Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

The Tragedy of Ophelia

Given that Hamlet is quite clearly of exceptional intelligence, and has an unsurpassed mastery of language, why is it that the love letters he sends Ophelia are so crap? This is a question that has long bothered me. When Polonius presents to Claudius and Gertude the private love letters Hamlet had written to Ophelia – concept such as privacy or intimacy mean little to so unfeeling a wretch – we get stuff like this:

Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.

To the celestial and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia

O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers; I have not art to reckon my groans: but that I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu.

Is it at all credible that the character whom Shakespeare had endowed with something of his own intelligence and mastery of language would come out with guff as embarrassing as this? Shakespeare could have given Hamlet the kind of soaring love poetry that we see in Romeo and Juliet; or the more measured but equally potent expressions of love we see in so many other plays. But no – he seems almost to go out of his way to make Hamlet’s love letters as trite as they are clumsy.

That these lines are Hamlet’s there cannot be any question: Polonius may be foolish with other things, but he didn’t get to be the King’s most trusted right hand man without being a shrewd politician and intriguer, and he would certainly have been able to distinguish Hamlet’s handwriting from forgeries. No, Hamlet wrote these all right, and, unless we are to believe that Shakespeare had slipped up on so obvious a point, it is up to us to figure out why.

One point to notice, I think, is that, in the rest of the play, Hamlet is much given to mockery; and that when he mocks, he easily adopts the patterns of speech of those whom he is mocking. Here, for instance, he is mocking Osric:

… Put your bonnet to his right use; ’tis for the head.
I thank your lordship, it is very hot.
No, believe me, ’tis very cold; the wind is northerly.
It is indifferent cold, my lord, indeed.
But yet methinks it is very sultry and hot for my complexion.

Here he is mocking Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

But let me conjure you, by the rights of our fellowship, by the consonancy of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved love, and by what more dear a better proposer could charge you withal, be even and direct with me, whether you were sent for, or no?

Here he is mocking Laertes’ overdone rhetoric (and pointing out his own mockery in the last line):

Why I will fight with him upon this theme
Until my eyelids will no longer wag.

I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?

‘Swounds, show me what thou’lt do:
Woo’t weep? woo’t fight? woo’t fast? woo’t tear thyself?
Woo’t drink up eisel? eat a crocodile?
I’ll do’t. Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I:
And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
Singeing his pate against the burning zone,
Make Ossa like a wart! Nay, an thou’lt mouth,
I’ll rant as well as thou.

Of course, we don’t have the instructions Shakespeare gave to his actors: we have only his texts, and even these require learned critical scrutiny. But since a number of Hamlet’s lines are quite clearly spoken in the spirit of mockery, and with ironic imitation of certain types of speech, we may, I think, justly wonder which other of Hamlet’s lines are similarly intended. My own feeling is that there is much more mockery in Hamlet’s part than is usually reckoned. Take, for instance, this rhapsody of words Hamlet directs at his mother in the big court scene in the first act:

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

All too often this passage is delivered straight, but it seems to me that he is here mocking insincere expressions of grief. When delivered straight, it becomes very difficult to make much sense of that trite rhyming couplet at the end; but if this passage is indeed mockery, that couplet fits perfectly.

There are, I think, a few other passages, even some revered ones, that would benefit from being delivered in a mocking tone. For Hamlet is a master of parody and of pastiche, and he employs them liberally.

Given this is the case, is it at all possible that his letters to Ophelia were similarly written in a spirit of mockery? Not that he was mocking Ophelia: not only is there no reason for him to mock her when he was wooing her, such mockery would indicate a cruel and heartless brute; and whatever else Hamlet may have been, he wasn’t that. No – he may have adopted this mocking tone in his letters because Ophelia was in on the joke. Once again, I do realise this is conjecture on my part, but let’s hold with that conjecture for now and see if it leads us anywhere sensible. For imagining that Hamlet wrote those awful lines in all seriousness really takes us nowhere sensible at all.

Polonius, of course, does not sense any irony in these letters, but the subtleties of Hamlet’s mind are entirely lost upon him anyway: we wouldn’t expect Polonius to take these letters at anything other than face value. Gertrude, who, despite not being perhaps the most intelligent of characters, knows her son well enough to be suspicious: “Came this from Hamlet to her?” she asks – not because she does not think Hamlet cannot love Ophelia, but because she knows this is not Hamlet’s style at all. But if, indeed, Ophelia was in on the joke, if Ophelia could laugh at the worn-out conceit of lovers’ “groans” – of lovers pining away helplessly with pangs of dispriz’d love – then the picture we usually have of Ophelia as the docile and obedient and somewhat pallid young lady disappears, and is replaced by someone who is quick-witted, and intelligent; indeed, she becomes the kind of person whom one can imagine Hamlet being attracted to.

For Ophelia (like Hamlet himself, for that matter) is in the wrong play. In a comedy, she could have been a Rosaline, or a Rosalind, or a Beatrice, or a Viola: Shakespeare’s comedies are full of bright-witted and intelligent and immensely attractive young ladies. Even the very young Juliet has wit and wisdom beyond her tender years. And the men fall for them: Berowne falls for Rosaline, Orlando for Rosalind, Romeo for Juliet. Even Benedick, despite his apparent enmity with Beatrice in the earlier acts, is clearly besotted with her: his discovery of his love for her is not the realisation of something that is new, but an uncovering of what already is, but had been hidden.

Observe, for instance, Ophelia’s reply to her brother, who tries to put on a “big brother” act and give her moral instruction:

But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.

This is a young woman who understands full well her brother’s sanctimony, his hypocrisy; she knows full well what he gets up to when he is seemingly “studying” at university. Her instinctive understanding, and her turning the tables on him in so shrewd and so articulate a manner, are worthy of Rosalind.

