“Love’s Labour’s Lost” at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon

The following is a review of The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, directed by Christopher Lushcombe, seen as a live cinema broadcast on February 11th, 2015.

Michelle Terry as Rosaline, with, in background, William Belchambers as Longaville; Tunji Kasim as Dumaine; and Sam Alexander as King of Navarre

Michelle Terry as Rosaline, with, in background, William Belchambers as Longaville; Tunji Kasim as Dumaine; and Sam Alexander as King of Navarre

Love’s Labour’s Lost is an relatively early play, and not among Shakespeare’s best-known, but I find myself loving it and revisiting it far more often than many of Shakespeare’s better-known comedies, such as, say, Much Ado About Nothing or As You Like It. This could perhaps be something to do with the fact that this was the first play I ever saw at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre: the production I saw back then (nearly 37 years ago now) was directed by John Barton, and it seemed to me then and seems to me still – although I do realise that memory can play tricks on these matters – nothing short of perfection. However, I don’t want to turn into one of those boring old farts for whom nothing modern can ever match the glories of the past: at least, I don’t want to assume such a posture on all matters. For in the matter of theatrical productions of Shakespeare, the quality, to judge from the Henry IV plays I saw in Stratford-on-Avon last year, seems to be as high as it ever was.

But it’s a difficult play to bring off, partly because Shakespeare more or less abandoned here the idea of plot, and also because so much of its effect depends on dizzying wordplay of a sort likely to lose a modern audience. Indeed, one can’t help wondering how much of this wordplay would have been picked up even by Shakespeare’s own audience: a line such as Berowne’s “Light seeking light doth light of light beguile” can yield multiple meanings when pondered at one’s leisure in one’s study, but delivered at the speed of sound in the theatre, it’s difficult to get little more than merely the sound of the words.

Of course, it can be said that a line such as Berowne’s is more clever than poetic: it is an extremely intelligent person showing off, exhibiting but a facility with words, a verbal agility, an ability to exploit multiple levels of meaning; it is a self-conscious performance rather than anything very deeply felt. And I can’t help speculating whether the young Shakespeare may have felt this about himself. He must surely have known that he had a greater command of the English language than did any of his contemporaries, or even, for that matter, any of his predecessors; he knew that words obeyed his call. Did he perhaps worry, I wonder, whether this prodigious ability led not to an engagement with reality, but to an escape from it? That, instead of grappling with the seriousness of life, he was merely playing smartarse word games? I usually try not to speculate on authors’ biographies in this manner, but the reason I can’t help doing so on this occasion is that this is, it seems to me, one of the major themes of this play: Love’s Labour’s Lost seems to me very deeply concerned about the uses to which language is put. Through most of this play, we get dizzyingly clever wordplay, and exuberant verbal games; we also get some of the most exquisite and soaring love poetry; but, in the final section, something extraordinary happens. Just as the play seems to be hurtling to its merry and jovial conclusion, with the men all neatly paired off with the ladies, a messenger enters:


MERCADE     God save you, madam!

PRINCESS     Welcome, Mercade;
But that thou interrupt’st our merriment.

MERCADE     I am sorry, madam; for the news I bring
Is heavy in my tongue. The king your father–

PRINCESS     Dead, for my life!

MERCADE     Even so; my tale is told.

And that’s it. Within just a few seconds, the tonality changes beyond all recognition. The high spirits and the exuberance that we had all been enjoying till now gives way to more sombre hues; faced with the implacable fact of mortality, these characters now have to put away their childish things, and learn to grapple with sickness, with grief, and with the impermanence of life itself. I think it’s one of the most wonderful moments in all Shakespeare.

But it is not a tragic ending. Paradise isn’t lost: it’s merely deferred. And when that paradise eventually comes, when Jack finally has Jill, both Jack and Jill may perhaps see the world in a more mature light; although, as Berowne sadly says, “that’s too long for a play”.

The final scene is one of veiled melancholy, of a growing awareness that sadness, like joy, is also a part of life, and cannot be banished. In The Taming of the Shrew, it had been the wife who had been educated by the husband; here, it’s the men who are educated by the ladies. It is the ladies who urge the men to delay the marriages by a year. And Rosaline specifically asks Berowne to leave behind his frivolous games, and tend the sick:

ROSALINE     You shall this twelvemonth term from day to day
Visit the speechless sick and still converse
With groaning wretches; and your task shall be,
With all the fierce endeavor of your wit
To enforce the pained impotent to smile.

BEROWNE     To move wild laughter in the throat of death?
It cannot be; it is impossible:
Mirth cannot move a soul in agony.

I can never quite satisfy myself with mere analysis just what it is about these lines I find so moving. Is it perhaps a recognition of loss? – a loss of something that cannot be recovered? For, once one is aware of the complexities of life, of all its dark shadows and its miseries, what price mirth? What good is it, when it has no power to move a soul in agony? Where is gone all the unfettered joy and the exuberance? Are all these, too, childish things that must be put away?

