Archive for the 'drama' Category

Christopher Marlowe: Doctor Faustus

December 18, 2022

     I’ve always liked this play, ever since I studied it for A Level more than half a century ago; I’ve taught it a few times, although it got harder as time went by, with the increasing need to deliver a crash course in theology alongside the text; the same was the case with Milton’s Paradise Lost. It will be a great shame if such texts disappear from study in schools.

Coming to this play having already met Shakespeare, it can feel a bit primitive, with its story-telling through choruses and soliloquies; it’s not helped by Marlowe using hacks to pad out the comic scenes, either. While it can feel much less subtle than Shakespearean tragedy, it can certainly match him in the power of its poetry.

Faustus’ flawed character is at the heart of Marlowe’s drama. His expressed desires are, ultimately, worldly. It is hard to understand how someone, so apparently gifted/talented/knowledgeable already, manages to delude himself so utterly in imagining that he will get the better of his pact with Lucifer. Even his thoughts about magic seem to corrupt his original intentions.

The play focuses on a single character, Faustus; sometimes there are glimpses of characterisation in Mephistopheles. In some ways this feels like a limitation on the power and effectiveness of the drama, and yet when Faustus slips into despair and we feel him teetering on the brink of repentance, there is real dramatic power in the closing scenes.

For me, the main focus is on the limitations of human beings as creatures. Marlowe explored this in a different way in Tamburlaine the Great. There’s certainly our fear of death, the great unknown, and for me it’s a bit of a contradiction that Faustus only negotiates 24 years of power in his pact with the devil. I now know 24 years is not a very long time… The limitations are things we can do nothing about: mortality, obviously, although scientists are now working on this, and the things we do not know and cannot find out; again, we have made progress since Marlowe’s day, and yet there is still so much we do not know or understand.

Is there a moral here, partly about humans’ rebellion against our condition being pointless in the end? Humans’ natural curiosity is obviously at play here: an innate part of us, and part of our tragedy, too. The final chorus is certainly relevant to us today, with its suggestion that there are things as mere humans we ought not to do, even if we can.

This England…

November 8, 2022

This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!

I’ve found John of Gaunt’s famous speech from Shakespeare’s Richard II in my mind quite frequently of late; I enjoyed teaching the play to sixth-formers a number of times. When I looked it up, I found that rather too much of it was a paean to royalty, kings, nobility, conquest and colonialism and other such things I abhor… but the lines in the section I’ve quoted above still strike a chord of sorts in these oh so weird times that our country is living through.

I say our country: Gaunt speaks of England, which is correct in the context of his times. Today, many Scots would understandably be shot of us, perhaps many Welsh too, and in Ireland (at least, the part we still retain) things do not look so wonderful. And it’s the English politicians, aristocracy and upper classes that still very much call the shots for everyone in this (dis)United Kingdom.

I say our country, including myself in that, and perhaps some readers will find that curious too, given my wont for emphasising my half-Polishness. But I can escape neither part of my ancestry, nor would I; born and raised, lived and worked in England, I have imbibed Englishness as much as the next person.

But on to the speech, in which Gaunt is inveighing against the incompetence and corruption of the times. No change there, then. Land suggests something more solid, more grounded than country, doesn’t it? And the multiple repetition of dear in the first couple of lines, and as the first word of the second line, adds emphasis. The derogatory comparison – look what we’re reduced to now – of the fourth line, gains from the stress of tenement coming just before the caesura, and the pelting farm at the end of the line.

From grim reality, we soar briefly to the ideal, England, triumphant, envied by the god Neptune, before we are back to shame, blots and bonds (note the alliteration there!) along with rotten. Back to England – the ebb and flow is an important part of the rhetorical effect – a conqueror nation, now self-conquered, and shame(ful) is repeated. You can sense the spluttering rage coming through the repetition as Gaunt stresses his point, lost for words and driven to repeat ones he’s already used. Notice the number of words that begin with a plosive consonant, which further emphasises the effect. It all works very well. He then concludes with two wishes, for the scandal to disappear and for a peaceful end.

