Archive for March, 2010

Writing a novel? No, neither am I

Like any teenager interested in literary matters, I wanted to write a novel. And I thought I could. I was, at the time, reading some of the finest of all novels, and yet, with that astonishing arrogance that seems inevitably to go with youth, I imagined that I, too, could come up with something comparable. George Eliot, Henry James, Thomas Mann … none of them filled me with the awe they inspire in me these days: back then, it seemed to me that whatever they could do, I, with a little application, could match. 

Somehow, this illusion lasted into my mid twenties or so. Then, perhaps sadly, common sense got in the way. I looked at the pathetic pages I had so seriously struggled over, and I looked at those titles staring down at me from my shelves. Could I, in all seriousness, ask the prospective reader to tackle my work instead of tackling Proust? For, like it or not, if you are a novelist, you are competing with the best. You are in effect saying: “Yes, I know there are all those wonderful novels you haven’t yet read – novels by Ivan Turgenev and by Joseph Conrad and by Edith Wharton … but I’m asking you to defer tackling those unread masterpieces, and spend whatever time you set aside for reading  to read my effort instead.” 

Such a consideration should put off any but the most gifted, but, to judge from the proliferation of creative writing courses and self-help books on novel-writing (did  Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky require such books, I wonder?), more people than ever want to write. 

There’s a novel in everyone, we are told. Perhaps. But whether that novel is worth reading is surely another matter. For, contrary to received wisdom, the novel is not, I think, a means of self-expression. Or, if it is, it is only worth writing if one has a self worth expressing. And, much as it may hurt our egos, not all selves are worth expressing. But the idea of the novel primarily as a means of self-expression has taken root, and the consequence is a stream of novels – a few of which even get published – that are little more than navel-gazing. 

To state the obvious, to write a novel – or, at least, to write a good novel, a novel worth reading – the writer needs technical ability. I think this is all the more so when one is writing purely to entertain, without any thought of exploring any of the deeper themes of life. In a profound novel, such as, say, Moby-Dick, any number of technical shortcomings can seem insignificant when seen in the context of its artistic vision: but in a Flashman novel, say, the same technical shortcomings, without the compensatory factor of an artistic vision, will prove disastrous. Good literary entertainers such as George Macdonald Fraser were technical masters, as, indeed, were the great literary entertainers who had preceded him – Dumas, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, Wodehouse, etc. (And Agatha Christie too, I suppose, although her works aren’t to my personal taste.) And it is fair to say, I think, that such technical brilliance is exceptional rather than otherwise. 

But I suspect that most people who dream of becoming novelists harbour artistic ambitions. And here, I fear, mere self-expression falls far, far short of the mark. To write a novel that is a success in artistic terms, one must convey an artistic vision. Indeed, one must have an artistic vision to start with. One needs also to understand what goes on in the minds of various types of people – people very different from oneself. Very few people have such a vision, or such an understanding. This is why very few people are qualified to write novels. It is certainly why I am ineligible. 

It was in my mid-twenties, I think, that I understood how ill-suited I was to write a novel. Even if I were to try very, very hard, I reasoned, the best I could ever hope to produce would be something mediocre. And is the world really crying out for yet another mediocre novel? 

So I decided that if I can’t be a good writer, at least I could make an effort to be a good reader. And that is what I have been doing ever since, with immense profit and enjoyment. Beats being a tortured genius, at any rate!

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From Greek Tragedy to Bollywood…

Some years ago, an Arts Centre in Midlands promoted itself with the slogan “Everything from Greek Tragedy to Bollywood”. 

It’s an interesting dichotomy. This arts centre wished, no doubt, to promote itself as inclusive, as an organisation that caters for both ends of the spectrum, and, by implication, all that lies between. But which spectrum? On the one hand, there is the spectrum of East-West (with the West referring to Europe, and the East, presumably, to the Indian subcontinent rather than to, say, China or Japan or Korea); and on the other hand, there’s the spectrum that is defined by high culture at one end, and popular culture at the other. But the slogan they chose – “Greek Tragedy to Bollywood” – conflates the two spectra, and aligns them. And this alignment is along entirely predictable lines: the West provides Greek tragedy – among the loftiest peaks of human achievement; and the East provides Bollywood – pure mindless kitsch. Except one should not say so openly, as that would be insulting to those millions from the Indian subcontinent who, poor devils, don’t have anything better. 

