My video of this year's Light Night in Leeds, the largest annual arts and light festival in the UK.
Set the quality to 1080p and enjoy!
This is a Penguin edition, translated by Ronald Wilks.
1/ Writing about Chekhov is difficult, as nothing seems to happen in his stories, and yet…
Take “Verochka” for example. The story is about the last evening of Ognyov in a town, having stayed there for some time to gather statistics, before he returns to St Petersburg. Having said goodbye to his old friend Kuznetsov, he leaves, and on the way, meets Kuznetsov’s daughter Vera, or Verochka. Verochka asks whether they can walk together; he thinks to himself “Why has she come with me? Now I’ll have to see her back”, but it’s a lovely night and he is filled with feeling for both Kuznetsov and Verochka because they’re such kind and wonderful people and he may never see them again.
Nothing seems to happen as they walk and he reminisces about the past, his first day in the town. But something takes over Verochka as he talks about meeting again perhaps in ten years’ time—she seems agitated, and all of a sudden (as it appears to Ognyov), she confesses her love for him.
“The wood, the wisps of mist and the dark ditches on the sides of the path seemed hushed as they listened to her. But in Ognyov’s heart something strange and unpleasant was happening. When she declared her love Verochka had been enchantingly appealing, had spoken nobly and passionately; but now, instead of the pleasure and rejoicing in life that he would have liked to have felt, he experienced nothing but pity for her, pain, and regret that such a fine person should be suffering because of him. […]
And to compound his embarrassment he had absolutely no idea what to say – yet speak he must. To tell her bluntly, ‘I don’t love you’ was beyond him, nor could he bring himself to say ‘Yes’, since for all his soul-searching he could not find one spark of feeling within him…”
The passage for some reason makes me think of “The Kiss”, another great story by Chekhov:
“Ryabovich stood by the door with guests who were not dancing and watched. Not once in his life had he danced, not once had he put his arm round an attractive young woman’s waist. He would usually be absolutely delighted when, with everyone looking on, a man took a young girl he hadn’t met before by the waist and offered his shoulders for her to rest her hands on, but he could never imagine himself in that situation. There had been times when he envied his fellow-officers’ daring and dashing ways and it made him very depressed. […] But over the years this realization had become something of a habit and as he watched his friends dance or talk out loud he no longer envied them but was filled with sadness.”
At the party, Ryabovich wanders and gets lost, and in the dark he is kissed by an unknown girl who mistakes him for someone else. Ryabovich, who has never danced and never put his arm around a young woman’s waist, receives a kiss. The trivial incident is to him significant—he sees the world differently, he daydreams—and yet nothing happens, he can never know who the girl was, his life doesn’t change.
Ognyov seems to be similar. He perhaps doesn’t feel the same kind of loneliness or sadness, but like Ryabovich, he seems not to have had a relationship or experienced love. But when a fine girl does fall in love with him and lets him know, he feels none of the pleasure he would have liked to feel.
“His conscience troubled him and when Verochka disappeared from view it began to dawn on him that he had lost something very precious and close that he would never find again. He felt that with Verochka part of his youth had slipped away and that those moments he had lived through so fruitlessly would never be repeated.
When he reached the bridge he stopped and reflected. He wanted to find the reason for his strange coldness. It did not lie outside, but within him – that was clear. […]
From the bridge he walked slowly, reluctantly as it were, into the wood. Here, where in places sharply outlined patches of moonlight appeared against the impenetrable darkness and where he was aware of nothing but his own thoughts, he longed passionately to recapture what he had lost.”
Nothing changes, his life would go on as before. Ognyov cannot behave otherwise, he cannot force himself to return Verochka’s feelings. And yet he knows he has “lost something very precious and close that he would never find again”.
2/ “The Name-Day Party”, together with “Three Years”, makes me think Chekhov is one of the greatest writers about marriage.
In “The Name-Day Party”, Chekhov focuses on Olga’s perspective at the name-day party for her husband Pyotr. They have become distant—he’s occupied with his personal problems without sharing with her as he once did, and she, heavily pregnant and exhausted, has to be a good hostess and talks to guests she doesn’t care for. The couple can hardly talk, and she bottles up her jealousy and anger and resentment all day only to let it all out when the guests are gone.
“… Expecting her to say more horrible things, he leant hard on the back of the couch, and his whole body looked just as helpless and childish as his smile.
‘Olga, how could you say a thing like that?’ he whispered.
Olga came to her senses. Suddenly she was aware of her mad love for that man, remembering that he was Pyotr, her husband, without whom she could not live one day, and who loved her madly too. She burst into loud sobs, in a voice that did not sound like hers at all, clasped her head and ran back into the bedroom.”
As Chekhov chose to focus on Olga’s perspective, he led us to think that Pyotr’s a terrible, unloving husband—but he isn’t. It’s a poignant moment.
“The Name-Day Party” is one of my favourite Chekhov stories. The childbirth scene from the woman’s perspective is remarkable.
3/ “A Dreary Story”, “Gusev”, and “The Bishop” handle the same theme of dying—death. Others have compared Chekhov and Tolstoy, talking about the lack of epiphany and the rejection of Big Ideas in Chekhov’s stories, so I won’t talk more about it.
But look at this passage from the ending of “A Dreary Story”:
“‘There’s nothing I can tell you, Katya,’ I say.
‘Help me!’ she sobs, seizing my hand and kissing it. ‘You’re my father, my only friend! You’re clever, educated, you’ve lived a long life! You were a teacher once! Tell me what to do!’
‘In all honesty, Katya, I don’t know.’
I am bewildered, embarrassed, moved by her sobbing and I can hardly stand.
‘Let’s have some lunch, Katya,’ I say, forcing a smile. ‘Now stop crying!’
And I immediately add in a sinking voice, ‘Soon I shall be dead, Katya…’
‘Just one word, one word!’ she weeps, stretching out her arms. ‘What can I do?’”
Chekhov, like Tolstoy, often writes about the distance, the gulf between human beings, the inability to truly know and understand another person. He also writes about people not listening to each other. But nothing in Chekhov quite strikes me with as much force as this simple exchange.
4/ “A Dreary Story” is a great story. It hits too close to home, I feel. I see myself in Katya, and Chekhov makes me feel ashamed of my sneering and mockery.
I have always said that Jane Austen has no illusions whatsoever—neither does Chekhov, but his stories can hurt more.
5/ See this passage from “Gusev”:
“The sea is without meaning, without compassion. Had the ship been smaller, had it not been made of thick iron, the waves would have smashed it without any compunction and devoured all the people, with no distinction between saints and sinners. Like the sea, the ship has a mindless, cruel look too. This beaked monster forges ahead and slices millions of waves in her path. She fears neither the dark nor the wind, nor the vast wastes, nor the solitude. It cares for nothing and had people been living in the ocean this monster would have crushed them too, sinners and saints alike.”
My copy mentions in the notes a few lines Chekhov wrote to Suvorin in 1890:
“On the way from Singapore two corpses were thrown into the sea. When you see a dead man wrapped up in canvas, somersaulting into the water, and when you bear in mind that it’s a few miles to the bottom it’s terrifying, and you begin to think that you yourself will die and be thrown into the sea.”
6/ See this line from “The Duel”:
“Ever since [Layevsky] finally made up his mind to go away and abandon Nadezhda she began to arouse pity and guilt in him. He felt rather shamefaced when he was with her, as though she were an old or sick horse that was going to be put down.”
Is that a deliberate allusion to Anna Karenina? Nadezhda has left her husband to live with Layevsky, like Anna leaves Karenin for Vronsky, and Anna Karenina is explicitly referenced twice in Chekhov’s novella.
Nadezhda isn’t Anna however (she probably has more in common with Emma Bovary), and Layevsky isn’t Vronsky.
“The Duel” is an interesting story, in its depiction of clashing temperaments and clashing ideologies. As a great writer, Chekhov gives each character strong arguments and at the same time exposes each one’s weaknesses and cruelties. The most memorable character in it is probably von Koren, the zoologist with extreme ideas about the strong and the weak, but Layevsky is also an interesting character, a superfluous man who blames his own weaknesses on the tenor of the times (note that Turgenev’s Rudin and Fathers and Sons were published in 1856 and 1862 respectively, “The Duel” came out in 1891).
