Archive for February, 2013

The reluctant Wagnerian

This Saturday, I shall be in a nearby cinema to see and hear a live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera New York of Wagner’s Parsifal. I was persuaded to get tickets for this by our lad, who, despite all the love and affection that his doting parents have lavished upon him over the years, has turned out a diehard Wagnerian. I do not doubt that this particular production is very fine; I do not doubt that it features some of the best singers of today: names such as Jonas Kaufmann and René Pape are hard to argue against, after all. Neither do I doubt that the orchestral playing, the choral singing, the conducting (Daniele Gatti will be in the pit), etc., will all be top notch.  Indeed, I have put myself through this opera before, having listened often to recordings of the full work, and also having heard it live on no less than three occasions. I confess also that at times, the effect of the music has been so overwhelming, that I have found myself completely drawn into it – to such an extent that I had become unaware of anything but the music, unaware even of those hours passing by. But nonetheless, I feel strangely apprehensive about this Saturday.

I know that I am by no means the first who has felt himself both drawn to and repelled by Wagner, but let me state right away that the repulsion has nothing to do with Wagner’s anti-Semitism. Not that I doubt that he was grotesquely anti-Semitic, even by the standards of his own times; and I am, further, prepared to accept the possibility that his racism did, as has been alleged, indeed find its way into his works. This does, admittedly, remain a controversial point, and emotions often run high when it is raised; and I am not myself sufficiently knowledgeable in this area to offer my own opinion on the matter. But I am prepared, at least, to accept the possibility that his racist ideology did indeed seep into his work, and even, as some claim, form its ideological basis. But if it did so, then it did so in a coded form, since at no point in any of his works is either race in general or Jewry in particular explicitly mentioned. This means that those of us blissfully unaware of whatever code Wagner may or may not have used can appreciate his work without the slightest thought of whatever psychopathic unpleasantness may or may not underlie it. No: whatever uneasiness I feel about Wagner’s operas, it is not on ideological grounds. It is something else.

But when I try to specify what that something else is, I find myself on uncertain ground. That his work has a powerful effect on me cannot be denied: I remember in particular a performance of Tristan und Isolde at the English National Opera a number of years ago that held me effectively hypnotised: I really had lost all sense of my surroundings, all sense of time passing. And, during the Edinburgh Festival of 2006, I attended an outstanding concert performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, featuring a then relatively unknown Jonas Kaufmann in quite resplendent voice as Walther. (I doubt we could afford to go and see Jonas Kaufmann now, given his current superstar status in the opera world!) So good was this performance, that even after five hours and more, I actually found myself thinking it was too short! So yes, I have indeed been under Wagner’s spell – many, many times.

But perhaps that is the point. Do I like being under his spell? Do I like getting to the state where I forget my surroundings, where I forget the passage of time? Do I like being drawn in to quite such an extent? And the answer to that, I think, is no, I don’t. There is something – for want of a better word – unhealthy, I find, about all this, something sickly. I cannot define it: but there is something intangible about Wagner’s work that is not to my taste, and I find myself resisting; although I do know that once that music starts, any resistance on my part will very soon melt away.

Even with Parsifal, the last and, in many ways, the most problematic of Wagner’s operas. It’s an odd hotchpotch of Christianity, Buddhism, mysticism, medieval myth, and – so I’m told – the philosophy of Schopenhauer. It is also, according to some, the most overt expression of Wagner’s racist ideology, although its racist aspect, should it exist, remains as obscure to me as any other aspect of the work. The whole thing may indeed be very profound, as is claimed, but, although I have known it for some thirty or so years, and although I have indeed made some effort to understand it better (Lucy Beckett’s book on this opera is justly renowned), I have never been able to make much sense of it. Now, I have given up trying: whatever its depths, its concerns are not, I think, mine. Debussy seems to me to have hit the nail on the head: after an entire essay ridiculing the opera and attacking it in no uncertain terms, he ended by declaring it to be “one of the loveliest monuments of sound ever raised to the serene glory of music”. That’s good enough for me. The whole strikes me as utterly incomprehensible – or, at least, not comprehensible to a mind such as mine – but I am all for lovely monuments of sound.

***

This year is, of course, the bicentenary of those two great giants of the opera, those mighty opposites Wagner and Verdi. And inevitably, there have been discussions of which of the two we prefer; or, even, who was the greater. I’ll politely pass on the latter question, but the former is an interesting one, as our personal preference between the two defines so much of our aesthetic values. Music journalist Jessica Duchen thinks it is no contest: for her, it’s Wagner. Peter Conrad, on the other hand, has written an entire book to demonstrate the superiority of Verdi. As for me, while I am looking forward, albeit apprehensively, to Parsifal, I can’t help wishing that our dear boy had sided with Verdi instead, and that, instead of Parsifal, we could go off together to see something like, say, Don Carlos. For there is to Verdi a generosity of spirit and a healthy, forthright humanism that, for me at least, leave the twilight murk of Wagner’s world far behind.

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As a matter of fact

I don’t want to appear too grouchy, but every now and then, I can’t help noticing some little quirk of writing or of speech that I can’t help finding irritating. Why I should be irritated, I do not know: I am sure I too am, albeit unconsciously, guilty of many turns of phrase in my own writing that irritate the hell out of others. Be irritated not, that ye irritate not others. But sometimes, one simply needs to get it off one’s chest. So here goes.

Why is it – I do hope the reader does not find the use of rhetoric questions to make a point irritating – why is it, I wonder, that when people use the word “fact”, they do not really mean “fact”? A fact is clearly defined; it is something that is established and generally agreed to be true: water boils at 100 degrees Celsius and freezes at zero; Lima is the capital of Peru; Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa; the Taj Mahal is in Agra; and so on. And yet, every time anyone says or writes “in fact…”, or “as a matter of fact…”, or “despite the fact that…”, or anything of that nature, what follows is almost invariably anything but a fact! It is an opinion, or a hypothesis, or a theory, or an assumption … but not a fact. Damn it! – look up the dictionary and find out what “fact” means before using the word!

And another thing … Why does everyone use the word “amazing” to mean something is “very good”? What amazed them about it? Didn’t they expect it to be very good?

