‘King Lear’ 2018

Background – general

Prof G K Hunter has written: “King Lear is generally agreed today to be Shakespeare’s ‘greatest play’….The play as a whole gives an impression of a monolithic and rough-hewn grandeur” [New Penguin edition, 1972, page 7].

Prof R A Foakes has written: “King Lear stands like a colossus at the centre of Shakespeare’s achievement as the grandest effort of his imagination” [Arden 3 edition, 1997, page 1].

However, doyen theatre critic Michael Billington has left Lear out of his 101 Greatest Plays [Guardian Books and Faber & Faber, 2015].  He explains his decision thus: “I admit it’s a craggily awesome play….I can only say that….I find it structurally unwieldy: the Gloucester sub-plot too consciously mirrors the main plot, and I find Edgar’s refusal to identify himself to his father inexplicable and needlessly cruel” [page 15].

Television productions

TV productions include the BBC Television version (1982) (with Sir Michael Hordern as Lear), the Granada Television version (1983) (with Laurence Olivier as the King), and the British-American TV film shown on the BBC in May 2018, directed by Sir Richard Eyre, with Sir Anthony Hopkins in the title role.  The running time of the latter is 115 minutes, because of substantial cuts.  Because of the bleakness and the cruelty intrinsic to the play – enhanced in performance – I have waited for nearly three years to watch it (saved as it is on my “black box” hard drive).

Evaluation

In order to properly revisit the play and to re-evaluate it, I decided to re-read it and also to compare it with the 2018 television film. 

I have found that my re-reading, at speed, with little reference to explanatory notes, has taken about three-and-a-quarter hours.  I have relied on the Arden 3 text – a conflation of the Quarto and Folio texts of the early 17th century.  A performance of all of this would take as long, if not longer, because of stage business (music and movements without speech).  It is a long play: doubtless all directors feel obliged to curtail it somewhat.

Conclusions from re-reading

1 The main plot resembles a fairy tale, with its two “bad” elder daughters and one “good” younger one.  Compare the Cinderella story, in its various versions.  The minor plot has one “good” elder son and one “bad” younger one.

2 King Lear’s career goes through the last three stages of Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” (compare As You Like It): at the outset, he is like the “justice”; as he declines there is some resemblance to the “pantaloon” and even “second childishness”.  However: (i) Lear’s character undergoes a partial reversal of this process, at the end; (ii) it is Gloucester, not Lear, who is “sans eyes”, from Act 3 Scene 7 onwards.

3 Does Lear go “mad”?  Many say so.  Does he suffer from dementia?  But he does not suffer from a readily recognisable mental illness.  The best fit is a depression, in reaction to his vicissitudes (and to his realisation of his poor decision making).

4 The language of the play is rhetorical and poetic; it is varied; but many words and phrases are obscure and require notes for understanding.  Often, the poetry overwhelms the progress of the story.  Some passages are like operatic arias: see for example Edgar’s description of the coastal landscape [4.6.11-24] from the top of the cliff, and also his pretence that his father has survived a great fall [4.6.49-59].

5 While editors Hunter and Foakes use the Folio text rather than the Quartos as the basis of their editions, several Quarto passages omitted from the Folio are useful for inclusion in a performance because of their poetic and dramatic qualities – for example Lear’s “trial” of Goneril and Regan [3.6.17-55].

6 The part of the Fool is an attractive one.  He is the only source of “comic relief” in the whole play.  Unaccountably, he goes missing in the middle of the play. 

7 The opening scene is truly magnificent – it is all that one could hope for as an exposition.  It is paralleled somewhat by the final tableau [circa 5.3.229-325], where all three daughters are re-united – albeit in death – on the stage, where Lear himself joins them.

8 The scene where Gloucester is blinded on stage (Act 3 Scene 7) is unbearable to watch.  An example of an excess of bad taste?

9 Arguably, Shakespeare loses control of his complex material in the last third or so of the play.  There are some riddles here: 

  • What happens to the Fool?
  • What happens to the King of France? 
  • What does Kent do during the battle?
  • Why does Edgar not reveal his true identity to his father?
  • How does Edgar change back into a respectable-looking man (and make a good impression on Albany)? 
  • Does Edmund die from his wounds?
  • How can a private duel take place in the aftermath of a battle?

10 The Gloucester-Edgar-Edmund sub-plot is closely linked to the main plot, but the elaborate working out of it takes up much space on the page (and much time on the stage or screen if it is given its full scope).  I have some sympathy with the judgement of Michael Billington (above), but I wonder how any excision of the sub-plot could be carried out satisfactorily.

Remarks on the 2018 television film

1 This is a “modern dress” production, which includes “soldiers” in camouflage uniform.  (Perhaps the real armed forces contribute to the pool of extras.)

2 The principal actors are justly famous, and their acting here is impressive.  Sir Anthony as Lear, Emma Thompson as Goneril, Emily Watson as Regan, and Jim Broadbent as Gloucester, fit their roles as hands fit in gloves.  The roles of Cordelia (Florence Pugh), Edgar (Andrew Scott) and Kent (Jim Carter) are much reduced.

3 The cuts mentioned above are pretty drastic; the momentum – the main thrust of the story – is maintained; some of the links in the chain of events are missing, because of these omissions.   

4 Emma Thompson and Emily Watson succeed in making Goneril and Regan appear as somewhat reasonable in contrast with their unreasonable father – that is, until their capability for mercilessness and cruelty is exposed unambiguously.

