My Top Shelf – Chapter 2

 

[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.]

2

THE FRENCH REVOLUTION

Thomas Carlyle (1837)

J M Dent & Co (Everyman), 1906; 2 volumes; burgundy cloth with gilt lettering; subsequently placed in split slip-case with marbled exteriors, and burgundy silk ribbon extractors.

The Art of Insurrection.  It was an art needed in these last singular times: an art for which the French nature, so full of vehemence, so free from depth, was perhaps of all other the fittest.

How would a French provincial official back then have gone about making an observation about King Louis XV in a ‘sleek official way’?  At the very start of this book, Carlyle tells us that a man called President Henault took occasion ‘in his sleek official way to make a philosophical reflection’ about Louis XV.  If you look up President Henault, you will find that he seems to have been just the sort of French official who might have acted that way.  So, here we have a writer who arrests us in his first line.  We know at once that he is writing this book as literature, or, as we might now say, journalism.  But the book is much more than journalism or literature – it is theatre, and very high theatre at that.

As you get into this book, you will get used to being affronted in both your prejudices and your senses.  It is like being on the Big Dipper, and you are frequently tempted to ask – just what was this guy on when he was getting off on all this stuff?

The writing is surging, vivacious, and elemental.  The author likes to see the world from on high, and to put us all on a little stage.  When poor Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette quit the Louvre under cover of night in a bid to escape from France, we get a costume drama.  ‘But where is the Lady that stood aside in gypsy hat, and touched the wheel-spoke with her badine?  O Reader, that Lady…was the Queen of France!…Flurried by the rattle and rencounter, she took the right hand, not the left; neither she nor her Courier knows Paris…They are off, quite wrong, over the Pont Royal and River; roaming disconsolate in the Rue du Bac; far from the Glass-coachman, who still waits.’

You too can ‘roam disconsolate’ in Paris.  It is simple to retrace those steps, and it must have been quite a stroll for the Queen of France.  Instead of heading up the Rue de L’Echelle, they went up Rue Saint Honoré, and then ended up on the left Bank.  What turn might the Revolution have taken if the Queen had turned the other way?  Or if the Austrian Marie Antoinette had known as least something of the lay-out of Paris?  That the Louvre was then as it is now on the Right Bank?

The coach driven by the Swedish Count Fersen gets the royal family out of Paris ‘through the ambrosial night.  Sleeping Paris is now all on the right-hand side of him; silent except for some snoring hum…’  There is a change of carriage and then a German coachman thunders toward the East and the dawn.  ‘The Universe, O my brothers, is flinging wide its portals for the Levee of the GREAT HIGH KING.  Thou, poor King Louis, fares nevertheless, as mortals do, toward Orient lands of Hope; and the Tuileries with its Levées, and France and the Earth itself, is but a larger kind of doghutch, -occasionally going rabid.’  This is very typical – a surge of Old Testament, Shakespeare and Romantic poetry that invokes the heavens, and then falls calmly but flat in the gutter.

Louis is spotted by a tough old patriot called Drouet who recognized the nameless traveller from the portrait on the currency.  They are brought back from Varennes to the City of Light.  At Saint Antoine, the workers and the poor have a placard; ‘Whosoever insults Louis shall be caned; whosoever applauds him shall be hanged.’  This was the second time that the family was returned to Paris.  The first was when the fishwives brought them in from Versailles.  Carlyle had then said: ‘Poor Louis has two other Paris Processions to make; one ludicrous ignominious like this: the other not ludicrous nor ignominious, but serious, nay sublime.’

Carlyle would later become infatuated with heroes and the idea of the strong man, but even French historians struggle to find heroes in their Revolution.  Carlyle does his best for Mirabeau and Danton, but they were both on the take.  The bad guys are easy for him – Marat and Robespierre.  (Both Danton and Robespierre used the ‘de’ before it became lethally unfashionable.)  When someone moots a Republic after the flight to Varennes, we get: ‘“A Republic?” said the Seagreen, with one of his dry husky unsportful laughs, “what is that?”  O seagreen Incorruptible, thou shalt see!’  After Robespierre lies low in the general unrest, we get: ‘Understand this, however: that incorruptible Robespierre is not wanting, now when the brunt of battle is past; in a stealthy way the seagreen man sits there, his feline eyes excellent in the twilight…..How changed for Marat; lifted from his dark cellar into this luminous” peculiar tribune!”  All dogs have their day; even rabid dogs.’

The two references to rabid dogs are characteristic.  The son of a Calvinist stonemason in the lowlands understood and loathed the lynch mob, which France had descended into.  At the beginning of the chapter headed The Gods Are Athirst, Carlyle said that La Revolution was ‘the Madness that dwells in the hearts of men.’

And this Scots Calvinist rails against the weakness of mankind like a Hebrew prophet.  He knew, with Isaiah, that all nations before God are as nothing, and are counted before God as less than nothing, and as vanity; and that God brings the princes to nothing, and makes the judges of the earth vanity.  And he knew, with the author of the book of Ecclesiastes, that all is vanity, and that when it comes to evil, there is nothing new under the sun.

The lynch mob was at its peak in the Terror.  In some of the strongest passages in the book, Carlyle tells us how they made wigs (perrukes) taken from the heads of .guillotined women and breeches from human skins at the tannery at Meudon.  (The skin of men was superior and as good as chamois, but women’s skin was too soft to be of much use).  There is, we know, nothing new under the sun.

Hilaire Belloc thought that this writing was ‘bad’ and ‘all forced.’  That moral evasion may have been possible in 1906, when Belloc wrote it, but not after Gallipoli, Armenia, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Rwanda, and Srebrenica.  We have now seen other nations, European nations, forfeit their right to be part of the family of man.  Carlyle is merely documenting one such case in one of the most civilized nations on earth.  Does history hold a more important lesson for us?  Has the story been told this well elsewhere?

So, we can put to one side all the later stuff about heroes.  (It is just as well that the book ends with the non-existing ‘whiff of grapeshot’ – Carlyle had a view of Napoleon that is not now widely shared on either side of the Channel.)  If nothing else, Carlyle believed that people make history.  The alternative, that history makes people, has to face the challenges that it is dogmatic, boring, dangerous, and bullshit.  You will see that problem in spades when we get to Tolstoy.

Carlyle wanted to tell a story and to make the dead come alive.  In his own terms, he wanted to ‘blow his living breath between dead lips’ and he believed that history ‘is the essence of innumerable biographies.’  He has done that for me six times, and I am about ready for my next fix.  The graph-makers can stick with their graphs.  The French Revolution is history writ very large, and it has never been writ more largely than here.

When Winston Churchill came to describe the heroism of the Finns in resisting Soviet Russia, he finished with a figure of speech that concluded with the words nay, sublime.  When a journalist on The Wall Street Journal came to describe how French bankers recently went long on Italian debt, she said that they had done do in their sleek official way.  There was no attribution in either case, and none was needed – it is a comfort for some that there may be a community of letters out there.

And look out for the one who gives you a dry unsportful laugh, whether or not his feline eyes glitter in the twilight.

MY TOP SHELF – WUTHERING HEIGHTS

 

[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.]

1

WUTHERING HEIGHTS

Emily Brontë (1847)

Folio, 1991, bound in boards covered in green moiré, with slip-case; wood engravings by Peter Forster.

… and the angels were so angry that they flung me out, into the middle of the heath on top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy.  It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff, now; so he shall never know how I love him; and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am.  Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same….

Wuthering Heights has passages like this that some English ladies – and I do mean ladies – that you might meet at Oxford know by heart.  It has become part of the English psyche.  It was the first and only novel of a young woman from Yorkshire who had probably scarcely been kissed by a man, and it fairly raises the question: just what did they put on the porridge of those young girls up there back then?

Emily Brontë was brought up in Yorkshire with a Celtic ancestry of an Irish father and a Cornish mother.  Her father was an Anglican minister and the parsonage was the centre of the life of the family which included a sister, Charlotte.  The girls went to a harsh Curates’ Daughters’ School but they had the run of their father’s library so that their education in literature was so much better than what modern children get – the Old Testament, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, and the rest.  The children’s mother died young, as was common in that time, and their aunt had a fiercely Calvinist view of the world.  The children began creating their own tales and legends and creating their own worlds for those legends.  They spent some time in Europe but they were unhappy away from the parsonage.  The novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte came out two months before Wuthering Heights.  They are very, very different books.

When you think of Wuthering Heights, think not of a novel.  Think of Shakespeare – the passionate young Hamlet jumping into the grave in defiance of convention to embrace the dead body of a woman who went mad and then killed herself when Hamlet so coldly and cruelly rejected her; think of King Lear, plunged into madness by his sustained rage at being rejected by the one woman he loved; think of Othello, tipped over the brink of madness by the thought that the young, white woman he loved was not true to him; think of Macbeth, who allows the woman he loves to push him so that his ambition sends him and her to their respective hells; think of Malvolio, who is cruelly tricked into believing that his lady loves him and then is even more cruelly accused of being mad; think of Prospero, who uses his powers of magic to bring together those who had wronged him and then brings them undone – and then buries his magic.

