“Shakespearean Tragedy” by Kiernan Ryan

The title, of course, is Bradley’s. A. C. Bradley’ famous book, published nearly 120 years ago now, still looms large in the field of Shakespeare criticism, and, as the borrowing of the title indicates, is a major presence in this book. Ryan frequently quotes Bradley, often at length, and mostly in agreement. But this isn’t, of course, a mere re-tread of Bradley’s interpretative ideas: that would be pointless. But neither is it entirely a refutation. Ryan, in the introduction, says that his own interpretative ideas have “profited from building on and arguing against Bradley’s views”, but “have conscripted Bradley in the service of a conception of Shakespearean tragedy and interpretations of the plays that are radically different from his”.

Bradley viewed these tragedies primarily in terms of character, of the particular internal workings of the characters’ minds; but Ryan extends this to consider the impact of the society these characters inhabit, and, in particular, the systemic injustices of that society. Too much Shakespearean criticism, Ryan goes on to argue, underestimates the impact of the latter.

Perhaps Bradley’s focus on the internal workings of the characters’ minds is understandable: we like to think of these tragedies as being universal, but if the cause of the tragedy lies in specific features of society that may be changed, then, once the changes are implemented, there can be no further cause for tragedy; and hence, no sense of universality. Ryan argues that attributing the cause of the tragedy primarily or even entirely to the personal flaws and shortcomings of the protagonist leads to reductive readings, reducing these tragedies merely to fables or to morality plays; this is certainly true: one need not look too far to find earnest enquiries into characters’ “tragic flaws”, as if identifying Othello as jealous or Hamlet as indecisive somehow helps us understand and clarify these works. But equally, placing the cause of the tragedy to systemic injustices of society also runs the risk of reduction: a depiction of tragedy caused by such systemic injustices is, implicitly at least, a call to reform society, so that such tragedies can no longer happen; and calls for social reform cannot be seen as anything other than social manifestos, or even, perhaps, as agitprop. And this, too, is a reduction.

But of course, Ryan is too subtle a critic to go too far in that direction: while a summary of his thesis in his introduction inevitably presents a simplified view, in the detailed analyses that follow, his interpretative ideas prove considerably more complex and nuanced. At any rate, his impatience with the “find the tragic flaw” school of criticism, which, to judge by its prevalence online, still seems to be widely taught in the classroom, is refreshing.

Like Bradley, Ryan focuses primarily on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, but he includes also shorter chapters on the other tragedies (except for that rather curious stump of a play Timon of Athens); and also on Parts 2 and 3 of Henry VI. (Part 1 he dismisses as not being part of the series, whatever the titles given in the First Folio may indicate).

In these two Henry VI plays, there are two characters who seem well placed to be seen as tragic heroes – Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester in Part 2, and Richard Duke of York in Part 3 – both highly placed men of power, who meet with tragic downfalls. But more interesting than either is the character of Henry VI, a quiet, gentle man, who has no appetite for the wicked power games played around him, and is horrified by the carnage they bring about, but is unable to stop any of it. It has been argued that it is Henry’s weakness of character that expedites the bloodbath, but Ryan rejects this: the carnage is caused by strong, bloodthirsty, warlike nobles, all jockeying for power, and the contention that the bloodshed may have been averted by Henry acting in a similar manner, Ryan rightly argues, doesn’t bear scrutiny. What interests Ryan is not so much the alleged weakness of Henry’s character, but, rather, the division between Henry’s public role as a monarch, which Henry finds oppressive and hateful, and his private inner self, that desires escape from the endless horrors. This division is made clear in Henry’s lines in Part 2 when his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, is stripped of power. As Henry leaves the court, in the deepest dejection, he says to the assembled court: “what to your wisdoms seemeth best / Do, or undo, as if ourself were here”. This, Ryan argues, “bespeaks a disengagement strikingly at odds with the tender, imaginative empathy he displays” elsewhere for the doomed Duke of Gloucester; but “it chimes perfectly with his desire to withdraw himself from ‘ourself’, from the virtual royal self he appoints to remain present in his absence”; he recoils from “his own intolerable identity”. The compassionate self breaking away from an identity imposed upon him by an iniquitously hierarchical society is an early indication, Ryan argues, in what may well be Shakespeare’s earliest existing play, of the tragic vision developed more fully in the more mature tragedies – a vision that is predicated upon the inner being of the individual struggling against the expectations and responsibilities placed upon it by an external, systemically unjust society.

That this external society is systemically unjust, Shakespeare is in no doubt. Throughout his work, there is an awareness of this injustice, and also intimations of a utopia. In our own time, as we look back upon the attempted establishments of various heavens on earth, and the hells on earth that have in each case ensued, we are rightly suspicious of utopian political ideals. But that does not banish thoughts of a utopia – built upon an awareness that what we have now is iniquitous. From the earliest existing plays to the last, Shakespeare has this dream of a utopia in mind, and, Ryan argues, his tragic vision has its roots in his protagonists inhabiting a world that falls far short of what it should, and maybe could, be; the tragedy is not merely an outcome of a “tragic flaw” peculiar to the protagonist, but, rather, of the protagonist struggling against being “cabin’d, cribb’, confined” within the limitations of a grossly imperfect world.

In Henry VI Part 2, the utopian vision is given explicit expression in the scenes of Jack Cade’s rebellion. Cade is, it is true, a cruel and often absurd figure, and his followers recognise this in their sarcastic undercutting of his pretensions to royalty; but they follow him all the same, because the utopianism he preaches – of a land where all wealth is literally held in common – is one that appeals. And in any case, his cruelty is no more barbaric than that of those he is rebelling against: if we are sickened by the plethora of severed heads that appear on stage in the scenes depicting his rebellion, Shakespeare follows it up with a similar plethora of severed heads in very next act, in the aftermath of the Battle of St Albans. Severed heads continue to make their presence felt in various other scenes of Part 3. If this first batch of severed heads is a symbol of Cade’s barbarity, what are we to make of the severed heads that appear as a consequence of the nobles’ struggles for power? Is there any reason to take the ruling elites as any more civilised than Cade?

The vision of utopia is presented here in the scenes of Cade’s rebellion, along with the inevitable contradictions inherent in such a vision: the classless society Cade propounds can only be established with Cade becoming king, and his own followers aren’t blind to this irony. The same vision of utopia, and the same inherent contradiction, appear also in the play believed to be the last that Shakespeare wrote (apart from a few late collaborations): in The Tempest, Gonzalo too imagines what an ideal state would look like, and again, he imagines a state without hierarchies. “No sovereignty”, he says, at which point the scoffing Sebastian breaks in: “Yet he would be king on’t”. Shakespeare seemed to realise, throughout his career, that such a utopia, harbouring as it does such profound internal contradictions, is not achievable.  And yet, that dream of utopia has persisted: it is apparent in the last play, The Tempest, as well as in the first, Henry VI Part 2. And from first to last, these utopias look much the same: all wealth held in common, no social hierarchy, equality between all its citizens, and so on. Whether attainable or not, it is a dream Shakespeare cannot help but harbour. And this dream is implicitly – and sometimes more than just implicitly – present also in the plays that come between the first and the last. These plays, argues Ryan, view the action from the perspective of such a utopia: the cause of the tragedy is not just in the specific internal workings of the protagonists’ minds, but in the conflict that arises between the characters’ greatest inner needs and desires, and the iniquitous society within which their inner selves are cabin’d, cribb’d, confined. And also – and this, I think, is a particularly subtle point – in the way that the values of this iniquitous society infiltrate the mind of the protagonist, so that the struggle is not merely between the individual and the outside world, but also one between the character’s world-corrupted mind, and the nascent inner self that resides within.

As an example of this, we may consider the character of Othello. When, in the first act, Othello defies convention and marries a white woman, her father, Brabantio, accuses him of witchcraft, as he feels it is unnatural for his white daughter to actually wish, of her own volition, to want to marry a black man. Othello, positioning himself here as a utopian who insists upon racial equality, summarily dismisses this: he is in a powerful enough position here not to have the worry about defying of social customs. And yet, in Act 3, when Iago makes exactly the same point, Othello, his mind now under pressure, gives way to it: “And yet, how nature, erring from itself…” The racist assumption (and Ryan, quite rightly, has no compunction about calling it racist) that attraction between races is “unnatural”, has infiltrated Othello’s mind also: what he had once easily dismissed he can no longer put out of his mind, so subtle and so powerful are the forces of the society he inhabits. External forces of society he could oppose while they remain external, but once they become part of him, it’s a different matter.

Titus Andronicus

It is within this framework of the mind tragically at war, knowingly or unknowingly, with the forces of an iniquitous society, that Ryan analyses these plays. He manages to make more of a case for Titus Andronicus than I would have thought possible: this is, after all, the only play in the canon I have wished Shakespeare had not written. My objection is not so much to the extreme violence – there was no shortage of severed heads in the Henry VI plays, for instance, and one hardly needs reminding of the horrendous onstage eye-gouging scene in King Lear – but, rather, to what seems to me an inadequate response to the horrors. The only reaction of the characters to unmitigated violence is to respond with even greater violence, as if humans were merely machines programmed to commit unspeakable outrages against each other. It may be that this is what humans are, but if so, they aren’t, it seems to me, worth writing plays about. In Ryan’s analysis, though, Titus does learn humanity – at least, up to a point: to begin with, he is a man who has bought in to the brutal values of Imperial Rome to such an extent that he kills even his own son when he stands in his way, and never shows any remorse for it. However, Ryan argues, after the horrific violence on his daughter Lavinia, Titus, perhaps for the first time in his life, begins to feel compassion for a fellow creature. It still doesn’t prevent the explosion of grotesque violence in the final scene, but nonetheless, Shakespeare dramatises the presence of an inner, compassionate being lurking underneath the inhuman values absorbed from an inhuman society.

Ryan shows a particular interest in the character of Aaron – a villain, certainly, but no more morally depraved than the society he strives against. He is a close relative of Jack Cade, of course, and also of the Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III); and, in later plays, of Iago and Edmund. These villains can confide in us, the audience, and even make themselves likeable to us, for we too are products of an iniquitous society. We may object that we aren’t villains, as they are, but they may respond that they are at least being honest in having no illusions about the society in which they live. This is why, Ryan argues, it is difficult to present these characters in performance as unlikeable, despite their obvious evil. And yet, by presenting themselves as likeable, on a certain level at least, they implicate us in their evil.

Romeo and Juliet

In his essay on Romeo and Juliet, Ryan expands on his idea that “Shakespearen tragedy is conceived and scripted from the vantage point of a possible future foreshadowed by the present”. The love the two protagonists feel for each other, equally given and received by both and free from any taint of domination or submission, is not consonant with their times: it belongs to some future time unthinkable in the volatile macho environment of Verona, with its pointless deadly enmities, its sporadic outbursts of violence.

“You kiss by the book,” Juliet says teasingly to Romeo at their first meeting; and indeed, Romeo is still in thrall to the “book”, that is, to what is sanctioned by convention; but the feelings that both protagonists find overtaking them is new – it belongs to some possible future age, free from the bounds of a dead and deadening convention. However, “what they show to be humanly possible is not historically possible”; and therein lies the tragedy.

Julius Caesar

In Julius Caesar too, Ryan finds the characters inextricably tangled in historic complexities that they themselves are not fully aware of. Brutus may speak of his honour, of his love of Rome, but the arguments of Cassius that move him do not point to such things: rather, they are aimed to arouse is Brutus the same resentment that Cassius himself harbours – resentment that Caesar, a fellow patrician, could rise above them. This hidden motive of Brutus accounts for the unconvincing arguments he makes to himself for Caesar’s assassination (“It must be by his death…” in II,i). As Coleridge had observed, Shakespeare could easily have given Brutus convincing reasons, but he didn’t. Brutus’ arguments aren’t convincing because he himself is not really convinced by them: he is merely deluding himself about his altruistic love of Rome, and he is deluding himself because his true motive – his patrician pride, handed down from earlier generations – is too ugly, too uncomfortable to be faced. So, far from being a tragedy about honour and decency misled by faulty reasoning, we have, in Ryan’s words, a “clinical indictment of a society … that privileges the gratification of the powerful over the needs and rights of a powerless multitude, while masquerading as a society that has the best interests of all its citizens at heart”. As in Romeo and Juliet, the iniquitous conventions of past generations continue to weigh down heavily upon the protagonists. And this heavy burden Shakespeare dramatises from the perspective of a future that can recognise these iniquitous conventions for what they are.

In the longest section of the book, Ryan focuses in depth, as Bradley had done, on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth.  


Naturally, Ryan has little time for attempts to find flaws in Hamlet’s character that cause the tragedy: the formulation presented explicitly in Olivier’s film  version of “a tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind” is rightly dismissed as too banal to merit serious consideration. Ryan summarises a few other formulations too of what Hamlet’s “tragic flaw” might be, before declaring it would be “otiose to review all the permutations of this line of thought” – all these permutations assuming, as they do, and without justification, “that the problem lies with Hamlet rather than with the world and the situation in which he finds himself”.

What makes the situation even more complex is that Hamlet assumes this himself: Hamlet, too, is constantly questioning why he does not carry out the revenge that he is sworn to, and becomes frustrated that he cannot pluck out the heart of his own mystery. Ryan shows through thorough and careful references to the text that none of the formulations concerning Hamlet’s supposed flaw, including those made by himself, squares with what is actually in the play. But the play does, Ryan insists, “guide us towards its own quite different conception of Hamlet’s tragic predicament”; however it does so “by the indirect art of implication”; and so, as Polonius says to Reynaldo, we must by indirections find directions out.

In Ryan’s analysis of the play, the question besetting Hamlet is not so much “Why do I not carry out the revenge?” – although Hamlet poses this question to himself quite explicitly – but, rather, “How may one live in a world filled with such wickedness and iniquity?” The revenge is finally achieved in the last scene, but not as a consequence of premeditated strategy towards that end: indeed, at no point in the play, not even in the final act, is there any strategy on Hamlet’s part. The revenge, if such it is, comes about arbitrarily, committed in the heat of the moment. And even then, Ryan points out, there is no mention on Hamlet’s part, not even the slightest hint, that he is paying his uncle back for having murdered his father, the elder King Hamlet. This final scene wraps up the plot, but, as Shaw had commented, the Gordian knot is cut rather than untied. “The only thing that could untie the knot for Hamlet,” Ryan continues, “would be the transformation of society into one fit for what human beings could be, instead of one fit for scoundrels, pawns, and parasites it forces most of them to become”. Such a utopia is not achieved within the play, and one cannot help wondering whether such a utopia can be achieved at all: I suppose this depends on the extent one thinks society is responsible for the creation of “scoundrels, pawns, and parasites”, and to what extent one thinks the potential to be “scoundrels, pawns, and parasites” lies latent in humanity, ready to bubble up to the surface regardless of how society is structured.

For Hamlet himself is not, after all, immune to moral corruption. The image of a disease that spreads and corrupts is, after all, central to this play, and Hamlet, being but human, is prey to it also. His heartless treatment of Ophelia is much mentioned, as is his utter lack of remorse for his part in her tragic fate (his declaration of love for Ophelia in the graveyard scene is more a parody of Laertes’ bombast than it is an expression of anything heartfelt, and, it may be argued, parodying the grief of a bereaved brother is itself cruel and heartless). Throughout the play, it seems to me, we see Hamlet’s increasing intolerance with human weaknesses, even where, as with Ophelia, that weakness is understandable given the circumstances. And there is, it seems to me, something inhuman about such intolerance: such intolerance of human flaws can itself be seen as a human flaw.

Ryan notes the identification at certain points of the character of Hamlet with that of Claudius – such as at the electrifying moment in the play-within-the-play where the murderer, Lucianus, turns out not to be the brother of the king, as might have been expected, but the nephew: this makes the play-within-the-play a threat as well as a re-enactment, but also, quite startlingly, it aligns the projected act of revenge with the original crime. This could indeed be a eflection of Hamlet’s fear that in carrying out the revenge – the revenge that is demanded by the code of the society that Hamlet inhabits – he but becomes an epigone of that which he hates, but I wonder if this is all there is to it: even if we reject the code of blood revenge, killing to achieve a justice that cannot be achieved by the formal processes of law is surely different in nature from killing for power and for lust. Rather, it seems to me, the aligning of the two characters at this point – at the mid-point of the play – serves to underline the extent to which Hamlet’s moral character has already been corrupted. And this, it seems to me, is an important aspect of the tragedy of Hamlet: Claudius’ fratricide – an image of the first instance of bloodshed in the Book of Genesis – creates waves of evil and of corruption that engulf all in their path, and not even Hamlet can be immune.

But the greater point remains, I think, that the problem, the root of the tragedy, lies not so much in Hamlet himself, but in the world that he inhabits, and that looking for a flaw in Hamlet’s character to account for the tragic outcome – especially when the flaw is identified as something so banal as indecisiveness – is misconceived.

Equally misconceived are questions regarding Hamlet’s failure to carry out the revenge. Hamlet is a revenge tragedy where revenge is not really at the centre of the play: by the time we get to the final act, except for the brief passage where Hamlet tries to justify to Horatio his hatred of Claudius, revenge is not mentioned at all – not even at the point where it is finally carried out. The focus of the play has moved way, way beyond that.


Ryan has no problem using the term “racism”. It is often objected that the term – indeed, the concept itself – is the product of a later era, but if the features we now understand as “racism” are depicted by characters in a Shakespeare play, why shouldn’t the term be applied?