5 The film is well worth watching.

Conclusion

King Lear has many fine dramatic qualities, with memorable poignant scenes and evocations of character.  It also has many highly poetic passages.  Visiting it and revisiting it (whether on the page, in the theatre, in the cinema or on television) is a “must” for lovers of Shakespeare. 

Whether it is his “greatest play” remains a matter of dispute.  This not a competition!

Plots and Plautus

I have been rather occupied with the Ancient Roman playwright Plautus recently.  I have been looking at the influence of his Menaechmi – about twin brothers – upon Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors (which has often been remarked upon).  I have also been wondering too about the relationship between Menaechmi and Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest, which is not as obvious.  

Wilde was very well read in the plays of 1st millennium BCE dramatists, including those of Menander, Plautus and Terence.  In her 2014 PhD dissertation (see below) Prof SS Witzke argues that not only Menaechmi but also other ancient plays had an influence on Wilde’s society comedies, namely, Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest itself. 

First I touch upon the Menaechmi-Earnest link (which is my own focus).

There are two separated brothers in Plautus’s Menaechmi, who finally meet up.  There are two brothers in Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest. But the two brothers in Earnest already know each other, albeit only as friends, as the true identity of one of them is concealed.  For the two brothers in Menaechmi, fraternity is more important than marriage (sex is available from the likes of Erotium); and the one existing marriage is dissolved at the end of the play.  It is better to be a brother than an only child, in Earnest; at the same time, both principal men are in the marriage market (while not being in competition with each other); and, as in many comedies, the play ends with the prospect of marriages. 

There are major differences between the plots and the settings of Menaechmi and Earnest.  But there are similarities, and I take note here of two.

Firstly, the visiting brother in Menaechmi arrives in his brother’s city and takes advantages of the latter’s pleasures, just as Algernon invades Jack’s country domain in Act II of Earnest.  Prof Witke sums this up as follows:

Secondly, in Act III of Earnest, the two principal men are revealed to be brothers, just as Plautus’s twins are at the end of his play.  (This reminds one that Algernon woos Cecily, Jack’s ward, just as Sosicles [aka Antipholus of Syracuse] woos Luciana (actually his sister-in-law) in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.)

The worlds of Menander, Plautus and Terence reflect an overtly patriarchal society, where a lower status is granted to women.  Any such discrimination against women in the 1895 English world of Earnest is not evident: Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew are all very assertive (Miss Prism less so).  Indeed, Lady Bracknell acts as a “blocking agent” vis-à-vis the relationship between Jack and Gwendolen in Act I.

Cecily, thinking Algernon was Ernest, invited him in to lunch like Erotium invited Sosicles (II.169-71). Cecily remarks that “Ernest” is in the dining room when Jack arrives (II.302-03). Over an agitated tea Algernon also deprives Jack of his muffins (II.823-92).  Thus Wilde partially enacts much of the Menaechmi plotline.  [Witke, 2014, p190]

Plautus writes farces, where the dynamic plot is more important than characterisation: in other words, there are “types”, such as the braggart soldier (in Miles Gloriosus) and the miser (in Aulularia).  Earnest is a sort of a farce.  It is witty.  There are plot twists.  There is social satire.  The characters go through the paces of the farcical plot.  However, the characters have sufficient depth to be interesting.  (Some have multiple identities.)  They may not be admirable, but they are human.  The happy endings (three weddings!) please everybody.

As for Menaechmi and The Comedy of Errors, I tabulate some similarities and differences, as follows:

Similarities

  1. A young man seeks his lost brother
  2. The visiting brother and his slave come from Syracuse
  3. The resident brother is married, the visiting brother is not
  4. The local brother is locked out by his wife (see also the Amphitryon [note other spellings] of Plautus)
  5. There is a mad doctor
  6. The resident brother is arrested but escapes (in Errors), whereas he is seized but rescued by his slave (in Menaechmi)

Differences

  1. The location – Epidamnus (Plautus) versus Ephesus (Shakespeare)
  2. Exposition through dialogue in the first scene (Shakespeare) versus an address to the audience by an actor, as a prologue (Plautus)
  3. One slave (Plautus) versus two (Shakespeare)
  4. Still living relatives (if any) not mentioned (Plautus) versus parents still alive (Shakespeare)  – Errors is somewhat book-ended by the involvement of the father at the beginning and the mother at the end
  5. The risk of death to the father (Shakespeare) – not a factor in Plautus
  6. The early entry of the resident twin (Plautus, line 110) versus that of the visiting twin (Shakespeare, Act 1 scene 2)
  7. More lines for the resident twin (Plautus) versus more lines for the visitor Shakespeare)
  8. Long speeches (in verse) by the resident sisters and the visiting brother (Shakespeare, Act 2 scenes 1 and 2 and Act 3 scene 2) [see the next point]
  9. The wooing by the visiting brother of the unmarried sister (Shakespeare only), ultimately leading to the prospect of marriage
  10. Selling up and moving back to Syracuse (Plautus) versus staying put (Shakespeare) [see the next point]
  11. Divorce (Plautus) versus reconciliation and marriage (Shakespeare) – one wife given up versus a second wife gained
  12. Different minor characters: note the jokes the visitors make about the kitchen-maid (Shakespeare, Act 3, scene 2)
  13. The role of the prostitute in Plautus is toned down by Shakespeare.

(Doubtless more differences can be detected by the careful reader.)

Here we can see that Shakespeare has worked hard and very imaginatively with the materials available and has added his own.  The additions contribute to the greater length of Errors – circa 1,780 lines – versus 1,162 in Menaechmi.

