Posts Tagged ‘drama’

“The Spanish Tragedy” by Thomas Kyd

Revenge has been central feature of many a drama, right from the earliest times to now, encompassing everything between the highest of brows and the lowest – from the Orestia of Aeschylus to the Death Wish films of Michael Winner; from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus; from westerns and gangster films of varying quality to the blood-drenched “video nasties” that so exercised our moral sensibilities some thirty or so years ago.

The reason for its appeal across so vast a range is not difficult to discern. At the basest end, it provides violence that titillates us, but which we can nonetheless enjoy in good conscience because some of the violence we know will be punished, while the rest of it we know is perpetrated in a just cause (both Titus Andronicus and Death Weekend occupy this end of the spectrum). Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the theme allows us to ponder such important matters as justice and morality. It encourages us to consider the ultimate futility of meting out injury for injury, and, simultaneously, the moral decadence of not meting out injury for injury. The dilemma is with us still: those who fight dragons become dragons themselves, Nietzsche had warned us; and yet, those who don’t fight dragons allow the dragons to become stronger. It is a horrible moral bind to be in, and it is hardly surprising that those writers who think long and hard about the human condition find themselves fascinated by this seemingly insoluble moral impasse. And neither is it surprising that those who don’t think so long or so hard relish the opportunity of the violent titillation this theme affords. Either way, it makes – if not necessarily for good drama, then, at least, for drama that holds the attention of its intended audience.

The “revenge tragedy” was an important genre of its own in Shakespeare’s days, and one of the seminal works of that genre is Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, written in the 1580s when Shakespeare was still a young man, and popular enough to be revived in 1602 (with additional scenes possibly by Ben Jonson, no less) when Shakespeare was at his height of his career. It is not, to be honest (and to anticipate somewhat the conclusion of this post), a particularly major work of literature. But then again, one shouldn’t spend all one’s reading time exploring the great peaks: one should know also something of the plains from which the peaks rise. Masterpiece this isn’t, but it’s a diverting enough work. Kyd isn’t interested in the psychology of revenge; neither is he interested in the morality. What he is interested in is pacing the story in such a way as to keep the audience interested in what happens next, in creating tension, and in providing shocks and sensational stage effects. We have a sensational stage effect in the very first scene, as the ghost of the recently deceased Don Andrea enters with the Spirit of Revenge. And together, they sit and watch the events unfold, much as we, the audience, do. In the course of the action, we have villainy, treachery, murder, false imprisonment, attempted forced marriage, suicide, and, of course, madness. Hieronimo goes mad after his son is brutally murdered: there are some splendid scenes of his mad ranting. And if one person going mad makes for good theatre, two people going mad makes for theatre twice as good: Hieronimo’s wife is introduced for no other purpose than for her to go mad also. And then there’s the splendid finale – a play-within-a-play (an idea Shakespeare was more than happy to recycle), but here, the stage-within-the-stage violence is real. Which, of course, can take us into Borgesian labyrinths should we be that way minded (if the violence within the play-within-the-play is real, then might not… etc.) but I doubt any of that was in Kyd’s mind: he saw it for what it was –a sensationally good stage effect. And should we be tempted to think that all this excessive violence is a bit tongue-in-cheek, Hieronimo caps it all by biting his tongue off and spitting it out of his cheek, to ensure that torture doesn’t make him talk. Splendid stuff.

Presumably, this was the sort of thing the audiences of the time wanted, but I must confess myself a bit puzzled by this: these were cruel times, when torture was commonplace, floggings, beheadings, and hanging, drawing and quartering were all public spectacles. Why were audiences so keen to see simulated violence when the real thing was happening just outside the theatre? In all the accounts I have read of Tudor and Jacobean theatre, I have never seen this question addressed. But whatever the reason behind this, simulated stage violence was undoubtedly popular, and the genre of the revenge tragedy seemed a perfect vehicle for giving the audience what it craved.

In the introduction to my Oxford edition, editor Katharine Eisaman Maus spends much time discussing the social distinctions underpinning the drama. The victim of the crime, Horatio, and his avenging father Hieronimo, are, she points out, effectively top ranking civil servants in the court, and are thus somewhat below the aristocratic villains in terms of social ranking. Interesting though this is, I am not convinced that Kyd had any interest in social hierarchies of the court other than as a means to enable the plot. For, obviously, there can be no need for revenge at all if the law may be relied upon to redress the wrong; thus, in any tale of revenge, there must be a good reason why the law cannot be relied upon – either because the law is inefficient, or corrupt, or because, as in the earlier parts of The Oresteia, such a law doesn’t even exist. At the end of The Oresteia the drama is resolved with the establishment of a legal institution capable of redressing wrongs, thus making redundant individual acts of vengeance. But The Oresteia was set in mythical times: The Spanish Tragedy on the other hand, is set in roughly the same time in which the play was written, so some explanation must be provided on this score to make the revenge plot intelligible. And the explanation here seems to be that the villains, occupying a higher social rank than Hieronimo, can block his access to the king. The element of social ranking thus seems to me a plot device more than anything else: certainly, Kyd shows no particular interest in exploring this theme for its own end, and to focus on this element is perhaps to give the play a greater significance than it possesses.

Kyd went on to write a play based on the Hamlet story. This play has not survived, so it is impossible to judge how much Shakespeare took from it; but if Shakespeare did indeed take anything significant from this play, one can only surmise that it was, artistically, a far greater achievement than The Spanish Tragedy. For, in trying to discern what influence if any The Spanish Tragedy may have had on the works of Shakespeare, the answer seems to be – apart from the plot device of the play-within-the-play – “very little”. Amongst other things, Shakespeare doesn’t even seem very interested in the theme of revenge. Apart from the early play Titus Andronicus – in which I cannot see any glimmerings at all of artistic ambition – Hamlet is the only play in the Shakespearean canon in which revenge plays a major role. After that, despite the immense potential of this theme in tragic drama, it appears in Shakespeare’s tragedies only on the periphery of the action rather than at the centre: it is, for instance, Macduff who is motivated by revenge, not Macbeth. Even in Hamlet, Shakespeare seems  uninterested in some of the major aspects of the theme, such as, say, the morality of revenge: once Hamlet is satisfied that the ghost is really the spirit of his father, and that Claudius really is his father’s murderer, this most persistent of questioners never even questions whether or not revenge is morally justified. This issue that so exercised the imaginations of the great Athenian tragedians appears not to have concerned Shsakespeare at all. If Shakespeare’s audiences really did crave revenge tragedy – and the existence of so many plays by his contemporaries in this genre indicates that they did – then Shakespeare seems on the whole to have been swimming against the popular tide in refusing to satisfy them. And if The Spanish Tragedy is indeed representative of the plain from which the peak of Hamlet rises, then, for all the undoubted entertainment value of Kyd’s work, it must be conceded that the height of the peak from the level of the plain is immeasurably great.

As I liked it

I’ve long had something of an uneasy relationship with As You Like It. While I recognise it to be a charming pastoral idyll, I don’t really see enough in the play to account for the reverence many feel for it. For instance, in his book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, eminent Shakespearean James Shapiro refers to As You Like It as Shakespeare’s finest comedy, while, at the same time, he characterises Twelfth Night as relatively safe and conventional, a step backwards from the glories of the earlier work. As someone who reveres Twelfth Night, and who, admittedly to his embarrassment, has never seen much more to As You Like It than a certain charm, I found Shapiro’s evaluations of these works somewhat startling. And, since I read a Shakespeare play each month anyway – these works are, after all, to be lived with, not just read once and put away – I decided it was high time to revisit As You Like It.

Having now read it again, I must say that it seems to me still a sunlit pastoral idyll, a work of tremendous charm and delight, but with little or none of the profound darkness and melancholy that seems to me to push Twelfth Night towards the realms of the tragic. But that does not necessarily make As You Like It a lesser work – unless one were to imagine, as, I must admit, I sometimes tend to do, that the tragic gives us a more profound vision of life than the comic can.

However, all authors of sunlit idylls need to decide how much if any of the world’s darkness to depict, or even to acknowledge; and darkness is not entirely absent from As You Like It. Indeed, the opening act of the play, like the opening of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, most definitely contains at least the seeds of tragedy. But as we move from the court to the enchantment of the wilds, these seeds fail to bear fruit: the dark shadows seem, in both plays, to dissolve, and give way to something wondrous.

In order to achieve this, realism has to be suspended. Oliver, for instance, whom we see at the start of the play mistreating his brother Orlando, and who later follows Orlando into the Forest of Arden meaning to hunt him down, is transformed when this same Orlando, returning love for hate, risks his own life to save that of his murderous brother. And once this murderous brother is converted to good, there remains not the slightest taint of the evil that had previously consumed him: there remains not even an awareness of the misery that his past evil had brought on others, or any hint of remorse that would normally accompany such an awareness. Even more oddly, perhaps, this lack of remorse is not noticed: no-one, not even Orlando, holds his past against him. This evil, which had been utterly unmotivated from the start, vanishes completely, leaving not a rack behind.

Something similar happens to the usurping Duke, Celia’s father. Although he is, we are told, a usurper, he has allowed his niece, Rosalind, daughter of his exiled brother, to grow up in court with his own daughter. But suddenly, for no apparent reason, and without any motivation, a madness seems to take hold of him: he banishes Rosalind from the court on pain of death; and goes even so far as to threaten Oliver with banishment and with seizure of possessions should Oliver fail to bring back his brother Orlando, dead or alive. But by the end, this same usurping Duke is also miraculously converted to good: marching into the forest to finish off his banished brother, he is met by a hermit, and, as with Oliver, all the evil in him miraculously vanishes, as if it had never been.