For the society Othello inhabits is certainly racist. Iago, Rodrigo and Brabantio all come out with racist slurs. The inter-racial marriage between Othello and Desdemona Brabantio considers unnatural: how could a white girl actually want, of her own free choice, to marry a black man? There must be witchcraft involved – some drugs, perhaps that have affected her judgement. The Venetian court overrules Brabantio, but only because it desperately needs Othello’s services.

This is also a deeply misogynist world – a world in which women are expected to be unfaithful, and cuckoldry is a running joke and something to be feared, because, in a society where the man is expected to be in command of his household, cuckoldry exposes the husband’s lack of virility and of authority. And a consequence of this fear of cuckoldry is an extreme jealousy: Iago too is not immune from this.

In Ryan’s reading, neither Othello nor Iago is a startling anomaly: both are very obviously creations of a deeply imperfect and unjust society. Othello is easy prey because the circumstances of his inter-racial marriage, regarded as “unnatural”, predisposes him towards insecurity: as soon as Iago mentions that Desdemona’s love for a man of a different race is unnatural, Othello, instead of dismissing it out of hand as he had done in the first act (when he had known he was in a position of power), takes it seriously. He doesn’t even have to think about it.

As for Iago, Ryan dismisses Coleridge’s formula of “motiveless malignity searching for a motive”. Now, this is a formulation that I have in the past found convincing, and so, as I started to read this passage in Ryan’s book, I marshalled to my mind the various reasons why Iago’s stated motives – that he was passed over for promotion, and his own jealous suspicions that his wife Emilia had had an affair with Othello – may be considered insufficient to account for what he does. But I needn’t have bothered: Ryan is – as is to be expected, I guess – well aware of all this: his point is that Iago does have a motive, and that motive is that he simply hates Othello. And where I had seen this as a brute fact that could be delved into no further – and hence, inscrutable – Ryan locates the source of this hatred in the values of the society that both Iago and Othello inhabit. Iago, far from being a mysterious font of inexplicable evil, is, to Ryan, all too explicable: there is nothing mysterious about him at all. The motives Iago states are, it is true, symptoms rather than causes of his hatred, but the hatred itself is not a mystery: it can be traced back to the vile and malignant values of a vile and malignant society.

Ryan applies a similar lens to Desdemona. After she has been humiliated by Othello, there is a strange passage beginning “’Tis meet should be used so, very meet…”. This passage is usually taken as ironic, because there seems no other reasonable way of taking this, but Ryan raises the possibility that, just as Othello has internalised the racism around him, Desdemona may also have internalised the misogyny. If so, this is particularly troubling. It could also mean that Desdemona’s final words, in which she refuses to blame Othello for her murder, are also indicative of the same internalisation. It is a coherent view of the play, no doubt, but it leaves me uneasy. Desdemona’s words, virtually from beyond the grave, seem to me miraculous in every sense, a breathtaking testament to the power of human forgiveness; but I appreciate that such an interpretation could be seen as merely sentimental. Nonetheless, viewing these words, which had seemed to me (and seem to me still) as nothing short of miraculous, as but a pathetic utterance of a woman deluded even at the point of death, I cannot help but seeing as reductive – reducing a tragedy of cosmic dimensions but to a sordid little tale of delusion and of domestic violence.

However, Ryan merely holds out the possibility of this particular interpretation: he does not insist upon it. What he does insist upon, quite rightly, is the wrongness of seeing the tragedy as a consequence merely of Othello’s personal character flaw – of his mistaken conviction of his wife’s infidelity, with the distasteful unspoken implication of such an interpretation that had the conviction not been mistaken, his actions would have been justified. It is, rather, as Ryan presents it. a tragedy of people whose utopian love, in defiance of the stultifying values commonly accepted by the world in which they live, is eventually corrupted and destroyed by those same stultifying values.

King Lear

Of all Bradley’s essays, the ones of King Lear have longed seemed to me the least convincing, and this because his approach, focusing as it does on analysis of character, is least appropriate for this play. For the characters here – at least, compared to the characters in Shakespeare’s other tragedies – are quite simple. The scope of the tragedy, its causes, its consequences, stretch out far beyond the characters, and encompasses the world itself. And perhaps even further. It is not just the characters’ minds that are in turmoil here: the entire fabric of the universe itself seems to undergo violent convulsions, and, at points, as in the Fool’s strange speech in III,ii where he appears to prophesy a prophecy (“This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time”), we lose whatever temporal bearings we may have had: time itself suddenly seems unstable and insecure.

Ryan focuses on the significance of the word “nothing” – clearly an important word in the play, and repeated many times in many different dramatic contexts. But first, he draws our attention to a striking passage from Timon of Athens, a play Shakespeare had been working on possibly just before writing King Lear, and which was probably, for whatever reason, abandoned:

Why, I was writing of my epitaph.

It will be seen tomorrow. My long sickness

Of health and living now begins to mend.

And nothing brings me all things.

The quality of nothing is not here merely an absence of something: it is referred to by Timon as something positive, something actually to be desired. It is what Cordelia says she has for Lear when she is asked how much she loves him: nothing. When Edgar decides to disguise himself as Poor Tom, he says: “That’s something yet; Edgar I nothing am.” He could easily have said something like, say, “Edgar I am no more”, but Shakespeare structures that line such that the words “something” and “nothing” counterpoise each other, so that the “nothing”, rather than denoting merely an absence of “something”, is, as it had been with Timon, a quality in its own right,

Lear, too, is reduced to a nothing, and again, Ryan asks whether this “nothing” is merely negative – merely an absence. In I,iv, when Lear first begins to notice his authority questioned, he speaks of himself in the third person:

This is not Lear:
Doth Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, his discernings
Are lethargied – Ha! waking? ’tis not so.
Who is it that can tell me who I am?

To which the Fool answers “Lear’s shadow”. Once again, Lear’s speech can be taken purely as enraged irony on his part, but Ryan intriguingly poses a different possibility. Should the “shadow” mentioned by the Fool be seen as entirely negative? Through the course of the play, we see a transfiguration in Lear: the man who could actually say to his daughter that it would have been better for her not to be born than not to have pleased him better, comes, by the third act, to recognise that he is just a poor, bare, forked animal, no different from the lowest beggar and outcast. One persona gives place to another. And it is in this context that Ryan asks us to consider this earlier passage. In this passage, when cracks in the person Lear had been begin for the first time to appear, he does not truly know who he is; and this is why he speaks of himself in the third person; and this is why he has to ask “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” The Fool’s answer – “Lear’s shadow” – can certainly be taken to mean that Lear is now but the shadow of the man he used to be; but, more intriguingly, the Fool may intend the “shadow” to denote nothing – a nothing that is nonetheless positive, for from this nothing may arise a being that had previously lain dormant within. It is a nothing that, as Timon had recognised, brings all things.

Lear’s transformation from a king to a nothing – a nothing that is nonetheless greater than the something he had previously been – has antecedents in Shakespeare’s plays, and Ryan traces these carefully. There was Henry VI, of course, whose inner being retreats in revulsion from his kingly self; there’s Richard II, who, once stripped of his kingly status must try to understand what the being is within. Hamlet too had quizzically said that “a king is a thing of nothing”.  But in none of these earlier plays had the focus fallen so explicitly on social iniquities, on the poor naked wretches who have to bide the pelting of pitiless storms. Lear comes to recognise that he had “ta’en too little care of this”, but, as Ryan says, Shakespeare has to take him further: it is not merely that the rich should look after the poor better; a commonality in our shared humanity must be recognised. Immediately at the point where Lear prays for those of whom he had ta’en too little care, there appears Poor Tom – a man who does not even have the necessities without which, Lear had previously thought, man’s life were as cheap as beast’s. And Lear, to his horror, recognises his own commonality with this poor, bare, forked animal that now appears before him.

It has been objected that the fact of Poor Tom being Edgar weakens the point, but Ryan takes an opposite view: the point of our common humanity is emphasised rather than negated by Edgar too being such a poor, bare, forked animal beneath his robes and furred gowns that had previously hidden his unaccommodated self. Edgar has taken on this persona that goes way beyond what was required merely for coherence of plot, and it is important to question why: Edgar, too, like Lear, and like Gloucester afterwards, had to become a nothing – a nothing that could, perhaps, bring him all things. Edgar he nothing is.


Macbeth fits easily into the traditional patterns: two protagonists, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, share a tragic flaw – in this case, ambition – and, as a consequence of this flaw, commit the most terrible crime, thus disrupting the fabric of the society in which they live, as well as damning their own souls; but it is all put right at the end when they are defeated by good people. Their souls remain damned – that’s their tragedy – but the breach they made in nature is set right. And of course, none of this would have happened if the protagonists had been able to rein in their “tragic flaw” in the first place.  

This does make a coherent reading, and is consistent with the text. But clearly, such a reading presents the drama as, essentially, a morality tale: do not be over-ambitious, and do not commit murder, for that way damnation lies. But clearly, there is more: a mere morality tale such as this is unlikely to shake us to the extent that this play does. To investigate what more there is, Ryan first of all examines the patterns of language used throughout the play. And in doing so, he finds that the patterns used by the witches occur throughout the play: they crop up not only in the speeches of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but also, perhaps surprisingly, in the speeches of various other characters too – both major and minor. For instance, the witches’ incantatory “Fair is foul and foul is fair” is echoed almost immediately by Banquo (“So fair and foul a day I have not seen”); the witches’ rhyming of “done/won” (“When the hurlyburly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won”) is echoed in the very next scene by Duncan and Ross:


…And with his former title greet Macbeth.


                                                        I’ll see it done.


What he hath lost noble Macbeth hath won.

The witches’ “Double double, toil and trouble”, Ryan demonstrates with copious examples, finds echoes throughout the play. And so on.

All this, says Ryan, has been commented on, but “their implications for our understanding of the play as a tragedy have not been appreciated” (author’s italics). “The cumulative effect,” Ryan continues, “of hearing …  distinctive speech habits of the witches or of the Macbeths at home is to involve them all in the attitude articulated in the idiom they share”. Macbeth’s ethos, in other words, is not greatly different from that of the society he inhabits, any more than are his speech patterns. Of course, needless to say, Macbeth reacts to it in a far more extreme way than do the other characters, but he is a product of that society, rather than an anomaly.

The murderous thoughts that immediately strike Macbeth after meeting with the witches are entirely his own: at no point do the witches suggest murder, not even implicitly. When Lady Macbeth calls on evil spirits to possess her, she calls them “spirits that tend on mortal thoughts”: tend, not instigate. The thoughts are purely human, and whatever thoughts humans have, the spirits do no more than tend.

Ryan goes on to demonstrate how widespread are the treasonous and bloodthirsty thoughts in general throughout this play. Even honest Banquo is clearly afflicted with evil thoughts, the wicked nature of which he is well aware (“merciful powers, / Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature / Gives way to in repose!”); and all other seemingly good characters are tarred to some lesser or greater extent. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are no anomalies: the moral sickness from which they suffer is widespread in the society they inhabit.

And at the root of this moral sickness, Ryan finds “a potent but toxic idea of masculinity, of what it means to be a man”. This is not new in Shakespeare. “If it be man’s work, I’ll do it,” says the officer in King Lear charged with hanging Cordelia, and this leads us naturally to ask: “What is man’s work?” The officer in King Lear had not thought that hanging Cordelia was inconsistent “man’s work”. Macbeth tells the murderers he employs to kill Banquo that the work of the highest rank of men is to kill without qualm of conscience. Lady Macbeth calls upon spirits to “unsex” her, to implant into her a male spirit, so she too could partake in acts of “the direst cruelty”. When Macbeth wavers, it is with his lack of virility that she taunts him (“When you durst do it, then you were a man”).

But the curious fact in all this is that Macbeth does waver: not for him the cheerful amorality of Richard III, who also murders his way to the top. Lady Macbeth is aware of this element in his character: he is too “full of the milk of human kindness”. Ryan reminds us that at this point (and elsewhere) in the text of the First Folio, this famous phrase appears as “the milk of humane kindness”: “human” is an emendation of Rowe’s that all subsequent editors have followed. But there is clearly a conflation in the original text between what we now understand as “human” – that is, pertaining to the species homo sapiens – and “humane”, that is, compassionate.

It may seem strange that Macbeth, who has now become emblematic of homicidal evil, should be described in such terms; but the fact remains, he is. And also that Lady Macbeth knows him well. But what is particularly interesting here is the image of “milk”: it conjures up the image of a baby feeding at its mother’s breast. And indeed, in a passage shortly afterwards, this image of the baby at the breast is evoked more explicitly, but in the vilest of contexts: to urge her husband on, Lady Macbeth evokes the most disgusting image of plucking a baby from her breast whom she had been suckling, and dashing its brains out. The image here is, of course, is that of an innocence horribly destroyed; but if “milk” is an image of  innocence, that innocence, Lady Macbeth realises, lies also in her husband. And this is why he wavers. This is why he knows immediately after the murder that he shall never sleep again. This is why he knows that had he died but an hour earlier, he “had lived a blessed time”. This is why he never for a moment enjoys that which he had most ardently desired. There is, inside him, the milk of human (or humane) kindness – a baby, innocent and defenceless, and yet powerful enough to stride the blast; or, to employ the imagery so prevalent in King Lear, there is in him a nothing that, though savagely suppressed, has the potential in some hereafter to be stronger and more powerful than the something that Macbeth has made of himself.

And here lies the essence of the tragedy both of Macbeth and of Lady Macbeth. From the society around them, virtually from the air that they breathe, they have imbibed those values of a poisonous notion of masculinity that makes them something, but, all the while, there is, hidden deep inside them, a nothing, that, in some conceivable utopia, might have brought them all things.

Antony and Cleopatra

More, perhaps, than in Shakespeare’s other plays, Antony and Cleopatra presents us with different perspectives, often contradictory each with the other, that are nonetheless true at the same time.  From the Roman perspective, Cleopatra is merely a depraved and lascivious woman, and Antony is playing the fool in neglecting his duties, and being so utterly besotted with her. This is the way they had both been depicted, Ryan tells us, in “nearly all medieval and early modern takes on the story”. Dante, Ryan reminds us, had placed Cleopatra in that circle of the Inferno reserved for “carnal sinners”. Shakespeare, however, while not by any means neglecting this perspective, presents us with something quite different: in the late flowering of love between these two deeply flawed and even, at times, absurd creatures, there is something that is nonetheless magnificent.

What exactly there is that is magnificent is easier felt that described, but it’s there: even the cynical and down-to-earth Enobarbus can’t help but recognise the magnificence. It is easy to point out all the defects in the characters of the two lovers, but, as Enobarbus says, Cleopatra “make[s] defect perfection”. The more “irrational, perverse and aggravating” Cleopatra is, the more Antony loves her; and the further Antony sinks, the more immovable seems Cleopatra’s love of him. And somehow, miraculously, by some magic that I still cannot come close to accounting for, we, the audience, feel the same way: we see Antony and Cleopatra, despite being in positions of power and responsibility, neglecting their duties: they are clearly bad rulers. We see the acting irresponsibly, even reprehensibly. But, as with Enobarbus, against all reason, we can’t help but find something quite magnificent about them.

Not that the Roman view is necessarily an admirable one. As Ryan emphasises, Antony and Cleopatra, whatever the historic accuracy, are, in this play, of different races: Cleopatra is contemptuously referred to as a “gypsy”, and as “tawny”, and Cleopatra herself speaks of being “by Phoebus’ amorous pinches black”. Race is not as major an issue here as it had been in Othello, but disapproval of their union on the grounds of racial difference isn’t absent here either.

But Antony, even while speaking of breaking free from “Egyptian fetters”, is most oppressed by the Roman fetters that bind him: “Let Rome in Tiber melt!” declares this triple pillar of the Roman world, before adding, quite magnificently, “kingdoms are clay”.

But neither he nor Cleopatra can wish away the realities of this imperial world: far more so than the loves of the previous tragic couples – Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Desdemona – their love is played out entirely in public view, and their fates are inextricable from the wider politics.

The conflict between the real world that they must live in, and a world in which their deepest needs may be met and their deepest desires flourish, is too obvious to be spelt out. At the end, with Antony already dead and with Cleopatra’s interest in living in the real world waning, she creates from her imagination an image of Antony as he had never been. Ryan gives much emphasis to the speech of hers that follows, beginning with “But if there be nor ever were one such…” It’s a difficult speech, with complex syntax, but the upshot of it is that creations of the imagination, according to Cleopatra, are not merely fantasy, for that imagination itself is a creation of the real world. And so she mythologises Antony, and, at the point of death, mythologises herself to be the great queen she never had been in real life.

And yet, her final image of herself is not that of royalty: “Dost though not see the baby at the breast / That sucks the nurse asleep?” Ryan adds: “Death liberates Cleopatra from her royalty to enjoy, if only for a moment in her imagination, something far superior to royalty: the simple bond of nurturing motherhood.” Charmian understands: Cleopatra was not a “queen unparalleled”, as may have been expected, but “a lass unparalleled”.

It is Octavius who actually refers to a utopia: he senses a time of “universal peace” near at hand. This universal peace would, of course, be on Octavius’ terms, and we would be right to be suspicious of it; but nonetheless, “universal peace” is a concept that would have been unthinkable to either Antony or to Cleopatra. But it is a rather different kind of utopia they evoke – a utopia in which kingdoms really are clay.


Shakespeare ended his sequence of tragedies with two Roman plays written in close succession – the very opulent Antony and Cleopatra, and the very austere Coriolanus. But one feature shared by these two very dissimilar plays is that the tragedy of the protagonist is inseparable from the social context. And the social context here is very much that of class warfare. We are plunged into this right from the start. Plutarch, Ryan tells us, tells of the plebians’ revolt some way into his narrative, but Shakespeare opens the play with it. And the plebians’ cause is the most basic: they face starvation because the patricians are hoarding grain.