Reference

Witzke, S S (2014), Reading Greek and Roman New Comedy through Oscar Wilde’s Plays, PhDdissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  https://doi.org/10.17615/pb1b-hn04

Farcical elements in the early plays of Shakespeare

FARCICAL ELEMENTS IN SHAKESPEARE’S EARLY COMEDIES

In my wanderings on-line I have found the 1970 PhD thesis by Eric Peter Bryant (of Rhodes University, South Africa): ‘Shakespeare’s Early Comedies – Studies in The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona’.  https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/145047561.pdf

Dr Bryant argues that the early plays have farcical features and that the characters are far from being realistic characters such as we find in other genres of fiction.  Characters are subordinate to plot.  And the plots are not realistic.   Hence, he tries to justify the plot of The Taming of the Shrew.  (On which, see below.) 

We are dealing here with various mixtures of comedy (happy endings, witty wordplay and surprises), embracing farcical episodes but also, at times, near-tragedy.

First, let’s look at The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  This is a romance story about two couples, with comic turns (especially by Lance) thrown in.  As for the two “Gentlemen”, one of them is disloyal, both to his male friend and to his girlfriend, while the other is foolish or ill-advised.  The two heroines, though, are strong and consistent.

The play has high moments, especially Act 4, scene 2, where one heroine, Julia, sees and hears her boyfriend Proteus trying to woo Silvia, the other heroine, beloved of his friend Valentine.  (Note the famous song, “Who is Silvia?”)  There is genuine pathos here.   

By contrast, the final scene, Act 5, scene 4, is very awkwardly constructed.  Here, Valentine says that he is prepared to give Silvia away to Proteus (the very man who has just threatened to violate her).  The argument that Valentine is prioritising male friendship over heterosexual love can be called in aid here, but in the context of the romantic plot it is unconvincing, and the play suffers for it.   

With respect to The Taming of the Shrew, Dr Bryant sees Petruchio’s so-called “taming” behaviour as essential both to his character and to the plot.  (Plot determines character.)  But this is indefensible.  The imbalance of power, between man and woman, in this markedly patriarchal society, is patent – blatantly so.  The play is irredeemably misogynistic as it stands.

Can anything be done about this in performance?  Let’s try a new ending.  The new husbands wager that their wives will come to them when called.  First, Bianca refuses to come, as she is busy.  Next, Gremio’s wife refuses to come, thinking her husband is jesting.  Finally, Petruchio sends Biondello with a message commanding Katherina to come.  What happens now?  Silence.  The men wait and wait, and whistle, and look at each other.  Nothing happens.  And one of the men present asks, “What was that about the taming of a shrew?”  And Petruchio says, “The fouler fortune mine, and there’s an end!” — The curtain comes down. — Oh, I’d like to see that.

Far superior to The Shrew, indeed, is John Fletcher’s riposte or quasi-sequel, in which Petruchio gets his well-deserved comeuppance, namely, The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed.  Well worth a look.

Next, The Comedy of Errors.  Prof Stanley Wells commences his Introduction to the 1972 Penguin edition with this appraisal:

The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare’s masterpiece, if we use that word to mean the first work in which mastery of a craft is displayed.  It is a fully formed work of art, completely successful in its own terms. 

The pace of The Comedy of Errors is fast and furious, after the initial, slow, expository scene.  It has the virtues of fun, variety and sophistication of language.  The farcical elements recall the main source plays by Plautus namely, Menaechmi aka The Brothers Menaechmus and Amphitruo. 

Compared with its Latin forebears, The Comedy of Errors is indeed more than a farce: it includes elements of near-tragedy, with regard to the fate of Egeon, the twin brothers’ father; and it certainly embraces romance, as can be seen in the wooing of Luciana by Antipholus of Syracuse in the middle of the play, and in the numerous reconciliations and resolutions at the end.

The Comedy has in effect a serious framework – book-ended as it more or less is by the long speech of the twin brothers’ father, Egeon, at the beginning, and the intervention of their mother, Emilia towards the end.  In the middle, the actions resemble those of its Plautine predecessors.  However, Egeon’s long speech as prologue and exposition is confusing and heavy-going, and it contrasts poorly with the actor’s witty address straight to the audience in Plautus’s Menaechmi.  Moreover, it could be argued that the play is overloaded or unbalanced by the addition of the parents (absent from Plautus), enhanced indeed by the threat of execution that hangs over Egeon until the end.  The best bits of The Comedy are to be found elsewhere – in the witty wordplay, for example, between Antipholus of Syracuse and his Dromio about the kitchen-maid (Luce aka Nell). (Does this verge on misogyny, though?)  The worst bits are about the blows the Dromios receive from their masters, as they are blamed for the mistakes that keep happening.  (In the plays of Plautus, slaves fear punishment; but the clever ones help their masters out of difficulties and are rewarded by being freed.)

It can be argued that the comic aspects of Shakespeare’s plays (of whatever genre) become more subtle and ambiguous, from about 1600 on.  (A possible exception is the Malvolio subplot in Twelfth Night; but the serious implications cause feelings of unease, so that the joke is brought to an early end).  The Fools are witty but also clever, and they see and point out the errors of the principal characters’ ways: see Feste in Twelfth Night and, even more to the point, the Fool in King Lear.

Possibly the best farce written by Shakespeare is The Merry Wives of WindsorIt combines a farcical main plot and a romantic subplot, which are brought together, and resolved, very neatly, at the end.  In my opinion, it is under-rated.  Much unnecessary fuss is made about the alteration of Falstaff, from the Henry IV plays to The Merry Wives.  But, as Dr Bryant says about farce, plot determines character – so what can we expect?