Apart from the Anna Karenina references, Chekhov’s story makes me think of Tolstoy in a few ways—the clashing ideologies, the arguments, the idea about the meaning of life (and something like a moral purpose)—I can see Tolstoy’s influence, though Chekhov here is still his own man. And at the core of “The Duel” is the same theme that keeps appearing in Chekhov: a couple so wrapped up in themselves (and their own shame) that they fail to understand each other.
(Their deceit makes me wonder what it would be like if “The Duel” were instead written by Ibsen—Ibsen’s obsessed with truth and deceit—“The Duel” under his pen would be so different, much colder, I imagine).
I love Chekhov more and more over time.
A few days ago, I received a long message to my blog from someone called Marred, from Greece. He had some questions about Shakespeare and Bloom. To tell the truth, I don’t feel qualified enough to answer, so, with his permission, I’m putting up his message here (with greetings, personal information, and some other details removed) and going to try to answer it the best I can. I’m inviting all friends who are more knowledgeable and articulate (I mean you—Tom, Himadri, Scott, Marly, etc.) to contribute.
“… This email concerns rather a personal tension I am experiencing, one that set a terrible confusion in me in the last few days, partly due to my young age, partly because of my neuroticism. I have read not a word of Shakespeare. In fact, my trade, if one can be called that, is that of painting and print making, with my attempts to write coming secondary. For that explanation, the only thing I can say is that I am not an American, rather a Greek, who is trying to engage in the process of making great art.
[…] You see, while I have not come in contact with the bard's writings, I am very intensely aware of this reputation, so much so that I have read a few books on his status in the Western European mind. The books of Harold Bloom unfortunately were those that I read, ones where the worship of Shakespeare becomes a black hole from which one cannot uncertain what is true or false about him. It is precisely this reputation that has made me immobile. It may sound hyperbolic, and probably is. To stop reading Harold Bloom is probably a wise first step to take, both for me and my psychological health. But I've learned that remaining still with my thoughts can be a very dangerous thing.
The issue is that I am having a hard time trying to engage with literature, at least of the English variety, now that I have become aware of this cultural fact. I am having the deepest and highest trouble with myself, because I think some part of me has accepted the centrality of Shakespeare as the base that all writers, regardless of their background return. He is the spectre that hangs above all writers, and the assumption is that we are all chaff in the end, only retreading his grounds.
Indeed, I went and asked myself what exactly is the central focus of my problem exactly, I think I made a mistake.
I don't think I have a problem with Shakespeare, rather, its with Harold Bloom's hyperbolic claim that Shakespeare 'invented' the human, and his writings on Hamlet. In that regard, I think I need to revise what has been distressing me:
It's not that Shakespeare is the best exactly, or even that there is no way beyond our grasp to redefine the 'Human' that Shakespeare defined. Its bloom's claim that all things lead back to shakespeare, that he is the source of a conception of consciousness that we all embody. It's akin to saying that we are not we, that anything we do is basically already predicted, 'contained' as he said by him, or in another way, that we are Shakespeare's characters. Its an argument that attempting to obliterate my thinking before I even have a chance to reject it. I mean, again, its a bit scary to think that, regardless of anything that I read, I've been undercut/contained by an author 400 years before I was born, and Bloom keeps making this case in religious language.
Again, it sounds asinine in a way, as well as empirically unfalsifiable, but my mind keep freaking out considering how many people have been influenced by Shakespeare, beyond just literature but also in psychoanalysis and stuff. Some stupid part in my brain is dreading Bloom's thesis, even if its silly in the end. […] Maybe its also that I get possessed by the personalities of others sometimes (like with Bloom), and I keep freaking out because some irrational part of my brain goes "he is the truth, you're over".
If I were to pull two quote summarising what is haunting me, its the following```In the end, we're all heirs of the Melancholy Dane and the Fat Knight. When we're wholly human, "we become most like either Hamlet or Falstaff" (745). When we talk about them, we're really talking about ourselves.```
And from a review of the book```What surprises me most about Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is that Bloom surrenders so eagerly to Shakespeare's superiority. Throughout his career Bloom has stoutheartedly struggled against all kinds of political, religious, and cultural dominance-so why not intellectual sovereignty as well? Indeed, intellectual strife, the Emersonian sort, is one of Bloom's dominant tropes. Yet Emerson could say in his journals: "The only objection to Hamlet is that is exists." If Bloom believes William Shakespeare "contains," "encloses," or "circumscribes" him, why is he so uncharacteristically comfortable with the fact? Why doesn't he measure the limits of his and our confinement? If anyone could mastermind the great escape from the Shakespearean dungeon and show us the way to a post-Shakespearean world it would surely be Harold Bloom. Even if he had to tunnel his way out.```
I always thought that western canon was like a church, and through one's hard work, talent, creativity and artistry, one could be accepted in this church as a Saint. It seems now I have become aware that while it's possible to become a Saint, there is in fact a god, from which one is not allowed to criticize or not like, and there is a final altar from which all others will be sacrificed first before they come for the Bard.
My answer to Marred:
The first thing I must get out of the way, which is one of the reasons I don’t feel qualified to answer, is that I love Shakespeare but dislike Bloom.
First of all, let’s see what Bloom means about Shakespeare’s invention of the human.
“In Shakespeare, characters develop rather than unfold, and they develop because they reconceive themselves. Sometimes this comes about because they overhear themselves talking, whether to themselves or to others.”
I don’t know what he means.
“Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us, which is the central argument of this book.”
Again, what is he saying? One of my troubles with Bloom, as I wrote in an earlier blog post, is that I don’t know what he means. He throws out ideas without clarifying them or supporting them with arguments or evidence, so it’s impossible to agree or disagree.
Bloom is right, however, when he says that Shakespeare’s eminence is in a diversity of persons, which is one of Shakespeare’s strengths (though not the only one). Shakespeare creates a wide range of characters, diverse in gender, class, background…, and all distinct. He creates both larger-than-life characters (such as Othello) and characters that feel utterly lifelike and natural (such as Emilia in the same play).
Bloom is also right that his characters are deeper and more complex than the characters of his contemporaries. That’s my impression reading Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, I suppose my thoughts will remain the same when I read other Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, as the general consensus is that Shakespeare is way ahead of everyone else. Marlowe’s and Jonson’s characters are more like types or concepts, they tend to be two-dimensional, without the complexity and contradictions of Shakespeare’s characters.
I haven’t read widely enough to know, Bloom may be right when he compares Shakespeare to his predecessors:
“Literary character before Shakespeare is relatively unchanging; women and men are represented as aging and dying, but not as changing because their relationship to themselves, rather than to the gods or God, has changed.”
Bloom also says:
“What Shakespeare invents are ways of representing human changes, alterations not only caused by flaws and by decay but effected by the will as well, and by the will's temporal vulnerabilities.”
That is perhaps true (if the previous point is true), but I don’t know if that is what Bloom means when he says Shakespeare invents all of us.
“Shakespeare's own playgoers preferred Falstaff and Hamlet to all his other characters, and so do we, because Fat jack and the Prince of Denmark manifest the most comprehensive consciousnesses in all of literature, larger than those of the biblical J Writer's Yahweh, of the Gospel of Mark's Jesus, of Dante the Pilgrim and Chaucer the Pilgrim, of Don Quixote and Esther Summerson, of Proust's narrator and Leopold Bloom. Perhaps indeed it is Falstaff and Hamlet, rather than Shakespeare, who are mortal gods, or perhaps the greatest of wits and the greatest of intellects between them divinized their creator. […] Setting mere morality aside, Falstaff and Hamlet palpably are superior to everyone else whom they, and we, encounter in their plays. This superiority is cognitive, linguistic, and imaginative, but most vitally it is a matter of personality. Falstaff and Hamlet are the greatest of charismatics: they embody the Blessing, in its prime Yahwistic sense of "more life into a time without boundaries" (to appropriate from myself). Heroic vitalists are not larger than life; they are life's largeness.”
