Prior to re-reading Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed trilogyabout the reign of King Henry VIII of England and the career of one of his chief ministers, Thomas Cromwell, I have been looking at other works about the period.  I have re-read Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons (1960); I have looked again at the play, The Book of Sir Thomas More (1590s); and I have just re-read J Fletcher and W Shakespeare’s play, The Famous History of the Life of King Henry VIII (written circa 1613). 

In parallel, I have found and read the eye-witness account of certain events of the time, namely: Thomas Wolsey, late Cardinal – his Life and Death, written by George Cavendish, his gentleman-usher (Folio Society, ed R Lockyer, 1962).

There are close parallels between certain passages in the prior Thomas Wolsey and the later King Henry VIII.   One is a source of the other, whether directly or indirectly (via Holinshed’s Chronicles).

At the height of his power, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was Henry VIII’s chief minister, notorious for his avarice and ambition.  It was Wolsey who was first entrusted by Henry with the task of persuading the Pope to annul Henry’s marriage (1509) to the Spanish princess, Catalina de Aragón y Castilla, known in England as Katherine (Catherine) of Aragon.  Inevitably, Wolsey came into conflict with Katherine, who wished to stay married to Henry (see below).

The English negotiators’ failure to achieve an annulment finally resulted in the English Church being severed from the Roman Catholic Church, and the foundation of the Church of England, with the monarch as its Supreme Head.  This was the first “Brexit” – somewhat like the UK’s exit from the European Union today!

From the pages of both Thomas Wolsey and Henry VIII, Katherine herself emerges as an admirable character – faithful and intelligent, and eloquent in her self-defence. 

In 1529 the first phase of the divorce trial (Henry v Katherine) commenced – the Queen alone among an assembly of men.  Katherine states her defence case in a magnificent speech, addressed primarily to the King himself, as follows:

Sir, I beseech you for all the love that hath been between us, and for the love of God, let me have justice and right, take of me some pity and compassion, for I am a poor woman and a stranger born out of your dominion….Alas! Sir, wherein have I offended you….now that you intend (as I perceive) to put me from you?”

[Page 114]

Katherine insists that she has been a “true, humble and obedient wife”, and that when she married Henry “I was a true maid without touch of man” [114].

The Queen goes on to allude to the wise judgement of Fernando (Ferdinand II of Aragon), her own father, and Henry VII, Henry’s father, who both considered the marriage to be “good and lawful.” 

Katherine complains that false charges have been made against her.  However, she lacks the independent advocates she needs:

Ye must consider that these men cannot be impartial counsellors for my part since they are your subjects….and dare not, for fear of your pleasure, disobey your will and intent.


The Queen asks to be spared “the extremity of this court” until she receives advice from Spain.  Finally, she says, “And if ye will not extend to me so much impartial favour, your pleasure then be fulfilled, and to God I commit my cause!”  [115].

Katherine then promptly leaves the court: “And even with that she rose up, making a low curtsy to the King, and so departed from thence” [115].  She is called back into court but does not return!  But in her absence the divorce mill grinds slowly and irrevocably on. 

Compare Cavendish’s account [pages 112-117] with Henry VIII, Act II, Scene 4, where the story is extended.  The Queen’s great speech itself is versified by Shakespeare in lines 13-57. 

Katherine next appears in Cavendish’s account on pages 122f.  She receives Cardinal Wolsey and Cardinal Campeggio (Campeius) at home: they desire to talk to her further about the King’s demand that she submit to his wishes.  Wolsey starts talking in Latin.    She replies, “Nay, good my Lord, speak to me in English I beseech you, although I understand Latin.”  Compare Henry VIII, III.1, 46ff.  The content of their private interview is enlarged upon in the play.  Katherine resists their arguments and makes word-play of their titles:

Holy men I thought ye,

Upon my soul, two reverend cardinal virtues;              

But cardinal sins and hollow hearts I fear ye.