And I’ll just add that farce has a well-deserved place within drama.

A personal view of Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’

“It [The Tempest] is an imaginary tale about real problems.”

[John Wilders, literary consultant to the BBC, 1980]

Is there anything new to say about Wm Shakespeare’s Tempest?  Perhaps not, but I fancy clarifying my thinking and putting my personal reactions on record.

Simply, it is brilliant.  I am surprised that it is not included by the Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington in his book, The 101 Greatest Plays (2015).

It is like a self-contained myth; it is like an opera, with its Act IV pageant, which forms a betrothal or wedding ceremony; its movements, which present both initial disharmony and ultimate resolution, are balletic.  

It’s about the flowering of young love and the union of families; it’s about the confrontation of offenders with their crimes, and forgiveness, and the restoration of a dukedom to its rightful possessor.  This is ample material.

Notable is the use by Prospero, the protagonist, of magic to achieve his ends, aided and abetted by Ariel.

There is a mixture of verse and prose.  There are two great blank verse monologues by Prospero, but no soliloquies.  There are several short rhymed songs, and one long one – the pageant (or masque) of Iris, Ceres and Juno, conjured up by Prospero for the benefit of Miranda and Ferdinand (in Act IV).

In the play many binary oppositions can be discovered: master v slave, so-called civilisation v the primitive, magic v the everyday, the real v the ethereal, the sea v the land, old v young, government v anarchy, rebellion v obedience, and revenge v mercy.

The Tempest does contain two conspiracies to murder, but they are foiled.  The perpetrators are pardoned, but they refuse to repent.  (Alonso of Naples, not one of the conspirators, is penitent about his past behaviour.)  Hence, while the play gives us a “happy ending”, it shows too that some aspects of evil can only be managed and not eliminated entirely.

There are echoes of earlier plays in The Tempest.  As has often been pointed out, like The Comedy of Errors, everything happens in the course of one day and in one place.  As in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the use of magic plays a major role.  These are comedies, where potentially tragic outcomes are averted.  Boys meet girls, and in the end they marry.  (Contrast the tragic fate of Romeo and Juliet.)  In the later plays, relationships between fathers and daughters are prominent – in King Lear, Pericles and The Winter’s Tale, as well as in The Tempest.

As to the classical references, particularly in the Act IV pageant, compare the poem Venus and Adonis, and, in the plays, Hymen in As You Like It, Jupiter in Cymbeline, and (to a limited extent) Mars, Venus and Diana in The Two Noble Kinsmen. 

Power relationships

Prospero has magic powers, but they are limited.  Moreover, he relies on Ariel a great deal.  He depends on an “auspicious star”, he says, to fulfil his purposes.  A carefully managed shipwreck can be arranged, just as the ships returning from Tunis sail past the island.  Prospero can entrance the enemies that the shipwreck has brought on to the island.  He can threaten Caliban with pinching.  However, he cannot force Miranda and Ferdinand to love each other (they do, and he approves); and he cannot force his enemies to repent (see above).

Is Prospero himself a hero or a villain?  Probably more of the former than the latter.

Is Caliban a villain or an anti-colonial hero?  Probably more of the former than the latter.  But worries remain about the colonial implications of the play in general, and the status of Caliban in particular.

Film treatments

Given its embrace of magical effects, The Tempest provides directorsa template on which they can base their own vision; and the medium of film offers them the techniques to realise it, such as the use of locations, flashbacks, lighting, music, and the overlaying of one image with another on the screen.

The BBC television version (1980) is studio-based.  It downplays the use of magic, apart from appearances and dis-appearances of Ariel, from one frame to another, on occasions.  It cuts the bulk of the Act IV pageant (on the basis of the disputable claim that the words are “banal”). 

Derek Jarman’s 1979 Tempest and Peter Greenaway’s 1991 Prospero’s Books each create a phantasmagoria, albeit in different ways.  In his film, Jarman cuts most of the text.  He does provide a theatrical climax, with the young sailors’ dance, followed by the grand entrance of Elisabeth Welch, attired like a goddess in a gold dress, singing Stormy Weather (from 1933).  Perhaps this forms his own version of the pageant.

In Julie Taymor’s film (2010), Miranda’s surviving parent is Prospera, her mother.  (Why not indeed?)

Whether or not one approves of these transformations remains a personal opinion.

Translation

Among other languages, The Tempest has been translated into Welsh: by Gwyn Thomas (Y Dymestl, 1996), and by Gwyneth Lewis (Y Storm, 2012).  The latter’s version was performed by National Theatre Wales at the 2012 National Eisteddfod.  The staging was imaginative, featuring a circus atmosphere in a tent with a sandy floor, and some of the players engaging in acrobatics.  Indeed, this remains the best production that I have seen to date.

Conclusion

The Tempest offers great entertainment value, while remaining thought provoking.  It has something for nearly everyone:

“It is clear…that….The Tempest still speaks profoundly to stage and film audiences…..Shakespeare’s vision of an enchanted island, where even the worst of us can find forgiveness, remains relevant.”

[V M Vaughan & A T Vaughan (editors), Arden Shakespeare, 3rd Series, page 160.]

Comedy and Farce, in the hands of Plautus

Is Plautus (still) funny?

I have been asked this question by a friend, when I told him and other friends about my recent study of eight plays by the above-named.

Who was Titus Maccius Plautus?  He was a playwright active in Republican Rome circa 200 BCE.  He is regarded by literary critics as having a lasting influence on comedic writing, up to the present day.  (Plautus is mentioned by Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  And his Menaechmi gave Shakespeare the basis for his Comedy of Errors.)