The contempt in which the patricians hold the people is apparent. The patrician Menenius tries to soft-soap the plebians, but when that fails, his true feelings come out: “Rome and her rats are at the point of battle.” The people of Rome are but vermin. Caius Martius (as Coriolanus is known to begin with), when he enters, doesn’t even pretend: when he hears of likely wars, he says he is glad of it, as that will help cull some of the “musty superfluity”.

It is sometimes said that Coriolanus presents class war from a neutral viewpoint, but Ryan rejects that: true, Shakespeare doesn’t hesitate to show the people as “spineless, gullible, vacillating”, but this does not invalidate their cause, and nor does it justify the patricians. And, Ryan says, “the values on which the plebian rebellion against the patricians is based form the ethical bedrock on which the entire tragedy is built”.

For Coriolanus’ hatred of the people is “born of a horror of having anything in common with them”, and in this, he is no anomaly: this hatred is endemic to his class, though Coriolanus exhibits it more clearly. But the tragedy comes when, at a crucial moment, a being within Coriolanus that had till then been suppressed comes to the fore – when he accepts his mother’s plea to spare Rome. Of course, he signs his own death warrant in doing so, but it is here, Ryan says, that “the universal bond between mother and son prevails, [and] we see and hear the vulnerable, compassionate human [who had been] imprisoned within Coriolanus since childhood”.


In the above, I have summarised as best I could Ryan’s arguments – or, at least, my reading of his arguments, which may not be quite the same thing. But, inevitably, summary implies a simplification, a flattening out of subtleties and nuance, and a straightening out of complexities. So I really should emphasise that any flaw detected in the arguments presented in this post is most likely to be a flaw in my own understanding, or my own summarising, rather than a flaw in Ryan’s arguments.

These arguments are presented throughout with admirable lucidity, and are completely free of jargon; and they are always justified by the text, rather than imposed upon them. I won’t say that they have changed my view of these plays overnight: when one has lived with these works for some half a century or so, as I have, certain ways of looking at them become imprinted in the mind, and it becomes hard to change. But they have certainly thrown new light on these works, and have, among other things, provided me with an explanation of why I have found so unsatisfactory those interpretations predicated primarily – or even solely – upon the character flaws of the protagonists.

These plays have long been the works that I think I love more than any other work of art, in any form or medium, and reading such absorbing and penetrating analyses of them has been an unmitigated pleasure. If I have any complaint at all about this book, it is that I could wish the chapter on Antony and Cleopatra – the play in the canon I think I love most – to have been longer, and that Ryan had given it as profound and as detailed a consideration as he does Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. But no matter. This book demonstrated for me, yet again, the sheer inexhaustibility of these endlessly entrancing works.

“Richard III” at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon

I am fast warming to the theory that the Henry VI – Richard III sequence of plays is not a tetralogy – as it is presented in the First Folio, and in most modern editions of the Complete Works – but, rather, a trilogy. As a tetralogy, the whole thing seems cumbersome and patchy; but presented as a trilogy – that is, consisting of the plays usually known as Henry VI Part 2 and Henry VI Part 3, along with Richard III – it becomes an enthralling piece of theatre. Of course, it can do with a bit of judicious cutting, but that’s the case with many Shakespeare plays. If Part 1 is ditched, we have a magnificent extended drama about a nation tearing itself part through rebellion, and then, through civil war; and, in the final episode, a monster emerging from the chaos to tyrannise an already battered populace. The whole thing has about it a theatrical vigour, and, especially in the final part, Richard III, a demonic energy.

The problem is Part 1, of course. There are a couple of good scenes in it, but it is mainly quite tedious, and some parts – such as the rough humour that precedes the horrific burning at the stake of Joan la Pucelle (Jeanne d’Arc) – rather objectionable. One may put all this down to collaboration, or to a young dramatist still learning his trade, but I’m not sure either explanation will do. It isn’t that this sequence of plays gradually become better: rather, there is a very noticeable increase in quality as soon as Part 2 starts. This could be due to a number of possible reasons, of course, but the one I find most appealing is that Henry VI Part 2 and Henry VI Part 3 (as they’re listed in the Folio) are actually the first and second parts of a trilogy, and that the play listed as Henry VI Part 1 is merely a hurriedly cobbled work written to cash in on the popularity of the later plays. And while I appreciate this is merely wishful thinking on my part, I wouldn’t be surprised if Shakespeare didn’t have much to do with the wretched Part 1 – despite a few odd scenes that are worth saving.

Even apart from the step change in quality between Parts 2 and 3, it is possible to adduce other internal evidence to support this theory. Although there are references in Parts 2 and 3 to events that had taken place in Part 1, there is nothing we need to know about the back-story that isn’t clearly delineated; in contrast, there are many references in Richard III to past events that can only be properly understood if we had seen Parts 2 and 3 – e.g. the killing of Rutland, Clarence breaking his oath and changing sides at the Battle of Tewkesbury, and so on. There are also many strong links between Parts 2 and 3: the latter play clearly picks up from the point where the former play ends, and Shakespeare (and, presumably, his collaborators) do not bother spending much time introducing characters who had already been present in Part 2. And there are strong links also between Part 3 and Richard III: over the course of Part 3, Richard, slowly but surely, acquires greater prominence, and is given some striking monologues, quite obviously to prepare for what is still to come. Given this preparation, Part 3 ends with a sense of much unfinished business – a sense of issues that need still to be resolved.

There is some external evidence also to support the theory that this sequence of plays had been intended as a trilogy rather than as a tetralogy: the second, third and fourth plays of the tetralogy (should we choose to see it as such) had appeared in a number of Quarto editions within Shakespeare’s own lifetime; the first part appears only in the First Folio. And it is only from the First Folio that we have the rather boring titles Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, and Henry VI Part 3: in the Quarto texts, the latter two plays had been titled The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster with the Death of the Good King Humphrey, and The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York, and the Good King Henry VI. However, since such long titles aren’t to modern taste, it’s the more prosaic titles from the Folio that have stuck; and with these titles, the necessity of presenting all three Henry VI plays, since it is hard to convince an audience to see Parts 2 and 3 if Part 1 is missing.

In the current season (2022), the Royal Shakespeare Company has made the decision to ditch Part 1 altogether. This is a sensible decision, both commercially (it would be hard to persuade people to return for the later parts if they’d been bored by the first), and also artistically. The Henry VI plays had to be renamed, of course, but that’s hardly a major problem. These two Henry VI plays I had reported on in my last post on this blog; and now, it’s the final and most famous play in the series – Richard III. This is usually performed as a standalone play, but it clearly gains from being seen in the context of its predecessors. Not only are there many references to events that only really make sense if we have seen the earlier plays, it’s also important to realise, I think, that hardly any of Richard’s victims are innocent. Seen out of context, Clarence appears merely a helpless victim; true, he has that magnificent speech shortly before he is murdered, where, in narrating his dream, he reveals with a startling immediacy the agonies of a guilt-tormented mind; but nonetheless, we needed to have witnessed that guilt to take in the full import of his dream. The narration itself is unforgettable:

… then came wandering by
A shadow like an angel, with bright hair
Dabbled in blood; and he squeak’d out aloud,
‘Clarence is come; false, fleeting, perjured Clarence,
That stabb’d me in the field by Tewksbury;
Seize on him, Furies, take him to your torments!’
With that, methoughts, a legion of foul fiends
Environ’d me about, and howled in mine ears
Such hideous cries, that with the very noise
I trembling waked, and for a season after
Could not believe but that I was in hell.

Even now, after all these decades of acquaintance, I can feel a shiver run down my spine every time I encounter this passage.

As a play, Richard III has a greater dramatic power than its predecessors, mainly because, given its material, it has a powerful figure at its centre. In the previous two plays, we had been presented with a panoramic view, with a large cast of characters wandering in and out of the central spotlight. It had presented a compelling view of a nation tearing itself apart, but the focus had been spread across a range of characters. Even the impact of so potentially powerful a figure as Queen Margaret is diminished as a consequence. But in Richard III, we have one single figure dominating the play, and that figure is simply a gift for any actor with charisma and stage presence. There is a demonic energy to him, a flair and a vigour, that are utterly compelling.

It is easy comparing Richard to Macbeth: their trajectories are, in many ways, similar. They both rise to the top through murder, and once at the top, they both try to consolidate their power with further ruthless bloodshed; and both are finally defeated by a force invading the country in order to liberate it. But that’s just the arc of the plot: Macbeth is a drama about a soul damning itself in the full knowledge that it is damning itself, and the terror comes from Macbeth’s inability to stop, even when he knows what it is he is doing. But Richard, in contrast, has no inner life at all: there is not even the slightest awareness on his part that he even so much as has a soul. He has no feelings of gentleness or of tenderness, no sense of good and evil, nor even of basic right and wrong; and he is both amused and bemused that others should feel such things. He senses, as Iago does, that he is outside some bond that binds the rest of humanity together, but unlike Iago, he does not feel the need for such belonging: Iago resents Cassio because he can sense that Cassio “hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly”, but Richard has no such sense of “daily beauty” in anything: indeed, he would have found such a concept comical. Inside Richard is an utterly vacant and unfeeling brutality. He commits evil simply because he feels no need not to.

And the horror of this play, it seems to me, resides in the fact that he can do this; that he can find helpers and confederates, people happy to help him into power, to carry out his evil orders. It is a horrific picture of a great evil that is as unstoppable as it is apparent. And there seems no reason to explain this evil: how, after all, can evil be explained anyway? Yes, Richard refers a number of times to his physically mis-shapen form, that has, he feels, placed him outside the norms of humanity, but he is never clear on why his physical deformity should make him evil: the link is highly tenuous, to say the least, and won’t do for an explanation. The fact, I think, is that Richard is evil simply because he is; it is a brute fact for which there is no point even trying to look for a cause.

In the night before the fatal battle, Richard is haunted by the ghosts of those whom he had murdered (a nightmarish scene, superbly staged in this production), and on waking, he is terrified; but even then, he cannot understand what he is terrified of. After all, the only source of fear he is aware of is himself, but how could he be afraid of his own self?

What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by…

This is more, much more, than his essentially simple mind can take in.

The previous plays had been directed with tremendous theatrical vigour by Owen Horsley. They had communicated with a powerful immediacy the utter chaos into which the country had descended. For Richard III, RSC’s artistic director, Gregory Doran, takes up the directorial reins. The play opens with the war apparently at an end – the winter of our discontent seemingly turned into glorious summer – but so monstrous a trauma does not end so easily. There is a great evil lurking, waiting to assume power; and there is a fragile peace in which it is all to easy for such evil to triumph.

Richard III, more so than the previous plays, requires at its centre a commanding presence, and here it gets it from Arthur Hughes. His is not a larger-than-life performance, as those of Laurence Olivier or of Anthony Sher had been, but that really is an aspect of the horror – the idea that so seemingly ordinary and unprepossessing a character could nonetheless unleash such evil on so vast a scale. Arthur Hughes’ performance makes all this appear frighteningly credible: he speaks the verse beautifully, and conveys with terrifying intensity a sense of malice seemingly for its own sake – an evil unmotivated even by desire

And as the play progresses, he projects the character’s insecurity, and growing paranoia, until, by the end, he cowers in terror without even understanding what it is he is afraid of.

There are two scenes in particular that seem, on reading at least, difficult to render convincing. In the first, Richard woos Anne, whose husband (Prince Edward) and whose father-in-law (Henry VI) Richard had himself killed; and, even in the presence of the dead King Henry’s corpse, Richard wins her.

The second scene occurs later in the play; here, with his wife Anne disposed of (another of his victims), he convinces the widowed Queen Elizabeth, whose sons he had murdered (the notorious “Princes in the Tower”), to agree to her daughter marrying him – her own uncle.

I think in both these scenes there is a compression of time: what is presented as happening in some ten minutes or so on stage is a compression of what takes place over a much longer span. But whatever the lapse of time, what we see is shocking. How could Anne agree to marry a man who had murdered her own husband? How could Elizabeth agree to  her own daughter marrying her uncle – a man who had, moreover, murdered her two brothers? In this production, in both scenes, we get an impression of the wills of both Anne and of Elizabeth collapsing under the pressure: neither can stand up to the demonic will of the evil Richard. In the second scene especially, when Elizabeth agrees to the marriage of her daughter to her murderous brother-in-law, there were audible gasps of horror in the audience. This is as it should be: these scenes indeed are horrific, and they present in microcosm what the drama depicts on a larger scale – a pure, unmitigated evil imposing its will upon a people who seem unable to resist. There’s no point looking for reason: the horror resides in the very fact that there isn’t any. As Shakespeare knew right to the end of his artistic career – in The Winter’s Tale – there is no cause for evil: it just is.

Richard III is probably Shakespeare’s first great masterpiece, and is a worthy end to what we can now see as a magnificent trilogy. It finds here a production worthy of its greatness; the performances are irreproachable, and the central performance is one that I, for one, won’t forget in a hurry.

The Henry VI Plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon

Putting on Shakespeare’s three Henry VI plays is always a tough challenge, but it has to be done – especially if you’re the Royal Shakespeare Company, and it’s your remit to focus on the Shakespeare canon. In the first place, very obviously, the entire work is in three parts. For most people, a night out at the theatre is a special occasion, and a pretty expensive one at that; putting on a work that requires not one, but two nights at the theatre is a bit of a tough sell; and putting on a work that requires three is virtually suicidal. Can you convince  enough people to attend all three performances to recoup the considerable costs of putting it on? Even the titles – Henry VI Part One, Henry VI Part Two, Henry VI Part Three – are such as to indicate that one must see all three to experience the drama properly. At least Wagner had the good sense to give different titles to the operas comprising the Ring Cycle, rather than call them The Ring Part One, The Ring Part Two, etc.

Of course, the titles of these plays, as we have them now, originate from the First Folio, and, according to the editors of the Oxford Shakespeare, Parts 2 and 3 were most probably written first, and had appeared before the Folio with the somewhat cumbersome titles The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster with the Death of the Good King Humphrey, and The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York, and the Good King Henry VI. What we now know as Henry VI Part One, the editors of the Oxford Shakespeare believe, was written afterwards as a sort of prequel. As with just about everything connected with these matters, I imagine this is contentious. But what this means for any company putting on these plays is that there is uncertainty over whether to perform two plays or three; and even over what to call them.

It gets worse. For the whole thing, as presented in the Folio at least, is not even a trilogy: it’s a tetralogy. Henry VI Part Three (to give it its less cumbersome title) clearly ends with unresolved issues, and these issues are taken up in Richard III, which may well be Shakespeare’s first great masterpiece. Since Richard III is too great a play to be performed only when all the other plays are also performed, it is usually presented as a standalone, but it benefits enormously when seen in context of the whole series. What we see in this play is a man utterly evil and remorseless, a man utterly unsuited to any kind of office, emerging from national turmoil and trauma to assume what is effectively absolute power; and the impact of such a drama is necessarily diminished when we do not actually see that national turmoil and trauma that gives rise to this evil. But if it is a difficult task to get sufficient numbers of people to attend three shows at the theatre, getting them to attend four becomes virtually impossible.

And then, there is the nature of the plays. The three Henry VI plays were early works of Shakespeare, and were almost certainly written in collaboration – although I do get the impression (and it is an impression only: I have no empirical evidence for this) that Shakespeare assumed greater editorial control as the series progressed. Richard III, to judge from its artistic unity, seems to me to be the work of a single dramatist, and, very clearly, whoever wrote Henry VI Part Three had the next play, Richard III, very much in mind. The collaborative nature of the three Henry VI plays makes, it seems to me, for an inconsistency of quality, a certain lack of dramatic focus, and an episodic and sometimes repetitive structure. Part One, whether or not it was written first or is, as the Oxford editors think, a prequel, is particularly weak. The scenes depicting the enmity between the Duke of Gloucester and the Bishop of Winchester are fine; also good is the Temple Garden scene where the seeds of the future Wars of the Roses are effectively planted. But the scenes depicting the war in France – which take up most of the play – seem to me an embarrassment. The English armies, led by the heroic Lord Talbot, are consistently noble, honourable, courageous; and the French counterparts are a treacherous, miserable, snivelling lot. Joan la Pucelle (Jeanne d’Arc) is presented as a wicked sorceress: when she is finally captured, her father is allowed to make an appearance, but she, clinging to her wicked ways, denies knowing him, and he ends up saying: “O burn her, burn her! Hanging is too good!” Even leaving aside the jingoism, Unalloyed Good vs Unalloyed Bad really isn’t the stuff of drama, and it is hard to see how any of this can hold any interest at all for a modern audience.

The latest productions of these plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company reduces the three Henry VI plays to two. It does this by jettisoning Part One altogether: gone, thankfully, are all the scenes of the war in France. Sadly, the Temple Garden scene had to be sacrificed as well: there, we had been presented various earls and dukes and the like aligning themselves to the Lancastrian or to the Yorkist cause by selecting a red rose or a white, and it is fascinating to see how much more convinced they become of their chosen cause once they have attached themselves to one or other of the symbols.

Also sacrificed is the long scene in II,v, where Mortimer, before his death, gives a long and detailed exposition of the complex genealogies of the Plantagenets, justifying the claims to the crown of Richard Plantagenet (later Duke of York): this excision I found a bit unfortunate, as it detracts from the later scene in Part Two which the rebel Jack Cade explains his own claim to the crown. The grotesque absurdity of Cade’s speech sheds on Mortimer’s speech in the earlier play a powerful satiric light, but with the earlier speech missing, this satiric aspect is obviously lost.

