Here and there – Shakespeare and the mob – Part II

Part 2

The historical and contemporary comparisons with Cade and the mountebank of Sir Lewis Namier are obvious from these remarks of that most formidable historian.

They thought that because he [Napoleon]  was intellectually their inferior, they would be able to run him or get rid of him; the German conservatives – Junkers, industrialists, generals, Nationalists – thought the same about Hitler.  [And the Italians thought the same about Mussolini.] ….Self-expression, self-glorification and self-commemoration are one motive…..The careers of Napoleon III and Hitler have shown how far even a bare minimum of ideas and resources, when backed by a nation’s reminiscences or passions, can carry a man in the political desert of direct democracy’…..There was in him [Napoleon III] a streak of vulgarity.  He was sensual, dissolute, undiscriminating in his love affairs: his escapades were a form of escapism, a release…He talked high and vague idealism, uncorrelated to his actions.  He had a fixed, superstitious, childish belief in his name and star.  Risen to power, this immature weak man became a public danger.

That is not just a comparison – it is a word perfect portrait.

So, there in that very early play (Henry VI, Part II), we get chapter and verse on the worst kind of populist.  It may look to be shockingly overdone – until we recall those regimes of terror that I have referred to – and, for that matter, if we just look round about us now.  The populist is considered more clinically in later plays.

Everyone is familiar with the speech of Antony when he came to bury Caesar.  And for all of its devilishly sinister appeal, it is pure political duplicity.  Antony expressly repudiates undertakings given to that prince of naivety named Brutus.  It is a wonderful speech.  Brando relished every syllable.  But we get the highest form of political theatre immediately before and after the speech.  When Antony has to confront the murderers he has to walk on eggshells.  The nobles may be politically backward, but they have the power, and it takes peerless judgment on the part of Antony to get the chance to swing people gainst the status quo.  This is theatre at its highest.  As is the scene that immediately follows the big speech.  (It is remarkable that some productions leave on or other out.)

Here, then, is how our playwright shows the reaction of the mob, which is wonderfully played with diverse English accents on the Argo CD.  Act 3, Scene 3, in its entirety is as follows:

Cinna:                     I dreamt tonight that I did feast with Caesar, And things unluckily charge my fantasy. I have no will to wander forth of doors, Yet something leads me forth.

First Plebeian:       What is your name?

Second Plebeian:   Whither are you going?

Third Plebian:        Where do you dwell?

Fourth Plebeian:   Are you a married man or a bachelor?

Second Plebeian:   Answer every man directly.

First Plebeian:       Ay, and briefly.

Fourth Plebeian:   Ay, and wisely.

Third Plebeian:      Ay, and truly, you were best.

Cinna:                     What is my name?  Whither am I going?  Where do I dwell? Am I married man or a bachelor?  Then, to answer every man directly and briefly, wisely and truly: wisely I say, I am a bachelor.

Second Plebeian:   That’s as much as to say, they are fools that marry: you’ll bear

me a bang for that, I fear. Proceed directly.

Cinna:                     Directly, I am going to Caesar’s funeral.

First Plebeian:       As a friend or an enemy?

Cinna:                     As a friend.

Second Plebeian:   That matter is answered directly.

Fourth Plebeian:   For your dwelling, briefly.

Cinna:                     Briefly, I dwell by the Capitol.

Third Plebeian:      Your name, sir, truly.

Cinna:                     Truly, my name is Cinna.

First Plebeian:       Tear him to pieces!  He’s a conspirator.

Cinna:                     I am Cinna the poet!  I am Cinna the poet!

Fourth Plebeian:   Tear him for his bad verses!  Tear him for his bad verses!

Cinna:                     I am not Cinna the conspirator.

Fourth Plebeian:   It is no matter, his name’s Cinna pluck but his name out of his

heart, and turn him going.

Third Plebeian:      Tear him, tear him!  [They attack him.]  Come, brands, ho!

Firebrands!  To Brutus’, to Cassius’! Burn all! Some to Decius’ house, and some to Casca’s; some to Ligarius’! Away, go!

Now you know what a lynch mob looks like.  It is a complete denial of humanity.

In Coriolanus, we are in the middle of the class war that disfigured the republic of Rome for centuries.  The tribunes are the representatives of the people – the lower orders.  The tribunes might for some resemble officials of a punchy trade union.  (Do you wonder what the word ‘militant’ might mean in this context?)  They are a very cold self-preserving cadre of string-pullers and puppeteers.

SICINIUS

Doubt not
The commoners, for whom we stand, but they
Upon their ancient malice will forget
With the least cause these his new honours, which
That he will give them make I as little question
As he is proud to do’t…(2.1.232-237.

 

SICINIUS

This, as you say, suggested
At some time when his soaring insolence
Shall touch the people—…..(2.1.259 – 261)

It matters not the ‘soaring insolence’ of Coriolanus is more than matched by that of the tribunes.

SICINIUS

What is the city but the people?

Citizens

True,
The people are the city.(3.1.198-199)

The conflict becomes electric when a plebeian uses a verb in the imperative mood to a noble.  This is too much for Coriolanus who explodes.

SICINIUS

It is a mind
That shall remain a poison where it is,
Not poison any further.

CORIOLANUS

Shall remain!
Hear you this Triton of the minnows? mark you
His absolute ‘shall’?  (3.1.88ff)

But this mob is as fickle as that of Cade.  When the tide turns, they compete with each other to see who can turn tail the fastest.

First Citizen

For mine own part,
When I said, banish him, I said ’twas pity.

Second Citizen

And so did I.

Third Citizen

And so did I; and, to say the truth, so did very
many of us: that we did, we did for the best; and
though we willingly consented to his banishment, yet
it was against our will.
(4.6.140-146)

When it comes to politics, then, there is truly nothing new under the sun.

Here and there – Shakespeare and the mob

 

Part I

The kings in Shakespeare looked askance at those of their ilk who played to the mob.  They liked to indulge the fiction that they were appointed by God – and only answerable to God.  The notion that they might be chosen by the people was vulgar –in the purest sense of that word.  So, when it came to dealing with an uppity lord (Bolingbroke), Richard II:

Observed his courtship to the common people

How he did seem to dive in their hearts,

With humble and familiar courtesy…..(1.4 22-26)

He even doffed his hat to an oyster wench.  Showing courtesy to the vulgar was in truth a contradiction in terms.  Chivalry is not for the lower orders.  So, when Bolingbroke becomes king, he lectures his heir who has been a ‘truant to chivalry’ by binding himself to popularity and by being ‘stale and cheap to vulgar company’ (Part 1, 3.2.41, 69 and 5.1.94).

But Shakespeare does dwell on the mob in at least three plays, and in doing so he pictures people who bear a remarkable comparison to those who like to call themselves populists – people  like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump.

Henry VI Part II is one Shakespeare’s earliest plays.  The picture he paints of the populist puppeteer Jack Cade is revolting – and revolting to fever pitch as played in the BBC production.  I said elsewhere of this monster:

When Banjo Paterson came to stigmatize mindless youth in the then equivalent of our outer suburbs, he referred to gilded youths who sat along the wall: ‘Their eyes were dull, their heads were flat, they had no brains at all.’  This is a recurrent nightmare for us now, made worse on our trains and buses by sullen looks coming from vacant spaces between iPod exit points.  It is not that education has failed them  –  they have rejected education. There is nothing going on at all there. What might happen if that lot got into government? The nightmare would be made real.

 

We see the template for this kind of disaster, and every tinpot dictator since, in Jack Cade. He comes and goes within Act 4 of Part 2 of King Henry VI.  Cade is a demagogue of Kentish soil. He is at first invoked as a pawn by a faction leader in the Wars of the Roses.  Cade appeals to the crowd.  But Jack Cade has ideas of his own. He thinks he can be king. (He is no democrat, but dictators never are.)  Although he says that he is waging a class war, he still wants to be king.  Even Hitler did not want to be Kaiser. But like Hitler, the ascent of Cade is by carrot and stick: give the masses what they want and purify the rest by terror by killing anyone who gets in the way.

What, then, does Cade have to teach us about ‘populists’?

The leader of the mob likes to encourage conjecture about birth – his own or that of someone in the status quo.  He introduces himself as Cade ‘so termed by our supposed father’ (4.2.32) before going on to claim to be a Mortimer – even if that result verges on the miraculous, since a fantastic birth has a most august provenance (4.2.136 – 145)

The leader goes out of his way to identify with the common people and to forego any trappings of the better people.  Cade says he will make it a felony to drink small beer and that they should kill all the lawyers (4.2.66, 75).  Any espousal of learning warrants suspicion.

The ambition of the leader is boundless, but so is his insecurity.  That is why he is so quick to put down anyone deviating from his vision or ambition.  It is also why he harbors a jealous regard for the fame of Henry V – the name that hales the mob ‘to an hundred mischiefs and makes them leave me desolate’ (4.9.58-9)

The leader makes wild promises to people who want to believe him.  These promises may look silly to others but that just shows how little the establishment knows about real life.

The establishment does not understand the power of the forces that will be unleashed when the revolution like that aspired to by Cade finally comes.  That was certainly the case for Louis XVI and his nobility – and for the rest of the world between 1789 and 1815.  There would be a similar explosion in Germany after 1933.  In each case, the new regime came close to defeating all Europe.  The Russians after 1917 focussed on killing each other.  The savage intensity of the Cade rebellion was indeed prophetic.

The leader encourages the mob to make ignorance virtue and knowledge a vice.  A man of the people is an ‘honest plain dealing man’ – a person ‘so well brought up that [he] can write his name’ is not one of the people – indeed, he is a ‘villain and a traitor’ and likely to suffer death (4.2.100 – 106).  That fate awaits anyone who looks down on the people – their sense of grievance, once it is unleashed, is insatiable.

