Posts Tagged ‘Euripides’

Tony Harrison’s “Oresteia”

Some verse dramas hold the stage in translation, but others don’t, and I am not entirely sure why that should be. Ibsen’s Brand and Peer Gynt, though both written to be read rather than performed, hold the stage magnificently in any number of translations; Shakespeare’s plays, too, even when separated from Shakespeare’s English, are successfully performed around the world in just about every language there is. And yet, despite many years of theatre-going, I have yet to see a performance in English of plays by Racine or Corneille, by Goethe or Schiller, or by Pushkin, that I would describe as dramatically compelling. It’s tempting to say that the fault lies with the translations, but I don’t think that’s the case: John Cairncross’ translations of Racine, for example, are, I think, magnificent; but while they compel the reader’s attention in the study, they seem to me less effective when it comes to compelling the audience’s attention in the theatre. These plays, in English translation, are often wonderful dramatic poems, but I remain unconvinced about their qualities as poetic dramas, and would hazard the guess that Racine and Corneille, Goethe and Schiller, Pushkin, etc., whose works are among the undisputed peaks of the western canon, were, unlike Shakespeare or Ibsen, greater poets, perhaps, than they were dramatists. But this is just a guess: unable as I am to read any of these writers in the original, I can’t, and don’t, insist upon it.

When it comes to ancient Greek drama, we have a further complication: not only do we have to negotiate translation into another language, we have to deal with dramatic conventions that are very alien to modern conceptions of drama. Once again, these works are compelling when I read them in the study, but less so when I see them in the theatre. In all these years, I have seen only one production of a Greek play that worked in performance – a thrilling production of Sophocles’ Electra, featuring Fiona Shaw in the title role, and directed by Deborah Warner: I saw this some quarter of a century ago now, and I still remember coming out of the theatre at the end, genuinely shaken by what I had experienced: it had the same sort of effect on me as I get from seeing a good production of King Lear. But as for all the other productions I have seen of Greek drama, they have generally fallen pretty flat. Maybe I have just been unlucky: maybe there have been many other productions as powerful as that production I’d seen of Electra, and I just happened to miss out on them; but, having been disappointed by so many productions over so many years, I can’t help feeling that these Greek tragedies, without dispute among the greatest of literary masterpieces, are best treated as closet dramas, to be read, much as we’d read, say, Milton’s Samson Agonistes.

Friends of mine who know Greek tell me that no translation comes close to matching the originals, but then again, they would say that, wouldn’t they? When one puts in effort into something, one wants to have something to show for it; and who, having put so much effort into learning Greek to the level where they can read Aeschylus or Euripides, would care to concede that plebs like me, who haven’t put in that effort, could appreciate these writers to the same level? I don’t dispute them, of course: I have no doubt they are right. However, I will insist that these works, even in translation, are profound experiences. I have, over the years, not only amassed but have even read a wide range of translations, explaining to guests who scan my bookshelves and wonder why I have a dozen or so translations of Sophocles that a man must have a hobby. And, since each translation is necessarily an interpretation, I find it fascinating comparing them, and trying to piece together from the different perspectives of the various translators something of what the original vision may have been like.

My most recent reading of Greek tragedies was The Oresteia of Aeschylus, in the translation by the poet Tony Harrison. Perhaps “translation” is not the right word for it: I argued in a recent post that the successful translator of poetry cannot afford to be too literal, since the literal meaning is but one of many things – and not necessarily the most important thing – that a translator needs to convey. And it can be argued that, beyond a point, so far is the translated version from the original in terms of literal accuracy, that it can no longer be regarded as a translation as such. Whether Tony Harrison’s version is too far from the original to be still considered a “translation”, I do not know: comparing with the other translations I have, he obviously takes far more liberties with the literal meaning. But it may be that he is closer to Aeschylus than the more literalist translators in some other aspects – the sound, say, or the nature of the impact made on the reader or the hearer. I cannot tell. What I can tell, though, is that his is by far the most striking version of these three plays that I have encountered. I do not mean that as a criticism of the others, but where the others are eloquent, polished, fluent, Harrison is rugged, abrasive, uncompromising, often relying on sound to convey the sense.

This may be demonstrated by a few examples. Take, for instance, the repeated refrain in the first great chorus. Michael Ewans (Everyman) renders it:

Cry sorrow, sorrow – yet may good prevail!

Robert Fagles (Penguin Classics) translates this as:

Cry, cry for death, but good win out in glory in the end.

Hugh Lloyd-Jones (university of California Press) has:

Sing sorrow, sorrow, but may the good prevail.

While Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish (Methuen) go for:

Sing songs of sorrow, but let the good prevail.

Richmond Lattimore (University of Chicago Press), meanwhile, has:

Sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end.

Ted Hughes (Faber & Faber), like Harrison, himself a poet, does away with the repeated refrain altogether, rephrasing the essence of it in different ways each time it appears. And I think, comparing the different versions, we can see the essence: the line is in two halves – the first an expression of lament, the second of hope. But all too often in the translations, the expression of sorrow appears more potent than the expression of hope, leaving us with a slight sense of anti-climax. Presumably this is why Fagles has expanded the latter half of that line – to give it a greater weight. Harrison’s version, however, is very different from any of the above:

Batter, batter the doom-drum, but believe there’ll be better!

