Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

On England

March 14, 2019

I like England.

I may have given the impression, particularly in some of my more political posts, of finding my home country reactionary, hidebound and stuck in the 18th century, and if I have, good because it is all of those things, and yet I like the place. And no, I’m not about to go all patriotic and John of Gaunt-y on you.

This country welcomed my father when it needed allies against Nazism during the Second World War; most grudgingly after the war was over it allowed him and his mates to stay: they didn’t have to return to the gulag. So without England, there would be no me.

As a generous and socially-minded place it nurtured me, via the NHS, through my childhood, with orange juice, rose-hip syrup and cod-liver oil, and extracted my tonsils. It ensured I had a good, free education, including as many years as I could possibly have at university, funded by student grants and without fees. When I was unemployed, it paid me benefits. I had a very satisfying career as a teacher and I have a pension which currently allows me to relax and do some of the things I enjoy most. And the UK joined the Common Market, which became the EEC and then the EU, and for my entire adult life I have enjoyed its increasing benefits, particularly to travel simply and freely about the union; travel has always been one of my favourite pastimes.

I’ve sampled all sorts of wonderful food and drink from all over the world, and yet nowhere else has TEA like we do here, proper tea made with leaves in a teapot. Lots of countries make very good beers, many of which I like a great deal, but nobody else makes anything approaching bitter. And – disloyal to my Polish roots, just as my father was, I have to say that I’ll take a dram from that close neighbour of ours in preference to a glass of vodka any day. I could never be a vegan because I cannot imagine a life without cheese, and our friends just across the channel make some stunning fromages, but again, given only one choice, I can’t decide whether it would have to be Stilton, or tasty Lancashire. And much as I love cakes of all lands, Yorkshire curd tart is pretty unbeatable.

You’ll notice I started with food…people who know me won’t have been surprised.

But my life’s work was all about our language, and that’s a thing I can wax lyrical about. I can speak pretty fluent French, get by in German, just about in Polish if pushed, and I’m learning Spanish at the moment. And – witness this blog – I read widely in the literature of many nations and languages, if mainly in translation. But no language comes anywhere near English, for size of vocabulary, powers of expression, complexity of poetry. We have Shakespeare. I could stop there; I’m not dismissing the greats of other languages and nations, but there is something special and enormous in the sheer variety, depth and power of our national writer. And we have Milton, and Jane Austen… and quite a few others who we could argue over.

We have some history, a lot of which we should be ashamed of: colonialism and empire and slavery. There’s the colossal act of cultural vandalism that was Henry VIII’s Reformation, too. But there’s our inventiveness – the Industrial Revolution (perhaps a double-edged sword, that one) – our explorations and discoveries: yes, white men discovering what was already there, perhaps, but nevertheless, that urge to get off our island and see what was out there. We have been on the ‘right’ side in some wars, although it would have been better not to be fighting in the first place. And somewhere there’s a tradition of tolerance that developed over a long period of time, that allowed us to accept and sometimes assimilate different peoples and ideas, giving them the freedom to be themselves while becoming part of England too. Over the years, my father came to appreciate that.

We are proud of our democratic traditions – Parliaments, Magna Carta, habeas corpus, extension of suffrage – though much of the time this wasn’t about empowering ordinary folk, but letting the less rich get their snouts in the trough occasionally. But for me, our problems now stem from our being stuck in the past, trying to live off our past reputation and greatness, unaware that we are actually a small, fairly remote and pretty crowded island, home to three nations not just one, and that our traditions and pageantry and royalty and aristocracy may look charming to tourists, but at the same time they are seriously daft as far as the twenty-first century is concerned. Poland had an elected monarchy once; it did her no good at all and when she finally regained independence in 1918, one of the first acts of the new commonwealth was to abolish the nobility – just like that. No need of guillotines or firing squads in cellars. End of.

I won’t live to see it, but what if England were able to conceive of a way of facing the century as a small nation that was a member of a much larger union or alliance, with a voting system which allowed a real voice to all its citizens (not subjects!), and putting the energies of its best minds to working in concert with the other neighbouring nations to address the real problems that face the planet? The successes and achievements of our past suggest we could make a real difference…


James Shapiro: 1606 Shakespeare and the Year of Lear

February 28, 2019

51b-1ngINUL._AC_US218_This is obviously a follow-up to the author’s earlier 1599, which dealt with the context to another significant year in Shakespeare’s dramatic output. Here the focus is on a different reign – that of James 1 – and a different social context, with the background to three significant tragedies, Macbeth, King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra. There is also the fall-out from the Gunpowder Plot of the previous autumn, and James’ ongoing drive for the union of the crowns of Scotland and England.

