Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Marlowe’

On Shakespeare worship

May 23, 2018

Is Shakespeare that good? How good is he?

I’ve recently come back from my annual week with a group of a couple of dozen like-minded folk where we’ve sat and studied and explored Shakespeare and been to Stratford to see a couple of his plays at the RSCRomeo & Juliet and Macbeth this year. The first performance was not bad, the second was brilliant. And at some point we find ourselves sitting in a room all saying in different ways how wonderful Shakespeare was… and sometimes I find myself feeling uneasy.

Can we step back and judge the man objectively any more, or has he been canonised in such a way that it’s impossible to be critical? Or is he clearly brilliant every which way and that’s that?

His language is wonderful: it’s hard to challenge that, particularly in his plays. I was particularly aware of this first re-reading and then watching Macbeth in performance. But when I’m reading or listening to his sonnets, wonderful as they are, I’m always reminded of his contemporary John Donne, whose poetry I’ve always preferred, who breaks out of the restricted and constraining sonnet form when he feels like it (quite often), who often writes as he would speak, with great power and freshness, contrasted with which Shakespeare can seem a bit trite, and same-y – all those sonnets! But when I read or see plays, yes Marlowe occasionally matches Shakespeare’s language in range and scope, as does Webster too, at times… but Shakespeare just does it so well, so consistently, so effortlessly, time and again.

Many people pay tribute to the way Shakespeare contributed to the development of our language, his coining of new words to suit divers occasions and situations; it’s true. But so did Milton, just as much and as powerfully, but people don’t read Paradise Lost any more, and so they never see or hear Shakespeare’s equal in this field.

We are fortunate that so much of Shakespeare’s oeuvre has survived – a couple of plays are known to be missing – and perhaps many plays by rivals did not. Shakespeare wrote in all the genres – historical plays, comedies, tragedies and romances, so there is a breadth to his work we do not have in his rivals. His themes are the same as those used by everyone else, and the judgement seems to be that he just outdid the rest.

I have never really been interested in any of the so-called controversies about Shakespeare’s identity, or his authorship of the plays or not: I don’t think it will ever be possible to have incontrovertible proof of anything that happened four centuries ago, and every generation produces its crop of theories. It would be good to have more information about the man and the gaps in his biography, but then, it would be good to have a lot of things…

Shakespeare is ‘for all time’, said friend and rival Ben Jonson. This may well mean the subject-matter of his plays and how he develops his ideas and characters. Writers are always going to write about the same issues – love, hate, jealousy, rivalry, death, ambition, friendship… but does Shakespeare inevitably have the last or the best word on all these topics? Maybe he enjoys an advantage as a dramatist, in that he brings it all to life, in front of us onstage: there is an immediacy and an intensity that few novelists are able to achieve in what is a totally different literary form.

What do you think?

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On death in literature (1)

September 4, 2017

I hope readers will bear with me, and not find the following posts too gloomy, but occasionally in a novel I come across a death which strikes me deeply. Characters die in novels all the time, in all manner of ways, and most of the time, because we are plot-driven, we register the death and then continue with the remaining characters and the rest of the story.

We are the only species that know about death, in that we must one day die; at that time, everything ends for us (pace those believers in an afterlife) and yet everything also goes on for everyone else, as if we had never been. What, if anything, comes next, we know not, as Hamlet once told us about ‘that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’; everyone is the first person to die. It has long struck me that we devised religion as a way of coping with these awful certainties, and until relatively recently religion has done a fair, if obscurantist job; however, as the twentieth century progressed, and with it the gradual disappearance of religion from the lives of many, especially in the West, we have been inevitable brought to face our end unsupported, and our main response seems to have been to try and ensure we live as long as possible…

We are (mostly) creatures endowed with reason, and memory; we can think and reflect, and we develop attachments to people, places and things which can go beyond the merely instinctive, beyond the emotional, to another level, and here is our problem. Often we avoid, and novelists are not exempt from this ostrich-posture.

Jonathan Swift, in his Gulliver’s Travels, satirised the idea of living for ever, or even living as long as possible, far better than anyone has done since. The Struldbruggs are immortal; some of the ones met in the third part of Gulliver’s voyage are over six hundred years old, and they are the unhappiest creatures alive. Because, of course, for everyone life goes on: children want inheritances, younger folk want and need jobs; language changes over time and after six hundred years who will understand us and the way we speak? The immortals are an encumbrance. Does this remind you of anything today?

