Posts Tagged ‘drama’

Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

I seem to have started this year immersed in late Shakespeare. First, there was the cinema broadcast of Kenneth Branagh’s fine production of The Winter’s Tale. And, in a fit of bank-balance-depleting enthusiasm late last year, I bought myself tickets to all three of the late threesome (I hesitate to call it a “trilogy”) of Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, that beautiful little theatre attached to the Globe that attempts to recreate the environment in which these plays would originally have been performed. I reported on their production of Cymbeline a few weeks ago, and, earlier this week, I was back there to see The Winter’s Tale. The Tempest will follow in a couple of weeks’ time.

(The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse are also putting on the late play Pericles, and perhaps I should have gone along to that too: but I refuse to believe that Shakespeare wrote more than a few scenes at most of that work; and, further, my bank balance was in a parlous state as it was…)

I find these plays fascinating, but maddeningly, sometimes frustratingly, elusive. Cymbeline has particularly puzzled me. When I first wrote about it in this blog, I presented it as a work in which Shakespeare was setting out in a new direction, but in which he had not quite found his feet; that he was experimenting, though not always successfully. When I read that post again before sitting down to write this, I found myself embarrassed by my presumption. That Shakespeare was moving into a new direction – a direction already foreshadowed, incidentally, by the earlier All’s Well That Ends Well – is undeniable, but the more I read that play, the more certain I am that the old boy knew precisely what he was doing.

The production I saw last month at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse seemed to confirm this: for all the play’s manifold absurdities – none of them, I think, unintentional – Cymbeline, in performance, came across as a cogent and highly satisfactory piece of theatre. As in All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare seemed fascinated by the plotlines and the conventions of the fairy tale: this was, in many ways, Shakespeare’s re-writing of the story of Snow White (variations of which, I gather, had been widespread long before the Brothers Grimm included it in their collection). To the fairy story element, Shakespeare added knockabout humour – an element that the production I saw played up to the hilt. Nonetheless, through all this, we seemed transported at points into what I can only describe as another dimension. I am not sure how this happened.

Cymbeline ends – as do, in their different ways, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest – in reconciliation and in joy: it seems as if Shakespeare, having depicted in his tragedies the darkest of visions, looked beyond the tragic in his late plays; but what he glimpsed when he looked beyond remains, though wondrous, enigmatic and elusive.

Of the three plays, I tend to find The Winter’s Tale the most approachable. By that I mean this this is the play I think I understand best. This is in no small measure due to the first half of the play returning us with the utmost force back into the world of his earlier tragedies. And yet, there is a difference. When thinking about the earlier tragedies, we must, if our thought is to be more than merely superficial, consider the source and the nature of the evil that is depicted as engulfing humanity; but in The Winter’s Tale, neither the source nor the nature is debatable: they just are – brute facts, beyond analysis, beyond discussion, beyond thought. The evil emerges from nowhere: Leontes is Iago to his own Othello. It wreaks havoc, destroying all in its path: never has Yeats’ famous line “the ceremony of innocence is drowned” seemed more appropriate. And, having destroyed all in its path, it disappears as mysteriously as it had appeared. There’s no point looking for reason here: it’s all beyond reason. And as the first half ends, and we emerges dazed into the interval, what we have witnessed seems to challenge us: after such evil, what reconciliation?

We can never tell whether or not Shakespeare knew Greek. There certainly were scholars of Greek in London – Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson, for a start – and it is not, I think, stretching credulity too far to imagine that Shakespeare, given his literary curiosity and his mastery of language, may well have taken the trouble of learning Greek, and reading its literature. We simply do not know. But, whether by design or by accident, this first half of The Winter’s Tale seems to me to be in many ways a recasting of Euripides’ Heracles: there, too, we see a man in the grips of an irrational madness, and who, beset by delusions, destroys that which is most precious to him – his own family; and, having done this, the sanity cruelly returns, so he has now to live not merely with his loss, but also with his guilt. At this point, Euripides’ play ends, but Shakespeare was determined to pursue the drama further: the end he has in sight seems to look towards another play by Euripides – Alcestis, which finishes, like The Winter’s Tale, with a dead queen brought back from the dead, and with subsequent reconciliation. The question is how to work one’s way to such an ending from the total devastation with which the first half finishes.

Shakespeare’s solution is a curious one, and one that I am not sure I quite understand: he negotiates the path back from tragedy to reconciliation through a pastoral, through song and dance, and through earthy, rustic comedy. Admittedly, the sudden outburst of rage from Polixenes threatens even here to turn the plot back towards the tragic, but that possibility is quickly averted. The knockabout humour continues even into the final act, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, Shakespeare rounds off the drama with a scene that is miraculous in all respects: Hermione is miraculously restored to life, and, for reasons which seem to defy analysis, the audience miraculously accepts this. I don’t think I have come across any other scene in any other plays that conveys such a sense of wonder.

I have seen quite a few productions of The Winter’s Tale now, both on stage and on screen, but I don’t think I have seen any that projects, as this production does, the horror of the first half with such unremitting power. As I sat there watching the scenes I thought I already knew, I could almost physically feel a knot in my stomach, tightening. The closing scenes of that first half were particularly affecting: the candles – the entire hall is lit only by candles – all went out, the physical darkness engulfing us an apt metaphor for the spiritual darkness; and Antigonus, charged with abandoning the newborn baby in the wilderness, entered with the helpless child, lit only by a hand-held lantern. Some commentators have suggested that the infamous “Exit, pursued by a bear” should be played for laughs, but this production, quite rightly, doesn’t go for that. Instead, a terrifying bear-like shape moves vaguely in the profound darkness behind Antigonus, and the lantern extinguishes, leaving the entire hall in utter darkness. And then, the audience, still in utter darkness, hears the eerie moans of Antigonus’ mariners perishing in the shipwreck. Nature itself seems to be taking its revenge, indiscriminately, on errant mankind. And I, for one, could not help asking myself: after this, what reconciliation can be possible?

I must admit that the long, pastoral fourth act, with its knockabout comedy, continues to puzzle me. It all works in the theatre, and for many, that is a justification in itself. Perhaps it is I who am at fault for trying to rationalize that which is beyond rational thought.

The joy engendered in the final scene always seems to me a subdued joy: it acknowledges rather than banishes the tragedy. Productions at the Globe Theatre – and in the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, its indoor venue – end, as the original productions seemingly did, with an elaborate dance in which the entire cast takes part, but, after the subdued nature of the final scene, I could have wished the dance here to have been less exuberant. Such exuberance as was conveyed seems not to fit with what had gone before: a solemn dance would, I think, have been more appropriate. But if that indeed was a false step, it was the only false step in the entire production. Everything else about it seemed perfect: John Light’s frightening portrayal of the mad Leontes; Rachel Stirling’s passionate Hermione; the compassionate Antigonus of David Yelland; the superbly feisty Paulina of Niamh Cusack (whom I had seen all of thirty years ago playing Juliet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre); the earthiness of the pastoral comedy; and, of course, the splendidly judged direction of Michael Longhurst. I do not think I’ll see a better production of this play. The power and intensity of the first half, especially, will henceforth remain, I suspect, firmly etched in my mind.

Two weeks later, I am back in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to see The Tempest, another late play that I find elusive. Having now seen the other two late plays of this late threesome, expectations are, I admit, very high.

A damp squib and a thing of wonder to start the New Year

I didn’t want to write about the new BBC dramatisation of War and Peace – really I didn’t: I wanted to start the New Year on a positive note.

That’s very prejudiced of me, isn’t it? But we all have our prejudices, and it’s perhaps better admitting to them than pretending that we come to everything with an entirely open mind. But I don’t know that my negativity on this score is completely a matter of prejudice: the dramatisations that have appeared on television in recent years of classic novels have not, after all, been such as to inspire much confidence. Not in me, at any rate.

One may justly say “So what?” I don’t need to watch if I don’t want to. And, as Bogart didn’t quite say, we’ll always have Penguin Classics. But it seems to me, nonetheless, a question worth posing: why is it that these classic novels, so crammed with dramatic potential, make for such poor television drama?

Of course, not everyone will agree that this is poor television drama: just browsing through Twitter, I see that reactions to it are, on the whole, quite favourable. So let’s rephrase the question slightly: why is it that these classic novels, so crammed with dramatic potential, make for what seems to me to be such poor television drama? Now, no-one can object to that, surely!

It’s not the acting: there really is no shortage of acting talent. Neither is it the cinematography or the set designs: just about everything on television these days looks superb, and far outstrips the BBC productions that I grew up with back in the 70s and 80s, with their cardboard sets, and their handful of actors doing their best to teem in the crowd scenes. I’m afraid it’s the script. The underlying assumption appears nowadays to be that any individual scene that lasts longer than a minute or so will bore the audience, weaned as they all are on pop videos and on computer games; and so, before any scene is given a chance to get going, we have to be whisked off elsewhere to stop us reaching fro our remote controls.

This approach to drama has many problems. For one, it becomes very difficult to characterise to anything beyond a superficial level; and when the characters are profound and complex, and the relations between them intricate (as they generally tend to be in novels of any quality), all the profundity and complexity and intricacy are ironed out, leaving only a skeleton outline of the plot. Now, I have myself written a part-by-part synopsis of War and Peace (I did this many years ago when I was leading a group read of the novel on a now defunct books board: I have put these synopses up here), but let’s not pretend that mere synopses of the plot can be in any way representative of the novel itself. All they can convey is a sequence of events: the various complexities of character and of situation that have given rise to these events; and the significance of these events; don’t even reach the surface. In short, the very features that make these novels such towering works of the human imagination go missing.

On top of this, it becomes impossible to control the pacing. In any well-paced drama, there are finely judged rises and falls in tension, giving the drama its shape. But when the pace of editing is more or less the same throughout, all that emerges is a mere shapeless sequence of events, each following the preceding with the same monotonous plod.

And, of course, there’s the assumption that the modern audience, being ever so much more sophisticated than the readership Tolstoy had written for, needs sex. And lots of it. Sex, rumpy-pumpy, screwing, shagging, bonking, how’s your father – whatever we modern sophisticates choose to call it. In the novel, Tolstoy hints, only in passing, of an incestuous affair between brother and sister Anatole and Hélène, but modern sophisticated minds such as ours can’t handle hints. So, while so much of vital importance in the novel was cut in this adaptation, room was made for a scene in which Anatole frolics in bed with his naked sister: for, of course, only when sex is presented explicitly can it get through our thick modern sophisticated skulls.

Well, let’s not labour the point: this latest adaptation is obviously not aimed for me, so what I may have to say about it is quite irrelevant. But it saddens me, nonetheless: it was, after all, the BBC dramatisation from 1972 that first aroused my enthusiasm for this novel. I was only twelve or so at the time, but I remember fondly saving up my pocket money in an old biscuit tin, and, once I had enough, triumphantly marching into a Glasgow bookshop and taking the Penguin Classics edition up to the sales desk. I read through the whole thing that summer: as with my first encounter with Shakespeare a few years earlier, when I had seen Timothy West play King Lear on stage at the Edinburgh Festival, my reading War and Peace in the summer of ’73 was one of the turning points that helped make me, for better or for worse, the person I now am.

The adaptation that had so inspired me was marvellous: true, the sets indeed look very cardboard these days, and the battle scenes, done on a 70s BBC budget, are less than spectacular; but Jack Pulman’s script really set standards for transferring a great novel to the screen. As for the acting – Morag Hood’s rather stylised performance as Natasha didn’t quite come off (possibly Natasha, as described by Tolstoy, is an impossible character to bring off convincingly in performance), but the rest of the cast, including a then relatively unknown Antony Hopkins as Pierre, was without exception superb.

Well, that’s enough nostalgia for one post. I always fear I’ll come across as some crabby old git who automatically damns anything modern in favour of what things used to be like back in my days … and, no doubt, such an image is not too far from the truth. But it’s not, I hope, the whole truth. After all, I have nothing but praise for an audio version of War and Peace that was broadcast on BBC radio only ten years ago (and yes, ten years ago counts as “modern” in my book!). And, lest it be thought that I am too curmudgeonly in starting a new year of blogging with a “why oh why?” piece, let me try to balance that a bit: for, only hours before the first part of the BBC War and Peace, I saw in the local cinema a broadcast of The Winter’s Tale that was simply a thing of wonder.

The production was by the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, and Branagh himself played Leontes. I had never actually seen Branagh play Shakespeare on stage before: his stage production of Twelfth Night was just wonderful, but he only directed that, and didn’t appear in it. There are the films he made, of course, but, whatever Branagh’s talents, film direction doesn’t appear to be amongst them. But no matter: the performance he gives here on stage is as remarkable as his direction (he co-directed with Rob Ashford). And the generally young cast is well supported by such experienced old hands as Judi Dench and Michael Pennington.

The play itself is a miracle. It is about love and jealousy, about irrational evil that breaks out for no apparent reason and destroys all in its path; it is about guilt and atonement, and forgiveness and renewal; it is about the cycles of life, about pain and grief, and about joy and hope; it is, indeed, about everything that is important in our human lives, all encompassed in its fairy tale form. And finally, it is about the Resurrection itself. A rational explanation is suggested towards the end to explain away the miracle, but we don’t believe it: as Chesterton’s Father Brown put it, it is easier to believe in the impossible rather than the improbable:

“I can believe in the impossible, but not the improbable … It’s what I call common sense, properly understood,’ replied Father Brown. ‘It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing–room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible.”

  • From the Incredulity of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton


Shakespeare knew this, of course: he knew everything He knew that we wouldn’t attach any credibility to that absurd story of Hermione living apart for all those years: far easier to believe that she was brought back like Alcestis from the grave. That final scene, which never fails to strike me with a sense of wonder, is Shakespeare’s vision of the Resurrection itself. But there is no triumph here: the joy is subdued, and sorrowful. In Shakespeare’s vision, the sorrows and griefs we experience in our earthly lives cannot all be wiped away: they continue to cast their shadows even in eternity, and the best we can hope for is a forgiveness and a sorrowful understanding that is, at least, a sort of joy. It is an ending that leaves me in tears every time I experience it, whether in the study, or in the theatre, or, as here, in the cinema.

And this would not have been possible in those good old days of my childhood that I look back on so fondly. Thanks to modern technology, the glories of our theatres – where standards seem to me as high as they have ever been – and of our opera houses can now be beamed worldwide to far greater numbers than previous generations could have dreamed possible.

So there – having said that, I think I can safely say that I am not a curmudgeonly old sod after all. Not completely, at any rate.

A Happy New Year to you all!

“1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear” by James Shapiro

Biographies of Shakespeare generally tend to be like Hamlet without the Prince: we know much about the historic times, the cultural and social background, the religious controversies and conflicts, and so on, but about the man himself, all we have to go on are a few scattered documents. We do not even know what Shakespeare thought: all he wrote in his plays are words spoken by characters in their respective characters, so the reader who thinks Shakespeare a nihilist on the basis of Macbeth’s despairing utterances is on grounds as shaky as the reader who imagines Shakespeare a believer in a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we will. Perhaps he speaks in his own voice in the sonnets – in some of them, at least – but even when we can be fairly sure that he is indeed speaking in his own voice, we find little more than a poet aware of his own genius, who knew that nor marble nor the gilded monuments will outlive his works.

However, this has not stopped writers and scholars trying to re-create the sort of life Shakespeare may have led. I am particularly fond of Anthony Burgess’ witty and characteristically exuberant biography, but there have been others. A few years ago, academic and writer James Shapiro, who teaches at Columbia University, made quite a splash with a book re-creating a single year of Shakespeare’s life – 1599. It was an eventful year all right: it was in this year that Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s men, moved into the Globe Theatre, and Shakespeare himself, after a few relatively fallow years (at least by his standards), burst into an astonishing period of creativity with Julius Caesar, Henry V, As You Like It and Hamlet. We tend nowadays to use the word “amazing” to signify something that is very good, but this really was, quite literally, “amazing”. Shapiro in this book brought together his prodigious knowledge and understanding of the times to give us a tremendously vivid account of the historical, cultural, political and social picture of the times, and conjectured intelligently on what a man of Shakespeare’s background and position may have been doing or thinking. Most interestingly, he considered how the times are reflected in the plays, and how contemporary audiences are likely to have seen them.  For there is no contradiction between these plays being “for all time”, and also for their own time: we may judge for ourselves what these plays mean to us now, but to discover what Shakespeare’s own audiences may have received these plays is fascinating in its own right.

WP_20151220_11_27_04_Pro (1)1599 was a runaway success: perhaps to everyone’s surprise, it became a bestseller. Shapiro certainly has a gift for presenting historic times in a most vivid manner, and of interpreting what documentary evidence we have to give an impression of what it might have been like to have lived in those times, in that place. Now, given the success of that first book, he has followed it up with 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear.  And once again we see the same virtues that had distinguished his earlier volume – that same ability to interpret what we know of history, of the culture of the times, to try to re-recreate what it might have been like to have lived there and then. , We cannot, of course, know with any precision what Shakespeare was thinking, or even what kind of person he was, but certain conjectures do seem reasonable: for instance, it tells us much about Shakespeare the man that, despite being acknowledged in his own time as the leading poet and dramatist of his age, and despite the documented fact that writing flattering verses for masques at the court would have earned him far more than merely writing plays, Shakespeare did not go in that direction. Even Ben Jonson did; but Will, it seems, was made of somewhat sterner stuff.

The years between 1599 and 1606 had hardly been “fallow years”: these years had seen the writing of Twelfth Night, Othello, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida, as well as the curious but intriguing Timon of Athens, which was probably written in collaboration and even more probably abandoned in an unfinished state. But, supreme masterpieces though at least four of these works undoubtedly were, Shakespeare had certainly slowed down: five plays – or four and a half plays, if we consider Timon of Athens to be unfinished – in five years is slow by Shakespeare’s standards; and, as Shapiro points out, Shakespeare’s dramatic output but stopped completely after the accession to the throne of King James. But then, in 1606, in the course of a single year, came King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra. All in one year. Even when one knows this to be a fact, one can but shake one’s head in disbelief.

The political environment was now much changed. James wanted to be seen as the founder of a new dynasty, reconciling previous discords in an era of peace and stability: he liked, indeed, to be seen as Octavius Caesar. His deepest desire seemed to have been to unite England and Scotland, much to the opposition, it seems, of both the English parliament and of the Scottish ruling classes. It is not unreasonable to assume that this debate resonates strongly in King Lear, in which division of kingdom brings about a cataclysm, although it is still very much open to conjecture whether Edgar’s “I smell the blood of a British man” was intended as a celebration of the proposed union, or knowingly played for laughs.

The major event that overshadowed these times was the Gunpowder Plot, discovered and foiled in November of the year before. Now that we have relegated the whole thing to a jolly annual celebration, it’s perhaps difficult for us to imagine just how traumatic an event this must have been: the appalling St Bartholomew’s Day’s massacre just across the channel, and the attempted invasion of the Spanish Armada, were very much within within living memory, and the fear of a Catholic uprising, and of the death and devastation it would bring in its wake, were all too real. Had the Plot not been discovered, thousands would have been killed, including the King and the entire Parliament: it was an attempted act of terrorism on the largest imaginable scale. Shapiro describes in vivid and exciting detail the discovery of the plot, of the various manhunts in the immediate aftermath to track down the perpetrators (why has this not been filmed, I wonder?) – one of these manhunts taking place in Shakespeare’s own Warwickshire, and involving people whom Shakespeare must personally have known – and of the fears that lingered of the promised end, or an image of that horror.

English Catholics, not surprisingly, found themselves particularly vulnerable, and in danger. In the summer of 1606, two English Jesuits, Robert Southwell and Henry Garnet (both since canonised), were hung, drawn and quartered: they were the co-authors of what was soon to become a notorious treatise – on the subject of “equivocation”. The theme of “equivocation”, a word that had previously meant merely “ambiguity”, soon took on a whole range of meanings, for the treatise was, in effect, a justification of, and instructions for, lying under oath. At a time when the fate of one’s soul was a matter, both for Protestants and for Catholics, of vital importance, this treatise explained how to say one thing while meaning another, so that, strictly speaking, one isn’t lying at all; it explained how to give a false impression while keeping one’s soul free of perjury; it even went as far as to claim that it is permissible to speak an untruth under oath as long as the truth is clear in one’s heart, because God, who can see into the human heart, cannot be deceived. As was quite rightly perceived, this treatise threatened to bring down the institution of law itself.

Equivocation in all its guises is a major theme in Macbeth. Once again, it seems not unreasonable to conjecture that the topicality of that word chimed with themes that had long been maturing in Shakespeare’s mind. In this play, perhaps above all others, Shakespeare seems fascinated by the contradictory directions in which the same mind can be pulled at the same time: thus, Macbeth both desires to kill and desires not to kill with equal intensity; Lady Macbeth’s desire for murder is matched by her own inability to commit it. From the very first scene, we have equivocation: fair is foul, and foul is fair; and as soon as Macbeth enters, he remarks “So fair and foul a day I have not seen”. The witches equivocate with both Macbeth and with Banquo, the Macbeths equivocate with Duncan, Malcolm later equivocates with Macduff: everywhere one looks in the play, there is equivocation. And the theme appears transformed into a grimly comic tonality with the Porter, pretending to himself that he is porter of the gates of Hell itself, without realising how close to the truth he is:

Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven: O, come in, equivocator.

I hadn’t realised till Shapiro points it out that these lines themselves are equivocal. They seem at first glance to be mocking the equivocating Southwell and Garnet, but the treason they have committed was for God’s sake – i.e. not for their own; and neither could they equivocate to heaven because Heaven knows what’s in their hearts. Strange that I have been reading these lines for over 40 years without seeing this.

