Friday 23 June 2023

Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis

1/ Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare’s first narrative poem and first publication in general, is about the goddess seducing the beautiful man: 

““Fondling,” she said, “since I have hemmed thee here

Within the circuit of this ivory pale, 

I’ll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer; 

Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale; 

Graze on my lips; and if those hills be dry, 

Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie. 

“Within this limit is relief enough, 

Sweet bottom-grass, and high delightful plain, 

Round rising hillocks, brakes obscure and rough,

To shelter thee from tempest and from rain.

Then be my deer since I am such a park;

No dog shall rouse thee though a thousand bark.”” 


If that doesn’t want to make you pick up the book, I don’t know what can. 

2/ So how does Venus try to persuade Adonis? 

““Torches are made to light, jewels to wear, 

Dainties to taste, fresh beauty for the use, 

Herbs for their smell, and sappy plants to bear. 

Things growing to themselves are growth’s abuse. 

Seeds spring from seeds, and beauty breedeth beauty. 

Thou wast begot; to get it is thy duty. 

“Upon the earth’s increase why shouldst thou feed 

Unless the earth with thy increase be fed? 

By law of nature thou art bound to breed, 

That shine may live when thou thyself art dead; 

And so in spite of death thou doth survive, 

In that thy likeness still is left alive.”

This makes me think of the sonnets, mostly the procreation sonnets (1-17). Sadly the comparison doesn’t do Venus and Adonis a favour: the sonnets are much more sophisticated.

Just look at two examples: 

Sonnet 3

Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest,

Now is the time that face should form another,

Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,

Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.

For where is she so fair whose uneared womb

Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?

Or who is he so fond will be the tomb

Of his self-love, to stop posterity?

Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee

Calls back the lovely April of her prime;

So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,

Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time.

    But if thou live rememb’red not to be,

    Die single, and thine image dies with thee.

Sonnet 12

When I do count the clock that tells the time, 

And see the brave day sunk in hideous night; 

When I behold the violet past prime, 

And sable curls all silver’d o’er with white;

When lofty trees I see barren of leaves 

Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,

And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves 

Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard, 

Then of thy beauty do I question make, 

That thou among the wastes of time must go,

Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake

And die as fast as they see others grow; 

   And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence

   Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence. 

The language, the style in the sonnets is much better. 

3/ When Venus faints and “lies as she were slain”, Adonis, er, gives her CPR. Or kisses her, thinking she’s dead (are you a necrophile, mate?). 

She wakes up. You know, like Sleeping Beauty. 

“The night of sorrow now is turned to day: 

Her two blue windows faintly she upheaveth, 

Like the fair sun when in his fresh array 

He cheers the morn and all the earth relieveth; 

And as the bright sun glories the sky, 

So is her face illumined with her eye.” 

This goes on for a few more stanzas, but you get the idea: the story of Venus and Adonis may be unusual (a woman wooing and rejected by man), but the style is more conventional than in the sonnets. I should say that this narrative poem was published just a couple of years before Shakespeare was testing, bending, playing with the English language in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and his poetry was soaring in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet

It is interesting, however, when Adonis tells Venus that her feeling for him is lust, not love: 

““… Call it not love, for Love to heaven is fled

Since sweating Lust on earth usurped his name; 

Under whose simple semblance he hath fed

Upon fresh beauty, blotting it with blame; 

Which the hot tyrant stains and soon bereaves,

As caterpillars do the tender leaves. 

[…] Love surfeits not, Lust like a glutton dies; 

Love is all truth, Lust full of forged lies…”” 

Shakespeare’s essentially a dramatic poet, so the poem is more interesting when we get Adonis’s voice—though only for a bit—the poem largely focuses on Venus’s perspective.

I can’t help wondering if Shakespeare was taking a deliberate dig at those who waxed poetic about love when they’re just horny. 

4/ I like the passages of grief, when Venus thinks he’s dead, and when she finds him dead. I don’t like the narrator’s descriptions, like “crystal tide”, “silver rain”, “like a stormy day, now wind, now rain”, “pearls in glass”, and so on and so forth, but I like the expressions of grief from her mouth. Then we get the dramatic Shakespeare. 

““Dost thou drink tears, that thou provok’st such weeping? 

What may a heavy groan advantage thee? 

Why hast thou cast into eternal sleeping

Those eyes that taught all other eyes to see?...”” 


“For he being dead, with him is beauty slain, 

And, beauty dead, black chaos comes again.” 


““Alas, poor world, what treasure hast thou lost! 

What face remains alive that’s worth the viewing? 

Whose tongue is music now? What canst thou boast 

Of things long since, or any thing ensuing? 

The flowers are sweet, their colors fresh and trim, 

But true sweet beauty lived and died with him…”” 

I also like it when Venus looks at Adonis’s body torn apart by a boar, and thinks “Had I been toothed like him, I must confess/ With kissing him I should have killed him first”. A bit corny, but still. 

