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.

Here and there – Shakespeare on Chivalry

 

 

The Iliad of Homer ends: ‘So the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.’  The death of Hector marks the end of the play Troilus and Cressida of Shakespeare written more than 2000 years after the Iliad.  This, then, is an enduring myth.  Horses hardly figure in the Iliad, but later they became decisive in war.  The medieval knight on a horse (cheval) was their Panzer tank.  Tales were told about the deeds of knights (chevaliers).  They had their own code – chivalry – and it in turn was a fertile source of myth.

What does the word ‘chivalry’ denote?  ‘The character of the ideal knight, disinterested bravery, honour and courtesy’ (OED).  The word ‘ideal’ suggests that we may be near romance.  There is much romance in the epic tales of chivalry – like those of Arthur and Roland.  They speak of knightly love, and they end in tragedy.  They are also full of blood and guts, but Kenneth Clark in Civilisation got lyrical about it all.  He thought that the age of chivalry now looks ‘infinitely strange and remote’.

It is as enchanting, as luminous, as transcendental as the stained glass that is its glory – and, in the ordinary meaning of the word, as unreal.

That unreality had been revealed by two of the great characters of Western letters.  Don Quixote and Falstaff came to us at about the same time.  Each was a torpedo under the ark of chivalry and knightly love.  Falstaff was a dangerous ratbag, but we have too much of that in each of us to let that put us off a man who makes us laugh so much at our betters – and ourselves.  Don Quixote was dead-set mad, but we have the insight that we all tip-toe around that particular volcano, and the Don comes down to us as kind of off-centre Christ.  These are two of our most loved characters.  You would have to have to be really mad to describe either as ‘disinterested.’

By contrast, Troilus and Cressida is a far more brutal demolition job on chivalry and knightly love, and there is hardly a decent person in it.

So, how does Troilus start?  In the second line we get one of those nuggets that this author puts in our path.  The Greek princes sailed for Troy, we are told, ‘their high blood chafed.’  Those four words tell us the story of this pointless war.  What were they chafed about?  A wife of one of their princes has shot through – with a bloody Asian!  Well, at least that romance was consensual.  When the Greeks get to Troy, Achilles is sulking because his king has pinched his Trojan trophy, a woman that Achilles has taken a shine to – notwithstanding his love for Patroclus (who is here described as a ‘male whore’).  Then our two lovers no sooner get into bed than Cressida is traded for a Trojan prisoner.  And when she gets traded, she starts to enjoy herself sexually far too quickly.  Her uncle, Pandarus, is a pimp who has set up the consummation.  Her father, who is a priest and a traitor, sets up the trade.  Women are just tradeable commodities, handy in bed if your taste goes that way, but otherwise useless.  So much for courtly love.

When Don Quixote could not think of a better way to start a fight, he would demand that his protagonist acknowledge the supreme beauty of Dulcinea (who did not exist).  That is how single combat is set up in this play.  The protagonists go to defend the honour of their ladies  Aeneas, a very unpleasant puppet-master, taunts the Greeks in his challenge saying that unless they accept the challenge, the Trojans will say that ‘Grecian dames are sunburnt and not worth the splinter of a lance.’  The slippery Ulysses pulls the levers so that the mad Ajax goes to fight Hector.  But by this time, Achilles, who is not too bright, realises that his ‘reputation is at stake’ and that his fame is ‘shrewdly gored.’  When he runs into Hector, the two confront each other like ruckmen before the bounce in a grand final.  And when he comes across Hector unarmed, he instructs his version of the Waffen SS to murder Hector in cold blood.  So much for chivalry.

The repudiation of chivalry is express.  Troilus taxes Hector for sparing the lives of vanquished Greeks.  Hector actually uses the term ‘fair play.’  Troilus responds with ‘fool’s play’.  Troilus was dead right.  The unarmed Hector asks Achilles to ‘forgo this vantage’ in vain.  In this play, the ball-tamperers win.  Those who don’t cheat are losers and bloody idiots – and this play has lots of references to fools and idiots.

At the start, we are told that ‘expectation, tickling skittish spirits…sets all on hazard.’  But young Troilus experiences the kind of emptiness felt by young Prince Hal.  He thinks there are fools on both sides.  ‘I cannot fight upon this argument….It is too starved a subject for my sword.’  But when the Greeks offer to call it off if they get Helen back – she presumably not being consulted – Paris and Troilus fall out with their brother Hector.  Hector says Helen is not worth the cost of her keeping.  Troilus refers to that weasel word ‘manhood’ and the most lethal word in the language – ‘honor’.  He then equates worth, or dignity, with value.  Hector asks the kind of question that some of us might ask about our role in Iraq and Afghanistan.

