Friday, 3 December 2021

“His reasoning seems defective!”: on characters’ reasoning in Bleak House


“"I had confident expectations that things would come round and be all square," says Mr. Jobling with some vagueness of expression and perhaps of meaning too. "But I was disappointed. They never did. […] Then what's a fellow to do? I have been keeping out of the way and living cheap down about the market-gardens, but what's the use of living cheap when you have got no money? You might as well live dear."” (Ch.20) 

Strange reasoning, that. But could you really say that no person in real life thinks the way Mr Jobling does? 

Richard Carstone, cousin of Ada Clare and one of the young people in Mr Jarndyce’s house, also has weird reasoning. When Mr Jarndyce discovers that Richard has given 10 pounds to pay off Mr Skimpole’s debt, and gives him back 10 pounds, he spends it thoughtlessly as though he gained that amount of money. 

“"My prudent Mother Hubbard, why not?" he said to me when he wanted, without the least consideration, to bestow five pounds on the brickmaker. "I made ten pounds, clear, out of Coavinses' business."

"How was that?" said I.

"Why, I got rid of ten pounds which I was quite content to get rid of and never expected to see any more. You don't deny that?"

"No," said I.

"Very well! Then I came into possession of ten pounds—"

"The same ten pounds," I hinted.

"That has nothing to do with it!" returned Richard. "I have got ten pounds more than I expected to have, and consequently I can afford to spend it without being particular."” (Ch.9)

And that’s how Richard always justifies his careless spending. 

If there’s an award for the one with the weirdest, most incredible and fanciful reasoning, it would naturally go to Mr Skimpole, the cheerful middle-aged man who acts like a child and shakes off all responsibilities and neglects his own family. He thinks others should be grateful to him for giving them the luxury of generosity. He washes his hands off the money difficulty and makes it become Richard’s and Esther’s, without embarrassment. He philosophises about bees and identifies with the drone: 

“He had no objection to honey, he said (and I should think he had not, for he seemed to like it), but he protested against the overweening assumptions of bees. He didn't at all see why the busy bee should be proposed as a model to him; he supposed the bee liked to make honey, or he wouldn't do it—nobody asked him. It was not necessary for the bee to make such a merit of his tastes. If every confectioner went buzzing about the world banging against everything that came in his way and egotistically calling upon everybody to take notice that he was going to his work and must not be interrupted, the world would be quite an unsupportable place. Then, after all, it was a ridiculous position to be smoked out of your fortune with brimstone as soon as you had made it. You would have a very mean opinion of a Manchester man if he spun cotton for no other purpose. He must say he thought a drone the embodiment of a pleasanter and wiser idea. The drone said unaffectedly, "You will excuse me; I really cannot attend to the shop! I find myself in a world in which there is so much to see and so short a time to see it in that I must take the liberty of looking about me and begging to be provided for by somebody who doesn't want to look about him." This appeared to Mr. Skimpole to be the drone philosophy, and he thought it a very good philosophy, always supposing the drone to be willing to be on good terms with the bee, which, so far as he knew, the easy fellow always was, if the consequential creature would only let him, and not be so conceited about his honey!” (Ch.8) 

When he sees the family of his debt collector Neckett, he says: 

“… he had been giving employment to a most deserving man, that he had been a benefactor to Coavinses, that he had actually been enabling Coavinses to bring up these charming children in this agreeable way, developing these social virtues!” (Ch.15) 

And when his furniture is taken away:

“His furniture had been all cleared off, it appeared, by the person who took possession of it on his blue-eyed daughter's birthday, but he seemed quite relieved to think that it was gone. Chairs and table, he said, were wearisome objects; they were monotonous ideas, they had no variety of expression, they looked you out of countenance, and you looked them out of countenance. How pleasant, then, to be bound to no particular chairs and tables, but to sport like a butterfly among all the furniture on hire, and to flit from rosewood to mahogany, and from mahogany to walnut, and from this shape to that, as the humour took one!

"The oddity of the thing is," said Mr. Skimpole with a quickened sense of the ludicrous, "that my chairs and tables were not paid for, and yet my landlord walks off with them as composedly as possible. Now, that seems droll! There is something grotesque in it. The chair and table merchant never engaged to pay my landlord my rent. Why should my landlord quarrel with him? […] His reasoning seems defective!"” (Ch.18)

In Bleak House, if Dickens conveys some characters with a few brushstrokes, a few striking images, and some characters with a unique, recognisable voice or way of talking (such as Mr Boythorn, whose fury of superlatives goes off like blank cannons and hurts nothing), he largely characterises Mr Skimpole by his “logic” and his strange way of looking at the world. If we look at Mr Skimpole with a cool eye, this is a man who acts like a child, or pretends to be a child; this is a man who does nothing productive and happily lets others pay for his expenses or clear off his debts; this is a man who takes advantage of other people’s kindness and cares about nothing but himself and his own pleasure; this is a man who neglects his own wife and children; this is a man who wants to send sick Jo out on the streets; and so on and so forth. He is an odious character—Esther isn’t sure he is as artless as he seems.

By giving Mr Skimpole a philosophy, and exaggerating his way of looking at the world and his reasoning, Dickens gives him a more vivid and colourful existence. Mr Skimpole, to me, is like a funhouse Oblonsky, with logic out of Wonderland. 

2/ If Mr Skimpole is a Dickensian caricature (who is nevertheless more vivid and alive than many writers’ supposedly realistic characters), Richard Carstone isn’t. He changes throughout the novel. 

At the beginning of Bleak House, Richard is a kind young man, cheerful and full of warmth. You can see why everyone including Esther likes him, you can see why Ada falls in love with him—at the beginning. Then gradually we see that he has some weakness, some carelessness in character; he has no sense of purpose and drifts from one thing to another, interested in each line of work for only a brief moment; at the same time, he’s still sympathetic as he’s fully aware of his shortcomings and fully aware that he’s disappointing everyone, from Ada to Esther and Mr Jarndyce.

But slowly he and the others drift apart, and the cracks in his relationship with Mr Jarndyce begin when Mr Jarndyce is forced to be firm with him.

“"So much the easier what I have to say, and so much the easier for us to agree," returned my guardian, his face irradiated by the gentleness and honour of his heart. "Ada, my bird, you should know that Rick has now chosen his profession for the last time. All that he has of certainty will be expended when he is fully equipped. He has exhausted his resources and is bound henceforward to the tree he has planted."

"Quite true that I have exhausted my present resources, and I am quite content to know it. But what I have of certainty, sir," said Richard, "is not all I have."

"Rick, Rick!" cried my guardian with a sudden terror in his manner, and in an altered voice, and putting up his hands as if he would have stopped his ears. "For the love of God, don't found a hope or expectation on the family curse! Whatever you do on this side the grave, never give one lingering glance towards the horrible phantom that has haunted us so many years. Better to borrow, better to beg, better to die!"” (Ch.29) 

That is a significant moment, for two reasons. Firstly, Dickens makes it definite that the purposeless Richard now has a single purpose, which is to pursue Jarndyce v Jarndyce, and places all his bets on the inheritance he may or may not get. Secondly, the moment marks a change in his relationship with Mr Jarndyce, as an estrangement now arises between them, especially after Mr Jarndyce breaks the engagement between Richard and Ada—to protect Ada.  

As Richard becomes more and more obsessed with Jarndyce v Jarndyce, he changes, he becomes tainted by the lawsuit. 

Hear Miss Flite, the crazy little woman who keeps going to the court every day:

“"[…] I have seen many new faces come, unsuspicious, within the influence of the mace and seal in these many years. As my father's came there. As my brother's. As my sister's. As my own. I hear Conversation Kenge and the rest of them say to the new faces, 'Here's little Miss Flite. Oh, you are new here; and you must come and be presented to little Miss Flite!' Ve-ry good. Proud I am sure to have the honour! And we all laugh. But, Fitz Jarndyce, I know what will happen. I know, far better than they do, when the attraction has begun. I know the signs, my dear. I saw them begin in Gridley. And I saw them end. Fitz Jarndyce, my love," speaking low again, "I saw them beginning in our friend the ward in Jarndyce. Let some one hold him back. Or he'll be drawn to ruin."” (Ch.35) 

(Fitz-Jarndyce is the nickname she uses for Esther, who is the narrator in this chapter). 

