Posts Tagged ‘Richard II’

On honour, duty, loyalty and patriotism

July 9, 2017

I’ve been thinking about these topics as a result of the previous book I read, about Major-General Sosabowski’s loyalty to his country, and where it got him. I’ve never felt in the least bit patriotic, shocking as this may sound, and I’m aware that some of this lack of feeling may come from being neither fish nor fowl, half-English and half-Polish. But somewhere I’ve always agreed with Johnson’s adage that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Looking rather more seriously at the issue, I have always found it almost impossible to understand why men marched to their deaths in the Great War in the way they did. I have stood at various places on the former western front, where the British climbed out into no-man’s-land on the first day of the battle of the Somme and looked into the distance at the crest of the hill some hundreds of yards away where the Germans were entrenched, and thought, my God how could anyone bring themselves to do that? And, when teaching the A level English Literature paper on Literature and the First World War, students and I would agree that we could not behave like that now, we would not be prepared to die like that…

Writers and poets of the time were clearly doing what they felt to be their duty, including rebels like Sassoon who threw his medals into the Mersey and brought much opprobrium on himself by writing in protest against the way the war was being conducted. He felt loyalty and a duty of care to the men under his command, as did Wilfred Owen, who also protested against incompetent leadership in his poems, and who ultimately gave his life.

I’ve also wondered about what creates and fosters a sense of loyalty to one’s country. Shakespeare creates a marvellous picture of ‘this sceptred isle’ in the famous speech in Richard II, and I agree that England is a beautiful country that is very fortunately situated… but to die for? And because we are an island, unconquered for nearly a thousand years, we do not perhaps understand what happens in the thoughts of others. French casualties in the Great War were horrendous, and a huge proportion of the deaths came in the first months of the war as the French strove desperately to drive the marauding German invaders from their country. I can see that men like Sosabowski felt great loyalty to their nation which, having only regained independence in 1918 after over a century of non-existence, was snuffed out a mere twenty years later by the combined treachery of Nazis and Soviets, and why thousands of men like my father volunteered for the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade that Sosabowski set up in order to train men for the liberation of Warsaw (which never happened). And having read his book, I am now clearer about the enormous sense of betrayal all those men felt as a result of Churchill’s machinations after Arnhem and in the closing months of the war.

Similarly, it’s quite clear the sense of pride in their country, in the motherland, in defending their socialist homeland, that the millions of Soviet men and women who died in the Great Patriotic War felt, even in spite of the horrors of Stalinism which they had also lived through. Reading novels like Vassily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate, or the last part of Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat trilogy, Dust and Ashes, is incredibly moving, and, for me, a learning experience about the meaning of loyalty and patriotism. And Svetlana Alexievich’s book of Soviet women at war was even more powerful, because true…

Sadly, I have to say that very little about the current nation of England (or Great Britain, or the United Kingdom) makes me feel proud, other than our National Health Service, which the current government is doing its best to wreck. And throughout the Cold War I was aware that any conflict with the Warsaw Pact would mean that ‘my’ country would be attacking the country where half my family lived, while ‘their’ country would be trying to kill us… I wasn’t looking forward to the consequences of being a conscientious objector, but mentally prepared myself. And then I discovered that I would have been a ‘security risk’ because of my family on the ‘other side’ and thus probably not liable to service anyway.

Somewhere on the other side of the scales, before I get too serious, I have to put Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, the story of a congenital idiot who volunteers to do his patriotic duty at the start of the Great War, for the Austro-Hungarian Empire… one of only two humorous books I know of about war (Catch-22 is the other) and remind myself that, like the Irishman asked for directions, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here. In other words, like Johnson, we ought to be stepping back from the issues of patriotism, loyalty and duty to ask ourselves why we got into the mess in the first place, and aren’t there rather better ways of dealing with our problems?

Beware those who offer you easy answers (especially if their names begin with ‘T’)!

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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 time…

March 30, 2015

Reading a fair bit of science fiction lately shunted me onto the track of thinking about writers and time – that think which is always in limited supply and of which we never have enough. We are prisoners of it, shaped by it: in the end it defeats us, and all our works: Shelley’s Ozymandias is a marvellous reflection on this.

Along with all the other constantly repeated themes in fiction, drama and poetry, writers have explored our relationship with time. We want to escape time and can’t, so we sit and waste more of it by sitting down and reading books. We freeze things in time, capturing them with words or with light. Does any of this help?

