Sunday, 13 June 2021

Othello(1981), ft. Anthony Hopkins

This is the third Othello production I’ve seen. See my reviews of the Stratford Festival one from 2019 and the Trevor Nunn one from 1990

This is a BBC film directed by Jonathan Miller, with Anthony Hopkins as Othello, Bob Hoskins as Iago, Penelope Wilton as Desdemona, Rosemary Leach as Emilia, and so on. 

The interesting thing about watching multiple Shakespeare productions is to see how differently directors and actors may approach the same text, and the BBC one is very different from the one by Trevor Nunn. I have said that Ian McKellen is to me the ultimate Iago, as he’s just like the Iago I had in my head whilst reading Shakespeare’s play: he is soft-spoken and adopts a self-effacing persona; in front of others, he always cleans up or fixes people’s clothes, listens attentively and sympathetically, and appears trustworthy; alone, he is cold and calculating, consumed with inexplicable hatred for Othello.

Bob Hoskins is a very different Iago, and it also works very well: in front of others, he has a matey persona, friendly and familiar with everyone; alone, he is always smiling and chuckling to himself, he looks unhinged. The way he chuckles and mimics the trumpet, unmoved by the pain he has caused Desdemona, the way he laughs after he gets Cassio and Roderigo to fight and potentially kill each other, and especially the way he chuckles at the end, having seen the work he’s done, is terrifying. Bob Hoskins’s Iago is a sociopath. 

As Iago, Bob Hoskins is matey, but not loud and pushy like Gordon S. Miller in the Stratford Festival production. That Iago is a terrible failure and, in my opinion, destroys the entire production. Ian McKellen and Bob Hoskins have demonstrated that there are different ways of playing Iago, but what they have in common is that they both are subtle, slowly poisoning Othello’s mind and feeding him lies without making him suspicious. Gordon S. Miller is too aggressive and pushy.

Penelope Wilton is all right as Desdemona, but I think the character is meant to be younger, almost like a child. Imogen Stubbs is perfect in the role—she has the innocence, the naïveté, and the childlike quality of Desdemona.

David Yelland as Cassio is very different from Sean Baker in the Trevor Nunn production: Sean Baker plays the character as a ladies’ man, who does have a thing for Desdemona; David Yelland’s Cassio doesn’t do anything remotely inappropriate with Desdemona. 

But what about Othello? you ask. Anthony Hopkins, again, has a very different approach, compared to Willard White. He plays the role in a more naturalistic, less theatrical way. The interpretations are also very different: Willard White’s Othello is not easily moved, and at the beginning doesn’t seem to care much about Iago’s insinuations but is slowly poisoned by him; whereas Anthony Hopkins’s Othello is already insecure, and doesn’t have much nobility and grandeur. Readers may have different ways of looking at Shakespeare’s character: he may be seen as a noble character who falls from great heights, because of a man’s manipulation, and it is so tragic because of how far he has fallen through the course of the play; or he may be seen as a good general but an empty, insecure man in private life, who isn’t worthy of Desdemona.  

Some people might not like the lack of grandeur—Anthony Hopkins’s Othello becomes smaller and hollower—but his performance works well and the play doesn’t become any less tragic because of it. In a way, perhaps it works even better: the insecurities are already in him and Iago only has to lead him towards the wrong direction, but Iago also transforms him from a calm, steady, and respectable general at the beginning of the play into a beast—for Anthony Hopkins’s Othello does turn into a beast. 

Placing side by side the 2 productions, I think both are excellent, both Iagos are brilliant, and the Trevor Nunn one has a perfect Desdemona and a more interesting Cassio, but overall I may lean a bit towards the BBC one by Jonathan Miller. Firstly, it focuses on Othello whereas the other one seems to tilt towards Iago—much as I love Ian McKellen, Shakespeare’s play is about Othello.  

More importantly, as I wrote in the other blog post, the killing scene in the Trevor Nunn production doesn’t really work. The scene in Shakespeare’s text becomes more and more intense, and when it gets to the peak, Othello smothers Desdemona—there must not be any lingering, any pause, or any interruption. The lingering in the Trevor Nunn production ruins the scene and almost destroys the tragedy, if not for the following scene with Emilia. Anthony Hopkins’s Othello kills Desdemona at the peak of hysteria. 

The BBC film also handles the final scene better: Zoë Wanamaker is also good, but Rosemary Leach is brilliant and more effective as Emilia. In the Trevor Nunn production, perhaps because of Willard White’s mannered, theatrical delivery, the final moments after Othello has learnt the truth feel a bit too long, but in the BBC one, the last moments don’t seem at all to drag when the number of lines is exactly the same.

But then in the Trevor Nunn film, Ian McKellen’s face, as he says “What you know, you know”, is striking and unforgettable. Good as Bob Hoskins is in the role of Iago, his delivery of the same line wouldn’t stay with me like Ian McKellen’s does. 

What do you think? Which is your favourite Othello production? 

Saturday, 12 June 2021

Hedda Gabler

The translation is by Una Ellis-Fermor. 

1/ At the centre of the play is the marriage between Jørgen Tesman and Hedda (née Gabler).

Jørgen is dull—respectable and learned but dull, and not particularly perceptive. He is reminiscent of both Charles Bovary and Mr Casaubon. Ibsen shows from the start that Jørgen can be simple and naïve, failing to get his aunt’s meaning, and we can quickly see the contrast between him and his new wife in the scene with Thea Elvsted: he notices nothing whereas Hedda quickly sees through her old friend’s little lies. 

Hedda Gabler Tesman however is not Emma Bovary, and definitely not Dorothea Brooke. Dorothea marries Mr Casaubon because of her naïve idealism and misjudgement of his character, Hedda has no delusion. Hedda shares with Emma ennui and contempt for her husband and her marriage, but unlike Emma, she is neither sentimental nor sensual. She doesn’t seem to like sex. 

In some ways, she is more like Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country: both like money and luxury, both seem indifferent to sex, and both are manipulative. The main difference, I think, is that Edith Wharton’s character manipulates in order to gain money and social status, whereas Hedda manipulates in order to—what? 

2/ In The Wild Duck, Gregers interferes in Hjalmar’s life partly because of his ideals, and partly because he wants to get back at his own father. At the beginning, he gets all the skeletons out of the Ekdal family, to set Hjalmar’s marriage on a new foundation of truth, but he doesn’t stop there. He goes further, and in a way wants Hjalmar’s family to be worse off and little Hedwig not to get help, just so he can be proven right and his father wrong—like it’s all a contest, a game. 

Now let’s look at Hedda: 

“MRS ELVSTED There’s something behind all this, Hedda. 

HEDDA True; there is. I want, for once in my life, to have power over a human being’s fate.” 

(Act 2) 

Similarly, Hedda wants to interfere in people’s lives, and she does so only because she wants to have power over a human being’s fate. She wants to manipulate and corrupt and even ruin Ejlert Løvborg only because the idea that he has been reformed by the simple Thea offends her sensibilities. 

But why? 

3/ It is difficult to read Hedda Gabler, especially Act 3, without strong feeling of contempt and loathing for the titular character—she is despicable. Compared to other trapped wives in literature such as Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Effi Briest, Dorothea Brooke, etc., Hedda is not very sympathetic—I would even say that she hardly has any redeeming quality. Self-awareness, perhaps.  

