Shakespeare’s works concerned far more than matters of love and betrayal, pointy hats or men in tights. From musings on the nature of autocracy and corruption to a disdain for anarchy and disorder, the Bard’s works have long contained a significant political current that spoke to the matters of his times and still find resonance today. David Herskovits, the founder and artistic director of Target Margin Theatre, and the actor Eunice Wong join The Chris Hedges Report to discuss the works of Shakespeare and what they might still teach us about navigating the storm of slings and arrows of our 21st Century. You can find tickets and more information about their play, ‘Pericles’ at targetmargin.org.
Studio: Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden
Audio Post-Production: Tommy Harron
Video Post-Production: Chris Arnone
Footage: Evan Macaluso
The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.
I carried copies of William Shakespeare’s plays into the conflicts in Central America, the Middle East, and the Balkans.
When I was taken prisoner by the Iraqi Republican Guard in Basra during the Shia Uprising following the first Gulf War, I had a copy of Antony and Cleopatra in the pocket of my M-65 field jacket, along with Homer’s The Iliad. Sigmund Freud turned to Shakespeare, along with the Greek myths, to lay the foundations for Freudian psychoanalysis. Karl Marx liberally quoted from Shakespeare using the Merchant of Venice to explain economic theory. Writers such as Charles Dickens built on the foundations of Shakespeare. Herman Melville formed his characters in Moby Dick from the clay of the Bible and Shakespeare.
Perhaps only the Bible rivals Shakespeare in its archetypal significance. Shakespeare invented thousands of words that remain part of our vocabulary: gloomy, monumental, castigate, assassination, addiction, cold-blooded to name a few.
His power as a writer came not only from the beauty of his poetry, but his deep understanding of the ambiguities and contradictions that go into making a human being and a human society. He grasped that human history is merely itself. It moves towards no goal. The universe is morally neutral. The gods favor you one day and turn their back on you the next. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,” Gloucester says. “They kill us for their sport.”
Good does not always triumph. Indeed, it is often no match when pitted against murderous tyrannies. Antony in the play, Antony and Cleopatra, embraces love and passion and loses empire. Like Dido, by surrendering to love, he is no match for Octavius’s single-minded quest for power.
Shakespeare brought hundreds of characters to life: king Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, Cleopatra, Malvolio, Falstaff, Romeo, Juliet, Othello. And created narratives of such power that they continue to haunt our imaginations.
Joining me to discuss William Shakespeare and its importance is David Herskovitz, the Founder and Artistic Director of Target Margin Theater, and the actor Eunice Wong, to whom I’m married. Target Margin will mount a production of the play Pericles at the Doxsee Theater in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, starting on February 25th and running through March 26th. You can find out more at targetmargin.org.
So I’ll open with you, Eunice, and this Harold Goddard book, which we both like very much. The Meaning of Shakespeare describes Shakespeare as an oracle. And I wonder if you agree, and if so, why?
I would agree with that. I mean, an oracle is traditionally something that is prophetic, ambiguous and requiring interpretation, usually by priests. I think you could say all of that of Shakespeare.
But also, what you have in Shakespeare is this enormous cannon of plays that are incredibly wide-ranging. And Harold Bloom said that Shakespeare invented psychoanalysis, that Freud just codified it. Freud has essentially prosified Shakespeare. So if you have this body of work that is so multifaceted in human behavior, and we haven’t changed that much in the last 500 years in terms of human behavior, you’re going to find a lot of answers to human mysteries within that canon of psychoanalysis.
So yeah, I would agree with that. There’s plenty to interpret. There’s a lot of truth and wisdom and a lot of mystery, so I think that would qualify as an oracle.
What about you, David?
Well, I mean, as usual, and I know you know of course Eunice is right, and I think that that’s right. If we accept, as I believe, that the depth, the richness, complexity and nuance of human experience in all of its diversity is represented by Shakespeare as in no other writer that I know, and we accept that a wise man once said, “What’s past is prologue,” then surely these works have oracular power.
So I’m going to ask this question. David, Shakespeare’s plays deal repeatedly with a subject that dominates Greek drama and that’s the very fraught relationship between older and younger generations. This is an inherent tension central to King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, the Tempest, but of course Pericles as well, and I wondered if you could talk about that tension.