And Hamlet had, I think, been attracted to Ophelia for these very qualities. In a comedy, this would have worked out fine, but they are here in a very different play: here, Ophelia’s natural wit and intelligence are crushed by the overbearing nature of the power her father exerts upon her. She is utterly isolated, and has not even a Nurse to turn to. When she is distressed – as she is by Hamlet’s inexplicable behaviour – she has no-one to turn to except her father; and neither does she have any option but to obey her father’s instructions, even if it means handing over to him the personal love letters she has received. For all her natural intelligence, she is nonetheless a woman in a very patriarchal environment; and she is very young, and utterly dependent. Her spirit, though brilliant, is also fragile, and it is easily crushed.

It is in the third scene of the play, immediately after the big court scene (in which we had first seen Hamlet), that we see Ophelia for the first time. In too many productions of this play, the tension drops here, and it is largely a matter of “wake me up when the ghost appears”. But it shouldn’t be like that. We see Ophelia as intelligent and quick-witted, as she responds aptly, though not unkindly, to her brother, who has, rather patronisingly, been giving her moral instruction. But then her father enters, and he, in turn, gives moral instruction to his son. And the son takes it all. One suspects it is merely a matter of form on both sides, and that it is neither intended seriously on one side, nor taken seriously on the other. (The next time we see Polonius, he is setting spies on his own son: he certainly does not expect his moral instructions to be observed, and appears to have very few moral scruples himself.) And then he turns to his daughter, and she is in no position to reply to her father as she had to her brother. Both Polonius and Laertes judge Hamlet by their own somewhat debased standards: he merely wants his bit of fun with her, they think, and nothing more. Ophelia is sure she knows Hamlet better, but she is powerless: her last helpless words in this scene are “I shall obey, my lord”. And here, Ophelia’s tragedy, no less in magnitude than Hamlet’s, is set in motion – the crushing an intelligent, quick-spirited woman.

The two meet in III,i – the so-called “nunnery” scene. It has long seemed to me a key scene in the drama, although I don’t think I understood why. I am still not sure I entirely understand this scene – there is far too much happening here – but it still seems to me a key scene in the drama, and deserves close inspection.

Here, Ophelia has been instructed by her father to return to Hamlet all his gifts. And furthermore, she is to be the “bait”: she is given the morally dubious task of provoking Hamlet, so that her father and the King may, from their hiding place, observe how he reacts. Indeed, she finds herself in a situation similar to that of Hamlet himself: both have been enjoined by their respective fathers to do what does not come to them naturally – to do what they cannot.

She has been instructed to “read on this book”. If this is intended to camouflage her, as it were – to make her presence seem innocuous – it must be because Ophelia reading on a book is not a conspicuous sight: one can but conclude that she is often seen with a book. Hamlet enters, and delivers his famous soliloquy without at first noticing her. But it would be surprising indeed were she not to hear him; and what she hears is hardly cheerful stuff. Hamlet ponders why we choose to live when living is merely a series of the most intolerable vicissitudes, and concludes that we carry on living merely because we are to cowardly to face the alternative. And only when he has delivered himself of this that he notices her, reading on her book, and immediately adopts the familiar tone of mocking parody:

Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.

If my conjecture is right, Ophelia is accustomed to this sort of banter, and, uneasy as she is in the task allotted her, takes up gratefully a similarly bantering tone:

Good my lord,
How does your honour for this many a day?

“My lord”, “Your honour” … is this the way a wooed woman addresses her wooer? Even if he is a prince? Their wooing had not, after all, been merely in its early stages: she had already, by her own admission, “suck’d the honey of his music vows”.

“Good my lord”, “my lord”, “my honoured lord”, “your lordship” … by my count, there are eight instances of “my lord” (or variations thereof) in the very few lines that Ophelia has at this point, and it seems to me plausible that she is continuing the tone of banter that they were both accustomed to, and which, in this scene, Hamlet himself had introduced. Take, for instance, Ophelia’s next lines:

My lord, I have remembrances of yours,
That I have longed long to re-deliver

“Longed long” seems to me a rather contrived piece of poetic artifice, like someone who is not naturally a poet trying to speak poetically. Unless, of course, we take this also as a piece of parodic mockery. She even throws in a trite little rhyming couplet:

Take these again; for to the noble mind
Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.

We may remember that when Hamlet had mocked Gertrude, he too had thrown in a trite little rhyming couplet:

But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

But Hamlet’s reaction is not very appreciative. (One would hardly expect it to be given that she is returning his gifts.) He laughs – it could be a sardonic laugh – and then proposes a paradox. Once again, this was an aspect of courtly wit – we had seen Hamlet exchange paradoxes earlier with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – but this particular paradox has a rather nasty edge to it. The paradox is that beauty is more powerful than honesty; and this is because beauty has the power to transform honest people into being dishonest, but honesty does not have the comparable power to transform beautiful people into being ugly. A pretty enough paradox, but a bit too close to the bone given what Ophelia is doing (i.e. using her own beauty to entrap Hamlet); and the way Hamlet explains this paradox, bringing into it the imagery of prostitution, is particularly nasty:

… the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness

Ophelia understands the insult. She is using her beauty to trap him, and she is no better than a prostitute. She now drops the bantering tone – it is no longer appropriate – and the rest of her lines are merely brief replies, as short and as to the point as possible, to Hamlet’s questions. Her entire world is now on the point of collapsing.

And then, on top of it all, she is forced into a lie. “Where’s your father?” Hamlet asks, all of a sudden. “At home, my lord,” she replies, and this time, there is no bantering quality to “my lord”. It is a bare-faced lie, she knows it; and Hamlet knows she knows it. And this lie seems to confirm to Hamlet everything he had suspected. Previously, Hamlet had ranted at himself (“I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me…”), but now, he turns his fury upon her. Nothing Ophelia says from here onwards is addressed to Hamlet: he is now not someone who may be spoken with. But this is not the person she has known, and all she wants is for the Hamlet she had previously known to be restored to her:

O, help him, you sweet heavens!

O heavenly powers, restore him!

But Hamlet is past restoring now. Polonius had thought Hamlet mad because – well, because he had been acting a bit funny. But with Ophelia, it is different: this is not the Hamlet she once had known.