I’ve seen from the start that she is cold and callous about small things such as Jørgen’s old slippers or his aunt’s hat, humiliating the old woman for no reason, but it’s in Act 3 where it becomes clear that Hedda is indifferent about everything, even in matters of life and death. Nothing moves her, nothing matters, and it is terrifying. Her irrational, inexplicable hatred, if it may be called hatred, gets to the peak at the end of Act 3. In a way, Hedda is reminiscent of Iago in her “motiveless malignity” (to use Coleridge’s words).

However, unlike Iago, Hedda also hates herself: she hates people and society and her marriage; she also hates herself for being a coward. As she says, she has accepted and walked into this marriage herself, which she despises. She can’t help feeling contempt for the Tesman family, who is socially beneath her. But she lacks the courage to walk out. 

Hedda hates Thea also because Thea has the courage to leave her husband, the courage she herself doesn’t have.  

4/ In a way, the characters in Hedda Gabler can be put into 2 groups: the good-natured, kind, “simple” Jørgen, Thea, Aunt Juliane, and even Ejlert belong together; in the other group with Hedda is Brack. Ibsen creates Hedda, and creates Brack, the judge and family friend, who is cold and ruthless and calculating in his own way—he sees through her and knows her fears, and near the end of the play, destroys her illusion, holds some power over her, and inadvertently pushes her to the inevitable. 

Ibsen ends Act 3 with such terror that one wonders how he keeps the dramatic tension afterwards, but he does. And see what he does in Act 4, especially the ending!  

5/ So far I have been vague. Those of you who haven’t read/seen the play and don’t want to know important plot details may want to stop here.  

A Doll’s House, Ghosts, and Hedda Gabler may be seen as connected, because A Doll’s House is about a woman who walks out and leaves her husband, Ghosts is about a woman who runs away then returns to her husband and suffers 19 years of misery and other consequences, and Hedda Gabler on the surface is about a woman who gets into a marriage she despises and has no courage to walk out. But they don’t have much in common: each play is a study of a different situation, a different kind of woman. 

I saw that some people called Hedda Gabler a feminist play, which I found laughable. Hedda is too cold, manipulative, and full of self-loathing to be a strong woman or a feminist figure. Hers is not simply the predicament of a woman strapped in an unhappy marriage and bound in a patriarchal society—it is a lot more complex, and to see the play in mere feminist terms is to reduce it, to strip it of complexity and ambiguity. It also fails to answer lots of questions about the play: why does Hedda hate that Ejlert is now reformed and has great potential for success? Why does she goad him back into drinking? If she wants to retain her hold and influence over him, offended that he has been tamed by Thea, why? Why does she give him a gun afterwards? Why does she destroy the manuscript? She has some illusion about a free and beautiful action, but why? 

The constraints of a patriarchal society alone cannot explain her actions. Hedda is not a victim. Hedda Gabler is fascinating because she is complex and her motivations are complex.  

Feminist criticism is often offensive as it reduces men and women to simple categories, and doesn’t see the individual. 

Sunday, 6 June 2021

The Wild Duck

1/ In many ways, The Wild Duck is more complex than Ghosts. Ghosts has 5 characters: Mrs Alving, her son Oswald, Manders (the sanctimonious pastor), Engstrand (the carpenter), and Regina (his daughter). The Wild Duck has 15 characters that have a name or nickname, plus 6 other guests at the party and several servants. 

Ghosts has 3 acts. The Wild Duck has 5 acts. 

(The translation is by R. Farquharson Sharp). 

2/ At the party, Gregers says to Hjalmar “Why should I not invite my best and only friend?”. A few sentences later, we’re told that they haven’t met for 16-17 years. Strange, that.  

3/ When we read Ibsen, it’s important to be aware of chronology because the plays, I’ve been told, are in dialogue with each other. After Ghosts, he wrote An Enemy of the People, and then The Wild Duck

At the most basic level, if Ghosts is about the danger of living for years with a lie, The Wild Duck is about the danger of pursuing the absolute truth. At the beginning of the play, the Ekdal family are living in illusion: old Ekdal, who has gone to jail because of someone else’s guilt and lost everything, clings to his past as a lieutenant and a hunter, and uses the attic as a forest; Hjalmar lives with the illusion that he is an inventor, who can restore good name to his father; both are ignorant of old Werle’s role in the downfall, and grateful for his support after the arrest. Hjalmar also doesn’t know about old Werle’s violation of his wife Gina before their marriage. 

The troubles begin when Gregers, after being away for a long time, returns and enters their house and takes it upon himself to reveal the truth and destroy all illusions. 

Interestingly, Ibsen skips that moment altogether and jumps to its aftermath, but what a scene that follows it! Gregers destroys two illusions, about old Werle (his father) and about the marriage between Hjalmar and Gina, and Hjalmar’s conversation with her reveals another painful truth—that they live not on his earnings as a photographer but mostly on old Werle’s payment for old Ekdal’s copying. 

4/ Why does Gregers do so? I don’t think it’s because of some ideal as he says, at least it’s not the only reason. I think it’s also his way of fighting against his father and dealing with, or perhaps compensating for, the web of lies in his own family. 

He is cold and brutal. The worst part is that he’s absolutely convinced he’s doing the right thing. 

It’s when Hedwig (Gina’s daughter) receives a present from old Werle that I see his true nature: 

 “GREGERS Yes, Hjalmar—now we shall see who is right, he or I.” 

(Act 4) 

It’s being proven right and getting back at the father that Gregers is interested in. He doesn’t seem to think about the fact that for a long time old Werle has tried to pay back for his actions by providing for the Ekdal family when he’s not expected to do so. 

Just as Ghosts gets grimmer and grimmer, The Wild Duck becomes more and more extreme. The Ekdal family have too many skeletons and suddenly they’re all out, one by one. Readers may have different thoughts about Gregers’s revelations to Hjalmar, but there’s no justification for what he says to the 14-year-old Hedwig. 

5/ In the play, Ibsen sets up a dilemma—we have Gregers on one side, with his uncompromising insistence on the truth, and the neighbour Relling on the other side, who thinks people should live in delusion and avoid the truth. There is no simple answer. I think everyone would agree that Gregers is a fanatic, tearing apart a family because he thinks he’s setting it on a new foundation of truth, but in Ghosts, Ibsen has depicted the consequences of living for years in deceit and self-deception, and in The Wild Duck itself, Mrs Sørby hides nothing and her new marriage with old Werle would be the true marriage that Hjalmar doesn’t have with Gina.

Interestingly, Gregers, the one who wants to strip his friend of all delusion, has one himself: he is greatly mistaken about his friend. If his action is a kind of test, Hjalmar fails it because he doesn’t have the character, the strength to overcome it, to forgive everyone and start afresh. The Wild Duck is largely a tragedy, but part of the comedy is because Hjalmar is essentially weak and doesn’t have the ideals his friend wants: in front of Gregers, he bravely tears in half the deed from old Werle, only to paste the pieces back together afterwards; he makes a scene of leaving his wife, having learnt of her past, so Gina makes him a meal and packs his case, but after they eat some time in silence:  

“HJALMAR If I decided to do so, could I—without being exposed to intrusion on anyone’s part—put up for a day or two in the sitting-room there?

GINA Of course you could, if only you would.

HJALMAR Because I don’t see there is any possibility of getting all father’s things out in a moment.” 

(Act 5) 

So he tells himself. 

