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.

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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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One of the most admired all-rounders in the Shakespeare world, Ben Crystal reckons we should “speak the speech” the way the Bard did. And that means “from the gut and the groin…”

Portraits of Ben Crystal by Piper Williams for Shakespeare Magazine.

Perhaps best known for his Shakespeare on Toast book and Passion in Practice workshops, Ben Crystal is an actor, writer, producer and director. Alongside his father, linguist David Crystal, he has pioneered the practice of Original Pronunciation, getting as close as he can to how Shakespeare would have sounded to Elizabethan audiences.

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Would you define your work as a Shakespearean quest?
“Yeah, definitely! I didn’t start out on a quest, I started off wanting to act it more than anything. And then the ideas for the books came up one by one and I became known as the boy who wrote that book. I struggled to get acting auditions for Shakespeare and then, partly though the writing and partly through needing an outlet, I found myself doing more workshops, writing more, exploring more. Finding the issues in both performance and education and in audiences’ perception of Shakespeare and what seemed to be missing, and chasing that down.”

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“Now, through following this path of spreading the word of the Bard, I’ve explored disciplines like pronunciation, become fascinated by the idea of the original Shakespeare ensemble, found myself with an education programme, an OP programme and a Shakespeare ensemble. If you’d asked me when I was 16 or 17 what my dream was, it would have been to be at the RSC. But you follow the path you’re on, and the path I’m on certainly seems to be a quest. I’m very happy with it.”

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Could you explain Original Pronunciation for those who are new to the term?
“It’s a recreation of the soundscape, the accents that Shakespeare’s actors spoke in 400 years ago, in the same way as the Globe spaces are recreations of the original spatial dynamics. It’s a recreation of a sound system, not an attempt to be authentic – because that’s impossible, and there’s only so much you’re going to learn from authenticity. The Globe spaces are as close as we can get to what the spaces looked like, felt like, and we have spent a fair amount of time trying to work out how that can change or improve the way that we act Shakespeare. It’s exactly the same with this sound.”

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How do you go about recreating the accent?
“It’s based on my father’s scholarly work for the Globe in 2004. He gathered all the evidence he could from three sources. One of these was the rhymes. Often Shakespeare’s rhymes don’t work in a modern accent. To let them rhyme again requires particular types of vowel qualities. That’s one source of data. Then, if you go back to the Folio and the Quartos, they used to spell a lot more like they spoke. So, for example, the word film was spelt philome which is very definitely a two syllable word (fil’um) which you still hear in Northern Ireland. That’s an Elizabethan pronunciation carried over from 400 years ago.”

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“Then there were people who wrote linguistic-like descriptions of what the accent sounded like. With those three sources of data combined you get to about 90 percent and that last 10 percent drives my father crazy, but he can’t fill it in. I see it as a great advantage because it means that if you and I were to form a Shakespeare company using OP then we would sound 90 percent the same but then that last 10 percent will be filled up with our natural accents, the story, the audible vocal sound of our experiences.”

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“Compare that to using RP [Received Pronunciation] which is not tied to a particular geographic location. If there is one thing that accent means to people, it’s identity and territory. To me, the idea that Shakespeare should be spoken in this identity-less accent where it flattens out everybody’s character and they all sound the same, takes away its inherent uniqueness.”

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How different does it feel to perform in OP?
“Acting in RP versus OP or even in your own natural accent, your actor’s centre will shift.
A lot of people find in RP that their centre tends to be around their throat. When I act in my natural accent I find that my centre shifts to my chest. And with OP the centre shifts all the way down to your gut and into your groin. You plant your feet much more firmly on the ground and it tends to lead you to stronger character choices.”

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“They tend to be earthier, more active choices and, as a knock-on effect, you tend to move faster as well. You follow Hamlet’s advice to ‘speak the speech trippingly on the tongue’. It ramps everything up and you’re flying around the stage connecting with fellow actors in a vastly different way. One of the final results of all that is that it tends to engage your heart rather than your head. And people tend to find that it’s easier to understand and they tend to get more emotionally engaged. And that’s all we want – to make you laugh, make you cry, bring the audience along with us.”

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Do you think OP can attract bigger, more mainstream audiences?
“That’s an interesting question. Because of course I do, otherwise I wouldn’t be spending time on it. But I have to caveat that it’s not a cash bunny. I don’t see it as the sort of a performance quality in Shakespeare that money can be made out of necessarily. I’m excited by it. Irrespective of whether or not it becomes popular, there is nothing a Shakespeare geek is excited more by than an unexplored area of his field.”

