The Bard, the Fool and the Private Dick: Shakespeare, Wodehouse and Chandler
PG Wodehouse, Raymond Chandler and Shakespeare are not obvious buddies. Yet all were populist writers, all masters of figurative language and all with a connection to the Elizabethan stage since both Wodehouse and Chandler attended Dulwich College - a school in south east London founded by Edward Alleyn in 1619. A contemporary of Shakespeare’s, he was an actor for whom Kit Marlowe wrote many title roles, though he made his fortune through ownership of theatres, beer-gardens and perhaps brothels. He was also ‘Chief Maister of Beares, Bulls, Mastiff Dogs and Mastiff Bitches’, so quite a guy.
Seven years apart, Wodehouse and Chandler were equally happy at Dulwich. Their later work has much in common. They exude a gift for language, especially the vernacular; they voice their work through first person narrators and their main protagonists inhabit male milieu in which females frequently represent complication or threat. Their novels are intricately plotted (though you feel Chandler is sometimes unsure where things are headed) and their fictional worlds are eerily unchanging. The first Jeeves and Wooster novel was written in 1915 and the last in 1974, yet the stories contain no hint that the twentieth century was a problematic time to be alive.
Chandler’s gritty crime novels are predicated on the fact that times were tough, but the settings of his novels vary little from one to another – the swimming pools and manicured lawns of the rich, the police cells and endless mean streets are all familiar territory. The context is almost incidental. What counted for Chandler was character. His great protagonist was Philip Marlowe, his name a conflation of Philip Sidney (paradigm of Tudor chivalry) and Christopher Marlowe (atheist, spy, dramatist, provocateur).
As it happens, Chandler was a student in Marlowe House at Dulwich and the name he gave to his battered hero can’t have been accidental. Choice of name rarely is. Sharing a classical education, he and Wodehouse were conscious of literary heritage and their novels are scattered with references to earlier literature. In Wodehouse’s Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, for example, there are more than thirty allusions to Shakespeare – though some of these are almost incidental, since phrases such as ‘cheek by jowel’ or ‘into thin air’ have entered everyday usage.
Much of Wodehouse’s fiction turns on the complications of love (as does about 90% of all fiction, come to that), so it’s not surprising that Othello should put in three appearances (generally personifying jealousy), while Hamlet features eight times (mostly brooding melancholy), and Romeo and Juliet also get a mention - ‘I clutched the brow. I am a pretty astute chap, and I could see that this was not the language of love. I mean, if you had heard Juliet saying a thing like that about Romeo, you would have raised the eyebrows in quick concern, wondering if all was well with the young couple.’
Wodehouse’s humour typically relies on comic incongruity. In the passage above we have Wooster’s misperception of himself as a ‘pretty astute chap’ when even his doting Aunt Dahlia knows him as a blithering dunderhead as well as the implied comparison between the mutually ghastly D’arcy ‘Stilton’ Cheesewright and Florence Craye and Shakespeare’s immortal lovers.
Comic incongruity is equally central to the relationship between Wooster and his manservant. It is Jeeves who is the brains of the outfit. And it is Jeeves who supplies Bertram with his range of Shakespeare reference, although much of the time his master seems to think his man the author, not the Bard,
‘There is a method by means of which Mrs Travers can be extricated from her sea of troubles. Shakespeare.’
I didn’t know why he was addressing me as Shakespeare, but I motioned him to continue.
This confusion of Jeeves with Shakespeare appears only a few paragraphs later, to equally comic effect,
‘Let’s go. If it were - what’s the expression of yours?’
‘If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly, sir.’
‘That’s right. No sense in standing humming and hawing.’
‘No, sir. There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.’
‘Exactly,’ I said. I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Although Hamlet is referenced more often,Macbeth is quoted at fuller length and a theme develops around Lady Macbeth’s lines to her husband when urging him to murder Duncan – though hardly to such dark and intense effect,
Halting abruptly, as if he had walked into a lamp-post, he stood goggling like a cat in an adage. Cats in adages, Jeeves tells me, let ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would’, and I could see with the naked eye that this was what Stilton was doing.
