Posts Tagged ‘Hamlet’

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…

How good is Hamlet?

June 1, 2016

Hamlet is probably Shakespeare’s best-known play, most famous play, even. The hero’s role is a target for young actors to play while they are still young enough to convince an audience. The hero is possibly a likeable hero, more so than Othello, Lear, Macbeth or Mark Antony. But I have found myself wondering a number of times whether the play is really Shakespeare’s best

A youthful hero, plus some love interest – depending on how well the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is hinted at and played. Surely Othello, and Anthony and Cleopatra are in with a chance here?

Shakespeare has a lot of themes up in the air in the play: a man’s duty (or not) to revenge his father’s murder. And yet, perhaps not so relevant today? A corrupt country, full of spies and surveillance. A hero who delays action, who is indecisive – perhaps an idea that many would be able to identify with. A hero with a very complex relationship with his mother, though this is also perhaps less in the foreground since Freud went out of fashion. A play about mental states, instability and madness; a play about acting, pretending and dissembling… Certainly there is a great deal here.

And yet, I find that others of Shakespeare’s major tragedies have even more to say, move me even more deeply. Othello explores sexual jealousy and its consequences; although many of us have perhaps experienced this feeling, we have not responded in like manner. King Lear looks at the duties of children towards their parents and shows us ingratitude. Macbeth explores ambition: if we are ambitious, presumably we have not gone as far as he did, to achieve our goals? Love or infatuation in older age and the messes it can get one into: Antony and Cleopatra.

But those are only ideas, you may object: what about the characters, and their relationships, presented to us on stage? Hamlet and his mother, Hamlet and Ophelia, for me pale before the power of the entanglement of Othello and Iago, his tortured relationship with Desdemona, and the touching closeness between Emilia and Desdemona. I think there’s a closer exploration of relationships between father and children with King Lear and his daughters, and it’s counterpointed by the pairing of Edmund and Edgar. And I find the interplay between Antony and Cleopatra, between Antony and Octavius, between Cleopatra and her women all quite riveting in different ways.

Is it Hamlet’s youth that grips us, the young man with an impossible dilemma, the burden placed on his shoulders that he cannot cope with? Is it just that the play is too familiar that I feel it’s over-rated, that I feel a little jaundiced about it, in comparison with the other plays I’ve mentioned? Is it because I’m older than Hamlet and can no longer relate to his cause?

Feelings at the end of the plays: usually I feel a sense of loss at the end of Hamlet. I feel overwhelmed at the end of Othello, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra. Only Macbeth leaves me uninterested.

I’d be very interested in others’ thoughts on this one. It nags at me, won’t go away and I’m unclear what to think. At the moment my verdict is good, but by no means the best.

Hamlet at the RSC

May 28, 2016

I’m just back from my Shakespeare week. We saw the RSC production of Hamlet, which has a mainly black cast, a black Hamlet, and African-themed set and music. I didn’t find that any of this added anything to the meaning of the play for me, although the opening scenes with Gertrude and Claudius briefly suggested Robert Mugabe and his consort, and I suppose quickly helped establish the idea of Denmark as a corrupt state. But the overall effect was as confusing as it was enlightening, I felt by the end.

What really stunned me was the actor playing Hamlet, Paapa Essiedu. He was amazingly energetic and expressive; his diction was very clear, illuminating the language and its meanings very effectively: I encountered some new ideas and meanings which had never before occurred to me in my years of teaching the play, and seeing it several times onstage, as well as on film. For me, he was one of the best Hamlets I’ve seen.

He was also really illuminating in his portrayal of Hamlet’s madness, which, I think, is one of the touchstones of a good performance: Hamlet sets out by saying he will put on an antic disposition from time to time as it suits him, implying that he will be in conscious control of it, but the text shows that madness takes control of him at times, and he is not able to master it, and a good actor will be able to show this happening. There must be a dynamic which emerges through rehearsal as the actor gradually realises how this can be presented onstage. Anyway, it really worked for me in Essiedu’s performance.

Ophelia was also well-played: again, her madness is something of a touchstone, and it seems to be incredibly difficult to pull off effectively nowadays: the twee-ness of the past no longer works, and some modern efforts, ranting, over-sexualised or just bizarre, can be positively toe-curling. But this Ophelia’s screams were quite spine-chilling, as part of the overall effect: she did seem like someone unhinged by what she had seen and been through.

Various things didn’t seem to work. Despite the brilliance of Hamlet’s performance, I didn’t feel a great sense of tragic loss at the end of the play. I felt that the dynamics between various pairs of characters didn’t come across terribly well: you need to feel that there’s a real connection between Hamlet and Horatio, between Laertes and Ophelia – and I didn’t. And the fight scene, done with African weapons – sticks of some sort, with small knives at the ends – didn’t work for me; nothing works better than the fencing foils which Shakespeare put in his text. I’m glad I saw it, just for Hamlet himself.

