Archive for April, 2016

#Shakespeare400: “Love’s Labour’s Lost” revisited

I was considering choosing The Winter’s Tale as one of the Shakespeare plays to write about for this #Shakespeare200 series, but I have written about that play not once, but twice, only quite recently, and while it is true that these plays are inexhaustible, I don’t know that I have had in the last few months any startling new insight into this play that is worth communicating. And in any case, a series such as this should not consist only of the big hitters – the Twelfth Nights and the King Lears: there should be some advocacy also for at least one lesser known play. And there are a great many lesser known plays that deserve to be better known – the second (and perhaps also the third) of the Henry VI-Richard III tetralogy, the bitter and despairing Troilus and Cressida, and so on. And recently, I have found myself coming round to Cymbeline, the play memorably described by Samuel Johnson as “unresisting imbecility”: I used to think this play was something of an anomaly, but frequent re-readings, and seeing a very fine production of it live on stage, have convinced me that Shakespeare knew what he was up to. Whether we can figure out what Shakespeare was up to is perhaps another matter, but it’s worth making the effort.

But Cymbeline too I have written about quite recently; so the lesser known play I decided on was a very early comedy, Love’s Labour’s Lost – a play rarely included in anyone’s list of favourites, but one for which I have a great affection. This may well have something to do with the fact that, way back in 1978, on my first visit to Stratford-on-Avon, I saw a production of this play (directed by John Barton) that, even after all these years, strikes me as just about the most perfect evening I think I have ever spent in a theatre: it was lyrical, charming, delightful, funny, exuberant, and, by the last scene, wistful and sombre and sad. While much of this was due to the superlative quality of the production, so deeply satisfying a theatrical experience could not have been based on a play that is merely mediocre: there was nothing I saw on the stage that night that is not present, or at least implicit, in the text itself.

What I particularly remember from that evening, and what strikes me most strongly every time I revisit the play, is the sudden and very decisive change of tonality near the end. After all the high-jinks of the earlier scenes, just as we think we are heading for a happy and conventional boy-gets-girl finale – or, rather, boys-get-girls finale – the messenger Mercade enters, and this happens:



God save you, madam!


Welcome, Mercade;
But that thou interrupt’st our merriment.


I am sorry, madam; for the news I bring
Is heavy in my tongue. The king your father–


Dead, for my life!


Even so; my tale is told.


“The scene begins to cloud,” observes Berowne, and from this moment to the end, the clouds don’t lift. What had been, till then, a happy and quite cloudless comedy now contemplates that reality from which none of us can escape – death. The boys don’t get the girls – not yet, anyway: the proposed marriages are deferred for a year:


Our wooing doth not end like an old play;
Jack hath not Jill: these ladies’ courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy.


Come, sir, it wants a twelvemonth and a day,
And then ’twill end.


That’s too long for a play.

And yet, while the change of tone is striking and decisive, it does not seem like something tagged on as an afterthought: the closing scene is, somehow, perfectly consonant with what had gone before, and it is not easy figuring out why that should be. We could, of course, put it down to some mysterious alchemy that, as so often in Shakespeare, defies analysis, but let’s not give up on it so easily: the question is at least worth investigating – how is it that a play so abounding in cheerful major keys could shift so suddenly to the minor in the final scene, and yet not appear disjointed?

It seems to me that, despite this very drastic modulation near the end, the unity of the play derives from the tonality of the final scene providing a sense of completeness: it is a minor key tonality that had been lacking earlier in the play, but the very lack of this key had left a hole that its belated appearance fills.

We had seen the four young men – Berowne, the King of Navarre, Dumaine, Longaville – all, essentially, at play: these are people who are divorced from the messy business of living, and want to keep it that way. In the first scene, they swear, despite reservations from Berowne, to devote themselves to three years of study, living a life of austerity, and secluded, monk-like, from feminine company. That last condition has to be broken almost immediately: a deputation of ladies, led by the Princess of France, appears on the scene, and the men are obliged to meet with them. It is significant that it is the ladies who have come to the men, and not, as in Much Ado About Nothing, the other way round; and it is significant also that the ladies have come on a matter of serious business, the sort of thing the men have been trying to avoid. In most of Shakespeare’s comedies, the ladies are more intelligent than the men, and, indeed, educate the men, and nowhere is this more apparent than in this play.

Of course, the expected romantic attachments all follow, but there is still something lacking. What is lacking is a sense of seriousness. For these young men, life is merely a set of games, such as the oath taken in the first scene which is broken with such ease as soon as the ladies appear. The words they speak – especially Berowne’s words – are full of wit and fancy and clever wordplay, but they do not at any point address reality: language is relished for its own sake, and not for the reality it signifies.

