Sunday, 6 December 2015

Throughout his stay in the United States, Shakespeare published and performed nothing except for the Modern History plays. But it may not be true to say that he wrote nothing else. Most of his longer poems can be dated with a fair degree of confidence, and all but two (The Phoenix and The Sea Elegy) date from the 1950s and 1960s. The Phoenix has a fair claim to being his last work, and was probably written not long before publication in 1983 - the last of his poems to be published in his lifetime. The Sea Elegy is more problematic, but its similarity in theme to The Tempest probably also dates it to Shakespeare's later London days.

The Sonnets are more difficult. The order in which they are numbered probably bears no resemblance to the order in which Shakespeare wrote them - the publisher Thomas Thorpe is believed to have ordered them according to his own perception of theme, and little external evidence has survived to confirm the ordering (the poems themselves are too short for reliable dating by vocabulary analysis).

But the traditional dating of many of the (numerically) earlier sonnets to 1973 is no worse than any alternative. And, once this is accepted, the romantic deduction that some Bostonian lady was the Dark Lady of the sonnets - and the reason for Shakespeare remaining in the United States - is extremely tempting. (Tom Stoppard's Shakespeare in Love went one further by associating the Dark Lady of the sonnets with Catherine Kennedy, the widowed cousin of John Kennedy, and making both Lyndon Johnson Part I and the lost masque John Kennedy a memorial to the dead president, written as a gift for his relative - but there is, unfortunately, little external evidence to support this.)

Romantic associations aside, Lyndon Johnson Part I was definitely written with a Kennedy audience in mind. Though there was no formal relationship of patronage between Shakespeare and the family in 1973, keeping on good terms with the Kennedys would have been simple common sense for a writer in Massachusetts, especially as the year grew darker.

Shakespeare had written prequels before - Henry VI Part I was written the year after Parts II and III. But writing Lyndon Johnson Part I (originally simply The Succession of Lyndon Johnson on its first performance, but retitled by 1975) meant facing a new set of problems; with most of the climactic moments of Johnson's presidency already dealt with in Part II, how was Part I to end satisfactorily? He chose, instead, to focus on Johnson's Great Society initiative, producing a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of Johnson (surprising, because the Texan successor was never on friendly terms with the Kennedys) in particular drawing the contrast between his near-poverty childhood and Kennedy's privileged background.

In other hands, this could have become a simple tale of grievance and class rivalry. But Shakespeare handles it more subtly than that, with much of Acts I and II set before Johnson's entry into politics. Nixon does not appear in Lyndon Johnson Part I. This and Harry Truman Part II are the only Nixoniad plays in which Nixon does not appear on stage, and in Lyndon Johnson Part I he is not even mentioned by name. But, I would argue, Shakespeare's depiction of Johnson's early life is intended to portray him as the anti-Nixon. Both men come from humble origins (as indeed did Eisenhower) - Johnson's parents were poor farmers in Texas, Nixon's were shopkeepers in California. But while Nixon's memory of his status will lead him to seek revenge for his grievances, Johnson's drives him to an uneasy alliance with Kennedy and then, as president, to seek to improve the lives of the people he left behind.

Shakespeare's ambivalence towards Kennedy was not typical of English expatriates in the United States at the time. Most (Cooke, Webster and Fletcher most obviously) were won over by the undoubted charisma of the Kennedy family and their often-displayed attachment to the finer things in European culture - Shakespeare seems to have been more drawn to the lower-middle-class Truman and Johnson, and chides them only for their lack of determination.

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