The First Comedian
By Jason CrawfordNovember 4, 2022
I sometimes try to picture Armin at this moment in his career. He’s just past 30, and his name is becoming bankable business in London’s northern entertainment district. Within the year, he’ll have partnered with William Shakespeare and will be maturing into one of the most breathtaking performers in the history of comedy, the architect of so much that has happened since. By the time he dies in 1615, his work on stage will have made him rich enough to buy a coat of arms, a working-class kid transformed into a gentleman.
But for now, at this summer afternoon show, Armin stands viscerally, even cruelly, exposed. Fellow characters in his later theatrical productions will mock him for his physical form — they call him a “fragment,” a “cobloaf,” a “crusty botch of nature,” a “stool for a witch,” “the issue of a mangy dog” — and as he approaches his audience today, he telegraphs an aura of pain, cringing and glowering like a frightened animal. His distinctive shtick, we begin to see right away, will depend on his uncanny ability to make himself vulnerable.
Out there, the crowd teems with winos, pickpockets, laborers, government agents, prostitutes on duty, darlings of moneyed society. They scuffle and heckle and buzz, and Armin-as-Snuff stalks watchfully, trolling this sea of faces and noise for his first bit. “What ails that damsel?” someone calls out, gesturing at a young woman in the crowd. That will do. Snuff fires back — “What, is she sick?” — and then fires right back at himself — “No, she is lusty and well” — and then erupts into a fantasy in which a jury of 12 women arrive to investigate this young woman’s secret ailment. Snuff jumps from voice to voice with lunatic zeal: Is she sullen? No! Is she starving? Most definitely not! Has she hurt her foot dancing? “Oh no,” says one last voice, “yet let me tell you, she hath stepped amiss.” Do you see it now? Do you see her now? “Then gently judge,” the clown concludes, “her sorrow what it is.”
What have we just heard? Is it an inquisition? A plea for compassion? A misogynistic atrocity? Is it even funny? No one can quite tell. If you’ve come to see Snuff the Clown at the Curtain, that’s pretty much what you’re in for. The questions keep coming: Who’s happy? Who’s dead? Can that boy read? And the voices of the performer proliferate, swerving wildly between speculative inquiry and leering savagery. There is violence everywhere. In one little freak show of a bit, a guy has fun with his friend by saying, “Let’s play Cain Kills Abel, and you can be Abel.” In another — called “What Have I Lost?” — various voices try to answer that question until the riddler finally reveals: “I have lost one ear from off my pate.” An ear: really? But Armin’s clamoring voices love this stuff. He speaks in registers of snarling self-disclosure and wounded menace. When one heckler shouts, “Are you there with your bears?” he hisses back: “This is a theater, not a bear-baiting pit — I’m a professional.” “When I next see him,” he seethes, “I’ll make his brains bleed.”
Still, Armin finds something transcendent, something beautiful, in the midst of all this freaky humanity. Just listen to him riffing on questions like “Why is he drunk?” and you can hear it. In this bit, Snuff tempts the crowd toward some easy mockery: Look at that guy stumbling among the groundlings. Then he makes a hard swerve. Why is this man drunk? “I know not why, unless I knew his mind,” the comedian declares. Perhaps it’s a disguise, or perhaps the guy just tasted a liquor he isn’t used to, or perhaps he has no tolerance for alcohol. None of us can say unless we know this man. Just at the moment when the crowd is ready to unite against a deviant, Armin presents the deviant as an individual, a person with reasons and secrets and a history. And then, when he’s got everyone sufficiently bewildered, he delivers a punchline: the one thing he knows, he says, is that these people “are all brained with a brewer’s washing beetle.”
Brained with a washing beetle — that’s to say, bashed in the head with a club. This is a Snuff-Armin production, after all. The laughter that erupts in the crowd now, though, is not the fatal laughter of a lynch mob but the giddy laughter of a community recognizing itself. The drunk, it turns out, is one of us, a great bunch of characters brain-addled and strange. So is the disgraced young woman, the man with one ear, the man Cain-and-Abeling his friend, the convoluted clown snarling at his audience from the Curtain stage. That’s the world according to Robert Armin: in freakiness, fellowship. And here he stands, the freakiest of us all, holding up a mirror and waiting for the next heckler to step in front of it.
