"A Casebook on Mankind": Faulkner’s Use of Shakespeare
Robert W. Hamblin, Southeast Missouri State University
Throughout his career William Faulkner acknowledged the influence of many writers upon his work--Twain, Dreiser, Anderson, Keats, Dickens, Conrad, Balzac, Bergson, and Cervantes, to name only a few--but the one writer that he consistently mentioned as a constant and continuing influence was William Shakespeare. Though Faulkner’s claim as a fledgling writer in 1921 that “[he] could write a play like Hamlet if [he] wanted to” (FAB 330) may be dismissed as an act of youthful posturing, the statement serves to indicate that from the beginning Shakespeare was the standard by which Faulkner would judge his own creativity. In later years Faulkner frequently acknowledged Shakespeare as a major inspiration and influence, once noting, “I have a one-volume Shakespeare that I have just about worn out carrying around with me” (FIU 67). Faulkner’s recorded interviews and conversations contain references to a number of Shakespeare's works and characters, including Hamlet, Macbeth, Henry IV, Henry V, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, the sonnets, Falstaff, Prince Hal, Lady Macbeth, Bottom, Ophelia, and Mercutio. In 1947 he told an Ole Miss English class that Shakespeare’s work provides “a casebook on mankind,” adding, “if a man has a great deal of talent he can use Shakespeare as a yardstick” (Webb and Green 134). In one of his last interviews shortly before his death in 1962, Faulkner said of all writers, “We yearn to be as good as Shakespeare” (LIG 276).
The parallels in the lives and careers of the two writers are remarkably striking. Both were born in provincial small towns but found their eventual success in metropolitan cities, Shakespeare in London and Faulkner in New York and Hollywood. Both had a great love of nature and the rural outdoors. Neither received a great deal of formal education. Both started out as poets but shortly turned to other narrative forms, Faulkner to fiction and Shakespeare to drama. Both had extramarital affairs that were reflected in some of their writings. Each wrote both tragedies and comedies, and in each case their final work was a comedy, Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Faulkner’s The Reivers. A number of dominant themes and emphases are common to both writers, including the imaginative use of historical materials, the incorporation of both tragic and comic views of life, and the paradoxical tension between fate (in Faulkner’s case, determinism) and free will. Moreover, both writers exhibit a fascination for experimental form and language, flouting conventional rules to create new narrative structures and delighting in neologisms, puns, and other forms of word play. Finally, both writers were acutely interested in the paradoxical relationship of life and art.
It would be impossible, of course, in the short time that I have to consider all of the possible Shakespearean influences upon Faulkner, so I will cite only three representative examples. These may be grouped according to the following categories: (1) specific Faulkner allusions to Shakespeare's plays and characters; (2) a common interest in historical analogues; and (3) an emphasis on the theme of the immortality of art.
Allusions, or cross references, by one author to the works of another provide irrefutable evidence of a deliberate and conscious literary borrowing. Without question the most famous allusion to Shakespeare in all of Faulkner is the title of his 1929 novel, The Sound and the Fury. As Faulkner readily acknowledged, the title phrase was borrowed from Macbeth's famous speech,
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle.
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (5.5: 19-28)
Not only Faulkner’s title phrase, “sound and fury,” but also the opening chapter of Faulkner’s novel which is narrated through the consciousness of a mentally retarded person, thus “told by an idiot,” and the second chapter which presents Quentin Compson very much as “a walking shadow” seeking “dusty death,” provide obvious links to this Shakespearean passage. However, as William A. Frye has astutely demonstrated in his study of the bell imagery in The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner’s use of Shakespeare's play goes far beyond the points just mentioned. Frye traces dozens of references to bells and chimes throughout Faulkner’s text. Linking these to Lady Macbeth's bell that provides the signal for Macbeth to murder Duncan (“I go, and it is done. The bell invites me. / Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell / That summons thee to heaven or to hell” [2.1:63-5]), Frye demonstrates that the bells in both Macbeth and The Sound and the Fury “denote not only time, but opportunities for choices, summonings, even, to choose” (27). In this connection, Faulkner appears to be using the Shakespearean pattern, much as Joyce used the Homeric in Ulysses, to ironically juxtapose the heroic, bold, if mistaken, choices of an earlier age with the indecision and impotence often associated with the early twentieth century.