Oh boy, yes. Where to begin?
I mean, you mentioned King Lear actually, and to me, that’s always the play that personally [inaudible 00:06:01] with lines and, forgive me if I paraphrase, but I think the last line is, “We that are young, shall never see so much, nor live so long. The oldest hath borne most: we that are young, shall never see so much nor live so long.” The point being that obviously King Lear, we know, is a very old man and it’s about him handing off power to his children, the succession, right? And so not just the transfer of power but generational transfer of power. But then the question of aging and youth and how we mature into that and what that means, I think, in that and how power is shared or not shared, acknowledged or not acknowledged between generations.
So I guess, in particular, that dimension of authority and power, King Lear is sort of the touchstone for me.
Now, in the play that Eunice and I are working on presently, Pericles, I think that that story has a much more personal and kind of a familial and intimate dimension. Eunice, please chime in because I want to know if you feel it that way, but here, first of all, the action of play happens over time and we watch this hero, Pericles, age over time. We begin with Prince Pericles seeking a wife, essentially, seeking a partner and then finding and then going through these stages of having a child, losing the child, losing the wife, losing it all, time goes on and on, and then regaining those things.
And again, I don’t know if I’m answering your question, but the sort of gorgeous and fabulous and feeble-like way in which those, that very simple relationship, parent, partner, child is opened up is, I think you could say, what the play is about.
Yeah. I’ll have Eunice address this, but it seems that… I mean, Romeo and Juliet would be the perfect example, but there’s often, it appears in the plays, this inability on the part of different generations to understand each other.
Yeah. Elizabeth Winkler talks about the problem of authority gone archaic in Shakespeare, usually the authority almost always being an older generation, position of power and patriarchal.
And so just a couple examples. You have Juliet and Hermia’s fathers demanding that they marry someone they don’t want to marry or Desdemona’s father demanding that she not marry who she wants to marry, or Lear, of course is the big example, demanding falseness from his daughter.
So that issue of the younger generation rebelling against the older is all through Shakespeare. But what I find really fascinating is that that is not in Pericles. Parent-child relationships are represented throughout, but it’s more like we see different examples of the parent-child bond and how that can manifest in so many different ways from evil and abusive to incredibly healing. But there actually isn’t a lot of filial rebellion, which is kind of interesting against the backdrop of all his other plays. I’m not sure yet what to make of that, but I note it because it’s so unusual in his works.
So let me follow up, Eunice, the later plays, and this is either… We don’t know who actually wrote the Shakespeare plays, but we’ll just go with the traditional belief that it was Will Shakespeare. It may have been a group of people, it may have been someone else, but following the death of Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, in 1596 at the age of 11, there are these series of reunions, almost resurrections, such as in The Winter’s Tale, in Pericles, this miraculous rebirth. And I wondered if you could address… Which is certainly part of Pericles, both with Pericles’s daughter, Marina, and wife, who he thinks are both dead. But can you talk about that aspect of later Shakespeare?
Yes. So the resurrection motif in Shakespeare’s later plays, which are often called The Romances, is my favorite Shakespeare motif. However, historically, I just want to point out that Hamnet died in 1596, as you said. So he’s this 11-year-old boy, he dies, and in the years that follow immediately afterwards, his death, Shakespeare came out with his most rollicking comedies: Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It. And it’s not until 10 years or so after Hamnet’s death that the heavier plays come out, and The Romances don’t come out until the tail end of this body of work, which is really interesting because the plays don’t quite seem to be in alignment with that historical event of his son’s death.
But going back to the resurrection theme in the later plays, it’s incredibly moving to me that whoever wrote these plays, as time went on, seemed to become almost obsessed with this idea of regaining a beloved who was lost. You mentioned Winter’s Tale and Pericles, of course, it’s also in Twelfth Night, to regain a lost brother, a lost sister.
And I haven’t found much scholarly about it, but as an actor, certainly that stuff is gold because talk about human experience. What human being has not lost something and wished to regain it, wished to have that second chance, and something as momentous as the life of a loved one.
Let me just… You and I both saw Mark Rylance in Twelfth Night with that scene at the end. I’ll let you explain it, but what was so brilliant was the reaction upon recognizing that… I’ll let you explain it.
