Archive for March 13th, 2010

The Bardathon: 18 – Hamlet

Perhaps there is no other work in literature (other than certain scriptures) that has been more commented upon than Hamlet, so there’s little point trying to think up new angle. I doubt there’s anything I or anyone else can say about this play that has not been said before. The best I can do, I think, is simply to say what the play means to me – more especially, what the play meant to me on this particular reading – and not worry about whether or not what I have to say is original or trite.

It is impossible to discuss this play without talking about the character of Prince Hamlet. And here, one must beware of simplifying, as any simplification of a central character so very complex and intricate is to reduce the stature of the play. I have read a great many embarrassing accounts of the character of Hamlet that seem to suggest that he is really only suffering from a bit of teenage angst; that his “problems” may all have been sorted out with a bit of therapy, perhaps, or with some good wholesome advice; and that his problem is essentially that of indecisiveness, and if only the poor dear could make up his mind, everything would have been OK. And I read these accounts and find myself wondering how it can be possible for anyone to approach something so very complex, and come away with something so very simplistic. Yes, it is true that we cannot pluck out the heart of Hamlet’s mystery, but to come away from this play blissfully unaware even of the existence of the mystery seems to me to display a most extraordinary lack of critical insight. Even if we can’t untie all the knots, let us at least acknowledge their existence.

But before we move on to the character of Hamlet, let us first consider the pacing of the play, which seems to be unlike that of any other of Shakespeare’s works. Hamlet is neck-and-neck with Richard III as Shakespeare’s longest play, but where Richard III is constantly moving forward, powered by the dynamic charisma of its central character, Hamlet, like its protagonist, frequently appears inactive. Indeed, for long stretches (most notably in Act Two, the very point where we’d expect the drama to build up momentum), it seems entirely static. Perhaps “static” is not the best way to describe it, as there is a movement, but the movement is not in a forward direction. But then, there are passages (such as the third act) where everything seems to happen at the same time – where the dramatic climaxes seem to be piled on each other with breathless and feverish intensity.

In this, I think, the pacing reflects the protagonist. For, as is well-known, Hamlet is, for much of the time, inactive. But that needs to be qualified: he is inactive in that he does not do much; but his intellect is constantly on the move. In this, he is matched in all of Shakespeare’s plays only by Prince Hal. Hamlet’s mind is constantly active, constantly probing, constantly spotting connections and making quicksilver leaps from one theme to another. Even as he is saying one thing, that razor-sharp mind of his is racing on to something else. No-one on stage can keep up with the speed of his thought, and even after years of acquaintance with the play, the reader or the audience can be wrong-footed. And this extreme internal activity, coupled with an extreme external inactivity, gives this play a curiously cerebral quality.

Of course, Hamlet isn’t always inactive: there are times when, despite his strong leaning towards the cerebral, he seems unable to control his mounting passion. Ironically, this most thoughtful of characters frequently commits the rashest of acts without thinking. And Hamlet is aware of this element in himself: this is why, before he goes to see his mother in Act Three, he has to remind himself that he must not kill her. He cannot trust himself: he knows that once he is overcome by passion, he is capable of anything. He knows this, and he fears it. And yet, when he does go to see his mother, despite all the resolutions he had made to himself only to speak daggers to her but to use none, I think he really is on the point of killing her. His mother certainly thinks so (“Thou wilt not murder me?”), and had it not been for Polonius crying out from behind the arras, it would have been Gertrude rather than Polonius, I think, who would have ended up as Hamlet’s victim.

The pacing of the play seems to reflect this paradoxical nature of Hamlet – this sense of physical inactivity despite the constant intellectual probing, punctuated by sequences of feverish passion and unthinking action. This sort of pacing – almost by fits and starts – seems to me unlike anything Shakespeare had attempted in any other play.

Consider that very first scene, in the battlements. Yes, it does establish an atmosphere of fearsome uncertainty, and its very first line (“Who’s there?”) resounds through the play as we try to piece together the various disparate elements of Hamlets personality into one coherent whole. But in terms of dramatic exposition, the scene is completely unnecessary: every single piece of exposition in this first scene is recapped and expanded upon in the second. Indeed, starting with the big court scene (as do so many other Shakespeare plays) would have been an obvious thing to have done. So why does Shakespeare place this court scene second? In dramatic terms, what exactly is gained by that first scene on the battlements?

I think the main purpose of the scene is to set the tempo. It was certainly very daring to set such a slow tempo for what is, after all, an exciting revenge tragedy, but Shakespeare’s primary interest was not, I think, the plot. Indeed, he seemed to go out of his way to ensure stretches that can only appear dull to those members of the audience whose primary interest is merely “what happens next?” Shakespeare deflects the focus of the dramatic interest from “What happens next?” to “What is going on in Hamlet’s mind?” And to explore this, he needs a leisurely tempo, which is quite at odds with the nature of the revenge plot on which the play is based.

