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.

 

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GOETHE’S FIRST DRAFT OF HIS ‘FAUST’ STORY, CALLED THE ‘URFAUST’ (THE ORIGINAL ‘FAUST’)

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.

MARLOWE

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

Durhaus 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]

 

Hubris!

 

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”.

 

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.)

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]

 

 

 

 

Games of the English Throne, Shakespeare style

In several of his plays, from the very early ones, Wm Shakespeare addresses issues of power and politics – politics often carried out through war.  See, for example, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, from the history of Ancient RomeSee too the tetralogy Henry VI Parts 1-3 plus King Richard III, and King John, set in the Middle Ages of England and Wales, which were composed in the early 1590s.

The Henry VI plays paint a bleak picture of a country at war with itself, while also losing territory in France, at the hands of the resurgent French.  The powerful wreak vengeance on their enemies, in cycles of violence.  The continual debates, battles and killings are (arguably) rather repetitive for the reader (or the viewer).  After many battles and murders, Edward Duke of York becomes King Edward IV, displacing Henry VI.  His brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, awaits his opportunity to seize the crown for himself.  And in the sequel, Richard III, Richard stays his coup d’état and becomes king himself, till supplanted in turn by Richmond (Henry VII).

Richard III has a long history of success in performance.  Shakespeare’s Richard fascinates because of his ambition and single-mindedness and his ability to deceive and to manipulate.  (“Conscience is but a word that cowards use,/Devised at first to keep the strong in awe” [Act 5 Scene 3].)  Some of his wickedness rubs off on his co-conspirators (some discarded by Richard when they oppose him) but they do not match him in intellect and drive, with the possible exception of King Henry VI’s widow, Margaret.

Richard III then gives us a story in black and white colours.  Richard himself – the main character – is a “baddie”.  He gets, though, his “come-uppance”.

Shakespeare lays more murders at Richard’s door than can be fairly blamed on him: the play is not an accurate reflection of history, but it is fun – a guilty pleasure, perhaps.

Like the Henry VI plays, King John is not a popular play – it is seldom performed.  In my opinion, this is a pity, as I see great merit in it.

In King John, there are (I would argue) many important characters, apart from the King himself.  King John is no match for Richard III, in interest.  He is devious and self-serving; he plots against his nephew, Arthur (a rival claimant to the throne); but he ends up being ineffectual and a follower of his counsellors rather than a leader.  As King John declines, in health and in power, the reins of leadership are taken up by others, including a cardinal, who comes close to matching Richard III for deviousness and specious arguments.  The play could be said to end on an anti-climax, in contrast with the climax of Richard III.

The wider distribution of power and influence, among the characters in King John, is, for me a strength rather than a weakness.  Richard III implies that, with the dethronement of one man, all is well that ends well, whereas John ends on a note of ambiguity (albeit coupled with some hope placed in the young King Henry III).

Shakespeare’s early history plays reflect aristocratic societies, where warrior lords are continually engaged in combat – in civil wars in England or in battles in France.  The loyalty of powerful lords has to be won by a king or claimant to the throne and cannot be taken for granted.  Rhetoric is a powerful tool to persuade people to co-operate or even to compel them.

These societies are patriarchal.  Certain female characters in Henry VI assert themselves, particularly, Joan of Arc, Queen Margaret (wife of Henry VI) and Eleanor Duchess of Gloucester; but Joan is executed and Margaret and Eleanor are exiled.  In King John, Blanche is married to the Dauphin, in order to seal an alliance between England and France – apparently with her consent.  But more typically, the ladies use their allotted speeches to express deep grief at their loss of loved ones.  In King John, Constance laments the capture of her son Arthur by King John’s forces, foreseeing his gruesome end; in Richard III, the Duchess of Gloucester (Richard’s mother), Queen Elizabeth (widow of Edward IV) and Queen Anne (Richard’s wife) mourn the grim fate of Edward IV’s young sons (the ‘Princes in the Tower’).

