Friday 30 September 2022

Sane vs mad

It’s reductive perhaps, but in a moment of idleness, I was thinking that all prose writers could be roughly categorised as sane or mad. 

Jane Austen and George Eliot are sane.

Emily Bronte is mad. Charlotte and Anne Bronte are sane, despite the madwoman in the attic. 

Charles Dickens is mad, or at least he has a mad imagination. 

Same with Lewis Carroll. 

Henry James and Edith Wharton are sane.

Melville is obviously mad. 

Murasaki Shikibu is sane. Soseki and Kawabata are sane. 

Akutagawa is mad. 

Kafka is mad. 

Chekhov is as sane as a physician can be, perhaps the sanest of writers. 

Turgenev is sane.

Tolstoy, despite his idiosyncratic views on art and extreme views on religion, is sane as a novelist. 

Dostoyevsky is mad.

Gogol is perhaps the maddest of them all.

Nabokov, despite often writing about madmen, is sane as he knows them to be madmen and dissects them in a calm, controlled way.

Proust, despite being a stylist, is mad. Stylistically he may be closer to Tolstoy, but like Dostoyevsky, he has strong interest in extreme and abnormal states of mind. 

It’s interesting that when we look at it this way, I clearly enjoy both but personally feel closer to sane writers. What does it mean? I have no idea. 

But what about you? 

(By the way, I’m reading Volume 2 of Proust, Within a Budding Grove, translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright). 

Wednesday 14 September 2022

Richard III

 1/ Most of Shakespeare’s plays open with some supporting or background characters, Richard III begins with the main character’s soliloquy: 

“RICHARD Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this sun of York;

And all the clouds that loured upon our house 

In the deep bosom of the ocean buried…”

(Act 1 scene 1) 

That’s how you begin a story. 

Imagine the excitement of the first people ever to watch Richard III on the stage. Marlowe’s Barabas, also a Machiavelli character, appears so crude and primitive in comparison. 

A central theme that appears in almost all of Shakespeare’s plays is disguise/ pretence/ acting—people are not what they appear to be—the obsession has been there from the beginning, and Richard is perhaps the best actor of all. 

This for example is a very good speech: 

“RICHARD […] Because I cannot flatter and look fair, 

Smile in men’s faces, smooth, deceive, and cog, 

Duck with French nods and apish courtesy, 

I must be held a rancorous enemy. 

Cannot a plain man live and think no harm

But thus his simple truth must be amused

With silken, sly, insinuating Jacks?”

(Act 1 scene 3)  

He puts on different roles and speaks with different voices to different people. In Shakespeare, there are two other characters who are comparable in their ability to adapt, to put on different performances before different people: Hamlet and Hal. The difference is that Richard has no conscience, and does it to manipulate others for his own gains.  

2/ I love the scene where Clarence, in prison, recounts his nightmare: 

“KEEPER Had you such leisure in the time of death

To gaze upon these secrets of the deep? 

CLARENCE Methought I had; and often did I strive 

To yield the ghost, but still the envious flood 

Stopped in my soul and would not let it forth 

To find the empty, vast, and wand’ring air, 

But smothered it within my panting bulk, 

Who almost burst to belch it in the sea.”

(Act 1 scene 4) 

It’s full of striking imagery, but this is particularly interesting: 

“CLARENCE Ah, keeper, keeper, I have done these things

That now give evidence against my soul 

For Edward’s sake, and see how he requites me! 

O God! If my deep pray’rs cannot appease thee, 

But thou wilt be avenged on my misdeeds,

Yet execute thy wrath in me alone. 

O, spare my guiltless wife and my poor children!

Keeper, I prithee sit by me awhile.

My soul is heavy, and I fain would sleep.”


Himadri of Argumentative Old Git said to me: 

“Till then, dreams were depicted as messages from the gods, or as prophecies of some sort. This is the earliest instance I know of where a dream is depicted as the writhings of a guilty mind. The substance of the dream is what is already in Clarence’s mind.”

Clarence, like other victims of Richard, is not an innocent victim—he too has done evil, he too has blood on his hands. 

Tony Tanner tells me that Richard III is the longest of Shakespeare’s history plays, and the second longest of his plays after Hamlet. It’s interesting to look at the scenes or moments that are not strictly essential to the plot, such as the conversation about conscience between the two murderers hired to kill Clarence. The scene between them and Clarence is also long, and it must be long for a reason. 