When Hamlet leaves, Ophelia is given some of the most heartbreaking lines in all dramatic literature. However, since, in most productions I have seen, the focus of the preceding scene had been primarily on Hamlet, with Ophelia playing effectively the “straight man”, these lines often fall a bit flat. Really, they shouldn’t:

O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword;
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck’d the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy: O, woe is me,
To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

And this time, there is no hint of parody here in that final rhyming couplet.

Hamlet and Ophelia meet again, for one last time, in the next scene, and this time they are in full gaze of all the court. And I find this scene excruciating: it is among the most distasteful and cruel scenes in all literature. Previously, Hamlet had accused Ophelia of behaving like a prostitute; here, he publicly – and quite deliberately, with pre-meditation – treats her as one. Polonius sees his daughter’s public humiliation, and does nothing. In this, at least, he is not being a hypocrite: he is merely following the advice he had given his son. He acts like an unfeeling bastard, and that’s because he is an unfeeling bastard: to his own self he is indeed true.

But what can one say of Hamlet’s behaviour? How could he have sunk so low from what he once had been? That is his tragedy.

The next time we see Ophelia, her mind has collapsed. It shouldn’t surprise us. Perhaps no-one had ever really loved Ophelia. Laertes protests in very exaggerated terms that he had, but one suspects that he was neither sufficiently intelligent nor sufficiently sensitive to appreciate her worth. Hamlet had truly loved her once – and indeed, he had made her believe so – but even when he finds she is dead, he seems more concerned with mocking Laertes than grieving for her. The only person who had, perhaps, really loved her, was Gertrude, herself another tragic character. She may not herself be the most intelligent or perceptive of characters, but it is she who delivers that rightly famous and very beautiful passage describing Ophelia being dragged down to her death in the waters while singing. And her brief and simple lines at Ophelia’s funeral I find almost unbearably moving:

Sweets to the sweet: farewell!
I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife;
I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid,
And not have strew’d thy grave.

In another play, a comedy perhaps, she could indeed have been Hamlet’s wife, and it could have been a marriage of true minds. But here, the sweet spirit of hers, as intelligent and as bright as Rosalind’s or Viola’s, is crushed: it has no chance. This does not often register in productions: because she appears in only a few scenes, she often emerges no more than merely peripheral; and, although we see her fall, we do not really feel the full impact of her tragedy because we see little of the height that she falls from. But Shakespeare has, I think, given her enough. Hamlet Prince of Denmark does not present Hamlet’s tragedy alone.

Meanwhile, when Hamlet was not writing letters to Ophelia with their deliberately pisspoor verses, what else was he doing? My guess is he was writing: Hamlet needed to write things down (“meet it is I set it down”). And, given his passion for theatre, I’d guess further that he was writing a play. I’d guess he was writing Troilus and Cressida, that brutally cynical and dyspeptic play in which one of the two titular characters, Troilus, finds himself shocked that other humans do not possess the sense of honour that he does, and comes to hate them all. But Hamlet, in whose guise I like to think Shakespeare was writing this play, gives us Cressida as well, and she is presented as someone who realises – to her own shock – that Troilus loves not so much herself as a person, but Love and Honour as abstract ideals.

Troilus and Cressida was probably written soon after Hamlet, and there is no record of this brilliant but curious play ever being performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime. I suppose we can make of that what we will.



Aida on the M6

We hadn’t been looking forward to the long drive south down the M6 motorway on New Year’s Day. To relieve the tedium, we decided to put Verdi’s Aida – a favourite opera of us both – on the car stereo, but it wasn’t a good idea. I’m not really sure how people manage to listen to music in the car: the quieter passages are all but inaudible, and the lower register is inevitably drowned out by the rumble of the engine. The soft opening strains of Aida were virtually inaudible, but we kept it on anyway, listening to what we could, our musical memory filling in what we couldn’t. We had heard it often enough, after all, over the years.

I remember that when I first encountered it – many decades ago now – I was a bit puzzled. I was puzzled why Verdi, having created dramas of great complexity, should choose for a subject so simple – one may even say “simple-minded” – and so conventional a story. I was puzzled why, having created in his previous operas characters of such intricacy and detailed nuance, he should now settle for characters that were, once again, simple and straightforward. Verdi had, I knew, intended this to be his last opera, so I put it all down at the time to his wanting to bow out with a big popular hit; the simple-minded nature of the drama was something that had to be put up with, I felt, for the sake of the beauties of the score. But really, that won’t do. First of all, whatever one may think of the quality of Verdi’s art (and he has many detractors, I know), the seriousness of his artistic intent is surely not in any doubt. And Verdi had searched far and wide for a plot for his opera before settling on this one; he had also given extremely detailed and precise instructions to his librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni, so there can be little doubt that the final libretto is precisely what he had wanted. And in any case, given his stature at the time – no-one had greater claims than he of being a living legend – anything he cared to compose would have been a box office hit. If Aida does not present us with a complex drama or with complex characters, it is not because such things were beyond Verdi, or because he made do with whatever was available, or because he had lowered his artistic standards: it is because dramatic complexity was not what he wanted here. To point to all the conventional elements of this piece as evidence of Verdi’s lack of artistic ambition is fail to address what Verdi actually did achieve.