It is also to ensure a leisurely tempo that he made Polonius so very tedious and long-winded. Between Hamlet learning of his father’s ghost (nearly half an hour into the play) and his actually seeing the ghost there are two lengthy scenes. And then, at the start of Act Two, Shakespeare makes us wait again, filling in time with Polonius’ tedious rambling. And then, when Hamlet does appear, he speaks a lot, but doesn’t do much. And we may well wonder: what the hell kind of a revenge tragedy is this?

In thematic terms, Shakespeare revisits certain themes that had concerned him before: for instance, there is the theme of how we should remember the dead so as to give meaning to our own lives. This theme had appeared towards the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost, and appears also in Twelfth Night, which was being written at roughly the same time as Hamlet. The idea of duty to the departed is touched upon as well in the brief but important tomb scene in Much Ado About Nothing, in which Claudio’s commitment to the memory of one he believes dead is a necessary step before that which was lost can be restored. (This is a theme expanded upon later in The Winter’s Tale.)

There is the theme also of fathers and sons, which, as we shall see, continues from the two Henry IV plays: in many ways Hamlet is a close relation to Prince Hal. And Hamlet is also, I think, a sort of mirror image of Mark Antony in Julius Caesar: in the earlier play, Mark Antony takes decisive action to avenge the murder of Caesar, who had been for him a sort of spiritual father: this is in marked contrast to Hamlet’s failure (for reasons far too complex ever to be fully understood) to take decisive action to avenge the death of his own father. (And of course, Mark Antony’s effective action despite having been thought a worthless dissipater relates him back to Prince Hal.) Hamlet is often thought to be related to Brutus rather than to Antony, but I don’t know that this particular parallel is very striking. It is true that they both think long and hard before killing, but the reasons for killing and the reasons for their reluctance to kill are very different. Psychologically, the two characters are so very different that they don’t even throw much light on each other even when considered in terms of contrast: it’s the contrast between Hamlet and Antony that seems to me the more interesting.

But what can one say about Hamlet’s character within the confines of a short essay without avoiding over-simplification? Perhaps it is best to acknowledge first and foremost that even the product of the most piercing critical insight can be, at best, only part of the truth.

The first thing I notice about Hamlet’s character is a tremendous intelligence. There is nothing in Shakespeare’s source material that requires Hamlet to be so intelligent a character: to give him so quick and so probing an intellect was entirely Shakespeare’s decision. And it strikes me as incredible that Shakespeare, when creating Hamlet, did not have in mind a prince of comparable intelligence he had created only a few years earlier – Prince Hal. The parallels are striking. When I read recently the Henry IV plays, what struck me as their central theme was the troubled relationship between Hal and his father: the climax of these plays comes when Hal and his father are reconciled shortly before the latter’s death: this is the reconciliation that the son had long longed for. Hamlet, on the other hand, did not have the opportunity to be reconciled with his father, who had died very suddenly when he had been at university: and it seems to me that this reconciliation was a consummation devoutly to be wished. For there had clearly existed a gulf between father and son, and the unresolved breach becomes, in this play, a spiritual wound that refuses to heal.

Very well, one may say, this is yet another theory – or, more accurately, yet another hypothesis. Where’s the evidence in the text? I think the evidence is there, albeit circumstantial. And that if one takes this as a working hypothesis, much that is puzzling can begin to make sense.

First of all, the two Hamlets, senior and junior, had quite different values. Hamlet’s father is always spoken of as a military man: even his ghost appears in armour. But there seems little of the military in young Hamlet. Indeed, had he shared his father’s military values, he would have done what we see young Fortinbras doing – he would have raised an army, and challenged for his birthright. But, instead of adopting military values, Hamlet had buried himself in books. Is it not possible to see Hamlet’s escape from the court to the University of Wittenberg as analogous to Prince Hal’s escape from the court to the ale-houses and taverns? I don’t insist on this final point. But it does seem to me fairly obvious that Hamlet feels more at home at the university (to which he wishes to return) than he does in the court, and that he gives no indication at all of sharing his father’s military values.

Hamlet’s father is dead before the play starts, of course, so the only meeting between father and son occurs when Hamlet speaks to his father’s ghost. Hamlet is not sure whether or not the ghost really is his father: he comes in a “questionable shape”, after all. “Alas, poor ghost!” says Hamlet at one point – not, significantly, “Alas, poor father!” But what has long struck me about this scene is that Hamlet’s father displays no affection for his son – not a single term of endearment, not a single indication of paternal love. However, he demands love from his son: “If ever thou didst thy dear father love…” That conditional “if” is interesting: it’s not “As thou didst thy dear father love..” but “If thou didst thy dear father love…” There’s still, obviously, room for doubt on that point, just as Henry IV doubted the love of Prince Hal. And it is at this point that Hamlet seems to break down: as soon as the ghost refers to Prince Hamlet’s love for his father, Hamlet almost involuntarily comes out with: “Oh God!” Now, it is worth asking why Hamlet reacts so very emotionally at this particular point. Why does this reference to his love for his father elicit such a response? The words that follow seem to me tremendously striking, and reinforce the parallel between the relationship between father and son in this play, and in the Henry IV plays: if ever Prince Hamlet loved his father, he must “revenge his foul and unnatural murder”. As in the earlier plays, the father expects filial love to be expressed in the form of adherence to duty.