The crowds that came to see him in the late 1590s might not have known it, but Robert Armin was inventing a new kind of comedy. He was, even more, inventing the comedian, a whole new way of thinking about the vocation of the comic performer. By day, he was in the trenches as a professional clown, acting in plays and fashioning his Snuff persona. By night, he was at his desk, writing up his best bits and working on a book about what he, in the vernacular of the time, called “natural fools,” those born atypical or disabled. All the while, he was crafting a comic art rooted in his own atypical selfhood, his own experiences of disability and difference.
The idea of the comedian as an afflicted figure is perfectly familiar to us now. When we think of modern comedy, we think of Lenny Bruce, fusing burlesque-hall ribaldry with his own sexual pathologies and obsessive revulsions, or of Richard Pryor, alchemizing African American folklore into his own private universe of longing and shame. The vulnerable bodies of these performers — Bruce presenting himself naked onstage, Pryor reenacting his heart attack — are icons of a comedy that derives its power from the comedian’s own fragile, fissured personhood. It’s a comedy of the individual, conjured up by one inimitable artist out of old gags and familiar traditions. It always comes as a surprise, because the singular personhood of the comic artist is itself a surprise. And it keeps coming around. With the recent work of comedians such as Hannah Gadsby and Jerrod Carmichael, we are here again, watching as the familiar material of confessional nightclub comedy burns up in the apocalyptic light of the performer’s blazing, suffering, and world-defying self.
Somewhere among these beautiful outcasts lurks the ghost of Armin, the first of the self-exposing performers who have defined modern comedy. How to get him into view? He was born in the late 1560s, a few years younger than Shakespeare, and he was, like Shakespeare, the son of provincial tradespeople: Shakespeare’s father was a glove maker in Stratford, Armin’s a tailor in King’s Lynn. When he was about 13 years old, young Armin made the 100-mile journey to London to start an apprenticeship as a goldsmith. It was an 11-year commitment, and he stuck it out to the end. But by the time he finished in 1592, he apparently had other things in mind. That year he got himself a gig in a company of players, and he spent the rest of the 1590s earning his stripes as a theatrical clown and putting together the pieces of his comic persona.
We don’t know much about Armin’s work in those early years. There are scant facts: as a teenager, he adored Richard Tarlton, the first celebrity clown in London’s emerging professional theaters and a living link to folk tradition; he spent years on the road, performing all over rural England; he wrote a lot of ballads. And there are plausible speculations: did he start out trying to imitate performers like William Kempe and John Singer, who had made their reputations playing bighearted bumpkins and rambunctious servants? Did he play the randy horsekeeper Robin in a pirated production of Doctor Faustus? We have clues here and there, but not a lot to go on.
Not, that is, until 1600. That year, under the name of Snuff, Armin published a little book called Quips upon Questions, which offers a portrait of the artist as a stand-up performer. Each section of this book opens with a question — “What ails that damsel?” — and Snuff responds by catapulting into his verbal acrobatics. He tries to present himself as a writer, crafting these exchanges in his study — but much of the material in Quips seems warm still with the heat of live confrontation. Snuff rampages through his questions and replies with feral abandon, heaping up piles of underpunctuated text in which individual voices are hard to tell apart and much seems to depend on physical gestures no reader can see. No surprise that the Quips has struck scholars such as Leslie Katz and Bart van Es as a reflection (however idealized or fictionalized) of Armin’s work on stage. The book captures this fire-quick performer at a key moment in his development: turning from the country-boy antics and silly one-liners of his professional predecessors, drilling down into the subterranean chambers of his own volcanic interior, and poised at the threshold of a vastly ambitious creative endeavor.
That endeavor was close at hand. William Shakespeare and his company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, had taken notice. Sometime in late 1599 or early 1600, they came calling.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men were in crisis when they recruited Armin. They had lost the lease on their home base, the Theatre, in 1597, and had embarked, in early 1599, on the risky and costly venture of building the Globe, their own theatrical home. Right at that moment, one of their two big stars, the clown William Kempe, walked out.
