Archive for the ‘Bardathon’ Category

The Bardathon: 34 – The Two Noble Kinsmen

Shakespeare’s career finished neither with a bang nor with a whimper, but merely with going through the motions. It’s hard to understand why. Going through his work I get the impression of an ever-active mind, constantly trying out new things. Even as late as Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, he was experimenting with new forms and new ideas. It’s hard to believe that he could have lost interest overnight. And even if he did lose interest, why didn’t he just retire back to Stratford? It wasn’t as if he needed to make a bit more money, after all!

Maybe he was just tired. Maybe he could feel the approach of old age. Maybe he didn’t feel he was up to that immense hard work that is required to give an impression of effortless genius. But perhaps he was still obliged to write a couple more plays – either contractually obliged, or because he had promised a few more and didn’t want to let down his friends. Or, perhaps, he couldn’t quite get rid of the scribbling habit he had acquired over the years. Whatever. And he asked now for a collaborator, for to write entire plays was too much hard work, what with his health not being quite what it was. A good collaborator, mind – someone like John Fletcher, who knew what he was doing – and not that idiot who wrote that first draft of Pericles: Will had worked hard making something out of the latter half of that play, but as for that first half – well, what can you do with such incompetence?

So the collaboration of John Fletcher was arranged. As for the subject – the theatre wanted at least one play to be a celebratory pageant. One can imagine Will thinking about this: “How about a celebration of the victory against the Spanish Armada? There was a revival of patriotism with the twentieth anniversary of that event a few years ago, and people are beginning to feel nostalgic about the dear, departed queen. Or better still, how about a celebration of the birth of Good Queen Bess? That way, you could take a few liberties with history, and no-one in the audience would be old enough to remember. Good – a Henry VIII play it is. As for the others, I really enjoyed Shelton’s translation of a Spanish novel called Don Quixote. Apparently the author is writing a sequel to that – Don Quixote, Part Two (but sequels are never as good as the original – except for my Henry IV, Part Two) – but that first part, I must admit, is very amusing. And there are a few romantic sub-plots in it that could be adapted into pretty decent plays. The story of Cardenio, perhaps. And as for the third play, I have been reading Chaucer again for the first time since I adapted that poem of his for Troilus and Cressida. That was a fine play though I say so myself, but it was too bitter and pessimistic to be a popular success: the public never really took to it. Now, what was that expression I had used in Hamlet? – ah yes, caviar to the general. Well, Troilus and Cressida was definitely caviar to the general. But The Knight’s Tale has possibilities. Let’s see if I can get that Fletcher lad to write up a few drafts, and then maybe I could touch them up a bit afterwards. Now, if only I had the energy to re-write The Tempest as the narrative poem that it should have been in the first place…”

And so we had The Two Noble Kinsmen, by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, based on Chaucer’s Knight’s tale. The title of Shakespeare’s last play is  reminiscent of the title of the play that was very probably his first – The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Both are about male bonding broken by heterosexual love, a motif that appears frequently in Shakespeare’s comedies. But who could guess from these two uninspired bookends of the quality of the works that had appeared in between?

There isn’t really much to be said for the play itself, although I am reliably informed that it can be made to work well on stage. There is no memorable poetry in it, nor any scene of dramatic power. The scene where the gaoler’s daughter becomes mad in the moonlit forest is quite striking: it recalls Ophelia’s mad scene in Hamlet; and the moonlit woods outside Athens inevitably recalls A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But the comparisons are not to the advantage of this play. The subplot with the gaoler’s daughter is stretched out quite pointlessly, while the main strand plods along uneventfully. All very workmanlike and competent, I suppose, but leaving the reader (well, this reader at least) asking “So what?”

But the Bardathon is finished: our revels now are ended. Between the two Veronese gentlemen and the two noble cousins are riches that, even after years of acquaintance, one can barely begin to comprehend. It is just a shame that the series had to end so unremarkably.

The Bardathon: 33 – Henry VIII

There are two plays written apparently after The Tempest, that bear Shakespeare’s name – Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. The latter appeared in print in the 1630s, and its title page tells us explicitly that it was written by Shakespeare and by John Fletcher. It is generally reckoned that Henry VIII was also written in collaboration – most likely with the same John Fletcher – but this is based purely on internal evidence, and, as we all know, that can be most unreliable. However, I for one wouldn’t grudge John Fletcher his part in the glory, if only because there isn’t much glory here in the first place. For all we have is a workmanlike piece, quite devoid of the genius that had informed Shakespeare’s earlier work.

One can only conjecture why Shakespeare went on to write plays when, quite clearly, he had no further artistic ambition. Indeed, one could wonder why this greatest of artists should sacrifice artistic ambition in the first place. But there it is: conjecture is all we are reduced to. Was Shakespeare contracted to write a few more plays before his official retirement? Was he helping out his old friends and colleagues? Did he ask for a collaborator because, after twenty years and more of extraordinary creativity, he was no longer feeling quite up to it physically? Who knows! But, to judge purely on the basis of the text, there isn’t really much to get excited about. Indeed, in view of the very detailed stage directions, one gets the impression that Henry VIII was intended primarily to be a spectacle rather than a drama.

There are, for all that, a couple of good roles here: there’s Katherine of Aragon, who bears her fall from grace with nobility and dignity; and there’s the unscrupulous Cardinal Wolsey, who, more deservedly, also falls from grace. One suspects that Shakespeare the artist would have made far more of these figures, but what we get here is not so much Shakespeare the Artist as Shakespeare the Craftsman.

The play is quite clearly intended to celebrate the birth of Good Queen Bess, and, in order to do that, it must also celebrate the marriage of Henry to Anne Boleyn. However, this celebration sits rather uncomfortably with the tragic fate of Katherine of Aragon. The play insists that we have sympathy with Katherine, and at the same time celebrates Henry’s marriage to Anne, and these two aspects don’t quite fit.

The characterisation of Henry himself is, for similar reasons, unsatisfactory. Is he divorcing Katherine because he has genuine religious scruples? If so, then, at least by the standards of his time, his actions are admirable. Or is he merely trading in his ageing wife for a younger model? If so, then, by the standards of any time, his actions are most reprehensible. The play makes no attempt to clarify or even to explore Henry’s motivation, and one suspects that a younger Shakespeare may have made this the central plank of the drama.

There’s also the problem of the final act, which introduces a new set of characters, and thematically seems to have little to do with what had preceded it Some put it down to the fact that the play was a collaboration, but I find it hard to believe that the collaborators would not have got together at some time to determine the play’s overall shape.

So, despite having two rather meaty roles, this is a play only to be read because it has that magical name of Shakespeare attached to it. I doubt it is read by any but the committed Bardolator.

The Bardathon: 32 – The Tempest

The Tempest is the last of that trio of plays that may with justice be referred to as Shakespeare’s last artistic testament, and, as in the other two, Shakespeare is still experimenting with form. But while with Cymbeline Shakespeare had ran into problems because there was too much plot, here, there seems to be too little: after the central climax in Act 3 for instance, where Alonso recognises his guilt, there is no drama at all until the final tableau, and Shakespeare has to fill up much of the fourth act with a somewhat irrelevant masque. Admittedly, immediately after the masque, Prospero speaks some of the most miraculously beautiful lines ever written, but one may justifiably ask: “Where is the drama?”

Indeed, one may ask that question throughout the play. Regarded as a poem, it is mysterious and beautiful, and clearly the product of a very great genius; but regarded as a drama, it seems to me the least satisfactory of the last three plays. Even Cymbeline, which often gets a bad press, contains scenes of dramatic power: The Tempest, as far as I can see, doesn’t.

