Theban themes and threads across 2000 years

The Ancient Greeks: Oedipus and his family

The Athenian tragedians of the 5th century BCE – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – wrote superb dramas about:

  1. the fates of King Oedipus of Thebes (the man who killed his father and married his mother, Jocasta) and his children, Antigone, Eteocles, Ismene and Polynices (Polyneices).
  2. the dynastic rivalry between the two sons, leading up to a disastrous war
  3. the unsuccessful attempts by their mother and sisters to reconcile the two brothers
  4. the intervention of the Athenian hero, Theseus, to ensure the decent burial of the warriors fallen in the war – at the earnest request of their grieving womenfolk.

In these plays, women are victims of strife and war – the ones who mourn openly, and the ones who insist upon the performance of the proper funeral rites for their menfolk.

In The Seven Against Thebes of Aeschylus, seven warriors (Polynices and his allies) arrive from Argos and lay siege to the city.  The city is saved, but both Eteocles (current ruler of Thebes) and his exiled brother Polynices are killed.

Sophocles wrote three plays about the fate of Thebes and Oedipus and his family.  Oedipus the King is perhaps the best known.  Oedipus shows his determination to discover the truth about his history.  By the time of Oedipus at Colonus, the war between  Polynices and Eteocles is about to begin: both sides ask Oedipus for his support – he refuses.  Antigone deals with the aftermath of the war.  The besiegers’ corpses have been left unburied outside Thebes, on the orders of Creon, now the sole ruler, in contravention of religious law.  Antigone defies Creon and (symbolically rather than thoroughly) covers the corpse of Polynices with soil.  Antigone and Creon debate the conflict between a man-made law and a higher law.

In the Phoenician Women of Euripides, Jocasta tries to reconcile the two brothers (her sons) but fails.  The war commences.  In the end, the two brothers fight a duel and kill each other.  Jocasta kills herself in grief.  Creon (now the ruler) expels Oedipus from the city – Antigone goes with him.  The body of Polynices remains unburied.

In the Suppliants of Euripides, set outside Thebes, after the war, the mothers of the fallen besiegers (abetted by their sons), Adrastus (King of Argos), and Theseus’s own mother, all beg Theseus to overcome Creon’s decree and to arrange the burial of the exposed warriors.  When negotiations with Creon fail, Theseus launches a successful attack, and the mourners’ wishes are fulfilled.

Later adaptations – Latin

In the 1st century CE, Seneca writes the tragedies, Oedipus, based on Sophocles’s model, and Phoenissae, based on the two plays by Euripides mentioned above.

Later in the 1st century CE, Statius wrote his epic, the Thebaid, influenced by Greek and Latin models.  Here, in contrast with the Greek plays, the conflict between Oedipus’s sons is inflamed by the direct intervention of supernatural figures – gods, a fury from hell, and the ghost of Oedipus’s own father.  Indeed, both sons of Oedipus, and their allies, are doomed, as Jupiter himself makes plain:

                 manet haec ab origine mundi
fixa dies bello, populique in proelia nati.  [Book III, lines 242f]

[This day has remained fixed for war, since the beginning of the world, and the peoples born for battles.]

The plot of the epic follows the thread of the Greek tradition, outlined above (points 1-4) – much elaborated, with vivid description of vehement speeches and violent acts.  No gruesome, revolting aspect is spared the reader.   (One incident – Tydeus’s gnawing the head of Melanippus [Book VIII] – is mentioned by Dante in Inferno, Canto XXXII.)

The aftermath of the war between the brothers is covered in Book XII.  Here, Argia, widow of Poynices, and Antigone, his sister, meet on the battlefield, where the fallen warriors’ corpses still lie.  The women now prepare the body of Polynices for his funeral – but when they place it on the still smouldering pyre of Eteocles, the latter’s body rejects it, to the extent that two separate fires break out from the pyre.  The other widows go to Athens and plead with Theseus for help.  Theseus accedes to their request, attacks Thebes, and kills Creon.  The exposed corpses have their funeral.

The characters act as if they are exercising free will, but in fact they are following their destiny.

(Statius appears in Dante’s Purgatorio, Cantos XXI and XXII.  Statius is ranked by Chaucer with Virgil, Ovid, Homer and Lucan, in Troilus and Criseyde, Book V; and he is listed among many great poets, in The House of Fame, Book III.)

Later adaptations – Western Europe

It was Latin literature, rather than Greek, that influenced the European vernacular literatures of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

The anonymous 12th century Old French epic, Le Roman de Thèbes, is based on the Thebaid, but it is much influenced by contemporary methods of warfare and the Crusades.

Il Teseida delle Nozze d’Emilia (the Story of Theseus and the Nuptials of Emilia) by Giovanni Boccaccio (14th century) shows the influence of Virgil’s Aeneid and Statius’s Thebaid.  Here, Book I deals with the war of Teseo (Theseus) against the Amazons and his marriage to their queen, Ipolita (Hippolyta); Book II deals with Theseus’s war against the Thebans, to ensure the burial of warriors killed in the Theban civil war, at the request of their widows.  (Compare Book XII of the Thebaid.)

Then there is a change of emphasis.  Books III-XII cover the rivalry between the Theban cousins Palemone and Arcita over the beautiful Emilia, sister of Ipolita.  The young cousins are Boccaccio’s creation.  They fight over a lady rather than a city.

Pagan gods reappear: Arcita is depicted as a protégé of the god Mars, Palamone of the goddess Venus, and Emilia of the virgin goddess Diana.

To resolve the dispute, Teseo arranges a combat between Arcita and Palamone.  The result is unexpected: it has features of the surprise elements or vicissitudes characteristic of romance.  Behind the scenes, the gods interfere in the process.  The humans have to make a “virtue of necessity”, as Teseo says:

                        far della necessitate

virtù, quando bisogna, è sapienza.     [Book XII, stanza 11]

[To make a virtue of necessity, when the need arises, is wisdom.]

Is Il Teseida an epic or a romance or a bit of both?   I think that, as regards medieval romance, the practice of chivalry can be combined with the pursuit of love (see, for example, Arthurian literature).

The Knight’s Tale (14th century) by Geoffrey Chaucer is a free adaptation of Boccaccio’s Il Teseida and is very much shorterIt concentrates on the rivalry between Palamon and Arcite, rather than the Amazonian and Theban wars.

In the Preface to his Fables Ancient and Modern (1700), John Dryden writes about what we know as The Knight’s Tale, as follows:

I prefer in our countryman, far above all his other stories, the noble poem of Palamon and Arcite, which is of the epic kind, and perhaps not much inferior to the Ilias [Iliad] or the Aeneis [Aeneid]: the story is more pleasing than either of them, the manners as perfect, the diction as poetical, the learning as deep and various, and the disposition as artful.

And indeed, Dryden includes his own somewhat free translation of The Knight’s Tale in The Fables.  Dryden overstates the case, but The Knight’s Tale is magnificent – as a romance rather than an epic.

The influence of the Theban stories can be seen too, both in Anelida and Arcite (which appears unfinished) and in Troilus and Criseyde (Chaucer’s longest integrated story). The story of The Thebaid is summarized, indeed, in a passage in Book V of the latter.  In Book II, Pandarus discovers Criseyde and her friends reading a book about Thebes – whether from The Thebaid or from Le Roman de Thèbes is open to interpretation.  (What happened to Thebes foreshadows what will happen to Troy itself – but the Trojans fail to see this.)

In The Siege of Thebes (15th century), John Lydgate offers an addition to the Canterbury Tales in the form of a prequel to The Knight’s Tale, from the story of Oedipus to the intervention of Theseus at the end of the Theban war.

As its Prologue acknowledges, The Two Noble Kinsmen (circa 1613), by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare, has as its primary source The Knight’s Tale.

In the Prologue, the playwrights express doubt as to how their own achievement measures up to Chaucer’s:

To say truth, it were an endless thing,

And too ambitious, to aspire to him.

They make a good point (see below).

(Act One resembles Euripides’s Suppliants, whether by accident or design.)

The surprise ending of the play resembles that of the source literature.  The play can be classified as a tragi-comedy, as happy and unhappy outcomes are mingled.  (Fletcher wrote, or co-wrote, several tragi-comedies himself.)

