Archive for the 'Shakespeare' 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.

John Carey: A Little History of Poetry

December 10, 2022

     Well, as I reached the end of this book, I was thinking how useful it would have been at the start of my Eng.Lit. Degree. It is exactly what is says on the cover, starting with the Epic of Gilgamesh and reaching as close to today as reasonably possible. I’ve liked John Carey’s writing about literature for quite a number of years, and his modest biography of John Donne (John Donne: Life, Mind and Art) has subdued my desire to read the latest one everyone is raving about…

Apparently the Jews in exile in Babylon may well have encountered the Gilgamesh story, which, surprise surprise (!) features both a flood and a snake, both of which later turn up in the book of Genesis.

Carey portrays the broad sweep of the development of poetry through the ages, and its changing purpose and function, too. It’s highly accessible as an introduction and a survey, both for the informed and uninformed reader. It’s eminently readable, and Carey’s knowledge and above all love of poetry shine through; he shows us the good stuff and explains why he thinks it’s good, and equally, at times, tells us what isn’t.

The book consists of many short, often thematic and comparative chapters. Whilst this works most of the time and suits his purpose, you can also see how hard it is to do justice to Shakespeare’s sonnets, for instance, in such a chapter. His love of John Donne’s poetry shines through in such a chapter, though, but I felt that Milton lost out. He’s tuned into the beauty and variety of the ways poets use our language – there are a couple of chapters on poetry not written in English, as there needs to be, but these don’t work nearly as well. I thought I knew poetry pretty well after a lifetime of study and teaching, but not; there’s just so much of it, and one inevitably both selects and sticks to what one likes best.

Carey achieves what he sets out to do, and admirably; I wholeheartedly recommend this book.

Alberto Angela: Cleopatra

November 29, 2022

     I’ve grown to like Alberto Angela’s books over the past few years, after discovering him on a visit to the Roman sites in Provence. I suppose he should be classified as a popular historian, although he seems to take great care to annotate and support what he writes. He makes us aware, from the sources of the time, just how much information about life and the history of the Roman era is actually recorded, as well as by whom and what axes they were grinding, and just how many gaps there are too: like other historians writing about those times, he must necessarily speculate, and he’s always very clear with the reader when he’s doing that.

He’s written about the Roman Empire, daily life in ancient Rome, and the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. This book is rather different, focussing on historical personalities at the time of the final demise of the republic, and it’s the first one of his that I’ve read in English. I’ll get my gripe over quickly: the proof-reading is shocking, with a serious number of careless errors that should have been corrected before it ever got to print…

What Angela particularly excels at, in my opinion, is his way of bringing the ancient world to life for the reader through a myriad of small details, either from sources or through logical deduction and inference, thus fully contextualising his subject-matter. I was astonished to learn, that if one did the sums from information known, then there might be around two million wrecked boats and ships at the bottom of the Mediterranean! One of the things I gradually came to realise – my recent knowledge of Antony and Cleopatra being through Shakespeare’s eponymous tragedy, is just how freely the bard adapted his source material, whilst keeping the outlines of the story and the character traits of the principal actors. But his focus was on the personalities and their flaws, and their tragedy.

There are times when Angela is perhaps a little too free with his imagination, too fanciful – he is dealing with Cleopatra after all – although given the fatal attraction between her and Mark Antony, speculation about the exact nature of their relationship is surely allowed. Octavian emerges as a far nastier and ruthless creature than I recalled from my classes in Roman history over half a century ago. The real revelation for me was Cleopatra’s intelligence: she was a very well-educated and powerful woman, a master-strategist, perhaps the most powerful woman in history in terms of her influence and effect: Angela reminds us several times how different the Roman world, and hence ours, might have been if things had gone the other way, and Octavian had not become the god Augustus who founded the Roman empire.

A fascinating read, well worth my eyeball time.

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.

Fifty years on…

July 3, 2022

The older you get, the more anniversaries there are; it recently occurred to me that it’s now 50 years since I sat my A Levels… good grief! And what a simple business it all was way back then. All exams, for a start: no continuous assessment, no coursework or anything like that. Just sit in silence and write and write and write.

English literature (well, obviously); I think we’d studied eight set books and only had to write about six, so there was a choice. Othello and King Lear, Doctor Faustus, Paradise Lost 9 & 10, Chaucer’s Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Shadow of a Gunman, Andrew Marvell’s poetry… is that all of them? Don’t recall which I avoided…

French: dictation, I remember, unseen and prose translation, essay, and literature. Le Mariage de Figaro, Le Roi Se Meurt, Servitude et Grandeur Militaires, Confession de Minuit. The killer was, that French Lit and one of the English lit papers were timetabled on the same day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon; eight essays altogether and I remember I filled thirty-six sides of foolscap (predecessor to A4 if you need to know) that day and had a seriously sore hand.

Latin of Classical Civilisation (yes, weird title) with unseen, prose translation, a Roman history paper and set books, though I can no longer remember what they all were, apart from tiresome Livy Book 30.

I’d already passed two A levels in previous years so I knew what to expect, roughly, and I had my revision plan and just powered on through it; I certainly have no recollections of pressure from other or myself, and no stress about any of it, either. Innocent days, perhaps; the end of school, certainly. I recall getting pissed in the village pub, raiding the kitchens where we took and ate all the strawberries, a naked dip in the freezing pool and ceremonial urination on the cricket pitch. Then it was all over.

I had offers from three of the five universities I’d applied to and had fallen in love with Liverpool, so that was my first choice. With two A levels already, and since I’d originally applied to read Latin and French, my offer was one D grade, in French. Results day meant an envelope in the post and a scrawled note from my tutor saying, ‘That should be good enough for Liverpool’ (about my 2 As and a C). Done. Except my A in English Literature was making me review my options, and I knew I’d really rather read English than Latin. So I wrote and asked – I’d already made the rather unusual for those days request for deferred entry – could I change my course based on my results. That would be fine, they said.

Do I make it all sound far too easy? Maybe. I did take naturally to study, because I enjoyed the subjects and they fascinated me; I was also quite an organised student, and I had really good teachers. I put in the time and did the work; at a Catholic boarding school there were few other distractions, which meant I was rather a slow learner in other areas of life.

What I took away from the whole experience is rather more important: a deep love of literature and languages instilled by teachers with a genuine passion for their subjects, and I suspect already at that time the prospect of becoming a teacher and passing on some of that enjoyment to future students was beginning to form itself somewhere deep in my unconscious.

What I realise now is the simplicity of those days, without pressure or expectation, which students of today cannot know or enjoy; no real thoughts about what would come after university; the comfort of knowing that with my place would come a grant to cover my living expenses, and the course costs I didn’t even have to think about, because there were no tuition fees. I have often wished that such freedom was on offer nowadays, because I have always been a great believer in learning for learning’s sake, and studying what you enjoy, rather than because it will bring you a high salary. I’m aware that university students were an elite then, a very small percentage of the population rather than today’s 50%. The greater democratisation and accessibility of higher education is surely a good thing, but I’m also aware that it’s primarily a great money-making opportunity for so many different people, with the needs and rights of the actual students quite a way down the list of priorities.

I’ll finish with a line from Virgil. Forsan et olim haec meminisse juvabit…

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.

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