All mere complexities

The story of Zeuxis is enough to make even the most hardened of sensitivity readers reach for the smelling salts. The artist Zeuxis, a historical figure (none of whose works, sadly, survive), is reputed to have suffocated to death while laughing at the ugliness and absurdity of an elderly lady he was painting. The story is about as unlikely as that of Aeschylus being killed by a bird dropping a turtle on his head, but, unlikely or not, it has now become so embedded in mythology that not even the most conscientious of sensitivity readers can prise it out. And, of course, it is a very cruel and unpleasant story. However, it is precisely this cruel and unpleasant story that inspired Rembrandt to paint one of his greatest masterpieces. In one of his late self-portraits, he depicted himself as Zeuxis, laughing heartlessly at the absurdity and ugliness of ageing human flesh.

Rembrandt’s series of self-portraits, especially the later ones, are some of the most enigmatic of artworks. We would be wrong, I think, to see them as autobiography: rather, he seemed to be using his own face as does an actor – presenting it in different ways to express different aspects, not necessarily of his own life, but of human life in general. Thus, in one of these self-portraits (currently in the Frick Collection, New York), he presents himself almost like an emperor, commander of all he surveys, even though it was painted immediately after he had been declared bankrupt. In his last self-portrait (currently in the Mauritshuis in The Hague), he presents himself with dull unglinting eyes, indicating a blankness behind; however, if Rembrandt really had been on the verge of senility, as this painting seems to suggest, he would not have been able to paint this. In these, and in his other self-portraits, he was using his own self to depict other matters. He was looking not into himself, I think, but, rather, out, into the wider world.

And he must have known that there was a particular irony in painting himself as Zeuxis. Obviously, he was not Zeuxis: throughout his career he had painted people not good-looking by any conventional standards, and in none of these paintings is there even the slightest hint of mockery. He frequently painted old people, but without any attempt either to idealise or to caricature. Indeed, his paintings of old people – old men, old women – display quite often a profound sense of sympathy, and, indeed, a sense of tenderness, a tenderness that, thanks to his refusal to beautify, never slips into sentimentality. He finds in these people what I can only describe as a sort of inner beauty – an inner beauty that is often at odds with their all-too-apparent failing human flesh. That Rembrandt, of all people, should depict himself as Zeuxis laughing merrily at the absurdity of this same failing human flesh is profoundly ironic, and it is an irony that would surely not have escaped him.

Self-portrait as Zeuxis by Rembrandt, courtesy of Wallraf_Richartz-Museum, Cologne

If we leave aside the story of Zeuxis, and look at the painting in purely visual terms, what is particularly noticeable is that Rembrandt hasn’t even made an attempt to depict flesh tones. The colour of the face is a sort of bronze, or, perhaps, of dark gold: it is the same colour as the magnificent collar, which appears to be reflecting light, almost as if it were metallic. The cap perched on his head, which one might have expected to be white (as it is, say, in the self-portrait currently in Kenwood House, London), is also of that same dark gold-bronze colour. It is almost as if the head, the cap, the collar, were all simultaneously transforming before our very eyes into something that is not, perhaps, quite human – into some kind of metallic artifice.

It is the kind of transformation that Yeats, some two hundred and fifty years later, fantasised about. He too, had fretted about the absurdity of failing flesh and of decrepitude:

What shall I do with this absurdity —

O heart, O troubled heart — this caricature,

Decrepit age that has been tied to me

As to a dog’s tail?

  • From “The Tower”

“An aged man is but a paltry thing”, he declares in “Sailing to Byzantium”, a poem contained in the same collection. In this poem, Yeats fantasises about being transformed into a metallic object – something that is not human, something that is not subject to decay and to decline into this terrible absurdity of decrepit age. His heart, he says, is

…. Sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal.

What he longs for is to be gathered “into the artifice of eternity”:

Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake

Yes, this artifice is a trivial thing: it has been fabricated merely to keep a drowsy Emperor awake. But be that as it may, it is not subject to ageing, to decline, to death; and this fact alone makes it superior to the absurdity of our mortal state.

Of course, we may ask “What about all those things that make us human?” What about our loves, our passions, our desires, our very consciousness itself? But Yeats isn’t – or, at least, pretends he isn’t – moved by any of this: in the poem “Byzantium”, written some two years later and clearly linked to the earlier poem by its title, he dismisses all this with the striking expression “All mere complexities”:

A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains

All that man is,

All mere complexities

And these “mere complexities” don’t really amount to much: it is right to disdain them. The golden handiwork from the earlier poem returns, “planted on the starlit golden bough”, and it too scorns mere human complexities:

… scorn aloud

In glory of changeless metal

Common bird or petal

And all the complexities of mire or blood.

Better to be gathered into the artifice of eternity, in glory of changeless metal, and be free of all human emotions, of all these complexities of mire and blood, than to see oneself waste into old age, and absurdity. At the point of death, “all complexities of furies leave”.

We need not take this at face value. Indeed, we should not take this at face value. We should, I think, consider Yeats’ stated preference, and shudder at the thought of leaving behind all that makes us human, even if that is the price to be paid for eternity, for the glory of changelessness. But this is merely me putting a moralistic gloss on it all: it is a moralistic gloss that Yeats himself does not provide, leaving the issue open.

As, I think, does Rembrandt. In this deeply enigmatic self-portrait, he paints himself, it seems to me, as a figure leaving his humanity behind, and laughing at the absurdity of those of us who insist on clinging on to what are, after all, mere complexities. It is a very troubling painting, and is, I think, intended as such.

“Oedipus at Colonus” by Sophocles

All excerpts from “Oidipous at Kolonos” in the post below are taken from the translation by Gregory McCart, published by Everyman.