While others may deplore the mob, it is unhelpful to say so.  Vilifying the mob just plays into their hands.  This is especially so if the criticism is rational – since any claim to rationality is suspect.  When a noble calls the mob ‘the filth and scum of Kent’ (4.2.119) and goes on about their humble origin, Cade unloads a zinger: ‘And Adam was a gardener’ (4.2.131)

As for anyone who could speak French: God help the obvious traitor (4.2.165).  When John Kerry ran for President, he thought it prudent not to dwell on his ability to speak French.  (The present president does not course have a second language – he has not mastered the first.)  The man of the people is not one those ‘that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can afford to hear’(4.7.39-42).  Cade fears any form of literacy because deep down he knows that not only is he illiterate, but that he simply cannot compete with people of intelligence or learning.

That is one reason Cade mistrusts logical thinking, but he hints at a kind of truth when he says ‘But then we are in order when we are most out of order’ (4.2.187).  This of course is a flirtation with anarchy – but pure anarchy puts the leader out of a job.  This is the dilemma of all those who take power by force – if we could do that to them, what is to stop others doing the same to us?  In this way every revolution comes pregnant with counter-revolution.

When the people rise up to overthrow the existing order, they want to obliterate it.  It’s as if the raiment of history mocks the nakedness of the new boy on the block.  So, ‘burn all records of the realm: my mouth shall be the parliament of England….And hence forward all things shall be in common.’ (4.7.15-20)

The leader can invoke the usual catch-cries, but his shout for ‘liberty’ (4.2.181) is as fatuous as that of the assassins of Julius Caesar.

And the leader is a well-known comic.  That way he can always say he was joking when he says something palpably silly.  This applies even when he is indulging his favourite past-time – eliminating people, except that he does so with extreme prejudice, although, like Trump, he only does it through agents.  The tough talker is frightened to get blood on his hands.

The leader of course demands personal loyalty over and above loyalty to the people.  For this purpose he is the people.  ‘The proudest peer in the realm shall not era a head on his shoulders unless he pay me tribute.’ (4.7.122-123)  There is a curious symbiosis in the relationship between the mob and their leader.  The mob has a spiteful chip on its shoulder; Cade looks to be at risk of collapsing under the weight of his own ego

The leader can of course do no wrong.  It is a maxim that he may have derived from the kings.  If something does go wrong, it is always the fault of others.  In this way, they mirror those who rose up against kings – decorum dictates that you would not criticise the king in his majesty – rather, you would indict his wicked counsellors who misled the king.  And they would say things like ‘If only the good king knew….’Indeed, Cade himself says that he is the broom [besom] ‘that must sweep the court clean of such filth as thou art’ (4.7.37-38).  The image of the cleansing avenger has been about at least since the 6th century BCE in Greece.  It’s so old you might think people can see through it – but, no, there is, as they say, one born every minute.

So, if the leader appears to falter, the reason will be ‘only my followers’ base and ignominious treasons’ (4.9.65).  (Hitler was content to see Germany wiped out because the Germans had let him down’.)  Cade maintains this line even in death.  It is pathetic.  ‘O, I am slain!  Famine and no other hath slain me: let ten thousand devils come against me, and give me but ten meals I have lost, and I’d defy them all’ (4.10.62-65).  The thing about megalomania is the super human power of the mania.  It can trample anything in its path.  (So, while people in the U S die of a virus, their President warbles unashamedly about his position on Facebook.)

It follows that Cade finds out just how fickle the mob is.  ‘Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro as this multitude?’  (4.8.56).  Cade has no friends – only transient travellers.  When the mob goes to water then, it can be like when the dykes get opened.  All restraint is gone.  The violent victors have murdered order.  What follows after the deluge?  To answer that, look at the history of France for the one hundred years following the overthrow of Robespierre.

In the result, Jack Cade looks doomed to be a fire that will burn out quickly –he would be useless in government in ordinary times or during a crisis.  He likes to be at home in crises of his own making.  Of Cade, it might be said that ‘his rash fire blaze of riot cannot last, For violent fires soon burn out themselves’ (Richard II, 2.1.34-35).

MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 5

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

COLLECTED PLAYS

Arthur Miller

Franklin Library, 1981.  Fully bound in embossed leather, with ridged spine; gold finish to pages and moiré endpapers with satin ribbon.  Introduction by the author.  Illustrated by Alan Mardon.  Limited edition.

Death of a Salesman is not an easy night out at the theatre.  Au contraire.  This play is wrenching, as wrenching for some as the tragedy of King Lear.  It is pervaded with a sense of doom – not just in the sense of that term in Lord of the Rings, as an end foretold, but in the darker sense of inevitable destruction or annihilation.  The battered, deluded Willy Loman is, like the crazy old king, bound upon a wheel of fire, and the fate of his whole family unfolds before eyes that you may wish to avert.  It is therefore as challenging as a Greek tragedy or one of Shakespeare, because it is a searing inquiry into the American Dream.  That is not something that many Americans have been all that happy to undertake.  (Indeed, the character of the White House as we speak shows a frightening capacity for delusion.)  But by the end of the play, you may be left with the impression that a champion of American business is less secure than a medieval serf.

This is Willy according to his wife:

I don’t say he’s a great man.  Willy Loman never made a lot of money.  His name was never in the paper.  He’s not the finest character that ever lived.  But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him.  So attention must be paid.  He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog.  Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.

When Willy’s boss wants to get rid of him, he responds: ‘You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit.’  He is, as his wife remarked, a human being.  But his delusion passes to his sons.  When reality catches up with his son Biff, he says: ‘I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been! We’ve been talking in a dream for fifteen years.’  In the Introduction, the author says:

The play was always heroic to me, and in later years the academy’s charge that Willy lacked the ‘stature’ for the tragic hero seemed incredible to me.  I had not understood that these matters are measured by Greco-Elizabethan paragraphs which hold no mention of insurance payments, front porches, refrigerator fan belts, steering knuckles, Chevrolets, and visions seen not through the portals of Delphi, but in the blue flame of the hot-water theatre…..I set out not to ‘write a tragedy’ in this play, but to show the truth as I saw it.

The academy was dead wrong.  E pur si muove.

All My Sons is hardly any easier.  The American Dream here is punctured not by failure, but by betrayal, and a crime of the worst kind.  A businessman in a time of war betrays his nation by selling defective parts to the army.  This crime leads to the deaths of American servicemen including, it would appear, one of his own sons.  And the man says that he did it for his family.  But, as in Greek tragedy, his crime comes back on the whole family and ultimately it will only be answered by his death.  In The Wild Duck, Ibsen wrote a drama where one businessman was forced to accept moral and legal responsibility for the crime of his partner.  This affront to the American Dream would be one of the factors leading to Miller being confronted by the Houses Un-American Committee.

This is how the playwright introduces Joe Keller, the hero.

Keller is nearing sixty.  A heavy man of stolid mind and build, a business man these many years, but with the imprint of the machine-shop worker and boss still upon him.  When he reads, when he speaks, when he listens, it is with the terrible concentration of the uneducated man for whom there is still wonder in many commonly known things, a man whose judgment must be dredged out of experience and a peasantlike common sense.  A man among men.

There is no doubting that this is like a Greek tragedy.  The mother tells the son that the brother who was a pilot and has been missing for years is still alive.

Your brother’s alive darling, because if he’s dead your father killed him.  Do you understand me now?  As long as you live, that boy is alive.  God does not let a son be killed by his father.

This drama, like that of Ibsen, is both hair-raising and fundamental, and the end of this play is quite as shocking as the end of Hedda Gabler.

The Crucible grabs and distresses us for different reasons.  It is a fraught descant on the lynch mob, and it had and continues to have so much impact because it covers ground from the Salem witch trials of the seventeenth century to the McCarthy pogroms of the twentieth century.  In the course of both, we get to see ourselves at our most fragile and lethal worst.  And this is ‘us’ – this is not an American problem any more than fascism was a German problem.

The children at Salem in 1692 suffered from hysteria in the medical sense.  The reaction of the community was hysterical in the popular sense.  If you believe in witchcraft, it works.  (Witness the effect of pointing the bone in our indigenous community.)  A ‘victim’ showing hysterical symptoms is a victim of a fear of witchcraft rather than of witchcraft itself, although the distinction may not matter.  John Hale showed a remarkable insight when he observed at Salem that the suspects showed fear not because they are guilty, but because they were suspected.  In 1841 a Boston legal commentator said that no one was safe and that the only way to avoid being accused was to become an accuser.  That script was re-written word for word during the Terror in France.

From 1950 to 1954 the Junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, used The Senate Permanent Sub-committee on Investigations as his version of The House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) to pursue people who had had any association with the Communist Party.  HUAC had previously been a dodgy little affair specialising in anti-Semitism, but when the Red scare came to prominence under the boozy mania of McCarthy, real people got badly hurt without anything resembling a trial, much less due process. The Americans had in truth unleashed a latterday pogrom, and it only ceased when McCarthy over-reached and went after the Army.

One of the writers forced to appear before the HUAC was Arthur Miller.  He correctly believed that he only got his subpoena because of the identity of his fiancée.  (In an amazing commentary on the difference between the power of sex appeal and the sex appeal of power, the Chairman offered to cancel the session if he could be photographed with Marilyn Monroe.)

Miller adopted the position that had been taken before the committee by Lillian Hellman.  She said that she was willing to talk about her own political past but that she refused to testify against others.  She said:

I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group.

Hellman did not have the advantage of a beautiful lover.  Not only was he not gorgeous, but he was avowedly left wing and he was gaoled for refusing to rat.  Partly for this reason, Hellman is not as fondly remembered in some quarters as Miller.

Hellman described her experiences in the book Scoundrel Time, published in 1976.  Miller described similar experiences in a play published in 1953.  That play was The Crucible.  It was based on the events in Salem in 1692, and is a searing testimony to the ghastly power of a mob that has lost its senses.  When Miller was called before the HUAC in 1956, it reminded him of The Crucible, as life followed art.