Intermixed with all this are characters from a lower social order – Holofernes the schoolmaster, Costard the clown, Jaquenetta the dairymaid, Nathaniel the curate, and Dull the constable. And accompanying them is a “fantastical Spaniard”, Don Armado, whose peculiar and highly eccentric linguistic extravagance seems a sort of parodic counterpoint of Berowne’s sophisticated wordplay. These characters are, of course, absurd, and very funny: Holofernes, especially, is possibly the most lunatic, off-the-wall character Shakespeare ever imagined. We laugh at them: it’s hard not to. And yet, when they put on a show for the nobles, and the nobles – the men, at least – mock them mercilessly, we feel that something is not right. And Holofernes of all people, possibly the most absurd of all these characters, articulates in an unforgettable line what it is that is not right:

This is not generous, not gentle, not humble.

Never has a reprimand been more just, more deserved, and delivered with a greater innate dignity. The young men, cloistered in their own enclosed world of games, games both with words and indeed with life itself, have forgotten, or, perhaps, have never learnt, how to be generous, gentle, and humble. The ladies, who, significantly, take no part in the mockery, must educate the men: whatever joy and happiness one may find in life, it is a serious business, and, beyond a certain point, one must learn to put away one’s childish things. The tonality that had been missing in the men’s lives arrives with the news of the death of the Princess’ father: those who had refused to look on reality with any real seriousness must now face up to the challenge of the ultimate reality. Whether they will be able to meet the challenge, we do not know: as Berowne, the most intelligent of the men, says, “that’s too long for a play”. But the challenge is set. If the men are to win the ladies, they must prove themselves worthy of them.

Rosaline, the first in the line of Shakespeare’s great female protagonists of comedy – Beatrice, Viola, the similarly named Rosalind were to follow– sets Berowne a particularly demanding challenge:


…You shall this twelvemonth term from day to day
Visit the speechless sick and still converse
With groaning wretches; and your task shall be,
With all the fierce endeavour of your wit
To enforce the pained impotent to smile.

This a real world with which Berowne is not familiar – and from which, indeed, he had tried to shield himself.


To move wild laughter in the throat of death?
It cannot be; it is impossible:
Mirth cannot move a soul in agony.

And yet, this is the challenge that he must meet. No more nonsense about taking oaths to live lives of study and seclusion: life is a serious business, and its seriousness needs to be faced. That element that had been so conspicuously missing in the lives of the men is now provided by the new tonality, and there is a sense of completeness.

The play is left unresolved in a sense: whether the men can rise to the challenge set them by the ladies, we do not know; that the challenge is accepted is, however, resolution enough. And, after all the sophisticated wordplay, after all the spectacular verbal pyrotechnics, the play ends with two very homely songs, with simple words, and drawing on everyday scenes. It’s like a draught of fresh spring water on a palate sated with rich and exotic cocktails, and the effect is magical. It is hard to believe that such an effect was created by a young playwright just starting out on his career.

We need not see in Love’s Labour’s Lost intimations of what is yet to come: it is a great work in its own right, and really requires no special pleading.

#Shakespeare400 “King Lear” revisited

I saw King Lear again last night – a touring production in the Oxford Playhouse, with Michael Pennington, a very favourite actor of mine, as Lear. I go back quite a long way with both actor and play. On my first visit to Stratford-on-Avon, back in 1978, I saw Michael Pennington play Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and the Duke in Measure for Measure, and I have since seen him play Timon of Athens, Antony (in Antony and Cleopatra), and double up as Claudius and Hamlet’s father’s ghost in Peter Hall’s production. And as for the play itself, it has haunted my mind ever since the age of eleven, when my parents took me to see a production at the Edinburgh Festival with Timothy West in the title role. That night, I was so excited by what I had seen, I couldn’t get to sleep. I have seen the play on stage several times since: by my count, last night’s performance was the ninth. There have been some extraordinary Lears amongst them – Brian Cox, John Wood, and Timothy West again, some thirty years after I had first seen him in the role. (I have also seen Robert Stephens’ much admired performance, but I saw him only at the end of the run, when it was obvious that he was physically exhausted, and not really up to it: he died shortly afterwards, and it was intimated that the physical exertion of playing the role hastened his demise.)

