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”.

 

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‘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.

TO GO OR NOT TO GO?

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?

 

 

Friends for a reason, friends for a season

I have just read the Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning (1908-1980), first published in 1987, based on her experiences in Romania and Greece between 1939 and 1941 (i.e. during the Second World War).  It is a story of war, seen from the point of view of numerous civilians caught up in it.

Native Romanians and Greeks feature in the pages; but most of the characters are British – people who have either chosen to live abroad or have been posted there to work for the British Government.

At the very end of the story, Harriet Pringle (principal character) and Guy (her husband) are obliged to flee from Greece as the Germans invade (1941).  Harriet thinks about the scattering of the people they have got to know:

Harriet thought of Charles left behind with the retreating army, of David taken by the enemy, of Sasha become a stranger, of Clarence lost in Salonika, of Alan who would share the fate of the Greeks, and of Yakimov in his grave. Not one of their friends remained except Ben Phipps; the ‘vainest and the emptiest’.

Note that Harriet is a woman in a man’s world; and the above-named are all men.

One conclusion I draw from my reading is that the people named (and others described in the trilogy) are acquaintances and temporary colleagues rather than genuine friends – friends only for a “reason” (e.g. work) and a “season” (the period 1939-41).  Moreover, there are many squabbles among them – they are not united in the face of adversity.

The British exiles go through various emotions as the war continues and the territories of allies and neutrals are lost to the “Axis” – ranging from hope (which turns out to be ill founded) to ironic humour and to worry (even panic).  Finally they get to grips with the practicalities of getting away (or even staying put).  Their predicament is exacerbated by the fact that, while troops can be evacuated from Dunkirk as France falls in 1940, they find themselves on the “wrong” side of Europe – beyond the easy reach of Allied forces that might keep the enemy at bay or rescue them.

The Brits tend to be unrealistic about the true nature of their plight.  (Make some allowance for hindsight, here.)  One can read signs, between the lines, of the gradual but steady decline of the Britain as a world power.

The air of unreality that hangs over the Brits is reinforced by Guy Pringle’s enthusiastic putting on, in Bucharest, Romania, in 1940, of an amateur production of William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, a play set in the context of the legendary Trojan War.   It is performed to raise the morale of the British residents and to impress the Romanians.  The casting is inspired, and the performances are widely regarded as a success.  But what an incongruous choice!  Shakespeare’s language is difficult in places, especially in this play, even for people whose first language is not English.  Indeed, it is seldom performed.

One characteristic of Troilus and Cressida is the squabbles among the Trojans (whether to keep Helen or to hand her over to the Greeks), balanced with the squabbles among the Greeks (as to how best to restore the authority of Agamemnon while persuading Achilles to return to the front line) – quite apart from the actual war itself.  (See too Homer’s Iliad, while noticing the major differences in plot, characterisation and tone.)

A second feature of Troilus and Cressida is the evidence displayed that both Helen and the eponymous Cressida are women in a man’s world: they can be reduced to the status of bargaining counters – in other words, “articles of trade….weak and oppressed” (see Prof R A Foakes’s  Introduction to the 1987 Penguin edition of the play).  At the same time, none of the male characters can be taken seriously as a hero (with the possible exception of Hector), either in matters of war or in those of love – they are proud and self-serving.  The end of the play is neither tragic nor comic (certainly, it’s not funny).

At the end of Troilus, the war is still going on.  But (outside the framework of the play) Troy will eventually fall.  One Part of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy is itself called ‘The Fall of Troy’ – a clear allusion made to the momentous Fall of France in 1940.

It so happens that, earlier this year, I had re-read Troilus and Cressida, before reading the Balkan Trilogy for the first time.  The reference to the former, within the body of the latter, came as a pleasant surprise.

Returning to the Trilogy: Harriet Pringle has a mind of her own, intelligence, perception and sensitivity.  However, by virtue of her married status (Britain, 20th century style), and the roles that both she as an individual accepts and that societies as a whole ascribe to her, she trails behind her husband Guy, in his wake; and she makes a series of concessions to his wishes and needs, in order to keep him happy – swallowing her pride but feeling resentment.

The 21st century reader may see things differently from Harriet intellectually while sympathising with her predicament emotionally.  (Make up your own mind.)

The Balkan Trilogy is an excellent read.  You feel you’re there, in time and place.

Troilus and Cressida is an excellent read too.  (You may never get the chance to see it performed.)

30 Years of Troubles, 20 Years of (some) Peace

In 1969, as a young single man, I spent four weeks in Northern Ireland, based first in Derry and then in Belfast as a participant in volunteer work camps (the volunteers all being outsiders).  It was a learning experience.  I saw burnt out houses in Belfast.  I saw the “no go area” of the Bogside part of Derry.  I felt the warmth of the hospitality of the people.  I saw the sectarian divide.  And I was there when British troops moved into Belfast.