These questions aren’t answered: all that’s too long for a play, after all. This play comes to an end not with the characters becoming more mature, but with their realisation that, far from shutting themselves away from life, as they had planned to do at the opening of the play, they have now to engage with it. And, after all the linguistic virtuosity, the play ends with two very simple lyrics – homely songs, with everyday words, and images drawn from everyday life – such as maidens bleaching their summer smocks, or icicles hanging by the wall. We seem as far from the start of the play as it is possible to be: words are now used not for playing clever games, but for grappling with what is real.

Grappling with all this in a performance, however, is a tall order, and I hope it isn’t seen as a backhanded compliment when I say this production nearly succeeds. It is the first of two related productions at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre this season – the second being Love’s Labour’s Won, a title one could search for in vain in Shakespeare’s Collected Works. It is known that a play with this title did indeed exist, but it is probably lost; or, conceivably, it could be the play we now know as Much Ado About Nothing. The Royal Shakespeare Company goes with the latter conjecture, and presents the two plays in tandem with much the same cast, and with Rosaline and Berowne transformed in the later play into Beatrice and Benedick. There is a further conceit in these productions: the two plays are both located in an English country house – the first before World War One, and the second after. I am not sure how this will work in Much Ado About Nothing (or Love’s Labour’s Won): that has not been broadcast in the cinemas yet; but I wasn’t, I admit, entirely convinced in Love’s Labour’s Lost. There is, after all, no mention in the text of any impending war, and the four men appearing at the end in military uniform seemed to me incongruous with the text of the play. And further, given what we know about the carnage that was WW1, it added a note of the tragic, which rather drowned out any sense of delicate and wistful melancholy.

Of course, one could say that the delicate and wistful melancholy is but my own interpretation, and that other possible interpretations can also be valid. I don’t dispute that. But, having read through the play again after seeing this production, I could not at any point find anything to justify an interpretation that sees this ending as tragic. For why should it be? The men aren’t really going to war – there’s no mention of it; and neither are the marriages cancelled – they’re merely postponed. At the end, Berowne reflects that Jack hath not Jill, and, when reminded that Jack has not lost Jill for ever, comments “that’s too long for a play”. This comment is a bit sad, perhaps, and wistful, and half-humorous; but what it isn’t, I think, is tragic: Berowne’s disappointment – and it is no more than that – is not devoid of hope. However, in this production, it was delivered while holding back sobs, and I really can’t see any justification in the text for delivering it in this manner.

The final songs as well, distinguished from the rest of the play by their extreme simplicity of diction, were performed here as a big musical number. It is all very well done, as indeed are all the other musical numbers. (This production, incidentally, is full of music, and it is all delightfully scored and performed.) But the simplicity which is the very essence of these final songs is missing. The play, whenever I read it, seems to have at the end a dying fall: here, instead, we are presented with a spectacular pageant.

Perhaps I shouldn’t harp too much on the ending: I only do so because this particular ending seems to me among Shakespeare’s very finest, and the replacement of a gentle and wistful melancholy with full-throated spectacle did, frankly, leave me somewhat disappointed. Which is rather a pity, as the rest of the production could barely be improved upon. Although, even here, there are one or two things for a Beckmesser such as myself to carp about. Why, for instance, change Berowne’s “guerdon” to “emolument”? Sure, the modern audience is likely to be more familiar with the word “emolument”, but given that the joke is about Costard not understanding what the word means in the first place, perhaps “guerdon” should have been left untouched.

Also, I couldn’t help wondering whether Michelle Terry’s Rosaline had to be quite so combative. Rosaline and Berowne clearly foreshadow Beatrice and Benedick in many respects, but even Beatrice and Benedick need to convince us that they do love each other, or, at least, that they come to love each other. Here, while Berowne is clearly besotted with Rosaline, I can’t say I had any great confidence that his love is reciprocated. At least, were I a young man (and I was once – honestly!) I wouldn’t have given much for my chances with this Rosaline.

And finally, while I am still in my Beckmesser mode, there’s the pageant put on at the end by the curate, the schoolmaster, and others of the “lower orders”. In Shakespeare’s text, when Nathaniel the curate does his turn as Alexander, he speaks his few lines, Berowne has a few witticism at his expense, and then they all move on. Here, the scene was expanded: Nathaniel forgets his lines; Berowne makes a scathing comment; and, as Nathaniel is about to leave the stage in tears, one of the ladies (I think it was Rosaline) calls him back; and this time, Nathaniel remembers his lines, to much applause. Now, it is true that the ladies in this play educate the men, and that Berowne’s witticisms at the expense of the performers are uncalled for; but did the text really needed to be changed to underline this point so crudely? Far better, surely, is Shakespeare’s own way of making the point: in the text, at the height of the men’s barrage of “witticisms” (as in the similar scene at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is the men, and not the ladies, who mock the admittedly absurd show on view), the schoolmaster Holofernes says: “This is not generous, not gentle, not humble.” It is a marvellous line. Holofernes had been, till this point, a preposterous comic figure, but with this single line he acquires a dignity and a humanity that the four noblemen at this point rather conspicuously lack. Sadly, this wonderful line was cut in this production, and this excision makes to me no sense at all.