6/ I won’t write about symbols and poetic elements in The Wild Duck because Himadri (Argumentative Old Git) has written a brilliant blog post about it, including the wild duck:

Himadri also writes about the characters, and raises the interesting point that old Werle, far from being immorally pure, may not be the monster that his son thinks he is. 

7/ If you’ve got this far, perhaps you’re acquainted with the play or indifferent to spoilers, but here I’m going to write a bit about the ending so those of you who haven’t read the play, be warned.

In the ending, after the devastating moment, Ibsen presents two opposing visions: are you with Relling, or are you with Gregers? Is Gregers too naïve and idealistic? Or is Relling too cynical? 

That is something to think about—I’ll probably need to consider it for some time. One thing is clear, however: 

“GREGERS Hedwig has not died in vain. You saw how his grief called out all the best that was in him.” 


I don’t doubt that Hjalmar’s grief is deep and genuine, especially when he realises his own cruelty, but I’d say that Hedwig dies a meaningless death. That’s why it’s so painfully tragic.  

Thursday, 3 June 2021

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen

 So that I don’t get shouted for having lived in Norway and not knowing Ibsen, I picked up Ghosts, translated by R. Farquharson Sharp. I had read A Doll’s House, but it was years ago and needs a revisit. 

The two plays are related: at the most basic level, A Doll’s House is about a woman leaving her husband, Ghosts is about the consequence of a woman not leaving her terrible husband. The two situations are however totally different: Mrs Alving is not Nora and Mr Alving is not Torvald.  

1/ This is how Ghosts begins: Engstrand, a carpenter, is talking to a young woman called Regina and he seems to be harassing her (not in the sexual sense), but quickly we realise that she’s his daughter, though they don’t really sound like father and daughter. Then Engstrand leaves, and a pastor named Manders arrives to see Mrs Alving, the mistress of the house. Manders gives some unsolicited advice to Regina, as people do, so Regina leaves the room and soon afterwards Mrs Alving enters, to discuss the orphanage business with Manders. 

Quite soon Manders turns out to be an insufferable, sanctimonious prick, chastising Mrs Alving and her son Oswald, who has just returned from France, for neglecting their duties and having immoral views. Manders especially condemns her as a bad wife and a bad mother, for having once tried to leave her husband and later sent her son away. Then it’s Mrs Alving’s turn to speak and she reveals the truth that has been hidden from everyone for decades: because of Manders, she returned to her incorrigible, profligate husband and suffered a miserable marriage for 19 years. She sent Oswald away so he wouldn’t be corrupted by his father. 

The revelation changes the entire tone and dynamics. By the end of Act 1, everything has been completely shattered for Manders.

Then comes this bit: 

“MANDERS [softly, and with emotion] Is that all I accomplished by the hardest struggle of my life? 

MRS ALVING Call it rather the most ignominious defeat of your life.

MANDERS It was the greatest victory of my life, Helen; victory over myself.

MRS ALVING It was a wrong done to both of us.

MANDERS A wrong?—wrong for me to entreat you as a wife to go back to your lawful husband, when you came to me half distracted and crying “here I am, take me!” Was that a wrong?

MRS ALVING I think it was. 

MANDERS We two do not understand one another.

MRS ALVING Not now, at all events. 

MANDERS Never—even in my most secret thoughts—have I for a moment regarded you as anything but the wife of another. 

MRS ALVING Do you believe what you say?

MANDERS Helen—! 

MRS ALVING One so easily forgets one’s own feelings.

MANDERS Not I. I am the same as I always was.” 

(Act 2) 

This is a great scene: having learnt the horrible truth, Manders doesn’t change and doesn’t have a bad conscience. Instead, he clings to his so-called principles and continues to delude himself, to convince himself that he did right. 

2/ Living death. Loveless marriage. Masks. Deceit. I can see Ibsen’s influence on Ingmar Bergman. 

3/ In English the title is translated as Ghosts, but it cannot convey the full sense of the title in the original: gengangere (or gjengangere in Norwegian) mean “ghosts” and “things that recur or repeat themselves”. 

There seems to be a slightly different meaning in this passage:   

“MRS ALVING […] I am half inclined to think we are all ghosts, Mr Manders. It is not only what we have inherited from our fathers and mothers that exists against in us, but all sorts of old dead ideas and all kinds of old dead beliefs and things of that kind. They are not actually alive in us, but they are dormant, all the same, and we can never be rid of them.” 


Not only is Mr Alving a ghost that doesn’t go away, doesn’t stay in the past, but “we are all ghosts”. 

4/ Some readers may defend Manders by saying that he’s not a hypocrite, that he genuinely believes life is about doing your duty and not pursuing happiness, and lives accordingly. I do think he’s a hypocrite, however, because life to him is not only about duty. Manders has a great fear of people’s gossips and his own loss of reputation: after he made Mrs Alving return to her husband, for decades he never came back to the house till now, when she decides to open an orphanage; he convinces Mrs Alving not to insure the orphanage for fear of people’s talks; and at the end, when the building is burnt to the ground and it’s probably because of Manders’s carelessness, he says that “the spiteful attacks and accusations” are “almost the worst part of the whole thing”.

The revelation shocks him into some sort of understanding, but he remains himself, utterly himself in the end.  

5/ An interesting thing is that the truth doesn’t seem to shock Oswald. It changes nothing—his guilt and self-blame may go but the fear remains, and nothing can change his condition. He is too occupied with his terror to ask Mrs Alving why she has been lying to him his whole life. 

6/ Ibsen’s play is essentially about revisiting the past and understanding it differently: Oswald learns that the disease is inherited and not his fault; Regina learns something about her mother and realises that a relationship with Oswald is now impossible; Manders learns about his role in Mrs Alving’s long suffering; and even Mrs Alving, near the end of the play, realises that she’s partly to blame for Mr Alving’s dissipation: 

“MRS ALVING It gave me a holiday feeling only to look at him, full of irrepressible energy and exuberant spirits.

OSWALD What then?

MRS ALVING Well, then this boy, full of the joy of life—for he was just like a boy, then—had to make his home in a second rate town which had none of the joy of life to offer him, but only dissipations. He had to come out here and live an aimless life; he had only an official post. He had no work worth devoting his whole mind to; he had nothing more than official routine to attend to. He had not a single companion capable of appreciating what the joy of life meant; nothing but idlers and tipplers—


MRS ALVING Your poor father never found any outlet for the overmastering joy of life that was in him. And I brought no holiday spirit into his home, either.

OSWALD You didn’t, either? 

MRS ALVING I had been taught about duty, and the sort of thing that I believed in so long here. Everything seemed to turn upon duty—my duty, or his duty—and I am afraid I made your poor father’s home unbearable to him, Oswald.” 

(Act 3) 

The joy of life (livsglæde or livsglede) is a central theme in the play, and this is a magnificent moment. For a large part of the play, Mrs Alving speaks of her dead husband with only hatred and contempt, but now she recognises her own part in the failed marriage and sees her past in a startlingly different light. 

This is a great play. 

Monday, 31 May 2021

Brief thoughts on The Kreutzer Sonata, The Devil, and Ethan Frome

Hello there. I haven’t been blogging lately because I wasn’t in the mood, having an excruciating toothache for over a week (wisdom teeth). The agony is over, but this blog post will be brief. 

After several months of reading plays and Shakespeare books, I returned to short stories, novellas, and novels.  