5/ If I have to pick a single line that is the most interesting in Venus and Adonis, I’d say “Before I know myself, seek not to know me” (from Adonis). 

Tuesday 20 June 2023

Shakespeare’s sonnets and “A Lover’s Complaint”: first impressions

1/ Having read all the plays, I decided to go for Shakespeare’s non-dramatic poetry. There are a handful of sonnets I know quite well (18, 116, 130, 138), but this time I was reading through them all with the intention of studying them closely over time, so there isn’t much to say. I love Shakespeare’s sonnets—not all, some are harder to read and some feel quite early—but I love most. 

2/ Sonnet 116 feels very different this time: 

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wand'ring bark,

Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle's compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me prov'd,

I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.

3/ I don’t think the publication was unauthorised: the sonnets were arranged in such a meaningful way that they had to be planned for publication by Shakespeare himself.  

4/ The sonnets, to me, feel more like literary exercises than expressions of personal thought and feeling. I think he was aiming to kill the sonnet and give it a rebirth—English theatre was no longer the same with Shakespeare and neither was the sonnet—he went against all norms and conventions, creating a sonnet sequence unlike anything that came before.

5/ I think Shakespeare wrote about real feelings of joy and lust and desire and longing and anger and jealousy and disappointment and confusion and hatred and so on, but there’s not necessarily one Fair Youth or one Rival Poet or one Dark Lady. 

6/ That doesn’t necessarily mean that I think Shakespeare’s not bisexual. I would say he’s almost certainly not gay; he could be bisexual or straight, probably bisexual. 

7/ It’s very likely that he had some venereal disease at some point, as hinted in some of the last sonnets. Scholars have long debated this subject, I myself think it’s likely around the time he was writing Timon of Athens and King Lear, because of the hateful and vicious and often out-of-place rants against female sexuality in these plays. 

8/ I didn’t like “A Lover’s Complaint”. Apparently there’s some debate surrounding the authorship—I’m not sure—some of it sounds Shakespearean and some of it doesn’t. If it was entirely Shakespeare’s, it must have been an early work. 

So here’s a record of my impressions. Slowly I’m going to read and absorb the sonnets properly over time.

Sunday 18 June 2023

Hamlet (2018), ft. Andrew Scott

This is quite a creative production, and in quite a few ways, interesting.

It is set today: the Ghost for example is first seen on CCTV, and the actors all act modern (see the scene of Ophelia saying goodbye to Laertes and you’ll know what I mean). It feels fresh and works rather well for the large part, though one wonders why at a time when cameras, TV, computers, video calls… exist, Hamlet bothers to write to Ophelia on paper, like a hipster (this is also why I cannot sit and watch a contemporary Romeo and Juliet—a phone call would have resolved everything and prevented the tragedy). 

Joking aside, I do think the 2018 production is interesting, though a few choices don’t quite work for me. 

First of all, Robert Icke plays up the sexual attraction, the passion between Claudius (Angus Wright) and Gertrude (Juliet Stevenson), which works very well.

Secondly, he emphasises the surveillance theme, and our modern Polonius (Peter Wight) uses spy devices. Denmark feels like a prison indeed. But he also adds two overhearing moments and I don’t particularly like them: the first time, Hamlet (Andrew Scott) is, without intending to spy, hiding behind a couch as Ophelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) talks to her father and brother about her relationship with Hamlet, and her lines become less independent, less interesting when we see them spoken within Hamlet’s hearing; the second time, Hamlet overhears Claudius speak to Guildenstern and Rosencrantz of the England plan; the two moments make Hamlet appear less smart, as he discovers by chance how others are plotting against him, instead of having his own instinct and seeing through everyone as in Shakespeare’s play (and in the Kevin Kline production).

Thirdly, the production presents a very different Gertrude. There was one scene I didn’t recognise—there are three different texts of Hamlet, and my version was largely based on the second Quarto—so I looked it up and found the scene (slightly longer than in the production) in the first Quarto, often known as the bad Quarto: 

Hor. Madame, your sonne is safe arriv'de in Denmarke,

This letter I euen now receiv'd of him,

Whereas he writes how he escap't the danger,

And subtle treason that the king had plotted,

Being crossed by the contention of the windes,

He found the Packet sent to the king of England,

Wherein he saw himselfe betray'd to death,

As at his next conuersion with your grace,

He will relate the circumstance at full.

Queene Then I perceiue there's treason in his lookes

That seem'd to sugar o're his villanie:

But I will soothe and please him for a time,

For murderous mindes are alwayes jealous,

But know not you Horatio where he is?

Hor. Yes Madame, and he hath appoynted me

To meete him on the east side of the Cittie

To morrow morning.