The differences are striking. Clearly, Harrison’s is not a literal reading, but what we get is by far the most forceful. “Batter[ing] the doom-drum” sounds far more active and energetic than merely crying or singing of sorrow, while “believe there’ll be better” strikes a note of defiance that I cannot find in any of the other translations. The preponderance of the hard “b” and “d” sounds gives the line a greater muscularity, and the near-rhyme of “batter/better” – the two words that that open and end the line – knits the two halves together. Whether all this brings the line closer – at least in spirit – to the original, I do not know, but it is certainly more striking than any of the others.

Throughout Harrison’s version, he uses alliterative clusters, compound words (as in German), words forced together almost with a violence, with the impact of the sounds and rhythms compensating for the lack of a clear syntax. For instance:

Calchas the clanseer saw into the storm-cause –
Artemis she-god goaded to godgrudge

The clans and the clanchiefs clamour for sea-calm
The god-sop that gets it makes their guts sicken

The cure for the stormblast makes strong men craven

Or:

A surge of choler and grudge sweeps over my spirit,
spitted on pain like a stabwound or spearthrust.
Drops like the spindrift spat off a seaswell
break from my eyes like the sight of this curl.

Or:

so men get gulled get hauled into evil
recklessness starts it then there’s no stopping

so a Father can take his own she-child take her
and kill her his she-child his own flesh and blood

The war-effort wants it the war-effort gets it
the war for one woman the whore-war the whore-war

a virgin’s blood launches the ships off to Troy

It is tempting to fill this post with further examples, but let us not try the reader’s patience more than is absolutely necessary. Suffice to say that all other translations I have read seem, in comparison, too refined, too polite.

In his illuminating introduction, Tony Harrison describes his attempt to find a poetic style and diction that could form an equivalent in English to Aeschylus’ verse, that would achieve, as he puts it, “both the weight and the momentum”, and mentions, significantly, Gerard Manley Hopkins, “a Professor of Greek, who achieves both the sweep and the grandeur I have always found in Aeschylus”. And he quotes two lines by Hopkins:

Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivelled snow
Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deep

The critic D. S. Carne-Ross had asked “Does this not read like an inspired translation of some unknown fragment by Aeschylus?” To which Harrison replies:

Indeed it does, like an inspired Victorian translation, and I have always felt that Hopkins, with his clotted but never clogged or cumbersome line, and his thorough knowledge of Greek, had everything necessary to render a great translation of Aeschylus, except, perhaps … a feeling for the theatre …

Harrison himself was clearly aiming himself for the “clotted but never clogged or cumbersome line”, and I think he succeeded magnificently. As for how this will work in the theatre, I really do not know. This translation was commissioned by the National Theatre, and was performed there, under the direction of Peter Hall, in the early 1980s. I would have loved to have seen it, but I was back then a student in the north of England, and certainly didn’t have the finances in those days to come down to London. But something such as this demands to be read as well: without getting into that debate yet again on whether or not a play is better seen or read, experiencing it on the printed page was spellbinding. As with Christopher Logue’ magnificent version of The Iliad, this is great poetry in its own right.

With this translation, the work itself seemed, as it were, renewed: it was like seeing something familiar from a completely new perspective. (Which, after all, is the whole point of reading different translations.) I must admit, though, that I still find the first play of the trilogy, Agamemnon, the most compelling. Perhaps it’s the old story of Hell being more interesting than Heaven: the whole trilogy represents a journey from darkness to light, from Hell to Heaven (at least, a Heaven of sorts), and, as with Dante, it is Hell that makes the greater impact. (Milton, too, struggled to make God as interesting as Satan.) And the Hell that is presented in Agamemnon, once etched on the mind, is hard to erase. That long narration by the chorus of the sacrifice of Iphigenia; Agamemnon’s homecoming – where he is persuaded to trample the blood-red tapestries into his palace; Cassandra’s prophetic terror before the doors of the Argos, before she walks in to meet her death; Clytemnestra’s narration of how she killed her husband and his slave, and her imagining the dead spirit of Iphigenia in the underworld, greeting with a kiss her father who had killed her … these have long haunted my imagination, and will continue to do so.

In comparison, I find little in the subsequent plays that affects me anywhere near so powerfully. This is not a criticism of the work: it is, rather, a reflection of my own sensibilities, and expectations. In the second part, Aeschylus narrates how Orestes returns, and, with the help of his sister Electra, kills his mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover Aegisthus. This same story is told both by Sophocles and by Euripides in their plays, both titled Electra, but where the younger dramatists were more interested in the psychologies of the participants of the drama, Aeschylus seems to draw back from the individual characters, and focuses on the larger moral pattern. And similarly in the last part, The Eumenides: the focus is not so much on the individual characters, but on the broader question of how we humans, blinded though we are with rage and maddened with blood, can emerge from darkness into light. This is clearly what Aeschylus intended, and this is, indeed, what lies at the heart of the trilogy as a whole, and it is but a reflection of my own personal preference that the psychological approach of Sophocles and of Euripides attracts me more.