And if you have invented Satan, you have to give him some work to do.  The failure of due process before the HUAC takes your breath away, but it got worse before the courts.  When people were charged with contempt for refusing to answer, the trials did not take long.  The prosecution called expert evidence. They called an ‘expert on Communism’ to testify that the accused had been under ‘communist discipline’.  When Miller’s counsel announced he was going to call his expert to say that Miller had not been under discipline of the Communist Party, Miller noticed ‘that from then on a negative electricity began flowing toward me from the bench and the government table.’  Miller thought his expert was good, ‘but obviously the tracks were laid and the train was going to its appointed station no matter what.’  The nation that would have been entitled to see itself as having the most advanced constitutional protection of civil rights on earth had been scared out of its senses by a big bad bear that existed mostly in the minds of the tormented.

In the Introduction, Mr Miller wrote:

It was the fact that a political, objective, knowledgeable campaign from the far Right was capable of creating not only a terror, but a new subjective reality, a veritable mystique which was gradually assuming even a holy resonance.  The wonder of it all struck me that so picayune a cause, carried forward by such manifestly ridiculous men, should be capable of paralyzing thought itself, and worse, causing to billow up such persuasive clouds of ‘mysterious’ feelings within people.  It was as though the whole country had been born anew, without a memory even of certain elemental decencies which a year or two earlier no one could have imagined could be altered, let alone forgotten.

The relevance of all this to the mess that we see across the West today is obvious.  Indeed, if you read those words again you may be frightened by the references to ‘paralyzing truth’ and ‘elemental decencies.’  The lynch mob or pogrom is simply the ‘people’ at their worst.  We are now confronted everyday by affronts committed in the name of ‘populism’ as if being popular affords some evidence or warranty of worth.  (Was there ever a politician who was more popular than Adolf Hitler was in 1936?)  What we now see is our dark under-belly being flaunted before our eyes by people stunted by envy.

Arthur Miller went on to comment on what may be described as our ‘darker purpose’ in terms that Hanna Arendt would have recognised.  He referred to ‘the tranquility of the bad man’ just as Arendt referred to the ‘banality of evil’, and to ‘the failure of the present age to find a universal moral sanction.’

I believe now, as I did not conceive then, that there are people dedicated to evil in the world; that without their perverse example, we should not know good…I believe merely that, from whatever cause, a dedication to evil, not mistaking it for good, but knowing it as evil, is possible in human beings who appear agreeable and normal.  I think now that one of the hidden weaknesses of our whole approach to our dramatic psychology is our inability to face this fact – to conceive, in effect, of Iago.

Those propositions are hugely important.

A View from the Bridge might for some bear more of a resemblance to an Italian opera – say, Cavalleria Rusticana – than  a Greek tragedy, with a heavy sauce supplied by Doctor Freud, but for the sake of Sicilian honour, the hero continues the bad run of  this author’s heroes.  The same sense of inevitability – doom – is there again.  By contrast, the author says that A Memory of Two Mondays is a ‘pathetic comedy….a kind of letter to that subculture where the sinews of the economy are rooted, that darkest Africa of our society from whose interior only the sketchiest messages ever reach our literature or the stage.’  Each of these plays is pitched well below the middle class – and territory not covered by either Ibsen or Chekhov.

In commenting on King Lear, an English scholar said that we go to great writers for the truth.  The last word may make us wobble a little at the moment, but we look to great writers – and Arthur Miller was certainly a great writer – to hold up a mirror so that we can see ourselves for what we are.  Arthur Miller says in the Introduction:

By whatever means it is accomplished, the prime business of a play is to arouse the passions of its audience so that by the route of passion may be opened up new relationships between a man and men, and between men and Man.  Drama is akin to the other inventions of man in that it ought to help us to know more, and not merely to spend our feelings.

We might then flinch at what is presented to us in the theatre, but Arthur Miller did not.  His memoire Timebends is a testament to his enduring moral and intellectual fibre – as of course are the five plays in this fine book.  This Franklin edition is lusciously presented and reminds us that if we want to try to understand the human condition, the place to go to is the theatre.  And whatever else may be said of Arthur Miller, he knew what it was to be dramatic.

Here and there – Fear and jealousy in Shakespeare

PART II

  1. Cassius

Cassius was a jealous, scheming, hypocritical jerk of a politician – and Caesar saw straight through him.  He gave the perfect portrait of the ratbag we describe as a ‘smiling assassin.’

Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’ nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous……

Would he were fatter! But I fear him not:
Yet if my name were liable to fear,
I do not know the man I should avoid
So soon as that spare Cassius. He reads much;
He is a great observer and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men: he loves no plays,
As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music;
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort
As if he mock’d himself and scorn’d his spirit
That could be moved to smile at any thing.
Such men as he be never at heart’s ease
Whiles they behold a greater than themselves,
And therefore are they very dangerous.  (1.2.192 – 210)

That is word perfect.  Cassius envies Caesar for his successes and standing.  He only goes back to his youth to belittle and mock Caesar.  He works on the politically naïve Brutus by saying that Caesar makes the Roman nobility look small – ‘petty even.’

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that ‘Caesar’?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?  (1.2. 135 – 142)

His envy of Caesar drives him to seek to plant jealousy in the breast of the ‘noble’ Brutus.  And he believes, with all crooked politicians, that every man has his price.  He thinks he can play Caesar like a violin.

Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet, I see,
Thy honourable metal may be wrought
From that it is disposed: therefore it is meet
That noble minds keep ever with their likes;
For who so firm that cannot be seduced?  (1.2.307 – 312)

Cassius is one of the assassins and he makes the banal cry – the banality of evil – ‘Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!’  (Yes, and who bloody for, Mate?)

Antony said that Brutus was the noblest Roman of them all and that he was the only conspirator who did not kill ‘in envy of great Caesar.’  Well, Shakespeare did a number on chivalry with Falstaff and Troilus and Cressida, and in my view he did a number on nobility with Brutus and Cassius.  One was a hopeless political ingénue; the other was a dreadful political skunk.

  1. Othello

When Othello prefers Cassio to Iago for the office of being his lieutenant, Iago is jealous of Cassio and he envies and hates both Cassio and Othello because they are above him on the ladder – and, to boot, Othello is not even a white man!  It may be one thing for a commissioned officer from Sandhurst to prefer a man from Eton and the Guards over an NCO from a coal-mining family in Durham – but, in the name of God, how do you respond if the Sandhurst chap is black?  Iago plans revenge by inducing Othello to believe that Cassio is having an affair with Othello’s wife, Desdemona.  This promises a ‘Divinity of hell!’ (2.3.350)  The evil is Satanic.  An ancient theologian, Origen, said this of the AntiChrist –

…..since evil is specially characterised by its diffusion, and attains its greatest height when it simulates the appearance of the good, for that reason are signs, and marvels, and miracles found to accompany evil, through the co-operation of its father, the Devil.

That is Iago.  And for many reasons, Othello is a ripe target.  His tragic flaw is that he has not one iota of what Keats discerned in the author of this play as ‘Negative Capability’ – ‘when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable seeking out of fact and reason’. In the space of about a hundred lines, and in the course of a discussion on the first day of his honeymoon, Othello has gone from threatening to kill his sergeant to getting his sergeant to kill his lieutenant while he works out the best way to kill his wife.  And all because he could not bear being left in doubt.

Othello therefore stands for the cancer in our public life now.  People crave a clear tribal response regardless of the evidence.  Othello is the kind of fodder that Fox and Sky News thrive on – a sucker for any conspiracy story, or any bloated fool who flogs them.

Iago is very much like Satan.  A C Bradley said of him:

..Iago is a being who hates good simply because it is good, and loves evil purely for itself.  His action is not prompted by any plain motive like revenge, jealousy or ambition.  It springs from a ‘motiveless malignity, or a disinterested delight in the pain of others….

Iago, then, stands for the other great cancer of our public life now – egoism unleashed.

  1. Conclusion

How does this stack up against the ‘banality of evil’ seen by Hannah Arendt?  Well, for a start, Eichmann was real.  Leontes and Iago are figments of imagination who played no part in the murder of six million people.  Arendt had the vital insight that Eichmann was ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’.

Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been further from his mind than to determine with Richard III ‘to prove a villain’.  Except for his extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all.  And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post.  He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing.

Perhaps the most singular clash of good and evil comes with Billy Budd.  Billy is as handsome as he is simple and innocent.  But John Claggart, the Master-at Arms cannot tolerate this simple beauty or goodness.

… The Master-at-Arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd.  And the insight but intensified his passion, which assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that cynic disdain – disdain of innocence.  To be nothing more than innocent! … A nature like Claggart’s surcharged with energy as such natures almost invariably are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible act out to the end the part allotted to it?  …The Pharisee is the Guy Fawkes prowling in the hid chambers underlying the Claggarts.

Like Polyxenes, Melville goes back to the very beginning to describe primal innocence.  We are told that the ‘Handsome Sailor…in the nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall.’  The vicious leer of Robert Ryan as Claggart in the movie chills the blood.  But this kind of evil is best expressed in the libretto for the Britten opera written by E M Forster and another.

O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness!
Would that I never encountered you!
Would that I lived in my own world always,
in that depravity to which I was born.
There I found peace of a sort, there I established
an order such as reigns in Hell…….
Having seen you, what choice remains to me?
None, none! I’m doomed to annihilate you,
I’m vowed to your destruction. ….
No, you cannot escape!
With hate and envy I’m stronger than love….

O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness!
You surely in my power tonight.
Nothing can defend you.
Nothing! So may it be!
For what hope remains if love can escape?
If love still lives and grows strong where I cannot enter,
what hope is there in my own dark world for me?
No! I cannot believe it! That were torment to keen.
I, John Claggart,
Master-at-Arms upon the ‘Indomitable’,
have you in my power, and I will destroy you.

‘With hate and envy I’m stronger than love’.  Even without Britten’s thumping score, this is elementally vicious.  Putting to one side the real world, including Auschwitz and Hiroshima, have you ever seen evil like this?

