Category Archives: Shakespeare & his world

man the unwedgeable and gnarled oak (thoughts on Measure for Measure)

Duke: Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,
Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, ’twere all alike
As if we had them not. … (Act. 1 Sc. 1)

Lucio: Our doubts are traitors
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt. (Act 1, c. 4)

Angelo: … ‘Tis very pregnant [natural],
The jewel that we find, we stoop and take’t
Because we see it; but what we do not see
We tread upon, and never think of it. (Act 2, Sc. 1)

These are statements in the form of generalizations about human beings. They come from the first two acts of Measure for Measure. The form–a maxim about us–is not unusual in Shakespeare. (Cf. Kent in Lear, “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well,” and many other examples.) But the frequency seems notably high near the beginning of this play.

In Measure for Measure, the main pair of lovers is guilty of “fornication,” which is a capital offense in the fictionalized setting of Vienna. No one in the play doubts that premarital sex is wrong. The question is whether it is inevitable because of human nature. Lucio claims that fornication is “impossible to extirp … till eating and drinking be put down.” He argues that laws against fornication would prevent the species from reproducing. Speaking of the Puritanical tyrant Angelo, Lucio says: “this ungenitured agent will unpeople the province with continency; sparrows must not build in his house-eaves, because they are lecherous.” (Again cf. Lear: “The wren goes to ‘t, and the small gilded fly / Does lecher in my sight.”)

Since Lucio is himself a lecher and a hypocrite, his view is hardly authoritative. But the holy and chaste Isabella has a more persuasive argument against inflexible rules. “Man,” she says, is an “unwedgeable and gnarled oak” (Act 2, sc. 2). She sounds like Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” This is an argument against inflexible laws.

In short, the explicit question facing the characters in Measure for Measure is about human nature; hence the drumbeat of maxims near the beginning. In addressing that question, the characters must remain within the bounds of Christan thought. Their community has  friars and nuns, and Isabella is a source of orthodox theological wisdom. Christians may argue about freedom and original sin, but they cannot claim that all laws and moral strictures are arbitrary human conventions.*

That is why Lear makes an interesting comparison. Its setting is explicitly pagan. Major characters are cast out of society onto the natural heath, where a person is just a “poor, bare, forked animal.” The King (albeit, when mad) comes to see all laws as oppressive conventions. The possibility opens up that life is meaningless: “Ripeness is all.”

Following Stanley Cavell, I think Lear demonstrates that one should not ask general questions about human nature and the purposes of human life. Those questions will yield nihilistic conclusions that are really excuses for avoiding emotional connections and responsibilities for other people. That is a view derived from Montaigne and ancient skeptics. It’s not really acceptable in Christian Vienna, where institutions are derived from providence, and souls are destined for salvation.

*No one uses the word God in Measure for Measure–instead “Jove” is used–but I presume that is because of scruples about taking the Lord’s name in vain on the stage. Also, the setting appears to be Catholic, even though Catholicism was illegal in Shakespeare’s England. Still, the characters are recognizably Christian.


Ian McKellen’s Now is the winter of our discontent

I admire unexpected, imaginative stagings of Shakespeare that are not stunts but that reveal meanings in the original text. There are many such moments in Ian McKellen’s film version of Richard III (1995). He has cut and edited Shakespeare’s text heavily, but his reading is powerful and illuminating.

This clip shows the first 8 minutes, including Richard’s famous opening soliloquy, “Now is the winter of our discontent …” The movie actually begins with a preceding, wordless scene in which Richard murders Edward, Prince of Wales and Henry VI to put Edward IV (“the son of York”) on the throne. That scene vividly conveys that we are in England around 1930. There has been a fascist takeover, involving the military officer corps and the aristocracy, with the royal family as at least titular rulers. And there has been a bloody split among royal factions. The analogy to the Wars of the Roses five centuries earlier is provocative.