Prince Hal had steeled himself in the earlier plays to live up to his father’s expectations, but in Hamlet’s case, this is something he is incapable of doing. The reasons for his incapacity are open to debate (and, as I suggested earlier, they go way beyond mere teenage angst, or an inability to make up his mind), but his awareness of his incapacity has devastating consequences. And this is why, I think, Shakespeare had to make Hamlet so intelligent a character: his tragedy proceeds not merely from of the flaws in his character (as is predicated by the very reductive formulae defining the tragic genre), but from his keen awareness of his flaws. For Hamlet desires more than anything else to be what he knows he cannot be.

Am I a coward?
Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? gives me the lie i’ the throat,
As deep as to the lungs? who does me this?
‘Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall
To make oppression bitter

Yet, at the same time, all that is so important to Hamlet – honouring the memory of the dead, living up to his father’s expectations – seem to be of little importance to anyone else. His own mother, who should have remembered his father most, has virtually forgotten about him – “within a month”: and he cannot forgive her for this. And to compensate for her forgetting, Hamlet has to recreate in his own mind an image of his father as a sort of superman – an ideal human being that could never have existed:

So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr…

See, what a grace was seated on this brow;
Hyperion’s curls; the front of Jove himself;
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command;
A station like the herald Mercury
New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill;
A combination and a form indeed,
Where every god did seem to set his seal,
To give the world assurance of a man

And this goes hand in hand with a sort of self-loathing, a self-castigation for his failure to be a Hyperion, a demi-god:

My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules

The dividing line is clear: on one side is Hamlet’s father, Hyperion, Hercules: on the other, the much-hated Claudius … and himself.

Hamlet’s failure to live up to the standards demanded by his dead father’s spirit takes on a particular significance by the end of the first act: the very thing Hamlet knows he cannot be, he is now urged to be. The ghost clearly has an objective reality in the play, as Hamlet is not the only one who sees it, but it is also in many ways a manifestation of Hamlet’s own self-accusing persona – that part of his psyche that sets himself standards he knows he cannot live up to.

Those who do live up to his father’s standards, Hamlet admires. I cannot see any other reason why Hamlet should admire Fortinbras, whom he knows to be a warmonger leading vast armies to their deaths for no very good reason. (And I think, incidentally, that it would be a marvellous coup de theatre to present Fortinbras as a frail teenager – almost a boy: after having heard so much about this proud warrior, Fortinbras (Strong-in-arms), to see him as a young lad would be a marvellous shock – both for the audience, and also, I think, for Hamlet. Otherwise Hamlet’s reference to him as a “delicate and tender prince” would make no sense at all.) And those whose values are opposed to those of his father’s, Hamlet hates. Most painfully, this includes his own mother.

And it includes Claudius, whom Hamlet hates even before he becomes aware of his guilt. But the picture Hamlet presents of Claudius is not the Claudius we see. In the first scene in which Claudius appears, we see him as a dignified figure in control of his court, and who knows how to assert his authority when Prince Hamlet challenges it with his insolence. And he is also, rather admirably, a skilled diplomat who knows how to diffuse a difficult international situation without going to war. (I personally have a sneaking suspicion that, judged as a king, Claudius may well have been better than his more military-minded brother.) We see him loving to his wife; and we see him later a very sympathetic and tortured figure, as he struggles with his own sense of guilt (interesting premonitions of Macbeth here!) Indeed, seen from a slightly different perspective, he could easily be a tragic protagonist himself. Yes, we discover in time that he has committed a grievous crime, but we do not see him as Hamlet sees him – we do not see him as a satyr to his brother’s Hyperion.

However, as the play progresses, Claudius’ authority starts to crack. This is partly due to Hamlet, and partly also to his own sense of guilt. Towards the end, we see him plotting to murder his nephew; and at the very end, his moral authority is so eroded that he lacks even the courage to leap across the stage and knock the poisoned drink from his beloved wife’s hands.


Gertrude seems to me one of the most pathetic characters in all of Shakespeare. She is not the most profound person, but she has a deeply loving nature. It is she, after all, who is given the most lyrical lines of the play: her description of Ophelia’s death surely contains some of the most beautiful of Shakespeare’s blank verse. And it is hard not to be moved by the naïve tenderness of her lines at Ophelia’s graveside:

Sweets to the sweet: farewell!
I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife;
I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid,
And not have strew’d thy grave.