And yesterday, despite the inadequacy of listening in the car, it struck me – somewhere around M6-M5 interchange north of Birmingham, I think – just how profoundly anti-nationalist the work is. This in itself is surprising. For, while I am sure that Aida cannot be the only major work of nineteenth century art that is anti-nationalist, I found it difficult to think of others. Amongst composers, Chopin was a fervent Polish nationalist; Smetana and Dvořák were Czech nationalists; Mussorgsky, Balakirev and co. (the group known as “The Five”) looked to create a specifically Russian music; Wagner’s strident Germanic nationalism is notorious; Brahms kept a portrait of Bismarck above his desk. In literature, things were hardly any better: Dostoyevsky was extremely nationalist, and even Tolstoy in War and Peace could barely restrain his pride that it was the Russians who gave Napoleon his come-uppance. Of course, there are exceptions – Turgenev is an obvious one – and it’s best not to make any hasty generalisations (as I fear I am prone to do): but it’s safe to say, I think, that nationalism was a fairly widespread phenomenon in nineteenth century Europe. And it is fair to say also, I think, that it would have been no surprise had Verdi been a fervent Italian nationalist, especially given that by the time he composed Aida, he was, in effect, the living representative of the entire nation’s culture. The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, from his early opera Nabucco, had been enthusiastically taken up as an anthem of Italian patriotism; Verdi himself had fully supported Garibaldi’s campaign, and had celebrated joyously the emergence of Italy as a new, unified nation (in 1848, when the occupying Austrians had temporarily been forced to retreat from Milan, Verdi had actually written in a letter “Italy will yet become the first nation of the world … I am drunk with joy! Imagine that there are no more Germans here!!”); after unification, Verdi had supported Cavour; had been elected to the Parliament, and later, appointed to the Senate (although, despite his patriotic fervour, he preferred to keep a distance from political activity); and so on. In short, Verdi was a very unlikely candidate for the composer of an anti-nationalist work. And yet, that is what Aida seems to me to be. It seemed to me so obvious yesterday, driving through the rain and the winter murk, that I wondered why this had not struck me before.

The story is of lovers from across a divide, and thus, looks back very obviously to Romeo and Juliet. Which, in turn, looks back to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; and, no doubt, that too looks back on something from even earlier. It’s a time-honoured story. But here, the divide is not between feuding families, but, quite explicitly, between nations – nations furiously raging together. Aida is an Ethiopian slave girl in Egypt, captured in war; but what the Egyptians do not know is that she is actually the Ethiopian royal princess. She is in love with the young Egyptian soldier Radames, and he loves her too. But Radames is also loved by the Egyptian princess, Amneris, and so, the two princesses (one still a slave girl) find themselves unequal rivals. Things get really complicated when Radames is chosen to lead the Egyptian army against their old enemies, the Ethiopians – against Aida’s people. And so on. It’s all fairly standard stuff, unlikely to be of any interest to anyone nowadays were it not accompanied by Verdi’s music. Even at the time of writing (in the 1870s), it was probably already old hat.

But this tired old plot nonetheless encapsulated Verdi’s theme – individual human love set against the hatred of nation unto nation. Of course, individual love doesn’t stand a chance, and is crushed. But in that ineffably beautiful final scene, we do not hear the tread of doom: we hear, instead, the most ecstatic outpourings of the human soul, as Aida and Radames expire in each other’s arms as only characters in opera can do, discovering in their defeat a nobility and an exaltation that the irrational armies clashing my night could never even envisage. And as these two sing of waking into Eternal Day, they are joined by the grieving voice of Amneris, nominally the villain of the piece, but who too had loved, and had lost: Verdi’s generosity of spirit does not leave her out.

And how far all this is from the crude and violent shouts of war (“Guerra! Guerra! Guerra!”) we had heard in the opening scene. The soldiers are ultimately the victors, of course. That is inevitable. And they will go on fighting. In Romeo and Juliet, the warring factions are reconciled by the deaths of the lovers, but things had moved on from Shakespeare’s time: in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (written only a few years after Aida), there’s a parody of Romeo and Juliet, but here, the lovers from two feuding families do not bring the warring factions together: once they elope, their respective families, far from being reconciled, merely slaughter each other. In Aida, too, there is no hope of reconciliation: the ignorant armies will continue to clash by night, urged on by equally ignorant cries of “Guerra! Guerra! Guerra!” But in the defeat of Aida and of Radames, a defeat they both willingly accept in preference to anything the outside world may consider victory, Verdi gives us a different music. Like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, they make Death proud to take them.

The villain of this opera turns out not really to be Amneris, although she may seem, superficially at least, to fit that role: for she too is driven by love. The villains here are collective. They are the theocrats – the priests who urge the war; they are the Egyptian empire, the war machine. And among the villains is also the defeated Ethiopian king, Amonasro, Aida’s father. For he too is a man of War. It is he who insists that his daughter must betray her personal loyalty and embrace instead the collective identity that has been pre-determined for her: she is, above all, an Ethiopian. In our modern world, with people from very different cultural backgrounds living cheek by jowl with each other to a far greater extent than ever before, the Amonasros have not disappeared: quite the contrary, they have multiplied. But their clamour and their stridence must not be allowed to drown out the very different music that Verdi gives us – a music that is both fragile, and also of a surpassing radiance.

This opera no doubt lacks the complexity of character and the intricacy of drama that we may find in various other operas by Verdi, but it gives us, I think, a vision of something else – something that is important for us to hold on to. We may take the easy way out and dismiss it all as merely “sentimental” or “naïve”, but I think we would be wrong to do so. Verdi, too, in his time, had been a patriot, a nationalist: possibly, he remained so even to his death. But he knew there is also that within us that can surpass and transcend such matters, and in Aida, he gives this its fullest artistic expression. And not even the rumble of the engine and the roar of the motorway could quite drown that out.


Shakespeare’s Roman plays on stage

Well, I live within reasonable travelling distance of London, so I may as well take advantage of it!

When the Royal Shakespeare Company announced they were performing all four of Shakespeare’s Roman plays in the same season, I felt like that proverbial kid in the candy-shop, unable to decide which one to go for. Should I go to see Antony and Cleopatra again? I have admittedly seen it many times before, but I love that play. Or there’s Julius Caesar, a play I was quite obsessed with as a thirteen-year-old – I used, I remember, to read it over and over again, and it is very firmly imprinted in my mind – but, for whatever reason, I had never seen it on stage before. Or there was Coriolanus, which, too, I had never seen on stage: maybe a stage production would help me appreciate better this strange play – Shakespeare’s last tragedy featuring a protagonist who, far from developing into some measure of self-awareness, seems resolutely incapable of any kind of development at all. In the end, the kid in the candy shop realised he couldn’t decide, and spent all his pocket money on all the sweets.

