William S. Burroughs knew his William Shakespeare and referenced him in conversations in everyday life throughout his life. Young Billy Burroughs first immersed himself in Will at the Taylor tutoring school in his hometown of St. Louis, and later as a student who audited George Lyman Kittredge’s class—the famous Harvard class by the professor who joined the Harvard faculty in 1888—definitely old, old school. Part of Kitty’s method was to have students memorize the Bard. Thanks to his photographic memory, Bill retained Will’s words easily. [i]
A seventeen-year-old Allen Ginsberg was impressed by his first meeting with Burroughs, by way of introduction through his new friend Lucien Carr. Bill’s remark to the literary Carr, about a lesbian bar scene involving a woman biting another’s ear, “In the words of the immortal bard, ‘ ‘tis too starved an argument for my sword.” How smoothly Shakespeare’s words rolled off the tongue of Burroughs, who seamlessly spewed forth Will. [ii] Awe struck Ginsberg had never heard the Bard used in such an effortless way.
At the University of Kansas, Lawrence, Burroughs was asked, “Who are your favorite authors?” He answered, “Shakespeare . . .” Favorite passage? From Macbeth [iii]:
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,
Bill, sardonic and educated, undoubtedly used Shakespeare’s words as he reflected on the tragedies of his own life: the disconnect with his father, brother, and son; the accidentally shooting that killed his deeply loved wife, and haunted him throughout his life; his mother’s last unhappy years in a nursing home, where he visited her not once; the short and painful life of Billy; and his own addictions and struggles and those of his close friends. As a writer, a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, “a walking shadow” and “poor player” he told tales, full of “sound and fury,” but they are still heard, and apparently signify something, a whole other chapter in the history of literature.
Burroughs once wrote to his son, “Writing is a very depleting, exacting, dangerous and underpaid profession . . . in order to survive we must become performers as well, and peddle our wares like purveyors of snake oil.” [iv] About his own work, “When someone asks me to what extent my work is autobiographical, I say ‘Every word is autobiographical and every word is fiction.’”[v] To the apathetic students he briefly taught at City College, who sat in his New York City class reading comic books, he wanted to dissuade them from writing and yell, “Be a plumber instead!” [vi] Not many plumbers during Shakespeare’s time, but Will was criticized as a jack of all trades: actor, playwright, poet, theater manager, and businessman, yes, a performer, “that struts and frets his hour upon the stage.”
i Morgan, Ted. Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William. S. Burroughs. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), pp. 60-61.
ii ibid., pp. 96-97.
iii ibid., pp. 670.
iv ibid., pp. 528.
v ibid., pp. 573.
vi ibid., pp. 502.