But the larger moral pattern that emerges is, nonetheless, fascinating. Aeschylus dramatises the emergence of light in the darkness: from a Hell in which our passions and our instincts reign supreme, and lawless revenge but feeds upon itself, so that each act of vengeance is but a new crime that also cries out for blood, we are presented, by the goddess Athena, with a new way of ordering our lives – a new way rooted in civil discourse, legal institutions, consensus and compromise. In short, civilisation. But, however desirable that civilisation is, however preferable to the horrors of our instinctive bloodlust, it is simply not, for me at any rate, as dramatically interesting.

However, there is of course more, far more, than my crude summary above suggests. The emergence of civic institutions from the darkness of lawless primal urges should not, I think, be seen as something happening in time – i.e. it is not the case that one replaces the other over time: rather, the two co-exist, and will go on co-existing within our divided minds. The final acquittal of Orestes, and the subsequent torchlit procession of triumph, do not cancel out the slaughter of the helpless Iphigenia, or the elemental terror of Cassandra: such terror cannot be cancelled out, or banished, for they live with us still. And neither can the Furies be banished: Athena herself, at the end, incorporates them into the newly-formed legal system: no matter how civilised we may be, no matter how many curbs and restraints we may put upon our primal urges for the sake of being able to live together with what harmony we can muster, at the bottom of it all lies a terror than cannot be wished away – not even by a goddess.

But a step has been taken, an important step: the gods, who used to order mortals to commit acts of revenge – which themselves are crimes calling out for further revenge – have now delegated their powers and responsibilities to humans: it is now up to us to shape our morality, to determine for ourselves, through discourse and consensus, guilt and innocence, and treat both accordingly. But at the bottom of it all lies terror. We cannot do without terror. Even through the triumphant songs at the end, there sound the screams of Cassandra as she walks into the palace of Argos to meet her doom.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tragic Vision and its Discontents

Endure what life God gives and ask no longer span;
Cease to remember the delights of youth, travel-wearied aged man;
Delight becomes death-longing if all longing else be vain.

Even from that delight memory treasures so,
Death, despair, division of families, all entanglements of mankind grow,
As that old wandering beggar and these God-hated children know.

In the long echoing street the laughing dancers throng,
The bride is carried to the bridegroom’s chamber through torchlight and tumultuous song;
I celebrate the silent kiss that ends short life or long.

Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say;
Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the eye of day;
The second best’s a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.

– W. B. Yeats’ magnificent creative rendering (hardly a translation, if all the other translations I’ve encountered of this are anything to go by) of a chorus from Sophocles “Oedipus at Colonus”

In a recent post, I was rash enough to refer to something called a “tragic vision”, without bothering to define the term, or even, for that matter, to indicate what, if anything, I might have meant by it. And, quite rightly, I was challenged: what do I mean by it? My immediate reaction to the challenge was, I admit, to do what is normally done on the net on such occasions – claim that the meaning of the term is obvious in the context, and tell the questioner in no uncertain terms that he was simply being obtuse and awkward in pretending not to understand. But having learnt over the years to think a bit before hitting the “post” button – at least, in most cases – I did think for a bit, and the question after a while seemed entirely valid. If my principal criticism of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is that it lacks this mysterious quality “tragic vision”, then it is surely up to me at least to give at least some indication of what I mean by the term. The question isn’t however an easy one to address, if only because before one can define “tragic vision”, one must first of all define “tragedy”; and even some rather profound thinkers have come a cropper on that one.

There are, broadly speaking, two approaches to this – the prescriptive, and the descriptive: one may set out rules of what does or doesn’t constitute “tragic”, and, using those rules, determine which works are tragic and which aren’t; or one may examine all those works we – or, more precisely in this case, I – instinctively recognise as “tragic”, and then try to identify some common features of these works that lead to this recognition. The latter approach seems more reasonable to me, if only because the former seems remarkably pointless.

So, I started considering various tragic works, and identifying what features they possess that render them tragic, and I soon found that many of the popular conceptions of what constitutes “tragic” are simply wrong. For instance, the idea that tragedy ends with the death of the protagonist: there are any number of tragedies in which the protagonist is very much alive at the end – Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Sophocles’ Oedipus, Euripides’ Medea, and so on, right down to Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Sometimes, the tragedy may actually lie in the fact that the protagonist doesn’t die – that he has to go on living even when there is nothing left worth living for: Verdi’s Rigoletto, for instance. Sometimes – as in, say, The Bacchae of Euripides – there appears not even to be a tragic protagonist.

And even in cases where there is a protagonist, and the protagonist dies at the end, the death need not be a disaster, or even a defeat. Take, for instance, Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus: Oedipus, at the point of death, is cleansed of pollution and accepted by the gods: his demise is not so much a defeat as a transfiguration. This brings us to another myth about tragedy – that a tragedy must end sadly: once again, that is not always the case. Oedipus at Colonus ends in a state of luminous wonder; Philoctetes, by the same dramatist, ends with harmony end reconciliation; the Oresteia trilogy of Aeschylus ends in triumph. Any definition of tragedy that excludes works such as these is obviously absurd.