In late July 1606, “in the midst of a thrilling theatrical season that included what may well be the finest group of new plays ever staged”, a virulent outbreak of plague forced the theatres to close. Shapiro tells us there is very little historic documentation to tell us what it must have been like to live within the plague-stricken city, although I suspect it might not have been very different from Daniel Defoe’s painstaking journalistic reconstruction of the Great Plague of 1665 in A Journal of the Plague Year. Shapiro comments that there is perhaps no better description of the horrors of the “terror and malaise that plague carried with it” than these four lines from Macbeth:

… The dead man’s knell
Is there scarce asked for who, and good men’s lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.

– from IV, iii

Perhaps it is impossible for us to feel the horror that Shakespeare’s contemporary audience, who lived with plague as a daily presence (there were plague deaths even when there weren’t major outbreaks), would have felt when Lear describes Goneril as “a plague sore, and embossed curbuncle in my / Corrupted blood”; or when a soldier in Antony and Cleopatra speaks of a hopeless situation in battle, and declares it be “like the tokened pestilence, / Where death is sure”. These works may indeed be for all time, but there were resonances also in its time and for its time that are now at best diminished, but which should, nonetheless, be acknowledged. Shapiro, as ever, is unerring in the light he throws upon them.

Much though I enjoyed reading this book, there are a few points where I must register a protest. In a section comparing an older anonymous play about Lear with Shakespeare’s version, Shapiro says:

The anonymous author of Leir had been content to build to a somewhat wooden reconciliation scene between father and daughter, one that failed to pack much emotional punch. Shakespeare’ Lear would substitute for that not one but two powerful recognition scenes: the first between Lear and Cordelia, the second, soon after, where the two plots converge, between the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester. It’s debatable which of the two is the most heartbreaking scene in the play.

 – From Chapter 3

I agree fully with the last sentence above, but the scene between the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester comes before, not after, Lear’s recognition scene with Cordelia.

Later, in an otherwise fascinating passage describing how, in Macbeth, even good people are forced to equivocate, Shapiro, after describing the scene in which Macduff receives the news of the slaughter of his wife and children, continues:

In the long and unsettling scene that follows, yet another seemingly virtuous character, Malcolm, swears and lies to Macduff, telling him that his rapacious and violent nature renders him unfit to rule in Scotland…

  • From Chapter 10

Actually, Malcolm’s equivocation with Macduff precedes rather than follows the news of Macduff’s slaughtered family.

And from Chapter 13:

The wild drinking scenes aboard ship in Antony and Cleopatra in which Pompey has to be carried off dead drunk…

It is Lepidus, not Pompey, who is carried off dead drunk.

Now, I am sure that James Shapiro knows these plays backwards, and, strange though it seems, these are errors of carelessness, or of poor editing, or both. But however these errors got in, they are terrible howlers, and makes me wonder what other errors have crept in that I am not sufficiently competent to identify. If anyone from Faber & Faber is reading this, may I suggest that every effort be made to correct these (and possibly other) errors, as they are terrible disfiguring blots on what is otherwise a quite superb read.

“Chaos is come again”: “Othello” at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon

The following is a not really a review – I don’t really do reviews, as such! – it’s more an attempt to make sense of various thoughts that struck me on seeing The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Shakespeare’s Othello from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, directed by Iqbal Khan. I saw it as a live cinema broadcast on August 26th, 2015.

Not being a very frequent theatre-goer, I cannot claim to be in any way an authority on interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays in performance, and of how these interpretations have changed over time, but I do get the distinct impression that depictions both of Othello the play, and of Othello the character, have changed quite significantly: they have both become much harsher than they used to be. Not that interpretations used to be all sweetness and light: that is hardly possible in a play in which the titular character ends up murdering his innocent and helpless wife onstage; but actors and directors are, it seems to me, less inclined nowadays to portray Othello as an essentially noble figure. Some forty or fifty years ago, judging by the audio recordings that still survive from that era, and remembering also what I can of a wonderful performance I had attended in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre back in 1979 (with Donald Sinden a quite magnificent Othello), performances emphasised a certain nobility, a certain majesty, in Othello’s character: indeed, it was because he was so grand and so noble a figure that his transformation into a murderous beast seemed so particularly horrible. Actors found in his lines a solemnity and grandeur that, even at the height of his homicidal rage, seemed to foreshadow the sublimity and magnificence of Milton:

Never, Iago: Like to the Pontic sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne’er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont,
Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
Shall ne’er look back, ne’er ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up.

But more recent Othellos tend to eschew this kind of approach: instead of the sonorous grandeur that actors of a previous generation had found, modern Othellos tend to break these lines up into shorter units, preferring staccato rhythms to long legato lines. The effect is to diminish, or even to deny altogether, the sense of nobility in the character. I suppose this reflects in part a modern sensibility that is sceptical of the very idea of nobility or of sweetness: actors do not generally depict Hamlet as a “sweet prince” either these days. But I wonder to what extent this harsher, and, some would say, less sentimental view of Othello – both of character and of play – is informed by the well-known 1952 essay by F. R. Leavis, “Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero” (included in this collection), in which it is argued with considerable vigour that Othello, far from being the noble and dignified protagonist that A. C. Bradley had described in his famous study, is actually a most ignoble and, indeed, shallow personage, vain and self-dramatising, unworthy of Desdemona, and unable, given his shortness of vision and triviality of mind, even to come close to appreciating her worth.

Bradley is very much Leavis’ target in this essay, and in every way, Leavis seems Bradley’s opposite: where Bradley is gentlemanly and charming, Leavis is abrasive, relishing a trenchant and quite wicked vituperative wit. And where Bradley tries to find the best he can in the characters, Leavis only sees characters who are morally short-sighted, blinkered, self-serving, and most ignoble.

There are two main points in which Leavis takes issue with Bradley: firstly, he rubbishes Bradley’s contention that it is really Iago who is at the centre of the play; and secondly, he rips to shreds – with some gusto – the idea that Othello possesses even the slightest hint of nobility or of dignity. On the first point, I agree with Leavis whole-heartedly: Iago certainly has more lines than Othello, but this hollow, pathetic shell of a man, lacking as he does anything of Macbeth’s pained consciousness of the damnation of his soul – lacking consciousness even of the existence of a soul that may be damned – simply does not have enough substance to hold the centre of so immense a tragic work. But Leavis’ second point – that Othello is similarly hollow – I find more troubling. If the drama is essentially that of an empty eggshell cracked open revealed its emptiness, then why does it grip so powerfully? Why is it that by the end of a reading, or of a good performance, we feel that we have glimpsed into the very depths of the human soul?

Leavis certainly does not see the play in such grand terms: at the end of his essay, he writes:

It is a marvellously sure and adroit piece of workmanship; though closely related to that judgement is the further one that, with all its brilliance and poignancy, it comes below Shakespeare’s supreme – his very greatest – works.

I couldn’t help feeling when I first read this essay that, given Leavis’ view of the character of Othello, his judgement on the play could not be otherwise – that the mere cracking open of an empty shell to display the emptiness is not and cannot be the stuff of supreme masterpieces. But since it does seem to me self-evidently a supreme masterpiece, it must surely follow that there are flaws in Leavis’ arguments. However, what is remarkable is that even when Othello is played as Leavis had seen him (Antony Hopkins’ interpretation in the 1981 BBC production strikes me as very Leavisite in conception), the drama retains still its extraordinary power. In other words, Leavis’ conclusion is not inevitable, even if we were to accept his arguments: Othello himself can be hollow and empty, lacking in nobility or in majesty, but the tragic power of the drama, even from this Leavisite perspective, somehow remains undiminished. And it is worth investigating where this tragic power lies: if it is not in the depiction of the great fall of a great man – since Othello is not great here to begin with – where is it?

My own view of the play – an interpretation that for many years has satisfied me, and which continues, despite Leavis, to satisfy – I tried to describe here, and there’s little point my repeating it; however, Leavis’ view is certainly worth considering, not merely because he was among the most perceptive of literary critics both of his or of any other generation, but also because his interpretation is coherent, and entirely consistent with Shakespeare’s text. But it does leave us with an enigma: a drama that, on the surface, should really be quite trivial – the exposure of a hollow man as but a hollow man – turns out to be gut-wrenchingly intense. How can this be?

This latest RSC production is Leavisite in many ways. Othello, played by Hugh Quarshie, is allowed little of the nobility and majesty that I remember from Donald Sinden’s performance of the late 70s, or is apparent in the thrilling performance by Richard Johnson in an audio recording from the 60s. This lack of nobility is clearly a conscious decision, since Quarshie, given his stage presence and charisma, his superb verse-speaking, and, not least, his imposing and sonorous voice, is certainly more than capable of depicting nobility had he so wanted. But this Othello is far from noble: we see him happy to oversee torture of prisoners as a routine part of his job; and, right from the start, he seems to express little sense of wonder that Desdemona had chosen him: he takes it all in his stride, as if all this were no more than his due. He is a supremely confident man, well aware that he can flout the authority even of a Venetian senator with impunity, and unsurprised that so valuable a prize as Desdemona – for prize is how he seems to consider her – could fall to him.

“Prize” is also the word Iago uses to describe Desdemona:

Faith, he to-night hath boarded a land carack:
If it prove lawful prize, he’s made for ever.

And in the next act, even as Othello expresses his love for Desdemona, he does so very disconcertingly in terms borrowed from the world of commerce, as if his union with Desdemona were no more than a financial contract:

Come, my dear love,
The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue;
That profit’s yet to come ‘tween me and you.

All this is in Shakespeare’s text: seeing Othello in such Leavisite terms is a valid interpretation of the text, and not an imposition. And, somewhat unexpectedly and very disconcertingly, it seems to point to certain parallels between Othello and Iago. These parallels are reinforced in this production, as Iago here is also played by a black actor – Lucian Msamati. This casting removes – to a certain extent, at least – racism from Iago’s motivation, but what it substitutes in its place is most disturbing: for if it is true that Iago manages to bring down Othello to his own bestial level, the journey Othello makes is not a very long one; the implication seems inescapable that Othello, even from the start, is no stranger to Iago’s mindset.

Not that they are identical, of course: the differences are as important as the similarities. But the similarities are worthy of notice, for only when we are aware of these similarities do we realise the significance of the differences. Both Othello and Iago are aware, I think, that they are missing something in their lives – something vitally important. Iago, in a deeply significant aside, says of Cassio:

He hath a daily beauty in his life
That makes me ugly

And Othello, in parallel, knows that were he not to love Desdemona, his very soul would be lost, and his entire world collapse into chaos:

Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul,
But I do love thee! and when I love thee not,
Chaos is come again.