For drama requires conflict, and tension, and suspense. And the only real conflict here is the conflict within Prospero’s mind: now that he has his enemies at his mercy, what should he do with them? And really, for the drama to end satisfactorily, there really is only one way this particular conflict could be resolved, so there’s not much tension on that score either. In the other scenes, we see Caliban plot with Trinculo and Stephano to murder Prospero, but there’s no tension or suspense there: we know that Prospero has all that under control. We also see Alonso, Gonzalo, and the two evil brothers – Sebastian and Antonio – but even here, there’s no real suspense or tension, because, once again, Prospero – through his servant, the spirit Ariel – has the situation under control. So where are the conflicts that generate drama? Where is the tension, where is the suspense? One might almost get the impression that Shakespeare was bored writing drama, and may perhaps have preferred to have written this instead as a narrative poem.

One can only conjecture why this most accomplished of writers for the stage would create so undramatic a work, but there is far too much conjecture about this play as it is. The most well-known of these is that this is in effect an autobiographical play, and that Prosepro was a self-portrait; and that Prospero’s abjuration of his art was, effectively, Shakespeare’s. I don’t know that we should make too much of this. Shakespeare did, after all, go on to work on at least three more plays after The TempestCardenio (now lost), Henry VIII, and The Two Noble Kinsmen: it is true that all three of these were, most likely, collaborations; and it is also true that neither of the two existing plays is touched with Shakespeare’s genius. But the fact that he agreed to work on them at all, and that he made a more than competent job of them, does not suggest to me a writer bored with writing plays. And one must remember also that The Tempest had been preceded immediately by The Winter’s Tale, a work of the most consummate stagecraft. Did Shakespeare change overnight from a man in complete control of dramatic form to a man who was bored with it, and couldn’t be bothered? I doubt it.

And yet, the mystery remains. Why is The Tempest so poor as drama? Why does Shakespeare present the exposition in so long and so tedious a speech? I suppose there are times when one must shrug one’s shoulders and admit that it is impossible even to try to understand what goes on in a mind such as Shakespeare’s.

The work itself, I have noticed, tends to be valued most highly by those who prefer poetry to drama. And as poetry, there is no doubt that this is one of the high water marks of Shakespeare’s career: it is extraordinarily beautiful. But for all that, The Tempest is a play I never could warm to, and this latest reading has, I’m sorry to say, left me, not for the first time, quite unmoved.

It seems in many ways a somewhat bitter play. Alonso is repentant: the apparent loss of his son teaches him humanity. But Antonio and Sebastian remain as evil as ever, and one can’t help wondering whether Prospero’s decision to forgive them was correct. The forgiveness itself seems somewhat less that whole-hearted:

For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother
Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive
Thy rankest fault; all of them.

Cymbeline had ended on a note of celebration, and The Winter’s Tale with a sense of radiance and serenity, but the mingled chime that ends this last play is not entirely harmonious: Prospero may renounce his art, and every third thought be of his grave, but there seems little sense of joy, or serenity, or even of fulfilment. Mankind may be thought wonderful only by someone such as Miranda, for whom it is all new:

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

‘Tis new to thee.

Even the union of the young lovers promises little hope for the future.

The Tempest is usually thought of as Shakespeare’s final artistic testament. I prefer to think of The Winter’s Tale as occupying that position. The Tempest, I am afraid, leaves me, for all its undoubted poetic greatness, as puzzled and as dissatisfied as ever. At least, in dramatic terms.

The Bardathon: 31 – The Winter’s Tale

To present a vision that goes beyond tragedy, one must first of all pass through the tragic. And this we do with a vengeance in the first half of The Winter’s Tale. Here, the tragic momentum generated seems unstoppable, as it sweeps everything in its path. Reading it, I found those frightening lines of Yeats going around my head: “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

Of course, Shakespeare has been here before. The basic motif is a familiar one from many of his other works: a man mistakenly believes his wife to be unfaithful, and in his jealousy wreaks havoc. The most famous example of this motif is, of course, Othello, but we had seen it also in Much Ado About Nothing and in Cymbeline (in both of which tragedy is narrowly averted, though suffering isn’t); and we had seen it also in a comic mode in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Why Shakespeare should repeatedly be drawn to this particular motif is anyone’s guess. But leaving aside idle biographical speculation, the tragic power unleashed by this motif in the first three acts of The Winter’s Tale recalls Othello in its intensity.

The differences, though, are remarkable. The most obvious is that Leontes is Iago to his own Othello: he walks of his own volition into evil and madness – he does not need to be led. And this naturally raises the question of why he does so; but, very disturbingly, there is no answer. Indeed, there isn’t even anything that may, perhaps, lead us to an answer. Any intelligent reading of Othello would look deeply into the possible motivation of Iago, or into his mental state, to try to understand why he so carefully plants that seed of evil in Othello; and it would look also at Othello, and try to understand just what it is that is in him that allows that seed to blossom so terribly in his soul. We may not arrive at a full and complete answer, but we are invited to search all the same. But there is no such invitation in The Winter’s Tale: the evil in Leontes irrupts so suddenly and so mysteriously, that we are given no point from which even to begin an investigation into its nature. It just is. Later, the evil disappears with equal suddenness, but not before the blood-dimmed tide has been loosed, and the ceremony of innocence drowned. And the characters, like the audience, are left unable even to ask “Why?”

Shakespeare had investigated the various different aspects of nature of evil in several of his earlier plays – Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth – but in many ways, this is the most terrifying, because it is presented here as being even beyond the possibility of human understanding. Leontes’ many speeches, with its jagged and irregular rhythms, are unlike anything I have encountered in Shakespeare’s other plays: they reveal a disjointedness as severe as that of Othello’s mind, but we do not find here any sense of continuity between what Leontes is and what he had been, or what he later becomes once the evil subsides. And it is this very lack of continuity that terrifies. Is our human nature really so very vulnerable to such irrational evil?

The first half of the play culminates in two splendid climactic scenes – first, the great trial scene with its dramatic conclusion, and then, the scene set notoriously on the coast of Bohemia, and featuring even more notoriously the exit pursued by a bear. It is all too easy to make this scene comic, but I think that is a mistake: the scene with the bear should shock and terrify. In King Lear nature had been impersonal, indifferent to human suffering; but here, nature, in the form of the storm and of the murderous bear, seems to vent its fury at what humans do to each other.

But then, in the long fourth act, the tone miraculously changes: we suddenly find ourselves in a world of pastoral comedy – as if we have stepped out the world of Othello and into the world of As You Like It. Of course, Shakespeare had often attempted to blend together diverse elements, but here, there’s no attempt at blending: the diverse elements are simply placed next to each other. (In this, one cannot help but think of the late style of another supreme genius, albeit working in a different medium: the late works of Beethoven similarly juxtapose the most diverse of forms and moods.) And somehow – I am not sure how – it all works. The very fact of it working is in itself a miracle.

But it is in the final act that we encounter the greatest miracles of all – the miracle both inherent in the story, and the miracle of Shakespeare’s artistry. What are we to make of that final scene of forgiveness and reconciliation? What, especially, are we to make of the statue coming to life?

As so often in Shakespeare, the original inspiration comes, I think, from Ovid: this is, on one level, a re-enactment of the story of Pygmalion. But on another level, it is also, I think, a vision of the Resurrection, of the dead rising into a new life. True, Shakespeare does give us a “rational” explanation – that Hermione had remained hidden with Paulina for sixteen years – but Shakespeare knew as well as anyone that the audience prefers to believe the impossible rather than the improbable. Whatever the “rational” explanation offered, what is conveyed is a sense of the miraculous, the transcendental. And one does not, perhaps, need to be religious to be moved by it: this vision of reconciliation beyond death, of forgiveness and of reunion, of the restoration of that which had been lost, dramatises the fulfilment of the most fervently held of human desires. I find it moving beyond words.