However, leaving aside the Beckmesserisms, there was much to admire. First of all, the sets: each scene was set in a different part of the country house – in the library, on the finely manicured lawn, the drawing room, the terrace, outside the front door, and at one point, quite unexpectedly, on the rooftop. The sets and the ingenious shifts of scene were wonderful: this must have been magical to have experienced in the theatre. And, while I may certainly quibble with certain aspects of the interpretation, the entire cast was marvellous, speaking the very difficult lines superbly, and, with impeccable comic timing, getting laughs where I wouldn’t have suspected any existed. The audience is unlikely to have followed all the arcane wordplay, but with performances of such fine comic zest, it didn’t seem to matter. In particular, John Hodgkinson as Don Armado played the “fantastical Spaniard” with an exuberant comic relish, delighting particularly in the smutty double entendres; while Edward Bennett as Berowne delivered his soaring paean to love in Act Four – surely among the very greatest of all love poems – with such clarity and ardour that time really did seem to stand still, and we, the audience, became, in Hamlet’s words, wonder-wounded hearers.

And when Love speaks, the voice of all the gods
Makes heaven drowsy with the harmony.

Shakespeare may indeed, as I conjectured, have worried whether his mastery over language might be an escape from reality rather than an engagement with it; but when one comes across lines such as these, one feels that he really need not have worried. The sombre hues of the final scene may lift this play from a fine work to a great one; but even without these hues, what we have is exquisite. And it is so exquisitely presented that to carp on matters of interpretation, as I have been doing, is likely to appear merely churlish.

Please note: a cinema broadcast of a theatrical event often makes an impact somewhat different from that when seen in the theatre. Do please see here for Sheila’s characteristically detailed account of the play as seen in the theatre: it really is the next best thing to actually being there.

“‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” by John Ford

I don’t think I’m quite getting it, to be honest. I wasn’t expecting anything of the level of a Hamlet or a King Lear – that would have been foolish – but I was expecting something.  So far, I have read two revenge tragedies, one from either end of the era during which the genre of the Revenge Tragedy was popular: The Spanish Tragedy, written when Shakespeare was still a young man and before his literary career had taken off; and now, the splendidly titled ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford, first performed in 1633 some seventeen years after Shakespeare’s death. But, different though these two plays are, what I am getting are no more than exciting stories, excitingly told, well crafted, and displaying a theatrical bravura: all well and good, one may say, but I am getting nothing so far of anything resembling a tragic vision. Are my expectations too high? Or is there really nothing more to these plays other than a finely tuned stagecraft? Should I just tune my expectations down to expecting no more than an exciting story? Perhaps. But I am not prepared to give up on this yet, by any means: I am particularly keen, amongst other things, to renew my acquaintance with John Webster. Maybe there is a tragic vision in there somewhere – but just not in the two plays I have read so far.

If we do lower our expectations somewhat from the ridiculously high levels set by Will, what we find is entertaining enough. The title of this play, sadly, doesn’t have too great a bearing on the action: it is, one suspects, little more than a ploy to hook the paying audience. However, although the leading lady of this piece, Annabella, is no whore – in that her sexual desires are not conspicuously displayed, nor her sexual favours prodigally given – the sensation-seeking audience has little reason to demur: right from the opening scene, in which the young Giovanni argues with a friar that his passionate sexual desire for his sister Annabella cannot be immoral or irreligious, we know we are in for juicy stuff. The friar, of course, is outraged, but that’s friars for you: no sense of adventure. Undeterred by fears of hellfire, Giovanni announces his passion to his sister, and she doesn’t require much persuasion to jump into bed with him. This doesn’t, admittedly, make her a “whore”, as the title declares, but it doesn’t, shall we say, make for the kind of sweet and wholesome role for which Julie Andrews might have been suitable. (Although, having said that, such casting against type might have been interesting.)

In The Spanish Tragedy, much time was taken up between the crime and the revenge by Hieronimo going mad, and indulging in some quite splendid lunatic rants. Possibly that sort of thing was a bit out-of-date by Ford’s day: he fills in the time between set-up and pay-off by introducing various subsidiary characters and sub-plots, all quite ingeniously woven into the main fabric of the play. The characters are adroitly presented – from the villainous Donado to the imbecilic Bergetto, from the loyal but brutal servant Vasques to the passionate and vengeful Hippolita – and the various strands of the plot are presented with great clarity, so that they all complement each other rather than get in each other’s way. It would be unfair of me to give away the plot details: there was one especially that even I, who like to think of myself as cynical and jaded, had not expected. I must admit it gave me quite a jolt. And, even while reading this as I did on my commuter train, it’s hard not to feel a thrill of horror when Giovanni enters in the final scene with a still warm human heart skewered on his dagger. So what if it’s a rubber stage prop? By this stage you’re so involved in the story it doesn’t matter.