Faulkner employs another significant Shakespearean allusion in Light in August. Gail Hightower, a major character in that novel, is, as his name implies, an individual who has sought to escape from actual experience to live in a “high tower” of self-delusion and fantasy. A defrocked clergyman, Hightower has elected to stay on in Jefferson despite the personal scandal that, years earlier, had cost him his marriage, his position as pastor of a church, and finally even his right to the title of ordained minister. When we meet him early in the novel, he is living out his barren existence largely behind the closed doors of his house, entertaining no visitors except one, a mill worker and church layman named Byron Bunch.
As Faulkner’s novel unfolds, looping backward as well as forward, we are led to understand the reasons for Hightower’s tragic failure. Like many of Faulkner’s modern white male Southerners, the youthful Hightower had become fixated on an idealistic Southern heritage, embodied for Hightower in the image of his grandfather, a Confederate calvary officer who, the young minister had been led to believe, sacrificially gave his life for homeland and personal honor. Hightower’s worship of this ancestor and the values he supposedly represented come to dominate Hightower’s consciousness; the grandfather's legendary exploits even become the focus of Hightower’s sermons: “It was as if he couldn't get religion and that galloping cavalry and his dead grandfather shot from the galloping horse untangled from each other, even in the pulpit” (56). When Hightower learns, however, that the fabled grandfather had not died heroically in battle but, quite the contrary, was actually shot while engaged in the ignominious act of stealing chickens, Hightower is robbed of his mythical past; and this loss contributes to Hightower’s decision to disengage himself from life and action, passing his days “as though the seed which his grandfather had transmitted to him had been on the horse too that night and had been killed too and time had stopped there and then for the seed and nothing had happened in time since, not even him” (59).
Eventually, however, as you'll recall if you've read the novel, Hightower, inspired by the kindly example and encouraging words of Byron Bunch, elects to climb down from his high tower of retreat and symbolic death to reenter the land of the living. Under Bunch’s leadership, Hightower assists first Lena Grove, a young unwed pregnant woman, and then Joe Christmas, a supposed black man who is eventually lynched by a white mob. In the case of Christmas, Hightower tries to save the man’s life by fabricating an alibi for Christmas. “Men!” he screams at the mob, “Listen to me. He was here that night. He was with me the night of the murder” (439). While Hightower’s situational ethics ultimately fail to save Joe Christmas from the hands of the racist mob, his intervention on Christmas’ behalf marks a major point on Hightower’s progression toward self-awareness, social engagement, and personal responsibility.
What is interesting and relevant about all this to my purpose this evening is the reading material that Faulkner assigns to Hightower. During his long period of escape and disengagement, we are told, Hightower reads “a great deal” in the large number of books housed in his study (67). One author whom he finds particularly attractive is Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
He turns from the window. One wall of the study is lined with books. He pauses before them, seeking, until he finds the one which he wants. It is Tennyson. It is dogeared. He has had it ever since the seminary. He sits ath the lamp and opens it. It does not take long. Soon the fine galloping language, the gutless swooning full of sapless trees and dehydrated lusts begins to swim smooth and swift and peaceful. It is better than praying without having to bother to think aloud. It is like listening in a cathedral to a eunuch chanting in a language which he does not even need to not understand. (301)
Obviously Hightower finds in Tennyson’s mellifluous lines, even more than in prayer, an anodyne to his pain and anguish. But on the day he returns from the cabin where he has served as midwife at the birth of Lena’s child, he ignores the “dogeared” Tennyson volume and turns to Shakespeare.
He goes to the study. He moves like a man with a purpose now, who for twentyfive years has been doing nothing at all between the time to wake and the time to sleep again. Neither is the book which he now chooses the Tennyson: this time also he chooses food for a man. It is Henry IV and he goes out into the back yard and lies down in the sagging deck chair beneath the mulberry tree, plumping solidly and heavily into it. (383)
As the words “solidly” and “heavily” imply, Hightower has abandoned the dream world associated with Tennyson’s “gutless swooning” and “sapless trees” and “dehydrated lusts” to enter the real world of physicality and substance. If I understand Faulkner’s allusion correctly, Hightower’s choice is not altogether unlike the choice that Prince Hal must make in his transition from youthful irresponsibility to the duties of kingship as Henry V.