Also regrettable perhaps is the omission of the earlier scenes in Part One depicting the enmity between the Duke of Gloucester and the Bishop (later Cardinal) of Winchester – an enmity that culminates in a superb climactic few scenes in Act 3 of Part Two.  

But much though a Shakespeare nerd like myself may regret these losses, most people – myself included, if I am to be honest – would probably think these sacrifices worthwhile if they mean not having to sit through the war scenes in France.

The latest RSC productions start with Part Two, with the arrival of Queen Margaret to England, and, to make Parts Two and Three more or less self-contained, ends Part Two with the quelling of Jack Cade’s rebellion in Act 4. The last act of Part Two (which depicts the Battle of St Albans, which is, effectively, the start of the Wars of the Roses) is then incorporated into Part Three. And, instead of calling the two plays Henry VI Part Two and Henry VI Part Three, they retitle them Henry VI: Rebellion and The Wars of the Roses. All of which makes perfect sense to me.

There are a few cuts along the way, but given the episodic and repetitive nature of these plays, these cuts are nothing to complain about: the big scenes are all there, and are played with a marvellous theatrical gusto. This is an ensemble piece, of course (it’s reasonable to refer to these plays as a single unit, and, hence, in the singular); and the ensemble here is very strong. There is a wonderful fluidity about it all, as scenes follow each other without break, sometimes even overlapping; and it all moved, as it should, at an invigorating tempo. Shakespeare certainly achieved greater profundity in his later plays, but I don’t think he ever surpassed the quite exhilarating theatrical vigour that he and his collaborators (Marlowe most likely among them) achieved here.

One downside to all this is, perhaps, that one never gets to know any individual character too well. There are a number of characters who appear to take centre stage for a while – the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, Bishop of Winchester, Duke of York, Earl of Warwick, etc – but, given the nature of the drama, none of them command centre stage long enough for us to get to see much beyond the surface. Sometimes, of course, the surface is all there is: one doubts that Jack Cade, for instance, has an inner life worth investigating. But he is important not because of what he is, but rather, of what he represents: he is an ignorant buffoon filled with self-importance, and a buffoon who has enough charisma to attract a mass of followers: a comic figure, certainly, but the funnier he is, the more dangerous and the more sinister he appears. (Aaron Sidwell played him here with a strutting cockiness, as absurd as it is frightening.)

Two characters whom Shakespeare could probably have made more of here are Queen Margaret, and King Henry himself. Margaret is both predator and victim: she is, as the Duke of York describes her, a “tiger’s heart wrapp’d in a woman’s hide” (although it may be added that the Duke of York’s heart is no less tigerish); and, by the end, she is victim of the very evil that she herself had helped unleash, and in which she herself has taken part. It is not unreasonable, I think, to see in her an early prototype of Lady Macbeth.

Henry is mild and gentle, and while these qualities are admirable in a private man, they are less so in a king. Unable to stand up for himself, he can but look on helplessly as the country of which he is supposedly the ruler tears itself apart. He can see what is happening, and his heart grieves over it, but his very personality renders him powerless. By the end, he appears otherworldly and almost saintly, but perhaps we shouldn’t sentimentalise: a stronger man, perhaps, would not have allowed this to happen.

There is much to explore in both king and queen, but the nature of this drama does not allow Shakespeare enough space or time to expand upon them, as, I think, he may well have wanted to do. Minnie Gale and Mark Quartley give fine accounts of these two characters who, in a different drama, may have emerged as central.

But there is one character in particular who emerges quite ominously into the forefront – especially in Part Three (or The Wars of the Roses) – in whom Shakespeare seems particularly interested: he’s one of the sons of the Duke of York – Richard (later to become Richard III). In the final play of this series (Richard III), he does, of course, dominate, and there are strong intimations here of that dominance. Here, Shakespeare (and I am pretty sure it is Shakespeare here, and not one of his collaborators) seems fascinated by the amoral and undiluted evil of the man. He seems to have little inner life, if any; but there is something fascinating in the force of his will, and in his determination to impose his will. Such people do exist, and periods of turmoil and of uncertainty bring them to the fore. In the Henry VI plays, we see a country tear itself apart in a traumatic civil war, but although the wars seem to be at an end by the end, we know there is more trauma yet to come: Richard is still very much in the wings, waiting to take central stage. That’ll have to wait for the next play, of course (and I have a ticket for it in a few weeks’ time); and Arthur Hughes’ magnificent delivery of Richard’s monologue in Part Three certainly bodes well.

These are plays that, whatever their flaws, need to be performed – and not just because they have Shakespeare’s name attached to them. The Royal Shakespeare Company have done a marvellous job with them. These productions, directed by Owen Horsley, will no doubt be appearing on DVD shortly – and they can be strongly recommended to anyone who couldn’t get to see this on stage. And for those who would like to see the full plays, the BBC versions from the early 1980s of the entire tetralogy, directed by Jane Howell, really seem to me among the very best productions I have seen of Shakespeare on the screen, and as fine as anything the BBC has done. In the meantime, I still have Richard III to look forward to.

Sitting in judgement on oneself

It’s a mug’s game trying to propound general rules about literature. Or about any art form, I guess, but let’s stick to literature for now. As soon as you hit upon something that seems reasonable, up pop any number of exceptions. But, even accepting this, there does seem to me certain principles one may propound that are true in most cases – true in enough cases, at least, to deserve serious consideration. And one of these is that messages do not make for good literature.

I suppose at this stage I should define what I mean by “message” in this context. I don’t mean a particular perspective on life, or a specific way of seeing things: an individual viewpoint is something we expect from writers. What I mean by “message” is an explicitly or implicitly stated moral precept. And, unless we are talking about fables (in which moral complexities are deliberately simplified), such moral precepts do not, I think, make for good literature.

And the reason they don’t make for good literature, I think, is that literature, being the least abstract of all art forms, must engage in some way or other with life. This need not imply close imitative reproduction: one may, if one wishes, and if one has the genius to do so, engage with the realities of life by making one’s characters speak in intricate blank verse, and setting the action on some magical island. But at some level, in some form, the realities of life need to be grappled with. And, given the various uncertainties and ambivalences of our human lives, given all the complexities and intricacies of all this unintelligible world, moral precepts either crudely cut through it all and end up being partial (“capitalism is an evil and we need revolution now,” say); or they end up being merely banal (“we should all be kind to each other”). Leaving aside fables once again, where moral simplification is the very point, neither, I think, makes for satisfactory reading as literature.  

This is not to say that writers cannot project their own ideas; but when they do – when, at least, the best writers do – something strange happens: they present their ideas not so much to propagate them, but, rather, to challenge them. Sometimes, even, to subvert them. Tolstoy had famously intended to present Anna Karenina as a sinful woman who is punished for her transgression, but what emerges is entirely different. Dostoyevsky often put his own most deeply held convictions in the mouths of fools and scoundrels, and, despite himself being devoutly religious, presents through Ivan Karamazov the most powerful (and as yet unresolved) argument against religious belief.

Ibsen wrote once in a letter that to write is “to sit in judgement over oneself”. Even while insisting that the truth must be told, whatever the cost, he created unflinching truth-seekers who, merely by the fact of seeking truth so unflinchingly, are maniacs. In Rosmersholm, he wondered to what extent the truth can even be discerned, let alone told. None of this is to say that Ibsen abandoned the idea that truth is vitally important; rather, he was sitting in judgement on himself. As all great writers do. And the judgement is harsh.

Tolstoy too, I think. In The Kreutzer Sonata, he presents a narrative told by a deeply misogynist man, Pozdnyshev, who murders his wife; and, very disconcertingly, he gives this man a great many of his own views. Now, quite clearly, Tolstoy is not Pozdnyshev, if only for the simple reason that Tolstoy is not a murderer; so why does he give Pozdnyshev so many of his own characteristics, and his own opinions? It seems to me that here Tolstoy, as Ibsen and Dostoyevsky had done, is sitting in judgement upon himself, putting his own most deeply held convictions under the microscope, and, with a disarming honesty, finding them wanting. The world that he presents – that Ibsen presents, or Dostoyevsky presents – is too complex for any simple moral precept to hold. It wasn’t that Tolstoy was above being a moralist: he did, after all, write fables – the finest, probably, since Aesop’s (James Joyce once described these fables as “the greatest literature in the world”). But when not writing fables (which, by their nature, simplify the moral complexities of this world), he had to acknowledge a world filled with complexities and uncertainties, in which moral precepts, even those embodying his most deeply held convictions, were simply not adequate – where they were either partial, or banal, or both.

And so, it frankly worries me when so many literary essays and discussions I see online consider works of literature, often major works of literature, purely in terms of their “message” – often, in the process, dragging out, based on what is known about the author, a straightforward message from all the messy complexities of the work itself. Are we really, after all, to believe that Tolstoy condoned murder? That Ibsen, speaking as his alter ego Stockmann, is calling for entire peoples to be “eradicated”? Or can we see here the authors’ own shocked realisations of the shortcoming and inadequacies of their own convictions?

With writers of the quality of Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, or Tolstoy, we have to – we must – look beyond whatever it is we perceive to be the “message”. In lesser writers, however, the message is all there is. This is not necessarily a bad thing: Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a very important book because its message was so powerful, and, happily, so influential. However, I doubt any great claim can be made for its literary merit. There are many other writers too who are prized primarily, on even purely, because of the message their works project. Claims of literary merit are often made for these writers, but I remain dubious. Ayn Rand, say: she remains controversial because her message remains controversial. I personally think her message is nonsense, but that’s not the reason her novels are so bad: rather, the novels are bad because they send out a message at all. This is not what literature is about.

Recently, on Twitter, I saw a thread (which, out of politeness, I will not link to) written by an English teacher in which she (for the author of this thread was a “she”) discusses how she teaches a certain poem in class. The work in question, which was reproduced in full, is a poem only by virtue of the fact that the lines did not stretch all the way to the right-hand margin of the page: I could certainly discern none of the creative use of language that I expect from poetry; and, indeed, if we were to take out the line breaks, even the prose that would emerge would not be particularly distinctive. The interest of the poem (for such we have to call it) lies solely in the content, and sadly, even that wasn’t very interesting: the imagery was banal, and the message – which may be adequately summarised as “we kill those that we are afraid of” – seemed to me both simplistic, and not generally applicable: we are all, after all, afraid of a great many people, but most of us manage to get through our lives without killing anyone. But what interested me more than the poem itself – there is no shortage of bad poems, after all, that this one should be of particular interest – is the account of its teaching: it focused purely on the content, on its message. I guess it had to, as there is nothing else in the poem that is worthy of attention – but I couldn’t help wondering if there is any point in teaching poetry at all when what is taught isn’t really poetry, as such, but, rather, some banal and questionable “message” it projects. Is it really a creditable thing to do to tell students that what matters in literature is merely what the literature says? That the sole purpose of reading a novel, or a poem, or a play, is to extract from it some sort of message?

This focus on message worries me because it seems to me to deny the richness of literature. It is reductive. It reduces even the greatest of writers, the greatest of works, merely to what it says – or, if what it says is complex and ambivalent (as life itself is complex and ambivalent), to a simplified (and therefore misleading) view of what it says. Children would be better not taught poetry at all than taught in the manner I saw described in that Twitter thread.

But now that I have written all this, you are all going to regale me with various titles of books that are without doubt major literature, and which certainly contain a message, even of the kind I described at the start of this piece. Well, yes: making up these rules always is a mug’s game, and maybe I shouldn’t have tried in the first place. But this reductive focus on “message” does, I admit, continue to worry me.

“Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe…”

For Proust, it was madeleine cake: for me, it was some scary pictures.

In A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Proust had famously unleashed his past by tasting some of madeleine cake dipped in tea. (And no, I’m not sure why anyone would want to dip madeleine cake into tea, but there you go.) It’s not so much that this taste had merely brought back memories: rather, it had brought back entire experiences; it had brought back feelings and sensations that he had felt in the past, and which, far from having receded with the years, had stubbornly remained, locked in obscure compartments of his mind, hidden even from his waking consciousness, until he had found, quite inadvertently, that elusive key that unlocked the doors to these secret chambers. Whereupon his mind had become flooded with something that is more than mere memory – something that didn’t just remind him of the past, but which, in a sense, re-created that past.

The bit of my past recently re-created dates from the late 1960s, I think: I must have been about 9 or so at the time. No older than 10, certainly, since we were still living in Kirkcaldy. I had checked out a book of selected stories by Edgar Allan Poe from the Kirkcaldy children’s library. (I wonder, incidentally, if children’s libraries would still stock such a book? Possibly not – I’m not sure.) I had not heard of Poe, but I was both horrified and fascinated by the illustrations, which, even in the safety of the children’s library, sent the most wonderful shivers down my spine. My parents, who wouldn’t even let me stay up on Friday nights to watch Hammer horror films (and I still bear the emotional scars of that!), wouldn’t, I knew, approve of my checking out such an unwholesome book: the point of my going to the library at all was, after all, for me to improve my English, and not to gratify my perverse taste for the lurid and the grotesque. But I decided to risk it. I had to try this out.

Russell Hoban’s illustration to “Fall of the House of Usher”

I tried to read these stories back home, but the prose defeated me. I had only started learning English some four years earlier, and I wasn’t quite ready for Poe’s convoluted syntax. But those pictures! They terrified me, and invaded my nightmares. I sometimes used to wake up quite literally in a cold sweat. But, such is the imp of the perverse that resides within us, I wouldn’t have missed that experience for anything.

What pictures they were! There was one of a man bathed in a ghastly green light, holding a lamp at arm’s length, and looking into a coffin occupied by a young dead woman. In another, a bearded man faces the viewer, obviously in some pain, with, near his head, some grisly rats, again bathed in that lurid green light, while above him was swinging a pendulum with a huge, fearsome blade attached to it. And so on.

Russell Hoban’s illustration to “The Pit and the Pendulum”

Those images invaded my mind, and stayed there. And everything in my everyday life would direct my consciousness back to those images. Our primary school teacher explaining to us once what the word “masque” meant – I have forgotten now why that word had come up – would lead me immediately to picture in my mind those hideous bloated figures illustrating “The Masque of the Red Death”. Driving once past Usher Hall in Edinburgh, I remember, my mind immediately fixed itself upon that image of a green-lit Roderick Usher looking into the coffin. And so on.

But of course, for better or worse, one grows up, and with the passing years, one’s imagination becomes far less impressionable. And so with me. Until, one day, quite by chance, I stumbled upon those images again online. I discovered, to my surprise, that the artist had been none other than Russell Hoban: I knew him as a writer, of course, and hadn’t even realised that he was also an artist, and, further, that it was his paintings that had made so great an impression on me. And this chance discovery of these pictures proved to be my madeleine cake. It wasn’t just that I remembered that book: I hadn’t, after all, forgotten it in the first place. But I found myself, suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, experiencing something, at least, of what I had experienced back then. I felt once again – though as a man now in his sixties rather than as a child – that pleasurable shiver running down my spine. And it seemed to  me that, even after more than half a century, those sensations I had experienced then had never actually gone away: perhaps nothing ever goes away.  They remain locked in those secret chambers of the mind, sometimes breaking out in our dreams, but, at other times, awaiting that key that will set them free once again.

Russell Hoban’s illustration to “The Masque of the Red Death”

In the intervening years, I haven’t, I admit, given much attention to Poe. I became (and remain) an aficionado of ghost stories, and of horror stories in general, but Poe had not featured among the writers I tend to return to. The last time I tried his stories, there seemed to me an excessive striving for effect, with the hysteria pitched at so high a level right from the beginning that when the screw begins to turn, there isn’t really anywhere further to go. But it would be unfair of me to give Poe a kicking (and yes, I had to write this sentence to justify the title of this post): it was his stories, after all, that inspired the pictures that had enriched my childhood. Yes, enriched: I don’t think that’s too strong a word in this context.

Russell Hoban’s illustration to “Murders in the Rue Morgue”

I think I should revisit these stories now, if only as a greeting of sorts to my younger self. I am, after all, no longer held back by the difficulty of the prose. These are stories I had desperately wanted to read when I was 9, but couldn’t; and now that I can, I think I owe it to the boy I used to be to give them another spin, and tell my critical faculties to shut the hell up. Whether I like it or not, these stories are already part of me.

“The Eumenides” by Aeschylus

[Unless otherwise stated, all excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

The first two plays of The Oresteia trilogy had dramatised a tragic impasse: the justice of the gods demanded that crimes be punished, and that humans should be the implements of the gods’ will, and carry out the punishment; but this punishment is also a crime, and the humans who mete it out must also be punished in turn. Any resolution of the drama that spans across these three plays should resolve also this impasse. Which, of course, by its very nature, cannot be resolved.

Much debate has raged over the nature of the resolution presented by The Eumenides, the final play in this trilogy. For some, it dramatises a decisive step forward: instead of the primitive code of personal vendetta and blood-letting, we have instead a civil institution that determines these matters: it is a step from darkness and barbarity towards enlightenment and civilisation. Other voices dissent. Would the horrors that have led to this point not have taken place had courts of law then existed? Are these horrors now things of the past, to be looked upon merely as relics of more savage times, and of little concern to our present lives? Of course not. And it would be absurd to think that Aeschylus was foolish enough to think that they were. So where is the progress?

And yet, there must be some progress, somewhere: otherwise, this vast drama could not have a resolution, and the torchlit parade of triumph with which the play ends would merely be hollow. Just what the nature of this progress is will, no doubt, continue to be debated, but, as in any major work of art, we should, I think, beware of any interpretation that is too simplistic: such an immense trilogy of plays was not, after all, written merely to demonstrate a thesis – whether that thesis extols progress from darkness into light, or whether it declares that any perceived progress is merely a semblance rather than reality. Aeschylus’ vision, both moral and artistic, was greater than either.

