Archive for March 17th, 2010

The Bardathon: 28- Coriolanus

Coriolanus is possibly Shakespeare’s most disappointing play. Not because it’s a bad play – indeed, by the standards of most writers, it is a masterpiece. But it is Shakespeare’s last tragedy, and follows on the heels of Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra (I exclude Timon of Athens from this list as that one is unlikely to be anything more than an early draft) – i.e. it follows on the heels of some of the most awe-inspiring achievements of the human imagination. And this play, with its long and unremitting focus on essentially simple characters and simple situations (simple, at least, in comparison with its predecessors), just does not live up to expectations.

But for all that, regarded in its own right, it’s a fine play. In some ways, it seems that Shakespeare had gone out of his way to write a complete antithesis of its predecessor, Antony and Cleopatra. Where the earlier play had depicted a wide range of humanity in a dazzling variety of colours and in constantly changing forms, Coriolanus focuses intently on a small group of characters who seem unable to change or to develop; and instead of the extravagant splashes of colour, we seem to have here an austere, monochromatic grey. Where, in Antony and Cleopatra, the stage seems barely big enough to contain such overflowing vitality, here, in one of Shakespeare’s longest plays, we focus unremittingly on a simple narrative line, uncluttered with any subplot.

Coriolanus is a fighting machine, and little more. All those elements of the human character that are traditionally regarded as “feminine” – tenderness, gentleness, compassion, fellow-feeling – seem to have been sucked out of him. The very first time we see him, he bids a starving multitude to “go hang”. And then, we see his mother, and begin to understand how her son came to be this way – for Volumnia is possibly the most “masculine” character Shakespeare ever created. In certain respects, she reminded me of Ma Jarrett in the Jimmy Cagney film White Heat – a harsh woman who takes great pride in seeing her son as the unthinking, beef-witted man of violence that he is. This deeply unattractive man is the son she had wanted: she has moulded him in her own image.

And the society these characters inhabit is also without those qualities that many would consider make us human: pity, compassion – these are all conspicuous by their absence. There is love there: Coriolanus and his mother Volumnia obviously have a great love for each other. But, until the very striking scene near the end of the play where they meet for the last time, it is a love entirely devoid of tenderness. The only virtue that is respected in this society is the ability to fight. Coriolanus is openly contemptuous of the plebians: it is not merely that he does not love them – he positively hates them, and is happy to say so openly. Of course, the other patricians (Menenius & co) similarly hate the plebians, but they at least have the good sense not to express their hatred so openly. This may indicate an honesty on the part of Coriolanus that the others do not have, but Coriolanus’ honesty is indicative not so much of moral probity as of a lack of common sense. There are those two tribunes of the people, of course, but they are not presented as particularly humane either: these tribunes are also patricians, after all, and for them, popular support is merely a tool in their political games. They are deeply authoritarian, and, at one point, demand the immediate execution of Coriolanus for daring to question the validity of their positions of power. In short, the characters are all deeply unlikeable throughout.

The middle section of the play is surprisingly comic, as Coriolanus, in standing for public office, has to present himself to the very people he so despises. The build-up to the climactic scenes in Act Three is slow, and the climax – where Coriolanus turns against everyone, and is banished for his “pride” – is entirely predictable: but I imagine a good cast would be able to get a lot of laughs from these scenes. However, the humour is far from good-natured or genial, and the drama is deadly serious: for a state that depends on its military success for its well-being, someone such as Coriolanus is indispensable; but how can this same state function if this same Coriolanus is granted political power?

After Coriolanus’ exile, the pace of the drama quickens considerably, and the climactic scene comes, of course, when Volumnia – the woman who had moulded her son into what he is – finds herself, ironically, appealing to those very elements that she had previously inhibited in her son – mercy, compassion, fellow-feeling. There follows perhaps Shakespeare’s most wonderful stage direction:

He holds her by the hand, silent

And Coriolanus’ lines are full of a sense of wonder, as he suddenly finds elements in his own character that he had not previously known about:

O mother, mother!
What have you done? Behold, the heavens do ope,
The gods look down, and this unnatural scene
They laugh at. O my mother, mother! O!

It is surprisingly moving. Yet at the same time, it is disturbing that a man could regard the awakening of compassion in his soul as “unnatural”, and as something to be laughed at. Even the mass-murderer Macbeth knew of pity (“like a naked new-born babe striding the blast”): to Coriolanus, it seems a new discovery, and something that is inherently absurd.