Here and there – Envy and Jealousy in Shakespeare

 

 

Cuckoo, cuckoo – O word of fear

Unpleasing to a married ear.  (Love’s Labour Lost, 5.2)

PART I

  1. Introduction

You are jealous if you think that someone you love loves someone else. You envy someone if you think that they are doing better than you.  The OED is more prosaic.  For ‘envy’ we get ‘mortification and ill-will occasioned by the contemplation of another’s superior advantages.’  For ‘jealous’ we get ‘having the belief, suspicion or fear that the good which one desires to gain or keep for oneself has been or may be diverted to another on account of known or suspected rivalry.’

The two notions or emotions are distinct, but they overlap.  In each case you feel or sense unfairness.  You feel like you have not been treated fairly.  You are not getting what you deserve to get.  You may feel that you have been cheated out of your entitlement.

Envy involves a kind of longing; jealousy involves a kind of fear; and there may be different moral consequences for each emotion.  If I am jealous of someone I love, I fear that they may betray me.  My faith in that person is being put to the test.  I am, in the words of Scripture, sure of what I hope for, but I am not certain of what I do not see.

You will see both envy and jealousy at work if you give two of your children presents for Christmas that are obviously unequal – one feels cheated of your affection, and is upset that the other is doing so much better.  In that kind of family setting, there is an implied premise of fairness, and if that translates to the community at large, you can sense the unease opening up because of the frightful inequality in the distribution of wealth and income.

In Paradise Lost, the original sin may have come from Satan’s anger with God for dividing the godhead and by putting his son above the angels.  Satan is jealous of the son, and he envies Adam and Eve for their innocence and beauty.  In the end, in the words of the poet, ‘all hell breaks loose’ because of both the envy and jealousy of Satan.  Both emotions drive him to commit acts of evil.

In Othello, Iago feels jealousy toward both Othello and Cassio for their standing, and for the preferment of Cassio, but he also envies Cassio for his goodness.

… If Cassio do remain,

He hath a daily beauty in his life

That makes me ugly (5.1.18 – 20)

When Satan is confronted with a good angel, he –

…felt how awful goodness is, and saw

Vertue in her shape how lovly, saw, and pin’d

His loss; but chiefly to find here observed

His lustre visibly impaired.  (4.847 – 850)

The sight of Adam and Eve has a similar effect.  When he first sees them having it off- ‘Imparadis’t in one anothers arms’ – his first words are ‘O Hell!’  Before we got:

……aside the Devil turned

For envie, yet with jealous leer maligne

Eyed them askance…..(4.502 – 504)

When you are confronted with someone much better than you, you feel diminished.  Just look at how poor Salieri felt diminished by Mozart.  In the worst case of envy, the result may be that the person diminished feels they have no option but to seek to destroy their better.  (Some suspected Salieri of just that.)  The comparison strikes at their very self, their identity, all that they have ever stood for.  In that case, the insult is mortal.  This was the reaction of Satan to the arrival of the Son:

……… he of the first,

If not the first archangel, great in power,

In favor and pre-eminence, yet fraught

With envy against the Son of God, that day

Honored by his great Father, and proclaimed

Messiah King anointed, could not bear

Through pride that sight, and thought himself impaired.

Deep malice thence conceiving and disdain……(5.659-666)

You will notice that in both the envy of Adam and Eve and the jealousy of the Son, the result is that Satan felt ‘impaired’.

In jealousy, there is a felt breach of trust, a sense of betrayal, which inflames as much as it wounds.  If the rival for your affection is a person close to you, then you have a double betrayal.  And the result may well be Vesuvial – as it was in A Winter’s Tale.

We saw that the OED referred twice to suspicion in ‘jealousy’.  Suspicion and intrigue play a bigger part in jealousy, because the move in rivalry is commonly concealed.  Not many circles allow a man to say ‘I want to bed your wife’.  Envy operates on known facts – indeed the envy increases with the spread of knowledge of the seen superiority.  But in either case, there is likely to be a sense of betrayal that leads to bitterness and a felt need for revenge..

And in the case of a man having another man bed his wife, the affront to amour propre can be mortal.  This is deep Freud country.  ‘Have you considered the possibility that not only were you unable to keep her, you were unable to satisfy her?’  Our language has no feminine counterpart to being ‘unmanned’.  And hitting a man below the belt can lead to hurt and injury and collapse in a way that women have no knowledge or experience of.

Let us then look at some of this in four characters of Shakespeare – Ford, Leontes, Cassius, and Othello.

2.Frank Ford

The Merry Wives of Windsor is a cross between a middle class sit-com and a bedroom farce.  The hold of the middle class then on status was very brittle.  That meant that face was all important.  This may be the only play that Shakespeare did not have a prior source to base his plot on, but the main themes, including that of the jealous husband, had been standard fare since the time of commedia dell’ arte (I Gelosi).  As Tony Tanner remarked, ‘Being robbed, being cuckolded, and being duped are all forms of that great bourgeois dread – theft.’  Everyone in the play ‘cozens, is cozened, or both.’  Falstaff was born to be ‘a cheater’.

In one of his more deranged moments, Falstaff thinks that Ford’s wife has given him ‘the leer of invitation.’  He boasts of this to Ford in disguise as Brooke, and promises ‘You shall have her, Master Brooke…you shall cuckold Ford.’  Not surprisingly, Ford erupts when Falstaff leaves.

What a damned Epicurean rascal is this! My heart is ready to crack with impatience. Who says this is improvident jealousy?  My wife hath sent to him; the hour is fixed; the match is made. Would any man have thought this? See the hell of having a false woman! My bed shall be abused, my coffers ransacked, my reputation gnawn at; and I shall not only receive this villanous wrong, but stand under the adoption of abominable terms, and by him that does me this wrong….
Cuckold! Wittol!–Cuckold! the devil himself hath not such a name. Page is an ass, a secure ass: he will trust his wife; he will not be jealous. I will rather trust a Fleming with my butter, Parson Hugh the Welshman with my cheese, an Irishman with my aqua-vitae bottle, or a thief to walk my ambling gelding, than my wife with herself; then she plots, then she ruminates, then she devises; and what they
think in their hearts they may effect, they will break their hearts but they will effect.  God be praised for my jealousy
(2.3. 287 – 308).

There you see the shame of being a cuckold.  Falstaff seeks to use fraud on the wives with an almost lunatic egoism; both Ford and the wives practise fraud on Falstaff; both the wives and Ford are lied to.  But even allowing for the near lunacy of Falstaff, Ford was entitled to suspect someone was after his wife.  Page may have been able to laugh it all off, but could you blame Ford for being different?  The Welsh parson cautions Ford to ‘not follow the imaginations of your own heart.  This is jealousies.’  But, as the saying goes, even paranoiacs have real enemies.

Frank Ford has not had a good press.  He is held up to ridicule.  But jealousy is very natural.  A dog can show it if you invade the space of his master – even more so when it is another dog doing the invading.  A healthy jealousy might save a union; a perceived indifference might kill it.  And you might cause quite a stir if as a tutor on Shakespeare at Cambridge you were to suggest that someone could sleep with your wife and you could feel no sense of jealousy.  That may well sound downright unnatural, and not just among the matrons.

  1. Leontes

There was a western – I forget its name – where a rich bad guy (Ralph Bellamy) hires a professional (Lee Marvin) to retrieve a gorgeous woman (Claudia Cardinale) from other bad guys.  (If they did not include Jack Palance or Eli Wallach, they should have.)  At the end, Marvin welshes on the deal because Bellamy is a jerk.  Bellamy calls Marvin a bastard.  He gets this bell-ringer back.  ‘That’s OK.  With me, it’s an accident of birth.  But you are a self-made man.’

That is exactly the case with Leontes.  His descent into jealousy makes Othello look slack – but Iago had a lot of luck on his side.  His descent is almost entirely self-propelled.  It appears to come from nowhere.

This playwright considered the arrival of a woman between two male friends in Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Winter’s Tale, and Two Noble Kinsmen.  The invasion of an intimate state can be as testing as a woman marrying an only son.  The occasion is ripe for jealousy of the invader.  But if one of the two male friends marries, and he then suspects his friend of having bedded his wife, then we have double the betrayal and a possible nuclear reaction.

That is just what we get in A Winter’s Tale.  Leontes and Polyxenes have been friends since childhood.  That was their golden age.  Each could have stayed that way forever (‘boy eternal’).  They are like those old boys who regret getting out of short pants.  Leontes has been unable to persuade Polyxenes to extend his stay, but Hermione does so with ease.  Polyxenes romances about their childhood and loss of innocence on growing up.

We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ the sun,
And bleat the one at the other: what we changed
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream’d
That any did.  Had we pursued that life,
And our weak spirits ne’er been higher rear’d
With stronger blood, we should have answer’d heaven
Boldly ‘not guilty;’ the imposition clear’d
Hereditary ours.  (1.2.81 – 89).

And then, a little later, Hermione makes a wistful reference to Polyxenes as ‘for some while a friend’ and Leontes explodes instantaneously picking up Polyxenes reference to ‘blood’.

[Aside] Too hot, too hot!
To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.
I have tremor cordis on me: my heart dances;
But not for joy; not joy. This entertainment
May a free face put on, derive a liberty
From heartiness, from bounty, fertile bosom,
And well become the agent; ‘t may, I grant;
But to be paddling palms and pinching fingers,
As now they are, and making practised smiles,
As in a looking-glass, and then to sigh, as ’twere
The mort o’ the deer; O, that is entertainment
My bosom likes not, nor my brows! Mamillius,
Art thou my boy?  (1.2.132 – 144)

A throwaway remark and blameless byplay leads to heart palpitations immediately.  And – this is important – the RSC editors (Bate and Rasmussen) say ‘mingling bloods’ is a ‘process believed to occur during sex, since semen was assumed chiefly to be composed of blood.’  So, after four words and one !, we are back among the enseamèd sheets that nearly sent Hamlet mad.