Katherine now disappears from the eye-witness account, and Cavendish’s attention is focussed on Wolsey’s downfall and his death (compare Henry VIII, III.2.)  In the play [Act IV, Scene 2], Katherine’s last hours (historically, in 1536) are imagined by John Fletcher, co-dramatist.  Here, she is living in isolation, with a few servants, away from London.  She is informed of the death of Wolsey (historically, in 1530).  She is portrayed, with sympathy and pathos, as philosophical and resigned to her fate, and accepting of her imminent death.  She is visited by a vision of “spirits of peace” – “a blessed troop/….whose bright faces/Cast thousand beams upon me like the sun” [83ff].  Eustace Chapuys (Capuchius), the Emperor’s ambassador visits her, and she asks him to pass on a message to Henry, commending her daughter Mary, and her own, servants to his care.  Her final words are these:

Remember me

In all humility unto his highness….

Tell him in death I blessed him,

For so I will…..

                  When I am dead, good wench,

Let me be used with honour; strew me over

With maiden flowers, that all the world may know

I was a chaste wife to my grave.  Embalm me,

Then lay me forth; although unqueened, yet like

A queen, and daughter to a king, inter me.

I can no more.


Katherine is both a tragic character, and a heroic one, standing up, as she did, to immense pressure.  After her death she was buried in Peterborough Cathedral; and she is still remembered there.

Nineteen Seventy Six 1976

Among remarkable years, this was a truly remarkable one for me.  It was the year I qualified as a social worker, among many other things.

At the beginning, Jane and I (not long married) were living in a terraced house in Wavertree, Liverpool, but spending much time apart.  I was studying social work in Manchester, while Jane was teaching in Huyton, near Liverpool.  I spent a few nights each week at the house of a Friend in Manchester, to cut down on travel back and fore.  And when I did go to and fro between the two cities, I had a choice of the train or our little car (a Fiat 126).  I had only passed my driving test in November 1975, and now I had to cope with heavy traffic between the cities, whichever route I took. 

At the beginning of the year I spent part of my time on placement at Booth Hall Children’s Hospital, North Manchester, visiting the parents of children referred to the Child Guidance Service, to write up assessments.  This meant travelling around much of Greater Manchester, with a map but no “satnav”, and trying to find the right turning off main roads to enter the right residential street.

In the summer I spent a few months based at Denbigh Hospital in North Wales, staying in the Nurses’ Hostel during the week.  Again, this involved, not only talking to inpatients, but going to outpatient clinics and travelling around North-East Wales to see clients in their own homes.

The summer was characterised by a severe drought.  One day there was a sharp shower which made a hospital drive very slippery, like ice.  The surface made me lose control of the car and crash.  Fortunately I was not hurt, and the car was reparable.

1976 was the year Jane and I made the major decision to leave Liverpool and to move to South Wales.  We had separate job interviews with Mid Glamorgan County Council: I was interviewed in Cardiff, with work based in Bridgend in mind; and Jane had an interview in Bridgend for a teaching job in Kenfig Hill. 

Jane actually drove from Liverpool to Bridgend in one day, setting out very early.  (She had kept her commitment to the Liverpool Welsh Choral the previous day.)  Unfortunately, she locked herself out of the house.   I was not at home, and unable to let her back in.  So her intended early start was delayed.  She got back in by climbing through a window that had louvres at the top, at the back of the house, supervised by an officer from Wavertree Police Station.  Then she left about six instead of five, for an interview in Bridgend at ten or half-past, travelling along a route she did not know – at least, the far end of it.  She did not see a sign for Bridgend until she was in the Cowbridge area and she stopped a policeman to check that she was on the right road and not far.  She arrived for her interview on time.

So, we put our house in Liverpool on the market, but it did not sell for months.  We let Friends stay in it while they were house hunting, rent-free.  On one occasion I went up by train to see how they were getting on.