The anxieties of the final years of Elizabeth’s reign may have passed, but life was no more settled, and events showed that James’ hold on the throne and his acceptance by the people was not completely secure. The status of the theatres was just as parlous, what with recurrent plague and the growing Puritan dislike of people enjoying themselves. I had been aware of the fact that a law was passed to eliminate profanity, which had eliminated most of the oaths and swearing from Shakespeare’s and other dramatists’ plays but hadn’t quite realised the implications of this, as, in the spirit of the law every existing text had to be amended, 1984-style, to remove all objectionable matter: the penalties were too severe for theatres and publishers not to do this. And of course this meant that the great First Folio of 1623 is in fact a bowdlerised edition of Shakespeare’s plays…

King Lear is set against the backdrop of Britishness which the new kind propounded: Englishness is out with the king imported from Scotland. We are shown the structural complexity of the play – it’s the only tragedy with a fully-developed subplot – and there is interesting exploration of the use of negative language in the play. Context in terms of equivocation, and references the the Gunpowder Plot are all fully detailed, too, as are the many significant differences between the Quarto and First Folio texts.

Similarly, James’ obsession with witches and witchcraft, and how this is explored in Macbeth, is very interesting, and again the phenomenon of equivocation is embedded. You will need to read the relevant chapters to get to the bottom of this Jesuitical device for justifying being economical with the truth and how outrageous everyone was supposed to find it at the time. And we realise just how Shakespeare was treading on eggshells writing the Scottish play, during the reign of a Scottish king, depicting two kings of Scotland being killed: both of those deaths take place off-stage, understandably, but not in the spirit of the onstage gore of the times. And this in the immediate aftermath of the plot to blow the king up with gunpowder.

There is good depth and detail in Shapiro’s exploration of all three plays he treats in this volume: the context is very enlightening, and surprising amounts of new insights and interpretations, even for me as a long-time student of Shakespeare. There was also a good deal of fairly tiresome and tedious stuff about court masques and entertainments, and despite the title, Shapiro actually spreads his net quite widely, going back at times to the 1580s as well as looking at Shakespeare’s final years. Overall, though, a book I’d very much recommend to any serious reader of Shakespeare.

Heroes and icons

January 25, 2019

Something got me thinking about heroes recently, and I found myself wondering if I had any. A hero: someone whose life and work I greatly admire; is that a good enough definition? Or am I thinking of an icon?

One will have to be Shakespeare. I realise I had a very good first encounter with the man and his work, through an inspirational English teacher (who was ultimately responsible for my pursuing such a career myself) who chose a demanding and challenging play for study at O Level: The Merchant of Venice. Difficult to classify, though many critics call it a tragicomedy, which will do, I suppose. The point is, it raised so many issues for teenage minds to wrestle with: what is justice? What is racism? Who are we meant to sympathise with? In other words, I had an early introduction to the idea that there are no easy answers, and that one should beware of anyone who claimed to have one… And this same teacher went on to teach us Othello and King Lear at A Level, two astonishingly powerful tragedies which move me to tears whenever I watch them.

At university we had a course on ‘The Drama’ in our first year, and were fortunate enough to have the lectures on Shakespeare delivered by Kenneth Muir, the head of the Department of English at the University of Liverpool and eminent Shakespearean scholar, then on the verge of retirement. He was amazing: clear and perceptive in his analysis, what stunned us all most was that whatever play he was discussing, he could immediately recall whatever lines he wanted, from memory, as he paced the lecture theatre.

Obviously as an English teacher myself, I had to teach many of the plays. I tried only to teach plays I really liked, especially after having made the early mistake of trying to interest year 8 students in A Midsummer Night’s Dream because that was one of the plays designated for year 8… I had to teach Macbeth – a play I liked but never really completely warmed to – more times than I care to think; I loved teaching Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet, and when it came to sixth form, went for the tragedies whenever I could, though only ever once managed to get to teach King Lear. Othello and Antony and Cleopatra were my great favourites.