Think of opera.  Think of The Flying Dutchman, and the thumping romantic drive of the music of the sea by Wagner, and the story of a rejected loner doomed to roam alone until he finds redemption.  Think of painting.  Think above all of La Tempesta by Giorgione.  Against a nocturnal European landscape, with sawn off pillars and odd buildings, and lightning in the sky, a young man in contemporary costume stands calmly watching over a nude woman suckling a child.  Have you ever seen anything so enigmatic?  What on earth can it mean?  Or are we simply impertinent to seek to put into words what this great artist put on canvas?  Well, then, why not just enjoy it?

Wuthering Heights is the story of a man despised and rejected of men, who is then rejected by the woman he loves, and who sets out to and does get revenge upon the whole pack of them, but who then, in the emptiness of his achievement, is reconciled to the memory of the woman he loved.

Catherine and Heathcliff get close roaming the wild moors, exulting in nature and their momentary freedom.  One day they raced down to look in on the Grange.  Heathcliff won the race.  Catherine went barefoot.  It is four miles each way.  Heathcliff says that they peeked through a window and ‘we laughed outright at the petted things’.  Were they really wild ones?

Cathy tells Nelly of her love for Heathcliff in the passage set out above.  When Heathcliff overhears her saying she will marry Edgar Linton he quits the house.  Cathy then goes on, speaking to Nelly in what might be the crux of the novel:  ‘Who is to separate us, pray?  They’ll meet the fate of Milo!….  Nelly, I see now, you think me a selfish wretch, but did it never strike you that if Heathcliff and I married we should be beggars?  Whereas, if I marry Linton, I can aid Heathcliff to rise and place him out of my brother’s power.’

Heathcliff returns after many years, rich and powerful.  Edgar Linton has very good reasons to fear Heathcliff.  Cathy is desperate for Edgar to receive Heathcliff, and we have one of the few funny moments in the book.  Edgar thinks it will be appropriate for the servant (Heathcliff) to be seen in the kitchen.  Cathy says she cannot sit in the kitchen but Nelly could set two tables, one for Edgar and Miss Isabella, ‘being gentry’, and the other for Heathcliff and herself, being ‘the lower orders’.

The scenes between Cathy and Heathcliff on his return are the most blazing.  ‘I meditated this plan just to have one glimpse of your face – and a stare of surprise, perhaps, and pretended pleasure; afterwards settle my score with Hindley; and then prevent the law by doing execution on myself.’

In their final argument Heathcliff looks to Nelly like a mad dog foaming at the mouth.  There is a level of sustained hysteria not seen outside Dostoyevsky.  Heathcliff and Cathy flay and lacerate each other like mad monks.  It is like crossing Medea and Now, Voyager.

Has any other English writer unleashed emotional power – passion – like this?  The fury that Heathcliff unloads on those who should have been close to him – for example his wife and his son – must unsettle any reader.  Heathcliff twice refers to Cathy as a ‘slut’.  Nelly got it right when she said they were ‘living among clowns and misanthropes’.  But the more revenge and power that Heathcliff gets, the more empty becomes the shell of his life, and then we see that the second Cathy is looking to change things by being civilized.

For Heathcliff, God and Satan are one, and equally irrelevant, but somehow he manages to induce his own death, so that he can be at one in the ground with his Cathy.  The novel ends in this way: ‘I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next to the moor –…I lingered around them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and the harebells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth’.  It is so English, and so wild.

This book comes up at us like a novel of Christina Stead – like a rough uncut diamond.  It is all rawness, and it is found in Yorkshire, of all places.  Antony and Cleopatra, Abelard and Heloise, Tristan and Isolde, and Romeo and Juliet come at us from the mists of the past.  (Charlotte found her male lead in Rochester in Jane Eyre – those Brontë girls sure liked their men strong and tough.)   Our novel is altogether more modern.  Heathcliff is the original angry young man who comes undone because his girl is not ready for him – Cathy prefers the discreet charms of the bourgeoisie, with a little bit of bovver on the side.

Well, who could blame her?  Heathcliff was a gypsy and he had all the makings of a real bastard.  And yet we know that neither was ever going to find peace above the ground.  How come, then, that Geoffrey Boycott was so boring?

Here and there – How guilty was Brutus?

 

Consider this plot – or, as one says in France, ce scénario. 

Bill and Bob are two very seasoned political operatives.  They are also close friends.  Bill is the more successful, and therefore the more respected, and powerful, of the two.  Until now, Bob has been content to play the second part.  That contentment derives from both friendship and rank – always strong components in a world of men.

But Bill’s success arouses envy and disquiet among his less successful followers.  They fear – or they say they fear – that Bill’s success has gone to his head.  They fear, or they claim to fear, that Bill’s ambition is a threat to all that they stand for – what is called the Establishment, or status quo.  They plot – ‘conspire’ is another word – to bring Bill down.  They are very keen to recruit Bob to their cause.  He has something they don’t – the respect of outsiders and a good chance of being able to resist the inevitable charge of self-interest.  They approach Bob.  Seduction is their aim.

Bob is in two minds.  He owes allegiance and friendship to Bill.  But does Bill’s ambition represent a threat to the Establishment such that Bob should put his allegiance to it above his obligations to his friend?  In a wistful moment, Bob asks whether he loves the Establishment more than he loves Bill.  Bob is finally won over.

Because Bob was in two minds, he has had to show two faces.  Right to the end, he shows friendship and respect for Bill.  Bob positively fawns on Bill.  When the end finally comes and Bill sees Bob among the terminators, he despairs.  ‘You, too, Bob?’  Bob’s motives were not those of the other conspirators.  His hands may not have been so dirty – but they certainly ended by being just as bloody.

Well, Australians will recognise this plot immediately.  It forms the basis of a tawdry combination of Passion play and bedroom farce that their disgraceful politicians put on about once a year.

So, how guilty was Bob – or Brutus?  The short answer of Dante was that Brutus was as guilty as hell.  Dante put Brutus in with Judas and Cassius in the lowest pit of hell.  What do we think may have been Shakespeare’s view?

Let us deal with Dante first.  This medieval Catholic had his own views on Rome, and his own experience of grievous civil strife, but many would think that it is silly to compare Brutus to Judas.  Putting to one side that Judas did not kill his victim – he killed himself – the crime of murder focuses on intent, not the underling motivation.  If you intend to kill someone, it matters not that your motive was noble, or whatever.  But the motive will surely bear on the moral gravity of the offence.

Let us take Brutus at his word (in the play, not, perhaps, in Plutarch).  He was not moved by envy or self-interest, but by a felt need to save the Roman Republic from an ambitious man who, it was reasonably feared, would make himself king – and by so doing, end the Roman Republic.  On that view, Brutus would argue that at a time of national emergency, he acted reasonably and in the public interest to save the State.

It might still be murder, but the case is very different to that of Judas.  One answer is that no moral code, much less a legal code, can allow exemptions from or defences to offences or crimes of this magnitude that are based on an assessment by the offender of what may be happening in the community in fact; an assessment of whether those occurrences constitute a threat to established order; and a determination that the proposed antidote is reasonable.  It would be very hard to argue against that position.

But what about Dietrich Bonhoeffer?  He apprehended that Hitler was a threat to Germany and mankind, and that that threat justified Bonhoeffer in plotting to kill Hitler.  Even if that would not have made Bonhoeffer a common garden murderer, why is he any better off morally than Brutus?

We can, I think, put to one side that Bonhoeffer was a man of God, and a very real and decent one, and that most people would think that Hitler was a greater menace to his own state and the world than Julius Caesar.  There are still two critical distinctions between the moral standing of Brutus and of Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer certainly owed Hitler no personal allegiance that he could betray; and he did not falsely pretend that he did and that he was remaining faithful.  You can see the same issue between Judas and Cassius – who owed Caesar nothing.  And Judas had no grand ideological plan.  He just took the money.  They are some of the reasons why the judgment of Dante repels so many modern readers.  Many people would agree with E M Forster that personal betrayal is very different to betrayal of the nation.

So, how did Shakespeare show Brutus – perhaps we might ask how did he ‘fashion’ Brutus?  It is tempting to say that two thousand years before the term ‘spin merchant’ was coined for Tony Blair and others, Shakespeare delivered the prototype in Brutus.

It was clear to Cassius and the wife of Brutus that Brutus had been brooding about Caesar.  Cassius thinks he can work Brutus to join the conspiracy.

Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet I see

Thy honourable metal may be wrought

From that it is disposed; therefore it is mete

That noble minds keep ever with their likes;

For who so firm that cannot be seduced?  (1.2.308-312)

Was Cassius really bent on neutralizing the nobility of Brutus?  Was Brutus not just ‘the noblest Roman of them all’, but the last Roman noble?  For that matter, what did it mean to be ‘noble’?

Tony Tanner says that Brutus is a murderer from the start. In his first soliloquy, Brutus says:

It must be by his death; and for my part,

I know no personal cause to spurn at him,

But for the general.  He would be crowned.

How that might change his nature, there’s the question.  (2.1.10-14)

So, Brutus somehow thinks that Caesar has to go, but what will be the ground that is offered for what is plainly murder?

… And, since the quarrel

Will bear no colour for the thing he is,

Fashion it thus: that what he is augmented,

Would run to these and these extremities

And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg

Which hatched, would as his kind grow mischievous,

And kill him in the shell.  (2.1.28-34)

We will tell the mob – indeed I will tell them myself – that we had to kill the snake before it got venomous.  We will ‘fashion it thus’, we spin doctors will. Then Brutus says that he has not been able to sleep, and in three lines he gives us the whole theme of Hamlet:

Between the acting of a dreadful thing

And the first motion, all the interim is

Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream.  (2.1.62-65)

Although Cassius is the organiser, the nobles need Brutus as the front man.  He will offer a veneer of respectability.  An ideological faction wants to kill Caesar because they fear one-man rule, but they cannot do it without subjecting themselves to the one-man rule of Brutus.