Corruption in ruling circles, and the demeaning of a place which means so much – a homeland – resonated in Shakespeare’s time as much as it does today. Some things never change, even though it’s high time they did.

Charles Nicholl: The Lodger

December 22, 2021

     A batch of legal papers from the early 17th century, in which Shakespeare is questioned in a case about his landlord’s failure to pay his daughter’s marriage portion, is the premise for this rather tenuous book. True, it places the dramatist as a lodger in a particular house in London for a few years, but in factual terms, that’s it really.

Whilst it’s good (and harmless enough) for people to continue research after four centuries, there’s not an awful lot that’s going to be uncovered now that will cast any definite new light on Shakespeare’s life and career. What is possible is an awful lot of knitting together of evidence and threads into various tapestries of speculation and deduction that fill many pages. Sometimes there is interesting contextual detail and background, but nothing here that added to James Shapiro’s books 1599 and 1606 a few years back. Plenty of deduced geographical, historical and social trivia that, sadly, is presented in a rather dull, oddly disengaged style.

What did I learn? That there were similar issues then as now about immigration, and economic migrants, a similar black economy, a similar English resentment of foreigners taking jobs, not integrating into our country… Shakespeare lodged in a house of foreigners (French Huguenots) and there was a mildly interesting but rather cursory chapter on aliens in his plays, how he portrayed them and developed their characters.

The real issue with this book is that there isn’t enough material, particularly directly connected with Shakespeare. It’s heavily padded out with notes and also many pages of legal transcript of the 17th century court case. Disappointing, and while I won’t go quite as far as to say a waste of my time, you can safely pass on this one.

Shakespeare: Henry VI Part 3

October 4, 2021

The nobles continue their bloody wrangling over the rival claims of the houses of Lancaster and York to the throne; battles and bloodshed become ever more frenzied, driven by Henry’s ambitious and demented queen and the overweening kingmaker Warwick. Some of the most horrific battles in English history took place at this time.

There are still many static scenes where characters merely stand and declaim, with much repetitive and redundant speechifying. Interestingly, Henry’s lengthy soliloquy on time, just before one of the battles, seems to foreshadow the much more famous one given to Richard II (a play yet to be written, though earlier in real time). Shakespeare certainly knew how to reuse and recycle his material… Another scene reminded me of the well-known scene with the gardeners, also in Richard II.

The horrors of civil war are brought powerfully home in the cameo of the son who unknowingly kills his father in battle, but this is then overdone immediately with an identical one where a father kills his son.

The main theme of this play, though, is the emergence of the evil genius of the man who will become Richard III; he is given more soliloquies where he can gradually reveal his scheming to the audience. It’s fascinating to see the processes through which Shakespeare seems to have developed as a dramatist, as he realises the potential in the soliloquy form, but has not yet attainted the succinctness and power which he gives to these in the later tragedies.

There is also more of a sense of pace to this play, particularly as it moves towards its end, Warwick changing sides again and eventually getting his comeuppance, and Edward taking the throne for the house of York after Richard has murdered Henry, but there is still no resolution or end to the bloodshed, as we know what Richard’s as-yet unrealised plans are…

Shakespeare: Henry VI Part 2

October 3, 2021

More factional infighting between the nobles supporting the Yorkist and Lancastrian claims to the throne continues and worsens, gets even more complicated and tiresome. So many conspiracies and counter-conspiracies and subterfuges, none of it helped by a weak and wet king and a scheming queen. All my prejudices about royalty and aristocracy are confirmed…

It’s a bit less monotonous than part 1, as there is some suspense and Shakespeare gains dramatic effect of a kind from switching from one side to the other in fairly quick-moving scenes, even though there’s a lot of posturing speechifying too. We now get soliloquies – and do we need them! – to help us follow all the plotting and double-crossing, the deviousness and the treachery.

The best bit is Jack Cade’s popular uprising, which is partly comic and partly deadly serious as Shakespeare shows how completely anarchy can take over when those of a higher degree do not do what their social status requires of them. Ordinary folk take control; of course, at that time they have to make a total hash of things, but then, so do their supposed betters.

