Shakespeare’s Comic Imagination

a-midsummer-nights-dream-ht-greenThis post begins and ends with two comedies in which Shakespeare unleashed the full force of his imagination on the space of the stage: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Both of these plays have plots not directly derived from any known source; in this sense they are the fruits of his personal fancy. Both plays are richly stocked with supernatural beings, and as a result invoke a fear of the stage – and in particular theatrical comedy – which was a real and active force throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime. Both plays pit the self-centred imaginative visions of powerful men and women against what might be called the collective imagination of a community; the kind of collective imagination that makes theatre possible, as audiences accede to the players’ invitation to share their dreams, to help them populate the stage with beings from ancient history, or spirits, or the inhabitants of far-off countries, or of countries that don’t exist at all. I’d like to consider, in fact, Shakespeare’s preoccupation with the workings of the imagination in his comedies; and I’d suggest that the imagination itself is his topic in many of them, furnishing him with the material for their comic plots and drawing attention to the complex ways the imagination works in the actual communities of early modern England and Europe.

cell-doctrineWhat was the imagination, then, for an English playwright of the sixteenth century? It was the part of the mind that formed images of things not actually present; a faculty located in the front part of the brain just behind the eyes, where information from the five senses was gathered in chaotic profusion before being sorted by the understanding and stored away in the carefully catalogued archives of the memory, which lay in the capacious area at the back of the head. The imaginative space was closely associated with the faculty called wit or natural intelligence, which is responsible for banter, improvisation, trickery and other functions that don’t involved the deployment of the meticulous and scholarly understanding. The most vivid Elizabethan representation of the imagination comes in Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene, the first three books of which were printed in 1590, five years before the probable date of the first performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the second book the personification of the imaginative faculty is named as Phantastes, a gloomy young man with a ‘working Wit’, ‘bent hollow Beetle brows’ and ‘sharp staring eyes / That mad or foolish seem’d’, whose room is painted with bizarre and colourful images:

Some such as in the World were never yet,
Ne can devised be of mortal Wit:
Some daily seen, and knowen by their Names,
Such as in idle Fantasies do flit;
Infernal Hags, Centaurs, Fiends, Hippodames,
Apes, Lions, Eagles, Owls, Fools, Lovers, Children, Dames.

 The air of this room is full of flies, which annoy visitors by buzzing in their eyes and ears. These insects, the poet informs us, are

[…] idle Thoughts and Fantasies,
Devices, Dreams, Opinions unsound,
Shews, Visions, Soothsayes, and Prophecies;
And all that feigned is, as Leasings, Tales, and Lyes.

The picture Spenser gives us here perfectly embodies the profoundly ambiguous attitude early modern people had to the imagination. On the one hand, Phantastes or the fancy is one of the three seminal functions of the brain, especially useful for conjuring up images of the future and enabling a person to prepare herself to face it. On the other hand, the fancy is dangerous. Far from being playful and pleasant, Spenser depicts the man with a ‘working Wit’ as tormented by the ‘agonies’ of what we would now call depression, and this is because the mass of images by which he is surrounded have a political impact on him; they generate idle thoughts which in turn give rise to ‘opinions unsound’, ‘soothsayes, and prophecies’. Prophecies were widely associated in the sixteenth century with plots and insurrections, which were sometimes referred to as imaginations – rebellious actions undertaken on the basis of irresponsible conjecture or non-existent grievances; while ‘opinions unsound’ invokes religious heresy, which for Spenser could encompass anything from Catholicism to radical Protestantism, either of which could spawn rebellion. Spenser’s Phantastes, then, is a political troublemaker rather than an entertainer; making things up invariably leads to making trouble; and Spenser himself seems to have been tormented by a kind of double standard, impelled by his own teeming fancy to imagine the longest and strangest poem in the English language while profoundly distrustful of the imagination itself as a breeding-ground for the flies of religious and political dissent.

20140801_150544-21The early modern period shares Spenser’s double standard. It’s the most imaginative era of English (and Scottish) history in terms of architecture, internal decoration and clothing fashions as much as of poetry and drama; yet it’s also a period that spawned the most virulent attacks on the products of the imagination. One influential theorist of poetry, George Puttenham, drew a clear distinction between two different kinds of imagination: euphantasy, which is the ability to represent ‘the best, most comely and beautiful images or appearances of things to the soul and according to their very truth’; and phantasy or the phantastic, which generates non-existent things in the mind and thus breeds ‘Chimeras and monsters in man’s imaginations, and not only in his imaginations, but also in all his ordinary actions and life which ensues’. In other words, for Puttenham the job of the poet is to represent only what is or what has been – to write not just realistically but historically; whereas representing non-existent subjects in poetry is a sure path to monstrous action (and as a passionate royalist Puttenham would have seen any form of social dissent as more or less monstrous). The poet Sir Philip Sidney, by contrast, whose Apology for Poetry came into print around the time A Midsummer Night’s Dream was first performed (1595), identifies making things up as the defining function of poetry, which for him is a term that means fiction and can refer equally to verse, drama or prose. This means that the poet has a licence, in Sidney’s view, to be utopian (and More’s Utopia is one of the few texts by English writers he writes of with approval):

 Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect into another nature, in making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or quite anew, forms such as never were in Nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like: so as he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit.