The play’s weaknesses are pointed out by its editors.  In particular, is the cousins’ rivalry, over a lady they have barely spoken to, of much interest to the audiences and readers of today?  In the Introduction to the Penguin edition (1977), N W Bawcutt states:

The theme of the main plot – two young men so equally noble that a girl cannot choose between them – is not one of the basic human situations with which an audience can readily identify itself, and presents artistic problems that the dramatists do not always overcome.

Arcite and Palamon take themselves, and their professions of love, very seriously – too seriously, perhaps.  Chaucer, by comparison, shows his skill in his use of irony, which lends some distance between the narrator and his characters.  (This is also the case in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, where the reader gets to know the main characters well, but also is enabled to look at them from more than one angle and thus both to feel both sympathy with them and to take a critical attitude towards them.)

Much of the play is taken up by the serious story of the (unnamed) daughter of the jailer.   She falls in love with Palamon, herself.  She recognises the implications of her own lowly status:

 Why should I love this gentleman?  ‘Tis odds

He never will affect me; I am base,

My father the mean keeper of his prison,

And he a prince.  To marry him is hopeless;

To be his whore is witless.  Out upon’t!

What pushes are we wenches driven to

When fifteen once has found us!


[Act II, Scene 3, lines 1-7 (Penguin edition)]

The daughter’s love is unrequited; she becomes mad or distracted, somewhat like Ophelia in Hamlet.  However, she survivesShe plays an important role: unlike the main characters, she is not inhibited from frankly expressing sexual desire (see above).  She can be seen as more interesting and believable than the main plot characters, to present-day readers and playgoers.

Here, we have come a long way from the Greek dramas.  The latter have stood the test of time.  It is doubtful whether, on their own terms, they have ever been equalled, since.












LESS MISERABLE in 2019 (have a go with Victor Hugo)

A visitor to our home last year said to us, in a conversation about literature, that she had no patience with long works (for example, novels) – she appreciated what is short and to the point.  (I paraphrase.)  Do the people of today have the time, or patience, to spend much of their precious leisure time to read long novels?

There are alternatives.  Firstly, there are television and film (movie) adaptations, which aim to convey the essence of the original and which require the actors to convey their feelings and thoughts through body language.  TV adaptations in serial form allow the adaptor wider scope to deal with a long, complicated story.

Secondly, there are audiobook and radio adaptations, in which actors read either the whole of a book or else an abbreviated version (the latter, particularly, in radio).  An example of the latter is the recent BBC Radio 4 series of Émile Zola’s ‘Rougon-Macquart’ cycle, set in the Second Empire of France.  This saves me from reading many or all of the twenty!  (I have read two better known ones – L’Assommoir and Germinal.)

I think that a case can be made that TV adaptations (in particular) of long “classic” novels are a valid re-interpretation of the originals.  (See, for example, the work of Andrew Davies in Britain.)

I admit that those who have read the book are bound to compare and contrast it with the subsequent film or TV series and may consider the book superior.  (I think, though, that the film of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, directed by Ang Lee [1995] is better than the book.)  On the other hand, viewers of a competent adaptation may be inspired to go back and read the original, with profit.

Of course, there is a large industry of films and TV series, written to a screenplay, without reference to a book.  (Some screenplays are worth reading in their own right.)

Arguably, though, certain “classic” works – epics rather than novels – do not lend themselves easily to an adaptation that brings out their qualities, for example, those by Homer, Dante and Cervantes.  This might also be said about Marcel Proust’s À la recherché du temps perdu and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

The key to the concept of adaptations for the screen is the focus on the literary genre of the novel.

What is a novel?  It is a story about a stable group of characters, set in a particular time and place.  The psychology of the characters is realistic – but some allowance may be made for caricature.  The social background, indeed, the nature of the society in which the characters live is delineated realistically – perhaps with explicit or implicit criticism.  The story has dramatic features, and there are twists and turns in the plot or plots.  Often, the thoughts of some of the characters are open to the writer and hence to the reader.

The novel has been a predominant and popular literary genre for the past few hundred years, throughout the world.

Successful novels contain enough drama, dialogue and conflict to lend themselves to screen adaptation.  Those set in the past are often called “costume dramas”.

Given the capacity permitted by the tv format, very long novels can be screened – even those like Tolstoy’s War and Peace (BBC, 2016) and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (BBC, 2019) – both adapted by Andrew Davies.  In my opinion, they measure up very well to the needs of 21st century audiences-cum-potential readers.  I am impressed by the tv Misérables. To me, both the story’s strengths and its weaknesses are revealed.  I feel less obliged than ever to read the book.  I am enjoying watching the tv series, to the extent that it makes me feel “less miserable”!




Welsh language and literature: R M Jones (1960), ‘Y Tair Rhamant’

R M “Bobi” Jones (1929-2017), Y Tair Rhamant – Iarlles y Ffynnon, Peredur a Geraint, RHAGYMADRODD, Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion, 1960.

Amcan y blog ‘ma yw cadw’r rhagymadrodd gwerthfawr hwn yn fyw (er iddo wedi’i gytogi, i raddau helaeth, fan hyn).

Y Testyn Hwn

“Testun Llyr Coch Hergest a gyflwynir yma, gydag ambell gywiriad amlwg drwy help llawysgrifau eraill.  Dewiswyd y Llyfr Coch am mai dyna’r testun hynaf sy’n cynnwys y tair rhamant hyn yn gyfan; ac mae’n destun da.”

Ymherodraeth Arthur

“Yn y llyfr hwn fe geir llenyddiaeth y dylai pobl Cymru eu trwytho eu hun ynddi ac ymfalchïo ynddi yn anad dim arall o bopeth yn hanes ein llên.  Dywed Mr Saunders Lewis (1893–1985) am y tair rhamant hyn: ‘Yn y drindod hon y ceir efallai gamp uchaf ein rhyddiaith yn yr Oesoedd Canol’; a chan mai rhyddiaith yr Oesoedd Canol yw uchafbwynt ein rhyddiaith oll, gwelir mor bwysig yw’r chwedlau bychain hyn i’r Cymro diwylliedig.  Dyma lenyddiaith gydwladol sydd yn sefyll ochr yn ochr â champweithiau mawr yr oesoedd mewn unrhyw wlad.  Gŵyr Ewrob oll am y rhamantau hyn.

Er mwyn eu canfod yn eu lle priodol yn hanes llên rhaid i ni eu dodi yn fras ac yn fuan yn erbyn cefndir y chwedlau Arthuraidd neu’r Matière de Bretagne a ddaeth i’r amlwg o’r ddeuddegfed ganrif ymlaen.

O’r tri chylch o storïau a ysgubodd drwy Ewrob yn yr oesoedd hyn, Matière de France (Siarlymaen, Rolant), Matière de Rome (chwedlau clasurol), a’r Matière de Bretagne (Arthur), nid oes dim dau mai’r olaf a gafodd y dylanwad mwyaf.”  Mae R M Jones yn dyfynnu tri ysgolhaig, sef Ernest Renan (1823–1892), Gaston Paris (1839–1903) a Jean Marx (1884–1972).

Mae R M Jones yn cyfeirio hefyd at waith Sieffre o Fynwy a Chrétien de Troyes ac eraill lawer, dros y canrifoedd, ac at y paentwyr a adwaenir fel ‘Pre-Raphaelites’, ac, ym myd miwsig, Richard Wagner.  “Mewn llawer modd bu’r rhamantau hyn yn eang eu gafael ac yn ddwfn eu hargraff mewn llawer gwlad.”

Trosglwyddor Rhamantau

“Anodd dweud dim am awdur y tair stori Gymraeg a gyhwysir yn y gyfrol hon: ni wyddom na’i enw na’i amser na’i fro.  Pe gofynnid i mi yn dawel i roi cynnig ar ddyfaliad, fe ddywedwn i mai Erging yw crud y rhamantau hyn (a llawer o’r lleill), ardal gwbl Gymraeg hyd yn dra diweddar, ac yn Erging-Trefynwy, ac iddynt gael eu llunio tua 1100, er bod y llawysgrif gyntaf a’u cynnwys i’w chael flynyddoedd wedyn a’r iaith wedi ei diweddaru ychydig.