…..Or is your blood

So madly hot that no discourse of reason,

Nor fear of bad success in a bad cause,

Can qualify the same?  (2.2. 115 – 118)

Troilus is a shallow sulk.  He tamely lets Cressida go.  His first concern is that Aeneas does not reveal that he found Troilus in the same house as Cressida so early in the morning.

But Cressida gets what might be called the full Anita Hill treatment.  That unfortunate woman was branded ‘a little bit sluttish’.  When Cressida gets handed over to the Greeks, the big hitters take it in turns to kiss her.  ‘Lewd’ is the word.  Ulysses says:

…..Her wanton spirits look out

At every joint and motive of her body…

……Set them down

For sluttish spoils of opportunity

And daughters of the game.  (4.5.56 – 63)

The last line is scarily modern.  And revolting.  The appalling behaviour of these ageing white males may in part be behind the insight offered to us by Tony Tanner that there ‘is a kind of hapless honesty about Cressida.’  Beside her male elders, including her own family, she comes across like a saint.

This play may be the most brutal repudiation of war outside of Goya.  As you would expect of a classic, it still speaks to us now.

Ulysses and Aeneas are political operatives – manipulators.  Like our shock jocks now, they embody what a wise man called power without responsibility, the ‘prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages’.  They think that they can manipulate the politicians – by, for example, playing on the hideous vanity of Achilles – and then get the mob to take the bait because they are mostly fools or idiots.

They do all this in a world that has no moral base.  We saw that Troilus equated dignity with value.  Ulysses says that ‘no man is the lord of anything’ until he communicates to others and that he will not know himself until he sees himself realised in the applause of others.  (Just ask yourself if any of this catalogue does not apply word for word to Donald Trump.)

How some men creep in skittish Fortune’s hall,

While others play the idiots in her eyes!

How one man eats into another’s pride,

While pride is fasting in his wantonness.  (3.3. 134 – 137)

In this moral desert – ‘war and lechery confound all’ – the political leaders treat the people with contempt.  It is a measure of the empty vanity of Achilles that he tolerates Thersites, the most crude cynic of our stage, but this nasty clown sums up the play when he says that Achilles is the ‘idol of idiot-worshipers.’

They are of course heavily into spin and fake news.  No sooner is Hector murdered, than Achilles is telling his bodyguard to broadcast that ‘Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain.’  They even have alternative facts.  When Pandarus and Cressida discuss the complexion of Troilus, Pandarus says ‘to say truth, brown and not brown’ and Cressida says ‘To say the truth, true and not true.’  When Troilus sees Cressida being too fresh too fast with the Greeks, he says that it is not Cressida – at least not his Cressida.  Or as the President of the United States says ‘There is no proof of anything.’  Reality has just gone.

So, this play was written by someone who could have seen at firsthand the heartless inanity of a Trump rally, or the workings in the inner sanctum of an Australian political party.  The play still, therefore, has a lot to say to us.

But it is painfully long.  Cassandra, Pandarus and Thersites are all ghastly to listen to.  For our taste, there is too much word-play of the type that students of rhetoric enjoyed in the early comedies.  And if Qantas plonked Ulysses beside you on a flight to New York, you would want to sue the airline.  The full version of the play is painful in the Wagnerian sense.  The BBC version is repulsive.  This play really is a problem play in production – as difficult for me as Cymbeline.

At the risk of upsetting some, I would suggest that we would enjoy the play a lot more, and take more home from it, if it was cut – say, in half.  For our taste, the play as written breaches the first rule of advocacy – if you have a good point, make it, and don’t bugger it up by banging on.

Since starting this note, I see that I have referred before to the bad press on chivalry in a book about the middle ages.

But the prize for the most appalling hypocrisy must go to the members of the ruling class called knights.  They invented this wonderful code of chivalry about defending the helpless and maintaining the right.  It was almost entirely pure bullshit.  They became mercenaries for hire – the Knight of Canterbury Tales might be a paradigm.  They depended on and lived by violence.  If the Crusades had not been ordained by God, chivalry would have had to invent it to satisfy their lust for blood and booty.  Their crimes against innocent Jews and Muslims are a perpetual stain not just on Christianity, but on humanity at large.  Dante put Saladin in a pleasing part of hell for answering back so handsomely.