The play itself has a tripartite structure, with its centre of gravity lying in the middle section, which is the longest. This middle section is the earliest surviving example we have of a courtroom drama. But we have, before that, a sort of prologue, taking up about quarter of the play; and after the middle section, we have an epilogue, taking up another quarter of the play (these proportions are quite easy to determine when you have line numbers). The prologue sets up the issues that are debated in the courtroom drama; the epilogue addresses the issues that the courtroom drama had left unresolved. Such a structure, so satisfying in its symmetry, is very different from what we had in either of the two earlier plays; but then, this is a very different play.

However, one feature it shares with the other two plays is that the chorus does not appear immediately. In Agamemnon, we had, before the entrance of the chorus, a monologue delivered by a watchman keeping guard on the battlements of Argos; in The Libation Bearers had started with Orestes and Pylades at the grave of Agamemnon; and now, in The Eumenides, we have not one, but three scenes before the entry of the chorus. The chorus’ entry, when it comes, is possibly the most dramatic entrance in any Greek drama – maybe in any drama – for this chorus are the Furies themselves, the Erinyes, the most feared, the most horrific, of all beings. At the end of The Libation Bearers, Orestes had seen them, but we hadn’t: here, not only do they appear in the flesh, they are on stage for most of the duration of the play.

In the first of the three scenes preceding this entrance, we see a priestess of the temple of Apollo at Delphi. She first enters the temple, and, almost immediately after, emerges again in terror of what she had seen:

A sight too terrible to see or speak about

has sent me back out of Apollo’s hall;

I have no strength, I cannot stand –

I run, but on my hands and knees, not on my feet.

Inside, she had seen a suppliant, “a man abominated by the gods” (Orestes, we may guess); and around him, sleeping, were the Furies, with “disgusting streams of filth pour[ing] from their eyes”.

After the priestess’ terrified exit, we have a brief scene with Orestes, and with Apollo himself. Clearly, we are inhabiting a very different dramatic world now from what had been presented to us in the earlier plays: there, the presence of the gods, like the presence of the Furies, was felt, but not seen. Here, Apollo is as visible as the Furies soon prove to be. He too, like the priestess, inveighs against the disgusting Furies, “hated by mankind and by the gods”, and tells Orestes to go to “Pallas’ city”, Athens, where “we will have men who can judge this case”. This is a departure indeed from the earlier plays. There, it had been the will of Zeus, the will of the gods, that had determined human affairs: now, a god himself speaks of the judgement of men being the deciding factor.

There is another scene before the delayed entry of the Furies, and this is what may be termed a coup de théâtre: for there now enters the ghost of Klytaimnestra (or the “dream-image of Klytaimnestra”, as Ewans prefers to call it), as commanding and as terrifying dead as she had been alive. She enters in a rage, urging the sleeping Furies to awake, and to torment the son who had murdered his mother. Now, and only now, is the stage prepared for the entry of the Furies themselves: that which had so terrified the priestess, that had so disgusted Apollo, the audience gets to see in the flesh. Unlike the previous plays of this trilogy, this play can accommodate as real, physical presences, the gods, the ghost (or the “dream-image”) of the dead, and the Furies themselves. Whether we see them as real entities, or as symbolising different aspects of the human mind, they are all here, solid presences on stage. The Furies, of course, form the chorus, and, as in Aeschyus’ earlier play Suppliants, they are no mere spectators commenting upon the action: the chorus here are direct participants in the drama. Collectively, they may even be considered the principal protagonist: the play, after all, is named after them.

Apollo re-enters, and, making no attempt to hide his revulsion, commands the Furies to go: but they are not subject even to the gods’ commands: they answer back. It is their duty to torment the man who had murdered his own mother, as it is Apollo’s duty to protect the man who had, following the god’s own instruction, avenged the death of his father.

The prologue is now complete. We may move now to Athens, Pallas’ city, where Orestes has come, seeking absolution. The stage is, quite literally, set for the great confrontation.

We see Orestes now in Athens (space is as fluid here as it had been in The Libation Bearers), at the altar of the goddess Athena; but the Furies are in close pursuit. Orestes claims that he has been purified of the pollution of matricide, but that means nothing to the Furies, who assail him with accusations and with hideous threats:

… This is a song

for one who is doomed,

a blow to the heart that smashes the mind,

a song of the Furies to bind his wits,

a horrible sound to parch his brain.

We need not believe in the literal existence of the Furies to see in this a description of one driven mad with guilt: Orestes is in terror of incipient insanity, and the terror is real. Even after death, the Furies warn, they will continue to torment his mind.

It is at this point that Athena herself enters, in answer to Orestes’ call. She engages first with the Furies, but, unlike her brother Apollo, she addresses them with courtesy:

… you do not look like any other race,

not kin to any goddesses the gods have seen,

nor are you similar in shape to mortal women …

But to speak ill of guests who’ve done no harm,

that is not right; it would be far from just.

Athena expresses no disgust, no revulsion: not even distaste. But, after questioning the Furies on their cause, she feels that the story they tell is not the full story, and that if justice is to be done, a more balanced account must be considered:

You’d rather be renowned for justice than be just in all you do.

The Furies are stung by the accusation, but, mollified perhaps by Athena’s graciousness, they agree to trust her to help arrive at a just solution. Athena turns now to Orestes, and, after hearing his self-justification, decides that the matter is “too large” to be settled by the judgement of a single human; and that

… even I have not the right

to judge the issue in a case of murder where hot tempers rage

And so she summons, as her prophetic brother Apollo had foreseen, what Athenian audiences (and, for that matter, ourselves) would recognise as a court of law:

I will choose blameless men of Athens,

judges of murder, faithful servants of the law

which I will fund for all time as the bedrock of their plighted oaths.

Then must you call your witnesses, and show your proof –

sworn testimony which will aid your case.

No longer, then, the inscrutable will of Zeus, but, rather, the consensus of a representative selection of humans. And should we think this an unwonted diminution by Athena of the powers of her father, we should remember what the chorus of Argive elders had said so forcefully in Agamemnon, the first play of the trilogy:

There’s nothing to refer to

except Zeus…

Zeus is all there is. Nothing happens, nothing can happen, that isn’t the will of Zeus. Whatever is determined by other gods – by Artemis, by Apollo, by Athena – is all part of the will of Zeus himself. The power of Zeus to make judgements in these matters is not abrogated by Athena’s action, but delegated, and that delegation must itself be the will of Zeus.

The Furies now embark upon a chorus, confident of their victory. How can their case be denied, after all, when Justice is the end? For Justice cannot exist without Fear. Banish Fear, and Justice itself would cease to be:

There is a place where Fear is good,

and needs to stand as silent guardian

on watch over the mind;

it’s right that pain should teach good conduct.

How could any man or city that does not

nurture an element of fear inside the heart

still worship Justice?

At the start of the proceedings, Apollo makes a sudden and unexpected appearance: he has come, he says, to testify on behalf of Orestes, who is his suppliant. Orestes is then cross-examined by the Furies in a stichomythic passage. Orestes admits to having killed his mother, but goes on to offer justification: firstly, he was following the oracle of Apollo himself; and secondly, Klaitemnestra herself had been guilty of murder: he had merely been meting out just punishment, in accordance with divine will. Why, asks Orestes quite reasonably, did the Furies not torment Klaitemnestra for the murders she had committed? The Furies reply that her victims had not been her blood relations

Apollo now testifies on Orestes’ behalf, and, again in contrast to the courteous Athena, he is abusive and intolerant, refusing even to recognise the Furies’ case. He begins his testimony with a self-aggrandising speech proclaiming his own greatness: he is a prophet who never lies. The oracular command to kill Klaitemnestra that he had given Orestes was the will of Zeus himself, and that cannot be overridden. But, counter the Furies, how could Zeus give a greater weighting to the death of a father than to the death of a mother, when he had himself imprisoned his aged father Kronos? Apollo, here caught out, reverts to abuse:

You utterly revolting beasts, hated by all the gods…

Imprisonment can be reversed, Apollo continues, but death cannot. But this leads him into another contradiction: should not the death of the defendant’s mother therefore be punished?

Apollo’s response to this is somewhat unconvincing, especially to the modern audience. The mother, he says, is no real parent: she merely nurses the foetus in her womb. The true parent is the father. If modern audiences find this claim absurd, it is not something that had been entertained by the Furies either: in their earlier cross-examination of Orestes, they had explicitly stated the contrary:

You murderer, did she not nurture you

within her womb? Do you renounce the life-blood given by your mother?

Orestes, for his part, had not denied the blood-kinship.

Apollo ends his testimony by openly offering Athena a bribe: if Orestes is set free, if “he might be pledged to you for the rest of time”, then Athena would

… gain this man, goddess, as your ally,

and his heirs – and it would be so evermore;

all his descendants would be faithful to the pledge made here.

But this is a pledge Orestes had himself made earlier quite freely:

And now from a pure mouth I solemnly entreat

Pallas Athena, ruler of this land, to come

and be my helper; she will gain without a war

me, my country, and my citizens

as just and faithful allies for the rest of time.

Athena now gives a speech not merely to the Athenians on stage, but also, one imagines, to the Athenians in the audience. The institution she is founding is one to be maintained and revered, so they may live their lives “neither anarchic, nor beneath a tyrant’s rule”. As Ewans says in his notes, at this point in the earlier plays – that is, at the point immediately preceding the dramatic resolution – Kassandra, in Agamemnon, had foreseen someone coming to revenge the murders she knows are about to be committed; and Klaitemnestra, in The Libation Bearers, had warned her son of the Furies who would spring from her spilt blood to torment him. Athena, in sharp contrast, speaks of hope.

But the path towards hope is not clear. The Furies, in their previous chorus, had spoken of the concept of Justice breaking down if Fear is to be banished. If the Furies are to be defeated, how can there be hope for a city that is not “anarchic”?

Aeschylus addresses that question in the epilogue, but first, the jury must cast its votes. And here, we run into what, I gather, is quite heated scholarly debate. Athena states that should the vote be evenly split, then Orestes must be given the benefit of the doubt (this was, I gather, the practice of Athenian courts). This is entirely correct on her part: the rules of the vote must be made clear before the vote takes place. But does the jury consist of an even number of men? Or does it consist of an odd number of men, with Athena joining them to make up an even number? For Athena certainly votes: she says so explicitly, and says further that she is casting her vote for acquittal. But is hers the casting vote when an even number of jurors had failed to arrive at a decision? Or is hers the vote that results in an even split?

W. B. Stanford, in his notes for the translation by Robert Fagles, argues for the former, citing an essay by George Thomson. The argument he presents is, briefly, this: for Athena to mediate successfully with the Furies after the trial, she must command their trust; and if her vote effectively overturns a verdict made by the mortal Athenians of the jury, she is unlikely to command any trust at all. But Ewans, in his own notes, disagrees with characteristic combativeness. Among other things, he insists, the Greek text where Athena announces her own vote cannot be interpreted to indicate that her vote is a casting vote only, to be used if, and only if, the jurors fail to reach a verdict.

As ever, I shall refrain from entering such scholarly debate: as a layman in these matters, and as one who cannot even read the original text, this is not for me to judge. But I will note that every translation I have consulted renders Athena’s announcement, made after the other jurors have voted but before the counting, makes quite clear that hers is not a casting vote:

It is my task to cast the final judgement here;

and I will give Orestes’ cause this vote.

(Translated by Michael Ewans)

My work is here, to render the final judgement.

Orestes, I will cast my lot for you.

(Translated by Robert Fagles)

It is my task to render final judgement here.

This is a ballot for Orestes I shall cast.

(Translated by Richmond Lattimore)

It is now my office to give final judgement;

and I shall give my vote to Orestes.

(Translated by Hugh Lloyd-Jones)

The last vote is mine

and I cast it – for Orestes.

(Translated by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish)

It is my place to give my judgement last:

And I shall cast this vote in favour of Orestes.

(Translated by Oliver Taplin)

Leaving aside the very strange syntax adopted by Lattimore, what Athena says is clear in all these translations: we are at a point before the votes are counted, and she is casting her vote now, with not a hint that this is to be used only in case of a tie.

Whatever the solution is to this, the votes are counted; the jurors (including or not including Athena, depending on interpretation) are split; Orestes is, therefore, acquitted; and Apollo, his task now achieved, departs as abruptly as he had arrived. But all is far from settled. We enter now into the last act of this three-act structure – or, according to the line numbers, the final quarter of the play.

The Furies, previously so confident, cry out in anguished rage. But they had previously agreed freely to put their trust in Athena, and they cannot go back on it now. They pour out their fury in terrible threats, and then in self-pitying lamentation:

We are deprived of all we live for; in our misery

our anger will be terrible, and we’ll let

the arrows fly out from our hearts

to cause this country suffering in return –

unbearable! The blight will drip

to kill your plants and children.

Justice! Justice!

I will rush down into the plain, and pour into the earth

the stain that will destroy all human life.

I’ll weep. What shall I do?

They laugh at me. In Athens I have suffered


We are the miserable, greatly suffering Daughters of the Night;

no-one respects us, so we grieve.

Their occupation’s gone.

Athena does not leave the scene, as Apollo had done, and her reason for staying does not appear to be fear of the Furies’ threats: rather, it is because she acknowledges the justice of their cause. She reminds them that they had not been defeated: the votes had been evenly split. Orestes is freed, but not exonerated. But, as if to underline the impotence of their anger, the Furies repeat their threats and their lament, word for word.

Athena mediates with them. She proposes a new role for the Furies: they may become the Eumenides, the Kindly Ones. They may live in Athens and bring blessings upon the city, and be respected and revered. Her powers of persuasion are great: the Furies agree, and the play – and the entire dark, blood-drenched trilogy – ends with a triumphant torchlit parade.

What are we to make of this ending? Many have found it somewhat anti-climactic, given all that has gone before. Is this really how all the darkness, all the terror, is resolved? Does this answer the seemingly unanswerable questions that the previous plays had posed? Is this really a progress into light from the darkness in which we had begun? Or is it just a cop-out?

We must, I think, refrain from making simplistic interpretations here. The two alternatives – that there has been a decisive progress towards civilisation, and its opposite – both seem to me far too simplistic to offer a satisfying resolution to this sequence of plays. We must look further.

And we must note two points. Firstly, Athena, unlike Apollo, had recognised the validity of the Furies’ case: instead of summarily judging in favour of Orestes, she had said quite explicitly that the issue was too complex for any single man, or even for any single divinity, to resolve:

… even I have not the right

to judge the issue in a case of murder where hot tempers rage

Secondly, the Furies, in accepting Athena’s proposal, do not change their nature. And neither is their power diminished. At three separate points, Athena clearly indicates this:

I have inspired these goddesses both great and hard to please

to settle here; for they have power

in all affairs of men.

If anyone encounters them

he doesn’t even realize they’ve struck him down.

For all the errors of his ancestors

drag him into the net, and silent death,

for all his mighty noise,

turns him to dust beneath their rage.


A Fury can do much, and has great power

both with the gods above and those below;

and in the world of men, it’s clear they always work their will

right to the end; some they give cause to sing,

to others a life dimmed by tears.

And later still:

From these terrifying faces

I see great advantage for my citizens;

for if you always honour them

they will be happy, you will be happy,

everyone will see that Athens is a land

where Justice rules.

Athena acknowledges here what the Furies had themselves proclaimed earlier: there is a place where Fear is good.

The progress celebrated at the end of the play is not the emergence of civilised institutions from the dark barbarism of private vengeance and retribution; rather, it is the delegation of moral judgement from Zeus to humans. No longer are humans subject to the frequently inscrutable will of the gods: they must determine among themselves, and for themselves, where moral good lies; they must determine who is guilty, and who is to be acquitted; they must determine when to punish, and what that punishment should be. For without this last element, without punishment, justice could not exist – neither divine justice, nor human. We cannot do without Terror: we cannot do without the Furies.

But is this, too, perhaps, too simplistic an interpretation? After all, the goddess Athena had, at best, intervened when humans had been unable to reach a decision; at worst, she had overturned the humans’ decision. Either way, divine intervention was required, and the delegation of moral law to humans has proved imperfect. The further one looks into this, the more complex it all appears. Perhaps there is no resolution. What resolution can there be, after all, that could requite the terror of Kassandra as she enters the House of Atreus, where she knows she will be butchered? Her cries of terror resound still, even after the peroration of the final triumphant torchlit procession.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on The Eumenides]

“The Libation Bearers” by Aeschylus

[All excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

If Agamemnon had ended with Klytaimnestra triumphant over the corpses of Agamemnon and Kassandra, I doubt anyone would have complained. Everything had lead up to these killings, and now, the killings done, the drama, one might have thought, had reached its destined end. Had Aeschylus chosen to wrap up here, we could all have gone home – if not happy, at least satisfied with the dramatic trajectory of the piece But Aeschylus doesn’t wrap up here. We have, quite startlingly, a character quite new to the drama, Aigisthos, marching in to stage what is effectively a coup; we see him threaten to kill the chorus of old men; and, right at the very end, Klytaimnestra’s previous confidence suddenly, and perhaps unexpectedly, gives way to a sense of apprehension and of foreboding:

If only we could say ‘Here is an end of all our troubles’;

we have been mangled terribly by the god’s heavy claw.

And it is on this uncertain, fearful note that the play ends, with much unfinished business, and much yet unresolved.