‘Goggling’ is a great word. In the next chapter the cat makes a return,
He will have to continue to maintain the non-belligerent status of a mild cat in an adage.
before showing up finally at the conclusion of the novel when Florence’s new suitor is about to declare himself and love finds its true course,
For a moment he stood there letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would’. Then he spoke.
Chandler also references Shakespeare in The Long Good-bye, though more sparingly. In one scene, the alcoholic writer Roger Wade is put to bed by Marlowe, drunkenly muttering, ‘Stop thinking, stop dreaming, stop loving, stop hating. Good night, sweet prince. I’ll take that other pill’ echoing Horatio’s words on Hamlet’s death. Not surprisingly, Wade later ends up dead.
An extended reference to Hamlet features again towards the end of the novel and there are many reasons why Wodehouse and Chandler might wish to quote from or make allusion to Shakespeare. In the case of Wodehouse’s creation Bertie Wooster, the allusions would have been in keeping with his background. For although an idiot, he was an expensively educated idiot, having been to Eton and Oxford (though more in debt to Jeeves, than either).
Apart from allusions to Shakespeare, Wooster also quotes from Tennyson, Byron, Keats, EW Henley and the Bible. Marlowe’s list is as varied, including mentions of T.S. Eliot, Dante, Kafka and Kierkegaard – as well as to musicians Katchaturian, Hindemith and Toscanini.
On one level these many references help establish character. In Wooster’s case his constant misquoting or inappropriate context or mixture of serious quotation with casual colloquialisms defines him as good-natured imbecile while adding comic value. With Marlowe, they provide depth. He may be able to take a punch, handle a gun or cope with a stretch in the slammer, but he knows Katchaturian, Kierkegaard and Hindemith. Who doesn’t? In other words, he’s not just a Private Dick, he’s a sensitive Private Dick.
These namedrops also flatter the reader. They reassure that although you might be reading light humour or crime fiction it’s OK because you know that ‘My strength is as the strength of ten’ is a quotation from Tennyson’s Sir Galahad or that as a musical theorist, Paul Hindemith opposed the twelve-tone technique – and that even if you didn’t, it’s still OK because the author does. And if the author is that smart, what you’re reading must be superior to other varieties of low-brow literature.
Chandler seems to like playing games. Wade’s phrase, ‘Goodnight, sweet prince’ is itself a near echo of T.S. Eliot’s borrowing from Hamlet, ‘Goodnight, sweet ladies, goodnight’, lines which close A Game of Chess (another passion of Marlowe’s) in The Wasteland. Later, Marlowe has a chat with his client’s chauffeur who drops him home,
I offered him a buck but he wouldn’t take it. I offered to buy him the poems of T.S. Eliot. He said he already had them.
This motif returns many pages further on when the chauffeur asks, ‘”I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” What does that mean, Mr Malowe?’
‘Not a bloody thing. It just sounds good.’
Chandler was evidently conflicted about his writing, upset that in the US his work was regarded as little more than pulp fiction – so perhaps the literary and other cultural references were as much to reassure himself as his readers. Wodehouse was far less troubled, happy to turn out almost a hundred books as well as film scripts and musicals. Much was lightweight and forgettable, but he didn’t agonize about his status as a writer of low-brow work. In this he was probably much closer to Shakespeare, who wasn’t critically regarded during his lifetime and was much less celebrated than Ben Jonson.
What each of them show is that it isn’t a question of high-brow or low brow, it’s about good writing and bad writing. Wodehouse and Chandler were brilliant exponents of their genres, widely loved, much parodied and instantly recognizable. Chandler liked to sign off his chapters aphoristically, the way Shakespeare closed scenes with a rhymed couplet, so he can have the last quote.
The French have a phrase for it. The bastards have a phrase for everything and they are always right. To say good-bye is to die a little.
Hard to argue with that. Top stuff.