And they pay very dearly for handing over to him.  He makes three mistakes that doom them all.  He says an oath is beneath them.  He declines to take out Antony – ‘our course will seem too bloody’ (2.1.162).  Brutus talks down to Cassius all the time. ‘Let’s be sacrificers, but not butchers’ (the word Antony uses against them immediately after the act):

Let’s kill him boldly, but not wrathfully

Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the Gods.  (2.1.171-2)

Even a noble Roman must have known that this was pure moonshine. This noble Roman cannot come to terms with his becoming a murderer, and a murderer of a friend.  (We lose count of the times that we are told that Brutus loved Caesar, and vice versa.)  He does not want to get his hands dirty.  (Some of us are old enough to share a frisson of pleasure at the memory of the reaction of a former PM when the late Richard Carlton asked the question: ‘Well, Mr Hawke, what does it feel like to have blood on your hands?’)

The final mistake of Brutus is to allow Antony to take the stage.  Then, in our terms, it’s a spin merchant against a shit-stirrer; Tony Blair against Donald Trump.  Game over.

There is another and related aspect of the guilt of Brutus that bears on contemporary politics here and in the U K and the U S.  The conspirators said that they were acting to save the State – that is, the Republic.  The better view – on the evidence of Plutarch* as well as Shakespeare – is that this was code or camouflage for the fact that they were looking after themselves, the patricians, against the plebs.  This was just another of the class wars that had disfigured Rome for many centuries.  This was caste against caste, and for that purpose, either side was prepared to invoke the mob.  All the conspirators’ cries of ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ after the event was so much claptrap.  In our language, either side was prepared to play the ‘populist’.  You can’t get much more up to date than that.

But our playwright had not done with Brutus.  The final ceremonial act of Caesar and Brutus together was to share a cup of wine.  The final gesture of Brutus to Caesar before he stabbed him was to kiss the hand of Caesar.  The Judas kiss.  You may recall that Caesar refused the crown three times.  Even for a Godless age, Shakespeare’s view of Brutus may have been much closer to that of Dante than we have thought.

And whatever else you may find in Australian politicians, a noble will not be one of them.  As to that lot, we might finish on another line of Dante (Inferno, Canto XXXII, 107): ‘What the Hell’s wrong?’

*This appears to be the verdict of history.  In The Roman Revolution, Chapter 5, Sir Ronald Syme said:

The Liberators knew what they were about.  Honourable men grasped the assassin’s dagger to slay a Roman aristocrat, a friend and a benefactor for better reasons than that [saving Libertas for Rome].  They stood, not merely for the traditions and institutions of the Free State, but very precisely for the dignity and interests of their own order.  Liberty and the laws are high-sounding words.  They will often be rendered, on a cool estimate, as privilege and vested interests.

Syme’s work was once considered revolutionary, but it is no surprise that this playwright had come to the same view some centuries beforehand.

MY TOP SHELF

 

[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.]

FOREWORD

An Australian movie called The Castle told the story of a man defending his home – that was his castle.  The movie had its own fingerprints of authenticity.  For example, the hero, Daryl, loved to ask what price someone was asking for second-hand goods, and when told, he would say, ‘Tell ‘im ‘e’s dreamin.’’  Or, if someone gave Daryl something special, he would say, and with proper reverence, ‘This is goin’ straight to the pool room’.  Toffs do not play pool – it is not on the curriculum at Eton.

My top shelf is like Daryl’s pool room.  It is where I can enjoy the company of books that matter to me, and I can show them off.  I used to collect do-dads on my travels for the mantel-piece over the fire.  Then I thought I might collect books of the writers that have been good for me. Accordingly, I put up a new shelf for the do-dads, and started to arrange a collection of my favourite books for the second top shelf.  When the little collection of favourites expanded in a new home, I put two shelves up around the fire-place for my top books.

There are two criteria of selection for the top shelf: I have read and enjoyed the book at least once: and the book or its author has enhanced my prospects of dying happy in my own skin.  I have read all the novels at least twice, the bigger of them, and the histories, more often (Carlyle six times).  Each book or author has been a sustaining source of comfort to me.

All the volumes selected for this shelf are at least part bound in leather or are slip-cased.  Many have been acquired or rebound for this purpose, leaving other editions elsewhere.  Some have been chosen for the shelf to represent the writer in a slimmer form – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall would take up a quarter of the shelf.  This is so for Bloch, Euripides, Gibbon, Keats, Maitland and Shakespeare.  The order of the books on the shelf is set by the array of shapes and colours that pleases my eye and that adds to the life of the room.  The idea is to have these books and writers there as companions close at hand – like the pictures on the walls and the music on the shelves.

For those arithmetically inclined, a rough classification of the 50 books might be as follows: novels, 13; history, 9; poetry, 8; drama, 3; philosophy, 4; music, 3, sport, 2, statesmen, 2; economics, 1; art 1, movies 1, science, 1, cooking 1, and religion, 1. Thirty three of the books are at least partly bound in leather, and seventeen are in slip cases.

The novels, plays and poems speak for themselves.  With the thinkers, I am at least as much interested in the thinker as the thinking.  Each of the three philosophers here left us at peace with themselves and the world, and that fact says as much to me as all that they said.  I read the histories for literature, and not so much to see whether lesser writers might sanction these historians’ view of the evidence – I believe that light can be imparted by good writing, as it may be by good painting or by good music.  That at any rate was the premise of people like Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton and Goethe.  I believe that drama throws more light on the human condition than any other art form or any purely intellectual argument.

This is not a learned or scholarly book. There are no notes or references.  I have written about most of these subjects before.  Now, I am just saying why these books are on this shelf and in my life in the hope that others may take some comfort from them.  Even Don Giovanni knew that he should not keep it all to himself.

Science got beyond us amateurs with Einstein, and philosophy has not mattered since well before then.  (They like throwing stones at priests but what have they got to show for themselves?)  The only book on the shelf that is above the pay level of the average reader – including me – is Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and that book is beyond most philosophy under-graduates.  Unless you are interested in fly fishing or golf, or opera, the most accessible books are Billy Budd and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but the only difference between them and War and Peace and Ulysses is that the latter are much longer and have long been doomed to fearful ‘greatness’ by the literati in command of the intellectual heights, even though two of our greatest novels are two of our funniest.

For each book, you will have the date of first publication, the details of the publication referred to here, and a description of the binding.  The citation in bold at the beginning of each chapter is from the author but not necessarily from the book on the shelf.

For the removal of doubt, I am not suggesting that my taste might reflect some universal or Platonic form of what is best in the literature of the West.  It is not a Top Forty.  There is no such thing.  My criteria will show why I am not interested in taking part in the parlour game of talking about what’s in and what’s out.  If one had been written, a history of the Melbourne Storm would be up there between Gibbon and Macaulay, and gorgeously apparelled in leather of an imperial or Mount Langi Ghiran purple.  This book is a record of personal infatuation, not a dictated or insincere tableau of correct books to inform wannabe proper minds.

Some of you may be interested to see how accessible these writers can be when we have brushed aside the ghosts of the past, or some dreary intellectual establishment of the present, and also by how we may be enriched by the story of the lives of some of the people who are up there.  As often as not, I am at least as interested in the author as in the book.  You will get good writing and thinking, and you will also be exposed to raw moral, artistic, intellectual, and spiritual courage from some of our real heroes.  I do not believe in saints but if I did, Spinoza, Lincoln, and Bonhoeffer would be jointly on pole, with Kant, Darwin, Maitland, Bloch, and Keynes, not far behind.  The following pages tell why.

 

Geoffrey Gibson

Malmsbury

Victoria

2015

Here and there – Huckleberry Finn

[This is an extract from a follow up on great books in ‘Top Shelf’ which is currently being put together.]

You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’, but that ain’t no matter.  That book was made by Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth mainly.  There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.  That is nothing.  I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary Aunt Polly – tom’s Aunt Polly, she is – and Mary, and the Widow Douglas, is all told about in that book – which is mostly a true book; with some stretchers, as I said before.

That’s how this novel starts.  Huck then has supper with the widow.

After the supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers; and I was in sweat to find out all about him; but by-and-by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable time; so then I didn’t care no more about him; because I don’t take no stock in dead people.

This book is about the friendship between two people, Huck and Jim, who are both fugitives – Huck is fleeing from one beastly white man, his father; Jim is a Negro who is fleeing from all white men.  They are both, if you like, refugees – but Jim’s condition is pitiful and illegal, while Huck is troubled that he is assisting to escape – it is like aiding a thief.

The hypocrisy shocks us now.  One lady, quite possibly one of an ‘evangelical’ disposition, feels sorry for and takes pity for someone she believes to be a runaway apprentice – Huck – but boasts about unleashing the dogs on a runaway slave – Jim.  Twain said that ‘a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience,’ and he certainly got that right.

Three things will trike you quickly about this book – it is a ripper of a yarn; it is written in a graphic vernacular; and it tells home truths about America as it was – and, sadly, still is.