The further I got, the more I realised how skilfully Shakespeare was creating the lasting impression of a country in a state of anarchy, a non-stop series of plots, murders, battles and rebellions… utter chaos, and completely flying in the face of the natural order of things as he conceived it. There is an utterly hopeless and ineffectual king who just watches chaos developing; he can do nothing to sort it out. In a lot of ways it’s beginning to remind me a little of the state of the UK at the moment, but let’s stick with Shakespeare. We end in medias res once again, with the Yorkists victorious in battle. Part 3 beckons.

Shakespeare: Henry VI Part 1

September 30, 2021

I always feel a little outfaced whenever I tackle Shakespeare’s history plays, because so much background information is needed to follow them in any detail, and there are so many characters – and I’ve never been wildly interested in the historical periods he brought to life, and the squabbling, entitled upper classes. But I try and remind myself of context: the relatively recent end of decades of civil wars, as well as the chaos of the Reformation, and Shakespeare telling a national backstory which for him ends up with the relative peace and quiet of his present, and the ongoing emergence of England as a power on the international scene. It reminds me quite a bit of our own, current messy situation and the wish of so many people who ought to know better, to live on our past glories, empire days, and ‘winning’ the Second World War…

Here, in the first part of Henry VI, Shakespeare contrasts the divided and factious England, with its squabbling nobles and interfering bishops after the death of the great hero Henry V, with the French, united and rebellious and inspired by Joan of Arc, determined to throw off the English yoke. It’s pretty much a hotchpotch of random scenes and events with no real thread except the background of the Hundred Years’ War, and the only unity coming through the character of Talbot on the English side and Joan on the fRench. We can see the Wars of the Roses shaping up in the future.

It’s interesting that the English immediately picture Joan as a witch, a whore, in league with satanic powers; towards the end of the play Shakespeare confirms this in a bizarre scene where she calls upon various devilish powers for assistance as her campaign finally unravels.

Shakespeare’s inventiveness is restricted by the actualities of history, and his chronicle sources. I find the language fairly pedestrian, and the tone pretty monotonous, to be honest; there’s little sense of drama or suspense: it feels like a school history lesson. Necessarily it ends without a resolution: there is more chaos, more warfare ahead, and the audience can easily see that the leading characters’ fine words are just that. But the dramatist is just setting out on the road to his present, showing a real nation emerging from all this chaos at the end of Richard III

Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew

September 29, 2021

The induction is a practical joke by a bored nobleman, in which a poor yokel’s world is turned upside down; in my attempts to make sense of this play, especially its problematic ending, I’m reflecting on whether the whole thing is about the world turned up side down.

Compared with the Two Gentlemen of Verona, the plot is a good deal more complicated, with layers of subplots; we can see the master’s progress as a dramatist, perhaps. There’s more humour, though still a good deal of over-the-top wordplay and punning, and there’s more of a sense of a dramatist and a play with ideas to explore here.

The problem is the ending, and specifically Katherina’s “submission” speech: what does it say, what does it imply? I’ve always found it rather hard to judge that she is playing a game in that speech, that she has somehow won and is putting one over on Petruchio and the others. It’s a play of its time, and there was a hierarchy of people in the famous Elizabethan world order, and no evidence that Shakespeare ever really challenged or went against this. So Kate has a place, a status, and it’s below her husband’s.

And yet, it’s Shakespeare, and entertainment, and so it seemed in the twentieth century that there had to be an explanation or interpretation that would make the ending acceptable somehow to a contemporary audience. The Arden Shakespeare second series is now regarded as pretty old, but it has always been my go-to text, and the introduction, which comes from the 1980s, is quite interesting on this issue and I recommend it to any others who may be puzzling in the same way as I have been.