Maybe I made too much of this. Maybe it’s a pure accident that this arts centre came up with “From Greek Tragedy to Bollywood” rather than, say, “From Boy Bands to Sanskrit Drama”. Let’s be charitable on the point. And let us be charitable also to the organisers of the BBC Proms – the world’s largest classical music festival – who, last year, represented Western music with Handel and Haydn, Mozart and Mahler, Schubert and Schoenberg, and Indian music with … well, with Bollywood. Again. Years ago, when the Proms showcased Indian music, they would invite – as was and still, I think, is, reasonable for a festival of classical music – musicians of the Indian classical traditions. But the idea seems to have taken hold now that, in all contexts – even that of a festival of classical music – India is best represented by Bollywood. And so, in the midst of all the Bach and Beethoven, we were treated to the sort of pop concert that, to judge by the posters I see around Hounslow or Southall, is already performed quite frequently in Britain. And once again, the formulation is similar to the slogan of the Midlands art centre: the West provides the quality, the East provides the kitsch. 

These thoughts came back to me in the last few weeks when I received a few e-mails asking for my support for the campaign to save BBC Asian Network (“Asian” once again denoting “That which originates from the Indian sub-continent”) which is currently threatened with closure. I must confess that I did not sign the petition to save the channel. Quite apart from anything else, I am rather indifferent to the issue: I do not listen to this channel, and, should the campaign to save it succeed, I do not plan to listen to this channel: it does not broadcast anything that interests me. Of course, I don’t speak for everyone here: plainly, there are many who are interested in what this channel broadcasts; but it seemed foolish to add my support to an issue on which I, personally, am utterly indifferent. 

But, to be honest, the reasons for my reluctance to sign the petition went a bit deeper than that. This channel had set out on a strictly populist agenda: those who run this channel are as reluctant as the organisers of that Midlands arts centre or the organisers of the Proms even to acknowledge the existence of anything in the cultures of the Indian subcontinent more elevated or worthwhile than Bollywood and bhangra. If this channel really were representative of the music of the subcontinent, where, one may ask, are the ghazals? Where is the music of the various folk traditions? Where are the classical ragas? Where are the Rabindrasangeet? None of this is represented – not even in the form of a token gesture. Admittedly, Bollywood and bhangra are likely to be more popular than the more worthwhile aspects of Indian cultures, and those who care for the classical traditions of Indian music are very much in the minority; but it nonetheless seems somewhat ironic to me that those now talking about the importance of serving minorities had never for a moment given a thought to the minorities within their own ranks. 

But even if we were to put aside all of this, the basic fact remains that if a station that sets out doggedly to be populist cannot even command sufficiently high listening figures, then it has no reason to continue to exist. And that’s the case here: this station, from the very beginning, outlawed everything other than the most populist of elements; and yet, its listening figures are well below targets, and, from what I gather, dwindling. Campaigners claim that this channel deserves to survive because it serves a minority community that would otherwise not be served: under the circumstances, that sounds, I fear, like insulting humbug.

The Bardathon: 34 – The Two Noble Kinsmen

Shakespeare’s career finished neither with a bang nor with a whimper, but merely with going through the motions. It’s hard to understand why. Going through his work I get the impression of an ever-active mind, constantly trying out new things. Even as late as Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, he was experimenting with new forms and new ideas. It’s hard to believe that he could have lost interest overnight. And even if he did lose interest, why didn’t he just retire back to Stratford? It wasn’t as if he needed to make a bit more money, after all!

Maybe he was just tired. Maybe he could feel the approach of old age. Maybe he didn’t feel he was up to that immense hard work that is required to give an impression of effortless genius. But perhaps he was still obliged to write a couple more plays – either contractually obliged, or because he had promised a few more and didn’t want to let down his friends. Or, perhaps, he couldn’t quite get rid of the scribbling habit he had acquired over the years. Whatever. And he asked now for a collaborator, for to write entire plays was too much hard work, what with his health not being quite what it was. A good collaborator, mind – someone like John Fletcher, who knew what he was doing – and not that idiot who wrote that first draft of Pericles: Will had worked hard making something out of the latter half of that play, but as for that first half – well, what can you do with such incompetence?