On each of those grounds, it is a wonder that T S Eliot was a fan.  And he was more than just a fan.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the only one of Mark Twain’s various books which can be called a masterpiece….Huck Finn is alone: there is no more solitary character in fiction.  The fact that he has a father only emphasizes his loneliness; and he views his father with a terrifying detachment.  So we come to see Huck himself in the end as one of the permanent symbolic figures of fiction; not unworthy to take a place with Ulysses, Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Hamlet and other great discoveries that man has made about himself.

Well, there you go – none of those five characters – or ‘permanent symbolic features of fiction’ – is a bottom-feeder.  Each is, apparently, a great discovery that man has made about himself.

Some of the most hilarious passages in the book concern two grifters known as the King and the Duke – David Garrick the Younger and Edmund Kean the Elder – who scam hillbilly towns by posing as actors.  They have a killer merchandising card: ‘LADIES AND CHILDREN NOT ADMITTED.’  That really winds up the locals.  (Before the election of Trump, you may have thought that kind of mockery was over the top.)

But how could they leave Jim on his own on the raft on the Mississippi when any number of people would rush to seize him for the reward?

He was uncommon bright, the duke was, and he soon struck it.  He dressed Jim up in King Lear’s outfit – it was a long curtain calico gown, and white horse-hair wig and whiskers; and then he took his theatre paint and painted Jim’ s face and hands and ears and neck all over a dead dull solid blue, like a man that’s been drownded nine days.  Blamed if he warn’t the horriblest looking outrage I ever see.  Then the duke took and wrote a sign on a shingle so –

Sick Arab – but harmless when not out of his head.

And he nailed that shingle to a lath, and stood the lath up four or five foot in front of the wigwam.  Jim was satisfied.

Heartless or malicious people can’t write like that.  It is therefore sad – if perhaps not surprising – that some members of the American academic establishment think this book is ‘racist’ and that it should be banned from schools or the like.

Some get exercised over the repeat use of the word ‘nigger’.  It is not a good idea to try to resolve issues of moment by recourse to labels.  It is as hard for me to think that the author of Huckleberry Finn was loaded against black Americans as it is hard for me to think that the author of Kim was loaded against the peoples of India.  The whole of the book in each case refutes the allegation.  Rather, in my view, the charge reflects a prejudice in the mind of the person making it.

The two novels have a lot in common.  The hero of each is a boy.  He falls in with a man who is older than him and who is of a different race and a different world.  They embark on a journey, physically and morally.  The novel is about their coming together – like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  If we were a little less Anglo-Saxon about all this, we might even say that this was a love story.

However that may be, Huckleberry Finn, like the other two novels just mentioned, is a testament to humanity that can stand however many readings you need for a decent fix.  So, read it say once a year – as Faulkner said that he did with Don Quixote – and leave those dreary drongos to strain like gnats at a camel.

Here then is T S Eliot again, a man not given to sweeping praise.

What is obvious … is the pathos and dignity of Jim, and this is moving enough; but what I find still more disturbing, and still more unusual in literature, is the pathos and dignity of the boy, when reminded so humbly and humiliatingly, that his position in the world is not that of other boys, entitled from time to time to a practical joke; but that he must bear, and bear alone, the responsibility of a man.  It is Huck who gives the book style. The River gives the book its form.….

And it is as impossible for Huck as for the River to have a beginning or end — a career. So the book has the right, the only possible concluding sentence. I do not think that any book ever written ends more certainly with the right words:

‘But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and civilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before’.

I wonder if Ken Kesey had that ending in mind when he ended One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with the words: ‘I been away a long time.’

Here and there – A feminine view of Shakespeare

 

Have you ever wondered if Macbeth wanted to kill his own soul?  Well, the phrase does have a ring to it.  And what about his wife?  If killing your soul means wiping out your humanity, Lady Macbeth went at it full bottle in one of the most chilling speeches of our stage.  And if we don’t think that Macbeth succeeded, it looks like his wife may have – although she had enough soul left to go mad at what she had done.  In the end, Macbeth himself is reduced to a deluded chorus and his wife has collapsed trying to hold his husk together.  Life for him is a tale told by an idiot that means nothing.  Does, then, his evil savour of the banality that caught the eye of Hannah Arendt?

Germaine Greer made that remark about Macbeth in her book Shakespeare, A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press in 1986.  Greer had got a Ph D at Cambridge on Shakespeare.  The book is maddeningly academic at times and too abstract or remote for the series it is part of.  The chapter headings are, after Life – Poetics, Ethics, Politics, Teleology and Sociology.  The part on King Lear is headed ‘A vision of entropy.’  I looked up ‘entropy’ and I am no wiser; nor am I clear why the comedies come under Sociology.  But when Greer speaks plainly, we can get provocative insights – as with that remark about Macbeth.  Let us look at some others.

There is a fearful amount of manipulation going on in The Tempest.  It goes on at many levels – even the idiot drunks get someone to work over – they get poor Caliban on the bottle.  (It’s as hilarious as the scene in Die Entfuhrung.)  But have you thought that at the end of the show the great manipulator may be little more than a pitiful wreck?  Greer comments on the ‘doggerel’ of the Epilogue.

Prospero is now so feeble that he cannot get himself off the stage… His helplessness could not be more remorselessly conveyed.  Neither Prospero nor Shakespeare is so much bidding farewell to the stage as begging to be released from it and pardoned for any evil done during his reign.  The grandeur of this act of utter humility is staggering; the vein of anxiety running through the play, about the roughness of the magic, the fragility of innocence, the godlike power of the creators of illusory worlds, the irresistible tendency of man to debauchery rather than improvement, the blindness and self-indulgence of intellectuals, has cropped out, as the defrocked hierophant begs our intercession to save his soul.

(You, too, can look up ‘hierophant’ – is it a kind of ailment that leads some people to show off like this?)

When we get to Othello, we get ‘the point about evil is that it is absurd, unmotivated and inconsistent.’  That seems to me to be hopelessly wide and abstract, and dangerously close to that ‘motiveless malignity’ that another critic has been unfairly rubbished for.  But Greer is surely right to comment on the kind of ‘complicity’ that develops between Iago and the audience (that is expressly invited by Richard III and the Bastards) and his ‘mad inventiveness in luring Rodrigo and Cassio to their doom.’  We are reminded that like Don Giovanni, Iago is not selfish – he is prepared to spread his nastiness around.

The author is also right to observe that ‘because he is entertaining, scholars persist in finding excuses for Falstaff, forgetting perhaps that the Vice was always an ingratiating, lively and amusing fellow.’  Sir Anthony Quayle knew more about Falstaff than most, and described him as ‘frankly vicious.’

Have you noticed how much spying and deception goes on in Hamlet?  It may be a play for our time – what Greer calls ‘a guided tour through a lying world.’  Elsinore looks like one big masked ball, albeit with a Stalinist air, and our hero tells us immediately that he is not there just for show or to play their games.  He doesn’t want to ‘seem’ anything.  He is there to bring healing to a sick nation.  Must he die to do so?  Is this a redemption story – like, say, Billy Budd, where we see Claggart’s ‘disdain of innocence’?  After Hamlet learns of his father’s murder by the man now sleeping with his mother, does the playwright prefigure The Last Temptation of Christ?

The time is out of joint.  O cursed spite,

That ever I was born to set it right!

The hero has forsworn personal revenge, we gather, but Greer says that ‘he goes towards his death in a Christian spirit of resignation.’ Well, he didn’t know he was going to die, but just what do we think lay behind the providence in the fall of this sparrow?  If this all sounds fanciful, reflect on what my favourite critic, Tony Tanner, said in introducing the big four tragedies:

I think the problem of violence is central to tragedy and that, in some tentative sense, we can think of the tragic drama as a form of ritual sacrifice, and the tragic hero or protagonist who goes to his death as bearing some relationship to the figure of the scapegoat or surrogate victim.

In the course of her diverting discussion, Greer refers to the ‘heroic’ doubting of Hamlet and says: ‘The drama of Protestantism in its finest hour was the heroism of insisting upon the sovereignty of the individual conscience’.  Well, ‘sovereignty’ has now been taken up by snake oil salesmen, who prey on the gullible, and ‘heroic’ in this context reminds me of its use by Kenneth Clark about the David of Michelangelo – another figure that I find to be frankly vicious.

Greer sees Lear as raging against the dying of the light and says that ‘King Lear becomes heroic when he is reduced to naked tramphood, tottering about the bare stage talking at cross purposes like Vladimir to Estragon….  Lear stands at the head of a line of nobodies simply struggling to survive…’ On Richard II, she refers to the famous remark of Queen Elizabeth I, ‘I am Richard, know ye not,’ and acutely observes:

He conducts his own deposition from centre stage, reducing Bolingbroke, whose heroic stature has dominated the play so far, to a Pilate figure… He dies heroically, while the erstwhile hero of the play is reduced to equivocation and cowardice by the demands of policy.

But let us go back to Macbeth, because he might be another hero for our time.  Greer says of Macbeth that ‘his self-delusion is wilful’.

The consequence of his terrible deed is that now, even when he tells the truth, he has to be lying.

Had I but died an hour before this chance,

I had liv’d a blessed  time; for, from this instant,

There’s nothing serious in mortality;

All is but toys: renown, and grace, is dead;

The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees

Is left this vault to brag of.

