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.

 

 

 

The Uses of Satire in 21st Century

Is satire of any use?  Does it change anything?

Sometimes real events appear to stretch the capabilities of commentators who wish to address through criticism, invective, ridicule or, indeed, satire.

Satire has a very long history. Numerous definitions of it are available.  Many literary or dramatic productions have satirical elements or passages.  The boundaries are blurred at the edges.  I take it that cartoons can be satirical: when they address individuals, they probably qualify as lampoons rather than satires: I rely on the definitions cited below.

I would like to refer to two definitions of satire, as they are insightful, in my opinion.

In his famous dictionary (1755), Samuel Johnson noted the definition from the Latin ‘satira’ and defined it as:

A poem in which wickedness or folly is censured.  Proper satire is distinguished, by the generality of the reflections, from a lampoon which is aimed against a particular person; but they are too frequently confounded.

 

The aim of satire is clear.  The literary nature is given as the mode of expression.  Verse is preferred to prose.  (Discuss!)

 

Secondly, I refer to the 1946 MA thesis of a Mr E L Watrin, student at Loyola ir

 

(See: Watrin, Eugene L., Absalom and Achitophel in the Light of the Scholastic Canons of Aesthetics (1946). Master’s Theses. Paper 417. http://ecommons.luc.edu/luc_theses/417 Accessed 7 Feb 2017)

In his thesis, Mr Watrin examined the nature of satire in general and John Dryden’s 1681 verse satire in particular.

Dryden’s long poem fulfils the criteria of Samuel Johnson’s definition, as it is in verse, and it is aimed at a particular time, place and group of people (England’s powerful men – mostly, those in government).

One of the clever aspects of the poem is the parallels Dryden establishes between the English of his time and the Jews of the 2nd Book of Samuel in the Bible.  Hence, King David represents King Charles II and Absalom (David’s illegitimate son) represents the Duke of Monmouth (Charles’s own illegitimate son).  And so on.

The poem still meets with admiration among scholars.  But few people today know much about this part of the OT, nor late 7th century English history, nor John Dryden, let know Absalom and Achitophel.   (I shall comment on this, below.)

I proceed to Mr Watrin’s carefully considered definition of satire:

As a working description which can serve as foundation for further explanation we might say that satire is literature written to reform or improve, rendered effective by rhetorical devices. Or….satire is a literary production in which the correction of abuse is the principal form, and the rhetorical devices which add brilliance to this first form are the secondary forms. The three notes which characterize satire are the literary manner, the corrective purpose, and the use of rhetoric. The first distinguished it from the sermon or oration, the second from comedy, and the third from impassioned diatribe. [page 31]

This definition permits the inclusion of prose satire, so long as it reaches a high literary standard and uses rhetorical devices.

The trouble is that, generally, satire’s edge loses its sharpness with the passage of time.  The writer presupposes that the reader or audience will understand who or what the targets are.  As time passes, many issues which give rise to satire become footnotes in history.  It takes a great writer to produce something that lasts and that gives delight and perhaps instruction to later generations.  Who fulfils this criterion?

I would put forward a few names: Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), George Orwell (1903-1950), and Dario Fo (1926-2016). (Not meant to be an exclusive list.)

Swift

Jonathan Swift was a prolific writer of satires.  He is best remembered nowadays for his Gulliver’s Travels (1726 and 1735)The precise historical background is lost to today’s readers, in the absence of footnotes.  However, readers can make their own connections to abuses of the present day.

Fo

Dario Fo has been a prolific and popular writer and indeed multi-tasker.  His Accidental Death of an Anarchist (Morte accidentale di un anarchico) (1970), for example, albeit constructed as a farce, satirises police corruption and illogicality, mercilessly and (I think) effectively.

Orwell

George Orwell is still widely admired – but particularly for two works.

Animal Farm (1945) is extremely well constructed. It is clear and concise.  It has a strong internal logic.  It makes a clever use of allegory: the animal characters are endowed with human traits. It is funny, but the humour is bitter.

The satire is upon totalitarianism.  It appears that Orwell was thinking of Soviet-style communism; but it my opinion it can be applied to fascism too.

Some of the phrases have become well-known quotations, for example: “Four legs good, two legs good,” and its distortion into “Four legs good, two legs better”, and “All animals are equal,” which is twisted into “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.”

A warning from history!

I do not see Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four/1984 (1949) as a satire.  Whereas Animal Farm starts on a heroic note and ends in a dystopia, 1984 presents the reader with an ongoing dystopia. It can be seen as a second take on the end situation depicted in Animal Farm.

Many of its concepts have entered the language, for example, “Big Brother” and “Newspeak”.  “Newspeak” has relevance to the 21st century, as today we hear talk of “fake news” and “post-truth” – in other words, lies.  (I note that Rudyard Kipling, in his poem If, spoke of: “the truth you’ve spoken/Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools”!  Identify the knaves!)