In yielding to compassion for the first and only time in his life, Coriolanus effectively signs his own death warrant. And yet, Shakespeare seems unwilling to grant him a heroic end. Even the drunken hedonist Antony was granted a measure of heroism; even the very unheroic Cleopatra had died a great queen. But the death of Coriolanus is presented almost casually.

It’s hard to know what Shakespeare intended with all this. There is much to admire in this play, but little to like. And it’s undeniable that, in comparison to the tragedies that had preceded this, the characters and situations are all very simple. Was Shakespeare getting tired of the tragic form? It seems unlikely, as the dramatic verse is finely wrought throughout, and is obviously not the work of a man uninterested in what he is doing. But finely wrought though it is, there is little in it that is memorable – no wonderful lines, no passages of poetry that leap off the page. After the overflowing abundance of riches in Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare, it seems, was determined in this play to be as austere as possible. The outcome commands respect, certainly, but I doubt anyone will be listing Coriolanus amongst their favourite plays.

The Bardathon: 27 – Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra has long been something of an enigma. That it is a tragedy there is no doubt – after all, its protagonists die at the end, and that’s tragedy by any definition. But it doesn’t quite feel like a tragedy. There’s none of the terror that Aristotle spoke about, nor even, for that matter, the pity: of course, we don’t exactly cheer when Antony and Cleopatra die, but we can’t help feeling, perhaps, that this world wasn’t quite for them. These people are too used to power to become mere private citizens, but are too hedonistic and too indifferent to how they exercise their power to be good rulers. We may regret the death of a Hamlet or of an Othello, or even a Macbeth, and muse on how it might have been otherwise: we don’t even consider the possibility of an “otherwise” here. Tragedy it may be, we feel, but perhaps it’s better this way.

Shakespeare was, I think, attempting a tragedy entirely different from anything anyone had attempted before: a tragedy without angst, without terror – a tragedy where we may indeed see the tragic protagonists as essentially comic figures. The very first time they appear they are comic: here we have two mighty people – a great queen, and one of the triumvirate that rule the vast Roman Empire – and all we see are a couple of middle-aged people whispering sweet nothings into each other’s ears like lovesick teenagers. As the play progresses, it expands opulently: Jonathan Miller likened it to a great Rubens canvas, overflowing with colour and exuberance. And somehow, it refuses to be pinned down. The carefree figures of Antony and Cleopatra we see in the opening scene are immediately contradicted by what follows: we now see Cleopatra deeply insecure and anxious, and Antony guiltily aware of the duty he is neglecting. It is a world in which nothing can keep its shape for long. In most tragedies, the tragic protagonist undergoes a painful journey of self-awareness, but by the end of Antony’s journey, he finds everything so infinitely plastic and mutable that he cannot even begin to understand his own self:

Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish;
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A tower’d citadel, a pendent rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon’t, that nod unto the world,
And mock our eyes with air: thou hast seen
these signs;
They are black vesper’s pageants.

That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,
As water is in water.

Is Antony a great soldier, or a pathetic drunkard? Or is he the demi-god that Cleopatra imagines after his death? Is Cleopatra a great queen, or is she a spoilt unthinking brat? Is Octavius a cold, cynical manipulator, or is he a virtuous man who takes his responsibilities seriously? They appear to be all of these – often at the same time. The Antony who has a messenger whipped is the same Antony who magnanimously sends after Enobarbus his treasure. There seems no centre to anything, nothing is stable – everything is in a state of constant flux. This is, in many ways, the world of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but in purely human terms: human beings do not need to metamorphose into trees or birds – merely the fact of their being human ensures the bewildering kaleidoscopic variety. Lear, on seeing poor Tom, had asked if man were no more than this; but this play gives the impression that humankind is so very much more, that one cannot even hope to capture the essence of humanity with its shifting, endless variety.