I’m not sure that “we” do prefer Hamlet and Falstaff to all of Shakespeare’s characters, and to all characters in general. I’m not sure that “we” think Hamlet and Falstaff are the greatest of wits and greatest of intellects. What about Hal? His wit matches Falstaff’s, he can adapt anywhere and speak anyone’s language and beat everyone at their own game. What about Macbeth? He too is a highly intelligent character, who knows exactly what he is doing and what the consequences would be—he just can’t help himself.
This is like when Bloom discusses Jane Austen in The Western Canon and picks out Anne Elliot from Persuasion as “the one character in all of prose fiction upon whom nothing is lost”, and he doesn’t convince me as to why he singles out Anne Elliot when Fanny Price in Mansfield Park is similar or even more clear-sighted and perceptive.
The reason I want to see what Bloom means about Hamlet and Falstaff is because he says:
“More even than all the other Shakespearean prodigies—Rosalind, Shylock, Iago, Lear, Macbeth, Cleopatra—Falstaff and Hamlet are the invention of the human, the inauguration of personality as we have come to recognize it.”
But why? In what sense? Because I don’t know why Bloom singles out Hamlet and Falstaff, I don’t know what he means about “the invention of the human” and “the inauguration of personality”.
He goes on:
“The idea of Western character, of the self as a moral agent, has many sources: Homer and Plato, Aristotle and Sophocles, the Bible and St. Augustine, Dante and Kant, and all you might care to add. Personality, in our sense, is a Shakespearean invention, and is not only Shakespeare's greatest originality but also the authentic cause of his perpetual pervasiveness. Insofar as we ourselves value, and deplore, our own personalities, we are the heirs of Falstaff and of Hamlet, and of all the other persons who throng Shakespeare's theater of what might be called the colors of the spirit.”
Because I don’t know what “personality, in our sense” means, I can’t argue whether or not it is a Shakespearean invention. Bloom doesn’t explain his meanings.
“Its bloom's claim that all things lead back to shakespeare, that he is the source of a conception of consciousness that we all embody. It's akin to saying that we are not we, that anything we do is basically already predicted, 'contained' as he said by him, or in another way, that we are Shakespeare's characters.”
Let’s see what Bloom says:
“Overfamiliar yet always unknown, the enigma of Hamlet is emblematic of the greater enigma of Shakespeare himself: a vision that is everything and nothing, a person who was (according to Borges) everyone and no one, an art so infinite that it contains us, and will go on enclosing those likely to come after us.”
There are two separate points here. First is the idea that Shakespeare is everything and nothing, everyone and no one. The reason Bloom and many people say this is because Shakespeare depicts so many different types of characters and so many conflicting perspectives, and conflicting sides in each character, that we do not know his real views and opinions. We may notice recurrent themes and obsessions, but because there are always voices and counter-voices, we cannot know what Shakespeare was thinking and whom he was siding with in a particular argument. This is why Shakespeare can appeal to many different dispositions.
Shakespeare is elusive in that sense. Novelists and short story writers can never be completely invisible, because of narrators. Playwrights have the advantage of presenting characters as they are, through dialogue, but I still see Marlowe and Jonson, I still see Ibsen, whereas I cannot see Shakespeare. Shakespeare is elusive also because he writes a wide range of plays: there are comedies and tragedies and histories and romances and problem plays, and within each genre, the plays are still very different. Among comedies, The Comedy of Errors is a farce, Much Ado About Nothing is a romantic comedy, As You Like It is a pastoral comedy, Love’s Labour’s Lost has verbal humour and an uncharacteristic ending (not a happy ending), A Midsummer Night’s Dream is whimsical and has fairytale elements, and so on. Among tragedies, King Lear is different from Macbeth, different from Hamlet, etc. Compare, for example, the unconsoling vision of the apocalypse in King Lear to the vision in Antony and Cleopatra, where two ordinary, flawed characters somehow gain a nobility and even a god-like status in the last two acts of the play. Or place it next to the fairytale of The Tempest, written a few years after.
The second point in the passage is “an art so infinite that it contains us”. It doesn’t mean that we are Shakespeare’s characters or that anything we do is predicted by him. You may say that his art “contains us” in the sense that Shakespeare has such large visions and such a wide range that all types of people, all kinds of things seem to be depicted in his plays.
As for Bloom’s idea that all things lead back to Shakespeare, in a way, he has a point. Shakespeare is the central point of world literature. The Genius of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate is very good if you want to read more about Shakespeare’s influence beyond Britain, and influence on other art forms.
But I also want to know writers, perhaps outside the West, who never knew Shakespeare. Cao Xueqin for example couldn’t have known Shakespeare because he was in 18th century China, but his novel also depicted a wide range of characters. Admittedly they were nowhere near the complexity and depth of Shakespeare’s characters, but there was an admirably wide range, the characters were all distinct, and felt real. This is a fascinating subject that I don’t think Bloom writes about.
Regarding the last point in the message, I tend to dislike it when some readers carelessly dismiss Shakespeare—not because he’s a god, but because I have the same attitude about classic literature, I think people should have more humility and try harder when a work of art has lasted for so long and influenced generations of writers. In the case of Shakespeare, his importance is immense, and it’s not without reasons.
My last, but most important, point is that I think you should read Shakespeare, with the company of some good critics such as Tony Tanner or G. Wilson Knight. Don’t worry about Bloom, at least until you have read Shakespeare for yourself. You should read the plays, then watch some good productions (I can recommend a few if you’re interested).
That’s my answer. I hope my more knowledgeable friends may have some more to say.
1/ For a long time, I knew about “King Lear with a happy ending” but didn’t know, until reading Maynard Mack’s King Lear in Our Time, that Nahum Tate not only changed the ending but wholly rewrote the play, and that his version dominated the stage from 1681 to 1838!
So how did Tate change the play?
“... invent a love affair between Cordelia and Edgar, to omit France and Lear’s Fool, to give Cordelia a waiting woman named Arante, to supply a happy ending, and to omit, conflate, and rearrange Shakespeare’s scenes while rewriting (and reassigning) a good deal of his blank verse.” (Ch.1)
“In his version Cordelia is abducted by ruffians at the command of Edmund, who intends to rape her. The ruffians are driven off by Edgar in his Poor Tom disguise—upon which, he reveals himself and receives avowal of his beloved’s affection.” (ibid.)
The other goal of Tate’s changes was to clarify motivations.
“… Tate’s Cordelia consciously tempts her father to leave her dowerless in order that Burgundy may refuse her (Tate’s play, as noted, omits the King of France altogether), and that Tate’s Edgar, whom after her own rejection Cordelia unexpectedly rejects that she may test his devotion, determines to disguise himself (rather than make away with himself in his lover’s despair) on the chance that he may yet be of service to her. […] Edmund’s deception of his brother takes place while Edgar is in a brown study induced by Cordelia’s rejection of his love and hardly follows what his brother says.”(ibid.)
I should read the text myself to judge, but it sounds so… wrong. Tate’s King Lear may be good—after all, it was favoured by the stage for over 150 years—but I doubt it can have the overwhelming and devastating power of Shakespeare’s play.
Think of the scene in the storm. Think of Gloucester’s line “As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’ gods/ They kill us for their sport.” Think of the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia, “If you have poison for me, I will drink it.” Think of the unbearable ending:
“KENT Is this the promised end?
EDGAR Or image of that horror?”
(Act 5 scene 3)
I cannot explain Shakespeare’s power: we all know what happens in the end, and yet, when Lear and Cordelia reunite, there’s still some illusion, something like a glimpse of hope, as though this could this time turn out all right, then the ending comes as a shock, a terrible shock. It breaks your heart.
The strange thing is that only Shakespeare killed Cordelia—she didn’t die (right then) in the legend of King Leir of Britain; she didn’t die in the anonymous Elizabethan play King Leir; she didn’t die in Nahum Tate’s version—but somehow when I think of King Lear with a happy ending, where Cordelia survives and Lear is reinstated and justice is restored, I cannot help thinking, so what? There should be a sense of satisfaction, of poetic justice, when evil loses and good triumphs, and yet to me, there’s a sense of “so what? that’s not life”. Shakespeare’s play is about a king who has to lose everything, all of his “lendings”, to learn what it is to be human—and as he does, so do we. Derived of titles and power, Lear is like everyone else, and he is powerless, unable to save Cordelia. Edgar says “The gods are just” and all characters refer to the gods throughout the play, but where are they?