Use of historical materials
A second aspect of Faulkner’s work that seems linked to the possible influence of Shakespeare relates to the manner that both writers make significant use of historical material. Shakespeare, as most of you well know, seldom invented an original plot, choosing rather to take familiar characters and events from older plays or historical chronicles, most notably Raphel Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland and Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, and reworking them to suit his own dramatic purposes. Faulkner, too, drew heavily upon history for his fictional materials, incorporating into his Yoknapatawpha narratives accounts of the settlement of the South, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the racial patterns and conflicts of Jim Crow and segregation, and the displacement of an agrarian life style by mechanization and industrialization.
But it would be a mistake to think that either Shakespeare or Faulkner was primarily interested in history as mere history. They both wrote in what I like to call--accurately, I think, if ungrammatically--”the past-present tense,” that is, in a way that utilizes the past as an analogue to or even a commentary on the present situation. Here, it will be helpful to take a brief excursion into contemporary literary theory. Recent advancements in literary criticism and linguistics have helped us to understand better the always complex relationship existing between a writer, that writer’s world, and any literary text. We now acknowledge that there can never be a definite demarcation between a literary work and its creator, between objectivity and subjectivity, or between the past as lived and the past as perceived by one looking back on it from the altered perspective of the present. One of the best illustrations of this point is Arthur Miller’s great play, The Crucible, on the literal level a treatment of the mass hysteria evidenced in the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692 but through contextual parallels an expose of the McCarthyism that was rampant in America at the time Miller published the play, 1953. There can be no denying that The Crucible is an “historical” play; but it would certainly be a mistake to view the play as merely or even primarily historical: the ultimate meaning of the play can be grasped only by placing the historical elements alongside the contemporary event--the McCarthy hearings--that provided the motivation for Miller’s writing of the play. In Miller’s case, we know, the use of the past present tense was conscious and calculated; but modern theorists would argue that even had it been unconscious and coincidental, Miller’s choice of historical subject and his treatment of it would still have been influenced by his present situation, that is, by his summons to appear as a witness before the Senate’s Committee on Un-American Activities.
While Shakespeare’s main purpose in his repetitions of history was in all likelihood to tell a good story, or, more precisely, to elevate the old stories into poetic form, there can be little doubt that he was very much aware of the parallels between the historical narratives he chose to dramatize and his contemporary Elizabethan world. To cite only two examples: think of Shakespeare’s presentation in the great comedies of the pastoral life style that was disappearing with the development and spreading influence of the metropolitan culture of London; or, better, think of Shakespeare’s obsession with the history of kingship, even the divine right of kings, at a time when the right to the throne of the contemporary wearers of the crown, first Queen Elizabeth and then King James, was continually being challenged and even threatened with insurrection.
Perhaps the best example of Shakespeare’s using the past as a mirror to contemporary events is Richard II. Here Shakespeare deals with one of the most crucial episodes in English history, the deposing of King Richard by Henry Bolingbroke, afterwards King Henry IV. This event had occurred in 1399, nearly 200 years before Shakespeare wrote about it; and from his later perspective Shakespeare knew that the ultimate outcome of Richard’s overthrow was the long and tragic War of the Roses, the civil war between the royal houses of York and Lancaster that lasted for thirty years. Before writing Richard II, Shakespeare had already written four plays about the War of the Roses--the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III. Now, having already dramatized the national calamity of the war, he explores the source of that conflict in Bolingbroke’s usurpation of Richard’s crown. Yes, Shakespeare acknowledges in his play, Richard was a weak king, a dreamer and an aesthete, out of touch with his subjects; and Henry was a doer, a man of action, and the crowd’s favorite--but there was still the huge question, towering large for Shakespeare and others of the Renaissance, of whether any degree of inefficiency or even wickedness could justify the overthrow of God’s anointed ruler and the political chaos that would ensue. As Richard states the case,
Not all the water in the rough, rude seas
Can wash the balm from an anointed king.
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord. (3.2: 50-53)
In the Deposition scene Shakespeare has Richard compare himself to the crucified Christ:
. . . you Pilates
Have here delivered me to my sour cross,
And water cannot wash away your sin. (4.1: 230-32)
Clearly, if Richard is Christ, then Henry is Judas, the political leaders Pilates, and the British populace the fickle mob that demanded the freeing of Barrabas and the crucifixion of Christ.