This is why I find it particularly useful to read the tetralogy in succession (rather than jump straight to Richard III): we don’t hear of conscience when the powerful men at court plot against each other; we don’t hear of conscience when they plan to frame the Duchess of Gloucester and then kill the Duke; we don’t hear of conscience when Clifford kills Rutland; we don’t hear of conscience when Margaret taunts York with a paper crown and a cloth dyed with his son’s blood; we don’t hear of conscience when King Edward and others kill Margaret’s young son in front of her; we don’t hear of conscience when Richard arranges to have his own brother killed, and so on and so forth. It is only these murderers who have doubt and guilt, and one of them cannot carry on with the act. 

The word “conscience” reappears near the end of the play, when Richard says “Conscience is but a word that cowards use...” (Act 5 scene 3). 

3/ I like this bit, after Kind Edward’s death: 

“FIRST CITIZEN Come, come, we fear the worst. All will be well. 

THIRD CITIZEN When clouds are seen, wise men put on their cloaks; 

When great leaves fall, then winter is at hand; 

When the sun sets, who doth not look for night? 

Untimely storms makes men expect a dearth. 

All may be well; but if God sort it so, 

’Tis more than we deserve or I expect.” 

(Act 2 scene 3) 

Common sense and caution, which we later find lacking in Lord Hastings. 

“HASTINGS O momentary grace of mortal men, 

Which we more hunt for than the grace of God! 

Who builds his hope in air of your good looks 

Lives like a drunken sailor on a mast, 

Ready with every nod to tumble down

Into the fatal bowels of the deep.” 

(Act 3 scene 4) 

Interestingly, his metaphor echoes the image in Clarence’s dream, in which he’s struck overboard “into the tumbling billows of the main”, “the slimy bottom of the deep”. 

4/ Richard kills his way to the top: 

“RICHARD […] Uncertain way of gain! But I am in

So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin…”

(Act 4 scene 2) 

Whom does that remind me of? 

“MACBETH [...] I am in blood

Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,

Returning were as tedious as go o’er…” 

(Macbeth, Act 3 scene 4) 

There’s no need to talk about the differences between them—we all can see. But this makes me want to reread Macbeth

5/ There are many good passages about grief, but I want to draw your attention to this one from wife of York and mother of Richard: 

“DUCHESS OF YORK Dead life, blind sight, poor mortal living ghost, 

Woe’s scene, world’s shame, grave’s due by life usurped, 

Brief abstract and record of tedious days, 

Rest thy unrest on England’s lawful earth, 

[Sits down]

Unlawfully made drunk with innocent blood!” 

(Act 4 scene 4) 

That image has appeared in the previous play:

“RICHARD Ah, Warwick, why hast thou withdrawn thyself?

Thy brother’s blood the thirsty earth hath drunk, 


WARWICK Then let the earth be drunken with our blood!...” 

(Henry VI, Part 3, Act 2 scene 3)

In the same scene, Queen Elizabeth (wife of King Edward IV) compares her children to “gentle lambs” thrown “in the entrails of the wolf”—the metaphor of lambs and wolves has appeared multiple times in the Henry VI plays. 

Now this is a new metaphor: 

“QUEEN MARGARET […] From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept

A hellhound that doth hunt us all to death. 

That dog that had his teeth before his eyes

To worry lambs and lap their gentle blood,

That foul defacer of God’s handiwork,

That excellent grand tyrant of the earth

That reigns in gallèd eyes of weeping souls, 

Thy womb let loose to chase us to our graves…” 

(Act 4 scene 4) 

I can’t help feeling that Shakespeare had a blast writing Margaret—he gave her many long speeches—she’s striking and almost always dominates the scene when she appears. In this play, she’s pushed to the margins because the play is dominated by Richard, but she still has a strong presence whenever she appears. 

“QUEEN MARGARET […] Richard yet lives, hell’s black intelligencer, 

Only reserved their factor to buy souls 

And send them thither. But at hand, at hand, 

Ensues his piteous and unpitied end.

Earth gapes, hell burns, fiends roar, saints pray, 

To have him suddenly conveyed from hence. 

Cancel his bond of life, dear God, I pray, 

That I may live and say “The dog is dead”.” 