What we need to notice is the love that has emerged between Katherina and Petruchio, more than anything else, and to remember that for Shakespeare, real love is paramount in so many of his plays, as opposed to pretences. So there is a solid base to their relationship in sixteenth century terms, which will probably not be played out in the simplistic dominance/submission trope implied by a superficial reading of the speech. Equally, I found myself remembering my comment to students that Shakespeare does not offer simple and clear-cut solutions or endings: there are often several strands/ideas/opinions being played out, as one might expect from a dramatist of his calibre. There are several different balls being juggled here, and you can’t necessarily keep your eye on all of them at the same time, but that doesn’t mean they’re not up there… and I found that helpful.

Shakespeare: Two Gentlemen of Verona

September 29, 2021

The wit and wordplay of early Shakespeare nowadays feels over-contrived and overdone, tiresome even, and it’s certainly the case for me in this play. And the wooing is stylised, not really reflecting any genuine feeling or conviction. To me it’s as though Shakespeare is ‘getting there’ in what’s probably his first play, but hasn’t quite got the measure of how he will succeed…

Don’t get me wrong, it’s entertaining enough, light and frothy with plenty of misunderstandings, contretemps and confusions. What struck me most strongly on this re-read, is just how much of the later Romeo and Juliet is foreshadowed in Two Gentlemen, even though this is a comedy, not a tragedy, and this is because of his source material, apparently. There are similar love tropes, there’s a plotted elopement using a rope-ladder, there’s the need for a lover to flee because he has been banished, there’s a scheme for passing letters to-and-fro, there’s even a Friar Laurence. But it is predictable, light-weight, geared to a comic ending; there’s no seriousness here.

Another thing is how easy early Shakespeare is to read, on the page, for me: I fairly rattled through this one. The more tortuous language and syntax of the later plays is by no means as straightforward. I had decided that it was time to do some revisiting of the plays after my encounters with the sonnets over the summer. I’m not offering any academic analysis, just a personal reaction to my readings…

Rolf Hochhuth: The Representative

July 31, 2021

     Hochhuth was certainly a controversialist: in Soldiers he suggested that the Polish wartime leader Sikorski’s death in a helicopter crash in 1943 was no accident, but sabotage designed to rid Churchill of a troublesome ally, and the fact that various related documents continue to remain secret for far longer than the normal period has not entirely dispelled this accusation. Here Hochhuth’s target is the Catholic Church, the papacy, and specifically Pius XII for doing nothing to openly protest about the extermination of the Jews, of which he was fully aware, and indeed he could see the deportations of the Jews of Rome from his rooms in the Vatican…

We see the Pope as a businessman first of all, keen to protect the Vatican’s investments and income streams. We see how his obsessive fear of communism and its perceived threat to the Church leads him to see Hitler as an ally, even while priests are murdered by the thousand in Poland. Hitler may be committing sins, but first and foremost, Nazi Germany is a bulwark against a threat to the Church, which has, to a certain extent, become trapped by its earlier stances towards Hitler’s regime. It is very hard to suppress one’s outrage faced with the wilful and deliberate blindness shown by Pius XII, and the astonishing moral and mental gymnastics of all those who defend and justify his inaction and weasel words, partly on political and partly on theological grounds. The stain – by no means the only one – on the Catholic Church has not faded sixty years later.

It’s a flawed play, in the sense that it’s laden with very dense and interpretive stage directions, the full import of which would never be conveyed to an audience in production; equally, fully to understand Hochhuth’s accusations, one needs many pages of supporting documentation, found at the end of the text. At times, the feel is very melodramatic, perhaps to emphasise the moral horrors and the dilemmas of the participants. But in 1963, ugly truths needed airing and exposing, and he certainly managed to do this. It is a very Sixties style of drama, wordy, cinematic, didactic even; politics and religion do not often sit well together, particularly on stage. The final act, set in Auschwitz, is bizarre. The contradictions between the moral teachings and the actions of the Church have been exposed. The end result is, of course, the 1984 effect: the play, its damning accusations and moral minefields, have vanished into the memory-hole of history. Who reads, who puts on this play now?

 

On ageing and growing older

May 20, 2021

At my age – I recently became a state pensioner, if you’re that curious – I quite often find myself thinking about ageing, growing older, and what that has in store, both generally, and for me in particular, and I’ve also been reflecting on what literature has to say about it all.

