Archive for January, 2015

“The Spanish Tragedy” by Thomas Kyd

Revenge has been central feature of many a drama, right from the earliest times to now, encompassing everything between the highest of brows and the lowest – from the Orestia of Aeschylus to the Death Wish films of Michael Winner; from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus; from westerns and gangster films of varying quality to the blood-drenched “video nasties” that so exercised our moral sensibilities some thirty or so years ago.

The reason for its appeal across so vast a range is not difficult to discern. At the basest end, it provides violence that titillates us, but which we can nonetheless enjoy in good conscience because some of the violence we know will be punished, while the rest of it we know is perpetrated in a just cause (both Titus Andronicus and Death Weekend occupy this end of the spectrum). Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the theme allows us to ponder such important matters as justice and morality. It encourages us to consider the ultimate futility of meting out injury for injury, and, simultaneously, the moral decadence of not meting out injury for injury. The dilemma is with us still: those who fight dragons become dragons themselves, Nietzsche had warned us; and yet, those who don’t fight dragons allow the dragons to become stronger. It is a horrible moral bind to be in, and it is hardly surprising that those writers who think long and hard about the human condition find themselves fascinated by this seemingly insoluble moral impasse. And neither is it surprising that those who don’t think so long or so hard relish the opportunity of the violent titillation this theme affords. Either way, it makes – if not necessarily for good drama, then, at least, for drama that holds the attention of its intended audience.

The “revenge tragedy” was an important genre of its own in Shakespeare’s days, and one of the seminal works of that genre is Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, written in the 1580s when Shakespeare was still a young man, and popular enough to be revived in 1602 (with additional scenes possibly by Ben Jonson, no less) when Shakespeare was at his height of his career. It is not, to be honest (and to anticipate somewhat the conclusion of this post), a particularly major work of literature. But then again, one shouldn’t spend all one’s reading time exploring the great peaks: one should know also something of the plains from which the peaks rise. Masterpiece this isn’t, but it’s a diverting enough work. Kyd isn’t interested in the psychology of revenge; neither is he interested in the morality. What he is interested in is pacing the story in such a way as to keep the audience interested in what happens next, in creating tension, and in providing shocks and sensational stage effects. We have a sensational stage effect in the very first scene, as the ghost of the recently deceased Don Andrea enters with the Spirit of Revenge. And together, they sit and watch the events unfold, much as we, the audience, do. In the course of the action, we have villainy, treachery, murder, false imprisonment, attempted forced marriage, suicide, and, of course, madness. Hieronimo goes mad after his son is brutally murdered: there are some splendid scenes of his mad ranting. And if one person going mad makes for good theatre, two people going mad makes for theatre twice as good: Hieronimo’s wife is introduced for no other purpose than for her to go mad also. And then there’s the splendid finale – a play-within-a-play (an idea Shakespeare was more than happy to recycle), but here, the stage-within-the-stage violence is real. Which, of course, can take us into Borgesian labyrinths should we be that way minded (if the violence within the play-within-the-play is real, then might not… etc.) but I doubt any of that was in Kyd’s mind: he saw it for what it was –a sensationally good stage effect. And should we be tempted to think that all this excessive violence is a bit tongue-in-cheek, Hieronimo caps it all by biting his tongue off and spitting it out of his cheek, to ensure that torture doesn’t make him talk. Splendid stuff.

Presumably, this was the sort of thing the audiences of the time wanted, but I must confess myself a bit puzzled by this: these were cruel times, when torture was commonplace, floggings, beheadings, and hanging, drawing and quartering were all public spectacles. Why were audiences so keen to see simulated violence when the real thing was happening just outside the theatre? In all the accounts I have read of Tudor and Jacobean theatre, I have never seen this question addressed. But whatever the reason behind this, simulated stage violence was undoubtedly popular, and the genre of the revenge tragedy seemed a perfect vehicle for giving the audience what it craved.