Then, after they got home, and whipped their serfs into line, the knights would drift into some dreamy, droopy adolescent puppy love – for another man’s wife, a mother substitute.  If they succeeded in consummating their affair, which we may suspect was almost never, and they got caught, the same code of chivalry would have required them to fight to the death on a point of honour; and, depending on the jurisdiction, and the ripeness of the detection, the guilty wife might have been run through on the spot.

And enfin, do you know what really gets on our wicks about these knights?  Their high blood chafes far too easily.  They had too many tickets on themselves.  That’s why Cervantes and Shakespeare took them down.

Here and there -An Italian Composer and an English Playwright

 

Nearly twenty years ago, I attended the first of what would be many summer schools at Cambridge or Oxford.  It was at Oxford and the subject was Verdi and Shakespeare.  The tutor was a very entertaining musician who played the tuba.  According to my notes – which are far more extensive than those for later courses – George Bernard Shaw said that Othello was the only tragedy written as grand opera.  I well remember our analysis of the last act of Otello.  The tutor detected an application of the Golden Ratio (or Rule), or the Fibonacci Principle, in the last act.  My notes say a: b; b: a + b.  The numerical progression is, I think, 0, 1, 1, 3, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, and 55.  That is how a pine cone is shaped.  It is hard to explain but easy enough to see in the layout of a Jeffrey Smart painting.  The question was: did Verdi consciously apply this ratio, or was this just an illustration of his native genius?  You will be happy to learn that we settled on the latter – possibly because we were struggling to understand the ratio itself.  As for Shaw’s remark, it sounds bright enough, but what does it signify?

Verdi read Shakespeare mostly in translation.  He venerated the playwright as a god.  He based three of his operas on the plays.

The first was Macbeth and that was composed before the full flowering of Verdi’s artHe thought that Macbeth was ‘one of mankind’s greatest creations.’  He wrote to London to find out how Banquo’s ghost was normally brought on stage.  He sketched out the opera and he usually left the orchestration until rehearsals.  Then at the ripe age of thirty-four, Verdi nearly drove his leads mad rehearsing the duet in the first act more than one hundred and fifty times.  It had to be more spoken than sung.  He behaved like a theatrical tyrant and well before Wagner, he had begun a revolution in the staging of opera.

In his biography, George Martin said that ‘Verdi is ‘unique in the roles he gave to baritones, and in a sense he created the voice.’

There was of course much in the opera that was exactly as expected.  There was a conspirators’ chorus, this time of assassins gathering to kill Banquo; a patriotic chorus of Scottish exiles which, as always, aroused great enthusiasm; and some jiggy witches’ music….To modern ears these parts of the opera sound dated and incongruous beside the more dramatic writing.  And if this mixture of styles kept Macbeth from being as great as Rigoletto or La Traviata, both of which came after it and were more of a piece, it probably also made it possible for the opera, as a very early venture into dramatic writing to survive at all.

But when someone accused Verdi of not knowing Shakespeare, he said:

Perhaps I did not render Macbeth well, but….Shakespeare is one of my favourite poets.  I have had him in my hands since my earliest childhood and I read and re-read him continually.

Verdi had predicted that Macbeth would be a triumph and it was.  The locals were astonished at its despair and ferocity.  In Italy it was known ‘l’opera senza amore’ – the loveless opera.

Otello was written toward the end of Verdi’s life – after the death of Wagner.  Verdi admired the German, but he resisted the ‘infection’ of an Italian art form by ‘Germanism.’  He spent almost two years working on it.  It was to be his first new opera in sixteen years and widely thought to have been his last.  By cutting the first act of the play, Boito (the librettist) could set the entire action in Cyprus and make each act follow its predecessor almost exactly in time.

Not unusually, Verdi had trouble with his leads.  One tiff with the title role led Verdi to write a note to the conductor which reminded me of what I felt driven to say occasionally to counsel for the Crown in tax cases – ‘Do you think that you might persuade the tenor to perform something approximating to what has been laid down?’  We are told that the choice for Desdemona was not ideal, but that the conductor had an interest in her that was not exclusively musical.

The disintegration of Otello is ruthlessly presented – this is what makes both the play and the opera so difficult for some of the more squeamish of us to follow.  Verdi’s Desdemona is firmer and more modern.  When in the play Othello calls her false, she replies ‘To whom, my lord, with whom?  How am I false?’  In the opera she replies ‘I am honest’ and the stage direction is ‘looking firmly at him.’  For all I know, they may have had in mind the question that Hamlet posed to Ophelia, but there is a bit of #MeToo there.