Since this play is an idyll, Shakespeare does not, after the first act, focus on the evil. Indeed, he keeps it as far from the action as possible. Once we are in the Forest of Arden, we see Oliver only after he is already converted, and the danger of his evil has passed. Similarly, we hear of the Duke’s incursion into the forest at the same time as we hear of his conversion: the encroaching evil has vanished even before we get to hear of it.

It is not surprising that Shakespeare should keep the dark shadows of evil so firmly in the background in this the sunniest of all his plays; but such a vision of evil is very different from the one presented in his tragedies – in Macbeth, say. In As You Like It, evil is an external force, almost an illness, which may infect a person, but which is not an integral part of that person. In a work such as Macbeth, however, evil is not the monster out there, but, rather, the monster that resides within. In all these tragic masterpieces, the capacity for evil is presented as an innate aspect of our human condition: our ability to be evil is, in short, one of the features that make us human.

However, in his very late play, The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare seemed to return to the way he had viewed evil in As You Like It: once again, it is seen as an external force, a sort of illness that infects us, and from which it is possible to be cured. Macbeth or Lady Macbeth cannot be cured of their evil: what’s done cannot be undone; but Leontes’ case is different – his evil departs as mysteriously as it had appeared. And there seems to me in As You Like It something very Leontes-like both in the usurping duke and in Oliver: they are evil for reasons not apparent; but then they are “cured”, and the evil disappears completely. Indeed, it is hard not to see the usurping duke very much as a prototype of Leontes when we see him banishing Rosalind on the pain of death, or when he threatens Oliver: mere anarchy seems loosed upon the world.

At the end of the The Winter’s Tale, the vision is darker than in As You Like It, and the joy is subdued. Perdita, she who had been lost, is restored, and Hermione, in a prefiguring of the Resurrection itself, returns from the dead. But Mamilius remains dead; and there can be no recompense for the lost years, for all the immense suffering that the illness of evil has brought into the world, both to those it had infected, and to those it hadn’t.

All this is very far from the world of As You Like It. Here, evil is kept on the sidelines of the action, very much out of view, and when it vanishes, it does so without leaving a mark behind. And if such a vision of life does not give us quite the richness of Twelfth Night (which, I must admit, still seems to me the greater work), it communicates nonetheless a formidable charm, and, perhaps, teaches us that our life, such as it is, is more to be valued than to be lamented. All in the end are here reconciled – except Jaques, who scorns the very idea.

The myth of Elektra

I was at the BBC Proms concert performance of Richard Strauss’ opera Elektra a couple of weeks ago. I am not qualified to comment on the musical quality of the performance, although reviews by those who are tend to confirm my layman’s impression that it was utterly magnificent. I came out afterwards in a sort of daze, my head spinning, my mind too unsettled even to try to think of the immense drama that had been played out before me.

However, from near where I was sitting, a number of people – five by my count – walked out during the performance, the expression on their faces speaking more eloquently than words could ever have done not only of their boredom, but also of their utter contempt of that which was boring them so.

I tried to imagine myself as I was back in those heady days nearly 40 years ago, when I was trying to discover what this classical music lark was all about. How would my younger self have reacted to this harsh, uncompromising, jagged and tuneless piece of modernism? Yes, I think the music would have gone over my head completely; yes, I would have found the sounds produced unattractive; and yes, I think I too might have been bored by it all. But no, I don’t think I would, for all that, have walked out. For one thing, I like to think I would have had some degree of respect, or at least consideration, for other members of the audience who had paid to be there, and who may well have been concentrating hard on this demanding music: expecting them to interrupt their concentration to make room for my egress would, I think, have struck me, at the very least, as impolite. And secondly, I think I might have had the humility to put down my lack of appreciation to an insufficiently developed understanding; for even then, I think I was aware at some level that culture requires cultivation – that it is not reasonable to go to something as forbidding as Elektra with one’s ears untuned to its musical idiom and one’s mind unschooled to its aesthetic, and expect to be able to take it in. I might even have seen the concert as an opportunity to take a first tentative step towards an understanding. At least, I hope I would have reacted in such a manner: it is hard to look back over the years and judge accurately what one had been.

Of course, I shouldn’t make too much of this: indeed, I shouldn’t make anything at all out of this – only five dissidents from an audience literally of many thousands is a fairly nugatory matter, and I raise the matter only because it annoyed me at the time, and annoys me still. However, it is sometimes worth questioning one’s most firmly held assumptions. Culture may indeed need to be cultivated, but is there really any pressing reason to do so? It may be that it requires great effort and years of immersion into this mode of music to be able to appreciate something such as Strauss’ Elektra, but what precisely does one get in return? The story is horrific; the emotions depicted in the work, and projected to the listener, are rebarbative; there is no hint at any point of human redemption, or of that feature that Orwell had claimed must belong to tragedy – a sense that humanity is nobler than the forces that destroy it. One’s nerves are jangled by it, sure, but is that jangling of nerves in itself an end worth pursuing?

The myth of Elektra is not one that offers any comfort or solace, let alone entertainment by any reasonable definition of that word. And yet, the myth refuses to go away. In its outline, the story is simple: the princess Electra’s father, Agamemnon, had been murdered by his wife, Klytemnestra; and now, years later, Elektra awaits the return of her exiled brother Orestes; and when finally he does come, she helps him assassinate her mother Klytemnestra, and her mother’s lover Aigisthos. A simple and rather repulsive story. And yet, this story continues in its various forms to haunt the imagination. Amongst other things, it is the only story on which there survive plays by all three great Athenian tragedians – Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides – and comparing their various treatments of this story is fascinating.

Aeschylus’ play, The Cheophoroe (The Libation Bearers), is the second play of the Oresteia trilogy, and demands to be seen as such: although the protagonists are characterised up to a point, they are part of a wider pattern stretching back to the first part of the trilogy, Agamemnon, and forward to the last, The Eumenides. Here, the theme is justice – both human justice, and divine justice – and the endless cycles of violence and bloodshed engendered in pursuit of justice. Here, Orestes kills for the sake of justice: his father had been murdered, and it is but justice that his father’s death is avenged, and that he, his father’s son, should, with his father’s daughter, mete out what is right and just. But the threads stretch out far into the past and far into the future.  For Klytemnestra, too, had killed for the sake of justice: Agamemnon, leading his troops to Troy in order to carry out the Justice of Zeus, had sacrificed Iphigenia, at the altar of Artemis; he had, with his own hand, slit the throat of his own daughter, and Klytemnestra’s.

Artemis had insisted on this sacrifice. Agamemnon may have been pursuing justice in leading the Greek troops to Troy to avenge Paris’ abduction of Helen, but in order to achieve this justice, he must shed much innocent blood; and this shedding of innocent blood also calls out for justice. If Agamemnon is to shed innocent blood, Artemis had insisted, he must shed first the innocent blood of his own family, of his own daughter. For this, too, is justice.

And since that terrible day, which the chorus in Agamemnon cannot even bear to think on, Klytemnestra has been waiting for her husband to return. She has taken in the meantime a lover, Aigisthos, a cousin of Agamemnon’s, who has his own reasons, stretching back into generations, for wishing Agamemnon’s death: for generations, atrocities had been committed, the latest of these when Aigisthos had been a boy: his father, Thyestes, had been invited by his uncle Atreos, father of Agamemon, to what he believed was a feast of reconciliation; but in that feast, Atreos had fed Thyestes with the flesh of his own sons. Aigisthos’ father had unwittingly eaten of the flesh of Aigisthos’ brothers.

And so, Agamemnon, returning triumphant from Troy, the victorious soldier, is murdered by his own wife, Klytemnestra. Justice is served. But each act of justice is but a new crime calling for further retribution. And humans are caught in this infernal machine, each duty-bound to render justice, and each committing in the process a crime that but perpetuates the horror.

It is in this context that Aeschylus places the story of Elektra. The Gods demand justice; Man is the instrument of this Divine justice; and yet, Man has to take moral responsibility for the crimes committed in its pursuit. There is no end to this terrible logic, no respite. By the end of The Choephoroe, Orestes, having carried out Divine will, having justly murdered his mother who had also justly murdered her husband, can already see the Furies in pursuit: whatever the claims of justice, he has committed matricide, and must therefore be punished.

The third and last part of this trilogy appears to offer a way out. The goddess Athena institutes the concept of a “trial”: no more blind retribution, but a jury of twelve honest men and true to determine through civilised discourse the nature of the crime, the issue of guilt, and the appropriate nature of the punishment. The trilogy ends with the acquittal of Orestes, and a triumphant torchlit procession through the streets of Athens. However, while clearly this is among the many masterpieces that depict a journey from darkness into light, the light does not seem to me entirely without its dark shadows. For one thing, in this instance, the human institution of trial by jury doesn’t resolve the issue: the jury is hung, six votes each, and it takes the casting vote of Athena – in other words, divine intervention – to achieve what humans cannot, and bring to an end this cycle of violence. And neither are the Furies exiled: they cannot be. Athena incorporates them into the new legal system she has devised for humans, and this incorporation seems to me an acknowledgement that justice cannot be administered without, at some level, the presence of terror. The joy at the end of the trilogy seems to me very deeply qualified. And the more I read these plays, the more fatal these qualifications seem.

It is not difficult to see in these Aeschylean cycles of violence, in the repeated calls for justice and in the repeated bloodshed and atrocities, an image not only of our own times, but of all times since these plays were written. What human institutions we have to control these savage urges of ours seem precarious at best, and often compromised; and sometimes, indeed, the very reason for yet another cycle of bloodshed and retribution. The Furies cannot after all be banished.