This is Macbeth’s feigned lament for the death of Duncan: he says it hypocritically, but every word of it is true.

Well there is an awful lot of wilful self-delusion in this world now, a terrifying amount of lying, and a frontal assault on the very idea of truth.  In that frightful prison called Denmark, we are not sure what state of mind Hamlet claimed to be in when he proclaimed his love for a woman, whom he would drive mad, with the words ‘Doubt truth to be a liar.’  But we do know that Hamlet did, although again while feigning madness, say ‘To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand’.

That sad Danish nightmare – dreamed up by an Elizabethan playwright – now darkens the whole of the Western world. And do we see any who look fit to ‘set it right’?

And since we speak of salesmen, liars, and the death of truth, remember this – the witches sold Macbeth a pup, as dud a pup as the one that Satan sold to Eve.

Here and there – The Wars of the Roses on the BBC

 

In 1964, the year of the Demons’ last flag, the BBC made a televised recording called The Wars of the Roses.  It consisted of a heavily edited version of four plays: Henry VI Parts I, 2, and 3, and Richard III.  The editing didn’t involve just cutting – new dialogue was added.  You can if you like try to spot the additions.  I couldn’t be bothered (and I suspect that my ear may be as dodgy as my palate).  The issue may in one sense be sterile, since it is unlikely that anyone will chance their arms by putting on the whole of the Henry VI trilogy in this country – they don’t try it often in England.  We get either an abridgement, or nothing.

This TV show was a huge undertaking.  The set was both massive and novel, and the cast was of the kind called ‘stellar’ in the popular press, although the producers were prepared to chance their arms.  The show was recorded over eight weeks with many stars who had been involved in a recent Stratford production of the four plays.

One object of the production was to demonstrate the relevance of many themes of the plays to modern politics.  The director, Peter Hall, said:

I became more and more fascinated by the contortions of politicians, and by the corrupting seductions experienced by anybody who wields power.  

The RSC issued a three CD set of the trilogy in 2016.  The show was shot in black and white and its grainy appearance lacks the definition of High Noon, but it is a great and historical production.

Each of the three parts is punishingly long – far too long to be taken in one hit in comfort.  When the BBC replayed the series, they did so in eleven parts.  The truth is that all four of these plays are too long, at least for Australian audiences.  Many years ago, I saw the RSC do the Full Monty on Richard III at the Barbican, and it was an ordeal for back and bum of Wagnerian dimensions

Before watching the series, you may wish to look at the supplement that has interviews with two surviving stars – David Warner (Henry VI) and Janet Suzman (Joan of Arc and Lady Anne).  Both would go on to wonderful careers, but each was hesitant at this stage, and their selection carried risk.  Warner was offered his role after three auditions.  He said he couldn’t believe it, and that he spent the first few days apologising for his selection.  It was a great choice.  His face, which is on the cover, was made to express the pain and indecision of a pious disaster.  Of his part, Kenneth Tynan would say ‘I have seen nothing more Christ-like in modern theatre.’  Either the critic had a queer view of Christ, or he missed that part where this idle fop disinherited his son so that he could hold on to power for a few years more.  (And I am a Tynan fan.)

When offered the role of Joan la Pucelle, Suzman asked who was she?  ‘Joan of Arc, you bloody idiot.’  Then she turned up on the set, and all ‘the big guns were there.’  I’m not personally familiar with how the hierarchy in the theatre manifests itself to relative novices, but I imagine you could get the kind of snakiness you may find among some barristers and test cricketers – that is, naked bitchiness.  Suzman says the editing was a corrective to a ‘biblical’ view of Shakespeare.  Her features then, and fifty years on, radiate a kind of strength – of a kind, perhaps, that the Lady Anne lacked.

One of the big guns that may have put the wind up Janet Suzman was Peggy Ashcroft.  She plays Margaret of Anjou, the queen of Henry VI, and the ‘she-wolf of France.’  She appears in every segment, and is the driving force for a lot of the action as the proud wife of an anaemic king, and the protective mother of his betrayed heir.  She starts as the young French girl who is wooed into a negotiated marriage, becomes the de facto ruler of England, and the serial killer of the enemies of her house, and ends as a savage old hag at risk of being accused of witchcraft (which they all believed in back then.)

Since the actress was fifty-six when she played this part, pulling it off would be a feat – but pull it off, she did.  Here is how a contemporary critic saw what appears to have been the original stage production.

.. the quite marvellous, fearsome performance of Dame Peggy Ashcroft as Margaret of Anjou, who skipped on to the stage, a lightfooted, ginger, sub-deb sub-bitch at about 11.35 a.m. and was last seen, a bedraggled crone with glittering eye, rambling and cussing with undiminished fury, 11 hours later, having grown before our eyes into a vexed and contumacious queen, a battle-axe and a maniac monster of rage and cruelty.. even the stoniest gaze was momentarily lowered from this gorgon.

Peggy Ashcroft said of her part as Margaret that she was:

….a Dark Lady if ever there was one – and prototype for Cressida, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth – was Shakespeare’s first ‘heroine’ – if such she can be called… It takes four plays to make her one of the great female characters in Shakespeare – and the full-length portrait has been seen only in The Wars of the Roses cycle – but she has facets that are not touched on in any other.

Margaret’s feral growls and hideous curses could cost you some sleep.

Janet Suzman is vital and gamin, and utterly followable as Joan of Arc.  The scene where the big hitters elect to pick either a white rose (York) or a red rose (Lancaster) resembles heavy chested Harley riders.  What are they missing that makes them show of so dangerously?  In truth these magnates resemble the Mafia more than the Hell’s Angels.  And the Mafia and the feudal system both evolve out of the same disorder – the failure of central government to provide security drives people to make other arrangements.  They seek protection elsewhere.  You look after me and I will look after you.

These lords and knights have that marvellous medieval accompaniment – their ‘powers’.  Their puissance, another word much used in these times, leads others to pledge allegiance – to their liege lords.  It is I suppose the kind of thing you see in shows like House of Cards, but there is something less prosaic about ‘powers’ than poll ratings or factions or unions or think tanks or talk shows.

We are talking about chess played with extreme prejudice.  The magnates are like the knights and bishops, or even rooks, except that the rules are there to be flouted.  The concept of allegiance was at best fluid.  The followers – the powers – of the Duke of Burgundy or Lord Gloucester were as solid and reliable as the Tory ministers of Mrs Theresa May.

I will not mention all the players.  The cast includes Roy Dotrice, Brewster Mason, Eric Porter, and the others mentioned here.  The rose pickers include Donald Sinden as Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, and William Squire as Suffolk (the wooer and lover of Margaret).  Sinden’s voice reminds me of Drambuie.  There is something about it that makes it instantly recognizable, rather like the deflated Kevin Spacey.

When I lived in South Yarra, I could walk to and from work in the east end of Collins St, about thirty-five minutes each way, and in about four months listen to all thirty-eight plays.  (It was then that I was glad that I had seen Cymbeline and Troilus and Cressida because I would not be doing so again; and Cyril Cusack’s Iago put me off Othello for life.)  I suppose I had heard A Winter’s Tale on four or five occasions, before one day, out of nowhere, on the tan, I recognized the voice of the lead – there was no doubt it was William Squire who played Hunter in nearly all the twenty or so episodes of Callan.  And in this trilogy there is also a lot of that eyebrow rolling and nasally drawled incredulity.  It is bliss for Callan fans.

Gloucester (Paul Hardwick) is the definitive politician and the unfortunate Winchester (Nicholas Selby) is played like Joel Grey in Cabaret.  Both could have walked straight out of Yes, Minister.

The Jack Cade sequence was to my mind hopelessly over the top, and too violent.  Indeed, there are many scenes of horrific violence.  We get to see what a blood feud can really look like, generation after generation.  Janet Suzman remarked on the violence, and the role of cabbages in the decapitations.  She said people were fainting all over the place.

One of my favourite scenes from this playwright is the confrontation between Queen Margaret and the Duke of York.  She taunts him about his progeny.

And where’s that valiant crookback prodigy,

 Dicky your boy, that with his grumbling voice

Was wont to cheer his dad in mutinies?

Well, we’ll get to see this Dicky in full murderous flight in the next episode, but this French-born woman steels herself not just to extinguish her womanhood, but her humanity.  She will mock not just knighthood, but fatherhood.  She rubs the nose of York into the blood of Rutland (his son) on a handkerchief.  She says she mocks him to make him mad so that she can sing and dance.  She puts a paper crown on the head of the man who would be king and says:

Ay, marry, sir, now he looks like a king

Ay, this is he who took King Henry’s chair

And this is he was his adopted heir.

But how is it that great Plantagenet

Is crowned so soon, and broke his solemn oath?

Off with the crown, and with the crown his head!

And whilst we breathe, take time to do him dead!  

 

The BBC version is not for children.  Margaret by now is oozing hate, and we start to get that old Greek feeling of whole houses being cursed.  (In the McKellen film, Annette Bening as Queen Elizabeth gave meaning to the phrase ‘Ay me!  I see the ruin of my house’ – ‘Welcome destruction, blood, and massacre’.  She was right.)  The violence was perhaps not so surprising after the assassination of Kennedy, and the beginning of the war in Vietnam.  And the Cold War was stepping up, so mutilation by a sickle in the area of the groin may have then had different significance.  We have now been exposed to so much more horror, that this level of explicitness looks as unnecessary as it is unkind.

