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 as 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.  

Saturday 16 October 2021

Light Night 2021

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! 

Sunday 10 October 2021

The Steppe and Other Stories

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. 

Sunday 3 October 2021

A question from Marred about Shakespeare and Bloom

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.  

From Marred: 

“… 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.


With Regard



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.

You wrote:

“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.