But how do we define “comedy”?  There are two types (which may overlap) – stories with a happy ending, and stories that have jokes and horseplay in the course of the action.

In old plays, tragedies end with deaths.  The happy endings of comedic stories, on the other hand, end with marriages, and, perhaps, restoration of separated members of a family to each other.  (See for example, Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.)

As regards the use of jokes and slapstick, is there a difference between comedy and farce?  Or is there a continuum?  Professor Stanley Wells offes a useful definition in his Introduction to the Penguin Comedy of Errors (1972):

Characteristics of farce….include absurdities of plot, stylization of action, subordination of character to plot, and dissociation of response in which violence evokes laughter rather than pity. 

[page 8]

This observation can be utilised as a tool to be applied to comedies down the ages.  The balance varies from play to play.  The Comedy of Errors itself has very serious moments.

But back to the works of Plautus himself.  As a general point, farcical elements are predominant, but in some of them young couples succeed in getting married as well (the happy ending).

Barriers to a present-day appreciation of Plautus are, I would argue, cultural: he wrote in Latin, so he needs to be translated for virtually every reader or audience member; and the context of the plays is that of Ancient Rome, with borrowings from the society of Ancient Athens.  The societal values reflected exhibit what to us are unpalatable features: patriarchy, misogyny and slavery.  Women, indeed, play smaller and somewhat passive parts.  Slaves are afraid of being beaten by their masters.  However, the outstanding feature of the plays of Plautus is the role of the clever slave – the man (always a man) who manipulates other characters, devises plots, and generally saves the day (for a happy ending).

But is Plautus still funny?

In his Preface to his Plautus – Four Comedies (OUP, 1996), Professor Erich Segal recounts that in 1962 he saw Casina (acted in Italian) “convulse” an audience in Rome; and he goes on to report that his own translation of The Braggart Soldier [Miles Gloriosus] “actually made people laugh” when played at Harvard (Cambridge, Mass) in 1963.

Meanwhile, in the early 1960s, Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, wrote the well received and often performed musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  The fact of Forum’s being based on the plays of Plautus is acknowledged by its authors.  As he recalls the creative work process, Gelbart states:

What a treat he [Plautus] was to research!  How incredibly Plautus’s aged, ageless writings based on man’s gift for silliness, for pomposity and hypocrisy, have survived; how well it all stood up, the comedy that would serve as fodder not only for the theater, but for future stand-up comedians as well.


[Introduction to Forum, Applause Theater Books, New York, 1990, reproduced in: Forum, Nick Herne Books, London, 2004.]

Moving on: in 2017, at Stratford-upon-Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Company put on Vice Versa, by playwright Phil Porter – a farce based upon Plautus’s Miles Gloriosus [The Braggart Soldier].  It had good reviews; and I enjoyed it myself.  The language was updated, not just translated; songs were added, and numerous props were called upon, for humorous effect.  Most of the characters can be clearly identified with Plautus’s own, one for one, and so too can the successive plot devices, invented to ensure a happy ending for the relevant young couple, and punishment for the boastful, lecherous soldier. The updating, moreover, allowed for the clever male slave, Palaestrio, to be replaced by a female one, Dexter (acted by Sophia Nomvete) – a good move.

But the question remains: is Plautus himself funny?

Let’s look at The Brothers Menaechmus [Menaechmi] – about identical twins who have been long separated and who are now reunited.  In the course of this play, one twin has all the work and worry, while the other has all the fun.  (But their reunion gives them both joy.)  Meanwhile, all around confuse the one with the other: the mistakes cause the hilarity.  In his Introduction to his Plautus: Four Comedies, Segal notes the play’s continuing popularity and adds that:

It presents more simply than any comedy before or since the greatest of all wish-fulfilments: the surrogate self with no super-ego, the man who can get his pleasure free in every sense….We see [here] a contrast between the atmosphere of everyday and that of holiday, or, as Freud would express it, the Reality Principle versus the Pleasure Principle. 

[pages xxviif]

For his part, the longstanding Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington included an entry on The Brothers Menaechmus in his 101 Greatest Plays, from Antiquity to the Present (Guardian Books, 2015).  Plautus, he says, offers his audience “manic ingenuity, verbal exuberance, a pervasive sexiness” [page 35].  He calls The Brothers Menaechmus Plautus’s “funniest play”, and he praises its “pioneering zest” and its “host of ideas that were to become common currency in comedy and farce” [page 37].  He concludes as follows:

I just wish someone would revive this delirious piece, which I’ve only seen done by students, to show that Plautus is the godfather of modern comedy and farce.

[page 39]

So, evidence is available (however subjective critics’ opinions may be) that Plautus IS funny, in himself.

Funny Things have happened to the Plays of Plautus

Introduction

Titus Maccius Plautus was the great comic playwright of the Roman Republic.  He deserves his ongoing fame:

All of Plautus’ most successful Plays have a heritage. The Braggart Soldier anticipates Falstaff, The Brothers Menaechmus inspired The Comedy of Errors, and The Pot of Gold re-emerged as Molière’s Miser

[Segal, E (1996), Plautus – Four Comedies, Oxford: OUP, page xxxv.]

The influence of Miles Gloriosus (The Braggart Solder) has persisted: recall the well-received musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, by Shevelove, Gelbart and Sondheim, first performed in 1962; see too the play, Vice Versa, by Phil Porter, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company as recently as 2017.

Back in the 1590s, not only did Plautus’s The Brothers Menaechmus form the basis of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors (as Segal reminds us), but furthermore (in my opinion), the Braggart Soldier contributed to the construction of his Merry Wives of Windsor. 