If Aeschylus’ main interest was in the themes of justice and of cycles of violence, Sophocles was more interested in what this violence does to the human psyche. The past is still important, but the rights and wrongs stretch back neither so far, nor so deeply, as in Aeschylus’ plays. In this version of the story, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter because he had inadvertently offended Artemis by hunting on her sacred land. This terrible human sacrifice is not, here, a connecting link in the endless chain of historic rights and wrongs, but, rather, the humour of a cruel and heartless divinity. And Sophocles’ Elektra, unlike the Elektra of Aeschylus, has grown up a fierce and feral creature. Treated even worse than the slaves, starved and beaten, barely even recognisable as human, she has one thought and one thought only – the murder of her mother. This savage desire has invaded her entire being, and deformed everything about her. She undergoes through the course of the drama a vast range of emotions, but even those emotions that are, or should be, beautiful and sacred, are here deformed. She grieves when she hears of the death of her brother Orestes, but that grief is not merely an expression of the loss of one she has loved: it expresses also her rage that her mother can no longer be murdered. Conversely, her joy in finding her brother alive is not easily separated from her joy in realising that soon, very soon, her mother’s skull will be split open by an axe. And when the axe does fall, and we hear Klytemnestra’s screams offstage, what we see on stage is perhaps the greatest horror of all:

ELEKTRA: Stab her again –
if you have the strength!
– from the translation by Robert Bagg

By the end of the play, Elektra is utterly triumphant. But in her very victory is her defeat. The one thing she has desired, had desired above all else, has now been achieved, but the cost has been horrendous: it is hard to see her even as a human being.

I had seen this play over 20 years ago now – I cannot, I’m afraid, remember the translation used – in a nerve-jangling production directed by Deborah Warner, and with Fiona Shaw striking terror into the heart with a performance of the utmost savagery. Of course, Sophocles’ play itself is a work of the utmost savagery, and it was on this version of the Elektra story that Hugo von Hofmannstahl based his libretto for Strauss’ opera. He keeps reasonably close to the play – although he starts, not as Sophocles had done, with Orestes returning to Mycenae with his friend Pylades and his old servant, but with Elektra herself and the maidservants. In Sophocles’ play, the maidservants are largely sympathetic to Elektra, and are on stage throughout, discoursing with Elektra and providing commentary; in the opera, they are largely unsympathetic to her, and do not appear after the first scene. But the most significant change is in the great confrontation between Elektra and Klytemnestra: in the play, it is Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis who tells her of Klytemnestra’s dream, and when Elektra and Klytemnestra meet, they each speak of the justice of their respective causes, though each is unable to take in what the other is saying. But in the opera, neither character refers to past events: the focus is not on the past at all, but, quite unremittingly, on their present states of mind. It is Klytemnestra who describes her dream to Elektra, and here, in possibly the most terrifying passage of any opera, Strauss’ music twists and turn and curdles and churns and drifts off into multiple tonalities, evoking mental landscapes that most of us, hopefully, do not encounter even in our most horrific nightmares.

Elektra is on stage, still alive, at the end of Sophocles’ play: the tragedy is not that she dies, but, rather, in the deformation of her mind, in her defeat even as she claims victory. In Strauss’ opera, Elektra, her sole purpose in life achieved and with nothing more to live for, falls dead, in, one can but assume, an excess of ecstasy. But the sheer terror of brutal, implacable hatred is not something that leaves the listener easily. It has been two weeks now since that concert, and that sense of terror is with me still.

But perhaps the opera is not entirely to blame for that: always a sucker for punishment, I suppose, I have been immersing myself these last two weeks in Sophocles’ play, in translations by Robert Bagg and by Michael Ewans. (A production of Michael Ewans’ version may be seen here.)

In works I value written in languages to which I have no access, I often find myself comparing different translations; but whenever I compare translations of Greek tragedies, the differences are so often so great, I can’t help wondering whether the various translators are all working from the same text. I suppose it could also be the case that the original text contains so many different layers of meaning, that translators are forced to interpret, and highlight certain meanings above others. But I was glad I picked these two particular translations, as they are so very different in conception. Ewans (and his colleagues Graham Ley and Gregory McCart for the other Sophocles plays in the set) focuses hard on how the plays would have been staged in the Greek theatre: the various scenes are numbered, the strophes and antistrophes clearly marked, and so on. The language, if not necessarily monumental, is dignified. Bagg and Scully on the other hand aim for a greater fluidity of language, not afraid of intrusions of what may strike us as modern diction. When I had written earlier of James Scully’s translation of Sophocles’ Aias, I had been generally appreciative, but had complained of the occasional sense of bathos; but now, having read all the Sophocles translations by Robert Bagg and James Scully, I think that criticism had been more a reflection of my own expectations than anything else; for, as the translators say in the introduction, the plays of Sophocles range across a wide range of dictions, including the everyday, and that the expectation we have of a monumental quality does these plays no favours at all. Not knowing Greek myself I am in no position to argue; but it is fair to say, I think, that I have now become accustomed to their style of translation, and, while I am clearly unable to comment on its closeness either to the letter or to the spirit of the original, I no longer find in them those  moments of bathos that had struck me on my first reading.

However, I remain perplexed at some of the variations between the two translations. For instance, in Bagg’s translation, Elektra says near the start of the play to the chorus of maid-servants:

So how can I be calm
and rational? Or god-fearing?
Sisters … I’m so immersed
in all this evil, how
could I not be evil too?

In Ewans’ translation, this becomes:

My friends, in such a situation it’s impossible
to be modest and reverent; when times are bad
there is tremendous pressure to act badly too.

I suppose the two versions say similar things, but the effect is very different: “when times are bad” is hardly the same as “in all this evil”. I have no idea which one is closer to Sophocles, but in terms of how it reads in English, much prefer Bagg’s version here: it is more direct, and depicts a self-awareness on Elektra’s part of what she has become; in contrast, in Ewans’ version, Elektra’s lines seem merely defensive, and its phrasing seems to me dramatically weak.

But then, compare this following passage, when Elektra recognises her brother Orestes:

The hate of many years has melted into me,
And now I’ve seen you, I’ll never stop
my tears of joy. How could I stop?
I’ve seen you come back here first dead and then alive;
You’ve wounded me in ways I cannot understand.
– from the translation by Michael Ewans

 I think this is splendid – especially that final line. But here is the same passage in Bagg’s translation:

My hatred for her runs too deep.
Since you’ve come home, I feel
so much joy it makes me cry.
How could I not? One moment
you’re dead, the next, you’re not!
you’ve made me believe anything
can happen.
– from the translation by Robert Bagg

In this instance, it is Ewans’ version that seems to me both poetically and dramatically more impressive. But I must confess myself puzzled by their renditions of that last line. No matter how knotty the original text may be, it is hard to believe the same line of Greek yielding the different interpretations “You’ve wounded me in ways I cannot understand” and “You’ve made me believe anything can happen.” These are times when I wish I had a classical education, so I could read what the original says.

However, having spent these last two weeks since the concert perusing these two versions of Sophocles’ Elektra, and having listening to a recording of it (I have the famous recording conducted by Georg Solti with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, with Birgit Nilsson as Elektra), I find I am no nearer an answer to my original question: why should we cultivate a taste and receptive faculties to take in something so horrific and so utterly devoid of nobility or of elevated thought as this? Oh, of course, one can wheel out all the old arguments about how tragedy purges us, and all the rest of it, but I have never quite believed that: I don’t think a work such as Elektra purges us of anything – not me, at any rate. In Aeschylus’ play, this horrific story is part of a larger pattern in which, even in the joyous finale, the dark shadows obstinately remain. And in Sophocles’ play, and in the modernist masterpiece created by Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannstahl, we are presented with an unblinking look into the darkest abyss of the human spirit; these works depict humans so deformed morally and mentally that they can barely be recognised as human at all. And no, I cannot defend the fascination I obviously feel for these works. Maybe those who walked out had a point after all!

“To thine own self be true…”

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

These lines are often cited as great wisdom, as evidence of how wise and profound a thinker Shakespeare was. They are spoken, however, by Polonius, who is anything but a wise and profound thinker. Indeed, he is a shallow man, a pompous, long-winded buffoon, one of those “tedious old fools” that Hamlet refers to so contemptuously. These lines of wisdom occur towards the end of an excruciatingly tedious oration delivered by Polonius to his son Laertes, peppered from beginning to end with cracker-mottoes of the most mind-numbing banality. Far from depicting profundity, these lines serve merely to depict Polonius as a man who has no conception of the complexities of life that Prince Hamlet is grappling with, a manwhose idea of wisdom is no more than a few trite and meaningless platitudes.

For what does it mean to be “true to one’s self”? What, for that matter, is “one’s self”? The very opening line of this play, a seemingly casual “who’s there?” spoken by a guard on duty on the battlements, rings through the rest of the play: it poses the question of identity. Is Hamlet being true to his self when he is a sweet prince, greeting his social inferiors Bernardo and Marcellus with courtesy? Or is he being more true to his self when making nasty and obscene suggestions to Ophelia in the open court? When he fails to kill the king when given the opportunity to do so, or when he plunges his sword into the arras only a few minutes later thinking the king is hiding behind it? Even after all these centuries, we have not come close to plucking out the heart of Hamlet’s mystery, and this is because his true self, like all our true selves, whether we recognise it or not, is complex: we do not even know what these true selves are that we are instructed to be true to.

To see Polonius’ exhortations to his son as pearls of wisdom is to see the complexity of this play through Polonius’ uncomprehending eyes. It is a grotesque reduction. It is to see the moral paths of Right and Wrong as clear as they are in Aesop’s fables, and characters as flawed for not seeing what is so apparent. It is to imagine that identifying a tragic flaw on the part of the protagonist can help us come close even to an adequate understanding of these endlessly intricate works. Such reduction leads not merely to a simplified view of these works, but to a distorted view. Far from helping us understand the work, it takes us further from it.

Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. ’Sblood, do you think I am easier to be play’d on than a pipe?

