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In Memory of a Banyan Tree: Poems of the Outside World: 1985 to 2022
Three Wooden Trunks
The Country Where Everyone’s Name Is Fear: Selected Poems
Willing to Choose: Volition & Storytelling in Shakespeare’s Major Plays  
  Robert Pack

ISBN 978-0-9762114-4-0     $18  /  $20 (Canada)     6 x 9       

220 pp      
PUB DATE: Fall 2007       Nonfiction


Willing to Choose struck me as something utterly fresh and compelling, a book about Shakespeare that ought to inspire a wide range of readers. Robert Pack, himself a poet, understands Shakespeare’s art in ways that seem both comprehensible and satisfying. Pack shows again and again what art has added to nature itself, making it somehow bearable. The willful choice to examine, to face reality boldly, and to accept the balm of its beauty without resorting to fantasy, was the wise and noble choice that Shakespeare himself made. Readers will be grateful to Pack for making this plain, for adding so much to nature himself in this strong, sensible, and artful book.

—Jay Parini, author of Robert Frost, A Life

Robert Brustein says of Pack’s new book of close readings of Shakespeare’s plays, Willing To Choose: Volition & Storytelling in Shakespeare’s Major Plays, that “the whole book is filled with insight and intuition.” This book is intended for the reader and theater-goer who loves Shakespeare’s plays and enjoys contemplating them in their complexity: their recurrent themes, the richness of their metaphorical language, the characters’ psychological depths and dimensions, the philosophical implications of the plays as organic dramatic entities that testify to the nature of human limitation and to human freedom.

Pack, a distinguished poet with eighteen books to his credit, makes the assumption that the reader has the patience to delight in the minute details of Shakespeare’s patterns of imagery as well as to admire the overall structure of the plays. What especially interests Pack is how these plays cohere and how they can be read from different perspectives that nevertheless complement each other. Pack has not adopted any single critical approach, but has responded to each play’s individual identity from various interpretative points of view. Ultimately, Pack finds everywhere in Shakespeare’s incomparable plays—a vision empathetic to human suffering and moral aspiration, tempered by the Bard’s acute awareness of human frailty. Robert Pack’s study of Shakespeare is a poignant and mature meditation on the world’s greatest writer.

—Harold Bloom, author of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

I write to express my strong endorsement for the publication of Robert Pack’s excellent new book on Shakespeare. This promises to be a work not only of scrupulous scholarship but, more importantly, of poetic imagination that promises to be a genuine contribution to Shakespeare criticism. His chapters on The Tempest, Macbeth, Hamlet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are particularly powerful, but the whole book is filled with insight and intuition, written in a style that makes it a delight to read, for academic and lay person alike. The fact that Pack is a poet himself gives him a particular entree into the mind of Shakespeare, and his philosophical and psychological reading enhances his literary approach immensely.

—Robert Brustein, author of The Theater of Revolt

About the Author

Robert Pack

The author of twenty books of his own poetry, the most recent being Elk in Winter and Composing Voices, and five books of literary criticism, Robert Pack finds everywhere in Shakespeare’s incomparable plays a vision empathetic to human suffering and moral aspiration, tempered by the Bard’s acute awareness of human frailty. Currently, Robert Pack teaches in the Honors College of the University of Montana.



SPRING/SUMMER 2008 • Vol. 1, Issue 2
Reviewed by Matthew Kaler (MFA ‘08)

A great optimism Robert Pack offers his students when confronted with the enormity of emotional, philosophical, and spiritual questions posed by Shakespeare’s plays is that they, as young readers, will have the next fifty years to answer them. Indeed, this amount of time might be the necessary gestation for such an aspiration, and fortunately for us, Pack has taught Shakespeare for over half a century. In Willing To Choose, Pack elucidates the four major tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth) beside three comedies (Measure for Measure, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest) under the umbrella of what he calls their “humane vision . . . empathetic to human suffering and moral aspiration.” This vision, the inheritance left to us by Shakespeare’s plays, is delivered through storytelling, and is especially present in Pack’s examination of choices made by characters in response to their fates. In his introduction, Pack justifies the fusion of comedy and tragedy by the important role choice plays, since “an act of will can change either how events will turn out and relationships be resolved.”

Freed from any particular critical method, Pack employs his innovative and poetic consideration of these plays, and characters therein, from where they seem to exist in a state of liminality. With this approach he is able to articulate discoveries by combination of seemingly polarized elements: Darwin and the Bible, guilt and innocence, Free Will and Determinism. We may then ask, particularly for the latter grouping, how such a coexistence can be explained? Pack answers craftily with his favorite comparison, that of “the fundamental weirdness of quantum physics, that photons of light are simultaneously both waves and particles, depending on how they are observed.” Perhaps, along with a fifty year courtship, Shakespeare’s plays require such far reaching and borderless extensions of thought.

The characters examined in these essays are not limited to the titular or central romantic couplings, but are often minor ones such as Emilia in Othello, Caliban in The Tempest, and Cawdor in Macbeth, who all deliberately choose their means of response to difficult circumstances. How these characters come to choose, through conscious acts of will, or unconscious manifestations such as lunacy, illuminate the choices made by those major characters, and the most compelling themes of their respective plays.

While confronting paradoxes of character in his essays, Pack is careful not to attempt definitive answers, but acknowledge that driving questions often evolve into further questions, and that while these characters are destined to particular fates, the attitude they take to their fates, especially toward suffering, is an act of will. Such acceptance of choice provides the only means of transcending human frailty into what Pack terms, in his essay on King Lear, “the consummation of the human imagination as it asserts itself . . . by storytelling, in the hopeless face of nothingness”, or, in the advice Edgar gives his despondent and blinded father, that “Ripeness is all.”  

Matthew Kaler is a native of Montana, and hopes one day to celebrate a golden anniversary with the Bard.