Although the composition was very novel in many respects, Verdi made use of Italian operatic idioms, such as the storm scene, the victory chorus and the drinking song.  Nowadays someone would mumble some nonsense about bums on seats, but the consensus is and always has been that this work of art is a masterpiece.

Throughout his career, Verdi had to put up with censors – and idiots.  People said that an opera seria had to have a happy ending.  So, Verdi had to write a version where Desdemona persuades the Moor of her innocence.  Well, some drongo would do the same to King Lear.  We should not be surprised when fresh insults are offered all the time to the art of the greatest playwright the world has seen.  It’s like putting a fig leaf or condom on the David of Michelangelo, or some pink lippy on the Mona Lisa – select your own location.  Or – how would you like it if you rocked up to a concert of a late Beethoven string quartet, and the band turned up in black shirts, jackboots, Storm trackies – and tats?  Where is the moral right of the artist to be immune from this form of desecration?

The premiere was of course an event.  Tout le monde was there.  A nineteen year old from Parma played the second cello.  He was so moved that when he got home, he woke up his mother, told her that Otello was a masterpiece, got her out bed, and insisted that she kneel beside him and repeat ‘Viva Verdi.’  That young man was Arturo Toscanini.  The Italians, like all of us, can get a lot wrong, but there is a continuing thread to their gift of opera to the world.

The final opera was Falstaff.  Rossini had fed blood to a tiger when he said that ‘Verdi was incapable of writing a comic opera.’  Verdi spent years on the project, trying to keep it secret.  Although in his eightieth year, Verdi spent hours each day at rehearsals.  He reduced the opera to two episodes.  He conducted the first night.  It was at La Scala, with which Verdi had had at best an off and on relationship, and it was hailed as another masterpiece.  As someone correctly said, the whole cast is the star of Falstaff.

My attitude to Falstaff has changed over the years.  This character is mainly from The Merry Wives of Windsor and is quite unlike the ultimately unlovely hero of King Henry IV Parts I and II  – although Verdi did bring in parts of the speeches in the history plays.  Some might then see this opera as lightweight.  A stunning performance by the AO a few years back and constant replaying have made this opera now my favourite.  This for me now is music drama at its most evolved.  Eat your heart out, Waggers.

Wagner had claimed to have written a comedy in opera – Die Meistersinger.  Some time ago I was offered two of the best seats in the house to hear this work.  I declined them.  My back can no longer take that kind of punishment, and ‘comedy’ does not trip lightly off the lips with ‘Wagner’.  As Mr Martin reminds us, the whole of Falstaff takes less time in performance than the last act of Die Meistersinger.

As for recordings, if you don’t mind Lady Macbeth stealing the show – and I don’t in either the play (Harriet Walter completely changed the way I see it) or the opera – then the live La Scala 1952 recording with Callas and de Sabata is the go.  For Otello,  the RCA boxed set of Toscanini has his 1947 recording with Ramon Vinay, who was said to be the Otello, but I prefer the 1955 version of Serafin with Vickers and Gobbi – Jon Vickers had a power in his voice that young people would call awesome.  For Falstaff you must get the 1956 Karajan with Gobbo and Schwarzkopf.  Kant would have called it ‘transcendental.’

On many occasions, Verdi longed to try King Lear.   He believed that sixteenth century Elizabethan drama was very close to nineteenth century Italian opera.  There is oratorical blood and thunder, aria-like soliloquies, a storm scene, a mad scene, and the trumpets of royalty.  What more could he ask for?  Mascagni asked him why he had not gone ahead with this opera.  Verdi closed his eyes and replied slowly and softly: ‘The scene in which King Lear finds himself on the heath terrified me.’  That was wise.  Too many directors are not scared enough.  In truth, the maestro knew the limitations of his art.  When his second wife died, Verdi said:

Great grief does not demand great expression; it asks for silence, isolation, I would even say the torture of reflection.  There is something superficial about all exteriorization; it is a profanation.

Plato would have been pleased.

Here and there – The Courtiers of King Henry VIII and President Donald Trump

 

A very long time ago – about, say, five or six centuries – the kings of England did not just reign, they ruled, and their subjects owed fealty to them personally.  Then you could still sensibly speak of an absolute monarchy, as was certainly the case in France, and the rule of law was an idea whose time had not yet come.  That was the case – more or less – with Henry VIII.