I have used the usual Anglicised form “Oedipus at Colonus” in the title of this post, since that is how this play is commonly known in English-speaking countries, but in the actual body of the post, I shall be adopting the spellings of proper names as used by Gregory McCart – for instance, Oidipous rather than Oedipus, Kreon rather than Creon, Kolonos rather than Colonus, and so on. However, out of habit, I guess, and no doubt inconsistently, I refer to Sophocles rather than to Sophokles.

Sophocles has a reputation for piety, though I must admit that is not the impression I personally get from my readings. In none of the seven existing plays of his do I find anything in his depiction of divinities that seems to me worthy of reverence. The obvious riposte to this is that my idea of what deserves to be revered is very different from that of the Greeks: that is indeed a fair point. But before we decide whether or not the divinities as presented by Sophocles are indeed worthy of reverence, we need to focus on how precisely he presents them; and how he presents them strikes me as very deeply troubling, even in this late play in which the tragic protagonist finally finds what we may describe – in terms belonging uncomfortably to the Christian age – as “divine grace”.

It is difficult speaking of this play in the context of Sophocles’ other works, since by far the greater proportion of his other work is missing; but fortunately, Oidipous the King, the play to which this play may be regarded as a sequel, has survived. And an even earlier play, Antigone, to which this play may be regarded as a prequel, has also survived. These three plays are sometimes referred to as a trilogy, but we are frequently warned against regarding them as such: they date from very different periods of Sophocles’ life, we are told, and were written as standalones. However, referring to them as a trilogy may not be too far off the mark, since Sophocles appears to have gone out of his way to ensure consistency both of character and of plot between Oidipous at Kolonos and the earlier play Oidipous the King; and further, he places in Oidipous at Kolonos clear references to the events of the even earlier play Antigone. So, although the three plays weren’t conceived or written as a trilogy, Sophocles was clearly keen to knit the plays together in a consistent narrative and thematic web.

(There are also clear references in Oidipous at Kolonos to the mutually destructive enmity between the brothers Eteokles and Polyneikes, the theme of Aeschylus’ play Seven Against Thebes; and if, as is possible, Sophocles had also written a play on this theme – one of the many that are now lost – we may even be justified in speaking of the whole thing as a tetralogy.)

But whatever the consistencies between Oidipous the King and Oidipous at Kolonos, they are very different stylistically. The earlier play is taut in construction, with each scene leading inexorably to the next, with a grim sense of inevitability that itself evokes terror and awe. Oidipous at Kolonos, on the other hand, seems loose and episodic, with no obvious logic knitting the various episodes together. The pace is leisurely, making this by some distance the longest of the existing Greek tragedies. The opening and final scenes are clearly related: in the first scene, Oidipous appear a blind beggar, polluted, hated by the gods, shunned by mankind, led through his wanderings and tended by his faithful daughter, Antigone; and in the final scene, we see a reversal, as Oidipous undergoes a sort of apotheosis: the gods cleanse him of pollution and deem him worthy of acceptance, thus bringing his turbulent life to an unexpectedly serene end. But what happens between is very episodic, and fitting these episodes together into a coherent and unified whole is no easy task.

In the opening scene, Oidipous and Antigone have come to Kolonos, in the outskirts of Athens, and have unwittingly wandered into the sacred grove of the Eumenides. The local people, the chorus, are horrified to see him there, for to intrude upon such sacred ground is a gross impiety; and they urge him to step outside. They are more horrified still to discover who he is: they may feel compassion for him, but are unable to offer hospitality to one so notoriously polluted. Oidipous proclaims his innocence: none of his acts of horror, he says, had been committed with the knowledge of what he was doing. Indeed, for the killing of Laios, he goes further: even if he had known, he says, his action was no crime:

… And yet, how can I be depraved by nature

when I merely fought back after I was injured? Even if I’d known

what I was doing, how can that make me depraved?

This is very different from the Oidipous we had seen at the end of Oidipous the King: there we had left him guilt-stricken, and actually longing to be exiled:

Cast me out of Thebes as soon as possible

to where I’ll not meet up with anyone

Do not condemn me ever while I live

to dwell here in the city of my fathers

[From Oidipous the King, translated by Gregory McCart]

But here, not only do we see Oidipous defiantly proclaim his innocence (he does so three times in the course of the play), we see him harbour a profound resentment and hatred for his brother-in-law Kreon, and for his sons Eteokles and Polyneikes, who, he claims, had forced him into exile against his will. There are clearly discrepancies here between the two plays, and Sophocles is careful to paper over the cracks:

… For on that day, the very moment

when my passion blazed, when even to

be stoned to death was most welcome to me,

no-one came forward to fulfil my craving.

Eventually, when all the pain had mellowed,

I saw my passion had outrun, had punished

more than due, the errors of my past.

This describes what had happened after the end of the previous play: the “pain had mellowed”; he had felt he had already been “punished more than due”; the self-flagellation with which the earlier play had ended had not lasted. Thus, the incongruities between what he had felt at the end of the previous play, and what he feels now, are smoothed over: Oidipous had, effectively, changed his mind.

It would have been easy for Sophocles simply to have departed from the narrative of the previous play; but instead, he seems keen to ensure consistency, and it is hard to see why he should do so – unless, of course, he wanted this play to be seen as a credible continuation of the earlier.

At any rate, the chorus, on hearing Oidipous’ pleas, and his declaration of his own guiltlessness, agrees to leave it to their ruler, the noble Theseus, to decide whether or not Oidipous is to be given refuge.

There are, effectively, three episodes between this opening scene and the final, each involving a visitor from Oidipous’ past.