Most commentaries on these late plays speak of their relationship to the tragedies, but on reading them this time round, I was struck by the parallels with the earlier comedies. The comedy that comes particularly to mind in relation to this play is Much Ado About Nothing, where, once again, a man  accuses an innocent woman of infidelity and rejects her, thinks her dead, then discovers her innocence, repents, and finds his repentance rewarded by forgiveness and reconciliation. Indeed, the last two acts of Much Ado About Nothing seem almost like The Winter’s Tale in fast motion. However, the earlier play didn’t quite convince because we see too little of Claudio’s atonement (any more would have unbalanced the comic framework), and thus can’t quite believe that Claudio has earned Hero’s forgiveness. Here, however, there is no doubt on that score: Leontes’ awareness of what he has done, and his mental self-lacerations, are almost unbearable to witness. What he has done is indeed horrendous beyond words, but the forgiveness, when it comes so miraculously, is hard won. The play ends not with an exuberant joy, but with a sense of serenity, of radiance. And with the joy there exists also a sadness: Mamilius can never return, and neither can the lost years. Not all losses can be restored, although we may still carry on desiring for a state in which sorrows end.

Another play which this one reminds me of is a work that Shakespeare could not possibly have known about – Sakuntala by Kalidasa, the most renowned drama of Sanskrit literature. Despite being the products of very different cultures, these two masterpieces are, thematically, surprisingly similar. In the final act of Kalidasa’s play, King Dusyanta, distraught at the awareness of what he has lost, makes his way into the land of the dead to become reunited once again with the wife and child whom he had previously failed to recognise. How curious that these two literary giants separated by more than merely physical distance should converge so remarkably in their artistic vision!

The Bardathon: 30 – Cymbeline

It’s with Cymbeline, I think, that we come to the set of plays that may be described as Shakespeare’s final flowering. Of course, there’s Pericles, but that is clearly not all Shakespeare’s work; and given how poor the first half of it is, I find it hard to think of it as a considered work of art. And there are Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen – but the former is possibly, and the latter definitely, the result of a collaboration; and in any case, neither play is sufficiently impressive to be thought of as anything other than run-of-the-mill pieces. No – if we are to look for Shakespeare’s final artistic testament, we must look to Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest.

But these plays are puzzling in many ways. While there are some who regard these as the crown and the artistic culmination of Shakespeare’s career, there are others who detect a lessening of powers: some have even suggested that Shakespeare was getting bored. Samuel Johnson memorably described Cymbeline as “unresisting imbecility”, pointing out the various absurdities that riddle the work. While it’s hard to disagree with Johnson, one really does need to ask oneself whether it is at all probable that we can see quite clearly the various absurdities of this work that Shakespeare himself couldn’t. Whatever we finally decide about Cymbeline as a play, I think it deserves serious consideration as a serious work of art.

Shakespeare was, quite clearly, moving into new areas. He was trying to write a new kind of play, but he hadn’t yet solved the various technical problems associated with it. Inevitably, Cymbeline – and, for that matter, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest – are experimental works. Given his position, I don’t think Shakespeare had the luxury of abandoning a project and starting afresh if things weren’t quite going right: he had to produce two to three new plays every year, and if things weren’t going quite right in one play, that was too bad. In the entire canon, Timon of Athens seems to me to be the only play that had been abandoned after an early draft.

It has to be admitted that Cymbeline is, in many ways, a deeply unsatisfactory work. But, on this reading, it also seemed to me very clearly informed with a serious artistic intent. Having written some of the most awe-inspiring tragic masterpieces, Shakespeare’s vision was now fixed beyond the tragic: he was looking towards the possibility of atonement, of reconciliation, of a hard-won serenity in which all losses are restored, and sorrows end. The problem was in finding an appropriate dramatic form.

For this, I think he looked back on his comedies as much as he did to the tragedies. Of course, Posthumus’ murderous jealousy may remind us of Othello, and Iachimo’s villainy may remind us of Iago; but Imogen setting out on her own in time of adversity reminds us of Rosalind, of Viola, and even, perhaps, of Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona; and, more especially it reminds us of Helena in All’s Well that Ends Well, that strange fairy-tale like work written while Shakespeare was conccerned mainly with tragic affairs. Indeed, looking through the entire body of Shakespeare’s work, All’s Well That Ends Well seems to me to be a sort of link between the world of the comedies and that of these late works. I get the impression that even when Shakespeare was creating his great tragic dramas, his ever-restless mind, constantly darting, like Hamlet’s, to newer ideas, was already forming and imagining a new artistic vision.

Artistic vision is all very well, but it needs to find proper dramatic expression. And Shakespeare had no option but to experiment. If the experiment came off, well and good; if not, there was always the next play, where one could try something else. And it is noticeable that each of these these three late plays – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest – while depicting a vision reconciliation, is each very different in terms of form.

As in All’s Well That Ends Well, we find Shakespeare fascinated by folklore, by the world of the fairy tale. The ethos of the fairy story seems to permeate Cymbeline: and indeed, there isn’t really any other way to make sense of those various elements that give the impression of “unresisting imbecility”. And when we do start to take the action as a sort of fairy story, questions of probability of plot or of psychological consistency seem no more relevant than they do in, say, “Hansel and Gretel”. This is obviously a far cry from the dramatic world of the tragedies, which only really make sense when we try to probe into the minds of the protagonists. When we watch or read Othello, we can’t help but question why Othello reacts the way he does to Iago’s posion, or why Iago applies such poison in the first place: but here, it seems pointlss to ask similar questions regarding Posthumus’ jealousy, or Iachimo’s villainy. The characters’ actions are a given: we do not even think here of asking “why?”

The main problem with this play is not so much that the plot is silly, but that there is far too much of it. As a consequence, Shakespeare has to spend a disproportionate amount of time in explaining the plot to the audience; and that, in itself, draws attention to the absurdities. And furthermore, the explanations of the sheer mechanics of the plot result in some very awkward passages. The very opening scene, for instance, is about as crude a piece of expository writing as one would find anywhere in dramatic literature. Throughout, there are explanatory asides; and Belarius at one point is given a long soliloquy that has absolutely no purpose other than to fill in the audience on his story. Shakespeare must have realised that things were going a bit wrong: it is very noticeable that in the two plays that followed, he thinned down the plot considerably.

But if the experiment that was Cymbeline was not a complete success, by no means is it a complete failure. Scene after scene impress with their dramatic power – even that very strange scene where Imogen wakes up next to a headless corpse, and thinks it the body of her husband, The first meeting between Imogen and Iachimo contains some remarkable dramatic verse: Iachimo’s lines as he finds himself overwhelmed by the beauty of the woman he has come to destroy are extraordinary. Similarly impressive are the monologues of the penitent Posthumus; and his line on fianally being reconciled to Imogen are surely amongst the most tender that Shakespeare had ever written:

           Hang there like fruit, my soul,
Till the tree die.

And of course, there is that very beautiful dirge sung over the dead Fidele (in reality, the living Imogen). That single lyric is enough to ensure the reputation of this play.

When I saw this play in performance (there’s an excellent production in the BBC Shakespeare series), my reaction was “What was Will on?” I think perhaps that these late plays work somewhat better read rather than seen: perhaps, they are better as poetry than as drama. At least, after my latest reading of this particular work, I find myself thinking far more highly of it than I had done previously. Shakespeare may not yet have found the dramatic form he was looking for, but something of his vision does get through: I found it strangely moving. This is a play I shall be revisiting: I get the impression that I am only really beginning to come to grips with it.

The Bardathon: 29 – Pericles

What an odd play Pericles is! What can one make of it? The first two acts are abysmal. It’s not even what one would expect of an untalented novice, let alone from a writer of genius at the peak of his powers. Even Shakespeare the apprentice dramatist could have written better stuff in his sleep. But from Act 3 onwards, things improve. It may not be pure gold, but the dramatic verse is not unworthy of Shakespeare. The humour in the brothel scenes (much disapproved of by the Victorians, naturally) is fine, and the reconciliation scene between Pericles and his daughter Marina is excellent: it is surprising how touching this scene is, despite the silliness of its dramatic context. (This scene inspired a particularly fine poem by TS Eliot.) The plot remains as outrageously silly as ever, of course, but Shakespeare never minded a silly plot.