Returning to Tolstoy (in the translation of Aylmer and Louise Maude), I first read a short story called “A Spark Neglected Burns the House”. It’s a moral tale, a well-written one but still a moral tale—I thought Tolstoy was capable of so much more. 

And he was. The next reads were The Kreutzer Sonata and The Devil, and they’re both superb. Neither are comfortable to read and The Kreutzer Sonata may provoke some strong feelings of anger and disgust because it explores the mind of a sick, jealous, and misogynistic man, but both are great works. Do I think The Kreutzer Sonata is a misogynistic work? Some people seem to think there is a clear-cut answer but there isn’t. On the one hand, Tolstoy did write an epilogue in which he agreed with a lot of the character’s extreme views on sex and the body, and I did notice that not only the second narrator (the main character) but the first narrator (in the frame story) was also misogynistic, making unnecessary comments on the woman in the discussion about love and marriage, but on the other hand, Tolstoy is not the character. The character/ the second narrator, as he admits it himself, didn’t see his wife as a human being until he saw her dying, and can you imagine him—the character—having sympathy for Anna or Sonya or Natasha or Dolly as Tolstoy clearly does? 

As I read The Kreutzer Sonata, I thought I could see why Tolstoy clashed with Shakespeare: Tolstoy digs deep into his characters’ minds and explores their motivations, and in this novella tries to understand what may lead a man to kill his wife, whereas Shakespeare sometimes removes the characters’ motives from the source stories and makes them more obscure, like in the cases of Iago and Lear as Tolstoy singles out. Tolstoy clashes with Shakespeare because they have different approaches, different aesthetic visions.  

After The Devil, I picked up Ethan Frome because both are about a married man having a thing for another woman. The two however are very different: The Devil is about lust whereas Ethan Frome is about love, so the question of guilt doesn’t really bother Ethan. 

Ethan Frome is to me interesting for several reasons: partly because I read it after The Devil and could contrast the two books and two authors, and partly because it made me think of The Age of Innocence. I have always been aware that Ethan Frome is an unusual work, uncharacteristic of Edith Wharton, because it’s not about the upper class and it also doesn’t have the harsh tone found in The House of Mirth or The Custom of the Country, but it shares with The Age of Innocence the basic plot of a man having a wife or fiancée and falling in love with her cousin and seeing his wife send the other woman away. It’s fascinating to see what Edith Wharton does with the same basic idea, as the two books couldn’t be more different: Ethan isn’t Newland Archer, Zeena isn’t May, Mattie isn’t Ellen, and Ethan Frome is set in a fictional town called Starkfield in New England instead of New York. 

She’s very good at writing about desire, forbidden desire.

The ending of Ethan Frome is probably going to haunt me for a while: it is bleak, and the most awful (to the characters) out of all the possible outcomes. Edith Wharton’s endings are always haunting.  

I’m going to need something to cheer me up. 

Thursday, 20 May 2021

Tamburlaine the Great, Part 2

Before talking about the play, I must mention some characters: 

- Tamburlaine and Zenocrate have 3 sons: Calyphas, Amyras, Celebinus. Calyphas is the black sheep.

- Bajazeth, the Emperor of Turkey who gets captured by Tamburlaine and kills himself in Part 1, also has 3 sons with his wife Zabina, but only one of them appears in Part 2 and that’s Callapine. 

For now you don’t really need to know the rest (but then you probably wouldn’t remember them whilst reading the play anyway). 

1/ Part 1 is about Tamburlaine’s rise to power. Part 2 is about Tamburlaine in power. The interesting thing I’ve noted is that in Part 2, Tamburlaine is somewhat reduced—he doesn’t appear till Act 1 scene 4, and for a large part of the play isn’t really dominant.  

2/ Having a greater foe in Tamburlaine, Orcanes (King of Natolia) declares a truce with Sigismund (King of Hungary)—Sigismund swears by Christ and Orcanes swears by Mahomet. 

But soon Sigismund breaks his word, persuaded by the peers of Hungary: 


No whit my lord: for with such infidels,

In whom no faith nor true religion rests,

We are not bound to those accomplishments,

The holy laws of Christendom enjoin…” 

(Act 2 scene 1) 

When the news of invasion comes, Orcanes’s reaction is interesting: 


Can there be such deceit in Christians,

Or treason in the fleshy heart of man, 

Whose shape is figure of the highest God?

Then if there be a Christ, as Christians say,

But in their deeds deny him for their Christ:

If he be son to everlasting Jove,

And hath the power of his outstretched arm,

If he be jealous of his name and honour,

As is our holy prophet Mahomet,

Take here these papers as our sacrifice

And witness of thy servant’s perjury.

[…] Thou Christ that art esteemed omnipotent,

If thou wilt prove thyself a perfect God,

Worthy the worship of all faithful hearts,

Be now revenged upon this traitor’s soul,

And make the power I have left behind

(To little to defend our guiltless lives) 

Sufficient to discomfort and confound

The trustless force of these false Christians,

To arms, my lords, on Christ still let us cry:

If there be Christ, we shall have victory.” 

(Act 2 scene 2) 

Is that not a curious speech? Here is a Muslim praying to the Christian God.

(It would even be more interesting if Marlowe was an atheist as people say). 

3/ One of the greatest scenes in the play is Act 2 scene 4, when Zenocrate is in her deathbed. I’m picking out one passage:  


[…] Her sacred beauty had enchanted heaven,

And had she lived before the siege of Troy, 

Helen, whose beauty summoned Greece to arms,

And drew a thousand ships to Tenedos,

Had not been named in Homer’s Iliads:

Her name had been in every line he wrote:

Or had those wanton poets, for whose birth

Old Rome was proud, but gazed a while on her,

Nor Lesbia, nor Corinna had been named,

Zenocrate had been the argument

Of every epigram or elegy.” 

(Act 2 scene 4) 

Helen of Troy with the image of 1000 ships also appears in one of the most famous speeches in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus


Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,

And burnt the topless towers of Ilium—

Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss. —

[kisses her]

Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies! —

Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.

Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,

And all is dross that is not Helena…” 

To go back to the scene in Tamburlaine, Part 2, it is a moving scene. 


Ah good my lord be patient, she is dead,

And all this raging cannot make her live.

If words might serve, our voice hath rent the air,

If tears, our eyes have watered all the earth:

If grief, our murdered hearts have strained forth blood.

Nothing prevails, for she is dead my lord. 


For she is dead? Thy words do pierce my soul:

Ah sweet Theridamas, say no more,

Though she be dead, yet let me think she lives,

And feed my mind that dies for want of her…” 


Marlowe depicts Tamburlaine as a brutal, ruthless warmonger but also gives him a softer side, a loving side. The real Timur, according to Wikipedia, has 43 wives and consorts; Tamburlaine only has Zenocrate.

4/ Only occasionally is there something funny in Tamburlaine. There’s more comedy in Doctor Faustus


What require you my masters? 


Captain, that thou yield up thy hold to us. 


To you? Why, do you think me weary of it?” 

(Act 3 scene 3) 

5/ Calyphas, as I said, is the black sheep—whilst Amyras and Celebinus prepare to join battle with his father Tamburlaine against Callapine and others, Calyphas wants to chill in his tent.  


Take you the honour, I will take my ease,

My wisdom shall excuse my cowardice…” 

(Act 4 scene 1)

That makes me think of one of Hamlet’s soliloquies: 


[…] Now, whether it be

Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple

Of thinking too precisely on th’ event—

A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom

And ever three parts coward…” 

(Act 4 scene 4)

(my emphasis) 

Both speeches are spoken whilst a war is going on in the background. 