The use of the word “again” seems to imply that Othello is no stranger to “chaos”: for all his seeming confidence in the affairs of men, in other matters, he knows how precariously balanced his soul is between redemption and perdition.

But there, where I have garner’d up my heart,
Where either I must live, or bear no life;
The fountain from the which my current runs,
Or else dries up…

And here, I think, we see a very significant difference between the two – a difference that Leavis does not comment upon: where Iago wishes to destroy that quality which he knows he lacks – that “daily beauty” – Othello craves it, for he sees it as a path towards redemption. And this, I think, is what gives the play its gut-wrenching tragic power: even if Othello were to be everything Leavis claims he is, he seeks redemption: Iago doesn’t. Iago, working by “wit and not by witchcraft”, cannot bring himself even to believe in such a thing.

If I am on the right track on this, the tragedy lies not in Othello’s fall from a great height, but in his failure to reach that height in the first place. That height may be but vaguely glimpsed, but Othello, unlike Iago, is capable of glimpsing it, however vaguely, and the entire play seems suffused with a terror of that chaos that lies just under the surface of our lives – a chaos that prevents us from attaining those vaguely glimpsed heights, and which instead hurls our very souls from heaven.

Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Lucian Msamati as Iago in “Othello”. Image courtesy Royal Shakespeare Company Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Lucian Msamati as Iago in “Othello”. Image courtesy Royal Shakespeare Company

This latest RSC production certainly captures that sense of terror. Othello as a play is curiously paced: the tempo seems quite slow for the first half, and, given that the play is most famous for its depiction of jealousy, Othello doesn’t even start to be jealous till after the half-way mark. But once it starts to grip – somewhere in the middle of Act 3, as Iago starts applying his poison – it doesn’t let go: even the “Willow song” scene, as Emilia prepares Desdemona for bed (IV,iii), where Shakespeare gives us something of a calm before the final storm, the air is thick with menace and with forebodings of impending doom. Perhaps no other play by Shakespeare, not even King Lear, leaves us quite so emotionally drained as does this.

It is Iago rather than Othello who commands centre stage for most of that first half, and Lucian Msamati gives a quite extraordinary performance here of a man who is, psychologically, deeply damaged. Some actors present Iago as a sort of likable villain, but Msamati’s Iago is, from the beginning, a dangerous sociopath. There is a powerful scene in the fourth act in which Desdemona, in her innocence and naivety, turns to Iago for help; and in this production, she kisses Iago in gratitude for what she thinks is his good advice. The sheer sense of physical revulsion with which Iago reacts to this kiss is startling. This is a man who finds the whole of humanity disgusting – he is obsessively cleaning up after everyone, as if the very physical presence of others is to him an abomination.

In the text, we clearly see Iago making up his plot as he is going along, and I have long thought that Iago engineers the destruction of Othello and of Desdemona only because, having underestimated the violence of Othello’s reaction, he is forced into doing so; but here, Iago wills the destruction from the start: it is merely the mechanism of his plot rather than its end that he has to improvise. Far from being a likable villain, this is an Iago whose very presence makes one’s skin crawl.

Quarshie’s Othello, as we first see him, is a man who is, seemingly, supremely confident. But Iago understands his weakness. He may not understand what Othello is aspiring towards, or why, but he is as aware as Othello is of the chaos that lies just below the surface, and he is aware of it because, in this, Othello resembles himself. And Othello’s surface cracks very quickly indeed. When Othello exits some half way through III,iii – the great scene in which Iago starts to apply his poison – he is perturbed, yes, but still in control of himself; but when he re-appears later in the scene, he is a raging maniac. This bipolar nature is, admittedly, written into the text itself, but I don’t think I’ve seen any actor emphasise this to the extent that Quarshie does.

Desdemona is one of Shakespeare’s most thankless roles. I think Shakespeare did depict a real flesh-and-blood woman rather than merely a symbol, but there seems little for the actress to do other than display vulnerability and bewilderment. By the end, of course, she proves herself saintly, as she miraculously forgives Othello seemingly from beyond death itself, but on the path to that ending there seems little scope for the actor playing Desdemona to make her mark. Joanna Vanderham does a fine job – at times going so far as to display resentment – but in terms of stage presence, Othello and Iago are too powerful to be easily removed from the centre. The “Willow song” scene – that calm before the storm that is nonetheless saturated with such deep foreboding – is particularly effective, with Ayesha Dharker a most effective Emilia.

Not that the production is beyond criticism. I regretted in particular the excision of Iago’s improvised cynical rhymes in II,i: presumably they were removed because they show Iago as too sociable a figure, but it would have been interesting to see how they might have fitted with Lucian Msamati’s interpretation. But the biggest misjudgement came, I think, in the later scene in which Cassio becomes drunk while on guard duty. Here. Iago’s song is replaced with a sort of karaoke scene, in which the soldiers improvise rhymes to each other. While most productions can get away with a bit of judicious cutting, it is never advisable to add lines to Shakespeare’s text, as the added lines are bound to suffer in comparison with what is around it. This is especially the case when the added lines are merely trivial doggerel, as they are here. Further, these lines indicate racial tensions amongst the soldiers, and there seems little point introducing such a theme in a play that gives no scope to develop it. The audience is simply left wondering what purpose this scene serves.

When, shortly afterwards, we see Othello supervising the torture of a prisoner, hooded and terrified, that seemed to me at first also to be a misjudgement – a fashionable reference to current world events that does little to advance the drama. But I was mistaken in this: this torture scene does actually fit into the overall concept of this production: such torture does take place in military bases, after all, and, since this Othello is not the majestic and noble figure that Bradley had envisaged, it is not amiss to see something of the brutal world with which he is so familiar. And in any case, torture is central to the play: Iago tortures Othello; Othello, in turn, tortures Desdemona (and, one may argue, himself); and at the end, once Iago’s villainies are exposed, Iago is threatened with actual physical torture. When Othello re-emerges in III,iii, raving like a maniac, he ties Iago to a chair that had previously been used for torture, and threatens to torture Iago physically even as Iago continues to torture him mentally: it is a scene of powerful theatricality. The only point that I’d take issue with is the appearance of Desdemona on stage even as the torture victim is still present. Now, given the conventions of the theatre, it is entirely possible for two people to be on stage together, and yet be in different places, so it is not necessarily the case that Desdemona sees the torture victim, or even that she is aware of the torture; but having them both on stage at the same time does inevitably implicate Desdemona in the torture, and that is surely a mistake.

So it’s not a flawless production by any means; but once it starts to exert its grip, it doesn’t falter. It demonstrates once again that a Leavisite view of Othello does not diminish the tragic greatness of the drama, but merely shifts its focus: the awe and the terror we experience are not occasioned by the fall of a Great Man, but springs, rather, from an awareness of the horror and of the chaos that lie immediately below the seemingly civilised surfaces of our human lives. However we view Othello, however we view its central character (who is most certainly Othello himself, and not Iago, as some still continue to insist), there is no other drama, except perhaps Sophocles’ Oedipus, that is quite so gut-wrenching in its effect.

“No sighs but of my breathing; no tears but of my shedding”: The Merchant of Venice at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 2015

Since the issue is going to come up sooner or later, let us cut straight to the chase: I do not think The Merchant of Venice is an anti-Semitic play, although, admittedly, the basic outline of the story is: a story about righteous Christians outwitting an evil murderous Jew could hardly be otherwise. But, just as Mozart and da Ponte took for Cosi Fan Tutte a story that was in its outlines misogynistic and transformed it into something that transcends the crudeness of its source material, so Shakespeare, I think, did something similar here. In the first place, the Christians in his play are far from righteous: they are, Antonio excepted, mercenary – every bit as covetous as they accuse the Jew Shylock of being; they are thieves, or, knowing about and condoning as they do Lorenzo’s and Jessica’s theft, accessories to theft; they are filled with hatred for a fellow human being for no better reason that that he is Jewish, and there is no doubting that Shakespeare knew the human cost of this. Indeed, it is this human cost, most obviously for the tormented, but also, I think, for the tormentors, that seems to me to be at the centre of this drama that presents us with a picture of humans all very badly in need of the Quality of Mercy.

As for Shylock, he is much more in this play than merely an “evil Jew”: we would hardly get major Shakespearean actors queuing up to play this role had he been no more than a conventional villain. What he attempts to do in the latter part of the play certainly is evil – there can be no doubt about that – but Shakespeare goes much, much further here than is warranted by Shylock’s nominal role as the comic villain: Shakespeare depicts here a man who is, step by step, layer by layer, stripped of everything he possesses – his wealth, his profession, even his faith; he loses his own daughter, who prefers to side with her father’s tormentors rather than with her tormented father; and, by the end, he loses completely his own humanity. As Howard Jacobson says in a typically trenchant piece of writing in the programme notes, no character in Shakespeare is so stripped of everything as Shylock is: even Malvolio departs with a threat of revenge on the whole pack of his tormentors; even Lear is granted a possibly redeeming vision; even Macbeth is allowed a final show of defiance; but Shylock is left with absolutely nothing. His tormentors push him close to the edge of the abyss, but – and here is the terrible irony, too terrible almost to be contemplated – that last step into the abyss, Shylock takes himself. In reacting to the stripping of his humanity, he strips away himself the last vestige of it. By the end of Act Four, Shylock has become an irrelevance: even his exit seems inconsequential:

PORTIA: Art thou contented, Jew? what dost thou say?
SHYLOCK: I am content.
PORTIA: Clerk, draw a deed of gift.
SHYLOCK: I pray you, give me leave to go from hence;
I am not well: send the deed after me,
And I will sign it. (IV, i)

Shakespeare could quite easily have given Shylock a few lines that lay bare the anguish of his soul: this is Shakespeare, after all: he could write anything he wanted. But he didn’t. What he gave us instead is utterly prosaic. Olivier famously howled off-stage like a stricken animal after his departure, but, magnificent though that was, and chilling even when I see it at home on DVD, there is no indication of it in the text: it’s almost as if Shakespeare had gone out of his way to make Shylock’s departure from the action of the play as low-key as possible. Shylock leaves the action, and the play can carry on without him: he no longer matters.

Makram Khoury as Shylock

Makram Khoury as Shylock

The problem I have found both when reading it, and also in the various productions I have seen, is that the strand of the story involving Shylock is so overwhelming in its power that is overshadows the other strand involving the three caskets, and Bassanio’s wooing and marrying of Portia. This latest Royal Shakespeare Company production, directed by Polly Findlay, neatly sidesteps this problem. The cost, some may say, is too heavy, as Shylock inevitably loses some of his immense tragic grandeur (one really has to go to the Olivier performance to get the full measure of that); but the gains are, I think, considerable: for the first time in my experience, the other strand of the story commands full interest, rather than appearing, as it so often does, as a tiresome adjunct to a magnificent and terrible tragedy. Care is taken also to bring Antonio – superbly played here by Jamie Ballard – to the forefront: he is, after all, the Merchant of Venice (although both Bassanio and Shylock can also be seen as the merchant of the title), and it is he who holds together the two strands of the play, borrowing of Shylock to provide Bassanio with the means of wooing Portia. But all too often in productions, Antonio fades into the background, overshadowed by Shylock in terms of dramatic stature. Not here. The production opens and closes with Antonio alone on stage, and his famous opening line – “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad” – is delivered as if in anguish. And soon, the cause of the anguish becomes apparent: Antonio is losing his young lover, Bassanio, and, while acknowledging that this is only to be expected, he finds this loss hard to bear. Some, I know, will object to this interpretation, but I think the text can support it, insofar as no modification is required to accommodate it; and it does, I think, give Antonio a dramatic presence that, in other interpretations, he all too often lacks.

