a brief skylight on Portugal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Chapter XII]

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

[translated by M J Costa, Vintage, 2015]

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

 

 

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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.

 

The ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Ulysses’

 

Reading challenges

Having re-read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, I thought I’d take another look at James Joyce’s (in)famous Ulysses (read and re-read years ago).  Homer is readable in translation – Joyce is barely readable, and lots of explanatory notes are required, even for a re-reading.  (I now draw upon the “1922 text” version, put out by OUP and edited by Dr Jeri Jones [1998].)  At least one can pick one chapter at random and concentrate on that.

 

Take for example Chapter 9, called ‘Scylla and Charybdis’.  This  consists of a philosophical discussion (set in a library) and centres largely on Stephen’s putting forward his hypotheses concerning Shakespeare (based on his works rather than recorded facts about his life) to a few friends.  The underlying (barely perceptible) conflict has been said (by commentators) to be between dogma and mysticism, through which a latter-day Odysseus (the reader?) should steer.

 

By contrast, the roughly corresponding passage in Book 12 of the Odyssey describes vividly and concisely Scylla, the man-eating, cave-dwelling monster, and Charybdis, the powerful, sucking whirlpool, which use every opportunity to kill sailors trying to steer the narrow course between them.  (In the event, six of Odysseus’s men are taken and eaten).  Nothing as clear and exciting as this appears in Ulysses.

 

Comparisons

Both the Odyssey and Ulysses are about the return of a hero or heroes (a protagonist or protagonists) to their home.  Homer’s Odysseus has been away from home at the legendary Trojan War and needs to return to his family in Ithaca; and his family want him back.  His fellow soldier Menelaus suffered his own delays on his way home (see Book 4).

James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is inspired by the city of Dublin, his love for his wife, and by his admiration for Odysseus, also known as Ulysses.  His protagonists (Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom and Molly Bloom) are all searching for an improved home life.

The Odyssey is dynamic and action-packed –with the constant thrust of the hero’s return home and his drive for revenge upon his wife’s gluttonous, proud suitors.  By contrast, Ulysses is static.  Nothing much happens.  Stephen may stay in touch with Leopold.  The state of the Blooms’ marriage may improve.

 

In the Odyssey, actors reveal their character through their stories.  (Some of Oysseus’s are lies!)  Notable are Books 9-12, where Odyssey tells the story of his adventures (the Cyclops etc) to his hosts.  In Ulysses, actors reveal their character through their internal monologues – the extreme case being Molly’s long monologue, in the final chapter, about her life, her courtship and her marriage.

 

Marriages

Leopold is an ordinary 20th century man, very loosely based on the mythical warrior and hero, Odysseus; and his unfaithful Molly = Odysseus’s faithful Penelope (rather ironically, perhaps).  (Stephen Dedalus = Telemachus, son of Odysseus and Penelope.)

In the Odyssey, there are three relationships – not only Odysseus and Penelope but also two others.  Menelaus has accepted back Helen as his consort, after the end of the Trojan War, as Telemachus discovers (see Book 4) – number 2.  In Book 11, the ghost of Agamemnon informs Odysseus how his unfaithful wife Clytaemnestra and her lover Aegisthus murdered him on his return home from Troy – number 3.  Perhaps Leopold and Molly Bloom can also be compared with   Menelaus and Helen, insofar as they are contemplating a reconciliation.

Endings

 

The climax of the Odyssey (albeit before the very end) may be said to come in Chapter 23 when Odysseus reveals his true identity to Penelope and they exchange their stories (their trials and tribulations).

 

Ulysses ends, aptly, with Molly’s fond recollection of Leopold’s marriage proposal, years before:

 

and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I say yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

 

 

 

Thoughts on Homer

My re-reading of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad have prompted some reflections on my part.  They are tremendous epics, full of variety of incident but also pathos.  They have influenced numerous subsequent works by great poets, eg Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare, directly and indirectly; but incidents and characters are changed.  There are many translations: I have mainly relied upon the old Penguin ones by E V Rieu (but see below for an even older take).

1 The fighting at Troy is savage and brutal.  It is characterised by hand-to-hand combat with spears and swords, backed up by charioteers and bowmen.  Prisoners are not taken – no mercy is shown to the defeated.  Mercy is replaced by revenge.  Men of flesh and blood are reduced to inanimate objects – in great numbers. The warriors can be accused of what we call the sins of wrath and pride.  Achilles abuses the corpse of Hector.  Similarly, Odysseus wreaks merciless revenge upon all the suitors of his faithful wife, Penelope, at the end of the Odyssey.