Characterisation

In Miles, Palaestrio, the clever, plotting slave, delivers a damning verdict on the character of the braggart soldier, Pyrgopolynices (literally, the “terrific tower-shaker”).  He is described as boastful, shameless and filthy-minded – a liar and a lecher.  Women, however, do see through him:

ait sese ultro omnis mulieres sectarier:        

is deridiculost, quaque incedit, omnibus.

itaque hic meretrices, labiis dum ductant eum,

maiorem partem videas valgis saeviis. 

[lines 91ff]

He claims that all the women follow him about, but in fact he is the object of ridicule wherever he goes.  So you’ll see most harlots here not offering him kisses but instead curling their lips in mockery. 

[a free translation]

Both in the Henry IV plays and in the Wives, Falstaff is indeed a “braggart soldier” too.  Like Plautus’s own boaster, he promises far more than he can perform, whether in arms, ready for battle, or in the arms of a woman.  He totally misjudges his prospects vis-a-vis Mistress Page and Mistress Ford:

I shall be cheaters to them both, and they shall be exchequers to me.  They shall be my East and West Indies, and I will trade to them both. 

[Merry Wives, Act I, Scene 3]

Without difficulty, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford not only see through him but are instrumental in arranging his come-uppance, by leading him on while setting traps for him.

In the Miles, the soldier is lured into propositioning the pretended wife of a respected citizen, and he is beaten for his pains by the citizen’s slaves.  Then he finds out that he has lost his concubine, who has escaped with her true lover.  But he accepts defeat gracefully.

Dramatic action

In the Merry Wives, Falstaff is humiliated not once but three times: he is immersed in dirty washing and thrown into the river (III.3 and III.5); he is beaten by the jealous Ford, when disguised as an old woman (IV.2); and finally, at a night-time rendezvous, he is pinched by characters dressed up as fairies (V.5), while the young lovers (principals of the other plot) seize their chance and get married.  Falstaff accepts defeat, in good humour.

Conclusion

The similarities between the two plays is evident, as regards the happy ending for the true lovers and in particular the punishment of the boastful men.  Why does this point not receive more attention?

Historian Edward Gibbon – his Observations on the Rise of Christianity

I am revisiting the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by the 18th century historian Edward Gibbon.  He casts a cool, rational gaze upon the causes of the rise and spread of primitive Christianity, especially in his Chapters XV and XVI, which were very controversial in his day.

Gibbon’s thesis offers open-minded readers an opportunity to re-examine their own beliefs, however firmly held and cherished.  The point here is not to criticise Gibbon’s thinking but to see where it leads us.

Gibbon takes for granted the intrinsic virtues of Christianity (“the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself and the ruling providence of its great Author”).   Moving beyond these, he deals at length with five “secondary” causes of the expansion of Christianity growth throughout the Roman Empire (and even beyond).  He itemises the key factors as follows:

1. The zeal of the Christians, coupled (Gibbon says) with their inflexibility and their intolerance of the beliefs of others.

2. The doctrine of a future life, derived from the belief in the immortality of the soul, associated with the concepts of Heaven and Hell.

3. The miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive church.

4. The pure and austere morals of the Christians, marked by their rejection of both (a) sensual pleasures and (b) participation in the administration of the Empire, and its defence.

5. The union and discipline of the Christian republic, maintained by the new order of bishops.

QUESTIONS

1. Can a balance be struck between loyalty to one’s own set of beliefs and tolerance of others’?  How do we integrate insights from other traditions with those of our own belief system?

2. How essential (if at all) is belief in an after-life today?  Or Heaven and Hell?

3. How essential (if at all) is belief in miracles today?   Are fewer miracles reported today?  If so, why?  (Is this because of scepticism?)

4a. What is the right, healthy attitude towards worldly pleasures?  Is there a ‘golden mean’ between asceticism and hedonism?

4b. What are the citizen’s civic responsibilities today?  Are there any boundaries?

5. To what extent do we need bishops (or similar authority figures) today?  How should they be chosen?  By whom?  For how long should they serve?

The headings below refer to Gibbon’s further remarks about the context of the rise of Christianity:

6. The negative attitude of contemporary “illustrious characters” to the “enthusiasm” of the Christians.

7. The long history of schisms, and persecutions by different Christian sects of one another.

Further to point 6, note the following, from the original:

The names of Seneca, of the elder and the younger Pliny, of Tacitus, of Plutarch, of Galen, of the slave Epictetus, and of the Emperor Marcus Antoninus adorn the age in which they flourished and exalt the dignity of human nature….Yet all these sages (….) overlooked or rejected the perfection of the Christian system.

Chapter XV

Further to point 7, Gibbon concludes his Chapter XVI (which deals with how Christianity fared under the emperors that preceded Constantine, and the occasional persecutions) with a “melancholy truth”, namely, “that the Christians, in the course of their intestine dissensions, have inflicted far greater severities on each other, than they had experienced from the zeal of infidels.”  (He quotes as an example the persecution by Charles V of the Protestants of the Netherlands.)

QUESTIONS

6. What use can Christians make of the writings of non-Christian writers and philosophers?

7. How important is ecumenism?  What fundamental beliefs and values do Christians (and others) share with each other?

CONCLUSION

Edward Gibbon makes judicious observations; and (in my opinion) he forces his serious readers to think.  Very worthwhile.

The significance of Clemency in Statius, ‘Thebaid’, Book XII

Lamentations are in order

How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people! How is she become as a widow! She that was great among the nations, and princess among provinces, how is she become tributary! 