Yeah, yeah. So a quick recap, this is Twelfth Night. This is a comedy. There’s a shipwreck, as there is Pericles, and there is a set of twins, Viola and Sebastian, who are separated and each believe that the other is dead. At the end of the play, spoiler alert, they’re reunited.
And as an actor, I’ve always felt that that moment of reunion, whether it’s Twelfth Night or Pericles or whatever, the complex emotions that must be going on at that point are immense. And on the top surface of our brains we think, “Oh, joy, reunion. To have my brother back, it’s wonderful,” right?
But what this production did, and which I’ve always felt in my gut should be the case as an actor, is that it’s a reordering of reality and of your world. If you have struggled with accepting the news of, say, your brother’s death, and you are on your way to building that into your reality, into your world, and then all of a sudden, you find out, oh wait, he’s not dead, what are those emotions? And I think that woven into that is fear and terror and for many reasons, because maybe biggest of all is, can I open my heart to this possibility? Because if it’s wrong, I have to deal with that loss all over again.
And so in this staging, from what I remember, Viola tried to run out of the room and was stopped by the Duke, and had to turn back to confront the person she thought could be her dead brother. And that just struck true, incredibly true, to me as a psychologically full portrait of a human being in this situation, to experience first that terror of, “My heart can’t take this I’ve already constructed this life without my brother in it. I can’t deal and I’m leaving.”
David, I want to ask you about the themes of chaos and anarchy, which I think in most Shakespeare plays, are painted as forces that plant the seeds of tyranny. At the same time, Shakespeare saw power and privilege as forms of blindness cutting us off from the world and from ourselves. You see this in King Lear, you see it in Pericles with Antiochus. And this kind of callousness on the part of the powerful who, the longer they’re in power, begin to treat those around them as objects or pawns.
I think that ability to see, which is of course, again, a central theme of King Lear, is possible only when power is stripped away and that’s where you get the wisdom of fools, clowns, Kent, Macduff’s wife, before she and her children are murdered when she says, “Wither should I fly? I have done no harm. But I remember now I am in this earthly world, where to do harm is often laudable, to be good sometime accounted dangerous folly.”
Can you talk about those themes of chaos, anarchy and power?
[inaudible] … Seem to problematize what it is that makes a good ruler, but therefore implicitly valorizing the kind of structure. Do you know? [inaudible] … Mentioned, to me, is very exciting.
I’ve always, one of the places that I’m fascinated by in this regard among the others is Coriolanus, right? Where you get an individual for whom, for whatever reasons, which are complicated and valid, are personal to him perhaps, will not play ball in the system that he’s handed and therefore has to be rejected from it. They banish him and he turns around, famously says to the City of Earl, “I banish you,” while he’s being banished.
And yet, that play resolves with him somehow finding his way back, arguably by reconnecting to the people, by reimagining what that political structure and power is in a very powerful way. It’s a tragedy. He doesn’t survive it, but there is a sense that somehow his triumph is in reconnecting to the people of Rome in a different way that’s less corrupted by those structures as they existed.
Anyway, that’s my own cobbled reading of that play in this moment.
So let me ask you, David, specifically about Pericles. It was one of the most popular plays before the theaters were closed in 1642. It opens with the appearance on stage of this single figure, this long-dead 14th century poet, John Gower, who directs the play kind of like the stage manager in Our Town. The opening monologue is from an old folk song that was sung at festivals and pre-fasting evenings and holidays. It would’ve been a very familiar part of Elizabethan communal celebrations, which was recited for its restorative power. It has an opening line in Latin, “The more ancient a good thing is, the better.”
Pericles itself is a very old tale, probably from an ancient Greek romance. Its structure, in many ways, resembles these miracle or saints plays, which like all church festivals, were outlawed by the Puritans two years later in 1644.
I’m wondering, with the plague we currently endure of social isolation, with the complex kind of social unmooring, rupture of social bonds, loss of a sense of the past, if all of these figured into your decision to do a play about love, loss and restoration?
Chris, profoundly. Profoundly. I think that this play, which I’ve been interested in for a long time, has called me so clearly right now for exactly the reasons that you’re mentioning, and even let me add a detail that maybe helps to clarify it.