Now to a layman this looks like an illness – it looks pathological – and it is one of those dreadful illnesses where the victim cannot see that he is ill – that is all part of the infection.  (I have a recollection that before Anthony Sher played the part, he consulted psychiatrists who said that the symptoms described by Shakespeare were spot on.)  As Jonathon Bate remarks, the dramatic interest is in ‘the tendency of human beings who have fallen into holes to dig themselves ever deeper’.  For that reason alone, some adviser to the present President of the U S (November, 2019) should suggest that he heed the advice of Clausewitz On War and avoid reinforcing a losing position.

Here and there – Iago and the dog whistle

 

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

(Hebrews 11.1)

Mislike me no for my complexion

(The Merchant of Venice, 2.1.1)

My dog the Wolf might hear a whistle that I cannot hear.  The phrase ‘dog whistling’ is used in some quarters to denote a kind of coded message.  On its face, the message might seem harmless enough, but it may convey a different and more sinister meaning to a target group.  An extreme example is the use by those on the far edge of the Right of numbers or signals that represent their respect for Adolf Hitler.

In Othello, the villain employed a similar method in pursuit of three targets.  He convinced the Moor, Othello, that his wife, Desdemona, had been unfaithful with Cassio.  What techniques did Iago deploy?

Select your target

Ideally, the target will be both suggestible and vulnerable.  Just think of people chanting ‘Lock her up’ at a Trump rally.  Only real losers could be that unlovely – or trust someone as obviously devious as Trump.  Iago knew that Othello trusted him.

…..He holds me well

The better shall my purpose work on him.  (1.3.381-2)

When you have secured the trust of the target, you can exploit it – ruthlessly.  There is a whole body of law on how we might deal with those who exert ‘undue influence’ on others in breach of trust – such as lawyers, doctors or priests extracting large gifts from the dying.

Othello is suggestible because he is utterly vulnerable.  He is from out of town, and of the wrong colour and religion.  Grounds for anxiety are baked in.  Iago senses his leader’s fatal weakness.  It is a complete lack of what Keats called ‘negative capability.’

…….And when I love thee not

Chaos is come again.  (3.3.91-2)

…….to be once in doubt

Is to be resolved.  (3.3.179-180)

Othello is tip toeing around a nervous breakdown, or worse.  In Verdi’s Otello, he is often shown descending into madness.  People who cannot tolerate doubt or uncertainty are ripe for the peddlers of the fake certainty provided by fatuous slogans or catch-cries.  Trump is just the latest and most gruesome example of these snake-oil salesmen.  His ends are not as gruesome as those of Mussolini or Hitler, but the basic premise is the same – deliver relief to the people and they will hail you.  A lot of priests have worked on the same principle.

Iago senses that the brash openness of Cassio will make him an easy mark – and he knows too of Cassio’s weakness for the bottle – and skirt.  Roderigo (‘a gulled gentleman’) is a weak gutless punk, part of the flotsam and jetsam that people called ‘populists’ live off.

And if you think that Othello was a weak and suggestible fool, and therefore very dangerous because he was in a position of great power – whom does that call to mind?

At first just insinuate – do not lie outright.

Iago begins his campaign in the classic mode – as if by chance, or accident.

IAGO.  Ha!  I like not that.

OTHELLO.  What dost thou say?

IAGO.  Nothing my lord; or if – I know not what.

OTHELLO.  Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?

IAGO.  Cassio, my lord?  No.  Sure I cannot think it

That he would steal away so guilty-like

Seeing us coming.

OTHELLO.  I believe ‘twas he.

There is no outright untruth – but the victim takes up the running.  This is fundamental.  The target must think that they are the prime mover.  Once the poison has taken effect, the villain is free to scheme, lie and manufacture evidence – and create a snowball effect.

Take your time – the effect is cumulative

How poor are they that have not patience?  (2.3.370)

Maintain deniability and a false front

The whole of the critical seduction in Act 3, Scene 3 is an example of deniability.  It is why the President has someone fronting him with the press – in a system where he does not have to answer to parliament.

But I will wear my heart upon a sleeve

For daws to peck at; I am not what I am. (1.1.61-2)

Unnerve the target with ambiguous evidence or warnings about ‘evidence’

……I speak not yet of proof

Look to your wife.  (3.3.196-7)

Othello wants ‘ocular proof.’  That may sound silly, but some demanded evidence against a cardinal other than that of the victim.

Make me to see’t or at least so prove it

That the probation bear no hinge or loop

To hang a doubt on – or woe upon thy life. (361-3)

Remember always that we are talking about the unseen

…….How satisfied my lord?

Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on?

Behold her topped?  (3.3.391-3)

Notice the descent to the gutter to drive the point home – and show that we are not just blokes, but mates.  And we are dealing with people who are notoriously devious.

In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks

They do not show their husbands…..…(3.3.202-3)

And when the target is rising to the fly, you can really tantalize him.

Or to be naked with her friend in bed

An hour or more not meaning any harm?  (4.4.3-4)

The ultimate conspiracy theory is that the less evidence there is, the deeper must go the conspiracy.  How could anyone get ocular proof of the ‘Deep State’?  And credulous people see what they want to see.

……Trifles light as air

Are to the jealous confirmations strong

As proofs of Holy Writ (3.3.319-210)

Be prepared to play the fool – or the innocent

To hide his malice, Iago tries banter with his wife in front of Desdemona (2.1.100ff) Andrew Bolt has trouble with this ploy – humour is not his strong suit –but he gives it a run occasionally.  A similar ploy underlies a lot of what Iago says to his target – ‘This hurts me more than it hurts you.’

Embroil others in your schemes

Born stirrers weave webs like spiders.  Iago spins webs around Cassio and Desdemona to assist him in his central scheme to unhinge Othello and so take revenge for a lifetime of slights.

Your ultimate aim is to reduce your target to your level

Whether acknowledged or not, this was the mode of operation of terrorists like Robespierre, Stalin or Hitler.  Their idea was to work on their victims so that the victims became complicit in their crimes and locked into their schemes.  Iago does this with Othello who looks to Iago for advice and confirmation.  His mind is so utterly splintered that even after the guilt of Iago has been shown, Othello is left to utter a lie that is as pathetic as it is outrageous.

Why anything.

An honourable murder, if you will

For naught I did in hate but all in honor.  (5.2.294-6)

Othello killed his wife because he hated her because she had dinted his sliding pride.  He simply compounds his guilt by saying that had the allegations against her been true – and he believed they were – he would have been entitled to kill her as a matter of honor.  For such men then, being cuckolded, as the saying went, was like being castrated.  Well, we don’t need Falstaff to remind us what a gaudy swine of a word ‘honor’ is.  It may be the shiftiest word in our language.

It is a matter for you to see which of these techniques are used by politicians or media – especially Fox News or Sky News after dark – in the process known as ‘dog whistling’.  One thing does seem clear.  What dog whistlers do have in common with Iago is that they give the impression that for the most part they do not believe a word they say.  Truth and loyalty are not on their agendas.  They just want to stir people up for the sake of it.  They belong to the Kingdom of Nothingness.

And if Iago was just another sour loser taking his wicked revenge for his failures in life on a creature of a different colour and faith – then we can we can see plenty of that around us here right now.  One Nation is full of them.

Is there another example of a slighted petty office holder from the ranks?  I said elsewhere:

The modern who might best stand for Iago was Adolf Hitler. He was a mean little man like Iago who never, on merit, got beyond NCO, but who aspired to more, and in his evil determination brought people down to hell and brought hell up to people.  Iago and Hitler seduced people by playing on their fears and by working in a twilight of twisted appearance and rejected reality.  Each was born a moral coward, but each was ready to accuse anyone else of being worse.  Above all, neither could be happy in the presence of anyone who could be seen to be their better.  It is a kind of small man syndrome written appalling largely.

There is a lot of that about, too.

In Billy Budd, Herman Melville looked at pure evil.  Shakespeare did not give Iago an express Credo, but Boito and Verdi did.  In part, it runs:

I believe in a cruel God

Who created me in his image

And whom I in fury name.

From the very vileness of a germ

Or an atom vile was I born.

I am a wretch because I am a man,

And I feel within me the primeval slime.

Yes!  This is my creed.

I believe with a heart as steadfast

As that of a widow in church,

And the evil I think

And that which I perform

I think and do by destiny’s decree.

There is what they called the Anti-Christ.

Coleridge caused quite a stir when he referred to ‘motiveless malignity.’  I used the word ‘malice’ above.  In The Common Law, Oliver Wendell Holmes said:

……when we call an act malicious in common speech, we mean that harm to another person was intended to come of it, and that such harm was desired for its own sake as an end in itself.

The last phrase savours of Kant, but in my view that exposition of ‘malice’ is apt for both Iago and the dog whistlers.

Here and there – Emma Smith – This Is Shakespeare

 

Pelican is cool about its intellectual books, and it wants to be seen to be cool about This is Shakespeare.  Emma Smith, we are told, is a Yorkshire girl who is into silent films, birdwatching and fast cars.  She is also Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Oxford.  But the target readers are not wowed by that honour, and the book does not read as one that could only have been written by a professor.  In and of itself, that is no bad thing, and those snooty enough to think that the author trails her gown too far might be reminded that Shakespeare was in the entertainment industry to make a living writing, producing and acting in plays.  In the immortal words of a mature American student of Chaucer at Oxford, Shakespeare ‘did it for the mortgage’.

The book consists of twenty short essays on the plays – about half the total.  The order looks to be broadly chronological.  The really boring or odd ones don’t make it.

We begin with Taming of the Shrew, in the Zeffirelli movie ‘a passionate relationship in which pots and pans, but also underwear, would fly.’  Goodnight Oxbridge – even if some of us have trouble seeing the knickers of Ms Taylor dangling from the ceiling fan.

The hero of Richard II ‘is a consummate actor, so much so that we wonder if there is anything underneath.’  (That savours a bit of R D Laing.  The lady does not mind citing Freud – which in this context can make me, and I think, her, a little nervous.)