2 Who is the real hero of the Iliad?  Achilles or Hector?  Or is there little to choose between them?

3 The first book is in itself a great story – psychologically acute, worth reading even on its own.  Agamemnon, as commander-in-chief of a disparate army, has to try to keep them together.  Achilles (who quarrels with him) has a right to his point of view.  This strain – between the need for unity to accomplish a task and (on the other hand) the rights of individuals and minorities to express a dissenting view – applies to movements and political parties, to this day.

4 The warriors are subject to their destiny and cannot avoid it – or at least, unless a god intervenes to save them.  (There are some examples of this in the Iliad; and Odysseus, too, is rescued on numerous occasions in the Odyssey.)  But Zeus (chief of the gods) is himself subject to destiny at times: he is unable to rescue his son Sarpedon from Patroclus (Book XVI), nor Hector from Achilles (Book XXII).  Their deaths are pre-ordained.

5 So many great men are killed in the episode of the Trojan War covered by the Iliad that it would be tedious to name them all.  But, notably: the Trojan Hector kills Patroclus (the close friend of Achilles), while the latter is “sulking in his tent”; Achilles kills Hector in his rage.  Even this bald summary points to the cycle of revenge that reduces a series of men to inanimate objects.

6 The Trojan War episode that Homer recounts in the Iliad does not extend to the death of Achilles (still young), nor to the eventual fall of Troy.  (Virgil picks up Troy’s fall in his Aeneid.)  But Achilles’ death is frequently foretold – even by Achilles himself, and by Thetis, his mother.

7 Odysseus meets the ghost of Achilles, in Book XI of the Odyssey.  The dead hero has nothing good to say about the glory (if any) that survives death in battle.

Odysseus says:

But sure the eye of Time beholds no name
So bless’d as thine in all the rolls of fame;
Alive we hail’d thee with our guardian gods,
And dead thou rulest a king in these abodes.

Achilles replies, bluntly:

Talk not of ruling in this dolorous gloom,
Nor think vain words (he cried) can ease my doom.
Rather I’d choose laboriously to bear
A weight of woes, and breathe the vital air,
A slave to some poor hind that toils for bread,
Than reign the sceptred monarch of the dead.

[Translated by Alexander Pope]

8 Finally, I should add that women are marginalised in these epics, as it is a patriarchal and martial society that is portrayed.  But I’ll name a few (other than goddesses) that stand out:

  • Briseis (Iliad): she is the slave who Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel over in Book I. (She has no say in the argument.)  However, when she is returned to Achilles (in Book XIX) she expresses pleasure at the outcome
  • Helen (Marlowe’s “face that launched a thousand ships”): her abduction by Paris to Troy is the proximate cause of the Trojan War; she expresses self-reproach and regret about her role in the conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans.* Once she is back with her first husband, Menelaus, in Sparta, she appears to be content with the outcome (see Book IV of the Odyssey)
  • Andromache, wife and widow of Hector, in the Iliad
  • Hecabe, mother of Hector, in the Iliad
  • Nausicaa, daughter of King Alcinous, who aids Odysseus when he is cast upon the shore of Phaeacia, after his ship has been wrecked (in the Odyssey, Book VI)
  • Penelope, who outwits her suitors and remains faithful to her missing husband, while living with the hope that he will one day return (in the Odyssey).

The lamentations of Andromache, Hecabe and Helen over the corpse of hector, in the final book of the Iliad, movingly convey pathos.

Finally, a strong case can be made out for the view that Homer is not praising war or the wreaking of vengeance, nor the pride, anger and irrationality that lead up to it.  Read and learn.

 

*Appendix re Helen

Here is part of Helen’s speech to her now brother-in-law Hector (in Book VI):

Oh, generous brother! (if the guilty dame
That caused these woes deserve a sister’s name!)
Would heaven, ere all these dreadful deeds were done,
The day that show’d me to the golden sun
Had seen my death! why did not whirlwinds bear
The fatal infant to the fowls of air?
Why sunk I not beneath the whelming tide,
And midst the roarings of the waters died?
Heaven fill’d up all my ills, and I accursed
Bore all, and Paris of those ills the worst.
Helen at least a braver spouse might claim,
Warm’d with some virtue, some regard of fame!