And “begging the question” does not mean “implicitly raising a question”. It refers to the logical fallacy of assuming beforehand what one is setting out to prove or to demonstrate.

Any other common turn of phrase that you find annoying? Please feel free to comment below. Even if it turns out that I am guilty of using these turns of phrase myself. I won’t mind at all, as a matter of fact.

Identifying with characters

I have a bit of a confession to make: I have never quite understood what is meant by “identifying with characters”, or why being able to “identify with characters” should be considered.a criterion of literary merit. I often encounter “I couldn’t identify with the characters” as criticism, or “I could identify with the characters” as approval, but whenever I have asked what precisely is meant by “identifying with characters”, I have never yet received a coherent reply.

Part of it seems to be the demand that the reader should like the characters – or, at least, like some of the characters – especially the protagonist. I think “identification” means a bit more than just that, but liking a character does seem a prerequisite. But even at this first hurdle, there are questions: must one like the characters in order to admire – or even like – the work they appear in? Does one necessarily like Eugène de Rastignac? Would one wish to live next door to Hedda Gabler? Invite the Macbeths round to tea? Are the works in which these characters feature any lesser, or do we admire or like these works less, because we do not like their protagonists as people?

The ability to see things through the characters’ eyes doesn’t really take us much further: Dostoyevsky allows us to see the world through the eyes of Raskolnikov, an axe-murderer; Nabokov allows us to see through the eyes of Humbert Humbert, a manipulative paedophile. Seeing the world from such perspectives is often not a pleasant experience, but it is, we may acknowledge, the author’s privilege to take us there: when one is human, nothing human should be alien to us – at least, not in literature. But even when we can see through the eyes of such people and come to some understanding of what goes on in their minds; even when we are brought so close to them as to make us feel deeply uncomfortable; most of us don’t, I think, identify with them. Not in the sense in which the expression is used, at any rate. Identification, I think, goes a bit further still.

Identification, in the sense in which it is commonly used, seems to me to indicate a state of imaginative oneness with the characters – a state in which we find ourselves sharing their feelings, their motives, their emotions and imaginations. And I remain unconvinced that “identification” in this sense is necessary for appreciation of literature. Or even, for that matter, desirable, as this state of oneness may well skew our responses and our judgements, and thus act as a barrier to our appreciation.

Alternatively, I have got this all wrong, and people mean something quite different when they speak of “identifying with characters”. I don’t know. As I said, no-one has ever explained to me quite what they mean by the expression.

Directing “Hamlet” in one’s mind

Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to have encountered many fine performances of Shakespeare both on stage, and, sometimes, on screen. And also, quite frequently, in audio recordings, which can be at least as effective as either. But for me, reading the plays provides the most enriching experience of all: somehow, nothing quite matches the performance that goes on in my head. There, I can be my own director, my own set and costume designer, determine the lighting just as I would wish. I could be the entire cast, all by myself. There is no bar to my imagination – except, of course, the natural boundaries of that imagination itself. There is no bound on my own interpretation. And all this from the comfort of my own library, without having to worry about getting the train back home afterwards!

For instance, I have yet to experience a production of Hamlet that stages the first scene in between Hamlet and Claudius (I,ii) as a confrontation. Yet, that is how I have been reading it these last few years. Everyone on set is dressed in their fineries: this is the court, after all, and also the first time the court is presided over by the new king. Only Hamlet, dressed still in his suit of solemn black, stands out. The king notices, of course, but pretends not to. He goes through other business first – even the relatively insignificant one of granting Laertes leave to return to France, before turning with a forced geniality and good humour to “our cousin and our son”, Hamlet.

Hamlet’s opening lines are laden with multiple meanings. First, we have “A little more than kin, and less than kind”: this alone indicates the deep antipathy Hamlet feels for this man now calling him “cousin” and “son”. And then, when Claudius asks: “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” Hamlet answers:

Not so, my lord, I am too much i’th’sun.

(Or, if you read the Quarto text, “Not so much, my lord, I am too much in the ‘son’ ”.)

The quibble with sun/son is obvious, but I think an extra layer of meaning may be added to this if it is made clear in the set design that the sun is a royal symbol. This line I always imagine spoken with an almost aggressive insolence. It certainly stops Claudius in his tracks. It is a tricky situation for him: he cannot afford to lose face in his own court, and yet he has to be careful, for, amongst other things, the queen, his new wife, still dotes on her son. As he pauses, wondering what to say in reply to such insolence, Gertrude wades in with some loving, motherly advice: all that lives must die – you know it’s common … and various other such banalities. Hamlet, disgusted, amongst other things, that such unthinking platitudes are dressed up as wisdom, replies sarcastically: “Ay, madam, it is common.” He does not even bother to disguise his scorn: it is “common” … it is a “commonplace” … indeed, you, dear mother, are “common”, for mouthing such trite emptiness.

But the queen doesn’t get it. “If it be, why seems it so particular with thee?”

The word “seems” strikes a nerve in Hamlet. For his mother, of all people, to accuse him, Hamlet, of “seeming”! “Seems!” he practically screams at her. “Nay, it is – I know not ‘seems’.” And then, as ever, his mind races on to all sorts of other things, his tone changing almost by the second. First of all, he affects the tone of a kindly teacher imparting basic matters to a child: “’Tis not alone this inky cloak, good mother…” (or “cold mother” in the Q2 text: did Shakespeare, I wonder, alter this because it expressed Hamlet’s contempt too blatantly?) Then, the tone changes to one of exaggerated affectation:

Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly…

The voice becomes forceful again for the next three words: “These, indeed, seem” – this last repetition of the word “seem” almost spat out. And then, to rub it in, he changes abruptly to a tongue-in-cheek flippancy, as he closes his little tirade with a somewhat trivial little rhyming couplet:

But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

Almost as soon as Hamlet finishes – even slightly before he finishes – the King steps in: he has had enough. For a while, he had been unsure what to do, but there is no way he can allow himself and his Queen to be humiliated in open court. He speaks in a severe, formal tone, first of all addressing Hamlet with apparent kindness (although there is no kindness any more in his voice – none of this “our cousin and our son” stuff):

‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father…

For the next few lines he expresses more or less those commonplace sentiments that Gertrude had expressed – that all who live must die, that’s the way things are, and so on. But, unlike Gertrude, he does not allow Hamlet time to reply: he presses on till he comes to his point:

but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness;

These last two words are delivered with the utmost force. There must be a pause here, for these words to register. There is pindrop silence. The court is shocked to see Prince Hamlet receive so public a dressing down. Gertrude too is shocked by this: yes, she knows that son had overstepped the mark, but this perhaps is a bit too severe. Claudius possibly at this point makes a discreet gesture to Gertrude, as if to tell her not to interfere, that he will explain later; and she, knowing the niceties of aulic manners, remains silent, though troubled. And Hamlet himself, possibly for the first time in his life, is lost for words: no-one has ever spoken to him like this before. And certainly not in public. Possibly for the first time his true position dawns on him: he is no longer the son of the king, and there is now nothing to shield him from this sort of thing. The advantage gained, the King presses on, as Hamlet stares at him in stunned silence:

’tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool’d…

“Unmanly” was perhaps a greater insult then than it is now: it is intended to sting, and it does. And “unschool’d”? Imagine describing the most intelligent and educated character in all literature as “unschool’d”! How that must hurt!

His point made, Claudius can now afford to make a show of his love and regard for Hamlet. And he can now do so on his own terms:

We pray you, throw to earth
This unprevailing woe, and think of us
As of a father:

The stage is now his. Claudius is in full control. He has defeated Hamlet publicly, and he knows it. Hamlet’s request to return to Wittenberg is refused in the most imperious of terms:

It is most retrograde to our desire

And finally, his mission now accomplished, the King can afford to return to his genial, loving tones:

And we beseech you, bend you to remain
Here, in the cheer and comfort of our eye,
Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.

But there’s no sarcastic rejoinder from Hamlet this time: he knows he has lost the battle.

This, at least, is how I imagine this scene being played. But it never has been played like this in any of the performances I have seen or heard. Indeed, in some performances, we have Claudius gently remonstrating with Hamlet, and sympathising with his grief: this seems to me entirely wrong. In the opening book of The Iliad, which Shakespeare would have known at least through Chapman’s recent translation, Achilles is humiliated in open court, and in response, he withdraws from action and broods on the nature of morality and of mortality; and I, for one, can’t help conjecturing whether this Homeric motif had stayed in Shakespeare’s mind, and had transformed itself into this.

Gertrude’s death in the final scene has never satisfied me either in any of the productions I have seen. She dies from drinking from the poisoned chalice that had been intended for Hamlet, but is this a mere accident? For if it is, the random nature of her death makes for weak drama. How much more powerful the drama is if she drinks it knowingly! For Gertrude, too, is a tragic figure: the two people she loves the most – the two to whom she is wholeheartedly devoted – are her husband, and her son; and between them they have cleft her heart in twain.

In the text, the King marks out the chalice intended for Hamlet by dropping a pearl into it:

KING CLAUDIUS
Stay; give me drink. Hamlet, this pearl is thine;

Here’s to thy health.

[Trumpets sound, and cannon shot off within]

Give him the cup.

As soon as he drops in the pearl, Gertrude understands. And the production should make it clear that she understands. Perhaps she should be standing at this point right at the front of the stage, facing the audience, and somewhat detached from the other figures crowding the scene. A quick, jerky movement from her could draw the audience’s attention to her face, which now bears an expression of the utmost horror, and also one of utmost grief. There is only one thing for her to do – to take that poison that her husband had intended for her son:

QUEEN GERTRUDE
He’s fat, and scant of breath.
Here, Hamlet, take my napkin, rub thy brows;
The queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet.

HAMLET
Good madam!

KING CLAUDIUS
Gertrude, do not drink.

Claudius is often criticised at this point for being too cowardly to leap over and knock the poisoned drink from her hand, but if he is on the other side of the stage at this point, and if there are many people between them, then it is not possible for Claudius to make his way over to her in time. The best he can do is to call out to her, and tell her not to drink. But Gertrude insists: “I will, my lord.” There is no reason why she should insist on this if she didn’t know the significance of the drink she is holding. But if she does know what it is, then her insistence at this point is charged with deep significance. And, all of a sudden, at the moment of her death, this shallow creature, this wretched queen, becomes heroic.

She adds:

I pray you, pardon me.

This is no polite rejoinder. This is a heartfelt plea for forgiveness, her last words to the man she continues, despite everything, to love. And before she dies, she takes a last tender farewell of her son:

Come, let me wipe thy face.

Each one of Gertrude’s lines at this point must be charged with significance, and with tragic weight.

I find Gertrude one of the most pathetic characters in Shakespeare: she is foolish, weak, and irredeemably shallow: and yet, she is naïvely loving. This is the person who feels real grief at the fate of Ophelia – more so, one suspects, than Hamlet himself does. Almost without quite realising what she is doing, she has allowed herself to become embroiled in a terrible evil. It is in her death, I think, that she redeems herself. And yet, the pathos of this scene is rarely projected. Well – it is in the production that goes on in my mind as I read it!

***

One could go on almost indefinitely, going through it all scene by scene. And the best thing is that unlike, say, films, or recordings of Shakespeare’s plays, the interpretation of the mind isn’t frozen in time: each time I come back to the play, I find new subtleties and nuances that had not occurred to me before. Shakespeare’s plays are intended to be seen, not read, runs the mantra, but that is to ignore what one sees – and hears – in one’s mind as one reads.

Apologia pro blog sua

Tomorrow is St Valentine’s day. It is also the third anniversary of my first post on this blog. And it seemed to a good time to indulge myself with a retrospective.

I started this blog just two days after I had turned 50, not really knowing what direction it would take. I had for many years been contributing to various discussion boards, but this was proving unsatisfactory for various reasons.  I wanted, as it were, a room of my own.