The issue of who is the rightful ruler is a universal question of British politics, but Shakespeare’s interest in the question, as indeed the entire history of the War of the Roses, was being fueled by particular events of his own day, not unlike the way Arthur Miller’s interest in the witchcraft trials was fueled by the McCarthy hearings, or our recent revival of interest in President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment was brought about by the impeachment of President Clinton. At the time Shakespeare wrote Richard II, the Henry-Richard conflict was being repeated in the opposition of the Earl of Essex to Queen Elizabeth. Shakespeare was very close to, if not personally involved in, this issue, since his patron, the Earl of Southampton, was one of the leading supporters of Essex. Modern audiences and readers may not be much aware of this parallel when they view or read Shakespeare’s play, but the parallel would have been unmistakable to the Elizabethan audience. We know that the parallel was obvious to both Essex and the queen. In 1601, when Essex and his followers attempted to overthrow Elizabeth and place Essex on the throne, they arranged to have a performance of Richard II staged at the popular Globe Theatre the very night before the attempted coup--a kind of pep rally before the big game the following day. When the coup failed, the conspirators were arrested; and in the trial that followed Essex was condemned to death and Southampton was imprisoned in the Tower, where he remained until the death of Elizabeth two years later. One of the real mysteries in all these developments is how Shakespeare managed to escape censure or worse, since he was such a close personal friend of Southampton and thus probably a close acquaintance of Essex.
We also know that Queen Elizabeth was acutely aware of the parallel being drawn between herself and Richard II. “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” she is quoted as saying after the conspiracy trial was over; and her sensitivity to the issue was undoubtedly the reason that the Deposition scene in Shakespeare’s play--where Henry actually takes the crown from Richard--was officially censored and thus omitted in the first printings of Richard II, not finding its way into print until after the accession of James I (Rowse 235).
This question of kingship and right rule is at the very heart of so many of Shakespeare’s plays, not only the two tetralogies of the Henrys and the Richards, but also the great tragedies of Macbeth, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and King Lear, and even many of the comedies such as Twelfth Night, Much Ado about Nothing, and The Tempest. There can be little doubt, I think, that this theme was of great concern for Shakespeare; and his relating it to both past and present situations--in other words, his effective use of the past-present tense--provided him a means of warning his age about the tragic lessons of history.
Like Shakespeare, Faulkner was an historical writer who courageously explored the past in his attempt to analyze and understand the present. We see this approach operative in Faulkner on the level of both individual characters and Southern society as a whole. The best example is Faulkner’s most complex, and, many think, greatest, novel: Absalom, Absalom!.
Published in 1936, Absalom, Absalom! expands the story of the suicidal Quentin Compson from The Sound and the Fury of seven years earlier. Set during the final year of Quentin’s life, 1909-10, Absalom presents Quentin’s desperate and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to come to understand both himself and his native region. In this quest for understanding and, indeed, salvation, Quentin displaces his own inner guilts and conflicts onto a legendary story that he has heard all his life, the story of the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen, a rags-to-riches Southern planter who carved a plantation out of the Yoknapatawpha wilderness in the 1830s and sought to create a family dynasty, but who saw his dream eventually destroyed by a father-son conflict that parallels the tragic conflict from which Faulkner draws his title, the biblical account of the conflict between King David and his son Absalom. In structuring the plot of his novel, Faulkner moves back and forth from the Quentin narrative of 1909-10 to the Supten narrative of the 1810s to the 1860s. In analyzing these time shifts, however, and in seeking to determine whether the main character of the novel is Quentin Compson or Thomas Sutpen, critics typically overlook the novel’s third time dimension, that is, the time of Faulkner, the creator of the novel, which is, of course, 1935-36, when the novel was being written. Thus, not unlike the better-known novel published the same year, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Absalom, Absalom! is written in past-present tense: while an historical novel of Civil War days, it is also a novel about, and with a message for, the Great Depression.