[Alexander Pope’s version]

 

Finding your tongue – anthologies of Welsh literature

When, at the 2006 National Eisteddfod, I picked up a copy of Welsh Women’s Poetry 1461-2001 (edited by Katie Granich and Catherine Brennan and first published by Honno Press of Aberystwyth in 2003), I found I could not put it down.  My copy suffered from the rain as I read it on my way to the public transport that would take me home.

There is a wealth of material.  There is poetry in both English and Welsh, and the Welsh pieces are accompanied by translations, so it can be appreciated very widely.

Until the 21st century (arguably), literature has been dominated by men and women have largely been invisible (with a few exceptions, eg some great English female novelists).

My 2017 treat to myself is a new compendium of Welsh language poetry and prose, from the first millennium to the present day: The Old Red Tongue – An Anthology of Welsh Literature, edited by Gwyn Griffiths and Meic Stephens and published by Francis Boutle (London) – nearly a thousand pages, for £30.

Unlike the Honno anthology, very nearly all the originals are in Welsh, but like the Honno one, they are accompanied by English translations.  This is excellent, as medieval Welsh is in places difficult to follow for the inexpert.  (So too sometimes is dialect.)

Many of the translations have been made by the renowned Anthony Conran and Joseph P Clancy.  Some pieces have been translated for the first time.

There is are useful introductions both to historical periods and also to individual writers.

I’ll take the liberty of quoting from the publisher’s blurb, which describes the volume as an “anthology of over 300 texts – poems, plays, memoirs, essays, extracts from novels and short stories, hymns, eulogies, elegies, medieval prose, political and theological commentaries – from nearly 200 writers”.

The book does what it says on the cover – the net is cast wide.

In the last hundred years or so, fortunately, women’s voices have come to be heard, whereas in earlier times men dominated.  The female writers are: Gwerful Mechain, Ann Griffiths, Eluned Morgan, Kate Roberts, Marion Eames, Jane Edwards, Eigra Lewis Roberts, Nesta Wyn Jones, Manon Rhys, Menna Elfyn, Christine James, Angharad Tomos, Gwyneth Lewis, Sonia Edwards, Elin ap Hywel, Mererid Hopwood and Meleri Wyn James.  (Still a small minority, but growing.)

There is an extensive bibliography at the end, useful for further reading.

I should add that The Old Red Tongue is one of a “lesser used languages of Europe” series, which includes anthologies of literature in Breton, Manx, Galician, Channel Islands Norman French, Esperanto, Maltese and Occitan.  A worthy enterprise.

(One English language anthology is: Poetry 1900 – 2000 – one hundred poets from Wales, edited by Meic Stephens, first published by Parthian, Cardigan, in 2007.)

Here are feasts for those who love literature and for those who love Wales.

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?

Racism and sexism in three parallel medieval romances – ‘Peredur’, ‘Perceval’ and ‘Parzival’

Introduction

The Welsh Peredur (written down in the 14th century but of earlier composition), the French Perceval (11th century, by Chrétien de Troyes), and the German Parzival (circa 1200, by Wolfram von Eschenbach) – each can be called a “bildungsroman”, insofar as it traces the education, development and maturing of a young protagonist.

(Peredur starts very well, but the ending as we have it is confused; Perceval is unfinished; Parzival is very sophisticated.)

I wish to discuss two episodes about the hero, before he has gone out into the wider world, from the rural, isolated spot where his widowed mother is keeping him.

The lad and the knights

Early on, then, the young man suddenly comes across a posse of Arthurian knights.  The knights ask the hero for directions, and he asks them about their equipment. So their priorities are different.

(1) In the anonymous Welsh Peredur, when the eponymous hero meets three Arthurian knights, his questions are answered readily:

‘Say, friend,’ said Owein, has thou seen a knight go hereby today or yesterday?’  ‘I know not,’ he replied, ‘what a knight is.’  ‘Such a thing as I am,’ said Owein.  ‘Wert thou to tell me that which I would ask of thee, I in turn would tell thee that which thou dost ask.’  ‘I will, gladly,’ said Owein.’

[Peredur, tr G Jones & T Jones, p 184; cf White Book of Rhydderch, pp 118f]

(2) In the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes, however, some of the five knights (passing by) treat the hero differently, when he asks questions, and they complain that he is holding them up.  They comment on Perceval unfavourably:

“So help me God,” says their chief, “he’s a real ignoramus….” – “You may be perfectly certain, my lord, that the Welsh are by nature more stupid than grazing beasts; and this is one is just like a beast.”

