December 20, 2010

Ian McKellen's Now is the winter of our discontent

I admire unexpected, imaginative stagings of Shakespeare that are not stunts but that reveal meanings in the original text. There are many such moments in Ian McKellen's film version of Richard III (1995). He has cut and edited Shakespeare's text heavily, but his reading is powerful and illuminating.

This clip shows the first 8 minutes, including Richard's famous opening soliloquy, "Now is the winter of our discontent ..." The movie actually begins with a preceding, wordless scene in which Richard murders Edward, Prince of Wales and Henry VI to put Edward IV ("the son of York") on the throne. That scene vividly conveys that we are in England around 1930. There has been a fascist takeover, involving the military officer corps and the aristocracy, with the royal family as at least titular rulers. And there has been a bloody split among royal factions. The analogy to the Wars of the Roses five centuries earlier is provocative.

The clip opens with quick shots of several buildings that will serve as scenes and symbols in the film. Among others, these include St. Pancras Station, a great Victorian building (transported in the film to Westminster), which is Edward's seat of government, and St. Cuthbert's church in London, a fantastic example of late-Victorian Arts and Crafts style architecture, where a "merry meeting" will occur. These buildings stand for the old world (pre- World War I) that is Edward's. Richard will govern from the fascist-looking, quasi-modernist Senate House building of the University of London. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is a big band rendition of Marlowe's "Come Live with Me and By My Love," which nicely marries the music of the 1930s with the language of the 1600s.

Before anyone speaks, we are quickly introduced to all the major characters. To name just a few, the loving Queen Elizabeth is shown playing and dancing with her innocent young son, later to be murdered in the Tower. The King is shown as a sick and aging Edwardian. The Duke of Buckingham is a cigar-puffing magnate, conspiring with the uniformed Richard like a Weimar industrialist with Hitler. Earl Rivers is the dissolute fellow leaving a tryst with a cabin attendant on a Pan Am flight.

Richard's opening lines are presented as a public speech, not a soliloquy. From "Now is the winter ..." to "... fright the souls of fearful adversaries," he is addressing the court with a toast. (See 5:39 to 6:44 on the video.) These sentences are usually presented as sarcastic--delivered privately by a venomous, hunchbacked villain to himself or the audience. But they are literally words of praise, and in this rendition, Richard addresses them smilingly to the Yorkists.

But then, with "He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber" (line 22), Richard is alone, standing before a urinal and then a men's room mirror. These are the kinds of private places where we rue our own deformities of body and of spirit. Richard then catches our eye in the mirror, turns directly to the camera, and tells us the truth: that he is "determined to prove a villain." Throughout the movie, Richard will almost always dissemble to other characters but speak truthfully into the camera. Finally, around line 32, the scene moves to the Thames Bankside where Clarence is being transported to prison, and Richard becomes a narrator of events happening in real time.

McKellen has shrewdly divided the 35-line soliloquy into four rhetorical sections, delineating them with changes of settings and perspective, and thus revealing what I think is the real structure of the speech. The whole film is rich with such insights and recovers some of the original shock value of Shakespeare's over-quoted but under-appreciated early play.

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December 6, 2010

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall was my favorite book of 2010. It is a miraculously sympathetic story about Thomas Cromwell, the man most famous for engineering Henry VIII's divorce, dissolving the English monasteries, making Henry head of the English church, passing legislation requiring everyone to swear that those acts were just, and executing people who failed to swear. The standard punishment was to be hanged, drawn, and quartered--just about the worst way to go. Yet in Wolf Hall, Cromwell emerges as a practical, reasonable man of the world, trying to hold his family, business, and country together in a humane fashion.

Mantel vividly conjures early 16th-century England. The narration is present-tense, and the environment is economically and unpretentiously but sensuously described. The language is consistently modern. Sometimes, we can presume that we are reading translations of dialogues actually conducted in Latin or French; but even the chatter of English commoners is rendered in modern idioms--heightening the feeling of proximity and naturalness. The narration is third person, and Mantel goes to great lengths to avoid using the proper nouns "Thomas" or "Cromwell." "He" is the subject of most sentences, or else the narration slips into "free indirect speech" (with Cromwell's thoughts and style coloring the third-person voice.) At first, the device of avoiding Cromwell's name confused me. There may be four men in the room, but "he" always refers to the hero. I got used to the technique, which allows Mantel to stay very close to her protagonist's consciousness without using the first person singular. (For how could Thomas Cromwell write a 21st-century narrative?)

I think there might be a handful of anachronisms in Wolf Hall. At one point, Cromwell observes that Homer's existence is doubtful, yet my quick scan of recent scholarship suggests that the "Homeric Question" was not raised in Cromwell's time. (E.g., Philip Ford, "Homer in the French Renaissance"; and Filippomaria Pontani, "From Budé to Zenodotus: Homeric Readings in the European Renaissance.") The fact that I could find a couple of slips just reinforces the verisimilitude of this long and wide-ranging story.

Above all, it is fun: full of humor, vivid characters, and dramatic events. Representation affords pleasure, as Aristotle noted two thousand years ago. Difficult feats of representative art can be especially pleasurable, and what could be more difficult than to represent the inner state of a long-dead lawyer best known for judicially murdering St. Thomas More? I enjoy representation most of all when the author treats her subjects with affection, and Mantel is humane toward virtually all her creations, even the ones who hate one another.

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April 19, 2010

reason and power in Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar is a play about power. The ultimate source of power is popular will--and not only in an official republic like Rome. Even a monstrous dictator like Stalin cannot physically kill millions of his own people; he must harness many others' wills.

Thus Julius Caesar begins: "Rome. A Street. Enter Flavius, Marullus, and certain Commoners." There follows a testy interchange between the Senators and the workers, in a public space, concerning political opinions. The people's choices are and will remain central to the plot.

Once Caesar is killed, the question becomes whether the people in the streets will follow his killers or his surviving allies. Brutus, one of the conspirators and a stoic philosopher (according to the play), has a specific view of how this should play out. The killing itself was appropriately a private act, undertaken secretly by Senators who, by bathing their hands in Caesar's blood, become a unit. (The play is interested in how different bodies can become one by pact: Portia says that Brutus, "By all [his] vows of love and that great vow / ... did incorporate and make us one.")

Brutus recognizes that he is accountable to the Roman people, so he appears before them to explain what he has done in private. "Public reasons shall be rendered / of Caesar's death."