Shakespeare borrows the story of Leir and his daughters to do something else, to tell a different story, so when Nahum Tate changes a few characters and creates a happy ending, it becomes a completely different story that has nothing to do with Shakespeare. Kurosawa’s Ran is closer to King Lear in vision.
Maynard Mack mentions another of Tate’s changes:
“Gloucester’s incriminating letter “guessingly set down” and sent by “one that’s of a neutral heart/ And not from one oppos’d” becomes in Tate some despatches Gloucester has himself addressed to the Duke of Cambrai, urging help against the sisters, and thus gives Cornwall a more acceptable motive for his cruelty to the old man…” (Ch.1, King Lear in Our Time)
Again, this sounds wrong.
But it is not only Nahum Tate or the 17th century. In the book, Maynard Mack also writes about staging King Lear in the 20th century, and the problem with subtext: subtext can be a useful concept for directing and acting, but sometimes it can be a problem. For example, he writes about a production in which Lear’s people cause uproar and chaos at Goneril’s house, which gives her a motive for arguing with Lear and wanting to reduce his train. But why must there be a motive for Goneril? Goneril and Regan are cruel because they are. Some people (such as Tolstoy) complain about the lack of motivations in Shakespeare, but that’s precisely why his plays and characters continue to appeal and fascinate today: we can ask if there’s “any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts” the same way we ask about Hamlet’s delay or Iago’s evil or Leontes’s jealousy, but Shakespeare knows motivations are complex and often unknowable, and that there need to be no motivations for evil.
Goneril and Regan are evil because they are. Letting Goneril be right in her argument with Lear is against the spirit of the play.
2/ After rereading King Lear, I’ve watched twice the 2016 production of King Lear with Don Warrington in the title role.
It is excellent.
Before watching it, I checked out the RSC production with Antony Sher, but stopped after a few minutes because I didn’t really like the cast.
The 2016 one, directed by Michael Buffong, is excellent. Many of the actors are black but they play it straight, not making a point about being black, and the best of the cast are Don Warrington as Lear, Rakie Ayola as Goneril, and Debbie Korley as Regan. I also like Miltos Yerolemou as the Fool, and Thomas Coombes as Oswald—the way the actors play Goneril and Oswald in Act 1 scene 3 is interesting, I didn’t quite read the scene that way but it made sense that Goneril’s involved with Oswald.
The only actor I don’t like is Fraser Ayres as Edmund—I don’t really like his acting, and whilst Edmund doesn’t have to be attractive to the point of being likable to the audience, it’s very hard to see what Goneril and Regan see in this Edmund. But that’s it.
As Lear, Don Warrington is magnificent. In him, I see both a king—or one who was once a king and had authority—and a tottering parent; I see both a man who has lost his wits, and one who has gained a vision and understanding that once eluded him; I see both a raging, bitter, misogynistic man and a foolish old man, abandoned by his own children. And in the end, the pain! The anguish! It’s hard to imagine a better Lear.
If you haven’t watched it, you must.
What can I possibly say about King Lear that hasn’t been said over the past 4 centuries? But I’m going to try anyway, and try to poke at it from different angles, because I first read King Lear several years ago at Universitetet i Oslo and didn’t like it very much at the time, and this is a rereading.
1/ I notice that Edmund uses a similar technique with Gloucester as Iago has used to manipulate Othello: he throws out something to get him intrigued, then pretends that it’s nothing or that he shouldn’t say, to make the listener more and more curious, then offers some fake proof and manipulates him in a subtle way. Contrast them both with Don John in Much Ado About Nothing: Don John is more direct and not so subtle, but he has a collaborator to add to his story, and also offers something that looks like more proof.
Edmund and Iago are more similar, but unlike Iago, Edmund has his causes.
“EDMUND Thou, Nature, art my goddess, to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelfth or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? With baseness? Bastardy? Base? Base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to th’ creating a whole tribe of fops
Got ‘tween asleep and awake? […]
Now, gods, stand up for bastards.”
(Act 1 scene 2)
That is a great soliloquy. He is justifying his anger and his scheme, and he is convincing. I note that Edmund addresses Nature and gods, and later on Lear also addresses Nature and goddess when cursing Goneril.
“LEAR […] Hear, Nature, hear; dear Goddess, hear:
Suspend thy purpose of thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful.
Into her womb convey sterility.
Dry up in her the organs of increase,
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honor her. If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen, that it may live
And be a thwart disnatured torment to her.
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child. Away, away!”
(Act 1 scene 4)
That’s quite a curse (a bit much, no?). Ungrateful and despicable as Goneril is, I can’t help thinking that this says something about Lear.
I put these 2 passages next to each other because it’s interesting that both Edmund (the betrayer) and Lear (the betrayed) think Nature is on their sides.
The word “nature” (with its derivatives “natural” and “unnatural”) and “nothing” seem to be the 2 central words in King Lear, appearing over and over again throughout the play.
2/ More of Lear’s curses.
“LEAR You nimble lightnings, dart your blinding flames
Into her scornful eyes! Infect her beauty,
You fen-sucked fogs, drawn by the pow’rful sun,
To all and blister her pride.
REGAN O the blest gods!
So will you wish on me when the rash mood is on.”
(Act 2 scene 4)
Later in the same scene, when Goneril is present, he calls her “a disease that’s in my flesh”, “a boil/ A plague-sore, or embossèd carbuncle/ In my corrupted blood”. This is horrific—it’s hard to read these lines and not think there’s a misogynist in Lear. I’m not defending Goneril and Regan—their villainy and cruelty need not be stated—but Lear’s language is graphic and his curses heavily focus on the body, the female body.
I also can’t help wondering, how was Lear as a king, before renouncing his power? How was he as a father?
3/ See the thunderstorm.
“KENT […] Things that love night
Love not such nights as these. The wrathful skies
Gallow the very wanderers of the dark
And make them keep their caves. Since I was man,
Such sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid thunder,
Such groans of roaring wind and rain, I never
Remember to have heard. Man’s nature cannot carry
Th’ affliction nor the fear.”
(Act 3 scene 2)
The scene matches, and exceeds, the intensity of the scene of Faustus in hell. Again Lear addresses Nature, but this time it’s different.
“LEAR Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks.
You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head. And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world,
Crack Nature’s molds, all gremains spill at once,
That makes ingrateful man.”
This is no longer hatred of one person—Lear is raging against the whole world. It is significant (though Tolstoy doesn’t think so) that Shakespeare creates the subplot of Gloucester, Edmund, and Edgar: Lear’s plight is not the plight of a single man.
Interestingly, I found this on Wikipedia:
“Edmund and Edgar were also the names of the sons of Malcolm III of Scotland who killed Macbeth. Historically Edmund of Scotland had betrayed his immediate family to support his uncle Donald III. Following the death of Malcolm III from being stabbed in the eye, they ordered the killing of Edmund's half brother Duncan II, the rightful heir, to take the Scottish throne. Edgar, Edmund's younger brother, then returned to Scotland and defeated them to become King. Edmund was then sent to an English monastery where he later died. Due to these clear parallels the choice of Edmund and Edgar as names may have been a nod by Shakespeare to the continued story of the Scottish throne following the events of Macbeth.”
Macbeth is dated after King Lear though.
4/ One of the (silly) complaints Tolstoy makes about King Lear is that the characters don’t act the way they should (i.e. realistically) and don’t talk in a natural way. I notice that in the scene where Lear, Kent, and the Fool enter the hovel to hide from the storm, the Fool is rather quiet and barely jokes—is that not realistic?
5/ I think in my first reading of King Lear several years ago, I missed the significance of the idea of necessities.
Lear gives away his authority and power, and makes himself dependent on the kindness of his daughters Goneril and Regan, but still keeps 100 men. Goneril wants to reduce that by half, then causes trouble to make him leave, whereas Regan insists that she wouldn’t accept more than 25 men at her place. They ask him why he would need more than 25 of his own men, when he can be served by Goneril’s or Regan’s servants.
“LEAR O reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady:
I only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm…”
(Act 2 scene 4)
There is a storm outside but the daughters don’t budge, so Lear leaves in a rage (dare I say… Lear storms out?). The cruel Regan orders to have the doors shut.
In the open heath in the storm and tempest, Lear’s idea of necessities is slightly changed. Kent suggests seeking shelter in a hovel. Lear turns to the Fool:
“LEAR […] Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold?
I am cold myself. Where is this straw, my fellow?
The art of our necessities is strange,
That can make vile things precious.”
(Act 3 scene 2)
In the hovel, Lear comes across Edgar, who is hiding from Gloucester’s men and disguising himself as mad Tom o’ Bedlam. Edgar is almost naked, having only some cloth to cover himself, and lives in the hovel.
“LEAR Thou wert better in a grave than to answer with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies. Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou ow’st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! here’s three on’s are sophisticated. Thou are the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! Come, unbutton here.
[Tearing off his clothes]”
(Act 3 scene 4)
(You may notice where the title of my graduation film No More Than This came from).
From the question of necessities, Shakespeare leads to the big question: What is it to be human? The betrayal, the loss, the suffering force Lear to see things and ask questions that never bothered him before, when he was king and everything revolved around him.
Now compare this scene to the scene in the hut in Ran (Kurosawa’s loose adaptation of King Lear): the effect is very different that in Ran, the emperor Hidetora (now stripped off everything) meets a young man whom he himself blinded and whose family he killed. Hidetora is forced to face his own cruelties in the past, and feels guilt and remorse. In Shakespeare’s play, Lear meets Edgar and the encounter changes them both: Lear sees Edgar and asks “Is man no more than this?”; Edgar sees Lear suffering, and thinks “How light and portable my pain seems now”; they feel compassion for each other, and for all of humanity.
6/ Evil in King Lear is extreme. When Goneril and Regan and others discover that Gloucester is a traitor, wanting to reinstate Lear to the throne:
“REGAN Hang him instantly.
GONERIL Pluck out his eyes.”
(Act 3 scene 7)
Having gouged out his eyes, Regan says:
“REGAN Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell
His way to Dover.”
It is a horrible scene, I shuddered at that line. Earlier Lear asks:
“LEAR […] Is there any cause in nature that make these hard hearts?”
(Act 3 scene 6)
But he probably can’t imagine how evil his daughters can be. But where are the gods?
“GLOUCESTER […] As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport.”
(Act 4 scene 1)
It’s no surprise that Goneril and Regan turn against each other.
7/ The scene of Goneril and her husband Albany in Act 4 scene 2 reminds me of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. Goneril calls Albany “milk-livered man”, Lady Macbeth refers to Macbeth’s “milk of human kindness”.
I’ve never thought about how Shakespeare went from King Lear to Macbeth: there are similar themes, King Lear has a cosmic vision whereas in Macbeth, Shakespeare digs deeper into the mind; King Lear presents a vision of apocalypse, a world where all bonds are broken and things turn upside down, where father turns away daughter, brother turns against brother, daughters abandon father, son betrays father, servant turns against master, husband and wife fall out, sisters become jealous of each other, and so on, whereas Macbeth depicts the two main characters losing their soul and suffering the torments of hell on earth.
Lady Macbeth feels great guilt, Goneril and Regan are more evil.
Now I’m idly wondering if it was the same boy actor in Shakespeare’s company who played both Lady Macbeth and either Goneril or Regan. Must have been.
8/ In Act 4 scene 6, when the mad Lear appears in the field and starts rambling in front of Edgar and Gloucester, we get an idea of what it was like when he was king and everything revolved around him, and how much of a fall it has been after he gave away all power. It’s no wonder that this is his reaction earlier when Goneril starts treating him differently.
“LEAR Does any here know me? This is not Lear.
Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, or his discernings
Are lethargied—Ha! Waking? ‘Tis not so.
Who is it that can tell me who I am?”
(Act 1 scene 4)
But for me, the ramblings raise 2 questions. Firstly, what happened to Lear’s wife? There’s no mention of her. What was she like?
Secondly, let’s look at this rant against women:
“LEAR […] Behold yond simp’ring dame,
Whose face between her forks presages snow,
That minces virtue and does shake the head
To hear of pleasure’s name.
The fitchew, nor the soilèd horse, goes to ‘t
With a more riotous appetite.
Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above:
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiend’s.
There’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous pit,
Burning, scalding, stench, consumption; fie, fie, fie! pah, pah! Give me an once of civet; good apothecary, sweeten my imagination: there’s money for thee.”
(Act 4 scene 6)
(fitchew= polecat, and slang for prostitute; soilèd= put to pasture, and hence wanton with feeding; Centaurs= lustful creatures, half man and half horse)
Why this rant against women? The undeniably evil Goneril and Regan are women, but so is good Cordelia. Why does Lear have such obsession, such disgust with the female body?
I don’t buy the cheap explanation that the misogyny is Shakespeare’s—I have read, so far, 22 Shakespeare plays. So where does it come from?
9/ This is one of the most moving exchanges in literature.
“LEAR Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray, weep not.
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me, for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.
You have some cause, they have not.
CORDELIA No cause, no cause.”
(Act 4 scene 7)
The final scene, the final scene is heart-rending. That moment of Lear with Cordelia’s dead body:
“LEAR And my poor fool is hanged: no, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life?
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never…”
(Act 5 scene 3)
That made me cry. This and Desdemona’s death must be the most unbearable deaths in literature.
I love the play.
I’ve been to sea with Herman Melville a few times: on a whaler (Moby Dick), on a man-of-war (White-Jacket), and now on a merchant ship.
Redburn is one of the two books Melville wrote for money after Mardi and (2 years) before Moby Dick, but it’s not an angry book like White-Jacket. Compared to both Moby Dick and White-Jacket, it is plainer, more straightforward, with more of a plot.
“It was early on a raw, cold, damp morning toward the end of spring, and the world was before me; stretching away a long muddy road, lined with comfortable houses, whose inmates were taking their sunrise naps, heedless of the wayfarer passing. The cold drops of drizzle trickled down my leather cap, and mingled with a few hot tears on my cheeks.” (Ch.2)
“Talk not of the bitterness of middle-age and after life; a boy can feel all that, and much more, when upon his young soul the mildew has fallen; and the fruit, which with others is only blasted after ripeness, with him is nipped in the first blossom and bud. And never again can such blights be made good; they strike in too deep, and leave such a scar that the air of Paradise might not erase it. And it is a hard and cruel thing thus in early youth to taste beforehand the pangs which should be reserved for the stout time of manhood, when the gristle has become bone, and we stand up and fight out our lives, as a thing tried before and foreseen; for then we are veterans used to sieges and battles, and not green recruits, recoiling at the first shock of the encounter.” (ibid.)
That of course is not plain prose—we’re talking about Melville—but place it next to Moby Dick and you’ll see what I mean. The first passage however reminds me of “a damp, drizzly November in my soul”. Moby Dick fans may like this:
“But though I kept thus quiet, and had very little to say, and well knew that my best plan was to get along peaceably with every body, and indeed endure a good deal before showing fight, yet I could not avoid Jackson’s evil eye, nor escape his bitter enmity. And his being my foe, set many of the rest against me; or at least they were afraid to speak out for me before Jackson; so that at last I found myself a sort of Ishmael in the ship, without a single friend or companion; and I began to feel a hatred growing up in me against the whole crew—so much so, that I prayed against it, that it might not master my heart completely, and so make a fiend of me, something like Jackson.” (Ch.12)
“A sort of Ishmael”! As for Jackson, that’s an important character in the novel, I may blog about him later.