Before writing this blog post, I created for myself the challenge of not mentioning Shakespeare—after over 800 words, I have failed, so might as well mention that Shakespeare’s Ancient Pistol seems to be a parody of the bombastic, self-dramatising heroes of Marlowe’s plays, especially Tamburlaine. I mean: 


What! Shall we have incision? Shall we imbrue? 

[snatches up his sword]

Then death rock me asleep, abridge my doleful days!

Why, then, let grievous, ghastly, gaping wounds

Untwine the Sisters Three! Come, Atropos, I say!” 

(Henry IV, Part 2, Act 2 scene 4) 

The Fate sisters are also mentioned in Tamburlaine. You get the idea, but let’s look at one more, from earlier:  


These be good humors, indeed! Shall pack-horses 

And hollow pampered jades of Asia,

Which cannot go but thirty mile a day,

Compare with Caesars, and with Cannibals,

And Trojan Greeks? Nay, rather damn them with

King Cerberus, and let the welkin roar

Shall we fall foul for toys?”


That is clearly a parody of a speech by Tamburlaine, when he’s riding a chariot drawn by his new captives: 


Holla, ye pampered jades of Asia: 

What, can ye draw but twenty miles a day, 

And have so proud a chariot at your heels,

And such a coachman as great Tamburlaine,

But from Asphaltis, where I conquered you,

To Byron here, where thus I honour you?

The horse that guide the golden eye of heaven,

And blow the morning from their nostrils, 

Making their fiery gait above the clouds,

Are not so honoured in their governor,

As you, ye slaves, in mighty Tamburlaine…” 

(Tamburlaine, Part 2, Act 4 scene 3) 

6/ Speaking of the chariot, let’s look at Tamburlaine’s threat to Callapine and his gang: 


[…] But as for you, viceroy, you shall have bits,

And harnessed like my horses, draw my coach:

And when ye stay, be lashed with whips of wire:

I’ll have you learn to feed on provender

And in a stable lie upon the planks.” 

(Act 3 scene 5) 

We know Tamburlaine likes treating his enemies like animals (having previously put Bajazeth in a cage and fed him scraps) so there’s no surprise, but the threat curiously echoes Callapine’s earlier promise to Almeda when he, then Tamburlaine’s prisoner, tries to convince Almeda to help him escape: 


[…] With naked negroes shall thy coach be drawn,

And as thou rid’st in triumph through the streets,

The pavement underneath thy chariot wheels

With Turkey carpets shall be covered…” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

7/ The final scene may have different interpretations: Is Tamburlaine, the man who calls himself the scourge of God and terror of the world, defeated by illness and death at last? Or is he punished for burning the Koran? 


8/ This is how J. W. Harper sees Tamburlaine: 

“… Tamburlaine’s weakness, merely implicit before, becomes the major theme. His weakness is that while he can conquer, he cannot create, for he can work only with the material forces upon which he relies and is thus ultimately their slave rather than their master. He cannot renew life in his beloved wife, cannot create a first-born son in his own image, cannot sustain the ebbing force of his own superb organism. […] the natural man whose nature devotes itself to universal dominion is shown, in the course of nature, to be impotent.” 


He has a point. 

Tuesday, 18 May 2021

Tamburlaine the Great, Part 1

Tamburlaine is a play in 2 parts by Christopher Marlowe, loosely based on the life of Central Asian emperor Timur (Timur the Lame/ Tamerlane). Some scholars argue the 2 parts should be seen as 2 separate plays. 

Part 1 is dated 1587 and Part 2 about 1587-1588, so both are probably written before Doctor Faustus

1/ I’ve been told that Marlowe’s plays often have overreaching protagonists—Tamburlaine is one. See what he says to Theridamas. 


[…] Both we will walk upon the lofty clifts,

And Christian merchants that with Russian stems 

Plow up huge furrows in the Caspian Sea,

Shall vail to us, as lords of all the lake.

Both we will reign as consuls of the earth,

And mighty kings shall be our senators.

Jove sometimes masked in a shepherd’s weed,

And by those steps that he hath scaled the heavens,

May we become immortal like the gods.” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 

Tamburlaine, unlike the real Timur, is a Scythian shepherd and a nomadic bandit at the beginning of the play. Theridamas is a Persian lord, under king Mycetes. 

This is Tamburlaine’s speech when he tries to get Cosroe to join him against his brother Mycetes:


[…] Our quivering lances shaking in the air,

And bullets like Jove’s dreadful thunderbolts,

Enrolled in flames and fiery smouldering mists,

Shall threat the gods more than Cyclopian wars,

And with our sun-bright armour as we march,

We’ll chase the stars from heaven, and dim their eyes

That stand and muse at our admired arms.” 

(Act 2 scene 3) 

The language is grand, majestic, often bombastic, reminiscent of Doctor Faustus (and I guess, characteristic of Marlowe). The characters in some way appear rather cartoonish: Theridamas is a lord serving king Mycetes and he is meant to fight and catch Tamburlaine, but after a few speeches, is persuaded and joins his gang. Then Cosroe, brother of Mycetes, plots to overthrow the king and assume the throne, and joins Tamburlaine, but Meander, who seems to be Mycetes’s right-hand man, also joins Cosroe without much persuasion. 

2/ The characters don’t sound very different. For example, take Meander in his speech to Mycetes, talking about the enemies:  


Suppose they be in number infinite,

Yet being void of martial discipline,

All running headlong after greedy spoils:

And more regarding gain than victory:

Like to the cruel brothers of the earth,

Sprung of the teeth of dragons venomous,

Their careless swords shall lanch their fellows’ throats

And make us triumph in their overthrow.” 

(Act 2 scene 2) 

This is Cosroe, talking to Meander after Tamburlaine changes his mind and wants the throne for himself: 


What means this devilish shepherd to aspire

With such a giantly presumption,

To cast up hills against the face of heaven:

And dare the force of angry Jupiter?

But as he thrust them underneath the hills,

And pressed out fire from their burning jaws:

So will I send this monstrous slave to hell,

Where flames shall ever feed upon his soul.” 

(Act 2 scene 6) 

In the introduction, J. W. Harper notes: 

Tamburlaine is the great drama of primal will, and nearly all of its characters are caught up in the same pattern as the hero, so that nearly all speak alike and the subtlety of characterization to which Shakespeare’s drama has accustomed us is scarcely to be found.” 

An exception is Mycetes, the weak and pathetic king. He sounds different, and at the beginning, often turns to Meander instead of deciding things himself. 

That being said, the language is good, exciting, full of vitality, and Tamburlaine helped establish blank verse for English drama. 

3/ There are a few female characters in Tamburlaine, most notably Zenocrate (daughter of the Soldan of Egypt and concubine of Tamburlaine) and Zabina (wife of Bajazeth, Emperor of Turkey). One may be tempted to compare them to Shakespeare’s female characters, such as Adriana and Luciana in the early play The Comedy of Errors, and say that Zenocrate and Zabina are not complex or realistic, but neither are Marlowe’s male characters really. Tamburlaine, like Doctor Faustus, is pretty much a one-man play, and the titular character is more like a mythical figure.  

I’m probably talking nonsense but I’m starting to suspect that people read Shakespeare for his characters but read Christopher Marlowe for Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson for Ben Jonson. 

