Archive for May, 2016

Akutagawa’s visions of Hell

“Rashomon” and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, translated by Jay Rubin, published by Penguin Classics

rashomon

There’s more than a whiff of the demonic about Akutagawa. His visions of life, whether set in ancient days or in contemporary times, seem to be set in a moral darkness, and depict various types of agony, both physical and spiritual. In the very first story, “Rashomon” (1917), which gave the title and the setting (though not the storyline) to Kurosawa’s film, takes us into the upper storey of Rashomon Gate, where bodies of those killed in those lawless times have been deposited, and where, amidst the hideous stench of physical corruption, an old woman is plucking the hair from the corpses in order to make wigs: she has to live, after all. But in the world that Akutagawa presents, there doesn’t seem much reason to want to live. Akutagawa himself, whose mother had died in an asylum, and who was haunted by the fear that his mother’s mental illness may be hereditary, committed suicide in 1927, aged only 35. The autobiographical stories grouped in the final section of this collection do not give the impression of a particularly happy or contented life.

His most famous story, thanks to Kurosawa using it as the basis of his film “Rashomon”, is “In a Bamboo Grove” (“Yabu no naka”, 1927). A woman has been raped, and a man has been killed; the story consists of the various narratives given in evidence by the people involved in the matter – including one from the dead man himself, speaking through a medium. These stories all give contradictory accounts accounts of what really happened, each participant in the affair putting his or her self in a good light, and the others in a bad. That there is a truth out there somewhere, an absolute truth, is not questioned: what is questioned is our ability to get to that truth, given that all we have to go by are our fallible perceptions, and given also our ability, indeed, our propensity, to deceive – to deceive both other people and ourselves, to deceive both deliberately and unwittingly, such that, beyond a point, we can no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy.

Distinguishing between reality and fantasy is not, after all, an easy thing to do. In one of the stories, a monk invents a myth about a dragon. He knows it to be a myth: it’s his own invention, after all. But when everyone starts believing in it, he curiously starts believing in his own fantasy, and at the climactic point of the story, he too glimpses, along with the vast throng of the faithful, the mythical dragon, his own invention, rising into the sky. Akutagawa did not seem to have much time for religion: the human imagination may indeed be a thing of wonder, and can create its own reality, but, for Akutagawa, that’s where Heaven resides – in our imagination, and in our imagination only.

Hell, however, is all too real, and nowhere more so than in the story “Hell Screen” (“Jigokuhen”, 1918). But Akutagawa’s Hell is not of the other world: it is right here, on earth. We are, once again, in ancient times, and the lord, the local potentate, is an evil and cruel man. The narrator, though, is very obviously a foolish man, who cannot see his master’s evil. The court painter, Yoshihide, however, can, and when the lord graciously makes Yoshihide’s daughter a lady-in-waiting, Yoshihide knows exactly what that means, although the narrator doesn’t. He tries his best to rescue his daughter, but he cannot.

The situation is similar to the one we find in Verdi’s Rigoletto (which was based on Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi S’Amuse, an English version of which I have been trying for years to track down, though without much success): in that opera, Rigoletto, the hump-backed court jester despised by all, and his innocent daughter Gilda, find themselves victims of an evil and lascivious ruler; but the terrible irony is that Rigoletto himself is very much part of the moral corruption to which he and his daughter eventually become victims. Similarly here: Yoshihide is very much part of the evil and the cruelty of the society he inhabits, and which claims both his daughter, and, eventually, himself. But dark and pitiless though the entire story is, I must admit to being taken by surprise, and, hardened reader though I think myself to be, genuinely shocked by the ending, where all the horrors of Hell itself seem to irrupt with the utmost force and violence. Why look for a hell in the other world when it is right here, under our very noses?