Indeed, Antonio’s love for Bassanio seems to be one of only two in the whole play that is untouched by considerations of money (the other being Shylock’s love for his dead wife). Bassanio tells Antonio quite openly that he seeks to woo Portia because he has squandered his own estate, and is in need of funds: has ever a romantic adventure started with so unromantic a cause? It is not merely Bassanio’s motive that shocks, but his insouciance: it does not even occur to him that this is an ignoble motive, so accustomed is he to living in a society in which everything has a price and nothing any real value. When Shylock refers to Antonio being a “good man”, he means it only in the sense that he is financially sound. Even the seeming nobility of the Venetian courts in refusing under any circumstances to by-pass its laws has, at bottom, a sound financial reason:

The duke cannot deny the course of law:
For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of his state;
Since that the trade and profit of the city
Consisteth of all nations. (III, iii)

Money taints everything here. Lorenzo, for instance, speaks his line “Beshrew me but I love her heartily” only when transported by delight on seeing what Jessica has stolen for him from her father. In the famous trial scene, Bassanio throws across the floor of the court the money he has brought with him to pay Shylock off, so the entire climactic scene takes place with the characters literally wading through filthy lucre. The set itself – abstract, with a vast polished metallic floor and wall –suggests a world in which money rules absolutely, and covetousness is universal: in this world, Shylock becomes a convenient hate-figure on whose head the others can transfer their own guilt.

The one exception to this general covetousness is Antonio, and this makes him a far more sympathetic figure than is usual. He is still hateful in his racism, though: that is not underplayed. In this production, he spits on Shylock’s face – a moment that draws shocked gasps from the audience –and once again, this is consistent with the text: Shylock, in his first confrontation with Antonio, reminds him that he had spat on him, and had kicked him, and Antonio, far from denying any of this, replies that he is likely to do so again. And Shylock bears it all, as he puts it, with a patient shrug, “for sufferance is the badge of all our tribe”. Makram Khoury, the Israeli-Palestinian actor playing Shylock in this production, has an immensely dignified stage presence, and this, somehow, makes the spitting and the abuse that he bears with “a patient shrug” seem all the more horrible.

Marvellous though Makram Khoury is, his performance, in keeping with the tenor of the production, is underplayed. Very expertly underplayed, it must be said, but underplayed. His final exit from the court scene is as low-key as Shakespeare had written it: having lost utterly everything, there is nothing further left in him – no grandeur of a tragic downfall, no defiance, not even an expression of hurt. Normally, at the final bow, the actor playing Shylock, despite having appeared in only five scenes, comes on after all the rest of the cast to take his applause, but here Makram Khoury appears with everyone else – a member of an ensemble rather than a star performer – and this seems appropriate for a production that presents this play very much as an ensemble piece rather than as a star vehicle.

The court scene is, of course, a huge climactic set-piece, and one could not underplay this even if one wanted to. The strewing of the cash across the floor is a marvellous moment, and particularly striking is Antonio’s sheer terror on facing what he thought was certain and immediate death: his repeated whimpering, which did not stop even after his reprieve, is not something I’m likely to forget in a hurry. And Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech, which can all too easily become a set-piece almost divorced from the rest of the action, is delivered with a particular immediacy and passion by Patsy Ferran: when she reminds us that mercy is an attribute of God himself, it is hard not to wonder whether even these unregenerate characters crowding the stage, Jew or Christian, could perhaps someday be redeemed by divine mercy. But this possibility, visible for but a moment like some distant vision, soon dissipates: the Jew refuses to show mercy, thus taking himself the final step in the stripping of his humanity; and the Christians, having won the day, exult in their most unrighteous triumph.

Despite the high drama of this fourth act, there is little danger here of anti-climax that all too often hampers the fifth. The fifth act here is also full of drama, the seeds of this drama having been cunningly laid in the great court scene, where Portia could see for herself the true nature of the relationship between Antonio and her newly-married husband. And when, in the course of that court scene, Bassanio says to Antonio:

But life itself, my wife, and all the world,
Are not with me esteem’d above thy life.

it is well noted. After this, Portia asking Bassanio for the ring is no joke: it is a test – a test that Bassanio (significantly at Antonio’s urging) very conspicuously fails. Shylock would not have exchanged “for a wilderness of monkeys” the ring he had received from his wife when he had been a bachelor: Bassanio, however, at the urging of his former lover, does, and this lays the foundation for the drama in the final act: the business with the rings is no joke here – it is deadly serious. Portia eventually relents, and forgives Bassanio: perhaps she has not forgotten her earlier speech on “mercy”. But the ending is more open-ended here than usual: the marriage promises to be rocky.


In the last Shakespeare production I saw, I lamented the cuts that seemed to me the take the very heart out of the play. There were some cuts here too, but only two that I’d take issue with. Shylock’s “I hate him for he is a Christian” is cut simply to “I hate him”. Presumably this was done to prevent the audience siding against Shylock from the start, but it really was unnecessary: we see soon enough why Shylock has good reason to hate the Christians in this play. Hatred but breeds hatred, after all. O tell me where is hatred bred, in the heart or in the head?

Also cut is Portia’s line expressing relief that the prince of Morocco had chosen the wrong casket – “Let all of his complexion choose me so”. Presumably, this is cut to prevent the audience from disliking Portia, but this line too, I think, is important: Portia is no Desdemona, after all, and maybe she too is in need of the divine mercy that she later invokes. As for the other cuts, I can but approve: the various clownings of Lancelot Gobbo are among the weakest scenes Shakespeare ever wrote – it’s almost as if he had lost interest in the comedy – and I doubt that even the finest of comic actors could make too much out of them. The distasteful scene where Gobbo “jokes” with Jessica that her conversion from Judaism will raise the price of pork has, however, been rightly retained.


Every time I come out of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre after a performance, I feel I have been brought a little closer to an understanding of what we, as humans, are. This production presents characters living their lives of anger, of hatred, of betrayal, of greed and cupidity, but also, just occasionally, of real love: Antonio continues to love Bassanio, and Shylock continues to love his wife, who is dead. And through all this meanness and pettiness, of unmotivated hatred and murderous rage, what emerges is a group of people all desperately in need of divine mercy, of redemption. This production achieves a unity that I don’t think I have seen before in this play, and it does so by underplaying Shylock’s tragic stature: possibly that is a price worth paying. But underplayed though Shylock is, as we drove back home afterwards down the motorway, it was that infinitely sad line of Shylock’s that kept going around my head:

No sighs but of my breathing; no tears but of my shedding.

What an extraordinary play this is!

Lear eviscerated: Jonathan Miller’s latest production of “King Lear”

Although it’s often quoted as if it were a profound piece of wisdom, I have never really understood what Wilde meant by the line “Each man kills the thing he loves”. I suspect that, as with most other Wildean epigrams, he was more concerned with sound than with sense. But I couldn’t help thinking of that line on seeing the Northern Broadsides touring production of King Lear, featuring Barrie Rutter in the title role, and directed – for the eighth time, I believe – by Jonathan Miller.

This is a production I very much wanted to like. Regional theatre companies are amongst the most important aspect of our artistic life here in Britain, and the standard of Shakespearean production in this country – despite some ill-considered sniping to the contrary – remains very high. Putting on such a colossal masterpiece such as King Lear is precisely what a company such as Northern Broadsides should be doing. And there can be no doubt that Jonathan Miller loves this play: he would hardly have directed it eight times if he didn’t. In the programme notes of this production, he is quoted as saying that this is the play he “knows best”. His production of King Lear for the BBC Shakespeare series in the early 80s struck me as, in many ways, quite outstanding: it would certainly be my top recommendation for anyone wanting a performance of this play for home viewing. And yet, this latest production, which is likely, given Jonathan Miller is now 80, to be his last of the work, never springs to life. I do not think this is a fault of the cast, who were hardly given the opportunity to make the most of their parts: no – it is Jonathan Miller himself who, for reasons I cannot fathom, appears to have killed the thing he so obviously loves.

Of course, Jonathan Miller has long held views on this play that may be described as idiosyncratic. Perhaps uniquely amongst major theatre directors, he does not see King Lear as an epic play; he does not see Lear himself as a towering figure, larger than life; he does not see the drama as a work of cosmic significance: the characters in this play, he insists, are contending not against cosmic forces, but against each other. This is not, I admit, my own view of the work, but I am always happy to have my views challenged, especially by someone who has thought as long and hard about the work as Miller has obviously done. But he has a strange way of making his point: to demonstrate that the play is not epic or cosmic, he simply removes from it all passages that suggest the epic or the cosmic. If, say, a pianist is convinced that Beethoven’s piano sonatas contain no slow music, and tries to demonstrate this by omitting all the slow movements in performance, I doubt anyone would be taking that pianist too seriously; yet, I do not see that Miller’s approach is any different.

It is not that I insist on a full presentation of the text. In the first place, what is generally regarded as a “full text” is really a conflation of two quite separate texts; and, in general, most Shakespeare plays can, in performance, take a bit of judicious cutting. But here, the text wasn’t so much cut as eviscerated. In scene after scene, some of the most affecting, extraordinary, and – dare I say it – epic and cosmic of passages were simply cut away.  Of course, in saying this I realise I lay myself open to the charge of being a mere Shakespearean tourist, as it were, wanting merely to savour the famous highlights, like those who step off the tour bus for a few minutes to take a snap of the Eiffel Tower before being whisked on to the next famous landmark. But I plead “not guilty” to that. The cuts imposed by Miller were so ruinous that they seemed to take the very heart out of the play. I understood how Miller doesn’t see the play, I got no sense of how he does.

For instance, I can understand – though not necessarily agree with – the excision of the passage depicting the mock-trial in III,vi: if the Folio text is regarded as Shakespeare’s own revision of the earlier Quarto text, Shakespeare made the cut himself. But if the reason for this excision is textual, it is hard to account for the excision of the lines Shakespeare had added in the Folio text: Lear’s last line, for instance, which, at the very point of extinction, seems to hint at a transcending vision. Perhaps Shakespeare was being too “cosmic” here for Jonathan Miller – I don’t know.