She is capable of loving deeply. As Claudius acknowledges, she dotes on her son; and she dotes also on Claudius (given how quickly they marry after her first husband’s death, it seems obvious that they had been lovers). And it is this that is at the root of her tragedy: the two people whom she loves with all her being are “mighty opposites”. When she tells Hamlet that he has “cleaved [her] heart in twain”, it is obvious what she is referring to: she now realises that a single heart cannot accommodate simultaneously the love she has for her son, and the love she has for her husband. Hamlet tells her to throw the “worser part of it” away – i.e. to turn her back on her husband – but her heart has reasons that Hamlet’s head cannot comprehend. And in the end, this cleft heart is her downfall. I do not believe that she drinks the poisoned drink by accident: as soon as Claudius puts a pearl into Hamlet’s drink to mark it out from the others, she knows what it signifies. Of the two people she loved, one is trying to kill the other, and she cannot save her son without incriminating her husband. The only way out is to take the drink herself. It is a tender act of self-sacrifice. When Claudius tells her not to drink, she insists: “Pardon me,” she says. I don’t think this is merely a polite rejoinder: it is, I think, an impassioned plea for forgiveness.


How old, exactly, is Hamlet? In the graveyard scene, Shakespeare seems to go out of his way to tell us that he is thirty. The gravedigger started his career when Hamlet was born, and that was thirty years ago. Working back from this point, it must follow that Hamlet had been thirty all through the action of this play, as the action of the play couldn’t have lasted more than a few months at most. But I don’t think Shakespeare intended us to calculate back. As in Othello, Shakespeare was happy to play fast and loose with the time scheme. For, before the final act, Hamlet is referred to throughout as “young”. And this is not merely to distinguish him from Hamlet senior: the nature of his “youth” is often referred to – even by Ophelia. For a thirty-year-old to be continually referred to as “young” is absurd, and is likely to be conducive to comedy rather than to tragedy: Iago, after all, tells us that he is twenty-eight, and no-one would consider describing him as “young Iago”. A thirty-year-old Hamlet who is constantly described as “young” is reminiscent of nothing so much as that Monty Python sketch in which Terry Jones in drag keeps chucking a fully grown John Cleese under the chin and going “coochy-coo!” over him as if he were a toddler. (“I am the Minister for Overseas Development,” says Cleese at one point.)

After having tied myself up in knots over this issue in the past, I think now that the solution is quite simple. I think Hamlet was young in the first four acts, but thirty in the last. And if that isn’t consistent with the time scheme of the play, so much the worse for the time scheme: Shakespeare didn’t worry about such trivialities here, any more than he did in Othello. In the earlier acts, we must, I think, see a man who is intelligent enough to see through the people around him, but sufficiently young and inexperienced to be shocked by what he sees. But in the final act, we see a man who has achieved maturity. That does not mean he has become more intelligent: but it does mean that he is no longer tortured by the various questions which he cannot answer. The reason why these questions no longer torment him is not that he has found the answers for them, but because he has now acquired the serenity of mind that enables him to live with these questions remaining unanswered. Whether or not he is physically thirty is beside the point: he is now mentally thirty.

And in those thirty years since his birth, those thirty years it has taken him to achieve this serenity, a gravedigger has been digging graves. The presence of death makes itself felt very powerfully in the later stages of the play – not merely the death of fathers, but one’s own death. In the earlier acts, Hamlet had asked himself how one must remember the dead: how long should the memory of the dead live on in one’s mind? Now, the question is posed in its most basic form: “How long will a man lie i’ the earth ere he rot?” Never has the question of mortality been posed with such unadorned directness.

What exactly is the nature of this wisdom Hamlet seems to have acquired? What is it that reconciles him to it all? Nihilists tell us it’s his awareness of nothingness: “The rest is silence” – nothing really maters. Those of a more religious frame of mind tell us it’s his awareness of divinity: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we will.” The truth, I think, is considerably more complex and more profound than any partisan interpretation can hope to encompass, and I am not sure, frankly, that I understand it myself. “Let be,” as Hamlet himself might say.


Hamlet is a work of unfathomable depths. This does not mean that one shouldn’t dive in, but it does mean, I think, that any understanding is but provisional until the next reading, or the next time one sits down to think about it. The main thing, I think, is never to trust anyone who professes to understand this play fully. And, even after a lifetime’s acquaintance with this work, one must keep one’s own mind open for new possibilities.

The Bardathon: 17 – As You Like It

In As You Like It, Shakespeare virtually dispenses with plot. After a fairly hectic first act, we find ourselves in the pastoral surroundings of the Forest of Arden, where time effectively stands still. It’s not a perfect idyll: the forest harbours snakes and lions, there’s hardship, there are brambles and cold winds, there’s unrequited love, and the shepherd Corin speaks of masters of “churlish disposition”. But for all that, as the deposed Duke says, it is better than the tyranny and the ingratitude of the court. And it is in the Forest of Arden that men and women find their true selves. It is in this forest that Oliver becomes humanised, and it is at the very entrance of this forest that the usurping duke becomes reformed. And it is here that Rosalind, surely amongst the most delightful of all literary creations, finds her true self in disguise.