In the introduction to my Oxford edition, editor Katharine Eisaman Maus spends much time discussing the social distinctions underpinning the drama. The victim of the crime, Horatio, and his avenging father Hieronimo, are, she points out, effectively top ranking civil servants in the court, and are thus somewhat below the aristocratic villains in terms of social ranking. Interesting though this is, I am not convinced that Kyd had any interest in social hierarchies of the court other than as a means to enable the plot. For, obviously, there can be no need for revenge at all if the law may be relied upon to redress the wrong; thus, in any tale of revenge, there must be a good reason why the law cannot be relied upon – either because the law is inefficient, or corrupt, or because, as in the earlier parts of The Oresteia, such a law doesn’t even exist. At the end of The Oresteia the drama is resolved with the establishment of a legal institution capable of redressing wrongs, thus making redundant individual acts of vengeance. But The Oresteia was set in mythical times: The Spanish Tragedy on the other hand, is set in roughly the same time in which the play was written, so some explanation must be provided on this score to make the revenge plot intelligible. And the explanation here seems to be that the villains, occupying a higher social rank than Hieronimo, can block his access to the king. The element of social ranking thus seems to me a plot device more than anything else: certainly, Kyd shows no particular interest in exploring this theme for its own end, and to focus on this element is perhaps to give the play a greater significance than it possesses.

Kyd went on to write a play based on the Hamlet story. This play has not survived, so it is impossible to judge how much Shakespeare took from it; but if Shakespeare did indeed take anything significant from this play, one can only surmise that it was, artistically, a far greater achievement than The Spanish Tragedy. For, in trying to discern what influence if any The Spanish Tragedy may have had on the works of Shakespeare, the answer seems to be – apart from the plot device of the play-within-the-play – “very little”. Amongst other things, Shakespeare doesn’t even seem very interested in the theme of revenge. Apart from the early play Titus Andronicus – in which I cannot see any glimmerings at all of artistic ambition – Hamlet is the only play in the Shakespearean canon in which revenge plays a major role. After that, despite the immense potential of this theme in tragic drama, it appears in Shakespeare’s tragedies only on the periphery of the action rather than at the centre: it is, for instance, Macduff who is motivated by revenge, not Macbeth. Even in Hamlet, Shakespeare seems  uninterested in some of the major aspects of the theme, such as, say, the morality of revenge: once Hamlet is satisfied that the ghost is really the spirit of his father, and that Claudius really is his father’s murderer, this most persistent of questioners never even questions whether or not revenge is morally justified. This issue that so exercised the imaginations of the great Athenian tragedians appears not to have concerned Shsakespeare at all. If Shakespeare’s audiences really did crave revenge tragedy – and the existence of so many plays by his contemporaries in this genre indicates that they did – then Shakespeare seems on the whole to have been swimming against the popular tide in refusing to satisfy them. And if The Spanish Tragedy is indeed representative of the plain from which the peak of Hamlet rises, then, for all the undoubted entertainment value of Kyd’s work, it must be conceded that the height of the peak from the level of the plain is immeasurably great.

On New Year resolutions, and a few other matters

After the festivities, the austerity. Several of my friends have committed themselves to going through the first month of the New Year without alcohol, penitent, it seems, for the sin of having enjoyed themselves earlier. Others have come up with New Year resolutions that seem designed to make life as unpleasant as possible: give up fried food, exercise more, go to the gym, and the like. (It never ceases to astonish me, incidentally, that those paying vast amounts for the privilege of exercising in a gym appear not to have figured out that taking a run round the park is free.) If Christmas was designed to brighten up the gloom of a bleak mid-winter, we seem intent upon returning to all that gloom and bleakness with a fanatic relish afterwards. As for myself, I must confess that, ageing sybarite that I am, all this mortifying the flesh to purify the spirit leaves me feeling distressingly alienated. For, in the words of Falstaff, he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man; and who in their right senses would consider a life purged of all its pleasures, and laden with various self-imposed vicissitudes, to be a life worth having – even for the single penitential month of January? Give me life, says I! If I can have it, so; if not, the gym comes unlooked for, and there an end.

Not that I haven’t made a few New Year resolutions myself, of course. Not perhaps New Year resolutions, since they had been formulated log before the New Year, but, all the same, resolutions for this coming year. I want to devote myself to the arts and literatures of Shakespeare’s times. To this end, I have lined up for myself the Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse – a large and forbidding tome with which I am determined to familiarise myself; the Longman edition (which is the most heavily annotated version I could find) of the poems of Donne, along with the Cambridge Companion to Donne, which, hopefully, will give me some critical insights that I could then pass off here as my own; various plays by contemporaries of Shakespeare – Kyd, Marlowe, Webster, Jonson, Ford, Middleton, Tourneur, Dekker, Heywood, and the like; and the collected essays of Bacon and of Montaigne. (The latter died when Shakespeare was still a teenager, but Montaigne seems so important an intellectual influence on Shakespeare, that it seems ludicrous for any self-respecting Bardolator not to know his works well.) And I want to read Don Quixote in a modern translation: my preferred translation till now has been the one by Tobias Smollett, who was, of course, a fine novelist in his own right, but, lively and ebullient thought that version was and still is, the more recent translations are, I am told, more accurate; and since we already have John Rutherford’s highly rated Penguin translation on our shelves (it is a favourite book of my wife’s), there seemed little point getting another one. On top of all this, I would like to familiarise myself with the art and music of that period: the last few weeks have been spent listening to some of the choral music of William Byrd, including the three magnificent masses (which, in those days in Protestant England, had to be performed discreetly behind closed doors), and also to some of the songs of John Dowland. I really am not at all familiar with music of this era, but I suppose repeated listening is the best way to familiarise myself.

My resolution to immerse myself in all this has, admittedly, been put on hold for a while by a couple of books presented to me for Christmas by my brother: Think by Simon Blackburn, an introduction to laymen such as myself to some of the major concepts and arguments of Western philosophy; and The Soul of the World by philosopher Roger Scruton, in which the author (and I am merely paraphrasing the blurb here on the jacket) argues for the importance in our lives of a sense of the sacred (a term, I presume, the author will define somewhere along the line), and, to anticipate somewhat, concludes that “despite the shrinking place for the sacred in today’s world … the paths to transcendence remain open”. My brother presented this book to me with the somewhat tongue-in-cheek comment that he thought I would like it because I was “into all that mumbo-jumbo”. He was referring to my fascination with Dostoyevsky, a writer for whose irrationality and religious fervour my brother has little patience: and he is right: I am, indeed, into all that “mumbo-jumbo” – at least, up to a point. The idea that I am more than the sum of my constituent physical parts is one to which I do find myself emotionally attached, despite all the arguments and the lack of scientific evidence that may be ranged against it. So I would be very interested indeed to know what a philosopher such as Scruton has to say in defence of this idea, irrational though it may well be. Well, let’s not pre-judge: I’ll write about all that once I have read the book.

But the first two weeks of the January I have spent reading Blackburn’s book. I am still debating whether or not to write a blog post on it: of what value, after all, can the thoughts be worth of a not-very-knowledgeable layman regarding a book written by an expert on very profound and complex matters? Should I not merely restrict myself to saying that I found it illuminating and fascinating (and a few similar words looked up in the thesaurus) and leave it there? Anything more and I would merely be making a fool of myself! But this blog is as much a personal diary as it is a public platform, so perhaps a jotting down few words describing my own reactions to the book rather than presuming the critique the book may not be entirely amiss. I’ll see how confident I feel about it. And some time not too much later, I most certainly want to read Scruton’s book. And write something about that too, if I can pluck up the courage to do so.

But for now, I am going to immerse myself in Donne. By the end of the year, I want to count myself as one knowledgeable about this poet, of whose work I am currently aware only in a very haphazard manner. And may I wish everyone out there that your New Year resolutions – even if it is spending more time in the gym – brings you as much joy as mine promise to bring to me!