I think it’s fair to say I have been very close to King Lear over the years, although I should be careful about making such a claim: this huge, craggy monster of a play is not really something one can get very close to. But for over forty years now I have read and re-read it, seen television broadcasts, heard radio productions, listened to audio recordings, revisited it in my imagination God knows how many times – made it, in short, my own. I have no gift for memorising things, and don’t try to do it anyway, but I found, watching the play last night, that I could anticipate every line spoken; I could identify the omissions, the slight re-orderings; I could even tell at which point they were following the Quarto or the Folio text. One would think that when one gets to such a stage, the interest in the play itself would become a bit jaded, and focus not so much on the work, perhaps, but on how it is done this time round: how, after all, can one be shocked or overwhelmed by something one has been so familiar with for so long? But that was not the case. Not that I didn’t take an interest in how it was done this time round, and not that I didn’t make comparisons with previous interpretations: one can hardly help doing either. But the sheer elemental force of the play, a force so unremittingly powerful and startling that it seems to render all commentary both irrelevant and impertinent, remained undiminished.

Will there ever come an age, I wonder, when this play will not speak with such burning urgency to the issues of the times? The world is currently on fire. Perhaps it always was, and I am just noticing it now more intensely. Senseless hatred, cruelty and brutality on unimaginable scale, grotesque injustice, and dumb animal suffering – somehow, no matter how much the world changes, some things seem to remain with us, as if ineradicable. This is the world of King Lear. The centre cannot hold, and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. We get a sense of being close to the apocalypse itself. And yet, when we came to the storm scenes at the centre of the play, I found myself asking just how we came here. Was this inevitable from the opening scene? One could certainly trace a coherent line from the opening scene to this raging tempest, a tempest both real and also of the mind, but could that line have been otherwise? If, say, all we had of the play was that opening scene, could we have guessed that this is what it would lead to? I don’t think so. If we had the opening scene alone, we would, I think have conjectured this to have been the start of a fairy-tale: we may have conjectured that the rest of the play would have been something like, say, Cymbeline. For that opening, though psychologically coherent, does have a fairy-tale feel to it. But how did we get from a fairy tale to … well, to this? Despite all the familiarity with the text that I had bragged about earlier, I honestly don’t know. There’s a mystery about art of this stature, no less than there is about life itself, that all the knowledge and understanding in the world cannot fathom. And, furthermore, I claim only familiarity with this play: knowledge and understanding are different matters.

We tend to think of the play these days as, essentially, a bleak play. Since Peter Brook’s ground-breaking production with Pau Scofield in the early 60s, we tend to think of it in Beckettian terms – dark, desolate, comfortless. But it was not so long ago that so distinguished a critic as Kenneth Muir (editor of the old Arden edition) was seeing it as essentially a Christian play – a play about a man who loses the whole world, but gains his soul. We like nothing better these days than to scoff at what we deem to be “sentimental”, but if it is indeed true that Muir’s view of it as a Christian play falls well short of telling the whole story, seeing the play through a Beckettian lens seems to me to fall similarly short. For although we see the most extreme evil and cruelty in this play, humanity is by no means presented solely in such terms. Indeed, it may be claimed that in no other work of literature are we presented with such overwhelming pictures of human good – of good that is tender, self-sacrificing, heroic. And Muir isn’t wrong in what he says: Lear does lose the whole world, and he does gain his soul. That is not the whole story, no, but is there any formulation of this work that can give us the whole story? In the end, we simply do not know. We do not know anything of the nature of the gods – whether, in their inscrutable way, they do indeed administer justice of sorts, or whether they see humanity as wanton boys see flies, and kill us for their pleasure. We do not even know whether the gods exist at all. The extreme good and extreme evil we see are all human good, and human evil: what need of gods or of devils when we can fulfil ourselves the roles of both? By the end, both good and evil are destroyed: so absolute is the sense of destruction that no-one even pauses to think of who should now rule, of how the country should now continue: such matters are important at the end of a Hamlet or of a Macbeth, but not here. Is the Good we see an irrelevance because it is crushed by the Evil? Or does the very presence of Good, miraculous as it is, redeem the world on some plane, despite all the Evil that engulfs it? The play offers us no hint of an answer either way. Lear speaks of taking upon us “the mystery of things, as if we were God’s spies”, but even this is ambivalent: are we spying on behalf of God, who, by implication, cannot see what is happening in his creation? Or are we spying on God himself?

This year will be the Year of Lear for me. I have tickets to see Anthony Sher play the role this summer at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (after his magnificent performance as Falstaff, expectations are high) ; and it has been announced that later this year, Glenda Jackson will be coming out of retirement to tackle this Everest of Shakespearean roles. And I am certainly not missing out on that. My obsession with this most terrible and awe-inspiring of works shows no sign of diminishing.