The giving of rather abstract reasons is Brutus' preferred mode. He uses the word "reason" seven times in the play, twice in clear contrast to "affections." When he argues a point of military strategy, he states, "Good reasons must, of force, give place to better." The force, here, is the power of reason itself. (And the problem, again, is persuading the people. The "better reason" that Brutus offers is that "the people 'twixt Philippi and this ground / Do stand but in a forced affection.") Although Brutus deeply loves his idealized spouse Portia, when she dies, he takes no time for grief or lamentation. He thinks there is no good reason for such behavior. For Brutus, "reason" means highly cerebral, deliberative, and impersonal thought leading to right action.

Brutus is so confident of the people's reason that he allows Caesar's favorite, Mark Antony, to appear immediately after himself and with the body of the assassinated ruler. Mark Antony has a completely different view of how to persuade. He speaks with irony, misdirection, insinuation, and a barrage of rhetorical questions. He offers bribes in the form of Caesar's (alleged) legacies to the Roman people. Most powerfully, he enacts a public, physical demonstration, in which the people may directly participate.

He fingers the blood-soaked robe and possibly lets them who "press" near touch it too:

And then Mark Antony invites his countrymen to weep, a physical response that echoes Caesar's shedding of blood. By this time, they are ready to tear conspirators "to pieces" in the street. When one says, "Methinks there is much reason in [Mark Antony's] sayings," the use of the word "reason" is heavy with dramatic irony.

Mark Antony knows that his manipulation of the people is "mischief." There is really no dispute in the play that Brutus' way is morally better. At the very end, with Brutus dead, Mark Antony praises him as "the noblest Roman of them all." What makes Brutus great is his "general honest thought" and concern for the "common good to all."

The question Shakespeare raises is whether those who openly and candidly promote the common good can possibly prevail in public affairs. I suspect his answer is No. In real life, Caesar led the "populares" (populists) in the Senate, and Brutus belonged to the "optimates" (elitists). The populares appealed to the lower classes with grain subsidies and by limiting slavery, which undercut freemen's wages. In the play, the populares are wicked (after power rather than the public good), and the optimates are doomed men of virtue. That would make the play deeply conservative.

Shakespeare does not seem to consider a democratic interpretation: the people act badly in the play because they have no part in the crucial decision to kill Caesar but are merely asked to render judgment after the fact. Brutus is not simply virtuous but also cold and peremptory, reserving decisions to himself and expecting others to follow his "reasons." Brutus and Mark Antony are not the only two possible models of a politician in a republic: we can hope for empathy and modesty along with virtue. To describe that third course would have made Julius Caesar a worse tragedy, and less accurate as history, but it would have opened democratic possibilities.

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September 13, 2009

Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Orwell

Tolstoy hated Shakespeare and thought that other people's admiration for him was "a great evil, as is every untruth." Orwell's response, "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool," is a rich and wise essay that probably expresses more of what I believe than almost any other 10 pages in English. It includes many interesting asides, for instance, about the relationship between aesthetic and moral judgment, Tolstoy's personal resemblance to Lear, and--quite timely for us--a warning not to equate libertarianism/anarchism with real love of freedom:

Orwell is not in the least pious about Shakespeare. His essay is full of high-handed complaints like this one: "Tolstoy is right in saying that Lear is not a very good play, as a play. It is too drawn-out and has too many characters and sub-plots. One wicked daughter would have been quite enough, and Edgar is a superfluous character: indeed it would probably be a better play if Gloucester and both his sons were eliminated." (I don't agree in the slightest, but we have to acknowledge Orwell's independence.)

In any case, the main theme of the essay is a defense of Shakespeare as a "humanist," and one might summarize the debate as follows. The elderly Tolstoy hated the world because people suffered in it. But he thought (along with Schopenhauer, Gandhi, and Christian ascetics) that the world was so organized that one could achieve happiness and redemption by renouncing the everyday temptations and evils of it. As a person, Tolstoy tried to renounce his title, estate, money, and copyrights--although, like Lear, he found that abdication is not easy. As an author, he also increasingly favored renunciation. As Orwell notes:

Shakespeare, in sharp contrast, was a man of the world--to a fault. ("He liked to stand well with the rich and powerful, and was capable of flattering them in the most servile way.") His love of the world was the essence of his art. It led him away from simplifications, generalizations, theories, and moralistic endings. It made him want to depict every kind of thing and character and to keep his own judgments off the stage. It made him love speech to the extent that he could write complete nonsense for the sheer music of it. "Shakespeare was not a philosopher or a scientist, but he did have curiosity, he loved the surface of the earth and the process of life."

I am deep into War and Peace but not finished with it, and I cannot say whether the younger Tolstoy was already ascetic enough to be an opposite of Shakespeare. Whether to embrace or renounce "life" is an explicit question for Andrei, Pierre, and Marya, among other characters in War and Peace. When Prince Andrei is gravely wounded at Borodino, he is filled with a love for life that makes him embrace and forgive the odious Anatole Kuragin, whom he had once wanted to kill in a duel. The "life" that Andrei loves is highly abstract; its "best and happiest moments" are exemplified by times when, "in his most distant childhood, ... burying his head in the pillows, he had felt happy in the mere consciousness of life." With your head buried in pillows, you are not aware of anyone in particular. Andrei could be one of those who love humanity but can't stand people. Shakespeare, I think, was just the opposite--he liked each one of his characters without thinking that the whole business meant anything. "Ripeness is all," as Edgar puts it (having just seen Lear, Tolstoy-like, defeated).

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May 20, 2009

a darker As You Like It

Celia and Rosalind are about to hide in the Forest of Arden, where Rosalind will receive silly, lovesick poems, tease her besotted admirer, and arrange rustics' marriages in disguise. It will all be very merry under the greenwood tree, which makes As You Like It a perennial choice for high school productions.