It was, obviously, quite deliberate on Shakespeare’s part to do away with a plot. It’s not so much that nothing happens – it’s more that Shakespeare just doesn’t seem interested in the events. Old Adam may be close to death at one point, but we know that there’s succour close at hand, and we don’t worry too much. There may be lions and serpents, but the very fact that Oliver tells us of them indicates that he has escaped unharmed. And the story of the usurping duke’s incursion into the forest is told in the same speech that tells also the story of his repentance. Each crisis is over even before we identify it as a crisis. This creates a sense of a timeless idyll – but it also means that there is no dramatic tension.

To be entirely honest, I have never really quite warmed to this play. I give it a respectful nod, of course: Shakespeare, at the height of his powers, has achieved what he had set out to achieve, and it’s a brave man who would quarrel with that. And of course, there are many who love this play dearly, and speak of its charm. It’s certainly true that a good Rosalind can project a quite formidable charm. It is hard, after all, not to be charmed by that wonderfully witty and lyrical scene (written, surprisingly, in prose rather than in blank verse) in which Orlando pretends to woo Rosalind while thinking her to be Ganymede. It is hard to resist the charm of lines such as this:

The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicit, in a love-cause. Troilus had his brains dashed out with a Grecian club; yet he did what he could to die before, and he is one of the patterns of love. Leander, he would have lived many a fair year, though Hero had turned nun, if it had not been for a hot midsummer night; for, good youth, he went but forth to wash him in the Hellespont and being taken with the cramp was drowned and the foolish coroners of that age found it was ‘Hero of Sestos.’ But these are all lies: men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.

And it is hard also not to share in Rosalind’s unalloyed joy when, after Orlando’s departure, she says:

O coz, coz, coz, my pretty little coz, that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love! But it cannot be sounded…

There is a surprising level of homo-eroticism in this scene, because, although this is ostensibly play-acting, as in the play-acting scene in Henry IV Part One, the actors begin to live their roles, and Orlando undeniably falls in love with someone he believes is a man. Of course, there is tremendous sexual ambiguity in Rosalind’s part – she is a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. And I’m sure Shakespeare intended a further level of complexity, because, of course, Rosalind would have been played by a teenage boy – i.e. Rosalind would have been a man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. (Indeed, the epilogue to the play, delivered by Rosalind, would make little sense were it not delivered by a male actor.) So it does seem eminently reasonable to play As You Like It with an all-male cast. But at the same time, there are comparatively so few great stage roles for actresses, it would be a shame to rob them of one of the loveliest of all roles. (I have tapes of Vanessa Redgrave in this role, and it is one of the most charismatic performances I have come across!)

But other than this scene, and other than some of Jaques’ lines (including the famous Seven Ages of Man speech), I honestly can’t rank this play amongst my favourites. It’s not that I think the play is flawed: Shakespeare achieved perfectly what he set out to achieve. It’s just that I, personally, happen not to be particularly enamoured of what he set out to achieve. I do miss the dramatic tension. I miss also the complexity – not merely thematic complexity or the complexity of characterisation, but also the complexity of the reader’s (or the audience’s) response.

The clown, too, I find rather unlikable. At the end, he lines up with the country wench Audrey alongside all the other married couples, but it’s hard to see how this paean to married love (complete with the mythological figure of Hymen) could accommodate this couple. “An ill-favoured thing, but my own,” he says of his bride, which is an unpleasant thing to say even if it were true. This is miles away from the famous sonnet “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”: in that sonnet, Shakespeare, after denying that any of the usual poetic conceits are applicable to his love, protests all the same the intensity of his feelings (“And yet by heaven I think my love as fair as any she belied with false compare”). But at no point does Touchstone make any declaration of love at all. Quite the opposite; he declares quite clearly that he is going to desert her after he’s had a bit of fun. I find it leaves a rather bad taste in my mouth, and I am not at all sure if this is what Shakespeare had intended – and if so, why.

There are many passing felicities in this work, but on the whole, I am afraid this is one play that tends to pass me by. My latest reading didn’t really reconcile me to it.

The Bardathon: 16 – Julius Caesar

There seems to be nothing in Shakespeare’s earlier work that leads to this. Its themes and style seem completely new: it is a tense political thriller, featuring political assassination, mob violence, and civil war. The balancing act is superb. The public issues and private concerns are held in perfect equilibrium, and even more impressively, there is no single central character: at the heart of this play are four very complex figures locked in various levels of conflict with each other. Shakespeare does not direct our sympathies for or against any of them: instead, he is happy to present their complementing virtues and vices, so we can form our own judgement without any authorial prompting. But while the action presented invites some sort of moral judgement on our part, the motivations of each of these characters are so complex, that passing any definite moral judgement is to oversimplify, and, hence, to diminish the play’s richness.