Some of the best passages in Redburn are about the ocean:
“And truly, though we were at sea, there was much to behold and wonder at; to me, who was on my first voyage. What most amazed me was the sight of the great ocean itself, for we were out of sight of land. All round us, on both sides of the ship, ahead and astern, nothing was to be seen but water—water—water; not a single glimpse of green shore, not the smallest island, or speck of moss any where. Never did I realize till now what the ocean was: how grand and majestic, how solitary, and boundless, and beautiful and blue; for that day it gave no tokens of squalls or hurricanes, such as I had heard my father tell of; nor could I imagine, how any thing that seemed so playful and placid, could be lashed into rage, and troubled into rolling avalanches of foam, and great cascades of waves, such as I saw in the end.
As I looked at it so mild and sunny, I could not help calling to mind my little brother’s face, when he was sleeping an infant in the cradle. It had just such a happy, careless, innocent look; and every happy little wave seemed gamboling about like a thoughtless little kid in a pasture; and seemed to look up in your face as it passed, as if it wanted to be patted and caressed. They seemed all live things with hearts in them, that could feel; and I almost felt grieved, as we sailed in among them, scattering them under our broad bows in sun-flakes, and riding over them like a great elephant among lambs. But what seemed perhaps the most strange to me of all, was a certain wonderful rising and falling of the sea; I do not mean the waves themselves, but a sort of wide heaving and swelling and sinking all over the ocean. It was something I can not very well describe; but I know very well what it was, and how it affected me. It made me almost dizzy to look at it; and yet I could not keep my eyes off it, it seemed so passing strange and wonderful.” (Ch.12)
Wellingborough Redburn is no Ishmael, but in such passages, he does sound like Ishmael, in his sense of wonder and his love of the ocean. This is even better:
“Yes! yes! give me this glorious ocean life, this salt-sea life, this briny, foamy life, when the sea neighs and snorts, and you breathe the very breath that the great whales respire! Let me roll around the globe, let me rock upon the sea; let me race and pant out my life, with an eternal breeze astern, and an endless sea before!” (Ch.13)
That passage would fit right in Moby Dick. Ishmael’s voice is one of the reasons I love the book.
“I must now run back a little, and tell of my first going aloft at middle watch, when the sea was quite calm, and the breeze was mild.
The order was given to loose the main-skysail, which is the fifth and highest sail from deck. It was a very small sail, and from the forecastle looked no bigger than a cambric pocket-handkerchief. But I have heard that some ships carry still smaller sails, above the skysail; called moon-sails, and skyscrapers, and cloud-rakers. But I shall not believe in them till I see them; a skysail seems high enough in all conscience; and the idea of any thing higher than that, seems preposterous. Besides, it looks almost like tempting heaven, to brush the very firmament so, and almost put the eyes of the stars out; when a flaw of wind, too, might very soon take the conceit out of these cloud-defying cloud-rakers.” (Ch.16)
I love that: “tempting heaven”.
Now look at this passage about fog:
“What is this that we sail through? What palpable obscure? What smoke and reek, as if the whole steaming world were revolving on its axis, as a spit?
It is a Newfoundland Fog; and we are yet crossing the Grand Banks, wrapt in a mist, that no London in the Novemberest November ever equaled. The chronometer pronounced it noon; but do you call this midnight or midday? So dense is the fog, that though we have a fair wind, we shorten sail for fear of accidents; and not only that, but here am I, poor Wellingborough, mounted aloft on a sort of belfry, the top of the “Sampson-Post,” a lofty tower of timber, so called; and tolling the ship’s bell, as if for a funeral.
This is intended to proclaim our approach, and warn all strangers from our track.
Dreary sound! toll, toll, toll, through the dismal mist and fog.
[…] A better device than the bell, however, was once pitched upon by an ingenious sea-captain, of whom I have heard. He had a litter of young porkers on board; and while sailing through the fog, he stationed men at both ends of the pen with long poles, wherewith they incessantly stirred up and irritated the porkers, who split the air with their squeals; and no doubt saved the ship, as the geese saved the Capitol.” (Ch.20)
Redburn is more straightforward and Melville himself didn’t think much of it, but in passages such as these, the book approaches the greatness of Moby Dick.
This essay is in The Crown of Life.
“Prospero is a composite of many Shakespearian heroes; not in ‘character’ , since there is no one quite like him elsewhere, but rather in his fortunes and the part he plays. As a sovereign wrongfully dethroned he carries the overtones of tragic royalty enjoyed by Richard II. Ejected from his dukedom by a wicked brother […] he is placed, too, like the unfortunate Duke in As You Like It and as Don Pedro might have been placed had don John’s rebellion succeeded in Much Ado About Nothing. Clarence, Orlando and Edgar suffer from similar betrayals.”
Here Knight writes about ingratitude and the sense of desertion and betrayal that runs through many Shakespeare plays. It seems to be one of Shakespeare’s obsessions.
“Prospero, like Timon and Bellarius—for Bellarius is another, driven to the mountains by the ingratitude of Cymberline—lives (presumably) in a cave; like Timon, by the sea.
He is akin, too, to all princes whose depth of understanding accompanies or succeeds political failure: to Hamlet, Brutus, Richard II, Henry VI. […] Prospero is in straight descent from those other impractical governors, Agamemnon in Troilus and Cressida […]; and Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, in Measure for Measure, whose depth of study and psychological insight make execution of justice impossible. All these are in Prospero; while the surrounding action, both serious and comic, condenses the whole of Shakespeare’s political wisdom.”
I think the character closest to Prospero is Vincentio—both manipulate the plot, like a god.
“Prospero epitomizes nearly all Shakespeare’s most important tragic persons and experiences, and all of political enlightenment and magic, plot-directing power: he is a blend of Theseus and Oberon. He cannot be expected to do more than typify; there is not time; and, as a person, he is, no doubt, less warm, less richly human, than most of his poetic ancestors. But only if we recognize his inclusiveness, his summing of nearly all Shakespeare’s most eminent persons, shall we understand clearly what he is about. […] Prospero is controlling, not merely a Shakespearian play, but the Shakespearian world. He is thus automatically in the position of Shakespeare himself, and it is accordingly inevitable that he should often speak as with Shakespeare’s voice.”
That is a bold statement, but Knight isn’t alone in associating Prospero with Shakespeare. After all, lots of critics read Prospero’s “I’ll drown my book” speech as the playwright saying farewell to theatre.
Next he links Ariel to characters in other Shakespeare plays, and says:
“… [Ariel] personifies these subtle and overruling powers of the imagination, he becomes automatically a personification of poetry itself. […] He is the poetic medium, whatever the subject handled, his powers ranging over the earthy and the ethereal, tragic and lyric, with equal ease.”
Is that mad? I think it makes sense.
“He is Prospero’s instrument in controlling and developing the action. […] He is Prospero’s stage-manager; more, he is the enactor of Prospero’s conception: Prospero is the artist, Ariel the art.”
I’m cutting a lot out and keeping the main points, you have to read the entire essay to see Knight’s arguments. But what about Caliban? you ask.
“Caliban condenses Shakespeare’s concern, comical or satiric, with the animal aspect of man…”
This is followed by a rather long passage, full of arguments and comparisons to other characters in Shakespeare, that I’m too lazy to type. Then Knight says:
“In him is the ugliness of sexual appetite from Lucrece onwards, and also the ugliness vice raises in those who too much detest it, the ugliness of hatred itself and loathing, the ugliness of Leontes. Man, savage, ape, water-beast, dragon, semi-devil—Caliban is all of them; and because he so condenses masses of great poetry, is himself beautiful. He is the physical as opposed to the spiritual; earth and water as opposed to air and fire. That he may, like Ariel, be considered in closest relation to Prospero himself is witness by Prospero’s admission: ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’ (V.i.275).”
This is much more interesting than the reading of Ariel and Caliban as the intelligent slave and the not-so-intelligent slave.