[OT, Lamentations, 1:1 (KJV/AV)]

In all cultures there are established rites around death and funerals.  The body of the deceased provides a focus for the grieving process: in its absence it is sorely missed.

Much of the story of Homer’s Ancient Greek Iliad centres not only on the deaths of the warriors but also on the disposal of their bodies.  Hence, not only is the death of Hector at the hands of Achilles itself tragic, so too is the cruel, undignified way Achilles treats his body afterwards.  (Finally, Hector’s father retrieves his body and gives him a funeral.)  See also the Antigone of Sophocles, where the eponymous heroine clashes with Creon over the need to bury her dead brother Polynices (killed in the fratricidal war outside Thebes).

The Roman poet Publius Papinius Statius (1st century CE) is not as well-known as Homer or Sophocles, nowadays, but his work is worth a look.  Moreover, he influenced poets who came much later, and who remain famous and appreciated, for example, Dante (see the Purgatorio), Boccaccio and Chaucer.

Statius’s twelve-book verse epic, the Thebaid, follows the pattern of the Iliad, in some respects: for ‘Troy’ read ‘Thebes’.  In place of the disputes between (a) Menelaus and Paris and (b) Achilles and Agamemnon, there is the quarrel between Oedipus and his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, and in turn their own dispute over the throne of Thebes.  Moreover, the interference of ghosts, Furies and gods (reminiscent of the dramas of Seneca) exacerbate the existing tensions.

The  brothers resort to force, to back up their respective claims.  Polynices brings six warriors and their followers with him from Argos: Thebes is besieged, and war ensues.  The rivals’ mother and sisters try to intercede with them and to mediate between them, but to no avail: they are left to mourn the losses that pile up.  Finally (Book XI), after many of their allies have been killed, the war climaxes in single combat between the two brothers themselves: they succeed only in killing each other.   

Does this story reflect the turbulent history of Imperial Rome itself?

The twelfth book

After the war come the funerals.  The bereaved women of Argos set out on the journey to Thebes, to bury their dead:

Flebilis interea vacuis comitatus ab Argis                       
(fama trahit miseras) orbae viduaeque ruebant
Inachides ceu capta manus.

[Thebaid, XII, 105ff]

Meanwhile, drawn by the news, a band

Of weeping women, widowed and bereft,

Hastened from empty Argos like a troop

Of captives.

[tr A D Melville (Oxford, 1992)]

Before they can reach the battlefield, though, the women are informed that Creon, the new ruler of Thebes, has prohibited the performance of funeral rites for Polynices and his allies, still lying where they fell, exposed to the open air, and, moreover, that he has posted guards, to enforce the carrying out of his orders.  Here he acts in defiance of the established custom.

The majority of the women decide not to proceed to the battlefield but to turn to Athens instead.  But Argia, widow of Polynices, resolutely continues her journey:

Vadit atrox visu, nil corde nec aure pavescens,
et nimiis confisa malis propiorque timeri….

Tantum animi luctusque valent!  

[Statius, Thebaid, XII, 222ff]

On her grim way she went, no thought, no sound

Dismaying her, but gaining confidence

From surfeit of disaster – feared indeed

Rather than fearing…..Such the power of grief

 And passion!

[tr A D Melville]

Having reached the battlefield, Argia first discovers the body of Polynices (thankfully), and then Antigone (his brother and her sister-in-law), who has eluded Creon’s guards and has escaped from the city.  Having got over their surprise, and shared their grief, they cleanse Polynices’s body and place it on a still smouldering funeral pyre.  However, it turns out that this fire belongs to Eteocles – and even in death the body refuses to share the space willingly.  And, after all that, the two ladies are discovered and arrested, but, resolute and defiant, they still take pride in what they have done.

At the same time, the main contingent of the women of Argos reaches the Temple of Clemency (or Compassion) in Athens:

Urbe fuit media nulli concessa potentum
ara deum, mitis posuit Clementia sedem,
et miseri fecere sacram; sine supplice numquam
illa novo, nulla damnavit vota repulsa.

[XII, 481ff]


At the town’s centre stands a temple raised

To no almighty god.  It is the seat

Of kind Compassion, sanctified by souls

In grief and misery.  She never lacks

New suppliants nor will reject a prayer.

[tr A D Melville]

As Theseus arrives home in Athens, accompanied by his new queen, Hippolyte (Hippolyta), the ladies approach him and beg him to intervene in their cause: he agrees. 

The last phase of the fighting centres on the single combat between Creon (defiant to the last) and Theseus himself.  Theseus triumphs.  Peace, of a sort, is established. 

For ‘Athens’ read ‘Rome’: the Thebans become subject to Athens, just as many cities around the Mediterranean had become part of the Roman Empire.

Conclusion

The Thebaid has had an afterlife: Book XII, in particular, influenced Boccaccio (the Teseida) and Chaucer (the Knight’s Tale and Anelida and Arcite); and Chaucer in turn influenced Shakespeare.

The epic is generally dominated by the words and actions of men (and male gods), which are often characterised by competitiveness and violence.  (The exception is provided by the history of Queen Hypsipyle, in Books V and VI, which forms an interlude.)   By contrast, the words and actions of the female characters (stuck as they are in situations outside their control) reveal their fundamentally kind nature.  The women’s intercessions with the unreasonable, quarrelling men are very moving, as is their grief over the deaths that inevitably follow the fighting.  The violence is placed in context; the war has been pointless; there can be no return to the status quo ante bellum.  Here is true pathos: the epic gains by its evocation.