Quietly, in the background, Quakers (Irish and British) worked for reconciliation, in the following years.

I have not been back to N Ireland since.  This summer, my wife and I are thinking seriously of going to the area as visitors – tourists, if you like.

Since 1969, I have been an onlooker of events and changes in N Ireland.  I note that today (10 April) is being marked as the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Any agreement in such a fraught situation is hard to achieve and to maintain, as it represents an awkward trade-off between “peace” (well, an absence (or reduction) of armed conflict) and “justice” (the prosecution of offenders and the granting of some satisfaction to victims).  However, on the whole, the Good Friday Agreement appears to have stood the test of time.

Let’s be frank.  The idea of “Brexit” – the departure of the UK from the European Union – represents the undermining of the Good Friday Agreement and a threat to peace.

The customs border between Northern Ireland and the Free State (later, the Republic) was established in the 1920s, as the South broke away from the UK.  The customs arrangements were doubtless part of the South’s new-found sovereignty.  But I suspect that the trade barriers hindered the development of the South in the subsequent years: it remained relatively poor and suffered from continuing emigration (eg to the UK).  The South prospered once it joined the EU (together with Britain) in 1973 and in particular with the creation of the Single Market.

The prospect of a “hard” border between North and South is unappetising, to say the least.

 

Exiles and lift boys – Karl Rossmann and Felix Krull – Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann and Frank Kafka are two of the great 20th century writers in German.  I draw some comparisons, below.

Kafka: the lift and the downward drift

Kafka had a knack of opening his longer works – I am thinking of his novels and The Metamorphosis – with arresting sentences that point to the whole development of the ensuing story, like an omen.

The Castle:

It was late evening when K arrived.  The village lay in deep snow. The castle hill was invisible; it was enveloped in fog and darkness; from the great castle not even the faintest light shone through.

The Trial:

Somebody must have told lies about Josef K, for although he had done nothing wrong, he was arrested one morning.

The Metamorphosis:

As Gregor Samsa woke one morning from disturbing dreams, he found himself transformed into a monstrous insect.

Amerika:

As the sixteen-year-old Karl Rossmann, sent to America by his poor parents because a maid had seduced him and had had a child by him, was sailing into New York Harbour on board the gradually slowing ship, he caught sight again of the Statue of the Goddess of Liberty, which appeared to be lit up by a burst of sunshine.   Clutching her sword, her arm towered above him….

(All the translations are my own.)

“Now read on!”

Kafka’s prose is very precise; and I would not wish any sentence or clause to be taken away.

The last named novel concerns a very young man and his career in exile in the USA.  On his way, he suffers further insults and further losses – precarious friendships are broken, repeatedly, as he lands in difficulties and is obliged to keep moving on.  He works for a short time as a hotel lift boy, at the bottom of the staff hierarchy, happy in his relationship with two women on the hotel staff.   He ends up being reprimanded by his superiors, over an act of kindness to an acquaintance, and he is dismissed.  Things cannot get worse — but indeed they do.  (However, this verdict depends on how one construes the ending, or endings, that have come down to us.)  (See my blog post of September 2013.)

As I have said before, Kafka succeeds in creating pathos, in the context of a credible, albeit nightmarish, world of his own devising.

Mann: the lift and the uplift

The last novel of Thomas Mann was called Die Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull – The Confessions of the Confidence Trickster Felix Krull.  I have just re-read it.

Note that the novel is unfinished; only the First Part exists; Thomas Mann died before he could continue it.

Felix Krull is affected by the collapse of his father’s business and his father’s suicide; and he has to make his own way in the world.  This he does – via Frankfurt am Main, Paris and Lisbon.

Felix is a pícaro – the novel is picaresque and comic.  The hero makes the most of the opportunities offered him; and he goes from strength to strength.  In Paris, he commences work as a hotel lift boy.  He is promoted to waiter.  He is befriended by several hotel guests; and (to cut a long story short) he exchanges places with an aristocrat (at the latter’s request), assuming his identity, and starts out on the nobleman’s planned world tour in his place, so that the aristocrat can remain in Paris with his girlfriend.  So, Felix goes up in the world, whether he deserves to or not.  And he makes the most of it.

Many of Felix’s adventures have to do with sexual relationships – all short term, as he keeps moving on (onwards and upwards).  He is befriended by a Lisbon family, and he chooses to linger in the city, lost in admiration, as he is, for both mother and daughter.  Which one (if either) will he seduce, or be seduced by?

To my mind, one of the jokes of the book is the surname of the father/husband, which is “Kuckuck”, i.e. “cuckoo”.  Will Felix cuckold him?