Er lleied o gyfeiriadau daeryddol sydd ynddynt, daeryddiaeth yr ardal honno sydd yn y storïau, er enghraifft Fforest Ddena, Caerdyff, Caerllion, Caerloyw, afon Wysg, Cernyw, afon Hafren.  Megis Arberth i Bwyll a Manawydan felly Caerllion yw’r llys i’r rhain.  Pan ddaeth y Llydawyr i Drefynwy, gwirioni a wnaethant uwchben yr ‘hanes’ a gawsant i’w cenedl hwy eu hun gan gyfawrwyddiaid yr ardal, ‘hanes’ am arwyr yr oeddynt hwythau’n cadw brithgofion am eu henwau o leiaf, gan iddynt fod yn rhan o’u gorffennol Prydeinig.  Eu brwdfrydedd hwy, ynghyd a’u gallu i drosglwyddo’r storïau o’r Gymraeg i’r Ffrangeg a barodd i’r llifdorau ymagor.  Yn fuan ar ôl eu llunio fe’u hadroddwyd wrth Lydawyr Trefynwy, ac oddi yna fe aethant fel tân gwyllt drwy gestyll Normanaidd Morgannwg a throsodd i Ffrainc ac i lawer gwlad.  Ymddengys mai dyna eu hynt debygol.

Mae [yn y storïau hyn] olion etifeddiaeth o chwedlona hir Cymreig wedi ei haddasu ar gyfer cymdeithas gyfoes ac yn dyrchafu oes arwrol yn ôl angen a ffasiwn gwreiddiol yr amseroedd, ac wedi ei llunio’n gyfansoddiadau cain gan ben-campwr llên.  Nid enwau’r arwyr hyn oedd ar yr arwyr gwreiddiol, bid siŵr: nid oes dim amheuaeth fod y rheini’n dduwiau o ryw fath – duwiau ffrwythlondeb, gan amlaf, yma.  Tyfodd y storïau o futh i ramant, muthau a dadogwyd ar bersonau hanesyddol.  Ond nid yn y drefn hon nac yn yr union ddull hwn y ganed y digwyddiadau sy’n sgerbwd i’r chwedlau hyn: cymerwyd y defnydd crai mutholegol ac fe’i trowyd a’i gerfio’n greadigaeth newydd.  Eto, o sylweddoli fod y rhamantau hyn wedi eu gwreiddio mewn muth, fe gyfoethogir ein darllen hefyd, down i adnabod ‘rhin’ neu wefr enwau priod, digwyddiadau, rhifau, lliwiau, ffurfiau ac yn y blaen, dônt yn fwy ystyrlon oherwydd eu pell gysylltiadau ‘crefyddol’, cyn-Gristnogol fel arfer, ac yn llawnach eu diddordeb.”

Camp y Rhamantau

“Y mae un gwahaniaeth sylfaenol rhwng Culhwch ac Olwen, Breuddwyd Macsen a’r rhamantau ar y naill law a Phedair Cainc y Mabinogi ar y llaw arall, a hynny yw, er bod y pedair cainc yn fanwl realistig o ran data daaryddol, mutholegol yw tarddiad pawb.  Ond ymgais yw’r rhamantau a Culhwch megis Breuddwyd Rhonabwy a chwedlau eraill (a cherddi’r Gogynfeirdd) i greu delfryd yr hen Ogledd arwrol ‘hanesyddol’ mewn Cymru gyfoes.

Y prif ddefnyddiau yw:

  • Cymeriadau hanesyddol o’r 5ed i’r 6ed ganrif gan mwyaf (rhin eu henwau a’r ysfa am eu mawrygu a’u dyrchafu)
  • Themâu mutholegol (storïau traddodiadol ynghlwm wrth gredoau am y tywydd a’r tymhorau, lleoedd fel ffynhonnau a’u dirgelwch, etc)
  • Allanolion cymdeithasol cyfoes (dylanwadau Ffrengig, moesau, dillad ac yn y blaen).

Ac wrth geisio cyfuno’r tair elfen hyn fe lwyddodd yr awdur i greu epig genedlaethol, a hynny oherwydd ei fod yn fwy ymwybodol o’i thema nag o’i fympwyon neu o’i deimladau ei hun.  Nid hunan-ddatguddio a arfaethai namyn gwasanaethu ei gynulleidfa, rhoddi iddynt eu breuddwyd-orffennol.  Ecsotig oedd y chwedlau Arthuraidd i’r cyfandir, a’u harwyr yn bellennig a’u hawyrgylch yn arallfydol; eithr i’r Cymry yr oeddynt yn fynegiant o falchder gwladgarol.

Ceir ymgais ymwybodol i ddelfrydu, a gwelir yn amlwg yr yn math o berffeithrwydd eithafol ag y ddisgrifiai’r y Gogynfeirdd a Beirdd yr Uchelwyr yn eu hawdlau a’u cywyddau moliant:

A diau oedd gan Owain na welsai erioed neb rwy fwyd ni welai yno ddigon ohono, eithr bod yn well cyweirdeb y bwyd a welai yno nag yn lle arall erioed.  Ac ni welodd erioed le cyn amled anrheg odidog o fwyd a llyn ac yno.  Ac nid oedd un llestr yn gwasanaethau arno namyn llestr arian ac aur…. [Iarlles, tud 15]

A’r wledd y buwyd dair blynedd yn ei darparu yn un tri mis y’i treuliwyd.  Ac ni bu esmwythach iddynt wledd erioed nag well na honno. [Iarlles, tud 25]

Cyffredin yn y rhamantau yw cyfeiriadau ‘delfrydol’ fel hyn at wledda megis at ddillad, at ferched y llys, at ddewrder y marchogion, ac yn y blaen.  Bid siŵr, y mae peth o’r delfrydu hwn o achos dymuniad yr awdur neu’r cyfarwydd i gyflwno rhyfeddodau annaturiol, y bywyd diarffordd nad yw o’r un gyff â’n bywydbob dydd cyffredin ni, y digwyddiadau aruthr hynny a oedd, yn ei dyb ef, yr unig bethau a wir gynhyrfai diddordeb ei gynulleidfa.  Yn ogystal â’r ystyriaeth yna, sut bynnag, yr oedd hefyd y ffaith fod y storïau hyn yn tarddu yn y bôn mewn deunydd goruwchnaturiol, fod y bobl hyn sy’n arwyr iddynt wedi bod yn wreiddiol yn rhai yr oedd perfformio rhyfeddodau yn rhan o’u cynneddf ddwyfol ‘naturiol’.  Hynny sy’n esgor ar yr odrwydd hwnnw mewn ambell episode o naws hudol a dirgel a dreiddia drwy wead y rhamantau hyn.

Yn Iarlles y Ffynnon y mae gŵr du ag un droed ac un llygad yng nghewyllyn ei ben, ac ym Mheredur hefyd y mae gŵr du mawr unllygeidiog.  Yn awr, dull cyffredin llawer o bobloedd y byd yw cyfeirio at yr haul fel ‘llygad y nef’ (cf Shakespeare: ‘Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines’ [Sonnet 18]).  A chyda’r Tewtoniaid fel gyda’r Groegiaid yr oedd duw’r haul – a oedd yn Sylfaen melt a storm hefyd – yn unllygeidiog.  Yn Iwerddon yn ogystal ceid duw’r haul ag un llygad yng nghywellyn ei dalcen.  Pan gofiwn am Sol (yng Ngulhwch) ‘a allai sefyll un dydd a rei un droed’, a Sol yn golygu ‘haul’ wrth gwrs, a phan gofiwn gysylltiadau stormus, tyrfus y gŵr du unllygeidiog yn Iarlles y Ffynnon ac ym Mheredu ymddengys yn weddol amlwg – heb nodi’r profion eraill sydd ar gael – fod y rhain wedi bod un eu gorffennol pell, mwy ‘llewyrchus’, yn dduwiau storm-haul.

Dyma enghraifft ymysg amryw o’r sut y gallwn ddilyn mân awgrymiadau eraill yma ac acw – at fodrwy, at sarff, at bedair ar hugain o wragedd, at lew, at ŵr melyn, at ddiffeithwch sydyn, ac at ugeiniau o elfennau eraill – yn ôl yn y pen draw i ffynhonnell futheolegol bendant.