In the final part, we see evil made manifest in Richard III played by Ian Holm.  Richard III is a master class in the kind of stunt pulled by Peisistratus that was made whole by Mussolini and perfected by Hitler.  The part as played by Ian Holm is so threatening because it is underdone.  It’s as if the producers wanted to comment on the ‘banality of evil’ that Hannah Arendt saw in Eichmann.  (He was one of those mass murderers who went to work with mass death in his brief case.)  What we are presented with here is not motiveless malignity, but wanton evil.  Most people can get hot for sex; the world must be peopled; but some people, sadly, get hot for evil.

Ian Holm was born to act.  For this role he also brings the advantages of relative youth and shortness of size.  He said:

I played Richard very much as a cog in the historical wheel, and not as an individual character. We tried very hard to get away from the Olivier/Irving image of the great Machiavellian villain.

When Richard is confronted with his bloody past, we get the kind of apologia that Fox News reserves for Donald Trump.

Look, what is done cannot now be amended.

Men shall deal unadvisedly sometimes

Which afterhours gives leisure to repent.

 

The scene where Richard confronts Anne is difficult, because it is revolting.  But we have been rudely reminded that quite revolting people – including racist morons – might appeal to people who don’t mind being revolted, or who just don’t care.  And we are also reminded of the difference between the power of sex appeal – that this king had none of – and the sex appeal of power.  When we say that power corrupts, it is not just the wielder who can be corrupted, but those who come within its thrall.  The regimes we least admire work on dragging people down to their level and then locking them into the regime by their complicity.

All that and more is on show here in this remarkable trilogy for the preservation of which we owe much thanks.

PS. May I add a note about Hunter? Callan worked for the British spooks.  He was dragooned into it, and to do dirty hit jobs, because they got to him in the Big House.  He has come up the hard way.  His only mate is a scruffy Cockney cab driver called Lonely.  Hunter is from the Establishment.  So is another agent, Toby Meares.  They are observing from afar Callan on a dangerous mission to meet a deadly Russian killer.  Hunter scowls – he’s good at that – when Meares expresses a moral qualm about the danger to Callan.

Well, then, what would you do if you were in my position, Meares?

Well, on reflection, I think I would do nothing, Sir.

In that case, I would applaud your reticence, Meares.

Oh, don’t applaud, Sir – that way your right hand might know what your left hand is doing.

 

If you watch William Squire in The Wars of the Roses – he is Buckingham at the end – you will see immediately why he was a natural for the part of Hunter – and why he continues to play a substantial part in my entertainment.  As it happens, Buckingham is one of the most vapid and watery liars the world has known.  He is the Platonic form of the kind of politician who drives the rest of us mad.

Here and there – Shakespeare and the mob – and Trump

 

When the Three Estates convened at Versailles in 1789, the Nobility and the Clergy played hard to get with the rest of France the Third Estate.  Its delegates then wished to constitute themselves as the body representing the nation of France.  What should it call itself?  Assemblée Nationale or Représentants du people?  But if the latter, who were the ‘people’?  Many feared that the King and the Court and the Clergy would regard the peuple as the plebs rather than the populus, or, as Michelet framed it, le peuple inférieur.  So, they went for the name Assemblée Nationale.

Similar questions arise when you ask who is in the populus that populists appeal to?  If you answer that they are the plebs or the ‘inferior people,’ you may get into trouble, if not a fight.  Even the terms ‘commoner’ or ‘common people’ are tricky in a nation that claims to prize equality.

For the purposes of this note, I will say that the ‘people’ that Donald Trump appeals to are those who welcome his pardoning of a government officer who boasted of running a concentration camp for people who he thought were ethnically inferior, who ran up a bill for the people of Arizona of $70 million in defending his racial profiling, and who was then sentenced to jail for defying a court order.  The ‘people’ that Farage appeals to were those who loved that photo of their leader grinning in front of a large poster with a long line of towel-heads threatening to inundate the Fatherland.  These folks didn’t think the poster was racist, and would turn more nastily against those whom they call ‘elite’ if anyone dares to say so.  With Pauline Hanson, you have a smorgasbord, but for Australia generally, you might say that the ‘people’ that someone like Cory Bernardi might appeal to are those who think that Peter Dutton is a good Minister of the Crown and a man worthy to be Prime Minister of this great nation.

What did our greatest playwright have to say about the ‘people’?  Quite a lot – and it is hard to find anything favourable either to the people or those who appeal to them.

In a book I wrote some years ago, I said:

When Banjo Paterson came to stigmatize mindless youth in the then equivalent of our outer suburbs, he referred to gilded youths who sat along the wall:

‘Their eyes were dull, their heads were flat, they had no brains at all’.

This is a recurrent nightmare for us now, made worse on our trains and buses by sullen looks coming from vacant spaces between iPod exit points.  It is not that education has failed them– they have rejected education. There is nothing going on at all there. What might happen if that lot got into government?  The nightmare would be made real.

You can make up your own mind whether you think that that nightmare has become real in the U S or elsewhere, but the figure of Jack Cade in Act 4 of Henry VI Part II does look frighteningly prescient.

Cade is a demagogue from Kent.  We see him first as a pawn of a faction leader in the Wars of the Roses.  Cade appeals to the mob, but he has ideas of his own.  He thinks he can be king.  (He is no democrat, but dictators rarely are.)  Although he says that he is waging a class war, he still wants to be king.  But like Hitler, the ascent of Cade is by carrot and stick: give the masses what they want and purify the rest by terror by killing anyone who gets in the way.  ‘Let’s kill all the lawyers.’ (4.2.75) and ‘make it a felony to drink small beer’ (4.2.66).

The descent into Fantasyland is immediate: ‘Strike off his head’ (4.7.112).  This was the short answer of Robespierre, but at least Robespierre, who was a lawyer, was not terrified of writing.  Jack Cade will kill those who can write: only one who has to apply his mark may be considered an ‘honest plain-dealing man’ (4.2.100).  The Nazis went further and burnt books, but by and large these did not exist at the time of Jack Cade.  How often do we see this victimhood on the part of the mindless, pretending that only they are pure?  It’s as if you have to be a victim to be good.  And Cade can link class vindication to ideological cant:

And you that love the commons, follow me.

Now show yourselves men; ‘tis for liberty.

We will not leave one lord, one gentleman,

Spare none but such as go in clouted shoon.  (4.2.180-184)

‘Clouted shoon’ means hobnailed boots.  This is Romper Stomper six centuries ago.  Our nightmare was alive back then.  The reference to ‘liberty’ is moonshine.  Cade is in this only for himself.  He even wants the droit de seigneur (4.7.120-125). But almost immediately, the fickle mob drops him and he is dispatched – unconvincingly – by another more orthodox son of Kentish soil.  ‘Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro, as this multitude?’(4.8.56-59).

Cade loathes literacy.  That and his capacity to hide behind a joke if he gets caught is something else Trump has in common with Cade.  In the destruction of the Savoy and the Inns of Court, and the burning of the records of the realm, Cade prefigures the mob in Paris in and after 1789.

Jack Cade then is the template for the loud, stupid, selfish populism of the Trump brand.  We see the mob being seduced in Richard III; Richard II is worried about the appeal of Bolingbroke to the mob; Henry IV lectures his son on how to present to them; and Joan of Arc has a popular appeal that Henry VI could not even dream of; but I shall confine my remarks to the Roman plays.

The gross political naivety of Brutus and the duplicity of Antony enabled the latter to convert and then unleash the mob in possibly the most famous speech for the stage in Julius Caesar, Act I Scene 2Brutus was silly not to have taken out Antony with his patron.  He was sillier to allow a disciple of Caesar to open his mouth in public about the murder.  Then he was even sillier to accept Antony’s promise not to ‘blame us’ (3.1.245).  Within minutes, Antony is speaking of letting slip the dogs of war.  The speech plays on the words ‘honorable’ and ‘ambition’ – lethally.  Then this masterpiece of political deceit plays on the word ‘mutiny’ – three times.  Inciting mutiny was of course Antony’s sole purpose in making the speech, and Brutus and the other killers would pay with their lives for their political innocence.

Many of those who are familiar with this speech forget its aftermath.  In the next scene, the hysterical mob becomes a lynch mob, and then we are shown the big hitters sharing the spoils of revenge.  They calmly decide which of their families will have to die.  Act 4 Scene 1 commences with Antony saying ‘These many men shall die; their names are pricked.’  Octavius responds ‘Your brother too must die; consent you, Lepidus?’  The murderous cold-bloodedness of these power brokers might remind you of a passage in Antony and Cleopatra. When the world beaters are getting drunk doing their big deal to split up the world, the aide to Pompey asks him if he would be lord of the whole world.  He then offers this amazing but sober proposal:

These three world-sharers, these competitors,

Are in thy vessel.  Let me cut the cable;

And when we are put off, fall to their throats.

All there is thine.  (2.7.73-74)

These rulers not only play with the mob – they kill them as if for sport.

The action in Coriolanus takes place during the class wars that sickened ancient Rome for so long.  We still are inclined to label some people ‘patrician’ and some ‘plebeian’ after the Latin terms for the two classes who were at each other’s throats in Rome.  Neither now is a term of affection.