In both King John and in Richard III, there is a dramatic episode where a major character deploys rhetoric to defend his life (or his eyesight) – George Duke of Clarence in Richard III, Prince Arthur in King John.  The Clarence episode (Act 1 Scene 4) is a bravura piece of writing: its length may not be strictly justifiable, in dramatic terms; and Clarence’s dialogue with his murderers is often cut in performance (as the play as a whole is one of Shakespeare’s longest).

To conclude: Richard III is entertaining, because of the brilliance of the title character and because of the “happy ending”.  The merits of the King Henry VI plays and King John lie in their analysis of the exercise of power and the conduct of politics – in the case of John, a particularly cool and ironical examination.

 

Plots and spies, literature and censorship, in the times of Elizabeth I and James

Gunpowder and Elizabeth I’s spies

Two series have been running on BBC television – one about the ‘Gunpowder Plot’ (London, 1605) and the events leading up to it, and the other about Queen Elizabeth’s ministers’ extensive spy network.

It makes me think of the great number of English language poets and dramatists active at the time – Shakespeare and his contemporaries.  They had to live through these times.   They depended on their writing for a living.

The writings of the time that have come down to us do not mention (a) the execution of Mary Queen of Scots (1587) or the ‘Spanish Armada’ (1588) or the Gunpowder Plot.

I suspect that writers censored themselves.  There was also Government censorship.  Veiled references to current events can be found in the works.

The drunken porter in Macbeth mentions “equivocation”, which more or less amounts to lying, for the sake of the cause one believes in.

The anonymous Edward III refers to the loss at sea of a French fleet that was designed for an invasion of England.  Both King John and the anonymous Troublesome Reign of King John refer to the loss of a back-up French fleet.  Spain was the main enemy of England at the time they were written, so perhaps a mention of France was safe.

The anonymous plays, Sir Thomas More and The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, which deal with riots and insurrection, respectively, suffered censorship.  Like Edward III, they disappeared from view (and from the repertoire) for centuries.  Now it is safe to pay them attention and to try them out occasionally on the stage.

Is civil order something we rather take for granted nowadays?

A poet’s labour lost?

Arguably, it can be said of Love’s Labour’s Lost that, among Shakespeare’s plays, it is relatively seldom performed and therefore less known by those who go to see plays and those who study S’s works.

Kenneth Branagh made a film of LLL in 2000.  He used very little of the original text.  He set the story in the 1930s, with period American songs to match (like a musical).

In recent years, LLL has been put on at The Globe and by the RSC.  Seeing the latter on DVD has prompted me to reconsider my attitude to the play (which remains somewhat mixed).

What is it about?  Why is it less popular?

“Boy meets girl”

Here, we have the matter of four boys chasing the four girls who arrive at their court (ostensibly on an embassy).  The gentlemen (or lords) – The King of Navarre and his coterie – are boyish and immature.  They swear a foolish oath, to abjure the company of women for three years, and swiftly break it in the light of reality (their sexual drive).

The “girls”, on the other hand – the Princess of France and her attendants – are grown-up ladies.  They are impressed, neither by the men’s oath, nor their breaking of it.  The ladies leave to go home, on receipt of the news that the Princess’s father (the King of France) has died.  The coup-de-théâtre – the arrival of the messenger from France, in the middle of an entertainment – dramatically breaks the comical tone, bordering on the farcical, that has characterised the play hitherto.

The male suitors are made to wait for a year (and meanwhile to use their time wisely) before trying to court the ladies again.  As one gentleman (Browne) puts it: “Jack hath not Jill.”  (Compare the ending of Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls.)

Can one identify with any of these characters?  At least, the ladies are more sensible than the gentlemen.

The other characters

Most of these are comedians or caricatures (or both).  The comic ones are: the ladies’ male attendant, a Spanish knight (and braggart), his page, a pedantic schoolmaster, a curate, a constable, and a clown.  The dairymaid and the forester are neutral.  By virtue of his role, the messenger from France is serious.