Except that painting one's face black and going into the forest or common land was a traditional mode of peasant revolt, later specifically made a capital offense by the Black Act of 1723. There was also an old tradition of peasant women leading rebellions dressed as men. Maid Marion, the mythic model, had real imitators, such as the "troop of lewd women" who blocked the enclosure of Rockingham Forest in 1602. To these two traditional modes of insurrection--black-face and cross-dressing--could be added poaching deer (a way of punishing gentry who had evicted tenants to create deer parks), wearing antlers, and marching through the forest making deliberately cocaphanous music as a threat.* Exactly that combination is enacted in Arden, where Jaques associates it with ancestral traditions:

Wearing the horn was not a thing to laugh at, because it could precede violence. Peasant violence had occurred as recently as 1596, a famine year. (As You Like It was probably written in 1599-1600.) The Queen's own Privy Council acknowledged that the "raysing of the prices of graine" had driven the poor "to very great myserie and extermitie." Some of the poor believed that the cause of these rising prices was the enclosure of common lands to raise sheep for the international wool market. "Shepe and shepe-masters doeth cause skantye of corne." In a typical complaint, they charged that a gentleman had "inclused much of our Comon, .. converted all his ground which he had by exchange to pasture ground. ... He turns out his tenents as soon as their Leases are expir'd, and setts out ye land at rackt rent to others; and he hath depopulated the Town." The leaders of the 1596 rising set out to "cutt off the heads" of such gentry and knock down their fences.**

In As You Like It, Celia and Rosalind are disinherited. So is Orlando, forced to flee by his rapacious landowning brother Oliver. Oliver also dismisses the old retainer Adam, treating his labor as a commodity and ignoring his family tie. The Old Duke is in Arden because he has been cast off his land. Even Corin the shepherd has lost his ancestral rights. He succinctly describes Karl Polanyi's "Great Tansformation" from the old economy based on family bonds, inherited status, and gifts, to the new one based on private property, contracts, profits, and exchange:

Many of these people are hungry. "I almost die for food," says Orlando. The hunger of Act II could be played lightly: townsfolk out in the woods forget to pack enough food and really want their dinners. But I don't think their hunger would have seemed a laughing matter in 1599, especially in conjunction with all the lines about enclosure and disinheritance. People were starving and taking to violence, as Orlando does in Arden. ("He dies that touches any of this fruit.") As You Like It is closer to Lear than to Midsummer Night's Dream.

Arden is not the "desert" that Orlando first takes it for. It is populated with cottagers and outlaws from the town. The Elizabethan map-maker William Harrison said that all England was divided between champaign ground, where each house was connected to a road and the land was fenced, and woodland, where "the houses stand scattered about, each one dwelling in the midst of its own occupying."* Arden is woodland. But it is under threat, subject to enclosure. Carin's farm, for example, is now "a sheep-cote fenc'd about with olive trees." That is the future of the forest, unless the various denizens can resist.

As You Like It is a comedy. Despite the grievous social ills it evokes in Acts I and II, everything ends well. Rosalind buys Corin's enclosed farm and treats him as a generous landlady should. The two main usurpers have amazing conversion experiences and yield their ill-gotten lands. In one rite that symbolizes a restoration of the communal order, Duke Senior is able to marry four couples who span the English social spectrum.

Some authors* see Shakespeare as reactionary. He replaces injustice with a fantasy of upper-class generosity. And that may be. But I wonder ...

First, what to make of the preposterous ending (which requires a hungry lioness, among other improbabilities). Isn't the middle part of the play more "real"? That's where a few motley exiles uphold ancient carnivalesque folk norms against the relentless market.

Second, what to make of Jaques. He is the one character who refuses to go back to the realm of markets and laws when the carnival ends. He opts to join "the religious life," not in an organized monastery that might own land, but hermit-like, in a cave. He likes fools and riotous poachers. He is partial to economic metaphors: "tax any private party"; "a material fool." Seeing a flock of deer abandon a wounded member of their company, Jaques chides those "fat and greasy citizens" for leaving the "poor and broken bankrupt there." This sounds like a metaphor of city-dwellers' inhumanity to those who fail in the market. Is Jaques a "materialist" critic of the Great Transformation? He cannot envision any satisfactory alternative for the society as a whole, but he wants no part of it himself. Perhaps the play makes his final choice an alternative worth respecting. In that case, the end is hardly comic.

*Richard Wilson, “‘Like the Old Robin Hood”: As You Like It and the Enclosure Riots,” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 1 (Spring 1992), pp. 1-19.

**John Walter, “A ‘Rising of the People’? The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596,” Past and Present, No. 107 (May, 1985), pp. 90-143.

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February 24, 2009

the politics of negative capability

Zadie Smith's article "Speaking in Tongues" (The New York Review, Feb 26) combines several of the fixations of this blog--literature as an alternative to moral philosophy, deliberation, Shakespeare, and Barack Obama--and makes me think that my own most fundamental and pervasive commitment is "negative capability." That is Keat's phrase, quoted thus by Zadie Smith:

Other critics have noted Shakespeare's remarkable ability not to speak on his own behalf, from his own perspective, or in support of his own positions. Coleridge called this skill "myriad-mindedness," and Matthew Arnold said that Shakespeare was "free from our questions." Hazlitt said that the "striking peculiarity of [Shakespeare’s] mind was its generic quality, its power of communication with all other minds--so that it contained a universe of feeling within itself, and had no one peculiar bias, or exclusive excellence more than another. He was just like any other man, but that he was like all other men." Keats aspired to have the same "poetical Character" as Shakespeare. Borrowing closely from Hazlitt, Keats said that his own type of poetic imagination "has no self--it is every thing and nothing--It has no character. … It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosop[h]er, delights the camelion poet.” When we read philosophical prose, we encounter explicit opinions that reflect the author’s thinking. But, said Keats, although "it is a wretched thing to express … it is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature [i.e., my identity]."

In Shakespeare's case, it helps, of course, that he left no recorded statements about anything other than his own business arrangements: no letters like Keats' beautiful ones, no Nobel Prize speech to explain his views, no interviews with Charlie Rose. All we have is his representation of the speech of thousands of other people.

Stephen Greenblatt, in a book that Smith quotes, attributes Shakespeare's negative capability to his childhood during the wrenching English Reformation. Under Queen Mary, you could be burned for Protestantism. Under her sister Queen Elizabeth, you could have your viscera cut out and burned before your living eyes for Catholicism. It is likely that Shakespeare's father was both: he helped whitewash Catholic frescoes and yet kept Catholic texts hidden in his attic. This could have been simple subterfuge, but it's equally likely that he was torn and unsure. His "identical nature" was mixed. Greenblatt argues that Shakespeare learned to avoid taking any positions himself and instead created fictional worlds full of Iagos and Imogens and Falstaffs and Prince Harrys.

What does this have to do with Barack Obama? As far as I know, he is the first American president who can write convincing dialog (in Dreams from My Father). He understands and expresses other perspectives as well as his own. And he has wrestled all his life with a mixed identity.

Smith is a very acute reader of Obama:

The challenge for Obama is that he doesn't write fiction (although Smith remarks that he "displays an enviable facility for dialogue"), but instead holds political office. Generally, we want our politicians to say exactly what they think. To write lines for someone else to say, with which you do not agree, is an important example of "irony." We tend not to like ironic leaders. Socrates' "famous irony" was held against him at his trial. Achilles exclaims, "I hate like the gates of hell the man who says one thing with his tongue and another in his heart." That is a good description of any novelist--and also of Odysseus, Achilles' wily opposite, who dons costumes and feigns love. Generally, people with the personality of Odysseus, when they run for office, at least pretend to resemble the straightforward Achilles.