So the collaboration of John Fletcher was arranged. As for the subject – the theatre wanted at least one play to be a celebratory pageant. One can imagine Will thinking about this: “How about a celebration of the victory against the Spanish Armada? There was a revival of patriotism with the twentieth anniversary of that event a few years ago, and people are beginning to feel nostalgic about the dear, departed queen. Or better still, how about a celebration of the birth of Good Queen Bess? That way, you could take a few liberties with history, and no-one in the audience would be old enough to remember. Good – a Henry VIII play it is. As for the others, I really enjoyed Shelton’s translation of a Spanish novel called Don Quixote. Apparently the author is writing a sequel to that – Don Quixote, Part Two (but sequels are never as good as the original – except for my Henry IV, Part Two) – but that first part, I must admit, is very amusing. And there are a few romantic sub-plots in it that could be adapted into pretty decent plays. The story of Cardenio, perhaps. And as for the third play, I have been reading Chaucer again for the first time since I adapted that poem of his for Troilus and Cressida. That was a fine play though I say so myself, but it was too bitter and pessimistic to be a popular success: the public never really took to it. Now, what was that expression I had used in Hamlet? – ah yes, caviar to the general. Well, Troilus and Cressida was definitely caviar to the general. But The Knight’s Tale has possibilities. Let’s see if I can get that Fletcher lad to write up a few drafts, and then maybe I could touch them up a bit afterwards. Now, if only I had the energy to re-write The Tempest as the narrative poem that it should have been in the first place…”

And so we had The Two Noble Kinsmen, by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, based on Chaucer’s Knight’s tale. The title of Shakespeare’s last play is  reminiscent of the title of the play that was very probably his first – The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Both are about male bonding broken by heterosexual love, a motif that appears frequently in Shakespeare’s comedies. But who could guess from these two uninspired bookends of the quality of the works that had appeared in between?

There isn’t really much to be said for the play itself, although I am reliably informed that it can be made to work well on stage. There is no memorable poetry in it, nor any scene of dramatic power. The scene where the gaoler’s daughter becomes mad in the moonlit forest is quite striking: it recalls Ophelia’s mad scene in Hamlet; and the moonlit woods outside Athens inevitably recalls A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But the comparisons are not to the advantage of this play. The subplot with the gaoler’s daughter is stretched out quite pointlessly, while the main strand plods along uneventfully. All very workmanlike and competent, I suppose, but leaving the reader (well, this reader at least) asking “So what?”

But the Bardathon is finished: our revels now are ended. Between the two Veronese gentlemen and the two noble cousins are riches that, even after years of acquaintance, one can barely begin to comprehend. It is just a shame that the series had to end so unremarkably.

The Bardathon: 33 – Henry VIII

There are two plays written apparently after The Tempest, that bear Shakespeare’s name – Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. The latter appeared in print in the 1630s, and its title page tells us explicitly that it was written by Shakespeare and by John Fletcher. It is generally reckoned that Henry VIII was also written in collaboration – most likely with the same John Fletcher – but this is based purely on internal evidence, and, as we all know, that can be most unreliable. However, I for one wouldn’t grudge John Fletcher his part in the glory, if only because there isn’t much glory here in the first place. For all we have is a workmanlike piece, quite devoid of the genius that had informed Shakespeare’s earlier work.

One can only conjecture why Shakespeare went on to write plays when, quite clearly, he had no further artistic ambition. Indeed, one could wonder why this greatest of artists should sacrifice artistic ambition in the first place. But there it is: conjecture is all we are reduced to. Was Shakespeare contracted to write a few more plays before his official retirement? Was he helping out his old friends and colleagues? Did he ask for a collaborator because, after twenty years and more of extraordinary creativity, he was no longer feeling quite up to it physically? Who knows! But, to judge purely on the basis of the text, there isn’t really much to get excited about. Indeed, in view of the very detailed stage directions, one gets the impression that Henry VIII was intended primarily to be a spectacle rather than a drama.

There are, for all that, a couple of good roles here: there’s Katherine of Aragon, who bears her fall from grace with nobility and dignity; and there’s the unscrupulous Cardinal Wolsey, who, more deservedly, also falls from grace. One suspects that Shakespeare the artist would have made far more of these figures, but what we get here is not so much Shakespeare the Artist as Shakespeare the Craftsman.

The play is quite clearly intended to celebrate the birth of Good Queen Bess, and, in order to do that, it must also celebrate the marriage of Henry to Anne Boleyn. However, this celebration sits rather uncomfortably with the tragic fate of Katherine of Aragon. The play insists that we have sympathy with Katherine, and at the same time celebrates Henry’s marriage to Anne, and these two aspects don’t quite fit.

