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.)

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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.

 

 

 

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