And what is that message? We can begin the search for an answer to that question, I think, by recognizing that Thomas Sutpen is a character type frequently found in American history and literature but one that in the 1930s was coming under increased scrutiny: an entrepreneurial, laissez-faire capitalist. Like the real-life Benjamin Franklin and John D. Rockefeller and Henry Flagler and the fictional Poor Richard, Horatio Alger’s Tattered Tom, and Jay Gatsby, Sutpen is born poor but, through ambition, industriousness, and good fortune (pluck and luck), rises to a position of tremendous wealth and status. With the advent of the Great Depression, however, such character types, as indeed all the business practices of capitalism, were being called into question, the more so since the failures of the Great Depression appeared to be the logical consequences of the excesses of the all-too-recent robber barons and monopolists. As Faulkner’s novel demonstrates, it was not merely New Deal politicians like Franklin Roosevelt or Henry Wallace or socialistic writers like John Dos Passos and John Steinbeck who were questioning the American economic enterprise. The characterization of Thomas Sutpen is a serious critique of the American Dream at a time of crisis when the traditional values and methods associated with that Dream were being challenged.
In dramatizing the reasons for Sutpen’s self-destruction, Faulkner stresses Sutpen’s ruthless exploitation of other people in his quest to amass wealth and power. He utilizes and brutalizes the slaves who build his mansion, and he holds a French architect in virtual imprisonment until the house is completed. Sutpen marries twice, in each case not for love but for financial and social advancement. A racist as well as a materialist, he rejects his first wife when he learns she is part-Negro, turns away from his door the son of that union, and eventually provides his white son with a motive to murder his mulatto half-brother. As a sad, pathetic old man and a widower, with his plantation gone and his family dead or scattered, he seeks to revitalize his dream by seducing a poor-white teenaged girl in the hope of producing a male heir: when the child turns out to be a female, Sutpen rejects both the mother and the child with perhaps the cruelest words in the novel: “Well, Milly; too bad you’re not a mare too. Then I could give you a decent stall in the stable” (286). “They did not think of love in connection with Sutpen,” the reader is told early in the novel. “They thought of ruthlessness rather than justice and of fear rather than respect, but not of pity or love” (43).
Treating Thomas Sutpen as Faulkner’s 1930s portrait of capitalism without any redeeming social consciousness leads one to a very different interpretation of Quentin Compson’s obsession with the Sutpen legend than is currently offered by critics. While, like many Americans of every day and time, Quentin envies, perhaps even subconsciously admires, the boldness and the audacity of pragmatic doers and achievers like Sutpen, at the same time Quentin is an idealist, a believer in noblesse oblige, a defender of community and brotherhood and family loyalty and romantic love--indeed, a practitioner (to reverse the negative terms earlier applied to Sutpen) of justice rather than ruthlessness, of respect rather than fear, of pity and love. Caught between such oppositions, the America of the 1930s sought to find itself--and Faulkner, just as Shakespeare had done with Richard II, employed an historical analogue to serve as a critique of the contemporary situation.
Art and immortality
A third parallel between Faulkner and Shakespeare is a common interest in the paradoxical relationship between life and art. Most artists have a heightened awareness, some obsessively so, of the tragic brevity of life and a concomitant, perhaps even consequent, desire to create works of art that will far outlast their creators’ meager space of life and breath. Picasso, we are told, was so fearful of death terminating his creativity that he would tolerate no mention of the word or any reminder of its harsh reality. And Keats, dying of tuberculosis, penned his “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” celebrating the capacity of art to survive and inspire others even centuries after the death of its creator--and thereby expressing his own hope that he as a poet might be as lucky as the anonymous maker of the urn. It is not at all surprising that Faulkner and Shakespeare shared this interest in the mortality of the artist and the potential immortality of art.
Death seems to have been an obsession with Faulkner from an early age. Perhaps this fear of death may have derived from his near demise from scarlet fever at age four or from his experience, at age nine, of watching his beloved grandmother (“Damuddy”) destroyed by cancer. Whatever its origin, death surfaces as a major subject in Faulkner’s early poetry and prose and is seldom again absent from his work. Indeed, among American writers only Edgar Allan Poe seems as obsessed as Faulkner with death, decay, corpses, and cemeteries.
But an existential recognition of the tragic inevitability of death is only one--and not the most important--facet of Faulkner’s handling of the subject. For Faulkner the ultimate meaning is to be found in the heroic resistance to death, and from Thomas Sutpen’s struggle against time and mortality in Absalom, Absalom! onward, this theme becomes an overt motif in Faulkner’s work. As Ernest Becker has convincingly argued in The Denial of Death, all individuals experience death anxiety and consequently long for immortality, whether natural or supernatural; but Faulkner contends that this psychological conflict is especially acute for the artist. As he once said, “Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal since it will always move. This is the artist’s way of scribbling 'Kilroy was here' on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass” (LIG 253). Perhaps Faulkner’s most sublime expression of this idea is found in his Foreword to The Faulkner Reader (1954), in which he contends that the ultimate goal of any writer is “to uplift man’s heart” by “saying No to death.” “Some day,” Faulkner concludes, “[the writer] will be no more, which will not matter then, because isolated and itself invulnerable in the cold print remains that which is capable of engendering still the old deathless excitement in hearts and glands whose owners and custodians are generations from the air he breathed and anguished in” (ESPL 181-2).