At the other end of the spectrum of taste and decorum, let’s put Jane Austen for a few moments. There are deaths in her novels, but only passim, at the very edges of the story, of minor characters, in order to facilitate an inheritance or shift the plot in a different direction, usually financial or marital: nowhere is such an unsuitable subject allowed to impinge with any depth. Eventually, at some vague point long after the end of the novel, the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse will ‘pass away’ and Emma and Mr Knightley will finally move to Donwell Abbey…

Religion long determined artistic responses to death. In Marlowe‘s Doctor Faustus, the eponymous hero’s death must accompany Lucifer’s taking of his soul at the end of the contracted twenty-four years, but what horrifies Faustus and creates the terror at the end of the play is not so much the devils tearing Faustus limb from limb as his realisation of what eternity in Hell means; he thinks he could put up with damnation if there were an end in sight, but of course this is just what there is not. Similarly the young Stephen Dedalus, in Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is driven to distraction by the famous hell-fire sermon delivered during a school retreat: the walls of Hell are four thousand miles thick, and eternity is more years than all the grains of sand on all the seashores of the world… and it’s his destination for his sexual sins.

To be fair, religion recognised how difficult it was for the individual mortal to contemplate and prepare for death and did its best to help; in mediaeval times there was the Ars Moriendi, a treatise on how to die well, and, recognising that such help is still needed in our secular age, the Catholic church in England and Wales has just launched a new website The Art of Dying Well, which offers much careful and thoughtful advice, obviously from its particular perspective. But for religion, of course, death is a beginning – mors ianua vitae – which many cannot now credit.

Adam and Eve, in Milton‘s Paradise Lost, are the only humans who don’t know what Death is. In the Garden of Eden, there is no death, all are immortal, but Death is a latent threat which will be actualised by their disobedience of God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit. And the fallen pair are aware that they will die, that Death is part of their punishment, but still don’t know what it actually is. Will it come immediately and strike them into oblivion, or is it to be feared and awaited at some distant moment? Genesis has Adam live for several hundred years… But the point is, Milton recognises, understands and explores this psychological fear, this existential angst, which struck those first two mythical humans, our ancestors.

to be continued

Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

January 26, 2017

51dtgromsl-_ac_us174_It’s Shakespeare time again, as in preparing for my week of Shakespeare study and visits to the RSC in the spring; this year it’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, neither of which I’ve yet seen in performance. I’m really looking forward to A&C in particular as it’s possibly my favourite play…

Julius Caesar often seems rather dull and worthy; that’s certainly the reaction of most people when I mention it. It does lack the intrigue of the great tragedies; true, there’s the conspiracy to murder Caesar but it’s the matter of a night’s work and never really threatened with betrayal or failure. A dramatist is constrained a little when dealing with ‘proper’ history, although Shakespeare does play fast and loose with plenty of details. Neither are there any characters for us to really warm to – even Brutus, though noble, is too naive, and the play is basically an all-male play, interrupted only briefly by brief appearances from Portia and Calphurnia.

Whose play – whose tragedy – is it really? Though it’s named after Julius Caesar, he’s dead before the play is half done, and Brutus is the one whose story we’re really meant to be following and interested in. Disinterested, honourable, unsuspicious, the naive idealist manipulated by Cassius, flawed in his short-sightedness and over-confidence, his lofty motives are submerged in the dirty dealings of real politics. The contrast with Cassius is too obvious: thinker-philosopher against envious manipulator.

Caesar does not come across as a bad ruler; in historical terms in the chaos of the disintegrating republic, he was probably as good as it gets, but hadn’t been chosen in accordance with the rules, and was clearly arrogant and full of himself: look at the way in which he refers to himself in the third person. So here is Shakespeare coming back to one of his oft-visited questions: is it right to depose a ruler, whatever his flaws: does it actually get you anywhere? Marlowe had touched on the idea first in the tragedy of Edward II, and Shakespeare tackled the same issue in Richard II: what do you do with a useless king who’s making a total hash of things? Divine right is all very well, but there’s the country to consider too, and then, when the king has been successfully deposed, along comes the next problem: what do you do with a spare king? You have to kill him. Claudius has gained the throne through murder, but there’s no suggestion that he’s ineffectual: the issues of Hamlet’s revenge and kingship are quite separate. And in Julius Caesar, clearly the death of the eponymous hero unleashes more chaos as the state slips through the hands of Brutus and Cassius into those of the cynical Antony and the cold, calculating Octavius, heading for another thirteen years of war…

Which brings us on to the sequel, which I’ll be reading next.