“King Lear” at the National Theatre

The following is a review of Shakespeare’s King Lear from the National Theatre, London, starring Simon Russell Beale and directed by Sam Mendes, seen as a live cinema broadcast on May 1st, 2014

Anna Maxwell-Martin and Simon Russell Beale as Regan and Lear (Picture courtesy of National Theatre)

Anna Maxwell-Martin and Simon Russell Beale as Regan and Lear (Picture courtesy of National Theatre)

As a Shakespeare commentator, A. C. Bradley is, for understandable reasons, somewhat out of fashion these days, but I do tend to agree with him when he describes King Lear as Shakespeare’s greatest achievement, but not his greatest play:

When I regard it strictly as a drama, it appears to me, though in certain parts overwhelming, decidedly inferior as a whole to Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth. When I am feeling that it is greater than any of these, and the fullest revelation of Shakespeare’s power, I find I am not regarding it simply as a drama, but am grouping it in my mind with works like the Prometheus Vinctus and the Divine Comedy, and even with the greatest symphonies of Beethoven and the statues in the Medici Chapel.

I suppose there’s room for debate on the first point: is King Lear Shakespeare’s “greatest achievement”? The Henry IV plays, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, the sonnets, etc. all have claims on that score; but if one were to qualify Bradley’s assertion to “one of Shakespeare’s greatest achievements”, few, I imagine, would dissent: speaking personally, I can’t think of any other work of art, in any medium, that makes on me a greater impact than this. But as for Bradley’s second point, there can surely be no quarrel at all: as a play, it is a mess. How many other plays can one think of where a character who is a major presence in the first half disappears without explanation half way through, and is never referred to again? Where another major character is given virtually no motivation at all for what can only be described as outrageous behaviour? Where important plot complications are introduced as late as the fourth act, when there is not sufficient time to resolve them satisfactorily? Where the sub-plot resembles the principal plot so closely that the climactic moment of this sub-plot has to take place off-stage so as to avoid repetition? Where there is much travel between different locations, but no indication given of how far from each other these locations are, nor how long the characters would need to travel from one to the other?

And yet, this is not because Shakespeare did not know how to write plays: even as early as The Comedy of Errors, it is obvious that he was a master of his craft, shaping and pacing unerringly even the most intricate of plots. And it is worth noting also that when Shakespeare revised the text (assuming the Folio text is a revision of the Quarto text – a reasonable assumption, I think, to make), although he did tidy up a few loose ends, there were many other loose ends (e.g. the mysterious disappearance of the Fool half way through the play) which he could very easily have sorted out, but which he chose not to. This suggests to me not merely that the rough edges don’t matter in the overall context, but, further, that Shakespeare had actually intended these rough edges to remain; that we should no more lament the seemingly unfinished nature of this play than we should the unfinished nature of so many of Michelangelo’s sculptures.

I don’t insist on that last point. Possibly a finished surface would have made this an even greater work, but, given my decades-long familiarity with the work as Shakespeare left it, I cannot imagine it any other way. But whatever the reason for the seemingly unfinished and rough-edged quality of this play, it causes no end of headaches for the director. What is an actor to make of Edgar, whose frequently bizarre behaviour seems so utterly unmotivated? What can an actor make of Edmund, for that matter – the complete villain who, for some unknown reason, decides to do some good before he dies? What can an actor make of a character so dull and two-dimensional as the Earl of Kent? Or any of the other supporting characters, who all seem – at least in comparison with the supporting characters in Shakespeare’s other mature tragedies – so desperately under-written?

This latest National Theatre production, broadcast live in cinemas last week, features at its centre an extraordinarily powerful performance from Simon Russell Beale as Lear, but otherwise, presents what seemed to me a rather lacklustre and frequently misjudged interpretation. Kate Fleetwood as Goneril, and Anna Maxwell-Martin as an increasingly psychotic Regan both impressed, but the rest of the cast seemed to do little with their characters. Admittedly, Shakespeare hadn’t given them much to work on, but I have seen more made of Gloucester and his two sons, of the Fool, and even of Kent, than was apparent here. Many of the directorial decisions (by Sam Mendes) also seemed to me doubtful. There is, in theory, no objection to playing Shakespeare in modern dress, but in this case, it meant that the heraldic formalities preceding the duel between Edgar and Edmund in the final act could no longer make sense: here, the entire duel was cut, with Edgar simply walking on stage, declaring himself, and casually assassinating Edmund. It seemed, somehow, too casual and too understated an act to serve as a resolution of what has been, till then, a major strand of the play. And it also deprived that final scene of much of its weight: thinning out the material between Lear’s great speech at the start of the scene (“No, no, no, no, come, let’s away to prison…”), and his entrance at the end with Cordelia’s body, may have seemed like a good idea: after all, who is really interested in Edgar and Edmund by this stage of the drama? But in practice, the pacing seemed all wrong, and, despite Simon Russell’s Beale’s peerless delivery of some of the most intense of all tragic lines, the impact this scene normally makes seemed somehow diminished.

One can also question the wisdom of providing an explanation for the disappearance of the Fool. Trevor Nunn’s RSC production had also accounted for this: there, we saw the Fool hanged by Cornwall’s soldiers, thus linking the disappearance to Lear’s line near the end of the play, “And my poor fool is hanged”. (In most productions, Lear refers here to Cordelia rather than to the Fool.) Here, as in Adrian Noble’s 1982 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Lear kills the Fool himself in a frenzy of madness in III,vi, and the Fool’s enigmatic words – “And I’ll go to bed at noon” – become his dying words. It is certainly a shocking moment; but introducing such a moment of shocking violence at this stage diminishes the shock value of the scene that follows immediately after, in which a servant is killed, Cornwall is fatally wounded, and, most famously, Gloucester has his eyes plucked out. It is this later scene, surely, that should be the culminating point of the tempestuous third act: in this production, it did not seem so. In any case, there is surely little point served in explaining the disappearance of the Fool: we are here within a dramatic framework in which the world itself has stopped making sense: why go out of one’s way to explain something that Shakespeare, even in his revisions, did not think worth explaining?

There are several other features in this production which seemed to me misjudged. When, for instance, Lear delivered his terrible curse to Goneril (I,iv), here, Goneril reacted instinctively by slapping her father; and later, in the mock-trial scene, Lear’s allegation that Goneril had “kicked the poor king, her father” is changed to “hit the poor king, her father”. This diminishes the drama in every sense. Is it at all credible that Lear, a man accustomed all his life to unquestioned obedience, unable to control his violent temper, and already in a towering rage, would take a slap from his own daughter and let it pass? Lear’s allegation in the mock-trial scene in Act III – that Goneril had kicked him – is a wonderfully mad and surreal image, and I see nothing to be gained by ironing out this surreal madness into something that is true and reasonable. And in any case, the word “kicked”, with its concentration of plosive consonants, makes a far greater impact that the relatively weak “hit”. Shakespeare knew what he was doing: re-writes almost invariably result in diminution.

There were other things also. Edmund was presented as a corporate careerist, bespectacled, sharp-suited, and with a portfolio under his arm; Edgar, in contrast, was a layabout – casually dressed, swigging from a bottle of wine and smoking a fag*. It wasn’t clear why they were characterised thus, nor why these characterisations had to be made so blatantly obvious.

But even given all this, it is a measure of the extraordinary qualities of the work that it reduced me once again to tears. Simon Russell Beale must take the credit for this. Right from the start, he presented a man still physically powerful, but who is already descending into dementia: his mind is beginning to go, and he knows it. I have rarely seen that moment in I,v where he confronts this awareness directly for the first time (“Let me not be mad, sweet heaven”) performed with such heartbreaking poignancy. He takes care to differentiate, as all the best Lears do, between the violent but essentially childish tantrums of the first act and the deeper passion that overtakes him later in the play. His reunion with Cordelia, where, out of shame, he could hardly bring himself to look at her, really couldn’t have been done better; and his inconsolable howling over her dead body really did seem like the promised end, or an image of that horror. This was a tremendous Lear; but it needed badly a production that was better thought out, and in which the supporting cast could rise above the various directorial misjudgements, and make something out of their admittedly difficult roles.


* Whatever a “fag” may mean on the other side of the Pond, in UK, it means a cigarette.

The two King Lears

Lear, enraged by Goneril, rants at her thus in the Quarto text of King Lear:

Does anyone here know me? Why, this is not Lear.
Does Lear walk thus, speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, or his discernings
Are lethargied. Sleeping or waking, ha?
Sure, ‘tis not so.
Who is it who can tell me who I am?
Lear’s shadow? I would fain learn that, for by the marks
Of sovereignty, knowledge, and reason
I should be false persuaded I had daughters.

Fool:      Which they will make an obedient father.

Lear (to Gonoril): Your name, fair gentlewoman?

– From Scene iv of the Quarto text (1608), edited by Stanley Wells, Oxford World Classics

In the 1623 folio text, this same passage appears thus:

Does anyone here know me? This is not Lear:
Does Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, his discernings
Are lethargied. Ha! Waking? ‘Tis not so!
Who is it that can tell me who I am?

Fool:      Lear’s shadow.

Lear (to Gonerill): Your name, fair gentlewoman?

– From I,iv of the Folio text (1623), edited by Jay L. Halio, New Cambridge Shakespeare

Different, certainly, but the situation and characters depicted are, I think, much the same. What we tend to get in most texts and productions is a conflated version. Here is the same passage from the conflated version in the Arden Shakespeare series:

Does anyone here know me? Why, this is not Lear.
Does Lear walk thus, speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, or his discernings are lethargied. Ha! Sleeping or waking? Sure, ‘tis not so. Who is it who can tell me who I am?

Fool:      Lear’s shadow.

Lear:      I would fain learn that, for by the marks of sovereignty, knowledge, and reason, I should be false persuaded I had daughters.