For Sidney the liberation of the inventive wit from the chains of what exists, of crude hard fact, is to be celebrated rather than condemned, as is the poet’s capacity to act as a prophet, anticipating better modes of life than the ones that currently obtain on earth. The fiction maker’s free ‘ranging […] within the zodiac of his own wit’ – his refusal to be constrained within the limits of the real – makes him the ultimate resistance fighter against the forces of tyranny. Sidney and Puttenham stand at opposite political poles, although they view the capacity of the imagination to affect the world and its politics in very similar terms.

soldatopopAs you would expect, the early modern controversy over the imagination had a direct impact on the early modern theatre. For its opponents the stage was capable of awakening rebellious thoughts in the minds of spectators – especially the young; and such thoughts could range from sexual adventurousness to religious heresy to the seeds of political insurrection. The best of Elizabethan writers against the theatre, Stephen Gosson – who may well have been employed to write his polemics by the Lord Mayor of London – was particularly critical of actors for forsaking their true callings as trained craftsmen or tradesmen, as most of them were, to pursue an idle occupation: a shift from productive to non-productive labour which he saw as damaging to the society of which they were part:

 in a common weal, if private men be suffered to forsake their calling because they desire to walk gentlemanlike in satin and velvet, with a buckler at their heels, proportion is so broken, unity dissolved, harmony confounded, that the whole body must be dismembered and the prince or the head cannot choose but sicken.

For Gosson, ‘Plays are the inventions of the devil, the offerings of idolatry, the pomp of worldlings, the blossoms of vanity, the root of apostasy, the food of iniquity, riot and adultery’; and there were many Elizabethans who agreed with him, forming a vocal anti-theatrical lobby whose actions eventually brought about the closure of all playhouses in 1642. The players of course hit back at their detractors, mocking them on stage in plays and in the satirical song-and-dance routines known as jigs. It was partly in response to this controversy that the court office of the Master of the Revels – originally just the man who organised entertainments for the Queen, like Philostrate in the Dream – was in 1582 extended to include the censorship of plays. In fact, the Master of the Revels in Shakespeare’s time, Edmund Tilney, seems to have been responsible for preventing the performance of a play in which Shakespeare had a hand, Sir Thomas More, whose topic, ironically, was the writer of Utopia – the man held up by Sidney as the best English example of the freedom of the poet to oppose tyranny and imagine a better world. Many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries were imprisoned for falling foul of the regulations governing plays in the period, though Shakespeare wasn’t one of them. All the same, he remained interested throughout his life in the way the authorities seek to control their subjects’ imaginations, while imposing their own particular imaginative visions on the state and its inhabitants with all the tools at their disposal. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest in particular foreground this competition between the authoritarian and the communal imagination, and in the process evolve into manifestos for the playwright’s theory of the theatre at the beginning and end of his extraordinary career.

Will_Kemp_Elizabethan_Clown_JigBoth plays are comedies – most simply defined as plays that have a happy ending, and whose happy ending is never seriously in doubt on account of their prevailing tone, often described metaphorically (and punningly) as light. It’s no accident that Shakespeare’s two most vividly imaginative plays should have been comic. It’s comedies that drew the most vehement opposition from the anti-theatrical lobby; Stephen Gosson saw laughter as both infectious and addictive, leading those who experience it to seek more of the same and thus increasingly to relinquish control over their bodily functions and their moral and social responsibilities. For the early modern period comedy had two faces, just as the imagination did. On the one hand it was associated with physical and mental lightness, improvisation, trickery, disguise, wordplay, desire, laughter and youth – all things that can bring harmless pleasure to those who experience or witness them; they can even serve as medical therapy, as the comedy of The Taming of the Shrew is supposed to do for the ‘brainsick’ tinker Christopher Sly. On the other hand comedy evoked transgression, devilry, thievery, falsehood, sex, mental disorder and the corruption of the young. The association of the comic with devils and evil spirits, in particular, was actively encouraged by the players themselves. In the interludes or allegorical plays that dominated the stage in Shakespeare’s youth the devil figures, known as vices, were the main source of humour, being played by famous clowns and becoming so popular with audiences that some interludes were entirely populated by vices, the virtues having been evicted as intolerable bores. The presence of spirits in Dream and Tempest, then, could be seen both as a reference to this old theatrical tradition and as a deliberate and open provocation of the theatre haters. The very fact that these spirits are not represented as particularly devilish (although the idea of devilry is directly invoked in both plays) – that they are in fact attractive and sometimes funny – would have enraged the more morally rigid among Shakespeare’s enemies, an example of the playing with hellfire that theatrical comedy reveled in.