And we hear that at the end of the play. 

“RICHMOND […] The day is ours; the bloody dog is dead.” 

(Act 5 scene 5) 

An image that recurs more often is the boar. The first time the image appears is when Lord Hastings hears from a messenger that Lord Stanley had a nightmare in which “the boar had razed his helm” (Act 3 scene 2). Lord Hastings sees no danger, foolishly thinking “To fly the boar before the boar pursues/ Were to incense the boar to follow us/ And make pursuit where he did mean no chase” (ibid.). 

Naturally before he dies, he recalls the dream about the boar. 

Lord Stanley later on also uses the boar image: 

“STANLEY Sir Christopher, tell Richmond this from me: 

That in the sty of the most deadly boar

My son George Stanley is franked up in hold; 

If I revolt, off goes young George’s head…” 

(Act 4 scene 5) 

And Richmond (the future king), having got the image from Stanley, expands the metaphor: 

“RICHMOND […] The wretched, bloody, and usurping boar,

That spoiled your summer fields and fruitful vines, 

Swills your warm blood like wash, and makes his trough

In your emboweled bosoms, this foul swine 

Is now even in the center of this isle,

Near to the town of Leicester, as we learn…” 

(Act 5 scene 2) 

6/ Tony Tanner’s essay is very good, especially the part where he writes about the rise and fall of Richard. On the way to the throne, he’s utterly cool and in control—a chameleon, a Machiavelli—he never falters. But the moment he’s on the throne: 

“RICHARD […] But shall we wear these glories for a day?

Or shall they last, and we rejoice in them?” 

(Act 4 scene 2) 

Tony Tanner says: 

“This is something new, and potentially fatal, in Richard—anxiety, loss of nerve. He immediately, and utterly pointlessly, decides to test Buckingham, the one man above all others who helped him to the throne. […] He has gratuitously alienated his most loyal accomplice.” (Introduction) 

As Richard murders his way to the top and continues killing people around him, he becomes more and more isolated. He doubts everyone, and slowly loses confidence in himself. By the end, he’s in a state of mental disintegration:  

“RICHARD […] What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by. 

Richard loves Richard: that is, I am I. 

Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am. 

Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why! 

Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself? 

Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good 

That I myself have done unto myself? 

O no! Alas, I rather hate myself 

For hateful deeds committed by myself. 

I am a villain. Yet I lie, I am not…” 

(Act 5 scene 3) 

In terms of poetry, this is of course not on the level of Hamlet or Macbeth. But in terms of characterisation and psychology, this is excellent. 

Tony Tanner says: 

“… this is the self in complete tatters and fragments. Richard, himself alone, the supreme impresario of evil, is ending in gibberish.” (Introduction) 

Friday 2 September 2022

Henry VI, Part 3

1/ In my previous blog post, I quoted Henry IV, Part 2

“KING […] Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown...”

Contrast that with Duke of York’s son Richard (later Richard III): 

“RICHARD […] How sweet a thing it is to wear a crown, 

Within whose circuit is Elysium 

And all that poets feign of bliss and joy…” 

(Act 1 scene 2)

In the same speech: 

“RICHARD […] I cannot rest 

Until the white rose that I wear be dyed 

Even in the lukewarm blood of Henry’s heart.” 

That makes me think of the garden scene in Part 1:

“SOMERSET Prick not your finger as you pluck it off; 

Lest bleeding you do paint the white rose red

And fall on my side so against your will.” 

(Act 2 scene 4) 


“SOMERSET Here in my scabbard, meditating that 

Shall dye your white rose in a bloody red.” 


The roses are again revoked when King Henry is sitting on a molehill, and sees a man who in battle has accidentally killed his own son: 

“KING HENRY […] The red rose and the white are on this face,

The fatal colors of our striving houses: 

The one his purple blood right well resembles:

The other his pale cheeks, methinks, presenteth:

Within one rose, and let the other flourish! 

If you contend, a thousand lives must wither.” 

(Act 2 scene 5) 

Interestingly, I’d note that the red rose – white rose symbolism, central to Part 1, is not at all mentioned in Part 2. Not even once. 