George Orwell has been read continually from the 1940s up to 2017; and his reputation as a writer-critic is secure.  His books have not dated.  Totalitarianism has not disappeared.

On the whole, I believe that satire does not, in itself, cause political change; but it tends to raise the awareness of readers and audiences of the issues that impinge upon them (whether short or long term).  It acts as a corrective to lies and misinformation. It still has its uses.

 

 

 

 

 

King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616, and the relevance of ‘King John’ to us in 2016

King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616 – thoughts on the relevance of Shakespeare’s King John, in 2016

Current political conflicts, and acts of violence, characterise the world in 2016:  Shakespeare’s plays about British history hold up a mirror to it

The relatively obscure and seldom performed early play, King John, resembles the much better known Richard III (written, perhaps, a little earlier)I value John, and I wish to make some comments in its favour, and to compare it with Richard.

It must be acknowledged that the play is only loosely based on historical events, from the reign of John (1199-1216).  Someone coming to it for the first time may be surprised to learn that there is no mention of Magna Carta.

Plot summary

Possession of the English crown is contested.  John has might rather than right on his side.  He maintains his power against the claim of Arthur, his nephew, supported by France and the Pope.  (Arthur dies, in suspicious circumstances: John is blamed.)  John nearly loses his crown, when the Dauphin (the French king’s son’s invades England and the English lords join sides with him.  John’s cause is rescued by Faulconbridge (a fictional bastard son of King Richard I) and Hubert (a commoner).  John dies, not in battle (as Richard III does) but as the result of poisoning by a monk.  He is succeeded by his own son, Henry III.

THEME 1 – KINGS

Both John and Richard portray the rise and fall of a king who is regarded by many commentators as a bad king.  Richard is single-minded, strong and tyrannous; but John is impetuous but fundamentally weak and indecisive; he is over-dependent, firstly on his mother, and secondly, on his loyal supporters, Hubert and Faulconbridge; he is easily outwitted by Pandulph, the papal legate.

There are in theory alternative kings for England.  Arthur is young and weak and over-dependent on his mother.  A victim of John’s machinations, he strikes a very pathetic figure.  Faulconbridge, the (fictional) son of Richard I, has the qualities of wit, strength of character and loyalty, but he is disqualified by his illegitimacy.

On the French side, the king and his son act in their own interest, against that of England; and Pandulph, the papal legate, does likewise.

THEME 2 – ACTIONS

Both plays feature dynastic marriages: in John, between John’s Niece, Blanche, and the future Louis VIII of France.

Both plays have English lords who have shifting loyalties as between rival claimants to the throne.

Both include battles and an invasion of England: in Richard, the future Henry VII makes good his claim to the crown; in John, the future Louis VIII of France returns home empty-handed.

The tragic fate of Arthur, John’s nephew, parallels that of Richard’s victims, especially that of his own nephews (the “Princes in the Tower”).

Women characters lose whatever power and influence they have, as the plays progress – they disappear from the stage and leave it to the military men.  In King John, major female characters exit early:

  • Blanche, at the end of Act 3 Scene 1
  • Eleanor (John’s mother), at the end of Act 3 Scene 3
  • Constance (Arthur’s mother), in Act 3 Scene 4.

(This feature was dealt with, in the RSC 2012 production, by combining two male roles and giving them to a woman.)

THEME 3 – REACTIONS, MALE

The nature of ambition, and its effects, are exposed, plainly and devastatingly, by King John’s (fictional) nephew, the “Bastard” Faulconbridge.  See his soliloquy (Act 2 Scene 1) about “commodity” (meaning: expediency, coupled with self-seeking and hypocrisy), described as:

 

                  ….that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,

That broker that still breaks the pate of faith,

That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,

Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids….

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling commodity….

This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word…

 

Pandulph, in particular, is a skilled practitioner of the misuse of rhetoric and specious arguments for his own ends.

 

Surprisingly, perhaps, Prince Louis of France does strike a note of regret about how events have turned out, in a few remarkable lines (Act 3 Scene 4):

     There’s nothing in this world can make me joy.

Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale,

Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man,

And bitter shame hath spoiled the sweet world’s taste,

That it yields naught but shame and bitterness.

 

THEME 4 – REACTIONS, FEMALE

 

As in Richard III, it is the women who find the words to give expression to grief.  (Arthur finds the words for fear.)  Blanche talks about her divided loyalties, when her father and her husband are at war with each other.  Constance vents her grief, and her anger, over the capture of Arthur and his betrayal by his French allies.

Those who mourn, in the body of John are the victims of ambitious men (kings, earls and the papal legate) and their single-minded pursuit of power.  (Compare Richard III and his allies.)