I started off by brushing up and posting the various notes I had made on Shakespeare’s plays, while trawling through them all the year before to commemorate my fiftieth year. Soon afterwards, I was writing on other topics, as my fancy took me. I look back now on some of those earlier posts, and squirm with embarrassment: it’s not that I am exactly an accomplished writer now, but my earlier attempts at constructing a blog post – or even, for that matter, constructing a simple sentence – really are toe-curlingly, buttock-clenchingly, embarrassing. But whether I like it or not, a blog does have a permanency of sorts, and even now, the posts that get the most number of hits are often some of the very early ones:  I guess might as well resign myself to people chancing on these posts and concluding I can’t write. I wonder if I will look back in three years on what I am writing now, and feel equally embarrassed: I suspect I will.

Soon, I was persuaded to put up some summaries I had written of Tolstoy’s War and Peace for a group read I had organised on a now-defunct books board. These posts are up there still, should anyone fancy a look.

I also allowed myself, and allow myself still, a few intemperate rants on matters I feel strongly about – mainly to get it off my chest. One of these rants – on the teaching of literature in schools – is among the most popular posts on this blog in terms of the number of hits it gets. From some of the feedback I have had on it, I get the impression that I am sometimes mistaken for an educationalist: I am not. I am, by profession, an operational research analyst, but my blog posts steer well clear from anything to do with operational research. Everything I write on this blog, I write as an amateur – a dilettante, if you will. I am just thrilled – and, needless to say, grateful – that people take the trouble to read it!

Over time, my likes and dislikes (more likes than dislikes: I tend not to blog about what I do not like) – my prejudices, preoccupations, predilections, hobbyhorses – have all, I think, become apparent. As far as literary tastes are concerned, I love Shakespeare and Tolstoy; Wordsworth and Dickens; Ibsen and Dostoyevsky (the latter despite grave reservations); Sherlock Holmes stories and creepy ghost stories. Tagore I shouldn’t mention here because, given my Bengali background, I have no choice on that one. (This post gives a fair overview of my literary tastes.) And a few other bits and bobs as well, here and there. And every now and then, I find myself writing about these things I love: I do so not to impart information, and certainly not with any didactic purpose, but simply for the sheer joy of doing so.

As for my dislikes, my prejudices, my blind spots – let us not go into all that. One tends, I think, to be more perceptive about what one likes than about what one doesn’t, and this should warn us to steer clear of the latter. I often promise never to write again about what I do not like, but it’s a promise I rarely keep: the delight in sticking the boot in is often too hard to resist.

I enjoy a good debate, especially on matters on which I feel strongly. I like to think I enter debates not with certainty, but, rather, with a willingness to absorb anything I can from other perspectives to help deepen my own. Whether I come over in such a manner, as I hope, or whether I come over merely as tedious and dogmatic, as I fear, I’m afraid I’m really in no position to say: I never could quite get the tone of voice right. But I think there is nothing that is worth discussing that has a clear-cut answer: getting to know and to understand the terrain of different possibilities is, or should be, more rewarding than deciding on one’s spot and sticking to it.

My preoccupations have become quite apparent, I think: I find myself very deeply concerned about the sidelining away from the mainstream of so much that I feel is culturally valuable, and filling the space it leaves behind merely with the vapid and the ephemeral; I am equally concerned by the lack of general concern about this, or by denials that this is happening at all. Accompanying all this, as far as I can perceive, there has been, perhaps inevitably, a dramatic decline in the quality of public discourse on cultural matters. I am not convinced that the best will survive our postmodern era when the very concept of “the best” is doubted, and often sneered at: culture needs to be cultivated, after all. We all worry, rightly, about what sort of world we will leave behind to later generations in terms of the economy, in terms of the environment, in terms of public and of private morality. I worry about all this too. But I worry also about what we will leave behind in terms of culture. If we fail to cultivate what has been handed down to us, or if we sideline it away from general view, I find it difficult to be optimistic that we can leave behind anything at all.

I suppose culturally, I am conservative. I would, I think, angrily reject that c-word in any other context, but culturally, I have long reconciled myself to being conservative. Looking through the various modes of artistic expression across the centuries and across cultures, it’s the continuities that fascinate me more than the changes: the changes often strike me as relatively superficial; it is in that which remains constant at the heart of all these changes that one may glimpse what Willie Wordsworth would no doubt have described as “a sense sublime of something more deeply interfused”.

The book-blogging world – the acquaintance of which has been perhaps the principal pleasure of my three blogging years – is a marvellous literary cyber-café, where one may drop in whenever one wants to see what others are up to, and, maybe, strike up a conversation. Non-bloggers may opine all this is to be a waste of time: perhaps. All I can say is that it sure beats using the internet to access hardcore pornography.

Well, that’s enough navel-gazing for one post. So may I end by thanking all who take the trouble to read my ramblings; all who have been tolerant of the various shortcomings on this blog, whether of typing, of grammar, of elegance of expression, or of coherence of thought; and, especially, all who have posted comments, and have engaged with my frequently intolerant and, I fear, ill-tempered polemics. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the last three years of blogging: here’s to the next three!

The three Hamlets

There is no single text of Hamlet: there are three separate texts, and versions we read or see performed are usually conflations of two of them, with, perhaps, a nod to the third. But it is highly unlikely that Shakespeare intended the different texts to be conflated. I have heard Prof. James Shapiro – author of the book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, in one chapter of which he discusses the textual differences and the impact they make – insist passionately that Shakespeare wrote quite different versions of the play, and that to conflate the two versions together is to end up with a play that is faithful to neither to Shakespeare’s original thoughts, nor to the revised. Since hearing Prof Shapiro on the subject, I had been meaning to read the different versions separately; and now that the Arden Shakespeare has printed these different versions in separate volumes, I really have no excuse not to.

(The earlier Arden edition of the play, edited by Harold Jenkins, is still widely considered to be an exemplary piece of Shakespearean scholarship, although, like most editions, it uses a conflated text.)

hamlet 001

It was in 1603 that the first text appeared: this is known as the First Quarto (Q1), or the “Bad Quarto”. Whoever put this together obviously had access to Shakespeare’s own text, but there are huge cuts, and, at times, the text seems garbled:

To be or not to be – ay, there’s the point.
To die, to sleep – is that all? Ay, all.
No, to sleep, to dream – ay, marry, there it goes…

At other points, it seems to follow closely enough the later texts that we think of as the better ones. How this particular text came about is a bit of a mystery: it is often conjectured that it was pieced together from memory by some players who may recently have left Shakespeare’s company, but who had heard it often enough at rehearsals, or who had even performed in it, to be familiar enough with it to reproduce large chunks of it. The play we now recognise as Hamlet is recognisable, but it’s like seeing a mediocre artist’s copy of a painting by an old master: we may discern a genius lurking somewhere behind the work, but the work itself seems clumsy.

