Oh, so long ago, I said I’d be writing about reading Shakespeare for profit, and then life intervened and I went off on a long jag of Elizabeth Taylor reading, and a lot of novel and story writing, and re-writing, and some other stuff, and well, really, it’s time to get back to Measure for Measure, for profit’s sake.
The word “profit” is one I love, just as I love the word “rich.” I have long felt compelled to point out to those who have to listen to me (aka my children) the non-monetary meanings of words like this. Think of it as a little bit of vocabulary subversiveness. “Rich” doesn’t mean rolling in cash; it means replete with something. It’s a good word, describing as it does the quantity of good things we should all have in our lives: we should be rich in laughter, in books, in words, in love. Same with profit. We profit from things not just monetarily, but morally and spiritually, intellectually and entertainment-wise.
Whenever I think of the word “profit” I think of Tennyson’s Ulysses, a poem so old-fashioned that it shows up in Ted Kennedy’s speeches. It begins: “it little profits that an idle king….” And, on the subject of random word association, I noticed this last week, as William was preparing for his First Communion, that when my kids think of profits they think of guys with long white beards who are messengers from an angry old testament god.
Okay, here comes the Shakespeare part. (Aren’t blogs great? They are one big digression. And nobody nails you for it!)
Sometimes, the thing you’re reading perfectly fits your current preoccupations. In the case of Measure for Measure, I found myself thinking that Shakespeare knew there is no better set up for a comedy with a slightly tragic edge than that of the righteous man who is himself doing the thing he so vigorously condemns. And how that is SO Eliot Spitzer.
Shakespeare’s Spitzer is Angelo, who, moments after he is put in charge of the kingdom, gets right to work handing out death sentences for having sex without being married. And then, just moments later, he is busy trying to figure out how to seduce the play’s number one virgin who also happens to be a nun. You can tell that Angelo is in for a big fat fall.
How does it end up? It’s a C-O-M-E-D-Y, so after the proper amount of chastisement, everybody marries somebody and things are good.
It profits an idle writer like me to read Shakespeare not only because you realize that there are no unique plots, but also because once you are freed from the scariness of making stuff up, you can look around you and see how all you have to do is just steal what you need. And that’s what I did. I STOLE part of Measure for Measure for my new novel, for a subplot set in the Marks & Spencer food hall at Paddington Station. I even have a nun character. She’s Swedish. She looks severe. She’s a traffic expert. She knows a lot about snow. I think that’s very nun-like, to be an expert at things having to do with winter. The Marks & Spencer manager is a righteous guy. And that’s all I needed to get going. Thank you, Will.