The first visitor is his daughter, Ismene, who, unlike her sister Antigone, had remained in Thebes, but who had nonetheless remained loyal to her exiled father. The purpose of her appearance is largely expository: she tells of the enmity that has developed between her two brothers, Polyneikes and Eteokles, the sons of Oidipous: Polyneikes, the elder, has been exiled from Thebes, where his younger brother Eteokles now rules; and, having raised an army, is threatening now to attack the city of his birth. Ismene tells also of a prophecy that the presence of Oidipous, alive or dead, will be propitious for the city, and that Kreon is, for that reason, planning to bring Oidipous back – not into the city itself, for he is still polluted, nor even to offer him burial within the city on his death, for his pollution outlasts even his life, but, rather, to keep him just outside the city’s borders, but within its power. Oidipous is, not surprisingly, unimpressed, and rails both against Kreon, and against his two sons. It is at this point that Theseus, the ruler of Athens, enters. Oidipous pleads for refuge, assuring Theseus that his presence in Athens, even when he is dead, would be propitious for the city. But in the course of making this assurance, he presents a very disconcerting picture of the afterlife. Should Athens ever be attacked, he tells Theseus,

At that time, my sleeping, hidden corpse,

cold in their earth, will drink their hot blood,

while Zeus is Zeus, and Apollo true.

Not quite, perhaps, the picture of eternal bliss of the Christian imagination. But the noble Theseus is happy to accept the polluted Oidipous, and assures Oidipous of his friendship and hospitality. In a very solemn passage, instructions are given on the rites that must be followed to atone for Oidipous’ intrusion into the sacred grove of the Eumenides, and Ismene is dispatched to carry them out.

Both the friendship and the hospitality promised by Theseus are put to the test in the second of the three episodes, which is initiated by the entrance of Kreon – the brother-in-law (and also, due to well-known complications, the maternal uncle) of Oidipous. This episode is largely melodramatic: Kreon, duplicitous in all he says and does, tries to persuade Oidipous to return, but Oidipous, knowing what he does, and filled with a bitter and implacable fury, rejects his advances. Kreon then claims that he has already captured Ismene, and proceeds now to capture Antigone also: neither the chorus nor the blind and aged Oidipous can prevent him. Theseus now lives up to his previous declarations of friendship by rescuing the two sisters (the rescue takes place offstage). It is a strange episode in many ways: it involves, among other things, the involvement of the chorus in onstage action (something it is often claimed never happens in Greek drama) as they try, ineffectively, to prevent Antigone from being seized. And these unexpected bursts of action – both the onstage capture of Antigone and the offstage rescue – seem, perhaps, somewhat incongruous given the very leisurely scenes of dialogue that had preceded it.

The third and last of the three episodes before the finale involves another person from Oidipous’ past – his son, Polyneikes, who, as Ismene had told us, has been exiled from Thebes by his brother Eteokles, and who has now raised an army to attack his native city. He has come now for his father’s support in his venture.

We hear of his presence before we see him: Theseus had seen him as a suppliant at the altar of the god Poseidon. Oidipous, still enraged, refuses at first to meet with his son, and Theseus has gently to remind him that Polyneikes is a suppliant at the altar of a god, and “respect for the god must be observed”. It is at this stage that Antigone is given a quite extraordinary speech, invoking not reverence for the gods, but the purely human need for forgiveness and reconciliation:

… Even if he committed

the most atrocious things against you,

to do the same to him in return is not right.

She continues:

… Look

at what you suffered for your parents.

See what’s happened and you’ll realize, I’m sure,

that the result of bitter anger is more bitterness.

Oidipous unbends to the extent of allowing Polyneikes into his presence, but no further. He says afterwards that it was Theseus’ urging that prompted this concession: of Antigone’s impassioned plea he says nothing.

Polyneikes is shocked on seeing his father in such a state: this shock may be feigned, as that of Kreon had been, but it is certainly possible that it may be real – a possibility Oidipous is not prepared even to entertain. Oidipous hears his son out, but responds in the vilest of terms, first lambasting him, and then cursing him with a violence that recalls to a Shakespearean reader Lear’s curses on Goneril:

You vermin! When you had the power and

the throne in Thebes, which now your bother has,

you were the one who drove out your own father.

My curses crush your supplication and

your claim to the throne, if Right, honoured of old,

still sits with the ancient laws of Zeus.

Go! I spit you out! I am not your father!

And he adds to this curse a vatic pronouncement:

… You will die at the hand of your brother

And in turn kill him who banished you.

Before Polyneikes leaves in horror to face the doom his father has prophesied, Sophocles gives him a tender and moving dialogue with his sister Antigone, whose plea for forgiveness and reconciliation had clearly fallen on deaf ears. Here, brother and sister bid other what they both know will be their final farewell. And if Oidipous had foretold earlier the doom awaiting Polyneikes and Eteokles, Polyneikes’ words now foreshadow the doom awaiting Antigone:

… if his curses

are fulfilled, and you happen to

return home, don’t treat me with dishonour.

Lay me in a grave with funeral gifts.

Now we enter the final scene, in which the cursed Oidipous, polluted and hated by the gods, is finally cleansed, and, after so long and such terrible suffering, is accepted. Following immediately from a scene of foretold horror and of heart-rending pathos, the mood changes miraculously: here, at journey’s end, we have a radiant serenity, a sense of wonder and of awe, and a sense, almost, of joy – at least, of as much joy as may be permitted in so deeply tragic a world.

This divine acceptance had been foreseen in the very first scene of the play, in which Oidipous had wandered unwittingly into the sacred grove of the Eumenides. On hearing where he is, he had declared:

Then they may kindly draw me as a suppliant.

I will never leave this resting place.

… This sign draws my life together.

And now, at the end of this play, he senses that the time has come in which he is finally to be “drawn together”: the blind man who previously had been led by his daughter now stands up and walks unaided into the skene, which represents the sacred grove of the Eumenides:

Come. Don’t touch me. Allow me to find

the hallowed grave myself where I will reach

my lot in life and lie covered in this earth.

This way. Here. Walk this way. This way Hermes, the Guide,

himself leads me – and she, goddess below.

Oh light, no light – though once before, my light –

My body feels you now … this last time.

I creep towards my consummation, life

Hidden below.