 

THE ENDING

 

The final scene is characterised by the quiet fading away of King John himself and the perfunctory mourning of his passing, followed by Faulconbridge’s putting in a few words acceptance of the present and optimism about the future.  To paraphrase: ‘the King is dead, long live the king!’ and ‘England is strong if we stick together.’

 

Conclusion

 

A problem is that John commences somewhat as a comedy but develops into a tragedy.  Well, it would be a tragedy (rather than a history, perhaps), if John himself was a stronger, albeit flawed, character – a hero, or at least a clear anti-hero – and if his death formed a climax to the play rather than an anti-climax.  John lacks Richard III’s wicked humour, cleverness and depth of deceitfulness, which simultaneously attracts and repels the reader or the member of the audience.  (The wit and wisdom are left to Faulconbridge.)

 

But do not many 21st century leaders resemble King John?  Vacillating at times, impetuous at others, lacking in understanding of issues, deceitful?

 

In accordance with many of Shakespeare’s early history plays, King John I contains many long rhetorical speeches (as does Richard III).  These require skilled acting on the stage.  In my opinion, several are over-long and repetitive and will benefit from cuts in performance.

 

On balance, then, King John is worth a look.

[the long version]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

King John died 1216, Shakespeare died 1616 – the relevance of ‘King John’ to us in 2016

King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616 – thoughts on the relevance of Shakespeare’s King John, in 2016

Current political conflicts, and acts of violence, characterise the world in 2016:  Shakespeare’s plays about British history hold up a mirror to it.

It must be acknowledged that King John is only loosely based on historical events, from the reign of John (1199-1216).  (Someone coming to it for the first time may be surprised to learn that there is no mention of Magna Carta.)  It portrays the rise and fall of King John, who is regarded by many commentators as a bad king.  (Compare and contrast Richard III.)  He is impetuous but fundamentally weak and indecisive; he is over-dependent, firstly on his mother, and secondly, on his loyal supporters, Hubert and Faulconbridge.

It is the women who find the words to give expression to grief.  But the women characters lose whatever power and influence they have, as the plays progress – they disappear from the stage and leave it to the military men.

(This aspect was dealt with, in the RSC 2012 production, by combining two male roles and giving them to a woman.)

The nature of ambition, and its effects, are exposed, plainly and devastatingly, by King John’s (fictional) nephew, the “Bastard” Faulconbridge.  See his soliloquy (Act 2 Scene 1) about “commodity” (meaning: expediency, coupled with self-seeking and hypocrisy), described as:

 

                  ….that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,

That broker that still breaks the pate of faith,

That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,

Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids….

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling commodity….

This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word…

 

Other characters display their pursuit of “commodity”, to the detriment of others.

 

Do not many 21st century leaders resemble King John?  Vacillating at times, impetuous at others, lacking in understanding of issues, deceitful?  And dangerous!

[the short version]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shakespeare’s ‘King Henry VI’

Introduction

Fairly early in his playwriting career (ie the early 1590s), Shakespeare produced three dramas about the long reign of King Henry VI (and his rival and successor, Edward IV), and one about Richard Duke of Gloucester (later, Richard III).  These are regarded as the first English history ‘tetralogy’.  (It was followed later by the second tetralogy, covering the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V, earlier in time.  The popular character of Falstaff contributes to the fame of the Henry IV plays.)

The Henry VI plays are generally not well known and they are seldom performed.  The Royal Shakespeare Company, for example, however, has put on performances of them all, in recent years (2000 and 2006).  The RSC is followed in this by BBC Television, in the Hollow Crown version of the tetralogy, shown in 2016.  (The three Parts of Henry VI have been compressed into two.)

Richard III is much better known and is often performed, in isolation from the rest of the tetralogy.  This presents a challenge, as it is a sequel to the plays that precede it: in other words, it presumes knowledge, on the part of the spectator or the reader, of what has gone before.

Below, I make brief comments on each Part of Henry VI, and follow them with some remarks on the BBC production.

Henry VI, Part 1 (1H6)

 

This play is set in the context of the ‘Hundred Years War’.  Henry V has died, while fighting in France, leaving a power gap at the centre of government.  The English are still trying to maintain their dominion over great parts of France; but both rivalries among the prominent English nobles, and the weakness of Henry VI (attributed to his naivety and piety), undermine their campaign.  Richard Duke of York commences his personal quest to become king himself.  Helped by these divisions, Joan of Arc leads the French to victories.

 

The English lose the war but win certain battles: Joan of Arc is captured by the English and executed; the Earl (later, Duke) of Suffolk captures Margaret of Anjou (daughter of an ally of the French).  Suffolk proposes her as a bride for King Henry, hoping to increase his influence at court.

