Archive for March 20th, 2010

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:

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

‘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.