Fool:      Which they will make an obedient father.

Lear (to Goneril): Your name, fair gentlewoman?

– From I,iv of conflated text, edited by R. A. Foakes, Arden Shakespeare

I realise one can get too precious about these matters, but it does seem to me that either the Quarto text or the Folio text is preferable to the conflated version. In the Quarto text, Lear’s rant builds up a fine head of steam, but is deflated at the end by the Fool’s one’s liner. Lear then turns to Gonoril (so-spelt) with heavy-handed irony. In the Folio text, the rant is curtailed, and the words “Lear’s shadow” that had previously been spoken by Lear as a rhetorical question, are now spoken by the Fool as an ironic rejoinder to Lear. But the conflation seems to me the worst of all worlds: giving the words “Lear’s shadow” to the Fool while the rant is still in full flow not only robs the rest of the rant of all momentum, it also diminishes the impact of the Fool’s deflating one-liner once Lear is finished.

Time after time I found passages like that. Most of the changes between the Quarto and Folio text are minor, but where there are two distinct versions of the same passage – i.e. when it is not merely a matter of changing some of the odd bit of wording, but, rather, substituting one entire passage for another – it seems to me to make little sense conflating them.

043Consider also Scene 8 in the Quarto text (III,i in the Folio). Lear has already wandered off into the storm, and his daughters have shut the door on him. Before we have the big scenes of Lear in the storm, there is a short scene between Kent (still in disguise) and an unnamed “gentleman”. This scene merely serves an expository purpose, and shouldn’t take too long. But almost invariably, the two versions of Kent’s speech to the gentleman are conflated, and, as a consequence, this speech becomes overlong: a long expository speech is surely the last thing we want at this stage of the drama! And also, as a consequence of the conflation, the exposition itself becomes muddled. In the Quarto text, the King of France does not know about what’s been happening in England, and Kent sends the gentleman to his camp to tell him; in the Folio text, the King of France knows, and so Kent doesn’t send him.  In the conflated text, the King of France knows, but Kent sends the gentleman anyway.

Despite all the many re-wordings and the occasional re-writing, the nature of the drama does not seem to me very different between the two texts. When I read the two good texts of Hamlet recently (the “Good” Quarto and the First Folio), it seemed to me that Shakespeare had revised his thoughts on certain important aspects of the play, and of Hamlet’s character, and that the two texts effectively give us two different plays. Here, the changes don’t make for so radical a re-casting of the drama: mainly, it seems that Shakespeare had tidied up the play at certain points, and, at other points, had added a few afterthoughts. The tidying up is generally, I think, to be welcomed: in the Quarto version, for example, between the scene in which the blind Gloucester is led away by Edgar, and the scene in which Goneril returns with Edmund to her castle, there are three successive scenes that do no more than explain details of the plot; cutting out one of these three scenes, as Shakespeare does in the Folio, does no harm at all: quite the contrary. However, there is at least one excision from the Quarto text that is mystifying. It is the scene during the storm in which Lear, his mind collapsed, puts his two absent daughters on “trial”. The excision of this is scene in the Folio is surely no accident: the cut is expertly done. But why? Why cut out one of the most extraordinary scenes that even Shakespeare has ever conceived? Many conjectures have been advanced, but none to my mind is convincing. Whatever Shakespeare’s reason may have been, I’d certainly feel cheated were I to see this scene cut in any performance.

And of the afterthoughts, there is at least one that is magnificent, and another that takes us into another world entirely, and defies analysis. The first is at the end of III,ii, where the Fool appears to step not merely out of character, but out of the time-frame of the drama itself, to deliver a “prophesy” to the audience; and, having done so, prophesies that the prophesy he had just made will later be made by Merlin, “for I live before his time”. Suddenly, time itself seems to yawn before us: this piece of absurdity – the prophecy itself seems to make little sense – seems to take us into a dramatic world in which nothing, not even time itself, can hold together.

And then, there is the ending. In the Quarto, we get this:

And my poor fool is hanged. No, no life.
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? O, thou wilt come no more,
Never, never, never.   Pray you, undo
This button. Thank you, sir. O, O, O, O!

Edgar:   He faints. (To Lear) My lord, my lord!

Lear:      Break heart, I prithee, break.

Now, I wonder what sort of artist could look upon even something so wonderful as this, and think it could be improved upon; or what sort of mind thinks of expanding the three nevers to five to form a trochaic pentameter:

And my poor fool is hanged. No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.
Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her! Look, her lips!
Look there, look there.

Edgar:                                          He faints. My lord, my lord!

Kent:     Break heart, I prithee, break.

Faced with something such as this, all criticism, even the finest, seems superfluous.

Gloucester’s mock-suicide

…for, once again, the fierce dispute
Betwixt damnation and impassioned clay
Must I burn through…
– John Keats

“Damnation and impassioned clay…” Keats certainly had a way with words! But impressive though those words are, I particularly love here his use of the word “must”. King Lear is a harrowing play: fierce disputes betwixt damnation and impassioned clay, even at best of times, are unlikely to be anything but harrowing. But no matter: those of us who are under its spell feel that they must keep returning to it. And no matter how many times one sees or reads this play, each new encounter overwhelms with its terror and its pity, and its savage power.

I was eleven years old when I first encountered this play. It was at the Assembly Halls in Edinburgh, during the 1971 Edinburgh Festival: Timothy West played Lear. I am not sure how much I took in, or even how much I was capable of taking in at that age: but I took in enough. I was so excited by what I had seen, that I could not get to sleep that night. There are few single instances that one could describe as “life-changing”, but I think I can with some confidence describe that evening in such terms: my Shakespeare mania can be traced back to that performance.

Timothy West was, I think, only in his forties when he played that role in Edinburgh. Some thirty or so afterwards, I saw Timothy West, now himself closer to Lear’s “fourscore and more”, play the role again, this time in an English Touring Theatre production directed by Stephen Unwin. I am afraid I cannot give a detailed account of how his interpretation had changed over the years, but his performance was every bit as overwhelming as I remember it to have been some thirty years earlier.

I am currently reading the play in two different texts. Last year, I read Hamlet in different texts – the two Quarto texts (the so-called “good Quarto”, and also the “Bad Quarto” for completeness), and the Folio – and convinced myself that when more than one legitimate text exists, then we must treat them as different versions of the work: no purpose is served in conflating them. So now, to King Lear: as with Hamlet there are two good texts – the First Quarto, of 1608, and the First Folio, printed after Shakespeare’s death in the 1623; and there are sufficient differences between the two texts to indicate significant revisions. I’ll try to compare the two texts once I have finished reading them, but for the moment, I am drawn once again into this fierce dispute betwixt damnation and impassioned clay. And there’s one scene in particular in this fierce dispute that, even after forty and more years of repeated reading and viewing, I find puzzling.

It occurs in Act 4, shortly before the famous scene in which the blind Gloucester encounters the mad Lear on the heath. Edgar, Gloucester’s exiled son, leads his eyeless father: the father is unaware of the identity of the man leading him, and, in despair, wants only to die. Edgar pretends that they are at the edge of a cliff, and delivers a magnificent vertigo-inducing description of what it is like to look down from the imagined heights. Gloucester, thinking himself to be on the edge, leaps forward, only to fall on the level ground. When he comes to, Edgar approaches him again, this time pretending to be another person; and he tells Gloucester that he is now at the foot of the cliff, having fallen from the top, and that, but by some miracle, has remained physically unscathed. He adds also that the person Gloucester had been with at the top of the cliff – himself of course – had appeared to him from the bottom as some sort of fiendish supernatural figure.

This episode has always struck me as bizarre. I frankly do not understand it. Edgar playing these games with his sightless father makes no sort of sense at all: what is he trying to achieve? He tells us that he is doing all this to cure his father from despair, but how all this tomfoolery could achieve such an end, or even why he thinks it could achieve that end, is far from clear. It is utterly bizarre.

And yet, it is a scene that haunts the mind. I do not understand it, and I cannot see how it fits with what I understand to be the themes of the play. But I would not even think of cutting it from performance. After all, Shakespeare did not remove it when he revised the work: he clearly thought it important.

Am I missing something here? Or is this scene – like Charmian’s “Ah, soldier!” – one of those Shakespearean miracles that defy analysis? I do not know. Analysis is important, certainly, but it is salutary perhaps to keep in mind that a work of this stature has about it a mystery; and that even the most trenchant of analyses cannot pluck out the heart of that mystery.

The cause of thunder

What is the cause of thunder?
– From “King Lear”, III, iv

It’s a recurring theme in the plays of Shakespeare: a man is overcome by jealousy, and falsely suspects his wife or his betrothed of infidelity. I suppose one may speculate why Shakespeare kept returning to this theme, but such speculation is pointless: more interesting is what he did with this theme. It occurs quite spectacularly, of course, in Othello; and it occurs also in Much Ado About Nothing, where it pulls what had till that point been a sparkling comedy into a tragic direction; and in The Merry Wives of Windsor, this same motif crops up in an unambiguously comic mode. And it crops up in two of his very late plays – Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale. In the former, the threatened catastrophe is averted at the end, but in The Winter’s Tale, the catastrophe cannot be avoided: the worst that can happen does happen. But where, in a conventional tragic drama, this worst is the promised end, or an image of that horror, the drama of The Winter’s Tale continues beyond this point: it journeys beyond the tragic, and presents a vision of penitence, of atonement, and finally, of reconciliation. It presents, indeed, a vision of the Resurrection itself. We are, of course, given the option of believing that Hermione had not really died, and that her survival had been kept a secret, but so unlikely is this explanation that we are more prepared to believe the impossible rather than the improbable: at the end of this play, Hermione is brought, like Alcestis, from the grave. It is a dramatisation of our most deeply held desires: reconciliation with those we have lost, forgiveness for all the wrongs we have done each other.