We need, I think, to shift our gaze from how the work ends, and look at the work in totality. If I were to offer a definition of tragedy, I think I can do worse than to suggest that a tragedy is a work of art that focuses on and emphasises all those things that may lead us to believe, rightly or wrongly, that life is a Bad Thing, and not worth living; that, as the Ancient Writers say in Yeats’ verse, “never to have lived is best”. This could be because life is cruel and short and nasty and brutish, and full of unmerited suffering; it could be because life is dreary and pointless; or because we are powerless in the face of evil; or because whatever we may gain from life is nullified by the inevitability of death, leaving us with nothing, and robbing us of all our joy; or even because, as with Rigoletto, we have to go on living when there is nothing worth living for. It could be any of these things, or any combination of these things: if comedy is a celebration of life, tragedy questions whether there really is anything worth celebrating.

Of course, defined in such broad (and no doubt crude) terms, comedy and tragedy are not mutually exclusive. Shakespeare frequently blended the two together, so that a tragic drama such as Romeo and Juliet may be seen as essentially a comedy (Tony Tanner classifies it as such in his book Prefaces to Shakespeare), while a play such as Measure for Measure, often classed as a comedy, can appear as dark and as disturbing as the most intense of tragedies. And Shakespeare was by no means the only one to straddle the two: taxonomy becomes very difficult indeed with works as diverse as, say, The Trial, Waiting for Godot, Catch 22. But taxonomy is not, perhaps, the point: simply to label works such as The Trial, Waiting for Godot, or Catch 22 doesn’t, after all, help us come to any enhanced appreciation. The point is more to understand what we mean by “tragic” or by “comic”, and allow that the two may at times occupy the same space – that it may be possible to celebrate life even while questioning whether there is anything worth celebrating: unlike a mathematical theory, a work of art can accommodate many different and seemingly contradictory things at the same time.

But even if we do characterise tragedy in this manner, what do I mean by “tragic vision”? Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is undoubtedly tragic, as it depicts life as short, violent, and brutish, and the world as a stage on which the horrors of existence outweigh any joy that may be found in it; and yet I complained of a lack of “tragic vision”. I know I’d meant something by that, but it’s worth my considering just what it was I’d meant, as it’s far from obvious – even, frankly, to me. Perhaps the best way to approach it is to examine all those various and often disparate works that I recognize as possessing a “tragic vision” – we needn’t go through the entire litany of titles – and try to identify what features they possess that strike me as visionary. In what respect, in short, is King Lear a greater work than Titus Andronicus?

It is difficult to speak of such matters in general terms, as all ordinary tragedies are alike, but each visionary tragedy is visionary in its own way. All ordinary tragedies are alike because they show us life as nasty and violent and brutish; but generally, they don’t go much further. However, tragedies that I would term “visionary” peer deeper: they try to understand what, if anything can be salvaged from the wreckage. Titus Andronicus shows us a picture of humans as irredeemably cruel and wicked and barbarous, and whenever characters are visited by cruelty and wickedness and barbarity, their response is but to return it all in kind: humans here are, essentially, machines programmed merely to inflict grievous hurt on one another. King Lear also shows us a world that is cruel and wicked and barbarous: even the gods, should they exist, are questioned; but the humans in this world emerge as so much more than machines: they are capable of tenderness, of empathy, of love, of self-sacrifice; they are capable of learning the world anew, and taking upon themselves the mystery of things, as if they were God’s spies.

Of course, one may say that none of this lessens the pain, that despite everything, all remains dark and comfortless. Perhaps. We certainly tend to see the play in our post-Beckettian days as essentially nihilistic. But there have been intelligent commentators – Kenneth Muir, for instance – who have gone so far as to see King Lear as a Christian play of redemption, and I don’t know that this perspective, though not perhaps in keeping with modern sensibilities, should necessarily be dismissed. For even the most nihilist-minded of spectators will concede that there is much human goodness in this play, and that this human goodness is as extreme and as unaccountable as is the human evil. Of course, this goodness is utterly ineffective, and while this may lead us towards interpreting the work as essentially nihilist, it may also appear to certain temperaments that the good, by the very fact that it exists at all when there is no conceivable reason for it do so, is a redemptive force. Such matters are best left to the individual temperaments: there is no single way of interpreting works such as this. But however one interprets this, there is more here, far more, than the mere unrelieved brutality of Titus Andronicus. We do not leave a performance of King Lear asking ourselves “Is man no more than this?” We have been given a glimpse into the Mystery of Things that tells us there is far more than we could ever hope to fathom.

Such a view may lead us towards Orwell’s famous formulation in his essay “Tolstoy, Lear and the Fool”, in which he characterises tragedy as a drama in which Man is defeated, but we are left nonetheless with a sense that Man is nobler than the forces that defeat him. This seems an attractive formulation, but like all such formulations, it breaks down after a while. Where, for instance, is the nobility in Euripides’ Medea?