Hurt sentiments: a postscript

I don’t know if this happens to other bloggers, but it happens to me. I write a blog post; I go through it, polishing the sentences as best I can, and correcting all the typing errors and grammatical solecisms that I can find (I am not very good at this latter bit); and then I hit the “Post” button. And only then do I think of something else I should have said, but didn’t. And it’s too late now: I can’t put up a new post just to include a few sentences I had omitted from the last one.

Or can’t I? It’s my blog after all – I can write what I like! So here are a few sentences that I had neglected to include in my previous post on the subject of “hurt sentiments”:

People who are intimidated into silence will have very little respect, if any, for the sentiments, hurt or otherwise, of those who have silenced them. Quite the contrary: they are quite likely regard those sentiments with disdain. Do those who silence others through fear not realise this? Or do they realise it, and not care? Are their sentiments hurt only by overt mockery rather than by covert contempt?

And that’s all really. I feel much better after that! Thank you for indulging me.

Hurt sentiments

What a strange thing human nature is! One may quite easily sit motionless in a corner for hours without any bother at all, but if one is told that one has to stay in that corner, then it becomes intolerable even for a few minutes. It’s much the same, I fear, with all this palaver about “hurting sentiments”, a topic that has been much in the world news of late.

Generally, I am, as regular readers of this blog will know, a quiet, gentle person, kind and considerate to all, who wouldn’t normally dream of hurting anyone’s sentiments. But as soon as I’m told “Don’t you dare hurt my sentiments if you know what’s good for you!” I immediately feel an overwhelming urge to go on a gratuitous sentiment-hurting spree, if only to prove that I have the freedom to do so should I choose. (I don’t, of course, but that’s only because I’m a coward, and for no other reason.) Also, quite apart from this, banning or withdrawing books hurts my sentiments, and I don’t understand why my sentiments should be worth so much less than those of others. Being kind and considerate to all and respecting their sentiments, whether I happen to share them or not, is undoubtedly a fine thing in theory, but in practice, it becomes very difficult, I admit, to respect the sentiments of those who clearly don’t respect mine.

I don’t want to go too deeply here into the rights and wrongs of all this – on what the limits of freedom of expression should be, on whether such limits should exist at all, on whether the right to offend is as sacred as the right to revere, and so on. This is partly because, as I said, I am a coward: there are a great many inflamed and potentially violent passions out there that I have no desire to inflame further. And it is also because all that needs to be said, and also much that needn’t, or, indeed, shouldn’t, is already out there: my own frail voice is hardly required to add to the existing cacophony. Further, this is primarily a literary blog, and, for reasons given elsewhere, I try generally to steer clear of political matters. However, as a blog dealing primarily with literary matters, it is not possible to steer clear of certain issues. And when an author, as a consequence of a campaign against him, withdraws all his books, and retires from his literary career, then that is a matter that should be of very deep concern to anyone who values literature, and the freedom of the writer.

The 18-day protests over controversial Tamil novel, Madhorubhagan, on Monday ended with its author Perumal Murugan tendering an unconditional apology for “hurting the sentiments of the people of Tiruchengode”. He also decided to withdraw all his novels, short stories, essays and poems published so far. He said he would compensate the publishers. He told Express that he made the decision fearing protests in the future against his published work.

I had not, to my shame, previously heard of Tamil novelist Perumal Murugan, but that is a reflection not on his stature as an author, but on my ignorance of contemporary Indian literature. I do, however, think it important to draw attention to this story as it seems to have been somewhat sidelined in the international press.

Doing a Google search on the author’s name, I find, as ever, a diversity of opinions. And once again, I do not wish to comment. The author was described in the news report linked to above as “visibly upset”: I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether Mr Murugan’s decision to withdraw his life’s work, and promise not to pursue his literary career further, was due to a genuine respect for the hurt sentiments of the protestors, or, perhaps, to some other consideration. Mr Murugan did put up a message on his Facebook page for a few days regarding this matter, and a translation of it may be found here.

Should anyone like to offer a modicum of support to Mr Murugan (since that is all that can be offered now) please consider purchasing the Kindle edition of one his novels. It is available here.

I don’t know that there’s anything more for me to say, except that my sentiments have been very deeply hurt.