The very next year, in 1604, as if in response to the Bad Quarto, there appeared another text – the Second Quarto (Q2), or, as it is rather unimaginatively dubbed, the “Good Quarto”. This is almost twice as long as the Bad Quarto, and it is unmistakably a work of genius. But it is very long. A full performance would have taken some four hours – far longer than the “two hours’ traffic on our stage” mentioned in Romeo and Juliet, or even the “two hours and a half, and somewhat more” as mentioned in Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair. So either this text is a fuller version of what was performed on stage; or conceivably, the players made an exception for this work in performance, allowing it to run longer than was usual. (Shapiro argues this latter possibility is unlikely: given that the performance started at 2 in the afternoon, and that this play was performed in the Globe during autumn and winter months, it would have been dark by the final scene.)

The third text appeared in the First Folio, the first collected works of Shakespeare’s plays that was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. And here, we have another good text, but with a great many differences from that of the Good Quarto. It wasn’t an abridgement for performance: only 230 lines are excised, while 90 are added. It is, quite clearly, a conscious revision. That is, if we agree that the Folio text is a revision of the Second Quarto text, and not the other way round: both Shapiro, and the editors of the Oxford edition, Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, seem agreed that the Second Quarto text had been written first.

(Interestingly, in the various passages of the First Quarto that correspond to the “good texts”, it is the Folio text rather than that of the Second Quarto that it appears closer to. This is why the First Quarto is often consulted by editors when there appears to be printing errors or uncertainties in the Folio. The First Quarto is also interesting in that it places Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, and the scene that follows with Ophelia, in Act Two rather than in Act Three, where it stands in both the Good Quarto and in the Folio texts. This leaves open the fascinating possibility that Shakespeare, even during rehearsals, was experimenting with the structure, and tinkering with the order of various scenes. The DVD of the recent RSC production with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart, although using, as usual, a conflated version of Q2 and the Folio, nonetheless followed Q1 in placing these passages in Act Two.)

After a while, I must admit, scholarly discussion of textual matters finds me a bit out of my depth. Naturally, there is much controversy over several aspects of this, but, fascinating though it all is, it is a controversy in which I do not feel sufficiently knowledgeable to take part. However, after some forty or so years of reading conflated texts, I felt I should take Prof Shapiro’s advice and read the texts separately. That isn’t actually as easy as it sounds: my mind is so imprinted on conflated texts, that even when a passage is missing from one text or the other, I find myself automatically filling in the gaps. One can’t, after all, unlearn what one already knows.

Most of the changes are quite minor – changes in wording, or in phrasing. But often, even small changes can make a huge impact. For instance, in the Q2 text, while Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus are waiting for the ghost to appear, we get this:

HAMLET: The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold.
HORATIO: It is a nipping and an eager air.

This is a bit of idle chit-chat while they are waiting. But in the Folio text, we get this:

HAMLET: The air bites shrewdly: is it very cold?
HORATIO: It is a nipping and an eager air.

Here, Hamlet is at a stage where he cannot even trust the evidence of his own senses, and needs confirmation that what he feels really is a reflection of reality. A slight change, but it casts the entire scene, and, indeed, the entire play, in a different light.

I am intrigued also by the change of phrasing in Hamlet’s famous passage about the nature of man. In the First Folio, and in all the conflated versions I have seen, we get this:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals – and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

But in Q2, we had this:

What a piece of work is a man – how noble in reason; how infinite in faculties, in form and moving; how express and admirable in action; how like an angel in apprehension; how like a god; the beauty of the world; the paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Admittedly, the overall meaning remains much the same, but there is something fascinating about Shakespeare rethinking and re-organising the phrasing and the rhythms in this manner. I’d love to hear the Q2 phrasing used in a production.

There are also somewhat more significant changes. In Act 2 Scene 2, where Hamlet sees through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the Quarto text allows Hamlet to see through them almost immediately; the Folio text, however, allows Hamlet a bit longer, letting him engage for a while in seemingly friendly banter before dropping the bombshell: “Were you not sent for?” Here, I must admit, I feel the Folio text is dramatically more effective, giving more scope for the actor playing Hamlet to display his shrewdness in weighing up the motives of his former friends. In the Q2 text, the question “Were you not sent for?” seems based on a hunch, asked on the spur of the moment.

In the closet scene, however (III,iv), Q2 has a magnificent piece of extended rhetoric in which Hamlet berates his mother. It is an irresistible torrent in full flow:

This was your husband. Look you now, what follows:
Here is your husband; like a mildew’d ear,
Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes?
Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,
And batten on this moor? Ha! have you eyes?
You cannot call it love; for at your age
The hey-day in the blood is tame, it’s humble,
And waits upon the judgment: and what judgment
Would step from this to this? Sense, sure, you have,
Else could you not have motion; but sure, that sense
Is apoplex’d; for madness would not err,
Nor sense to ecstasy was ne’er so thrall’d
But it reserved some quantity of choice,
To serve in such a difference. What devil was’t
That thus hath cozen’d you at hoodman-blind?
Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,
Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all,
Or but a sickly part of one true sense
Could not so mope.

And I can’t help feeling what a shame it is that Shakespeare in his revision chose to shorten this of all passages. Presumably, he had his reasons for doing so, but I can’t help wondering what devil was’t that thus hath cozen’d him at hoodman-blind.

But without doubt, the most significant cut of all comes in the fourth act. In Q2, Hamlet, as he is led into exile, sees Fortinbras and his troops; expresses some thoughts about them to Fortinbras’ captain, and then, left on his own, delivers the last of his great soliloquies (“How all occasions do inform against me”). In the Folio text, Hamlet is not present at all in this scene: his words to the captain, and his soliloquy, one of the most magnificent speeches in all Shakespeare, are cut out. This scene now serves a purely narrative purpose – to remind us of Fortinbras and his troops, and to prepare the ground for their entrance at the end of the play. But before decrying this unkindest cut of all, we should examine why Shakespeare was so apparently willing to discard so extraordinary a passage.