Everyone will have their own take on Shakespeare’s greatness. For me there were two things in particular: the astonishing power and beauty of his language in so many different situations and through so many different characters, and his ability to raise so many questions through his plots, to make his audiences think, to make them uncomfortable, in short to make them see that there was no one easy response to anything.

I said ‘one’ before I mentioned Shakespeare, so logically there will be another, and there is.

​_Whereas I can claim a certain measure of expertise in the field of literature, in the field of music I am a zero. Tone deaf, unable to play any instrument, bribed at school not to sing in music lessons because I put others off. But my other hero, or icon, is J S Bach. And I will find it much harder to explain why. A long while ago I mentioned how a teacher at school had initially fired my curiosity by refusing to play Bach to us ‘peasants’; another teacher played us the fifth Brandenburg Concerto, and I could not believe my ears, transported by the speed and virtuosity of the harpsichordist.

My encyclopaedic knowledge of 1970s rock music gradually began to fade as I explored the world of jazz and classical music, and one fateful day I spent a whole pound on a whim, on a secondhand LP of two Bach cantatas from a stall on Lancaster market. Many years later, having worn it out, I managed to find a replacement.

Bach’s music transports me onto a more spiritual plane: that’s the only way I can put it, really. The cello suites, for example, some of the shorter and less fiery organ pieces, but above all the church cantatas take me away from myself, my ordinary little world and its worries and preoccupations and lead me somewhere completely other with my mind – my being, thoughts, consciousness — to another place entirely. It’s beyond me and much more powerful than me; I don’t understand it and I feel unutterably grateful for the experience.

Bach was a Lutheran, a very religious and God-fearing man: I am not. As a Quaker, I explore a spiritual path, true, but worship in silence; I don’t know whether God exists or is a creation of the human mind. But Bach’s music speaks to me so profoundly, from nearly three centuries ago, in a way which complements everything I believe in, and manages to restore my faith in humanity.

So yes, perhaps there are heroes, and I have a couple of them.

James Shapiro: 1599 A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

November 19, 2018

51+KGzVMCUL._AC_US218_I’d been aware of Shapiro’s two books looking at particular year’s in Shakespeare’s life and creativity cycle and have finally got around to reading the first of them. Shapiro shows us just how much the dramatist was a creature of his time – which isn’t surprising at all – but does manage to marshal and present a wealth of contextual background evidence. Unfortunately the major events of 1599 centre around all the scheming of the Earl of Essex and his adventures in Ireland, and is a little dull when presented in minute detail…

But 1599 was a key year in Shakespeare’s development as a dramatist as he was beginning to move away from the histories and comedies upon which he had built his considerable reputation, looking for new areas to work in: it was the year of Hamlet, for instance. And there is much on the complexity of the development and versions of the text of that play, which will be of interest to more academic readers: how do we know what was the version actually played at the time? Answer, we don’t, but it wasn’t any of the currently popular textual editions which are all far too long for the duration of Elizabethan theatrical time-slots.

We learn a good deal about the Tudor police state (I can’t think of any other way to describe it) and the myriad dangers of the times, the closing years of Elizabeth I’s reign, with no clear successor in view and various parties jockeying for influence. This helps to reveal just how political some of Shakespeare’s plays were – and even more so to his contemporary audiences who would pick up on allusions that go by us – and how carefully he trod the minefield of the times. We may ask ourselves whether in the end he was just safely fence-sitting, or extremely aware of the complexities of all the issues in play? We just need to pay careful attention to all that goes on and is alluded to in Julius Caesar to be aware of this question.

An interesting idea that had never occurred to me was Shapiro’s suggestion that the enormous popularity of the theatre at the time was because it was filling a gap that had been left by the extirpation of all the Catholic religious ritual and pageantry by the savagery of the English Reformation.

Much of what Shapiro offers in relation to Shakespeare’s life and career is necessarily speculative, but it’s valuable nevertheless in the ways it fills out a picture of the man in his times and places; the focus on a single year, which Shapiro also does in his other volume 1606, is interesting because it does give the reader a sense of being a part of all the events and among all the personages of the year.

All-in-all a worthwhile read, and I will read 1606 at some point, too. Although so much of Shakespeare’s life and adventures are unknown and now unknowable, it’s nevertheless fascinating to imagine oneself a bit deeper into the man’s life and times.