Richard becomes bitter, full of suspicions and resentments, and because he doesn’t know better, concentrates all his negative feelings on Mr Jarndyce.

“Yet the time is so short since his depreciation began that as he saunters away, reluctant to leave the spot for some long months together, though he hates it, Richard himself may feel his own case as if it were a startling one. While his heart is heavy with corroding care, suspense, distrust, and doubt, it may have room for some sorrowful wonder when he recalls how different his first visit there, how different he, how different all the colours of his mind. But injustice breeds injustice; the fighting with shadows and being defeated by them necessitates the setting up of substances to combat; from the impalpable suit which no man alive can understand, the time for that being long gone by, it has become a gloomy relief to turn to the palpable figure of the friend who would have saved him from this ruin and make him his enemy. Richard has told Vholes the truth. Is he in a hardened or a softened mood, he still lays his injuries equally at that door; he was thwarted, in that quarter, of a set purpose, and that purpose could only originate in the one subject that is resolving his existence into itself; besides, it is a justification to him in his own eyes to have an embodied antagonist and oppressor.” (Ch.39) 

That is a great passage. Richard has lost his sense, his reason. He has turned into Ahab, mad with a single obsession, and concentrating all his hatred on a single being. But it all starts from his carelessness about money, and his odd reasoning about money and spending. 

Richard changes, whilst remaining recognisably himself. Who says Dickens can’t create realistic, lifelike characters?  

Sunday, 28 November 2021

Imagery in Bleak House

As everyone probably notices the bird motif and the ink motif in the novel, I won’t write about them. Instead, I will write about some other images that I find interesting. 

1/ There’s something strange and utterly compelling about Dickens’s imagination. A man is cadaverous (derivative of “cadaver”, meaning “corpse”) and described as looking like a root: 

“He was short, cadaverous, and withered, with his head sunk sideways between his shoulders and the breath issuing in visible smoke from his mouth as if he were on fire within. His throat, chin, and eyebrows were so frosted with white hairs and so gnarled with veins and puckered skin that he looked from his breast upward like some old root in a fall of snow.” (Ch.5) 

That’s Mr Krook.

And things are compared to people. This is Mrs Jellyby’s sofa:  

“We expressed our acknowledgments and sat down behind the door, where there was a lame invalid of a sofa.” (Ch.4) 

This is a grate in Nemo’s room: 

“In the rusty skeleton of a grate, pinched at the middle as if poverty had gripped it, a red coke fire burns low.” (Ch.10) 

There’s a bottle of alcohol patted like a grandchild: 

“The old man receives it in his arms like a beloved grandchild and pats it tenderly.” (Ch.20) 

And there’s a man shaken up like a bottle: 

“The excellent old gentleman being at these times a mere clothes-bag with a black skull-cap on the top of it, does not present a very animated appearance until he has undergone the two operations at the hands of his granddaughter of being shaken up like a great bottle and poked and punched like a great bolster.” (Ch.21) 

There’s a cat called Lady Jane (belonging to Mr Krook): 

“The cat leaped down and ripped at a bundle of rags with her tigerish claws, with a sound that it set my teeth on edge to hear.” (Ch.5) 

“… his cat looked so wickedly at me, as if I were a blood-relation of the birds upstairs…” (ibid.) 

The cat is aggressive. Dickens later repeats the word “wicked”: 

“The cat expands her wicked mouth and snarls at him.” (Ch.10) 

And there’s a woman compared to a cat:

“My Lady's maid is a Frenchwoman of two and thirty, from somewhere in the southern country about Avignon and Marseilles, a large-eyed brown woman with black hair who would be handsome but for a certain feline mouth and general uncomfortable tightness of face, rendering the jaws too eager and the skull too prominent.” (Ch.12) 

She too is aggressive, and malicious. 

There’s a character who’s middle-aged but “in simplicity, and freshness, and enthusiasm, and a fine guileless inaptitude for all worldly affairs, he is a perfect child” (Ch.6), or pretends to be a child, shaking off all his responsibilities: Harold Skimpole. 

There are also characters who are old despite their young age, who have never been children, such as the Smallweeds. 

“He stands precociously possessed of centuries of owlish wisdom. If he ever lay in a cradle, it seems as if he must have lain there in a tail-coat. He has an old, old eye, has Smallweed; and he drinks and smokes in a monkeyish way; and his neck is stiff in his collar; and he is never to be taken in; and he knows all about it, whatever it is.” (Ch.20) 

That’s Bartholomew Smallweed, often called Bart or Elfin, and he’s something under 15. Here’s his twin sister Judith:

“Judy never owned a doll, never heard of Cinderella, never played at any game. She once or twice fell into children's company when she was about ten years old, but the children couldn't get on with Judy, and Judy couldn't get on with them. She seemed like an animal of another species, and there was instinctive repugnance on both sides. It is very doubtful whether Judy knows how to laugh.” (Ch.21) 

If Dickens had created only Bart and Judith, they may seem like some coarse caricatures of young people forced to go out and work early in life, not knowing what it’s like to be a child, but Dickens didn’t do so. 

“There has been only one child in the Smallweed family for several generations. Little old men and women there have been, but no child, until Mr. Smallweed's grandmother, now living, became weak in her intellect and fell (for the first time) into a childish state. With such infantine graces as a total want of observation, memory, understanding, and interest, and an eternal disposition to fall asleep over the fire and into it, Mr. Smallweed's grandmother has undoubtedly brightened the family.” (ibid.) 

The image of the Smallweed family becomes much more absurd, and therefore much more brilliant. 

2/ Sometimes Dickens adds an image that seems random and out of nowhere, but it adds more life, more vitality to his eccentric characters. 

For example, this is Mr Jarndyce, though Esther at the time doesn’t know that it’s him. 

“"Now, look here!" he said. "In this paper," which was nicely folded, "is a piece of the best plum-cake that can be got for money—sugar on the outside an inch thick, like fat on mutton chops. Here's a little pie (a gem this is, both for size and quality), made in France. And what do you suppose it's made of? Livers of fat geese. There's a pie! Now let's see you eat 'em."

"Thank you, sir," I replied; "thank you very much indeed, but I hope you won't be offended—they are too rich for me."

"Floored again!" said the gentleman, which I didn't at all understand, and threw them both out of window.” (Ch.3)

This is Mr Guppy, the lawyer who is in love with Esther:

“Mr. Guppy saunters along with it congenially. He has blunted the blade of his penknife and broken the point off by sticking that instrument into his desk in every direction. Not that he bears the desk any ill will, but he must do something, and it must be something of an unexciting nature, which will lay neither his physical nor his intellectual energies under too heavy contribution. He finds that nothing agrees with him so well as to make little gyrations on one leg of his stool, and stab his desk, and gape.” (Ch.20) 

That passage would fit well in something by Dostoyevsky or Kafka. 

3/ I like the introduction to Mr Tulkinghorn, a lawyer for the Dedlocks: 

“He is surrounded by a mysterious halo of family confidences, of which he is known to be the silent depository. There are noble mausoleums rooted for centuries in retired glades of parks among the growing timber and the fern, which perhaps hold fewer noble secrets than walk abroad among men, shut up in the breast of Mr. Tulkinghorn.” (Ch.2) 

This is an interesting image: 

“He wears his usual expressionless mask—if it be a mask—and carries family secrets in every limb of his body and every crease of his dress.” (Ch.12) 

4/ In the previous blog post, I wrote that Dickens characterised each character with a few striking images. Mr Chadband for example is compared to a vessel, and Dickens repeats the vessel image several times. 

“From Mr. Chadband's being much given to describe himself, both verbally and in writing, as a vessel, he is occasionally mistaken by strangers for a gentleman connected with navigation, but he is, as he expresses it, "in the ministry." Mr. Chadband is attached to no particular denomination and is considered by his persecutors to have nothing so very remarkable to say on the greatest of subjects as to render his volunteering, on his own account, at all incumbent on his conscience; but he has his followers, and Mrs. Snagsby is of the number. Mrs. Snagsby has but recently taken a passage upward by the vessel, Chadband; and her attention was attracted to that Bark A 1, when she was something flushed by the hot weather.” (Ch.19) 

When he sits down to eat:

“For Chadband is rather a consuming vessel—the persecutors say a gorging vessel—and can wield such weapons of the flesh as a knife and fork remarkably well.” (ibid.) 