Akutagawa is renowned in Japan as a great stylist, and, assuming translator Jay Rubin’s English version reproduces at least something of Akutagawa’s writing style, one can see why. The prose is spare and precise, with all excess fat trimmed off. It is not without humour, but the humour is invariably grim, and dripping with irony. Gogol sometimes comes to mind – not least because that both he and Akutagawa seem to have an obsession with noses, and both have actually written a story called “The Nose”; but Akutagawa has none of Gogol’s whimsy, and there’s no hint here of Gogol’s eccentric and highly idiosyncratic digressions, which seem so often to displace the principal story itself as the major focus of interest. Akutagawa always has a story to tell, and he tells it directly. The images he chooses are clear-cut, and to the point: they never take a life of their own, as Gogol’s frequently do. And yet, despite the precision of the writing and the orderliness such precision suggests, the world depicted is one that is most disordered, bordering on the Hellish, and sometimes, indeed, crossing over the border into some Hell right here in this world. It is the Hell-on-earth depicted by Kurosawa in his cinematic masterpiece Ran (which, I am told, means “chaos”): we all know that this film was Kurosawa’s take on Shakespeare’s King Lear, but I cannot help wondering to what extent Kurosawa’s demonic vision was informed by Akutagawa’s. At the start of the unforgettable battle sequence in the film, a dying soldier informs us that we are indeed in Hell; and what follows is a vision of Hell that seems at least as close to the world of Akutagawa as it is to the storm-swept heath of Shakespeare’s play.

Hell is particularly apparent in the last few stories in this collection. Akutagawa never wrote an autobiography, but some of his stories are so clearly autobiographical, that, grouped together as they are at the end of this collection, they serve as an autobiography of sorts. The last two stories he did not publish: they were found amongst his papers after his death. One of them, “The Life of a Stupid Man” (“Aru aho no issho”), is startling: rather than a continuous narrative, we are presented with a series of vignettes and passing thoughts and seemingly random ruminations – some as short as a mere couple of sentences or so –all of which come together as in a mosaic to form a whole. And in the last story in this collection, “Spinning Gears”, the pretence, flimsy to start with, that this is really a work of fiction, is quickly dropped: the narrator is depicting his own disintegrating mind, and, as he mentions by name some of his earlier work, there can be no doubt that he is no fictional character: the narrator here is Ryunosuke Akutagawa himself. And here again, we have a depiction of a Hell right here on earth, as he realises that he can no longer exert any control over his own mind. But no matter how febrile the content, no matter how little control he seems to have over the workings of his own mind, the writing throughout remains firmly focussed and controlled. The disorder of his mind is expressed with the most exemplary literary order, and feeling for form.

In “The Life of a Stupid Man”, he had described – writing about himself in the third person – an unsuccessful attempt at suicide:

Taking advantage of his sleeping alone, he had tried to hang himself with a sash tied over the window lattice. When he slipped his head into the sash, however, he suddenly became afraid of death. Not that he feared the suffering he would have to experience at the moment of dying. He decided to try to again, using his pocket watch to see how long it would take. This time, everything began to cloud ever after a short interval of pain. He was sure that once he got past that, he would enter death. Checking the hands of his watch, he discovered that the pain lasted one minute and twenty-some seconds. It was pitch dark outside the lattices, but the wild clucking of the chickens echoed in the darkness.

It is hard to figure out just what state of turmoil his mind must have been in while writing something like this, but that mind could still pick out the “wild clucking of chickens”, and place it with absolute precision.

The final story, “Spinning Gears”, ends with this:

– I don’t have the strength to keep writing this. To go on living with this feeling is painful beyond description. Isn’t there someone kind enough to strangle me in my sleep?