Annex - Cagney, James (A Midsummer Night's Dream)_03The Dream and The Tempest have spirits in them, then, but they also contain monsters: a man with an ass’s head and a native islander who is constantly referred to as deformed and monstrous. As we heard, for George Puttenham the imagination could conjure up monsters of all kinds if used to visualize things that don’t exist, made-up things. In both these plays, though, Shakespeare suggests that the real monsters are human beings: the tyrants who treat their subjects as slaves or playthings; the male lovers who treat their women as objects to be discarded at will; the parents who impose their will on their children regardless of the child’s desires or needs. And the imagination, fantasy or fancy, that faculty that conjures up images of things not actually present, is an integral part of all of us – a seminal function of the brain, which is always at work in everything we do, painting the world and the people around us in strange, vivid colours, making monsters out of ordinary beings, driving us to acts of astonishing kindness or dreadful atrocities. To frown on or dismiss the imagination, Shakespeare suggests, is to turn our backs on an integral part of ourselves – and such ill-considered negligence will always result in the imagination taking its revenge, as the clown Feste takes his revenge on the fun-hating steward Malvolio.

p03w4jphA Midsummer Night’s Dream embodies the ambiguous Elizabethan attitude to both comedy and the imagination in its title. It’s a self-consciously light piece of work (small objects and beings, for instance, are everywhere in it), which opens with an exchange between two besotted lovers who are planning their wedding. The lovers also happen to be a King and Queen; so we learn at the start that even monarchs can choose to be not-so-serious or even irresponsible, especially at midsummer, which was a time set aside for pleasure and play in the early modern calendar (it’s widely assumed that the Dream was first performed at Midsummer, just as Twelfth Night was first performed on the final evening of the Christmas holiday). Yet the play’s also set at night, when spirits and misdirections abound, and on a particular night associated with festivities and quasi-pagan rituals which were roundly condemned by the more serious-minded of the church authorities. The dream of the title was an ambiguous thing, too. For Elizabethans a dream could be comforting, something sent by God to soothe tormented minds, or it could delude and terrorize the people it visits, making them imagine scenarios of a sexually, politically, or psychologically disturbing nature. In dreams, Thomas Nashe reminds us in his pamphlet The Terrors of the Night (1594), the devils of hell do their most effective work in tempting mortals. And this ambiguity extends itself to the love between the two monarchs we meet in the play’s first scene. Theseus and Hippolyta have very different attitudes to their prospective marriage. I said they were besotted with each other, but it’s only Theseus who shows true signs of infatuation; for him the four days until their marriage at the new moon seems like a lifetime, whereas for Hippolyta the days will pass very quickly, which implies she’s not half so eager for the impending ceremony as her fiancé.

Hippolyta has good reason for not being eager. The wedding has been set for the first day of the new moon, and the moon reminds her of her days as an independent Queen of the Amazon warrior women, before Theseus came into her life. She compares the new moon of their wedding day to ‘a silver bow / New bent in heaven’, which resembles her own Amazonian bow (the Amazons were famous archers), or the bow of the goddess Diana to whom the warrior women committed their lives. Diana is the goddess of chastity, not erotic desire, so the reminder may well be a painful one; Hippolyta is giving up her culture by marrying a man, on the very day when the moon is at its smallest and least potent. Moreover, she’s engaged to Theseus because she is a prisoner of war, as Theseus reminds her. ‘Hippolyta,’ he says,

I wooed thee with my sword,
And won thy love doing thee injuries;
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling.

 Actually, the terms pomp, triumph and revelling – especially triumph – were linked in Elizabethan times with the celebration of military victories; and one might conjecture that Theseus’s marriage will double as a public display of the spoils of war, with Hippolyta the most splendid and valuable of these spoils. Marriage, then, in this first exchange of the play, is an unequal partnership between men and women, tainted by violence. And it’s notable that this has an effect on the imagination; the man and the woman involved imagine the next few nights (or predict the future, which for Spenser was a function of fancy) in starkly different terms, suggesting that their view of the world has been coloured, so to speak, by their different gender and experiences.

Theseus seeks to impose his view of the world on Hippolyta through the festivities he promises her – to make her feel good about her defeat and forced engagement. The same association of marriage with the forcible imposition of a man’s view of the world on a woman is made in the second part of this first scene, when old Egeus bursts in with his ‘complaint, / Against my child, my daughter Hermia’. In Egeus’s view, his daughter is guilty of having had her imagination captivated by a man he did not choose for her; Lysander stole her heart with the lightest of trifles, including poetry (‘verses of feigning love’) and useless objects (‘bracelets of thy hair, rings, gauds, conceits, / Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweetmeats’) – in the process ironically using these light things to make the deepest ‘impression of her fantasy’, as he puts it, indenting or shaping it in his own image. For Egeus, Hermia’s crime is that she refuses to recognize herself as his possession: ‘she is mine’, he insists, to be used as he sees fit, and above all to have her mind impressed with the images he chooses to put there – in particular the image of the young man he favours as her husband, Demetrius. And Theseus agrees with him. Hermia’s father, he tells her, is the one who effectively created her, like a god, and as a result she should consider herself as ‘a form in wax / By him imprinted, and within his power / To leave the figure, or disfigure it’ [my emphasis]. She has no rights over the images she entertains in her fancy – no right to acquire them for herself or let them shape her as she wishes; they are to be supplied by her father, and the punishment for taking back her fancy for her own purposes is to be subjected to violence – refusal to obey her father will result in death or imprisonment in a nunnery. Hippolyta would recognize the choice between unwanted ‘love’ and violence immediately; it’s notable that she doesn’t say a word throughout this exchange between the men and the recalcitrant daughter.