But what if you are not too sure that you are right (to paraphrase Learned Hand's definition of a liberal)? What if you see things from several perspectives, and--more importantly--love the fact that these many perspectives exist and interact? What if your fundamental cause is not the attainment of any single outcome but the vibrant juxtaposition of many voices, voices that also sound in your own mind?

In that case, you can be a citizen or a political leader whose fundamental commitments include freedom of expression, diversity, and dialogue or deliberation. Of course, these commitments won't tell you what to do about failing banks or Afghanistan. Negative capability isn't sufficient for politics. (Even Shakespeare must have made decisions and expressed strong personal opinions when he successfully managed his theatrical company). But in our time, when the major ideologies are hollow, problems are complex, cultural conflict is omnipresent and dangerous, and relationships have fractured, a strong dose of non-cynical irony is just what we need.

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January 16, 2009

people who flop at Oxford

Reading Ingrid Rowland's very enjoyable and insightful biography of Giordano Bruno, a parallel occurred to me:

In 1583, in mortal danger from the Inquisition, a European exile comes to Oxford University in search of a professorship. He has wild and evocative ideas, writes brilliantly, but has not organized his thought into a consecutive or comprehensible system. He is equally adept at fiction, poetry, philosophy, and magic. He disdains the mainstream mode of philosophy (Arisoteleanism) and refuses to use the standard method of analysis (syllogistic logic). He hates the vulgar crowd but has egalitarian and libertarian theoretical ideas. English dons seem to him provincial, naive, and ill-mannered; he dispenses backhanded compliments about their distinguished academic garb while privately noting that they know more about beer than true philosophy. They find him laughable--passionate, irascible, nonsensical, and almost impossible to understand because he insists on pronouncing Latin like Italian. (Whereas they pronounce it like Elizabethan English.)

In 1934, a young philosopher comes to Oxford in search of a teaching job and a refuge from Nazi Germany. He has radical but somewhat inchoate ideas. He largely shuns the logical positivism and empiricism that are mainstream at Oxford and dabbles in phenomenology, music, sociology, and other disciplines. He writes beautifully and allusively but also elusively. He is a Marxist with very refined aesthetic principles. Oxford academics find him "a bit of a comic figure" (A.J Ayer), partly on account of his "anxiety." He finds them naive. "It is quite impossible to convey my real philosophical interests to the English, and I have to reduce my work to a childish level."

Giordano Bruno, Theodor Adorno: two guys who got "job talks" at Oxford that never panned out.

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December 31, 2008

The Winter's Tale

Reading The Winter's Tale this week reinforced my sense that Shakespeare, in his last years as a playwright, was worried about the power of a dramatist to influence people's passions and make them believe falsehoods. In both The Winter's Tale (1610-11) and The Tempest (1611-12), this power is seen as political and as morally ambiguous. The issues that concern Shakespeare remain alive today, although now the medium that is most problematic is film rather than live theater.

The Winter's Tale has a fantastical plot. It's a fairy-tale, involving an abandoned and miraculously rediscovered princess, a talking statue, and even a bear that appears without warning and devours a significant character. Whereas Shakespeare took most of his plots from purported works of history, this one was obviously a fiction--both because it was unbelievable and because the original authors were recent Englishmen. Only The Tempest belongs as clearly to the category of fiction.

One problem with telling a fictional story in an engaging way is that you thereby make people believe what is not true. This power has often made moralists uncomfortable. According to Plutarch, when the very first tragedies were performed, Solon attended and asked Thespis, the first playwright, "if he was not ashamed to tell so many lies before such a number of people."

In Shakespeare's time, Sir Phillip Sidney defended fiction on the ground that it was not the author's intention to deceive. "The poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth. For, as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false." As author of Astrophel and Stella, Sidney was not a liar because he could count on his readers not to believe the plot. But in the midst of an effective theatrical performance, the audience will suspend disbelief. It is the playwright's goal to make that happen.

Apart from the moral disadvantage of making people believe in lies, there's also the practical problem of overcoming their skepticism and making a play "work." Shakespeare was surely aware of the latter challenge. Throughout The Winter's Tale, characters are incredulous about what they see. One important scene is not enacted but rather narrated by minor characters, one of whom says, "this news which is called true is so like an old tale, that the verity of it is in strong suspicion." There is even a comic subplot about a trickster, Autolycus, who sells fantastical tales to rustic fools:

Shakespeare is aware that his plot is unbelievable, yet he also knows that an audience will be absorbed in his fairy tale. Even today, we care about the characters and hope for a happy ending as long as the curtain is up. That is a power akin to magic.

Some of the events of the play are sheer accidents. But several are contrived by characters who work behind the scenes. Paulina, above all, is an orchestrator of events. It is because of her art (not by magic or coincidence) that Hermione vanishes for 16 years and reappears at a dramatic moment. Paulina is probably responsible, too, for Hermione's rather disturbing appearance to her husband as a ghost who prophesies his death (III.3.18ff). If Paulina provides lines for the real Hermione to recite to her spouse, then Paulina is a chillingly effective playwright. She is also a cause of Perdita's banishment, since she brings the baby before the king as a kind of tableau that is supposed to draw his sympathy. That drama fails, but the final tableau that she stages (with the talking statue) is a success, both dramatically and morally.

Paulina is a teller of lies--for instance, she announces falsely that Hermione is dead--but she is also a very blunt teller of truth. For instance, although everyone else uses tactful euphemisms for death and murder, Paulina is starkly literal:

Paulina's mixing of blunt fact with elaborately staged fiction may be problematic, in Shakespeare's eyes. Perdita is a straightforwardly good character, and she disdains even carnations because they mix human art with nature (IV.4.82).

Paulina, like Prospero in The Tempest, is a playwright within the play. Both characters are on the side of right or justice. But both are disturbing figures who exploit minor characters, have forceful personalities, and go to elaborate lengths to plan cathartic dramas across long spans of time. I wonder whether Shakespeare considered his own art equally disturbing and wished to be more like the simple and straightforward daughters in these two plays.