This is followed only by translator Jay Rubin’s laconic note in parentheses:

(1927: Posthumous manuscript)

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“Something Strange Across the River” by Kafu Nagai

[All quoted excerpts from Something Strange Across the River by Kafu Nagai are from the translation by Glenn Anderson, published 2013 by one Peace Books]

So here I am in Tokyo again – my second trip in just a few weeks. I’m getting to be quite a jet-setter. But it brings home to me just how Eurocentric my perspective is. I generally like to have some idea of the culture of the place I am visiting. In Europe, especially in Western Europe, this is rarely a problem: I generally have a reasonable idea of the history, the literature, the art and music, the way of life, the cuisine, and so on. And similarly in the few visits I have made to USA and to Australia. And India too: I have, of course,  a very strong connection with Bengal, being Bengali both by birth and by parentage, but when I visit other parts of India, I do not find the culture alien to my sensiblities. And yet, when I come to Tokyo, I find myself, culturally, at a loss. For here is an ancient culture, rich in art and philosophy and literature; and yet, what did I know of it? Of its history – barely anything; of its remarkable cinematic heritage, no more than a few classic films from the likes of Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa; and as for the literature – well, I have barely dipped into it. A bit of Soseki, a bit of Mishima, and a few stories of Akutagawa … and that’s about it, really. I have, of course, read the fascinating posts on Japanese literature on Tony’s Reading List blog, but, I am sorry to confess, I have yet to take the step from reading about the books to actually reading the books. This is an omission I am keen to remedy: there’s something not right about visiting a country and not being aware of its culture.

So this time, I boarded the plane with the Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories and a collection of stories by Akutagawa in tow. But truth to tell, once that large cognac they hand to you in business class – yes, business class: it’s a work trip and the company is paying – where was I? Oh yes – once that large cognac they hand you in business class hits the brain, all good intentions fall by the wayside, and very little gets read. However, on my last trip here, a Japanese colleague very kindly presented me with a Japanese novel that he hoped I would like. It is a very short novel – almost an elongated short story – by Kafu Nagai, entitled Bokutou Kitai. Bokutou refers to the district of Bokuto, a rather seedy brothel area to the east of Sumida River, and Kitai may be translated as “Tales of Interest”. Translator Glenn Anderson renders the title as Something Strange Across the River.

I turned first, naturally, to Tony’s blog. Tony has written about Kafu Nagai here, and here, but since he hasn’t written about this particular book, there was little I could plagiarise from him. It is a strange and enigmatic novel. It is set at around the late 1930s, around the same this novel was written, and is a first person narration. But beyond letting us know that he is in his mid-50s, and that he is a writer – and not, we are led to believe, a particularly successful writer – the narrator tells us very little about himself. He does, however, give us some excerpts from a novel he had been writing, but which he has now abandoned. This novel tells of a man in his mid-50s who, after his children have grown up, walks out on a marriage that had neither bene particularly discordant, nor particularly blissful. The inference is obviously that the narrator of the novel we are reading has presented in his abandoned novel a picture of himself. We need not accept all the details: when fiction is made out of reality, a number of things must invariably change – a novel, however closely it may attempt to depict reality, is, after all, an artifice, and must follow certain internal rules that do not apply to the chaotic messiness of real life. We can only guess at the differences between the narrator’s real life, and the life led by his alter-ego in his abandoned novel. And we may then take the next natural step, and speculate on the extent to which the narrator of Something Strange Across the River is a self-portrait of Kafu Nagai himself. Nagai was also in his mid-50s when he wrote this novel, and, like his narrator, found himself strangely attracted to the Bokuto area. The parallel is hard to resist: if the fiction we are reading is mirrored by the fiction within the fiction, then the fiction itself is very likely a mirror of reality. Although to what extent this parallel is reasonable, or, even if it is, to what extent the mirrors held up are distorting mirrors, it is impossible to say.

The protagonist of the fiction within the fiction is named: he is Junbei. But the protagonist of Something Strange Across the River, the novel we are reading, isn’t. At the start of the second chapter, we are given a lengthy excerpt from the novel within the novel: it ends with Junbei walking out on his wife, for reasons that we must guess at, for they aren’t clearly specified. The narrator then tells us:

I am not sure how to end the story.