Queene O faile not, good Horatio, and withall, commend me

A mothers care to him, bid him a while

Be wary of his presence, lest that he

Faile in that he goes about.

Hor. Madam, neuer make doubt of that:

I thinke by this the news be come to court:

He is arriv'de, obserue the king, and you shall

Quickely finde, Hamlet being here,

Things fell not to his minde.

Queene But what became of Gilderstone and Rossencraft?

Hor. He being set ashore, they went for England,

And in the Packet there writ down that doome

To be perform'd on them poynted for him:

And by great chance he had his fathers Seale, 

So all was done without discouerie.

Queene Thankes be to heauen for blessing of the prince,

Horatio once againe I take my leaue,

With thowsand mothers blessings to my sonne.

Horat. Madam adue.” 


One may ask why Gertrude knows about Claudius’s murderous intent but still lets Hamlet and Laertes (Luke Thompson) play at duel, but in the final scene, she becomes very different from the Gertrude I have always known from the text I’ve read and from the Kevin Kline production (Dana Ivey), as she deliberately drinks from the cup she knows to have been poisoned. 

It is an interesting change.

Fourthly, Robert Icke decides to use quite a bit of Bob Dylan’s music in the production. Does it fit? Generally, I don’t mind it too much, except in the duelling scene when the music takes over and we don’t have Shakespeare’s words. 

The last creative choice I’d like to mention is the final scene: old Hamlet’s ghost returns, then we see other ghosts, then the people who have just died turn into ghosts and follow the others. Does it work? I guess to many people it does, as this production is quite popular, but I don’t like it—I can’t quite explain why—too gimmicky? It also appears quite silly that Hamlet, having been poisoned, continues talking on and on when everyone else has turned into a ghost and walked off.  

But the important question you’d probably want to ask is: what do I think about Andrew Scott as Hamlet? I shall say that I much prefer Kevin Kline, partly because Kevin Kline’s Hamlet is much closer to the Hamlet in my head (funnier, more likable, more noble), and partly because he depicts better Hamlet in different moods. Andrew Scott’s Hamlet lacks humour—he’s darker, more bitter, more violent and dangerous, especially with the way he waves the gun at everyone—one watches this production and thinks Claudius is perfectly right for packing him off to England. He and Kevin Kline also approach very differently the scene at Ophelia’s grave: Kevin Kline’s Hamlet mocks Laertes’s “performance” (Michael Cumpsty) but afterwards turns towards Ophelia’s coffin and shows that he loves her, whereas Andrew Scott’s Hamlet goes to extremes mocking Laertes and doesn’t seem to care at all about Ophelia. 

Andrew Scott’s Hamlet is more like a psychopath. Perhaps G. Wilson Knight would have liked it, but I don’t—not really.  

I also think he overacts. One may argue that he feels every line, every word he utters with his hands, his arms, the whole of his being, and sometimes it does work well, but often I just think he overacts. 

This turns out to be a lot longer than my “review” of the 1990 Hamlet with Kevin Kline, but what can I say, the Kevin Kline version was so perfect that there was nothing to say.

Saturday 10 June 2023

Hamlet, A. C. Bradley, and Kevin Kline

1/ In Shakespearean Tragedy, A. C. Bradley makes an interesting point that Julius Caesar and Hamlet (two early plays in Shakespeare’s Tragic period) may be called tragedies of thought, whereas Othello, King Lear, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus may be called tragedies of passion—the main characters have passionate natures and “we may attribute the tragic failure in each of these cases to passion” (Lecture III, 1).

Perhaps that’s why I’ve always been more obsessed with King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello than with Hamlet

But Hamlet is undoubtedly a great play and, on this revisit, I found myself relating a lot more to Hamlet.

“O that this too too solid flesh would melt,

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!

Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd

His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world!

Fie on't! ah, fie! 'Tis an unweeded garden

That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature 

Possess it merely…” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 

People often say Hamlet is a play in which you find something new, something different each time you reread it—and it certainly feels very different when you yourself are weary of everything. I have lost all my mirth. Man delights not me.

After reading the play the third time, I also read A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth, a classic of Shakespearean criticism. If only I had the time and energy to write at length about his analysis of each play! One thing I’d say is that I find myself more in agreement with A. C. Bradley than with G. Wilson Knight regarding the characters: Knight is right for pointing out, in The Wheel of Fire, the coldness and cruelty of Hamlet, which Bradley to some extent downplays, but I think Bradley gets it right for understanding the shock and disillusionment, the pain and weariness in Hamlet. 