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April 18, 2007

Gonzalo's commonwealth

Gonzalo is the most virtuous character in Shakespeare's Tempest, a man "whose honor cannot / Be measured or confined" (v,1,135-6). He arrives on Prospero's island in the company of vile politicians who have organized a coup and are prepared, some of them, to kill for even more power. They mock him after he makes his speech in favor of his ideal society:

I' th' commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things, for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty --
SEBASTIAN: Yet he would be king on 't
ANTONIO: The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning.
GONZALO: All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavor; treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth
Of its own kind all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
SEBASTIAN: No marrying 'mong his subjects?
ANTONIO: None, man, all idle: whores and knaves.
GONZALO: I would with such perfection govern, sir,
T' excel the Golden Age. (ii,1,161ff.)

Gonzalo sounds like Rousseau--and has Rousseau's problem, acutely noted by the wicked Sebastian and Antonio in their prose interruption to his blank verse. Gonzalo would need power to create his society without power. When he says, "I would ... execute all things" he implies that he would be sovereign, yet there would be no sovereignty in his anarchistic commonwealth. He must force men to be free.

Rousseau would not be born for another century. But Gonzalo quotes another Frenchman, Montaigne, whose essay "On Savages" described Native Americans as happy and free. There were two "savage" natives on Prospero's island when he arrived (although Caliban was actually an earlier immigrant). Prospero quickly made both of them his slaves, thus acting "contrary" to Gonzalo. Also against Gonzalo's principles, Prospero demands "service," charges people with "treason" and "felony," and controls his daughter's marriage "contract" and "succession." Prospero seems to be the hero of the play, which is presented as a comedy. Yet modern readers mostly recoil at his treatment of Caliban, his paternalism toward Miranda, and his slave Ariel's obsequiousness.

Yet Prospero is the hero, I think, and Shakespeare's vision is a dark one. Gonzalo may be appealing, but he is ineffectual. He has served the usurping Duke Antonio and supported the law of that regime (see i.1,30). He does nothing to overthrow Antonio or create a Golden Age. Prospero was also originally an idealist. He shunned "temporal royalties" in favor of his library, becoming a harmless scholar (i,2,131). He wanted to "abjure" his "rough" powers, as he finally does in Act V. Unfortunately, power did not vanish in Milan because Prospero refused to exercise it. His own brother and confederates overthrew him and sent him into a dangerous exile with only his child.

Then he came to a place with no sovereignty, a desert island. He had his books. Otherwise, there was no property, no crime, no border, no master or slave. But now Prospero understood that he could not simply abjure power without putting himself in grave danger. He would have to be master or mastered. Thus he made himself dictator of his new "dukedom" until, by means of an elaborate scheme, he was able to restore justice. When he finally arranges for a lawful succession, his own story is over. "And thence retire me to my Milan, where / My every third thought shall be my grave" (v,1,378-9).

Prospero wishes to avoid ruling--as does Lear at the beginning of that play. Gonzalo describes a society without rulers--just like Lear's vision once he is out on the heath (iv,6). But Gonzalo is actually nothing but a tool of a despotic state. Prospero realizes he must use rough power to restore order and imperfect justice before he dies. Shakespeare takes that to be a happy ending.

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February 14, 2007

a true story, a propos of nothing

It is 1617. Edward Coke, until recently the Lord Chief Justice of England and before that the implacable prosecutor of Guy Fawkes, Sir Walter Ralegh, and the Earl of Essex, has been fired by King James for defending the common law and sent away in disgrace. But Coke has a new reason for hope. His daughter Frances, age 15, has an opportunity to marry Sir John Villiers, brother of the Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham is King James' "favourite"--his inseparable partner, chief adviser, and probably his platonic lover.

Unfortunately for Coke, his own wife is his most bitter enemy. She is Lady Elizabeth Hatton, a beautiful, enormously rich, young, and fashionable courtier. Coke and Lady Hatton live apart and are constantly suing one another. Lady Hatton now choses to block her daughter's proposed marriage to Sir John Villiers. In the middle of the night, she takes Frances away to a country house called Oatlands.

She tells the girl that a very high-born nobleman, Henry de Vere, the eighth Earl of Oxford, wants to marry her. This is a complete invention, but de Vere is safely in Venice on his Grand Tour and cannot be consulted. Poor Frances writes and signs an oath "gyv[ing] myselfe absolutely to Wyffe to Henry Vere Viscount Balbroke Erl of Oxenford to whom I plyghte my trothe and inviolate vows to keepe myselfe till Death us do part: and if I even brake the leaste of these I pray God Damne mee Bodye and Soule in Hell fire in the world to come: and in theis world I humbly beseech God the Erth may open and swallow mee up quicke to the Terror of all fayhte breakers that remayne Alive."

That is a pretty clear and forceful oath; Frances' marriage to Sir John Villiers now seems impossible. But Edward Coke arrives with a large band of armed men and a warrant to search Oatlands. He shouts that if he is forced to kill anyone to gain entrance, that will be justifiable homicide; but if any of his men are killed, it will be murder. With the help of a battering ram, he gains entrance to the house and removes Frances.

Lady Hatton goes immediately to Coke's nemesis, Sir Frances Bacon, who was responsible for her husband's disgrace. Bacon is sick and will not see her, but she finally bursts into his bedroom and demands a warrant to reclaim her daughter. Bacon sends her to the King's Privy Council, of which he is a member. The next morning, she addresses the Council in a "somewhat passionate and tragicall manner." She receives an order for the custody of Frances and heads to Coke's house to enforce it, accompanied by "three score men and pistolls."

Meanwhile, Bacon is trying to end Coke's career once and for all--and gain some credit for his work. He writes to Lord Buckingham, noting the many disadvantages of a match between Frances Coke and John Villiers. Coke's house is "disgraced," a "troubled house of man and wife, which in religion and christian discretion is disliked." Etc.

The Privy Council meets to consider charges against Coke for "force and riot" and other offenses. The tide is running against him; there is even a motion to discipline the member of the Council, Secretary Winwood, who had given Coke the original warrant to seize his daughter. Once everyone has expressed disdain and animus for Coke, Winwood pulls out of his pocket a letter from the King himself. James (and therefore, surely, Buckingham) strongly favor the match between Edward Coke's daughter and Sir John Villiers.

Now Bacon is in serious trouble; he has interfered with and insulted a union planned by his sovereign and his country's most powerful courtier. He receives a letter from Buckingham that must sink any remaining hopes. "In this business of my brother's that you overtrouble yourself with, I understand from London by some of my friends that you have carried yourself with much scorn and neglect toward both myself and friends; which if it prove true I blame not you but myself, who ever was your Lordship's assured friend, G. Buckingham." Not long after, a letter arrives from the King himself, whose style is far more direct and biting.