To be entirely honest, this longer scene in Q2, magnificent though it is, has always puzzled me. On hearing from the captain that the troops are on their way to fight over a meaningless piece of land, all for the sake of honour, Hamlet is horrified:

This is the impostume of much wealth and peace,
That inward breaks, and shows no cause without
Why the man dies.

“Impostume” is an abscess: once again, Hamlet employs the imagery of disease. This Hotspur-like insistence on honour, even at so great a loss, is a disease, and is the hidden reason that explains “why the man dies”. Shapiro thinks that this “may well be the darkest moment in the play”. But then, left on his own, we have Hamlet’s final soliloquy. At the very opening of the soliloquy, Hamlet castigates himself – as he had done in the soliloquy that had ended the second act – for not having yet acted:

How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge!

But this opening is immediately followed by some of the most glorious lines in English literature, in which Hamlet speaks of humans as thinking beings:

What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused.

How noble in reason indeed!

But at this point, the soliloquy takes a strange turn. Hamlet now turns his critical eye on thinking too much – on “thinking too precisely on th’event”. One of Hamlet’s own principal characteristics – the ability to think and to reason deeply – is found wanting, and rejected:

Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on the event,
A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward, I do not know
Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do;’
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do’t.

In all the years I have been reading and re-reading this play, I have never understood this turn of Hamlet’s mind. And it eludes me still. Hamlet knows that what Fortinbras is doing – leading two thousand souls to their deaths for nothing, for some point of honour – is stupid, is pointless. It is an “impostune” – an abscess, a disease. So why does he now think that Fortinbras’ actions shows himself, Hamlet, in a bad light? Why is he turning against his own nature? Why is he now castigating himself for being, unlike Fortinbras, capable of thought? He is still aware that what Fortinbras is fighting for is not worth fighting for: an “eggshell”, he calls it, “a fantasy and a trick of fame”. And yet, he now admires and wishes to emulate even this fighting that is pointless, that is an impostume.

When I last wrote about Hamlet on this blog, I had conjectured that Hamlet sees in Fortinbras an image of his own warlike father; and that his guilt in being so unlike his father, in having, as it were, betrayed his father’s values, compels him to admire those very qualities that he knows he does not have. It compels him to admire these qualities even though he can see these qualities for what they are. This is, I admit, mere conjecture on my part; but I can think of no other reason why Hamlet should express admiration for Fortinbras, and try to force himself into becoming what he knows he isn’t:

O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!

However we interpret this soliloquy, and Hamlet’s words to the captain, we are in deep moral and psychological waters. By removing these passages, these complexities are also removed. Shapiro in his book presents us with a number of other changes Shakespeare introduced into the revised text that, consistent with the removal of complexity, present revenge as morally correct and desirable, and Hamlet as, essentially, a revenging angel.

First of all, since Fortinbras is no longer so strong a foil to Hamlet, Laertes’ role as a foil is emphasised, perhaps somewhat clumsily, with the addition of these lines:

But I am very sorry, good Horatio,
That to Laertes I forgot myself;
For, by the image of my cause, I see
The portraiture of his.

Hamlet’s beautiful lines on the acceptance of Fate are also subtly changed. In Q2, we had this:

We defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all, since no man of aught he leaves knows what is’t to leave betimes. Let be.

In the Folio, this becomes:

We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?

The more committed avenger in the Folio text leaves out “Let be”. And the passage is rephrased so that the word “knows” drops out: Hamlet in the Folio no longer says that it is not possible to know, but, rather, that it is unimportant to have. The moral complexity of the Q2 text is here ironed out: in that text, Hamlet had resolved the questions that had been tormenting him by calmly accepting that it is impossible to know. In the Folio text, all those issues have disappeared altogether, leaving a somewhat simplified character, but also, for that very reason, a more credible avenger.

There is a further significant addition. In Q2, we had this:

He that hath kill’d my King and whored my mother,
Popp’d in between th’election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life
And with such cozenage. Is’t not perfect conscience?

This passage is clearly intended to prepare us for the act of revenge that is soon to follow, but in the light of the moral complexities introduced earlier, this passage sits awkwardly: has Hamlet forgotten about these complexities? But, with these complexities removed in the Folio text, this same passage can now be given greater dramatic force, and the sense of the impending revenge, and of its correctness, emphasised:

He that hath kill’d my king and whored my mother,
Popp’d in between the election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage–is’t not perfect conscience,
To quit him with this arm? and is’t not to be damn’d,
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?

It is now “to be damn’d” not to take revenge – a sentiment that the Q2 text could not have accommodated.

(For a more detailed and a far more eloquent account of the impact of these changes, I would strongly recommend Chapter 15 of James Shapiro’s book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.)

So, what are the final impressions left by reading these competing texts separately? A certain clarification, certainly. To see the subtle touches of revision, those apparently little changes that alter so much, are in themselves a joy to behold. But while there are some aspects of the revised Folio text that I would not wish to be without – such as the extended scene in II,ii where hamlet speaks with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – it is the morally and psychologically complex Hamlet of Q2 that I find more compelling. Even though, admittedly, the final act of revenge in which the play culminates does nothing to resolve those complexities.

On timelessness

Those of us in thrall to the literatures of past ages often claim that the works we love are “timeless” – that while society may change, human nature, underneath it all, remains the same. It is one of those soundbites we tend to trot out unthinkingly whenever our literary preferences are challenged. But it doesn’t really mean anything though, does it? It is demonstrable that people who have grown up in very different cultures tend to hold very different values, and think very different thoughts: we are all inevitably products of the societies in which we grow up. This is one of the major themes of Huckleberry Finn: here, we are shown people who are otherwise kind and generous, but who, having lived all their lives in a slave-owning society, accept as a matter of course even the most horrendous brutalities of slavery; their values are clearly very different from our own. Similarly, I think, with the various characters in my beloved War and Peace: is it reasonable to expect Russian aristocrats living in a serf-owning society (Russian serfdom was every bit as brutal as slavery in the American plantations or in the sugar plantations of the West Indies) to be fundamentally like ourselves? Is it reasonable to think that, “underneath it all”, citizens of ancient Athens or of Shakespearean London were not too different from us in the twenty-first century?