 

Different styles appear in this play.  Certain scenes (only) are attributed, by some commentators, to Shakespeare: Act 2, Scene 4 and Act 4, Scenes 2-6 and Scene 7, lines 1-32.

 

In Act 2 Scene 4, the supporters of rival claimants to the English throne meet up in a garden: those who favour Henry VI (of the House of Lancaster) pick a red rose, those adhering to the House of York, a white one.  The first hint is given of the forthcoming ‘Wars of the Roses’, which will occupy Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3.

 

Henry VI Part 2 (2H6)

 

This play is so full of noteworthy incidents that I choose to mention only a few, below.  It begins with the arrival of Margaret of Anjou as the Queen of England.   It ends with the outbreak of civil war.

 

Rival nobles put aside their disputes to unite against Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and ‘Protector of England’.  Several scenes project him as a statesman, concerned for the common weal.  But several of his peers plot against both him and his wife: found guilty of witchcraft, the Duchess is publicly humiliated and then sent into exile, while the Duke is assassinated, before he can be brought to trial on trumped up charges.

 

Secretly encouraged by Richard Duke of York, the commoner Jack Cade leads an underclass rebellion: he invades London with his followers and orders the execution of higher class men who stand in his way.  Levity is combined with brutality; the turmoil that is taking over England is laid bare.  A semblance of order is restored, but with difficulty.

 

Finally, Richard Duke of York makes an open bid for the crown, supported by his sons and Warwick the “kingmaker”; and the nobles divide, according to their previously declared loyalties.  The first Battle of St Albans takes place (1455); it is won by the Yorkists.

 

This play has been praised by scholars who have studied it.  On page 1 of his Introduction to the Cambridge edition (1991), Michael Hattaway writes: “Henry VI Part 2 is a fine, important, and undervalued play.”  And on page 2 of the Arden 3 edition (1999), Ronald Knowles goes so far as to say:

 

This Introduction contributes to an edition which has been prepared in the conviction that, had a barely known young Warwickshire playwright been carried off by the plague of 1592, 2 Henry VI would remain as the greatest history play in early modern drama and one of the most exciting and dynamic plays of the English Renaissance theatre.

 

I agree with these judgements.  Read it and enjoy!

 

Henry VI Part 3 (3H6)

 

As Dr Samuel Johnson pointed out, 3H6 is a direct continuation of 2H6.

 

This play paints a bleak picture of a country at war.  The powerful wreak vengeance on their enemies, in cycles of violence.  Major characters, including both Richard Duke of York and Henry VI – and Edward, his son and heir – are put to death, in cold blood.  Thousands of ordinary soldiers are slaughtered, notably, at Towton in Yorkshire (1461), and at Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire (1471).

 

Confined to the role of spectator, King Henry witnesses the Battle of Towton. (Act 2 Scene 5).  He sees (as we see) fathers and sons fighting on opposite sides.  There appear: first, a son who has killed his father, not recognising him until it is too late, and then, a father who, unknowingly, has killed his own son.  The divisions of the kingdom are reflected in these men’s fates.  Henry is powerless to help; he shares their grief.

 

After much bloodshed, the Yorkists are victorious.  York’s eldest son is crowned as King Edward IV.  But his younger brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, awaits his opportunity to seize the crown for himself!

 

The partisan debates at the beginning of the play are effective; but the continual debates, battles and killings are (arguably) rather tiring for the reader (or the viewer).

 

On pages 21-2 of his Introduction to the Penguin edition (1981), Norman Sanders comments on the civil war and its consequences, as follows:

 

Like every human value in the play, majesty is debased, stripped of its sacramental dignity or ritual splendour.  Here it is merely a prize to be fought over by warring animals.

 

The BBC’s Hollow Crown, 2016, Henry VI, Parts 1 and 2

 

The first episode covers major events from 1H6 and 2H6, and allocates a little under an hour to each.  The number of major roles is reduced; many lines and indeed whole scenes are cut; several interesting parts of 2H6, notably the Jack Cade rebellion (Act 4), are left out.  Cinematic action often takes the place of long speeches.

 

In the allocation of parts, Somerset largely displaces Suffolk.  The longstanding personal enmity between York and Somerset is vividly depicted, by the actors, Ben Miles and Adrian Dunbar.  Duke Humphrey, acted by Hugh Bonneville, comes across as a tragic figure – perhaps the true hero of the story.

 

In a dramatic touch, at the end of the first episode, York goes from the Tower of London to his own castle, and summons his four sons to join him: the last one to appear on the screen, albeit in shadow, is the half-lame Richard (Benedict Cumberbatch).

 

The second episode allots about two hours to 3H6, so its reproduction on screen is pretty full.  Again, some scenes, lines and roles are transposed or cut.  For example, the tv account of Somerset’s death recalls, in its wording, the one that Shakespeare allocates to Suffolk (in 2H6, 4.1).

