In a Fine Frenzy

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

In their clear and useful introduction, the editors of the anthology In a Fine Frenzy lay out their criteria for choosing the texts they have included in this collection of poems written in response to William Shakespeare. David Starkey and Paul J. Willis trace the history of such collections, explore the impulses behind them, and explain the reasons they felt that a mainly modern, mainly American anthology could show Shakespeare’s effect on the poets of this place and time.

Once they began collecting submissions, they became interested in the characters that were most often covered: Ophelia, Hamlet, Viola, Miranda, Prospero, Desdemona, Iago, Lear, Cordelia, and Horatio. They ponder reasons these characters appeal to the modern sensibility, including the idea that characters such as Ophelia represent the broadly human predicaments of modern lives, a time of disconnection and disengagement. The editors then discuss the wide variety of other ways in which poets were inspired by the bard. There are those who pay homage to the great poet and those who in some way deflate the text. There are quite a few poems that set their text in the classroom, where most people first encounter Shakespeare. Many also are musing upon the relationship between the texts of the sonnets or plays to their own lives.

Following the introduction, the editors organize the poems in a format loosely based on a play. They begin with a poem as prologue, followed by five separate sections divided by interludes, and end with an epilogue. The five sections are titled “The Sonnets,” “The Comedies,” “The Tragedies (and Histories),” “Hamlet,” and “The Romances.” Within these sections are many surprises; for example, there are tragic poems about the comedies, and there are humorous poems about the tragedies. Some show great reverence for these classics of literature and others are totally irreverent. Two examples of the latter would be “This Is What Happens When You Let Hamlet Play Quarterback” by Jack Conway and “Lear Drives His Rambler Across Laurel Mountain” by Charles Clifton. The collected poems are as diverse in form as recent poetry itself, covering the range from the traditional sonnet and ottava rima to free verse to the prose poem.

In part 1, “The Sonnets,” just over half take the traditional sonnet form. Even of those, two by Leonard Nathan are “Ragged Sonnets.” Perhaps the most interesting is a teacher’s delight titled simply “Shakespearian Sonnet” by R. S. Gwynn. It begins with a note, “With a first line taken from the tv listings.” That first line is “A man is haunted by his father’s ghost,” obviously a description of Hamlet (pr. c. 1600-1601). The poem is presented in the traditional fourteen lines of rhyming iambic pentameter, with each line an equally mundane summary of one of Shakespeare’s great dramas, concluding with the description of Antony and Cleopatra (pr. c. 1606-1607) as “A sexy queen is bitten by a snake.”

The interlude between this section and part 2, “The Comedies,” is one of the surprisingly numerous poems that look at Shakespeare the man, in this case through the mistaken and unenthusiastic eyes of the students of the poet Ron Koertge, appropriately titled “My Students.”

Part 2, “The Comedies,” begins with songs that Michael B. Stillman wrote to complete the seasons for Love’s Labour’s Lost (pr. c. 1594-1595, rev. 1597), then continues with poems written from the points of view of various characters, including Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pr. c. 1595-1596), Shylock and Portia from The Merchant of Venice (pr. c. 1596-1597), and the duke from As You Like It (pr. c. 1599-1600). One of the most striking contributions is Mary Makofske’s “Viola, to Olivia,” which concludes with the insightful comment “Sister, it was not in spite of/ my soft cheek you loved me,” emphasizing the homoerotic undertones of that comedy. J. D. Smith rewrites the “Seven Ages of Man” in a...

(The entire section is 1670 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Comparative Drama 38, no. 4 (Winter, 2004/2005): 471.