Bill Moyers interviews author Herman Gollob on the relevance of William Shakespeare’s works today and about his book Me and Shakespeare.
MOYERS: This week, we celebrate the 438th birthday of William Shakespeare.
All these years later, Shakespeare's alive — not only on the stage but in the movies. And there's a new one on Turner Network Television, featuring Patrick Stewart.
Here's Patrick Stewart playing a wealthy and egomaniacal Texas rancher named John Lear.
PATRICK STEWART AS JOHN LEAR: From today, I am giving the rank over to you three gals.
I want to get all this settled now so there won't be any fighting amongst you after I'm gone.
DAUGHTER COLE: Pa, are you feeling all right?
LEAR: I'm feeling fine, Cole yeah, just fine.
I've even going to lead the round-up this year, just like always. But I won't be here forever, and I want to get this matter settled.
DAUGHTER SUZANNA: And who gets which part of the land?
LEAR: Oh, Suzanna, I suppose that depends.
SUZANNA: On what?
LEAR: On who loves their father the most.
MOYERS: Patrick Stewart, whose first role many years ago was in a Shakespearean play. Now as John Lear, Texas rancher, the king of Texans.
It was it was Mr. Stewart's idea to take the story of King Lear abroad to a wholly different landscape.
His crew wanted a place hospitable to ambition, arrogance, megalomania, and treachery, so naturally they decided on Texas.
My guest knows about these things.
We are both Texans.
He even edited my first book 32 years ago, but survived that banal beginning to enjoy a long and distinguished career as a literary editor in New York.
Soon after his retirement, Herman Gollob went to a performance of Hamlet in New York and fell head over heels again for the work of William Shakespeare.
In two weeks, he'll publish a memoir of his passion. It's called ME AND SHAKESPEARE.
HERMAN GOLLOB: Thank you, Bill, good to be here.
MOYERS: The surprising thing is that when I first met you 32 years ago, 33 or 34 years ago, you even talked about how your father had had you memorize Shakespeare when you were ten years old.
GOLLOB: Oh, my Dad, yes, indeed. My daddy had me actually learn the only major speeches of Shakespeare's great villains-- Iago, Richard III, Edmund the Bastard, and Cassius.
MOYERS: Just the villains?
GOLLOB: The villains, only the villains.
MOYERS: Why? Why the villains?
GOLLOB: Well, it was... I'll tell you, it was... wasn't so he could trot me out in front of company and I could, you know, perform my, you know, thespic wizardry.
He had a didactic purpose.
He said, "Son, when you grow up, you're going to run into a lot of greedy, vicious, selfish, envious hombres, and they're going to be very, very smart, and they're very sneaky.
They're going to want to make you think that they're your friends.
But, believe me, whenever they get a chance, they're going to stab you in the back and take everything you've got."
GOLLOB: Great motivating, right? Great motivation.
MOYERS: Great preparation for publishing in New York.
GOLLOB: I mean, you know, the end of innocence for little Herb. You know, no WINNIE THE POOH for me and... no, no WIND IN THE WILLOWS, man. It was Iago, et cetera, et cetera.
MOYERS: And did you learn them?
GOLLOB: Yeah, I learn... I learned some of them, as a matter of fact, I did.
MOYERS: Remember any of them?
GOLLOB: You mean now?
GOLLOB: Yeah, I think I could remember a little of "Cassius." Dare I?
GOLLOB: Okay, so I set the scene just a bit, so we'll know where we are. This is early on Act I, Scene I. I guess it's Scene I, Brutus and Cassius, they're standing outside the arena.
Inside the games are being played in front of, you know, Caesar and Calpernia and his retinue. And Cassius has been trying to plant the seeds of doubt and suspicion in Brutus' mind so that he can join the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar.
And while they're talking, there's this great roar comes from the crowd.
And Brutus starts to... Cassius says, you know, "looks like they're going to heap some more honors on old... old Caesar."
And Cassius looks at him and says, "My man, he doth destroyed the narrow world like a colossus.
And we petty men walk under his huge legs and peep about to find ourselves dishonorable graves, men that sometimes aren't masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we were underlings.
Brutus and Caesar, what should be in that Caesar?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Upon what meet that doth though, Caesar, feed that he has grown so great.
Age, thou art shame?
Rome has lost the breed of noble men."
Well, I dropped a few lines here and there, but...
MOYERS: But ten years old when you learned this.
MOYERS: And your father wanted you to learn this so you would know there were villains in the world?
GOLLOB: That's right. Well, you know.
MOYERS: And was he right?