In terms of plot, we have actually been told how the resolution will come. Kassandra, in one of her vatic utterings, has already told us:

… for yet will come another, one who will requite our fates –

An offspring who will kill his mother, to avenge his father’s death.

Nothing remotely cryptic about this: this is, effectively, the plot of the second play of the trilogy. But this doesn’t render the second play superfluous, or lacking in dramatic interest, because, of course, the dramatic interest does not lie principally in the plot. So where does it lie? It’s not, I think, primarily in the characters: both Sophocles and Euripides provide far greater psychological depth in their retellings of this story than does Aeschylus. And neither, I think, is it primarily in the thematic development, important though that is: these works present a drama, not a thesis. But to understand why it works as drama, and how and why the dramatic tension is created, we do, I think, need to focus on the themes – and, in particular, the themes of divine will, of divine and human conceptions of justice, and of human responsibility.

The action starts in front of Agamemnon’s grave. Unless we are to believe that Agamemnon was buried right in front of the palace, we may assume that the scene is removed from there; and, since the palace is very clearly at the back of the stage later in the play, there is, presumably, a scene change somewhere along the line. But that need not concern us too much: a stage that is more or less bare can easily represent more than one space at any given time. Space here can be as fluid as time had been in the previous drama, where the victorious Agamemnon appears only some half hour or so after news of the fall of Troy is received.

First to appear are Orestes and his friend Pylades. Pylades is silent throughout the opening scene: indeed, he speaks only once in the entire play, at a moment that, by the very fact that he speaks at all, marks itself as the crux of the drama. Orestes, however, is given a long speech here: he had been – as he tells us – exiled before his father had been buried, and had not, till now, had the opportunity to formally lament his father’s death at his graveside. But Orestes has not come merely to mourn:

Zeus, grant that I avenge my father’s death;

become my ally of your own free will.

Right from the start, the theme of Zeus’ will is broached. Orestes has, we soon find out, been told by Apollo himself to avenge his father’s murder: as son, that is only right and proper. But even so, he cannot take for granted that Zeus will take his side.

It is only now that the chorus appears (the entrance of the chorus is delayed in all three plays of this trilogy). This time, the chorus consists of slave women, captives from the destruction of Troy. In their first chorus, they tell us that they have been sent by “that godless woman” Klytaimnestra, who has been terrified by a dream, to offer libations on her behalf to the unquiet spirit of the dead Agamemnon. But, they ask:

How can the house be purified, once blood’s been shed?

They know that this attempt to placate the angry ghost is pointless. What they do not yet know is that the placating of Agamemnon’s ghost, by very different means, is already close at hand.

This chorus of women, once free, now enslaved, put their fate down to the will of the gods:

We must approve of everything they do,

just and unjust; we are compelled

to overcome our bitter hatred.

The will of the gods is not necessarily just – at least, as far as humans understand the nature of justice; but just or unjust, we must submit to it.

To officiate the pouring of libations on Agamemnon’s grave, Klytaimnestra has sent Elektra, Agamemnon’s daughter, and also her own. Elektra, as she later tells us, leads “the life of a slave” in the royal palace, and here, charged with a dubious duty, is uncertain how to proceed: can she placate the ghost of her murdered father on behalf of her murderer mother? The chorus persuades her to pour the libations on her own behalf, and to pray to the gods that her father’s killers should themselves be killed. Elektra hesitates. “Would the gods see this as a pious prayer?” she asks. And we see here the pattern from the previous play repeating itself. The justice of the gods demands that crime must be requited, and humans are the instruments of their will; but will this requital itself be acceptable to the gods? Can what the gods see as pious what they themselves demand? In the previous play, this is was the trap Klytaimnestra had been caught in: in killing Agamemnon, she was carrying out justice but, as she herself says:

… If only we could say ‘Here is an end of all our troubles’

Kassandra had foretold it wouldn’t be the end, and that the pattern will repeat itself. But if so, why should this same pattern not repeat itself again upon the second generation of avengers? What is to prevent it carrying on for ever? The human concept of justice has nothing to do with it: as the chorus had said, we must approve of everything the gods do – just and unjust.

And so Elektra pours upon her father’s grave the libations, but not, as her mother had demanded, to ask the perturbed spirit to rest, but with promises of retribution – a retribution the gods themselves demand, but for which the humans acting as the gods’ instruments must bear responsibility.

It is at this point that Elektra sees two locks of hair on the grave, so similar to her own; and footprints on the ground, similar again to her own. It is a scene famously parodied by Euripides in his own version of the story, but one only parodies that which is already famous, that which has made a mark. At this relatively early stage in the play, brother and sister are united, and there is no doubt why Orestes has come: he is to kill his own mother. Apollo himself has demanded it:

Apollo’s great and mighty oracle will not forsake me.

He ordered me to pass through all these dangers,

shrieking out his prophecies; he told

of vile and frosty torments that would chill my heart

if I did not pursue those who contrived my father’s death…

He goes on to tell of the torments he will suffer, both in this life and the next from the Furies springing from his father’s blood, should he allow his father’s death to go unavenged. And Apollo had told him too of the terrible diseases that would pursue him:

… creatures who invade the flesh with vicious teeth,

cankers which eat at healthy skin,

and leprosy, whose ulcers blossom with white hair!

Orestes is not given a choice. This is divine will, the will of Apollo. He is but an instrument of this divine will.

There now follows what, in opera, we would describe as an ensemble – an almost epic set piece, lasting some three hundred or so lines, and taking us to roughly the mid-way point of the play. Here, the voices of Elektra and of Orestes mingle with those of the chorus, lamenting and supplicating the dead father, and praying to the gods, steeling themselves for the mighty task that the gods themselves have commanded them to perform.

This passage, consisting as it does mainly of prayers and of supplication, is largely static, in that, although it intensifies the drama, it doesn’t move it forward. But two points emerge that are new – both revelations from the chorus: the first is the horrible detail that Klytaimnestra had mutilated Agamemnon’s body before burial (the nature of the mutilation is left to us to picture); and the second is the dream Klytaimnestra had had that had terrified her so. She had dreamt that she had given birth to a live snake; that this snake had “nestled in its swaddling-clothes, like a human child”; and that she had given suck to this serpent, whereupon “a clot of blood poured out into the milk”.

There hardly needs a Kalchas to interpret this dream, especially given what the audience knows of the current situation. But while it may be seen as a prophetic message from the gods, it also, I think, stands up to more modern interpretations of dreams, that is, as expressions of our mental states: Klytaimnestra fears, and with good reason, that the son to whom she had given birth will return, seeking revenge for the killing of his father. It is the same fear Klytaimnestra had expressedin more general terms towards the end of the previous play – the fear that her act of revenge is not in itself an end, but merely a fresh crime that, in its own turn, will call out for requital, for retribution. This fear has stayed with her for all those years between the end of the earlier play, and the start of this. For all those years, we may infer, she has brooded upon her doom.

By the end of this ensemble, we are at the half-way point of the play, and, very suddenly, the nature of the play changes. And it changes very abruptly, in all sorts of ways. Firstly, there is a change of scene, which is not very common in Greek drama: while the first half is set at Agamemnon’s tomb, presumably at some distance from the palace, the second half is very clearly situated at the palace gates, with no further mention of the tomb (which, as far as the drama is concerned, has served its purpose). Secondly, the pacing changes: while the first half had been largely static, the latter flows at a surprisingly fast tempo, eschewing long choruses, and containing some of the shortest scenes in all Greek drama. And thirdly, and perhaps most intriguingly, Elektra, who had appeared in the first half as one of the two principal protagonists, disappears altogether from the dramatic action.

We do not have the stage directions to the Greek plays, and neither, for that matter, do we have indications as to which characters speak which lines: these matters are at the discretion of the translator (or the director), and, in most cases, aren’t hard to conjecture. But what are we to make of the complete silence on Elektra’s part in the latter part of the play? Ewans, in his stage directions, introduces her as a “silent face”, but I am not entirely sure what purpose that serves: even if we do see her on stage, the total silence of this “silent face”, of a character who had been till that point quite loquacious, would hardly seem any less odd than her not appearing at all.

It seems to me that the Aeschylus had intended this oddness – that he had intended the changes from the first half of the play to the second to be decisive, radical, and abrupt. And if this jolts the viewer, he had intended that too. The setting is different; the pacingis different; and, more importantly perhaps, the focus is different. In the first half, the focus had been on brother and sister, who meet and recognise each other, and then steel each other for what is to come. But in the second half, the focus shifts to mother and son, to a mother who has to face her greatest fear – that her son has returned to kill her. A modern dramatist would be more inclined, I imagine, to shift the focus more gradually, but Aeschylus clearly wanted the change to be sudden and abrupt: why, I’m honestly not too sure. Orestes is the character who is in both halves, but for the shift in focus to be as abrupt as Aeschylus clearly wanted it to be, Elektra has to be as absent from the second half as Klytaimnestra is from the first. It is no longer Orestes the Brother Aeschylus is interested in here, but Orestes the Son.

Now, the plot speeds forward. Orestes knocks on the palace doors, and he has to knock thrice to get a response: the watchman at the very opening scene of Agamemnon had spoken of the household being badly run, and it appears not to have improved. Klytaimnestra herself soon appears, and, as a good host should, offers the stranger hospitality:

… for here we have

all that you would expect in a house such as this –

warm baths, soft beds to charm away

your aches and pains, and people round you who will do no harm.

Not recognising who this stranger is, Klytaimnestra is obviously not aware of the irony of offering the son of Agamemnon “warm baths”, and people around him “who will do no harm”.

The stranger now imparts the false news: Orestes is dead. Klytaimnestra is now given two speeches of about ten lines each, separated by a few lines from Orestes himself; and these two speeches of hers are quite startlingly different. In the first of these speeches, she gives expression to her grief, seeing it as further evidence of the “curse upon this house”. And, almost immediately after, in her second speech, she seems calm and collected, and welcomes Orestes in. “The news would have come anyway,” she says philosophically, “it’s all the same”.

This very abrupt change of tone has puzzled many a reader. Some scholars have suggested that when the palace doors open, Elektra should accompany Klytaimnestra, and that the first speech of grief should be hers, while her mother remains calm and collected throughout. But that seems to me dramatically weak. Elektra knows, of course, that the stranger is Orestes herself, and her grieving speech would, therefore, merely be feigning, in an attempt to throw her other off the scent; but if that is the sole dramatic purpose of her speech, it could have been achieved in just a line or two, and it seems to me unlikely that Aeschylus would extend it, especially at this point when he is accelerating the tempo. But if these lines are indeed Klytaimnestra’s what purpose could she have in speaking them? Of course, she could be feigning herself, but if she is, she is a very bad actor given how quickly she changes her tone for her second speech. Also, she has no reason to feign before the stranger: she is queen, after all, and commands power. The nurse, who appears soon afterwards, tells us:

… her eyes were full of grief; but it was all a sham

to hide her joy …

But the nurse is devoted to Orestes, whom she had tended in his childhood, and has no great love for the mother who had exiled him, especially now when she s heartbroken at the news of his death: there is no reason to take her judgement at face value.

I think what makes most sense dramatically, and what, indeed, enhances the depth of the drama, is to take both Klytaimnestra’s speeches at face value: she is a complex character, and is capable of feeling both grief and relief at the same time.

The nurse now enters: she has orders from Klytaimnestra to fetch Aigithos, so he can hear the news himself. The plot is now moving swiftly: the chorus persuades the nurse to change her message, and tell Aigisthos that Klytaimnestra had asked him to come without bodyguards. It is often said that Aeschylus here breaks the rules of Athenian drama by giving the chorus an active role in determining the action, but frankly, given that the vast majority of Athenian tragedies are now lost, it seems to me foolhardy to derive rules from the few that have survived. However that may be, the focus now is firmly on the plot: Aeschylus has ruminated on the various themes for some time now, and, given this new tempo, there is no room for further ruminations on these points.

Aigisthos soon enters, and the chorus lead him into what they know will be his death. And within minutes, we hear his death cries from off-stage. There’s barely time to draw breath. And now, Aeschylus gives us the crucial scene of the drama: a confrontation between mother and son, at the very point where the son is poised to kill her. Neither Sophocles nor Euripides had given us this scene in their retellings of this story, but here, it is the crux.

Klytaimnestra now recognises the stranger to be her son, her serpent-son, Orestes. She shows him her breast, where she had suckled him, and Orestes, who had been so confident before about his god-ordained mission, here, for the first time, wavers. And Pylades, who has been quiet throughout the play, breaks his silence to deliver his thunder-like lines, coming, it almost seems, from the gods themselves:

Would you destroy the standing of Apollo’s oracles

for all the rest of time, and of his solemn oath?

Count all men hateful to you rather than the gods.

There is no choice, no escape. What the gods will, just or unjust, we are compelled to accept.

There follows a tense dialogue between mother and son. No point trying to separate out here the action from the thematic development: the thematic development is the action. When charged with killing her husband, Klytaimnestra says:

Fate had a certain share in that, my son.

But Orestes’ reply follows the same logic:

Well then, it’s Fate that brings death to you now.

Kassandra’s prophecy is now on the point of being fulfilled, but there is one point that Kassandra hadn’t mentioned, and which, hinted at at various points earlier in the play, now comes out into the open:

KLYTAIMNESTRA: Watch out! Beware your mother’s angry, hounding Furies.

ORESTES: But how should I escape my father’s Furies, if I do not do this deed?

If Orestes in killing Klytaimnestra follows the same logic as Klytamnestra had followed in killing Agamemnon, would he not be subject to the same fate as his mother had been? The logic is inescapable. This had been outside the scope of Kassandra’s utterances, but here, at the climactic point of the play, it is made explicit. Humans are trapped in this remorseless logic: past crimes must be requited, for such is the will of the gods, but the fresh crimes committed in the requital also call out for vengeance. And so it continues, in a never-ending cycle of grief, of pain, and of terror.

Soon, Orestes appears triumphant over the corpses of the lovers Klytaimnestra and Aigisthos, just as, at a similar point in the earlier play, Klytaimnestra had appeared triumphant over the bodies of the lovers Kassandra and Agamemnon. The symmetry is, of course, deliberate, and in neither case does the triumph last for long. We never expected it to, really: the pattern of triumph followed by apprehension has been present in this trilogy from the very opening scene of Agamemnon, but here, it is more than mere apprehension, for, as Klytaimnestra had prophesied, her “angry, hounding Furies” now rise from her spilt blood to torment her killer. Apollo had told Orestes of what he would have to suffer if he didn’t carry out the gods’ will: he hadn’t told him what he’d have to suffer if he did.

And on this note, utterly devoid of hope, the play ends. If The Oresteia is indeed a journey from dark to light, it is not a steady journey made in gradual steps of enlightenment: The Libation Bearers, as a play, is no purgatory leading from the darkness of inferno to prepare us for the light of paradise: we are, in this play, in greater darkness than ever. It is hard to think of a single play, either in the Athenian tradition or in any other, that presents so a grim view of the human condition. And whatever light we may find in the closing play of the trilogy, it does not, I think, banish the darkness we encounter here.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on The Libation Bearers]

“Agamemnon” by Aeschylus

[All excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

I beg the gods; release me from these sufferings …

Agamemnon is the first of the trilogy of plays by Aeschylus known as The Oresteia: it is the only trilogy of Athenian drama that has survived in its entirety, and, if only for that reason, appears to have a grander and wider scope than most of the other surviving plays. It begins (as, interestingly, does Hamlet, another mighty tragic drama that addresses the theme of revenge) with a soldier keeping watch at night upon the battlements. And (again, as in Hamlet) the soldier’s opening line introduces a motif that runs through the rest of the work. In Shakespeare’s play, this opening line is a seemingly innocuous “Who’s there?” – an appropriate opening for a play in which we find the protagonist wrestling with who and what he is. Here, we are introduced in the first line to several themes. There is, firstly, the suffering – although, comparing different translations, the Greek word that is rendered by Ewans as “suffering” possibly has no exact equivalent in English: Fagles translates it as “pain”, Lattimore as “weariness”, Lloyd-Jones as “toil”, etc.; and in the translation by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish, the word, whatever it is, is simply replaced with the pronoun “it”, so the play begins with a startlingly simple “Gods, when will it end?” I am in no position to judge which is best, but since it is Ewans’ translation I have been reading, let us stick with that. We have here the theme of human suffering – or of something, at least, that we humans may wish would end. There is also the desire for release. And finally, there is the reference to the gods, to some sort of divinities who, presumably, have the power to grant that release.

The watchman’s opening speech is only some forty or so lines long, but it more than sets the scene for what is to come: it introduces some of the main themes and motifs, and, more importantly, I think, it sets the emotional temperature of what we are about to witness; and also, it seems, it sets a pattern that is repeated throughout, both in this play, and in the two other plays of this trilogy: an anxious hope, fulfilment, and then, almost immediately afterwards, a profound apprehension. The watchman here is anxiously awaiting news that Troy is taken, and that the ten-year war is finally at an end; the news comes, with, quite literally, a flash of light; but the watchman’s joy is cut short almost immediately by a fear of what is to come next. The joy is never more than merely temporary – a point we should, I think, always bear in mind, even at the triumphant torchlit celebration with which the trilogy ends. But let us not anticipate.

We are in Argos, at the palace of Agamemnon, leader of the allied Greek troops that has been fighting in Troy for ten years. All is not well. As we find out later, there is much unrest at home occasioned by the war fought abroad; and the suffering is not restricted to the soldiers who were sent to Troy:

… and all through Greece a woman waits at home

with patient sorrow in her heart

for each of those who went to Troy.