The famous storm scenes too had their dark heart removed. In other productions I have seen, and even in my readings of play, the combination of Lear’s ragings, the Fool’s increasingly irrelevant gibberings, Poor Tom’s utter gibberish – in which the very structure of language seems to break down – and, of course, the elemental nature of the storm itself, transports me into a world of apocalyptic terror. But here, Lear does not rage – so when the French doctor later says his “great rage … is killed”, one can but wonder what he is on about; and much of the Fool’s part, and virtually all of Poor Tom’s are cut. After the Fool speaks a prophecy (mainly nonsense: Shakespeare has taken us into a world here that has stopped making sense), he speaks the very strange line “This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time”, and suddenly, we realise that the Fool is actually prophesying a prophecy, and chasms open at our feet; the very structure of time itself seems to have collapsed. In this production, the prophecy is retained, but not the line that follows, and, as a consequence, nothing very much is communicated to the audience at all. (This entire passage appears only in the Folio text, not in the Quarto, but since only part of it is retained, I doubt that the reasons for the cut had anything to do with textual considerations.) And while there is, as I said, some textual argument to support the excision of the mock-trial (which appears only in the Quarto text), one wonders what could have prompted Miller to cut the entire scene in which it appears.

And so it continues. The scene where the mad Lear meets the blind Gloucester – which projects the most terrible of tragic visions more powerfully than just about any other scene in drama that I can think of – is cut to shreds; and even at the end – where, in this production, Lear, instead of entering with Cordelia’s corpse in his arms, totters in weakly after her body – the chilling animal-like cries of “Howl! Howl! Howl! Howl!” are cut. And, of course, Lear’s final line, which really does hint at the cosmic dimension that Miller insists isn’t there, is also cut. All that is grand; all that is magnificent, colossal, epic; all that is visionary; is cut away.

One does not, I agree, need to be epic to communicate artistic visions of passion and of intensity: to consider an example from a rather different medium, Rafael Kubelik’s recording of Mahler’s mighty 6th symphony is conceived on a much smaller scale than the grand, epic readings of Barbirolli, Bernstein, Solti or Karajan, but is nonetheless overwhelming on its own terms. But that is not so here: there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to compensate for all that was missing. At times, it seemed no more than a perfunctory run-through of selected scenes from the play. Indeed, I can think of no better argument to counter the “Meant-to-be-seen-not-read” contingent: any reading of this play yields greater dividends than seeing a production as limp as this; and anyone whose sole acquaintance with this towering masterpiece is this production will come away with a very distorted and diminished view of Shakespeare’s work.


Normally, I try not to write on this blog about what I don’t like, and I feel a bit bad, I must admit, about writing this particular post: the tradition of Shakespearean performance remains very strong in Britain, and I have no wish to join the ranks of trendy detractors who seem hostile to the very idea of “tradition”. But I do have a genuine respect for Jonathan Miller, admire much of his work as director, and really was looking forward to a production that I was hoping would open up, for me at any rate, new ways of looking at this endlessly fascinating play. But in the event, for reasons best known to himself, Jonathan Miller really has killed the thing he loves. He has killed it stone dead, and I don’t have the faintest idea why.

“The Duchess of Malfi” by John Webster

Webster was much possessed by death,
And saw the skull beneath the skin,
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.

Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries.

– from “Whispers of Immortality” by T. S. Eliot  

The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, the twin pillars on which Webster’s reputation primarily stands, make for a fascinating comparison. They are both clearly products of a dramatist in full control of the craft of playwrighting; they are also, equally clearly, the products of an author who did not see much in humanity to inspire confidence in its essential goodness or nobility – who, indeed, could not even see the possibility of redemption. But while The White Devil is a flamboyant work of bold, vigorous and colourful strokes, sweeping the audience along in its seemingly irresistible torrents, The Duchess of Malfi looks inwards, finding as often as not a stillness, and room for contemplation. It finds also a curious lyricism, dark and death-possessed; and also a rather strange beauty. Those daffodil bulbs that appear for eyes are given, in Webster’s hands, a peculiar fascination.

We are, once again, in an Italian court, but the cast of characters is smaller than it had been in The White Devil, and the plot simpler and more concentrated. The action here belongs, effectively, to the world of what we now regard as Gothic horror – demonic villains, sadism, terror, madness, death. In such stories, there are, in general, two types of villain – the unstable psychopath on the one hand, and the cool, calculating type on the other: here, Webster gives us both, and they both happen to be brothers of the Duchess of Malfi. There’s the Duke, Ferdinand, whose lust for his own sister is barely concealed, and who, after having had his sister and her children murdered, goes quite spectacularly mad:  

PESCARA.          Pray thee, what ‘s his disease?
DOCTOR.  A very pestilent disease, my lord,
They call lycanthropia.
PESCARA.                 What ‘s that?
I need a dictionary to’t.
DOCTOR.                     I’ll tell you.
In those that are possess’d with’t there o’erflows
Such melancholy humour they imagine
Themselves to be transformed into wolves;
Steal forth to church-yards in the dead of night,
And dig dead bodies up:  as two nights since
One met the duke ’bout midnight in a lane
Behind Saint Mark’s church, with the leg of a man
Upon his shoulder; and he howl’d fearfully…

The other villain, the other brother, is the Cardinal. Not for him lusting after his sister, and walking the streets with limbs of dead men on his shoulders; however –

The spring in his face is nothing but the engendering of toads.

In The White Devil, Isabella was murdered by coating with poison a picture she was known regularly to kiss; and here, Webster gives this already bizarre plot device an extra twist: the Cardinal murders his mistress by making her kiss a poisoned Bible. That’s right: a poisoned Bible. In such a world, in which God’s own word is poisoned and becomes an instrument of death, there seems little room for anything but the most crudely and ingeniously horrific and sensational; but Webster surprises us. In the first place, he is not particularly interested in plot, and thins out its elements: compared to The White Devil, the plotline presented here is very straight-forward, and is easily summarised in a few sentences. As a consequence of this reduced emphasis on the action, not much time need be spent explaining to the audience the mere mechanics of the plot; and this leaves room for other, more important matters. Even towards the end, as the action is approaching its denouement, Webster is happy to hold up the action to give us a scene which advances the plot not a whit, but which adds significantly to the darkly poetic atmosphere: Antonio, not yet knowing that his wife, the Duchess, and their children, have been murdered, is in the ruins of an abbey, and an echo in the voice of his dead wife eerily tells him of the doom that envelops him:   

ANTONIO.  Echo, I will not talk with thee,
For thou art a dead thing.
ECHO.                       Thou art a dead thing.
ANTONIO.  My duchess is asleep now,
And her little ones, I hope sweetly.  O heaven,
Shall I never see her more?
ECHO.                        Never see her more.

Such a scene would have been very much out of place amidst the more frenetic action of The White Devil, but it is perfectly in place in this play with its more measured pacing, and its atmosphere of intense private grief.

The plot, such as it is, is simple enough: the still young and recently widowed Duchess of Malfi, against the express instructions of her two villainous brothers, secretly marries a social inferior, Antonio; and, when her two brothers find out, they visit upon herterrible punishment. Such a plotline doesn’t really leave much room for the revenge – for, after all, who is to be the revenger? The obvious candidate is the Duchess’ husband, Antonio, but he is relatively weak, and is more easily cast as victim rather than avenger. The avenger turns out, in what may be, I think, a twist to the usual formula, an instrument of the original crime – Bosola, who, in service of the villainous brothers, murders both the Duchess and her children. His reasons for his turning against his employers after the murders are not obvious: it is true that despite the appalling nature of the crimes he has committed, he is not entirely without scruples: he even comforts the Duchess in her last moments; but one suspects that the key factor here is the lack of gratitude on the part of his employers.

Such ambiguity of character could easily be either a dramatic weakness, leading merely to lack of clarity; or it could be quite the opposite – a dramatic strength, leading the author to examine the ambiguous nature of human motivation itself. But here, it is neither, for it is not the revenge that is at the centre of the drama: rather, we have at the centre human evil and human suffering, and the vexed question of whether, in the midst of such unmitigated horrors that make up so much of life, where even the divine word of God is coated with poison, there can be any such thing as a higher order.  

DUCHESS. What are you?
SERVANT.       One that wishes you long life.
DUCHESS.  I would thou wert hang’d for the horrible curse
Thou hast given me:  I shall shortly grow one
Of the miracles of pity.  I ‘ll go pray;       [Exit Servant.]
No, I’ll go curse.
BOSOLA.              O, fie!
DUCHESS.                      I could curse the stars.
BOSOLA.                                        O, fearful!
DUCHESS.  And those three smiling seasons of the year
Into a Russian winter; nay, the world
To its first chaos.
BOSOLA.              Look you, the stars shine still.

Bosola’s response to the Duchess – “look you, the stars shine still” – denotes, at one level, the insignificance of human agency: the Duchess can curse the stars – those manifestations of a higher order – as much as she wishes, but they shine still. But equally, Bosola’s response may betoken the existence of a higher order that the Duchess in her suffering denies. His words are as ambiguous and as double-edged as is his role in the drama.

But it is on the suffering that most of the dramatic focus falls, and on human life lived in the close proximity of death. There is, throughout, as Eliot put it, an awareness of “the skull beneath the skin”. And from this awareness there emerges a strange and eerie poetry. The long scene in the fourth act in which the Duchess and her children are murdered is, at the same time, the most horrific and yet the most poetic of scenes. To see horror presented in so poetic a manner is rather unnerving: I do not think I have encountered elsewhere such an unlikely fusion. And the poetry is, of course, the poetry of death.

It is a long and carefully paced scene, and seems to contain in it the very kernel of Webster’s strange vision. First, Bosola brings in, seemingly for the Duchess’ entertainment, a troupe of madmen, whose lunatic singing and dancing and meaningless gibberish create a quite extraordinary atmosphere: one gets the impression that reality is somehow suspended, and that we have entered a world that occupies some vague borderland between sanity and insanity, between life and death – a world that is not quite our own. Bosola, still the loyal servant, is soon to kill the Duchess, but he tries before doing so to comfort her, to bring her to terms with the inevitability of death:

Thou art a box of worm-seed, at best but a salvatory  of green mummy. What’s this flesh? a little crudded milk, fantastical puff-paste. Our bodies are weaker than those paper-prisons boys use to keep flies in; more contemptible, since ours is to preserve earth-worms.  Didst thou ever see a lark in a cage? Such is the soul in the body:  this world is like her little turf of grass, and the heaven o’er our heads like her looking-glass, only  gives us a miserable knowledge of the small compass of our prison. 

By the time the Duchess is strangled onstage, she is reconciled to her fate, but that does not make the fate any less horrific. Her waiting-woman Cariola is also strangled onstage, and then the bodies of the strangled children are brought in. Ferdinand then enters to see the corpse of the sister he had sexually desired:  

FERDINAND.            Is she dead?
BOSOLA.                             She is what
You ‘d have her.  But here begin your pity:       [Shows the Children strangled.]
Alas, how have these offended?
FERDINAND.                      The death
Of young wolves is never to be pitied.
BOSOLA.  Fix your eye here.
FERDINAND.                   Constantly.
BOSOLA.                                   Do you not weep?
Other sins only speak; murder shrieks out.
The element of water moistens the earth,
But blood flies upwards and bedews the heavens.
FERDINAND. Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle: she died young.