The clip opens with quick shots of several buildings that will serve as scenes and symbols in the film. Among others, these include St. Pancras Station, a great Victorian building (transported in the film to Westminster), which is Edward’s seat of government, and St. Cuthbert’s church in London, a fantastic example of late-Victorian Arts and Crafts style architecture, where a “merry meeting” will occur. These buildings stand for the old world (pre- World War I) that is Edward’s. Richard will govern from the fascist-looking, quasi-modernist Senate House building of the University of London. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is a big band rendition of Marlowe’s “Come Live with Me and By My Love,” which nicely marries the music of the 1930s with the language of the 1600s.

Before anyone speaks, we are quickly introduced to all the major characters. To name just a few, the loving Queen Elizabeth is shown playing and dancing with her innocent young son, later to be murdered in the Tower. The King is shown as a sick and aging Edwardian. The Duke of Buckingham is a cigar-puffing magnate, conspiring with the uniformed Richard like a Weimar industrialist with Hitler. Earl Rivers is the dissolute fellow leaving a tryst with a cabin attendant on a Pan Am flight.

Richard’s opening lines are presented as a public speech, not a soliloquy. From “Now is the winter …” to “… fright the souls of fearful adversaries,” he is addressing the court with a toast. (See 5:39 to 6:44 on the video.) These sentences are usually presented as sarcastic–delivered privately by a venomous, hunchbacked villain to himself or the audience. But they are literally words of praise, and in this rendition, Richard addresses them smilingly to the Yorkists.

But then, with “He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber” (line 22), Richard is alone, standing before a urinal and then a men’s room mirror. These are the kinds of private places where we rue our own deformities of body and of spirit. Richard then catches our eye in the mirror, turns directly to the camera, and tells us the truth: that he is “determined to prove a villain.” Throughout the movie, Richard will almost always dissemble to other characters but speak truthfully into the camera. Finally, around line 32, the scene moves to the Thames Bankside where Clarence is being transported to prison, and Richard becomes a narrator of events happening in real time.

McKellen has shrewdly divided the 35-line soliloquy into four rhetorical sections, delineating them with changes of settings and perspective, and thus revealing what I think is the real structure of the speech. The whole film is rich with such insights and recovers some of the original shock value of Shakespeare’s over-quoted but under-appreciated early play.

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall was my favorite book of 2010. It is a miraculously sympathetic story about Thomas Cromwell, the man most famous for engineering Henry VIII’s divorce, dissolving the English monasteries, making Henry head of the English church, passing legislation requiring everyone to swear that those acts were just, and executing people who failed to swear. The standard punishment was to be hanged, drawn, and quartered–just about the worst way to go. Yet in Wolf Hall, Cromwell emerges as a practical, reasonable man of the world, trying to hold his family, business, and country together in a humane fashion.

Mantel vividly conjures early 16th-century England. The narration is present-tense, and the environment is economically and unpretentiously but sensuously described. The language is consistently modern. Sometimes, we can presume that we are reading translations of dialogues actually conducted in Latin or French; but even the chatter of English commoners is rendered in modern idioms–heightening the feeling of proximity and naturalness. The narration is third person, and Mantel goes to great lengths to avoid using the proper nouns “Thomas” or “Cromwell.” “He” is the subject of most sentences, or else the narration slips into “free indirect speech” (with Cromwell’s thoughts and style coloring the third-person voice.) At first, the device of avoiding Cromwell’s name confused me. There may be four men in the room, but “he” always refers to the hero. I got used to the technique, which allows Mantel to stay very close to her protagonist’s consciousness without using the first person singular. (For how could Thomas Cromwell write a 21st-century narrative?)

I think there might be a handful of anachronisms in Wolf Hall. At one point, Cromwell observes that Homer’s existence is doubtful, yet my quick scan of recent scholarship suggests that the “Homeric Question” was not raised in Cromwell’s time. (E.g., Philip Ford, “Homer in the French Renaissance“; and Filippomaria Pontani, “From Budé to Zenodotus: Homeric Readings in the European Renaissance.”) The fact that I could find a couple of slips just reinforces the verisimilitude of this long and wide-ranging story.

