Shakespeare in Bloomsbury

From The Wall Street Journal:

I went to Shakespeare’s Globe to see “The Winter’s Tale” in London last March, on a freezing, rainy night. The mood was brightened by the production’s droll Autolycus, one of the Bard’s great con men and clowns. He teased and cajoled; he brought theatergoers up to dance with the actors; he threw in references to Brexit and Boris. Decorum resumed in the final act, in which the statue comes to life, with all the grave enchantment the text demanded.

When the revels ended, I shuffled with the crowd toward the Underground and happened to glance down a garbage-strewn alleyway, where I saw a skinny, shivering, tawny little fox. Unaware that this is a common sight in the city, I felt caught in the same time warp that the ancient play, with its modern interjections, had just evinced. It was as if the year was 1610 and the fox had hitched a ride on a rural wagon to the big city—yet somehow it was also here in 2023. The Britons who first saw “The Winter’s Tale” were mourning the death of their long-reigning Elizabeth; Londoners in our century had just lost their own. Both eras had recently seen the theaters close and reopen because of plague. Both audiences of the Globe had wanted to believe that a statue had come to life, and maybe it had.

As it turns out, these are just the kinds of ruminations that the Bloomsbury group, that famous coterie of early-20th-century British writers and artists, would have dismissed as lightweight and slightly vulgar. (The original group included the writers Virginia and Leonard Woolf, the painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, the biographer Lytton Strachey, the economist John Maynard Keynes, and the art critics Clive Bell and Roger Fry.) Bloomsbury’s keen interest in Shakespeare did not lie in comparisons between their age and the Elizabethans’, in the historical roots of the plays, or in questions about provenance. They were not much concerned with Shakespeare’s character or with his beliefs. They deplored most of the professional productions they saw, complaining that they were (as one of them said) “smothered in scenery” and objecting to the fussy intonations of the players. “Acting it they spoil the poetry,” Virginia Woolf wrote to her nephew in 1935.

Instead, for the most part, the Bloomsbury group exercised its passion for Shakespeare simply by reading the plays and the sonnets, sometimes aloud together, but more often silently to themselves. Their relationship with him existed almost entirely through his language, with which they all felt an evangelical connection, intense and personal. In the beginning and the end, for them, was the word.

The subject of how different eras engage with Shakespeare is a juicy one, and an excellent choice for Marjorie Garber, a longtime professor of English at Harvard as well as the distinguished author of six previous books about Shakespeare among more than 20 volumes on subjects literary and otherwise. “Shakespeare in Bloomsbury” is a survey rather than an argument, proposing no more tendentious a thesis than that the members of the group adored Shakespeare and that she is going to show readers how in the most expansive and delightful way possible.

And this she does, propelling those readers through a lively inventory of the playwright’s imprints on Bloomsbury’s lives and works. She points out the ways in which Virginia Woolf’s frequent nods to Shakespeare serve as a “network of shared reference,” a handshake of recognition between a writer and her audience. Woolf’s 1927 novel “To the Lighthouse,” for instance, expects readers to identify its refrain of “Lights, lights, lights” as a line from “Hamlet.” Woolf uses the allusion to weave images of brightness through a narrative that plays with time passing, observing light as an ambiguous flicker in an impermanent world, one that “welcomes and protects,” as Ms. Garber notes, but one that “can also warn of danger if its signals are seen and understood.” “Orlando” (1928) blurs fiction and fact along with time, offering glimpses of an unnamed poet of the Elizabethan age who shows up at Knole, the ancestral estate of Thomas Sackville, who was a Tudor-era forebear of Woolf’s great friend Vita Sackville-West. Sackville was a cousin of Elizabeth I, a statesman and dramatist who co-authored the first English play written in blank verse. By connecting Knole with her shadow-image of Shakespeare, Woolf seduces readers into celebrating a dual aesthetic inheritance that for her represents the heart of Englishness.

Woolf and the other Bloomsbury members counted on Shakespeare’s plays to console and counsel as well as to inspire. In 1904, when young Leonard Woolf traveled to Ceylon to take an administrative post in the colonial civil service, he brought along a miniature edition of the works of Shakespeare and Milton, along with a 90-volume set of Voltaire, as bulwarks of familiarity against his fears of the unknown. Two years later, when Lytton Strachey wrote to Leonard about the shocking death of their mutual friend Thoby Stephen, Strachey relied on “Antony and Cleopatra” to express his grief: “There is nothing left remarkable / Beneath the visiting moon.”

Clive Bell, a founder of Bloomsbury who never felt entirely accepted by the group, saw the Bard as a token of belonging, telling a paramour who had recently enjoyed an Old Vic staging of “Measure for Measure” that “we, of course, only read Shakespeare.” Keynes parlayed his own veneration into civic munificence, using his government influence as an economic adviser to establish and support funding for the Cambridge Arts Theatre and to oversee the public institution that became, in 1945, the Arts Council of Great Britain.

The members of Bloomsbury defined themselves as modern rebels against the stodginess of Victorian culture. Yet their faith in the primacy of Shakespeare transcended the differences between generations, linking old and new centuries together. After a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1934, Virginia Woolf commented in her diary on the “sunny impersonality” of the playwright’s garden and house, noting that he’s “serenely absent-present; both at once; radiating around one . . . but never to be pinned down.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)