The wedding takes place at Hampton Court, although Lady Hatton is temporarily held under house arrest to prevent her from causing a scene. While Frances awaits her marriage, she writes an ingenuous and touching letter to her mother. The spelling, unfortunately, has been modernized, but one can follow the halting thoughts of the 15-year old as she sets them to paper.

She begins by trying to express loyalty. "Madam, I must now humbly desire your patience in giving me leave to declare myself to you, which is, that without your allowance and liking, all the world shall never make me entangle or tie myself." However, she is about to be "entangled" to John Villiers--completely against her mother's will. Her father is forcing her to set this unfortunate fact on paper. "But now, by my father's especial commandment, I obey him in presenting to you my humble duty in a tedious letter, which is to know your Ladyship's pleasure, not as a thing I desire." This sentence continues through several more wavering clauses, the main point of which is her hope for family harmony. "I resolve to be wholly ruled by my father and yourself"--not possible, under the circumstances--"knowing your judgements to be such that I may well rely upon, and hoping that the conscience and natural affection parents bear to children will let you do nothing but for my good." (We watch Frances' faith in her parents' judgment diminish to mere "hope," perhaps as she recalls their recent behavior.) "So I humbly take my leave, praying that all things may be to every one's contentment, Your Ladyship's most obedient and humble daughter for ever, Frances Coke."

(I take this story and all the quotes from Catherine Drinker Bowen, The Lion and the Throne: The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke, 1552-1634. This biography won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1958 and is a great read.)

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October 18, 2006

a production of Lear

(Chicago) Last night, I saw King Lear at the Goodman Theater. Stacy Keach was the King, and the director was Robert Falls. It was a "strong" production, in the sense that the director's choices were bold and potentially controversial. For example, the setting (stunningly produced) was somewhere in post-Soviet Russia or Eastern Europe.* Lear, Cornwall, and Edmund were either gangsters or Putin-like dictators. The "knights" were riot police.

I thought all of the director's choices were defensible, and some were brilliant. For example, it was a good idea to make Cordelia a quietly rebellious teenager who detests her family's vulgarity. The actress, Laura Odeh, is small and young-looking and wears plain jeans, whereas her sisters are gangster molls. Her rebelliousness plausibly explains why she refuses to make a speech in praise of her father.

Likewise, the setting reminds us how unjust is Lear's original regime. He recognizes the injustice himself, once he loses his knights:

.... A man may see how this world goes
with no eyes. Look with thine ears: see how yond
justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark, in
thine ear: change places; and, handy-dandy, which
is the justice, which is the thief?

I also liked the violent, urban setting. Regan and Cornwall order Gloucester's castle "shut up" against Lear. The stage directions tell us that the banished men wander on a "heath"--a natural place. Nature is a major motif in the play, always opposed to artifice. Several characters wrestle with whether nature is just or cruel. But the word "heath" is never spoken on stage, so it is a legitimate idea to make that barren place into nighttime streets, populated by the poor, the naked, and the crazy. When Edgar, Gloucester, and Lear are cast out, they become homeless--just like the homeless men in our cities.

Robert Falls' bold directorial choices remind me of a general point. Any written text dramatically under-describes what is literally going on. It gives us only partial information about setting, clothing, "blocking," tone of voice, pacing, facial expressions. Even a staged or filmed production must leave much to the imagination and will be seen differently by different people. But the director and cast fill in some missing details.

We might think that their first task is to figure out what is literally going on, so that we can watch and make up our own minds about general themes. But any intepretation of the literal meaning of the text must be informed by a theory of its general meaning. So, for example, Robert Falls knows from the end of the play that Lear will come to see his own kingdom as deeply unjust, arbitrary, and artificial. Therefore, Falls sets Act 1, Scene 1 in a Russian gangster's club. If Lear's regime is brutal, then Kent (his most loyal follower) must be a bit of a thug. That is how Stephen Pickering played him last night.

Likewise, toward the end of the play, Regan suspects a sexual relationship between Oswald and her sister Goneril. ("I know you are of her bosom." "I, madam?" "I speak in understanding; you are; I know't.") Therefore, several scenes earlier, Falls introduces Oswald and Goneril in flagrante delicto. That is an extreme case of using gesture and stage position to illustrate a theme.

That scene underlines the play's pervasive sexuality, which is often overlooked. Regan and Goneril are sexual rivals for wicked Edmund. Falls also thinks that Lear is sexually jealous of his youngest daughter. In this production, the King is not enraged by her first word -- "nothing" -- but by her explanation:

They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

Overall, Fall's production could be described as nihilistic. He chooses, for example, to have Goneril suffocate Regan and then kill herself, joining a heap of bodies on stage. And Albany literally rapes his wife Goneril while he curses her:

Thou changed and self-cover'd thing, for shame,
Be-monster not thy feature. Were't my fitness
To let these hands obey my blood,
They are apt enough to dislocate and tear
Thy flesh and bones: howe'er thou art a fiend,
A woman's shape doth shield thee.

I don't know if those are good choices, but there is no question that Lear is a bleak play. Since it is set in a pagan world, Shakespeare need not assume divine providence or a morally ordered universe. Post-Soviet Russia seems an ideal metaphor for cosmic disorder and cynicism. "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. / They kill us for their sport."

*Charles Isherwood, the NY Times reviewer, says that the setting is Yugoslavia. That makes sense: a kingdom divided in parts turns to anarchy.

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August 15, 2006

when chivalry died

I just finished James Shapiro's very enjoyable book entitled A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, which is about the year when Henry the Fifth, Julius Ceasar, As You Like it, and Hamlet were written. It's packed with interesting contextual information, such as this pair of facts:

1. In the year 1599, the Earl of Essex took an army to Ireland to suppress a revolt and also (his own goal) to restore English chivalry. He knighted hundreds of his followers, more than doubling the total number of Englishmen who held titles; challenged the Irish rebel Tyrone to single combat; held great heraldric feasts; and explicitly called for a revival of the nobility and its virtues. By the end of the year, he was under house arrest and awaiting execution. Essex's feudalism was fundamentally incompatible with the unitary, professionalized, plenipotentary state that Elizabeth managed.

2. The same year, London merchants organized the East India Company and sent an expedition to Asia, thereby launching the British Empire. The Company and its expedition were run by the bourgeoisie; nobles were excluded from management.

You can never tell from reading the words of Shakespeare's characters what he thought about anything. But Shapiro suspects that he was basically reactionary, in the sense that he preferred the disappearing world of chivalry to the new one of bourgeois trade and industry. Shakespeare could think his way into the minds of characters, both good and bad, who were martial, heroic, grandiloquent, and noble. He could conjure scenes of pomp, ceremony, and heraldry. He also presented some bourgeois scenes, for example in The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet. But his bourgeois characters were far less memorable and developed than Hamlet, Lear, and their kingly company.