Although the play is named Julius Caesar, Caesar himself appears in only three scenes, and is killed even before the play reaches its half way mark. But Caesar is nonetheless a central figure: indeed, so powerful is his personality, that had he been on stage longer, he would have disturbed the equilibrium of the work. At the start of the play, republicans such as Brutus fear that Caesar is going to make himself dictator, but they can find no way to stop him short of assassinating him: standing up to such a huge dominating personality is out of the question.

The depiction of so huge a personality in so few scenes is astonishing. It is done at least partly by focussing on others’ reactions to Caesar. Thus, although Caesar is rarely on stage, the thoughts of all the other characters are almost continually fixed on him, both before and after his death. That he has greatness is beyond doubt; but also beyond doubt is his awareness of his own greatness, and of his own superiority to others: this awareness seems to prevent him from having a normal relationship with any other human being. Mark Antony is his closest fried, and yet the relationship between them is that of master and man, and not that of two men on an equal footing. Even with his own wife, Caesar is a sort of god, making pronouncements to her rather than actually conversing with her.

And politically, it is easy to see why he should cause such concern to republicans. Although Caesar declines the crown near the start of the play, the fact that it is offered him is sufficiently good reason for republicans to be apprehensive: there seems little doubt that Caesar becoming dictator is merely a matter of time. Indeed, in the single senate scene in the play, Caesar, before he is murdered, is addressed as if he were an emperor, and is himself is more than happy to play that part.

Brutus is a patrician, and comes from a traditional republican family. It is often said that Brutus’ reasoning when deciding to take part in the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar is confused, but, on the contrary, it seems to me very clear-sighted. For Brutus, the question is not what Caesar will be like once he is crowned: Brutus is perfectly clear that that one cannot be certain about it. But what Brutus is more certain about is that Caesar intends to crown himself, and in this judgement, Brutus is surely right: Caesar does intend to crown himself, and, given Brutus’ staunchly republican background, he cannot allow that. The inner conflict in Brutus comes not from the difficulty in determining how benevolent or tyrannical Caesar may be once he is crowned, but from his conviction that Caesar intends to be crowned, and his growing realisation that the only way to prevent this is to kill him. This inner conflict, which is depicted in the most agonising of terms, is laid out with perfect clarity: Brutus is quite clear that he has no personal reason to desire Caesar’s death; however, to fulfil what he feels is his duty to Rome, a personal trust has to be betrayed.

But of course, Brutus’ judgement is flawed in other respects. He seems incapable of seeing that Cassius’ motives or wanting Caesar dead are almost entirely personal: because personal envy is not something Brutus himself feels, he seems unable to imagine this in anyone else. Indeed, he seems to ascribe his own sense of honour to everyone else. He agrees, incredibly, to Antony giving an oration at Caesar’s funeral, partly because he underestimates Antony’s ability, but also because, I think, it didn’t so much as occur to him that Antony could be so underhand as to turn against him after having declared his friendship. Neither does it seem to occur to Brutus that anyone might disagree with his reasons for killing Caesar: that Caesar becoming emperor would be a Bad Thing is so obvious in Brutus’ own mind, that he can’t even imagine how anyone could possibly disagree.

Of course, it could be argued that Brutus was at fault for underestimating Antony’s abilities. But everyone underestimates Antony. Cassius had been apprehensive about Antony because of the love Antony had for Caesar, but when Antony is dismissed merely as an ineffectual playboy, Cassius certainly did not argue against that. Brutus’ reasons for sparing Antony are purely idealistic: his friend, Caesar, has to be sacrificed for the good of Rome, but Brutus is not prepared to involve himself in a bloody pogrom. This is the sort of idealism Machiavelli argued against in The Prince: Brutus’ ideals do him credit, but if you are going to enter into the world of statecraft and politics, you need a very different set of morals, because the most important thing is to stay in power: if one loses power, one loses everything. Certainly, when Antony & Octavius later seize power, they have no compunction at all in instituting a very bloody pogrom, purging anyone and everyone who may or may not oppose them. Even Cicero isn’t spared, or Antony’s own relatives. Such bloody-mindedness is in stark contrast with Brutus’ humanity, but one feels Machiavelli may have approved of Antony’s course of action. If Brutus had felt (as indeed he did) that it was worth letting blood in order to preserve the Republic, then there was little point only going part of the way and then failing.

But while Brutus’ honesty and integrity are never in any doubt, there’s something nonetheless unlikable about his repeated insistence on these qualities: this insistence bespeaks an immense self-admiration. Brutus naturally assumes he will be leader – whether it’s of the conspiracy (even though he clearly lacks the ruthlessness that a leader of such an enterprise should have), or whether it’s of the military operations in the second half of the play, where it appears that he lacks the requisite military expertise. Throughout, Brutus seems blissfully unaware of any shortcoming on his part that may make him unsuitable for leadership: he naturally assumes, with a sort of Captain Mainwaring-like pomposity, that he, Brutus, is unquestionably the leader, no matter what the enterprise. In this, he reveals a surprising similarity to Caesar – with the obvious difference that Caesar obviously was a very capable leader. In its own way, Brutus’ sense of self-importance is no less than Caesar’s.