4/ On the internet I sometimes come across people who think Marlowe is the real Shakespeare. If only these people spent that time and energy reading and talking about Marlowe’s actual plays, because then they would realise that Marlowe and Shakespeare are vastly different. Take this speech: 


Now clear the triple region of the air,

And let the majesty of heaven behold

Their scourge and terror treat on emperors.

Smile stars that reigned at my nativity;

And dim the brightness of their neighbour lamps,

Disdain to borrow light of Cynthia,

For I the chiefest lamp of all the earth,

First rising in the east with mild aspect,

But fixed now in the meridian line,

Will send up fire to your turning spheres,

And cause the sun to borrow light of you,

My sword struck fire from his coat of steel,

Even in Bithynia, when I took this Turk:

As when a fiery exhalation

Wrapped in the bowels of a freezing cloud,

Fighting for passage, makes the welkin crack,

And casts a flash of lightning to the earth.

But ere I march to wealthy Persia,

Or leave Damascus and the Egyptian fields,

As wars the fame of Clymene’s brain-sick son,

That almost brent the axle-tree of heaven,

So shall our swords, our lances and our shot

Fill all the air with fiery meteors,

Then when the sky shall wax as red as blood,

It shall be said, I made it red myself,

To make me think of naught by blood and war.” 

(Act 4 scene 2)

I don’t see that kind of language, that kind of speech, that kind of character in Shakespeare. In Tamburlaine, other characters may love or admire or fear or hate him, but it all makes Tamburlaine appear even larger, more powerful, more dominant—other characters invoke heaven or hell when talking about him—Tamburlaine thus turns into some kind of mythical figure.  

I’m generalising again: Marlowe seems fascinated by overreachers, by exceptional, extraordinary, and larger-than-life characters who dominate the plays they’re in and tower above everyone else, whereas Shakespeare seems fascinated by humanity as a whole, by all kinds of people. 

5/ Bajazeth is the Emperor of Turkey. At the beginning, he is majestic, proud, and disdainful of Tamburlaine, the shepherd and common thief. 

After his triumph, Tamburlaine becomes the new emperor, captures Bajazeth and his wife Zabina, makes them slaves, and humiliates them both for amusement (Tamburlaine isn’t exactly a likable guy).  

Now look at their final moments:


Then is there left no Mahomet, no God,

No fiend, no fortune, nor no hope of end

To our infamous monstrous slaveries? 

Gape earth, and let the fiends infernal view

A hell, as hopeless and as full of fear

As are the blasted banks of Erebus:

Where shaking ghosts with ever-howling groans,

Hover about the ugly ferryman

To get a passage to Elysium.

Why should we live, O wretches, beggars, slaves, 

Why live we Bajazeth, and build up nests,

So high within the region of the air,

By living long in this oppression,

That all the world will see and laugh to scorn

The former triumphs of our mightiness,

In this obscure infernal servitude?” 

(Act 5 scene 2) 

I can’t copy the entire thing, but Bajazeth has a great soliloquy:  


O life more loathsome to my vexed thoughts,

Than noisome parbreak of the Stygian snakes,

Which fills the nooks of hell with standing air,

Infecting all the ghosts with cureless griefs:

O dreary engines of my loathed sight,

That sees my crown, my honour and my name,

Thrust under yoke and thraldom of a thief! 

Why feed ye still on day’s accursed beams,

And sink not quite into my tortured soul?...” 


And another soliloquy, after Zabina leaves the room to get him some drink: 


Now Bajazeth, abridge thy baneful days,

And beat thy brains out of thy conquered head:

Since other means are all forbidden me, 

That may be ministers of my decay.

O highest lamp of ever-living Jove,

Accursed day infected with my griefs,

Hide now thy stained face in endless night,

And shut the windows of the lightsome heavens.

Let ugly Darkness with her rusty coach

Engirt with tempests wrapped in pitchy clouds,

Smother the earth with never-fading mists:

And let her horses from their nostrils breathe

Rebellious winds and dreadful thunderclaps:

That in this terror Tamburlaine may live,

And my pined soul resolved in liquid air,

May still excruciate his tormented thoughts.

Then let the strong dart of senseless cold,

Pierce through the centre of my withered heart,

And make a passage for my loathed life.” 


What a marvellous speech. We are used to Shakespeare, but before him was Marlowe—imagine the excitement of the first audience of Tamburlaine, they (probably) never heard anything like that on the stage before. 

6/ After these striking speeches enters Zenocrate (daughter of the Soldan of Egypt and concubine of Tamburlaine), with her maid Anippe. She is lamenting the deaths of her people and destruction of her town when she notices the dead bodies of Bajazeth and Zabina. 

The language and imagery are good but the characterisation’s weak: Zenocrate seems to have forgotten her own role in the humiliation and degradation of both Bajazeth and Zabina. Later, she is torn between her duty to her father and her former lover (the King of Arabia) and her current love for Tamburlaine, but she, like other characters in the play, is crudely depicted. Without meaning to compare, I can’t help noticing that Shakespeare’s much more advanced in his understanding and depiction of human nature: forget Macbeth, Hamlet, or Iago, I’m again thinking of The Comedy of Errors, in which the characters all have an inner life and appear complex even though the play is a farce.

Marlowe’s importance lies in his language, his innovations, and how he paved the way for Shakespeare and other playwrights in England. Not in psychology or characterisation. 

Friday, 14 May 2021

Rereading Hamlet

Hamlet was the first Shakespeare play I read, when I was in the IB. After about 10 years, I suppose it’s high time I revisit the play. 

1/ Polonius is a shallow character, but he gives some good advice to his son Laertes, especially this part: 

“POLONIUS […] Beware

Of entrance to a quarrel; but being in, 

Bear’t that th’ opposed may beware of thee. 

Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;

Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment...” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

This is how William Hazlitt sees him:

“Polonius is a perfect character in its kind; nor is there any foundation for the objections which have been made to the consistency of this part. It is said that he acts very foolishly and talks very sensibly. There is no inconsistency in that. Again, that he talks wisely at one time and foolishly at another; that his advice to Laertes is very sensible, and his advice to the King and Queen on the subject of Hamlet's madness very ridiculous. But he gives the one as a father, and is sincere in it; he gives the other as a mere courtier, a busy-body, and is accordingly officious, garrulous, and impertinent. In short, Shakespeare has been accused of inconsistency in this and other characters, only because he has kept up the distinction which there is in nature, between the understandings and the moral habits of men, between the absurdity of their ideas and the absurdity of their motives. Polonius is not a fool, but he makes himself so. His folly, whether in his actions or speeches, comes under the head of impropriety of intention.” (Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays

I note, however, in the same speech a line that is very often quoted on the internet: 

“POLONIUS […] This above all, to thine own self be true…” 


It’s funny that the line comes from him. Polonius doesn’t trust Laertes—he sends someone to spy on his son. He doesn’t let Ophelia be herself—first, he tells his daughter to break off with Hamlet and return everything, without much regard for her feeling and judgment; then uses her as bait, forces her to put on an act with Hamlet with other people watching and witnessing her humiliation. 

Now if you go back and read the entire speech, you can see that it’s all good and sensible, but Polonius doesn’t follow his own advice. 