“Prospero uses his tempest-magic to draw his enemies to the island, and there renders them harmless. He wrecks and saves, teaches through disaster, entices and leads by music, getting them utterly under his power, redeeming and finally forgiving. What are the Shakespearian analogies? The poet himself labours to master and assimilate that unassuaged bitterness and sense of rejection so normal a lot to humanity (hence the popularity of Hamlet) by drawing the hostile elements within his own world of artistic creation; and this he does mainly through tragedy and its thunderous music; and by seeing that, in spite of logic, his creation is good. By destroying his protagonists, he renders them deathless; by expressing evil, in others and in himself, he renders it innocent. And throughout this tumult of creative activity, turning every grief to a star, making of his very loathing something ‘rich and strange’, there is a danger: a certain centre of faith or love must be preserved, this centre at least kept free from the taint of that rich, wild, earthy, lustful, violent, cursing, slimy yet glittering thing that is creation itself, or Caliban; that uses cynicism (born of the knowledge of lust) to ruin Desdemona, though not Othello’s love for her; that tries in vain, but only just in vain, to make of Timon an Apemantus. Therefore Prospero keeps Miranda intact, though threatened by Caliban…”
The interpretation of Prospero as Shakespeare is also more attractive because the epilogue is spoken by Prospero. This doesn’t mean that The Tempest has just one meaning—it is a rich play and there are many interpretations, G. Wilson Knight himself also offers a political reading of the play, and mentions the interpretation of Prospero as God and the shipwreck as the tragic destiny of humankind. But this is interesting nevertheless.
What do you think?
(I’m probably doing the essay injustice, throwing out certain bits like this—you must read all of it yourself).
After The Wheel of Fire, I’ve been reading The Crown of Life, G. Wilson Knight’s book about Shakespeare’s late plays (the 4 romance plays and Henry VIII). As expected, it is excellent.
This is him on Leontes’s evil:
“His evil is self-born and unmotivated. Commentators have searched in vain for ‘motives’ to explain the soul-states and actions of Hamlet, Iago and Macbeth, without realizing that the poet is concerned not with trivialities, but with evil itself, whose cause remains as dark as theology; given a ‘sufficient’ motive, the thing to be studied vanishes. In Leontes we have a study of evil yet more coherent, realistic and compact; a study of almost demonic possession.”
As written in my blog post about The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare, when borrowing from Robert Greene’s Pandosto, cuts out the beginning and the development and throws us right into the middle of the madness. The lack of motivation makes Leontes a lot more interesting.
Back to Knight:
“Leontes dimply recognizes that he is behaving as a tyrant, using position and power to bolster up and enforce on others a disease in himself. […] He is insecure enough to want support, would convince himself of ‘natural goodness’; but failing support, will go his own way. […]
In the full flood of anger, when his lords kneel, imploring him to spare the new-born child, he is indecisive and gives ground, muttering: ‘I am a feather for each wind that blows’ (II.iii.153). We cannot admire him, as we admire Richard III, the later Macbeth, and Milton’s Satan, for a whole-hearted Satanism. Nor can we sympathize, as with Othello. The emotion aroused is rather a stern pity. He himself knows that to be mistaken in such a matter were ‘piteous’ (II.i.181; cp. Also III.ii.235). More, it is almost comic: Antigonus suggests that the public scandal will raise everyone ‘to laughter’ (II.i.197). Indeed, of all Shakespeare’s jealous husbands Leontes is nearest to Ford, existing in almost comic objectivity, though without one atom’s loss of tragic intensity. We have in him a sharp personification of the blend so obvious in the wider design.”
I have not thought of it that way. Knight writes at length about tyranny and superstition (also in Richard III and Macbeth), about evil, about childhood as a redeeming force, about nature, etc. The entire essay should be read, I’m just picking out some passages I find particularly interesting.
“No full-length Shakespearean tragedy reaches the intensity of these three acts: they move with a whirling, sickening, speed. Leontes is more complex than Othello as a study of jealousy and more realistically convincing than Macbeth as a study of evil possession. In him are blended the Renaissance, man-born, evil projected through Iago and the medieval supernaturalism of the Weird Sisters. He and his story also include both the personal, family, interest of Othello and the communal, tyrannic, theme of Macbeth, whilst defining their relation; that is, the relation of emotional and sexual unhealthy to tyranny; hence the repeated emphasis here on ‘tyrant’ and the opposing concepts of justice and constitutional law.”
Do I agree with the first sentence? Perhaps, I’m not sure. But it’s interesting that Knight links The Winter’s Tale to not only Othello (which is obvious) but also Macbeth—he has a point. As a side note, that does (partly) explain why I love The Winter’s Tale, as Macbeth and Othello (together with Measure for Measure) are the Shakespeare plays that obsess me the most.
In the second section of the essay, G. Wilson Knight writes about the second part of The Winter’s Tale—the pastoral part. Some readers may complain about the change in mode and what they perceive as a lack of unity, but Knight doesn’t.
“Shakespeare’s genius is labouring to pit his own more positive intuitions, expressed hitherto mainly through happy-ending romance and comedy, against tragedy: they are to work as redeeming forces.”
He writes about Autolycus, the sheep-shearing scene, and the romance, and says:
“The sun has not been so honoured before. We have known the moon-silvered encounters of Romeo and Juliet and glimmering tangles of the ‘wood near Athens’; also the cypress shadows of Twelfth Night and chequered glades of Arden; but never before, not even in Antony and Cleopatra—a necessary step, where sun-warmth was, however, felt mainly through description, the action itself searching rather for ‘gaudy’ (III.xi.182) or moonlight nights—never before has the sun been so dramatically awakened, so close to us, as here; and there is a corresponding advance in love poetry, compassing, though with no loss of magic, strong fertility suggestion and a new, daylight assurance.”
The joy of reading a brilliant critic like G. Wilson Knight is that he helps me notice things to which I didn’t pay much attention. The idea of Perdita’s royal blood is repeated several times and has great significance (“Nothing she does or seems/ But smacks of something greater than herself/ Too noble for this place”).
“But this is not the whole truth. Later, after Polixenes’ outburst, she herself makes a comment more easily appreciated in our age than in Shakespeare’s:
I was not much afeard; for once or twice
I was about to speak and tell him plainly,
The self-same sun that shines upon his court
Hides not his visage from our cottage, but
Looks on alike.
The lovely New Testament transposition (with ‘sun’ for ‘rain’) serves to underline the natural excellence and innate worth of this simple rustic community; and only from some such recognition can we make full of sense of the phrase ‘queen of curds and cream’ (IV.iii.161). We may accordingly re-group our three royalties in terms of (i) Perdita’s actual descent, (ii) her natural excellence and (iii) that more inclusive category from which both descend, or to which both aspire, in the eternity-dimension.”
That is interesting.
In this section, Knight also writes about Autolycus and I don’t really agree with his view of Autolycus and the “unnecessarily cruel turn”, but that’s largely because I don’t find the early Autolycus particularly likable and sympathetic. My sympathy, from the start, is with the shepherd’s son (the clown) and against Autolycus. I also don’t agree with Knight’s view of Falstaff: he is right that Falstaff is less amusing in Henry IV, Part 2, but to me that isn’t a fault—part of Falstaff is killed when he’s rejected by Hal. It is a great play, it just has different qualities compared to Part 1.
The last section of the chapter is about the final scene of The Winter’s Tale, and about the play as a whole. It is brilliant, but I won’t copy any passages here, you should read the entire essay. Shakespeare fans, get The Crown of Life and The Wheel of Fire!
1/ How could anyone read Shakespeare and not be in awe of the language?
“ANTONY Let Rome in Tiber melt, and my wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space,
Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life
Is to do thus; when such a mutual pair
And such a twain can do’t, in which I bind,
On pain of punishment, the world to weet
We stand up peerless.”
(Act 1 scene 1)
Antony and Cleopatra first appear like lovesick teenagers. Some messengers come from Rome, so Cleopatra taunts him and gets the reaction she wants: “Let Rome in Tiber melt”.
Now look at this passage—Cleopatra doesn’t know where Antony is, and sends Charmian to get him:
“CLEOPATRA See where he is, who’s with him, what he does:
I did not send you. If you find him sad,
Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report
That I am sudden sick. Quick, and return.”
(Act 1 scene 3)
The exchange between Antony and Cleopatra in this scene is magnificent: she is being theatrical, playing the role of a spurned lover and cutting in whenever he’s about to speak, and the character feels so real, so alive, so “modern”. People don’t seem to have changed much.