Many things touch their feelings:

each one knows the person she sent out;

instead of him

a pot of ashes comes back home.

The end of this war, the news of victory, should indeed be a cause of rejoicing, but the rejoicing of the watchman is cut short for reasons that he, rather ominously, refuses to tell us:

I’ll say no more; upon my tongue

a great ox sits. The house itself, could it take voice,

would tell most clearly. I prefer to speak only for those

who’ll understand; to those who don’t, I haven’t said a word.

Only now does the chorus enter – a chorus of the elders of Argos, who had deemed too old and too decrepit to travel to Troy to fight. And there follows a chorus of some 220 lines – the longest in any of the existing Greek plays. This may, to the modern audience (or to the modern reader), seem undramatic: who, after all, wants to start a play with a long narration? Show, not tell, as any creative writing course will tell us. But if it does seem undramatic to us, that is, presumably, a measure of the extent to which our conception of drama differs from that of the ancient Greeks. Aeschylus obviously deemed it important, and it deserves close attention.

Much of this chorus (consisting of a long introductory section followed by six pairs of strophes and antistrophes, with the first of these pairs rounded off with an epode), is indeed narrative, but the narration embeds many symbols and images that we must bear in mind if the rest of the play is to make its proper impact. 

The long introductory passage of this chorus tells of the Zeus sending out Agamemnon and his brother Menelaos to avenge the outrage committed by the Trojan prince Paris: he had abducted Helen, wife of Menelaos, and this is a crime for the gods themselves demand retribution. But the image describing this is a curious one: the Greeks, wronged by Paris, are compared to vultures who have lost their chicks, and, with them, “the toil of nurturing their young”. And it is on hearing these vultures’ lament that the gods send out Agamemnon and Menelaos, as instruments of divine justice. But, at the same time, Agamemnon and Menelaos have agency as well: they and their men cry out “with all their hearts for mighty War”. The avenging armies are, simultaneously, both instruments of divine will, and also free, autonomous agents. Aeschylus isn’t much interested here in choosing between the two: he insists on both.

The chorus now turns its attention to Klytaimnestra, sister of Helen and wife of Agamemnon, asking her what news she has received from Troy. Since the Greek dramas have come to us with no stage directions, directors (and translators) must provide their own. In some versions, as the chorus asks these questions of their queen, she comes out and, in silence, offers sacrifices to the sacred fire; in others (as in Ewans’ translation), the questions are directed towards the palace, but its doors remain shut, and no answer is given. Either, I think, can be theatrically effective.

Now the sequence of six strophes and antistrophes begins. In the first pair (which is followed by an epode), we are told of an omen that had appeared: two eagles had been seen swooping down and devouring a pregnant hare. The priest Kalchas interprets: the eagles are obviously Agamemnon and Menalaos, and the hare is Troy. However, the omens are “part good for us, part bad”: the hare had been pregnant, and the unborn are devoured too. And in the course of this narration, a refrain develops:

Cry sorrow, sorrow – yet may good prevail.

The next pair of strophe and antistrophe, somewhat surprisingly, interrupts the narration with a meditation on the nature of Zeus: “… there’s nothing to refer to except Zeus”. Zeus is all there is, and all that is is Zeus. Zeus, we are reminded, had overcome his own father,

The one who once was great

and bursting with never-conquered might.

But that never-conquered might has now been conquered, and the conqueror, Zeus, is omnipotent: he is all that is. We need to remember this in what follows: Aeschylus would hardly have placed this seeming diversion at this point had he intended otherwise.

The second antistrophe runs into the third strophe mid-sentence, and continues the meditation on the nature of Zeus, who has ordained that “men learn from experience”. Ewans, in a footnote here, says that the original words, “pathei mathos”, literally means “learn from experience”, and that the traditional rendition of these words as “learn by suffering” is a mistranslation “with full Christian (and Wagnerian) overtones of redemption through repentance”. I have, however, also seen criticisms of Ewans’ criticism, claiming that Ewans makes too much of this, and that, given the lack of exact correspondence between Greek words and English, “learn by suffering” is not a mistranslation. As ever in these matters, I will leave the scholars to argue this one out (I have no choice really!), but will note that anything with Christian overtones is, perhaps, best avoided here, as the view Aeschylus gives of the nature of divinity is very far from Christian theology.

But no matter how we learn, whether from suffering or from experience, the pain is not dispelled:

But still, in sleep the pain

of memory drips down inside the heart; the calm

of reason comes even to those who do not want it.

I think the favour of the gods who sit on sacred thrones

are gifts that hurt.

The third antistrophe returns to the narrative. Agamemnon and Menelaos are the instruments of divine will, and the gods will grant them victory, but it is a gift that hurts: to achieve this victory, Agamemnon will have to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia. The eagles had devoured also the innocent unborn: in order to revenge the crime of Paris, the innocents of Troy must also be put to the sword. And Artemis, who “hates the eagle’s feast”, demands that if the Greeks are to spill the innocent blood of Troy, they must first spill innocent blood of their own.

How much choice Agamemnon has in this matter is not clear. He is, after all, both the instrument of divine justice, and also an autonomous agent. And in this perplexing paradox lies the horror: to avenge a crime, Agamemnon must himself commit a crime; and he is both not responsible for it, and responsible for it, at the same time.

We may wish to put this down to civil war between the gods – of Artemis rebelling against the will of Zeus; but that is too easy an answer. Aeschylus had gone out of his way to tell us, just a few lines earlier, that Zeus is all there is. Zeus could easily have overruled Artemis, but he hadn’t. This is the collective divine will: Agamemnon must revenge the crime of Paris, and, in so doing, must himself be guilty of a monstrous crime. He is caught in an infernal machine from which there is escape. He may learn through experience: this ability to learn is the gods’ gift. But it is a gift that hurts.

The narrative continues, but all hint of triumph or glory is now lost: the chorus tells of the sacrifice, of how Iphigenia was led to the altar “with a bridle to silence her”, how she was lifted up “like a goat, with her head inclined”. But they stop short of the point where she has her throat slit by her own father: it is too horrible even to narrate.

What happened after that I did not see, nor will I speak of it.

And only now does Klytaimnestra make her long delayed first entrance (at least, her first speaking entrance).

The chorus’ narration should not, I think, be taken merely as exposition: if seen as such, it would appear merely cumbersome. But if it is seen as a drama in its own right, then the effect is electric. As in The Persians, the drama we see on stage is not that of the events being narrated, but of the people on stage – in this instance, the chorus of old men – trying to understand the significance of these events, trying to understand what these events tell us about the gods, about the nature of human free will, and the nature of divine will. And what they understand brings little comfort.

Klytaimnestra has news. Troy has fallen, and their absent king will now return. In a long speech, she describes how the news had travelled so quickly. She had arranged for a series of beacons, from mountain-top to mountain-top, to be lit to signal the fall of the city, so the news can be relayed by light across the continents. And that night, the night-watchman had seen the last light of that series of beacons bursting into light. Klytaimnestra it was who had arranged this: the watchman in the play’s opening scene had spoken scoffingly and yet fearfully of the “waiting, hopeful woman who plans like a man” – such gender confusion being, for this watchman and, one suspects, for the Greeks in general, abhorrent. Klytaimnestra describes the travel of the news by fire in a speech that appears to be more than mere boasting of her organisational powers: there seems something almost elemental to it: even fire obeys her bidding, and “Haephistos was my courier”. But then, her second speech takes an unexpected turn. Instead of triumph, or of joy, she speaks of the bloodbath that, even as she speaks, is being visited upon the people of Troy; and she expresses her hope that the Greeks reverence the city’s gods and not desecrate their shrines, so they may return safely. Once again, we see that pattern repeated: hope, fulfilment, and then, almost immediately afterwards, apprehension. And finally, in a short coda to her speech, she echoes the refrain that had earlier appeared in the chorus: “Yet may the good prevail.” On the surface, this means “May our men return safely”, but the original audience, who knew the myth, would, most likely, have looked beyond the surface: Klytaimnestra may well have a very different idea of what constitutes the “good”.

Klytaimnestra now returns into the palace, leaving the chorus again on their own. And again, they ruminate on Zeus, on the punishment he had meted out to Troy for having broken his law; and this drifts into apprehension of the punishment Zeus might yet mete out to the Argives, should they also – as Klytaimnestra has more than hinted – have similarly broken his law. They speak also of the deep unrest among the people of Argos at the absence of their king, and of their anger at the devastation brought home to them by a war that was being fought merely for the sake of another man’s wife. As always, fulfilment of hopes does not bring joy: it brings merely apprehension.

Now the herald enters with news of the fall of Troy. Time is very elastic here: in a naturalistic play, there would be a gap of a few days, at least, between Klytaimnestra receiving the news through a relay of fire, and the arrival of the herald, but here, that time is compressed to but a few minutes. The herald’s speech is initially triumphant, telling as it does of victory at Troy, but, with Klytemnaistra’s last speech still ringing in our ears, even that triumph contains within it the seeds of terror:

Nothing stands upon the plain of Troy;

the altars and the shrines of gods are all destroyed…

Klytaimnestra enters again, but she has no desire to listen: she knows about the fall of Troy already. She has come to talk. She boasts about her knowing when others had doubted her knowledge; and she asks the herald to tell her husband to come quickly, for she is waiting for him, like a faithful wife. And, having said this, without waiting to hear another single word, she returns into her palace, leaving the scene as abruptly as she had entered.

The chorus then questions the herald further, and his initial note of triumph now dissipates: the Greeks, on returning, had met with a fearful storm; the other fleets had separated, and of Agamemnon’s own fleet, only his ship had survived: the others are all drowned. Zeus is meting out retribution already on those who had committed crimes – even those crimes that had been committed to fulfil his own purpose.

The herald now leaves, but not before he, too, has echoed the chorus’ apprehensive refrain: “May all turn out as best it can.” The chorus is left once again to ponder on events, and, once again, these ponderings are themselves the substance of the drama: what do these events signify? Paris had transgressed, and Troy had transgressed by condoning Paris’ transgression; so they paid a terrible price, and the terrible price they paid is the judgement of Zeus. But there is now an obvious parallel to be drawn between Troy and Argos, for Argos too has transgressed. These ponderings are not comments on the drama: they are the drama. The drama consists of us humans trying to make some kind of sense of a world that is, to human understanding at any rate, unintelligible.

Only now, almost half way through the play, does the eponymous Agamemnon enter. He enters magnificently in a chariot, and at the back of his chariot is his “conquest”, the Trojan princess Kassandra, now a captive slave, and chosen by Agamemnon to be his concubine.

Agamemnon speaks in triumph, but we know the pattern by now. Klytaimnestra enters, and, like a dutiful wife, greets her husband. We do not need to know the myth to be fearful. She then instructs her maidservants to lay between the chariot and the door of the palace tapestries of crimson and of blood red, so Agamemnon may tread upon them, as the victor he is, and enter again his home. So a river of the most vivid red appears before Agamemnon, representing both his triumph and – as we can now be certain – his destruction. Agamemnon himself is doubtful: even as a victor returning in triumph, would not this be sacrilegious, and, somehow, obscene? – an affront to all that is holy? It would indeed. But Klytaimnestra convinces him. And so the man who had trodden on real blood before – on innocent blood, including that of his own daughter – now treads the symbol of that blood towards his own bloody end. Zeus, had delivered justice on the Trojans, with Agamemnon his instrument for that justice; now, justice is to be delivered on Agamemnon, and the instrument this time will be Klytaimnestra. Link by link, the chain is forged.

All this time, Kassandra, sitting at the back of the chariot, has remained tantalisingly silent. Agamemnon’s instruction concerning her was to treat her well, for “the gods look kindly from afar on those who conquer, but do not abuse their power”. So, after Agamemnon has entered the palace, Klytaimnestra, with a kindness that we can be sure by now is assumed, asks her to follow. But Kassandra keeps still, unresponding. Whatever power Klytaimnestra was able to exert over her husband, she cannot over her husband’s slave. In frustration, she enters the palace, without Kassandra.

One shouldn’t, I am told, sully literary criticism with subjective impressions, but since this is merely a blog post rather than a learned essay, I don’t see why I shouldn’t: the scene that now follows is, to me, among the most extraordinary I have encountered in any play: one has to go to the storm scenes in King Lear, or to the scene between the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester on the heath, to come across anything of comparable tragic intensity.

Kassandra now breaks her silence – but not, at first, with words, but instead with inarticulate screams. She then calls out – not to Agamemnon, nor to Klytaimnestra, nor even to the ghosts of her slaughtered family, but to Apollo, whom she calls her “destroyer”:

Ah! Where have you led me? To what house?

For nothing is secret to Kassandra. She knows – she knows all. She has the gift of prophecy. Apollo had given her this gift for he had desired her, and she had, in her own words, “pledged [her] body to him, and then broken [her] word”. Apollo, unable to revoke his gift of prophecy, had then deemed that her prophetic visions would never be believed; and now, as she faces her own imminent extinction, she knows that it is he, the god, who has brought her to this end. She knows the hideous bloody future she is to face inside the house, and also its hideous bloody past. She knows that inside the house, she, now a mere slave and thus of no real consequence, will be ripped apart by Klytaimnestra’s sword.

The chorus cannot quite believe her: her prophecies are doomed not to be believed, after all. But they can’t quite disbelieve her either, as she sings an agonised threnody to her own death. No matter how we may choose to interpret the ways of the gods, this is the reality for humans, who have no option but to suffer.

So far, Aeschylus has given us two strands of causality heading towards a single event: there are the outrages in Troy, crying out for revenge; and there is the outrage on Agamemnon’s own daughter, Iphigenia. Both point to the killing of Agamemnon. But now, a third strand is introduced – this one spanning generations. Agamemnon’s father, Atreus, had been betrayed by his own brother: Thyestes had seduced Atreus’ wife. And, in revenge, Atreus had, under the guise of friendship, invited his brother to a feast, but had feasted his brother on the roast flesh of his brother’s own children. Thyestes, on realising the horror, had left with his surviving son, and had cursed Atreus and his house. This curse too must have its fulfilment. All these strands are converging fast upon what appears now an inevitable focal point: the killing of Agamemnon.

And what value can the life of a mere slave, a mere captive concubine, have in the context of such matters? Yet, it is to this seemingly insignificant figure to whom Aeschylus gives the most potent and powerful expression of grief and of terror. And, as she walks into the house in which she knows she will be butchered, she asks that she, a foreigner and a mere female slave, be remembered alongside the more powerful who will fall with her:

… in the house I will lament

my own and Agamemnon’s fate; I’ve had enough of life.

Oh strangers,

do not think I am trembling, like a bird scared of the trap;

I simply beg you to be my witness after my death,

when one more woman dies in recompense for me,

and for the man so badly married yet another falls in turn.

I ask this of you as a stranger who is about to die.

The various strands, the various chains of causality, may meet at a focal point here, but, Kassandra knows, this is not by any means the last link of the chain. And that she, Kassandra, a mere dispensable slave girl, is also part of that chain.

Once again, the chorus is left on its own, and soon, they hear the death cries of Agamemnon from inside the palace, and they are in turmoil. This turmoil seems to me to be depicted in comic terms. I realise that our modern responses are likely to be quite different from those of ancient Athenians; and I realise also the very stylised nature of the representation of events. But it is hard to see how, given the extreme seriousness of the context, lines such as these can be seen as anything other than comic:

  • Let us take common counsel; is there some safe plan?
  • … I vote that we do something; it’s a time for no delay.
  • Yes, we are wasting time…
  • I haven’t got a plan to offer; and no-one should act unless he has already planned.

We should not be surprised by such an incursion of the comic at such a moment: sending in the clowns at moments of the greatest seriousness would have been as effective in Greek times as it had been in Shakespeare’s (the gravediggers in Hamlet, say, or the man who brings in the asp to Cleopatra), or, indeed, still is in our own. But whatever humour there is here is cut short by the opening of the palace doors, to reveal a now triumphant Klytaimnestra, and the butchered bodies of Agamemnon and of Kassandra.

Klytaimnestra now has no reason to dissemble:

Much I have said before to suit the moment, and

I’m not ashamed to contradict it all

She describes in some detail how she killed Agamemnon, how she struck her blows, and how Agamemnon

blowing out rapid spurt of blood

… strikes me with black showers of murderous dew

The chorus is, naturally, horrified, but this is Klytemnaestra triumphant. All she had planned for – planned “like a man”, as the watchman had so scornfully put it – is now fulfilled. What outrage, she now asks, had this chorus of elders shown

when he, not caring much about it, just as if an animal was dead

out of abundant flocks of fleecy sheep,

killed his own daughter, dearest fruit sprung from

my labour-pangs, to charm away the winds from Thrace? 

The elders weep for their murdered king, but Klytaimestra offers us instead an unforgettable and resonant image of their dead king in Hades: traditionally, the dead are greeted in the underworld by those who had loved them, and here, Klytaimnestra imagines Agamemnon

…at the swiftly flowing crossing

of the stream of tears

And at this crossing,

His daughter, as is right,

Iphigenia, will

Embrace and kiss her father lovingly.

One might have expected the play to have ended here, but Aeschylus adds another scene which may, to the modern audience, seem a bit strange: at this late stage of the play, when the climactic point has already passed and we are, in effect, winding down, he introduces a new character, Aigisthos, the lover of Klytaimnestra, and a surviving son of Thyestes, who had been feasted on his own sons’ flesh. He, of course, has his own reasons for revenge on the House of Atreus, and he re-tells the story we have already heard from Kassandra of the hideous feast to which his father had been treated (though conveniently omitting his father’s adultery, the original cause of this particular chain of crimes).