These broken, cryptic utterances appear to hint at that which cannot be expressed – to the ineffable. Oidipous sees in his blindness divinities hidden from those who can see, and this most turbulent of human lives is granted at last a peace that passeth all understanding. And so the play ends.

However, this leaves two very important questions unanswered – one structural, and the other thematic. Firstly, if this final scene both resolves what we had been presented within the first, and fulfils what Odipous had sensed there, what purpose is served by the scenes that come between? Are they there merely to fill in time while we wait for the finale? If so, we must concede that, whatever its other merits, this is a very ill-constructed play. And related to this is a thematic question: why have the gods granted him this absolution? Is it merely their whim, and nothing more?

In Samson Agonistes, Milton’s closet drama that is very clearly modelled upon this play, we have, once again, a blind man who has forfeited divine grace, but who, by the end, wins back the grace that he had previously been denied him; but Milton shows us very clearly how and why this grace is won back. However, we see nothing comparable here. What we see of Oidipous through the course of this play is merely an inflexible, implacable, and a very angry old man: it is hard to see what the gods have seen in this to justify their final acceptance.

All this may be something that we mortals should not even enquire into, as it is beyond all human understanding. Maybe we should simply accept the arbitrary nature of the blessing conferred by the gods upon Oidipous near his death, as we had accepted the arbitrary nature of the cursed fate they had allotted to him even before his birth. For, after all, the gods are due our reverence, not our questioning. This is certainly a coherent interpretation of this play: as a gospel relating to a later religion tells us, the wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth. Fair enough. But coherent though such an interpretation may be, it is not, I think, a very satisfactory one, at least from an aesthetic perspective: a work in which the central sections bear little or no relation to its resolution is, by any standards, a poor play, especially when the resolution itself cannot be understood because it lies, we are to understand, beyond the scope of our comprehension.

But there is another interpretation possible – albeit one that is troubling, and not very easy to accept. What if the gods reward Oidipous not despite his obduracy, but because of it? What if Oidipous’ implacability is precisely what renders him worthy of divine grace?

Such an interpretation may seem odd to us, used as we are to relate divinity with what is Good. Surely, it is Antigone’s plea for forgiveness, for reconciliation – the plea that Oidipous so conspicuously ignores – that represents divine will? But there is no reason to think so: Antigone is filled with love and with pity, but, very noticeably, she does not invoke the gods when she makes her plea; Oidipous, in contrast, does invoke the “ancient laws of Zeus” when he curses his son:

… if Right, honoured of old,

still sits with the ancient laws of Zeus …

Even as a corpse, he had told us, he will drink hot blood, “while Zeus is Zeus and Apollo true”.

Antigone’s love and pity, her desire for forgiveness and reconciliation, are human: but Oidipous’ insistence upon the ancient laws, “honoured of old”, is divine. Good and Evil don’t come into this, and neither do such human emotions as love or pity: the gods are beyond such considerations. And if Oidipous shows himself as implacable, he shows himself godlike, for the gods themselves are implacable. Achilles in The Iliad is godlike when he sweeps relentlessly through the Trojan ranks, slaughtering all in his path: he becomes human when, out of pity, he relents to Priam’s plea, but in becoming human, he is no longer godlike.

So where does Sophocles’ own sympathies lie – with the human pleas of Antigone, or the godlike implacability of Oidipous? Now there, it seems to me, is a question not to be asked. Sophocles is a dramatist, depicting the fate of humanity as he sees it; and as he sees it, the gods inhabit a realm beyond human comprehension, and human values such as love and pity and tenderness mean nothing to them. If the gods are worthy of reverence, it is only by virtue of the power they wield over our human fates, and by nothing else. And in the meantime, we humans must endure whatever fate the gods, for whatever reasons of their own, may will upon us.

Such a vision is deeply troubling, but it is, I think, Sophocles’ vision: it is expressed very clearly in his earlier plays, and I do not think that vision had mellowed in this very late (and possibly his last) play. Indeed, by relating this play so clearly to his earlier tragedies, it is reinforced. The gods’ acceptance of Oidipous does not negate or compensate for all the suffering these same gods had earlier inflicted on him; and, as we are reminded, neither will the gods prevent the mutual slaughter of Polyneikes and Eteokles, nor intervene when the good and heroic Antigone – like Cordelia in a later play – hangs in despair in prison. The gods care nothing for the goodness or heroism of Antigone, any more than they will for those of Cordelia.

This play does not end, as it could so easily have done, with the serenity of Oidipous’ cleansing and his acceptance by the gods: it ends, instead, with a reminder of what is yet to come, and which Sophocles had already depicted in one of the bleakest and most despairing of all tragedies: it ends with Antigone asking to be sent back to Thebes, and with Theseus assenting. Sophocles’ audience knew, as do we, what happens next.


Yeats, in his loose version of Oidipous at Kolonos, devised a chorus that takes its cue I think, from the fourth chorus of Sophocles’ play, and in it he distilled what he took to be the play’s essence. It is, I think, the darkest poem I have encountered:

Endure what life God gives and ask no longer span;

Cease to remember the delights of youth, travel-wearied aged man;

Delight becomes death-longing, if all longing else be vain.

Even from that delight memory treasures so,

Death, despair, division of families, all entanglements of mankind grow,

As that old wandering beggar and these God-hated children know.

In the long echoing street the laughing dancers throng,

The bride is carried to the bridegroom’s chamber through torchlight and tumultuous song;

I celebrate the silent kiss that ends short life or long.

Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say;

Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the eye of day;

The second best’s a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.

For the post on Oedipus at Colonus on the Wuthering Expectations blog, see here.

Christmas greetings

This is the time of year when I normally take a break, and wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. It’s a bit superfluous this year as I’ve hardly been posting anything anyway, but that’s no reason to jettison the annual tradition.