On a certain 400th anniversary

April 10, 2016

serveimageAs I shall be away on the actual day – 23 April – of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I’ll write something a little early. This piece will be more about my encounters with him, rather than anything academic.

I’ve lived longer than Shakespeare did: I still have the set of commemorative stamps issued to mark his 400th birthday in 1964, at a time when I collected stamps but knew nothing about our greatest writer. Before I first read any of his plays – as preparation for O level English Literature – I remember I had the feeling that he would be dull, difficult and boring.

I have an inspirational teacher to thank for my experience being so different. We had to study The Merchant of Venice, and I was astonished at the level of detail, the hidden meanings, and the messages beneath the surface, as well as the vulgarity. But most of all, even at that relatively early age, I think I was seduced by his masterly use of language, the magic of his verse, and his wit. Over time, I came to like the tragedies best; it took me a long while to engage with the histories, and I’m still wrestling with the comedies…

I was introduced to live performance while at school, too. The wonderful new – at that time – Nottingham Playhouse, with its ground-breaking revolving stage, had only just opened. I remember seeing a wonderful performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a play I’ve little time for – there, and also Ian McKellen‘s first Hamlet.

Obviously I went on to study more Shakespeare at A level – King Lear and Othello – and then at university, where I had the thrill of attending lectures by the great Kenneth Muir, who could stroll around the lecture theatre and reel off any quotation from any play that his train of thought required – just like that… And then I went on to teach Shakespeare to my students for many years.

Now, in retirement, I’m a student again, not a teacher, as each year I head off for a week deep in the Oxfordshire countryside to spend a week looking at three plays – usually two by Shakespeare and one by a contemporary – and then heading off to Stratford to see them at the RSC. There’s good company, and one of the course leaders is the Shakespearean actor Jane Lapotaire, who explores the plays from performance perspectives and is always very illuminating; one thing I did relatively little of as a teacher was drama.

So I have set myself a target in my retirement: finally to get to see all of Shakespeare’s plays in performance. My acquaintance is somewhat limited so far: teaching syllabuses meant that I’ve only taught about a dozen of the plays, and only seen a few more than that, although some I have seen many times, in some very memorable performances. This year I hope to see Cymbeline for the first time…

Though it can be hard sometimes to separate the brilliance from the bardolatry, my love of the richness of our wonderful language and its myriad possibilities does firmly convince me that in Shakespeare’s works is something very special indeed in our literary history and culture.

John F Danby: Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature

March 7, 2016

31M42iJdaRL._AA160_I’ve been having a tidy-up and clear-out, and rediscovered this, which is one of those books that you come across once in a while, that do a superb job in explaining key concepts and background material in cultural and literary works. Danby’s work, although more than half a century old, seems to me to sit alongside other such classics as Huizinga‘s The Waning of the Middle Ages, and Tillyard‘s The Elizabethan World Picture: essential reading for students who need to have a clear understanding of the ideas and thinking of another age.

I’ve found, over years of reading and study, that many books, particularly history and literary criticism, are rewritten by each generation (academics do have to make a living, after all), with new interpretations and updated expression and examples replacing those of a former age, but I haven’t yet come across what could replace any of the books mentioned above.

Danby’s book is certainly an excellent key to making sense of the word ‘nature‘ in King Lear, two diametrically opposed meanings of which are illustrated and explored both through the action and in certain key characters in that play; that is where I first came across the book more than forty years ago. The explanations and the illustrations are precise and clear, and Danby widens his scope by bringing in aspects of, and characters from, Richard III, King John, Henry IV (both parts) Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Othello and Macbeth, to flesh out his thesis and illustrate developments in Shakespeare’s overall thinking. Through his close focus on Nature, we can also perceive more clearly how what Shakespeare has to say in his plays remains relevant to us today, even though we may nowadays use different words to articulate our feelings and fears.

Danby has also sent me back to the play King Lear itself, which I haven’t read for many a year; though I studied it at A level a long time ago, and have always liked it, I only ever had one opportunity to teach it as a text – it’s now another of those that examiners seem to regard as ‘too difficult’ for today’s students…


Timon of Athens

May 1, 2013

I’m re-visiting some of Shakespeare‘s plays in advance of a course I’m going on in a few weeks’ time. I remember that years ago I used to describe this play to my school classes as ‘Shakespeare’s video nasty’, and my opinion hasn’t really changed. It fits clearly into the revenge tragedy mode, with the hero driven to extremes, plotting his revenge for the wrongs done to him by others, feigning madness and perhaps also losing his sanity in the crazy world into which he is drawn. In the same time-frame, I think Kyd did better in The Spanish Tragedy, and later, Shakespeare clearly did better with Hamlet. The most annoying thing for me in this play is the thinness of the characterisation, redeemed only by Aaron as a clear fore-runner of Iago. But, I am looking forward to discussing it, and even more, to seeing it in performance.

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