“The conversion of nutriment of any sort into oil of the quality already mentioned appears to be a process so inseparable from the constitution of this exemplary vessel that in beginning to eat and drink, he may be described as always becoming a kind of considerable oil mills or other large factory for the production of that article on a wholesale scale.” (ibid.) 

The train oil metaphor is also repeated a few times, and when Mr Chadband finishes:

“During the progress of this keen encounter, the vessel Chadband, being merely engaged in the oil trade, gets aground and waits to be floated off.” (ibid.) 

What a sentence.

Like Nabokov, I’m not particularly interested in the social themes of Bleak House and its satire of the legal system. The genius of Dickens is in prose and images and his grotesque characters.  

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Characterisation in Bleak House

Dickens’s detractors always say his characters are caricatures, not complex, multifaceted, and lifelike like Tolstoy’s or Jane Austen’s or George Eliot’s characters. This is something they say over and over again whenever his name pops up, and in a way, they have a point, but I think they’re missing something. There’s something magical about Dickens’s characters: they are grotesque and exaggerated but don’t feel flat and don’t feel two-dimensional—somehow they seem to have a vivid existence within the world of his books, all distinct and striking and memorable. 

How does it work? Dickens characterises each character with a few striking images. Not traits—his caricatures are more than types. Not ideas—his characters are not embodiments of ideas. But images. 

For example, this is how he introduces Mr Krook in Bleak House

“He was short, cadaverous, and withered, with his head sunk sideways between his shoulders and the breath issuing in visible smoke from his mouth as if he were on fire within. His throat, chin, and eyebrows were so frosted with white hairs and so gnarled with veins and puckered skin that he looked from his breast upward like some old root in a fall of snow.” (Ch.5) 

We see him after seeing his shop, full of old rags and shabby old volumes and various kinds of bottles.

“The litter of rags tumbled partly into and partly out of a one-legged wooden scale, hanging without any counterpoise from a beam, might have been counsellors' bands and gowns torn up. One had only to fancy, as Richard whispered to Ada and me while we all stood looking in, that yonder bones in a corner, piled together and picked very clean, were the bones of clients, to make the picture complete.” (ibid.)

The shop is an extension of the man: the short, cadaverous, and withered Mr Krook is linked to the images of old rags, one-legged wooden scale, and bones.

This is Mrs Pardiggle, one of the women in the novel who do charities but neglect their own children. 

“She was a formidable style of lady with spectacles, a prominent nose, and a loud voice, who had the effect of wanting a great deal of room. And she really did, for she knocked down little chairs with her skirts that were quite a great way off. As only Ada and I were at home, we received her timidly, for she seemed to come in like cold weather and to make the little Pardiggles blue as they followed.” (Ch.8)

Her whole manners are contained in the phrase “wanting a great deal of room”: 

“… pursued the lady, always speaking in the same demonstrative, loud, hard tone, so that her voice impressed my fancy as if it had a sort of spectacles on too—and I may take the opportunity of remarking that her spectacles were made the less engaging by her eyes being what Ada called "choking eyes," meaning very prominent…” (ibid.) 


“When we hastily returned from putting on our bonnets, we found the young family languishing in a corner and Mrs. Pardiggle sweeping about the room, knocking down nearly all the light objects it contained.” (ibid.) 

As they leave for the brickmaker’s house, she talks to Ada in the same loud tone for the entire way. And later at the brickmaker’s house, when she’s done: 

“Mrs. Pardiggle accordingly rose and made a little vortex in the confined room from which the pipe itself very narrowly escaped.” (ibid.) 

The depiction culminates in an image that would imprint on the reader’s mind: Mrs Pardiggle taking the entire family into religious custody and rambling on about improving their lives, without noticing a baby dying in a corner. 

In the following chapter, Dickens introduces another character who is also loud and all ferocity but completely different from Mrs Pardiggle: Mr Lawrence Boythorn, a friend of Mr Jarndyce. 

“We all conceived a prepossession in his favour, for there was a sterling quality in this laugh, and in his vigorous, healthy voice, and in the roundness and fullness with which he uttered every word he spoke, and in the very fury of his superlatives, which seemed to go off like blank cannons and hurt nothing.” (Ch.9)

The central image is there: “go off like blank cannons and hurt nothing”. Dickens also gives him a distinct voice, full of superlatives. Then we see Mr Boythorn with his little canary:

“The subject of this laudation was a very little canary, who was so tame that he was brought down by Mr. Boythorn's man, on his forefinger, and after taking a gentle flight round the room, alighted on his master's head. To hear Mr. Boythorn presently expressing the most implacable and passionate sentiments, with this fragile mite of a creature quietly perched on his forehead, was to have a good illustration of his character, I thought.

[…] It was impossible not to laugh at the energetic gravity with which he recommended this strong measure of reform. When we laughed, he threw up his head and shook his broad chest, and again the whole country seemed to echo to his "Ha, ha, ha!" It had not the least effect in disturbing the bird, whose sense of security was complete and who hopped about the table with its quick head now on this side and now on that, turning its bright sudden eye on its master as if he were no more than another bird.” (ibid.) 

He is having a rant about Sir Dedlock. 

“To hear him say all this with unimaginable energy, one might have thought him the angriest of mankind. To see him at the very same time, looking at the bird now perched upon his thumb and softly smoothing its feathers with his forefinger, one might have thought him the gentlest.” (ibid) 

How could any reader of Bleak House forget Mr Boythorn and that contradictory image? It reminds me of Count Fosco and his mice in The Woman in White. I can’t help wondering if Wilkie Collins was inspired by Dickens. Count Fosco is the villain and he is the character with the most vivid existence in The Woman in White

Now let’s look at Mr Turveydrop the father:

“Just then there appeared from a side-door old Mr. Turveydrop, in the full lustre of his deportment.

He was a fat old gentleman with a false complexion, false teeth, false whiskers, and a wig. He had a fur collar, and he had a padded breast to his coat, which only wanted a star or a broad blue ribbon to be complete. He was pinched in, and swelled out, and got up, and strapped down, as much as he could possibly bear. He had such a neckcloth on (puffing his very eyes out of their natural shape), and his chin and even his ears so sunk into it, that it seemed as though he must inevitably double up if it were cast loose. He had under his arm a hat of great size and weight, shelving downward from the crown to the brim, and in his hand a pair of white gloves with which he flapped it as he stood poised on one leg in a high-shouldered, round-elbowed state of elegance not to be surpassed. He had a cane, he had an eye-glass, he had a snuff-box, he had rings, he had wristbands, he had everything but any touch of nature; he was not like youth, he was not like age, he was not like anything in the world but a model of deportment.” (Ch.14) 

In a lesser writer’s hand, Mr Turveydrop might just be a dandy—a type. But in Dickens’s hand, he’s quite something else, something more vivid and grotesque. Everything about him is unnatural and false, he is “pinched in, and swelled out, and got up, and strapped down”. 

Dickens creates a contrasting image of father and son:

“Prince Turveydrop sometimes played the kit, dancing; sometimes played the piano, standing; sometimes hummed the tune with what little breath he could spare, while he set a pupil right; always conscientiously moved with the least proficient through every step and every part of the figure; and never rested for an instant. His distinguished father did nothing whatever but stand before the fire, a model of deportment.” (ibid.) 

The word “deportment” appears a few times in the novel, before this chapter, but the portrayal of Mr Turveydrop transforms the word completely. You cannot see the word “deportment” without seeing Mr Turveydrop—" he was not like youth, he was not like age, he was not like anything in the world but a model of deportment”. 

But the most striking character in Bleak House so far (I’m on chapter 14) is Mrs Jellyby, the other woman who does charities but neglects her own children.

“She was a pretty, very diminutive, plump woman of from forty to fifty, with handsome eyes, though they had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if—I am quoting Richard again—they could see nothing nearer than Africa!” (Ch.4) 

The characters in the novel are all colourful and unforgettable, but Dickens’s depiction of Mrs Jellyby and her household is particularly rich in detail. 

