Writing

An Ode to Shakespeare from Kurt Vonnegut

After years of double toil and trouble as a public relations man for General Electric, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. sold a story to Collier’s for $750 with a good chance that a couple more would follow suit. In the 1991 collection Fates Worse Than Death, Vonnegut recounts doing the math in an October 28, 1949 letter to his father, Kurt Sr. He figured out four stories would equal his yearly GE salary, which would allow him to quit his “goddamn nightmare job” and never hold another one again “so long as I live, so help me God.” Vonnegut ends by saying he’s happier than he’s been in years and wraps up with a single word, “Love.”

Kurt Sr. glued the document to a sheet of masonite, coated it in varnish, and added a quotation in his own handwriting on the back. Forty-odd years later, the mummified letter still hung on his son’s writing room wall:

An oath, an oath, I have an oath in Heaven:
Shall I lay perjury on my soul?

“Vonnegut’s father was not a warm hug type, the man was old-school. So the fact that he makes so much of his father’s quote from Merchant of Venice tells me it’s a family affair with William Shakespeare. The plaque meant everything to him,” says Jerome Klinkowitz, a renowned Vonnegut scholar and author who teaches at the University of Northern Iowa.

Perhaps staring day-in and day-out upon his father’s oath from heaven kept Shakespeare in the forefront of Vonnegut’s fertile mind, or perhaps it’s simply game respecting game, but Kurt’s love for Bill was deep and long-lasting.

In his works, Vonnegut’s fondness for the Bard can be traced from Kurt Sr.’s 1949 woodworking through a 2005 essay in A Man Without A Country, the last work published in his lifetime. In that piece, Vonnegut compares Hamlet to Cinderella and Kafka’s cockroach, expounds on how apparitions are not to be trusted, compares Polonius to Rush Limbaugh, and commends Shakespeare for doing what so few people do: Telling the truth, admitting we know so little about life. It’s a theme mirrored throughout Vonnegut’s career, even if the Bard’s technique didn’t require as many authorial surrogates. Tomato, Tomahto, so it goes…

The paths of Shakespeare and Vonnegut crossed multiple times, once through dimensions only known by the Tralfamadorians. In God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, which originated as a series of 90-second public radio pieces, Vonnegut interviews people about the afterlife. The “tongue-tied, humiliated, self-loathing semi-literate Hoosier hack” is fisked by a feisty William Shakespeare who starts out by mocking Vonnegut’s dialect, calling it the “ugliest English he had ever heard, ‘fit to split the ears of groundlings.’” The Bard is salty throughout, responding to Kurt’s congratulations on all the Oscars Shakespeare in Love won by retorting the movie is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Both novelists and playwrights love a good callback.

Vonnegut clearly enjoyed taking the piss out of the idea that he and Shakespeare were of the same literary weight-class while simultaneously professing admiration for the man. In the autobiographical collage Palm Sunday, he praises Shakespeare (and James Joyce) by saying their sentences “were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound.” It isn’t a back-handed compliment; it’s a sly literary trick allowing Vonnegut to be sincere while sounding like the wise-ass in the back of homeroom.

Shakespeare — a writer who wasn’t too high-minded for fart jokes — preferred jocosity to reverence, and probably would’ve dug this passage from Vonnegut’s 1990 novel Hocus Pocus:

I think William Shakespeare was the wisest human being I ever heard of. To be perfectly frank, though, that’s not saying much.
We are impossibly conceited animals, and actually dumb as heck. Ask any teacher. You don’t even have to ask a teacher.
Ask anybody. Dogs and cats are smarter than we are.

Like Shakespeare, Vonnegut loved dialogue, and his prose is chock-a-block with short declarative sentences and banter-heavy scenes. He even delved into theater in 1970 with the play Happy Birthday, Wanda June, which had a Broadway run and was turned into a movie the year after that. (“Awful,” Vonnegut’s review of the film.) Kurt enjoyed the collaborative process, working with actors, tech people, and even producers, so it’s curious that Wanda June was his only play to be published, and the last of his efforts.

“Vonnegut said he loved being part of an extended family, and theater offered that more than solitary writing. He despised loneliness, wanted to be out with people, but Breakfast of Champions was a big hit in 1973, so he stuck with what worked,” says Klinkowitz. “However, Shakespeare reached audiences, communicated brilliantly with them at all levels, and all Vonnegut cared about was reaching an audience, so he continued to give speeches throughout his life. Kurt thought he had something important to say, but it wouldn’t matter if nobody listened.”

Kurt Vonnegut listened to William Shakespeare. Maybe not in exact literary fashion, but the most important connective fissure is right there in Henry VI, Part I:

I’ll call for pen and ink and write my mind.

Four centuries on, we are fortunate to hear them both.