No one knows exactly what happened — the reasons and exact chronology are much disputed — but something clearly blew up between Kempe and his longtime partners. He bought into the Globe project along with the other Lord Chamberlain’s Men in February 1599. But by summer, when the theater had its grand opening, he was conspicuously absent. The plays Shakespeare and the company brought to their new stage that summer, Henry V and Julius Caesar, are unusual in having no clown’s part, and some scholars think Henry V shows signs of having once had a starring role for a clown, stripped out at the last minute. In February 1600, Kempe undertook the great solo performance of his career by Morris dancing 100 miles from London to Norwich. By the time he published his account of that famous dance three months later, he was publicly estranged from the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and saw fit to address a bitter epilogue to “my notable Shakerags,” his friend and creative partner no more. At a time when they very much needed crowds and revenues to pay for their new venture, the company were left without their celebrity comedian.
Within the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Kempe had been his own franchise. He and Shakespeare were both founding members of the company in 1594, and the plays Shakespeare wrote over the next five years all gave Kempe plenty of room to practice his distinctive art. It was for Kempe that Shakespeare created Bottom, Dogberry, Grumio, Costard, Launcelot Gobbo, the Capulet servant Peter, and the gluttonous, garrulous John Falstaff. And the plays that took shape around these characters bore the marks of Kempe’s ethos and style. His charismatic presence helps to explain why nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays in that era have a comic bent (even Romeo and Juliet, if you can forget the ending). And some brilliant scholarly studies of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men — David Wiles’s Shakespeare’s Clown (1987), David Grote’s The Best Actors in the World (2002), Bart van Es’s Shakespeare in Company (2013) — have helped us to see that Shakespeare’s Kempe-era plays draw much of their energy from Kempe’s genial and flush-faced vitality.
Kempe was a big and athletic man, an irresistible physical presence. The citizens of Norwich long remembered his great leap over the churchyard wall when he came Morris dancing into town, and his famous fifth-act jigs were integral to every play Shakespeare wrote in the years of their collaboration. He played downstage, in reach of the crowd, sometimes talking to them directly and often accompanied by an entourage of fellow clowns who came on and off with him, his own little company of hired players. The characters Shakespeare wrote for him are rustics, tradesmen, and servants, plain men with plenty to say and a hearty zest for life. They tend to be short on learning but deep in native wit, and they have a way of zigging and zagging across the main action of the play, graced with a freedom from the appetites and anxieties that drive everyone else. There is something almost Edenic about their guileless, wide-eyed exuberance.
The characters Kempe enacted for Shakespeare are also unmistakably English, common folk uncorrupted by urban and aristocratic sophistication. Even when he popped up in the Athens of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or the Messina of Much Ado About Nothing, Kempe came supplied with a down-home English charm and even a down-home English name (he was Bottom in Athens, Dogberry in Messina). His presence ensured that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men evoked a certain nostalgia for good old red-blooded English values. And he made sure that Shakespeare never strayed too far from his roots in folk culture, in the festive clowning of itinerant hustlers, morality-play pranksters, and May-Morning Lords of Misrule. The characters he and Shakespeare created together represented a very familiar kind of comedy, conservative in its sensibilities and popular in its appeal, just the sort of thing English audiences wanted and expected to see.
When Kempe left, these characters effectively died. No one else in London could play them the way he did. And Kempe’s little crew of hired sidekicks seems to have departed with him. Just like that, the repertory Shakespeare had built around this comedian’s gifts became more or less impossible to stage. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men found themselves with an expensive new theater and a sudden shortage of plays to perform there. It was a dire loss.