GOLLOB: Well, as a matter of fact...yes
MOYERS: Did you learn this?
GOLLOB: As the years went on, I guess I did meet up with some of these hombres. In fact, I might have been one of them myself at times, you know. Nobody's perfect.
You learn the lines of Iago and Cassius, et cetera, when you're a kid and it...tends to warp you.
But you know, coming to this later on in life, Bill, coming back to Shakespeare decades later and sort of re-acquainting myself with these villains and even with some of the sympathetic characters that go astray, I saw a moral principle emerging, if I may use the term.
Namely, how... how dangerous and dehumanizing it is to exalt the intellect over the heart. Pure intellect breeds egotism.
And what's the great moral struggle of our time has always been egotism versus altruism since the beginnings of time.
I mean, you could say the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel were the allegories about he dark consequences of intellectual hubris, you know?
I don't know whether you're familiar with the ethics of the fathers the book of the Talmud which is, you know, the moral sayings...
MOYERS: No, no.
GOLLOB: ...and wisdom of the sages.
And rather puts poses that issue in terms of two questions: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I?"
The egotist is for himself alone, and he is ruthlessly ambitious, greedy, riddled, eaten alive within the... greedy for gain, greedy for power.
MOYERS: But isn't the conflict in Shakespeare between the ego and the altruist, between the egoism and altruism?
GOLLOB: Well, now... well, sure, it's all good — ego and altruism, good and evil, life and death.
You find that throughout Shakespeare, as you do as a matter of fact through the Bible.
Julius Caesar put his finger on this issue, as far as I'm concerned, when he talks about Cassius to Mark Antony. He says he thinks too much.
"Such men as he be never at heart's ease while as they behold greater than themselves. And therefore are they very dangerous?"
The irony is that you... look, he could have been just as well talking about Iago or Edmund the Bastard or Richard III.
And as I said, the irony is that he is actually talking about himself and doesn't know it.
Because Brutus and his soliloquy a little later on when he's trying to talk himself into assassinating Caesar, trying to rationalize this, says the abuse of greatness is when it just joins remorse from power, and to speak truth of Caesar, I have not known whether his affections swayed more than his reason.
The ironic thing is that he is letting his reason overwhelm his affections at that time.
MOYERS: Do you have a favorite villain in Shakespeare?
GOLLOB: Richard III, I guess, I love. I can't quote any Richard III.
So I said, well, ironic, I actually played it when I was studying acting at the Pasadena Playhouse, my first year there. And I had this heavy southern accent.
But, you know, John Barton says that the closest thing to an Elizabethan accent is a Southwestern accent, particularly a Texas accent. So you and I have been talking Elizabethan English all our lives.
MOYERS: If we could only write it.
GOLLOB: And didn't know it. Well, we haven't tried yet. Bring up that blank verse.
MOYERS: The fact of the matter is that for all of his understanding of dark deeds and black hearts, for all of his temptations with evil, Shakespeare was not a moralizer, was he?
GOLLOB: No, he was not a moralizer. He was a...a moralist. A moralizer believes in moral certitude. A moralist believes in moral ambiguity.
Shakespeare had this uncanny God-like, and I mean it, God-like understanding of human nature, the human condition.
GOLLOB: God, yeah, you know... Andre Gide once said, "Shakespeare is not quite God."
MOYERS: But he knew the human heart?
GOLLOB: He knew the human heart. And he knew the human heart like few people, like few mortals do.
It's the contradictoriness of human nature that Shakespeare saw. One minute we're good, the next minute evil. One minute we're chaste, next minute lascivious. Selfish one minute, you know...
MOYERS: "Who so firm cannot be seduced?"
GOLLOB: "...be seduced," where is that from?
GOLLOB: Who so firm... one moment, one moment please.
Cassius, after Brutus and the guys have gone off stage in that same scene, has this little weenie soliloquy, okay?
And he's very happy because he sees that his words have begun to take effect on Brutus.
And he says, "Well, Brutus, thou art noble.
Yet I see thy honorable metal may be wrought from that that is disposed.
Therefore it is meet that noble minds keep ever with their likes for who so firm cannot be seduced."
Now, you think, as an actor, I'd love those lines.
These are great actor's parts that... Shakespeare's villains. Because, you know, Shakespeare's villains are actors themselves.
MOYERS: No question this was written by a man of the theater, right?
GOLLOB: Well, that's why no one but Shakespeare could have written these plays.
I don't want to raise that can of worms right now. But...
MOYERS: Was there one Shakespeare?
GOLLOB: Only a guy who loved the theater, knew the theater could have written these plays, and also the...