Donald Trump thinks that it should be the case for him – and he behaves as if it is.  He is about half a millennium out of date, as are those despotic regimes, like Russia and Saudi Arabia, which Trump most admires.

His gross appearance, his blustering demeanour, his vulgarity, his arrogance, his sensuality, his cruelty, his hypocrisy, his want of common decency, are marked in strong lines.

Every word applies to Donald Trump, but it was written by a famous English critic (Hazlitt) about Henry VIII as seen by Shakespeare in the play of that name – and his Harry might be thought to be mild compared to the historical king.  The play ends with the birth of the future Queen Elizabeth and before King Henry VIII became a retail terminator of his wives and first ministers.

Both Trump and Henry are – I will use the present tense for both – blustering, arrogant, sensual, cruel, hypocritical and lacking common decency.  The essential thing about them is that each of them is so full of himself that there is no room for anyone else.  Being a courtier to either is therefore tricky.  No courtier, no matter how high, ever knows when his time might be up.  The Prologue speaks of great people followed by a thousand friends –

…….Then in a moment, see

How soon this mightiness meets misery….(29-30)

Before looking at what Trump may have in common with Henry VIII – both in history and on the stage – we should notice some differences.  Henry is intelligent, religious and intent on doing the right thing by the country he rules.  None of that is true for Trump.  He is a stupid man with no room in his ego for God or his nation.  Sir Geoffrey Elton said that Henry was ‘intelligent, a capable musician, quite well-seen in theology, a patron of the arts and learning’ and that ‘foreign ambassadors as well as his own subjects praised him to the skies.’  How very different is Trump.  But Elton also said:

Of all Henry VIII’s follies none cost his country dearer than his illusion that he was an old and experienced king who knew his business and needed no one to do it for him.

That’s Trump to his toe nails.

There are other differences.  Young Harry was very well educated.  Young Donald was not.  Henry was fluent in four languages.  Trump has trouble putting a sentence together in one.  You would have as much chance of getting a definition of ‘subject’ and ‘predicate’ from Trump as you would of seeing his school report cards.

King Henry disrupted the body politic in order to give the nation a secure heir to the throne.  That was his duty.  President Trump disrupted the body politic in order to secure places for his family.  That was a breach of his duty, and this vulgar family intrusion continues to generate conflicts of interest that would be laughable if they were not so gross.

What then do they have in common?

Each of the King and the President is a monument to the wisdom of the admonition ‘Put not your trust in princes’ (Psalm, 146:3).  Indeed, one of Harry’s principal victims (Cardinal Wolsey) echoed just those words:

…..O, how wretched

Is that poor man that hangs on princes’ favours!

There is betwixt that smile we would aspire to,

That sweet aspect of princes and their ruin,

More pangs and fears that wars or women have.

And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,

Never to hope again.  (III, ii, 366-372)

A strong leader does not have to claim the authoritarian powers of Stalin or Hitler before he reduces his senior advisers to nervous wrecks who look like menials – and whose consequent apparent weakness makes them only a more likely target.  They are made to look and feel servile.  Trump and Harry have this in common with dogs – they can sense fear and this arouses them.  They pleasure themselves by exploiting fear in others.  For each of them, it is a double hit of showing off his power.  They live to put people down and this means that neither has the mettle of a leader.

On this ground, too, neither has a sense of humour.  That is one way that the rest of us oil our humanity, but for each of these man-eaters, a joke is just a badly disguised kick to the groin.

The play Henry VIII sees the fall of three eminent persons – the Duke of Buckingham, Queen Katherine, and Cardinal Wolsey – all engineered by the King.  We also have a putsch against Archbishop Cranmer that is scotched by the King (and what high theatre we have there).  The later execution of Anne Boleyn was little more than judicial murder.  Whether it was more cruel than the casting off of Queen Katherine is a question on which reasonable minds may differ.  The first minister, Cromwell, the prime author of the legislation giving effect to the Reformation in England, would also fall.  And if he fell like Lucifer, the fall was also far more terminal – what Buckingham refers to as ‘the long divorce of steel.’  Wolsey escaped the axe; Cromwell and More did not.  Some of Henry’s victims suffered death, but the list of Trump’s victims is so much longer – and in a much shorter time.

And yet, at least in the play, they all go quietly in the end.  As did most victims of Stalin.  The lethal reputation of the ruler induces a kind of resignation and acceptance.