August favourites #26: Shakespeare sonnet

August 26, 2018


That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
    This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
    To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

I’ve always really liked this one. Even in my younger years, I could see how the poet had captured the sense of regret and sadness about the inevitability of growing older – one of the tropes of poetry I know, but done better by some than others – and now that I’m moving on in years, it speaks to my condition more clearly still.

In the first quatrain, the developed image is a comparison of the poet with autumn, in the second twilight moving into nightfall, and in the third a fire gradually burning out. All three are powerful images of a gradual yet inevitable ending; all three are addressed to the loved one, who the poet imagines having feelings that are stronger because the object of love will soon be gone. Comforting, sad, predictable in a sense but no less moving because of that.

And when you look at the actual words, the pictures themselves, they are especially effective: you can see the autumn leaves gradually falling, picture the ruins – actually of the monasteries trashed by Henry VIII’s henchmen a few years before – and the absence of birdsong. Night is pictured as a little death, and a foreshadowing of it, and then consider the complex image of the fire, nourishing at the same time as it inevitably consumes and hastens its end…

Although I feel there are poets who are ‘better’ than Shakespeare as a poet, and sometimes his sonnets feel a trifle hackneyed when you casually flick through 154 of them, to attain such a level of mastery consistently is a supreme achievement.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

August favourites #22: Essayist

August 22, 2018

Ask a school student about essays, and it’s likely their face will betray dread, or at least mild dislike, for it now suggests an imposition, an enforced piece of writing for assessment of some kind. In less Gradgrindian times, it was not so: an essay was a discursive, non-fictional piece perhaps on a single topic, perhaps wandering around the houses through several, perhaps referencing previous writers on the topic, especially from the classical past or the fathers of the church. Perhaps Montaigne, who wrote towards the end of the sixteenth century, was the father of the genre. He produced three volumes of essays which total more than a thousand pages; I have to admit that, although I did read late mediaeval or early modern French when at university, I tackled Montaigne in English…

He ranges widely. Perhaps, to his English readers, the one essay familiar will be On the Cannibals, which Shakespeare is thought to have read in a contemporary English translation, and which influenced the writing of The Tempest, and particularly the creation of Caliban. What I liked most about Montaigne, what endeared me to him, was his humanity, his decency and his sense of tolerance, characteristics perhaps not easy to sustain in the troubled and turbulent times in which he lived. And he loved his cat. I often think of him as I craft my modest pieces, and wish I could write that well.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

August favourites #4: Shakespeare

August 4, 2018

When I was teaching, my students used often to ask which was my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, and my honest answer was almost always that it depended on what I was teaching at the time. For some reason, I never liked Hamlet enormously. King Lear I studied at A level myself, and I cannot watch it without tears at the end, so powerful is it. Othello, for the power of passion and the torment at having one’s love destroyed, as well as the sheer evil of Iago, was always one of my favourites, but I think now that my preference has settled on Antony and Cleopatra, as a picture of the power of love in later life, and how that emotion wins out over everything else in a person, even though that entails the loss of everything. For me, that means that there is something great in being a human. Antony has ‘kissed away kingdoms’: what a marvellous line! And Cleopatra, in the final act, is matchless…

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.


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?

Ionesco: Macbett

February 12, 2018

51IYbJ5xszL._AC_US218_I’ve always liked the theatre of the absurd, ever since I had to study Ionesco for French A-level; my recent reflections on Macbeth sent me back to his version of the play, Macbett, which I hadn’t read for many years.

There are the moments where a pair of characters share and repeat identical or almost identical lines, pantomime-fashion, just as in some of his earliest plays like La Cantatrice Chauve, echoing each other; often the phrases repeated are platitudes or even nonsensical, contradictory. Elements of farce develop as an aftermath of the opening battle where in Shakespeare‘s version Macbeth and Banquo show great valour: war is portrayed here as insane, with lengthy catalogues of slaughters and millions of innocent deaths, and the two ‘heroes’ make identical speeches and claims, which further undermines them. Indeed the entire train of events is absurd, for Duncan is a coward to whom no perceptible respect is due, and he and his wife are caricatures, anyway. Everything is called into question when the women appear far braver than the men, and the king spouts rambling nonsense rather than making regal speeches…

In this play the witches appear with their prophecies in the middle of the play, and their encounter with Macbeth and Banquo is much lengthier and more serious: they spend considerable time persuading Macbett that he should move against Duncan. And Lady Duncan is actually one of the witches, physically seducing Macbett at the same time. Ionesco’s emphasis is clearly on the fact that wealth, sex and power are inseparably intertwined.