(Well, not perhaps all: Titus Andronicus has never really been a favourite play of mine, but I have not seen this on stage either, and I have received some very fine reports of this production.)


Coriolanus came first. I have always found this a grim and rather severe play. It is one of Shakespeare’s longest, and, lacking as it does a subplot, the focus is insistently, almost oppressively, on its principal character throughout. And this character seems not to have much of an inner life: an unthinking fighting machine, seemingly incapable not merely of subtle or of profound thought, but of any thought at all. And he lacks poetry. The entire play seems to lack poetry: those wonderful lines and passages scattered throughout Shakespeare’s plays that grab you by the throat or make those hairs on the back of your neck stand up with their expressive eloquence and their irresistible verbal music seem very conspicuous here by their absence. Shakespeare obviously knew what he was doing: problem is, I don’t.

The performance didn’t really help. The text was quite severely cut, and as a consequence, lacked the sense of that almost oppressive intensity I seem to detect when I am reading it. Sope Dirisu as Coriolanus didn’t really project any strong personality, or charisma, as I think he ideally needed to. For some reason, the drama somehow failed to grip. Either that, or I just attended a bad night. (I have bad days in the office sometimes: I am sure actors are allowed the occasional bad day on the stage!)

So, basically, Coriolanus remains for me something of a puzzle. But I’ll keep trying.

Next came Antony and Cleopatra, a play I have gone on about quite a bit in various posts here, as it is a firm favourite of mine. It started very promisingly: Josette Simon was a very spirited and vivacious Cleopatra, and Antony Byrne looked just right playing his namesake – a war-hardened soldier who, now advancing in years, is losing it. I particularly liked the way Ben Allen played Octavius – a very young man who nonetheless takes his responsibilities seriously, and who, at the start, idolises Antony as a great soldier, and cannot understand why this once great soldier is no longer living up to his Roman sense of duty. This makes sense of the text. Here, the proposal that Antony marry Octavia is no mere cynical ploy on Octavius’ part: he really wants Antony in his family, and actually believes that the love of a good Roman woman would cure Antony of his Egyptian decadence. So when Antony does return to Cleopatra, Octavius can only take this as a personal insult. And at the same time, his expression of grief on hearing of Antony’s death appears heartfelt, as it was surely intended to be: in too many productions, where Octavius is played as a cynical, manipulative statesman, cold and unfeeling in all his dealings, this scene falls flat, s it is hard to believe that such a man could be capable of such heartfelt emotion. Here, it worked splendidly.

But all was not perfect here either. For one thing, the cuts. I understand that this is a long play, and some cuts are necessary, but here, they did hurt. They cut the scene on the night before the battle where the soldiers on guard duty hear mysterious music coming from under the ground. It is only a short scene, and is very atmospheric: I’m sure it could have stayed. The many battle scenes were considerably thinned out, reducing, I felt, something of the play’s epic dimension. The scene between Cleopatra and her treasurer is cut. And, most grievous of all, I thought, was the excision of that wonderful passage where Antony calls round all his sad captains:

                                            … Come,
Let’s have one other gaudy night: call to me
All my sad captains; fill our bowls once more;
Let’s mock the midnight bell.

I also couldn’t help feeling that they short-changed the poetry somewhat. Among other things, Antony and Cleopatra is full of passages of soaring lyricism: it’s almost as if Shakespeare had poured into this play all the verbal opulence that he so carefully kept out of his very next play Coriolanus. And yet, the beauty of the poetry did not really seem to register. Even Cleopatra’s heart-wrenchingly beautiful lines

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

seemed  to lack solemn majesty.

It could be argued, of course, that “solemn majesty” is not how Josette Simon sees Cleopatra, and certainly, she has plenty of textual evidence on her side. Perhaps I am bringing too many of my own preconceptions to the proceedings, and that’s never a good thing.

And today, it was Julius Caesar. We read this play at school when I was thirteen, and, contrary to the oft-repeated mantra that Shakespeare in the classroom puts people off for the rest of their lives, I loved it. I think I developed a sort of obsession about it. And, rather strangely perhaps, I remember how I used to regard this play back then. Brutus was my hero, a genuine man of honour, who, quite rightly, acted to protect the Roman people from Caesar’s tyranny, and was defeated by the unscrupulous Antony. Now, while still thinking that Brutus acted with honourable motives, he seems to me something of a self-obsessed prig, continually telling everyone how very honourable he was. Cassius now seems to me more neurotic than I had then thought him. Antony is still unscrupulous, but now, I find myself admiring his extraordinary courage, and his loyalty to the dead Caesar. And Caesar himself I find myself admiring more than I used to. In short, I have grown up, and am more aware of the various ambivalences in all four of these fascinating leading characters.

And I found myself also thinking that while Antony and Cleopatra – written some seven years after Julius Caesar – was not intended as a sequel, the characters of Antony and of Octavius are consistent with what had gone before. Antony’s tiring of his responsibilities in the later play, and wishing only for a life of unthinking hedonism, takes on particularly strong resonance when one knows that Antony had spent his youth in pursuit of pleasure, and had only taken on political and soldierly duties when circumstances had compelled him to do so. The great statesman and soldier we hear of in the later play we see for ourselves in the earlier: and we see also what had driven him to such a life. And in his advancing years, it is his carefree pleasure-filled youth he wishes to return to.

The production, I thought, is tremendous. Alex Waldman plays Brutus here is a self-obsessed prig that I now see him to be, and Martin Hutson’s Cassius is overtly neurotic. Andrew Woodall is a splendid Caesar (he had been an equally splendid Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra) , and the whole thing is staged quite superbly. Best of all, perhaps, was James Corrigan’s dynamic Antony: that great speech scene was every bit as electric as it should be. And for once, they played the text more or less complete, with only the smallest of cuts. (But then again, this is a much shorter play than the other two.)