This is always the problem with trying to formulate definitions in literary criticism: just when you think you have the whole damn thing covered, out pops one that simply won’t be tied down by your piddly wee definition. We may spend some time and effort refining our definition to cover Medea as well, but you can be sure there will be something else popping out that doesn’t give a fig for whatever classification you may come up with. Literature is too vast to be tied down by definitions, and doesn’tcare for rules. And yet, if we do not even try to define or to classify, we cannot even begin to analyse, and the very concept of dialogue becomes meaningless. So, bearing that in mind, I will stick, at least for the moment, with my definitions: “tragedy” focuses on the darker aspects of life, and depicts the wreckage; and works possessing “tragic vision” are those tragedies that attempt to discover what, if anything, may be salvaged from the wreck. These latter works may conclude that there is indeed nothing that can be salvaged, but the very fact that the attempt is made indicates that the attempt is at least worth making. Give or take the odd Medea, this classification tends, I think, to hold good, though rarely have I felt so open to being persuaded otherwise.

“Lapis Lazuli” by William Butler Yeats

Given how much of my reading is verse rather than prose, I have written very little about poetry on this blog. This is because I am not really sure how best to write about poetry. But it has to be done: there’s no point having a blog about my literary interests and banishing poetry. So, with extreme diffidence and with not a little trepidation, I have decided to embark upon what I hope will be a regular feature: Poem of the Month. Each month, I shall be choosing some poem that takes my fancy, and write about it in a manner I hope will not be too boring for the reader.

(I think I had better keep away from modern poems, as I may run into copyright issues, but there’s more than enough richness in what is available in the public domain.)

As ever, these are not scholarly exegeses: I am no literary scholar. These are, as with any other writing on this blog, merely the personal thoughts and impressions of an interested and, I trust, not too imperceptive a reader.

So with all that out of the way, let’s get started. For the first poem in what I hope will become a regular feature, I have chosen a late poem by one of my favourite poets – “Lapis Lazuli” by William Butler Yeats.

I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow.
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out.
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.

On their own feet they came, or On shipboard,’
Camel-back; horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus,
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp-chimney shaped like the stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.

Every discoloration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

Before I start, it is worth saying that a poem expresses thoughts and feelings and sensations that cannot be expressed otherwise; so, naturally, any attempt to express the meaning of a poem in words other than the ones the poet uses is bound to be a failure. This is particularly true of a poem as profound and as complex as this: it is far more than the sum of its possible interpretations. Even to paraphrase any part of this poem is to simplify grotesquely, to iron out its various complexities and ambiguities.

Having got all that out of the way, here goes.

What is this poem about? In a nutshell, it seems to me to be about that paradox of “tragic joy”. We can experience a tragedy as profound and as bleak as Shakespeare’s King Lear or Sophocles’ Oedipus, and yet come out of it strangely exhilarated, uplifted. To Yeats, this curious reaction to the witnessing of human suffering points to rather complex issues not only about human psychology, but about the nature of destruction and of creation, and the elusive interactions between them. In this poem, Yeats juxtaposes the cataclysmic waves of destruction and of suffering that humanity has faced and continues to face, with the joy of rebuilding, of creating out of the ashes. (Perhaps ironically, this poem itself was written on the brink of a worldwide cataclysm: it appeared in 1938.)

A key word in this poem is the word “gay”. As the poem progresses, this word acquires different levels of meaning. But one meaning it doesn’t have here is the meaning we tend to associate nowadays with the word: this poem is not about sexuality.

In this poem, the word “gay” stands as an antithesis of the tragic. When the word first occurs, it denotes merely the bright, the cheerful, the buoyant – perhaps, even, the frivolous. By the end of the poem, it stands for everything that is life-affirming, everything that speaks for the value of humanity, and of human effort, even in the face of the most horrendous facts of death and of suffering.

Throughout this poem, there are changes of tone – almost as if the different sections are spoken by different voices. Yeats does not modulate between one voice and the next: he juxtaposes them. I tend to imagine the opening section spoken by a grumpy old git over brandy and cigars – a sort of bar-room rant of a Telegraph-reading retired-colonel type who’s possibly had a few too many . The derogatory term “hysterical women” is certainly sexist – by our standards, offensively so – but it’s consistent with the tone in this section. The first four lines have simple rhymes, but their rhythms are deliberately clumsy. Most other poets would have gone for “I have heard hysterical women say…”, but Yeats breaks up this easy rhythm with the insertion of an extra unstressed syllable – “I have heard that hysterical women say”. This puts the rhythm a bit off kilter – this is not going to be a traditional tum-ti-tum that we are all so comfortable with. It also changes the meaning: the speaker is having a rant not about what he has heard these women say, but what he has been told they say.