It is generally accepted that Shakespeare didn’t write the whole thing. It would be surprising indeed if he had any part in the first two acts. The last three acts, however, are thought to be at least partly by Shakespeare: he may even have written all of them.

This naturally raises many questions: apart from some very early plays – and some very late ones, such as this – there is no evidence, either internal or external, that Shakespeare collaborated. He was certainly at the top of his profession, and was big enough not to have to collaborate with anyone. So why does he suddenly start collaborating now? And if he does collaborate, why, given his very high standing within his profession, does he collaborate with writers who are, frankly, incompetent? Maybe Shakespeare wasn’t collaborating: maybe he was patching up a bad play, making what he could of it. But if so, why did he focus only on the last three acts? Why did he not re-write the whole thing?

Any answer to these questions must necessarily be conjecture. My own conjecture is that Shakespeare was already thinking ahead to Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest – his late wondrous trilogy of plays – and that he set himself the task of re-writing the last three acts of Pericles as a sort of exercise in preparation for the great tasks yet to come. But of course, this is mere conjecture: we shall never know the truth of the matter.

I think the significance of Pericles will become more apparent once we move on to Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. In this final phase of his artistic career, Shakespeare seemed to be looking beyond tragedy into an imaginative world of a hard-won serenity, a world in which that which has been lost is restored. This is, perhaps, not new: we have had foreshadowings of this at the end of Much Ado About Nothing, where Hero is restored to Claudio, and, even more touchingly, at the end of Twelfth Night, where Viola and Sebastian recognise each other in a scene of awe and wonder. And bridging the world of those romantic comedies with the world of the late plays is All’s Well That Ends Well, with its fairy tale plot.

But as for Pericles, whatever the incidental felicities of the last three acts, I cannot really see it as anything other than an exercise on Shakespeare’s part – a pointer to what was still to come.

The Bardathon: 28- Coriolanus

Coriolanus is possibly Shakespeare’s most disappointing play. Not because it’s a bad play – indeed, by the standards of most writers, it is a masterpiece. But it is Shakespeare’s last tragedy, and follows on the heels of Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra (I exclude Timon of Athens from this list as that one is unlikely to be anything more than an early draft) – i.e. it follows on the heels of some of the most awe-inspiring achievements of the human imagination. And this play, with its long and unremitting focus on essentially simple characters and simple situations (simple, at least, in comparison with its predecessors), just does not live up to expectations.

But for all that, regarded in its own right, it’s a fine play. In some ways, it seems that Shakespeare had gone out of his way to write a complete antithesis of its predecessor, Antony and Cleopatra. Where the earlier play had depicted a wide range of humanity in a dazzling variety of colours and in constantly changing forms, Coriolanus focuses intently on a small group of characters who seem unable to change or to develop; and instead of the extravagant splashes of colour, we seem to have here an austere, monochromatic grey. Where, in Antony and Cleopatra, the stage seems barely big enough to contain such overflowing vitality, here, in one of Shakespeare’s longest plays, we focus unremittingly on a simple narrative line, uncluttered with any subplot.

Coriolanus is a fighting machine, and little more. All those elements of the human character that are traditionally regarded as “feminine” – tenderness, gentleness, compassion, fellow-feeling – seem to have been sucked out of him. The very first time we see him, he bids a starving multitude to “go hang”. And then, we see his mother, and begin to understand how her son came to be this way – for Volumnia is possibly the most “masculine” character Shakespeare ever created. In certain respects, she reminded me of Ma Jarrett in the Jimmy Cagney film White Heat – a harsh woman who takes great pride in seeing her son as the unthinking, beef-witted man of violence that he is. This deeply unattractive man is the son she had wanted: she has moulded him in her own image.

And the society these characters inhabit is also without those qualities that many would consider make us human: pity, compassion – these are all conspicuous by their absence. There is love there: Coriolanus and his mother Volumnia obviously have a great love for each other. But, until the very striking scene near the end of the play where they meet for the last time, it is a love entirely devoid of tenderness. The only virtue that is respected in this society is the ability to fight. Coriolanus is openly contemptuous of the plebians: it is not merely that he does not love them – he positively hates them, and is happy to say so openly. Of course, the other patricians (Menenius & co) similarly hate the plebians, but they at least have the good sense not to express their hatred so openly. This may indicate an honesty on the part of Coriolanus that the others do not have, but Coriolanus’ honesty is indicative not so much of moral probity as of a lack of common sense. There are those two tribunes of the people, of course, but they are not presented as particularly humane either: these tribunes are also patricians, after all, and for them, popular support is merely a tool in their political games. They are deeply authoritarian, and, at one point, demand the immediate execution of Coriolanus for daring to question the validity of their positions of power. In short, the characters are all deeply unlikeable throughout.

The middle section of the play is surprisingly comic, as Coriolanus, in standing for public office, has to present himself to the very people he so despises. The build-up to the climactic scenes in Act Three is slow, and the climax – where Coriolanus turns against everyone, and is banished for his “pride” – is entirely predictable: but I imagine a good cast would be able to get a lot of laughs from these scenes. However, the humour is far from good-natured or genial, and the drama is deadly serious: for a state that depends on its military success for its well-being, someone such as Coriolanus is indispensable; but how can this same state function if this same Coriolanus is granted political power?

After Coriolanus’ exile, the pace of the drama quickens considerably, and the climactic scene comes, of course, when Volumnia – the woman who had moulded her son into what he is – finds herself, ironically, appealing to those very elements that she had previously inhibited in her son – mercy, compassion, fellow-feeling. There follows perhaps Shakespeare’s most wonderful stage direction:

He holds her by the hand, silent

And Coriolanus’ lines are full of a sense of wonder, as he suddenly finds elements in his own character that he had not previously known about:

O mother, mother!
What have you done? Behold, the heavens do ope,
The gods look down, and this unnatural scene
They laugh at. O my mother, mother! O!

It is surprisingly moving. Yet at the same time, it is disturbing that a man could regard the awakening of compassion in his soul as “unnatural”, and as something to be laughed at. Even the mass-murderer Macbeth knew of pity (“like a naked new-born babe striding the blast”): to Coriolanus, it seems a new discovery, and something that is inherently absurd.

In yielding to compassion for the first and only time in his life, Coriolanus effectively signs his own death warrant. And yet, Shakespeare seems unwilling to grant him a heroic end. Even the drunken hedonist Antony was granted a measure of heroism; even the very unheroic Cleopatra had died a great queen. But the death of Coriolanus is presented almost casually.

It’s hard to know what Shakespeare intended with all this. There is much to admire in this play, but little to like. And it’s undeniable that, in comparison to the tragedies that had preceded this, the characters and situations are all very simple. Was Shakespeare getting tired of the tragic form? It seems unlikely, as the dramatic verse is finely wrought throughout, and is obviously not the work of a man uninterested in what he is doing. But finely wrought though it is, there is little in it that is memorable – no wonderful lines, no passages of poetry that leap off the page. After the overflowing abundance of riches in Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare, it seems, was determined in this play to be as austere as possible. The outcome commands respect, certainly, but I doubt anyone will be listing Coriolanus amongst their favourite plays.

The Bardathon: 27 – Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra has long been something of an enigma. That it is a tragedy there is no doubt – after all, its protagonists die at the end, and that’s tragedy by any definition. But it doesn’t quite feel like a tragedy. There’s none of the terror that Aristotle spoke about, nor even, for that matter, the pity: of course, we don’t exactly cheer when Antony and Cleopatra die, but we can’t help feeling, perhaps, that this world wasn’t quite for them. These people are too used to power to become mere private citizens, but are too hedonistic and too indifferent to how they exercise their power to be good rulers. We may regret the death of a Hamlet or of an Othello, or even a Macbeth, and muse on how it might have been otherwise: we don’t even consider the possibility of an “otherwise” here. Tragedy it may be, we feel, but perhaps it’s better this way.