2/ When Queen Margaret finds out that the King has disinherited his own son on condition that York and his people stop the civil war and make no attempt to kill him, she’s full of rage. I’ve noted this metaphor: 

“QUEEN […] And yet shalt thou be safe? Such safety finds 

The trembling lamb environèd with wolves…” 

(Act 1 scene 1)

This is like the animal imagery we have seen in Part 2. And when York is chased by Margaret’s army: 

“YORK […] And all my followers to the eager foe

Turn back and fly, like ships before the wind

Or lambs pursued by hunger-starved wolves…” 

(Act 1 scene 4) 

Lambs, wolves. York echoes Margaret’s metaphor. 

This, by the way, is the scene that has the line “O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide!”, to which Robert Greene alludes in his mockery of Shakespeare as “an upstart crow”. 

3/ York is an ambitious, scheming politician who manipulates the King, works with others to get rid of the most honourable man at court, uses people (Jack Cade) and causes turmoil in his own country for personal gains, but in the scene before his death, he’s humanised:   

“YORK […] Bid’st thou me rage? Why, now thou hast thy wish. 

Wouldst have me weep? Why, now thou hast thy will. 

For raging wind blows up incessant showers,

And when the rage allays the rain begins.

These tears are my sweet Rutland’s obsequies,

And every drop cries vengeance for his death…” 

(Act 1 scene 4) 

His pain for the death of his young son is real. He weeps.

Contrast it with Richard’s reaction: 

“RICHARD I cannot weep; for all my body’s moisture

Scarce serves to quench my furnace-burning heart; 

Nor can my tongue unload my heart’s great burden, 

For selfsame wind that I should speak withal

Is kindling coals that fires all my breast,

And burns me up with flames that tears would quench. 

To weep is to make less the depth of grief. 

Tears, then, for babes; blows and revenge for me!

Richard, I bear thy name; I’ll venge thy death,

Or die renownèd by attempting it.” 

(Act 2 scene 1) 


4/ Like Part 2, this is a bloody play. 

“CLIFFORD Platagenet! I come, Platagenet! 

And this thy son’s blood cleaving to my blade

Shall rust upon my weapon, till thy blood, 

Congealed with this, do make me wipe off both.” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

And the other side: 

“RICHARD Ah, Warwick, why hast thou withdrawn thyself?

Thy brother’s blood the thirsty earth hath drunk, 

Broached with the steely point of Clifford’s lance; 

And in the very pangs of death he cried, 

Like to a dismal clangor heart from far, 

“Warwick, revenge! Brother, revenge my death!”

So, underneath the belly of their steeds,

That stained their fetlocks in his smoking blood, 

The noble gentleman gave up the ghost.

WARWICK Then let the earth be drunken with our blood!...” 

(Act 2 scene 3) 

I don’t think the poetry is particularly good in these lines, compared to later Shakespeare, but there are some interesting images: “the thirsty earth hath drunk”, “smoking blood”, “let the earth be drunken with our blood”. 

Everyone in this play is thirsty for blood—except King Henry. He feels alienated, out-of-place. His soliloquy on the molehill is probably the most moving speech in the play. 

“KING HENRY […] Would I were dead, if God’s good will were so! 

For what is in this world but grief and woe?

O God! methinks it were a happy life,

To be no better than a homely swain; 

To sit upon a hill, as I do now,

To carve out dials quaintly, point by point,

Thereby to see the minutes how they run—

How many makes the hour full complete,

How many hours brings about the day, 

How many days will finish up the year, 

How many years a mortal man may live; 

When this is known, then to divide the times—

So many hours must I tend my flock, 

So many hours must I take my rest, 

So many hours must I contemplate,

So many hours must I sport myself, 

So many days my ewes have been with young, 

How many weeks ere the poor fools will ean, 

So many years ere I shall shear the fleece…” 

(Act 2 scene 5) 

After lots of scheming, fighting, and head-severing, Shakespeare gives us this quiet scene, where everything seems to stand still. 

“KING HENRY […] Ah, what a life were this! how sweet! how lovely! 

Gives not the hawthorn-bush a sweeter shade

To shepherds looking on their silly sheep,

Than doth a rich embroidered canopy

To kings that fear their subjects’ treachery?

O, yes, it doth! a thousand-fold it doth!...”