There’s so much to dislike about Richard, and yet – or so – he is beguiling, seductive, ravishing, within the play and outside… as we have entered into a masochistic compact with this alluring protagonist.

‘History is full of examples of tyrants who looked like liberators’.  (It’s just that Blair and Bush did not realise that they were trying to get into that club by the back door.)  That is a valuable insight.  But we don’t get much discussion of what a great night out this play, or many others, can offer.  The McKellen film showed just how gripping this show can be.  But for modern audiences, some pruning is required.  I sat through the whole slog at the Barbican once, and it felt almost Wagnerian (and I have no qualms at all about taking the shears to Waggers), but the problem is that one of the first parts cut is that of the ageing queenly victims, dissecting the villain like black crows descending on witchetty grubs from a barbed wire fence.  And the English stage cannot offer too much better than that, particularly if you have the growling, mordant Peggy Ashcroft version.  (It adds a whole new terror to the notion of ‘in-laws’.)  But the essay does contain the remark that being the last alive in one of the tragedies is ‘the hallmark of the nonentity.’

A Comedy of Errors gets a run, and I am glad. Well done, it is hilarious – Marx Brothers hilarious.  And two citations show that we can trip over gems in unlikely places that others would die for.

I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself:
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.  (1.2)

For know, my love, as easy mayest thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled that same drop again,
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself and not me too.  (2.2)

For Richard II – which I often think should have been sung by Jussi Bjorling – we are helpfully reminded that an Elizabethan sermon (and Luther) inveighed against rebellion saying that Lucifer was the ‘founder of rebellion’.  And the author goes on to quote the old Hollywood saying that ‘If you want to send a message, use Western Union.’  Spot on.  Asking what Hamlet means is as helpful as asking what the Pieta or Eroica means.  The trouble is that when you grasp that simple truth, there may not be all that much that is beyond disruption in the professor’s job description.  But she does offer the good advice that the role of Bolingbroke on stage is a master class of what is unspoken.  And that truth coincides with her insistence that Shakespeare was into questions, not answers.  Richard II may be my favourite.  Especially with Gielgud, it has an effortlessly silvery timbre that reminds us of Verdi.  The problem is that it has no hero.

‘Rediscovering an X-rated A Midsummer Night’s Dream means engaging with its dark, adult depictions of dangerous desire.’  Including, apparently, inviting ‘unseemly speculations about a lover hung like a donkey.’  Now that is a phrase that would have caught the eye of one of our Senators – a lady, ex-army – for which Ezekiel is cited as authority.  Freud again gets a run, and there is even a reference to a ‘vanilla framing device.’  Well, some might go to ground with an ‘Hmmm….’, but Shakespeare and the Old Testament can be as raunchy as they are violent.

The author appears to share at least part of my aversion to Portia – an iron-clad divorce lawyer in a power suit who could thread your jellies through a garlic crusher for the mildest faux pas – but her discussion of race is very sane.  The same goes for money.

The Merchant of Venice emerges as a strikingly contemporary play about commodified relationships, romantic and business entrepreneurialism, and the obscure transactional networks of credit finance.

Unsurprisingly, there is nothing new about Falstaff, but I cannot recall seeing before ‘the withering moral judgment’ of Dr Johnson that the ‘fat knight never uttered one sentiment of generosity.’  Falstaff is like those people who you talk to and who become a cold, brick, distracted wall if you are not talking about them – which may come to be called the Donald Trump Syndrome.

It is not surprising that the preoccupation with erotica continues with Measure for Measure, another close runner for my prize play.  Your attitude to Isabella might depend on your age as much as your sex.  To the extent that I can see her as real – as played by Kate Nelligan, the minds of very few blokes would turn to sex – I find her repellent.  Not so the author.

But Shakespeare has deliberately made Isabella into more than a woman of upright moral character; rather, she is one about to devote herself to strict religious principles (this slightly obscures the ethical point for modern viewers: whether she is a sex worker or a nun, Isabella surely has our support when she refuses unwanted sex?

Let us put to one side the uncharacteristic question mark, and abstain from Lenin’s question – ‘Who are we?’- the author does not here fairly state the question.  Isabella doesn’t want to be defiled.  Nor does Claudio want to be killed.  In the scheme of things, what is worth more – her hymen or his neck?  As I said, the answer may differ between boys and girls.  Boys would tend to refer to the relative convalescence times, and since Osama got lucky at the Twin Towers on 9 November 2001, fanatical subscription to alleged imperatives of dogma have lost a lot of their calling power.  The notion that a man should die for another person’s ideal is as repellent as you can get.

While discussing Isabella, the author says that ‘As You Like It is the only Shakespeare play where the largest role is female.’  She has said that ‘Antony out-talks Cleopatra’.  That is a curious notion.  She later says these two are ‘celebrities’, which is fair enough, but there is a preoccupation with the number of lines allotted, which may be less helpful than stats at footy.  Saying one bloke got forty kicks and another got six, means little if the bloke with six won the game with six goals.  (And we are later reminded that ‘There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.’)

And Cleopatra is the star turn of that play; Lady Macbeth might fall over before her husband, but it was her injection of steel that put him up to it – on her day, she could make witches blanch; and Queen Margaret rules over so much of the three parts of Henry VI.  More, she is one of the most captivating and sustained characters ever on our stages.  She is the nemesis of four plays.  I cannot forbear citing my favourite lines of this playwright.  They come in her appalling travesty of the Passion of Christ where she mocks Richard III:

And where’s that valiant crookback prodigy,

Dicky, your boy, that with his grumbling voice

Was wont to cheer his dad in mutinies?  (1.4.70-77)

It’s like an Essendon supporter saying to a Collingwood supporter the day after the Grand Final: ‘I suppose your lot just folded their tents – as usual.’

About thirty years ago, I went to a pre-show talk about Othello at the Melbourne Theatre Company with my daughters.  The lead was played by a Maori.  A lady said she thought the hero was coloured.  The bemused actor said that his director obviously thought that he was coloured enough.  Race and colour are huge in this play.  The author tells us of an incident in South Africa in 1987 when the police said that the public ‘were disgusted by all the love and kissing scenes’ – in alleged breach of the Immorality Act.  (About twenty years later, I saw Hamlet in Chicago.  Gertrude was as white as snow.  There was a palpable frisson in the audience when the King came out – as black as the Ace of Spades.)  ‘…some critics have even wanted to wonder whether or not Othello and Desdemona ever consummate their relationship – perhaps with the underlying racist feeling that it would have been preferable if they hadn’t.’  To quote Jane Fonda, ‘you don’t want to go there’.  (Has she tried that line out yet on the arresting officer?)  Thankfully, the author does not go there.  C S Lewis nearly had kittens facing the same question with Adam and Eve.  (How else were we bloody-well supposed to get here – by the Stork?)  The short answer is that none of them existed.  They are creatures of the page.  You may as well ask whether Batman had it off with Robin – and if so, whether they took their masks off while they were at it.

When you are dealing with an expert, you may need to remember that they come from a different space.  There is a fascinating discussion of how the tragedy Othello is built on comic frameworks.  This is not to suggest that there is anything comic about the play, least of all about Iago.  He for me is evil made flesh.  He has none of the allure of either of the Bastards or Richard III.  The phrase ‘motiveless malignity’ has, in my view, been unfairly trashed.  Rather, we are I think looking at one aspect of the ‘banality of evil.’

Iago gives new meaning to the word ‘insinuate.’  Some of the plays bore me; some like Troilus and Cressida repel me; but after enduring Cyril Cusack’s ruthless whining insinuation so often, I could no more sit through Othello – either here or in Verdi – than endure half an hour of a shock jock like Andrew Bolt.  (Pray do not be dismayed.  I am the same about Tristan und Isolde, and the mere mention of Parsifal is enough to generate severe depression.)

In Antony and Cleopatra, we are reminded that ‘Women in tragedies tend to be ancillary victims of the male hero’s egotistic downfall.’  The primacy of Cleopatra is acknowledged, but the play presents at least two problems for some of us.  As in the French Revolution, it is hard to find a hero.  And the play is punishingly long – especially in a theatre that is not air conditioned in summer – even in England.  (The reference to a ballet of Romeo and Juliet by Tchaikovsky is, I think, an error; and ‘Gender is, or at least contributes towards genre’ is a statement that at best goes nowhere.)

What we know about Shakespeare can be set out on a post card.  Some knowledge of his education may help understand the wordiness of some plays, but otherwise history tells us very little about them.  It is therefore best to just pass over stuff like:

Bond’s Shakespeare emerges from the archives as a capitalist more likely to be identified with the patrician grain hoarders in Coriolanus than with the hungry citizenry.

Lawyers are used to this kind of bull.  We don’t look for the actual intention of the legislator; we look for the inferred purpose of the legislation.  Biography may help to explain the conduct and pronouncements of Luther or Hitler; it is as good as useless with following the plays of Shakespeare, or trying to divine what they may reveal about what was going through his mind.  And it is an insult to his genius to pretend otherwise.  The bush lawyers should keep to the bush.

The book peters out.  From the peak of the Everest of King Lear, there had to be a form of descent, and for me at least plays like A Winter’s Tale and The Tempest are better heard and not seen.  Prospero is a bit of ‘a distinctly unlikeable, manipulative control freak,’ and but for the stuff that dreams are made of we may not hear that much about a play that does bear marks of condescension that could have put Mr Collins into quite a tizz.

But there is more than enough in this book to ensure that fans of our greatest playwright – our greatest author – will not put it down either unimpressed or unimproved.  It is an island of coral sense in a sea of colourless ink.

MY TOP SHELF – 39 – CHEKHOV

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

39

THREE PLAYS

Anton Chekhov (1904)

Limited Editions Club, New York, 1966.  Translated by Constance Garnett; illustrated by Lajos Szalay; introduction by John Gielgud.  Blue capeskin spine with gold embossing; boards covered in intricately worked scarlet and black silk; signed by the illustrator.