Shakespeare was, I think, attempting a tragedy entirely different from anything anyone had attempted before: a tragedy without angst, without terror – a tragedy where we may indeed see the tragic protagonists as essentially comic figures. The very first time they appear they are comic: here we have two mighty people – a great queen, and one of the triumvirate that rule the vast Roman Empire – and all we see are a couple of middle-aged people whispering sweet nothings into each other’s ears like lovesick teenagers. As the play progresses, it expands opulently: Jonathan Miller likened it to a great Rubens canvas, overflowing with colour and exuberance. And somehow, it refuses to be pinned down. The carefree figures of Antony and Cleopatra we see in the opening scene are immediately contradicted by what follows: we now see Cleopatra deeply insecure and anxious, and Antony guiltily aware of the duty he is neglecting. It is a world in which nothing can keep its shape for long. In most tragedies, the tragic protagonist undergoes a painful journey of self-awareness, but by the end of Antony’s journey, he finds everything so infinitely plastic and mutable that he cannot even begin to understand his own self:

Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish;
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A tower’d citadel, a pendent rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon’t, that nod unto the world,
And mock our eyes with air: thou hast seen
these signs;
They are black vesper’s pageants.

That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,
As water is in water.

Is Antony a great soldier, or a pathetic drunkard? Or is he the demi-god that Cleopatra imagines after his death? Is Cleopatra a great queen, or is she a spoilt unthinking brat? Is Octavius a cold, cynical manipulator, or is he a virtuous man who takes his responsibilities seriously? They appear to be all of these – often at the same time. The Antony who has a messenger whipped is the same Antony who magnanimously sends after Enobarbus his treasure. There seems no centre to anything, nothing is stable – everything is in a state of constant flux. This is, in many ways, the world of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but in purely human terms: human beings do not need to metamorphose into trees or birds – merely the fact of their being human ensures the bewildering kaleidoscopic variety. Lear, on seeing poor Tom, had asked if man were no more than this; but this play gives the impression that humankind is so very much more, that one cannot even hope to capture the essence of humanity with its shifting, endless variety.

It is perhaps surprising that at the centre of a play that focuses on the richness of the human spirit are two characters who are essentially quite shallow. Antony has had his share of responsibility, both as a statesman and as a soldier: he now wants no more than to wallow in a life of hedonism with his soulmate, Cleopatra. (His situation is not unlike that of Prince Hal, torn between the weight of his responsibilities, and his desire to lose himself in pleasure; but Hal is, unlike Antony, a young man, and makes a very different choice.) Cleopatra herself is a queen, and has maintained her power by exercising her skills of seduction: but she is now middle-aged, and not as certain of her sexual powers as she used to be; and, for the first time, she is actually in love – although she possibly does not recognise it as such. And she is terrified that her powers are on the wane – that she might lose Antony. Neither is a particularly profound character. And yet, by some alchemy that is beyond my powers of analysis, Shakespeare through these figures convinces us of the sheer plenitude of life, the sheer richness and abundance of humanity. Generally, this play is held to be not quite of the same standard of a Hamlet or an Othello, but it is not to be judged on their terms: judged on its own terms I find this epic drama the most exhilarating of experiences.

And then there’s that final tableau in the monument. What can be said about this scene? Suddenly, a new tonality seems to emerge – a tonality of the greatest gravity and the most solemn beauty. Cleopatra is no more the ever-changeable creature of infinite variety: she is now “constant marble”. But somehow, this new tonality does not seem out of place. It seems a fitting ending to this vast, overflowing drama.

The final scene is possibly the most beautiful that even Shakespeare ever wrote. Iit is tempting to give here some examples of the exquisitely beautiful verse, but where does one start?

Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me

Or Cleopatra’s final words, the original liebestod:

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

I never tire of this play: it is an audacious achievement. I cannot think of any other work that so reconciles one to being human.

The Bardathon: 26 – Macbeth

Macbeth has an exciting story about witches and murders, exudes a powerful atmosphere and moves quickly, and is one of the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays. Not surprisingly, it is widely regarded as one of the most “accessible”, and is a favourite both in the classroom and in regional repertory theatres (at least, it was back in the days when regional repertory theatres used regularly to perform Shakespeare). It is therefore all the more surprising that there are so few good performances of this play: I have seen several productions on stage over the years, but not one that I would consider even satisfactory. And, strange as it may seem to say so about a play that is quite rightly acknowledged to be one of the greatest masterpieces of the human imagination, it seems to me that Shakespeare has to take some of the blame for this: the pacing of this play seems to me to leave a lot to be desired.

Such criticism ought not to be made lightly, of course, given that Shakespeare was, amongst other things an absolute master of dramatic pacing. But it is entirely possible – indeed, probable – that the text we currently have is a cut-down version of what had once been a longer play. (Indeed, the editors of the Oxford edition say very confidently that the play we have now was “edited by Thomas Middleton”.) But if the original play had been longer, it’s hard to see which aspects of the current text could have been expanded upon: the principal characters are depicted to perfection, and one wonders how any extra scene or speech could have added to their characterisation. It is, of course, possible that the other characters had been given a greater presence in the original text, but once again, it is hard to imagine how their roles could have been expanded without diluting the intensity generated by the dominant presence of the two principal characters.

I suppose there is little point in speculating on what the play might have been like: all we have to go on is what we have now, and we must focus on that. And what we have now, although a work of undoubted genius, is also, it seems to me, clumsily paced. Has there ever been a production of this play, I wonder, where the momentum hasn’t faltered after the end of the second act? In all other Shakespeare tragedies, the narrative arc with which the play opens reaches a sort of natural hiatus at the end of the exposition, and, invariably, this occurs somewhere in the first act – usually towards the end. In Julius Caesar, it occurs at the end of the scene where Cassius first plants the seeds of conspiracy into Brutus’ mind; in Othello, it occurs at the end of the Senate scene; in Hamlet, the narrative arc of the opening stretches out till the end of the long first act with its climax on the battlements of Elsinore, when Hamlet meets his father’s ghost; in King Lear, we have a double exposition, and the narrative arc with which the play opens comes to a natural halt at the end of the second scene, when Cordelia has been banished and Edmund has convinced Gloucester of Edgar’s treachery. In all these cases, the exposition ends somewhere in the first act with a natural hiatus in the narrative. But in Macbeth, it’s different: the narrative continues uninterrupted right to the end of the second act. It is, indeed, breathtaking: the tension mounts in a continuous crescendo, never for a moment pausing for breath, until we reach a sequence of some of the most exciting and terrifying of all scenes in drama. Only after the discovery of Duncan’s murder can we pause for breath. But by then, we are almost half way through the play.

And what follows is, in comparison, more fragmented. There are still magnificent scenes, of course: there are still some of the finest passages of dramatic verse that even Shakespeare ever wrote; but the momentum undeniably falters. And then, we come to that problematic fourth act, with the long scene in the English court. Shakespeare in his tragedies usually gave his main actor a bit of a break in the fourth act, but I doubt there has been any production where this scene hasn’t seemed too long. Yes, Shakespeare brings us back into the action quite magnficently with that terrifying sleepwalking scene, but it cannot be denied that the dramatic momentum of the first two acts has disappeared.

It seems petty-minded, I agree, to write in such negative terms about so great a masterpiece, but the fact remains that this is one of the most difficult of plays to pull off in performance, and the reasons seem to me to be worth investigating. Another reason why it fails so often is, I think, the staging. It is a big mistake, I think, to stage Macbeth as an epic play, or to play it in a big theatre. Yes, it is about dynasties and battles, but its atmosphere is of a suffocating claustrophobia: it is, I think, a chamber play, and should ideally be played in intimate surroundings, with the audience as close to the actors as possible; and the great speeches should be confided in us – whispered rather than declaimed. And, while it may hurt the profits of the theatre bar, it should ideally be played without a break.