At first it seems surprising that a revolutionary writer should have held reactionary historical views. But Shakespeare was most innovative in his ability to represent the inner lives of diverse people. It was his breakthrough to show the private thinking of great public figures--to supply complex and ambiguous motives for acts of state. Perhaps to represent the interior lives of private people was not yet possible in 1599; bourgeois culture had first to develop.

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February 28, 2006

Shakespeare in retirement

I recently finished Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World, a chronological series of essays about Shakespeare's life and its influence on his work. It leaves me thinking about the reasons for Shakespeare's early retirement around 1611. That year he turned 47 and was probably not in bad health, for he had bought an expensive annuity that would only pay off if he faced decades of retirement (Greenblatt, p. 364). Why then did he quit London and write nothing more on his own? Greenblatt explores three explanations, and I will add a fourth of my own that's completely speculative:

1. It was a very sensible business decision to retire. Shakespeare had worked extremely hard and become wealthy. But the risks were high. Any time there was a sign of the plague, the authorities would close down all theaters. A fire like the one that destroyed the Globe in 1613 could destroy Shakespeare's investments in his company. In 1604, he and his colleagues had inadvertently offended the King with the Tragedy of Gowrie, a dramatization of James' own past. Such mistakes were easy to make and could cause the government to close companies or even to impose grim punishments like shaving off actors' noses or chopping off their hands. Shakespeare may have decided to quit while he was ahead.

Why didn't he continue to write plays in Stratford, giving up his roles as actor, producer, and theatrical investor? Perhaps it's an anachronism to imagine Shakespeare as a simple writer: he had always been a creator of theatrical entertainments, involved in all aspects of the work from writing to costumes. Shakespeare showed little interest in the publication of his own plays, so it may not have occurred to him to write without also acting and producing. (He collaborated with John Fletcher on three plays after 1611, and his motive may have been to help Fletcher or the company.)

2. Greenblatt speculates that Shakespeare wanted to spend time with his daughter Susanna. His will was carefully written to benefit her above all others. The bond between fathers and daughters is a major theme in Lear, Pericles, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest, among other plays. Shakespeare explores that relationship far more fully than he does the bond between husbands and wives. It is not such a strange thought that he would trade the stress of theatrical management in London for domestic life with a beloved child.

3. More interestingly: perhaps Shakespeare had moral or even "existential" doubts about his own power to create imaginary worlds and to move large audiences to his will. His last sole-authored play is The Tempest, in which Prospero manipulates all the other characters by contriving an elaborate plot and even magically creating specters who act out scenes.

... graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure.

Greenblatt compares Shakespeare's power to "ope" the graves of Lear, Caesar, Hamlet, Henry IV and all the other historical figures of his plays, who come magically to life. Could Shakespeare, like Prospero, have "abjured" that power for ethical reasons? We could supply reasons specific to Shakespeare's age. Before and during the Reformation, many were skeptical of fiction (because it lied), of tragedy (because it suggested that creation was not fundamentally good), and of entertainment (because it distracted from faith). Shakespeare could have shared those worries. Or perhaps this man who surpassed all others in the capacity to create illusions with words saw dangers that transcended his time.

4. We know that Shakespeare discovered how to represent the interior life of characters on the stage. He invented the soliloquy and also learned (as I think the ancients had) to use irony to give glimpses of characters' inner thinking. Not only could he hint at the private thoughts of characters, but he could conjure up their social and historical contexts with just a few words of description. However, the stage is not really the best vehicle for exploring psychology or for depicting social context. The novel offers far richer possibilities for those purposes. Shakespeare read Don Quixote, which provided the plot for his lost collaborative play, Cardenio (ca. 1613). I like to think of him retiring to Stratford, to an annuity and to quiet surroundings, so that he could write a different kind of work--perhaps the first great English novel, or conceivably some other narrative text, such as a biography or even an autobiography. Perhaps that work died unfinished with its author.

Many critics have noted that Shakespeare had an extraordinary capacity not to take an authorial position on the issues of his plays, but rather to depict a range of perspectives. Coleridge called this skill "myriad-mindedness"; Keats named it "negative capability"; and Arnold said that Shakespeare was "free from our questions." A novelist, too, can attain neutrality or multi-mindedness: Cervantes is an excellent example. But negative capability in a narrative requires different techniques from those appropriate in drama. If Shakespeare tried to write a novel, would he have struggled to suppress his own opinions? Or would he have seized the opportunity, finally, to say what he believed?

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February 7, 2005

"every subject's soul is his own"

(Continuing Friday's theme. ...) There is no doubt, after Nuremberg, that soldiers must question the justification of their side's conduct during a conflict--and disobey any immoral orders. But should they worry about the purposes and legitimacy of the whole war? "Adam K. Anonymous" argued "no" on this blog. "In a democracy," he wrote, "the military is a tool, subjected to our elected representative[s], who should worry about the legitimacy of the war. The military, who don't represent the people, should not be in a position to make autonomous decisions about the legitimacy of the war." One could add that soldiers don't have all the information available to high elected officials, so they should simply follow orders about whether to wage war.

On the other hand, it might seem that soldiers in a democracy bear a particularly heavy responsibility for deciding whether to participate in a war. In a dictatorship, it's very hard to obtain information relevant to a moral assessment of your country's foreign policy. If you want to object, you may have no practical options; you certainly can't agitate publicly against the government. And passive resistance will probably just get you killed. All of these problems are less serious in a democracy, so perhaps the individual soldier must treat the decision to participate in a war--and thus to help kill other human beings--as a matter for personal judgment.

I'm not sure what to think, but I'm struck by the relevance of Henry V, act IV, scene 1.

King Harry is prowling through the English camp incognito on the night before Agincourt. His troops are weary and outnumbered five-to-one; they expect to die. He meets two disgruntled soldiers and defends the conduct of their leader (actually himself), ending: "methinks I could not die any where so contented as in the king's company; his cause being just and his quarrel honourable." The first soldier, Williams, replies: "That's more than we know." Williams implies that it's impossible for an ordinary "grunt" like him to assess the justice of the King's position in the war.

A second soldier, Bates, sees an advantage in their ignorance: they are absolved of moral responsibility: "Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough, if we know we are the king's subjects: if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us." (Today, most of us do not see a monarchy as legitimate, but in the world of Henry V, the religious foundations of kingship work like democratic elections for us--they render Harry a legitimate ruler.)