At the same time, Shakespeare must have experienced this loss as an opportunity. In the summer of 1599, when the Kempe crisis began, he was about to start writing Hamlet, the play that marks his mid-career dive into a theater of mind-bending difficulty and tortuous interiority. With his company’s move to the Globe and the south side of London, he was discovering new reasons to appeal to affluent audiences and to their interests in the cultural avant-garde. If scholars like Millicent Bell are right, he was also about this time discovering Montaigne’s Essays, a breathtaking experiment in self-dissection and a book Shakespeare read to pieces. Never mind that there was a new theater to pay for: London’s most successful dramatist, in 1599, was on the verge of reinventing himself. It might have seemed the perfect moment to leave Will Kempe behind.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men had probably performed at the Curtain during the period from 1597–99 when they had no permanent home. They would have encountered Armin there, and scholars such as Catherine Henze and Keir Elam have suggested that Armin might even have joined them there as a guest performer, a year or two before he took Kempe’s place as a full member of the company. There’s no way to know just how or when their relationship with Armin began (or whether it contributed to Kempe’s huffy departure), but Shakespeare and company must have figured out quickly that this was a different sort of clown. Where Kempe had projected a kind of extroverted simplicity, Robert Armin was a walking labyrinth, subtle and skeptical, peering out from behind the many projections of his own inscrutable self. The Shakespeare who was about to create Prince Hamlet must have been fascinated by this riddling philosopher-clown, with his antic riffs on abstract questions and his intimations of a mind out of joint.
By the summer of 1600 at the latest, Armin had joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men as a full shareholder and star player. Shakespeare wasted no time in writing a major role for him, and that role — Touchstone in As You Like It — suggests that the company was eager to celebrate their new clown. The name Touchstone might itself be a Robert Armin joke, an allusion both to his goldsmithing background and to a clown, Tutch, he had played in an earlier comedy. Some commentators have noticed that when Touchstone makes his first entrance, the characters on stage inspect and discuss him for a dozen lines before he speaks, playing up the drama of his grand entrance. There might even be an Armin-beats-Kempe joke in this play, in the scene where Touchstone outwits a rustic shepherd, stealing his girl, bludgeoning him with nonsense, and finally sneering, “Therefore, you clown […] tremble, and depart.” The vanquished shepherd’s name? William. No wonder Kempe was fuming across town.
So it was a whole new game now, and the crowds who came to see new plays such as As You Like It and Twelfth Night would have felt the difference right away. Touchstone and Feste, the clowns of these plays, are not Kempean good old boys but cosmopolitan fools, dry and biting in their absurdist attacks. They mimic clerics and courtiers and challenge aristocrats in contests of verbal dexterity. They have no comrades or friends, they don’t get their own tour-de-force comic scenes, and they don’t charm the audience by bumbling into situations they don’t understand. Instead, they infiltrate, cutting in and out of other people’s plots, disrupting other people’s conversations, always in the shadow of comic characters (Rosalind, Malvolio, Sir Toby) bigger than themselves. They are acid compounds, burning away the appearances and values that everyone around them would otherwise have been happy to accept.
Armin’s arrival corresponds with a new emphasis in Shakespeare’s drama on skepticism and bad faith, on identities that dissolve and interchange. Around the same time that he wrote As You Like It and Twelfth Night, Shakespeare also wrote Hamlet, and in that play, too, the clown who represents the old regime is conspicuously gone: “Alas, poor Yorick!” And it’s curious that there’s no replacement in sight, no one for Armin to enact beyond the gravedigger who digs up Yorick’s skull. But if there’s no sustained role for a clown here, Hamlet himself takes up the part of the elusive outsider-cynic, practicing the same antic insurgency that Armin was at that moment bringing to his performances as Touchstone and Feste. It’s almost as if this play’s manic hero (played by the company’s other major star, the leading man Richard Burbage) has absorbed Armin’s peculiar sort of folly into himself. Even more so than the comedies Shakespeare wrote to put his new clown on display, Hamlet suggests that Armin brought something consequential to the playwright’s work. And the immense vitality of Prince Hamlet suggests that Shakespeare, likewise, could offer Armin something special, a grasp of the possibilities that his distinctive comic performances opened up.
Audiences and readers have long regarded Hamlet as a key moment in the emergence of modern culture, Shakespeare’s articulation of a world governed by radical doubt, relentless inquiry, idiosyncratic selfhood, and a drive to break away from the histories and structures by which the self is defined. No accident that Armin was there at the moment of that play’s consequential begetting. The history of modern comedy depends in all sorts of ways on what he and Shakespeare were beginning to discover.