The same questions arise, I think, with literatures not from other ages but from different countries. Even cultures superficially similar can exhibit startling differences: for instance, culturally, the differences between Western Europe and US may seem slight; but those in US are far more wedded to the concept of libertarianism than are those of us on this side of the Pond, and, as a consequence, our political cultures, and, indeed, social cultures, are very different in all sorts of ways. Thus, Europeans are frequently puzzled by the adherence of so many Americans to the right to carry firearms, or by their objection to a national health service paid for by taxes; meanwhile, Americans wonder in equal disbelief how it can be possible for Europeans to surrender so much of their individual freedoms to the state. I say this not to debate on the rights and wrongs of different political cultures – let’s not go there: that way madness lies – but, rather, to point out that there do exist essential cultural differences. If cultures so similar as Britain and US can differ so radically in such basic values, would it really be surprising if people from cultures even more radically different from our own were to hold values even more alien to ours? One may respond to all this by saying that these things are all superficial, and that, fundamentally, beneath it all, we are the same. But beneath what all? If we are to speak of “fundamental” human nature, how do we distinguish between what is fundamental and what is superficial? Are not deeply held values all “fundamental”?

And yet, we can and do respond, often very deeply, to works written in past times, when the values of society were very, very different from those we currently adhere to; we do respond to contemporary books written in countries with very different cultures. So how can this be possible? We tend to claim that these books still “relevant”, and they are “relevant” because, underneath it all, human nature remains the same; but unless we can specify clearly what we mean by “underneath it all”, I don’t know this is a very meaningful thing to say.

Let us, first of all, acknowledge that there have been a great number of differences in human nature across the centuries – differences in how we view and interpret the world, how we process information, and so on – differences that cannot be described, I think, as merely superficial. And in acknowledging this, we run, I think, into a paradox: works produced by cultures that are so very different from my own can nonetheless hold me powerfully in their grip. I cannot deny the evidence of my own experience, after all: I am reminded of that Groucho Marx line from Duck Soup – “Who are you going to believe? Me, or your lying eyes?” So what should I believe? My reason, which tells me that those works from the past that I value so much depict a human nature fundamentally different from my own? Or my own lying experiences – experiences which, it is no exaggeration to say, have been and continue to be some of the most important and rewarding in my life? I am afraid I have no option but to go with the latter.

There is, of course, an unstated assumption behind this paradox, and this assumption is that, in literature, one responds most powerfully to that which is most closely related to one’s own self. And it is this assumption I think we should question: if we take it to its most extreme form, it follows that we would wish to read only about those characters who most resemble us, and social environments that most resemble our own: and this clearly isn’t true. And, since it isn’t true in its most extreme form, it is reasonable to wonder the extent to which it can be true in more moderate versions. It seems to me that as readers, we are capable of making the most extraordinary leaps of the imagination, and in doing so, leap over the most yawning chasms of differences – even, quite often, of fundamental differences. In short, the depth or intensity of our response to a work of literature is not a function of the closeness of our own lives and values to those depicted.

But do we – can we – all respond to the same thing? The answer is clearly “no”: there is no unanimity in response to any given work. But there is a consensus, a very major consensus that, surprisingly, does not change too significantly over time. To demonstrate this, let me propose a thought experiment: imagine a list created by an erudite and cultured person of a hundred years ago of the major writers of the Western world (let us restrict this to the Western world for now); and imagine, similarly, an equally erudite and cultured person of today creating a similar list; then, excluding obviously those writers who flourished in the last hundred years, the lists would, I think, be extraordinarily similar. Both lists would include, say, Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Thucydides, Plato, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Villon, Rostand, Rabelais, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton, Molière, Racine, Pushkin, Goethe, Schiller, Heine, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Gogol, Balzac, Stendhal, Austen, Dickens, etc. etc. There would be some major writers who would probably not have been included then but would be now – Gerard Manley Hopkins, for instance – but that’s only because their works weren’t so widely known then as it is now, and not because of their perceived demerits. And there would similarly be a few writers who are not considered as major now as they once had been (Scott is an obvious example). But there will be far more writers in common than otherwise between the two lists. Now, let us repeat this thought experiment replacing hundred years by two hundred years, or three hundred years, or five hundred years. It’s the stability of the lists that is remarkable.

And, given this stability, it seems to me reasonable to speak of a “canon”. Now, I realise that is a dirty word, especially when it comes to the arts: as enlightened modern relativists, we are all, I think, expected to sneer at the very idea of a “canon”. However, it seems to me that all fields of human activity have canons, whether or not we use that word. Ask cricket fans to list the greatest fast bowlers; ask wine connoisseurs to list the greatest vintages; ask enthusiasts of hill-walking in Scotland to list the greatest climbs in the Scottish Highlands. They’ll all have lists, and the lists members of each group come up with will have a remarkable degree of overlap. This is because there is no field of human activity in which excellence is not a consideration; and within each field, excellence is recognised by much the same criteria, even if those criteria cannot be precisely pinned down. And the consensus that emerges is, whether we like it or not, a canon.

So let us, at this stage, attempt a definition:

A “canon” is a list of items that exemplify what people with knowledge and understanding of a certain field of activity collectively understand to be excellence within that field of activity.

(How great a level of knowledge and of understanding? A valid question – but let us leave that one for later! Let us, for the moment, say, the greater someone’s knowledge and understanding, the greater the weight that may be placed on that person’ value judgement. For of course, there is as little point giving weight to the literary judgement of someone with little understanding of literature as there is in taking seriously any opinion I may happen to have on the techniques of neurosurgery.)