So all in all, it’s tremendous fun. But where is the tragic vision I had been promised? I haven’t seen any so far, but I am but two plays into my project: let’s read on a bit more. Even if I do not end feeling exalted, I shall certainly be most royally entertained.

On opening lines

In this post, I consider what makes for good opening lines.

That wasn’t really very good, was it? Not only does that opening line not impart much beyond what the title has already said, it establishes a tone of voice that is unlikely to engage the casual reader. Or even, for that matter, an interested one. It presents a picture of an author who is scrupulous and correct, but also bland and boring; and who – as Wilde said most unfairly about Henry James – sees writing as a “painful duty”. Perhaps it might work better if expressed as a rhetorical question:

What makes for a good opening line?

A bit better, perhaps: it opens the prospect of a discussion that could lead to some sort of answer. But it’s not much better than the first attempt, to be honest. Many of my earlier posts in this blog started in this manner, but once I made the effort to read through some of my older posts in a critical frame of mind – a salutary though frequently dispiriting thing to do – I realised quite soon how irritating a mannerism this is. I take care never to start any post like this nowadays.

For openings are difficult, and also important, especially in our attention-straitened times. If you haven’t captured the reader’s attention within the first few lines – sometimes within the very first line – then the prospective reader has gone: that extra “view” on your blog statistics does not translate to someone who has bothered to read what you’ve written.

This obviously puts at a disadvantage writers such as myself whose natural style tends towards the prolix rather than the snappy. But snappy opening lines are not without their problems either. All too often, they seem designed to capture the reader’s attention: it’s sometimes a sort of metaphorical throat-clearing – a call to attention which, once delivered, clears the way for the piece really to begin with the second sentence. This is not necessarily a shortcoming: one can sometimes find this sort of thing even in very fine works. Take, for instance, the opening of Joseph Heller’s brilliant Catch 22:

It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

Instantly, the reader (well this reader at any rate) is hooked. But the paragraph that follows has nothing to do with the chaplain: it tells us that Yossarian was in hospital, and explains why. The writing is still brilliant, the reader is still hooked, but that first sentence does not lead to what immediately follows: there is a disjoin.

Of course, that isn’t a problem here – especially as this novel delights in comic artifice, and constantly, and quite deliberately, draws attention to itself. But if that opening line were to be omitted, there would be no hole in the narrative. Writers lesser than Joseph Heller (which is just about all of us, I guess) would, I think, be well-advised to be careful about using this sort of throat-clearing opening gambit. I try not to use it myself: I know my limits, and, badly done, it could become as irritating a mannerism as starting posts with rhetorical questions.

Of course, opening lines don’t have to be snappy to capture the reader’s attention: take for instance the famous openings sentence of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

Sixty-three words, by my count, which could easily be cut down dramatically while still retaining its sense; but, as written, it captures the reader’s attention because it establishes a very distinctive tone of voice: the “David Copperfield kind of crap” is a particularly felicitous touch. The model for this sort of thing is, I suppose, the opening of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn:

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.

Once again, it captures a very distinctive tone of voice. The “don’t” rather than the grammatically correct “won’t” helps capture the tone, but the real touch of brilliance here is, I think, the word “without”. Most of us would have written something along the lines of “You won’t know about me unless you have…”; or “You won’t know about me if you haven’t…”; but anything along those lines would have disrupted the distinctive rhythm of Huck’s manner of speaking. I don’t know how much time and thought Twain had given to that opening sentence, but I suspect it was the product of hard work rather than a spontaneous effusion. And how he must have rejoiced when he finally came up with “without”, and realised that the opening sentence was now absolutely perfect.

But one can also create arresting openings without being snappy, and without establishing an engaging and distinctive narrative voice: but such openings arrest the attention only of a certain kind of reader. Here, for instance, is the opening sentence of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove:

She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass above the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.

Of course, this is unlikely to attract readers who are not prepared to take their time and to engage closely, but James is not writing for such readers anyway. Here, all in one sentence, we are given a sense of the passage of time (Kate Croy is waiting “unconscionably”); the detail of the glass above the mantel gives us a sense of place; the irritation that brings Kate Croy to the point of leaving without seeing her father conveys a sense of her character, and also a sense of tension for reasons as yet unspecified; the face “postively pale” implies a sense of crisis either impending or apparent; and even the four opening words (“She waited, Kate Croy, …” rather than “Kate Croy waited …”) places the emphasis on the act of waiting rather than on the more mundane matter of the naming of the character; while the two commas punctuating these first four words make for a halting, stuttering rhythm that conveys admirably a sense of strain and of unease. All this in a single, harmoniously constructed sentence. Admittedly, this is unlikely to make the Flavorwire or Buzzfeed (or whatever) list of great opening lines, but if ever there were a finer opening to a novel than this, I don’t know it.

And only yesterday, on starting for the first time the essays of Francis Bacon, I came upon this opening line:

“What is truth?” said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.