We know, and we know that Shakespeare knows, that this is a dream, an idealisation of a shepherd’s life. We see right after this speech two common men who get caught up in a conflict that has nothing to do with them, and who tragically have killed their own family members. But the King’s dream about being a shepherd is still lovely and poignant. 

Before this scene, King Henry hasn’t always been present in a scene, and when he is, he’s generally quiet—or silenced. But now Shakespeare gives him a long soliloquy, and the soliloquy for a moment makes the play—a play full of fighting and chaos—stand still. 

5/ When Lady Elizabeth Grey comes to Edward, now the new king, for help: 

“KING EDWARD An easy task; ’tis but to love a king.

LADY GREY That’s soon performed, because I am a subject. 

KING EDWARD Why, then, thy husband’s lands I freely give thee. 

LADY GREY I take my leave with many thousand thanks. 

[…] KING EDWARD But stay thee, ’tis the fruits of love I mean. 

LADY GREY The fruits of love I mean, my loving liege. 

KING EDWARD Ay, but, I fear me, in another sense. 

What love, think’st thou, I sue so much to get?” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

This makes me think of Measure for Measure.

After some more back-and-forth: 

“LADY GREY My mind will never grant what I perceive 

Your Highness aims at, if I aim aright. 

KING EDWARD To tell thee plain, I aim to lie with thee.” 


It’s a funny scene, a comic scene, but at the same time, it’s sinister. The new king abuses his power. And when he is questioned by his own brothers and others in Act 4 scene 1, he says over and over again that he is King and will have his will. He is a tyrant.

There’s something else I’ve noted: if King Edward doesn’t force Lady Grey to marry him, he would be expected to marry the sister of the Queen of France—for the alliance between England and France. There are also a few political marriages, such as Warwick, when he has abandoned King Edward’s side, marrying his eldest daughter to the son of Henry and Margaret. The daughter’s feelings are irrelevant. 

I think we can guess what Shakespeare thinks about these things, based on his depictions of arranged or forced marriages in other plays, especially the comedies.

But Shakespeare doesn’t depict the women as all damsels in distress. I absolutely love Margaret’s long speech in Act 5 when she leads the army to fight King Edward after Warwick’s death: 

“QUEEN MARGARET […] Say Warwick was our anchor. What of that? 

And Montague our topmast. What of him? 

Our slaughtered friends the tackles; what of these? 

Why, is not Oxford here another anchor? 

And Somerset another goodly mast? 

The friends of France our shrouds and tacklings? 

And though unskilful, why not Ned and I

For once allowed the skilful pilot’s charge? 

We will not from the helm to sit and weep,

But keep our course (though the rough wind say no)

From shelves and rocks that threaten us with wrack.

As good to chide the waves as speak them fair. 

And what is Edward but a ruthless sea? 

What Clarence but a quicksand of deceit? 

And Richard but a ragged fatal rock?...”

(Act 5 scene 4) 

Shakespeare is master of rhetoric. This is only a part of the speech—the extended metaphor of the ship runs through the entire speech. 

6/ There are plenty of great lines in Henry VI, Part 3, but a few particularly stand out. 

“WARWICK […] Why, what is pomp, rule, reign, but earth and dust? 

And, live we how we can, yet die we must.” 

(Act 5 scene 2) 

Or this line:

“KING HENRY […] Then why should they love Edward more than me?...” 

(Act 4 scene 8) 

He’s right to ask—why should they?—when he is a better man. He’s just wrong for thinking people consequently wouldn’t choose Edward over him. 

7/ Richard’s final soliloquy is one of the greatest speeches in the play: 

“RICHARD […] Then, since the heavens have shaped my body so, 

Let hell make crook’d my mind to answer it. 

I have no brother, I am like no brother; 

And this word “love”, which graybeards call divine,

Be resident in men like one another 

And not in me: I am myself alone…” 

(Act 5 scene 6) 

Tony Tanner says: 

“I am myself alone. This is the first time but far from the last, that these words are heard in Shakespeare. A certain kind of hard, Renaissance individualism is beginning to speak out, and it can take frightening forms.” (Introduction) 

Earlier, he writes: 

“[Richard] will outplay all the famous dissemblers and shape-changers of legend and epic. Indeed, he promises a performance the like of which has never been seen before. He will treat history as his theatre, which he will dominate because he is capable of playing any and every role.” (ibid.) 

I can’t wait to read Richard III