Casglaf felly mai cyfuniad neu gydblethiad o’r tri chymhelliad hyn – delfrydu gorfennol arwrol, cyfleu rhyfeddodau ‘newyddiadurol’, a defnyddio gweddillion storïau mutholegol – sy’n cyfrif i raddau am y naws ryfedd a deimlwn yn aml wrth ddarllen y chwedlau hyn.  Cofier hefyd fod, ambell dro, un neu gyfuniad o ddau yn unig o’r cymhellion ar waith, megis yn llawer o’r disgrifiadau grotesg a geir yn britho’r tudalennau (e.e. y forwyn bengrech ddu sy’n dod mewn i’r llys ar gefn mul melyn [Peredur, tud 83-4]).

Y mae llawer arbenigrwydd arall yn perthyn i’r rhamantau heblaw’r disgrifiadau gorawenus hyn.  Ynddynt y meithinrwyd yn gain ac yn llawnach ddwy thema, a oedd eisoes wedi brigo yn y Pedair Cainc ac yng Nghulwch ac Olwen ac oedd i fod yn themâu llywodraethol am gyfnod yn llenyddiaeth Ffrainc a gwledydd eraill – sef Serch Cwrtais a Marchogwraeth Grwydrad.  Ym mhob un o’r rhamantau hyn fe welir cydblethiad o serch ac anturiaeth, y fenyw ambell dro yn ysgogydd i’r anturiaeth – a serch rhamantau yn dechrau ymffurfio’rn gwlt cymdeithasol wrth fod y fenyw’n dringo gan bwyll bach ar ben ei phedestal.  Gŵyr pob Cymro am y parch traddodiadol at y fenyw a fynegwyd yn y Cyfreithiau Cymreig: drwy gyfrwng y rhamantau cafodd Ewrob benbaladr wybod am y syberwyd yma.

Dylid cyfeirio yma hefyd ar drefnusrwyd gorffenedig a ffurf resymegol y rhamantau, peth go eithriadol yn yr Oesoedd Canol.  Gwir fod rhyddiaeth Gymraeg wedi datblygu ynghynt na rhyddiaeth llenyddiaethau modern eraill, ond y mae mwy o undod o lawer yn y tair rhamant hyn nag sydd yn y rhamantau rhyddiaeth estron diweddarach.  Nid yn unig yr un arwr sy’n cadw’r llinyn rhediad yn esmwyth gyson, ond y mae adeiladwaith yr episodau yn dlws ac yn foddhaus i’r darllenydd.  Pentyrru diymatal oedd dull yr ysgrifenwyr rhyddiaeth estron o lunio eu rhamantau.  Datblyga pob un o’r rhamantau [Cymraeg] gyda chyflymder a gafael.  Yn Geraint yn neilltuol, y mae’r ambell newid golygfa a symud pwyslais o’r nail gymeriad i’r llall yn feistrolgar ac yn ddieithr o gelfydd mewn storïau mor gynnar â’r rhain.  A gall yr awdur fod hefyd yn wyrthiol o gryno – y mae pawb sydd wedi cymharu’n fanwl y fersiynau Frangeg a’r Gymraeg wedi sylwi cymaint mwy cynnil a chryno ac ymatalgar yw’r awdur Cymraeg – weithiau bron yn wyddonol neu’n ddiarhebol  o gryno, e.e. pan ddaw Edern fab Nudd yn glwyfus ac yn lluddedig i lys Arthur.  (Gweler Geraint, tud 116.)

Diau fod Iarlles y Ffynnon a Geraint yn fwy organaidd na Pheredur, a chynllun cyffelyb sydd ganddynt ill dwy.  (Er bod patrwm Peredur ychydig yn wahanol ac yn fwy ar lun taith y pícaro, y mae’r chwedl hon hefyd yn datblygu’r yn glir ac yn ofalus.)  I’r cynllun hwnnw y mae pedair cainc:

  • Rhagymadrodd sy’n dechrau yn llys Arthur ac yn cyflwyno’r arwr ai arwain at briodas.
  • Argyfwng sy’n gwahanu’r gŵr a’r wraig o ran perthynas onid o ran lle.
  • Cyfres o anturiaethau sy’n cynyddu yn eu anhawster ac yn arwain o’r diwedd at gymod rhwng yr arwr a’i wraig.
  • Gohirir diwedd y stori drwy gyflwyno hanes sy’n gyflawn ynddo’i hun er mwyn dangos dewrder yr arwr.

Ymddengys fod y briodas wedi bod yn rhyw fath o gwymp o safbwynt ‘buchedd marchog’ ac ymgais yw’r rhan hon, efallai, i ddangos fod anturiaethau’n bosibl iddo o hyd er gwaethaf cymodi â’i wraig!

Yn amgenach na’r cynllunio dillyn hwn ac uwchlaw pob dim arall, eu harddull ysblennydd yw’r hyn a esyd stamp athrylith ar y rhamantau hyn.  Mae’r disgrifio ar gymeriad ac ar ddigwyddiad yn delynegol yn eu rhythm a’u hysgafnder.  Fe ellid dyfynnu o unrhyw dudalen i amlygu adeiladwaith destlus a hapus y brawddegau a’u symud addas iawn i gyfleu naws urddasol y marchogion a phertrwydd y golygfeydd a welai’r storïwr.

Y mae traddodiad barddol yr awdur yn ddigon amlwg.  Yn gyntaf, yn ei agwedd gyffredinol at y testun.  Cymerer Peredur pan ddaw allan o guddygl y meudwy wedi bwrw’r nos yno:

Trannoeth y bore ef a gyfododd oddi yno, a phan ddaeth allan yr oedd gawod o eira wedi ry odi y nos gynt, a gwalch wyllt wedi lladd hwyad yn nhâl y cuddygl.  Â chan dwrf y march cilio o’r walch a disgyn brân ar gig yr aderyn.  Sef a orug Peredur, sefyll a chyffelybu dued y frân a gwynder yr eira a chochder y gwaed I wallt y wraig fwyaf a garai a oedd cyn dduedd a’r muchudd, a’i chnawd oedd cyn wynned â’r eira, a chochder ei gwaed yn yr eira i’r ddau fan gochion yn ei gruddiau.  [Peredur, tud 59]

Gwelir ei hyfforddiant barddol hefyd yn asbri’r cyfuniadau rhethregol, amlder ansoddeirau a’r rheini’n fynych yn gyfansawdd yn ôl dull yr Araith, ym Mheredur a Geraint yn arbennig.  Defnyddir y rhain bron yn ddieithriad pan ddymunir arafu ac urddasoli brawddeg neu fynegi brwdfrydedd afieithus.

Y mae’r amrywio rhwng yr arddull flodeuog heb orwneud a’r arddull gryno-gryno hon yn ôl y galw, a’r amrywio’r dialog ac adrodd digwyddiad a disgrifiad, yn adlwyrchu’r amrywiaeth hanfodol sydd yng nghrefft yr awdur, yr amrwyddiaeth sydd yn siâp ei frawddegau ac yn amser ei ferfau – amser gorffennol, nachaf + yn + berfenw, amherffaith, berfenw + orug, llyma + yn + berfenw, a ffurfiau eraill er mai adrodd hanes y gorffennol syml yn unig y mae ef.  O ganlyniad mae’r storïau’n symud yn rhwydd ac yn orffenedig ac yn egnïol.