One thing that struck my fifty-seven-year-old self that I most certainly had not recognised as a thirteen-year-old is that the final act is surprisingly weak. A big battle scene, and a rounding off of the story – all finely executed, sure, but I get the feeling that after the long scene in Brutus’ tent in the fourth act, Shakespeare didn’t really have anything more to add. The final act, in comparison to what had gone before, is perhaps a bit routine. But no matter. Those first four acts are simply extraordinary, and this play will always have a special place in my heart. Why it took me so long to get round to seeing it on stage, I really don’t know.

So should I go and see Titus Andronicus this January? I have never really liked the play, but it is one of the fifteen plays of Shakespeare’s I haven’t yet seen on stage (I was counting them off on my fingers on the train back home), so perhaps I should make the effort. If only to tick it off the list. But something tells me that the boy in the candy-shop has had too much candy already.

Confessions of a culture-vulture

It was Cosi Fan Tutte last night.

Every November, the Glyndebourne Touring Opera give a few performances in nearby Woking, and, almost invariably, they perform a Mozart opera. Which, obviously, is fine by us. Last year, it was Don Giovanni (I reported on that briefly here). I was recovering then from serious illness, and, in my weakened state, was afraid I might fall asleep during the performance; but, in the event, it turned out to be a first step back, as it were, to life: by the end of that performance, I felt less of an invalid, less weighed down by my troubles and worries – in brief, less of a miserable old sod. Those three Mozart-da Ponte operas have that effect on me: no matter how serious the aspects of our humanity they probe into, they elate, they exhilarate.

Take last night’s Cosi Fan Tutte. One of my earliest posts on this blog was about this opera, and I dwelt at some length on how deeply troubling the whole thing was. I cannot think of any other work, in any other artistic medium, that is so exquisitely beautiful, and yet so profoundly troubling. And last night, I felt the full force of this paradox all over again: the music is so perfectly beautiful, that the sense aches at it; and yet it presents a view of ourselves, of us all, that perturbs, and leaves one uneasy. I have read many accounts of this work, and even writers with far greater command than myself of the English language clearly find themselves struggling in trying to describe its effect. It remains elusive: just when you think you have found the key to it, some new detail occurs to you, and the entire edifice you have built for yourself suddenly comes tumbling down. It is hard indeed to account for a work that so entrances with its beauty, and yet so troubles you to your very depths; and which, even despite this troublesome nature, leaves you, somehow, elated by the end.

In other words, it’s a right bugger to blog about. So let’s move on.

One full year on from when I was feeling so sorry for myself and so comfortably self-pitying, I find myself in the midst of a spree of nights out. Last night, as I said, it was Cosi Fan Tutte; last week, it was Handel’s Rodelinda at the English National Opera. This was unplanned: a friend of a friend had an extra ticket which he was willing to see off at a ridiculously low price, and it seemed rude to turn it down. I must confess, though, that I am not really convinced by Baroque opera. Not dramatically, I mean. As I understand it, opera audiences of Handel’s time went to hear fine singing from star singers; and they went for spectacle; but they didn’t really go for what we would nowadays consider drama. So Handel operas tend to consist of a long sequence of solo arias – each very beautiful, and each very expressive, but each rather static, designed as they were for the singers simply to stand-and-deliver. Modern stagings invent various piece of stage business – some ingenious, others (to my mind) a bit pointless, and even a bit silly – to prevent it all becoming a merely a long sequence of dramatically static arias; but I rarely find myself convinced. The ENO production did as good a job as can be imagined, but I don’t think I’d have lost much if it had all been done simply as a concert performance. Certainly, in musical terms, and in terms of their expressive power, the arias themselves are top-drawer stuff, and they were quite beautifully performed; but I still can’t quite see this as drama. However, this is just a personal reaction: aficionados of Baroque opera may well disagree.

And I am also attending a series of concerts given at the Wigmore Hall by the Spanish quartet Cuarteto Casals, covering all of Beethoven’s mighty string quartets. I’ve been to two already, and there is a third concert in early December. We are also going to a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers in two weeks’ time, in which a friend of ours is singing in the chorus. (To clarify on this point, when I say “I”, I mean I am going on my own; when I say “we”, I am going with my wife. We share some tastes – we both love Mozart and Verdi, for instance – but not all, and we see little point dragging each other off to events we may not enjoy.)

I will not be writing here about any of these concerts, since I am not really qualified to pass my layman’s opinions on musical matters. But when it comes to dramatic matters … well, truth to tell, I’m not really qualified to write about these matters either; but if I were to keep quiet about everything I am not qualified to comment on, this blog would never even get started. (And in any case, remaining silent when you have nothing much of interest to say would be going very much against the spirit of our times.)

And there’s theatre, of course. The Royal Shakespeare Company will be in London this winter, and they are bringing down from Stratford-on-Avon all four of Shakespeare’s Roman plays – Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. Titus Andronicus has never been amongst my favourite plays, although, given I have never seen it on stage before, I may well go along to have a look come January. More surprisingly, perhaps, I have never seen Julius Caesar or Coriolanus on stage either, and have tickets for both between now and Christmas. And also between now and Christmas, I’ll be seeing Antony and Cleopatra, which I often name as my single favourite Shakespeare play: I find it a hard play to keep away from.

(And speaking of which, the National Theatre promises us an Antony and Cleopatra next year with Ralph Fiennes. It also promises us also Macbeth with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff. At the same time the Royal Shakespeare Company is also promising us Macbeth, this time with Christopher Ecclestone and Niamh Cusack. Which one will be better? Well, there’s only one way to find out, as Harry Hill might say…)

And if all this weren’t enough, one Sunday in early December, the British Film Institute promises us screenings of all three films comprising Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (which I often regard as possibly cinema’s finest artistic achievement) in newly restored prints. I used to be a very keen film-goer in my student days, but I must admit that this is something that has long fallen by the wayside. However, I have never seen these masterpieces before on the big screen, and this really is very tempting.