[Perceval, tr D D R Owen, page 377]

Has the writer picked up discriminatory attitudes from the Norman French who were interacting with the Welsh in Britain at the time?

(3) Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (based here upon Perceval) reproduces this scenario, with variations.  Here, the hero delays four passer-by knights with his questions: three become impatient (while their leader is more sympathetic):

The foremost lost his temper at the sight of the boy in mid-path.  ‘This stupid Waleis [Welshman] is slowing us down.’  (The Waleis, I must tell you, share the same distinction as the Bavarians, but are even denser than Bavarian folk…)

[Parzival, tr A T Hatto, Book 3, p 72]

The lad and the maiden in the tent

The hero’s first encounter with a stranger, on his way to Arthur’s court, happens to be with a lady.  (Note that the hero recalls his mother’s advice and applies it, or misapplies it, here.)  The main thread of the three parallel stories is this: the hero enters a tent (or pavilion) and finds there a beautiful lady; he helps himself to food and drink, takes a ring from her finger, and kisses her.  But the details vary a lot.  I need to quote from the descriptions at some length.

(4) Note that, when Peredur reaches the pavilion, he has not eaten for “two days and two nights”.  I proceed:

The maiden made him welcome and greeted him….’ My mother,’ said Peredur, ‘bade me wherever I saw meat and drink, to take it.’  ‘Go then, chieftain,’ said she, ‘to the table.  And God’s welcome to thee.’ [Peredur takes half, only.] ‘My mother,’ said he, ‘bade me take a fair jewel wherever I might see it.’  ‘Take it then, friend,’ said she.  ‘’Tis not I will begrudge thee.’  Peredur took the ring, and went down on his knee and gave the maiden a kiss [on her hand?], and took his steed and departed thence.

[Peredur, tr Jones & Jones, pp 185f; emphasis added; cf White Book of Rhydderch, pp 120f]

Note how polite both parties are and how generous the lady is.  She is a good hostess and he is a good guest.

Given the mythological and magical elements underlying the story, it is possible that the lady has insight into Peredur’s destiny; and she may indeed be an Otherworld character (and herself an educator).

In her study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends, G Goetinck states:

The meeting of Peredur with the Tent Maiden is one of the first episodes in which the hero is helped and guided by the power of the Otherworld whilst he is being trained.  It is also a version of the meeting between the hero and Sovereignty….

[Goetinck, p 140]

(5) In Perceval, there are no indications of a mythological aspect to the lady, and the situation is quite different:

On the bed [in the tent], all alone, lay a young girl fast asleep….She woke with a start….The girl trembles with fear on account of the youth, who to her seems crazy….”Be on your way, lad!” she says.  “Be off, before my lover sees you.” – “By my head, I’ll kiss you first, whoever it may upset,” says the youth, “because my mother told me to!” – “I’ll certainly never kiss you if I can help it,” says the maiden. “Be off…!

Perceval is much stronger than the lady: he kisses her seven times [presumably on her mouth]; and he pulls her ring (“set with a brilliant emerald”) from her finger, and puts it on his own.  She bursts into tears.  He adds insult to injury:

“Bless you, maiden.  Now I’ll be off well rewarded – and it’s much nicer kissing you than any chambermaid in all my mother’s house, for there’s nothing bitter about your mouth!”

[Perceval, tr Owen, pp 383f]

Perceval takes food and drink, without asking permission, and departs, leaving the young woman still weeping.

Perceval, then, is cruel and unfeeling and not at all chivalric.  He does not treat the young lady as his equal.  He totally misapplies his mother’s advice about how to treat women.  His immaturity does not excuse his behaviour.  He gets off to a bad start in his career as a knight.

Perhaps the status of this lady reflects the low status of women in France, at the time, compared to the rights accorded to them in the Wales of the early Middle Ages (cf the laws attributed to Hywel Dda).  From the remarks made by the lady in Perceval, it is clear that she relies on her male friend to defend her; and for her it is unfortunate that he is temporarily absent.

(6) Parzival is like Perceval, at this point in the story.  (The lady is named Jeschute and she is a duchess.)  The account is long and circumstantial. It reflects badly upon the hero.  I quote a salient passage:

The lady wailed loudly.  He paid no attention to what she said but forced her mouth to his.  Wasting no time, he crushed her breast to his, duchess or no, and also took a ring.  On her shift he saw a brooch and roughly tore it off.  The lady was armed as women are: but to her his strength was an army’s.  Nevertheless there was quite a tussle of it.