This looks to be the case with the victims of Trump.  With the exception of James Comey, of the FBI, most went quietly to their end, although as often as not that end was pronounced in the most cowardly and vulgar manner.

Henry VIII appears to be as much a bully as Trump is.  The flip side of the bully is the coward.  Harry fancies himself as a latterday medieval man of steel.  Medieval kings had to rule in a personal way that does not apply to current presidents – at least outside of world war.  The cowardice of Trump is notorious – from his evasion of military service, to his refusal to show his tax returns, to his cringing before real despots – but at least in one respect Harry shares that cowardice.  In his recent biography Thomas Cromwell, A Life, Diarmaid MacCulloch says that Henry is ‘a thorough coward’ when it comes to ‘personal confrontations.’  Trump always gets a minion – like a demeaned three star general – to deliver the pink slip, and he could not bring himself to listen to the tape of the murder of a journalist – before he went ahead to acquit the murderer.

Although Henry is far more intelligent than Trump, we get the impression that both could be unduly swayed by the last person either spoke to.  That disability is nigh on terminal for a judge, but it also creates disharmony in the court of a ruler.  Courtiers suspected that both Wolsey and Cromwell had got to a position of dominance with King Henry.

He dives into the King’s soul, and there scatters

Dangers, doubts, wringing of the conscience,

Fears and despairs.  (II, ii, 26-28)

That is precisely what we could have heard from some in the White House when Mr Bannon was closeted alone with the President, or when Mr Kushner gets to be so now.  Both those gentlemen have the misfortune to look to be at their most dangerous when they look to be doing nothing.  (It is hard to imagine anyone showing outright blankness in the way Mr Kushner does.  Is anyone ever at home?)

Both rulers are relentlessly insensitive.  Eleven days after Anne Boleyn’s execution, Henry VIII married Jane Seymour.  It was rumoured that he was pleasuring himself at the moment of her decapitation, but Harry has a capacity for self-deception – delusion – quite equal to that of Trump.  As he saw it, this marriage – his third – was his first proper one.  On the day of the execution of Cromwell, Henry diverted himself by marrying Katherine Howard.  Perhaps intercourse eases decapitation.  Both Henry and Trump have an alarming capacity to violate basic decency.

Some may think it is hard to accuse Trump of hypocrisy.  If you don’t believe anything, what is there that you can betray?  But with our Harry, Shakespeare lays it on with a shovel.  The middle aged man who is about to trade in his middle aged wife for a new model fairly wallows in his own moonshine.

O, my lord,

Would it not grieve an able man to leave

So sweet a bedfellow?  But, conscience, conscience!

O, ‘tis a tender place, and I must leave her.  (II, ii, 140-143)

Each ruler fairly glows with any praise.  MacCulloch says that ‘Henry always showed a touching confidence in other people’s admiration of his abilities as a ruler, and the prospect of anyone in mainland Europe expressing unalloyed support for his marital troubles was additionally thrilling.’  For Harry to get sympathy in Europe for his penchant for divorce would be like Trump getting support in Europe for his soft spot for coal.

Each is very touchy and easily kindled to incandescent rage and a lust for revenge.  Each is a born hater.  ‘Anne was now victim of Henry’s ability to turn deep affection into deep hatred, and then to believe any old nonsense to reinforce his new point of view.’

That is vintage Trump.  The original attraction may well have been affected, although the felt need to live in the present could make a sucker of both rulers; but the later loathing was sincerity itself.  Indeed, both claim to have been let down so badly so often that they must concede that they cannot pick the right people to have with them.  That is not a good result for a ruler.

Because neither can be trusted and each rules by fear, their court is a deeply unhappy place.  One of Harry’s courtiers laments ‘he will never give credit against you, whatsoever is laid to your charge; but let me or any other of the Council be complained of, his Grace will most seriously chide and fall out with us’  It is notorious that loyalty flows in only one direction for Trump, but this Tudor cri de coeur leads MacCulloch to comment that ‘the leading men at Court eyed one another and judged the moment to plant a negative thought in the mind of their terrifyingly unpredictable royal master.’

It is hard to think of a better description of what goes on in the White House – except that things are much, much worse there because of the close involvement of the members of the family of the ruler, none of whom knows what to do.  What you get is courtiers looking at each other with what Keats called ‘wild surmise.’