A play ought to be written in which the people should come and go, dine, talk of the weather, or play cards, not because the author wants it, but because that is what happens in real life.  Life on the stage should be as it really is, and the people, too, should be as they are, and not stilted.

Chekhov has for some a kind of spare astringency that makes him something of an acquired taste – rather like oysters.  But, as with Ibsen, you can for a nominal sum get the BBC collection of all his plays delivered in your home by theatre royalty.  For example, there are two versions of The Cherry Orchard.  The first comes from 1962, by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Peter Hall’s first season with the company.  The cast included Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Dorothy Tutin, Judi Dench and Ian Holm.  Beat that for a cast – any time, any purpose.  The second comes from 1981, when Judi Dench then played the part played by Peggy Ashcroft in the first – and won the BAFTA.

Chekhov graduated as a doctor, but worked as a writer, writing short stories of the first rank, and plays.  The citation above shows his innovation that is essential to our modern theatre.  His fame now as a playwright rests on four plays.

The Sea Gull, like The Master Builder of Ibsen, reflects the struggle between the older and younger generations.  It was booed on its first outing in St Petersburg in 1896.  It would take the profession a long time to come to terms with the understated subtlety required of the actors   Uncle Vanya depicts the rights of passage from youth to old age.  (The BBC set has versions by David Warner (with Ian Holm) and Anthony Hopkins.)  The Three Sisters shows intelligent and educated members of provincial gentry losing hope.  The Cherry Orchard is an elegiac treatment of the passing of the old order.  It is like The Leopard of Lampedusa, especially in the version in the Visconti film.

The literary career of Chekhov lasted less than twenty-five years and was cut tragically short by his death from tuberculosis in 1904.  Unlike Tolstoy, Chekhov steered away from politics in his work, and Tolstoy correctly perceived, for one who had dreadful ideas about theatre, that the gift of Chekhov was universal: ‘Chekhov is an incomparable artist, an artist of life.  And the worth of his creation consists in his – he is understood and accepted not only by every Russian, but by all humanity.’  People say the same of Tolstoy – somehow his very Russianness is what makes him so indelibly human.

In the Introduction to this beautifully produced volume, Sir John Gielgud says:

In his plays, he uses a variety of natural sound effects, while his naturalistic dialogue alternates between long silences, sudden bursts of chatter, pause, and gaps in conversation.  He takes care to emphasize the exact time of day or night, the season of the year, filling in every detail with the accuracy and passion of one of the great Dutch painters, and evolving with exquisite delicacy, in both atmosphere and dialogue, the tone and mood of the situation he is contriving, the exact moment of truth that he looks for in every scene…..His genius for orchestration is unsurpassed…..

The extraordinary compassion of Chekhov, his musical sense of balance and rhythm, his feeling for nature, the capacity of his characters for acute loneliness or gaiety of fellowship, his passion for selective detail – these qualities seem to bring out in a company of players the very best, most generous side of their art and skill.

In The Cherry Orchard, Madame Ranevsky (Peggy Ashcroft) and her brother Gaev (Gielgud) are landed gentry whose country estate has to be sold because they cannot pay their debts.  Anya is Madame’s natural daughter (Judi Dench) and Varya (Dorothy Tutin) is an adopted daughter.  Lopahin comes from a serf background but is the ultimate in nouveau riche trying to get the owners to subdivide to solve their problems.  Trofimov (Ian Holm) is the eternal student with an eye for Anya and similar optimism for the future.  Firs (Roy Dotrice) is a butler old enough to be part of the furniture.  Yasha is a young student, and the dark side of the future, a taker.  Other characters supply light relief, but it is a mystery how to see or play this piece as a comedy – at least as that word is generally understood.  The whole house is like a commune, but the owners just drift about in their own bubbles immunized from the reality that we call the world.  They leave the orchard for the last time forgetting the old servant as the world will forget them.  The final text before the curtain is: All is still again, and there is heard nothing but the strokes of the axe far away in the orchard.

Sir Lewis Namier was fond of saying that the English aristocracy could live with money – the French and Russian could not, and they went under.  This régime was not just ancien, but defunct.  This play is as close to the Russian as the French, but before it.  Trofimov prefigures the Russian, but Chekhov could not have foreseen the horror that would be brought to Russia by an arrogant intellectual who had never been one of the people.

The Three Sisters can be hard work.  Olga knows she is doomed to spinsterhood.  Masha made a big mistake in marrying Kulygin, a thick teacher and crashing bore, and is ready to have an affair with Vershinin, a weak, unattractive, boring colonel who is married.  Irina, the youngest, dreams of getting out of the provinces to go back to Moscow, as do they all.  A young baron who has no brains at all is pursuing her but he runs foul of a psychopathic snob called Soleni who makes clucking sounds to annoy others, including the audience.  The brother is a failed academic who becomes a drunk and a gambler, and loses the house.  He marries a rolled gold five star bitch who alienates everyone.  All this is the subject of a commentary from an old doctor who is mad, and who giggles compulsively, and breaks into ditties (as does Masha).  A lot of them speak of work; none of them knows what the word means.  No character is level or pleasant; most operate on you like a nail on a blackboard; you do not get relief from irony or humour as in the other plays; it can therefore be a hard night out.

Let us conclude where we began.  When Chekhov’s body was returned from Germany to Moscow for burial, the mourners found that they were following the wrong casket.  They finally found the remains in a dirty green freight truck marked ‘For Oysters.’  Maxim Gorki wrote: ‘Vulgarity was Chekhov’s enemy.  All his life he had contended with it.  It was vulgarity he had mocked and depicted with a dispassionate sharp-pointed pen…And vulgarity avenged itself upon him with a most abominable little prank…the dirty green blotch of that freight car seems to me nothing else than that huge grin of vulgarity, triumphant over its wearied foe.’  Like Chekhov himself, the incident was nothing if not Russian.

The Cordelia Syndrome – Unaccommodated Man and the High Price of Rigidity

The mad scenes in King Lear may be the most elemental in our literature after Prometheus Bound.  (They frightened Verdi off any opera based on the play.)  The king loses his mind as one by one all the props of civilisation are taken from him and he is left looking up to a gibbering, naked beggar.  He is left alone – like the Marshal in High Noon, to the power of ten.  (There is a similarly affecting moment in Titus Andronicus – another hero left alone on a rock.)  The storm outside in the heath matches that inside Lear’s head.  We get this elemental question: ‘Is man no more than this?….Thou art the thing itself, unaccommodated man…’(3.6.105-109).

Meanwhile, two of his daughters are completing their descent into evil.  The descent is so complete and so mutually annihilating that it represents a different kind of denial of humanity.  How far removed are we from the primeval slime from which we emerged at the beginning?  The question posed by the daughters is this: ‘Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?’ (3.6.75-77).

The two questions are simple enough.  What is it to be human?  What is it to be evil?  If you put to one side magic and the supernatural, it is hard to think of a more basic question.

How did this come about?   Cordelia was too inflexible – too rigid – to accommodate (that word again) her father’s wishes.  This was one of those ticklish family crises where you just needed some sense and sensibility to navigate your way through.  It happens in most families at Christmas lunch.  (In the U S, Thanksgiving poses similar threats – who could forget Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman going after the rest of the family like a blind, gored bull?)  These are moments of truth that call for anything but the truth.  Most of us wriggle through with the blank insincerity that inevitably underlies any statement beginning ‘I am delighted…’But even that was too much for the good Cordelia.

I remarked elsewhere:

Cordelia has come out of this exercise with a remarkably good press.  For the want of just a touch of politesse, a kingdom was lost, and she and her father are both lost in the maelstrom.  But Cordelia is ‘ensainted’.  This process may reflect the prejudices of Victorian and Edwardian English dons.  Nowadays, Isabella (Measure for Measure) gets a dreadful press, at least from some quarters, for preferring her name and virtue to her brother’s life.  People who are prepared to sacrifice – that is the word, ‘sacrifice’ – real people for abstract ideas make us very nervous.

We know that sparks can fly between a father and daughter infected with the same pride, prejudice, or narrowness, but what we here see is that the uncalculating moral purity of a daughter may be just as wounding to an aging volatile proud father as the calculated immoral conduct of his older daughters.

The certainty of youth has an inherently incendiary character.  It is a certainty that is unimpressed by doubt and uninfected with defeat, and it is commonly dead wrong.  Here, the father is all or nothing, black and white; the daughter is incapable of the compromise that communal life depends on; conflict is therefore inevitable, and disaster is probable.  In truth, the conflict of this father and daughter may remind you of a remark made by Kant before the white people settled here: ‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.’

The Edwardian sensibility I had in mind may have been that of A C Bradley.  Bradley ‘refuses to admit…..any kind of imperfection, and is outraged when any share in her father’s sufferings is attributed to the part she plays in the opening scene.’  I don’t know whether the professor survived bringing up two or more daughters – it is, among other things, instructive – but the great man faltered when he sought to justify his suggestion that Cordelia could not ‘have made the unreasonable old King feel that he was fondly loved.  Cordelia cannot, because she is Cordelia’.  That circular proposition is about as helpful as saying that had she pacified her father, we would not have had the play.

Well, we all make mistakes – and on the previous page, Bradley had given us my favourite bell-ringer in all criticism.  ‘She grew up with Goneril and Regan for sisters.’  That is a very sobering statement that entitles Cordelia to be cut some slack – as they say Stateside.  (And that is the kind of thing Bradley is criticised for by some who have come later and are not so learned – he treats the characters as if they were real people.  No one has ever been able to make the alternative clear to me.)