Given his deep concern for the nature and role of artists and art, it is not at all surprising that Faulkner frequently introduces into his works what might be termed “art surrogates,” that is, particular objects that have survived from the past to evoke memories or thoughts of people and incidents from earlier times. Predictably, a significant number of these art surrogates take a “literary” form, eliciting the response of a “reader.” There is, for example, in Absalom, Absalom! the letter that Judith Sutpen gives to Quentin Compson’s grandmother, which Quentin’s father, two generations later, interprets as Judith’s compulsion “to make that scratch, that undying mark on the blank face of the oblivion to which we are all doomed” (127). Other examples, presented by Faulkner in greater detail, are the commissary ledgers that Ike McCaslin reads in Go Down, Moses and the “story” evoked by the signature of Cecilia Farmer scratched into the windowpane of the Jefferson jailhouse in Requiem for a Nun. All such surrogates express symbolically the same idea that Faulkner stated explicitly in one of his letters to Joan Williams, his lover and protégé: “That’s the answer, the reason for it all, the one and only way on earth you can say No to death: the best, the strongest, the finest, the most enduring: to make something" (FAB 1461).
We know less about Shakespeare’s personal life and opinions than we do of Faulkner’s, but a number of the sonnets clearly evidence the same mortality vs. immortality theme that we have been exploring in Faulkner. These sonnets are addressed to one or more unidentified individuals whom Shakespeare loved dearly (whether patron, friend, or lover we cannot be quite sure), and they all set actual experience, “Where wasteful time debateth with decay / To change your day of youth to sullied night” (sonnet 15), against the poet’s desire to write “eternal lines” (sonnet 18) in which the beloved will be made immortal: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,” sonnet 18 concludes, “So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”
One of the most sublime expressions of this idea is sonnet 65:
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but time decays?
O fearful meditation! Where, alack,
Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest be hid,
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back,
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might:
That in black ink my love shall still shine bright.
It is a cardinal irony, of course, that an individual whose name or identity we do not know is immortalized in Shakespeare’s poetry. But that causes us no concern, since it is the universal and immortal poem that we celebrate and not its particular historical circumstance. Faulkner certainly understood that. As he once said, “[Man] can't live forever. He knows that. But when he’s gone somebody will know he was here for his short time. He can build a bridge and will be remembered for a day or two, a monument, for a day or two, but somehow the picture, the poem--that lasts a long time, a very long time, longer than anything” (LIG 103). And here, I think, he was stating a principle that he learned at least partly from reading Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Time does not permit my exploring additional parallels between Shakespeare and Faulkner; but I hope that the few examples I have cited will serve to suggest that Faulkner’s use of Shakespearean materials was often conscious, sometimes undoubtedly unconscious, and always significant. Given such parallels, perhaps it is not altogether unfitting that Faulkner is sometimes called “the American Shakespeare.”
Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press, 1973.
Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1974. Cited as FAB.
Faulkner, William. Absalom, Alsalom! New York: Vintage, 1972.
--------. Light in August. New York: Vintage, 1972.
Frye, William A. "Mythic Imagery in Absalom, Absalom!, The Sound and the Fury, and Light in August: Faulkner's Structural Motifs." Master's thesis, Southeast Missouri State University, 1995.
Greenblatt, Stephen, and others, eds. The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.
Gwynn, Frederick L., and Joseph L. Blotner, eds. Faulkner in the University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia, 1957-1958. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1959. Cited as FIU.
Meriwether, James B., ed. Essays, Speeches, and Public Letters by William Faulkner. New York: Random House, 1965. Cited as ESPL.
--------, and Michael Milgate, eds. Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner, 1926-1962. New York: Random House, 1968. Cited as LIG.
Rowse, A. L. William Shakespeare: A Biography. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.
Webb, James W., and A. Wigfall Green, eds. William Faulkner of Oxford. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965