“… his habitual feeling is one of disgust at life and everything in it, himself included,—a disgust which varies in intensity, rising at times into a longing for death, sinking often into weary apathy, but is never dispelled for more than brief intervals. Such a state of feeling is inevitably adverse to any kind of decided action; the body is inert, the mind indifferent or worse; its response is, 'it does not matter,' 'it is not worth while,' 'it is no good.' And the action required of Hamlet is very exceptional. It is violent, dangerous, difficult to accomplish perfectly, on one side repulsive to a man of honour and sensitive feeling, on another side involved in a certain mystery (here come in thus, in their subordinate place, various causes of inaction assigned by various theories). These obstacles would not suffice to prevent Hamlet from acting, if his state were normal; and against them there operate, even in his morbid state, healthy and positive feelings, love of his father, loathing of his uncle, desire of revenge, desire to do duty. But the retarding motives acquire an unnatural strength because they have an ally in something far stronger than themselves, the melancholic disgust and apathy; while the healthy motives, emerging with difficulty from the central mass of diseased feeling, rapidly sink back into it and 'lose the name of action.'” (Lecture III, 4) 

I think Bradley has more sympathy for, and therefore more understanding of, Hamlet.

I also think Knight exaggerates the good qualities of Claudius and the warmth of Elsinore. He’s right that Claudius appears to be a good king, and he and Gertrude love each other, but it’s a cold, vile world—a world without warmth, without loyalty, without honour, without trust—a world in which a widow remarries at most wicked speed and others don’t wonder at it, a world in which a father spies on and smears his own son and uses his own daughter as bait, a world in which a courtier spies on his Queen and Prince… Elsinore just appears sunny and happy because others don’t have the sensitivity of Hamlet. 

“The Queen was not a bad-hearted woman, not at all the woman to think little of murder. But she had a soft animal nature, and was very dull and very shallow. She loved to be happy, like a sheep in the sun; and, to do her justice, it pleased her to see others happy, like more sheep in the sun. She never saw that drunkenness is disgusting till Hamlet told her so; and, though she knew that he considered her marriage 'o'er-hasty' (ii. ii. 57), she was untroubled by any shame at the feelings which had led to it. It was pleasant to sit upon her throne and see smiling faces round her, and foolish and unkind in Hamlet to persist in grieving for his father instead of marrying Ophelia and making everything comfortable. She was fond of Ophelia and genuinely attached to her son (though willing to see her lover exclude him from the throne); and, no doubt, she considered equality of rank a mere trifle compared with the claims of love. The belief at the bottom of her heart was that the world is a place constructed simply that people may be happy in it in a good-humoured sensual fashion.” (Lecture IV, 5) 

This passage made me laugh. 

2/ A. C. Bradley makes an interesting point here, about Cordelia and Hamlet:  

“An expressiveness almost inexhaustible gained through paucity of expression; the suggestion of infinite wealth and beauty conveyed by the very refusal to reveal this beauty in expansive speech—this is at once the nature of Cordelia herself and the chief characteristic of Shakespeare's art in representing it. Perhaps it is not fanciful to find a parallel in his drawing of a person very different, Hamlet. It was natural to Hamlet to examine himself minutely, to discuss himself at large, and yet to remain a mystery to himself; and Shakespeare's method of drawing the character answers to it; it is extremely detailed and searching, and yet its effect is to enhance the sense of mystery. The results in the two cases differ correspondingly. No one hesitates to enlarge upon Hamlet, who speaks of himself so much; but to use many words about Cordelia seems to be a kind of impiety.” (Lecture VIII, 5) 

I’ve never thought of it that way. He has a point. 

3/ Last night I watched the 1990 New York Festival production, with Kevin Kline playing Hamlet and directing the play. 

For years, I thought it’s better not to watch Hamlet, not because it wouldn’t work onstage but because the character’s so complex and the play’s so rich in meaning that it would be so hard to get it right—but my friends Himadri and Michael both recommended the Kevin Kline version—and he’s got it right. It’s an excellent production, everyone in it is good, especially Kevin Kline. 

I will be brief. There are two main things I have to say about his performance.

First of all, I think he captures extremely well Hamlet in different moods: weariness, disgust, excitement, rage, hatred, fatalistic acceptance, and so on. His joy, his energy when he meets the players gives us a glimpse of what Hamlet once was, before the death of his father and the disillusionment about his mother.

Secondly, his performance makes me think that perhaps the key thing is the comic touch. Hamlet is volatile, often sardonic and cruel, but he is witty and funny. An unfunny Hamlet wouldn’t work—I had a look at the “Words, words, words” scene in the Laurence Olivier film and it’s so serious, so devoid of humour—Kevin Kline, in contrast, is very funny. Even when he’s being cruel to Ophelia, or mocking and provocative towards Claudius after the death of Polonius, there’s a comic touch in his performance—that’s the way Hamlet is. But his Hamlet can also be terrifying: in the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene, or the “Do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?” scene, he is terrifying.

I will have to watch other versions, but Kevin Kline comes very close to the Hamlet in my head. 

See: my blog post about G. Wilson Knight on Hamlet