we can afford to approach challenges with a little more freedom and lightheartedness. The cleverest and most humane writer who ever lived knew as much; and in our panic, we should trust him.