The characterisation of Henry himself is, for similar reasons, unsatisfactory. Is he divorcing Katherine because he has genuine religious scruples? If so, then, at least by the standards of his time, his actions are admirable. Or is he merely trading in his ageing wife for a younger model? If so, then, by the standards of any time, his actions are most reprehensible. The play makes no attempt to clarify or even to explore Henry’s motivation, and one suspects that a younger Shakespeare may have made this the central plank of the drama.

There’s also the problem of the final act, which introduces a new set of characters, and thematically seems to have little to do with what had preceded it Some put it down to the fact that the play was a collaboration, but I find it hard to believe that the collaborators would not have got together at some time to determine the play’s overall shape.

So, despite having two rather meaty roles, this is a play only to be read because it has that magical name of Shakespeare attached to it. I doubt it is read by any but the committed Bardolator.

The Bardathon: 32 – The Tempest

The Tempest is the last of that trio of plays that may with justice be referred to as Shakespeare’s last artistic testament, and, as in the other two, Shakespeare is still experimenting with form. But while with Cymbeline Shakespeare had ran into problems because there was too much plot, here, there seems to be too little: after the central climax in Act 3 for instance, where Alonso recognises his guilt, there is no drama at all until the final tableau, and Shakespeare has to fill up much of the fourth act with a somewhat irrelevant masque. Admittedly, immediately after the masque, Prospero speaks some of the most miraculously beautiful lines ever written, but one may justifiably ask: “Where is the drama?”

Indeed, one may ask that question throughout the play. Regarded as a poem, it is mysterious and beautiful, and clearly the product of a very great genius; but regarded as a drama, it seems to me the least satisfactory of the last three plays. Even Cymbeline, which often gets a bad press, contains scenes of dramatic power: The Tempest, as far as I can see, doesn’t.

For drama requires conflict, and tension, and suspense. And the only real conflict here is the conflict within Prospero’s mind: now that he has his enemies at his mercy, what should he do with them? And really, for the drama to end satisfactorily, there really is only one way this particular conflict could be resolved, so there’s not much tension on that score either. In the other scenes, we see Caliban plot with Trinculo and Stephano to murder Prospero, but there’s no tension or suspense there: we know that Prospero has all that under control. We also see Alonso, Gonzalo, and the two evil brothers – Sebastian and Antonio – but even here, there’s no real suspense or tension, because, once again, Prospero – through his servant, the spirit Ariel – has the situation under control. So where are the conflicts that generate drama? Where is the tension, where is the suspense? One might almost get the impression that Shakespeare was bored writing drama, and may perhaps have preferred to have written this instead as a narrative poem.

One can only conjecture why this most accomplished of writers for the stage would create so undramatic a work, but there is far too much conjecture about this play as it is. The most well-known of these is that this is in effect an autobiographical play, and that Prosepro was a self-portrait; and that Prospero’s abjuration of his art was, effectively, Shakespeare’s. I don’t know that we should make too much of this. Shakespeare did, after all, go on to work on at least three more plays after The TempestCardenio (now lost), Henry VIII, and The Two Noble Kinsmen: it is true that all three of these were, most likely, collaborations; and it is also true that neither of the two existing plays is touched with Shakespeare’s genius. But the fact that he agreed to work on them at all, and that he made a more than competent job of them, does not suggest to me a writer bored with writing plays. And one must remember also that The Tempest had been preceded immediately by The Winter’s Tale, a work of the most consummate stagecraft. Did Shakespeare change overnight from a man in complete control of dramatic form to a man who was bored with it, and couldn’t be bothered? I doubt it.

And yet, the mystery remains. Why is The Tempest so poor as drama? Why does Shakespeare present the exposition in so long and so tedious a speech? I suppose there are times when one must shrug one’s shoulders and admit that it is impossible even to try to understand what goes on in a mind such as Shakespeare’s.

The work itself, I have noticed, tends to be valued most highly by those who prefer poetry to drama. And as poetry, there is no doubt that this is one of the high water marks of Shakespeare’s career: it is extraordinarily beautiful. But for all that, The Tempest is a play I never could warm to, and this latest reading has, I’m sorry to say, left me, not for the first time, quite unmoved.