84690-004-D096CCF6Soon after the exchange, the ‘dream’ of the play’s title acquires a new set of associations. Hermia’s lover Lysander connects it with what he calls ‘true love’: reciprocal desire between two young adults, as against the arranged matches for economic or political purposes that were the norm for upper-class families in Shakespeare’s time. Speaking of their seemingly doomed attraction to each other, Lysander tells Hermia that mutual desire is made as evanescent and insubstantial as a dream by the culture that forbids it: ‘Swift as a shadow, short as any dream, / Brief as the lightning in the collied night’. The reference to lightning here also associates desire with lightness – both the brief flare of light in the dark and the notion of moral lightness which was attached to unauthorized erotic adventures in the period. The same notion is conjured up in Lysander’s lovely line ‘So quick bright things come to confusion’, where the word quick accommodates both the word’s modern meaning of swiftness (swift as lightning) and its older meaning of alive; true love is associated with death, the ultimate confusion of the living. It’s been argued by scholars that the Dream was written at around the same time as Romeo and Juliet, where the love between quick bright things ends in death and the darkness of a crypt. The Dream entertains the possibility of this ending for its lovers throughout its length, and although I think it’s never a serious possibility – the language and tone of the play are too consistently playful for this – Shakespeare makes sure we are always aware of it as the flip side of the kind of comedy to which he treats us.

midsummerThe first scene of the play, then, sets up the plot that follows, which is a struggle for control of the fancy or imagination. Throughout the play it’s the imagination of the men that proves both most fickle and most forceful. Men seem able to change the object of their affection – the woman by whom their imaginations have been impressed or printed – with unnerving ease; and they also seem prepared to back up their perceived claim to that beloved object with brute force, no matter how fresh their attraction to her may be, no matter how radically their new claim contradicts the claims to other women they’ve staked in the past. This theme is anticipated in the first scene, too, in the changed affections of Demetrius, who ‘won the soul’ of Helena but has now transferred his fancy to her best friend Hermia. Later, when they enter the forest, Demetrius threatens Helena with violence if she continues to follow him, and tells her she now repels him – appears, in other words, as an entirely different being in his imagination, although she has of course not changed physically at all. In this he follows the example of his monarch. Theseus was a byword in Elizabethan times for male infidelity thanks to his long catalogue of abandoned lovers, from Helen of Troy to Ariadne of Crete. Shakespeare’s Athens is a man’s world, and the women have good reason to know it. Men shape and reshape real, living women in their imaginations according to whim, and women have no control at all over how men perceive them.

1999 Stanley Tucci And Rupert Everett Star In The Movie "William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream." (Photo By Getty Images)

In this play the forest, too, is a man’s world, despite its traditional association with female power. Diana is a forest goddess, the goddess of the chase as well as of chastity, and the fairy queen Titania is named after Diana; but Diana’s worshipper Hippolyta was entrapped by male force, and the same thing happens to her supernatural counterpart. Her husband Oberon acquires a love-potion that takes control of her imagination, and uses it not only to shape her female fancy but also to underline the shiftiness of the male fancy, by making both Demetrius and Lysander transfer their affections from one woman to another – the magic of the potion merely serving to reassert men’s tendency to reimagine women. Oberon’s potion is dropped not into his victim’s food or drink but into her eyes, altering the impression those organs convey to the common sense – that part of the brain where the imagination operates – so that

The next thing then she waking looks upon
Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull,
On meddling monkey, or on busy ape)
She shall pursue it with the soul of love.

The fact that the potion always takes effect while its victim is asleep, implying that it realizes in the waking world the fanciful absurdities of dreams, confirms that its operation is on the imagination or fancy – as does Oberon’s statement that its operation will fill Titania ‘full of hateful fantasies’ (2.2). The flower love-in-idleness is a weapon aimed at the fancy, and Oberon’s willingness to use it suggests how far he wishes to take control of the imaginative world with which the audience is presented on the playhouse stage.

Titania’s enforced change of fancy enables Oberon to gratify his own propensity for switching his loyalties. He uses the potion to ‘make her render up her page to me’ – forcing her to give him a ‘little Indian boy’ in her care for whom he has conceived a fancy, and for whose sake he has been willing for months to sacrifice his relationship with his wife. Without the intervention of any potion, then, Oberon is like Theseus the embodiment of fickleness – something Titania reminds him of when they first meet in the play; and though he says the same of her (she fancies Theseus, he claims, though she denies it), it’s clear that he is keen to shape those around him to conform with his changing fancies to a degree that no woman in the play is ever accused of.

Elizabeth1EnglandMeanwhile, the attempts of women to avoid being shaped or trapped by the violent imaginations of men – especially powerful men – are conveyed through the background story of the flower whose juice yields the potion. Oberon first became aware of the plant’s properties when he saw Cupid shooting one of his arrows at a virgin queen – Elizabeth I, who may well have been in the audience when the play was first performed. Elizabeth’s Diana-like chastity was so great that Cupid’s arrow glanced aside from her impervious body and struck the flower instead, giving it the arrow’s own power to change people’s affections. Meanwhile Elizabeth walked on ‘In maiden meditation, fancy-free’. This could either mean that she was free from fancy altogether, or more probably (given Spenser’s assumption that fancy is an integral part of the human mind) that her fancy remained unimpressed and unimprisoned, ‘freely ranging only within the zodiac of [her] own wit’, as Sidney puts it, unbeholden to any more tyrannous male authority.