Thomas Mann’s irony, and his allusions to (and parodies of) previous writers, can be found, if you look for them.  His prose is sophisticated.  Kafka’s, by contrast, remains, at root, plain.  Mann’s style, moreover, is difficult: his prose is characterised by very long sentences, with subordinate clauses, a very wide vocabulary, numerous adjectives; and it has a rather old-fashioned air.  Mann works hard to create local colour, especially in the Lisbon scenes, and he succeeds.  But I still prefer Kafka’s prose; and it is easier to translate.

Finally, I’ll quote the opening sentence of the Confessions, in a free translation, in order to compare it with Kafka’s (above).  (One should make allowances for the first person nature of the narrative and the self-congratulatory nature of the narrator himself.)

As I take up my pen, at my leisure and in privacy, while still healthy, though tired, very tired (so that I can proceed only in short stages and with frequent rests in between) – as I prepare, then, to commit my confessions, in my distinctively clear and felicitous handwriting, to the paper that waits patiently for me, I have fleeting doubts as to whether I am really equal to the mental effort required, given my patchy education and training.

And so the novel goes on, in this vein.

To compensate somewhat for my criticism, I’ll quote the ending.  Here it is (very freely translated):

“Holé!  Heho!  Ahé!” she cried, in great jubilation.  A whirlwind of primitive forces transported me into a state of rapture.  And, amid my ardent caresses, I could see her truly regal bosom rise, to greater heights, with greater passion, than at today’s bull fight.

I’ll leave it to you, gentle reader, to guess which lady ends up in the protagonist’s arms (unless, of course, you already know).

 

a brief skylight on Portugal

In the course of our married life (forty years plus) my wife Jane and I have had a series of holidays at the western edge of Europe – from the Orkneys in the north, southward through Sky, Mull and Iona (but not Lewis and Harris, and little of Ireland), the Highlands, Galloway, the Lake District, Formby, the Llŷn Peninsula and West Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, Galicia – and in 2017, Portugal (continental and Madeira).  Variety but also similarities – the pounding waves and the prevailing south west winds, often bearing rain.

So, Portugal, albeit visited in its own right, fitted into this life story.  It did not disappoint.

One of the striking things about Portugal is the fact (going back several hundred years) is that it is not Spain.  (Small countries endeavour to retain their identity vis-à-vis big neighbours.)  Similarly, Portuguese is not the same as Spanish.  (Jane and I love Spanish.)  A second truism is that one can try to read written Portuguese but to speak it and to understand the spoken language require much knowledge and practice.

We went around an informative museum in Funchal about the history of Madeira.  The exhibits were well labelled – in four languages – Portuguese, English, French and German – but not Spanish.

I learnt some basic phrases, in order to communicate with the people we met, and to show respect, but I was reluctant to use Spanish.

In the Middle Ages, the Portuguese and Galician languages were similar – “o” for masculine “the” and “a” for feminine “the” – and they still retain this feature (contrast Spanish “el” and “la”).  But a superficial look (mine) inclines one (me) to think that they have drifted apart, because of the longstanding political division.

To fortify my appreciation of Portugal, I dipped into its literature – in particular, the epic of Luís de Camões, Os Lusíados, based upon early Portuguese explorations of Africa and India (read in translation), and also the early novel of José Saramago, Claraboia [Skylight], about the residents (ordinary people) of a block of flats in Lisbon in the early 1950s.  (Recommended.)  (We visited the Saramago Foundation in Lisbon.)

Saramago’s characters are distinct and clearly drawn.  They are human, and they suffer the ups and downs (especially downs) of life.  Happy and unhappy couples feature, and poor widows, and hopeful young women; one woman is “kept” as the mistress of a businessman; another is abused by her husband.

One wife (Carmen) is from Galicia in Spain, and she has not fully mastered Portuguese, after many years of residence in Portugal.  She regrets her marriage to her husband and thinks back to a better offer she had back home.  (At the end of the novel, Carmen returns to Galicia to see her family (with her husband’s permission, as required!); and the reader is let into her thoughts about taking advantage of the opportunity not to return to her husband.)

Silvestre, the shoemaker (usually portrayed in a positive light), describes Carmen, unflatteringly, in these terms:

Ela é que é uma víbora.  E galega, aind por cima….Mas bem conhece o ditado: “De Espanha, nem bom vento, nem bom casamento.”

[Chapter XII]

She’s a real viper, though, and Spanish too boot…You know what they say: “From Spain expect only cold winds and cold wives.”

[translated by M J Costa, Vintage, 2015]

Do European countries (and regions) remain both friends and rivals to this day?

 

 

“One small victory for women”

Deborah Orr writes  in the “i” newspaper, today, 29 March 2018, about the ramifications of a legal case (England and Wales) to do with keeping a serial rapist (considered for release) behind bars, especially as there remain outstanding complaints by women against him.  (I won’t name him here – why pay him more attention?)