 

The acting is very good.  Tom Sturridge (King Henry) has a Lear-like experience, alone and nearly naked, out in the countryside, but accepting of his fate.

 

Sophie Okonedo (Queen Margaret) is effective as a warrior, a leader and a mother, more effectual than her husband, Henry.  Her thirst for vengeance on her foes is frightening, as it is meant to be.  Benedict Cumberbatch’s role, as Duke of Gloucester, mirrors hers: he conveys the part’s ruthlessness and cunning.

 

It is good to see these plays reaching a wide audience.

 

David Harries

June 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christopher Marlowe and Christian morality

Introduction

Christopher Marlowe lived from 1564 to 1593.  Rather than examining his life, I’ll look at some of his literary output, which includes seven plays.

The plays

Dido, Queen of Carthage is based on Virgil’s Aeneid, Books I, II and IV.  Edward II, Tamburlaine Parts I and II and The Massacre at Paris are historically based.  Doctor Faustus is based on legends about a 16th century magician.  The Jew of Malta is loosely based on history – the Turks’ unsuccessful attempt to conquer the island in 1565.

None of these plays is a comedy.  The term “morality play” would fit most of them, insofar as they portray an ambitious, aspiring man, who achieves short-term goals but loses all and dies ignominiously in the end.

There are very few characters in these plays who evoke our sympathy: those who do include Queen Dido, Abigail (daughter of Barabas, the Jew of Malta), and Zenocrate (wife of Tamburlaine).  (All these ladies, moreover, die on stage.)

Some of the plays are seldom performed; but seeing the Royal Shakespeare’s 2015 production of The Jew of Malta has prompted me to put down some thoughts on issues raised by this play and two others by Marlowe.

Editions

For my reading, I have used: J B Steane’s Christopher Marlowe – The Complete Plays (Penguin, 1969), H J Oliver’s Dido Queen of Carthage and The Massacre at Paris (Revels Plays, 1968), and J R Siemen’s Jew of Malta (3rd edition, New Mermaids, 2009).

Argument

Marlowe has a keen eye for conflict between social groups, based purely on religious differences, where the more powerful group oppresses the less powerful one.

The Massacre at Paris

The play is set in late 16th century France, at the time of the wars of religion, in particular, the period from 1572 to 1589.  It portrays a series of incidents where Roman Catholics mercilessly slaughter Protestants (also called Huguenots).  The Catholics are led by members of the royal family, especially the prominent and ambitious Duke of Guise.

The Duke vows: “There shall not a Huguenot breathe in France”; and he proceeds to carry out this threat with alacrity.  He overreaches himself and is murdered, on the orders of King Henry III.  Finally, Henry himself is assassinated: with his dying breath he names Henry King of Navarre (a Protestant) as his successor.

The play may seem to favour Protestantism, but mainly it can be seen as an attack on religious fanaticism.

Tamburlaine Parts I and II

This pair of plays dramatises the battles and conquests of Tamburlaine (Timur Lenk), the usurping King of Persia, in the late 14th century.

In the subplot of Part II, Orcanes, Emperor of Natolia (Anatolia, Turkey), makes peace with Sigismund, King of Hungary, his enemy, in the context of the threat from the east of the all-conquering Tamburlaine.  They both swear to keep their truce “inviolable”.

However, Sigismund and his allies soon decide to break the agreement, on the grounds that the Muslims are “infidels”, that treaties with them are not binding on Christians, and that, as the Turks are now turning round to face Tamburlaine, an opportunity presents itself to attack them.

The furious Orcanes tears up the articles of peace; battle is joined; the Christians are defeated.  Sigismund dies of his wounds, belatedly expressing regret for his “accurs’d and hateful perjury”.

This subplot can be seen as conveying the playwright’s condemnation of religious prejudice and the use of such differences to justify treachery.

The Jew of Malta

When this play was first published, in 1633, it was called The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta.  It is a tragedy, indeed, for the many characters who lose their lives.  It can be categorised as one or more of these: a savage farce or a morality play or a revenge play.

Barabas, the Jew of the title, is a successful ship-owner and trader, who loves his wealth (“Infinite riches in a little room”).  As for people, he is concerned only about himself and his daughter, Abigail.  It matters little to him that the Knights of St John of Jerusalem rule over Malta, so long as a stable peace permits the carrying on of business.

The spring that sets the play in motion is the arrival of a Turkish embassy in Malta, demanding payment of arrears of tribute.  Ferneze, the Governor, states that the Christians of the island do not have the resources to pay up, so he looks to the local Jews (and especially Barabas) to supply the necessary funds.  He adds insult to injury: he denigrates the Jews, calling them “infidels” and “accursèd in the sight of heaven”.  He implies that the Turks’ demand for tribute is divine punishment for the authorities’ toleration of the Jews.  Barabas argues back, eloquently, but to no avail.  For his pains, he is dispossessed of his house and of his wealth (apart from the part that is hidden).  He curses his tormentors and plans his revenge.

