Years ago, when I was teaching at Berkeley, I received a peculiar note circulated among faculty members by the head of the humanities center. Maurice Sendak had been invited to give a public lecture, the note said, and he was scheduled to arrive on campus very soon. But he had asked for a NordicTrack machine and 12 down pillows, items that my colleague was scrambling to find. I had no down pillows to spare, but I did, as it happened, have a NordicTrack gathering dust in my basement. Thus began my acquaintance with Maurice, an acquaintance I treasured, though it never blossomed to the point where I dared ask him what he wanted with all of those pillows.
Maurice’s extraordinary books were very much in my mind back then. I had two little boys who were all but obsessed with them, but the truth is that it was as a Shakespearean still more than as a father of small children that I found and have continued to find his work wonderfully fruitful.
Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices
That if I then had waked after long sleep
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.
Though these magical lines linger between sleep and waking, and though they mingle fear and delight on a strange island, they are not from one of Sendak’s books. They come instead from Shakespeare’s “Tempest” and are spoken by Caliban, “the savage and deformed slave” of the magician Prospero. Prospero is a powerful European ruler, marooned on a remote ocean island where he commands the winged servant Ariel as well as Caliban, but the scene Shakespeare draws is oddly domestic: an old father and his young daughter, playing house together with the kitchen help of the island’s sole native.
The native was not always condemned to menial chores; he was once treated as a member of the family, until something he did or rather wanted to do — an impulse, a violation of the rules, a lawless desire — called down heavy punishments upon his head. Those punishments are weird, as befits a magician’s terrible power, but — and I write this as someone whose normally gentle mother would pinch me fiercely when I did something wrong — they too have something oddly domestic about them.
For this be sure tonight thou shalt have cramps,
Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up.
For all of his exotic otherness — it is not clear whether he is a human, an animal or a demon — Caliban is a child, impotently tyrannical, volatile, at once pathetic and enraging. He is what my parents would have called, in Yiddish, a vilde chaya, a wild thing. And he is therefore the Shakespearean antecedent of Sendak’s immortal Max.
For there is a deep affinity between the Renaissance playwright and the modern author and artist. The affinity is in part no doubt a matter of influence: sophisticated and widely read, Maurice was steeped in high culture. But it is still more a secret sharing, an instinctive fascination with some of the same half-hidden springs of human aggression, fear and longing. There are obvious links in his books to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” with its mysterious moonlit forest, its mischievous fairies and, above all, its strange preoccupation (still unexplained by critics 400 years later) with the figure of the changeling. Sendak shared too a powerful empathetic identification with what Shakespeare, in “King Lear,” calls “unaccommodated man,” the “poor, bare, forked animal” in his nakedness and vulnerability. And, like Shakespeare, Sendak was drawn to look directly into the face of absolute evil. That evil is not allowed to triumph in “Brundibar,” any more than it is allowed to triumph in “Lear” or “Macbeth,” and yet there is, in Sendak’s images of resurgent goodness as in Shakespeare’s, the same poignant undertow that afflicts the happy restoration of order.
But it is not in the early comedies nor in the great middle tragedies that I feel the most intimate connection between Shakespeare’s work and Sendak’s sensibility: it is in those strange late plays known as the romances. Here Shakespeare turned to stories of children stolen from their parents and then miraculously found again; stories of wicked stepmothers who take advantage of fathers in the grip of sloth or depression; stories of sudden, violent outbursts of mad jealousy; stories of terrifying loss and the sweet, autumnal experience of reunion.
During his lifetime, Shakespeare was ridiculed for this unexpected turn in his work. “If there be never a servant-monster in the fair,” Shakespeare’s rival Ben Jonson snorted contemptuously in the preface to a new play he was mounting, “who can help it?” Jonson was loath, he declared, “to make Nature afraid in his plays, like those that beget Tales, Tempests, and such like drolleries.” Drolleries: it was for Jonson as if Shakespeare, near the end of his career, had started to write children’s books. But the author of “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest” did not care. He understood that to reach down to the deepest wellspring of creative power, he needed to explore the child that was still miraculously alive and intact within him. The courageous ability to plunge into that strange innermost being, as into a dark, fathomless pool, was Maurice Sendak’s special gift, and it is the indelible sign — like a birthmark — of his Shakespearean inheritance. That inheritance, so rare and so precious, commands our gratitude and our wonder, for we know that it means that Sendak’s work, like Shakespeare’s, will continue to give intense delight, long after we have all vanished, like breath in the wind.
Stephen Greenblatt is the John Cogan university professor of the humanities at Harvard and the author, most recently, of “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.” He wrote the foreword to Maurice Sendak’s “My Brother’s Book,” published posthumously this month.