But before the reconciliation, we must face the tragedy, and the tragedy, when it occurs, leaves behind utter devastation, and the utmost desolation. All innocence, all tenderness, all that we like to think of as “human”, is swept aside as if by a whirlwind. Where does such immense force of evil come from? What, as Lear had asked, is the cause of thunder? This issue raises its head many of Shakespeare’s earlier plays: Why is Iago evil? What makes Othello commit such a horrendously evil act? How does evil make its way into the souls of Macbeth and of Lady Macbeth? There is no easy answer to these questions, but they  must nonetheless be raised in any intelligent consideration of these works. However, in The Winter’s Tale, even raising these questions seems pointless. It’s not that the answers are difficult and complex: rather, there is no answer. Leontes we first see as a loving husband and father; but then, abruptly, he turns into a raving maniac, convinced that his wife has betrayed him. There is no dramatic preparation for this eruption – no Iago, not even a handkerchief; there’s not the slightest hint of psychological instability that may make Leontes prone to jealousy. It just happens. It just is.

The lack of any ostensible cause of the thunder makes the thunder even more horrific. The evil descends as a sort of illness, a disease. Hermione, Leontes’ wife, even at her lowest, sees it as such, and can even feel compassion for the man who is torturing her:

                 How will this grieve you,
When you shall come to clearer knowledge, that
You thus have publish’d me!

Hermione’s prediction proves correct: once the illness passes, all Leontes has left is a life of grief and guilt – grief because all that had been to him of value is now destroyed, and guilt because, illness or no, it is he who is the destroyer.

This motif of a man overcome by madness and destroying all that is most precious to him had occurred also in a play that Shakespeare is unlikely to have known: Euripides’ Heracles. The structure of Heracles is as unorthodox and as daring as that of The Winter’s Tale. From the opening lines, the drama concerns itself with the fate of Heracles’ family – his wife, his children, his aged father – who, in Heracles’ absence, face being slaughtered by the tyrant Lycus; and the drama appears to be  resolved by the sudden appearance, just in the nick of time, of Heracles himself, who had been thought dead. And so, some two thirds of the way into the play, as Heracles goes off-stage to dispatch the evil Lycus (the violence in Greek drama always taking place away from the audience’s view), it seems that all that remains to see the play through to the end are the final choruses of triumph. But there is a sudden and savage twist that takes the play into an entirely unexpected direction: even as the chorus is rejoicing in anticipation of Heracles’ triumph, and in the deliverance of his innocent family, there appears above the palace Iris, the messenger of the goddess Hera, and the fearsome figure of Madness. As with Leontes’ murderous jealousy, nothing has prepared us for this: it is the seeming arbitrariness of it all that shocks. No reason is given for the appearance of these figures, other than Hera’s hatred for Heracles; and no explanation is given for that hatred. Hera and Iris, for reasons they do not feel necessary to divulge to mere mortals, are determined to infect Heracles with madness. And in his madness, he murders his own family. The family he had gone off-stage to rescue from slaughter, he himself slaughters.

Afterwards, when the madness leaves him, he knows, as does Leontes, that not only has all that had been most precious to him been destroyed, but that, further, he is himself the destroyer. “Never did I know such sorrow as this; there must be a limit to endurance.” But there is no limit. Not in Euripides’ tragic vision. In the original legend, Heracles killed his family in his madness before he embarks on the labours: the labours, indeed, were intended as an atonement. But Euripides places the slaughter of his family after the labours: there can be no atonement for what has been done.

Shakespeare’s vision, at least by the time he came to write The Winter’s Tale, was a bit different: here, there is atonement, there is reconciliation, and forgiveness. But the reconciliation is very subdued: the tone is not that of ecstatic joy, but of a muted serenity. Mamilius, after all, is still dead; and nothing can bring back those years of separation and of desolation: what has been suffered cannot be unsuffered. Not even with a mystical resurrection can all losses be restored, or sorrows end: nothing can wipe away fully the consequences of our actions. But although the joy is muted and subdued, it is nonetheless there, and it is a thing of wonder.

I am still not sure how best to react to this deeply enigmatic final scene, that seems to express simultaneously both the deepest joy and the deepest sorrow; but I find myself moved more deeply at each re-reading. This ending seems to come from the deepest recess of Shakespeare’s imagination, which has gone beyond the realms of human tragedy into some other world. Even more so than The Tempest, it is this miraculous play that I like to think of as Shakespeare’s last artistic testament. It is a work that, perhaps, we still have not come round to fully understanding.

[The line quoted from Heracles is taken from the translation by John Davie, published by Penguin Classics]

“The air is thick with ghosts…”

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, translated and directed by Stephen Unwin, at Rose Theatre, Kingston.

Please note that the run at Rose Theatre Kingston has now finished, but this production will be touring with the English Touring Theatre. See here for venues and dates.


“The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”
–        William Faulkner, from Requiem for a Nun

“The past is the present, isn’t it? And it’s the future too.”
–       Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night, by Eugene O’Neill

The “exposition” is traditionally that part of the play in which the audience is provided with the background information that is required to follow the action. Usually, this required information deals with events of the past, and is generally imparted as quickly and as unobtrusively as possible, so as not to hold up the main action of the drama. But there is a certain type of play in which the past is itself the essence of the drama – where the “main action of the drama” is the process of understanding, and of coming to terms with (or, more frequently, of not being able to come to terms with) the events of the past. In these instances, the entire play becomes, in effect, one long exposition. Such plays aren’t new: Sophocles’ Oedipus the King is a prime example. And these plays continued into the twentieth century – Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, for instance. But perhaps no other dramatist more insistently explored the impact of the past on the present than did Henrik Ibsen: Rosmersholm, The Master Builder, John Gabriel Borkman, and, in particular, Ghosts, all see the present as something that has been shaped by the past, as something in which the ghosts of the past continue to haunt, and from which they cannot be banished. There is no escaping these ghosts, much though we may long to. “The air is thick with ghosts,” says Mrs Alving early in the play, possibly not realising at the time the terrible implications of this.

This focus on the past from which there is no escape gives these plays a sense of constriction, of being trapped in a machine that cannot be anything other than infernal. The scene here is the middle-class drawing room that certain later critics and playwrights have seen fit to mock as “bourgeois”; but  the contents of this particular “bourgeois drama” did more to  “épater la bourgeoisie” than just about any other play one can think of. It’s not just the mechanisms of the plot – inherited syphillis, proposed incest, possible euthanasia – that were shocking: the very basis of the audience’s moral compass was subjected to an unremitting assault. Nowadays, of course, we aren’t so rigid – at least in the Western world – about moral codes of behaviour: we are far more likely now to laugh at the conventional morality of Pastor Manders, or, indeed, to see him as a caricature, than to nod away in agreement; but nonetheless, as this production amply demonstrated, this play’s ability to shock remains undimmed. And it is still there because, I think, it is only superficially about the inadequacy in our lives of conventional morality: considered at a deeper level, this play is about the ghosts that continue to haunt us – that terrible burden of the past from which none of us can ultimately free ourselves, and only in the context of which can we come to any self-understanding.

The past emerges in fragments as the play progresses. First, Pastor Manders tells us of the time when Mrs Alving, then a young wife, had left her husband and had sought refuge with him. He had wrestled with his own desires (although he does not, can not, tell us this), and had persuaded Mrs Alving back to the path of duty: he had persuaded her to returning to her husband to whom she has been united by God. This is a world in which duty is all-important; there is no room here for joy:

To pursue happiness in this world is to be governed by the spirit of rebellion. What right do we have to happiness? No, we must do our duty, Mrs Alving. And your duty was to cleave to the man you’d chosen and to whom you were tied by a sacred bond.

Her husband, Captain Alving, is now dead. And an orphanage, named after him, and financed by the wealth he had bequeathed, is soon to open. But this version of the past, of Captain Alving as a good and respectable man, is a lie, and Mrs Alving is now capable of telling Pastor Manders the truth: Captain Alving had not stopped being a dissipated man, and their marriage was an empty and a desperately unhappy sham. She had sent away her son, Osvald, at an early age, not as a dereliction of duty, but to prevent him associating with his debauched father; she had not wanted him to inherit anything of his (has ever a dramatic irony been so devastating?) With the money spent on the orphanage, the association with Captain Alving is now, Mrs Alving believes, finished: a line can now be drawn under it, and life can start afresh.

In the play The Father, Strindberg, objecting to what he regarded as feminism on Ibsen’s part, has his principal character say sarcastically that, some day, he would like to hear Captain Alving’s side of the story. Ibsen, however, had been ahead of the game on this score. Of course, since this is a realistic drama (at least on the surface), Ibsen could not bring back, Rashomon-like, the ghost of Captain Alving to give his own perspective; but the ghost is there all the same, and, towards the end of the play, before the final catastrophe, in an extraordinary moment of revelation, Mrs Alving begins to see a picture wider than the one that has so embittered her:

MRS ALVING:  … You were talking earlier about joy in life, and what you said shed light on everything in my life.

OSVALD (shaking his head): I don’t understand.

MRS ALVING: You should have known your father when he was young. He was full of joy in life, I can tell you.

OSVALD: Yes, I know.

MRS ALVING: It made me feel like Sunday weather just looking at him, full of such tremendous life and energy.

OSVALD: So what happened?

MRS ALVING: Well, this boy – so full of joy in life – he was just a boy back then – well, he  had to live in a small town with no joy, just diversions. He had to live a pointless life out here, as a government official. He had no real work, just routine. And not a single friend who could appreciate joy in life; just layabouts and drunks…

OSVALD: Mother…

MRS ALVING: And so the inevitable happened.

OSVALD: What inevitable?

