Sometimes you come across an article that leaves your head scratching. The title was certainly an eye catcher, especially for someone like me. It came from the Wall Street Journal—the best newspaper in the country—from its Life and Culture section, and had both a musical and literary theme. Here’s the title, “Shakespeare Expert Stephen Greenblatt on Irving Berlin: The author of 'Will in the World' sees a link to 'King Lear.'”
Now I have said elsewhere that I hold King Lear to be the greatest play ever written. Stephen Greenblatt is well known literary critic who among other places taught at Harvard. Which doesn’t impress me because I’ve read some asinine essays by critics who teach at some of the most prestigious universities in the world. Now as I checked Greenblatt’s bio I was surprised to find three interesting facts. He was a co-editor to Norton’s Anthology of English Literature which is probably the most widely used anthology of English Literature across colleges in the United States. (Perhaps it’s used overseas as well, I just don’t know.) Mr. Greenblatt was president of MLA, the Modern Language Association, the most prestigious literary/language affiliation in the country. Those two facts alone put him in the major leagues of literary criticism.
And then there was the third fact, that he was one of the founders of NewHistoricism, a critical approach to literature that became popular in the 1990s and into the early 2000s. I’m not going to go into it here, but suffice it to say that I strongly oppose the approach of the New Historicists. I made myself stand out in my last college class in Grad school, where I strongly argued against it and its methodology, all the while as the professor pushed it upon the class. In the end she respected my opinion, held me to be the best student in the class (she told me outside of class), and easily gave me an A. You can read some of the opposition to New Historicism in that Wikipedia entry. But even that doesn’t do the criticism justice. For instance, New Historicism holds that every piece of text, no matter what its context, is of equal value. So then, if we had Shakespeare’ laundry list, it would have equal literary value as his King Lear. So why bother would King Lear? That might be one of the more minor idiocies of New Historicism, but it’s one easy to articulate and grasp. So much for professors that teach at Harvard.
So getting back to the Wall Street Journal article, what exactly is Greenblatt’s point? He has a particular affection for an Irving Berlin song, “How Deep Is the Ocean.” Now I didn’t ever recall having heard the song, but when I checked on my itunes list, there it was sung by Dinah Washington. Here’s what Greenblatt says of the song.
"How Deep Is the Ocean" [by Irving Berlin] is an unusual love song. All of the lyrics are posed as questions, except for "I'll tell you no lie." Each question conveys emotional intensity—whether posed from parent to child or between two lovers: "How far would I travel, to be where you are? / How far is the journey, from here to a star?" The questions are meant to express love, but there's also anxiety in the song over the possibility of lost love and more than a hint of pressure on the recipient to reciprocate.
After now hearing close to a dozen versions of the song, I have to say the song is a classic. Like so many of the Great American Songbook of songs, it’s so simple and heartfelt. Greenblatt’s right, the questions coming one after another really does create a particular tension, the least of which is a circling toward the center of the emotion. Here are the lyrics, minus the opening set of questions that most singers leave off.
How much do I love you?
I'll tell you no lie
How deep is the ocean?
How high is the sky?
How many times a day
Do I think of you?
How many roses
Are sprinkled with dew?
How far would I travel
To be where you are?
How far is the journey
From here to a star?
And if I ever lost you
How much would I cry?
How deep is the ocean?
How high is the sky?
So how, may you ask, does this relate to King Lear? Mr. Greenblatt says:
Actually, Berlin's lyrics strike me as a strange, inverted version of Shakespeare's "King Lear." Early on, Lear asks his three daughters, "Which of you shall we say doth love us most?" "Lear" is built around an aging father's extortion of love. Two of his three daughters flatter him to get his estate, but the third, Cordelia, refuses to say what he wants to hear. When Lear asks her what more she has to say about her love for him, Cordelia replies, "Nothing." To which Lear says, "Nothing will come of nothing." Berlin's lyrics are less forthright but just as emotionally charged.
It took me a little while for me to get exactly what he was saying. Drum roll, please. What he is saying is that Lear’s question of “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?" is related to the song’s question, “How much do I love you?” That’s it? Yeah, that’s it. How many questions with the word love in it have been articulated in history? Probably millions. Big deal that the questions are similar in a mirrored sort of way? I doubt Berlin had Lear’s question on his mind when he wrote the song. If anything, the BeeGees song, “How Deep is Your Love” echoes King Lear’s question than this song. That’s my head scratching moment. So much for Harvard professors.
Nonetheless I really did enjoy the song, and I’m glad I got to learn it. Greenblatt seems to particularly like the Billy Holiday version. Personally I think she sings it too upbeat. Dinah Washington’s version is probably closer to how Berlin intended. But of all the versions I heard, I fell in love with Ella Fitzgerald’s version. She slows it down, allowing each phrase to seem like it’s thought out at the moment and weighed inside the heart.
Plus that tenor sax seems so sad and compliment Fitzgerald’s tone and lower register. I love it!