It may be wondered, I guess, why I, who, given my name, am very obviously from a Bengali Hindu background, should be marking a Christian festival when I don’t even mark a Hindu one. Why do I wish everyone a Merry Christmas when I have never wished anyone a Happy Diwali? Or, rather, given that for Bengali Hindus it is the Durga Puja rather than the Diwali that is the principal religious festival, why I have never wished anyone a Subha Vijaya.

It’s a fair question, I guess. I suppose part of the reason is that I never had a religious upbringing. My parents, deeply attached though they were to Bengali culture, were not even slightly religious. They did miss the Durga Puja though: that was, after all, a major part of the tradition they had grown up in, and they loved it as much as western Christians, even those who aren’t religious, love Christmas. But Durga Puja in Bengal is very much a community event. I still remember, quite vividly, my grandfather taking me around town to see the various images that had been set up of Durga and her divine family. Each institution, each large family house, each sub-community within the larger community, had one – a tableau depicting the ten-armed goddess Durga, accompanied by her daughters Lakshmi and Saraswati and her sons Ganesh and Kartik, slaying the demon Mahishasura.

I must have been younger than five, for that’s the age I left India to come to Britain, but even at that age, I took in, and remember still, the excitement, the colours, the hustle and the bustle, the general air of bonhomie and festivity. And, had I not been so suddenly transplanted to a very different environment to begin life anew, that is the festival that would have remained dear to my heart.

As it was, a very different tradition took its place. The Durga Pujas stopped abruptly: given that it was, in essence, a community event, we couldn’t really recreate it at home; and the Bengali community we eventually found in Glasgow in the early 1970s was, back then at least, too small to stage such an event. But the need we all have not merely for festivity, but also for custom and ritual, remained. And in the western world, the focal point of all that was obviously Christmas.

Memories of those early Christmases in the new world remain very vivid. I think the first western music I ever heard were the carols we sang in school. Being the only pupil in that school who wasn’t white, I soon became typecast as the Second King in school nativity plays, and I remember very vividly making my entrance with the other two Kings, singing – quite prophetically, as it turned out – “westward leading, still proceeding”.

Nowadays, we live in a society far more obsessed with questions of identity than anyone was back in the mid-1960s. I am sometimes asked whether my parents objected this “Christianisation” of their wee boy, and the answer is “No – they didn’t even think of objecting”. Hinduism is a very syncretic religion anyway, and my parents weren’t, as I said, themselves religious: they saw nothing to object to in my learning about, or even taking part in, the Christian religion and its traditions. Neither did they object to the teaching of Bible stories in class, the Christian assemblies we had at start of day, and so on. They continued describing themselves as “Hindu” in census forms, but that’s about as far as it went.

When my parents moved to Lancashire in the mid-1970s, they found there a Bengali community large enough to celebrate Durga Puja, and naturally, they took to it. But there was little there for me: I was a teenager by then, and there wasn’t much to excite me at these events where all the uncles and aunties (all friends of my parents were uncles and aunties), dressed in their fineries, socialised, while I sat there effectively twiddling my thumbs. It was Christmas that had now taken over as the principal annual celebration: I had, after all, been westward leading (still proceeding) from the age of five. And now that I’m nearer my dotage than I am to my childhood years, I have far too many vivid memories associated with Christmas – especially those early Christmases – not to wallow in them.

There are other religious festivals too, of course, and I’m sure those who have grown up in those traditions will respond to them much as I respond to Christmas. I do not mean to belittle any of these: devout or faithless, religious or secular, we very much need, I think, some sense of custom and of ritual. Eid, Diwali – or Hanukkah, which the Jewish people are currently celebrating – it’s all good.

So no, I won’t wish you Happy Holidays. I find that bland, and a bit silly. Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Happy whatever you celebrate, whenever you celebrate it. As the late and much lamented Dave Allen used to say, may your God go with you.

Normally on these occasions, I put up a painting by an old master depicting the Nativity. This year, for a change, I am putting up a wintry photograph I took on my phone.

My best wishes to all!

“Poor Naked Wretches: Shakespeare’s Working People” by Stephen Unwin

“Poor Naked Wretches: Shakespeare’s Working People” by Stephen Unwin, published by Reaktion Books

As Stephen Unwin acknowledges early in his introduction, “Shakespeare grants more space to the rich and powerful than to those who work for them”. Various reasons for this are listed: there existed, after all, conventions and practical imperatives that a commercial playwright could not ignore. But people from what we may term the “lower echelons of society” (though Unwin himself is careful not to use such terms) – that is, those who aren’t among the rich and powerful – also populate his plays; and while they are not Prince Hamlet, neither are they present merely to make up the numbers: Shakespeare’s insatiable curiosity into the natures of various kinds of humanity is always apparent, no matter what social rank he is depicting. It is these characters of the “lower echelons” on whom Unwin focuses: what part do they play in these dramas? What was Shakespeare’s view of the commonality, those non-royals and non-aristocrats, from whose ranks Shakespeare himself had emerged?

Unwin is, quite rightly, quick to dismiss the view that Shakespeare shared Hamlet’s contempt for the groundlings (“…who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb show and noise”), or that he sympathised with Coriolanus’ hatred of “the many-headed multitude”. It is, after all, foolish to take the words spoken by certain dramatic characters in certain dramatic situations as reflecting the author’s own position, though it is surprising how many have done just that. Unwin dismisses also the patronising view expressed even by a critic as perceptive as Bradley, who described the “poor and humble” in these plays as “almost without exception, sound and sweet at heart, faithful and pitiful”. Looking clearly at what the texts say, both the contempt and the sentimentality seem out of place: Shakespeare’s view of those on the lower ranks was considerably more penetrating, as, indeed, we should expect from a writer so endlessly fascinated by all aspects of humanity. These characters may not occupy central positions in these dramas, but nothing human was alien to Shakespeare’s ever-probing mind.