MRS ALVING: You said earlier what you’d turn into if you stayed at home.

OSVALD: You mean that father – ?

MRS ALVING: Your poor father never found an outlet for that great joy in life inside him. And I didn’t bring much either.

OSVALD: You didn’t?

MRS ALVING: I’d been taught duty, and all the things I believed in so long. Everything came down to duty – my duty, his duty and – I’m afraid I made your poor father’s home unbearable, Osvald.

–       Translated by Stephen Unwin

[Incidentally, I’m pleased to see Stephen Unwin retain “Sunday weather”, which, I presume, is in the original. Other translators I have consulted replace it with something more idiomatically English, and I can see why; but “Sunday weather” has a good sound to it. Some other alternative are: “It was like a sunny morning just to see him” (Michael Meyer); “It was like a holiday weather just to look at him” (Rolf Fjelde); while Peter Watts avoids the expression altogether with “He was so full of vitality and boundless energy that it did your heart good just to see him”.]

Mrs Alving comes to recognise here her own part in this immense tragedy: she too now realises the terrible toll taken on the human spirit when the claims of joy are not acknowledged, and the very right to pursue happiness denied (“What right do we have to happiness?”)

The truth is arrived at slowly, and its final, terrible manifestation comes as the sun finally breaks through the gloom. And the truth, as so often in Ibsen, brings no relief. The truth is something that much exercised Ibsen’s imagination: in his very next play, An Enemy of the People, written, possibly, as a response to the virulent criticism Ghosts had received, Ibsen proclaims loudly the importance of acknowledging the truth; but even while proclaiming this, awkward questions remain unanswered, and in his subsequent plays, Ibsen addresses these questions. In The Wild Duck, he ponders on those truths that we cannot live with; and in Rosmersholm, he examines the elusive nature of truth itself, and the uncertainty of our perceptions. Here, in Ghosts, the truth is brutal, and inescapable. All attempts to deny the past, to draw a line under it, are doomed to fail: the ghosts of the past cannot be laid so easily. The name of Captain Alving was intended to grace an orphanage, but this attempt to deny the truth about the past goes up, quite literally, in flames; his name ends up gracing, more appropriately, a “sailors’ home” – videlicet, a brothel. The truth is indeed a terrible thing, and when the sun finally breaks through in the final scene, it reveals a scene of devastation, and of utmost terror.

We may no longer object to this play on moral grounds, as past generations have done; our moral perceptions have certainly changed since 1882, when this play was first performed to predictably outraged critical response. But in a world that, like the town in which Captain Alving lived, appears not to believe in joy, and sees mere diversion as an adequate substitute, this unblinking stare into the truth of our condition retains its terrifying power.


I have seen this play twice on television (once with Dorothy Tutin as Mrs Alving, and another production with Judi Dench), but this is the first time I have seen it on stage. It certainly makes a difference. The atmospheric sets, designed by Simon Higglett, are based on the designs made by Edvard Much for a 1906 production directed by Max Reinhardt, and they enhance superbly the claustrophobic horror of the work. Stephen Unwin’s direction presents the work with his customary clarity, respecting the integrity of Ibsen’s text without sacrificing anything in the way of dramatic immediacy. And the performances I cannot imagine being bettered. It is important, for instance, not to present Pastor Manders as a caricature, as he could so easily become: he is a hypocrite, yes, but by no means a conscious hypocrite; and Mrs Alving, on stage through virtually the entire play and having to sustain its terrifying intensity, must surely be among the most demanding of all stage roles: Patrick Drury and Kelly Hunter, respectively, play these very difficult parts superbly. And the smaller parts – smaller only in terms of the number of lines spoken rather than in terms of their importance to the drama – are expertly taken by Mark Quartley, Florence Hall, and by Pip Donaghy. In short, if this play tours to anywhere near where you live, and you do not object to an evening of nerve-jangling drama that is as far from traditional “feelgood” as may be imagined, then this production is most strongly recommended. It inspires terror, yes, but perhaps we need to experience such terror from time to time. I left the theatre shaken, even though I knew what to expect. But yes, for whatever perverse reason, I would gladly experience this all over again.

A dog barks at Sir Oracle

I am Sir Oracle, and when I ope my lips, let no dog bark
– From The Merchant of Venice, I,i, 93-4

129It’s not often that a book of literary criticism – and one weighing in at over 700 pages at that – comes with “The New York Times Bestseller” blazoned across its cover. But this – Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom – is no ordinary literary criticism: this is written by Harold Bloom, who, perhaps uniquely, is a celebrity literary critic. And this, presumably, is his magnum opus – the world’s most celebrated literary critic writing about the works of the world’s most celebrated writer. On the cover of my edition is a Sybil from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. Now, what do Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes have to do with the plays of Shakespeare, one may wonder? Easy: they are both universally reckoned to be representative of the highest peaks in their respective fields; there is no work of literature greater than the plays of Shakespeare, nor any work of art greater than the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. If books played music, I imagine this one would play Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

We’re left in little doubt, in short, that the tome we are holding in our hands in a worthy tome. The greatest writer, the greatest artist, and, without too spectacular a leap of the imagination, the greatest literary critic. This is a tome worthy to be placed reverentially beside the Complete Works of Shakespeare itself – one volume containing the text, the other explaining to us how we are to understand that text.

There has, of course, been so much written about these works, that new books on this topic, to avoid repetition of what has gone before, generally try to find a new angle; and Bloom’s new angle is mentioned both in the title, “The Invention of the Human”, and ialso in the first paragraph:

Literary character before Shakespeare is relatively unchanging; women and men are represented as aging and dying, but not as changing because their relationship to themselves, rather than to the gods or God, has changed. In Shakespeare, characters develop rather than unfold, and they develop because they reconceive themselves. Sometimes, this comes about because they overhear themselves talking, whether to themselves or to others. Self-overhearing is the royal road to individuation, and no other writer, before or since Shakespeare, has accomplished so well the virtual miracle of creating utterly different yet self-consistent voices for his more than hundred major characters and many more hundreds of highly distinctive minor personages.

One may argue against this by saying, as I did, “Bullshit!” And it is just as valid an argument as Bloom’s, since neither is supported by evidence.

Does Achilles in The Iliad not change because “[his] relationship to himself … has changed”? Does not Sakuntala similarly change in the play by Kalidasa? What about the protagonists in the Greek tragedies? In what way is the development of Hamlet or of Othello different from that of, say, Achilles or of Sakuntala or of Clytemnestra? Bloom hedges his bets by adding the word “relatively” (“Literary character before Shakespeare is relatively unchanging…”); and, later, he says “no other writer, before or since Shakespeare, has accomplished so well…” (my italics); in short, he appears to be implying that other writers have achieved this also, but not to the degree that Shakespeare has – that the difference between Shakespeare and other writers is quantitative, not qualitative. But if this is indeed what Bloom means, then it seems to make little sense to ascribe to Shakespeare “the invention of the human”.

There are other problems too. In Shakespeare, we are told, characters “develop” rather than “unfold”: this has the potential of being a useful critical insight if Bloom could be bothered to spell out what he sees as the distinction between the two. But he isn’t. Neither does he bother to explain what he means when he says that Shakespeare’s characters “reconceive” themselves. These are terms that all require discussion, and explanation: instead, they are thrown out in a take-it-or-leave-it manner. Well, given the choice, I left it: if the author can’t be arsed to explain what he means, I can’t be arsed to try to figure it out.

This opening paragraph sets the tone for the rest of the book – terms used that are neither defined nor explained nor even for that matter discussed, and contentions, consistently unargued, delivered in an oracular manner. Indeed, the picture on the cover seemed after a while quite appropriate: it is Michelangelo’s depiction of the Sybil at Delphi, the most celebrated of oracles.

However, it is questionable whether the Oracle at Delphi, enigmatic though it frequently was, spoke such gobbledegook as Bloom indulges in. Normally, I would try to argue against points I disagree with rather than baldly dismiss them as “gobbledegook”, but when no argument is presented in the first place, what is there to argue against? If it’s just a matter of unargued opinions, “gobbledegook” carries as much weight as anything Bloom says.

Bloom dutifully goes through the canon, play by play, making oracular pronouncements with little if any analysis. There’s much that I find myself taking issue with, but I don’t know that I have the time or energy to go through it all; and since no argument is ever presented, nothing seems worth arguing against. For instance, he insists The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic. This, as I am sure he knows, is a contentious point: critics, commentators, actors, directors, and even ordinary readers, at all levels of erudition (sometimes no less than Bloom’s, and occasionally, perhaps, even greater), remain divided on this point. And so, if one is to take sides on the matter, one might have thought some sort of argument might be in order. But no – argument, it seems, is only for little people: you don’t need argument when you’re a celebrity literary critic. Bloom refuses, as ever, to provide an argument, imagining forceful statement of opinion to be an adequate substitute:

One would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work.

(Something wrong with that sentence surely! “Nevertheless” means, as I understand it, “in spite of…”, and so, when one uses the word “nevertheless”, what follows that word is “in spite of” something that appears to contradict it; but , in this sentence, Bloom follows “nevertheless” with “[it is] a profoundly anti-Semitic work”, and it is far from clear what this is “in spite of”. One might have expected a celebrity literary critic to write a bit better than this!)

Bloom then proceeds to shake his head, more in sorrow than in anger, at the very thought that anyone could have the temerity to disagree with him:

Yet every time I have taught the play, many of my most sensitive and intelligent students become very unhappy when I begin with that observation.

Except this is not an observation: it is a critical judgement, and a contentious one at that; and, like all critical judgements, it is something to be arrived at after argument, not something to begin with. No wonder his sensitive and intelligent students were unhappy.

Undaunted, Bloom continues:

Nor do they accept my statements that Shylock is a comic villain and that Portia would cease to be sympathetic if Shylock were allowed to be a figure of overwhelming pathos.