“Ada and I had two upper rooms with a door of communication between. They were excessively bare and disorderly, and the curtain to my window was fastened up with a fork.” (ibid.) 

Everything is in the wrong place and Esther’s door has no knob. 

“We had a fine cod-fish, a piece of roast beef, a dish of cutlets, and a pudding; an excellent dinner, if it had had any cooking to speak of, but it was almost raw.” (ibid.) 


“She told us a great deal that was interesting about Borrioboola-Gha and the natives, and received so many letters that Richard, who sat by her, saw four envelopes in the gravy at once.” (ibid.) 

The description of the Jellyby household is rich in detail, I’m just picking out the most interesting images. Later on, when we see her family again:

“… Miss Jellyby was announced, and entered, leading the identical Peepy, whom she had made some endeavours to render presentable by wiping the dirt into corners of his face and hands and making his hair very wet and then violently frizzling it with her fingers. Everything the dear child wore was either too large for him or too small.” (Ch.14) 

See that image of the dirt wiped into corners of his face. Some readers are mistaken to look for the kind of psychological realism one finds in Tolstoy or George Eliot—the art of Dickens is in the prose, in the details and images. 

I note that all of these descriptions come from Esther Summerson’s narrative (Bleak House alternates between her and the omniscient narrator). Now she is a very good writer, a very funny writer. 

Friday, 29 October 2021

Troilus and Cressida

What can I possibly say about Troilus and Cressida, one of Shakespeare’s most difficult and least popular plays, especially when I’m reading it for the first time, without knowing either Homer’s Iliad or Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde? Let this simply be a record of my first impressions of the play. 

1/ Shakespeare throws us into the middle of the Trojan War, and after the prologue, brings us straight to Troilus. This is unusual—Shakespeare tends to start with some supporting characters and possibly have them talk about the protagonists before they appear on stage.

Troilus no longer has interest in fighting. 

“TROILUS […] Fools on both sides! Helen must needs be fair,

When with your blood you daily paint her thus.

I cannot fight upon this argument; 

It is too starved a subject for my sword…”

(Act 1 scene 1) 

He’s no longer interested in the war because he’s infatuated with Cressida. 

“TROILUS […] I tell thee I am mad

In Cressid’s love; thou answer’st she is fair,

Pour’st in the open ulcer of my heart

Her eyes, her hair, her cheek, her gait, her voice; 

Handlest in thy discourse, O, that her hand

In whose comparison all whites are ink,

Writing their own reproaches…”


Whom does he remind me of? Orsino. Troilus and Cressida is dated around the same time as Twelfth Night. Cressida, however, is not Olivia: she does like Troilus but does not want to yield easily.

2/ In the first scene, Troilus and Pandarus compare the women. In the second scene, Pandarus and his niece Cressida compare the men. The language, as people say, is knotty. 

“PANDARUS Well, I say Troilus is Troilus. 

CRESSIDA Then you say as I say, for I am sure he is not Hector.

PANDARUS No, nor Hector is not Troilus in some degrees. 

CRESSIDA ‘Tis just to each of them, he is himself.

PANDARUS Himself? Alas, poor Troilus, I would he were. 

CRESSIDA So he is.

PANDARUS Condition, I had gone barefoot to India. 

CRESSIDA He is not Hector.

PANDARUS Himself? No, he’s not himself. Would ‘a were himself. Well, the gods are above; time must friend or end. Well, Troilus, well, I would my heart were in her body. No, Hector is not a better man than Troilus.”

(Act 1 scene 2) 

Pandarus means Troilus is not himself because he is in love, but may there be something more than that?

They go on for some more, and at some point start talking about Troilus’s complexion. 

“PANDARUS […] Helen herself swore th’ other day that Troilus, for a brown favor—for so ‘tis, I must confess—not brown neither—

CRESSIDA No, but brown.

PANDARUS Faith, to say truth, brown and not brown.

CRESSIDA To say the truth, true and not true.” 


This has an echo later in Troilus’s speech, after he witnesses Cressida’s betrayal:

“TROILUS This she? No, this is Diomed’s Cressida.

If beauty have a soul, this is not she; 

If souls guide vows, if vows be sanctimonies,

If sanctimony be the gods’ delight, 

If there be rule in unity itself, 

This was not she. […]

This is, and is not, Cressid…” 

(Act 5 scene 2) 

This is why it gets on my nerves when people share Polonius’s line as though it’s Shakespeare’s own advice, “To thine own self be true”. What self? Shakespeare knows each of us has several selves, and we often don’t understand ourselves. 

3/ I’ve read that there’s lots of debate about Ulysses’s degree speech in Act 1 scene 3 (degree here means rank, station, standing, respect, order, hierarchy). Is it evidence, as some people say, that Shakespeare is a conservative in favour of order and hierarchy? After all, in King Lear there’s no respect for degree and everything turns upside down—all is chaos. Or is it like usual—Shakespeare’s characters are not necessarily Shakespeare? Or is it more complex? 

“ULYSSES […] Take but degree away, untune that string,

And hark what discord follows. Each thing meets 

In mere oppugnancy. […] 

Force should be right, or rather right and wrong—

Between whose endless jar justice resides—

Should lose their names, and so should justice too…” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

The speech is soon undermined as Ulysses ignores order, ignores right and wrong, and plots to rig an election and get Ajax (instead of Achilles) to fight Hector, with the intention of provoking Achilles back into battle. He is pragmatic and scheming.     

4/ There seem to be more debates and long speeches in Troilus and Cressida than in other Shakespeare plays I’ve read, even the histories. 2 scenes later, there’s a debate in the Trojan camp about whether to return Helen to the Greeks or continue the war. 

One of Shakespeare’s greatest strengths, perhaps (partly) thanks to the teaching of rhetoric in grammar school, is that he can argue any side. Hector argues for reason “What merit’s in that reason which denies/ The yielding of her up?”, Troilus argues against reason:

“TROILUS […] Nah, if we talk of reason,

Let’s shut our gates and sleep! Manhood and honor

Should have hare-hearts, would they but fat their thoughts,

With this crammed reason. Reason and respect

Make livers pale and lustihood deject.”

(Act 2 scene 2) 

Sadly, the ability to see different arguments and points of view and argue for different sides is no longer considered a virtue in the current climate. 

Troilus is contrasted with his father Priam and his brothers Hector and Helenus, but I think he may also be contrasted with the pragmatic Ulysses: if Ulysses thinks that whatever needs to be done at any point in time is the right thing to do, the just thing to do, Troilus is more of an idealist. He doesn’t believe in the war, as we see in the first scene, but he believes in honour, and they have to continue fighting because of honour. 

“TROILUS […] why do you now

The issue of your proper wisdoms rate,

And do a deed that never Fortune did:

Beggar the estimation which you prized 

Richer than sea and land? O theft most base,

That we have stol’n what we do fear to keep! 

But thieves unworthy of a thing so stol’n,

That in their country did them that disgrace

We fear to warrant in our native place.”


The conversation is also interesting because Hector thinks a thing (in this case, Helen) may have or lack intrinsic value, whereas Troilus thinks “What’s aught but as ‘tis valued?” (ibid.). 

I think Hector comes across as the most noble and reasonable character—not only in the scene but in the entire play—whereas Troilus appears too idealistic. I can’t help thinking that at that point Shakespeare sways heavily to Hector’s side and gives him (too many) strong arguments, only to be defeated by history, so when Hector finally yields to Paris and Troilus, it doesn’t seem wholly convincing.

Speaking of Paris, he just seems indifferent to the troubles he has caused (an entire war!). When we see Paris and Helen later in the play, both come across as self-centred and shallow. And when he hears the news about Cressida, he doesn’t empathise with Troilus either:

“PARIS There is no help.

The bitter disposition of the time

Will have it so…” 

(Act 4 scene 1) 

5/ The meeting of Troilus and Cressida must be one of the greatest love scenes in Shakespeare. It almost seems like a parody of Romeo and Juliet, with Pandarus being present and acting like a bawd. But it’s a great scene. 