In truth, it is downright dangerous to walk into either court.  Three different fates might await you.  You might get it wrong, in which case a mere firing is an act of mercy.  Or you may have to take a hit for the ruler because it is universally acknowledged that he can do no wrong.  Or worse, you may put part of his gleam in the shade in which case you are really for it.

The Oxford History of England says that King Henry VIII was a ‘great king’.  Their criteria for greatness may be a bit wobbly, since they also say:

Henry VIII was brutal, crafty, selfish, and ungenerous….and as the years passed, what there was in him of magnanimity was eaten up by his all-devouring egoism.  His triumphant ride through life carried him unheeding over the bodies of his broken servants, and though he had an outward affability for use at will, he was faux bonhomme.

There again is Donald Trump á la lettre. David Hume said that Henry may have been great but not good, and that ‘every one dreaded a contest with a man who was known never to yield or to forgive, and who, in every controversy, was determined to ruin either himself or his antagonist.’

Courtiers are companions and councillors.  Both suffer under each of the king and the president.  ‘This enormous man was the nightmare of his advisers.  Once a scheme was fixed in his mind he could seldom be turned from it; resistance only made him more stubborn; and once embarked, he always tended to go too far unless restrained….The only secret of managing him, both Wolsey and Cromwell disclosed after they had fallen, was to see that dangerous ideas were not permitted to reach him.’  Churchill said that of King Henry; Bob Woodward said much the same of President Trump.

It is remarkable how many good lives and careers have been ruined when people have strayed into the court of this king or this president.  They seem to taint all whom they touch.  So many were crooked before they entered the orbit of Trump that for some time now he has had trouble attracting decent people.  Time spent with Trump does not look good on your C V now – how bad might it look in a few years’ time?

We had need pray,

And heartily, for our deliverance,

Or this imperious man will work us all

From princes into pages.  All men’s honours,

Lie like one lump before him, to be fashioned

Into what pitch he pleases.  (II, ii, 44-49)

Now let us see another difference.  Trump has no time or respect for the Constitution or its organs.  It would be silly to say he might leave a good legacy.  The future is not his shtick.

There was next to nothing about religion in the Reformation in England.  It was all about politics and England was much better off politically for getting its version of Home Rule.  And because King Henry chose to split with Rome by acts of Parliament – mere royal fiats would not have done the job – its status was greatly advanced.  We were on our way to the sovereignty of Parliament and the rule of law – and the colonies that would become the United States would be prime beneficiaries of this ascent.

Now may we end with something else that President Trump and King Henry VIII have in common?  For some of us, hardly a day goes by with Donald Trump when we are not reminded of the deathless words of a Boston attorney named Joseph Welch who, after another outrage committed by Senator McCarthy, asked: ‘Have you no sense of decency, Sir, at long last?’  Nowhere is that want of decency more on show in this king and in this president than in their hunt for skirt and in their complete lack of judgment in how to go about it.

Well, at least the Tudors did not have to put up with wall-to-wall and coast to coast centrefolds, and the women allotted to King Henry were alleged to have some form of pedigree if not some kind of mind.  These things are sadly different now in this uncomely Playboy swamp in the New World.

Here and there – Shakespeare on film – a first XI

 

Someone suggested that I do a note on my favourite films of Shakespeare – recognising that the list today might change radically tomorrow.  Here then is today’s first XI – in alphabetical order.

All’s Well that Ends Well is the only play by this author I have not seen on stage.  The 1981 BBC version features two of my favourite actors, and not just in Shakespeare – Ian Charleson and Michael Hordern.  Bertram is a rotten role, but Charleson was so good.  Hordern for me is like Gielgud – they both look like they were born to play Shakespeare.  Hordern oozes Lafew.  There is a wonderful scene – Act V scene ii – where Parolles is wretched and roughly dealt with by the Clown, and Lafew takes him under his wing.  It is pure magic that can’t be taught.  No wonder Hordern terrified Richard Burton as a scene stealer.

The 1984 BBC Coriolanus has a spellbinding performance from Alan Howard in the lead.  He makes no effort to hide his contempt of the mob, and this author knew how to show politics in the gutter.  The sets the BBC employed are perfect for this plot.  Irene Worth is the mother-in-law from hell.  Riveting political drama that is relevant to our time.

I have never understood the fuss about Citizen Kane, but it is hard to avoid the word genius with Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight of 1965.  The film draws on all the Falstaff plays – except Merry Wives.  Somehow it manages to convey the essence of the author’s most famous character.  Gielgud plays the king, and Norman Rodwell is brilliant as a restless young prince wondering if he might be soulless. He was his father’s son.  (It was a bit rich for the producers to give second billing to the late Jean Moreau for Doll – she has about four lines.)