The essay is entitled “On Truth”. In the gospels, Pilate does indeed ask the captured Jesus this most profound of questions, “What is truth?” (John 18:38); we do not know if Jesus had answered, for no answer is recorded. In Bacon’s version of this story, Pilate did not stay for an answer – either because he did not think there was an answer, or because he did not wish to hear what he thought (or feared) the answer may be. And Pilate, according to Bacon, was “jesting”. Not that he asked the question “in jest”, but that his entire person may be described as “jesting”; that he either refused, or pretended to refuse, to take life too seriously. The two possibilities put forward in this brief sentence are intriguing: either Pilate did not take life seriously, and had asked “What is truth?” fully convinced that no answer was possible; or that he pretended, for reasons we may only guess at, not to take life too seriously, and did not wish even to hear any possible answer to his question.

What wondrous vistas of thought, rich in possibilities, are brought to view by this seemingly simple opening line! It draws me into this meditation on the nature of truth as surely as if it were a thrilling adventure story. Now, that’s how to start an essay, and, to judge by the generally mundane opening lines of my posts here on my blog – the critical reading of which remains, as I said, a frequently dispiriting thing to do – I clearly have some considerable distance yet to go…

“Bartholomew Fair” by Ben Jonson

A friend of mine, who has been an avid theatre-goer for more years than I think he cares to remember (he knows who he is!) tells me that he has seen a few productions of Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, and that it works very well indeed on stage. Which frankly surprised me: I did enjoy reading it, but it seemed to me that there was so much play on language that is likely to be lost on modern audiences; that there were so many contemporary references; that there was so much use of stock comic characters and situations that were then easily recognised, but have now fallen by the wayside; that any modern production would have to work very hard indeed to make an impact. Even as I was reading it, I had to consult the annotations frequently, and, alas, even the best of jokes lose something when they have to be explained through scholarly exegesis.

It’s a teeming, bustling play, with a vast array of characters – rogues, fools, eccentrics, madmen, conmen, bawds and whores – all thrown together in Smithfield market in London on Bartholomew Fair. It is a play that delights in colour and exuberance; and, true to the tradition of British humour from Chaucer to Dad’s Army or even the Carry On films, it delights in human eccentricity. Eccentricity is inevitably, to a lesser or greater extent, subversive in nature, since it cannot do other than disrupt a well-ordered society: the greater the divergence from the norm, the more dangerous the challenge to the authority whose purpose it is to maintain order. It is perhaps for this reason that eccentricity is so potent a force in comic tradition: order is no doubt important if we are to maintain the stability of society; but equally, cocking a snook at the guardians of order is important if we are to maintain the sanity of individuals. This, I think, has been long recognised, even by those in authority: the very day after the first performance of this play in Hope Theatre, Bankside, in 1614, it was performed at Court, without any controversy at all. Authority seemed more than happy to have a snook cocked in its direction – whatever that may literally mean.

I suppose it could be argued that this lack of controversy even when performed in court argues a lack of bite in the pay itself, but I’m not sure Jonson intended the comedy to have any “bite” as such. Sure, neither of the two figures of authority in this play – the Justice of the Peace Adam Overdo, and the Puritan humbug Zeal-of-the-Land Busy – come out well: Overdo follows the time-honoured ruse of walking amongst the commonality in disguise to observe their ways, but here, meets only with receiving a good thrashing (Jonson’s age, like Fielding’s being remarkably less squeamish than ours in these matters), put into the stocks, and, finally, humiliated when the prostitute he thinks he is unmasking ends up being his wife; meanwhile the splendidly named Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, surely a forerunner to Dickens’ Chadband, has the piss ripped out of him something rotten. But Jonson’s mood in this play is one of geniality rather than anger: at the end, the entire cast, bawds and whores and even Puritans, are all invited to dinner. Authority has been suitably mocked, but now that’s over, Jonson, rather than rub it is, is more concerned with celebrating a sense of community, however difficult it may be to believe that such a rag-bag of strange and weird characters could possibly cohere together to form one.

The plot is minimal, and Jonson doesn’t seem too interested in it anyway. Once the exposition in Act One is over, and we find ourselves in Smithfeld market, Jonson’s interest is not in the plot at all, but in his remarkable cast of characters: those scenes that advance he plot seem almost to be dropped in here and there casually. Some of the comic characters are, it must be conceded, tiresome: one doubts, for instance, whether Whit’s provincial accent represents any great height of comic inspiration – although, I suppose, his talk of “shitting” when he means “sitting” could raise a laugh or two. But there are many others who are presented with such tremendous exuberance and comic gusto that it perhaps doesn’t matter too much that one needs to consult the notes to fully get their jokes: good comic actors can, I suppose, get laughs out of just about everything.

After all, there’s more to comedy than mere joke-count. This is not of course to denigrate the importance of the joke-count: I’m sure Jonson himself didn’t. But at least as important as the joke-count is the creation of a comic environment, an enticing fictional milieu that can accommodate the author’s comic vision. Without the creation of such a milieu, all we’d end up with is the equivalent of a joke-book: pleasant to dip into perhaps, but tedious to read from cover to cover. And Jonson’s comic milieu is one full of colour and vigour and vitality, peopled with strange and mad characters who all share so much their creator’s love of words that none of them can bear to stop talking. Not even to get the plot moving.