The central theme of this play is evil. It addresses the question posed by Gloucester in King Lear: “Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?” Of course, Shakespeare had created memorable evil characters before – Richard III, Goneril & Regan, Edmund, Iago – but in all of these cases, we come to a dead end when we try to investigate the question of what it is that makes them evil. Why are they evil? Because they do evil things. Why do they do evil things? Because they are evil. However striking these characters are, all investigation into their evil natures founders on this circular logic. But the evil characters in this play – Macbeth and Lady Macbeth – are different in type. Unlike, say, Richard III, these people are intelligent and sensitive characters, admirable in many respects. How can people such as these allow evil to enter into their souls? And, just as importantly, once they have allowed this evil to enter, how do they live with it? Shakespeare had touched upon this once before – not with Richard III, but with Claudius, that other monarch who had murdered his way to the throne. But, impressive though the characterisation of Claudius is, he is not he central character of the play: Shakespeare could not afford to dissect Claudius’ soul in too great a detail because Prince Hamlet had to be kept in the central dramatic spotlight. But the issues raised by the character of Claudius had clearly sojourned in Shakespeare’s mind, and here are to be answered.

The economy with which Shakespeare depicts his two principal characters here is breathtaking. Macbeth both wants and doesn’t want at the same time: he desires with all his heart, but with all his heart he flinches from that action that would lead to the fulfilment of his desire. Whatever his decision, he cuts off an important part of himself. And Lady Macbeth has to force herself to be evil: she invites evil spirits to possess her, because she knows that she cannot be evil without their aid. Of course, we may view these evil spirits (and, indeed, the witches) as symbolic manifestations of these characters’ evil desires: but whether we view these spirits either on a literal or on a metaphorical level, once they have possessed her, they destroy her.

Both characters lose their minds, I think. In the famous sleepwalking scene, we see Lady Macbeth suffering all the torments of hell itself while still resident on earth: she relives repeatedly that night on which she had lost her soul – she has no option but to live through it again and again. And as for Macbeth, he has to live with the awareness of what he has done, and of its significance. After Duncan’s murder, he says that had he died an hour hence, he would have lived a blessed time, for now “there is nothing serious in mortality”. If the witches “lie like truth”, Macbeth here is telling the truth like lies: in dramatic terms, this is Macbeth feigning sorrow for Duncan’s death, but in psychological terms, he is revealing a great truth about himself. For the only way he can live with the knowledge of what he has done is to convince himself that it doesn’t really matter. And if even this doesn’t matter, then nothing matters – there is nothing serious in mortality. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow – all of time is but a series of undifferentiated days, mere sound and fury signifying nothing. That word “nothing” had haunted King Lear as well, but, contrary to what Lear had thought, something does come out of nothing in that play. But here, there is no Cordelia to light up the profound darkness with her love: hell is, indeed, murky.

And yet, Macbeth cannot completely convince himself that nothing really matters. Even as a mass-murderer, he retains to the end an awareness of what he has lost, of what he could never seek to have. When he speaks to the doctor ostensibly about his wife, he knows that it is his own “diseased mind” that he is really speaking about. And no – no doctor could minister to that.

These two characters have committed evil beyond imagining (at one point in the play, we see a child murdered on stage). And yet, perhaps, there is no other play where by the end we are made to wonder with such insistence what these two people have done to themselves. For we have followed every step of their descent into hell – a hell which they have entered even while on this earth. To face up to this play is to face up to the greatest terror that may be imagined.

The Bardathon: 25 – King Lear

If a poll were to be taken amongst Shakespeare-lovers to determine Shakespeare’s greatest play (insofar as the term “greatest” is at all meaningful in this context), I suspect King Lear may well come top of the pile. This is rather odd for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is generally admitted that it is not the best constructed of Shakespeare’s plays: too many plot complications (e.g. the Goneril-Regan-Edmund triangle) are introduced comparatively late in the play when the audience’s attention is already focussed on other matters, and when there isn’t enough time to deal with these new elements in a satisfactory manner; the principal subplot is so similar to the main plot that the denouement of this subplot has to take place off-stage to avoid repetition; the motives of one of the main characters – Edgar – are left so vague as to be frequently incomprehensible; and so on.

And, on top of this somewhat careless construction, the characters are relatively simple: certainly, compared to the intricacy and subtleties of characterisation that may be found in earlier tragedies such as Julius Caesar, Hamlet or Othello, the characters here really are quite straight-forward: there really isn’t too much more than what one may see on the surface. For instance, compare Othello, Iago and Desdemona with Gloucester, Edmund and Edgar: we have a similar situation in both these triangles – an evil person poisons the mind of a credulous person, and convinces him that a genuinely good person is actually bad. But there is such depth to Othello, Iago and Desdemona that we continue arguing and disagreeing over them even after centuries of detailed thought and analysis. In comparison, there isn’t really too much to be said about Gloucester & co. (It is interesting to note in this context that in Bradley’s classic critical text Shakespearean Tragedy, his essays on King Lear remain, by general consent, the least convincing: this is surely because this is the play that responds least well to Bradley’s approach, with its focus on analysing character.)

So it is reasonable to ask why it is that this play, with all its flaws and shortcomings, makes so overwhelming an effect both in the theatre and in the study (and even, in my case, on the commuter train). Indeed, in writing up my impressions, I find it tempting simply to look up the word “overwhelming” in Roget’s Thesaurus, and to embed within a few sentences every adjective I can find. For there is no doubt that this play does overwhelm, and that, even with the help of Roget’s Thesaurus, one’s powers of articulacy seem helpless in the face of this fact. But trying to understand why it has such an effect is a tricky matter, and far from obvious.

Towards the end of the play, at its heartbreaking conclusion, Edgar and Albany comment:

– Is this the promised end?
– Or an image of that horror?

These two lines seem to me to reflect accurately what we feel: for we feel that what we have witnessed is no less than an image of the apocalypse itself. In Hamlet, we had witnessed one man’s concern with the value of life in the face of human frailty and of death; in Othello we had witnessed one man destroying that which is most precious, and damning his own soul in the process: in both these dramas, we had been caught up with the heartbreaking tragedies of the protagonists, and of those around them. But what we see in King Lear seems to be on a vaster scale: the tragedy affecting these individuals on stage seems a reflection of a broader tragedy that engulfs the whole of humanity itself.

One is tempted at this point to use the word “cosmic”, but before we do so, it is worthwhile to examine some comments made on this point by Jonathan Miller, who has directed this play with great distinction several times both on stage and on television, and probably knows it as well as anyone. He objects to the use of the word “cosmic”: the characters, he insists, are contending against each other, and not against cosmic forces. That they are contending against each other cannot be denied, but it seems to me to be worthwhile to ask ourselves why it is that so many readers and viewers feel that these admittedly human conflicts seem also to have a cosmic dimension. After all, the humans involved in these conflicts are not particularly profound characters – at least, not very profound when judged by the standards of Hamlet or Othello. Can it be possible that we find ourselves overwhelmed merely by these conflicts between sets of characters who are not in themselves particularly profound? Is it not, rather, that we see in these human conflicts evidence of forces that are greater? – i.e. “cosmic” forces?

This is not to dismiss Jonathan Miller’s point. Shakespeare, unlike, say, Dante or Milton, was not interested in presenting to us visions of a cosmic order. Even when he does approach such themes (as he does, I think, in this play), the focus is still on human affairs: what cosmic elements there are manifest themselves through these human affairs. But for all that, if we are to see this play purely in terms of humans contending against each other, it becomes difficult to account for the extraordinary impact it makes. Even so, perhaps it’s best, when we’re trying to understand and come to terms with so daunting a work, to start trying to understand purely on the level of human affairs, and then see if it leads us into other areas. If we were to jump straight into the metaphysics (something I feel frankly unqualified to do), we run the danger, I think, of losing our bearings. And in this of all plays, it’s very easy to lose one’s bearings.