I’m just going to pick out a few lines from Cressida: 

“CRESSIDA […] If I confess much you will play the tyrant.

[…] But, though I loved you well, I wooed you not; 

And yet, good faith, I wished myself a man,

Or that we women had men’s privilege 

Of speaking first…” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

The entire speech is wonderful—sorry for butchering it—but look! Do these lines not make you think of Viola in Twelfth Night? She confesses her love first, not only when she’s Cesario but also after she has revealed herself to be Viola (though still in men’s clothing). And in her irrational submission, she allows Orsino to play the tyrant.

6/ Thersites is perhaps the darkest, most bitter and hateful fool in Shakespeare (he’s a soldier but functions as a fool). His curses remind me of Caliban in The Tempest, but he’s much nastier. You can’t imagine something like “The isle is full of noises/ Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not…” coming out of Thersites’s mouth.

But he sees through everyone. And, admit it, he’s hilarious. I mean, he says to Ajax:

“… thou sodden-witted lord! Thou hast no more brain than I have in my elbows; an asinico may tutor thee.” (Act 2 scene 1)  


“This lord, Achilles, Ajax, who wears his wit in his belly and his guts in his head…” (ibid.) 

To Patroclus: 

“The common curse of mankind, folly and ignorance, be thine in great revenue.” (Act 2 scene 3) 

To Achilles: 

“Why, thou picture of what thou seemest, and idol of idiot-worshippers, here’s a letter for thee.” (Act 5 scene 1)

About Agamennon:

“he has not so much brain as ear-wax.” (ibid.) 

And about himself: 

“I am bastard begot, bastard instructed, bastard in mind, bastard in valor, in everything illegitimate.” (Act 5 scene 7) 

G. Wilson Knight says: 

“[Thersites] is cynicism incarnate: a demoniac spirit of keen critical apprehension, who sees the stupid and sordid aspects of mankind, fit only for jeers with which he salutes them in full measure. His critical intellect measures man always by intellectual standards. He sees folly everywhere, and finds no wisdom in mankind’s activity. He sees one side of the picture only: man’s stupidity.” (The Wheel of Fire

7/ Compared to other Shakespeare plays, I think Troilus and Cressida is much bitterer. He doesn’t hold back. 

When Paris foolishly asks Diomedes, a Greek commander, if he (Paris) or Menelaus “deserves fair Helen best”, Diomedes goes on a harsh rant, calling Helen a whore, Menelaus a cuckold, and Paris a lecher. 

“PARIS You are too bitter to your countrywoman. 

DIOMEDES She’s bitter to her country! Hear me, Paris—

For every false drop in her bawdy veins

A Grecian’s life hath sunk; for every scruple

Of her contaminated carrion weight 

A Troyan hath been slain. Since she could speak,

She hath not given so many good words breath 

As for her Greeks and Troyans suffered death.” 

(Act 4 scene 1) 

Paris can only give a weak response. 

Under Shakespeare’s pen, the war is pointless; Paris and Helen are shallow, and indifferent about the sufferings and deaths they have caused; Pandarus acts like a pimp; Ulysses is cunning and sly; Ajax is strong but a fool; Patroclus is Achilles’s “masculine whore” (to use Thersites’s word); most commanders have no regard for honour; and above all, Achilles in the play is nothing like the heroic image we associate with him but instead, he is proud and full of himself and unreasonable—Shakespeare removes the reason he refuses to fight—and at the end Achilles kills Hector in an unhonourable, despicable way.

It’s no wonder that Nuttall saysTroilus and Cressida is the play that Hamlet could have written”. 

When the play ends, the war is still raging on; the Troilus-Cressida plot hasn’t been resolved; there’s no sense of culmination, let alone resolution; there seems to be nothing but war and lechery; and the last words of the play are spoken by the revolting Pandarus: 

“PANDARUS […] Till then I’ll sweat and seek about for eases,

And at that time bequeath you my diseases.” 

(Act 5 scene 10) 

Troilus and Cressida, frankly speaking, is a very unpleasant play. There are many great things in it, but it’s still a deeply unpleasant play. In Hamlet, Hamlet is cold, cynical, and in some ways inhuman, but there’s warmth and life in other characters of the play. Othello has Desdemona and Emilia. King Lear has Cordelia, Kent, Edgar, the Fool, and the unnamed servant who kills Cornwall and avenges Gloucester.

There is no redeeming thing in Troilus and Cressida, and the only truly noble character is Hector, but he’s killed, and his death somehow feels like an anti-climax. “Hector is dead; there is no more to say”. I’m not sure how I feel about Troilus. 

I’m going to end my blog post with Tony Tanner’s words: 

“Perhaps too there is a sense in which the play is an experiment in language and its possibilities—certainly, the characters seem to stand a long way from us, and hardly engage us as characters in Shakespeare’s other plays do. Nevertheless it is a disturbing and disconsolating experience as Shakespeare shows us, as only Shakespeare could, how war devours everything.” (Introduction) 

Sunday, 24 October 2021

Twelfth Night revisited

The first time I read Twelfth Night was several years ago, at University of Oslo. Let’s see if this time I can see anything new. 

1/ See this line from Feste, Olivia’s jester:  

“CLOWN Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage…” 

(Act 1 scene 5) 

That makes me think of the end of Measure for Measure: Lucio escapes hanging but he is forced to marry a prostitute (who has a child with him); Angelo violates the law and would be sentenced to death, but instead, is ordered to marry the woman he abandoned many years ago. Both marriages would be bad, and the same may be said about the marriage between the Duke and Isabella.

I personally also have doubts about the marriages in Twelfth Night, but we will get to that later. 

2/ Sir Toby says to Maria about Sir Andrew Aguecheek: 

“TOBY Why, he has three thousand ducats a year.” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

3000 ducats is the amount of Shylock’s loan to Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice

That is not the only echo: in Twelfth Night, Antonio seems to be gay and in love with Sebastian, like Antonio in The Merchant of Venice loves Bassanio. In Twelfth Night, Viola’s disguise as a man is reminiscent of Portia in The Merchant of Venice, though if Portia solves everything and outsmarts all the men, Viola needs time to untangle the knot. Viola is passive, she is Patience on a monument. 

Here’s a mad idea: you know in King Lear, the Gloucester plot is like the literal, more physically brutal version of the Lear plot; perhaps in Twelfth Night, the Antonio-Sebastian subplot is meant to echo Orsino adoring, though he doesn’t quite know it, Cesario (Viola), whom he believes to be male. At the same time, Olivia is in love with Cesario—it’s resolved in the end, of course, but she does fall in love with Viola as Cesario—to use a reddit term, she’s accidentally lesbian. 

Disguise and cross-dressing are common in Shakespeare’s plays (perhaps almost every single play has some sort of disguise or pretence), but Viola’s case, unless I forget something else, may be the only one that causes lots of mishaps and troubles. 

“VIOLA […] Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness

Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.

How easy is it for the proper false

In women’s waxen hearts to set their forms!

Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we,

For much as we are made of, such we be…”

(Act 2 scene 2) 

All the mix-ups in the play make me think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. One wonders why Viola falls in love with the narcissistic, unaware Orsino—perhaps it’s like Titania falls in love with an ass. 

3/ The conversation between Orsino and Viola about the passion and faithfulness of men and women in love must have been a direct inspiration for the conversation between Anne Elliot and Captain Harville, which Captain Wentworth overhears, near the end of Persuasion.

This scene in Twelfth Night has one of the best passages about love in all of Shakespeare: 

“VIOLA […] She never told her love,

But let concealment, like a worm i’ th’ bud,

Feed on her damask cheek. She pined in thought;

And, with a green and mellow melancholy,

She sat like Patience on a monument,

Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?

We men may say more, swear more; but indeed

Our shows are more than will; for still we prove

Much in our vows but little in our love.” 

(Act 2 scene 4) 

4/ In Act 3 scene 1, Viola says to Olivia “I am not what I am”, the exact line Iago says in Act 1 scene 1 of Othello.

5/ Antonio follows Sebastian into the city, despite having enemies at Orsino’s court, and gives him his purse: 

“ANTONIO Haply your eye shall light upon some toy

You have desire to purchase, and your store

I think is not for idle markets, sir.”

