Waiting for Shakespeare to make his entrance: References and remembrances in two classic twentieth century ‘New York’ novels, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

As a fellow Shakespeare fan, perhaps you experience this too. Quite often when I’m reading a book or watching a film or having a look at something on television, I get a slightly eerie sense of premonition, the feeling that a Shakespeare reference is about to be deployed.

Big deal, you’re probably thinking. After all, there are Shakespeare references in practically everything. Well, yes. But it’s still an interesting phenomenon for me, and I do find it fascinating the way my senses seem to anticipate these occurrences quite some time before they come sauntering around the corner, as it were.

To give one recent example, I was dipping into Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz, which is the first book in the series about teenage secret agent Alex Rider. After a few chapters, my Shakespeare sense started tingling, and a couple of pages later, when a disoriented Alex wakes up in a strange room:

“He had seen rooms like this in books when he was studying Shakespeare. He would have said the building was Elizabethan.”

Yesterday I started reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, which came out in 1963, a few weeks before the author killed herself in awful circumstances. It’s one of those books that I always think I’ve already read. But then I realise this is merely the cumulative effect of having perused the opening sentence many times in my life before somehow contriving to proceed no further.

Anyway, if you’ve chosen to read this article the chances are you’re very au fait with The Bell Jar, so I’m sure you’ll be thrilled to hear I’m enjoying it a lot so far – if enjoying is quite the right word.

Bell Jar

And like me you’ve probably played the little game of wondering how you would assess The Bell Jar if you didn’t know anything about its author (indeed, it was originally published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas). My breathtakingly original observations are that it puts me in mind of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye if it was written by Patricia Highsmith. Actually, it reminds me perhaps even more of Salinger’s novella Franny and Zooey, which came out a couple of years before The Bell Jar.

Incidentally, Highsmith was 11 years older than Plath and Salinger was Plath’s senior by 13 years. I don’t know if their paths ever crossed, but they were all floating in the same firmament of Ivy League colleges and New York literary magazines that the Bell Jar, set in 1953, so vividly depicts.

An early sequence in The Bell Jar sees the narrator and her friend visiting the outlandish apartment of a country music disc jockey who has “twenty grand’s worth of recording equipment”. The setting is placed three years before Elvis Presley broke through with Hound Dog, but I can’t help wondering if this is the very first description in literature of the rock ’n’ roll/hillbilly aesthetic.

All this is about as far from Shakespeare as you can get, but it was right here that my Shakespeare Sense – let’s call it my Bardometer – started burbling. However, it wasn’t until 16 pages later that something popped up:

“My German-speaking father, dead since I was nine, came from some manic-depressive hamlet in the black heart of Prussia.”

What a sentence. There’s a lot in it. First, and most obviously, the words “manic-depressive hamlet”. Athough it means hamlet as in a small village, it’s also a literary witticism, as it wouldn’t be unusual for a writer of Plath’s generation to refer to Shakespeare’s Hamlet (ironically or otherwise) as having a manic-depressive personality. There’s another tangential reference: Plath’s semi-autobiographical narrator Esther, like Hamlet, has a dead father.

As a youthful polymath, Plath would no doubt have been aware that Shakespeare enjoyed huge popularity in Germany, with Hamlet a particular favourite. A famous 19th century poem by Ferdinand Freiligrath even asserted that  “Deutschland ist Hamlet”. There’s the sense here that the German-speaking father is essentially benign, like Hamlet’s father, but the fact that he comes from “the black heart of Prussia” hangs over him like the evil murderous brother in the play. And it almost goes without saying that black is the funereal colour invariably associated with Shakespeare’s tragic prince.

Three pages later, after Esther digresses into an account of studying physics for a semester:

“My plan was that I needed the time to take a course in Shakespeare, since I was, after all, an English major.”

This makes me feel like those people who get up and leave the cinema if the name of the film is spoken on the screen. But no, I have resolved to continue reading The Bell Jar – and not just to count any further Shakespeare references.

Now I recall that there’s also a reference to Hamlet in The Catcher in the Rye. On page 100 of the Penguin edition (original US text) the narrator Holden Caulfield discusses Romeo and Juliet with a pair of nuns. Nuns and Shakespeare will of course make the savvy reader think of the line from Hamlet “Get thee to a nunnery”. And sure enough, five pages later Holden gives a scathing assessment of Laurence Olivier’s 1948 Hamlet film.

“He was too much like a goddam general, instead of a sad, screwed-up type guy.”

I’m sure many readers have ruminated on the fact that The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield and The Bell Jar’s Esther Greenwood essentially inhabit the same universe and their narratives take place within just a few years of each other. I can certainly imagine Esther going to see Olivier’s Hamlet at the cinema, but I wonder if this is the version Plath had in mind when she employed the phrase ‘manic-depressive’.

As she lived her final years in England, perhaps Plath witnessed or heard about interpretations by newer, younger actors like Paul Scofield, Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. I’ll have to look into it.

But why do all these authors scatter Shakespeare references about their works like so many literary breadcrumbs?

That is the…

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