Back in Roman times, the poet Horace wrote to his friend Postumus (Eheu, fugaces, Postume, Postume/ labuntur anni…) about the years slipping by and our inability to slow the passage of the years, with old old age to look forward to; Shakespeare‘s Richard II reflects, in his prison cell, awaiting his death, that he wasted time, and now time wastes him; Andrew Marvell imagines giving time a run for its money (Had we but world enough and Time/ This coyness, lady, were no crime/ ) in the famous To His Coy Mistris, whilst recognising that one will eventually be too old to enjoy love-making.

Proust writes of recapturing the essence of the past with that famous madeleine moment, and I am sure we have all had our equivalent experiences: I have often found myself astonished at the amount of detail from my past that my brain is capable of storing, as some long-forgotten nugget floats to the surface of my consciousness, triggered by I know not what.

Wells, in The Time Machine, imagines the device I’m sure everyone has fantasised about being able to play with: when would you go back to? and looks forward eight hundred thousand years, to the twilight of the human race, divided into the Eloi and the Morlocks, the impotent masters and the powerful serfs;

Once we start thinking about time, we drift into our own, individual, relative insignificance in the wider scheme of things; unless we are particularly famous or notorious, memory of us is likely to fade within a couple of generations at most… which is perhaps why Arthur C Clarke‘s The City and The Stars is so appealing: a thousand million years in the future, a computer runs the City, and individuals are born and reborn every million years or so, conjured up from the City’s memory banks. Would we feel comforted in the face of eternity, with such prospects? On the other hand, in his masterful Last and First Men, Olaf Stapledon imagined two billion years of future human history, and the speed with which everything you and I were familiar with from our puny ten thousand years or so of current history vanished into oblivion was quite shocking.

And then there are visions of eternity, such as that which develops in the mind of Stephen Dedalus in Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: tormented by the fears of Hell because he has ‘sinned’, he hears the description of eternity as applied to his own damnation, using the familiar trope of the grains of sand on the seashore…

Shakespeare: Richard III

February 6, 2015

61b1SdGL+jL._AA160_I am really relieved not to be a year older than I am, as then I would have had to study this play for O Level and I cannot imagine my love of literature would have survived it at that age. Even  now I find it astonishingly complicated; the dramatis personae seems far longer than that of any other play…

The play works because it has a central character around whom all the action revolves, and from whom it all originates: all is drawn together into a coherent whole in the way this does not happen in the Henry VI plays; in the Henry IV plays Falstaff was the real focus, and Richard II and Henry V have their eponymous characters at the centre, too. But there are just too many minor characters to keep track of, even when reading the play, where you have the names in front of you. There is also a lot of standing around and speechifying, and a lot more punning and wordplay.

Richard is an astonishing creation, in some ways foreshadowing both Macbeth and Iago. His wooing of Lady Anne, who loathes him, is a masterpiece of hypocrisy. His evil plotting and gleeful gloating sometimes outdo Iago. There is no end to the factionalism and baronial infighting of the previous three plays, but Richard’s star is in the ascendant, as he becomes ever more successful at pulling the right strings.

England is truly in a sorry state by this point; a sense of great decadence and decay permeates the play; everything is sour and rotten, it seems: even the warring factions are composed of small and petty characters, who are nonetheless still able to wreak mayhem. The innocence of children and youth is no help. The sycophantic Buckingham helps Richard to the throne, and it seems he’s the only one who can’t see his own inevitable fall coming. The supreme hypocrite is ‘persuaded’ to reluctantly accept the throne in an amazing scene where we completely forget he’s there after murdering both his older brothers…

In the closing scenes as reluctantly loyal barons try to change sides, he recalls the (still unwritten!) Macbeth in his rages, madness and cruelty; there is a tiresome parade of all the ghosts he has created, in a pageant scene on the eve of the battle of Bosworth Field. In the end, I found it hard to avoid the feeling that Shakespeare is playing the Tudor apologist and propagandist here, as Richard descends into caricature; because they are underplayed (relatively), Iago and Macbeth in the end come across as much more sinister…

Shakespeare: Henry VI, Parts 1,2 & 3

February 4, 2015

After seeing the two parts of Shakespeare’s Henry the Fourth at Stratford last year, I promised myself I’d go back to the second tetralogy, which I’m not very familiar with, and I’ve finally got round to it. It seems curious that the later cycle time-wise was written first, but it certainly shows: these are plays of the bard’s formative years.

Although he presented Henry V as a successful king, everything falls to pieces after his death: his son & heir is very young, and has a regent and protector; the barons fall to squabbling with each other and we are on the downhill slope to civil war: the Wars of the Roses, as the houses of York and Lancaster slog it out.