(Act 3 scene 3) 

Why does he give him the purse? Isn’t that kinda weird?

Shakespeare seems to hint it in the next scene: 

“OLIVIA I have sent after him. He says he’ll come:

How shall I feast him? What bestow of him?

For youth is bought more oft than begged or borrowed…” 

(Act 3 scene 4) 

Look at that last line! 

Now if we look back at the exchange between Antonio and Sebastian, it’s even weirder that Sebastian just takes the purse. 


6/ Twelfth Night is a darker play than I remembered. Some readers or theatregoers might argue that we shouldn’t forget it is a comedy, and that from the modern perspective, we may perceive certain things as dark that Elizabethans didn’t necessarily view so, but I’d say that Shakespeare’s comedies from the beginning have always had something dark in them, even the whimsical fairytale A Midsummer Night’s Dream—at the start, Hermia’s father forces her to marry Demetrius, or she has to face death. 

Moreover, Twelfth Night came after Hamlet, and Shakespeare’s vision at this point had visibly darkened. According to Tony Tanner, the play is known as the last of Shakespeare’s “happy comedies”. 

First of all, the trick that Maria, Sir Toby, Fabian, and Sir Andrew play on Malvolio may be initially intended as a harmless prank, but after a while it’s no longer harmless:

“TOBY Come, we’ll have him in a dark room and bound. My niece is already in the belief that he’s mad. We may carry it thus, for our pleasure and his penance, till our very pastime, tired out of breath, prompt us to have mercy on him; at which time we will bring the device to the bar and crown thee for a finder of madmen. But see, but see.”

(Act 3 scene 4)

It reminds me of the exorcism of Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors, though that results from mix-ups and misunderstanding, whereas this is a deliberate plot. Would Sir Toby go further and physically torture Malvolio? I cannot say. 

“TOBY […] I would we were well rid of this knavery. If he may be conveniently delivered, I would he were; for I am now so far in offense with my niece that I cannot pursue with any safety this sport to the upshot…”

(Act 4 scene 2)

Later on, when the truth is out, Olivia says Malvolio has been “most notoriously abused”. 

Secondly, Sir Toby provokes a duel between Viola (as Cesario) and Sir Andrew, which could lead to injury or even death. Because this is comedy, it is resolved, but it doesn’t change the fact that Sir Toby incites them to have a duel for his own amusement. Whilst it is true that he tells each one that the other will not hurt them, he exaggerates the other’s strength, skill, and anger. It is again more than a harmless prank.

Whatever Shakespeare’s intentions are, Sir Toby is a sadist, and I myself don’t think Shakespeare didn’t see that callousness and cruelty just because he was living in the 16th century. 

Tony Tanner also points out that in the final scene, when Sir Andrew and Sir Toby enter and both have been wounded by Sebastian:

“… Sir Andrew, rather sweetly, says ‘I’ll help you, Sir Toby, because we’ll be dressed together’. Sir Toby’s very unsweet response is:

Will you help—an ass-head and a coxcomb and a knave, a thin-faced knave, a gull?

(V, I, 205-7)

These are his last words to Sir Andrew, who is not heard from again. Not nice.” (Introduction) 

7/ As a comedy, Twelfth Night has a happy ending, but how happy is it really?

The most jarring note is Malvolio’s line “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!”, but I think the only undeniable happiness in the ending is the reunion of Viola and Sebastian, 3 months after the shipwreck (contrast that with the reunion of Isabella and Claudio at the end of Measure for Measure). 

Olivia gladly accepts Sebastian, whom she barely knows—she must realise that her love for Cesario (Viola) is only skin-deep. And in marrying her, Sebastian breaks Antonio’s heart. 

Much more troubling is the marriage between Viola and Orsino.

First of all, she has been watching him pine for Olivia, and not long before Sebastian arrives and untangles the knots, Orsino threatens to kill her (as Cesario) to spite Olivia.  

“DUKE Why should I not, had I the heart to do it,

Like to th’ Egyptian thief at point of death,

Kill what I love?—a savage jealousy

That sometimes savors nobly. But hear me this:

Since you to non-regardance cast my faith, 

And that I partly know the instrument

That screws me from my true place in your favor,

Like you the marble-breasted tyrant still,

But this your minion, whom I know you love,

And whom, by heaven I swear, I tender dearly,

Him will I tear out of that cruel eye

Where he sits crownèd in his master’s spite.

Come, boy, with me. My thoughts are ripe in mischief.

I’ll sacrifice the lamb that I do love

To spite a raven’s heart within a dove.”

(Act 5 scene 1) 

That’s not a reasonable reaction, is it? Viola’s reaction is even more disturbing.

“VIOLA And I, most jocund, apt, and willingly,

To do you rest a thousand deaths would die.” 



“VIOLA After him I love

More than I love these eyes, more than my life…”


Her love for Orsino is much more irrational than the love of Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Helena in All’s Well that Ends Well. One can tell that Portia would be the dominant partner in her marriage with Bassanio, Beatrice and Benedick would be equal, and Viola would be completely, irrationally submissive to Orsino.

Secondly, Orsino says he will marry Viola, without asking her, and she says nothing for the rest of the play. Tony Tanner mentions Jonathan Bate’s idea that Viola is reminiscent of Ovid’s Echo (whilst Orsino is Narcissus), and says:

“… after this moment when she is accepted by the Duke, she never says another word throughout the remaining one hundred and thirty-five lines of the play—as if faithful Echo has finally, fully, faded away. (Rosalind, of course, had the last word—lots of them—in a masterly, confident epilogue).” (Introduction)  

There’s something else worth noting.

“DUKE […] [to Viola] Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times

Thou never shouldst love a woman like to me.”

(Act 5 scene 1) 

He continues calling her a boy after she reveals that she is a woman. 


“DUKE […] Cesario, come—

For so you shall be while you are a man,

But when in other habits you are seen,

Orsino’s mistress and his fancy’s queen.”


Orsino clearly likes Viola as Cesario.  

8/ In his essay, Tony Tanner writes at length about Feste. Feste is perhaps my second favourite jester in Shakespeare’s plays, after Lear’s fool.

Feste has the last word in Twelfth Night.

Clown sings

When that I was and a little tiny boy,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, 

A foolish thing was but a toy,

For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,

But the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas, to wive,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

By swaggering could I never thrive,

For the rain it raineth every day. 

But when I came unto my beds, 

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

With tosspots still had drunken heads, 

For the rain it raineth every day. 

A great while ago the world begun, 

Hey, ho, the wind and the rain;

But that’s all one, our play is done,

And we’ll strive to please you every day.” 


I recognised that. See Lear’s fool:

“FOOL [Singing

He that has and a little tiny wit,

With heigh-ho, the wind and the rain,

Must make content with his fortunes fit,

Though the rain it raineth every day.” 

(King Lear, Act 3 scene 2) 

Thursday, 21 October 2021

The errors in 1606: Shakespeare and the Year of Lear

I’m going to start by mentioning the errors pointed out by Himadri (Argumentative Old Git) and partially corrected by Faber & Faber: 

“Much though I enjoyed reading this book, there are a few points where I must register a protest. In a section comparing an older anonymous play about Lear with Shakespeare’s version, Shapiro says:

The anonymous author of Leir had been content to build to a somewhat wooden reconciliation scene between father and daughter, one that failed to pack much emotional punch. Shakespeare’ Lear would substitute for that not one but two powerful recognition scenes: the first between Lear and Cordelia, the second, soon after, where the two plots converge, between the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester. It’s debatable which of the two is the most heartbreaking scene in the play.

 – From Chapter 3

I agree fully with the last sentence above, but the scene between the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester comes before, not after, Lear’s recognition scene with Cordelia.

Later, in an otherwise fascinating passage describing how, in Macbeth, even good people are forced to equivocate, Shapiro, after describing the scene in which Macduff receives the news of the slaughter of his wife and children, continues:

In the long and unsettling scene that follows, yet another seemingly virtuous character, Malcolm, swears and lies to Macduff, telling him that his rapacious and violent nature renders him unfit to rule in Scotland…

From Chapter 10

Actually, Malcolm’s equivocation with Macduff precedes rather than follows the news of Macduff’s slaughtered family.