It seems in many ways a somewhat bitter play. Alonso is repentant: the apparent loss of his son teaches him humanity. But Antonio and Sebastian remain as evil as ever, and one can’t help wondering whether Prospero’s decision to forgive them was correct. The forgiveness itself seems somewhat less that whole-hearted:

For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother
Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive
Thy rankest fault; all of them.

Cymbeline had ended on a note of celebration, and The Winter’s Tale with a sense of radiance and serenity, but the mingled chime that ends this last play is not entirely harmonious: Prospero may renounce his art, and every third thought be of his grave, but there seems little sense of joy, or serenity, or even of fulfilment. Mankind may be thought wonderful only by someone such as Miranda, for whom it is all new:

MIRANDA
O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

PROSPERO
‘Tis new to thee.

Even the union of the young lovers promises little hope for the future.

The Tempest is usually thought of as Shakespeare’s final artistic testament. I prefer to think of The Winter’s Tale as occupying that position. The Tempest, I am afraid, leaves me, for all its undoubted poetic greatness, as puzzled and as dissatisfied as ever. At least, in dramatic terms.

The Bardathon: 31 – The Winter’s Tale

To present a vision that goes beyond tragedy, one must first of all pass through the tragic. And this we do with a vengeance in the first half of The Winter’s Tale. Here, the tragic momentum generated seems unstoppable, as it sweeps everything in its path. Reading it, I found those frightening lines of Yeats going around my head: “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

Of course, Shakespeare has been here before. The basic motif is a familiar one from many of his other works: a man mistakenly believes his wife to be unfaithful, and in his jealousy wreaks havoc. The most famous example of this motif is, of course, Othello, but we had seen it also in Much Ado About Nothing and in Cymbeline (in both of which tragedy is narrowly averted, though suffering isn’t); and we had seen it also in a comic mode in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Why Shakespeare should repeatedly be drawn to this particular motif is anyone’s guess. But leaving aside idle biographical speculation, the tragic power unleashed by this motif in the first three acts of The Winter’s Tale recalls Othello in its intensity.

The differences, though, are remarkable. The most obvious is that Leontes is Iago to his own Othello: he walks of his own volition into evil and madness – he does not need to be led. And this naturally raises the question of why he does so; but, very disturbingly, there is no answer. Indeed, there isn’t even anything that may, perhaps, lead us to an answer. Any intelligent reading of Othello would look deeply into the possible motivation of Iago, or into his mental state, to try to understand why he so carefully plants that seed of evil in Othello; and it would look also at Othello, and try to understand just what it is that is in him that allows that seed to blossom so terribly in his soul. We may not arrive at a full and complete answer, but we are invited to search all the same. But there is no such invitation in The Winter’s Tale: the evil in Leontes irrupts so suddenly and so mysteriously, that we are given no point from which even to begin an investigation into its nature. It just is. Later, the evil disappears with equal suddenness, but not before the blood-dimmed tide has been loosed, and the ceremony of innocence drowned. And the characters, like the audience, are left unable even to ask “Why?”

Shakespeare had investigated the various different aspects of nature of evil in several of his earlier plays – Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth – but in many ways, this is the most terrifying, because it is presented here as being even beyond the possibility of human understanding. Leontes’ many speeches, with its jagged and irregular rhythms, are unlike anything I have encountered in Shakespeare’s other plays: they reveal a disjointedness as severe as that of Othello’s mind, but we do not find here any sense of continuity between what Leontes is and what he had been, or what he later becomes once the evil subsides. And it is this very lack of continuity that terrifies. Is our human nature really so very vulnerable to such irrational evil?

The first half of the play culminates in two splendid climactic scenes – first, the great trial scene with its dramatic conclusion, and then, the scene set notoriously on the coast of Bohemia, and featuring even more notoriously the exit pursued by a bear. It is all too easy to make this scene comic, but I think that is a mistake: the scene with the bear should shock and terrify. In King Lear nature had been impersonal, indifferent to human suffering; but here, nature, in the form of the storm and of the murderous bear, seems to vent its fury at what humans do to each other.

But then, in the long fourth act, the tone miraculously changes: we suddenly find ourselves in a world of pastoral comedy – as if we have stepped out the world of Othello and into the world of As You Like It. Of course, Shakespeare had often attempted to blend together diverse elements, but here, there’s no attempt at blending: the diverse elements are simply placed next to each other. (In this, one cannot help but think of the late style of another supreme genius, albeit working in a different medium: the late works of Beethoven similarly juxtapose the most diverse of forms and moods.) And somehow – I am not sure how – it all works. The very fact of it working is in itself a miracle.