Dorothy L Sayers (died 1957) – detective story writer and translator.

I know Dorothy L Sayers as a translator, in ‘terza rima’ verse, of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (my introduction to him), and as the writer of the 1920s and 1930s detective stories (set in England and Scotland), the protagonists of which are Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane and, indeed, Mr Bunter (servant).

Other aspects of DLS’s life and work are available for inspection.

Her Dante translation is ingenious; and the notes of explanation are lengthy and highly informative.  (She is right that serious readers should not stop with the Inferno but should carry on.)  In later life, after learning some Italian, I tried to match the translation to the original, but I was hindered by the necessity, on DLS’s part, to move the words around, in order to comply with the self-imposed criterion of rhyming verse.  So I have since relied on other translations, notably the line by line, almost word for word, one by Longfellow.

DLS’s work in this field comes highly recommended.

What to say about the detective stories?

The murders that trigger the stories are committed in ingenious and hence incredible ways, not true to life (not true to my own experience).  The clues are well hidden; and I admit that I find it hard to work out who did it, on a first reading.

They reflect the UK of the 1920s and 1930s, complete with the class system.

The “hero” Lord Peter Wimsey gets away with – well, not quite real murder – because of his social status and the deference shown to him by those around him (apart from his family).

Is Wimsey a believable character?  He has many talents – arguably too many.  Is he a likeable character?  He is annoying at times, because he does not wear his wit and his erudition lightly, and because his speech reflects upper class colloquial language, alien to most people.

The Church of England clergy (male) that feature are depicted as splendid fellows, who are very helpful to the protagonists.  They are granted high social status, especially within their own parish.

The Police give extraordinary facilities to Wimsey as a merely amateur detective (however gifted), which they do not afford to amateur detectives in real life.

Somewhat like Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Wimsey has back-up crews of helpers, drawn upon when required.  He relies on his manservant, known as Bunter, very heavily indeed.  Bunter appears to be contented with his lot, but the relationship is one-sided.

In the context of the class system reflected in the stories, the writer’s description of the lower classes of society (the majority) and Jews (a minority) verges on the patronising, if not discriminatory.

The writer takes as a theme marriages between people who are not social equals. This applies both to Wimsey himself and to his sister, both of whom aim to marry “beneath” themselves.  (Read the stories to find out whether they succeed.)  She portrays the tensions in such socially unequal relationships in convincing detail.

DLS takes the trouble to reveal the post-traumatic stress disorder that Wimsey suffers as a result of his army service in the First World War.

The author takes us beyond the detection of the crimes and the trials to the aftermath, especially Wimsey’s mixed feelings about his part in bringing a murderer to his hanging.

DLS offers the reader detailed descriptions of certain times and places, for example, Galloway, the Fens and Oxford colleges, which are of literary merit, beyond the demands of the plot itself.

The author’s style is very literary and polished.  Many literary quotations are deployed – some come with attributions, and some are well known without attribution, while some are, or have become, obscure.  In the eleventh and final full-length novel, indeed – Busman’s Honeymoon – Chief Superintendent Kirk and Peter Wimsey trade quotations with each other and test their knowledge of the sources, as a game.

In conclusion, DLS offer us: (i) a very useful approach to Dante, and, on an entirely different note, (ii) intriguing detective stories of high literary merit (worth reading and re-reading).

John Dryden – a genial and a creative poet

John Dryden:

Creator Venus, Genial Pow’r of Love,

The Bliss of Men below, and Gods above,

Beneath the sliding Sun thou runn’st thy Race,

Dost fairest shine, and best become thy Place.

[John Dryden, Palamon and Arcite, III, 129ff]

By chance I own a hardback copy of The Poems and Fables of John Dryden, edited by J Kinsley and published by Oxford University Press back in 1962.  It forms, for me, a companion to anthologies of works by Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift.

Dryden was a poet and a playwright and a theorist about translation; and he helped to rehabilitate the reputation of Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Middle English language had become hard to understand.  He also translated poems from Latin, including all the works of Virgil.  He was both prolific and prominent in the literary world of Britain between 1660 and 1700 (the date of his death).  Today, I guess, he is largely forgotten.

As regards the techniques of translation, Dryden theorised, usefully, that there are three main types, namely: (i) ‘metaphrase’ – word for word and line by line, (ii) ‘paraphrase’ – translation with latitude and amplification, and (iii) ‘imitation’.  Dryden himself recommends ‘paraphrase’.

At the very end of his life, Dryden brought out his Fables Ancient and Modern, translated into verse, from Homer, Ovid, Boccace [Boccaccio], and Chaucer, with original poems.  These are not generally available on their own, outside an anthology or the complete works – more’s the pity.

The Preface to the Fables contains wide-ranging criticism of the works of Dryden’s literary forebears – major poets from history – which is still worthy of note.  About the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Dryden remarks (aptly), “here is God’s Plenty.”

As for the poems themselves, they provide an excellent way into some of the works of the great poets.  The translation of the First Book of Homer’s Iliad, for example, captures the rhetoric and the dramatic and epic aspects, splendidly:

The Wrath of Peleus Son, O Muse, resound;

Whose dire Effects the Grecian Army found:

And many a Heroe, King, and hardy Knight,

Were sent, in early Youth, to Shades of Night:

Their Limbs a prey to Dogs and Vulturs made;

So was the Sov’reign Will of Jove obey’d:

From that ill-omen’d Hour when Strife begun,

Betwixt Atrides great, and Thetis God-like Son.

To quote Dryden again (albeit in a different context), “here is “God’s plenty”.