Equally skilful is the characterisation of Cassius. When we first see him, he is eaten up with envy and hatred: he tempts Brutus to join the conspiracy, but his motives are almost undisguisedly personal. And yet he does not emerge as an Iago-like villain: quite the contrary. While his temptation of Brutus may superficially resemble Iago’s temptation of Othello, Cassius actually has a very high regard for the man whom he tempts.

There is a tremendous complexity to Cassius’ character. On the one hand, he resents the fact that Caesar has become more powerful than himself; but at the same time, he is happy for Brutus to take leadership of the conspiracy. Indeed, Cassius desperately needs Brutus to join the conspiracy, and to take control of it, as, despite his resentment of Caesar’s power, he feels unworthy to assume any sort of power himself. And this sense of his own unworthiness but fuels his resentment. However, once Caesar dies, we see more attractive aspects of Cassius’ character: it is almost as if the removal of Caesar’s presence allows his better parts to flourish. Not least of his admirable qualities is his genuine regard for Brutus: his expression of sympathy on hearing of the tragic death of Brutus’ wife is genuinely touching, and deeply felt.

And of course, there is Mark Antony. In many ways, he is quite the opposite of Brutus: he is pragmatic and ruthless – a realist where Brutus is an idealist. But how mush easier it would have been or him to have sided with the conspirators after Caesar’s murder! Instead, he displays the most admirable loyalty to his dead friend, as well as the most extraordinary courage: meeting with the conspirators immediately after Caesar’s assassination required tremendous nerve, as it was by no means certain that he’d walk out alive. And on top of that, he keeps his head: unlike Brutus, Antony judges everything to perfection.

The third act of this play is a miracle, even by Shakespeare’s standards. He tightens the tension to almost breaking point in the scenes leading up to the murder; and the tension remains at this level afterwards. Antony’s meeting with the conspirators over Caesar’s dead body is one of the most electrifying scenes in any play, and his soliloquy once he is left alone with the bodyamong the most terrifying passages in all of Shakespeare. Then, of course, follows the scene with the speeches. Brutus, bless him, tries to appeal to his listeners’ sense of reason: his oratory is formal and well-crafted, but it isn’t a patch on what Antony delivers. Here, we have the entire art of the spin-doctor distilled into a single scene of drama: there is no technique of PR or of spin-doctoring that Antony does not employ. Yes, it is grossly manipulative, and this manipulation is underpinned by a profound disdain for the public that he manipulates. And to see him use all his skills to whip up the public into a blood-letting frenzy is one of the most sinister scenes in all drama. Before the act ends, we are presented with a most sickening scene as an innocent man is lynched onstage.

As Act Three ends, we may be left wondering how Shakespeare can avoid anti-climax. But somehow, the tension is maintained. It would have been very easy for Shakespeare now simply to have focussed on the plot: most dramatists would have settled for that. But Shakespeare continues to probe, to re-examine his themes and his characters, and discover new aspects. And, although Caesar is dead, his spirit seems to inform all that continues to happen.


Even if Shakespeare had written nothing greater than this, we’d still be rating him as our greatest writer. The consensus is that he went on to write even greater masterpieces. That may well be true, but at this level, comparisons are odorous. After experiencing this play, it’s hard to stop thinking about just how wonderful it is in every respect.

The Bardathon 15 – Henry V

Although it is usually ranked very highly in the canon, Henry V is a play that I have never quite warmed to. From the epilogue of Henry IV Part Two, it is obvious that Shakespeare had intended making this the next play of the sequence, but it is equally obvious that he had changed his mind about the sort of play it was to be: we had been promised a play depicting Falstaff in the French Wars, but Shakespeare had obviously realised that the man who had sneered at the concept of honour would be very much out of place here. And so, near the start, Falstaff is killed off. The description of his death is touching and rightly famous:

Nay, sure, he’s not in hell: he’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. A’ made a finer end and went away an it had been any christom child; a’ parted even just between twelve and one, even at the turning o’ the tide: for after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers and smile upon his fingers’ ends, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and a’ babbled of green fields. ‘How now, sir John!’ quoth I ‘what, man! be o’ good cheer.’ So a’ cried out ‘God, God, God!’ three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a’ should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So a’ bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.

But is this the Falstaff we had known in the earlier plays? I think not. And neither is this the Mistress Quickly who had been arrested by the beadles because some men had been murdered in her tavern. This is all somewhat sanitised, cleaned up – sentimentalised, if you like.