Some of the comedy in Bartholomew Fair is old and time-honoured, but it’s funny nonetheless; the servant being smarter than the master is always good for a laugh (as Wodehouse well knew), and if in this instance the master, Bartholomew Cokes, is merely the traditional silly arse, his servant, the wonderfully short-tempered, irascible and waspish Humphrey Wasp, continually taking offence at everything, is a delight. Then there’s Ursula, the “Pig Woman” and keeper of the jordans for those who need to relieve themselves – a  vast, Falstaffian character dripping sweat and constantly deflating the pompous and the pretentious with her no-nonsense earthiness; there are crooked and roguish ballad-sellers, tapsters, hobby-horse-sellers, cutpurses; there’s a character named Trouble-All, wandering in and out of the action demanding that there be legal warrants for everything, and that nothing must on any account be done without one; and there’s a Punk Alice, described in the Dramatis Personae as “Mistress of the Game”. And so on. And no matter how roguish or how foolish or how plain mad they are, Jonson seems to love them: the only character he appears to dislike is the killjoy Puritan Zeal-of-the-land Busy, but even he isn’t excluded from the dinner invitation at the end. Whether he will accept or not, and how he could possibly fit into the communal celebrations even if he does, Jonson prefers not to address. The existence of those who will not, can not, fit into a general harmony causes problems for the comic writer: the likes of Malvolio or Beckmesser create uncomfortable dissonances that disturb the harmony. In Twelfth Night, the dissonance deepens the shadows in the play, without, by some miracle, distracting from the comedy; the dissonance at the end of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg remains, on the other hand, for me at any rate, somewhat uncomfortable. But jonson allows no such dissonance at the end of this play: whatever we may feel about Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, it is swept away by the general air of geniality and good humour. After the mocking of authority, all is forgotten and forgiven: what remains is celebration.

This play is, in essence, Jonson’s love-letter to London, and to the people of London. It is not, I’d imagine, a very easy play to put on in modern times, but given that it can still hold the stage, I’d love to see it performed. I imagine, though, that the jokes would be delivered in performance somewhat more quickly than I managed to read them.

“The Spanish Tragedy” by Thomas Kyd

Revenge has been central feature of many a drama, right from the earliest times to now, encompassing everything between the highest of brows and the lowest – from the Orestia of Aeschylus to the Death Wish films of Michael Winner; from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus; from westerns and gangster films of varying quality to the blood-drenched “video nasties” that so exercised our moral sensibilities some thirty or so years ago.

The reason for its appeal across so vast a range is not difficult to discern. At the basest end, it provides violence that titillates us, but which we can nonetheless enjoy in good conscience because some of the violence we know will be punished, while the rest of it we know is perpetrated in a just cause (both Titus Andronicus and Death Weekend occupy this end of the spectrum). Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the theme allows us to ponder such important matters as justice and morality. It encourages us to consider the ultimate futility of meting out injury for injury, and, simultaneously, the moral decadence of not meting out injury for injury. The dilemma is with us still: those who fight dragons become dragons themselves, Nietzsche had warned us; and yet, those who don’t fight dragons allow the dragons to become stronger. It is a horrible moral bind to be in, and it is hardly surprising that those writers who think long and hard about the human condition find themselves fascinated by this seemingly insoluble moral impasse. And neither is it surprising that those who don’t think so long or so hard relish the opportunity of the violent titillation this theme affords. Either way, it makes – if not necessarily for good drama, then, at least, for drama that holds the attention of its intended audience.

The “revenge tragedy” was an important genre of its own in Shakespeare’s days, and one of the seminal works of that genre is Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, written in the 1580s when Shakespeare was still a young man, and popular enough to be revived in 1602 (with additional scenes possibly by Ben Jonson, no less) when Shakespeare was at his height of his career. It is not, to be honest (and to anticipate somewhat the conclusion of this post), a particularly major work of literature. But then again, one shouldn’t spend all one’s reading time exploring the great peaks: one should know also something of the plains from which the peaks rise. Masterpiece this isn’t, but it’s a diverting enough work. Kyd isn’t interested in the psychology of revenge; neither is he interested in the morality. What he is interested in is pacing the story in such a way as to keep the audience interested in what happens next, in creating tension, and in providing shocks and sensational stage effects. We have a sensational stage effect in the very first scene, as the ghost of the recently deceased Don Andrea enters with the Spirit of Revenge. And together, they sit and watch the events unfold, much as we, the audience, do. In the course of the action, we have villainy, treachery, murder, false imprisonment, attempted forced marriage, suicide, and, of course, madness. Hieronimo goes mad after his son is brutally murdered: there are some splendid scenes of his mad ranting. And if one person going mad makes for good theatre, two people going mad makes for theatre twice as good: Hieronimo’s wife is introduced for no other purpose than for her to go mad also. And then there’s the splendid finale – a play-within-a-play (an idea Shakespeare was more than happy to recycle), but here, the stage-within-the-stage violence is real. Which, of course, can take us into Borgesian labyrinths should we be that way minded (if the violence within the play-within-the-play is real, then might not… etc.) but I doubt any of that was in Kyd’s mind: he saw it for what it was –a sensationally good stage effect. And should we be tempted to think that all this excessive violence is a bit tongue-in-cheek, Hieronimo caps it all by biting his tongue off and spitting it out of his cheek, to ensure that torture doesn’t make him talk. Splendid stuff.