This inability of Cordelia to adjust herself to accommodate others is the kind personal failing that underlies so much failure and friction in our public life.  There is a lack of tolerance and restraint that goes beyond a mere want of courtesy.  We see a ruthless assertion or promotion of self that takes its stand on the standard of our time – the selfy.  It is the denial of community and assertion of self you see when two tradies go to a café for a pie and immediately retire into their own pones and zones.  The ceremony of courtesy is drowned.  Is it little more than pure selfishness that reaches its apotheosis in people like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson?  Do you notice that some people get ill at ease if you turn the discussion away from them?  It’s as if you are talking to a brick wall.  They have no interest in any world without them.  When we see that syndrome in action, we may reflect on the observation of Blaise Pascal that ‘all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’

Language itself becomes unaccommodated at the end of this play.  It is pared down to the elements, strangled monosyllabic utterances.  The speech in 5.3 beginning ‘And my poor fool is hanged: no, no, no life’ led Bradley to say:

The imagination that produced Lear’s curse or his defiance of the storm may be paralleled in its kind, but where else are we to seek the imagination that would venture to that cry of ‘Never’ with such a phrase as ‘undo this button’, and yet could leave us on the topmost peaks of poetry.

That is why King Lear is our Everest.  Did this author, or any other, ever get a better fusion of drama and poetry than in these lines?

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

Lear and Cordelia share a problem of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.  They lack discretion.  They are low on judgement.  (The quality you look for in a trustee is prudence and the want of that quality in people like Trump or Johnson shows how unfit they are for public office.)

Prometheus had the same problem – big time.  I remarked elsewhere:

They do not get more elemental than this.  Big epics tend to start with feuds in heaven – The Iliad, Paradise Lost, Mahabharata, and Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  There was a power struggle between the Greek gods that would have warmed the heart of a local apparatchik.  Prometheus – ‘forethought’ – stole fire from heaven to ease the lot of mankind.  Zeus, who makes the Old Testament God look like a maiden aunt, takes exception and binds Prometheus to a rock during the pleasure of Zeus. 

Lear loses all the props of mankind.  Prometheus had sought to restore them.  The last epithet you would apply to stealing fire from heaven is discretion.  It’s not surprising then that Hermes lays into him.  ‘But you have not yet learned a wise discretion.’  ‘Bring your proud heart to know a true discretion.’  Hermes then gives Prometheus a real spray:

You are a colt new broken, with the bit

Clenched in its teeth, fighting against the reins,

And bolting.  You are far too strong and confident

In your weak cleverness.  For obstinacy

Standing alone is the weakest of all things

In one whose mind is not possessed by wisdom.

‘Weak cleverness is a massive put-down, that bears upon others referred to here, and might sum up politics now in general, but in fairness to Prometheus, he had learned enough to pass on advice to others who might also be after sole power.

This is a sickness, it seems, that goes along with

Dictatorship – inability to trust one’s friends.

Put differently, loyalty is a one-way affair for those who lust after and are corrupted by power.  (That translation is by Rex Warner in Limited Editions, 1965 from Bodley Head; the other citations were translated by David Grene for Folio, 2011).

Prometheus was chained upon a rock.  King Lear was bound upon a wheel of fire.  One took on God.  The other tried to convert a crown to the trinity – something beyond even Newton.  Each came to see the writing on the wall – which was just as well, because each had done most of the writing.

These plays are part of the title deeds of our civilisation.  It is therefore not surprising that in his introduction to his translation of Prometheus, Rex Warner referred to a Harvard scholar who ‘well compares the Prometheus with The Brothers Karamazov and King Lear, all works which have the quality of ‘touching final doubts.’  Here, then, we are truly among the very big hitters.

MY TOP SHELF – 30

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

30

FOUR PLAYS

Henrik Ibsen (1890)

Oxford University Press, The Franklin library, 1983; translated by Eva Le Gallienne; illustrated by Tony Eubanks; fully bound in black leather, worked and embossed in gold, with humped spine moiré pearl endpapers and ribbon; gold edged pages.

Play-time is over now.

Henrik Ibsen left Norway because he was stifled by it.  He said he wanted to put a torpedo under the ark.  He went to Rome and was captivated by Michelangelo and Bernini because, he said, ‘they had the courage to commit a little madness now and then.’  That is a very revealing remark.  He was a member of the Scandinavian Club, that was doubtless as conservative as ex-pat groups tend to be.  The torpedo launched in Rome was a proposal to give women at the Club the vote.  This was 1879.  The motion was narrowly lost.  Members were uneasy about how Ibsen might react.

No one would have guessed it – but Ibsen came.  He looked magnificent, in full panoply, with medals to boot.  He ran his hand ceaselessly through his rich, grizzled hair, greeting no one in particular, but everyone in general.  There was a deep peace in his face, but his eyes were watchful, so watchful.  He sat alone.  We all thought that he had forgiven his fellow mortals, and some even supposed him penitent…Then he began, softly, but with a terrifying earnestness.  He had recently wished to do the Club a service, he might almost say a great favour, by bringing its members abreast with contemporary ideas.  No one could escape these mighty developments.  Not even here – in this community – in this duckpond!….Now he was no longer speaking calmly, no longer thoughtfully stroking his hair.  He shook his head with its grey mane.  He folded his arms across his chest.  His eyes shone.  His voice shook, his mouth trembled…He resembled a lion; nay, more – he resembled that future enemy of the people, Dr Stockmann….He repeated, and repeated: what kind of women are these….?

Thump!  A lady, Countess B, fell to the floor.  She, like the rest of us, flinched from the unspeakable.  So she took time by the forelock and swooned.  She was carried out.  Ibsen continued.  Perhaps slightly more calmly.  But eloquently and lucidly, never searching for a word.  …He looked remote and ecstatic….And when he was done, he went out unto the hall, took his overcoat and walked home.  Calm and silent.

(Could all Scandinavian people write like that back then?)

This volume has four of the plays – A Doll’s House, Ghosts, The Wild Duck, and Hedda Gabler.  With The Master Builder, they are the plays most put on now.  After these, the going gets tough.  For example, Romersholm ends on a double suicide and in Little Eyeolf a child is crippled while his parents are making love and becomes subject to the whiles of the Rat-woman leaving his parents to make Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf sound like a nursery rhyme.

It is hard for us now to recapture just how shocking A Doll’s House was.  Nora is treated like a doll by her husband until she can take it no longer and she just walks out.  The last words before the curtain are: From below is heard the reverberation of a heavy door closing.  That sound must have echoed round Stockholm and Berlin like a rifle shot.  Women just did not do that – walking out was not an option.

Helmer, the husband, is insufferably patronising.  ‘When a man forgives his wife wholeheartedly – as I have you – it fills him with such tenderness, such peace.  She seems to belong to him in a double sense.’  But it is not long before he is staring into the abyss.

It doesn’t occur to you, does it, that though we’ve been married for eight years, this is the first time that we two, man and wife, have sat down for a serious talk…..You never loved me.  You just thought it was fun to be in love with me….I’ve been your doll wife, just as at home I was Papa’s doll-child.  And the children in turn have been my dolls.  I thought it fun when you played games with me….I have another duty just as sacred…my duty toward myself…..But don’t you see – I don’t really know what religion is.

Then the husband says that he could not sacrifice honor for the sake of love, and he walks straight into this bell-ringer.

Millions of women do it every day.

This would have been all Mandarin in the south, but it electrified the nations of the north.  People sent dinner invitations endorsed ‘We will not discuss THAT play.’  One traditionalist complained that ‘one does not leave this play in the mood of exaltation which, ever since the days of the Greeks, has been regarded as the sine qua non for every work of art and literature.’  You can therefore see Ibsen’s contribution to modernism.  As with King Lear, some demanded a happy ending.  But as Michael Meyer observes in his wonderful biography: ‘So explosive was the message of A Doll’s House –that a marriage was not sacrosanct, that a man’s authority in his home should not go unchallenged, and that the prime duty of every person was to find out who he or she really was and become that person – that the technical originality of the play is often forgotten.  It achieved the most powerful and moving effect by the highly untraditional methods of extreme simplicity and economy of language….’

Hedda Gabler is another snap of heathens living in a world that calls itself Christian.  It must be the most lacerating role known to the stage.  The ‘trolls’ have stalked mankind right into civilized society.  Hedda is caught between a twerp of a husband and a sleazy judicial pants man.  She is left to face the roles of mother and mistress and she rejects both of them.  She is like a caged animal, and she becomes both vicious and lethal.  She is revolted by any kind of intimacy and cannot bring herself to use ‘du’ with her husband’s aunt.  Her only release is in inflicting pain.

I sometimes think there’s only one thing in this world I’m really fitted for….Boring myself to death…..I say there is beauty in this.  [Suicide of a former lover.]  Ejlert Lovborg has made up his own account with life.  He had the courage to do – the one right thing…..It gives me a sense of freedom to know that an act of deliberate courage is still possible in this world – an act of spontaneous beauty.

We are near the realm of Ayn Rand or something worse.  This play could just be a study in fascism.

For once in my life I want the power to shape a human destiny.

There is something demonic about Hedda.  Ibsen said ‘She really wants to live the whole life of a man.’  In the result her exit comes with a different sort of bang, and she might just be the most terrifying creature ever put on the stage.  The last way anyone would want to go to God would be with Hedda’s vine leaves in their hair.  Fascists are empty incomplete people who live on front and insignia.  They see their heroes – themselves – as champions wreathed in laurels.  They are also fascinated by guns.  Guns are a source of power to shape human destiny.  The external insignia of fascists betoken their internal emptiness.  They are an uncomely husk of humanity, a sad, pale mockery.  Hedda Gabler is indeed a very dark and evil invention.  This is a chick who kills for kicks.

On film, you can choose between Juliet Stephenson and Claire Bloom for Nora and between Ingrid Bergman and Diana Rigg for Hedda.  If the plays have a structural problem, it is that the men are door-mats.  Michael Redgrave is as wet a wimp as you could find for Hedda’s husband and Ralph Richardson is just nauseating as the revolting Judge Brack – he reminds you of the whining, insinuating Iago of Cyril Cusack.

Ibsen may be the only playwright who can hold a candle to Shakespeare.  One difference is that there is hardly any comedy.  But they both have one important thing in common.  They were both devoted to theatre and they both spent their professional lives writing plays for profit with the view to giving the public a good night out at the theatre.  The rest, I suspect, may be little more than moonshine.