Archive for March 18th, 2010

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.

The Bardathon: 29 – Pericles

What an odd play Pericles is! What can one make of it? The first two acts are abysmal. It’s not even what one would expect of an untalented novice, let alone from a writer of genius at the peak of his powers. Even Shakespeare the apprentice dramatist could have written better stuff in his sleep. But from Act 3 onwards, things improve. It may not be pure gold, but the dramatic verse is not unworthy of Shakespeare. The humour in the brothel scenes (much disapproved of by the Victorians, naturally) is fine, and the reconciliation scene between Pericles and his daughter Marina is excellent: it is surprising how touching this scene is, despite the silliness of its dramatic context. (This scene inspired a particularly fine poem by TS Eliot.) The plot remains as outrageously silly as ever, of course, but Shakespeare never minded a silly plot.

It is generally accepted that Shakespeare didn’t write the whole thing. It would be surprising indeed if he had any part in the first two acts. The last three acts, however, are thought to be at least partly by Shakespeare: he may even have written all of them.

This naturally raises many questions: apart from some very early plays – and some very late ones, such as this – there is no evidence, either internal or external, that Shakespeare collaborated. He was certainly at the top of his profession, and was big enough not to have to collaborate with anyone. So why does he suddenly start collaborating now? And if he does collaborate, why, given his very high standing within his profession, does he collaborate with writers who are, frankly, incompetent? Maybe Shakespeare wasn’t collaborating: maybe he was patching up a bad play, making what he could of it. But if so, why did he focus only on the last three acts? Why did he not re-write the whole thing?

Any answer to these questions must necessarily be conjecture. My own conjecture is that Shakespeare was already thinking ahead to Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest – his late wondrous trilogy of plays – and that he set himself the task of re-writing the last three acts of Pericles as a sort of exercise in preparation for the great tasks yet to come. But of course, this is mere conjecture: we shall never know the truth of the matter.

I think the significance of Pericles will become more apparent once we move on to Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. In this final phase of his artistic career, Shakespeare seemed to be looking beyond tragedy into an imaginative world of a hard-won serenity, a world in which that which has been lost is restored. This is, perhaps, not new: we have had foreshadowings of this at the end of Much Ado About Nothing, where Hero is restored to Claudio, and, even more touchingly, at the end of Twelfth Night, where Viola and Sebastian recognise each other in a scene of awe and wonder. And bridging the world of those romantic comedies with the world of the late plays is All’s Well That Ends Well, with its fairy tale plot.

But as for Pericles, whatever the incidental felicities of the last three acts, I cannot really see it as anything other than an exercise on Shakespeare’s part – a pointer to what was still to come.