The political leadership not only picks on a defenceless minority community, it also permits the operation of a slave market.  So another defenceless group is made to suffer.

The religious men – two friars, Jacomo and Bernadine – are little better.  Each hopes that his own order will benefit from hearing Barabas’s confession of his sins and from baptising him as a Christian (never carried out, in the event).  The editor J R Siemon comments: “The thrust of the passage is that each friar naively believes himself in favour with Barabas and, hence, in line for his wealth” (page 88).

And when Abigail utters her dying words – “Witness that I die a Christian” – Bernardine comments: “Ay, and a virgin too, that grieves me the most” (Act 3 Scene 6, 40f).

Barabas himself is transformed from a self-serving accumulator of wealth into a ruthless, boastful murderer.  He is involved, directly or indirectly, in various deaths – of the blameworthy and the innocent (including his own daughter).  Eventually, overreaching himself, he is caught in a trap of his own making and dies, hoist on his own petard.

A parallel with Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is this: Barabas and Shylock are the only Jewish men that feature prominently, as the others are minor characters.  (Their daughters are unlike them.)  Their misdeeds are their own and not those of the Jews in general.  This point is relevant to a discussion of signs of anti-Semitism in either play.

The Christians, then, do not come out of this story at all well.  The Turks – albeit briefly sketched – come out better.  The Jewish men, other than Barabas himself, are given little to say or do.  And Abigail is a sympathetic character.

Conclusion

The Jew of Malta is a savage farce, on the basis of (a) the series of Barabas’s cunning stratagems and (b) his witty running commentary upon them.  It is a morality play, ie about moral living, with the twist that both moral and immoral people are vulnerable to the leading character’s plots.  It is also a revenge play, as Barabas is a self-avenger, who (a) retaliates against those he perceives as enemies and (b) dies himself in the end.  (Compare Kyd’s Hieronimo, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Middleton’s Vindice.)

Marlowe gives us an object lesson in the nature of discrimination and oppression, and the consequences.

Whatever our differences, we should all be humane.

David Harries

May 2015

 

 

Thoughts on Shakespeare’s ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’

Introduction

You may never have the chance to see a production – stage or film – of Shakespeare’s early comedy, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, for reasons that I’ll touch upon below.  However, if you like reading the plays, you may enjoy this one, as I do.

I’ve been prompted to make some comments by seeing a production by a South Wales company (Fluellen), which capitalised on the light, comic parts offered by the parts of the witty servants (Lucetta, Speed, and Launce, with his dog), as well as the ridiculous “outlaws” and Thurio.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is centred on the rival claims of (i) male friendship and (ii) heterosexual love.

This conflict is to be found in the literary works cited by editors as sources for the play.  (Norman Sanders refers to these in his 1968 New Penguin edition, pages 8-12).

Other features of the play are:

  1. two (or more) pairs of lovers (compare, for example, A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
  2. domineering fathers (compare, for example, the Dream)
  3. flight from the city and taking refuge in the countryside (compare, for example, the Dream and As You Like It)
  4. women disguising themselves as men (cf Portia, Nerissa, Rosalind, Viola and Imogen)
  5. the overhearing by one character (or group) of another, who does not know he or she is being observed (of many examples, one is to be found in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act 4 Scene 3).

The plot

The principal gentlemen are Proteus and Valentine, who are close friends.  The principal ladies are Julia and Silvia.  From the outset, Julia and Proteus are in love.

Next, Valentine leaves home for the court of Milan.  There, he falls in love with Silvia, and she with him.  Proteus is himself sent to Milan by his father, and Julia and he say their fond farewells.  But, arrived in Milan, Proteus transfers his affections to Silvia and (behind Valentine’s back) attempts to woo her (despite being rebuffed).

Julia misses Proteus: she dresses as a man and makes her way to Milan to find him.

(Julia, indeed, is a particularly strong character.  Norman Sanders describes her as: “the first of those comic heroines of Shakespeare who….impress the audience by their combination of good sense and healthy sensuality” [page 23]).

One at a time, Silvia, Julia and (finally) Valentine discover Proteus’s fickleness and disloyalty to his friend.  There is a climax and a crisis – and a resolution, of sorts.

I’d now like to look at two scenes.

Act 5 Scene 4

This is the final scene.  The trouble with it is this: Valentine not only forgives Proteus his treachery but also offers to give up his own claim to Silvia (without consulting the ladies): “All that was mine in Silvia I give thee,” he declares (New Penguin, line 83).

Julia asserts herself and makes good her claim on Valentine; and the pairings required by the happy ending are restored.  But Proteus looks unpleasant and selfish; and Valentine looks naïve and misguided.