Although for me the play lacks the power of Le Roi Se Meurt, it does nevertheless work, particularly because it is a re-writing, a re-conception or re-imagining of an original we know well and are very familiar with. Thus, although there are most of the events and plots of Shakespeare’s play here, and the end results of them are very similar, the words are different, the focus is different, and the thought processes of the characters are different; it’s alienation in the true Brechtian sense that unsettles the audience. It’s very much a twentieth century play. And it ends, after the death of Macbett and Macol‘s coronation, with his rehearsing the speeches of Malcolm in that very tedious interlude in Act IV of Macbeth where he tests Macduff‘s loyalty – Ionesco has translated Shakespeare’s text word for word here – except that we have the eerie impression that here, Macol really means what he is saying…

So, definitely not a tragedy – a farce if anything – deliberately absurd, very entertaining although very tricky to stage, I think. And I came away from it with all sorts of comfortable Shakespearean preconceptions shaken and stirred.

On being lost for words…

August 15, 2017

I’m not often left speechless, but I was yesterday evening, as I did my final catch-up on the day’s news online, before bed. I came across a story reporting that a professor of English Literature at the University of London had decided to remove John Cleland‘s novel Fanny Hill from a course on seventeenth and eighteenth century libertine literature which she had taught for years, on the ground that it might upset students…

I really don’t know where to start. If it’s a course on libertine literature, what sort of texts do you expect to meet? And surely it can’t be a compulsory course, so why have you chosen to do it? If you are at university to study literature, what were you expecting to be reading – Winnie the Pooh or Thomas the Tank Engine? Are you not up to being challenged, to being expected to read books you may not like, even books that you may actually dislike? A university course is usually put together carefully, with a specific aim in mind and a corresponding reading-list to suit the purpose.

I never met this issue at school myself, either as a student or as a teacher. I read disturbing and challenging books whilst in the sixth form: my English teacher handed us Hubert Selby‘s Last Exit to Brooklyn, among other things. I’m not sure I got it completely at the tender age of seventeen, but I read it, marvelled that people actually wrote like that and about those sorts of things, and came back to it when I was a bit older and a little more worldly-wise. And it was round about then that I read Cleland’s novel, too. I enjoyed it, as many teenage males would at that age; it made me think that a man should write such a book, purporting to be by a woman, and it certainly reinforced the notion that women had a right to sexual pleasure. I know that I wasn’t aware of a whole range of subtexts and broader issues that the book raised, but it was a start.

When teaching, I worked on all sorts of potentially upsetting texts with students: all that literature about the First World War, for starters. And what about all the horrible stuff that goes on in Shakespeare’s plays (back to the article that has triggered this rant – apparently a student had been ‘upset’ by King Lear, the death of Cordelia and the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes…)? I always felt that one had a ‘duty of care’ in my situation, i.e. to warn students that something a bit strong or violent was coming up, but these were school students, often not even at a stage where they could be choosing what they studied…

I’ve tried, and failed, at least three times, to get to the end of Nabokov‘s Lolita. Various people have recommended it to me, including students of mine, and I’ve give it my best efforts, but I have found it so toe-curling that I have been unable to get beyond the first third or so. If I’d been asked to read it as part of a university course, I’d have made myself do it, and delivered my opinions in the seminar. But when it’s optional, as it has been, I don’t have to read it.

I’ve said many times before in these pages that good literature is meant to challenge, to make us think. The world is a nasty place in many ways, full of violence, certainly, but also increasingly sexualised (and I make no judgement on whether that is a good or bad thing here) and young people of university age have long had access via the internet to all sorts of horrendous violence and pornography if they chose to view it. Literature reflects our world, showing us the goodness and the evil in ourselves and those around us. It’s perfectly possible to avoid literature and what it presents, and the issues it rubs our faces in, if one is afraid of being upset. In which case, don’t go off to university to study it…

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