Gellid oedi i sylwi fel y mae’n creu’n fywiog ac yn gain amryw gymeriadau pendant – Gwalchmai, y bonheddwr goddefgar yn llawn cydymdeimlad, yn ostyngedig ac yn gallu trechu hyd yn oed yr ysfa i’w ddangos ei hun; Cai, powld a byrbwyll, yn anghwrtais ac yn ddideimlad; gwledigrwydd naïf a phlaen Peredur yn datblygu i fod yn farchog soffistigedig cyflawn; ac eraill o’r arwyr amlwg heblaw llawer o fân gymeriadau tra diddorol.  Gall ddarlunio person ag ychydig o drawiadau llawen â’i frws.  Teimlaf fod y manddarlun cyfareddol hwn yn enghraifft deg o’i ddull gwrthrychol, cyflym:

Ar hynny llyma bump morwyn yn dyfod o’r ystafell i’r neuadd; a’r forwyn bennaf ohonynt, diau oedd ganddo na welsai dremaint cyn deced âhi erioed ar arall, a henwisg o bali rhwyllog amdani, a fuasai dda gynt, oni welid ei chnawd trwyddo – a gwynnach oedd na blawd y crisiant.  Ei gwallt hithau a’i dwyael, duach oeddynt na’r muchudd; dau fan gochion fychain yn ei gruddiau, cochach oeddynt na’r dim cochaf.  Cyfarch gwell i Beredur a orug y forwyn a myned mwnwgl iddo ac eistedd ar ei naill law.  [Peredur, tud 53]

Y mae cryn dipyn o grafter seicolegol gan yr awdur, fel y cofir ym Mheredur: ar ôl i’r marchog dieithr ddod i’r llys a sarhau Gwenhwyfar a phawb yn plygu eu pennau o gywilydd ac o ofn, dyma’r gwladwr trwsgl gan Beredur yn dyfod i mewn ar ei hen farch digrif, ac ymfalchïai marchogion y neuadd i gyd fod modd rhoi sylw i hwn bellach er mwyn i’r helynt arall fynd dros gof.

Ymhellach ymlaen y mae Peredur yn aros ychydig gyda’i ewythr er mwyn dysgu moesau da, ac y mae sylwadau hwnnw’n bur arwyddocaol fel y gwyddom oll, ysywaeth, erbyn hyn:

‘A chyda mi y byddi y wers hon yn dysgu moes ac arfer y gwledydd a’u mynudrwydd (h.y. cwrteisi), cyfartalrwydd ac addfwynder ac unbenrwydd.  Ac ymadawa weithion iaith dy fam.’  [Peredur, tud 48]

Nid yw cynildeb bachog o’r math hwn wedi ei gyfyngu i Beredur: fe’i ceir yn aml ym mhob un o’r storïau.  Er enghraifft, yn yr Iarlles, wedi i’r iarlles ddigio wrth Luned:

Ar hynny, myned a orug Luned ymaith; a chyfodi a orug yr iarlles hyd at ddrws yr ystafell yn ôl Luned a phesychu yn uchel, ac edrych a orug Luned tu dra’i chefn.  [Iarlles, tud 18-9]

Meistr llên yw awdur y tair rhamant hyn, efallai meistr mwyaf llên Cymru, yn sicr saif yn uchel ymysg ein llenorion pennaf.  Canys iddo ef, wrth gwrs, y mae’n rhaid diolch am un o ddau gyfraniad mawr Cymru i’r byd.”



Goethe’s ‘Faust’ – a true tragedy?

The writer of the Epilogue to my copy of Goethe’s Faust*, Hanns W Eppelsheimer, refers to “human arrogance, rising up against the deity, in order to seize a piece of the divine omnipotence for itself, with the aid of wizardry and magic,” as “a very old theme”.  He adds: “At the beginning of modern times, when in the 16th century the Renaissance set science free, the simple desires for power, wealth and sensual pleasure came to be joined by the new striving for unlimited knowledge.”  Enter the historical Faust (the name is a pseudonym), the semi-biographical stories about his life – and (in due course) the works of Christopher Marlowe and Johann Wolfgang Goethe (Faustus and Faust, respectively).

[*Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, Munich, 1962]

Let’s go much further back in time.  At the beginning of the ancient Biblical Book of Job, the “sons of God” – and Satan (the “Adversary” [REB]) – come before God.  God addresses Satan and says to him, “And the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job?” (1:8, [AV/KJV]).    In Martin Luther’s translation, the wording is:Hast du achtgehabt auf meinen Knecht Hiob?” (Note the word “servant”.)

God confirms the fact of Job’s goodness.  Satan counters that Job is good only because he is in receipt of God’s favours.  If he were to suffer (instead), he would curse God.  God empowers Satan to test Job by making him suffer.  Job loses his family and his animals and his health and retains only the company of his wife.  His wife urges Job to curse God, but he steadfastly refuses.

The story ties into the problem of why good people suffer.

In the Prologue to his Faust Part 1 (actually, the Prologue in Heaven), Goethe borrows a theme from Job, Chapters 1 and 2.  Before God there appear the heavenly hosts, the Archangels Raphael, Gabriel and Michael – and Mephistopheles.  The latter makes disparaging remarks about the people down on Earth.  God cuts through this and singles out Doctor Faust for special mention:

Der Herr: Kennst du den Faust?

Mephistopheles:             Den Doktor?

Der Herr:                                         Meinen Knecht!

The Lord: Do you know Faust?

Mephistopheles:             The Doctor?

The Lord:                                         My servant!

God maintains that Faust serves him, through his striving, despite the mistakes he makes (and is sure to make); and Faust remains aware of the correct path to take through life.  It is good that, rather than relaxing his efforts, he should be tested.  God, indeed, permits Mephistopheles to try to divert Faust from his “Urquell” (fountainhead or wellspring).  Mephistopheles appreciates the favour and sets to work.

What Goethe is saying (through his God character) is, firstly, that humans are expected to “strive”, and secondly, that as long as they do strive, they are following the right ethical path through life.  (Mistakes matter little.)

And then we meet Faust himself, alone in his study at night, at the beginning of the drama proper, and he speaks for himself:

         Habe nun, ach! Philosophie,

Juristerei und Medizin

Und leider auch Theologie

Durchaus studiert, mit heiẞem Bemühn….

Ah, now I’ve studied philosophy, jurisprudence and medicine, and alas, theology as well, ardently and painstakingly, from beginning to end.

[Translated by David Luke, editor, Goethe, Penguin Poets, 1964]

He has learnt a great deal; but he wants to learn more, beyond the bounds of handed down knowledge – metaphysics, perhaps, or the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

Early in Part 1 of the drama, Faust makes his own bargain with Mephistopheles: if he ever relaxes from his striving and wishes to stay still, in the beautiful moment, then Mephistopheles can take his soul.

At this stage, Faust resembles Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus.  The close parallel may be explained with reference to the semi-biographical material, available to both Marlowe and Goethe.  As for the “servant of God” theme, Goethe has borrowed it from the Book of Job but has changed it out of all recognition.  In Job, the plight of the protagonist is stark and extreme: the suffering imposed on the truly good man is poignant.  Goethe’s protagonist, on the other hand, is not made to suffer: rather, new ways of enjoying life are opened up to him.  Unfortunately, Faust’s own enjoyment can be at the expense of other people. (The tragedy of Part 1 is that of Gretchen and her family.)

In Part 2, Faust engages in good works, notably, the reclamation of low-lying land from the sea.  There arises, though, from the writings of the New Testament, the question as to whether good works are sufficient to ensure salvation – a Christian theological debating point.  St Paul explores this in his Epistle to the Romans: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (3:28, AV/KJV).  Luther’s German translation (doubtless available to Goethe) says: “So halten wir nun dafür, daẞ der Mensch gerecht werde ohne des Gesetzes Werke, allein durch den Glauben.”  Luther is saying here that “a man is justified, without the deeds of the law, only by faith.”   Luther adds the “only”; and this decision ties in with Lutheran theology.  On this view, Faust’s good works cannot be sufficient for his salvation.  We can add that Faust does not have faith, either.

Finally, at the end of the drama (in Part 2), Faust does have one moment of relaxation, and, accordingly, Mephistopheles tries to arrest his soul.  But, in the event, Mephistopheles is cheated of his long-sought-after prize – by the intervention of angels, including a transformed Gretchen.  Faust is enabled to ascend to Heaven.  Faust’s salvation, on Goethe’s terms, relies upon his own striving, the operation of the “eternal feminine”, and the words of forgiveness uttered by his female victim (Gretchen).

It as if Goethe has been influenced, here, by the thinking of Humanism and the Enlightenment, rather than by Judaism or Christianity.  This approach, however, comes across as optimistic, undramatic and far from tragic, in comparison with the powerful, challenging, moving stories (however different) of Job and of Marlowe’s Faustus – the former about the man who survives and is compensated for his losses, the latter about the man who sadly, magnificently, but inevitably, follows the path to damnation in Hell.