It seems almost certain that Pericles was first performed in a relatively brief interval in 1608 between periods when the theaters were shut for the plague. So there’s this moment of opening up when this story was offered to people in the midst of plague on both sides of it, after it and before it. And there’s no question to me that that’s what is especially moving and arresting about the plague, that it conjures up those things.
I absolutely concur with many scholars and with you in feeling the structure of it as like a kind of miracle play, as the sort of life of a saint, almost. You see an individual who suffers, who experiences these episodes. It’s very episodic. We go to different places and these very intense, moving things happen, each one in its own frame, and yet there’s a kind of spiritual progression from there.
And that circles back to one of the great themes of this play, and structures of it, which is of healing, of the cure, of curing. There are these figures who are curative, who cure. One particular character named Cerimon we know is a healer explicitly, but there’s also the sense, maybe more powerfully to me, that the young daughter of Pericles and Thaisa, Marina, is herself a healer, that somehow she is and that she grows through the play, becomes an increasingly powerful healer, a person who has the cure for those she encounters. And in the end, culminating in her own father, who, it turns out, it’s her, the child. The child is his father, his own father.
Eunice, I want to ask you about Goddard, uses this I idea that imagination is what he calls, “The elemental speech in all senses, the first and the last, of primitive man and of the poets.” Can you just talk about the importance of the power of imagination?
Yes. I love thinking about theater as an empathy machine where you have a bunch of human beings in a room together and you tell each other stories and you use the power of imagination to imagine that you are in that story, that you are experiencing these events, and it changes you just by the act of imagination.
And so if you can imagine what it means to be someone else who’s very different from you, that affects the way that you engage with the world as a whole. Not just in the theater, but when you step out of the theater to engage with real human beings in your own life, the theater has maybe exercised those muscles of empathy and you can begin to imagine what it is to be someone who has very different circumstances from you, comes from somewhere else, has had a very different upbringing, has different beliefs than you. And without empathy or without imagination, we’re all back in that isolation that you were talking about. We’re all in our own little boxes and unable to reach outside of it. The thing that allows us to reach outside of it is imagination.
I’m going to ask you, Eunice, to close by reading this reunion scene between Pericles and Marina. And I should note, we named our daughter Marina from the play. So just explain briefly where we are and then if you could just read that passage.
Yes. So, more spoilers. This is the end of the play, and Pericles believes that his daughter Marina is dead. He hasn’t seen her since she was an infant for many reasons. She was left with another royal couple to be raised and he was informed three months before the scene that she had died. So he enters the scene believing that his daughter is dead, his wife died many years ago, and in the course of this scene, he meets this girl and through their exchanges, he pieces together who she is, which is his daughter.
And let me just interject there. He hasn’t spoken for the last three months.
Correct. So for those three months when he learned of his daughter’s supposed death, he stopped speaking. And it actually echoes back a bit to what I was saying about what emotional complexity do you go through when you’re confronted with a loved one come back to life? And I think these lines capture that beautifully.
Can I just, before you start reading it, it reminds me very much when, in the Gospels, when the Disciples see the resurrected Christ, they don’t believe it and they ask to see the nail marks on the hands. And in the lead up to this, Pericles does the same thing. It’s all these quests. He seeks to almost test her because he can’t believe it.
Yes. Oh, there’s a lot of testing in this scene, but finally, it becomes irrefutable even to him that this is his child. And so he calls his right-hand man, Helicanus, who has been with him all of his life as a prince, and he says this speech to Helicanus.
“O, Helicanus! Strike me, honored sir. Give me a gash, put me to present pain, lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me o’erbear the shores of my mortality and drown me with their sweetness. O, come hither, thou that beget’st him that did thee beget, thou that wast born at sea, buried at Tarsus, and found at sea again! O, Helicanus, down on thy knees! Thank the holy gods as loud as thunder threatens us. This is Marina.”
That is one of the most beautiful passages in Shakespeare, I think. Thank you.
That was David Herskovitz, the Founder and Artistic Director of Target Margin Theater, and the actor Eunice Wong. They are performing Pericles at Doxsee Theater in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, starting on February 25th and running through March 26th.
I want to thank the Real News Network and its production team, Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at ChrisHedges.substack.com.