But it is in the final act that we encounter the greatest miracles of all – the miracle both inherent in the story, and the miracle of Shakespeare’s artistry. What are we to make of that final scene of forgiveness and reconciliation? What, especially, are we to make of the statue coming to life?

As so often in Shakespeare, the original inspiration comes, I think, from Ovid: this is, on one level, a re-enactment of the story of Pygmalion. But on another level, it is also, I think, a vision of the Resurrection, of the dead rising into a new life. True, Shakespeare does give us a “rational” explanation – that Hermione had remained hidden with Paulina for sixteen years – but Shakespeare knew as well as anyone that the audience prefers to believe the impossible rather than the improbable. Whatever the “rational” explanation offered, what is conveyed is a sense of the miraculous, the transcendental. And one does not, perhaps, need to be religious to be moved by it: this vision of reconciliation beyond death, of forgiveness and of reunion, of the restoration of that which had been lost, dramatises the fulfilment of the most fervently held of human desires. I find it moving beyond words.

***

Most commentaries on these late plays speak of their relationship to the tragedies, but on reading them this time round, I was struck by the parallels with the earlier comedies. The comedy that comes particularly to mind in relation to this play is Much Ado About Nothing, where, once again, a man  accuses an innocent woman of infidelity and rejects her, thinks her dead, then discovers her innocence, repents, and finds his repentance rewarded by forgiveness and reconciliation. Indeed, the last two acts of Much Ado About Nothing seem almost like The Winter’s Tale in fast motion. However, the earlier play didn’t quite convince because we see too little of Claudio’s atonement (any more would have unbalanced the comic framework), and thus can’t quite believe that Claudio has earned Hero’s forgiveness. Here, however, there is no doubt on that score: Leontes’ awareness of what he has done, and his mental self-lacerations, are almost unbearable to witness. What he has done is indeed horrendous beyond words, but the forgiveness, when it comes so miraculously, is hard won. The play ends not with an exuberant joy, but with a sense of serenity, of radiance. And with the joy there exists also a sadness: Mamilius can never return, and neither can the lost years. Not all losses can be restored, although we may still carry on desiring for a state in which sorrows end.

Another play which this one reminds me of is a work that Shakespeare could not possibly have known about – Sakuntala by Kalidasa, the most renowned drama of Sanskrit literature. Despite being the products of very different cultures, these two masterpieces are, thematically, surprisingly similar. In the final act of Kalidasa’s play, King Dusyanta, distraught at the awareness of what he has lost, makes his way into the land of the dead to become reunited once again with the wife and child whom he had previously failed to recognise. How curious that these two literary giants separated by more than merely physical distance should converge so remarkably in their artistic vision!

The Bardathon: 30 – Cymbeline

It’s with Cymbeline, I think, that we come to the set of plays that may be described as Shakespeare’s final flowering. Of course, there’s Pericles, but that is clearly not all Shakespeare’s work; and given how poor the first half of it is, I find it hard to think of it as a considered work of art. And there are Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen – but the former is possibly, and the latter definitely, the result of a collaboration; and in any case, neither play is sufficiently impressive to be thought of as anything other than run-of-the-mill pieces. No – if we are to look for Shakespeare’s final artistic testament, we must look to Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest.

But these plays are puzzling in many ways. While there are some who regard these as the crown and the artistic culmination of Shakespeare’s career, there are others who detect a lessening of powers: some have even suggested that Shakespeare was getting bored. Samuel Johnson memorably described Cymbeline as “unresisting imbecility”, pointing out the various absurdities that riddle the work. While it’s hard to disagree with Johnson, one really does need to ask oneself whether it is at all probable that we can see quite clearly the various absurdities of this work that Shakespeare himself couldn’t. Whatever we finally decide about Cymbeline as a play, I think it deserves serious consideration as a serious work of art.

Shakespeare was, quite clearly, moving into new areas. He was trying to write a new kind of play, but he hadn’t yet solved the various technical problems associated with it. Inevitably, Cymbeline – and, for that matter, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest – are experimental works. Given his position, I don’t think Shakespeare had the luxury of abandoning a project and starting afresh if things weren’t quite going right: he had to produce two to three new plays every year, and if things weren’t going quite right in one play, that was too bad. In the entire canon, Timon of Athens seems to me to be the only play that had been abandoned after an early draft.