Tytania with little Indian boy.1Other women in the play protect themselves from male efforts to impose their imaginative visions on them by restricting themselves to female society. Once again, this is embodied in the story of Oberon and Titania. Titania cherishes the little Indian boy because he is the son of one of her ladies, a ‘votress of my order’ – which makes her sound like a member of a formal all-female community – with whom she shared jokes and imaginative games (they enjoyed comparing the woman’s pregnant belly to the sails of passing ships). The woman died in childbirth, and Titania loves the child for her sake. It’s in the same scene that Elizabeth is referred to as a ‘fair vestal’ – a priestess of Vesta, Roman goddess of the household, whose servants were all women – and thus effectively enlisted in another all-female community. A third all-female community – a very small one – was formed by Hermia and Helena before men’s love set them at odds. The two girls, bound together by ‘sisters’ vows’, shared a mutual imaginative vision as well as a mutual affection: both ‘chid the hasty-footed time / For parting us’ (and remember here that Theseus did not share his view of time with his supposed lover Hippolyta); and both worked together on their embroidery ‘like two artificial gods’, deities of craftsmanship such as Arachne the weaver, to create ‘one flower’ while singing ‘one song’ in ‘one key’, each of these (pictures and songs) being images, in their own way, of something not actually present. Women’s communities in this play share a mutual imaginative vision, whereas men seek to impress their imaginative visions by force on other people.

ctors-perform-a-tradition-005If women share a collective imaginative space, so too do the Athenian men of the lower orders: the craftsmen or mechanicals, who are of the same social class as the Elizabethan actors who played them. Bottom and his fellows are of course comic in their conviction that the imaginative space they create on stage will deeply impress their courtly audience – that the spectators will run the danger, in fact, of confusing stage illusion with reality. In this, the craftsman-players share the anxieties of the Elizabethan theatre-haters about the potentially deleterious effect of their stagecraft, and they seek to circumvent the problem by drawing up a kind of imaginative contract with their auditors: they will introduce themselves by their own names and explain the fact that they are only representing lions, lovers, moons, walls and so on. In doing so, of course, they shatter the illusion altogether; but they also enlist the support of their courtly audience, who recognize their good will and consent to participate in it. The play in the final act involves the active imaginative participation of both craftsmen and nobility; and it’s Theseus, of all people, who recognizes this. ‘The best in this kind are but shadows,’ he tells Hippolyta as she laments the actors’ incompetence, ‘and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them’; to which she replies, ‘It must be your imagination then, and not theirs’. But for the courtiers’ imaginations to work with the craftsmen, the craftsmen must first offer them material to work with. What we witness in the final act is the forging of a mutual imaginative space which stands in direct contrast to the colonizing male imagination of the play’s first half.

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 24/05/2016 - Programme Name: A Midsummer Night's Dream - TX: n/a - Episode: A Midsummer Night's Dream (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: *STRICTLY NOT FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL 00:01HRS, TUESDAY 24TH MAY, 2016* Bottom (MATT LUCAS) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Des Willie

The craftsmen-players, then, offer a splendid defence of the comic theatrical imagination. For one thing, their performance breaks down the hard-and-fast distinctions between men and women that obtain elsewhere in the play. Bottom is as eager to play the female lead in their tragical comedy as he is to play the male protagonist or the lion, and Francis Flute wows the audience with his female death scene. For another, the lovers in it are utterly besotted with one another, as the lovers in the rest of the play are not. For a third, Bottom himself may well have won the theatre audience’s respect by the time he appears as Pyramus in Act Five. Transformed by Puck into the ‘hateful fantasy’ demanded by Theseus as a tool for tormenting Titania, Bottom with this donkey’s head behaves quite unlike a conventional monster. No Minotaur to be killed by some passing Theseus, he treats Titania and her followers with a courtesy Oberon has not so far shown her, and shares her dreams as her husband does not, falling asleep in her arms after willingly accepting her distorted view of him as true (not so distorted, perhaps, if it’s based on his qualities rather than his appearance). Even after waking he retains the impression of his night with the fairy queen, describing it as a ‘most rare vision’ and describing it – albeit in muddled terms – in a sentence that echoes the New Testament: ‘The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was’. The confusion of the senses here might remind us that the impressions of all the senses are what the fancy works on, while the echo of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reminds us that God’s kingdom, too, which is what Paul describes in that famous passage, is a place not actually present. Our only access to that perfect place is through the imagination, and it’s the mechanicals, and chiefly Bottom, who give the best indication of how the imagination can be used to anticipate the kind of collective experience a believer might hope to have in the world to come.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, Stanley Tucci, 1999, TM & Copyright (c) Fox Searchlight. All rights reserved.