Coriolanus was as patrician as you could get.  He loathed the plebeians – and he could not help himself from revealing his loathing – indeed, reveling in it.  If you regard the ‘people’ with contempt, and if you are happy to show them that contempt, you can hardly expect to achieve political success if the constitution decrees that you must appear before the people and obtain their assent to your appointment to the office you seek.  Since that’s what the Roman constitution provided, the play Coriolanus is inevitably a tragedy.

A dramatic high point comes when our hero erupts astoundingly when a tribune says ‘shall’ – a plebeian being imperative to a noble! (3.1.87).  Coriolanus spits the word ‘shall’ back at them four times.  The man who takes Coriolanus in and then turns on him knows what the word ‘boy’ will do (5.6.101).  The representatives of the ‘people’ are the ‘tribunes.’  They get a shocking press in this play.  They are like union organizers – Jesuitical or communist, depending on your phobia or fancy.  The film reeks of 1789.  ‘What is the city but the people?’ and ‘The people are the city.’  (3.1.198-9).  That is pure Robespierre.  The tribunes are cold blooded, self-interested, manipulative cowards.  Here is how they go about their work in steering the populus.

To the’ Capitol come

We shall be there before the stream o’ th’ people;

And this shall seem, as partly ‘tis, their own,

Which we have goaded onward.  (2.3.267-271)

Coriolanus is a sustained hatchet job of the puppeteers of the populus.  And it is another reason why we regard this playwright so highly for his insight into our politics.  The main lesson from this play for us in seeking to understand Trump is that if a person comes into political office with a character that makes him unfit for that office, you are kidding yourself if you think he might change character on the job.  Indeed, the likelihood is that he will only get worse the longer he stays in the job.  Power rarely improves people it and never makes them humble.

Tony Tanner referred to Plutarch speaking of Coriolanus and saying how an education might lead a man who was ‘rude and rough of nature’ to be ‘civil and courteous.’  He went on:

During the Renaissance, there was much discussion concerning the proper education, duties, and responsibilities of the good prince or governor – what qualified a person to exercise ‘the speciality of rule’.  As Plutarch stresses, it is precisely these qualifications which Coriolanus so signally lacks: he is a prime example of what Renaissance thinkers regarded as the ill-educated prince, a man from the governing classes who is, by nature, temperament, and upbringing, unfitted and unfit to rule.

That is Donald Trump word for word.  From Rome to Washington, and from Plutarch to the New York Times, there is nothing new under the political sun.

Here and there – a philosopher on Shakespeare

 

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a German scientist and architect who became an English philosopher.  He was a client, in the Latin sense of that term, of Bertrand Russell.  When Wittgenstein wrote his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he thought he had solved the problems of philosophy.  Russell was far from convinced and wrote a cautious forward.  Wittgenstein later recanted, as age and experience begat modesty.  His published output was later fragmentary.

One such work is Culture and Value.  It is a collection of aphorisms jotted down over many years about logic, life, religion, music, and literature.  If Russell had trouble following Wittgenstein when he was writing for the learned, we may have trouble when Wittgenstein is thinking aloud about the world at large.

Some of the aphorisms relate to Shakespeare.  What might they say about the playwright or the philosopher?

Shakespeare displays the dance of human passions, one might say.  Hence he has to be objective; otherwise he would not so much display the dance of human passions – as talk about it.  But he displays it to us in dance, not naturalistically.  (I got this idea from Paul Engelman.)

I’m pretty sure that I follow that.  The first proposition contains a metaphor that I find enlightening.  The suggested requirement of ‘objectivity’ is thought provoking, even if I’m not sure that the point is carried.  But he returns to the idea of a dance.  If he had referred to a ‘symphony’ or ‘fugue’ or ‘canvas’ of human passions, would there have been any different meaning?

It is remarkable how hard we find it to believe something that we do not see the truth of for ourselves.  When, for instance, I hear the expression of admiration for Shakespeare in the course of several centuries, I can never rid myself of the suspicion that praising him has been the conventional thing to do; though I have to tell myself that this is how it is.  It takes the authority of a Milton really to convince me.  I take it for granted that he was incorruptible. – But I don’t of course mean that I don’t believe an enormous amount of praise to have been, and still to be, lavished on Shakespeare without understanding and for the wrong reasons by a thousand professors of literature.

I don’t follow that at all.  The first sentence looks silly.  If we do not see the truth of a statement for ourselves, of course we tend not to believe it.  There is nothing remarkable there.  If the author is saying that a lot people just toe the line on this part of high art, we could well agree.  But does the fact that there is bullshit elsewhere disqualify our opinions, or, perhaps I should say, reactions?  The reference to Milton appears to me to be at best adolescent, and at worst plainly rude.  We can return later to the issue of ‘understanding’ Shakespeare.

It may be that the essential thing with Shakespeare is his ease and authority, and that you just have to accept him as he is if you are going to be able to admire him properly, in the same way you accept nature, a piece of scenery for example, just as it is.

If I am right about this, that would mean that the style of his whole work, I mean of all his works taken together, is the essential thing and what provides his justification.

My failure to understand him could then be explained by my inability to read him easily.  That is, as one views a splendid piece of scenery.

These comments make you wonder how often the philosopher had seen plays by this playwright on the stage – or if he had ever gone to the theatre at all.  The author wrote the plays for profit – obtained by people willing to be entertained by seeing these plays performed on the stage.  The repeated references to Shakespeare, and the reference to ‘the style of his whole work’ and ‘all his works taken together,’ suggest, to my mind, that the philosopher is proceeding at a level of abstraction that is almost metaphysical – and for him, that is anathema.

But if the first proposition entails that we should be careful in trying to analyse any part of this artist’s work, I agree with it.

But what does it mean to say that the style of the work provides its justification?  Why did Shakespeare have to justify King Lear – or any other part or the whole of his output?

And what does he mean by understanding Shakespeare?  When we talk of understanding something, we talk of getting its meaning or significance.  If I go to St Peter’s and see the Pieta of Michelangelo, or if I had gone to hear Miles Davis in the Vanguard in the 1950’s, or if I had gone to see Blue Poles chez nous, and someone had asked me if I had understood what I had seen or heard, I would have been at best confused.  ‘Listen, Mate, I have come all this way, and at real expense, to experience a work of art, one of the title deeds of Western civilisation.  Don’t ask me to relegate these masterpieces to the dustbin of the prosaic by trying to give what I think may the meaning of that art.’  To what extent is, say, Hamlet different to other works of art when it comes to understanding art?

There is, I think, a real problem here.  I have hugely enjoyed reading commentaries on Shakespeare by people like A C Bradley and Tony Tanner, and they have greatly added to my enjoyment of experiencing the plays.  (I have also come across truckloads of tripe.)  In some loose sense those authors may have added to my understanding of the plays, but I very much fear that that sense is far too loose for a philosophical inquiry.

If you think that sounds woolly, I would plead guilty – but that is what I feel driven to.  I would refer back to what I said about the need for care in trying to analyse any part of the work of this artist, or any other artist.  Indeed, any one of us might be accused of tiptoeing around the volcano if hubris if we claimed to have found the ‘meaning’ of any play or poem of this playwright and poet.

Shakespeare and dreams.  A dream is all wrong, absurd, composite, and yet at the same time, it is completely right: put together in this strange way, it makes an impression.  Why? I don’t know.  And if Shakespeare is great, as he is said to be, then it must be possible to say of him: it’s all wrong, things aren’t like that – and yet it’s quite right according to a law of its own.

It could be put like this too: if Shakespeare is great, his greatness is displayed only in the whole corpus of his plays, which create their own language and world.  In other words he is completely unrealistic.  (Like a dream.)

All of that goes clean over my head.  Even Freud may have had trouble with it.  It is worryingly symptomatic of a tortured ambivalence about Shakespeare.  It calls to mind a summer school at Oxford about Wittgenstein.  A very charming Indian lady was evidently finding it hard to come to grips with the subject.  She was not alone.  At the end she had a question for the tutor.  ‘You have told us that Wittgenstein set out to cure our language of illness – could you be so good as to give us an instance where the cure worked?’  She also told the class that ‘in India, we don’t even have a word for God.’  I took her to be saying that for her, some things – like God – were out of reach of words.  At least at one point, Wittgenstein would have agreed with her.

I do not believe Shakespeare can be set alongside any other poet.  Was he perhaps a creator of language rather than a poet?

The short answer is that he was both.  The long answer is that labels are at best dangerous and at worst presumptuous.

I could only stare in wonder at Shakespeare; never do anything with him.

There is a whole lot in the works of Goethe that I don’t ‘get’ (in part, because I am not receiving it as it was written – in German); it seems clear that Wittgenstein had the same problems with Shakespeare.  We are nowhere near analysis or criticism.  (When I use the term ‘get’ here, I am I think invoking a loose form of ‘understanding’ of the order I referred to earlier.)

It is not as though Shakespeare portrayed human types well and were in that respect true to life.  He is not true to life.  But he has such a supple hand and his brush strokes are so individual, that each one of his characters looks significant, is worth looking at.

Art is a lyrical reflection on the human condition.  We know art is good if people keep wanting more of it.  It is hard to think of an artist who has done this anywhere near as well as Shakespeare.  He shows us as we are.  To the extent that you can give meaning to the phrase ‘true to life’ in this context, it is dead wrong.

‘Beethoven’s great heart’ – nobody could speak of ‘Shakespeare’s great heart.’  ‘The supple hand that created new linguistic forms’ would seem to be nearer the mark.