It’s hard to believe that Branagh’s Hamlet came out more than twenty years ago – in 1996.  I saw it four times at the Astor in packed houses.  Some of these dream cast jobs can get wearisome but not this one.  The late Richard Briers was a Branagh favourite and another professional scene stealer.  Rufus Sewell was perfect for Horatio – the kind of guy who would give you a very worrying night if he came to take out your daughter.  The late Robin Williams aired his magic as the courtier, and Gerard Depardieu shows what a wonderful screen presence he has as he stares down Richard Briers with the least lines in the play.

Branagh’s Henry V (1989) got flogged to death in my house when a daughter wrote a ballet to the music.  Branagh’s enthusiasm is infectious.  He broke off with Emma Thompson, but she is very sexy here – and backed up by the great Geraldine McEwan.  Ian Holm nearly steals the show as Fluellen, he having played the lead in the Harper Collins audio.  You also get the bonus of Brian Blessed as Exeter and Richard Briers as Bardolph. The other great scene stealer is Mountjoy, the French Herald.  Blessed is wonderful in confronting the French, and Scofield shows what a great actor he was.  (I’m sure Brian Blessed was in Z Cars and that Sergeant Barlow called him ‘a teddy boy in uniform’: that English frankness was a real revelation to me.)

The whole cast of the BBC Henry VIII (1979) is strong – led by John Stride and Claire Bloom – but Timothy West is splendid as the doomed Cardinal Wolsey – the very definition of a professional politician.  The phrase ‘spin doctor’ could have been coined for this great play.  The scene where the plot to unseat the Archbishop is foiled is unforgettable high politics.

When Brando did Julius Caesar in 1953, I was about eight.  This film helped introduce my girls to Shakespeare: ‘Golly, Dad, who’s that hunk?’  This is another wonderful political plot.  Brando is amazing in the big speech, but we tend to forget the dramatic power of the next two scenes.  Shakespeare wrote a lot about how easy it is to inflame the mob.  He would be horrified but not surprised by seeing the mob in action today.

Fantasy and slapstick are hard to put on the screen, but the 1998 Hollywood Midsummer Night’s Dream gives it a real shot.  Kevin Kline and the director, and clips from opera, make Bottom an intriguing star, but David Strathairn and Sophie Marceau are just right as royalty – and there is no doubt that Michelle Pfeiffer was Hollywood royalty.

The Branagh Much Ado about Nothing of 1994 has one of the most invigorating starts of a movie.  Emma Thompson is deadly as Beatrice, but Michael Keaton nearly runs off with show in the comic parts.

It would be churlish to skip Richard Burton and his then wife Elizabeth Taylor in the 1967 Taming of the Shrew directed by the great film and opera director, Franco Zeffirelli.  The screen is painted with something close to an Old Master level, and Michael Hordern as the unfortunate dad again shows his lethal scene stealing.

When I saw Julie Taymor’s debut as feature film director in Titus in 1999 at the cinema, on each occasion I could feel and hear the audience shift uneasily at the end when Anthony Hopkins appears on the screen ‘dressed as a cook’ – which I think is the stage direction.  This is for obvious reasons a difficult play to put on but I thought then and I think now that this production was a complete and gutsy success.  It is brilliantly set and choreographed.  Geraldine McEwen has a small part that finds the wrong end of a billiard cue.  While the sources are Roman, this film comes across as the archetypal Greek tragedy of a cursed house.  Hopkins is perfect as the square-jawed servant of public duty. Jessica Lange still conveys that sexy fatality.  As the play is developed in the film, it could be at the root of the great Westerns.  Most of the show is about how bad the bad guys are, so that when their dispatch comes at the end, the sense of relief is complete.  This is the revenge show of all revenge shows.  The film is also a demolition job on the notion that ancient Rome was civilised.

Well, there’s my first XI for today.  Imogen Stubbs and Helena Bonham Carter were both terrific in Twelfth Night of 1996, but the slapstick didn’t quite come off, and some of the boys got worried when they thought that Ms Stubbs – who I would have given an arm and a leg to see play the Jailer’s Daughter – looked sexiest when dressed as a copper and with a moustache.  That kind of thing may be unsettling, but she carried it off with her customary trade craft.

Well, whatever else may be said, we are not denied great offerings – and that’s without going to the Globe and other live productions.