Armin published a few more texts in his Shakespearean years: an earlier play of his called The Two Maids of More-clacke, a versified translation of an Italian tale, and his remarkable study of the “naturals” he so admired. But the best record of Armin’s development over the next decade is written in the characters he and Shakespeare created together. There’s a potential role for Armin in everything Shakespeare wrote from 1601 to 1611, from Lavatch (All’s Well That Ends Well) and Thersites (Troilus and Cressida) to Autolycus (The Winter’s Tale) and Caliban (The Tempest). There’s also room for disagreement about exactly which roles Armin played, but even so, in all these characters, the patterns set down in Touchstone and Feste deepen and mature. Armin’s fools always function as touchstones, foils against which the motives and actions of others are tested. He is always in the fray, but he somehow keeps himself always removed, always alone. He doesn’t act or desire so much as he plays at action and desire, a mirror image of others, never wholly real. His fools have a vocation to spoil things, which is why Feste, sometime jester to Lady Olivia, says, “I am indeed not her fool, but her corrupter of words.” This verbal troublemaker, like all of Armin’s creations, is a critic at heart.
Armin presents this critical instinct both as a prophetic gift and as a disease. His Shakespearean fools expose, clarify, and testify; but they also spew, blaspheme, and abuse. They are corrosive figures, and the characters around them tend to regard them not just as purveyors of truth or amusement, but also as degradations of human life to be beaten like bastards or dogs. When Armin’s Thersites, the “bitch-wolf’s son,” meets Margareton, the bastard son of Priam, he lays it right out: “I am a bastard too. I love bastards. I am a bastard begot, bastard instructed, bastard in mind, bastard in valour, in everything illegitimate. One bear will not bite another, and wherefore should one bastard?”
This is Armin in his element: aggressive and evasive all at once, a practitioner both of scorched-earth insult and of an almost mystical empathy. In all his roles he orchestrates a kind of duality, a mingling of cruelty and delicacy. Many of the most affecting songs in Shakespeare’s later plays are for him — Armin, unlike Kempe, was a gifted singer — but he also had an influence on the moral monsters Iago and Edmund, who jest their way into terrifying spectacles of violence as the villains of Othello and King Lear. This duality reached its apex in what was probably the last character he and Shakespeare created together. As the enslaved man-monster Caliban, Armin made himself comically repulsive, a stinking, sniveling, lecherous, bilious thing. But he also hinted at deep currents of memory and longing, whispering of dreams so beautiful that “when I waked / I cried to dream again.” Even as a monster, he evinced a tender and suffering humanity.
But Armin’s most powerful elaboration of his comic art came in the context of a tragedy. King Lear, with its exquisite, angelic, unfathomable fool, bears this comedian’s stamp all over. It isn’t just that Lear’s fool hones his jests into such penetrating, prophetic instruments. And it isn’t just that Edgar, Kent, Gloucester, and Lear all become prophetic fools, trembling and riddling and slouching toward insanity. The play also mines, more intently than anything else Shakespeare wrote, the deep kinship between hilarity and suffering, between comic shtick and moral truth. Under the guidance of his fool, Lear looks at the naked body of Poor Tom and declares him “the thing itself.” This — this image of mutilated grandeur — is the truth of the human. Not power but poverty, not strength but weakness. “Take physic, pomp,” Lear says to himself, at one of his key moments of discovery: “Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.” The Lear who makes this pronouncement has believed the gospel that his fool, likely embodied by Armin, came to preach. In the beginning, the proud king thundered, “Dost thou call me fool, boy?” Now he has come to believe the truth of the fool’s reply: “All thy other titles thou hast given away. That thou wast born with.”
We’ve heard that gospel before. Snuff the Clown speaks it when one of the voices of Quips upon Questions asks how anyone can be called a fool “when he’s a more fool that accounts him so.” In his championing of the foolish and the despised, and in his erasure of the difference between his own afflicted self and the respectable people he confronts, Snuff contains within himself already the fool who huddles with Lear on the heath, guiding the dying king in the mysteries of human frailty.
There’s nothing ethically simple about this comic art. We don’t know the details of Armin’s physiognomy, but it seems clear that he built his career around his own aura of disability and atypicality. Can we laugh, in good conscience, at this man’s self-exposure? Can we laugh at the other images he conjures up for us: the amputated ears and flayed animals, the misshapen Caliban wailing in pain? He dares us to try. And he keeps finding ways of spiking our laughter with pain, of making sure that we, like Lear, expose ourselves to feel what wretches feel.