Revisit Lear? When have I not inhabited this play?

#Shakespeare400: “Twelfth Night” revisited

I had hoped, as I had mentioned in my last post, to put up five brief pieces revisiting some of my favourite Shakespeare plays to commemorate the 400th anniversary celebrations, but I got a bit snowed under at work and came back home each evening too tired to focus my mind on anything. And now, April 23rd has gone. But no matter. There’s no reason why these posts should not follow the anniversary day rather than lead up to them.

I thought I’d start with Twelfth Night, as not only is it a very favourite play, but also because the last time I wrote about it, I gave a rather jaundiced view of the work. I had described it as a very dark play, closer in spirit to Elsinore than to the Forest of Arden. That was, I accept, an extreme view, too extreme, perhaps, to be tenable, but the very fact that I can, admittedly in my more depressed moods, even think about the play in such terms does indicate that, at the very least, there is more to this work than merely the comic. Of course, it is a comedy: despite any impression I may have given to the contrary, there’s no disputing that. But to see it only as a comedy – as some productions I have seen do – and, worse, to present the comedy in broad terms, as if it were a pantomime, is to do violence to the delicate and subtle balance between those seemingly contradictory elements that Shakespeare has so miraculously forced together. It may not be quite the dark play that I had described, but there is a darkness there: this could be presented as lyrical melancholy, or one may even find in it hints – hints, no more – of the tragic: but what is inexcusable is to play it as a pantomime or as a broad farce.

Towards the end, Shakespeare presents us with a scene that anticipates the wondrous finale of The Winter’s Tale, in which the dead is brought back to life; Viola, still disguised as a man, meets her “double”, the twin brother she had thought dead. And, for a few miraculous moments, time itself seems to stand still in the wonder of it all. Olivia is drawn into this time-suspended sense of wonder: “Most wonderful!” she says. In productions, almost invariably, Olivia speaks her two words with a lascivious intonation, as if in anticipation of raunchy bedroom frolics with not one man whom she fancies, but two. Is it really worth throwing away so magical a moment of wonder just for a cheap laugh? Well, many directors and actors seem to think so.

And yet, comedy it is. The gulling of Malvolio should get laughs; the scene where Malvolio appears in his yellow stockings should also get laughs. Yet the actor playing Malvolio must invest the character with a gravitas. Not the gravitas of his pomposity, but the gravitas of his dramatic stature – a stature that, while not, perhaps, crossing the line into tragedy, certainly borders on it. A good Malvolio – or a good Andrew Aguecheek too, for that matter – should make the audience laugh at him, and, by the end of the play, make that same audience feel ashamed for having done so.

In this play, Shakespeare brings together all those elements that he had used previously in his romantic comedies: cross-dressing, gender confusion, mistaken identity, misdirected love – all these elements are correct and present. But something is not the same. In his earlier comedies, all these elements had resolved themselves into a harmony: the comedies had ended in celebration – except, perhaps, for Love’s Labour’s Lost, in which the celebration is deferred. But here, the resolution seems distinctly odd. Can we really believe that Olivia will be happily married to a man she had never met before, and whom she weds because she has mistaken him for someone else? Can we believe that Sebastian, though he accepts the marriage gladly, could remain happily married to someone who had married him thinking him to be someone else? As for Viola and Orsino, it is even less believable that their marriage could end happily. Shakespeare could easily have smoothed the path towards this ending, but he doesn’t: if anything, he goes out of his way to make the happy marriage even more unbelievable, as Orsino, minutes before declaring his intention to marry Viola (one can hardly call it a proposal), threatens quite seriously to have her killed. And, where Rosalind had led the final joyous celebrations in As You Like It with a sort of triumph, Viola, ostensibly the central character of the play, speaks not a single word after agreeing to marry Orsino: for well over a hundred lines between Orsino’s proposal (such as it is) and the end of the play, she is silent. If this is a romantic comedy, it’s a damn strange one.