It is perhaps surprising that at the centre of a play that focuses on the richness of the human spirit are two characters who are essentially quite shallow. Antony has had his share of responsibility, both as a statesman and as a soldier: he now wants no more than to wallow in a life of hedonism with his soulmate, Cleopatra. (His situation is not unlike that of Prince Hal, torn between the weight of his responsibilities, and his desire to lose himself in pleasure; but Hal is, unlike Antony, a young man, and makes a very different choice.) Cleopatra herself is a queen, and has maintained her power by exercising her skills of seduction: but she is now middle-aged, and not as certain of her sexual powers as she used to be; and, for the first time, she is actually in love – although she possibly does not recognise it as such. And she is terrified that her powers are on the wane – that she might lose Antony. Neither is a particularly profound character. And yet, by some alchemy that is beyond my powers of analysis, Shakespeare through these figures convinces us of the sheer plenitude of life, the sheer richness and abundance of humanity. Generally, this play is held to be not quite of the same standard of a Hamlet or an Othello, but it is not to be judged on their terms: judged on its own terms I find this epic drama the most exhilarating of experiences.

And then there’s that final tableau in the monument. What can be said about this scene? Suddenly, a new tonality seems to emerge – a tonality of the greatest gravity and the most solemn beauty. Cleopatra is no more the ever-changeable creature of infinite variety: she is now “constant marble”. But somehow, this new tonality does not seem out of place. It seems a fitting ending to this vast, overflowing drama.

The final scene is possibly the most beautiful that even Shakespeare ever wrote. Iit is tempting to give here some examples of the exquisitely beautiful verse, but where does one start?

Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me

Or Cleopatra’s final words, the original liebestod:

As sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle,–

I never tire of this play: it is an audacious achievement. I cannot think of any other work that so reconciles one to being human.

The Bardathon: 26 – Macbeth

Macbeth has an exciting story about witches and murders, exudes a powerful atmosphere and moves quickly, and is one of the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays. Not surprisingly, it is widely regarded as one of the most “accessible”, and is a favourite both in the classroom and in regional repertory theatres (at least, it was back in the days when regional repertory theatres used regularly to perform Shakespeare). It is therefore all the more surprising that there are so few good performances of this play: I have seen several productions on stage over the years, but not one that I would consider even satisfactory. And, strange as it may seem to say so about a play that is quite rightly acknowledged to be one of the greatest masterpieces of the human imagination, it seems to me that Shakespeare has to take some of the blame for this: the pacing of this play seems to me to leave a lot to be desired.

Such criticism ought not to be made lightly, of course, given that Shakespeare was, amongst other things an absolute master of dramatic pacing. But it is entirely possible – indeed, probable – that the text we currently have is a cut-down version of what had once been a longer play. (Indeed, the editors of the Oxford edition say very confidently that the play we have now was “edited by Thomas Middleton”.) But if the original play had been longer, it’s hard to see which aspects of the current text could have been expanded upon: the principal characters are depicted to perfection, and one wonders how any extra scene or speech could have added to their characterisation. It is, of course, possible that the other characters had been given a greater presence in the original text, but once again, it is hard to imagine how their roles could have been expanded without diluting the intensity generated by the dominant presence of the two principal characters.

I suppose there is little point in speculating on what the play might have been like: all we have to go on is what we have now, and we must focus on that. And what we have now, although a work of undoubted genius, is also, it seems to me, clumsily paced. Has there ever been a production of this play, I wonder, where the momentum hasn’t faltered after the end of the second act? In all other Shakespeare tragedies, the narrative arc with which the play opens reaches a sort of natural hiatus at the end of the exposition, and, invariably, this occurs somewhere in the first act – usually towards the end. In Julius Caesar, it occurs at the end of the scene where Cassius first plants the seeds of conspiracy into Brutus’ mind; in Othello, it occurs at the end of the Senate scene; in Hamlet, the narrative arc of the opening stretches out till the end of the long first act with its climax on the battlements of Elsinore, when Hamlet meets his father’s ghost; in King Lear, we have a double exposition, and the narrative arc with which the play opens comes to a natural halt at the end of the second scene, when Cordelia has been banished and Edmund has convinced Gloucester of Edgar’s treachery. In all these cases, the exposition ends somewhere in the first act with a natural hiatus in the narrative. But in Macbeth, it’s different: the narrative continues uninterrupted right to the end of the second act. It is, indeed, breathtaking: the tension mounts in a continuous crescendo, never for a moment pausing for breath, until we reach a sequence of some of the most exciting and terrifying of all scenes in drama. Only after the discovery of Duncan’s murder can we pause for breath. But by then, we are almost half way through the play.

And what follows is, in comparison, more fragmented. There are still magnificent scenes, of course: there are still some of the finest passages of dramatic verse that even Shakespeare ever wrote; but the momentum undeniably falters. And then, we come to that problematic fourth act, with the long scene in the English court. Shakespeare in his tragedies usually gave his main actor a bit of a break in the fourth act, but I doubt there has been any production where this scene hasn’t seemed too long. Yes, Shakespeare brings us back into the action quite magnficently with that terrifying sleepwalking scene, but it cannot be denied that the dramatic momentum of the first two acts has disappeared.