The flaws of Julius Caesar – and I don’t think it’s that bad a play – are those of any chronicle or history play: the action is linear, and circumscribed by fact (Shakespeare is no Donald Trump) which means that the major interest has to come from characters and their interaction, rather than plot, and this play doesn’t really have them. The struggle between the ambitious Octavian and the ageing Mark Antony, and the intrigues of the wily Cleopatra are something else, though, and there are even some interesting minor characters – who could not warm to Enobarbus, for instance?

To be continued…

On curiosity

February 6, 2016

Are you a curious person? Are you always asking questions? Do you like to learn something new every day? Some of my former students may well recall my offering them a new fact for the day, or announcing when I had learned something new from one of them.

Curiosity must be an essential attribute of human nature, otherwise we would never have got where we are today. There is general curiosity, and then there is a more intellectual sort of curiosity, on which I’ll concentrate today. Literature is full of examples of curiosity, and not all of them beneficial: my first example is Marlowe‘s Faustus, who is so keen to learn everything he can, and have the answers to all the questions which have so far eluded human understanding, that he sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for knowledge and power: foolishly, he thinks he will do well from the bargain, whereas of course, he comes off worse. And when he gets to ask all those burning questions, the devils are elusive, putting him off and distracting him, because knowledge is good, of course, and leads one to God… which is where Faustus may not go.

On a rather lighter level, Lewis Carroll‘s Alice is always asking questions (as children do), particularly about words. And for me, Mark Twain‘s Tom Sawyer has always been a symbol of curiosity, accumulating a rag-bag of random, accurate and inaccurate knowledge which he shares willingly with others and makes up when necessary…his eagerness to stick his nose into things leads him into all sorts of innocent and not-so-innocent scrapes.

And then, in Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World, where everyone is oh so happy! where are the questions? where is the intellectual curiosity? Completely gone, as John the Savage learns to his dismay, horror and disgust, for he is surrounded by happy beings who are surely not humans in the way we recognise them. Questions challenge stasis and lead to disorder.

The ultimates in terms of the human quest for knowledge, for me, have been the real event of the first moon landing back in my younger days, and the fictional Star Trek, with humans boldly going where no-one has gone before – to find out.

And I often wonder what is happening, and may happen to intellectual curiosity in the days of the internet, and instant access to knowledge. Already there is evidence, some anecdotal and some more researched, that many younger people see little point in learning or memorising facts when they are instantly accessible on a device that is always to hand, and, perhaps of greater concern, that curiosity itself may be waning when, again, any information that may ever be needed can be instantly sought and retrieved. Maybe this isn’t terribly significant in the greater scheme of things and in the longer term, but we cannot know whether this is so now, and tomorrow may be too late.

As a teacher, I always found it easier both to motivate and to respond to students in whom I detected curiosity, the need to ask questions, to know and to understand, to question me and to challenge me: they were driven by an urge which I recognised and valued. And yes, I tried to inculcate this into more reluctant students, and did not always succeed. I found it rather saddening when students came to apply to university and played safe, choosing subjects that they thought would guarantee secure and lucrative employment afterwards, rather than choose – in a good number of cases – subjects they loved and were genuinely interested in. Then there were those students who, though extremely able in their fields of study, failed to impress interviewers at top universities because they didn’t have that questioning spark, that intellectual curiosity that was being looked for, and I could see how our education system, with its increasing focus on marks and grades and league tables, especially in the state sector, was depriving those students of the ability to enquire and to challenge…

I don’t ever see myself running out of curiosity, as it were; I’m already putting things mentally on hold until my next existence because there’s so much out there I find interesting and exciting. I’m fascinated by the idea that there was a time – several centuries ago now – when it was still possible for one person to know everything that there was to be known… and it cheers me that I can still be mentally blown away by an idea like that.

English Literature and me

August 28, 2015

A friend has reminded me of the tricky territory which is the distinction between English and British. We don’t (often/usually) talk about ‘British’ literature, but when we speak of ‘English’ literature, what do we mean, exactly? Not literature written in English, but sometimes it seems to include writers from other areas of the British Isles than England. So, for instance, James Joyce was on my ‘English’ Literature syllabus at A level, and at university. It gets more complicated the more I look at it, so I will try and be as careful as I can with terminology…

English is my language, and I love it, and always have, its weirdnesses and idiosyncrasies, its vastness and its splendours, the ways it sings in the writings of Shakespeare and Milton, to name a couple of my favourites. And yet I can only claim to have scratched the surface, as far as our literature is concerned: yes, I met all the usual greats at school and university, and taught a fair few of them during my time as a teacher. But there’s so much that no-one can now claim really to know it all: the broad sweep, perhaps, but no more. Because I did a joint degree, I never had to go further back in time than Mediaeval English, so the joys of Anglo-Saxon are unknown to me, other than through translations of Beowulf.