Let’s talk briefly about the nature of the completed Faust.  It is almost entirely in verse.  It is very long.  Whereas many verse (or verse and prose) dramas of Shakespeare and his contemporaries average roughly 2000 lines, and the Faustus A version has about 1,500, and the B version about 2,100, Part 1 of Faust has 4,612 lines, and Part 2 has 7,499!  Moreover, Part 2 has literally hundreds of parts.  Therefore, either Part poses great challenges, whenever a staging is contemplated.

I conclude, indeed, that Faust is a poem, and not a play, a drama or a tragedy as ordinarily conceived.


The Challenge of Recovering the Life of Jesus

First, I quote a paragraph from a 20th century book about a 16th century book about a 15th century-16th century man(!) – namely, that by Keefer M (1991), Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview:

Conspicuously absent from the accounts of [the historical] Doctor Faustus written during his lifetime [c 1466-c 1537] is any suggestion that he had a pact with the devil, an attendant spirit, powers of flight, the ability to devour a cartload of hay, detachable legs, or an affair with Helen of Troy.  Yet within fifty years of his death a legend which included all of these features, and which in addition recounted in lurid detail the lamentations of his final hours, was in print as the Historia von D Johann Fausten.

[page xxxvii]

In other words, the nature of the man, or the society in which he operated, or contemporary belief systems, attracted these stories to the handed-down memory of him.

Now, we know, pretty well, that Jesus of Nazareth, also known as Jesus Christ, son of Joseph and Mary, and also of God, died circa 30-33 CE.

What are the earliest written accounts of his life?  And how far back can they be dated?

Paul’s early Letters (the earliest part of the New Testament) date to about twenty years after Jesus’ death.  They contain very little biographical information about Jesus himself.  (See, for example, 1 Corinthians 1:22-3, 9:5, 15:3-8.)  Jesus died on the cross (for our sins) and subsequently appeared to his followers.  The details of his earthly life are missing.

Moving on to the Gospels.  They are dated variously between circa 70 and the end of the 1st century CE.  They do contain biographical material.

MARK (probably the earliest Gospel) does not include a birth narrative. There are emphases on Jesus’s teaching of the public in Galilee and his teaching of his disciples in private on his final journey to Jerusalem.  Jesus performs miracles.  Mark does include a crucifixion narrative, and also a truncated resurrection account, where the female visitors reportedly “went out and ran away from the tomb, trembling with amazement, for they were afraid” (16:8, REB).

MATTHEW (drawing in part on Mark?) includes a birth narrative and concludes with the crucifixion and resurrection.  At the end, Jesus informs his female visitors that he is proceeding to Galilee, and he meets his followers there.

Matthew has many quotations or allusions to Old Testament texts, by way of confirming how Jesus’s life and work fulfil OT prophecies, for example:

1:22-3 – Isaiah 7:14

2:5-6 – Micah 5:2

2:15 – Hosea 11:1

2:17-8 – Jeremiah 31:15.


LUKE (drawing in part on Mark?) includes a birth narrative, different from Matthew’s.  He concludes with the crucifixion and resurrection.  The visiting women find Jesus’s tomb empty, but they are reassured by “two men in dazzling garments”. Subsequently, two of Jesus’s followers (male?) meet him on the way to Emmaus, near Jerusalem; and later again Jesus appears to his disciples as a group and walks out with them as far as Bethany (and ascends to heaven).


JOHN gives us a more mystical gospel.  It is characterised by Jesus’s “I am” statements, such as: “I am the bread of life”, “I am the light of the world”, “I am the door of the sheep”, “I am the good shepherd”, “I am the resurrection and the life” and “I am the way, the truth, and the life”, and “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener” and “I am the vine; you are the branches.”  (Parallels can be found in OT passages.  Compare Matthew, in a different way.)


John commences with a mystical origin or genesis narrative (1:1-18).  He concludes with a crucifixion narrative, and an account of the resurrection in which first Mary of Magdala meets Jesus outside the empty tomb, and in which Jesus later appears to the disciples as a group.  (In Chapter 21, like an appendix, Jesus comes to his disciples again, when they are fishing.)


John is consistently contrasted by scholars with the three “synoptic” gospels.  However, there are parallels between the groups.  R H Fuller (1971), A Critical Introduction to the New Testament, London: Duckworth, writes:


John’s resemblances to Mark are confined to three stretches: the Baptist’s preaching and the baptism of Jesus (John 1:19-34); the central crisis (John 6:1-21, 66-71); and the passion narrative with its prelude [passim]….[We] conclude that Mark and John are drawing upon a tradition which was ultimately from the same source but which has been transmitted by different channels.


[page 169]


In the light of both confirmatory and contradictory evidence of elements of Jesus’s life (and his death), how does one recover the historical reality, if at all?  How many passages in the NT are actually accretions to the genuine story? (We do not know.)  What is the true nature of the reported miracles?  How many (if any) are literally true?


It is possible to claim, (i) that the outline of Jesus’s life is discernible, and (ii) that the outline of his overt teaching is visible (more clearly than the life).  Sources for (i) include confirmatory parallels between Mark and John, for the life; and sources for (ii) are confirmatory parallels between Matthew and Luke, for the teaching.


Mention of point (ii) above brings one straight to the theory of the existence of underlying “Q” (“Quelle” = “source”) material, underlying passages broadly common to Matthew and Luke.  (A popular but disputed concept.)  The “Q” material has little narrative content; but, viewed in isolation, it highlights the ethical and religious teaching ascribed to Jesus, rather usefully.  (This in turn has some resemblance to the “wisdom literature” characteristic of parts of the later Old Testament and the Apocrypha.)  Definitely worth a look.


This forms a lively drama.  The work of a man in his twenties, like Christopher Marlowe, in relation to his Faustus.  There are scenes of comedy and of love and seriousness.  There are scenes in verse and scenes in prose.  There are songs – some comic, others poignant.

The language moves the action on rapidly and evokes the feelings of the participants vividly.

The core of the story is Faust’s relationship with Gretchen.  Unfortunately, she and her family members suffer the consequences, and Gretchen herself ends up in prison – awaiting execution?  Gretchen refuses to be rescued by Faust and Mephistopheles.  The woman pays! (Bring on feminism!)  Faust and Mephistopheles get away scot-free.  There is no tragedy for them.

Mephistopheles’s role is that of an avuncular pandar.  No pact between Faust and Mephistopheles is shown in this early version (contrast the later Part One).

Here, Faust is not demonstrably at theological fault (contrast Marlowe) but at moral fault.

The later Faust Part One follows this version fairly closely and elaborates upon it and sophisticates it.  Gretchen is pronounced “saved” at the end.  Part Two forms in effect, a totally different, complex work, with hundreds of characters.  (Is it actable?)  Faust avoids damnation (forgiven by Gretchen), and so never suffers a personal tragedy.


Goethe’s play commences in a similar place to Marlowe’s Faustus, with references to the protagonist’s mastery of philosophy, medicine, law and theology – and magic.  (See below, Appendix 1.)  From then on, the two diverge.

In comparison with Faust and the Urfaust, Marlowe’s version has the merits of being blunt and honest, with a suitable climax and ending.



Appendix 1. The opening lines of Goethe’s Urfaust.

The play commences with a soliloquy by Faust:

Hab nun ach die Philosophey

Medizin und Juristey,

Und leider auch die Theologie

Durchaus studirt mit heisser Müh.


I attach a very free adaptation of the first 28 lines, below, to give an indication of how they come across.


I know it all – philosophy,

Medicine, law, bureaucracy,

And sadly too theology,

Sweated over thoroughly.

I remain a stupid fool,

Of rote learning a mere tool.

Doctor and Professor I am called:

With ten years’ teaching I have stalled.

Back and fore and up and down

I lead my pupils, like a clown.

I see that we can nothing know:

It breaks my heart – a heavy blow.

I am smarter than my neighbours –

Pedants, wedded to their labours.

I don’t think of doubts and errors.

Hell and Devil hold no terrors.

But in me is instilled the yearning

To uncover what’s worth learning.