Presumably, this was the sort of thing the audiences of the time wanted, but I must confess myself a bit puzzled by this: these were cruel times, when torture was commonplace, floggings, beheadings, and hanging, drawing and quartering were all public spectacles. Why were audiences so keen to see simulated violence when the real thing was happening just outside the theatre? In all the accounts I have read of Tudor and Jacobean theatre, I have never seen this question addressed. But whatever the reason behind this, simulated stage violence was undoubtedly popular, and the genre of the revenge tragedy seemed a perfect vehicle for giving the audience what it craved.

In the introduction to my Oxford edition, editor Katharine Eisaman Maus spends much time discussing the social distinctions underpinning the drama. The victim of the crime, Horatio, and his avenging father Hieronimo, are, she points out, effectively top ranking civil servants in the court, and are thus somewhat below the aristocratic villains in terms of social ranking. Interesting though this is, I am not convinced that Kyd had any interest in social hierarchies of the court other than as a means to enable the plot. For, obviously, there can be no need for revenge at all if the law may be relied upon to redress the wrong; thus, in any tale of revenge, there must be a good reason why the law cannot be relied upon – either because the law is inefficient, or corrupt, or because, as in the earlier parts of The Oresteia, such a law doesn’t even exist. At the end of The Oresteia the drama is resolved with the establishment of a legal institution capable of redressing wrongs, thus making redundant individual acts of vengeance. But The Oresteia was set in mythical times: The Spanish Tragedy on the other hand, is set in roughly the same time in which the play was written, so some explanation must be provided on this score to make the revenge plot intelligible. And the explanation here seems to be that the villains, occupying a higher social rank than Hieronimo, can block his access to the king. The element of social ranking thus seems to me a plot device more than anything else: certainly, Kyd shows no particular interest in exploring this theme for its own end, and to focus on this element is perhaps to give the play a greater significance than it possesses.

Kyd went on to write a play based on the Hamlet story. This play has not survived, so it is impossible to judge how much Shakespeare took from it; but if Shakespeare did indeed take anything significant from this play, one can only surmise that it was, artistically, a far greater achievement than The Spanish Tragedy. For, in trying to discern what influence if any The Spanish Tragedy may have had on the works of Shakespeare, the answer seems to be – apart from the plot device of the play-within-the-play – “very little”. Amongst other things, Shakespeare doesn’t even seem very interested in the theme of revenge. Apart from the early play Titus Andronicus – in which I cannot see any glimmerings at all of artistic ambition – Hamlet is the only play in the Shakespearean canon in which revenge plays a major role. After that, despite the immense potential of this theme in tragic drama, it appears in Shakespeare’s tragedies only on the periphery of the action rather than at the centre: it is, for instance, Macduff who is motivated by revenge, not Macbeth. Even in Hamlet, Shakespeare seems  uninterested in some of the major aspects of the theme, such as, say, the morality of revenge: once Hamlet is satisfied that the ghost is really the spirit of his father, and that Claudius really is his father’s murderer, this most persistent of questioners never even questions whether or not revenge is morally justified. This issue that so exercised the imaginations of the great Athenian tragedians appears not to have concerned Shsakespeare at all. If Shakespeare’s audiences really did crave revenge tragedy – and the existence of so many plays by his contemporaries in this genre indicates that they did – then Shakespeare seems on the whole to have been swimming against the popular tide in refusing to satisfy them. And if The Spanish Tragedy is indeed representative of the plain from which the peak of Hamlet rises, then, for all the undoubted entertainment value of Kyd’s work, it must be conceded that the height of the peak from the level of the plain is immeasurably great.

On New Year resolutions, and a few other matters

After the festivities, the austerity. Several of my friends have committed themselves to going through the first month of the New Year without alcohol, penitent, it seems, for the sin of having enjoyed themselves earlier. Others have come up with New Year resolutions that seem designed to make life as unpleasant as possible: give up fried food, exercise more, go to the gym, and the like. (It never ceases to astonish me, incidentally, that those paying vast amounts for the privilege of exercising in a gym appear not to have figured out that taking a run round the park is free.) If Christmas was designed to brighten up the gloom of a bleak mid-winter, we seem intent upon returning to all that gloom and bleakness with a fanatic relish afterwards. As for myself, I must confess that, ageing sybarite that I am, all this mortifying the flesh to purify the spirit leaves me feeling distressingly alienated. For, in the words of Falstaff, he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man; and who in their right senses would consider a life purged of all its pleasures, and laden with various self-imposed vicissitudes, to be a life worth having – even for the single penitential month of January? Give me life, says I! If I can have it, so; if not, the gym comes unlooked for, and there an end.