Anyone can depict a succession of gruesome savageries, but it requires a poet, I think, to pen that line of Ferdinand’s – so apparently simple, and yet so haunting and resonant. A poet, yes, but a damn strange one.

I am not quite sure, to be honest, quite what to make of Webster’s poetic sensibility. It had seemed relatively straight-forward in The White Devil: there, life is but a teeming pit of human evil, a mere succession of horrors, and the humans occupying this pit utterly irredeemable. But here, Webster seems to add a quite different dimension: even in his contemplation of the skull beneath the skin he seems to find an eldritch yet hauntingly beautiful music. It is a sensibility unlike any other I think I have encountered, and occupies regions of the mind that I don’t think I have ever till now been led into. I ended The White Devil repelled by the horror, and yet invigorated by the sheer dramatic energy of it all; but The Duchess of Malfi took me on a quite different journey, and led me into regions of human experience that, though astonishingly vivid, seems impervious to any rational analysis.

“Love’s Labour’s Lost” at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon

The following is a review of The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, directed by Christopher Lushcombe, seen as a live cinema broadcast on February 11th, 2015.

Michelle Terry as Rosaline, with, in background, William Belchambers as Longaville; Tunji Kasim as Dumaine; and Sam Alexander as King of Navarre

Michelle Terry as Rosaline, with, in background, William Belchambers as Longaville; Tunji Kasim as Dumaine; and Sam Alexander as King of Navarre

Love’s Labour’s Lost is an relatively early play, and not among Shakespeare’s best-known, but I find myself loving it and revisiting it far more often than many of Shakespeare’s better-known comedies, such as, say, Much Ado About Nothing or As You Like It. This could perhaps be something to do with the fact that this was the first play I ever saw at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre: the production I saw back then (nearly 37 years ago now) was directed by John Barton, and it seemed to me then and seems to me still – although I do realise that memory can play tricks on these matters – nothing short of perfection. However, I don’t want to turn into one of those boring old farts for whom nothing modern can ever match the glories of the past: at least, I don’t want to assume such a posture on all matters. For in the matter of theatrical productions of Shakespeare, the quality, to judge from the Henry IV plays I saw in Stratford-on-Avon last year, seems to be as high as it ever was.

But it’s a difficult play to bring off, partly because Shakespeare more or less abandoned here the idea of plot, and also because so much of its effect depends on dizzying wordplay of a sort likely to lose a modern audience. Indeed, one can’t help wondering how much of this wordplay would have been picked up even by Shakespeare’s own audience: a line such as Berowne’s “Light seeking light doth light of light beguile” can yield multiple meanings when pondered at one’s leisure in one’s study, but delivered at the speed of sound in the theatre, it’s difficult to get little more than merely the sound of the words.

Of course, it can be said that a line such as Berowne’s is more clever than poetic: it is an extremely intelligent person showing off, exhibiting but a facility with words, a verbal agility, an ability to exploit multiple levels of meaning; it is a self-conscious performance rather than anything very deeply felt. And I can’t help speculating whether the young Shakespeare may have felt this about himself. He must surely have known that he had a greater command of the English language than did any of his contemporaries, or even, for that matter, any of his predecessors; he knew that words obeyed his call. Did he perhaps worry, I wonder, whether this prodigious ability led not to an engagement with reality, but to an escape from it? That, instead of grappling with the seriousness of life, he was merely playing smartarse word games? I usually try not to speculate on authors’ biographies in this manner, but the reason I can’t help doing so on this occasion is that this is, it seems to me, one of the major themes of this play: Love’s Labour’s Lost seems to me very deeply concerned about the uses to which language is put. Through most of this play, we get dizzyingly clever wordplay, and exuberant verbal games; we also get some of the most exquisite and soaring love poetry; but, in the final section, something extraordinary happens. Just as the play seems to be hurtling to its merry and jovial conclusion, with the men all neatly paired off with the ladies, a messenger enters:


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.

And that’s it. Within just a few seconds, the tonality changes beyond all recognition. The high spirits and the exuberance that we had all been enjoying till now gives way to more sombre hues; faced with the implacable fact of mortality, these characters now have to put away their childish things, and learn to grapple with sickness, with grief, and with the impermanence of life itself. I think it’s one of the most wonderful moments in all Shakespeare.

But it is not a tragic ending. Paradise isn’t lost: it’s merely deferred. And when that paradise eventually comes, when Jack finally has Jill, both Jack and Jill may perhaps see the world in a more mature light; although, as Berowne sadly says, “that’s too long for a play”.

The final scene is one of veiled melancholy, of a growing awareness that sadness, like joy, is also a part of life, and cannot be banished. In The Taming of the Shrew, it had been the wife who had been educated by the husband; here, it’s the men who are educated by the ladies. It is the ladies who urge the men to delay the marriages by a year. And Rosaline specifically asks Berowne to leave behind his frivolous games, and tend the sick:

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 endeavor of your wit
To enforce the pained impotent to smile.

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

I can never quite satisfy myself with mere analysis just what it is about these lines I find so moving. Is it perhaps a recognition of loss? – a loss of something that cannot be recovered? For, once one is aware of the complexities of life, of all its dark shadows and its miseries, what price mirth? What good is it, when it has no power to move a soul in agony? Where is gone all the unfettered joy and the exuberance? Are all these, too, childish things that must be put away?

These questions aren’t answered: all that’s too long for a play, after all. This play comes to an end not with the characters becoming more mature, but with their realisation that, far from shutting themselves away from life, as they had planned to do at the opening of the play, they have now to engage with it. And, after all the linguistic virtuosity, the play ends with two very simple lyrics – homely songs, with everyday words, and images drawn from everyday life – such as maidens bleaching their summer smocks, or icicles hanging by the wall. We seem as far from the start of the play as it is possible to be: words are now used not for playing clever games, but for grappling with what is real.

Grappling with all this in a performance, however, is a tall order, and I hope it isn’t seen as a backhanded compliment when I say this production nearly succeeds. It is the first of two related productions at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre this season – the second being Love’s Labour’s Won, a title one could search for in vain in Shakespeare’s Collected Works. It is known that a play with this title did indeed exist, but it is probably lost; or, conceivably, it could be the play we now know as Much Ado About Nothing. The Royal Shakespeare Company goes with the latter conjecture, and presents the two plays in tandem with much the same cast, and with Rosaline and Berowne transformed in the later play into Beatrice and Benedick. There is a further conceit in these productions: the two plays are both located in an English country house – the first before World War One, and the second after. I am not sure how this will work in Much Ado About Nothing (or Love’s Labour’s Won): that has not been broadcast in the cinemas yet; but I wasn’t, I admit, entirely convinced in Love’s Labour’s Lost. There is, after all, no mention in the text of any impending war, and the four men appearing at the end in military uniform seemed to me incongruous with the text of the play. And further, given what we know about the carnage that was WW1, it added a note of the tragic, which rather drowned out any sense of delicate and wistful melancholy.

Of course, one could say that the delicate and wistful melancholy is but my own interpretation, and that other possible interpretations can also be valid. I don’t dispute that. But, having read through the play again after seeing this production, I could not at any point find anything to justify an interpretation that sees this ending as tragic. For why should it be? The men aren’t really going to war – there’s no mention of it; and neither are the marriages cancelled – they’re merely postponed. At the end, Berowne reflects that Jack hath not Jill, and, when reminded that Jack has not lost Jill for ever, comments “that’s too long for a play”. This comment is a bit sad, perhaps, and wistful, and half-humorous; but what it isn’t, I think, is tragic: Berowne’s disappointment – and it is no more than that – is not devoid of hope. However, in this production, it was delivered while holding back sobs, and I really can’t see any justification in the text for delivering it in this manner.

The final songs as well, distinguished from the rest of the play by their extreme simplicity of diction, were performed here as a big musical number. It is all very well done, as indeed are all the other musical numbers. (This production, incidentally, is full of music, and it is all delightfully scored and performed.) But the simplicity which is the very essence of these final songs is missing. The play, whenever I read it, seems to have at the end a dying fall: here, instead, we are presented with a spectacular pageant.

Perhaps I shouldn’t harp too much on the ending: I only do so because this particular ending seems to me among Shakespeare’s very finest, and the replacement of a gentle and wistful melancholy with full-throated spectacle did, frankly, leave me somewhat disappointed. Which is rather a pity, as the rest of the production could barely be improved upon. Although, even here, there are one or two things for a Beckmesser such as myself to carp about. Why, for instance, change Berowne’s “guerdon” to “emolument”? Sure, the modern audience is likely to be more familiar with the word “emolument”, but given that the joke is about Costard not understanding what the word means in the first place, perhaps “guerdon” should have been left untouched.

Also, I couldn’t help wondering whether Michelle Terry’s Rosaline had to be quite so combative. Rosaline and Berowne clearly foreshadow Beatrice and Benedick in many respects, but even Beatrice and Benedick need to convince us that they do love each other, or, at least, that they come to love each other. Here, while Berowne is clearly besotted with Rosaline, I can’t say I had any great confidence that his love is reciprocated. At least, were I a young man (and I was once – honestly!) I wouldn’t have given much for my chances with this Rosaline.

And finally, while I am still in my Beckmesser mode, there’s the pageant put on at the end by the curate, the schoolmaster, and others of the “lower orders”. In Shakespeare’s text, when Nathaniel the curate does his turn as Alexander, he speaks his few lines, Berowne has a few witticism at his expense, and then they all move on. Here, the scene was expanded: Nathaniel forgets his lines; Berowne makes a scathing comment; and, as Nathaniel is about to leave the stage in tears, one of the ladies (I think it was Rosaline) calls him back; and this time, Nathaniel remembers his lines, to much applause. Now, it is true that the ladies in this play educate the men, and that Berowne’s witticisms at the expense of the performers are uncalled for; but did the text really needed to be changed to underline this point so crudely? Far better, surely, is Shakespeare’s own way of making the point: in the text, at the height of the men’s barrage of “witticisms” (as in the similar scene at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is the men, and not the ladies, who mock the admittedly absurd show on view), the schoolmaster Holofernes says: “This is not generous, not gentle, not humble.” It is a marvellous line. Holofernes had been, till this point, a preposterous comic figure, but with this single line he acquires a dignity and a humanity that the four noblemen at this point rather conspicuously lack. Sadly, this wonderful line was cut in this production, and this excision makes to me no sense at all.