There follow after the introduction ten fascinating chapters in which Unwin considers, one by one, the various categories of such characters. Firstly, there are the servants, slaves, and messengers. (The distinction between servant and slave is not always clear in the plays: are the two Dromios, say, slaves or servants?) Then follow the tradesmen and craftsmen, labourers and rebels, grouped together, as the boundaries separating them are often porous. We move to the pastoral setting in the next chapter, as Unwin considers shepherds, peasants, and gardeners; and then, into the world of women, which examines Shakespeare’s depiction of maids, nurses, and, yes, of witches. Workers in inns, taverns and brothels follow – the boundaries between these categories, once again, being often far from clear; and the next chapter looks at Shakespeare’s depiction of those from his own profession – “the poor players”. This leads naturally on to a chapter on fools, clowns, and jesters, and then, on to the most literate of the working people – clerks and clergy. Despite the title of the book, not all the types examined are strictly “working people”: Unwin next considers murderers and thieves, outlaws and conmen. And finally, Unwin moves on soldiers, sailors, and men at arms.

In each of these ten chapters, Unwin, with a trademark clarity familiar to anyone who has seen his theatrical productions, trawls through the plays, considering the depiction of working people, both in terms of their presentation on stage, and also in relation to the very harsh social and economic conditions of the time. What emerges is a plurality, a multiplicity: no general rule can be formulated to cover all cases, because each of these characters is depicted as an individual. Some are indeed, as Bradley puts it, “sound and sweet at heart”: a few, like those tenants in King Lear who tend to the Earl of Gloucester, despite what they must have known would have been terrible consequences should their kindness be discovered, may even be described as heroic in their soundness and their sweetness. But Shakespeare, like Tolstoy after him, was fascinated by the sheer variety of human types: no two poor people are alike because no two people are alike, regardless of social status.

There are, inevitably, darker elements too. At the furthest extreme from the soundness and sweetness are those “murderers”, as they are referred to in the stage directions of Richard III and Macbeth. In the latter play, we are actually forced to witness the murder of a child on stage: there is no sweetening of the pill. And yet, even these murderers are not an undifferentiated mass: each is an individual. The two murderers sent to kill Clarence in Richard III, for distance, are very different people.

And even though they commit the most heinous of crimes, they are morally no worse than the rich and powerful who have commissioned them. Jack Cade and his followers commit the most terrible atrocities, but they are morally no worse than the nobles who, in pursuit of their own ambitions, plunge the entire nation into civil war; and Shakespeare highlights this parallel by juxtaposing Cade’s rebellion with the civil wars that follow. Or consider James Tyrrell, commissioned to carry out the murder of the Princes in the Tower: he can feel a compassion for his innocent victims that Richard III, who had commissioned him, cannot. But there is no sentimentality here either on Shakespeare’s part: for all Tyrrell’s compassion, he does what he had been ordered.

There are reasons why these people have become what they are, and Shakespeare is interested in what these reasons are. Nothing human, after all, is alien to him. And nothing is alien to humanity either. “If it be man’s work, I’ll do it,” says the captain in King Lear before he goes on to commit an act that no man should do. This implicitly raises the question “What is man’s work?” The extremes of good and bad, each seemingly unbelievable were it not that we know both to exist, are present in the poor and powerless as well as in the rich and powerful. There is no contempt on Shakespeare’s part of those on the lower rungs of the ladder, but no sentimentality either. He gave the poor and powerless the same perceptive gaze he gave the rich and powerful.

In between these two extremes, there is what seems like an infinite variety. The working people can be dim, like Francis the apprentice drawer in Henry IV, Part One; or they can be intelligent and quick-witted, like the first gravedigger in Hamlet. Francis has always struck me as an interesting case. He is not at all intelligent or articulate, and, through no fault of his own, is certainly not educated; and Prince Hal and his boozing crony Poins poke fun at Francis quite mercilessly. How exactly are we to take this? Are we to share in the joke? Unwin reminds us that there would have been many apprentices among the groundlings, and it is unlikely they would have enjoyed seeing one of their own number made fun of in so heartless a manner. He adds that there are many different ways of playing this scene, which makes me wish that he could have described at least some of them. However, this is not a book about interpretations in stage productions (although I do hope such a book will follow). Whenever I read this scene, or see it in production (although, I’m sorry to say, I missed Unwin’s own productions of the Henry IV plays), I must admit it leaves something of a sour taste in the mouth: I cannot join Hal and Poins in their laughing at someone so very far below them by any measure of social privilege. Perhaps that sour taste in the mouth is precisely what Shakespeare had intended.

But Shakespeare depicts also among working people a wit and quick intelligence. “The age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he gaffs his kibe,” says Hamlet of the gravedigger, but Hamlet is not being quite as generous as may at first sight appear: Hamlet’s pride may prevent him from acknowledging it, but, whether he admits to it or not, in their exchange, we had actually witnessed the gravedigger not just matching Hamlet, but getting the better of him. The peasant’s toe has done far more than merely come near the courtier’s heel. We’re a long way here from Hal casually mocking Francis’ inarticulacy and lack of education.

Throughout this book, there is a keen awareness of the tremendous social and economic pressures that have forced these people into the situations they’re in, and have made them what they are. Not that Unwin subscribes to social determinism, as such: a man so desperately poor as to agree to committing murder for money can nonetheless turn his back on the act, and refuse to do it. But the pressures are there all the same, and Shakespeare is aware of how great they are. In Henry VI Part Two, there is a scene that may at first sight seem extraneous, but, given that it is a part of a series of plays that sets out to depict the state of an entire nation, increasingly seems to me important. In this scene, a poor man claims to have been miraculously cured of blindness. The young king is impressed, but the more worldly-wise Duke of Gloucester isn’t: in questioning this man and his wife, he uncovers their deception, and then orders what seems, to modern audiences at least, the most disproportionate punishment. At this point, the man’s wife has a single line: “Alas! Sir, we did it for pure need.” And this single line casts an entirely new light upon what we have just seen: what had seemed, till now, mainly comic, turns suddenly into something far more poignant. Far from being an extraneous scene, it seems to me absolutely essential in what is, after all, a wider drama depicting the state of the nation.