And what do these “hysterical women” say? Effectively, that given the horrors of life, art is frivolous and irrelevant. The whole concept of art is referred to contemptuously as “palette and fiddle-bow”: the contempt is not that of Yeats, nor even that of the brandy-swilling retired colonel, but of the “hysterical women”. There is irony in the fourth line. “For everyone knows or else should now…” This “everyone knows” is akin to Austen’s “It is a fact universally acknowledged”. The seventh line – “Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in” – is a reference to a popular ballad – “The Battle of the Boyne”: we don’t need to know the reference, but we do need to register the colloquial ballad-like tone of this line. It is noticeable also that in the second quatrain, the rhymes almost disappear: previously, we had say/gay, and bow/know: now, we have done/in. out/flat. The pairs of words end with the same consonant sound, but have different vowel sounds leading up to them. Perhaps the brandy is having its effect on the retired colonel.

Through this voice, what is being expressed is clear enough: mankind faces grave horrors, and in this environment, the very idea of art is pointless and frivolous. The retired colonel probably disagrees with such a view (in his opinion, they’re held merely by “hysterical women”), but the poem now moves on to examine these issues in tones very different from the one we have hitherto heard.

Before we go further, let us briefly consider the rhyming and the rhythms of the poem. The whole thing is arranged into units of four lines (quatrains), each with an abab rhyme scheme; and often, these rhymes are half-rhymes, or even quarter-rhymes. Sometimes, as in the first four lines, Yeats emphasises the rhyme scheme by making the rhymes exact rhymes, and often putting pauses (commas, full-stops) at the end of lines; at other times, he goes for a greater sense of fluidity by employing partial rhymes and enjambments. This flexibility allows him to vary the tone as he pleases. There are four beats to each line, but Yeats avoids tum-ti-tum monotony by varying the numbers of unstressed syllables. We could go into more detail on Yeats’ prosody, but since I would very soon be out of my depth were we to do that, let’s move on to the content. (Of course, the impact of what is said depends on how it is being said, but we’ll try to consider this as we go along.)

“All perform their tragic play”. The tone is very different now. It is the tone of serious contemplation, and those two pinnacles of the tragic art, Hamlet and King Lear, are explicitly evoked:

There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia

These great tragic figures can be seen in ordinary, common humanity – “all perform their tragic play”. These are not remote figures on a stage: they are ourselves. The last word of the first line of this section (“play”) recalls that pivotal word in this poem – “gay”. It is not explicitly rhymed with “gay” here – that occurs a few lines later: but the reader’s inner ear should catch the reference. Even when contemplating the profoundest of tragedies, the tragedies of Hamlet and of Lear, Yeats gives us an echo of the word “gay” – an echo of that which is the opposite of tragedy.

But now, Yeats makes the observation that even at the deepest point of human tragedy, Lear and Hamlet don’t “break up their lines to weep”. And he returns to that word “gay” with the astonishing pronouncement: “They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay”. At this point, we have to re-examine how we understand this word. It had appeared first in a dismissive context: “artists who are always gay” – artists who are light-hearted, frivolous. But can Lear and Hamlet be regarded in such terms? Surely not! But Yeats insists on using that word “gay”: he repeats that word in a slightly different form in the next line – “Gaiety transforming all that dread”. Again, there is an element of colloquialism in the expression “all that” (as in, say “…and all that jazz”), but the thought here is startling: Lear and Hamlet are actually the opposite of that which is tragic –they are “gay”; and far from enacting tragedy, they present its opposite, thus transforming tragedy.

The reason Yeats gives for this is simple: even at the moment of greatest tragedy, the tragic protagonists do not break up their lines to weep: they speak their lines clearly, observing their rhythms and sonorities; even here, they delight in the beauty of those lines. And it is this focus on the beauty that “transforms all that dread”: the creation of that beauty is the best, indeed, the only answer humanity has to all that oppresses it.

Yeats is in danger here of sanitising human misery and suffering – or even of trivialising it: it’s as if he is saying “Yes, humans suffer, but look – we can create pretty things out of all this, so all that suffering doesn’t really matter.” It’s important to appreciate, I think, that Yeats isn’t saying this. Indeed, the next few lines of the poem make quite clear that the poet knows and understands the nature of human suffering:

All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.

In that first line, Yeats is not talking about “all men”, but rather, “all that men have aimed at”. The syntax here is more than knotty: it is, indeed, ungrammatical. It is an impressionistic sketch of human tragedy, and its fierce intensity comes as a huge surprise given the colloquial nature of much of what we have read so far. “Heaven blazing into the head” is one of those phrases which, once read, is never forgotten. (And note the echo of the word “gay” in the long “a” sound in the first syllable of the word “blazing”: even when that word isn’t explicitly stated, it is present; and here, the sound is not so much echoed, perhaps, as thundered.) I often wonder if Yeats wasn’t referring here obliquely to the first lines of Euripides’ Medea:

If only a flaming bolt from heaven would pierce my head!
(From the translation by John Davie, published by Penguin Classics)

I have never seen this connection being made, but I can’t help feeling that Euripides’ play is lurking here in the background.

Immediately after these magnificent lines, Yeats brings us down to earth with a bump, as two of the most sublime creations of literature are brought down a few pegs: “Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages.” (I love that internal rhyme – or near-rhyme – of “Hamlet rambles”.) And yes, their magnificent blank verse could, I suppose, be regarded in such terms: Hamlet does ramble, and Lear does rage. And this brings them close to the rest of us – all of us who, according to the first line of this section “act [our] tragic play”. We are, all of us, Hamlet and Lear, Ophelia and Cordelia. If this line brings Lear and Hamlet down to our level, it also raises us up to theirs. We too, like Hamlet and Lear, face sorrow, loss, and death: our lives too are tragic.