It has to be admitted that Cymbeline is, in many ways, a deeply unsatisfactory work. But, on this reading, it also seemed to me very clearly informed with a serious artistic intent. Having written some of the most awe-inspiring tragic masterpieces, Shakespeare’s vision was now fixed beyond the tragic: he was looking towards the possibility of atonement, of reconciliation, of a hard-won serenity in which all losses are restored, and sorrows end. The problem was in finding an appropriate dramatic form.

For this, I think he looked back on his comedies as much as he did to the tragedies. Of course, Posthumus’ murderous jealousy may remind us of Othello, and Iachimo’s villainy may remind us of Iago; but Imogen setting out on her own in time of adversity reminds us of Rosalind, of Viola, and even, perhaps, of Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona; and, more especially it reminds us of Helena in All’s Well that Ends Well, that strange fairy-tale like work written while Shakespeare was conccerned mainly with tragic affairs. Indeed, looking through the entire body of Shakespeare’s work, All’s Well That Ends Well seems to me to be a sort of link between the world of the comedies and that of these late works. I get the impression that even when Shakespeare was creating his great tragic dramas, his ever-restless mind, constantly darting, like Hamlet’s, to newer ideas, was already forming and imagining a new artistic vision.

Artistic vision is all very well, but it needs to find proper dramatic expression. And Shakespeare had no option but to experiment. If the experiment came off, well and good; if not, there was always the next play, where one could try something else. And it is noticeable that each of these these three late plays – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest – while depicting a vision reconciliation, is each very different in terms of form.

As in All’s Well That Ends Well, we find Shakespeare fascinated by folklore, by the world of the fairy tale. The ethos of the fairy story seems to permeate Cymbeline: and indeed, there isn’t really any other way to make sense of those various elements that give the impression of “unresisting imbecility”. And when we do start to take the action as a sort of fairy story, questions of probability of plot or of psychological consistency seem no more relevant than they do in, say, “Hansel and Gretel”. This is obviously a far cry from the dramatic world of the tragedies, which only really make sense when we try to probe into the minds of the protagonists. When we watch or read Othello, we can’t help but question why Othello reacts the way he does to Iago’s posion, or why Iago applies such poison in the first place: but here, it seems pointlss to ask similar questions regarding Posthumus’ jealousy, or Iachimo’s villainy. The characters’ actions are a given: we do not even think here of asking “why?”

The main problem with this play is not so much that the plot is silly, but that there is far too much of it. As a consequence, Shakespeare has to spend a disproportionate amount of time in explaining the plot to the audience; and that, in itself, draws attention to the absurdities. And furthermore, the explanations of the sheer mechanics of the plot result in some very awkward passages. The very opening scene, for instance, is about as crude a piece of expository writing as one would find anywhere in dramatic literature. Throughout, there are explanatory asides; and Belarius at one point is given a long soliloquy that has absolutely no purpose other than to fill in the audience on his story. Shakespeare must have realised that things were going a bit wrong: it is very noticeable that in the two plays that followed, he thinned down the plot considerably.

But if the experiment that was Cymbeline was not a complete success, by no means is it a complete failure. Scene after scene impress with their dramatic power – even that very strange scene where Imogen wakes up next to a headless corpse, and thinks it the body of her husband, The first meeting between Imogen and Iachimo contains some remarkable dramatic verse: Iachimo’s lines as he finds himself overwhelmed by the beauty of the woman he has come to destroy are extraordinary. Similarly impressive are the monologues of the penitent Posthumus; and his line on fianally being reconciled to Imogen are surely amongst the most tender that Shakespeare had ever written:

           Hang there like fruit, my soul,
Till the tree die.

And of course, there is that very beautiful dirge sung over the dead Fidele (in reality, the living Imogen). That single lyric is enough to ensure the reputation of this play.

When I saw this play in performance (there’s an excellent production in the BBC Shakespeare series), my reaction was “What was Will on?” I think perhaps that these late plays work somewhat better read rather than seen: perhaps, they are better as poetry than as drama. At least, after my latest reading of this particular work, I find myself thinking far more highly of it than I had done previously. Shakespeare may not yet have found the dramatic form he was looking for, but something of his vision does get through: I found it strangely moving. This is a play I shall be revisiting: I get the impression that I am only really beginning to come to grips with it.