Arguably, Shakespeare sees some of these men as figures of fun.  They tend (variously) to use puns and plays on words, Latinisms and ornate language.  There are jokes, but many of these are unintelligible nowadays, without notes; and so they are best omitted from the play in performance.  Notably, the knight’s language reveals no Hispanic features.  (The thinking behind this is lost to us.)

One can accuse the male suitors (above) of elaborate, dense language traits too.  The ladies are more straightforward, while still witty.

Aspect One

In a way, nothing much happens in this play.  The men talk, the ladies arrive, the men try to court the ladies (without success), and the ladies leave, leaving sound advice as their parting shot.

One can add that the dairymaid is revealed to be pregnant – either by the clown or the knight.  There is an implication that it is the knight who will care for her.

Aspect Two

The play has much to do about language – its uses and abuses.  (Compare The Merry Wives of Windsor, in this regard.)

Much of the play is written in rhymed verse (spoken by the lords and ladies).  Embedded in the speeches there are six sonnets, by my reckoning.  The four lords compose one love poem (each) to the ladies they profess to love: three of these are sonnets.  (Worth a look.)  (Three of the poems are reproduced in The Passionate Pilgrim.)

The play ends, delightfully, with two songs – (i) the spring song of the cuckoo and (ii) the winter song of the owl.  (Worth a look too.)

Aspect Three

The male characters – both lords and commoners – attempt to entertain the ladies – but with little or no success.

At one point, the lords approach the ladies disguised themselves as Muscovites (why!?); but, as the ladies have been tipped off, they have no difficulty in getting ready for them, by disguising themselves, too, and hence confusing them.

The comic male characters put on a show of the “Nine Worthies” (five attempting to portray nine, between them!); but their acting is disrupted, firstly by the derision of the lords, and secondly, by the arrival of the messenger from France.

Aspect Four

LLL has great displays of witBut how funny is it?

Perhaps the funniest part is to be found in Act 4, Scene 3.  Here the four lords, arrive, in succession, to read their love poems aloud but (as they suppose) in secret. They suffer the indignity of being spied on by their fellows and then being confronted with the breaking of the shared oath.  Each one has to admit that he is in love with one of the ladies.

(The men are fine poets but clumsy lovers.)

Conclusion

LLL is hard to put on; it is hard to make a success of it; it requires the exercise of imagination and a willingness to make cuts, on the part of the production team.  With the aid of explanatory notes, LLL is readable – in places, amusing, in other places, rather tedious.

Many of Shakespeare’s works show a timeless quality (although times and places are evoked).  On examination, LLL comes across as very much product of its period, the 1590s, by virtue of its veiled allusions (i) to the works of certain of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, eg those of Sir Philip Sidney, and (ii) to contemporary events, eg in France – all rather obscure, today.  Hence, there is a distance between the rather artificial world portrayed by LLL and our world today (and the literature and drama that reflect it).

Love’s Labour’s Won

Such a play may have existed – a sequel to LLL; but if so, it is lost, under this title.  Various hypotheses have been put forward, suggesting that one or other surviving play fits the bill – Love’s Labour’s Won under a different name – for example, Much Ado About Nothing or All’s Well That Ends Well.  I venture to suggest, instead, The Merry Wives of Windsor, where Fenton succeeds in marrying Miss Anne Page (winning out against Dr Caius and Slender).

Editions and versions taken into account

I have read these editions of LLL and the editors’ introductions:

1 Kerrigan, J (1982), Penguin: Harmondsworth (Middlesex)

2 Hibbard, G R (1990), OUP: Oxford

3 Woudhuysen, H R (1998), Arden 3 (Thomas Nelson & Sons): Walton-on-Thames

Performances

1 Branagh, K (director) (2000) – cinema film and video

2 Luscombe, C (director) (2015) – DVD of live performance.