However, leaving aside the Beckmesserisms, there was much to admire. First of all, the sets: each scene was set in a different part of the country house – in the library, on the finely manicured lawn, the drawing room, the terrace, outside the front door, and at one point, quite unexpectedly, on the rooftop. The sets and the ingenious shifts of scene were wonderful: this must have been magical to have experienced in the theatre. And, while I may certainly quibble with certain aspects of the interpretation, the entire cast was marvellous, speaking the very difficult lines superbly, and, with impeccable comic timing, getting laughs where I wouldn’t have suspected any existed. The audience is unlikely to have followed all the arcane wordplay, but with performances of such fine comic zest, it didn’t seem to matter. In particular, John Hodgkinson as Don Armado played the “fantastical Spaniard” with an exuberant comic relish, delighting particularly in the smutty double entendres; while Edward Bennett as Berowne delivered his soaring paean to love in Act Four – surely among the very greatest of all love poems – with such clarity and ardour that time really did seem to stand still, and we, the audience, became, in Hamlet’s words, wonder-wounded hearers.

And when Love speaks, the voice of all the gods
Makes heaven drowsy with the harmony.

Shakespeare may indeed, as I conjectured, have worried whether his mastery over language might be an escape from reality rather than an engagement with it; but when one comes across lines such as these, one feels that he really need not have worried. The sombre hues of the final scene may lift this play from a fine work to a great one; but even without these hues, what we have is exquisite. And it is so exquisitely presented that to carp on matters of interpretation, as I have been doing, is likely to appear merely churlish.

Please note: a cinema broadcast of a theatrical event often makes an impact somewhat different from that when seen in the theatre. Do please see here for Sheila’s characteristically detailed account of the play as seen in the theatre: it really is the next best thing to actually being there.

“‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” by John Ford

I don’t think I’m quite getting it, to be honest. I wasn’t expecting anything of the level of a Hamlet or a King Lear – that would have been foolish – but I was expecting something.  So far, I have read two revenge tragedies, one from either end of the era during which the genre of the Revenge Tragedy was popular: The Spanish Tragedy, written when Shakespeare was still a young man and before his literary career had taken off; and now, the splendidly titled ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford, first performed in 1633 some seventeen years after Shakespeare’s death. But, different though these two plays are, what I am getting are no more than exciting stories, excitingly told, well crafted, and displaying a theatrical bravura: all well and good, one may say, but I am getting nothing so far of anything resembling a tragic vision. Are my expectations too high? Or is there really nothing more to these plays other than a finely tuned stagecraft? Should I just tune my expectations down to expecting no more than an exciting story? Perhaps. But I am not prepared to give up on this yet, by any means: I am particularly keen, amongst other things, to renew my acquaintance with John Webster. Maybe there is a tragic vision in there somewhere – but just not in the two plays I have read so far.

If we do lower our expectations somewhat from the ridiculously high levels set by Will, what we find is entertaining enough. The title of this play, sadly, doesn’t have too great a bearing on the action: it is, one suspects, little more than a ploy to hook the paying audience. However, although the leading lady of this piece, Annabella, is no whore – in that her sexual desires are not conspicuously displayed, nor her sexual favours prodigally given – the sensation-seeking audience has little reason to demur: right from the opening scene, in which the young Giovanni argues with a friar that his passionate sexual desire for his sister Annabella cannot be immoral or irreligious, we know we are in for juicy stuff. The friar, of course, is outraged, but that’s friars for you: no sense of adventure. Undeterred by fears of hellfire, Giovanni announces his passion to his sister, and she doesn’t require much persuasion to jump into bed with him. This doesn’t, admittedly, make her a “whore”, as the title declares, but it doesn’t, shall we say, make for the kind of sweet and wholesome role for which Julie Andrews might have been suitable. (Although, having said that, such casting against type might have been interesting.)

In The Spanish Tragedy, much time was taken up between the crime and the revenge by Hieronimo going mad, and indulging in some quite splendid lunatic rants. Possibly that sort of thing was a bit out-of-date by Ford’s day: he fills in the time between set-up and pay-off by introducing various subsidiary characters and sub-plots, all quite ingeniously woven into the main fabric of the play. The characters are adroitly presented – from the villainous Donado to the imbecilic Bergetto, from the loyal but brutal servant Vasques to the passionate and vengeful Hippolita – and the various strands of the plot are presented with great clarity, so that they all complement each other rather than get in each other’s way. It would be unfair of me to give away the plot details: there was one especially that even I, who like to think of myself as cynical and jaded, had not expected. I must admit it gave me quite a jolt. And, even while reading this as I did on my commuter train, it’s hard not to feel a thrill of horror when Giovanni enters in the final scene with a still warm human heart skewered on his dagger. So what if it’s a rubber stage prop? By this stage you’re so involved in the story it doesn’t matter.

So all in all, it’s tremendous fun. But where is the tragic vision I had been promised? I haven’t seen any so far, but I am but two plays into my project: let’s read on a bit more. Even if I do not end feeling exalted, I shall certainly be most royally entertained.

“Bartholomew Fair” by Ben Jonson

A friend of mine, who has been an avid theatre-goer for more years than I think he cares to remember (he knows who he is!) tells me that he has seen a few productions of Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, and that it works very well indeed on stage. Which frankly surprised me: I did enjoy reading it, but it seemed to me that there was so much play on language that is likely to be lost on modern audiences; that there were so many contemporary references; that there was so much use of stock comic characters and situations that were then easily recognised, but have now fallen by the wayside; that any modern production would have to work very hard indeed to make an impact. Even as I was reading it, I had to consult the annotations frequently, and, alas, even the best of jokes lose something when they have to be explained through scholarly exegesis.

It’s a teeming, bustling play, with a vast array of characters – rogues, fools, eccentrics, madmen, conmen, bawds and whores – all thrown together in Smithfield market in London on Bartholomew Fair. It is a play that delights in colour and exuberance; and, true to the tradition of British humour from Chaucer to Dad’s Army or even the Carry On films, it delights in human eccentricity. Eccentricity is inevitably, to a lesser or greater extent, subversive in nature, since it cannot do other than disrupt a well-ordered society: the greater the divergence from the norm, the more dangerous the challenge to the authority whose purpose it is to maintain order. It is perhaps for this reason that eccentricity is so potent a force in comic tradition: order is no doubt important if we are to maintain the stability of society; but equally, cocking a snook at the guardians of order is important if we are to maintain the sanity of individuals. This, I think, has been long recognised, even by those in authority: the very day after the first performance of this play in Hope Theatre, Bankside, in 1614, it was performed at Court, without any controversy at all. Authority seemed more than happy to have a snook cocked in its direction – whatever that may literally mean.

I suppose it could be argued that this lack of controversy even when performed in court argues a lack of bite in the play itself, but I’m not sure Jonson intended the comedy to have any “bite” as such. Sure, neither of the two figures of authority in this play – the Justice of the Peace Adam Overdo, and the Puritan humbug Zeal-of-the-Land Busy – come out well: Overdo follows the time-honoured ruse of walking amongst the commonality in disguise to observe their ways, but here, meets only with a good thrashing (Jonson’s age, like Fielding’s being remarkably less squeamish than ours in these matters), is put into the stocks, and, finally, is humiliated when the prostitute he thinks he is unmasking ends up being his wife; meanwhile the splendidly named Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, surely a forerunner to Dickens’ Chadband, has the piss ripped out of him something rotten. But Jonson’s mood in this play is one of geniality rather than anger: at the end, the entire cast, bawds and whores and even Puritans, are all invited to dinner. Authority has been suitably mocked, but now that’s over, Jonson, rather than rub it in, is more concerned with celebrating a sense of community, however difficult it may be to believe that such a rag-bag of strange and weird characters could possibly cohere together to form one.

The plot is minimal, and Jonson doesn’t seem too interested in it anyway. Once the exposition in Act One is over, and we find ourselves in Smithfeld market, Jonson’s interest is not in the plot at all, but in his remarkable cast of characters: those scenes that advance the plot seem almost to be dropped in here and there casually. Some of the comic characters are, it must be conceded, tiresome: one doubts, for instance, whether Whit’s provincial accent represents any great height of comic inspiration – although, I suppose, his talk of “shitting” when he means “sitting” could raise a laugh or two. But there are many others who are presented with such tremendous exuberance and comic gusto that it perhaps doesn’t matter too much that one needs to consult the notes to fully get their jokes: good comic actors can, I suppose, get laughs out of just about everything.

After all, there’s more to comedy than mere joke-count. This is not of course to denigrate the importance of the joke-count: I’m sure Jonson himself didn’t. But at least as important as the joke-count is the creation of a comic environment, an enticing fictional milieu that can accommodate the author’s comic vision. Without the creation of such a milieu, all we’d end up with is the equivalent of a joke-book: pleasant to dip into perhaps, but tedious to read from cover to cover. And Jonson’s comic milieu is one full of colour and vigour and vitality, peopled with strange and mad characters who all share so much their creator’s love of words that none of them can bear to stop talking. Not even to get the plot moving.

Some of the comedy in Bartholomew Fair is old and time-honoured, but it’s funny nonetheless; the servant being smarter than the master is always good for a laugh (as Wodehouse well knew), and if in this instance the master, Bartholomew Cokes, is merely the traditional silly arse, his servant, the wonderfully short-tempered, irascible and waspish Humphrey Wasp, continually taking offence at everything, is a delight. Then there’s Ursula, the “Pig Woman” and keeper of the jordans for those who need to relieve themselves – a  vast, Falstaffian character dripping sweat and constantly deflating the pompous and the pretentious with her no-nonsense earthiness; there are crooked and roguish ballad-sellers, tapsters, hobby-horse-sellers, cutpurses; there’s a character named Trouble-All, wandering in and out of the action demanding that there be legal warrants for everything, and that nothing must on any account be done without one; and there’s a Punk Alice, described in the Dramatis Personae as “Mistress of the Game”. And so on. And no matter how roguish or how foolish or how plain mad they are, Jonson seems to love them: the only character he appears to dislike is the killjoy Puritan Zeal-of-the-land Busy, but even he isn’t excluded from the dinner invitation at the end. Whether he will accept or not, and how he could possibly fit into the communal celebrations even if he does, Jonson prefers not to address. The existence of those who will not, can not, fit into a general harmony causes problems for the comic writer: the likes of Malvolio or Beckmesser create uncomfortable dissonances that disturb the harmony. In Twelfth Night, the dissonance deepens the shadows in the play, without, by some miracle, distracting from the comedy; the dissonance at the end of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg remains, on the other hand, for me at any rate, somewhat uncomfortable. But Jonson allows no such dissonance at the end of this play: whatever we may feel about Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, it is swept away by the general air of geniality and good humour. After the mocking of authority, all is forgotten and forgiven: what remains is celebration.

This play is, in essence, Jonson’s love-letter to London, and to the people of London. It is not, I’d imagine, a very easy play to put on in modern times, but given that it can still hold the stage, I’d love to see it performed. I imagine, though, that the jokes would be delivered in performance somewhat more quickly than I managed to read them.