Henry VI Part One is basically about things falling to pieces in the French part of the kingdom, helped by Joan of Arc, who gets a very unsympathetic portrayal here. The early nature of the play comes across in much posturing and overblown language (which does suit some of the characters), set-piece speeches and a heavy reliance on puns and wordplay in general.

The second play – originally The First Part of the Contention – gets us back to England and the factional baronial infighting: the French territories are pretty much lost. The stand-off between York and Lancaster becomes much more evident: everyone is plotting. Who has the best title to the crown, the descendants of Henry IV and V, whose claim is based on usurpation or not depending on who you believe, or the descendants whose claim was closer to the deposed Richard II? Shakespeare explores an incredibly complex issue, which lurked in the background in his own time as Elizabeth grew older without an available Tudor heir. It all makes me glad to be a republican.

The weakness of Henry VI, and the scheming of his treacherous queen Margaret are developed; the one decent man, the Duke of Gloucester, is done away with, and no holds are barred. The conspirators are constantly falling out, fearful of someone gaining a tiny advantage; soliloquies reveal truths, hidden plots and motives; the action becomes quite hectic. The play ends with the open challenge to Henry VI by Edward IV – once again the country has two kings at the same time, and we see the emergence of the dastardly Richard III-to be.

Chaos continues in the third part: as Shakespeare emphasises this chaos and the attendant slaughter on the battlefields we can almost hear his audience’s sighs of relief that the Tudors brought an end to all this. As usual he plays fast and loose with historical accuracy for the sake of a good play. Henry’s queen becomes ever more fiendish, and there is the battle of Towton (1462) which, apparently, given the population of the land at the time, was proportionally far more bloody than the battle of the Somme (1916)…

Interesting parallels begin to emerge between some of Shakespeare’s plays and characters: the weak and feeble Henry’s speeches increasingly resemble those of Richard II – chronologically long dead but still awaiting Shakespeare’s treatment – and the development of the cunning and plotting Richard reminds me strongly of Iago. The horrors of civil war – always the worst kind of war – are represented by two vignettes, of a son killing his father who fought on the opposite side and of a father killing his son, who fought for the enemy. No character emerges with any positive attribute; they are all turncoats, game players, time-servers and manipulators…

At the end, we are ready for Richard to begin murdering his way to the throne. To be continued…

Shakespeare: Henry V

June 5, 2014

I recently saw the RSC productions of  Henry IV Part One and Two in Stratford during a Shakespeare course I took part in; we also watched a film of Richard II, so I thought I should complete the tetralogy by re-reading Henry V.

Shakespeare starts with a useless king (Richard) and ends with an effective one (Henry V); in between is sandwiched the reign of the illicit and troubled usurper, Henry IV; and yet his actions are suggested to have been necessary for the sake of the realm. Prince Hal has been transformed into Henry V, although there are times when this didn’t seem convincing. Both the plays Richard II and Henry V are very formal, ritualistic even, with much discussion in council and lengthy speechifying, Richard’s being beautiful and ineffectual, Henry’s being crisp, logical and directed. Court life during the reign of Henry IV was just chaotic. So there is a tidy sense of structure to this tetralogy.

Henry V is unlike the others in the use of prologue and choruses; these help shape the effect Shakespeare wants to achieve, heightening the presence and power of the king, and creating description and atmosphere for the campaign in France, particularly by articulating the fears of those who are off to war. There are still lots against the king, but unlike those against his father, there are easily dealt with, and the traitors even repent in the face of Henry’s apparent rectitude and good sense. And the good king still ensures that traitors lose their heads.

A less pretty side to Henry is revealed in the man of war and his threats against the French, but coupled with the conversations of the common people, the overall effect is to suggest what a dreadful thing war is in general, and how foolish those are that seek it (ie the French).

Another interesting effect is that of the king wandering off in mufti and enjoying conversations with the footsoldiers and lower class members of his army; again we see their fears through their arguments with the king, and he is not always at his ease with the new role that has been thrust on him, though he sustains it and develops a sense of fair play and justice of which Shakespeare’s audience would surely have approved, when he reveals his true self to those men later on.

Shakespeare brings the cycle of plays to a successful end with Henry’s victory at Agincourt, though his wooing of Katherine is now either tiresome or toe-curling or both. But what Shakespeare has done most effectively of all is to raise so many questions for us to reflect on, about kings and rulers, about justice, about the rights and fears of ordinary people when faced by power, and about the evils of warfare. All sides are laid bare, no-one escapes lightly, no easy answers are offered…

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.

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