So much to see, so little money in the bank…

“The love that can be reckoned”

“There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned,” says Antony confidently in the opening scene of Antony and Cleopatra. It is, indeed, his opening line. This theme of the immeasurability of love echoes throughout Shakespeare’s work: love, true love, is not something that can be reckoned. Rosalind in As You Like It agrees:

O coz, coz, coz, my pretty little coz, that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love! But it cannot be sounded; my affection hath an unknown bottom…

It cannot be reckoned, it cannot be sounded, for it is bottomless. At least, its bottom is unknown: as far as our human understanding goes, it is infinitely deep.

Juliet, naturally, is of the same mind:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.

Infinity is not a number like any other number. Take a finite number from infinity, and it still remains infinite. A whole new set of mathematical rules must be developed if we are to encompass the concept of infinity.

Even Orsino, in Twelfth Night, who has little reason to praise love given how much he suffers for it, compares love to the incalculable infinity of the sea:

O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute!

That which may be reckoned or sounded, no matter how large, becomes as nothing when it enters the sea, which can neither be reckoned nor sounded. The infinity of love is beyond reckoning, beyond understanding.

A very conspicuous example in Shakespeare of someone who does not understand the nature of love, who feels it can be reckoned, is Lear. In the very opening scene, he declares he will divide his kingdom to his daughters on the basis of how much they love him. Not only does he think love is something that can be measured, he plans to settle the future of the kingdom itself on the basis of this measurement:

Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.

Love, for Lear, is something that can be reckoned, can be sounded: it is a measurable parameter, weighting factors in a mathematical equation.

Later, he measures love in proportion to the number of personal attendants he is allowed:

I’ll go with thee:
Thy fifty yet doth double five and twenty,
And thou art twice her love.

Here is obviously a man who is spiritually blind, one of those who, as Gloucester later puts it, “will not see because he doth not feel”. But this is where this seeming dichotomy – between, on the one hand, whose who think love can be measured, and those to understand it to be unfathomable – becomes complicated. For Cordelia, the very epitome of selfless and self-sacrificing love, speaks the same language as her father:

I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less.

Love here is most certainly reckoned, and by the terms of a legally binding bond: and once it is measured, she is prepared to give it precisely, neither more, nor less. A few lines later, she speaks of love as something that can mathematically be divided:

Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

What a far cry this is from Juliet’s contention that the more love she gives, the more she has, “for both are infinite”.

I must confess that I have a problem understanding Cordelia. It is no doubt true that she is irritated, insulted even, by her father’s antics, and is determined not to play his game. There is in her a sense of stubborn pride that actually marks her out to be indeed her father’s daughter. But need she express her disapproval so bluntly? And in open court? She has grown up in this court, after all, and knows the ropes: she knows that a king cannot be humiliated in his own court without severe repercussions. She knows that if she is disowned – as is the most likely outcome of crossing her father so publicly – her beloved father (for he is beloved) will be in the hands of her sisters, whom she knows well. So why does she speak in this manner? And why does she adopt Lear’s language?

Cordelia appears three more times in the rest of the play – that is, apart from her final appearance as a corpse. The first of these appearances is a brief scene in the French camp, and is mainly expository in nature. The next scene she appears in is the famous recognition scene, where Lear recognises his daughter, and, more importantly, recognises her inestimable worth, the inestimable worth of love itself. In this scene, Cordelia seems at first too diffident even to speak to her father (“He wakes; speak to him,” she says to the doctor); and when her father does awake, she speaks very few words (although these very few words include the almost unbearably moving “No cause, no cause”). She does weep, though (“Be your tears wet?” asks Lear.)

Similarly when Lear and Cordelia are imprisoned. Once again, it is Lear who does almost all the talking, while Cordelia is silent. And once again, she weeps (“Wipe thine eyes,” Lear tells her). Cordelia had probably wept in the very first scene also: “With wash’d eyes Cordelia leaves you,” she tells her sisters, although I suppose it can be argued that Cordelia means “with a clear sight” rather than “with tearful eyes”: I think she means both.

So a picture seems to emerge of Cordelia as someone who cannot, as she herself says, “heave [her] heart into [her] mouth” – who lacks the words when most she needs to speak, and who weeps instead. But yet, in that first scene, she isn’t inarticulate: she articulates very clearly indeed. And, strangely, what this paragon of selfless love articulates is articulated in Lear’s own language: she speaks of love as something that can be reckoned, measured, parcelled out, as if it were but a finite number. It’s all very puzzling.

“All that is I see”

Do you see nothing there?

Nothing at all; yet all that is I see.

  • From Hamlet, III, iv

Hans Christian Andersen’s fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes has entered our consciousness, and we are quick to point our finger at those who claim to see that which isn’t there. But there is also its direct opposite: there are also those who, unable to see anything at all, are convinced that there is nothing to see. For how can there be, when they are so utterly convinced, as Gertrude is, that “all that is” they see?

Steering a judicious course between the two opposites can be a tricky business. For instance, an artist dropping paint-filled eggs from her vagina some consider “art”, while I find myself both amused and bemused by the whole tawdry business, and cry “Emperor’s New Clothes”. But then, I find myself utterly entranced by Elliott Carter’s Symphonia, and those many to whom this is merely random noise similarly point their fingers and cry “Emperor’s New Clothes”. Now, there is no proving by algebra that I am right and that others are wrong. I am not even very willing to put it to the vote, as whatever music is currently fashionable, or even much that is currently unfashionable, is likely to get more votes by far than anything composed by Elliott Carter. And so it goes, each of us defending what we value from attacks by philistines, while ourselves attacking as “pretentious” that which may be valued by others.

And I am not really sure that debate and discussion can take us too far towards breaking this impasse. I could, I suppose, try to put into words what, say, Elliott Carter’s Symphonia makes me feel, but I have neither the vocabulary nor the technical understanding to go beyond that. And if someone feels nothing on hearing that music, then a mere description of what I may happen to feel will mean little.

