Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Shakespeare and Beckett

Claudia Olk

“The fact is that we create our own precursors“, writes Jorge Luis Borges in „Kafka and his Precursors“ where he reflects on the anachronistic dynamics which results from the interaction of writers with their predecessors.[1] For my own research, inspired by 20th century approaches to Shakespeare, the question: How does modernism relate to Shakespeare and how does Shakespeare relate to modernism seems particularly fruitful.

In this vein, my most recent book concerns hitherto unexplored interactions between William Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett. At first glance, not two writers could be more different, the contrast between them hardly more acute: between the writer who has an enormously rich language at his command and to whom it is possible to express everything, and the writer, who professes poverty and reduction, who operates on the basis that there is ‘nothing to express’ and still is ‘under the obligation to express’. The historical frame of my project is to look at ‘modernity’ from the edges, from its margins in Early Modernity and Late Modernism. In both periods literature not merely illustrated representational crises and challenged sets of expectations, but also helped to shape notions of what we conceive as the Renaissance, Humanism, Existentialism or the Absurd.

Whereas Shakespeare is sometimes viewed as the first modernist, Beckett is often regarded as the last of the moderns.[2] Similarly, Shakespeare’s theatre is frequently associated with the beginning of theatre, while Beckett’s plays are seen as synonymous with the end of the theatre as we know it: “Waiting for Godot frankly jettisons everything by which we recognise theatre”, writes critic Kenneth Tynan in August 1955 in his review of the play’s opening night in London.[3] Whereas Shakespeare was conventionally associated with the glories of the Elizabethan Age, the flowering of Renaissance culture and the rise of imperialism, Beckett, the Irishman who chose to live in Paris, initially, was met with some reserve, if not aggression, when famously single members of the audience on the opening night of Godot in 1955 did not refrain from holding him accountable for nothing less than the Fall of the British Empire and exclaimed: “This is why we lost the colonies!”[4]

The connection between Shakespeare and Beckett had been viewed in the 1950s and beyond. Sir Peter Hall, who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company also directed the premiere of Godot, and Shakespeare’s King Lear in particular by many was seen as the chief example of the theatrical experience of nothingness, radical meaninglessness, and a way of imagining the worst, which invited many convergences with the so-called theatre of the absurd and questions of existentialism.

In his essay on “King Lear or Endgame[5] Jan Kott was among the first to expound this seemingly a-historical existential trait in both Shakespeare and Beckett. Peter Brook, whose landmark production of King Lear in 1962 underlined the link between Beckett and Shakespeare and regards Lear as “the prime example of The Theatre of the Absurd, from which everything in good modern drama has been drawn”.[6]  Brook himself promoted the relation between both dramatists in his essay “Endgame as King Lear, or how to stop worrying and love Beckett”, where he writes that “his [Becketts] are the most positive works we’ve got”.[7]

Samuel Beckett was a lifelong reader of Shakespeare, the Beckett Archive at the University of Reading holds among its many treasures Beckett’s copy of Romeo and Juliet, which he studied as a pupil at Portora Royal school. The volume contains many passages that are marked by the words ‘learn by heart’ on the margin. Even though Beckett never devoted a single essay on Shakespeare as he did on Dante or Proust, his works are replete with references, allusions, echos and themes from the Shakespearean oeuvre.

Beckett often explored the notion of the echo. He named his early short story (1933)[8] and his early poems Echo’s Bones after the nymph Echo in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, who after she was rejected by her beloved Narcissus pined away in a cave where her bones were turned into stone, and only her voice remains to resonate the endings of phrases that reach her. An echo creates a divided presence. It is not an exact repetition, a recurrence of the same, but rather a critique of the idea of mere repetition or sameness. In an echo the sound waves that are reflected back to the listener from some distant surface suggest familiarity and closeness, yet they harbour the notion of difference and deferral. The reflection is never complete nor mimetically congruent with an origin. An echo creates secondary presences that produce semblances and yet are marked by difference. It creates a presence that is established and obliterated at the same time.

I regard the echo both as a principle of composition, and as an immanent figuration that is realized in the theatrical performance. Matter and materiality, stones, in Beckett’s works very often become a metonymy for the text itself in that they expose its opacity and resistance, and, at the same time, render it immortal as a kind of petrified lacuna.