The storylines are very simple, and well known. The principal one concerns Lear and his three daughters. Old King Lear, blinded by flattery, divides his kingdom between his two evil daughters who flatter him, and exiles the good daughter who doesn’t. But when the evil daughters turn him out during a storm, it’s the good daughter whom he had previously rejected who comes to his rescue. Summarised in such terms, it seems like a fairy story – a neat morality tale dramatising such trite morals as “One can’t judge by appearances”, or “One shouldn’t bend to flattery”. It seems, frankly, very unlikely material for what is universally regarded as one of the most powerful of all literary achievements.

To this simple story, Shakespeare adds a subplot that, in its outline, is virtually identical. The old Earl of Gloucester has two sons, one legitimate and the other illegitimate. The illegitimate son convinces his father that the legitimate son harbours murderous designs, and the father, believing only what he sees on the surface, orders the arrest of his good son, who has no option but to flee. But the illegitimate son then informs on his father, and the old man has his eyes gouged out, and, like Lear, is cast out into the elements, away from everything he had previously taken for granted. And now, in his deepest distress, it is his rejected child who tends to him.

What could Shakespeare have been thinking of, I wonder, in duplicating the plot? It may be argued that the duplication strengthens the impact of the story,  but at the same time, it also makes for dramatic clumsiness: the climax of this subplot – where Edgar reveals himself to his father – could not even be played on stage, as that would be repetitive: we had already had the scene where Cordelia had revealed herself to her father. And yet I doubt there’s anyone who regrets Shakespeare’s decision to duplicate the plot: without this duplication, we wouldn’t have had that extraordinary scene where the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester meet on the moor. The whole essence of tragedy seems concentrated into this one single scene, and the odd bit of dramatic clumsiness seems a small price to pay.

But the point of this repetition is, it seems to me, to suggest a sense of the universal. A single picture of the dissolution of a single family is nothing more than the depiction of a particular, unfortunate case; but when we see the same pattern repeated, the impression is given of something more universal, as that single repetition suggests the possibility of many more. And this sense of a general pattern – this sense that what we are seeing is not restricted merely to these particular cases – conveys a sense of dissolution not merely of families, but of all bonds between human beings. Early on in the play, when Edmund starts first to poison his father’s mind against Edgar, Gloucester is given the following speech:

These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us: though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects: love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father. This villain of mine comes under the prediction; there’s son against father: the king falls from bias of nature; there’s father against child. We have seen the best of our time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves.

We may, as Edmund does, laugh off Gloucester’s superstitions, but, coming as it does immediately after we have witnessed the breakdown of one family and seen the beginnings of the breakdown of a second, we are inclined to take seriously the image of a universal breakdown. The very repetition of the motif of breakdown impresses upon our mind its universal quality – the impression that what we are seeing is a sort of synecdoche, a part standing in for a greater whole.

This impression is strengthened in the storm scenes in Act Three, at the very centre of the play. In these scenes, quite astonishingly, the tragedy intensifies and the scope broadens at the same time. This is when Lear finds himself at the very nadir of his fortunes – when he, who had all his life taken for granted his royal status finds himself without even so much as a roof over his head. This is when his mind, for the first time ever, starts wondering about other human beings. How do other human beings – those “poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er [they] are” – live through storms such as this? And soon, he sees one such poor naked wretch – Poor Tom. In the previous scene Lear had argued (“Reason not the need …”) that human beings must have far more than merely basic necessities: but now, he sees a human being without even these basic necessities, and at this horrific sight, his mind begins to unhinge. His first reaction is to draw this poor naked wretch into his own tragic world: did his daughters reduce him to this? It couldn’t be anything else! In his own disintegrating mind, his own particular tragedy is now expanding to cover all of suffering humanity. For this is what it is to be human:

Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! here’s three on’s are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! come unbutton here.

And Lear, in his new found knowledge that under his clothes he too is such a bare, forked animal, starts to tear off his own clothes.

This shocked recognition expands the scope of his tragedy: Lear’s tragedy is reflected in all of humanity – none of us can be exempt. Where, in, say, Othello, we had become immersed in the tragedy of Othello and of Desdemona, here, the tragedy of Lear seems to expand its scope to include us: by the mere fact of being human, we are part of this vast tragic picture.

However, Lear’s sudden concern with the question of what it is to be human isn’t introduced gratuitously merely to make a point: Shakespeare was far too good a dramatist for that. Lear has to ask himself this question because his sense of his own identity has collapsed. Like Richard II in the earlier play, Lear’s sense of his own identity was predicated on the fact of his being king. Indeed, so deeply was this fact impressed in his mind, he had not even paused to consider the possibility that he would no longer be seen as a king after his abdication. But now, he is robbed of everything – not merely his status, not merely his authority, but even of shelter during a pitiless storm. And as with Richard II, his sense of his own identity collapses. The only fact that he is left with concerning his own identity is that he is a human, and, this being the case, he has to ask himself what that means. And at that very point as if in answer to his question, appears Poor Tom, a bare, forked animal – homeless, starving, mentally deficient, the most wretched and pathetic specimen of humanity.

(Of course, Shakespeare has pulled off here a daring sleight of hand, for Poor Tom, we know, is actually Edgar in disguise. Shakespeare gets away with it – partly because we know that such people do exist (Edgar had modelled his persona on real people he had himself seen), and also because the disguised Edgar is undergoing the sufferings that the Poor Toms of this world endure.)

At this point, it isn’t merely Lear’s mind that collapses: everything seems to collapse – even language itself:

Bless thy five wits! Tom’s a-cold,–O, do de, do de, do de.

Pillicock sat on Pillicock-hill:
Halloo, halloo, loo, loo!

Still through the hawthorn blows the cold wind:
Says suum, mun, ha, no, nonny.
Dolphin my boy, my boy, sessa! let him trot by.

Poor Tom continues mouthing gibberish, the Fool continues with his fooleries, and Lear is increasingly incapable of speaking coherently – what a curious set of figures to populate the stage at the climactic centre of the story! And all three are out in the open in the storm – completely vulnerable to the elements. The frame of the whole world seems out of joint. Has there ever been a more despairing picture of humanity than this?

How did we get to such a point? There are some commentators who think that the opening of the play belongs to the realm of fairy tales, and that, in the course of the early acts, we move almost imperceptibly from a world of fantasy into a terrible world of reality. I can’t say I agree with this. If we can dismiss the opening merely as a fairly story – i.e. if we think that the opening lacks psychological credibility – then the rest of the play won’t make much sense. The world presented at the opening must be credible – or its dissolution will mean little.

It seems to me that the opening scene is entirely credible, and that it gives us a picture of the character of Lear that is essential if we are to understand what follows. The instruction to his daughters to tell the court how much they love him is not a whim: it is a public spectacle – a piece of theatre ceremoniously to mark the king’s abdication. And a piece of theatre such as this could only have been devised by a man who is so self-absorbed that he really does appear to think that the whole point of the existence of the world, of the existence of other people, is to glorify and to adulate him (“Better thou hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better”). The daughters no doubt knew of this planned piece of theatre: they may even have had their speeches prepared. The only one who comes unprepared is Cordelia, and it may legitimately be asked why. Surely, having lived with her father all her life, she would have known what kind of person he was: Goneril and Regan certainly did. And equally, having been familiar with the court, Cordelia must have known that her refusal to play her father’s game in court would be humiliating for him, and that to humiliate the king in his own court must have very serious consequences. It is understandable that Cordelia finds the game absurd and distasteful and is, as a consequence, unwilling to play the part demanded of her, but given that she could not have been unaware of  the consequences, it is hard to understand why she behaves in so sullen a manner. After all, her reply to Lear goes much further than a refusal to flatter: it appears sullen, and conveys nothing of the love that we later find out she has for her father:

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less.