2/ Look at this line: 

“HAMLET […] What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” (Act 2 scene 2)

Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy (Act 3 scene 1) is more meaningful to me now that I place it next to the line above. The soliloquy makes me think about Claudio’s “Ay, but to die, and go we know not where” speech in Measure for Measure (also Act 3 scene 1)—the 2 speeches are obviously different as Claudio wants to live whereas Hamlet finds life meaningless and intolerable, but both speeches are about the fear of death as the fear of the unknown. 

Ophelia’s speech after her talk with Hamlet is heartbreaking. 

“OPHELIA O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!

[…] O, woe is me

T’ have seen what I have seen, see what I see!” 

(Act 3 scene 1) 

Himadri at The Argumentative Old Git has a brilliant blog post analysing Hamlet and Ophelia, with this scene as the key to the drama: 

3/ I vaguely remember being puzzled about Ophelia and her madness in my first reading. On the surface, she seems passive and naïve, but I don’t think she is. First, look at her response to Laertes’s “lecture”: 

“OPHELIA I shall the effect of this good lesson keep 

As watchman to my heart, but, good my brother,

Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,

Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, 

Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,

Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads

And recks not his own rede.” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

That’s not the response of an airhead. She knows Hamlet, and she knows her brother. Later to Polonius, she does say “I do not know, my lord, what I should think”, but it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t know what she thinks—I think she is a mild daughter who doesn’t want to appear presumptuous, but she does, in a soft way, defend Hamlet and their courtship. She is intelligent, just not witty and sharp-tongued like Beatrice or Rosaline. 

I think it’s because they have a romantic (and possibly sexual) relationship that it crushes Ophelia in Act 3 scene 1 when Hamlet says he doesn’t love her and humiliates her in front of others, and it also hurts Hamlet that Ophelia returns everything to him. Also in the scene, he asks “Where is your father?” and she says “At home, my lord”—there can be different ways of saying this line, but it’s likely that she wouldn’t be able to hide that she is lying, and he would know it.

Ophelia is crushed because nobody loves her, because all the men that she care about (her father, Laertes, Hamlet) have little regard for her feelings, because she is used and humiliated and then discarded. I think she is crushed also because she doesn’t have a sister or some kind of female friend, some confidante that she can turn to—Hero has Beatrice, Desdemona has Emilia, Adriana and Luciana have each other, Helena and Hermia are close friends, Juliet can turn to the nurse, and so on—Ophelia has nobody.  

4/ Hamlet is more interested and involved in theatre than Shakespeare’s other characters, if I remember correctly. He dislikes overacting (does Shakespeare too?). 

Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Love’s Labour’s Lost, Hamlet has a play within the play, which is somewhere in the middle. The difference is that the plays in the other 2 are arranged by other characters whereas in Hamlet, it’s the central character who arranges, writes, and orchestrates the play, then sits in the audience to watch other spectators. 

When I read it, I was wondering about the point of the dumb show at the beginning of the play The Mousetrap—we already see a character putting poison into another character’s ear and Claudius says nothing, why does he react strongly later? Then Himadri pointed out something I should have noticed: in The Mousetrap, the murderer is not the king’s brother as in real life, but his nephew—this is both a re-enactment of Claudius’s murder of the previous king, and a threat from Hamlet. This is why Claudius loses his temper and leaves the room. 

5/ Hamlet tells himself and Horatio that he sets up the play to watch the reaction of the king, but he also wants to see his mother’s reaction. He turns to Gertrude and asks: 

“HAMLET Madam, how like you this play?” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

Before the play begins, he alludes twice to Gertrude’s hasty marriage in his replies to Ophelia. He is angrier at his mother than at Claudius—the anger is already there in the first soliloquy, and can be seen here and there in his talks (for example, “my uncle-father and aunt-mother” in Act 2 scene 2). Gertrude’s action bothers Hamlet because what’s the meaning of life if a man is so soon forgotten after his death? That his beloved wife quickly moves on with someone else? 

“HAMLET […] O God, God, 

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world! 

Fie on’t, ah, fie, ‘tis an unweeded garden

That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature

Possess it merely. That it should come to this…” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 

But I don’t buy Freud’s (deranged?) interpretation that Hamlet has Oedipus complex (in fact, as I learnt from Contested Will, it was from his reading of Hamlet that Freud created the concept of Oedipus complex). For centuries, there have been different interpretations of Hamlet’s delay/ inaction, like conscience, consciousness (overthinking), or the Freudian reading, and there can be many things at the same time, but I think Himadri’s interpretation makes sense—that Hamlet’s inaction is because he feels a sense of duty to avenge his father’s death but he himself doesn’t love his father and cannot grieve for him.  

Here is Himadri’s blog post comparing Hamlet and Hal (and Anthony): 

Here’s his earlier blog post about Hamlet 

I think it makes sense to see Hamlet’s relationship with his father as mirroring Hal’s relationship with Henry IV, to recognise that Hamlet clashes with his father in values (he’s a scholar whereas his father’s a military man) and isn’t close to him, and to interpret his inaction along these lines. In his soliloquies, Hamlet castigates himself and talks about his hatred of his mother more than grieves for his father.   

6/ There can be another interpretation: what if Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius because the person he truly hates and wants to kill is Gertrude but he can’t kill her because she’s his mother?

He has to tell himself not to kill her. 

“HAMLET […] Soft, now to my mother. 

O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever

The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom.

Let me be cruel, not unnatural;

I will speak daggers to her, but use none. 

My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites:

How in my words somever she be shent,

To give them seals never, my soul, consent!”

(Act 3 scene 2) 

However you interpret it, Hamlet is undeniably obsessed with the idea of his mother having sex with his uncle, and hates her more than Claudius.  

7/ You may not agree with the readings above, but some of the common interpretations of Hamlet’s delay/ inaction don’t seem sufficient or convincing.

Lack of opportunities? There are opportunities, such as the moment after the play, but Hamlet doesn’t do it—is it the real reason that Claudius is praying and Hamlet doesn’t want him to go to heaven, or is it his self-justification? 

Inability to kill? Hamlet can kill all right—he kills Polonius, and makes plans so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are killed in his place. 

(Christian) conscience? Fear that the deed would corrupt his soul? In his soliloquies, he doesn’t say that killing Claudius is morally wrong. His reaction upon finding the dying Polonius is neither horror nor remorse. 

“HAMLET […] Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell! 

I took thee for thy better. Take thy fortune…” 

(Act 3 scene 4) 

Then he returns to Gertrude. 

Later Hamlet has no scruples about sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths. 

Cowardice? On the surface, the word comes from Hamlet himself:  

“HAMLET […] Now, whether it be

Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple

Of thinking too precisely on th’ event—

A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom

And ever three parts coward…” 

(Act 4 scene 4) 

However, is it not questionable if you examine it in context? This comes after Hamlet learns of Fortinbras of Norway invading Poland, for a worthless piece of land—it is hard to read the word “coward” straight in such a context. And why does Hamlet seem to admire Fortinbras, who he knows is a warmonger leading 20.000 men to a pointless death? It makes more sense to read it in light of Hamlet having a troubled relationship with his father, because they have different values, and he’s castigating himself because Fortinbras is someone his father wanted him to have become (like Henry IV wishes Hal were like Hotspur).   

8/ Shakespeare, as always, gives voices to everybody. Claudius’s guilt makes me think of Macbeth. Gertrude isn’t Lady Macbeth however—she isn’t part of the murder, though she does love Claudius.