Bloom does not feel the need to explain why a “comic villain” cannot also be “a figure of overwhelming pathos”; neither is he willing to admit the possibility that Portia may not indeed be particularly sympathetic, and that there is no reason to present her as such. Instead, he offers utterly unargued, and hence, utterly worthless assertions:

I have never seen The Merchant of Venice staged with Shylock as comic villain, but that is certainly how the play should be performed.

He continues:

I am afraid we tend to make The Merchant of Venice incoherent by portraying Shylock as being largely sympathetic. Yet I find myself puzzled as to what it would cost (and not only ethically) to recover the play’s coherence. Probably it would cost us Shakespeare’s Shylock, who cannot have been quite as Shakespeare intended, if indeed we can recover such an intention.

I have read this passage over many times – far more frequently than it deserves – and I still wonder that so highly rated a literary critic could be capable of writing in so incoherent a manner. What, exactly, is “Shakespeare’s Shylock”? And, what is more, a “Shakespeare’s Shylock” who “cannot have been quite as Shakespeare intended”? If Shakespeare’s Shylock is indeed something other than what Shakespeare intended, in what way is the achieved figure different from the intended figure? And how can anyone – even the oracular Bloom – know or even guess at what Shakespeare intended if the end result, which is all we have to go on, is something other than the intended result? Furthermore, if “Shakespeare’s Shylock” is indeed other than what Shakespeare had intended, why should we refer to the achieved character rather than to the intended character as “Shakespeare’s Shylock”? I have no idea frankly what Bloom is on about. And, after giving this matter far more thought than is warranted by the wretched quality of the writing, I can’t say I am much interested either: once again, if Bloom can’t be arsed to make himself clear, I can’t be arsed to search out his meaning.

Let us move on to another play featuring an outsider in Venetian society – Othello. This, Bloom proclaims (and, needless to say, doesn’t argue) is not “Othello’s tragedy”, but “Iago’s play”. And Othello must be, Bloom insists, a splendid character: Bloom deplores what he describes as “a bad modern tradition of criticism that goes from T. S. Eliot to F. R. Leavis through current New Historicism” that “has divested the hero of his splendour”. Fair enough: criticism is frequently dialogue with past interpreters, and a dialogue with Eliot and Leavis on Othello would certainly be interesting. Except Bloom isn’t interested in dialogue: the sound of his own voice is enough for him. Although both Eliot and Leavis – especially Leavis – have argued their points closely with reference to the text, Bloom, who doesn’t, is happy simply to label their criticism as “bad”, and not go further. Now, one may or may not agree with Eliot and Leavis on Othello, but one might have thought their closely argued critical insights deserve somewhat better than this.

And what is Bloom’s own take on the play? Well – where does one start?

For Bloom, this is “Iago’s play”, and he compares Iago to Milton’s Satan:

Milton’s God, like Othello, pragmatically demotes his most ardent devotee, and the wounded Satan rebels. Unable to bring down the Supreme Being, Satan ruins Adam and Eve instead, but the subtler Iago can do far better, because his only God is Othello himself…

I will refrain from commenting on Paradise Lost, as it is a long time since I read it, and I do not remember it too well: I do not recall, for instance, Satan having been “God’s most ardent devotee”, and neither do I remember Satan being demoted; but I may well be wrong on both these points. But Othello I have read frequently enough, and, while I do not claim to be anything other than an amateur enthusiast of Shakespeare, I do know that there is nothing in the text to lead us to conclude that Iago had been Othello’s “most ardent admirer”; and neither is there anything in the text to indicate Iago has been demoted: he has not been appointed Othello’s lieutenant, but being passed over for promotion is not the same as demotion. But why look for textual evidence that could spoil a nice theory? For Bloom, Iago had been Othello’s most ardent devotee, but had turned against Othello on being demoted, and this accounts for his motive. So the issue that commentators have debated and disagreed upon for centuries is here resolved at a stroke – and if the text does not support it, so much the worse for the text. After all, whom are we to believe? – Bloom, or the crooked text?

If we do take that radical step of consulting the text, we find that Iago states two motives: in the opening scene, he tells Roderigo – a character whom he deceives, and with whom he is consistently dishonest – that he hates Othello because Cassio had been preferred to himself for the position of lieutenant: no mention or even hint of an “ardent admiration” for Othello, nor even of demotion. This motive, once stated, is never referred to again. Later in the play, Iago puts forward, twice, a very different motive: in his soliloquies at the end of I,ii, and again at the end of II,i, Iago mentions that he suspects his wife of having had an affair with Othello:

And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets
He’s done my office. I know not if’t be true
But I or mere suspicion in that kind
Will do as it were for surety.

…partly to diet my revenge
For that I do suspect the lusty Moor
Hath leaped into my seat, the thought whereof
Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards…
(II, 1, 293-5)

And later, his wife Emilia also refers to Iago’s suspicions:

…Some such squire it was
That turned your wit the seamy side without
And made you to suspect me with the Moor.
(IV, ii, 146-8)

[The line numbers both here and elsewhere refer to the numbering in the 3rd Arden edition of Othello]

Of course, both these motives can and have been questioned. But if we are to look for Iago’s motives, then it would seem that sexual jealousy, twice mentioned in soliloquies and once referred to independently by his wife, carries greater weight than lack of promotion, which is mentioned only once, and that to a character whom Iago deceives throughout the play. But it is the lack of promotion (or “demotion”, as he calls it) that Bloom seizes upon, while the possible motive of sexual jealousy is airily dismissed: referring to Iago’s expression of sexual jealousy, Bloom informs us: “…Iago tells us what neither he nor we believe.” Well, we may not believe it, but what evidence does Bloom have that Iago doesn’t? Bloom then refers to Iago telling us that he suspects Cassio with his wife as well, and comments:

We can surmise that Iago, perhaps made impotent by his fury at being passed over for promotion, is ready to suspect Emilia with every male in the play.

I do hope he intended that “we” as a Royal “we”, as, try as I might, I cannot surmise anything at all of this nature. More importantly, there is absolutely nothing in either text of the play – the Folio or the Quarto – to indicate an Iago “made impotent by his fury”.

Idiocy soon piles on idiocy, and after a while, the whole becomes what Dr Johnson referred to in another context as “unresisting imbecility”. Iago, we are told, is a “genius” who has planned everything out meticulously: it is Iago, indeed, who is “the author of the play”. But surely, Iago fails at the end, and is arrested? Bloom has his explanation for this: this was the only point where Iago has miscalculated, he says: Iago didn’t take into account Emilia’s loyalty to the dead Desdemona; and, further:

Iago is outraged that he could not anticipate, by dramatic imagination, his wife’s outrage …

I actually read the last scene of Othello again to see if there is the slightest hint here of Iago’s outrage on this score. He is certainly outraged by his wife turning against him, but is there any indication that he is outraged by his own inability to anticipate this? I certainly can’t find any. And, as ever, there is no point looking at Bloom’s book for any supporting evidence: he doesn’t do “evidence”.

It seems to me that Iago, far from being a “genius”, is a rather shallow man of very limited vision, who most certainly does not plan the whole thing out. More than once, we see him making it up as he is going along:

How? How? Let’s see (I, iii, 393)

Later, almost half way into the second act, he admits that his plan is still “confused”:

…’Tis here, but yet confused:
Knavery’s plain face is never seen, till used.
(II, 1, 309-10)

It is interesting that in neither of these soliloquies, nor, indeed, at any other point till as late as Act IV does Iago mention or so much as hint at bringing about the death of Desdemona. And even there, it is Othello who suggests it, not Iago:

Get me some poison, Iago; this night: I’ll not expostulate with her, lest her body and beauty unprovide my mind again: this night, Iago.
Do it not with poison, strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated.
– (IV,I, 201-4)

What evidence is there that Iago had planned this from the start? We have been privy to his soliloquies, and have heard him making his plans: if this was what he had been planning all along, why didn’t he tell us?

As far as I can see from what I find in the text, Iago, far from being the supreme genius who effectively writes the play, miscalculates throughout, and finds himself having to improvise as he goes along. He had not, for instance, anticipated Othello’s violent rage:

“Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore…” etc. (III, iii, 360ff)

It is only at this point, when he realises that his own life is in danger if he does not provide Othello with proof, does he find he has to go further. Of course, he is quite happy to go further; but we had witnessed him make his initial plans in his soliloquies at the end of I,iii and at the end of II,I, and in neither of them did he anticipate anything like this. Neither had he anticipated Roderigo’s decision to retire from the fray, and stand up for himself:

I tell you ’tis not very well. I will make myself known to Desdemona: if she will return me my jewels, I will give over my suit and repent my unlawful solicitation; if not, assure yourself I will seek satisfaction of you
(IV, ii, 198-202)

It is only at this point that the murder of Roderigo – once again, a feature that had not appeared in Iago’s plans as revealed in his earlier soliloquies – becomes a necessity. Is all this really the result of meticulous planning by a “genius” who could “anticipate”, “by dramatic genius”, everything except Emilia’s outrage?

Let us not labour the point. The entire book is full of “surmises” – opinions which, when not banal, are merely silly, and always unsupported by evidence or by anything resembling argument. Possibly there may be an interesting insight here and there, but if there is, it is all but buried under a mountain of pompous and comically self-important idiocy. At no point in this book could I discern a new shaft of light into these works.

There was more foolery yet, if I could remember it
– Julius Caesar, I,ii,284

The sad thing is that given Bloom’s celebrity status, this book, for many, I imagine, will be the first and possibly the only experience with literary criticism. That really is a shame, as there is no shortage of very good critical writing that provide the finest of insights on these endlessly fascinating plays . Bloom’s book, in this respect, is even worse than useless.