In the remaining lines of this section, the syntax is jumbled, and deliberately unclear:

Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.

What cannot grow by an inch or an ounce? The extent of the tragedy? The gaiety into which it has been transformed? All of this? Extending that old metaphor of the stage being the world, Yeats imagines the plays all ending at once – i.e. an apocalyptic end of human life itself, when “all the drop-scenes drop at once upon a hundred, thousand stages”; even if this should happen, there is a mysterious “it” which cannot grow: the tragedy is tragic only in human terms, not cosmic: the cosmos will carry on all the same, indifferent quite to the Lears and the Hamlets, the Ophelias and the Cordelias.

And yet, in amongst all this, there lurks an important point: the joy in the creation of beauty “transforms all that dread”. It doesn’t nullify the dread: the dread is still there, and always will be there, and it is horrific. But we also have the ability to transform, to create; and in this act of creation, there is something that is close to a sense of joy – a “gaiety”, as Yeats would put it.

Does this “gaiety” redeem the inevitable tragedy of our lives? That is up to each individual to answer. Much depends, I suppose, on what we mean by “redeem”, or, indeed, whether we believe in the possibility of redemption at all. But Yeats has given us so far a sort of answer to the “hysterical women”: whether or not we believe that the joy of creation can compensate for the inevitable tragedy of human life, that joy, that “gaiety”, is as much a fact of human life as is the tragedy. The act of creation may not abolish the tragedy and the horror, but this tragedy and horror can then give rise to human activity that embodies something that is their opposite.

In the next section, the tone changes yet again. In three lines, Yeats evokes an epic canvas. The change of tone is marked by a first line which, although it still has four beats, seems very far from the underlying iambic tetrameter (ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum):

On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,
Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.

A picture is evoked of tragedy not merely of individuals – of Hamlet and Lear and Ophelia and Cordelia – but of entire peoples, entire civilisations – catastrophes on the greatest of scales. What happens when a civilisation is destroyed (as ours, too, no doubt will be some day)?

Then they and their wisdom went to rack

Yeats now evokes the legendary sculptor Callimachus, of whose work nothing now remains:

No handiwork of Callimachus
…… stands.

But between the “Callimachus” and the “stands”, Yeats uses his own art to imagine for himself, in a few exquisite lines, the nature of Callimachus’ art:

No handiwork of Callimachus
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands.

The next quatrain imagines more of what Callimachus’ art may have been like, and then concludes:

All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.

Again that word “gay”, and again (the repeated word “again” echoing the word “gay”) it occurs for maximum emphasis at the end of the line. And we have to ponder what the word means here, now, in this context. It certainly doesn’t mean “frivolous”. Neither is Yeats referring here to the aesthetic pleasure one gets from a work of tragic art – where tragedy itself, paradoxically, is transformed to “gaiety”. He is here referring to mankind’s ability to rebuild itself after even the greatest of disasters, the greatest of destructions – just as his own imagination has allowed him to recreate in words what had been lost of Callimachus’ art. The losses are to be lamented; but equally, man’s capacity to rebuild must be celebrated, for it is “gay”.

Now, we enter the final section of the poem. Having considered works of Western art –King Lear and Hamlet and the lost art of Callimachus – Yeats now turns to a work of Oriental art, and describes in detail a Chinese sculpture curved in lapis lazuli. As ever, Yeats does not modulate from the previous section into this: he merely juxtaposes. How this sculpture relates to what he had been talking about earlier is not at first entirely clear.

He takes six lines (one and a half quatrains) to describe the piece.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in Lapis Lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.

The tone here is completely neutral – a description of a static scene (carved literally in stone) more or less without comment. We seem suddenly transported from the hurly-burly of change and activity on a vast scale to a scene of calm; from the dynamic to the static; from a world of violent passions to one of equanimity. The very static nature of this Chinese sculpture contrasts with the dynamic imaginings of Callimachus’ sculpture in the previous section, where the very marble had seemed to be in motion.

The next (and final) section starts with two lines that complete the half-quatrain that had finished the earlier section, and relates the calm of this stasis to the themes encountered earlier in the poem:

Every discolouration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent
Seems a water-course or an avalanche….

The small details here can be seen as microcosms of larger events. But still, it remains unclear how this carving relates to the upheavals of tragic power, and destructions of entire civilisations.

The tone now modulates from an impersonal to a personal note, and with this modulation comes a new vowel sound – a sound that had been absent from the poem since the very first word: “I” – the long “i” sound. This is given special force by being placed at the end of the line, and two lines later, we get the word “sky” to rhyme with it. This vowel sound, in the last few lines, seems to establish a new tonality, as it were: in the last two lines, as if to emphasise this new tonality, the word “eyes” appears no less than three times. However, the word “gay”, with its long vowel sound, is not overwhelmed by this new sound: that long “a” sound appears in the last words of lines 2 and 4 in the final quatrain (play/gay), and the very last word of the poem is, of course, “gay”. The repetition of this word relates this static Chinese carving back to the dynamism of King Lear or of Hamlet, for, like those plays, this sculpture too is “gay”. But once again, the word means something a bit different here.

