Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Salman Rushdie: how Cervantes and Shakespeare wrote the modern literary rule book

As we honour the four hundredth anniversaries of the deaths of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, it may be worth noting that while it’s generally accepted that the two giants died on the same date, 23 April 1616, it actually wasn’t the same day. By 1616 Spain had moved on to using the Gregorian calendar, while England still used the Julian, and was 11 days behind. (England clung to the old ­Julian dating system until 1752, and when the change finally came, there were riots and, it’s said, mobs in the streets shouting, “Give us back our 11 days!”) Both the coincidence of the dates and the difference in the calendars would, one suspects, have delighted the playful, erudite sensibilities of the two fathers of modern literature.

We don’t know if they were aware of each other, but they had a good deal in common, beginning right there in the “don’t know” zone, because they are both men of mystery; there are missing years in the record and, even more tellingly, missing documents. Neither man left behind much personal material. Very little to nothing in the way of letters, work diaries, abandoned drafts; just the colossal, completed oeuvres. “The rest is silence.” Consequently, both men have been prey to the kind of idiot theories that seek to dispute their authorship.

A cursory internet search “reveals”, for example, that not only did Francis Bacon write Shakespeare’s works, he wrote Don Quixote as well. (My favourite crazy Shakespeare theory is that his plays were not written by him but by someone else of the same name.) And of course Cervantes faced a challenge to his authorship in his own lifetime, when a certain pseudonymous Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, whose identity is also uncertain, published his fake sequel to Don Quixote and goaded Cervantes into writing the real Book II, whose characters are aware of the plagiarist Avellaneda and hold him in much contempt.

Cervantes and Shakespeare almost certainly never met, but the closer you look at the pages they left behind the more echoes you hear. The first, and to my mind the most valuable shared idea is the belief that a work of literature doesn’t have to be simply comic, or tragic, or romantic, or political/historical: that, if properly conceived, it can be many things at the same time.

Take a look at the opening scenes of Hamlet. Act I, Scene One is a ghost story. “Is not this something more than fantasy?” Barnardo asks Horatio, and of course the play is much more than that. Act I, Scene Two brings on the intrigue at the court of Elsinore: the angry scholar prince, his recently widowed mother wedded to his uncle (“O most wicked speed, to post/With such dexterity to incestuous sheets”). Act I, Scene Three, and here’s Ophelia, telling her dubious father, Polonius, the beginning of what will become a sad love story: “My lord, he hath importuned me with love/In honourable fashion.” Act I, Scene Four, and it’s a ghost story again, and something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

As the play proceeds, it goes on meta­morphosing, becoming by turns a suicide story, a murder story, a political conspiracy and a revenge tragedy. It has comic moments and a play within the play. It contains some of the highest poetry ever written in English and it ends in melodramatic puddles of blood.

This is what we who come after inherit from the Bard: the knowledge that a work can be everything at once. The French tradition, more severe, separates tragedy (Racine) and comedy (Molière). Shakespeare mashes them up together, and so, thanks to him, can we. read more: