Archive for the ‘Shakespeare’ Category

Art and morality: some reflections on a Twitter spat

As social media spats go, this one hardly registers on the Richter scale, but, largely because it refers to works rather close to my heart, it caught my attention.

It came in the wake of Royal Opera’s live cinecast of Verdi’s Otello. Both this opera, and the play by Shakespeare which sparked the imaginations of Verdi and of his librettist Boito, are very dear to me. I have spoken about these two works often enough on my blog (see note at foot of this post), so this time, I’ll give that a miss. I’ll also refrain from reviewing the performance: being entirely uneducated in musical matters, I make a rather poor music critic, I fear, although, for what it’s worth, I thought the whole thing quite magnificent. But I would like to comment on a series of exchanges that followed soon afterward on Twitter. Not having either the time, nor the energy, nor even the inclination to become involved in Twitter spats, I refrained from joining, but followed it all nonetheless with some interest.

It started with a lady putting up a series of tweets saying that this opera depicted domestic violence and honour killing (which it certainly does); that it glorifies these things (which I don’t think it does); and that, with these matters still distressingly very real, we should either not perform this work any more, or re-write the ending. Ether way, we should “move on”. She used the hashtag #haditsday.

I shall not argue against these contentions, since, I imagine, few would agree with her. (Certainly, no-one on Twitter came to her support.) And neither shall I link to these tweets, as it is not the purpose of this blog to name and shame private individuals. In any case, there were a fair number of dissenting responses to her tweets – some debating her points reasonably, others sarcastic and mocking. To her credit, she responded to her critics without resorting to the sort of personal abuse these social media tweets all too often descend into. But she stuck to her guns: whether it is Shakespeare’s Othello or Verdi’s Otello, either work has #haditsday.

While her conclusions may be wrong-headed, and her understanding of the nature of the arts, based, at least, on these tweets, questionable, her stance should not, I can’t help feeling, be dismissed out of hand. For her reaction to the work, the reaction which led to these conclusions, is authentic. She was shocked and disturbed by the opera. And that is correct: Otello is indeed shocking and disturbing, and it is quite right to be shocked and disturbed. It is those of us who have allowed years of familiarity to inure us to this sense of shock who should question our reactions.

And when she refers to Otello’s killing of Desdemona, one of the most earth-shattering scenes in all stage drama, as “domestic violence”, and an “honour killing”, she is absolutely right on both points. It’s those of us who habitually refer to Otello (or Othello) as “noble” who should be questioning ourselves. In real life, a man who does what Otello does will deserve no pity at all, no compassion, regardless of whatever back-story there may be. We would not consider any mitigating factor for a crime so horrendous, and we would be right not to do so. And yet, this is not what we feel when we experience Shakespeare’s play, or Verdi’s opera, and it is at least worthwhile asking “why?”. Why is it we endlessly debate and consider so deeply the state of Otello’s soul, or go so far as to refer to him as “noble”, when we would not even think of doing either for such a person in real life?

Some will say that art has nothing to do with morality, and that moral judgement plays no part in our appreciation of a work of art, but I don’t entirely buy that. If we see Othello or hear Otello, and fail to see Desdemona as good and Iago as evil, then we have rather missed the point. But the fact remains – and I find it a disquieting fact – that we can, up to a very significant point, suspend our moral judgement on Otello – or on the Macbeths, or on Raskolnikov, or on Humbert Humbert – when, in real life, we would have no hesitation whatever in passing moral judgement. And I am not sure why this is. I am not even sure that there exists a satisfactory answer to this.

So no, of course I do not think that either Othello or Otello has #haditsday, and that we should either stop performing them, or change the ending (although the latter option does involve some rather interesting possibilities!) But this lady’s tweets do bring to mind – well, to my mind at least – certain questions that I cannot really answer, but which strike me as rather intriguing. And, in an age when so many of us have become so blasé to art; when so many, indeed, see the arts but as a currency of lifestyle, or as an adjunct to an image of the self that one would like to project; I find it salutary to be reminded just how directly powerful and soul-shattering these works can still be.

 

NOTE: I have previously written about Shakespeare’s Othello here and here. I wrote a brief post here comparing Shakespeare’s play to Verdi’s opera. And I wrote a more detailed post here on what Verdi took from Shakespeare.

“The Tempest”: further performances for children on the autistic spectrum

Some time ago, I wrote a post on this blog about a remarkable event I had attended, designed specifically for children and young adults on the autistic spectrum. It was produced by Flute Theatre: it re-enacted scenes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and encouraged the children to join with the actors in performance and mime. I went there initially rather sceptical about the project, but was completely won over as I witnessed, to my surprise, the children joining in with evident enjoyment.

This event will be repeated at the South Bank Centre in London on the weekend of Friday 29th July to Sunday 31st July, 2016. Please see here for details.

I have seen for myself – and not merely at this event – how liberating the arts can be for children on the autistic spectrum, and how joyously they can respond to it. So, if you are anywhere near London, and are parents or carers of children on the autistic spectrum, or know anyone who is, may I warmly recommend this event.

On dancing elephants, flatulent horses, and a scene from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”

Whenever I start a post protesting that this isn’t a political blog, the word “but” inevitably appears, and I make a political point. And then I retreat decorously. This blog is really about literature,  I say. About cultural matters. A bit of art, a bit of music, and the like. Politics? Nah – not here, mate. We’re above all that here.

But it’s hard avoiding politics these days. It’s always hard avoiding politics, but it’s especially hard these days. For those who don’t know, Britain has voted to leave the EU; after campaigns that have focussed almost unremittingly on the issue of immigration, and have, in the process, prodigally sent out coded and not-so-coded racist and foreigner-hating messages, racist and foreigner-hating incidents are now, unsurprisingly, dramatically on the rise; the country has a huge deficit and, now, a negative credit-rating; the pound is in freefall; the Prime Minister has resigned; one of the favourites to become the next Prime Minister is an unprincipled scoundrel – and the other contenders are not too inspiring either; the major opposition party has just entered the latest stage in the process of tearing itself apart; UK may well break up, as “England expects that the rest of you will go along with whatever we bloody well decide” is not likely to go down too well in Wales, in Northern Ireland, or in Scotland; and so on, and so forth. In short, it’s not looking good. We are floating on a wild and violent sea, each way and none. Duncan’s horses may not yet have eaten each other, but they’re eyeing each other threateningly, and licking their lips in anticipation. And frankly, in times such as these, it becomes hard to focus one’s mind on the structural intricacies of Henry James’ novels.

But I really don’t want to talk about political matters. There is too much noise being made already, and no-one is listening to what anyone else is saying. So I’ll stick to commenting on what I usually comment on – literature, language, music, art – all that kind of thing that, surely, no-one can object to. So, in this post – the first, I realise, after a fairly long hiatus – I shall focus on a Bengali expression that, robbed as it is in translation of its rhythm and rhyme, loses its impact when put into English; and I shall be drawing attention to a scene from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

The Bengali expression I have in mind is hathi nachbé, ghora padbé. It is a somewhat crude expression, and not one spoken by people of refined sensibilities: it is used to pour scorn on excessively high expectations. When someone is excited about how wonderful things will be, and you are somewhat sceptical about it all, you say hathi nachbé, ghora padbé. Literally translated, it means “Elephants will dance, horses will fart”, but, as I said, shorn of its rhythm and its rhyme, the literal translation does not communicate the epigrammatic force of the original.

The scene in Julius Caesar to which I would like to draw attention is Act 3, Scene 1, the scene of Caesar’s assassination. There were some good arguments on the conspirators’ side: Caesar’s ambition was certainly a danger to freedom, it was highly likely that he would make himself dictator, and so on. Some of the conspirators, admittedly, had less noble reasons also, but at their best, they did have the welfare of Rome at heart; Brutus certainly did. But whatever their motives, their focus had been on the act of assassination itself: they had not given proper consideration to what would happen in the immediate aftermath:

CINNA
Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!
Run hence, proclaim, cry it about the streets.

CASSIUS
Some to the common pulpits, and cry out
‘Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!’ 

BRUTUS
People and senators, be not affrighted;
Fly not; stand stiff: ambition’s debt is paid. 

CASCA
Go to the pulpit, Brutus. 

DECIUS BRUTUS
And Cassius too. 

BRUTUS
Where’s Publius? 

CINNA
Here, quite confounded with this mutiny. 

METELLUS CIMBER
Stand fast together, lest some friend of Caesar’s
Should chance– 

BRUTUS
Talk not of standing. Publius, good cheer;
There is no harm intended to your person,
Nor to no Roman else: so tell them, Publius. 

CASSIUS
And leave us, Publius; lest that the people,
Rushing on us, should do your age some mischief. 

BRUTUS
Do so: and let no man abide this deed,
But we the doers.

In the absence of a coherent strategy, they all speak on top of each other, and can do little more than repeat slogans such asLiberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!” while everything seems to collapse around them.

For rhetoric is all these people have, Soon, they are reduced to acts that, far from addressing a chaotic situation of their own making, are merely symbolic, and, frankly, rather grotesque:

                        Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords:
Then walk we forth, even to the market-place,
And, waving our red weapons o’er our heads,
Let’s all cry ‘Peace, freedom and liberty!’

Why do I keep thinking of this scene, I wonder? Well, who knows. It may or may not have some relevance to what is happening now. I certainly hope not: I’d be delighted to be proved wrong, and to eat humble pie if I am. But I think that’s about as much as I want to say here on political matters. This is not a political blog, after all! And nothing I say is likely to count for much – not with all those elephants dancing and horses farting all over the place with such gleeful abandon.

This? Or your Romeo and Juliet?

In Satyajit Ray’s film Charulata – a very favourite film of mine, and which I may have mentioned once or twice on this blog – the character Bhupati, immersed in politics, isn’t too impressed by the arts. At one point, he tells his more artistically inclined cousin of the dire poverty into which so many of their countrymen have been plunged as a consequence of British policies in India; and he then asks rhetorically: “Which is the greater tragedy? This? Or your Romeo and Juliet?” It is a question worth asking: why seek out tragic works in art when there is no shortage of real-life tragedy all around us? Or, to spread the net even wider, why look to art at all when we have real life? Plato posed this very same question in The Republic: the arts can but be at best an imitation of real life, and no imitation can be as valuable as that which it imitates.

So, in Bhupati’s world, it is foolish to grieve over the fictional Romeo and Juliet when there is so much happening to real people all around us that is far more worthy of our tears. And, presumably, it is equally foolish looking at painted faces created by Rembrandt when real faces created by God are even more remarkable; or experiencing bucolic joys at merely second hand through Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, when one can experience them at first hand simply by going to the countryside.

Anyone who cares anything at all for the arts may feel instinctively that Bhupati’s worldview is wrong, that it must be wrong, but it is not easy to pinpoint why. Let us not cast our nets too far here: let us, for the moment, focus on tragic art: is it not monstrous that we find ourselves emotionally moved by an Ophelia or a Cordelia, and shed for them tears that we withhold from the deaths of real people?

I do not know the answer to this, but I do know that those who are deeply and genuinely moved by tragic art, but feel little more than a passing sadness at the news of some person unknown to them dying in an accident, say, and not necessarily monsters. Every second of every day, there is some horrendous tragedy somewhere in the world: the better we know the people involved, the closer they are to us, the more deeply we feel it; but it is not possible to feel equally deeply all the terrible, heart-rending sorrows of real life. I’d conjecture that the greatest works of tragic art focus these feelings. If the sorrows of all the world are too vast for us to take on, then the sorrow we feel for a Romeo and a Juliet, an Ophelia and a Cordelia, seems, as it were, representative of all those sorrows we know we should feel for the wider world, but cannot. When Lear enters in the final scene with the dead Cordelia in his arms, I don’t know that we are weeping specifically for Lear and Cordelia: we know these are fictional characters, after all, played merely by actors. But these figures have taken on, by some mysterious process that I cannot even begin to understand, a universal aspect. The sorrow we cannot feel for tragedies in real life, because real life is too vast and too diffuse for our individual consciousness to encompass, we can feel when presented in a more focussed form. And somehow, this is something that happens in all major works of art: the specific becomes the universal; or, rather, the universal is focussed in the specific.

Some years ago, in a fascinating article in the arts pages of the Guardian, Tchaikovsky scholar Marina Frolova-Walker deplored a book in which Tchaikovsky’s symphonies were interpreted as but the passionate outpourings of a man tormented by his sexuality. Now, it may well be that Tchaikovsky’s symphonies did indeed have their source in the complex and turbulent emotions occasioned by his gayness, living as he did in a society that refused to tolerate it: it is impossible to say. But even if this were to be the case, to see his symphonies in such terms – to see them, as some still do, as, essentially, confessional outpourings of a man at war with his sexuality – is surely to diminish them. Once the specific has been transformed through art into the universal, it’s the latter that commands our attention. What should it matter to us whether or not these symphonies have their source in the composer’s sexuality? Even if we were to know this to be a fact (and we don’t), why should it matter? When I listen to Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, I am moved: I am moved not by specific thoughts of the composer struggling with his sexuality, but by the most intense expression of the deepest anguish it is possible for any human mind to feel. It is, in short, its universal aspect of this work that moves me – its depiction of an immense tragedy, not of a single individual – earth-shattering though it may be for that individual – but one in which the whole of humanity is involved.

So that would be my answer to Bhupati: the tragedy of Romeo and of Juliet is not merely the tragedy of two individual fictional characters, but is representative of that immense tragedy in which all of us, as humans, are involved. I suspect, though, that Bhupati’s reaction to such an answer would merely be an impatient and disdainful “Pah!” And he may well be right.

#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.

#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:

Enter MERCADE

MERCADE

God save you, madam!

PRINCESS

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

MERCADE

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

PRINCESS

Dead, for my life!

MERCADE

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:

BEROWNE

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

FERDINAND

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

BEROWNE

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:

ROSALINE

…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.

BEROWNE

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.