Way back in my teenage years, studying for A Level Latin, we met Horace’s famous ode “Eheu fugaces” to his friend Postumus (I always thought he was a particularly apt addressee, given the subject of the poem): the years slipping inevitably and unstoppably by, and nothing able to halt the remorseless slide towards senility and death: money, wine and pleasures were available, yes, but did nothing to stave off the end. Even at the age of seventeen, to me it was a powerful warning of what was to come, one day.

At the same time, I was also studying Shakespeare’s King Lear, which among other things presents old age as a time of loss of faculties; Lear loses his common sense and his judgement, before finally losing his sanity. He learns much during the unfolding of the tragedy, including what things are really of value in one’s later years, but at what an awful cost: he cannot survive the experiences.

And as part of my French literature studies, we read Ionesco’s Le Roi Se Meurt, in which it is announced that the time has come for the king to die, but, of course, he wants none of it, and the play is his struggle with the inevitable, aided by the queen who wants him to see sense and accept the necessary and inevitable, and the other queen who urges him to resist and deny it. And of course, he dies in the end.

As I write, I’m struck by the fact that so much of my studies in my teens focused on these last things, and wonder if it was the product of an education provided by Catholic priests: not exactly a conspiracy, as I know that examination syllabuses were pretty narrow and devoid of choice in those long-gone days, but a kind of memento mori nevertheless, to get us stroppy teenagers into line…

Later, at university, I was to encounter Mr Woodhouse, Jane Austen’s ‘valetudinarian’ – (what a marvellous word that is!) father of Emma – someone who was old before his time, fearful of life and everything that might go wrong, and therefore too cautious to enjoy anything. In many ways he is a silly man, and the butt of much humour, but he does reflect a certain stage in our own story, the notion that we are not immortal, and that there are many ways to die, as was said about Cleopatra after her end. I’m also reminded of Wilfred Owen’s Disabled, where the young man lies about his age in order to sign up and returns from the front a tetraplegic; at nineteen we do not think about it all ending, nor at twenty-nine or thirty-nine perhaps, but soon after that the truth dawns.

One of the ways to die is from disease. This can be gradual, or announced almost like a death sentence. The most affecting, if not chilling, presentation I’ve come across of this is in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illich. There is the gradual unwellness, the realisation of doom and its confirmation by the doctors, and the reactions of those around him, who, while sympathetic, are not so immediately doomed and therefore must carry on with their ‘normal’ everyday lives; the suffering Ivan is ultimately alone in his dying.

One of the things associated (sometimes) with older age is wisdom; I think the jury is still out on my case, although I do feel less and less like voicing my opinions nowadays, partly because I feel they are of diminishing significance as the world changes so fast, and moves past me, partly because the world isn’t likely to change in tune with my opinions, and certainly not in time for me to enjoy it… I’m with Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes to some of you), the writer of my favourite book in the Bible, who focuses on the ultimate vanity of everything.

The older we grow, the more memories we accumulate, and the more memories we can and do recall. I’m always astonished at how much is actually filed away there on my internal hard drive, when a memory from years ago suddenly surfaces. The computer analogy works for me: I have about 0.7 of a terabyte of stuff on my backup hard disk, and I collect all sorts of stuff, and have scanned and saved vast amounts of old paperwork; how many terabytes of memories and information must be squirrelled away in my brain? And all to be effortlessly erased one day. Proust is the writer par excellence associated with memory, and that famous incident with the madeleine that is so astonishing, and so convincing when you actually read it. All sorts of weird and unexpected things trigger memories, and I think they become more poignant and more sad the older I become. The events were real pleasures once, back in the dim and distant past, now just recollections.

I’m not sure where all of this gets me, in the end. Perhaps I have to leave the last words to Shakespeare’s Jacques, in that famous Seven Ages of Man speech in As You Like It, which seems to sum it all up very well. Each consequent stage of life is new territory to explore; we bring some accumulated knowledge, perhaps wisdom, along with us from the earlier stages which is a little help, but there is always a certain measure of advancing into unknown territory…

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