It seems petty-minded, I agree, to write in such negative terms about so great a masterpiece, but the fact remains that this is one of the most difficult of plays to pull off in performance, and the reasons seem to me to be worth investigating. Another reason why it fails so often is, I think, the staging. It is a big mistake, I think, to stage Macbeth as an epic play, or to play it in a big theatre. Yes, it is about dynasties and battles, but its atmosphere is of a suffocating claustrophobia: it is, I think, a chamber play, and should ideally be played in intimate surroundings, with the audience as close to the actors as possible; and the great speeches should be confided in us – whispered rather than declaimed. And, while it may hurt the profits of the theatre bar, it should ideally be played without a break.

The central theme of this play is evil. It addresses the question posed by Gloucester in King Lear: “Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?” Of course, Shakespeare had created memorable evil characters before – Richard III, Goneril & Regan, Edmund, Iago – but in all of these cases, we come to a dead end when we try to investigate the question of what it is that makes them evil. Why are they evil? Because they do evil things. Why do they do evil things? Because they are evil. However striking these characters are, all investigation into their evil natures founders on this circular logic. But the evil characters in this play – Macbeth and Lady Macbeth – are different in type. Unlike, say, Richard III, these people are intelligent and sensitive characters, admirable in many respects. How can people such as these allow evil to enter into their souls? And, just as importantly, once they have allowed this evil to enter, how do they live with it? Shakespeare had touched upon this once before – not with Richard III, but with Claudius, that other monarch who had murdered his way to the throne. But, impressive though the characterisation of Claudius is, he is not he central character of the play: Shakespeare could not afford to dissect Claudius’ soul in too great a detail because Prince Hamlet had to be kept in the central dramatic spotlight. But the issues raised by the character of Claudius had clearly sojourned in Shakespeare’s mind, and here are to be answered.

The economy with which Shakespeare depicts his two principal characters here is breathtaking. Macbeth both wants and doesn’t want at the same time: he desires with all his heart, but with all his heart he flinches from that action that would lead to the fulfilment of his desire. Whatever his decision, he cuts off an important part of himself. And Lady Macbeth has to force herself to be evil: she invites evil spirits to possess her, because she knows that she cannot be evil without their aid. Of course, we may view these evil spirits (and, indeed, the witches) as symbolic manifestations of these characters’ evil desires: but whether we view these spirits either on a literal or on a metaphorical level, once they have possessed her, they destroy her.

Both characters lose their minds, I think. In the famous sleepwalking scene, we see Lady Macbeth suffering all the torments of hell itself while still resident on earth: she relives repeatedly that night on which she had lost her soul – she has no option but to live through it again and again. And as for Macbeth, he has to live with the awareness of what he has done, and of its significance. After Duncan’s murder, he says that had he died an hour hence, he would have lived a blessed time, for now “there is nothing serious in mortality”. If the witches “lie like truth”, Macbeth here is telling the truth like lies: in dramatic terms, this is Macbeth feigning sorrow for Duncan’s death, but in psychological terms, he is revealing a great truth about himself. For the only way he can live with the knowledge of what he has done is to convince himself that it doesn’t really matter. And if even this doesn’t matter, then nothing matters – there is nothing serious in mortality. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow – all of time is but a series of undifferentiated days, mere sound and fury signifying nothing. That word “nothing” had haunted King Lear as well, but, contrary to what Lear had thought, something does come out of nothing in that play. But here, there is no Cordelia to light up the profound darkness with her love: hell is, indeed, murky.

And yet, Macbeth cannot completely convince himself that nothing really matters. Even as a mass-murderer, he retains to the end an awareness of what he has lost, of what he could never seek to have. When he speaks to the doctor ostensibly about his wife, he knows that it is his own “diseased mind” that he is really speaking about. And no – no doctor could minister to that.

These two characters have committed evil beyond imagining (at one point in the play, we see a child murdered on stage). And yet, perhaps, there is no other play where by the end we are made to wonder with such insistence what these two people have done to themselves. For we have followed every step of their descent into hell – a hell which they have entered even while on this earth. To face up to this play is to face up to the greatest terror that may be imagined.