In his play Happy Days, for instance, Beckett materialises the tragic dilemma of being held captive, unable to move, buried alive through the means of scenery and props. Reading Shakespeare with Beckett, words like ‘happy’ metamorphose into more ambivalent shades. Hence it becomes difficult not to anticipate sombre events when Paris in Romeo and Juliet greets Juliet with the phrase: “Happily met, my lady and my wife” (RJ 4, 1,18), when Queen Margaret lays one of the cruellest curses on Richard III: “Long die thy happy days before thy death” (RIII 1, 3, 204), or when the Nurse wistfully bestows her motherly blessing on Juliet’s meeting with Romeo: “Go, girl; seek happy nights to happy days” (RJ 1, 3, 108). Likewise, Juliet, later to be buried in the stony crypt, becomes her own echo, when she realises that she cannot escape the constraints imposed on her by her family and is doomed to remain silent: “Bondage is hoarse, and may not speak aloud,/Else would I tear the cave where Echo lies,/And make her airy tongue more hoarse than mine/With repetition of my Romeo’s name. Romeo!” (RJ 2, 1, 205-208)

My book explores constellations like these that exist between both writers. It looks at liminal spaces of waiting and purgatory in Hamlet, Waiting for Godot and “Dante and the Lobster”, inquires into notions of the still live and sleep, and is concerned with ideas of ending. Some critics who have looked at Endgame in relation to Shakespeare, most prominently among whom, Theodor W. Adorno in his seminal essay “Versuch das Endspiel zu verstehen”[9] have, sometimes to Beckett’s annoyance, euphorically pointed to the resemblance between Beckett’s Hamm and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and those fewer scholars who have drawn a link between The Tempest and Endgame have mostly relied on the direct allusion of Hamm’s quotation from The Tempest “Our revels now are ended” after the lid of the dustbin in which his father vegetates has been finally closed for the rest of the play. Rather than the well-known link between Endgame and King Lear, my book considers the reciprocal productivity in the yet underexplored relations between Beckett’s Endgame and Shakespeare’s late romance The Tempest. It examines the settings of both plays, their dialectics of making and unmaking, their dynamics of confinement and release, the materiality of air and earth, and the notion of ending.

Reading Beckett with Shakespeare and Shakespeare with and through Beckett helps to define the complexities of the historical moments in which they write. Beckett makes a reluctant modernist. He increasingly departs from embracing the euphoria about stylistic experiments and sheer infinite possibilities of expression professed by classical modernism in the 1920s and 1930s. Correspondingly, Shakespeare makes a reluctant humanist. His dramas do not uncritically endorse an anthropological optimism, neither do they merely epitomise humanistic values. Shakespeare criticism has become increasingly sensitive to the ambiguities that govern his works and make them speak to the pressing and sometimes also conflicting concerns of different ages.

[1] Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths. Selected Stories and Other Writings (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), 201. “I once premeditated making a study of Kafka and his precursors. At first I had considered him to be as singular as the phoenix of rhetorical praise; after frequenting his pages a bit, I came to think I could recognize his voice, or his practices, in texts from diverse literatures and periods”.

[2] According to Richard Begam, Beckett’s five major novels represent the end of literary modernity Richard Begam, Samuel Beckett and the End of Modernity (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1996), 3. (Murphy, Watt, Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable)

[3] Kenneth Tynan, “New Writing”, The Observer August 7 1955, 11.

[4] “This is why we lost the colonies!” (Knowlson, 1996, 415).

[5] Jan Kott, Shakespeare our Contemporary. Transl. by Boleslaw Taborski, Pref. by Peter Brook (London: Methuen, 1965), 100-133.

[6] The Shifting Point: Forty Years of Theatrical Exploration 1946-1987. London: Methuen, 1989, 89.

[7] Brook, “Endgame as King Lear, or how to stop worrying and love Beckett”, Encore 12.1 (Jan-Feb 1965), 8-12; 9.

[8] Samuel Beckett, Echo’s Bones ed. by Mark Nixon (London: Faber & Faber, 2014).

[9] Theodor W. Adorno, Versuch, das Endspiel zu verstehen. Aufsätze zur Literatur des 20. Jahrhunderts (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1973), 167-214. Cf. Also Dirk van Hulle, “Adorno’s Notes on Endgame”, Journal of Beckett Studies 19.2 (2010), 196-217; 204: “Adorno’s reference to Hamlet could all too easily be interpreted as an invitation to reduce Endgame to the line ‘to be or not to be’.

Shakespeare and Beckett By Claudia Olk

About The Author

Claudia Olk

Claudia Olk is Professor of English at Ludwig Maximilians University, Munich and Director of the Munich Shakespeare Library. Her monographs include Travel and Narration (1999) and ...

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