If the women and craftsmen in the play offer us glimpses of a collective or mutual imaginative space, as against the controlled imaginative space imposed on others by powerful men, we are also treated to glimpses of the delights and dangers of the wholly uncontrolled imagination through the tricks and errors of Robin Goodfellow. Robin is the spirit of wandering and hence of error (literally, erring or wandering), as we learn as soon as we meet him. When he meets a nameless fairy he asks her ‘whither wander you’, and she later points out that one of his traits is to ‘Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm’ – an accusation Robin confirms while identifying himself as yet another wanderer: ‘Thou speak’st aright, / I am that merry wanderer of the night’. Robin is also associated with laughter and hence with comedy; he’s a comedy of errors in himself, and his errors are what lead to the clash between the Athenian lovers in the central scene of the play, as he accidentally squeezes Oberon’s juice into the wrong man’s eyes. He embodies, in fact, all the properties of comedy: he’s associated with laughter, with lightness (flitting round the earth at impossible speeds), with improvisation, trickery, disguise, wordplay, and desire (he plays most of his tricks, it seems, on maidens and lovers); also with transgression, devilry, thievery, falsehood, sex, mental disorder and the corruption of the young. Misleading people and disseminating error are what devils do, of course, and at one point Puck even seems to think of himself as a devil, as he warns Oberon that the dawn is approaching and suggests that they retreat from the light along with the other ‘Damned spirits’ who fear cockcrow. The theatre haters would have agreed with the implication here that any supernatural being, even when depicted comically on stage, could only be a devil; but Oberon contradicts both Robin and them, insisting that ‘We are spirits of another sort’ and adding, ‘I with the morning’s love have oft made sport’. The implication here that Oberon might have had an affair with the goddess of the morning, Aurora, would be nicely enraging to the players’ enemies; but his insistence on the good intentions of these particular spirits – of himself and his fairy companions – is borne out by the final effects of Robin’s wandering. Puck may lead the young lovers astray in the woods; he may confuse their senses, so that branches and bushes become groping claws and hungry bears; but he also leads them out of the maze again, ensuring that ‘all this derision / Shall seem a dream and fruitless vision’. His interference with the imagination is neither wholly controlled by his master Oberon, nor are its effects permanent – except in one case, since Demetrius’s eyes are never disabused of the impression, imparted by the flower’s juice, that Helena is an earthly goddess. This detail, too, could almost have been slipped into the play as a defence of the comic imagination; Demetrius’s continued enchantment is necessary if the play is to have a happy ending, and its good effects imply that any lingering imaginative impression left by comic theatre will be therapeutic rather than damaging to its spectators.

EperilsitodiSisisogno307457_2538893677725_830055400_nRobin is also associated with the community drama of the craftsmen, taking part in their performance both as auditor and actor (his main action, of course, is the spell that imposes an ass’s head on Bottom). In addition he’s a much more sympathetic Master of the Revels than Philostrate is. Philostrate is deeply reluctant to let the craftsmen entertain Theseus, but Robin enlists them at once as the main event in the entertainment he is staging for his own master, the King of Fairies. He is given the play’s epilogue too, which asks the audience to mend the play – to participate in shaping it, or reshaping what is wrong with it, like expert craftsmen – with their applause, the work of their hands (remember that Francis Flute is a bellows mender). It’s thanks to Puck, then, that the comedy ends by including Shakespeare’s spectators as an integral part of the collective imaginative space that has been forged or cobbled together in the final act. And it’s thanks to his interference that the lovers who were at first to have been impressed into the roles intended for them by Egeus and Theseus find themselves instead participating in the craftsmen’s show, along with Theseus and Hippolyta. Puck’s errors and improvisation, then, far from damaging anybody, save a woman’s life, and help to remind Theseus himself of the sheer attractiveness of an uncontrolled fancy.

The most famous speech about the imagination in the play – the most famous passage Shakespeare ever wrote about it – comes after the lovers have been found asleep in the forest, exhausted by their Puck-induced wanderings. When they wake from their sleep their dreams prove to have been therapeutic – to have healed them from damage and aggression; and it’s the spontaneous change of heart on Demetrius’s part, along with the strange story of the night’s proceedings, that prompts Theseus’s reflection on the nature of the fancy. ‘I never may believe / These antique fables, nor these fairy toys’, he tells Hippolyta, serenely unconscious of the fact that for the Elizabethan audience he himself is an ‘antique fable’. He goes on to set three kinds of people against the ‘cool reason’ he claims to champion – ‘The lunatic, the lover and the poet’ – and again seems serenely unconscious of the fact that he himself is supposed to be a lover, and therefore one of the unreasonable people he has just listed. ‘The lunatic, the lover and the poet,’ he tells his new wife,

Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
This is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to hell, from hell to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy:
Or, in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

devil_main_0For Theseus, then, the man who sees devils – ‘more devils than vast hell can hold’ – is a lunatic; that is, someone affected by the moon, whose constant changes were supposed in the sixteenth century to have a direct influence on the size and shape of the human brain. There are no devils in Shakespeare’s play, but the theatre haters would have seen them everywhere. Fairies, spirits, men with ass’s heads, Puck, even the pagan Theseus – all of these would have seemed devilish to the anti-theatrical lobby, who by seeing them in this way brand themselves as brainsick according to Theseus’s speech. They also identify themselves as close relatives of the ‘frantic’ lovers and playhouse poets they disapproved of, and just as deceived in their impressions of what they see; except that where lovers make something lovely out of something conventionally seen as ugly (‘Helen’s beauty’ from ‘a brow of Egypt’), the theatre haters make something monstrous out of nothing at all. The poet, too, employs his imagination in a positive way, giving a ‘local habitation and a name’ – substance, in other words, like the substantial bodies of the actors who speak the poet’s words – to a kind of ‘joy’ that didn’t exist before he thought of it (apprehending some joy he at once ‘comprehends some bringer of that joy’). Fear, on the other hand – such as the fear of bears or playhouses – is as insubstantial as the ‘joy’ given substance by the poets, and far less pleasant. Theseus, then, is well aware that the imagination can work in two ways, bringing fear or joy to its possessor; but both the joy and fear it generates are for him equally light and unbelievable – ‘fairy toys’, in other words. He articulates the ambivalent view of the imagination shared by many Elizabethans, but articulates it in such a way as to show that everyone shares this deceptive faculty, including himself, and that it’s both attractive and more or less harmless.

For Hippolyta, however, the imagination becomes something far more powerful than a ‘fairy toy’ when it is shared. Replying to her husband, she points out that the astonishing things told by the Athenian lovers about their night in their forest are strangely consistent, and that

[…] all their minds transfigur’d so together
More witnesseth than fancy’s images,
And grows to something of great constancy;
But howsoever, strange and admirable.

 Something significant, in other words, is generated when many people imagine the same, non-existent thing together. That thing becomes what Hippolyta calls a wonder – admirable means to be wondered at – and its strangeness, its newness, promises to reshape the world by shaping a group or community’s view of the world. The theatre haters claimed that plays, and particularly comedies, made things happen, and Hippolyta concurs. The difference is that for her they make things better – mend them, in the term Robin Goodfellow uses in his epilogue.

normalI said at the beginning that the imagination furnished Shakespeare with both the central topic and the plot of most of his comedies. It seems to me that the Dream is typical of Shakespeare’s comic process in the way it pits the controlling imaginations of powerful men against the collective imaginations of the rest of the cast; and the same conflict dominates the major comedies that followed this seminal play. Much Ado about Nothing, for instance, tells the story of how Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, conspires with his friends to shape the imagination of Benedick and Beatrice, making them see one another anew by making them believe each is secretly in love with the other. Don Pedro’s malevolent brother Don John then performs a similar trick on the prince himself, making him believe the innocent Hero has been unfaithful to her fiancé, his best friend Claudio. Don Pedro then teams up with Claudio to impress or impose their vision of Hero’s infidelity on everyone else, regardless of due process of law; and it’s only by another, positive counter-plot, whereby a group of Hero’s male and female friends team up to work collectively on Claudio’s imagination, that the situation is resolved. The high point of the counter-plot is Friar Francis’s description of how Claudio’s mind will be affected when he thinks Hero has died of grief as a result of his accusations against her:

When he shall hear she died upon his words,
Th’idea of her life shall sweetly creep
Into his study of imagination,
And every lovely organ of her life
Shall come apparell’d in more precious habit,
More moving, delicate, and full of life,
Into the eye and prospect of his soul
Than when she liv’d indeed. Then shall he mourn […]
And wish he had not so accused her –
No, though he thought his accusation true.

Notice the wonderful way the word ‘life’ weaves through this passage – ‘Th’idea of her life’ – ‘every lovely organ of her life’ – ‘full of life’ – ‘she liv’d indeed’; the imagination is a vitalizing instrument, bringing dead people back into the world in a better, lovelier form than when they left it, and healing the mourner in the process. Of course, Hero is not really dead, but it’s the collective conspiracy of her friends that first makes her seem so and then seems to bring her back to life, thus quasi-magically restoring life to the love affair that was broken by Don Pedro’s authoritarian imposition of his imagination on others.

84524361a3508653c48a790357a6b865The same combat between the authoritarian and the collective imaginations is present in a later play that brings a person back to life, The Winter’s Tale. At the beginning of the play Leontes finds himself imagining that Hermione’s verbal and physical playfulness is a sign of sexual misbehaviour; ‘Go play, boy, play,’ he tells their young son; ‘thy mother plays, and I / Play too, but so disgrac’d a part, whose issue / Will hiss me to my grave’. Convinced that what he has imagined is true and that she has slept with his friend Polixenes, he orders Polixenes’s death, Hermione’s trial, and his baby daughter’s exposure at sea, while forbidding his subjects to speak out on her behalf, and even overriding the unambiguous affirmation of her innocence by a divine oracle. Every aspect of communal life is in this way overthrown by his obsessive need to impress his vision on those around him. His rigid reimagining of his wife’s harmless playfulness puts an end to playfulness itself for sixteen years; and it’s only the return of laughter, unabashed desire, trickery and playfulness with the next generation that allows him and his kingdom to become a community once again. The signal of the return of the collective imagination is a wonder, of the kind Hippolyta noted in the strangely consistent tale told by the newly woken lovers. A statue of Hermione, the product of an artist’s imagination, comes to life in view of the whole cast, thus giving substance to an absurd ‘old tale’ (one of Theseus’s ‘antique fables’) in spite of either rigid law (which would forbid the magic that animates sculpture) or reason (which would deny the possibility of such a restoration). Leontes’s willingness to participate in this wonder, to believe in this old tale despite its apparent impossibility, marks his willingness to return to the collective life of which such tales are the ultimate symbol.