And from Chapter 13:

The wild drinking scenes aboard ship in Antony and Cleopatra in which Pompey has to be carried off dead drunk…

It is Lepidus, not Pompey, who is carried off dead drunk.”

Himadri was reading a hardback. 

In my paperback copy, the first passage is half-corrected:

“Shakespeare’ Lear would substitute for that not one but two powerful recognition scenes: the first between the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester, the second, soon after, where the plots converge, between Lear and Cordelia. It’s debatable which of the two is the most heartbreaking scene in the play.” (Ch.3) 

The order of scenes has been corrected, but there’s still one error: the two plots of King Lear are the Lear plot and the Gloucester plot, so the meeting of the two men is where the plots converge.

The second passage has been fixed: “follows” replaced with “precedes it”.

The third passage has also been fixed.

However, there seem to be more errors. For example, Shapiro writes: 

“Shakespeare didn’t wait long to locate King Lear within this ongoing debate. King James’s warning about “dividing your kingdoms” is closely echoed in the opening lines of King Lear in Gloucester’s remark about the “division of the kingdoms” (1.3–4). The contemporaneous feel of the beginning of Shakespeare’s play is reinforced in Kent’s first words—“I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall” (1.1–2). Jacobean playgoers knew that King James’s elder son, Henry, was the current Duke of Albany, and his younger one, Charles, the Duke of Cornwall (and, in fact, James did prefer Henry over his sickly younger brother). To speak of Albany was to speak of Scotland (James himself had previously been Duke of Albany, as had his father). It was, for Shakespeare, an uncharacteristically topical start—the opening gossipy exchange marking the play as distinctively Jacobean in its political concerns.” (Ch.2) 

Much as I hate mentioning an anti-Stratfordian, I have to credit Richard Malim for pointing out that Prince Henry (son of James I) was Duke of Rothesay and in 1603 created Duke of Cornwall. His younger brother Charles was Duke of Albany. I have checked it—Charles became Duke of Cornwall in 1612, when Henry died. 

More importantly, the Duke of Cornwall and the Duke of Albany already exist in previous writings, such as Holinshed, about King Leir of Britain.

That’s quite embarrassing, I think. The error ruins the passage, and in a way, ruins the entire book for me, because now I’m not sure what else is incorrect that I can’t spot myself. It’s such a pity, 1606 is a compelling and fascinating book.

Please let me know about any other errors or inaccuracies in the book. 

Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Shakespeare and his actors, and the kind of plays he didn't write

I have been reading the brilliant 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear by James Shapiro (now James S. Shapiro).

One thing people generally don’t know, or don’t think about, is that Shakespeare wrote for his actors—he didn’t write a play then cast for the roles, but had to write the parts for actors in his company (The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later called The King’s Men). 

“When Shakespeare sat down to write King Lear, he knew that he would be writing the part for Richard Burbage, the finest tragedian of the age. He had already created for him such career-defining roles as Richard the Third, Hamlet, and Othello. Burbage was now in his late thirties, which also meant that Shakespeare could expand his imaginative horizons and write plays that starred more grizzled and world-weary protagonists. Before 1606 was over, he would challenge Burbage not only in the role of Lear, but also in another pair of older tragic roles, Macbeth and Antony (while this same year Ben Jonson wrote for Burbage the brilliant part of Volpone, who play-acts the role of an infirm old man). No actor may ever have faced more daunting newly written roles in so short a time span.” (Ch.1)

It’s like Shakespeare was writing the plays and thinking, “let’s see what Burbage can do”. But imagine being the actor for whom Shakespeare wrote the roles of Hamlet, Othello, Lear, Macbeth, and Antony! 

“Genius may be a necessary precondition for creating a masterpiece but it’s never a sufficient one. Shakespeare’s Jacobean plays depended on the raw talent of his company.” (ibid.)

That’s an important point. After writing about the tragedian, Shapiro writes about the comedians: 

“The company’s first star comedian, Will Kemp, had parted ways with them back in 1599, pursuing a solo career, a blow to the company, for audiences were drawn to the theater for Kemp’s clowning as much as they were for Burbage’s tragic roles or Shakespeare’s words. Kemp’s replacement, Robert Armin, was a very different kind of comedian. While Armin could step into some of the roles Shakespeare had written for Kemp (such as Dogberry in Much Ado), Kemp’s improvisational and physical style and commonsensical if at times dim-witted demeanor couldn’t have been further from the sardonic, witty style of the diminutive Armin. It took a while for Shakespeare to figure out how best to write Armin into his plays. He had some early success with the parts of Touchstone in As You Like It and Feste in Twelfth Night, and with smaller roles as the Gravedigger in Hamlet and perhaps Thersites in Troilus and Cressida. But it wasn’t until King Lear that Shakespeare created a truly defining role for Armin, Lear’s Fool (and it was probably with this role in mind that, four years later, John Davies praised Armin as one who could “wisely play the fool”).

The Fool would be a role unlike any Shakespeare had ever written before or after—witty, pathetic, lonely, angry, and prophetic in turn, a part rich in quips and snippets of ballads and the kind of sharp exchanges for which Armin was famous. Armin’s range was extraordinary and it’s not surprising that this almost bewildering role was cut for much of King Lear’s stage history. It wasn’t only Shakespeare’s relationship with both Burbage and Armin that had matured, but also the relationship of the star comedian and tragedian with each other.” (ibid.)

This is one of those facts that make you see Shakespeare’s plays differently. I never thought much about the change in the comic roles in the plays.

These facts also make you realise Shakespeare couldn’t have been an earl or some aristocrat being away somewhere writing alone—it had to be a man of theatre, a man within the acting company, as William Shakespeare was. As Shapiro writes in Contested Will:

“You couldn’t write Rosalind’s part in As You Like It unless you had absolute confidence that the boy who spoke her seven hundred lines, a quarter of the play, could manage it. You couldn’t write a part requiring the boy playing Lady Percy in The First Part of Henry the Fourth to sing in Welsh unless you knew that the company had a young actor who could handle a tune and was a native of Wales. Whoever wrote these plays had an intimate, first-hand knowledge of everyone in the company, and must have been a shrewd judge of each actor’s talents.” (“Four: Shakespeare”) 

There’s a mistake—the one singing in Welsh in Henry IV, Part 1 is not Lady Percy but Glendower’s daughter who marries Mortimer—but the point stands. 

“The author of Shakespeare’s plays could not have written the great roles of Richard III, Romeo, Hamlet, Othello and Lear unless he knew how far he could stretch his leading tragedian, Richard Burbage. Writing parts for the company’s star comedian was even tougher. How could anyone but a shareholder in the company know to stop writing comic parts for Will Kemp the moment he quit the company in 1599 – and start writing parts in advance of the arrival of his replacement, Robert Armin, whose comic gifts couldn’t have been more different?” (ibid.) 


1606 has lots of interesting facts and it would take me forever to talk about them, so I’m just going to single out another: the kind of plays Shakespeare didn’t write.  

“Though he was now the most experienced dramatist in the land, Shakespeare had not written the masque and, had he been invited to do so, had said no. It would have been a tempting offer. If he cared about visibility, prestige, or money, the rewards were great; the writer responsible for the masque earned more than eight times what a dramatist was typically paid for a single play. And on the creative side, in addition to the almost unlimited budget and the potential for special effects, the masque offered the very thing he had seemingly wished for in the opening Chorus to Henry the Fifth: “princes to act / And monarchs to behold the swelling scene” (1.0.3–4). That Shakespeare never accepted such a commission tells us as much about him as a writer as the plays he left behind. There was a price to be paid for writing masques, which were shamelessly sycophantic and propagandistic, compromises he didn’t care to make. He must have also recognized that it was an elite and evanescent art form that didn’t suit his interests or his talents.” (Prologue) 

1606 is making me love Shakespeare more and more.

Monday, 18 October 2021

The Merchant of Venice

1/ Shakespeare seems to like comparing the world to a stage—he does it in As You Like It, in Macbeth, and also in The Merchant of Venice

“ANTONIO I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano—

A stage, where every man must play a part,

And mine a sad one.” 