Gertrude and Ophelia are both tragic figures. Hamlet is a tragic character, but there are deeply unpleasant sides to his character and behaviour. 

I wish I could have seen Daniel Day-Lewis as Hamlet and Judi Dench as Gertrude. 

9/ Hamlet and Hal are probably Shakespeare’s most intelligent male characters: they both can see through everybody, and mimic them, but if Hal changes his language and adapts himself to the environment and to the people he’s with, Hamlet mimics people’s language in order to mock them. Hal’s insults are usually banter (though there are a few exceptions), Hamlet’s sense of humour can be more sardonic and his insults meaner, though subtle. 

Both can be ruthless. Hamlet is more unstable, more neurotic, and obsessed with death. I can’t imagine Hal talking to a skull. 

Both are impenetrable, for different reasons—whereas we don’t have access to Hal’s thoughts, Shakespeare allows us to enter Hamlet’s mind often but we still can’t fully understand him. His mind, like his language, is hidden behind several layers. 

Both Tony Tanner in his introduction and Frank Kermode in Shakespeare’s Language note the doublings and repetitions in the language of Hamlet, which is interesting, but what does it mean? 

10/ Hamlet seems changed upon his return. He seems less agonised, seems not to torture himself, and I’ve noted that he talks more about the divinity: 

“HAMLET […] When our deep plots do pall, and that should learn us

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, 

Rough-hew them how we will.” 

(Act 5 scene 2) 

Later, when Horatio tries to stop him fighting Laertes: 

“HAMLET Not a whit, we defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; it it be not to come, it will be now; it it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.” 


Hamlet is now fatalistic—he has let go, and stops questioning himself. And in the end, it looks like divine interference: Laertes and Claudius get killed by their own devices.   

This is a magnificent play. 

Saturday, 8 May 2021

Jonathan Bate: counter-voices in Shakespeare

In The Genius of Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate pretends to raise the question of what’s special about Shakespeare when he almost never comes up with his own plot for the plays, and answers it in a chapter called “Shakespeare’s Peculiarity”. As that’s not the point of this blog post, I’m not going to answer the question or write much about Bate’s chapter, but he makes an interesting point when comparing Shakespeare’s As You Like It and the source book Rosalynde by Thomas Lodge: 

“Shakespeare complicates Lodge for purposes of critique. He introduces the foppish Le Beau in the first act in order to mock at the pretensions of the court. He introduces Jaques in the second in order to mock at the pretensions of pastoral idealization. Duke Senior regards the forest of Arden as untainted, redolent of the Golden Age; Jaques points out that whilst the wicked Duke Frederick has usurped his brother’s place at court, Duke Senior and his men have usurped the stag’s place in the forest. Shakespeare introduces the loutish William and Audrey in order to juxtapose a realistic view of country people against the literary view provided by the shepherd-in-love he inherits from Lodge. As for Touchstone, he is introduced in order to mock at everybody – yet his sophisticated court mockery is itself mocked by the dignity with which Corin speaks for honest country values.

The characters invented by Shakespeare may be described as ‘counter-voices’. Lodge’s story is controlled by a narratorial voice which leads the reader to make discriminations and moral judgements. Shakespeare’s dramatic form means that there is no single authorial voice; the play’s succession of mockings, ironic juxtapositions and unresolved debates render its world ‘open’. Even when ‘closure’ is reached with the multiple marriages, Jaques stands off against the resolution. This openness means that ample space is left for the intervention of the audience. We step in to continue the unresolved debates: that is one of the things which makes Shakespeare so performable, so discussable.” (Ch.5)

Later on, Jonathan Bate speaks again of counter-voices when discussing Shakespeare as the central point of world literature: 

“Because he was hardly ever narrowly topical in his own age and culture, Shakespeare has remained topical in other ages and cultures. Because he addresses great political issues rather than local political circumstances, his plays speak to such perennial problems as tyranny and aggressive nationalism. Because his own positions are so elusive, because every one of his voices has its counter-voice – Fluellen his MacMorris, King Harry his Michael Williams, Prospero his Caliban – he has become the voice of many positions.” (Ch.8)

This, I think, is the greatest strength of Shakespeare—not only is there a wide range of voices and points of view across the Shakespeare plays, but in each play, each voice also has a counter-voice. This is why Shakespeare is so popular and appeals to people across the political spectrum. This is why Shakespeare continues to be loved and adapted and analysed today. 

Reading these passages, I can’t help thinking about the bad films or TV series I’ve seen lately—a film or TV drama is similar to a play in that it has no narratorial voice as in a novel, but in some cases, it’s easy to tell that the screenwriter has some underlying moralism, sides with a specific character, and doesn’t give some other character’s lines equal force, and that is the sign of a weak screenwriter. 

Later on in the book, Jonathan Bate writes more about the opposing voices and the appeal to different people: 

“Since the eighteenth century, Shakespeare has been admired above all for two things: the range of his characters and the inventiveness of his language. The two go closely together, for it was by investing so many of his dramatic persons with memorable language that Shakespeare animated more voices than did any of his contemporaries. And because he animated so many opposing voices, he has been able to speak to many later dispositions. 

[…] For Hazlitt, the key to Shakespeare’s genius was his open-mindedness, his lack of egotism, and freedom from bias, his capacity to see both sides of a question and to empathize equally with all.” (ibid.)

Among the writers I’ve read, I think only 2 writers are comparable to Shakespeare in range of characters, and they are Tolstoy and Cao Xueqin. In Hong lou meng, Cao Xueqin seems to depict all kinds of people, of different sexes, of different classes, and from different backgrounds, and he has compassion for them all—there are a few pairs of characters who are similar, but they’re all distinct and lifelike. Hong lou meng makes most novels appear small and limited in comparison, and the author is invisible and self-effacing, not an egotist. But if Cao Xueqin is comparable in terms of range and breadth, he is not in terms of depth and complexity—his characters are not as deep, multifaceted, and self-contradictory as Shakespeare’s or Tolstoy’s characters, with the sole exception of Wang Xifeng. Wang Xifeng is his greatest creation, because there are many sides to her and there can be different responses to her (though if you say you adore her, I’d ask what’s wrong with you). 

Tolstoy can inhabit many different characters’ minds to the extent that I’ve not seen matched by any other novelist, and I think Shakespeare and Tolstoy are the 2 writers with the greatest understanding of human nature and human behaviour. The difference in Tolstoy is his egotism and didacticism—when the artist in him triumphs over the preacher, he is extraordinary, but often you may clash with his narrative voice and his personal views.

To go back to Jonathan Bate’s book, he quotes William Hazlitt:

“The striking peculiarity of Shakspeare’s mind was its generic quality, its power of communication with all other minds – so that it contained a universe of thought and feeling within itself, and had no one peculiar bias, or exclusive excellence more than another. He was just like any other man, but that he was like all other men. He was the least of an egotist that it was possible to be. He was nothing in himself; but he was all that others were, or that they could become. He not only had in himself the germs of every faculty and feeling, but he could follow them by anticipation, intuitively, into all their conceivable ramifications, through every change of fortune or conflict of passion, or turn of thought. He had ‘a mind reflecting ages past,’ and present: – all the people that ever lived are there. There was no respect of persons with him. His genius shone equally on the evil and on the good, on the wise and the foolish, the monarch and the beggar.” (ibid.) 

That’s a great passage. 

If you’re interested in Shakespeare, you should read The Genius of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate. It makes me love Shakespeare even more.