Above all, it is fun: full of humor, vivid characters, and dramatic events. Representation affords pleasure, as Aristotle noted two thousand years ago. Difficult feats of representative art can be especially pleasurable, and what could be more difficult than to represent the inner state of a long-dead lawyer best known for judicially murdering St. Thomas More? I enjoy representation most of all when the author treats her subjects with affection, and Mantel is humane toward virtually all her creations, even the ones who hate one another.

reason and power in Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar is a play about power. The ultimate source of power is popular will–and not only in an official republic like Rome. Even a monstrous dictator like Stalin cannot physically kill millions of his own people; he must harness many others’ wills.

Thus Julius Caesar begins: “Rome. A Street. Enter Flavius, Marullus, and certain Commoners.” There follows a testy interchange between the Senators and the workers, in a public space, concerning political opinions. The people’s choices are and will remain central to the plot.

Once Caesar is killed, the question becomes whether the people in the streets will follow his killers or his surviving allies. Brutus, one of the conspirators and a stoic philosopher (according to the play), has a specific view of how this should play out. The killing itself was appropriately a private act, undertaken secretly by Senators who, by bathing their hands in Caesar’s blood, become a unit. (The play is interested in how different bodies can become one by pact: Portia says that Brutus, “By all [his] vows of love and that great vow / … did incorporate and make us one.”)

Brutus recognizes that he is accountable to the Roman people, so he appears before them to explain what he has done in private. “Public reasons shall be rendered / of Caesar’s death.”

The giving of rather abstract reasons is Brutus’ preferred mode. He uses the word “reason” seven times in the play, twice in clear contrast to “affections.” When he argues a point of military strategy, he states, “Good reasons must, of force, give place to better.” The force, here, is the power of reason itself. (And the problem, again, is persuading the people. The “better reason” that Brutus offers is that “the people ‘twixt Philippi and this ground / Do stand but in a forced affection.”) Although Brutus deeply loves his idealized spouse Portia, when she dies, he takes no time for grief or lamentation. He thinks there is no good reason for such behavior. For Brutus, “reason” means highly cerebral, deliberative, and impersonal thought leading to right action.

Brutus is so confident of the people’s reason that he allows Caesar’s favorite, Mark Antony, to appear immediately after himself and with the body of the assassinated ruler. Mark Antony has a completely different view of how to persuade. He speaks with irony, misdirection, insinuation, and a barrage of rhetorical questions. He offers bribes in the form of Caesar’s (alleged) legacies to the Roman people. Most powerfully, he enacts a public, physical demonstration, in which the people may directly participate.

    Then make a ring about the corpse of Caesar,

    And let me show you him that made the will.

    Shall I descend? and will you give me leave?

He fingers the blood-soaked robe and possibly lets them who “press” near touch it too:

    Look, in this place ran Cassius’ dagger through:

    See what a rent the envious Casca made:

    Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabb’d …

And then Mark Antony invites his countrymen to weep, a physical response that echoes Caesar’s shedding of blood. By this time, they are ready to tear conspirators “to pieces” in the street. When one says, “Methinks there is much reason in [Mark Antony’s] sayings,” the use of the word “reason” is heavy with dramatic irony.

Mark Antony knows that his manipulation of the people is “mischief.” There is really no dispute in the play that Brutus’ way is morally better. At the very end, with Brutus dead, Mark Antony praises him as “the noblest Roman of them all.” What makes Brutus great is his “general honest thought” and concern for the “common good to all.”

The question Shakespeare raises is whether those who openly and candidly promote the common good can possibly prevail in public affairs. I suspect his answer is No. In real life, Caesar led the “populares” (populists) in the Senate, and Brutus belonged to the “optimates” (elitists). The populares appealed to the lower classes with grain subsidies and by limiting slavery, which undercut freemen’s wages. In the play, the populares are wicked (after power rather than the public good), and the optimates are doomed men of virtue. That would make the play deeply conservative.

Shakespeare does not seem to consider a democratic interpretation: the people act badly in the play because they have no part in the crucial decision to kill Caesar but are merely asked to render judgment after the fact. Brutus is not simply virtuous but also cold and peremptory, reserving decisions to himself and expecting others to follow his “reasons.” Brutus and Mark Antony are not the only two possible models of a politician in a republic: we can hope for empathy and modesty along with virtue. To describe that third course would have made Julius Caesar a worse tragedy, and less accurate as history, but it would have opened democratic possibilities.

Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Orwell

Tolstoy hated Shakespeare and thought that other people’s admiration for him was “a great evil, as is every untruth.” Orwell’s response, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool,” is a rich and wise essay that probably expresses more of what I believe than almost any other 10 pages in English. It includes many interesting asides, for instance, about the relationship between aesthetic and moral judgment, Tolstoy’s personal resemblance to Lear, and–quite timely for us–a warning not to equate libertarianism/anarchism with real love of freedom:

    There are people who are convinced of the wickedness both of armies and of police forces, but who are nevertheless much more intolerant and inquisitorial in outlook than the normal person who believes that it is necessary to use violence in certain circumstances. They will not say to somebody else, ‘Do this, that and the other or you will go to prison’, but they will, if they can, get inside his brain and dictate his thoughts for him in the minutest particulars. Creeds like pacifism and anarchism, which seem on the surface to imply a complete renunciation of power, rather encourage this habit of mind. For if you have embraced a creed which appears to be free from the ordinary dirtiness of politics — a creed from which you yourself cannot expect to draw any material advantage — surely that proves that you are in the right? And the more you are in the right, the more natural that everyone else should be bullied into thinking likewise.

Orwell is not in the least pious about Shakespeare. His essay is full of high-handed complaints like this one: “Tolstoy is right in saying that Lear is not a very good play, as a play. It is too drawn-out and has too many characters and sub-plots. One wicked daughter would have been quite enough, and Edgar is a superfluous character: indeed it would probably be a better play if Gloucester and both his sons were eliminated.” (I don’t agree in the slightest, but we have to acknowledge Orwell’s independence.)

In any case, the main theme of the essay is a defense of Shakespeare as a “humanist,” and one might summarize the debate as follows. The elderly Tolstoy hated the world because people suffered in it. But he thought (along with Schopenhauer, Gandhi, and Christian ascetics) that the world was so organized that one could achieve happiness and redemption by renouncing the everyday temptations and evils of it. As a person, Tolstoy tried to renounce his title, estate, money, and copyrights–although, like Lear, he found that abdication is not easy. As an author, he also increasingly favored renunciation. As Orwell notes:

    He never said that art, as such, is wicked or meaningless, nor did he even say that technical virtuosity is unimportant. But his main aim, in his later years, was to narrow the range of human consciousness. One’s interests, one’s points of attachment to the physical world and the day-to-day struggle, must be as few and not as many as possible. Literature must consist of parables, stripped of detail and almost independent of language. The parables–this is where Tolstoy differs from the average vulgar puritan–must themselves be works of art, but pleasure and curiosity must be excluded from them.

Shakespeare, in sharp contrast, was a man of the world–to a fault. (“He liked to stand well with the rich and powerful, and was capable of flattering them in the most servile way.”) His love of the world was the essence of his art. It led him away from simplifications, generalizations, theories, and moralistic endings. It made him want to depict every kind of thing and character and to keep his own judgments off the stage. It made him love speech to the extent that he could write complete nonsense for the sheer music of it. “Shakespeare was not a philosopher or a scientist, but he did have curiosity, he loved the surface of the earth and the process of life.”

I am deep into War and Peace but not finished with it, and I cannot say whether the younger Tolstoy was already ascetic enough to be an opposite of Shakespeare. Whether to embrace or renounce “life” is an explicit question for Andrei, Pierre, and Marya, among other characters in War and Peace. When Prince Andrei is gravely wounded at Borodino, he is filled with a love for life that makes him embrace and forgive the odious Anatole Kuragin, whom he had once wanted to kill in a duel. The “life” that Andrei loves is highly abstract; its “best and happiest moments” are exemplified by times when, “in his most distant childhood, … burying his head in the pillows, he had felt happy in the mere consciousness of life.” With your head buried in pillows, you are not aware of anyone in particular. Andrei could be one of those who love humanity but can’t stand people. Shakespeare, I think, was just the opposite–he liked each one of his characters without thinking that the whole business meant anything. “Ripeness is all,” as Edgar puts it (having just seen Lear, Tolstoy-like, defeated).