He considers several possibilities for Junbei, and each possibility is one of defeat: what he cannot decide is what kind of defeat would be the correct one. He continues:

When composing a novel I find the time when the characters make choices that will affect their lives the most interesting. These moments of development and their descriptions are fascinating. Conversely, I have also fallen into the trap of placing too much weight and descriptions on the sets and the background when I should be focussing on the characters and their personalities.

It is hard to say whether this is Kafu’s voice or his narrator’s voice, but whoever is speaking here, the reader is being teased. For this is neither a plot-led novel, nor, rather surprisingly, a character-led novel. The narrator tells us not only very little about his background, he rarely tells us what he is thinking, or what motivates him: he just does things, and leaves it to the reader to figure out why. Indeed, the most salient aspect of his character that the reader perceives is his reticence about himself. The plot, such as it is, is about a young prostitute he takes up with, and, after a while, leaves, seemingly with mutual consent. Not much of a plot, and, even more strangely, reticent in terms of characterisation. Why do these people agree to come together? How do they feel about each other? How does their relationship develop? Why do they part? The reticence on all these points makes for a deeply enigmatic tale. The narrator says that he finds most interesting “the time when the characters make choices that will affect their lives”, and yet, when it comes to describing this time, he gives us virtually nothing: the implication appears to be that there is no reason, and that there is no point looking for one: people act as they do, and that is all. It seems a rejection of the European psychological novel that tries to understand the reason for peoples’ behaviour, the wellspring of their motivations: in this novel, such things are either too complex to be looked into, or, more likely, they simply don’t exist.

“But conversely…”

Kafu’s narrator tells us that he has “fallen into the trap” of putting “too much weight” on the background. Once again, the reader is being teased: far from being the trap the author falls into, the depiction of place is at the centre of the work. For it is this background, the city of Tokyo itself, and, more specifically, Bokuto, that emerges as the real protagonist of this novel. It is not like the Tokyo that I see on my work trips – the sparkling, modern city. These are the dirty back-streets, disreputable, filled with taverns and cheap lodgings and brothels. The entire novel exudes a very vivid and powerful sense of place – the shabbiness of the area, the unbearable heat of the summer, the infestation of mosquitoes. The narrator is both drawn to all this, and, at the same time, aches with a nostalgia for an old Tokyo that is disappearing – that has, indeed, already disappeared. He speaks of the “elegance” of the old Tokyo streets, but, once again, is reticent about what attracts him to the past. The reader soon begins to suspect that his nostalgia is not really for the past, but is, rather, a longing for something other than what is.

This is a strange, enigmatic novel, but a curiously fascinating one. Beneath the apparently detached narration, there is a sense of an eternal dissatisfaction with what is, and a longing, not so much perhaps for an irrecoverable past, but for something that cannot be described or specified or even perhaps imagined – something that is not. Why? Such a question is not even to be asked.

***

The Japanese literary heritage is a rich and deep one, and I have not even dipped my toes into it yet. No single work, of course, can claim to be representative of a literary culture so varied, but Something Strange Across the River is certainly a most promising start to my journey.

#Shakespeare400: “Henry IV, Part Two” revisited

The two parts of Henry IV are almost invariably performed together and that makes sense: the work is essentially a diptych, and neither part is complete in itself. At a stretch, the first part may be performed on its own, but there are several issues that have been raised that are yet to be resolved; and the second part makes no sense without knowledge of the first. However, the two panels of this diptych seem to me very different from each other, and the differences are such that they complement each other, and form a unity. The first part is borne along by a powerful forward momentum to a suitably exciting climax at the Battle of Shrewsbury; the second part, in contrast, is static, with nothing really happening. While the first part is infused with an energy and a vigour, the second seems weighed down into a sort of lassitude by themes of disease, illness and death.

Nowhere is this contrast more apparent than in the two major tavern scenes contained in each play at exactly the same point – at the end of the second act: in Part One, the scene is full of ebullient high spirits and sparkling wit; in Part Two, it is not merely static, it is given over to thoughts of diminished powers of old age, and of death. “Is it not strange that desire should so many years outlive performance?” Hal asks on seeing Falstaff with the wonderfully named Doll Tearsheet; Falstaff himself is aware of his approaching end (“I am old, I am old”), and, loving life as he does, he cannot bear to think about it:

Peace, good Doll! do not speak like a death’s-head; do not bid me remember mine end.

That entire scene in Part Two seems to introduce a completely new idea of what constitutes drama, and one that we still perhaps haven’t come to terms with. Not only is this very long scene entirely static at just at the point where we might be expecting the drama to develop and the pace to pick up, it is full of utter gibberish: there’s Pistol, who does nothing but mouth high-sounding nonsense; there’s Mistress Quickly, whose general lack of understanding and intelligence prevents her speaking too intelligibly; there’s Doll Tearsheet, who’s scarcely better; and there’s Falstaff, who is far from the ebullient figure we had seen in Part One: here, he is quiet for much of the time – possibly because he has had too much to drink, and can no longer hold his drink as well as he used to. And Shakespeare puts these four characters together in a very long scene in which nothing really happens, and most, if not all, of what is spoken is garbled nonsense. Even now, over four hundred years later, we find it difficult to recognise this as drama: yet, this is what Shakespeare wanted. It’s a mad world, absurd, and also diseased, and close to death – a death which is not noble or triumphant or beautiful, but death as merely a random event that brings to an arbitrary end meaningless and absurd life.

It is only after this scene, in Act Three, that King Henry IV, the titular character, makes his first appearance: like Falstaff, he too is old. And he is ill: death cannot be far away for him either. We see him suffering from insomnia, his mind restless, his heart troubled. He is effectively waiting for death. Everyone else is waiting for his death as well: this entire play seems to be one long process of waiting – of waiting for something to happen.

Hal, as far as everyone else can see, is unconcerned about his father: relations between the two had never been the warmest, despite the partial reconciliation we had seen at the end of Part One. It is generally assumed that Hal wouldn’t be too distressed by the death of his father, and various people are worried about what sort of king this madcap and tearaway young man will make when he eventually, and inevitably, succeeds to the throne. But when we see Hal, we see a quite different picture: he is genuinely distressed by his father’s state of health, but feels that were he to show his distress, he would be considered a hypocrite.

And Falstaff, who had for so long been Hal’s surrogate father, warming the young prince’s cold Bolingbroke blood, also has expectations too of what will happen once his beloved Hal becomes King: he is in no doubt that he would be awarded a high position in court. We know from Part One how wrong he is: Hal has no intention of maintaining his wild lifestyle once he becomes king, and we can but wonder how a character as intelligent in all other respects as Falstaff can be so self-deluding on this point.

Some have found Hal to be reprehensible in this respect: if he had meant to repudiate Falstaff from the start, then surely he should not have led him on. But the point is, Hal doesn’t lead him on. He even tells Falstaff that he’ll reject him – although, admittedly, that was during a bout of play-acting, so Falstaff can – and indeed, does – convince himself that Hal didn’t really mean it. But after the big play-acting scene in the second act of Part One, Hal very noticeably keeps his distance from Falstaff. Only once is Hal tempted back to the tavern, and the scene he has with Falstaff there is very short: soon after meeting with Falstaff, news comes from court about further rebellions, and Hal sneaks away guiltily, as quietly as he can. Falstaff should have got the message, but he doesn’t. Throughout this entire play, we see Falstaff deliver comic monologues directly to us, the audience: he has to – the one person intelligent enough and sympathetic enough to have appreciated and relished his humour is no longer with him. Falstaff is left without anyone really to speak to: he is, one strongly suspects, lonely without Hal.

Even the rebellion ends in an anti-climax. There is no battle: Prince John, Hal’s brother, offers the rebel leaders peace terms, and, once they have dismissed their armies, breaks his word, and has them arrested and summarily executed. We are in a very different world now from the world of Hotspur that we had seen in Part One. These scenes leave a bad taste in the mouth, and one may be left wondering why. After all, did not Hotspur’s sense of honour lead thousands of innocent people to death on the battlefield? Did we not, with Falstaff, laugh at the concept of honour that could lead to such a bloodbath? Yes, Prince John breaks his word; but is that not justified given the number of lives saved who would otherwise have died on the battlefield? The answer to all these questions is “yes”, but it leaves behind a bad taste anyway. If Hotspur’s concept of honour was absurd and dangerous, this new order of things, where honour counts for nothing, seems not quite right either.

In the middle of the play, Falstaff goes to Gloucestershire to visit his old friend, master Shallow. The scenes set in Gloucestershire don’t advance the plot or the themes in any way: they’re just there, take ’em or leave ’em. In these scenes, Shakespeare projects nostalgia, a shocked awareness of the passage of time and of the nearness of death (“We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow”), and the profound sadness of life itself. But, somehow, Shakespeare also makes these scenes funny. Master Shallow is a successful local bigwig, a landowner, and although, one suspects, the first signs of senility may be discernible in him, he retains still the financial and managerial shrewdness that has made him so successful, interspersing pious exclamations of regret for old friends no longer living with sharp questions to his servants on prices at the livestock market. Falstaff enjoys his old friend’s hospitality, but, once again, Master Shallow is no real companion for him: his witticisms fall on deaf ears, and he is reduced once again to speaking to the audience.

And finally, the old king dies. This is what they had all been waiting for. Unlike his more neurotic cousin Hamlet, Hal is reconciled to his father before he dies; and, furthermore, he is determined to take on the burden of responsibility that comes with kingship. The old king, like Hamlet’s father, expects filial love to be demonstrated by assumption of responsibility, and commitment to duty; this Hamlet could not come to terms with, but Hal can: he has steeled himself for it. In the process, however, he has to cut away a large part of himself: it’s not just Falstaff he has to reject. The worst of it all, perhaps, is that Hal is intelligent enough to know full well what he is doing. But it has to be done.

And yes, we too know it has to be done, that rejecting Falstaff is the right thing to do. We know that Falstaff is, in so many ways, quite a nasty piece of work who should not be anywhere near the seat of power. And yet, every time I read those final scenes, or see them in a good production, I am moved to tears. All this waiting for something to happen, and when it does, it turns all expectations upside-down.

Every time I revisit this play, I find myself astonished by Shakespeare’s concept of drama – static, aimless, random, all characters merely waiting, and nothing really happening – until the end, which ends with disappointment. There is no movement because there is nowhere for these characters to move to. And through it all are images of illness, senility, death – not a noble or a tragic death, but death as yet another one of those random and arbitrary things that we have to put up with. I am not sure that we have quite come to terms, even now, with Shakespeare’s dramatic vision in this work.

#Shakespeare400: “Antony and Cleopatra” revisited

Till about 1599, Shakespeare had not seemed particularly interested in the tragic. He had written only two plays that are now classified as tragedies, and one of those was Titus Andronicus, an exercise in Senecan excess that I find difficult to take at all seriously. The other was Romeo and Juliet, a colourful and exuberant work that, some would say, has more in common with the comedies than with the tragedies (in his Prefaces to Shakespeare, Tony Tanner rather mischievously classes it with the comedies). But then, in 1599, it all seemed to change. That year, he wrote As You Like It – to my mind, his last purely comic work, sunny and cloudless, and generally untroubled by dark shadows. And he wrote also Julius Caesar, and Hamlet: not since the Athenian tragedians had the world seen tragic drama of such stature. One more comedy was to follow – Twelfth Night, and that was far from unclouded; then came Othello, King Lear, Macbeth

Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.

And in between those dark visions, he wrote a couple of plays that some wags, tongue, one hopes, very much in cheek, have described as “comedies” – Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida, plays as murky and as sunless as any ever written. There was also Timon of Athens, a play that has always struck me as an early draft subsequently abandoned, rather than as a fully finished work, and a play in which the darkness of vision is again unmistakable. Only All’s Well That Ends Well seems to radiate a bit of sunshine. Here, Shakespeare seems to be looking forward to the fairy tale world and the vision of reconciliation that are apparent in his late plays. But All’s Well That Ends Well is so conspicuous an exception, that it’s not unfair, I think, to describe it as a sort of anomaly. The imaginative world Shakespeare presented in his plays for over ten or so years is a world so intensely and unremittingly tragic, that we’d have to go back to Aeschylus, to Sophocles and to Euripides to find anything remotely comparable.

What brought about this sudden darkening of vision? True, there had certainly been tragic elements in many of his comedies: Shylock may be seen as a tragic figure; tragedy threatens quite menacingly in Much Ado About Nothing; and the vision of Twelfth Night seems to me much darker than the vision of, say, Romeo and Juliet ever was. And yes, elements of the tragic may also been seen in some of the history plays, most notably Richard II and Richard III. But even so, nothing Shakespeare had written before 1599 could prepare us for what followed. There have been many conjectures, of course, on why his vision so darkened: my own conjecture is that Shakespeare had discovered Homer – Chapman’s translation of The Iliad, the first to appear in English, was published in 1598 – and that this had acted as a catalyst, bringing to the fore of his mind a tragic imagination that had previously been in evidence only intermittently. (Certainly, it seems obvious from Troilus and Cressida that Shakespeare wasn’t unacquainted with Homer.) But there’s little point conjecturing on the matter: we can only remain grateful for, and try to understand, what we have.

Shakespeare’s great series of tragic dramas came to an end rather strangely: after Macbeth, possibly written in 1606, as James Shapiro suggests, Shakespeare wrote two more tragic plays, and he seemed to go out of his way to make them unlike the tragedies that had gone before, and also as unlike each other as was possible. One was Coriolanus, an austere monolith of a play, with all lyricism stripped away, and featuring at its centre a beef-witted hunk, a mere fighting machine incapable even of growing into self-awareness. Even subplots that might have provided some welcome relief and contrast are absent. And the other play was Antony and Cleopatra, into which Shakespeare poured in all the richness and opulence, all the lyricism and ebullience that he had been so much at pains to keep out of Coriolanus. Speaking for myself, Coriolanus is a play I respect, but it has never come close to capturing my imagination; Antony and Cleopatra, on the other hand, is the play I frequently cite as being my favourite of the entire Shakespearean canon.

And the differences between this and the earlier tragedies could hardly be more apparent. In the very opening scene, two Romans speak of Antony in disparaging terms: yes, he had once been a great soldier, but now he is but “the bellows and the fan to cool a gipsy’s lust”. Not the way we’d expect a tragic protagonist to be talked about, especially in the first scene: first impressions are, after all, always important, and if the protagonists are presented from the very start as a lustful gipsy and her comically besotted paramour, it would become very difficult to establish afterwards their tragic stature. But Shakespeare goes a step further: after we have heard the two Romans, Antony and Cleopatra themselves enter the stage, and, far from showing us some aspects that may lend credibility to their being figures worthy of tragic greatness, they but confirm what we have heard of them. Shakespeare presents his tragic protagonists as essentially absurd. He shows us two middle-aged people, one a queen and the other one of the three most powerful men in the world, wilfully neglecting their duties and responsibilities, and acting like lovesick teenagers. This is the challenge Shakespeare sets himself: how can you present characters as essentially absurd and comic, and yet convince the audience that they are worthy tragic protagonists?

What unfolds is a drama on the vastest of scales, the many scenes – no other play has nearly so many scenes – cutting with an almost reckless abandon across continents, changing moods taffeta-like from minute to minute, ranging from scenes of the most tender intimacy to vast panoramas of diplomatic manoeuvres, wild parties, blood-soaked battlefields. This is the big Hollywood spectacular avant la lettre. And it is all clothed in a poetry that is so sumptuous and luxuriant, and, by the end, so heart-rendingly beautiful, that it takes the breath away. When W. H. Auden edited an anthology of English poetry, he included this entire play.

It would have been easy for all this spectacle to have overwhelmed the characters, but Shakespeare, certainly by this stage of his career, was too good a dramatist to allow that to happen. Cleopatra is the queen of Egypt, and she had maintained her power through careful and well-practised use of her sexuality, unerringly capturing with her wiles the men she needed most to capture; but now, she is middle-aged, and aware of her declining powers. And also, she is in love, possibly for the very first time, and is terrified that she will not be able to hold on to the man she cannot now even contemplate losing. Antony too is middle-aged: in his time, he had been a great soldier, and a great statesman; he had carried out his duties and his responsibilities with diligence, and with honour. But he is tired of all that: his weary and battered spirit now craves only pleasure – with excessive feasting and more than excessive drinking, and with the sensual delights in Cleopatra’s arms. Whatever greatness these two characters may previously have possessed, we don’t see much of it here.

We do, however, see and hear enough to recognise Cleopatra’s irresistible appeal, her “infinite variety”. Even the cynical old soldier Enobarbus seems utterly besotted:

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her: that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.

Such a description makes it virtually impossible for even the best of actors to do justice to her: how does open portray a person so charismatic and irresistible that even “the vilest things” seem but to make her more attractive? I suppose it’s best to let Shakespeare’s miraculous dramatic verse do much of the work, but it can’t be easy. For “the vilest things” in Cleopatra are indeed pretty vile. She is utterly egotistic and self-obsessed, and seemingly unaware of her duties and responsibilities (she is, after all, a queen!); she is spoilt, and is deeply manipulative; and there is something about her nature that seems irredeemably shallow: the rest of the world can go to hell as far as she is concerned as long as she gets what she wants.

Antony seems little better suited to take on a tragic role. Once again, whatever he may have been in the past, what we see of him is a man who seeks little other than personal pleasure, whose sense of duty visibly erodes as the play progresses, whose judgement seems increasingly pickled in excessive amounts of alcohol. By the time he meets his death, the only self-awareness he seems to have acquired is his awareness that he doesn’t understand himself, and that he never had.

More unpromising material for tragic protagonists cannot be imagined. There seems little of the stature that we find even in a mass-murderer such as Macbeth, who, even in the deepest pit of moral depravity, retains an awareness of what has been lost, of what might have been. Sometimes, I can’t help wondering whether Antony and Cleopatra are tragic at all: do we really feel any sense of loss when they die, as we do with Hamlet, or with Othello, or even with Macbeth? These are people who, used as they have been to power and status, cannot possibly live as private citizens; and yet, they are neither sufficiently competent nor sufficiently responsible to be rulers; is not death the best thing for them, and indeed, for everyone else? Perhaps. But, by some alchemy that I have tried hard over many years to understand, Shakespeare raises these two deeply inadequate human beings to the status of gods. By the final act, we are presented with the solemn majesty of death itself, and of two people who willingly venture into that unknown land to discover a union, a consummation, that is not possible in their earthly lives. In weak humanity, defective and irreparably damaged, Shakespeare finds the divine. And I don’t know how he does it. After a while, I content myself merely to stare and to wonder.

As sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle –

It’s always difficult to answer the question “Which is our favourite Shaespeare play?” but, more often than not, I reply Antony and Cleopatra. I love it beyond all bounds. I love those rich colours filling its vast canvas; I love its overflowing exuberance, its willingness to see humanity with all its flaws and defects and still discern in it the godlike. Could this be the same writer, I wonder, who, only a few years earlier, had written the bitter and angry Troilus and Cressida? That too was a masterpiece, but while that had left us in despair at the human condition, this play, written at the end of Shakespeare’s long tragic journey, seems reconciled to humanity, accepting of what it is. When I go to my shelf containing all the Shakespeare plays, it is generally for this one I reach first.