And then, there’s the issue of the outsider. What can a comedy, which ends, or should end, with joyous restoration of harmony, do with the character that won’t fit in? This is a problem Shakespeare had returned to frequently. Wagner has incurred much censure in banishing Beckmesser from the joyous throng at the end of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: some productions have tried to “correct” Wagner by bringing a chastened Beckmesser back on again at the very end, and indicating by some stage business that all was forgiven. But with Malvolio this is not possible – any more than it had been possible with Shylock, Don John, or Jaques. Shylock had assumed by the end of the fourth act the stature of a tragic figure, and this tragic stature almost invariably overshadows the comic celebrations; Don John is away from the action by the end of Much Ado About Nothing, and so, although “brave punishments” are promised, the audience needn’t worry too much about him; and Jaques banishes himself voluntarily, as, unlike the exiled Duke and his other followers, when he says that he prefers the forest to the court, he actually means it. But with Malvolio, Shakespeare faces the problem head-on: here is a man who will not, can not be reconciled. He has been sexually humiliated in public, and, however pompous and officious he may have been, he has not deserved this. That the others cannot even see why he shouldn’t just let bygones be bygones and join in with the celebrations is an indication of how little they think of him as a person, as a human being with feelings. His exit may sour the final scene for the audience, but not for the characters on stage: they seem barely to notice.

And at the end, of course, when everyone else leaves, the fool stays behind to sing a sad song: life passes quickly, we all play our parts, and the rain it raineth every day. But that’s all one: what we’ve been watching was a play – that’s all; the characters we have been seeing were not really Viola and Orsio, Oilvia and Sebastian, Malvolio, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew – they were but actors, and they’ll strive to please us every day. What a strange song to finish with! Only a few years later, a missing verse from this song appears – in, of all places, the storm scene of King Lear, the most intensely tragic of all scenes in drama.

The more one thinks about Twelfth Night, the odder and more elusive it seems. The most diverse of elements seem forced together, and somehow, by some sorcery, it forms a most satisfying dramatic whole; and yet, although it is not the unremittingly bleak work I had previously made it out to be, its oddness remains. The best productions of this play are those that don’t shirk this oddness – where we come out of the theatre feeling the impact of all those strange and contradictory elements that Shakespeare had forced together. But one thing is certain: after this, Shakespeare wrote no more comedies. With Twelfth Night, he seemed to have exhausted the genre by pushing it out to its very limits.

#Cervantes400 #Shakespeare400

It’s not right to celebrate anyone’s death. Commemorate, perhaps, but not celebrate. But it’s hard, especially for Bardolators like myself, not to notice that there are all sorts of celebratory events planned for the weekend of April 23rd, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. (Also, it is believed, the 452nd anniversary of this birth, the poor chap having died on his birthday.)

Cervantes also died on April 23rd 1616, but he and Shakespeare did not die on the same day: Spain had already adopted the Gregorian calendar by then, and England hadn’t. No matter: since Cervantes is equally worth celebrating, let’s celebrate them together and not be pedantic about it.

Indeed, I’d have been happy to have added Montaigne to the celebrations also. Montaigne was slightly older than either Cervantes or Shakespeare, and died in 1592, when Cervantes was 45 (and had not yet started on Don Quixote), and Shakespeare, aged 28, was just starting out on his career. Once again, no matter: Montaigne, Cervantes, and Shakespeare make a mighty trio, and stand at a sort of rough dividing line between the modern world and the older.

So far, I have done no more than dip my toes into Montaigne. I have only read a handful of his essays, but I know I should spend as much time as I need to immerse myself into his work. As for Cervantes, I am currently about a hundred pages away from completing my fourth reading of Don Quixote, and am in no rush to finish: a book such as this should be relished and savoured, with passages turned back to and re-read and meditated upon. I’ll actually be sorry to finish it, but, as and when I do, a blog post will, I know, follow.

(Don Quixote is actually two books, published some ten years apart. I read the the first part last year, and wrote about it here. The second part seems to me even more remarkable – but more of that later: let’s not anticipate.)

But what about Shakespeare? How do I celebrate Shakespeare here given that I bang on about him much of the time anyway? I was thinking of re-reading, between now and April 23rd, five of my favourite Shakespeare plays and writing posts on each. Will I have anything new to say about these plays? Perhaps not. But I could always rehash some older stuff from this blog, safe in the knowledge that no-one is likely to notice, or even, for that matter, mind too much if they do. In any case, if the great Salman Rushdie can write about Cervantes and Shakespeare without saying anything startlingly original, I don’t see why I shouldn’t.

(Sorry, that sounds rather bitchy, doesn’t it? I didn’t mean it to be. Truth is, there has been so much written about Cervantes and Shakespeare that it’s virtually impossible to say anything original about these writers. But Rushdies’s love and enthusiasm for these writers are so apparent, his article is a delight to read.)

So let the celebrations begin! The books one loves the best should be a continual presence in one’s mind.