The construction of this scene is faulty: while Julia, Proteus and Valentine are negotiating a settlement, Silvia remains silent, from line 59 to line 174 (the end).

The play ends, then, with a plan for a double marriage – a rather forced happy ending.

Act 4 Scene 2

This scene is touching and effective – perhaps the best in the whole play.

Here, Julia (still in disguise) witnesses Proteus’s serenading of Silvia (ostensibly on behalf of Thurio, but really for himself).

The scene is enhanced by the inclusion of one of Shakespeare’s most famous songs, set to music by many composers (eg Franz Schubert), namely, “Who is Silvia?” [lines 38-52].

In the ensuing dialogue, with the host of the inn where she is staying, Julia vividly conveys her feelings:

HOST How now?  Are you sadder than you were before?

           How do you, man?  The music likes you not.

JULIA You mistake; the musician likes me not.

HOST Why, my pretty youth?

JULIA He plays false, father.  [lines 53-57]

(And the dialogue, with its double meanings, continues.)

Conclusion

The play has not the poise and polish of (say) A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It has defects in its construction and the credibility of certain of its characters, so it poses a challenge to companies that wish to stage it.  However, it contains poetic verse and witty prose, and it is a pleasure to read.  The reader might like to imagine how a good production might deal with its weaknesses and make the most of its strengths.

David R Harries

May 2015

 

 

 

 

 

How Tom Stoppard adapted Ford Madox Ford’s ‘Parade’s End’ for television

“The course of true love never did run smooth” [Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1, Scene 1 (Lysander speaking)]

Introduction

Ford’s 1920s tetralogy (Some Do Not…, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up, Last Post [also known as The Last Post]) paints a vivid picture of war and love in Britain in the second decade of the 20th century.  The novels give the reader descriptions, summaries, dialogues and internal monologues: the monologues, essential to the nature of the novels, are hard to realise in an adaptation.

Ford was a prolific novelist and writer of memoirs.  Stoppard is a famous playwright.  How did the latter tackle the tetralogy, with a view to transferring it to the tv screen?  Stoppard himself comments on the process in his Introduction to the published script and in his interview included in the dvd.  But here I wish to examine significant similarities and differences between the approaches of the two writers, on my own account.

The tv series was first shown in 2012; and Stoppard’s script was published by Faber & Faber (London) in 2012 too (ISBN 978-0-751-29913-3).

The shaping of the material

Stoppard draws mainly on the first three novels.  He generally straightens out the chronology.  He feels free, though, to modify the sequence, to suit his purposes.  He streamlines scenes created by Ford and writes many new ones of his own.  The finished work is very much a collaboration between the two writers.

Stoppard takes three episodes of the tv series to cover the first novel, Some Do Not…  Episode 1 corresponds to Part I of SMD; and Episodes 2 and 3 correspond to Part II.  This disproportion may have to do with the greater length of SMD and the abundance of dialogue in it, compared with the increased use of interior monologue in the later novels; but it creates an imbalance.

Episode 4 covers No More Parades; and Episode 5 covers A Man Could Stand Up (especially the war scenes in Part II).

Too little use is made of the fast moving and vivid passages in A Man Could Stand Up, Part I and III, largely centring on Valentine Wannop, her thoughts and her decisions: the substituted scenes (eg those set in the school where Valentine works) are fine but they fall short of the original.

Most of Last Post is ignored; but scattered references (a) to what the principal characters do on Armistice Day 1918 and (b) the later cutting down of Groby Tree form the basis of scenes that are inserted into Episode 5.  Indeed, Stoppard makes Christopher and Sylvia Tietjens separate twice in quick succession here.

I wish to make two related points here:

  1. A Man Could Stand Up provides its own satisfactory conclusion to the story: the war ends and Valentine and Christopher finally get together.
  2. AMCSU contains the strong implication that Sylvia has left Christopher for good: Valentine catches sight of a letter from Sylvia’s solicitor to Christopher saying as much [III.i].

Stoppard probably inserted the additional confrontations between husband and wife in Episode 5 for dramatic effect.

Additional scenes

As mentioned above, Stoppard adds a number of scenes (and, indeed, characters).  Some of the extra scenes are based on fleeting references in the novels, while others are freely invented by the dramatist.  Examples follow below:

  • The viewer sees something of Christopher’s mother and father as well as his brother Mark
  • We see young Michael Tietjens at various stages of his growing up (Christopher expresses more fondness for him than Sylvia does but spends more time away)
  • There are several scenes that involve two or three members of the Wannop family (Valentine, her mother and her brother)
  • There are numerous scenes of Groby Tree, to the extent that in the tv series it comes to symbolise the Tietjens family and their fortunes
  • Though Valentine is absent from No More Parades, apart from appearing in Christopher’s own thoughts, Stoppard inserts scenes involving her in his Episode 4 – presumably to remind us of her existence
  • Though Sylvia is absent from A Man Could Stand Up, Stoppard brings her into Episode 5, drawing upon material in Last Post and matter of his own invention
  • ‘Society’ scenes are added, showing how upper class civilians carry on while soldiers are suffering at the Front
  • In Episode 2, Valentine witnesses the damaging of Velázquez’s Venus in the National Gallery (London) by the suffragette Mary Richardson in 1914
  • In Episode 5, Valentine comes across a copy of Marie Stopes’s Married Love (first published in 1918).