Williams sees a corrolary of Bates' point: if they are innocent because they follow the orders of a legitimate ruler who has access to information, then Harry is in moral peril: "But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection."

The King understandably resists the implication that he is responsible for everything his men may do. Still concealing his identity, he says: "So, if a son that is by his father sent about merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the imputation of his wickedness by your rule, should be imposed upon his father that sent him: or if a servant, under his master's command transporting a sum of money, be assailed by robbers and die in many irreconciled iniquities, you may call the business of the master the author of the servant's damnation: but this is not so: the king is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant; for they purpose not their death, when they purpose their services. Besides, there is no king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to the arbitrement of swords, can try it out with all unspotted soldiers: some peradventure have on them the guilt of premeditated and contrived murder; some, of beguiling virgins with the broken seals of perjury; some, making the wars their bulwark, that have before gored the gentle bosom of peace with pillage and robbery. Now, if these men have defeated the law and outrun native punishment, though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to fly from God: war is his beadle, war is vengeance; so that here men are punished for before-breach of the king's laws in now the king's quarrel: where they feared the death, they have borne life away; and where they would be safe, they perish: then if they die unprovided, no more is the king guilty of their damnation than he was before guilty of those impieties for the which they are now visited. Every subject's duty is the king's; but every subject's soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every mote out of his conscience: and dying so, death is to him advantage; or not dying, the time was blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained: and in him that escapes, it were not sin to think that, making God so free an offer, He let him outlive that day to see His greatness and to teach others how they should prepare."

To paraphrase: subjects must obey the king's decision to wage a war, at least after they have offered their services as soldiers. But their conduct in bello is their own moral responsibility. Left alone, Henry speaks a soliloquy about the lonely responsibilities of the king:

We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart's-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!

Henry V is one of my least favorite plays of Shakespeare. It seems impossible to separate the perspective of the playwright from that of the king, who dominates the entire work with his particular vision. A monarchical ideology is built into the structure of the plot, and dissonant voices (such as those of Falstaff's old crew) are virtually suppressed. In contrast, Shakespeare usually displays "negative capability," or the capacity not to hold a doctrine of his own. He is "myriad-minded"--inhabiting the minds of all his thousands of characters. Given the overall shape of Henry V, it is tempting to assume that Harry wins the argument with Williams and Bates. However, I'd prefer to see act IV, scene 1 as a place where Shakespeare employs his usual "dialogic imagination." Harry has one perspective; Williams another; and it's up to us to decide what we must think.

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January 28, 2005

the murder of Marlowe

In the Milwaukee airport (which has a used-book store!), I recently bought Charles Nicholl's The Reckoning. This is a careful effort to solve the murder of Christopher Marlowe in 1593. Most people think that Marlowe, Shakespeare's rival, died in a tavern brawl. It turns out that he was killed after a long meeting in a respectable private house, owned by a woman who had government connections. The other people present were all professional spies, as was Marlowe himself. Nicholl painstakingly assembles evidence that suggests--although it doesn't prove--the following story. (Warning: I'm about to give away Nicholl's "plot," so skip if you think you might read the book.)

The Earl of Essex, who had a private intelligence service, wanted to finish off his chief rival, the disgraced Sir Walter Raleigh. In parliament, Raleigh had made speeches against the large population of Dutch merchants then resident in London. Essex' men posted an anoymous poem on the London streets threatening the Dutch merchants with a murderous riot; it quoted several of Marlowe's plays. The government formed a commission to investigate who had written this dangerous broadside. They arrested Marlowe's former roommate, the playwright Thomas Kyd. Among Kyd's papers (probably planted by the government), were "atheist" writings, "denyinge the deity of Jhesus Christ our Savior." Under torture, Kyd stated that the papers must be Marlowe's, and that Marlowe was a scoffer against religion. Whether or not Kyd said so explicitly, others held that Marlowe had shared his heretical opinions with Raleigh, who dabbled in magic and was often accused of atheism. In general, Marlowe and Raleigh moved in similar circles.

Marlowe was arrested. Perhaps the Essex faction expected to be able to condemn him and tar Raleigh with the association. Or perhaps they hoped he would actually give evidence against Raleigh. Unfortunately for them, Marlowe was released--almost certainly because he was an experienced agent in Robert Cecil's spy service. Accused, but evidently under someone's protection, Marlowe represented a risk for several parties. He might provide Cecil with evidence that would reveal the machinations of the Essex faction against Walter Raleigh. Or he might reveal too much about his own work for Cecil. The two major spy networks in the country both had reasons to silence him.

Somehow he was enticed to meet alone with several agents associated with Essex as well as one of Cecil's leading fixers. The meeting lasted all day and may have involved tense negotiations. In the end, Ingram Frizer, probably a spy for Essex, killed Marlowe. The three spies presented a highly implausible story of self-defense to the coronor's jury, which accepted it. And so Marlowe was silenced.

A serious literary critic could interestingly explore the relationships between two kinds of "plotting" in Marlowe's life. Many Elizabethan espionage operations were elaborate fake stories, designed to influence popular opinion or to entrap an enemy. Spies were actors, playing parts. Elizabethan plays also had plots, half invented and half based on facts. Nicholl notes this relationship, but he doesn't have space to interpret Marlowe's plays closely in the light of his discoveries about their author's other life.

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December 1, 2003

Ariel's song

Ariel's song, from Shakespeare's last play (The Tempest, 1:ii), seems a premonition of modernism. In traditional poetry, it's fairly obvious what is being described, represented, or signified. But it takes sophistication to notice the formal features of the poetry itself (such as meter, rhyme, and assonance) and any allusions to other literary works. In some modernist poetry, by contrast, what is described is unclear, or there may not be any literal referent at all, but the formal features of the writing immediately draw our attention. Thus modernist poetry can be more or less abstract in a way that recalls the modern visual arts.

Ariel's song is striking because the characters who hear it do not know if it means anything; they cannot see a speaker and may simply be hearing the wind. That it is poetry, however, becomes obvious from the alliteration, rhyme, and powerful rhythmic scheme:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are corals made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Burden. Ding-dong
Hark! Now I hear them--ding dong bell.

The form tells us this is poetry (and very beautiful and memorable), but is it about anything? It conjures up an image, but not one that necessarily connects to the rest of the play. Ferdinand thinks he finds a meaning in it: "The ditty does remember my drowned father." His interpretation may be right, but there is no apparent reason for a voice suddenly to describe his father dead beneath the sea. This is an experience, then, of formal beauty that may or may not have significance or explanation--and that seems characteristic of modernism.

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