He had, he claims, helped Klytaimnestra with the planning of the deed, but when asked why he had not done the deed himself, he claims simply, and somewhat unconvincingly, that the deceit required was “clearly woman’s work”, and that, further, he was already known as an enemy of the house. The roles of the Macbeths seem here reversed: it is now the woman who commits the deed, and the man merely helps urge her on. The reversal of traditional gender roles that the watchman had seemed to fear in the opening scene, and which no doubt would have been emblematic to the original audiences as a sign of confusion, of the overturning of the natural order of things, appears here, at the end of the play, to be a fact. Nonetheless, it is he who walks in when everything has already been done, and assumes power.

The chorus objects, and Aigisthos, who was happy to be away from the scene to leave the woman to do the dirty work, appears quite willing to put down this much lesser opposition of old men – men who, even ten years earlier, had been deemed unfit for war. But, perhaps surprisingly, it is Klytaimnestra who stops him.

No, dearest man; let us do no more harm.

So many things have now been done that they will be a bitter harvest.

There has been enough torment already; let us not be stained with blood.

The desire not to be stained with blood must sound very strange, coming as it does from a woman who, from her own account of the killing, has been stained with the spurting blood of Agamemnon.

She tells the old men to return to their homes, which they do: it seems a surprisingly weak and anti-climactic end to their part, given their prominence in the rest of the play. But if there is a sense of bathos in the departure of the chorus, then that is clearly what Aeschylus had wanted; the chorus’ part in the drama has ended, but the drama itself is much larger than them. The chorus now departed, we are left at the very end of the play with the weak and cowardly figure of Aigisthos, with the blood-spattered Klytaimnestra, and with the two butchered and mangled bodies.

How are we to interpret Klytaimnestra’s final words? Up to this point, she had been dominant, triumphant. Has the strain of it all now brought her down? Is all that strength that we had witnessed on the point of collapse here, at the very end? Ewans, in his footnotes, certainly seems to think so, but I can’t say I am convinced. She is certainly still strong enough to prevent Aigisthos from killing the old men of the chorus, as he had threatened to do. But as well as being strong, she is also, I think, a tremendously intelligent character – certainly more so than Aigisthos – and she knows that if Agamemnon’s deed had terrible consequences, so, by the same logic, must hers. She wishes not to be “stained with blood”, and yet she knows that she already is.

If only we could say ‘Here is an end of all our troubles’;

we have been mangled terribly by the god’s heavy claw.

It is not that she feels remorse: at no point does she express that. But what we see here is the same pattern that we had observed from the very beginning of the play: anxious hope, fulfilment of that hope, and, almost immediately, apprehension – fear of what comes next for us humans mangled so terribly by god’s heavy claw. For, as the chorus has told us, there is nothing that is not Zeus, no event that has not been destined by him. We do what Zeus has destined us to do; but – and here is the terrible, inexplicable paradox – we do it also as free agents, and bear the responsibility.

And Klytaimnestra knows all this. Or she has come, through experience, to know it.  And she fears what comes next. As we all do: we all know the pattern by now. And there are two more plays still to come.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on Agamemnon.]

What I look for in fiction

I try these days not to start a post with a question that I then go on to answer: it seems to me a tired rhetorical device, and, having found myself cringing on observing it in several of my earlier posts, indicative, I think, of lazy writing. But let us not be rigid. I’ll start this post with a question:

  • What do I look for in fiction?

Or, as my friend Di Nguyen put it in her blog post

  • What turns me on?

[EDIT: For another answer to this same question, do please have a look here.]

I find that question difficult to answer, as there are so many different and disparate things that I enjoy. I tried thinking of the novels and plays and short stories that I most love, but couldn’t really find any distinct pattern emerging. I love the realism of something like Madame Bovary, say, but also the inspired illogicalities of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; or, say, Dead Souls, in which the real world is distorted into all sorts of strange and eccentric shapes, verging frequently on the lunatic. I am impressed by the life-and-death seriousness of The Rainbow, and amused by the light-as-a-soufflé frivolity of Right Ho, Jeeves! They both engage me, in entirely different ways, of course, and for entirely different reasons.

So I tried looking at it from another angle: What don’t I look for in fiction? Or, in other words, what turns me off? This path of enquiry proved, I think, more fruitful.

To cut to the chase, I find myself turned off by what are often described as “representative narratives”. I find myself frankly disturbed when novels advertise themselves as “representative” of some marginalised voice. Like, say, the “immigrant experience”. I myself am an immigrant, having come to Britain from India aged 5, some 57 or so years ago now, and yes, I like to think I have my own voice. But what does the “immigrant experience” actually mean? Immigrants from different parts of the world will have different experiences, and hence, different voices. Even immigrants from the same part of the world will have different experiences depending on their social background, the role they fulfil in the country they have come into, the part of the country they live in, and so on, and so forth. And even if the experiences of two immigrants are exactly the same, their voices still won’t be the same, simply because they are two different individuals. And this, I think, is an important point. Whatever the background of the character, whatever minority or majority they may belong to, however marginalised or centralised they may be, each character is, and should be depicted as, an individual. I find I have little time for “representative voices”. I certainly haven’t encountered any voice in fiction resembling my own, and neither would I want to: for one thing, I’d be too embarrassed.

One finds one’s common humanity not, I think, from characters resembling oneself, but, paradoxically, from characters very different from oneself – people from different times, from different cultures, from different walks of life, with different outlooks and different perspectives. If we restrict our interest primarily to characters similar to ourselves, of course we will find a unity of sorts: there’s nothing too surprising about that. It’s when we sense a unity even within the vast and dazzling diversity of humanity that we discover literary exaltation. I have, in short, little time for identity games when it comes to literature: to see literature as an arena for social and political activism is to demean it.

Of course, childhood influences are important: what is impressed upon the mind when that mind hasn’t yet hardened remains for the rest of one’s life. I loved adventure stories as a boy, and that has stayed with me: I love still the stories of Stevenson and Dumas, the Flashman novels of George Macdonald Fraser, and so on. I love also the elements of the boys’ own adventure story that one finds in even the most mature works of Conrad. But even more than the adventure story, I love the supernatural. As a youngster, I used to scare myself silly reading creepy ghost stories in bed, and that habit has remained with me. I love elements of the Gothic when they appear (in Wuthering Heights, say, or Great Expectations); I love hints, or more than mere hints, of the supernatural. I put all this down to the stuff I used to read when my parents thought I was in my room doing my homework.

And, of course, the Sherlock Holmes stories. How could I not mention them when talking about what I love? I was eleven when I came out of Bishopbriggs children’s library with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles in my clutch. I did not know it then, but it was the start of a beautiful friendship.

There are some readers, I know, who are very adept at focusing in on details, and teasing out their significance. I am not really such a reader, though I have tried to train myself to be one. I tend to notice more the shape of the novel – the form, the structure; I tend to notice where the pace is accelerating, and where it is decelerating; where the dramatic climaxes are set; and so on. It is only once I get a sense of the shape that the details start falling into place. Which usually means I need to read the thing at least twice – but that is, perhaps, no bad thing: no book worth reading is worth reading only once.

On matters of style, I am quite open-minded: perhaps my preference leans towards the ornate rather than the plain, but I cannot think of any English prose more beautiful than the very straightforward prose of The Pilgrim’s Progress. But no matter whether one’s prose style is plain or ornate, or on some point on the spectrum between the two poles, it can, as with anything else, be done well, or done badly. If an ornate style is done badly, it will appear merely meretricious; if a plain style is done badly, it will appear merely bland. But the point, I think, is that the style is no mere optional add-on: it must be consonant with the subject to such an extent that the two cannot be spoken about separately. The relatively plain style of George Eliot would be no more suitable for Bleak House than the more ornate style of Dickens would be for Middlemarch. Given a choice between the two, my preference would be for Bleak House, both in terms of style and of content (though it is worth stressing that in neither novel can either style or content be considered in isolation). But that preference is purely a subjective matter.

I have often wondered, incidentally, why it is that Middlemarch, for all its undoubted greatness, has never made too great an impact on me. Any serious consideration of the novel reveals an extraordinary mastery – of theme, of subject, of structure … of just about everything one can think of that contributes to the greatness of a novel. And yet, the spine somehow fails to tingle. When I wrote about the novel earlier in my blog, I concluded that this is because it is such a sane and level-headed novel: my temperament is such that I like a touch of madness, as it were – a touch, perhaps, of the wuthering heights. (Or, in the case of Dostoyevsky, perhaps, a touch of pure, unrestrained lunacy.) I think this is true. Needless to say, this is a comment on me rather than on the work, but a view of this solid world, no matter how profound, no matter how piercing, that focuses on its solidity, does not really set my pulse racing: it is only when I see the vast, transcendent expanse of sky, like Prince Andrei does on the battlefield of Austerlitz, that I start to feel that mysterious tingle in the spine.

I find myself, especially as I grow older, not too interested in examinations of the structure of society, of its economic and social basis, and so on. I know some novelists are very good at depicting these things, and I applaud their skills: but that’s not really what I look for. I am attracted more to works that involve me emotionally. Sometimes, these works can be emotionally draining – like, say, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a work that is, for whatever reason, very close to my heart. I can appreciate and admire works that ask you to observe from a decorous distance; but it’s the works that draw me headlong into the immediacy of human emotions that attract me more.

And overall, this, I think, leads me to what I most look for in fiction. Human emotions point to a human mystery, and each human being is a profound mystery: the works I tend to respond to most keenly are those that confront me with that sense of mystery. I find it in Tolstoy, in Dostoyevsky; I find it in Dickens too, and in Joyce; and, obviously, in Shakespeare. One cannot, after all, pluck out the heart of Hamlet’s mystery: he cannot pluck it out himself. And, of course, in Ibsen. Bernard Shaw, a man not given to fancy, said of the characters in late Ibsen plays that “there is not one … who is not, in the old phrase, the temple of the Holy Ghost, and who does not move you at moments by the sense of that mystery”. 

In any dispassionate view, we humans are really quite absurd beings: farting, puking, nose-picking creatures, with mean thoughts and often meaner acts. Even our transgressions tend not to be so great: small and petty – that’s all we are. And yet, by some mighty paradox, we are, nonetheless, in that old phrase that Shaw uses, temples of the Holy Ghost. And the religious imagery of that expression no longer embarrasses me as it might have done in my younger days. The literature that means most to me is that which attempts, at least, to confront and to depict this great mystery.

“Aias” by Sophocles

[All excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

The tale of the downfall of Aias (or Ajax) lends itself easily to a satisfactory dramatic form. The tragic drama may start with a council scene, where the leading figures of the Greek forces meet, and decide to award the armour of the dead Achilles not to the great warrior Aias, but to he wily Odysseus. Aias could then be given a monologue where he expresses his sense of humiliation (there are other works that have a major council scene near the start, and from which the principal character emerges feeling humiliated and alienated: Hamlet, for instance; or The Iliad). Or perhaps the play could start immediately after the council scene, with the hurt and humiliated protagonist. Then, after the monologue, Aias, his immense pride wounded beyond repair, could have an exchange with a chorus consisting of his men: he wants to slaughter the Greek leaders who, in his opinion, have dishonoured him; and the chorus could try, but fail, to dissuade him from this course of action. Aias could then exit, sword in hand, and after the chorus has expressed its fears, a messenger could come in with a long narration: instead of slaughtering the Greek leaders, as Aias had intended, he has been driven mad by the goddess Athena, and has merely slaughtered animals instead. Aias now enters, filled with shame, and, after another monologue, and another exchange with the chorus, he goes offstage to kill himself. In an epilogue, Tekmessa, his concubine, and Teukros, his half-brother, could enter and, with the chorus, deliver a lament.

This would have been a perfectly acceptable dramatic arc. All the characteristics that we imagine define Greek tragedy are present and correct. We see the downfall of a great hero; and we can even identify the hubris that brings about his downfall. Audiences can go home happy, having learnt the moral that pride comes before a fall; and for centuries, this play would have been held up as the archetypal Greek tragedy – one where everything is so clearly and precisely laid out.

The only problem is that this is the play Sophocles chose not to write. And we must, I think, ask ourselves why.

Instead of starting with the council scene, or immediately after it, Sophocles starts at a point here the slaughter of the beasts has already taken place; and instead of starting with Aias, he starts with the goddess Athena, who gloats in the further humiliation of Aias, and with Odysseus, whom she invites to gloat with her. It may seem a strange place to start.

And neither is the suicide of Aias the culminating point of the drama: this suicide comes not at the end, but at a point where there is still nearly half the play remaining. The latter part of the play is taken up not with the themes of Aias’ pride and Aias’ shame, but, rather, with a squabble over how his body is to be disposed of: the Greek commanders, Agamemnon and Menalaos, who show themselves as somewhat petty and mean, refuse to accord Aias a proper burial; however, Teukros, Aias’ half-brother, is openly hostile, and even, at times, insulting to the commanders, reminding them of Aias’ heroic courage, and of his skill and prowess in the war which he had fought on their behalf. The unseemly squabble over the hero’s body only comes to an end when Odysseus, Aias’ greatest enemy, overrules Agamemnon and Menelaos, makes peace with Teukros, and orders Aias to be given a funeral befitting a hero.

This curious construction has not escaped censure. Sophocles, it has been claimed, has written here a curiously disjointed play – a play in two parts which don’t really fit together, and which, as a consequence, lacks unity. It is certainly true that the play falls into two distinct parts, almost equal in length; and it is true also that the narrative arc of the first part is very different from the narrative arc of the second. But, unless we want to accuse Sophocles of being an incompetent dramatist who gets wrong even basic things that any journeyman playwright would have got right, we have to ask ourselves why Sophocles has chosen to write it in this manner – why he was happy to introduce a narrative discontinuity that could so easily have been avoided. Clearly, Sophocles must have felt that this discontinuity was a price worth paying; but worth paying for what?

I think we may get the earliest intimations of this in the first scene, where Athena invites Odysseus to gloat at Aias’ madness, but Odysseus instead pities him. And the reason for his pity is interesting:

… I pity him

as he is now, although he is my enemy, because

he has been bound fast to a terrible downfall.

In this, I think no more of him than of myself.

I see that all of us who live are nothing else

but phantoms, empty shadow.

Odysseus’ pity and compassion, his humility in this situation, are not entirely altruistic. Humility as a virtue in itself is more a Christian than a Greek concept: Odysseus’ humility is, as he says himself, occasioned by his thinking of himself. For he recognises that all humans, himself included, are subject to the same forces, since they are all “but phantoms, empty shadows”. And the terrible downfall to which Aias has been bound fast could be his own downfall too, since he too, like Aias, is human.   

This sense of the mutability of the state of human affairs becomes a central point of the play. We are all phantoms and empty shadows: he who was yesterday a great hero and an invincible warrior is now a laughable figure, reduced to slaughtering mere animals. Tekmessa, in a moving speech, tells of her own past reversal of fortune as she pleads with Aias:

… Your spear destroyed my native land:

another cruel fate seized both my mother

and my father; they are now in Hades, dead.

I have no other home except your house,

no money; my whole life depends on you.

Odysseus is today a revered leader of men, famed for his guile and his intelligence; but what will he be tomorrow? What will any of us be tomorrow? For Athena, “the sweetest of all laughters is to laugh at enemies”. But she is an immortal, not subject to the mutability to which humans are subject: she is no mere phantom, no mere empty shadow. But we who are, like Odysseus, mortal, have to ask themselves how we should behave, given that phantoms and empty shadows are precisely what we are. As Athena herself says:

One day can weigh down everything a human being is or has

or lift it up again.

Aias too becomes aware of the mutability of the nature of things – how friends may become enemies, and enemies friends:

… I now know that an enemy

should only be so hated, as a man who will

become a friend again; and I wish

only to help a friend so far – because I know

he won’t always be true.

But this understanding has come to him too late: he is already in disgrace not only in other’s eyes, but in his own – to such an extent, indeed, that he cannot think of any way out other than suicide. And suicide is not noble in Greek culture: in all the extant Greek tragedies, there are only two suicides – that of Antigone, and that of Aias, and in neither is there any intimation, as there frequently is in Shakespeare’s tragedies, that it was a noble act. But even if this understanding had come to Aias earlier, it is doubtful whether he would have had the intelligence to act upon it. For what he had planned to do to the Greek leader – his erstwhile companions in battle – was hideous. When we see him still in the grips of madness, he actually boasts with joy that he has Odysseus his prisoner, and will torture him before killing him. And all this because he feels he had been slighted – although it is worth noting that, apart from his own followers, no-one else seems thinks so. It would be hard to imagine a tragic protagonist less worthy of the audience’s sympathy.   

It is perhaps not very surprising, therefore, that Agamemnon and Menelaos should be so spiteful towards Aias, even after his death, refusing him even a burial. What is more surprising is Odysseus’ generosity to his fallen enemy – the man who not only intended to kill him, but to torture him first. Agamemnon and Menelaos aren’t convinced by Odysseus’ generosity – and in this, we may well sympathise with them, despite their pettiness: but they do not oppose him.

At the conclusion of the play, Odysseus makes peace with Teukros, and agrees to help him bury the fallen hero: the understanding that had come to Aias too late – that friends may become enemies, and enemies friends – proves true.

And this, I think, is at the heart of the play. It is not so much a character study of Aias – who has, frankly, not enough depth to his character to carry the burden of an entire drama: it is, rather, an examination of the question of how we are to live, how we are to behave with each other, given the mutability of everything, given the constant flux that is our lives, and given that we are all but phantoms and empty shadows.

But I would, however, be interested in other interpretations.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on Aias.]