Ms Orr puts the issue in context.  The thinking behind the proposal to release the prisoner is:

quite staggeringly literal-minded and repulsively clueless about what it is like to live as a woman in a culture that does not understand or acknowledge the extreme and dangerous gender inequality that rape creates and promulgates.

Ms Orr writes movingly about her own experiences of abuse by men.  And for the benefit of her male readers (I am one), she outlines the precautions women feel obliged to take against being raped, “as a matter of course as we go about our daily lives” – precautions that infringe upon their freedom of choice – things that do not apply to men.

I can only try to grasp this intellectually.  (At least, in social work, I have met female victims of sexual abuse; and I have believed their story.)

Now, I read a lot of good literature that deals with powerful emotions and bad experiences; and my own opinion is that female writers are worth reading (partly but not solely) for their take on these.  But sometimes a man can have a go.  Wm Shakespeare himself did, in his long poem, The Rape of Lucrece, of 1594.

Lucrece is a tough read, for various reasons.  Arguably, it is over-long and includes too many rhetorical flourishes and paradoxes.  Rightly, more attention is paid to the victim (Lucrece) than the rapist.

To cut a very long story short: it is plain that Lucrece is guiltless but nevertheless she feels such guilt and shame and contamination, allied to concern for the implications for her marriage and her husband, that she takes her own life.  A tragedy, indeed.  Credit to Shakespeare, then, for delving into the depths of Lucrece’s plight.

History and Tragedy

                  Here I and my sorrows sit;

Here is my throne, bid kings come to it.

 

(Constance, King John, Act 1, Scene 3)

I have been re-reading some of William Shakespeare’s history plays plus Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II.  The “biopics” and “All the President’s Men” of their day!

There are many by Shakespeare.  In chronological order – the order in which the fictionalised events happened – they comprise: Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra; Macbeth (it has some relationship with Scottish history); King John, Edward III (perhaps a part), Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II, Henry V, Henry VI Parts I, II and III (perhaps Shakespeare was a contributor to Part I), Richard III, Thomas More (perhaps Shakespeare contributed a small part), and finally Henry VIII (together with John Fletcher).

So, the history plays form a large part of his output.

The plays are about politics and display examples of good and bad leadership.  Who (if anyone) is best?  Who is the legitimate ruler?  How is legitimacy determined?

If you had happened to live in Ancient Rome (for example), would you have preferred Julius Caesar or Antony or Brutus or Cassius or Octavian (Augustus)?  (Apply this to medieval history and modern history too.)  Some have leadership qualities but all are flawed.  The second lesson is that human nature has not changed at heart, and we all have emotional drives – will, power, lust, love – which can take over our lives and which can ruin those of others.

It is interesting (at least to me) to compare recorded history (told by chroniclers) with dramatisations (eg those by Shakespeare and his contemporaries).  Good critical studies and well written academic editions of the works give the reader an insight into the variations.  (Retain some scepticism, as (surely?) there is no such thing as absolute historical truth.)  But at least we can say (can’t we?) that an effective drama has psychological and sociological truth – which takes us back to political battles and human desires.

For some readers, doubtless, and viewers of dramas, it is preferable to enjoy a play without engaging, actively or passively, in literary criticism.  The latter forms another world, a different world.  I like it.

This year already I have worked my way through a version of Richard III based on the First Quarto (1597), with minimal editing and notes.  (John Drakakis, ‘Shakespeare Originals’, 1996.)  (I note that, in history, Edward IV is deemed to be responsible for the death of George Duke of Clarence, but in the play the blame is shared between Edward and Richard.)

This year too I got hold of the new ‘Arden 3’ (Lander & Tobin, Bloomsbury, 2018) edition of King John, as I admire this play.  I looked for new insights.  However, I was somewhat disappointed by the depth of the editors’ background writing.  On looking again into the 1974 Penguin, edited by R L Smallwood, I find that he is strong on all the essentials:

  • the historical background
  • Shakespeare’s use of sources (see in particular the anonymous Troublesome Reign of King John)
  • his selection and telescoping of historical events
  • textual issues, too.

I went back to my own copy of The Troublesome Reign, edited by Charles R Forker (‘Revels Plays’, Manchester, 2011).  (The Reign is anonymous, but Forker attributes it to George Peele.)  This edition succeeds in throwing light on the historical background of both the Reign and Shakespeare’s John, and the influence of the former on the latter; so it fills a gap arguably left by the Arden 3 book.

I was tempted to seek out versions of other plays, edited by Forker, and bought both his Edward II (Revels, 1994) and his (Richard II) (Arden 3, 2002).  I found them illuminating – for example, about the influence of Marlowe’s play on Richard II. 

Kings die in these plays (some of them after being deposed) – that is their tragedy.  But, if their country does not unite behind the successor, all are affected and many suffer.

For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground

And tell sad stories of the death of kings.

 

[Richard himself, Richard II, Act 3, Scene 2]