It has been suggested that we shouldn’t ask too many questions about this – that we should merely accept Cordelia’s curious behaviour as a given, and move on to see where it leads. I don’t accept that for a minute. It is true that the characterisation in this play is simpler than that found in other plays, but that is not to say that it doesn’t exist at all. I think Cordelia’s words are sullen because, as a character, she is sullen; I think she betrays an extraordinary lack of awareness of the social and political niceties of the situation because she is socially and politically ignorant. There is something almost autistic about her failure to recognise the effect her words and actions have on others.

These elements of her character appear later also. She says in the opening scene that she “cannot heave [her] heart into [her] mouth” – i.e. she cannot put into words what she feels. She certainly fails very badly in this first scene. But she fails later as well. In that extraordinarily beautiful scene later in the play where she is reconciled with her father, it is Lear who does all the talking: Cordelia hardly says anything at all, and Lear’s reference to her tears (“Be thy tears wet?”) indicates that she is weeping. Later, when she and Lear are captured, it is once again Lear who does all the talking, and he tells her to wipe her tears. Even in the very first scene, she takes her leave from her sisters with “washed eyes”. I get the impression of someone whose heart is full of love, but who is unable to express it: when emotions need to be expressed, she has no words – merely tears. And what words she does have are the wrong ones. All she is capable of is – as she puts it herself – “love, and be silent”. Such a character does not have the guile necessary to play the role demanded of her in the first scene, but, worse than that, she is not sufficiently articulate to express what she does feel. She never was.

So why did Lear demand her to play a role that he should have known she was unable to play? The reason, surely, is that Lear is so completely self-absorbed, that he had not even paused to consider her capabilities. But once she refuses to play the game, Lear has no choice: as Claudius knew all too well in the court scene of Hamlet (I,ii), a monarch cannot afford to be humiliated in his own court.  

What happens in that opening scene seems to me entirely realistic. The alleged unreality lies not in the dramatic situation, but in Lear’s interpretation of that situation. So used is Lear to being in a position of absolute authority, to being the centre of universal adulation, that he cannot imagine being otherwise: even after his abdication, he expects these things to remain unchanged. And he continues to fly into rages, seemingly quite unaware that lacking as he now does the power that had once made his rages so fearful, these rages now mean absolutely nothing. The rages are pretty vile, all the same:

Hear, nature, hear; dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful!
Into her womb convey sterility!
Dry up in her the organs of increase;
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her! If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen; that it may live,
And be a thwart disnatured torment to her!
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth;
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks;
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt; that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child!

Of course, Lear gets his “come-uppance”, and there a lesser dramatist might have left it. But for Shakespeare, this “come-uppance” is but the start of a long and painful spiritual journey.

As has been commented, the first half of the play depicts a “double action”: as Lear’s status falls from King to that of a homeless vagrant, his moral stature rises: for the first time in his life, he becomes aware of the existence of others; he becomes aware of his own status – not of king, but of a human being: he learns compassion. This has led some commentators, especially of an earlier generation, see King Lear as essentially a Christian play – a play of a man who loses the own world, but gains his soul. Nowadays, this may appear a sentimental interpretation, but I don’t think we should jettison it completely: this element is, after all, present in the text. The problem is that there are quite a few other elements also present in the text. The modern fashion takes completely the opposite viewpoint, and sees it as a nihilistic play, but once again, I don’t think that tells the whole story. There is far too much in a text as endlessly rich as this  for any single label such as “Christian” or “nihilist” to appear appear anything other than simplistic. This is a play in which, I think, all possibilities are present, but none is confirmed. (A bit like life, really…) There is no certainty of anything – not even the certainty of nothingness. What we can be sure of is that we are in the presence of big themes – cosmic themes, whether the good Dr Miller likes it or not.

Having posed the question “What is it to be human?” Shakespeare proceeds to give us evidence from the extreme ends of the spectrum: there is no room here for moderation. The momentous third act ends with possibly the most horrendous scene in all drama, where the aged Gloucester is tied on to a chair and has his eyes gouged out onstage. This scene, for me, dwarfs all the horrors in Titus Andronicus put together. And yet, even in this scene of monstrous evil, we witness an act of goodness that is equally extraordinary: a servant, whom we had not seen before, gives his life trying to protect Gloucester.

For the rest of the play, Shakespeare continues to give us evidence from both ends of the spectrum: we see the incredible goodness and love of Cordelia, of Kent, of Edgar, of Gloucester who would relieve the king even if it cost him his life; and cheek by jowl with this god-like goodness, we see also the Satanic evil of Cornwall, of Regan and of Goneril, of Edmund. This is what it is to be human: humanity encompasses the most unbelievable extremes, and Shakespeare does not comment on whether the good atones for the bad, or whether the bad nullifies the good. What is inescapable, though, is the endless suffering.  

After that astonishing third act, the fourth act gets under way with a bit of a splutter. Shakespeare belatedly introduces new plot elements at the very point when the audience’s attention is fixed on other matters. In the Folio text – which is most likely Shakespeare’s own later revision of the play – he very wisely cut down one of these scenes, and completely excised another: the rather sentimental description in the Quarto of Cordelia weeping to hear of her father’s fate merely holds up the momentum for no good reason, and it seems to me unfortunate that so many productions still insist on including this scene for the sake of completeness.

But the storm scenes are not the end of the play. Lear may have redeemed himself morally in that third act, but he still has a long way to go. And in the meantime, we get a most curious scene in which Edgar encourages Gloucester to think he is on the edge of a precipice, and, when Gloucester jumps forward to put an end to his life, he falls merely on flat ground. It is a very striking scene, but I must admit that even after all these years, I still don’t quite grasp its significance. 

And then follows the scene between the blind Gloucester and the mad Lear. One can only wonder in awe and astonishment at an imagination that could even conceive of such a scene, into which the whole essence of human tragedy seems concentrated. Lear’s mind, by this stage, is gone: random nonsense alternates with a horror of the injustices and the cruelties human beings inflict on one another, and also, rather curiously, a horror of human sexuality:

Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above:
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends’;
There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the
sulphurous pit,
Burning, scalding, stench, consumption; fie,
fie, fie! pah, pah!

And those commentators who see in the play a dramatisation of Lear’s moral regeneration may find it a trifle difficult to account for the following:

And when I have stol’n upon these sons-in-law,
Then, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!

Throughout, the question is asked of the role of divinity in all this. What is the role of the gods, or of God? Gloucester thought that humans are to the gods what flies are to boys – “they kill us for their sport”. Lear later speaks of being “God’s spies” – although it’s unclear whether he means spies on God – i.e. to find out what God is up to – or spies on behalf of God, i.e. to report on human affairs back to a God who is not capable even of seeing them. Either way, this God is inadequate: He is either not benevolent, or not omnipotent. He is not someone to whom mankind can turn.

The ending, as is well-known, is pure heartbreak. And it is entirely gratuitous. We all hear much about the “inevitability” of tragedy: but here, Cordelia is killed because they are a few minutes too late in sending for her. It is the sheer arbitrariness that shocks: how can the most important things in life be so arbitrary? After having witnessed so much dumb, animal suffering, are we to be left with nothing more inspiring than the sheer pointlessness of it all? There is nothing in all literature that conveys with so deadening an effect the sheer finality of death:

                   No, no, no life.
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.

And then, in the Folio text, we have the following addition:

Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!

It’s an extraordinary addition. What did Shakespeare mean by this? Does Lear, at the very point of death, see some redeeming vision? Or is it just another delusion? Each reader and each viewer will interpret it after their own fashion.

One feels a sense of exhaustion by the end of this play – an exhaustion both physical and spiritual. At the end of Hamlet., the question of succession mattered: here, it doesn’t. The whole frame of life itself seems to have been wrenched apart: we have seen an image of the promised end, and it seems to matter little who will now reign.


As with any major work of art, King Lear defies any attempt at a definitive interpretation. It is, in many ways, a monstrously unwieldy work, deeply flawed and carelessly constructed. But the wonder is that it was written at all.