At the end of August we moved, with basics, to stay with my parents in Newport.  We had one stop, about half-way, in a layby in Brayston Hill, near Shrewsbury, on the A49.  I felt upset – I don’t know why.  I remember the feeling whenever we travel the same way.

The drought (just ending) meant that the water supply was rationed in Newport, whereas in the Bridgend area it was still plentiful, because of a local spring that never gave out.

Day after day we commuted along the A48 to our work-places.  Not only was the route busy and congested.  The drought ended and it rained every day till Christmas. 

We thought of ways of being more flexible.  We spent a couple of nights a week at the Friends meeting House, Park Street, Bridgend, to save on travel.  (Sometimes, in the evening, people involved in evening classes would knock on ayour door and ask us questions we could not answer.)  In those days, the Meeting House was cold and dark and not very inviting.

We bought an old “mini” van, so we had a vehicle each.  Unfortunately, neither of our cars was very reliable. 

Staying with my parents was not very convenient, for anybody.  It was hard for us, after living independently; and it was hard on my parents too.

At weekends we house-hunted as best we could.  We secured a semi-detached house in Westminster Way, Cefn Glas, Bridgend.  (We had made an offer on another house, earlier in the year, but had had to withdraw, because of not selling our own in Liverpool.)  We moved in in late December.  This was before completion of the sale, though.  We were told off by solicitors and had to pay a week’s rent for the house we did not yet own.

Just after moving in, round about the New Year, one evening, we were sitting in our new house minding our own business, when we heard a knock at our back door.  We opened it to find a young girl (about twelve) there.  She was anxious.  She had left home nearby, after a row.  We took her in and thought what to do.  After talking to her and calming her somewhat, we rang her parents, to tell her that their daughter was safe.  They asked whether we could be trusted.  We knew that we were in positions of authority and trust, in our occupations, but we did not want to say too much about ourselves.  In the end, we arranged to take the girl home, in the dark, without making direct contact with her family.  And we never saw anything of her again.

Thus ended an eventful year.

‘King Lear’ 2018

Background – general

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

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

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

Television productions

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


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

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

Conclusions from re-reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remarks on the 2018 television film

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

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

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

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

5 The film is well worth watching.


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

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

Plots and Plautus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

Farcical elements in the early plays of Shakespeare


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A personal view of Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power relationships

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

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

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

Film treatments

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Comedy and Farce, in the hands of Plautus

Is Plautus (still) funny?

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

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

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

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

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

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

[page 8]

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

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

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

But is Plautus still funny?

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

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

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

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

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

But the question remains: is Plautus himself funny?

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

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

[pages xxviif]

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

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

[page 39]

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

Funny Things have happened to the Plays of Plautus


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

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

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

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

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


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

ait sese ultro omnis mulieres sectarier:        

is deridiculost, quaque incedit, omnibus.

itaque hic meretrices, labiis dum ductant eum,

maiorem partem videas valgis saeviis. 

[lines 91ff]

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

[a free translation]

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

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

[Merry Wives, Act I, Scene 3]

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

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

Dramatic action

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


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

Historian Edward Gibbon – his Observations on the Rise of Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

3. The miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive church.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter XV

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


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

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


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

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

Lamentations are in order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The twelfth book

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

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

[Thebaid, XII, 105ff]

Meanwhile, drawn by the news, a band

Of weeping women, widowed and bereft,

Hastened from empty Argos like a troop

Of captives.

[tr A D Melville (Oxford, 1992)]

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

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

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

Tantum animi luctusque valent!  

[Statius, Thebaid, XII, 222ff]

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

Dismaying her, but gaining confidence

From surfeit of disaster – feared indeed

Rather than fearing…..Such the power of grief

 And passion!

[tr A D Melville]

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

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

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

[XII, 481ff]

At the town’s centre stands a temple raised

To no almighty god.  It is the seat

Of kind Compassion, sanctified by souls

In grief and misery.  She never lacks

New suppliants nor will reject a prayer.

[tr A D Melville]

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

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

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


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

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