This book focuses on an element often considered of secondary importance in dramas depicting the rich and the powerful, the kings and the queens, bishops and cardinals, senators and patricians. It focuses on the ordinary populace, the working people, the “poor naked wretches”, and these people are seen here, quite rightly, as more than mere background: as Unwin shows here, Shakespeare depicts them not with contempt or with sentimentality, but as individuals, with the same range of thought and of intelligence and of morality as their supposed betters. It is all presented with a clarity and a level-headedness that I have come to expect of him as a stage director, and I can only hope further books from Unwin will follow. (In particular, a book on interpretations in performance would be particularly fascinating.) While, naturally, I welcome studies by academics, there are, it seems to me, unique insights to be gained from those like Stephen Unwin who have experience of presenting these endlessly absorbing works in performance.

“The Bacchae” by Euripides

When Tom from the Wuthering Expectations blog suggested at the start of this year that we read through all the surviving plays from ancient Athens, one a week, and blog about them, I was enthusiastic, despite my diffidence about writing on matters I knew little of. And, for a while, I kept at it, as some of my posts from earlier this year testify. But, after a while, the vicissitudes of real life intervened, and, while I continued to read Tom’s posts, I felt unable to give the project the time it ideally required. However, now that this mammoth project is nearing its end, it seemed a good idea to rejoin and add my comments, such as they are, on the two works that may with justice be described as the culminating point of this extraordinary sequence of plays: The Bacchae by Euripides, and Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles – the former perhaps the darkest and grimmest of all these plays, and the latter the most luminous. Given my conspicuous lack of classical scholarship, I remain, as ever, unqualified to write about these plays – especially two plays as enigmatic as these – but I have convinced myself that even an articulation of my incomprehension and of my bewilderment may not be entirely without interest. So with that in mind, let us proceed.

All excerpts quoted taken from the prose translation by John Davie, published by Penguin Classics.

With most other Greek dramas, I could, I think, provide in a few sentences a rough overview of what the play is about. I don’t merely mean that I could summarise the plot: I mean that I could convey some idea, at least, of the themes the dramatist addresses, of the way in which these themes are presented, and, perhaps, something of the effect it has on the audience (or readers). With The Bacchae, I am unable to do even this. The plot is simple enough: the god Dionysus comes with his followers – the Bacchae of the title – to Thebes, to mete out punishment to this city that refuses to acknowledge his divinity. He makes his intentions abundantly clear in his long introductory speech. And in the rest of the play, we see him do what he has told us he will do: the dramatic tension comes not from whether he will carry out his intention – this god, at least, does not waver – but from how he does it. And how he does it is grotesque: it is possibly the grimmest, the most horrible scene even in Greek tragedy, which is not known for avoidance of grimness. But all this is mere plot; what I find more puzzling is what we are to make of it all.

So what are we to make of it all? We cannot just follow the plot – which is easy enough to do – and leave it there: something such as this cries out for interpretation. And yet, at the same time, it appears to reject any attempt at interpretation, as there is no interpretation that seems commensurate with the intensity of what we experience when we read or see it. We may view it, if we wish, as a pious drama warning us to revere the gods; or we may see it as an impious drama, depicting the merciless cruelty of the gods; or we may see the gods as purely metaphorical, and see it as a warning of the dangers of refusing the recognise the importance of the irrational in our mental make-up. Or we may see it as a sort of meta-theatre, a meditation on nature of drama, and of artistic creation. It can be any or all of these things, but they all seem to fall short, far too short, of the terror it communicates.

But terror of what? Of whom? Who, for that matter, is the tragic protagonist? Usually, in a tragic drama, the tragic protagonist is a central character who meets the tragic fate – Oedipus, say, or Hamlet, or Hedda Gabler. But the central character here is the god Dionysus: it is he who dominates the drama, from the long opening speech to the finale, in which, utterly unmoved by the savage terror he has already unleashed, he continues remorselessly to heap further punishment on his victims. Dionysus may be the central character, and, hence, the protagonist, but he is hardly tragic. So perhaps the tragic protagonist is Pentheus. It is he, after all, who undergoes the peripeteia that Aristotle felt the tragic protagonist should undergo – that reversal of fortune from a position of greatness to calamity. But here, too, we draw a blank: Pentheus simply cannot command the stage at any point, not even when he is exerting his royal power: his is too weak a dramatic presence, and he is certainly no match for Dionysus, who is more powerful and more masterful at each stage of the drama. As for the others who are made to suffer – Agaue, Cadmus – these are effectively subsidiary characters: their part is simply to suffer the god’s hostility, despite their being devotees of this same god’s cult. A god who has been defied – and there can be no greater defiance of a god than a refusal to accept his divinity – is merciless when meting out punishment, not merely to the defier, but to the defier’s entire family. No god, after all, can bear to have his divinity questioned.

Of course, the theme of a god punishing mortals is a common one in Greek mythology, and has been dramatised often enough, especially by Euripides himself in his earlier dramas. Sometimes, as in Heracles, we aren’t even told why the god is punishing: enough that the god dislikes a mortal, for whatever reason. But The Bacchae is the only instance I know where it’s not the punished mortal who is at the centre of the drama, but the punishing god.

Dionysus – Bacchus, whatever we want to call him – is a strange god. As god of wine, he presides over celebration, over pleasure, over joy; but also over intoxication, and while this intoxication can lead to inspiration, it can easily slip over into delusion, into madness. As he says of himself:

… Dionysus, son of Zeus, is by turns a god most terrible and most gracious to mankind.