It’s a pity that Cleopatra uses the same trick again later, and realises it’s inappropriate when it’s too late.
“ENOBARBUS […] her passions are made of nothing but the finest part of pure love. We cannot call her winds and waters sighs and tears; they are greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report. This cannot be cunning in her; if it be, she makes a show’r of rain as well as Jove.”
(Act 1 scene 2)
I like that the highest praise of Cleopatra—the most famous line about the character—doesn’t come from Antony:
“ENOBARBUS […] Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.”
(Act 2 scene 2)
2/ I didn’t expect to find a eunuch in Shakespeare.
“CLEOPATRA […] ‘tis well for thee
That, being unseminared, thy freer thoughts
May not fly forth of Egypt. Hast thou affections?
MARDIAN Yes, gracious madam.
MARDIAN Not in deed, madam; for I can do nothing
But what indeed is honest to be done:
Yet have I fierce affections, and think
What Venus did with Mars.”
(Act 1 scene 5)
(Unseminared means unsexed).
It’s a pity that the dramatic Cleopatra changes the subject and again talks about Antony “Where think’st thou he is now? Stands he, or sits he?...”, because I want to hear more about Mardian. Shakespeare can get us interested in very small characters, with just a few lines.
“CLEOPATRA […] O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!...”
Yep, I’m adding Cleopatra to the list of horny women in Shakespeare.
3/ My favourite scenes are perhaps the ones where Cleopatra are present, or discussed by other characters.
“CLEOPATRA […] There is gold and here
My bluest veins to kiss, a hand that kings
Have lipped, and trembled kissing.”
(Act 2 scene 5)
When she’s mad, the language is still fascinating.
“CLEOPATRA […] Horrible villain! Or I’ll spurn thine eyes
Like balls before me: I’ll unhair thy head,
Thou shalt be whipped with wire and stewed in brine,
Smarting in ling’ring pickle.”
I should steal those lines.
“CLEOPATRA Some innocents’ scape not the thunderbolt.
Melt Egypt into Nile, and kindly creatures
Turn all to serpents!”
Next to her, Octavia is insipid.
Cleopatra doesn’t look so good in battle however.
“SCARUS […] Yon ribaudred nag of Egypt—
Whom leprosy o’ertake!—i’ th’ midst o’ th’ fight,
When vantage like a pair of twins appeared,
Both as the same, or rather ours the elder,
The breese upon her, like a cow in June,
Hoists sails, and flies.”
(Act 3 scene 5)
HAHAHAHAHA “like a cow in June”.
Antony doesn’t look much better either:
“SCARUS She once being loofed,
The noble ruin of her magic, Antony,
Claps on his sea wing, and (like a doting mallard)
Leaving the fight in height, flies after her.
I never saw an action of such shame;
Experience, manhood, honor, ne’er before
Did violate so itself.”
(Breese means gadfly, with pun on breeze; mallard is wild duck).
Antony’s speech of shame in the following scene is moving.
4/ Enobarbus is perhaps the most clear-sighted character in the play: he knows Lepidus is the weakest of the triumvirate, he sees through Antony’s marriage with Octavia (Caesar’s sister) and predicts that “the band that seems to tie their friendship together will be the very strangler of their amity” (Act 2 scene 6), he knows that Antony is besotted with Cleopatra and will return to her (more than Antony knows it himself)…
Enobarbus also has some of the best lines in the play. See this moment when Enobarbus watches the drunken Antony, after shamefully running away from battle, want to challenge Caesar to a one-on-one combat:
“ENOBARBUS [Aside] Yes, like enough: high-battled Caesar will
Unstate his happiness and be staged to ‘th show
Against a sworder! I see men’s judgments are
A parcel of their fortunes, and things outward
Do draw the inward quality after them
To suffer all alike. That he should dream,
Knowing all measures, the full Caesar will
Answer his emptiness! Caesar, thou hast subdued
His judgment too.”
(Act 3 scene 8)
I love that bit, “answer his emptiness”.
Another great line:
“ENOBARBUS [Aside] ‘Tis better playing with a lion’s whelp
Than with an old one dying.”
“ENOBARBUS Now he’ll outstate the lightning. To be furious
Is to be frighted out of fear, and in that mood
The dove will peck the estridge; and I see still
A diminution in our captain’s brain
Restores his heart. When valor preys on reason,
It eats the sword it fights with…”
And so Enobarbus leaves Antony to join Caesar. In Caesar’s camp, he realises his own mistake.
“ENOBARBUS […] I have done ill,
Of which I do accuse myself so sorely
That I will joy no more.”
(Act 4 scene 6)
But his soliloquy, his soliloquy after he gets the message from Antony is so deeply moving.
“ENOBARBUS I am alone the villain of the earth,
And feel I am so most. O, Antony,
Thou mine of bounty, how wouldst thou have paid
My better service, when my turpitude
Thou dost so crown with gold! This blows my heart.
If swift thought break it not, a swifter mean
Shall outstrike thought; but thought will do’t, I feel.
I fight against thee! No, I will go seek
Some ditch wherein to die: the foul’s best fits
My latter part of life.”
This must be one of the most moving moments in all of Shakespeare. His later speech before the moon is also great, but this moment somehow touches me more deeply.
5/ I’ve realised that this is not a very good blog post, as I mostly quote the play and have very little to say, but…
Anyway, I love this speech from Anthony:
“ANTONY Sometime we see a cloud that’s dragonish,
A vapor sometime like a bear or lion,
A towered citadel, a pendant rock,
A forkèd mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon’t that nod unto the world
And mock our eyes with air. Thou hast seen these signs:
They are black vesper’s pageants.
That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct
As water is in water.”
(Act 4 scene 14)
(black vesper’s pageants= evening’s brightly coloured but unreal scenery; pageants: floats of the mystery plays, hence plays, masques, etc.; even… dislimns= as swift as thought the cloud formation (rack) obliterates)
What a magnificent speech.
“ANTONY My good knave, Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body: here I am Antony,
Yet cannot hold this visible shape…”
Tony Tanner says:
“He is in fact moving towards physical invisibility, because Antony, the name, the individual, the specific and world-famous identity, can no longer ‘hold’ onto his bodily shape. He is moving out, moving through, moving beyond; melting, but also transcending the final barrier—the body itself.” (Introduction)
And so he takes his armour off, discarding it.
“… it is almost as though he is taking his body to pieces and throwing it away—‘Bruised pieces, go’ does seem almost to refer to the body as well, for it is that ‘frail case’ which he now wishes to burst free from. The body is the final boundary.” (ibid.)
6/ Antony is multifaceted: in some scenes, he’s a foolish man and a bad politician who neglects his duties because of a woman; in some other scenes, he’s a brave soldier; in one scene, he acts like an old lion that is dying, naïvely sending Caesar a challenge to a one-on-one combat and whipping his messenger; in another scene, he accepts Enobarbus’s desertion with great nobility and magnanimity; throughout the play he’s presented as human, full of flaws and even ordinary, but in the last 2 acts and especially after his death, he’s achieved a god-like status.
Frank Kermode mentions the scene where the soldiers hear the ominous music that means Hercules is abandoning Antony (Act 4 scene 3), and says:
“In twenty-one lines it does much, giving to the fate of Antony a quasi-mythological grandeur which henceforth infuses much of the verse. Enobarbus deserts “O, my fortunes have/ Corrupted honest men!” (IV.v.16-17). But the tones of imperial grandeur persists. Anthony scores an inconclusive victory and greets Cleopatra as if she were more than human, calling her “this great fairy” (IV.viii.12), while she gives him the welcome due to a god:
Lord of lords!
O infinite virtue, com’st thou smiling from
The world’s great snare uncaught?
The marvel is that in this play bombast, or what ought to be at best nickel silver, is somehow transmuted into fine gold.” (Shakespeare’s Language)
And then comes Cleopatra’s speech to Dolabella about Antony. She re-creates him. Or as Tony Tanner puts it:
“Cleopatra’s image of Antony out-imagines the imagination, out-dreams dream.” (Introduction)
This is a great play, especially the last 2 acts. Let’s hope I have more to say next time I read the play.