The easy way out is to say, as many do, that it’s all subjective, that there isn’t any absolute criterion to judge these things, and that, taken admittedly to extremes, one cannot even say with any objectivity that Rembrandt’s drawings are superior in any way to my own lazy doodles. But, for various reasons, I have never been at all satisfied by this solution. “I like this and you like that.” Far from being the start of the dialogue, that’s the end of dialogue, for there’s nowhere further we can go. The concept of excellence itself becomes redundant. And we all find ourselves, each one of us, stuck in our own individual bubbles, unable to enter anyone else’s, and unable equally to invite others into our own.

So, when faced with that which others find of artistic value, but which means little or nothing to me, I tend to keep quiet. I tend to accept that my own horizons are far from all-encompassing, and that there may indeed be much of value that escapes me. (Although I do draw the line at dropping eggs from vaginas, diverting though this may be.) I would prefer not to join the ranks of “reviewers”, as they are known, on Facebook and Goodreads, and, no doubt, book boards and reading groups around the world. I would prefer not to peremptorily dismiss works created by minds greater than my own with such withering criticism as “It was boring” or “Nothing happens” or “I could not relate to it”, or some such.

But there is more to all this than pretending to see what isn’t there, or failing to see what is. There are also cases where one does see what’s there, but finds oneself not caring much for what one sees.

Recently, a good friend of mine, someone who is steeped in Western musical culture and whose understanding and discernment in musical matters really are beyond dispute, told me that he didn’t much care for Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, a work often regarded as one of the high points of Western civilisation. He wrote to me (and I quote with his permission):

I’m really not that fond of it, never have been. I can’t see, as it were, the point of it. … By making this confession I’ve at last been honest with myself, obviously it doesn’t matter a jot what I think, but I’ve been plaguing myself all these decades, wondering, and there! Now I’ve said it.

In the section of his mail that I have replaced with three dots, he gave a brief explanation of what he disliked about the work. I will not reproduce those lines here, since this post is about our responses to art in general, and not specifically about the Hammerklavier sonata. But his comments are not the unthinking “it was boring” of Amazon reviewers. This is the view of someone who can see quite clearly what is there, but who, even having seen, finds himself not caring for it.

As he says himself, what he thinks about it makes no difference to the wider picture: the Hammerklavier sonata will continue to be regarded as one of the high points of Western musical culture. But his view of the work, outlier though it may be, nonetheless highlights an important point: although I have spent much time insisting, mainly in reaction to unthinking condemnation, that “all is merely subjective” is not a very tenable position, subjectivity does indeed have a place, a very necessary place, at the feast.

And yes, I too have what may be termed “blind spots”. But this particular piece of terminology may be defective: there are times when, like my musical friend, the problem is not that I am blind, but that I just don’t care for what I see. I tend not to write on this blog about those things I don’t care for. For one thing, I find I am less perceptive on things I don’t like. And more importantly, what’s the point? There is so much I do love and can happily write about, why waste my energies rubbishing what I don’t?

But the main reason why I tend not to write about what I do not like is my uncertainty on these matters: I am never quite sure whether I have failed to see, or whether I have seen, but didn’t much care for what I saw. There have been instances enough of the former: those with sufficient time and patience may look back on older posts where I have been less than admiring of certain writers, whom I have later gone on to praise. We all change over time, and our perceptions change even as we do. And that is as it should be.

But sometimes, I do feel I know a work adequately, but I still fail to admire. Or, at least, to admire as much as others admire. Or to admire as much as I think I should. So let me get it off my chest (confession is good for the soul, after all): I have never much cared for The Tempest. There. Having plagued myself with this for decades, now I, too, have said it.

Of course, there are passages of exquisitely beautiful poetry throughout. When it comes to the art of creating verbal music, Shakespeare seemed able to turn it on as and when he wanted. But is this admittedly beautiful poetry saying anything very profound? I frankly doubt it. And the drama – where’s the drama? The exposition is achieved through a very long and boring narration – so boring, that Prospero has to keep interrupting himself to tell his daughter to stay awake. Even now, when I read it, I can’t help wondering what Will was playing at: even a novice playwright would have known better. And where’s the dramatic tension? What little tension there is in the play  dissipates completely by the end of Act 3, so the fourth act is mainly taken up with a masque, and the fifth shows us what we knew all along was going to happen. As for the comic scenes, they’re the most tedious and the most unfunny since all that palaver with Launcelot Gobbo back in The Merchant of Venice.

Once again, my view of the play doesn’t matter a jot. The Tempest will continue to be seen as one of the great peaks of our civilisation. And it may well be that some time in the future, I will read over the above lines with profound embarrassment. But I have known this play for some four and a half decades now, both on page and on the stage, and while I have no doubt I have further discoveries to make about it, I doubt very much whether any of these discoveries will make me like this play significantly better than I do now.

For many, The Tempest is the culminating point of Shakespeare’s art, his parting gift to mankind before his well-earned retirement to New Place in Stratford. But for me, that parting gift is The Winter’s Tale, which ends with a vision of the Resurrection itself. It is true that this Resurrection is a mingled chime: it is subdued, and is, perhaps, more melancholy than joyous. Not even the Resurrection, in Shakespeare’s vision, can atone fully for our guilt, or restore all the losses that we have suffered in the course of our lives. But it is the best we may hope for. And this subdued and melancholy joy, this radiant half-light, seems to me a more fitting and more moving end to Shakespeare’s dramatic career than the forced and bitter reconciliation at the end of The Tempest.

None of the above, incidentally, is intended as a critique of The Tempest: it is intended merely as an example of our refusal, given our individual temperaments, to respond to things that are far outside our scope. It is true that we expand our scope by taking in things that had initially been outside it, but certain things are too far outside: there are limits to how far our perspectives may be expanded. Confessing to this may not matter a jot in the wider scheme of things, but there it is for what it’s worth. In the time-honoured phraseology of Amazon reviews, I couldn’t relate to it.

I shall now go away and listen to Maurizio Pollini’s recording of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, which, despite the views of my far more knowledgeable and discerning friend, I continue to find thrilling. There really is no accounting for tastes, is there?

Art and morality: some reflections on a Twitter spat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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