So, against all odds – despite differences that are more than merely superficial, despite the vast chasms in cultural values and conceptions that separate us from the societies that had produced Homer or Shakespeare – we appear to have a consensus on what constitutes literary excellence; and, what is more, we appear to have a remarkable degree of stability in that consensus. This has, obviously, proved deeply embarrassing to relativists, and they try all sorts of ways to account for it. The commonest is to claim that this canon is somehow kept stable artificially by people with vested interests. This seems to me utter nonsense, for the very obvious reason that the canon can remain stable only if there are readers who continue to respond to the works therein; and no-one, whatever alleged vested interests they may have, can compel readers to respond to works against their better judgement. Even this is sometimes challenged, with allegations of subtle forms of brainwashing, or even vast conspiracies, and what-not, to force our judgements for mysterious reasons to conform to some mysterious standards, but I don’t know that such gibberish need detain us here. That a consensus on what constitutes literary excellence does exist may be miraculous, but nonetheless, it is true, and we do not need to indulge in fantastic hypotheses to account for it.

So the question that should be our starting point is not so much “Can we respond to works created in times and cultures very different from our own?”, but, rather, “Given that changes over time, and differences across cultures, are by no means superficial, how can we account for the fact that we do respond, often very deeply, to works from other times and from other cultures?”

It is not the case, I think, that readers have to be able to imagine something within the context of their own times to be able to respond to it. Take, for instance, Sophocles’ play Oedipus Tyrannos: anyone who has seen a good production, or has read a good translation, or has seen that superb film adaptation by Pasolini (which is very close to the play), will testify to its extraordinary power. I know of no drama written by anyone in any age or any culture that is as gripping as this. And yet, the play is set in a world in which the gods send humans prophetic dreams, in which the Oracle at Delphi reveals to us great truths about ourselves. In short, it takes place in a world that can by no stretch of the imagination be related to our own. And yet, the fascination it continues to on hold us, even now, is a fact. How can we account for this?

Perhaps we don’t need to account for this at all. The hypothesis that we respond most keenly to those works that reflect our own society and our own cultural values is not, as I said earlier, a very sound one: if it were to be true, we would prefer reading fiction that reflects as closely as possible our own circumstances, and that is clearly not so. (Indeed, if it were so, there is no possible way we could explain the immense popularity of fantasy literature in our own times.) So, hypothesis rejected, as statisticians would say. And those cultural commentators who think we should be teaching scripts of television soap operas or whatever in schools, on the grounds that children will be able to relate to them more closely than to some boring old classic, are talking out of their collective back sides.

Once we rid ourselves of this highly dubious hypothesis, an alternative possibility becomes apparent: that we, the readers, have the ability to make an imaginative leap into other fictional worlds. In other words, we do not need to drag Sophocles’ Oedipus into our own world to respond to it: rather, we have the ability to take ourselves into the world of Oedipus.

And on top of this, something else happens that seems to me quite extraordinary: we, as readers, are capable of abstracting from what we read. Let me try to explain what I mean by that.

We should, of course, be careful about using terms such as “abstraction” in the context of literature, since literature – and especially narrative literature, i.e. novels, plays, narrative poems, etc. – is the least abstract of all art forms. Music is completely abstract: we respond to arrangements of sounds, and a C major chord, whatever associations it may have for the listener, cannot be or denote anything other than itself. Similarly with art: paintings are arrangements of shapes and colours: these shapes and colours may evoke a reality beyond that of the painting itself, but they needn’t. In a representational painting, the artist could use green to depict grass, but whatever merit that painting has comes not from the fact that it depicts grass, but from the way the artist, in the process, has used the green. In an abstract painting, a patch of green may evoke in some viewers the idea of grass, but it needn’t: what is being responded to is an abstraction of shapes and colours. (The difference between representational and abstract art, and our responses to them, is a complex theme, and I am aware that certain generalisations I have made in the brief sketch above can be contested.)

But in literature, this sort of abstraction is not possible, since words by nature are representational. Each word is, in a sense, a metaphor, denoting something other than itself. A writer may use the word “chair”, say, in such a way as to exploit its sound, its connotations, its rhythm in the context of the surrounding words, and so on. But, where an artist can use the colour green without necessarily representing grass, the writer cannot use the word “chair” without representing that piece of furniture we sit on. Literature cannot be purely abstract.

But for all that, when we read, I think we abstract certain things from our reading. It is a well-known fact, for instance, that even rational people who do not believe in ghosts can enjoy a ghost story. And I think this is because reader, while not accepting the reality of ghosts, does accept the reality of fear; and that the reader can, as a consequence, abstract from a ghost story the sense of fear that it evokes, while accepting the concept of the supernatural merely as an artifice designed to convey this sense. This abstraction is not a conscious procedure on the reader’s part; but it does, I think, happen. I can think of no other reason why I should find so terrifying that part of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in which Jonathan Harker is trapped in Dracula’s Castle, even though I don’t for a minute believe in vampires. The human mind is very adept at decontextualising. (And I think that is the first time I have ever used that word.)

If this is so, this can explain a great many things. Why am I so moved, say, by the final scene of King Lear? I know the whole thing is fiction; I know that these are actors on stage – indeed, I have seen them in other films and plays; I know that the actress playing Cordelia isn’t really dead – look! There she is taking a bow just minutes after apparently expiring! And yet, I feel shattered. I feel I have been hit by an emotional whirlwind. I find myself unable to focus my thoughts. Could this not be explained by my having abstracted from the story of King Lear (which I know to be a fiction) all those very real feelings and thoughts and emotions and sensations that make me feel like this? That, while I know that the story of King Lear isn’t real, the abstract qualities that reside in this story, and for which the story is but a vehicle, are very real indeed?

If I am on the right track with this, it may help provide something of an explanation for “timelessness”. To put it crudely, the story is but the vehicle; it is what may be abstracted from that vehicle that confers it value. And those works we – perhaps too loosely – refer to as being “timeless” are those works from which, by some miracle (for there is a miracle in all great works of art), we all may, because we all belong to the human species, abstract those qualities that are and remain valuable to us. So no, I am not really grieving for Lear and Cordelia: I am grieving because the I have abstracted from the story of Lear and Cordelia the qualities of love, pain, grief, loss, desolation, redemption, bewilderment, and all those other things that continue to be so important to us, all those things that we may, with reason, consider to be “timeless”.