Armin’s contribution to modern comedy begins here, in the way he teases laughter out of his own vulnerable and damaged personhood. He helped write the blueprints for a comic art that begins in pain, and he explicitly tested the boundaries between comedy and cruelty, between laughter that wounds and laughter that heals. Contemporary comedians still work along those boundaries, and performers as different from one another as Hannah Gadsby, Dave Chappelle, and Tig Notaro keep discovering the power latent in their own experiences of suffering.
One of the most revealing records of Armin’s comic imagination is Fool upon Fool, the little book in which he writes portraits of six “natural fools” and tells stories of their lives and misadventures. In these portraits, Armin pays extensive attention to the bodies of the fools he profiles: the lengths of their legs, the sizes of their heads, the shapes of their lips and hands, their many quirks of symmetry and proportion. He seems to find something of each fool’s essence, something of his folly, in the idiosyncrasies of his body. No surprise, perhaps, that throughout these portraits he expresses his affinity with these uncommon men. He shares their profession — most of them are kept as entertainers in great houses — and he shares their birthright of bodily difference. Armin’s first Shakespearean character, Touchstone, is called “Nature’s natural” as he makes his first grand entrance. That label is his calling card.
It might be fitting, in a way, that the only surviving image of Armin depicts him in costume as John in the Hospital or “Blue John,” a role he enacted in his own play The Two Maids of More-clacke. If Sandra Dahlberg and Peter Greenfield are right in their historical identification, Blue John was John Smith, an actual London man, born with mental disabilities, who spent his whole adult life at the charity institution Christ’s Hospital. Armin, who would have been in his mid-twenties when John died, calls him “my old acquaintance, Jack, whose life I knew.” He wrote about John not only in Two Maids but also in the last portrait of Fool upon Fool, where he tells John’s story with real feeling, insisting that the overseers of Christ’s Hospital “did well” to make a place for this man, “seeing he was one of God’s creatures, though some difference in persons.”
Two Maids, which probably dates from Armin’s pre-Shakespearean days, seems to have owed its success to Armin’s portrayal of John. The jesting fool appears in only a couple of scenes, but Armin clearly regarded those scenes as something special, both a song in praise of a departed hero and a flagship vehicle for his own talents. The John he presents in these scenes and in Fool is a natural-born comedian. In the demented innocence of this man’s antics — the time he rang the church bells in memory of a chicken, or the time he preached at St. Paul’s using his dirty handkerchief as a text — Armin finds something essentially human, something that speaks to his own tender core of suffering hilarity and wounded love.
All the while, he verges on mockery: it’s hard to forget that this “innocent” is being written and enacted by a performer who is no innocent at all. But Armin tries — and he will keep trying, down to his last role — to discover and know himself as a natural fool. And he keeps inviting us, his audience, to discover that we are all fools, however powerful or intelligent or respectable we may appear. “Where learned you this, Fool?” the Kent of King Lear demands, from the stocks. “Not in the stocks, fool,” Lear’s fool replies. Who’s the gentleman, and who’s the fool? Armin makes it hard to tell.
In the final lines of Fool upon Fool, Armin reports that John was buried without an epitaph. As a last gift to his departed hero, he offers one himself:
Here under sleeps Blue John, that gives
Food to feed worms, yet he not lives.
You that pass by, look at his grave
And say yourselves the like must have.
Wise men and fools, all one end makes,
God’s will be done, who gives and takes.
There are plenty of graveyard commonplaces here. But there’s also the hint of something deeply personal in these lines. The epitaph could almost be his own, Robert Armin’s witness to a fellowship rooted in strangeness. Do you want, he asks, to know who you really are? Here’s how. Go to the asylum. Find a freak in an unmarked grave. And discover there your own true self, and your one sure destiny.
Is that the joke you came to hear? Laugh if you dare. The folly you deride may be your own.
Jason Crawford teaches in the department of English at Union University. He is the author of Allegory and Enchantment: An Early Modern Poetics (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Featured image: Arthur Dove. Sun, 1943. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Suzanne M. Smith. www.si.edu, CC0. Accessed October 21, 2022.
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