A poet cannot really say of himself ‘I sing as the birds sing’ – but perhaps Shakespeare could have said this of himself.

The last proposition means nothing to me.  The first is of the same intellectual calibre – zero – as a public bar discussion of whether Bradman was better than Trumper or Ronaldo is better than Messi.

May I go back to what I said about the need for care in claiming to analyse art and the danger of hubris?  I’m afraid that the philosopher may be guilty on both counts.  And the statement that ‘nobody could speak of ‘Shakespeare’s great heart’ looks suspiciously like a statement of fact.  Richard Burton knew a good deal more about Shakespeare than Wittgenstein.  Burton saw ‘staggering compassion’.  The context is:

What chance combination of genes went to the making of that towering imagination, that brilliant gift of words, that staggering compassion, that understanding of all human frailty, that total absence of pomposity, that wit, that pun, that joy in words and the later agony.  It seems that he wrote everything worth writing and the rest of his fraternity have merely fugued on his million themes…..

Well, if a man as bright as Wittgenstein sees fit to go into print on an issue that gives him such trouble, you may wonder what modern philosophy has done for us.  Nor will you be alone there.  At a later tutorial at the summer school I mentioned, the Indian lady – to whom I had taken quite a shine – said to the tutor, in the course of the class: ‘Thank you for being so kind as not to notice that I was falling asleep.’

But we should end on a softer, kinder note.  I wrote elsewhere –

After a short visit to the United States in 1949, he [Wittgenstein] learned that he had cancer.  He lived with various friends in Oxford or Cambridge until he died in 1951.  He was, in common with our other heroes, at peace with himself when he left us.  It says a lot for his character that the lodging in which he stayed at the time that he died was looked after by a landlady.  Wittgenstein was in the habit of walking to the pub with her each night.  Wittgenstein would be about the most un-pub sort of person that God ever put on this earth, but he went out with his landlady for the walk and, moreover, he would order two sherries.  He would give one to her and, since he did not drink, he would pour his over the flowers.  That is not the conduct of a man bereft of humanity.  He had a most extraordinary intellect in a constricted character that made it nearly impossible to pass on to us the benefits of that intellect.  His success in doing so is due to his extraordinary moral courage.  Intellect alone is never enough.

Here and there – Two sanctimonious politicians

 

Medieval kings had to rule as well as reign.  They had to be much more like our politicians than our modern kings.  Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V, father and son, provide studies in the dark arts and crafts of politics that throw light on the behaviour of our politicians of today.  They also provide a contrast in sanctimony, that is, a pretended or affected decency.  These rulers smack of hypocrisy, and being other than what they seem.  It’s this two-facedness that gets on our quince with our politicians, and the sanctimony here extends over two generations and four plays.

The character of Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) in Richard II is opaque.  He never soliloquizes, and we do not get a window into his mind.  Was he a born schemer before the time of Machiavelli, so that the Crown came to him –

But as an honour snatched with a boisterous hand.  (2 Henry IV, 4.5.191)

Or did Bolingbroke just go with the flow so –

That I and greatness were compelled to kiss.  (2 Henry IV, 3.1.74)

The question is open, and we are left with the impression that Bolingbroke is somehow hollow.  And with an author like this, you don’t treat that result as an accident.

But when he attains the crown, King Henry IV gets to upbraid his son for his ways, and we get a clear insight into the politics of this man.  This is a man-to-man chat and we have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the speaker.  The father tells the son how Richard II lost his crown.  He did so because he debased its currency by taking up with low life.

The skipping King, he ambled up and down

With shallow jesters and rash bavin wits,

Soon kindled and soon burnt; carded his state,

Mingled his royalty with capering fools…

Enfeoffed himself to popularity,

That, being daily swallowed by men’s eyes,

They surfeited with honey and began

To loathe the taste of sweetness…..(I Henry IV, 3.2.60-72)

 

How apt do those last four lines seem for Donald Trump?  The first line – ‘Enfeoffed himself to popularity’ – might be translated ‘Hocked his soul to Fox News.’  But this description of Richard II, which is fair, applies equally to the conduct of Prince Hal, the heir to the throne.

What then is the sage advice of this seasoned politician who is the father of the miscreant prince?  Make yourself scarce and then put on a front.

By being seldom seen, I could not stir

But like a comet I was wondered at…..

And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,

And dressed myself in such humility

That I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts…..

Thus did I keep my person fresh and new,

My presence, like a robe pontifical,

Ne’er seen but wondered at; and so my state,

Seldom but sumptuous, showed like a feast

And won by rareness such solemnity.  (I Henry IV, 3.2.46-59)

As Bolingbroke, he may not have followed this policy to the letter.  The king he deposed had observed ‘his [Bolingbroke’s] courtship to the common people’ – even to the point of doffing his bonnet to an oyster-wench.  (Richard II, 1.4.24-31)

But we know that young Hal has already worked out a similar trick for himself.

I know you all, and will awhile uphold

The unyoked humour of your idleness.

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,

Who doth permit the base contagious clouds

To smother up his beauty from the world,

That when he please again to be himself,

Being wanted he may be more wondered at….

So when this loose behaviour I throw off

And pay the debt I never promised,

By how much better than my word I am

By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes.  (I Henry IV, 1.2.182 – 205)

 

Hal parades as one of the boys, one of the people, but it’s all a game, and a game for his benefit only.  This spoiled royal brat is just a user. ‘When I am King of England, I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap … I can drink with any tinker in his own language.’ (I Henry IV, 2.4.10-20)  But when the game has served its purpose, these human toys, of whom the prince had spoken with such disgust, may be discarded.  The young prince takes people under him into his trust and confidence, knowing that he will then break that trust – because as king he will have to let Falstaff and the rest of the motley go.  It’s one thing to meet the people; it’s another to sow wild oats before becoming weighed down by care – as we are reminded by some reluctant younger members of the royal family now; but it is altogether a different thing to take up and discard your future subjects when it suits you.

Young Hal is a rat and he knows it.  There is something revoltingly clever about a young man wanting to be seen to be paying a debt he never promised.  You may not want a guy like that standing behind you at a grouse shoot.  When they are play-acting, Falstaff says: ‘Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.’  Hal says, quietly: ‘I do, I will.’  (Part I, 2.4.480-1)  When his father accuses Hal of being ‘common’, Hal says: ‘I shall hereafter … Be more myself.’ (Part I, 3.2.92)  When he casts off Falstaff and the whole Eastcheap crowd – the common people – King Henry V does so with one of the coldest lines of this author, a passage that so upset A C Bradley.  The new king went on to say:

Presume not that I am the thing I was

For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,

That I have turned away my former self

So will I those that kept me company

When thou dost hear that I am as I have been

Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast

The tutor and the feeder of my riots.  (Part II, 5.57-64)

 

So, the new king is saying that he has changed from his former self. But that was not true. As a prince, Hal had only pretended to engage in the gutter – until he allowed his sun to dissipate the clouds.  He had not changed – he had merely dropped the front.

That story might pass in the Court, but it could not do in Eastcheap.  There they said that ‘the King has killed his heart’, the heart of Falstaff (Henry V, 2.1.91) and the King has ‘run bad humors on the knight’ whose heart was broken. (Henry V, 2.1.125-127)

Even if Eastcheap merely thought that the king killed the heart of Falstaff, it knew that he had endorsed the execution of Bardolph.  Bardolph was hanged for blasphemy – stealing plate from a church.  The pious King says that he will not have ‘the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language.’  (Henry V, 3.6.115-116).  And another sometime mate, or pretended mate, goes under, in order that this king can prove his chivalry to his enemy.

There is something both cold and calculating about each these two politicians, father and son.  They are both two faced, but there is something very chilling about the duplicitous cold-bloodedness of the son.  How do you warm to a man who treats his confidants with less heart than he would show to a stray Tom?  Someone compared the prince to a clever shopkeeper who ‘knows how to display the merchandise of his behavior.’  And in the next play, we will see that that this duplicity runs in the family – the brother Prince John will unload an act of bastardry that may have fazed Hitler.

Hotspur, that soul of chivalry, saw in Bolingbroke ‘this subtle king’ and a ‘vile politician’ (Henry IV, 1.3.169 and 239).  The Oxford Edition gives for ‘politician’ a ‘shrewd schemer, deceitful opportunist’ and refers us to King Lear 4.6.172-174 where the mad old king is talking to a man whose eyes have been put out:

…..Get thee glass eyes

And like a scurvy politician seem

To see the things thou dost not.

For ‘scurvy politician’ the Everyman gives ‘vile politic man,’ while the Oxford goes in harder: ‘worthless, contemptible intriguer.’  If all this means that you regard the man who became Henry V as ‘frankly vicious’, then that was precisely the phrase that Sir Anthony Quayle applied to Falstaff – and Quayle was best placed to know the character of Falstaff.  And do I not think that such an equivalence would for one moment have troubled the playwright.

The three plays where Bolingbroke is in the lead are for many the three best plays of this author in the theatre.  The two great scenes for father and son are two of the glories of our stage, and the failings of these two characters are part of the magic of those scenes.  If you see them better done than by Roger Allam and Jamie Parker in the 2012 Globe production, the gods of theatre have truly smiled on you.  There is a lot more than mere politics here.  When you have buried your parents and raised your children, you will find it hard to go through these scenes with a dry eye.