How brilliant is Shakespeare? How does one get beyond centuries of hagiography, and academia? I found myself wondering this summer, when I saw a Marlowe play (The Jew of Malta) and two Shakespeare plays (Othello and The Merchant of Venice) at the RSC: there’s some wonderful language in Marlowe, but the play was let down by wooden characterisation and unsubtlety of plot in comparison with Shakespeare. Shakespeare is pretty consistently powerful across his entire career, and there’s clear and evident change, development and experimentation over time. And yet, though I enjoy his sonnets, as a lyric poet I find him somewhat limited in comparison with his contemporary John Donne, who is much more experimental and bold, as well as more wide-ranging in style and subject-matter.

My love of Milton is a minority taste nowadays, I find, when I wax lyrical about Paradise Lost to anyone. The language flows beautifully, he experiments and invents words as much as Shakespeare does, he tells a marvellous story, bringing his characters to life in a way that the book of Genesis does not.

I have grown to love Jane Austen‘s novels as time has passed, despite being faced with the most demanding one for close study at university (Mansfield Park, since you ask, and it’s still my favourite); her style and command of the nuances of the English language is masterly, particularly given the narrow focus of the world of her characters. Somehow she is quintessentially English (and what do I mean by that?). I have developed avoidance strategies for a great deal of nineteenth century English fiction over the years – Dickens really does (over)-write by the yard (though I make an exception for Hard Times) and Hardy is just too laden with heavy symbolism which gets in the way. I can cope with Charlotte Bronte, and love Villette even more than Jane Eyre. At the turn of the century I have plenty of time for Joseph Conrad, perhaps partly because he was Polish, and certainly out of admiration for the fact that he was writing in his third language. The characters and atmosphere of Nostromo are wonderful, and seem to lay the foundations for the worlds of Gabriel Garcia Marquez several generations later.

I haven’t found a lot to admire in the twentieth century. Joyce I’ve mentioned earlier: Ulysses is a masterpiece, though some of it has to be endured rather than enjoyed or marvelled at; I find his skills with our language astonishing, on a par with Milton’s, though very different. Lawrence we had to study at university and I now find him absolutely toe-curling in his approach to sexuality – almost unreadable, and I do wonder how much longer he will be widely read, if at all. Graham Greene I admire for the moral dilemmas he explores with such nicety, and keep meaning to go back and re-read his oeuvre but haven’t so far; I like what I’ve read of Anthony Burgess, and I really enjoyed Anthony Powell‘s Dance to the Music of Time, but other than those, I haven’t really read that much…

For me, the golden days of English Literature are past: we developed the drama and more or less invented the novel, but have passed the baton on to other writers and nations, at least at the moment; my perception is that currently we are very uncertain of ourselves and our place in the family of nations, and this shows in many ways, including our literature…

Christopher Marlowe: The Jew of Malta

May 13, 2015

9780713677669The third play I’m looking forward to seeing at Stratford is Christopher Marlowe‘s The Jew of Malta. It’s a precursor of Shakespeare‘s Merchant of Venice, and in comparison makes that latter play seek like a model of political correctness!

The wealthy merchant in Marlowe’s play is a rich Jew Barabbas, who revels in his money, jewels and luxury, and is renowned for his greed and selfishness among his own people. Antagonism between Jews and Christians is there from the outset (and it must be said that the behaviour of the Christians is far from exemplary): the state seizes Barabbas’ assets to repay tribute owed to the Turks. Having got his money, they later renege on the deal with the Turks, too. His daughter Abigail helps him retrieve some hidden wealth by pretending to become a nun; later, when she discovers that her father has engineered a duel in order to kill off her suitor, she really becomes a nun, at which point her father engineers the poisoning of the entire convent…

We see Barabbas’ increasing rage and growing insanity; he is aided by his Turkish slave Ithamore, who eventually double-crosses him… there is clearly no honour in any race or religion in this play. The end comes when Barabbas betrays the island to the Turks, and then tries his own double-cross by betraying them to the Christians: the Christians double-cross him and come out tops, killing Barabbas, after he has caused the slaughter of the Turkish forces, so that they have the Turks’ leaders as hostages…