It is the terrible aspect of his double-edged nature that we see here. He carries out in the course of the play what he has said he will at the start: he punishes the entire house of Pentheus, the king of Thebes who refuses to accept his divinity. And he does this not merely with an implacable and remorseless sense of purpose, but also – as far as I can judge from the translations I have read – without any passion: throughout, he is calm and collected, and quite unruffled: if Pentheus’ lack of belief has angered him, he doesn’t show it. Everything he does, he does in cold blood, displaying neither anger, nor even triumph or revulsion once the terrible punishment has been meted out.

This god, inhuman in his single-mindedness, is pitted against an all too mortal Pentheus. When he first appears, he is full of bluster, confident in his temporal powers:

They say that some foreigner has arrived from the land of Lydia, a wizard conjurer, with fragrant golden curls and the flush of wine in his complexion. … If I catch him inside the borders of this land, I’ll cut his head off his shoulders, and put a stop to his making his thyrsus ring and shaking his locks.

The first confrontation between the two, in which the possessor of temporal power questions the divinity of his prisoner, certainly has resonances of Christianity for the modern viewer, but the Greek view of divinity was startlingly different from the Christian: self-sacrifice is the last thing on this god’s mind. The dramatic problem that Euripides faced here was that, given the different natures of the two protagonists, the outcome is a foregone conclusion; and hence, there can be no drama, as such. However, there’s more to this than simply a powerful god running rings around a powerless mortal: the means Dionysus uses to bring about Pentheus’ downfall are rooted in Pentheus’ character:

Dionysus: Do you want to see them, huddled together there on the mountain slopes?

Pentheus: Oh yes! I’d give a treasure of gold for that!

Pentheus has perhaps given away too much of himself here, and tries to backtrack almost immediately by saying that he wouldn’t want to see them drunk. But Dionysus knows he is on the right track:

Dionysus: And yet you’d enjoy looking at something that distressed you?

Pentheus can’t deny it:

Pentheus: Certainly I would, but privately, sitting under the firs.

It is Pentheus’ prurience, his voyeurism, his desire to see for himself the sexual activities he is convinced the devotees of the cult indulge in, that make him easy prey. Dionysus merely leads him in the direction he was inclined to follow in the first place.

Dionysus goes further, and persuades Pentheus – who had, at his first appearance, been so full of macho swagger – to dress as a woman, so he could blend in with the other members of the Dionysian cult. The reference here is clearly to Aristophanes’ play Women of Thesmophoria (a play in which Euripides himself appears as a character), in which a man dresses as a woman in order to infiltrate an all-female society; but where the effect there had been comic, here, it is grotesque. It is quite common for comedies to appropriate elements of tragic drama, and then to parody the tragic by depicting these borrowed elements in an absurd manner; but here, Euripides reverses the process: he borrows from a comedy to add to his tragedy an extra layer of horror. Pentheus, dressed absurdly as a woman, follows his own prurient inclinations towards his own grisly death. Dionysus merely helped facilitate the process.

What happens next is well-known: Agaue, Pentheus’ own mother and an enthusiastic follower of the cult of Dionysus, is made to believe by Dionysus that her son Pentheus is a wild beast, and, in her delusion, and with her intoxicated, god-given strength, she tears her son apart, limb from limb. Euripides spares us nothing. The scene where the bloodied mother enters, triumphant, holding her son’s decapitated head in her hand, thinking it to be the head of a lion, shocks even when read in the comfort of one’s library.

Stage directions have not survived, but it is clear from the dialogue that the rest of Pentheus’ dismembered corpse is also brought on stage. We may but conjecture how this would have been staged in Euripides’ own time, but however it is staged, the effect is horrible beyond words.

Dionysus appears again, this time not bothering to hide who he is: his aim has been achieved. And Pentheus is not the only one punished: his mother, like Heracles in Euripides’ earlier play, must live not only with the death of her son, but with the awareness that it is she who had killed him. And even now, Dionysus isn’t finished: he inflicts further punishment upon Agaue and on Cadmus, despite them both being devotees: he condemns them to spend the rest of their lives as snakes. They are Pentheus’ family, and for a god, this is crime enough.

What is one to make of all this? That it is gripping and compelling, that it resonates powerfully in the mind, hardly need saying; but none of this answers my question “What does it all mean?” Why does it grip so compellingly, and resonate so powerfully? That I cannot answer: it is, perhaps, a question not even to be asked.

In one sense, Euripides is contemplating the nature of his art. Drama, after all, was part of a festival dedicated to Dionysus: Dionysus was, in effect, the god of drama itself. And here, he is presented from the start as the dramatist: it is he who devises the drama, he who develops it and moves it forward right to its bloody climax and beyond; and in encouraging Pentheus to dress as a woman, he even becomes a costume designer of sorts. And, in his role as tragic dramatist, he asks Pentheus that question that has bedevilled us for centuries: Why should we enjoy seeing that which is distressing?

And yet you’d enjoy looking at something that distressed you?

Pentheus’ answer is the answer of all who have ever been drawn to tragic drama:

Certainly I would, but privately, sitting under the firs.

Yes, we would enjoy seeing it, but from a safe distance. This issue is played out on stage in this play in a dialogue between an actor playing Dionysus, and an actor playing Pentheus, but it dramatises a conversation that has been continuing ever since – between the tragic dramatist and the audience, neither of whom truly understands, nor even will understand, just what it is about tragedy that compels us so.

All of this takes us towards what we may call “meta-theatre”. It is a kind of interpretative approach I usually avoid, as anything that refers back to itself usually invites us to take a step back from that self in order to engage in contemplation; and in taking that step back, we inevitably lose something of the immediacy of the thing. But, for reasons beyond my analytic abilities, that doesn’t happen here: we are invited to contemplate why tragedy affects us so, while simultaneously being affected in the strongest possible manner. As with so many other things in this elusive and mysterious play, I have no idea how Euripides pulled it off. It is a work that poses far more questions that could ever, I think, be answered.

[For the post on The Bacchae on the Wuthering Expectations blog, see here.]

“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”, predispose 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 on 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.