I am not sure how much continuity we are to expect from the earlier plays. Henry V is not the Prince Hal we knew in the earlier works. I do not know whether Shakespeare is depicting a character who has had to change radically from his earlier self, or whether Shakespeare is depicting someone entirely different. But I liked Prince Hal, and I don’t know that I care much for this king who, despite clearly being an intelligent man, displays none of the sharp wit or the incisiveness and subtlety of thought of his former self. If Hal has changed, the change does not appear to be for the better.

This Henry likes to present himself as a “man of the people”. And the people love him; he’s a “bawcock” – he’s “one of us”. He has the common touch – he and his men are “band of brothers”. And of course, to project such an image, he has to present oneself as blunt and straight-forward. In the same way, in Julius Caesar, when Antony wants to present himself as a man of the people, he describes himself (quite hilariously, given the subtlety of his intelligence) as “a plain, blunt man”. (The situation hasn’t really changed so very much: when it came out a few years ago that the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown enjoyed reading Wordsworth, his spin doctors were on to the press immediately to assure them that Brown also enjoyed listening to some rock band.) But what I wasn’t sure of in Henry V is whether he is deliberately putting on this “plain, blunt man” act, or whether the face had grown to fit the mask. Here, we hear him speak of the importance of honour in much the same way that Hotspur had done in Henry IV Part One: Prince Hal in that play would have regarded that sort of thing with an amused irony, but, goddammit, he seems serious here. And then there is that famous “band of brothers” speech:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile

All very rousing, but it’s strictly for the birds. When the dead are counted afterwards, the nobility on both sides are counted separately from the ordinary people – the “vulgar” – and it is made clear that the former are significant, the latter aren’t.

Shakespeare did seem to have a residual cynicism about all this jingoism. This is, without doubt, a patriotic flag-waving pageant, but Shakespeare was shrewd and intelligent enough to put in a number of very dissonant notes. However, the dissonant notes, though prominent, do not dominate: it is the flag-waving that we remember most, and it is not something I have ever enjoyed.

Of course, Olivier famously used this play for propaganda purposes during the war. But in WW2, the enemy was very identifiably evil, and the Allied cause very obviously just. In this play, the cause is more dubious. What exactly is the cause of the war? In Henry IV Part Two, Henry IV had advised Prince Hal to engage in foreign wars to ward off the possibility of civil conflict: but that motivation is not even hinted at here. In the first scene of this play, two bishops agree to encourage the war as a means of diverting attention from a bill that would rob the church of much of their wealth: it’s a very cynical reason. Is King Henry aware of this motivation on the part of the bishops? Prince Hal would certainly have been, but if King Henry is aware of it, he shows little sign of it. Instead, he listens very carefully to an account of various genealogies that justifies his dynastic claim to the French crown. How seriously did Shakespeare take such reasoning? In Henry VI Part Two, the Duke of York makes claims on the English crown with similar reasoning, and Shakespeare isn’t at all sympathetic to him: indeed, later in the same play, Shakespeare parodies this sort of thing when he makes Jack Cade make similar claims with similar reasoning. Cade’s reasoning is, of course, absurd, but its very absurdity brings into focus the flawed nature of York’s claims. And now is this same Shakespeare taking seriously the claims of King Henry to the French crown?

We are certainly not spared any of the details of how ghastly war is. Henry’s speech outside the walls of Harfleur makes quite clear that Shakespeare had no illusions on the matter:

Therefore, you men of Harfleur,
Take pity of your town and of your people,
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command;
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O’erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil and villany.
If not, why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes

Not much of the glory of war there. This is, of course, realistic: this is what war is like. But given that war necessitates this sort of thing, how can one justify going to war merely to fulfil dynastic ambitions? This point is touched upon here, but not looked into very far. The night before Agincourt, Henry goes amongst his men incognito (once again, he wants to be “a man of the people”) but what he hears disturbs him: if the war is not just, then Henry will have to answer for it with his very soul. Henry has no reply to this. It is a powerful dissonant note, and this strand of the plot is later resolved with by a bit of knockabout comedy, but the question remains unanswered: it seems swept away in the overall mood of patriotism and flag-waving.

And finally, there is Henry’s wooing of the French princess, where, once again, he puts up the “plain, blunt man” act. Is it really an act? Or has he actually become like this? The whole wooing scene is frankly rather brutal: Henry seems effectively to bludgeon the princess into submission. This is miles away from the subtle wit and intelligence, and, indeed, humanity, of Prince Hal. Maybe this is what it takes to be a good ruler. If so, I see little to celebrate: the character of Henry V is much coarsened from that of his former self.

There are a few other dissonant notes in the play – as in that shocking moment during Agincourt when Henry orders the prisoners to be slaughtered (Olivier understandably removed this from his wartime film version). But the overall mood is celebratory, and I am afraid it is a celebration that I cannot bring myself to join. For all its considerable merits (not least in its splendid rhetorical passages), compared to the two Henry IV plays, this play is – as Desdemona might put it – a most lame and impotent conclusion.