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Is there a key thing that you’ve discovered by performing in OP?
“There are plenty of lost rhymes and lost puns, but the biggest discovery has been more ephemeral, really. More abstract or intangible, because you end up with a different play on your hands. You speak the lines differently and end up with characters who are completely different animals to those you expected. When I did Hamlet there was no question that he was anything like the stereotypical passive, indecisive, boring fellow. He became almost Sherlock Holmesian in the way he was trying to discover the truth. He was active. And that, in part, came from the OP. So we’re rediscovering the plays in new lights, not just the words.”

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What other interesting things do you think are currently happening Shakespeare-wise?
“The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is interesting. There are plans to build a Shakespearean theatre for Shakespeare North. I’m intrigued by the Maxine Peake Hamlet that was up at the Royal Exchange and by the all-female company explorations that have been going on at The Donmar. There’s a lot of younger companies exploring Shakespeare – there’s Smooth Faced Gentlemen, The HandleBards, who go round on bikes. There’s lots of cool, interesting stuff in the underground as well as all the companies running around the country doing open-air Shakespeare. It’s interesting that both the Globe and the RSC have brought in international companies.”

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“The reason we’re having this conversation, the reason there’s a Shakespeare Magazine is that these plays really, really are wonderful. He had a capacity and a knack for exploring the human condition and the way that we think – and why we do the things that we do – in such an amazing way that it’s really hard to get them wrong. And yet we do. There is something that these international companies are tapping into.”

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“Or maybe it’s tapping into something in us. Because we are both in tandem released from the pressure of ‘how are they going to deliver this famous line?’ I think we are being taught a lot by Europe and Eastern Europe about something that we’re missing with Shakespeare, craft and a long rehearsal period, a return to the ensemble. They are not restricted because they’re not bound to our language and they have a playfulness with it that I think we’re losing.”

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You’ve travelled widely, how would you say Shakespeare is perceived around the world?
“Away from the UK everyone loves him! It’s a generalisation but it’s not too far off. I do not meet students who dislike him so much overseas but I do encounter this ownership issue that whilst they have a tremendous passion, heart and love for Shakespeare, there is still this idea that ‘We don’t do it right because we don’t have the right sound or we don’t have English training’.”

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“Americans have embraced OP, though. Because the accent that left London 400 years ago got on the boats and went to the Americas. So when they hear OP they don’t say ‘Oh God, that sounds alien to us’. They hear accent qualities they can relate to and rather than thinking ‘We can’t do Shakespeare because we don’t have that beautiful RP accent. We don’t have any ownership over Shakespeare, even though we love him’, they say ‘Oh my goodness, he actually sounds like us, we can do this’. So it’s no wonder that they’ve embraced it. There is some really, really fascinating work both in the States and across the world. I just wish there was more flow, that more would come over. And, indeed, the other way.”

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We’ve mentioned your father, David Crystal. In You Say Potato the relationship between the two of you bounces of the page. What’s it like work with your dad?
“It’s a pain in the neck and it is the most wonderful, joyous experience that you could possibly wish for! I came up with the idea for Shakespeare’s Words when I was 22. I was lucky to work with a parent at such a young age. We became friends, and we got to know each other so quickly. He certainly wasn’t used to someone telling him he was wrong. There absolutely were disputes. He taught me how to articulate an argument, he taught me how to articulate myself. I am utterly blessed and feel lucky to have both that working and familial friendship with him and my mum. And I’m especially lucky that, considering how much of an expert he is, how experienced he is – and that even though sometimes it does take a little bit of shouting – he is always perceptive and open to new ideas.”

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“You can’t really ask for a better colleague than that. So to be able to take his research on and explore it practically, it’s really wonderful. It’s a celebration of his research and it’s a continuation and an exploration of it that he wouldn’t necessarily be able to do himself. So we are a good partnership in that respect.”

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So, if you had one big Shakespearean aspiration, What would it be?
“To change the education system, fundamentally, from the top down or the bottom up, whichever way is quickest. To refresh Shakespeare production and performance and the perception of it in a similar way that Gielgud, Olivier, Burton or Branagh has done. I would like very much to spend a considerable amount of time training and forming a company – much like the ensemble I’ve been starting to form – in a Globe-like space, and see where that may take us. To have artistic directorship of a place like The Globe or the Wanamaker, building our own space and recreating a similar sort of dynamic, that would be fine.”

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“And coming away from these experiences in 20-25 years time and having someone in their twenties or thirties saying ‘Ben Crystal’s wrong, his ideas had their time and now this is where we need to go with Shakespeare’ would be a dream come true.”

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Find out more about Ben’s approach to Shakespeare at the Passion in Practice website.

This interview originally appeared in Shakespeare Magazine Issue 6. Go here to see the original version.