Theatricality

In the tv series, there are numerous cases where Stoppard makes actions, only referred to in the novels, explicit, dramatic, theatrical; the characters are given many opportunities to express their strong emotions and to confront one another; their words are in part borrowed from Ford and in part newly minted by Stoppard himself.

On the screen, Stoppard’s script is brought to life on the screen by the sets, the costumes and the high standards of acting.

The visual images conjured up in the tv series are vivid.  Some involve partial nudity:

  1. In (Episode 2), Sylvia is seen taking a bath (and Christopher averts his eyes from her naked torso); in Episode 3, Valentine briefly sees herself totally nude, in her own imagination, in a pose modelled on that of Velázquez’s Venus (see above); and in Episode 5 we finally see Valentine and Christopher in bed together.
  2. There are, indeed, several scenes of sexual intimacy in the tv series: contrast the one brief mention of sex by Ford, in a passage where Christopher is thinking about his relationship with Sylvia:

[H]e had had physical contact with this woman before he married her; in a railway carriage coming down from the Dukeries.  An extravagantly beautiful girl!  [Some Do Not…, I.vi].

The dialogues between the principal characters run the gamut of seduction, pleading, enquiring, polite conversation – and disagreement and falling out.  Some incidents of conflict are based on passages in Ford’s novels; others are derived from hints in the text and expanded by Stoppard.  (Notable examples follow.)

  1. Sylvia’s harsh rejection of Christopher, with her disparagement of Valentine, at the end of Episode 3, is based (a) on Christopher’s aide-memoire to himself about his life with Sylvia [No More Parades, I.iii] and (b) on a reconstruction of the original (suppressed) ending of Some Do Not…:

“Oh God!  How could you be such a skunk!  The girl was waiting to drop into your mouth like a grape.  Couldn’t you bring yourself to seduce a — a little kitchen maid?  Are they so rare?”  [M Saunders, editor, Carcanet Press, Manchester, 2010, page 414].

  1. Edith Ethel’s unfounded accusation that Valentine has had a baby by Christopher, in Episode 3, is based on the text of Some Do Not…, II.iv:

“For God’s sake hold your tongue, you shameless thing!  You’ve had a child by the man, haven’t you?”

  1. Valentine’s exasperated verbal assault on Sylvia in Episode 5 (created by Stoppard) is derived from a brief passage in Last Post, I.vii, where Marie Léonie recalls Sylvia’s untimely irruption into Valentine and Christopher’s privacy:

Christopher’s wife had turned up at Christopher’s empty house….They [Valentine and Christopher] had gone back late at night probably for purposes of love and had found her there….Then, at the top of the stairs in the house in the Inn they had perceived Sylvia, all in white!…

The lark and the nightingale

Stoppard adapts one scene, in particular, with great skill.  In Episode 1, we see Christopher and Valentine driving through the night.  In the source material, Some Do Not…, I.vii, they discuss a variety of topics, including female suffrage and Latin poetry.  (They disagree with each other, outwardly, while inwardly drawing ever more closely together.)  Stoppard cuts most of their conversation, but he hits on a bright idea: as day is dawning, they quote lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Act 3, Scene 5) to each other:

Valentine: Listen.

Christopher: A lark.

Valentine: Not that.  It was a nightingale.

Christopher: “It was the lark, the herald of the morn, no nightingale.”

Valentine: “Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.”

This is most fitting: falling in love, but facing great obstacles, Christopher and Valentine resemble Shakespeare’s lovers.

Conclusion

In his Introduction to the 1977 New Penguin Shakespeare edition of the collaborative play, The New Noble Kinsmen, N W Bawcutt (editor) compares the respective contributions of Shakespeare and John Fletcher, and he says of the latter:

“Instead of ceremony and ritual he (Fletcher) gives us drama and excitement….His characters debate and argue, but seem more concerned with making effects and scoring points than with exploring their inner feelings”.  [page 28]

In his Parade’s End script, Stoppard adds much “drama and excitement” to the original; and he provides many occasions for the actors to “debate and argue”.  The actors also have the task of conveying something of their characters’ “inner feelings”: in the event, one could ask no more of the performances that they give us.