For this Chinese sculpture depicts not the dynamism of tragic passion, but the curious detached equanimity with which these passions can be viewed. Does this detachment imply a lack of feeling, and indifference? Or is it indicative of some transcendent wisdom that senses an elusive gaiety beyond the turmoil of human affairs? Yeats tells us that he “delights” (another repetition of that long “i” sound) in imagining these men looking down from the heights on to a scene of tragedy below, listening to “mournful melodies”, with gaiety in their ancient, glittering eyes. It is a haunting image, and a very uncomfortable one. Should suffering be looked on with equanimity? With gaiety? Most of us, I think, would answer “no”. But is this gaiety too far removed from the aesthetic satisfaction we take in seeing King Lear? Is it not a just celebration of the human ability to create, to rebuild?

The ending of this poem – indeed, the whole poem itself – is disturbing in its many paradoxes, in its relating of human suffering and misery to human creativity, and the human ability to renew itself. As with any great poem, it strikes many different notes all at the same time, and to insist on any one tonality denies the possibility of the others. All these paradoxes seem to me concentrated in that magnificent final quatrain:

One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

As a footnote, I recently watched a DVD of the late Claudio Abbado conducting Mahler’s 6th symphony – among the darkest and most tragic of works – and I couldn’t help noticing that when a passage was particularly well-executed, Abbado would break into a spontaneous smile – even though the music was as dark and as bleakly tragic as may be imagined. There was such an obvious joy in the very act of creation: and yet this did not distract from the tragic nature of the work; somehow, this joy co-existed with the tragedy. And I could not help thinking then of this poem.

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]

People don’t do such things!

At the end of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, when it is revealed what Hedda has done, Judge Brack says: “But people don’t do such things!” And on that note of incredulity, the curtain descends.

It is very daring to end the play on that note – especially a play such as this, which, despite its various poetic images and its symbolism, is set in a realistic milieu and depicts a very solid, realistic world. Those last words leave us wondering to what extent what we have just witnessed played out before us actually is realistic. Do people really do such things? The worldly-wise Judge Brack certainly doesn’t think so. And if we too cannot believe that people do such things, does that not throw doubt upon the verisimilitude of the drama? Does that not undermine the drama itself? No doubt. We are invited to share, should we so wish, Judge Brack’s scepticism about it all, but with the difference that Judge Brack, as a character in the play, has no option, despite his scepticism, but to accept that people actually do do such things, whereas we, the paying audience watching actors on stage, have the option of dismissing it all as wildly improbable flights of the dramatist’s imagination. We have the option of walking out of the theatre thinking the drama absurd, and agreeing with Judge Brack: people don’t do such things.

But don’t they? One need only flick through the local or the national news headlines to see that people do all sorts of things that are outrageous, bizarre, grotesque, and really quite unthinkable. Indeed, there seems no limit to what people are capable of doing. And if literature is to hold up a mirror to nature, then it must  reflect also the extremes of human behaviour, even though these extremes may upset the sensibilities of the Judge Bracks of this world.

What is it that people won’t do? Murder people merely to prove to oneself that one is capable of murder? Or even that one is within one’s moral rights to commit murder? That may be unthinkable, but there really have been Raskolnikovs in this world, who have murdered for precisely such reasons. Or is it believable that a woman deserted by her partner could wreak revenge by butchering her own children in cold blood? Thankfully, that is unthinkable for the vast majority of us, but there have been Medeas also in real life. Dostoyevsky, Euripides, and others, knew quite well that there is nothing – absolutely nothing – that people aren’t capable of, that people won’t do. Such behaviour may be extreme, but there is no reason why such extremes should not be addressed in serious literature.

One particular event in fiction that is frequently criticised on this score comes towards the end of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Those who have read this novel will know exactly which event I refer to: I won’t ruin it for those who haven’t, as the sheer sense of shock of that moment needs to be experienced at first hand. But, for many readers, the novel loses credibility at that point: people just don’t do such things, they say. Well, my guess is they do. Jude the Obscure may be a flawed novel in certain respects, but that particular chapter is not, I think, amongst the flaws. It is, on the contrary, amongst the most powerful things I have come across in fiction.

Human beings are endlessly fascinating in their variety. One of the reasons I find myself turning to fiction is to arrive at a greater understanding and a greater appreciation of this seemingly infinite and bewildering variety. While extreme behaviour, by definition, is not the norm, it is till part of that extraordinarily wide spectrum of all that is human, and we must, I think, allow novelists and dramatists to depict the full range of this spectrum. That no doubt makes for extremely uncomfortable reading, but one shouldn’t really expect literature merely to comfort us. People don’t do such things? It may be comforting to imagine they don’t, but Ibsen, unlike his creation Judge Brack, knew better.