I’d prefer it if our college

Did impart more useful knowledge.

I have no money to my name

And in the wider world no fame.

To make my fortune, avoid the tragic,

I’ll devote myself to magic,

Exercise my mental strength:

Secrets will be revealed at length.

With confidence, instead of doubt,

I’ll teach the things I know about.



Appendix 2. Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1987), Urfaust, Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam Jun – Epilogue by Robert Petsch

The Epilogue provides a context for the appearance of Goethe’s first version of Faust circa 1775.  Here, the late Professor Petsch wrote as follows (in translation):

Among books offered for sale at 18th century Germany’s trade fairs (e.g. in Frankfurt am Main), which kept old popular books in being, there was to be found an abbreviated version of the Historia von D Johann Fausten (1587)* – a version that revealed the influence of the Age of Enlightenment in its critical attitude to the old legend.  As he reports in his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit (Truth and Poetry), as a boy, Goethe himself read and devoured the story, mislaid it, restored it, and made the content firmly his own.  The figure of the old devil-conjuror on the puppet stage gripped him and made a greater impact on him.   The brilliant Faustus drama by Shakespeare’s greatest predecessor, Christopher Marlowe (which Goethe only got to know later in life) had been taken by English actors to Germany, gradually turned into a popular drama, and reduced to puppet theatre.

In the “clever” 18th century, people no longer wanted to know about the fable; the clergy were annoyed by the inclusion of the Devil; the philosophers of the Enlightenment sensed stultifying superstition; but an enlightened spirit like Gottfried Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) had an inkling, behind the debased text of the strolling players, of the former poetic significance of the material and applied himself to an up-to-date revival; he did not wish the honest truth-seeker to be lost, despite his straying from the strait and narrow.

Then the younger generation, those of the ‘Sturm und Drang’ (‘Storm and Stress’), to which Goethe himself belonged, brought to the Faust legend a deeper understanding.  In contrast with the Age of Enlightenment, they sought to do justice to the seamy side of life, to understand mankind’s dark impulses and passions, and to take a leap into the incomprehensible.

[*freely translated into English and published (1592) as The Historie of the damnable life and deserved death of Doctor Faustus – the principal source of Marlowe’s own play.]





Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’ as a Christian play

I’ve just been moving some of our many books around, to make way for the installation of a new fireplace and fire.  A few were left in the living room, though.  Among them, I found: Nicholas Boyle, Goethe, The Poet and the Age, Volume I, The Poetry of Desire (1749-1750), published by Oxford University Press in 1991.  800 pages!  I browsed through the pages and looked in particular at the comments on the protracted history of Goethe’s Faust, which Goethe worked on repeatedly throughout his long life (he died in 1832).  The useful evaluation of the “Urfaust” (the first draft, circa 1774) is to be found on pages 218-229.

I have copies in German of the Urfaust and of the final Parts I and II of the completed work.  (Goethe calls it a “tragedy” – but is it really?)

I wish to re-read Goethe.  But first I have looked at again at Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (circa 1589-92) – not only in its own right but also to compare it with Goethe’s Faust (and to write up my findings, in due course).

A few plays by the contemporaries of William Shakespeare’s stand out: Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is one of them.  It appears to me that it is not a play that Shakespeare himself could have written.  Aspects of the protagonist could be said to be distributed among various Shakespearean characters – the ambitious Macbeth (aided and abetted by his wife), the uxorious Antony (who submits to Cleopatra), the arrogant Coriolanus, and the sage Prospero, who abjures his magical powers in the end.

I find that I have four copies of Faustus.  From my mother I have inherited a straightforward reproduction of the 1604 “A” text, in the 1909 Everyman edition of The Plays of Christopher Marlowe, with an introduction by Edward Thomas (poet).  Secondly, I have a copy of Christopher Marlowe, The Complete Plays, edited by J B Steane, published by Penguin in 1969.  The text of Faustus is an unfortunate mixture of the 1604 “A” and 1606 “B” texts; and the criteria for the selections are not clear.  Then follow two very scholarly editions.  My third is: Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’, a 1604-version edition, edited by Michael Keefer, and published by Broadview Press, Peterborough, Ontario, in 1991.  The fourth is: Christopher Marlowe, ‘Doctor Faustus’, A- and B-texts (1604, 1616), edited by David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen, and published in the Revels Plays series by Manchester University Press, in 1993.

Ah! The two versions of Faustus, which have caused the much pouring of scholarly ink.  Which one is the closer to Marlowe’s original intent? Let’s cut a long story short.  The main scenes of the “A” version look to be “Marlovian” by virtue of wording and style, but the comic scenes may be by a collaborator.  The “B” version contains additions by other writers and is much longer.  J B Steane makes a pithy comment on the differences, as follows (pages 261-2):

[This] editor’s personal opinion is that the play is artistically stronger in its shorter form.  The A text (1604) has everything essential to the presentation of the ‘tragical history’; the B text (1616) adds, for the most part, light, simple-minded comedy….There is quite enough knockabout and emptiness in the middle section of [the A text].  But at least the balance there is more favourable to the essential, the tragic and the poetic: in the B text we are much nearer to the ‘set of farces’ which we gather Doctor Faustus had become in [Alexander] Pope’s time.

The A version is indeed coherent and impressive – and actable.

Many plays have twists and turns in the plot and take the audience by surprise.  This is not exactly the case with Marlowe’s Faustus.  The pleasures of the play are derived from the majestic blank verse of the main scenes, from the comic scenes (which provide “comic relief”), and from the spectacle of the Seven Deadly Sins.

As for the fate of the protagonist, he slides inexorably down the slippery slope towards his damnation and confinement in Hell.  Occasionally he hesitates and reviews his situations but he persists in his course.  It is fair to say that he receives advice (conflicting!), but he has to take responsibility for his decisions. (Don’t blame Mephistopheles!)

In his day, Marlowe was regarded as something of an anti-authority rebel, especially in theological terms.  However, on the face of it, Faustus reflects traditional Christian theology: “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  Now, the prescribed remedy for sin is repentance.  In the A version, Faustus is told by the Good Angel that he can still be saved, if he can repent [Revels A II.iii.79] ; but it appears that he cannot, as his heart is already hardened.  This accords with Calvinist doctrine, prevalent in the Church of England in Marlowe’s time.  (Here is raised too the old philosophical question as to the relative strengths of free will and predestination.)  In the B version, the matter of repentance is diluted: Faustus is told that he can be saved, if he will repent [Revels B II.iii.80].  (See Keefer, Introduction, pages lxv-lxvi, and Bevington & Rasmussen, Introduction, page 29, for discussion of this distinction.)

Any indications that God’s arbitrary power and Christian doctrine are to be deemed intolerable have to be detected between the lines of the play.

I see Faustus’s fault largely in a sort of intellectual laziness.  He sees magic as a quick way to power and to sexual love. He has no patience for the slow ways to knowledge – proof in argument, logic, medicine, law or divinity.

Anyway, to back up my point, I shall call upon the only passage I am taking the liberty of quoting from this marvellous work:

 These metaphysics of magicians

And necromantic books are heavenly….

Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.

O, what a world of profit and delight,

Of power, of honour, of omnipotence,

Is promised to the studious artisan!

All things that move between the quiet poles

Shall be at my command. Emperors and kings

Are but obeyed in their several provinces,

Nor can they raise the wind or rend the clouds;

But his dominion that exceeds in this

Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man.

A sound magician is a mighty god.


[Revels A I.i.51-2, 54-64]




My next task is to examine Goethe’s Faust, and to contrast and compare it with Marlowe’s Faustus.





Grief – real and fictional

Television at its best

Yesterday evening (6 October), I watched a long documentary on TV – Troubles: The Life After.  Ordinary people (mainly, women) recalled the murders of loved ones at the hands of armed men (on whatever side) over the course of the thirty-year Northern Ireland “Troubles” (1968-1998).  This term is a euphemism for violation, death and destruction: three and a half thousand people lost their lives and over forty thousand were injured.

The grief over their losses remains raw, fresh, vivid. Those killed were innocent of any crime; their deaths were pointless, as peace and reconciliation were hindered, not helped, by the taking of life; none of those responsible, in these cases, was ever brought to justice. As was said, everyone on Northern Ireland was affected by the “Troubles” and knew of people who were bereaved.