What to make of all this? Firstly, it’s fast-paced, and great fun, if you completely ignore the racism, and general vileness of all the characters, and I suspect it will make wonderful theatre. When I compared Marlowe with Shakespeare in terms of their respective plays, I was struck by the crudity of Marlowe’s characters, and the rambling, almost make-it-up-as-you-go-along nature of the plot. Marlowe’s plot is linear (apart from the minor subplot involving the snaring of Ithamore), Shakespeare’s is tight, involved, complex (there are several subplots) and the scenes are interwoven to heighten the sense of the drama. Marlowe has some wonderful language, as he does in other of his plays, but Shakespeare’s characters in the Merchant of Venice probably outdo him.

I suspect it will be fast, crazy, almost knock-about stuff (just as Arden of Faversham turned out to be last year) and that my picture of the Elizabethan stage will be further broadened: it’s wasn’t just Shakespeare that the punters went to see…


 

 

Shakespeare: Henry IV (Parts 1 & 2)

April 24, 2014

I’ve been doing my homework for this year’s Shakespeare week – reading the plays, and thinking about them, before I get to see the RSC performances.

Shakespeare explored the problems created by a useless king in Richard II. The realm goes to rack and ruin, and he is deposed and murdered. You can’t have a spare (more legitimate) king around, so he had to die. And you need someone to run the kingdom properly. The trouble is, the king is also God’s anointed and no-one can change that. Christopher Marlowe also considered this issue in his play Edward II, another king who was deposed and murdered, but who in the end was succeeded by his legitimate heir Edward III.

So, although Henry IV does a better job as king, he has no legitimacy: he’s an usurper. Shakespeare shows England descending into a state of semi-anarchy as the nobles who supported Henry’s moves against Richard feel short-changed and rebel against him, whilst there are also problems with the Welsh and the French.

The heir to the throne – who will become Henry V – is a great disappointment, drinking and whoring around with his friend, and great favourite of Elizabethan audiences, Sir John Falstaff.

Chaos on all fronts, then: the scenes with Falstaff are great fun, and anyone could improve their knowledge of swearing and general abuse by watching. The rebels are incompetent, ready to double-cross each other, always with an eye to covering their backs.

Politics at their crudest, with the incompetent chasing the illegitimate, and vice-versa (no change there then, haha!); meanwhile there is a country – England – that deserves better. Shakespeare doesn’t let anyone off the hook.

As usual, Shakespeare is playing fast and loose with the details of English history, but it’s the broad sweep, and the ideas that he’s interested in. The only hope seems to be that Henry V is made of better stuff, and with have rather more of the legitimacy that his father lacked… and yet there is a sadness about his repudiation of his old mate Sir John as he assumes his new mantle at the end of the play.

On Shakespeare’s birthday…

April 23, 2014

Well, I imagine you would expect me to have something to say on what is (probably) the Bard’s 450th birthday. I’m old enough to remember the celebrations of his 400th, and have the commemorative set of stamps that went with it, although I’m sure I hadn’t a clue who he actually was, at the time.

Ben Jonson said that Shakespeare was for all time, and he seems to be right. I can’t think of anyone else I’d put on the podium as the greatest Englishman that ever was. In some ways, this is now a self-fulfilling prophecy: there has been so much critical analysis, so much adulation, for so long, that it’s impossible to imagine him falling into obscurity in a few centuries. Although there are those who wonder what the story might have been if Christopher Marlowe hadn’t met such an untimely end.

Shakespeare wrote about themes that are always going to be with us: ambition, young love, repressive parents, sexual jealousy, incompetent rulers… I could go on. What, to me, is different, is his exploration of these issues: he recognises the complexity of human beings, the fallibility of human beings, and their vulnerability, in so many ways, and, most importantly, he never suggests that there are easy solutions to our problems, because he knew there were none. So his characters find no answers to their dilemmas, and nor do we.

But… this makes Shakespeare sound like some psychologist, or therapist. He did far more, through his mastery of the stage, the dramatic, and the wonderful language that we have; he grips his audience anew every time we see a play; his language is fresh, powerful, playful. And, he left his plays open to re-interpretation, re-exploration, so that every age can find something new.

As a teacher, I enjoyed some of my happiest moments passing on the wonders of Shakespeare to a new generation.

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