Not that I haven’t made a few New Year resolutions myself, of course. Not perhaps New Year resolutions, since they had been formulated log before the New Year, but, all the same, resolutions for this coming year. I want to devote myself to the arts and literatures of Shakespeare’s times. To this end, I have lined up for myself the Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse – a large and forbidding tome with which I am determined to familiarise myself; the Longman edition (which is the most heavily annotated version I could find) of the poems of Donne, along with the Cambridge Companion to Donne, which, hopefully, will give me some critical insights that I could then pass off here as my own; various plays by contemporaries of Shakespeare – Kyd, Marlowe, Webster, Jonson, Ford, Middleton, Tourneur, Dekker, Heywood, and the like; and the collected essays of Bacon and of Montaigne. (The latter died when Shakespeare was still a teenager, but Montaigne seems so important an intellectual influence on Shakespeare, that it seems ludicrous for any self-respecting Bardolator not to know his works well.) And I want to read Don Quixote in a modern translation: my preferred translation till now has been the one by Tobias Smollett, who was, of course, a fine novelist in his own right, but, lively and ebullient thought that version was and still is, the more recent translations are, I am told, more accurate; and since we already have John Rutherford’s highly rated Penguin translation on our shelves (it is a favourite book of my wife’s), there seemed little point getting another one. On top of all this, I would like to familiarise myself with the art and music of that period: the last few weeks have been spent listening to some of the choral music of William Byrd, including the three magnificent masses (which, in those days in Protestant England, had to be performed discreetly behind closed doors), and also to some of the songs of John Dowland. I really am not at all familiar with music of this era, but I suppose repeated listening is the best way to familiarise myself.

My resolution to immerse myself in all this has, admittedly, been put on hold for a while by a couple of books presented to me for Christmas by my brother: Think by Simon Blackburn, an introduction to laymen such as myself to some of the major concepts and arguments of Western philosophy; and The Soul of the World by philosopher Roger Scruton, in which the author (and I am merely paraphrasing the blurb here on the jacket) argues for the importance in our lives of a sense of the sacred (a term, I presume, the author will define somewhere along the line), and, to anticipate somewhat, concludes that “despite the shrinking place for the sacred in today’s world … the paths to transcendence remain open”. My brother presented this book to me with the somewhat tongue-in-cheek comment that he thought I would like it because I was “into all that mumbo-jumbo”. He was referring to my fascination with Dostoyevsky, a writer for whose irrationality and religious fervour my brother has little patience: and he is right: I am, indeed, into all that “mumbo-jumbo” – at least, up to a point. The idea that I am more than the sum of my constituent physical parts is one to which I do find myself emotionally attached, despite all the arguments and the lack of scientific evidence that may be ranged against it. So I would be very interested indeed to know what a philosopher such as Scruton has to say in defence of this idea, irrational though it may well be. Well, let’s not pre-judge: I’ll write about all that once I have read the book.

But the first two weeks of the January I have spent reading Blackburn’s book. I am still debating whether or not to write a blog post on it: of what value, after all, can the thoughts be worth of a not-very-knowledgeable layman regarding a book written by an expert on very profound and complex matters? Should I not merely restrict myself to saying that I found it illuminating and fascinating (and a few similar words looked up in the thesaurus) and leave it there? Anything more and I would merely be making a fool of myself! But this blog is as much a personal diary as it is a public platform, so perhaps a jotting down few words describing my own reactions to the book rather than presuming the critique the book may not be entirely amiss. I’ll see how confident I feel about it. And some time not too much later, I most certainly want to read Scruton’s book. And write something about that too, if I can pluck up the courage to do so.

But for now, I am going to immerse myself in Donne. By the end of the year, I want to count myself as one knowledgeable about this poet, of whose work I am currently aware only in a very haphazard manner. And may I wish everyone out there that your New Year resolutions – even if it is spending more time in the gym – brings you as much joy as mine promise to bring to me!

Hurt sentiments: a postscript

I don’t know if this happens to other bloggers, but it happens to me. I write a blog post; I go through it, polishing the sentences as best I can, and correcting all the typing errors and grammatical solecisms that I can find (I am not very good at this latter bit); and then I hit the “Post” button. And only then do I think of something else I should have said, but didn’t. And it’s too late now: I can’t put up a new post just to include a few sentences I had omitted from the last one.

Or can’t I? It’s my blog after all – I can write what I like! So here are a few sentences that I had neglected to include in my previous post on the subject of “hurt sentiments”:

People who are intimidated into silence will have very little respect, if any, for the sentiments, hurt or otherwise, of those who have silenced them. Quite the contrary: they are quite likely regard those sentiments with disdain. Do those who silence others through fear not realise this? Or do they realise it, and not care? Are their sentiments hurt only by overt mockery rather than by covert contempt?

And that’s all really. I feel much better after that! Thank you for indulging me.


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