(Act 1 scene 1) 

The next speech is even more interesting, especially this part:

“GRATIANO […] There are a sort of men whose visages

Do cream and mantle like a standing pond,

And do a willful stillness entertain 

With purpose to be dressed in an opinion

Of wisdom, gravity, profound conceit, 

As who should say, “I am Sir Oracle,

And when I ope my lips, let no dog bark!” 

O my Antonio, I do know of these 

That therefore only are reputed wise

For saying nothing; when I am very sure

If they should speak, would almost dam those ears,

Which hearing them would call their brothers fools.” 


All types of people can be found in Shakespeare, methinks.

2/ Shylock’s daughter Jessica elopes with Lorenzo, with the intention of converting to Christianity and marrying him. Should we see her as a bad daughter, or see Shylock as a villain whose own daughter must run away?

One way of judging Jessica is by comparing her to other characters in similar situations: she steals her father’s money and jewels; Desdemona doesn’t; neither do Juliet and Hermia. We cannot know what she’s intended to be, but we can say what she is: she is a thief, and a treacherous daughter. Later we’re told that she spends 80 ducats—stolen money—in a night. 

Not only so, Jessica callously exchanges for a monkey the ring Shylock got from Leah (presumably his wife). That’s not very sympathetic, is it?

“SHYLOCK Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.” 

(Act 3 scene 1) 

Isn’t that heartbreaking? These lines give more depth to the character of Shylock. 

3/ The main debate about The Merchant of Venice, which I cannot avoid, is whether or not it’s anti-Semitic.

The question is not whether Shylock is a villain—he is—but that doesn’t mean that he’s not, at the same time, a tragic figure. The first time we see him is when Bassanio comes to him asking for a loan, with Antonio providing the bond. Antonio and Shylock have a debate about interest, and Shylock justifies it by quoting Genesis. 

“ANTONIO Mark you this, Bassanio,

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

An evil soul producing holy witness

Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,

A goodly apple rotten at the heart. 

O what a goodly outside falsehood hath!” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

The first insult comes from Antonio. 

“SHYLOCK Signior Antonio, many a time and oft 

In the Rialto you have rated me 

About my moneys and my usances.

Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,

For suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe. 

You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog,

And spet upon my Jewish gabardine,

And all for use of that which is mine own.

[…] You that did void your rheum upon my beard

And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur

Over your threshold!...” 


Antonio denies nothing, and says he would do it again. Is that reasonable, considering that he’s there to ask for Shylock’s help? 

Whatever you think about the play, you cannot say that Shylock is a two-dimensional character, a stock character of a Jew, a mere ruthless moneylender. Whatever you think about the play, you cannot deny that Shakespeare gives voice to Shylock and lets us understand his grievances.

“SHYLOCK […] He hath disgraced me, and hind’red me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—and what’s his reason? I am a Jew.” 

(Act 3 scene 1) 

From his perspective, he has reason for taking revenge on Antonio. What’s Antonio’s reason for hating him?

Later on, he says to Antonio:

“SHYLOCK […] Thou call’dst me dog before thou hadst a cause,

But since I am a dog, beware my fangs…”

(Act 3 scene 3) 

Now look at the most famous speech in the play: 

“SHYLOCK […] Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?—fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. […] The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” 

(Act 3 scene 1) 

How could anyone think Shakespeare’s anti-Semitic after reading or hearing that speech? I’ve read somewhere that we may just look at it from the modern perspective, and in the Elizabethan era, the audience may have just laughed and found it ridiculous, but I don’t buy it. It is a powerful speech, and Shakespeare must have thought about what it did to a man’s soul when he’s subjected to hatred and humiliation for a long time, just because he’s Jewish.

Moreover, the Christian characters aren’t particularly good: Antonio is foolish (in his love for Bassanio—yes, I think he’s gay) and hateful; Bassanio is dishonest and unreliable, and he borrows money in order to be Portia’s suitor; Gratiano is empty-headed; Lorenzo is a thief and his friends all condone it; both Bassanio and Gratiano are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing… Shylock also refers to the Christian characters having slaves. 

It is undeniable that Shylock is particularly cruel for insisting on the pound of flesh and refusing larger amounts of money, but at the same time, I can understand that he grows more vengeful after losing his daughter to the Christians—he thinks Antonio has something to do with it.  

4/ Before we talk about the trial, let’s talk about Portia. Her dead father’s will dictates that all suitors must play a lottery—out of 3 caskets, the man who picks the right one can marry her and the ones who fail can never propose marriage to any woman. I have no idea how they can enforce it and what they can do if a man marries someone else, but let’s ignore it.

This is what the prince of Morocco says, when he comes to court Portia: 

“MOROCCO Mislike me not for my complexion, 

The shadowed livery of the burnished sun,

To whom I am a neighbor and near bred.

Bring me the fairest creature northward born,

Where Phoebus’s fire scarce thaws the icicles,

And let us make incision for your love

To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine...”

(Ac 2 scene 1) 

Is that not an interesting speech? In this play, the Jewish character and the black character claim full equality to the white characters, and Shakespeare does not portray either of them as ridiculous.

The prince of Morocco loses, and this is Portia’s reaction: 

“PORTIA A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go.

Let all of his complexion choose me so.” 

(Act 2 scene 7) 

She sounds racist, no? She’s no Desdemona.

Later on, Portia has a song played whilst her favourite Bassanio is picking the caskets. She is hinting, and that’s the first sign of her manipulativeness. 

Scholars and critics and readers have debated the trial scene for centuries: how should we view the trial? What should we think about Portia’s win over Shylock? Are we meant to see it as an intelligent, resourceful woman’s rightful triumph over a cruel and vindictive villain, or is it rather a cunning woman exploiting hair-splitting legalism and mercilessly crushing a Jew? 

Or perhaps both are true at the same time? On the one hand, Portia is clever and offers a way out for Shylock at the beginning, but he himself doesn’t want to have a surgeon at hand when taking his pound of flesh. 

On the other hand, the result of the trial is problematic in many ways. First of all, Portia is in disguise and has no right to act as a judge. Secondly, Shylock is alone whereas everyone else, including the Duke, is on the same side because they’re all Christians and/or Antonio’s friends. Thirdly, Shylock not only loses his money (and his daughter), the Christians now work together to take away from him his money, his livelihood, and also his religion, with the threat of killing him otherwise. The Christian characters all talk about mercy, especially Portia herself, but that’s not very merciful, is it? Gratiano says more than once that he wants Shylock hanged and continues ridiculing him after the judgment. 

One may argue that I’m looking at it from the modern perspective and Shakespeare didn’t mean to portray Portia and other Christian characters as hypocritical, but earlier in the play we hear Portia say:   

“PORTIA If to do were as easy to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces. It is a good divine that follows his own instructions; I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than to be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching...”  

(Act 1 scene 2) 

Why would he have written these lines if they had absolutely no significance later on? The Christian characters do not practise what they preach, and here Shakespeare’s hinting at it. 

Bassanio’s speech, as he reasons about the caskets, is also meaningful: things are not as they seem. 

5/ The ring trick, which at first seems pointless, has a purpose: Portia wants the men, especially Bassanio and Antonio, to know that she was the lawyer—she saved them both. In a world ruled by men, she outsmarts them all. It’s almost like she wants to establish her power, from the start, in her marriage with Bassanio and establish her place in regard to Antonio, who clearly loves her husband (she has heard what they say to each other at the trial, when they’re unaware of her presence). 

But the ring trick has another significance, as it echoes Jessica stealing Shylock’s ring from Leah and exchanging it for a monkey. It makes you think of Shylock’s real pain (as opposed to the feigned pain of Portia and Nerissa) and Jessica’s callousness—note too that the whole fake quarrel over the ring happens in front of Jessica.  

6/ Tony Tanner says: 

“The play is a comedy; but Shakespeare has here touched on deeper and more potentially complex and troubling matters than he had hitherto explored, and the result is a comedy with a difference. And, of course, it is primarily Shylock who makes that difference.” (Introduction)

Shylock, he says, appears in 5 scenes out of 20 scenes of The Merchant of Venice. And yet, he dominates the play. I’m not quite sure how Shakespeare does it, but somehow Shylock is one of the most powerful, striking, and complex characters I’ve encountered in literature.