Lee Durkee lives and writes in Oxford, Mississippi. The author of the novels Rides of the Midway (2001, W. W. Norton) and The Last Taxi Driver (2020, Tin House), his new book, Stalking Shakespeare: A Memoir of Madness, Murder, and My Search for the Poet Beneath the Paint is set to be released this month from Scribner. Stalking Shakespeare is a memoir about Durkee’s fixational drive to find out more about the Bard through his portraiture. Durkee will signing and reading at Off Square Books on Tuesday, April 18, starting at 5:30 pm. I asked Lee some questions about the new book.
How did your historical obsession with Shakespeare begin?
A great teacher. Dr. Leo Van Scyoc, an old fighter pilot, was my first Shakespeare professor when I was an undergrad at Arkansas. He turned me into a fan of the Elizabethan wits who created a language filled with outlandish tenses that allow our literature to time travel in a dozen directions. The next professor I had was a bow-tied academic snoot—never trust a bow tie!—who announced to the class that Hamlet was the worst play Shakespeare ever wrote. If I’d taken bow tie’s class first, I might have shirked Shakespeare forever.
Decades later I brought a book on Elizabethan portrait miniatures and was distressed to find so many sitters remained unidentified. Soon after I found a 19th century book called How to Identify Portrait Miniatures, little suspecting that hobby would take over my life.
What do you think are some over- or under-appreciated Shakespeare works? Which is your favorite Shakespeare play and/or poem, and why?
I love Shakespeare’s villains. My favorite villain, aside from Hamlet, is Richard III, though I am also fond of Edmund the bastard. (Iago is so distasteful it’s impossible to enjoy his company.) One of Shakespeare’s innovations was to take the Machiavellian archetype made famous by Kit Marlowe and trick it out so that these fantastical monsters actually seduced the crowd. This was a revolutionary moment in theater history, the first time an English audience was asked to cheer on evil incarnate.
My favorite poem is sonnet 66 (“Tir’d with all these, for restful death I cry”), a wail of grievances that left the poet suicidal. It touches on his crippled body, his having to renounce his religion under Elizabeth I (purest faith unhappily forsworn), his disgust with the queen’s cynical decision to promote herself as a protestant Virgin Mary (“maiden virtue rudely strumpeted”), and his hate of censorship (“art made tongue-tied by authority”). We see the naked and raw poet here—and almost every word is treasonous.
My least favorite celebrated play is The Tempest, which would have made a great slasher flick had Prospero been true to his vision of revenge. I like to imagine a young Jamie Lee Curtis cast as Miranda crawling across the island, a dagger clamped in her teeth, trying to upend her father’s diabolical plan.
What would change in Shakespeare studies if his identity were ever definitively verified?
That depends on the person(s) identified, but I think both camps, the traditionalists and the heretics, are now moving in the direction of admitting the obvious: inside a collaborative age, what we call Shakespeare was likely created via an assembly line of highly educated writers. (Ben Jonson, the only contemporary “soul genius” playwright we can compare to Shakespeare, once bragged in print about having written an entire play all by himself.) Many people, especially white male professors, resist this idea of a collaborative Shakespeare, and I have to admit that for many years I did too—we want our icon!—but over time I had to admit that what we call Shakespeare likely evolved from a curated turnover of genius writers. I call this the Dread Pirate Roberts Theory of Shakespeare. To me the fascinating questions become who were those pirates, and who was doing the curating? My book tries to answer those questions.
What was the hardest part of your research into Shakespeare portraiture? Why do you think museums and academics are invested in gatekeeping access to information and resources on Shakespeare?
I dedicated Stalking Shakespeare to the memory of Aaron Swartz because of the blockades I encountered inside a caste system that makes information available to the elite but restricts it from the have-nots (I was working mostly as a bartender while writing the book). Swartz attempted to shatter that academic firewall by illegally releasing digitalized university journals onto the internet, but unfortunately, he got caught and made an example of. He was actually arrested by academic cops, the MIT police force. Facing a million dollar fine and 35 years in prison—how obscene is that!—he decided to kill himself. Swartz was a genius, one of the developers of the RSS feed and co-founders of Reddit, and he died because academics were ruthlessly protecting a caste system that allows them to sequester information that belongs to all of us. (Please don’t get me started on the despicable ways British museums circumvent public-domain laws.) Throughout a book written during covid, I repeatedly accessed academic databases illegally and could not help but admire Aaron’s passion while despising those who destroyed him.
What’s the most interesting thing you discovered about the Bard?
Courage. Shakespeare’s political satire was fearless in a time when that could get you tortured to death. Shakespeare ridiculed power, and no traditional scholar can explain how he got away with that. One of his plays was even used to jumpstart an armed revolt against the crown. Academics have neutered Shakespeare into an innocuous, rustic, straight-outta-Stratford mascot. But to create this marketable mascot, his handlers first had to strip Shakespeare of the courage he constantly demonstrated. Mark Twain was outraged at the behavior of these academics he called thugs and liked to describe Shakespeare as a museum brontosaurus made of plaster of Paris instead of dinosaur bones.