MOYERS: And knew the ear, the human ear.
GOLLOB: Yeah, well...
MOYERS: As well as the human heart.
GOLLOB: Yeah, but remember what he did with the language, what he did with iambic pentameter was to revolutionize it.
MOYERS: Give me an example.
GOLLOB: I'll give you one thing that Ralph Fiennes did that I found very interesting.
When he came out, he burst on stage when he did the "To be or not to be" soliloquy.
And he said, "To be or not to be, that is the question."
Well, you know, that's the iambic pentameter-- "to be or not to be, that\is\the question."
Most actors do not do that.
They use the prosaic, "to be or not to be, that is the question."
But the way Fiennes did it is he's been struggling with himself and he said, "No, that \is\the question."
The other one is, "that is the question."
It seems the more logical...
GOLLOB: ...rational way to do it.
These are the subtle things that can be brought in a script, just by changing the... changing the meter.
MOYERS: If Shakespeare were around today and you could assign him one modern figure about whom to write, who would it be?
GOLLOB:I think, get a load of this, that LBJ...
GOLLOB: ...would be the greatest subject...
GOLLOB: ...for Shakespeare.
Complicated and contradictory, a true tragic hero, I think, a man who could do great things.
Well, you know him better than I do, Bill, of course.
MOYERS: I know what you mean. Here was a man who was... his heart was saying, "I don't want to go to war."
MOYERS: "I know what's going to happen if I go to war." But his head was saying, his...
MOYERS: His head, yearning to please the rationalist, went to war. His head took him where his heart didn't want to go.
GOLLOB: But that must have worked with him all his life, Bill.
MOYERS: He was a... a war between egoism and altruism. The good that I would do, I don't. The evil that I wouldn't do, I do. I mean, this was Lyndon Johnson. But it's not untypical of so many of us ambitious people.
GOLLOB: Let me tell you, we all connect with Shakespeare in some way or another.
You know, the events, the happenings in Shakespeare, we can sort of relate to what's going on in the world around us in our personal lives.
You mentioned my daddy when he, when he was dying of cancer in a Houston hospital. You know, I went to see him. You know, I lived 2,000 miles away, and I couldn't be there all the time.
You know, I'm an only child, no family there, so I was really all he had. And I, you know, I couldn't be there the... during that...during his entire siege.
But he was... well, he looked sort of like Lear — had his white hair, his long, white hair, this white mustache. And he was in great pain, all these tubes coming out of him.
You know, and he was really my best friend, my father. I mean, he was a great man, the most honest, decent, ethical man I've ever known.
And here he was dying in great pain, and he said, "You know, son, I just want to go to the other side."
And I can hear in my mind the lines from the Duke of Kent, at the end of King Lear.
"He hates him, who would on the rack of this tough world stretch him out longer."
And I was stretching my old man out longer. I didn't want him to die actually. I figured, you know, a miracle will happen, he'll get better. And of course he didn't.
MOYERS: And at his funeral?
GOLLOB: I quoted from Julius Caesar, from the... or Mark Antony's funeral oration over Brutus: "His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him, that nature might stand up and say to all the world, 'this was a man.'"
Shakespeare actually believed in the mystery... the mysteriousness of life.
That's one of the keys to his work.
John Keats, my favorite romantic poet, defined the essence of Shakespeare. He said, "Shakespeare is negative capability."
That's what defines him, which is the capacity of being in the world of doubt, mystery, and uncertainty without any irritable reaching after fact or reason.
Shakespeare is not wanton for that irritable reaching after fact or reason. He loved the mystery...mysteriousness of the world.
MOYERS: What's the key to reading, in just one sentence?
If you want to go in 2002 and discover Shakespeare, what kind of ear do you take?
GOLLOB: The best way to appreciate Shakespeare is to see it. Rent tapes if you can. Go to the theater. I don't care whether it's an amateur production or it's a little, you know, it's a little, you know, a middle school production. Go and see Shakespeare.
GOLLOB: Because they are meant to be performed. They're meant to be heard.
People used to say in Elizabethan times, "Let's go hear a Shakespeare play." Now, yeah, sometimes the vocabulary's a little hard, you know.
You might want to look at the book to see what they're talking about. Sometimes the syntax might be a little convoluted. But still, the richest language that has ever been written for the stage is Shakespearean language. It can shake you to the core even though you don't understand every doggone word of it.
MOYERS: Thank you, Herman.
GOLLOB: Thanks, Bill
MOYERS: Herman Gollob, ME AND SHAKESPEARE.