[Parzival, tr Hatto, Book 3, p 77]

Conclusion

The fundamental theme of the three romances is the education of the hero concerning love, chivalry and government.  Evidently, Perceval and Parzival have a very long way to go before they can be regarded as educated!  Peredur, however, has already mastered basic courtesy.  The nature of his encounter with the lady is appropriate to the development of the overall story.  Perceval and Parzival’s behaviour, by contrast, is characterised by the use of brute force, so that they come across as villains rather than heroes, at least for the interim.

The Welsh story is shorter and more concise than the continental ones.  On the surface it is unsophisticated, in comparison with its continental analogues.  But it has beauties and subtleties of its of its own; and in some respects it deserves to be seen as more appealing than the other two.

References

Jones, G and Jones, T (translators) (1949), The Mabinogion, London: J M Dent (Everyman)

Goetinck, G (1975), Peredur: A Study of Welsh Traditions in the Grail Legends, Cardiff: University of Wales Press

Goetinck, G W (editor) (1976), Historia Peredur vab Efrawc, Cardiff: University of Wales

Hatto, A T (1980), Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin

Owen, D D R (translator) (1987), Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, London: J M Dent (Everyman)

See also:

Jones, R M (editor) (1960), Y Tair Rhamant, Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liberalism v authoritarianism – comparing 17th century England & Wales with the UK in the 21st century

On 3 May 2017 UK Prime Minister Theresa May made a verbal attack on unspecified critics associated with the work of the European Union.  But is she blaming them for her own problems?  Is attack seen as the best form of defence?

The UK governments of recent years – Conservative-Liberal Democratic, 2010-15, and Conservative, 2015 till now – have been characterised by massive cuts to social expenditure and the demonisation of certain minorities, especially benefits claimants, migrants and asylum seekers.  There have been claims to be liberal but the practice shows features of authoritarianism.  Theresa May was an illiberal Home Secretary (2010-15).  She has advocated the repeal of the Human Rights Act and UK withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Politicians as a bunch can display, and act upon, both liberal and authoritarian tendencies, at different times.  These have been noted in Labour, Conservative and Coalition governments in recent years.  Insofar as Mrs May keeps championing “strong and stable leadership” (in other words, her own leadership), she can be regarded as authoritarian.  We should learn from history the dangers of “strong” leadership.  There are enough tyrannical leaders around in the 21st century wider world – as there were in the 20th century.

Liberalism is messy – but it offers a better bet to voters than authoritarianism.  Authoritarian leaders find it hard to change course and to learn from criticism; or they change their mind and alter course, opportunistically, and claim they were consistent all the time.  (Remember George Orwell’s 1984.)  Mrs May herself was supposedly in favour of a ‘EU Remain’ vote in the 2016 UK referendum.  But now she is stridently hostile to the EU.  Her position is weak – one against 27!

17th century England and Wales suffered authoritarian rule under Charles I, the Commonwealth (led by Oliver Cromwell) and Charles II – the details varied. The poet John Milton who supported the Commonwealth (not uncritically); and he suffered for this after the Restoration of Charles II.  He went on to write his great verse epic, Paradise Lost.

Interpretations of PL are diverse; and there is controversy among scholars, not so much about the value, but about the arguments.  Is it religious and theological?  Yes.  Is it allegorical?  Maybe, to an extent.  Does it directly reflect the breakdown of the command of the Commonwealth over ordinary people?  Perhaps not.  Is Milton’s God authoritarian?  Milton does not think so – quite the opposite.  Is Satan authoritarian?  Yes he is, while pretending to be democratic.

One idea about PL is that Milton demonstrates in it a circular rather than a linear view of human history.  Consistent with a linear view is the belief (or hope) that humans as a whole are engaged in progress.*  Do not people of a liberal disposition embrace this idea?  The circular model fits in with the idea of repeated falls and rises in history.  Given Milton’s Christian beliefs, human history commenced with the Fall of the rebellious angels from heaven, followed by the Fall of Adam and Eve.

We should recall that Milton believed in mankind’s free will.  So all citizens have to take some responsibility for the politics of their country.

So perhaps the UK is now in a period of decline and fall long and drawn out.  Separation from the EU will probably hasten this.

 

*See: Weston, P (1987), John Milton: Paradise Lost, London: Penguin – pages 25-6.

 

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.