I was forcibly reminded of my visits to Northern Ireland, in 1969 and this year.  The people are friendly.  The infrastructure has been modernised, in the interim.  There is a fragile peace, of a sort, but the fundamental divisions remain.

I was also reminded of another TV programme, one of a series, shown on 3 October – Upstart Crow.  This is a sort of 16th century situation comedy, with satirical references to 21st century issues.  The protagonist, William Shakespeare himself, is portrayed (by David Mitchell) as a pompous plagiarist, who, nevertheless, succeeds in producing the plays that his company requires to stay in business.

In the final programme of the series (3 October), however, Williams’ confidence and complacency were shaken by the sudden death of his young son, Hamnet (an historical event – 1596).  The final note was one of sorrow and regret in place of the usual sallies of wit.

The programme ended, with Mitchell’s voice-over, intoning the words:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.

The passage is recognisably Shakespearean, but, to my disappointment, I could not remember where it comes from.  It comes, indeed, from King John.  These words are uttered by a mother (Constance) about the loss of Arthur, her son.  In the course of the play he is first seized by his enemy and later dies (an historical event – circa 1203).

Here we have references to two real deaths and a moving fictional treatment of each of them.  The fiction brings out the reality of grief.

No easy comfort is available to the bereaved of Northern Ireland; their grief still “fills their room”.


‘God’s Plenty’

BBC Radio 4 offers its listeners a weekly music and chat programme.  It has been running since the 1940s.  The presenter interviews a famous person and asks them how they would cope if they happened to be stranded on a desert island, alone.  (The execution surpasses the craziness of the concept.)  The imaginary compensations granted to the castaway are: one luxury item, eight gramophone records (CDs, I suppose, nowadays) and books – the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, and one other book.

I admit that I don’t listen to the programme; but it has made me think.

In the unlikely event that I were stranded, alone – whether on a desert island or not – what (on the lines of the offers made above) would I choose to have with me?

The choice of a luxury item can be deferred.  Perhaps it could be a comfortable bed.

I’d happily choose to have the Bible and Shakespeare, as I dip into them from time to time already.

And the third book?  The answer is: the complete works of Geoffrey Chaucer – available in the excellent Riverside Edition, first published in 1987, which provides background information, including help with Chaucer’s medieval English.

Translations of major works are available in modern English translation, e.g. those by N Coghill and B Stone, published by Penguin (London).

Why this choice, given all the other possible ones?

There is great variety: lyrics, mini-epics, and collections of stories.

One of the remarkable things about Chaucer’s work is the way he is influenced by continental literatures (Roman/Latin, French and Italian).  He is hence a cosmopolitan rather than a merely English poet.  Moreover, he adapts the originals and blends them and makes something new.  (‘Poetry’ means ‘making’.)  In some passages, he translates closely, but in many places he paraphrases, makes omissions, or adds his own material.  (Compare, for example, Boccaccio’s Filostrato and Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.)

Chaucer’s writing addresses religious and philosophical topics, in particular, the matter of determinism versus free will – a serious business, but conveyed in readable, digestible ways.  (See, for example, Troilus and Criseyde and the ending of the Knight’s Tale.)

He uses much humour and irony and gentle satire.  See, for example, the comical discussion between the cock and his hen wife in The Nun Priest’s Tale about the significance of dreams.  (The cock refers to learned books, whereas his wife relies on personal experience; and experience, on this occasion, would have provided the better guide concerning the risk a fox poses to chickens.)

Chaucer invents believable, memorable characters, e.g. the talking Eagle (in the House of Fame) and the Wife of Bath (in the Canterbury Tales).

He evokes pathos, especially as regards the fate of the eponymous protagonist in Troilus and Criseyde.

He gives us a gallery of characters from many walks of life (apart from the highest and lowest classes) in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.

He is a master of the use of the narrator as a literary device; and the narrator even puts himself, as a character – into the Canterbury Tales.

An early, favourable critic of Chaucer (and translator/adapter) was John Dryden (1631-1700), himself a prominent poet in his day.  He comments on him at length in the Preface to his Fables, Ancient and Modern.  He is generous in his praise; and he sums up his verdict with the phrase: “here is God’s plenty.”

Hundreds of other poets shine; but as a companion to cheer me up, if I were to be stranded on a desert island, I have found no one yet to compare with Chaucer (other than Shakespeare himself).

To go or not to go? Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare.


Plots of stories and dramas often centre on love rivalries, involving three or four people.

In Giovanni Boccaccio’s Filostrato (14th century), set in the time of the mythical Trojan war, the main characters, Troiolo and Criseida fall in love, have a relationship, but keep it secret.  Unfortunately for them, a personnel exchange is arranged, whereby Criseida is obliged to leave Troy and go over to the other side (the Greek camp), to be with her renegade father.  Then she is wooed by Diomede, and she accepts him in the place of her former lover. Troiolo is left to bewail his fate.

When the lovers first hear about their impending separation, Troiolo proposes to Criseida that they steal away from Troy while they have the chance:

         andiamcene in un’altra regione….

e’ son di qui remote

genti che volentieri ci vedranno….

Fuggiamci, dunque occultamente.


[Part 4, from stanzas 144f, Mondadori edition, Milan, 1990]


“Let us betake ourselves to another region….There are, remote from here, peoples who will receive us gladly…Wherefore let us make our flight secretly.”

[Translation by Griffin N and Myrick A, Cambridge, Ontario, 1999 – available online.]

In reply, Criseida gives reasons for not taking flight, namely, the adverse consequences for the Trojans’ war against the Greeks (in which Troilus himself plays a great part), and for their own reputations, and indeed for the quality of their relationship.  She promises, instead, to return to Troy ten days after her enforced departure to the Greek camp.  (In the event she does not.)

Filostrato is the main source of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.  In it, Chaucer’s Troilus makes the same proposal (about leaving together) to his Criseyde.  Troilus assures her that, between them, they do have enough wealth to live on.  He adds:

         And hardily, ne dredeth no poverte,

For I have kyn and fremdes elleswhere

That, though we comen in our bare sherte,

Us sholde neyther lakken gold ne gere

But we been honoured while we dwelt there,

And go we anon; for as in myn entente,

This is the beste, if that ye wole assente.


[Book 4, lines 1520ff, Riverside Chaucer, 1987]


         And you need have no fear of taking hurt

Through poverty, for I have friends elsewhere,

And kindred; though you came in your bare shirt,

You would not lack for gold and things to wear;

We should be honured if we settled there.

Let us go now, for it is plain to me

This is the best, if you will but agree.


[N Coghill’s translation, Penguin, 1971]


Criseyde gives reasons similar to those of Boccaccio’s Criseida, and also swears to return to Troy after ten days.  (She does not.)

Now, some of Chaucer’s works are sources for some of those by William Shakespeare.  Chaucer’s Troilus is the principal source for the love plot in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.  In brief, the story is speeded up; the personality of Cressida suffers in the process.  But Cressida should be seen in context, i.e. as a victim of male oppression; and the reader (or spectator) of the play should ask how many choices she actually has.

I’d like to move on to a very different play, namely, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It has often been said that the plots of the Dream are devised by Shakespeare himself and are not derived from other writers.  True, there is a love rivalry plot, to do with Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Lysander.  But as I have said at the beginning, this topic is very common.  Here, the conflicts are resolved, with a happy ending.  In Act 1 Scene 1, Hermia and Lysander are presented with a difficulty – the impending marriage of Hermia, against her will, to Demetrius (her father’s choice).  (Patriarchy!)  As in Boccaccio’s and Chaucer’s Troilus stories, the man suggests to the woman that they take flight, at an early opportunity.  Lysander says, reassuringly:

         I have a widow aunt, a dowager,

Of great revenue; and she hath no child.

From Athens is her house remote seven leagues;

And she respects me as her only son….

If thou lovest me, then

Steal forth thy father’s house tomorrow night,

And in the wood….

There will I stay for thee.


[Act 1 Scene 1, lines 156ff, Penguin edition, 1967]


Could these lines have been inspired by Shakespeare’s reading of Chaucer?