helen-mirren-as-prospera-the-tempest-still-frame-via-imdb-2Finally, the last of Shakespeare’s magical comedies, The Tempest, begins with a banished Duke impressing his imaginative vision on a ship and its crew, and ends with his acceptance that he is part of a collective imaginative life which cannot be governed by any human authority. In the course of the play the imagination spawns both utopias (think of Gonzalo’s dream of an ideal island) and conspiracies (Antonio urges Sebastian to murder his brother and take his place on the throne of Naples by saying: ‘My strong imagination sees a crown / Dropping upon thy head’). The play might take as its epigram the words of the catch sung by the intoxicated commoners Stephano and Trinculo, ‘Thought is free’. And Prospero himself begins to acknowledge the complexity of the relationship between the real and the imagined when he concludes that we are all, without exception, ‘such stuff / As dreams are made on’, and that ‘our little life / Is rounded with a sleep’. This famous speech is the first indication in the play that he sees himself as allied with the rest of humanity. And given that he is indeed human, his hope of orchestrating on the playhouse stage or the imaginary island a happy ending to the story of his life, composed by himself and obediently acted out by others, at this point seems an absurd one. If everything is the stuff of dreams, including Prospero, then the Duke cannot have a hope of keeping all the different imaginative threads of the world under his control, not even by magic. The final scene does indeed provide a happy ending, as Prospero’s daughter Miranda expresses her delight in the ‘brave new world’ of human wonders with which she finds herself surrounded – her new young husband chief among them. But in this final scene, too, the conspirators Sebastian and Antonio show no sign of repentance, and even Miranda’s naïve enthusiasm suggests her future life at Naples may be full of danger. The wild unpredictability of Robin Goodfellow’s imagination is present at the close of the play, as well as the collective imagination that knits together communities.

The play’s epilogue, however, reinforces the notion that the whole performance has been a collaborative effort. Prospero asks the audience to work their magic by clapping, thus releasing him from the imaginative spell that binds him to the island by announcing the close of the theatrical festivities. Authority is here set aside and collective fancy takes its place; a fancy that includes the hope for a better future, in heaven perhaps, or in an earthly state that favours mercy over retribution: ‘As you from crimes would pardon’d be, / Let your indulgence set me free’. Spenser tells us in The Faerie Queene that Phantastes, the imaginative faculty, is about foreseeing possible futures. Shakespeare’s comic imagination foresees a range of social and emotional states which we might well wish to share – and which he invites us, in this epilogue, to help bring into being.

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing circa 1786 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by Alfred A. de Pass in memory of his wife Ethel 1910 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02686

Further Reading

For lightness as a crucial element of Shakespearean comedy see R W Maslen, Shakespeare and Comedy, Arden Critical Companions (London etc: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005). For Puck as a kind of devil see R W Maslen, ‘Dreams, Freedom of Speech, and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow’, Journal of the Northern Renaissance, Issue 1.1 (March 2009), pp. 129-44 (http://northernrenaissance.org/articles/Robin-GoodfellowbrRobert-Maslen/13). For the Utopian element in Shakespeare’s comedies see Kiernan Ryan, Shakespeare’s Comedies (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

 

 

 

 

The Mouse Messiah

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…died since our ship touched down on this planet, eighteen days ago. The nature of the disease hasn’t been diagnosed: we know only that it occurs instantly on contact with the atmosphere, and that there’s no known cure. I’ve been confined to my quarters since nine this morning, when I re-entered the ship with a gash in my suit. If it really is a disease… to me it seems more like a heightening of the senses to the pitch of madness. I’m running a temperature that would have killed me hours ago, if it weren’t for the drugs.

Through the glass door of my cubicle the crew regard me with contempt. The accident need never have occurred if I hadn’t ignored our botanist’s advice and got too close to a sword-plant. But I was always the joke member of this expedition. After all, why should a priest have been assigned to a ship without Christians aboard, its destination a planet without intelligent life-forms? A bureaucratic slip at head office, perhaps; or a cruel prank played by some peevish atheist, who gigglingly transferred my name from one list to another without a thought for the years I would waste on this pointless mission. There’s no-one on the ship but miners, technicians, scientists, military personnel – every one of them a committed materialist, with a zealot’s passion for debunking the notion of transcendence. And there’s nothing on the planet at all. Just a wealth of newly-discovered minerals, which we shall mine, and a species of rodent, like rabbit-sized mice, which we shall of course exterminate as an accidental side effect of our mining operations. In my situation Saint Francis would have preached to the rodents, but we all wear helmets for fear of infection. Our helmets and suits are not decontaminated; we’re not afraid of infecting. Each time we step out of the air-lock we unleash a swarm of alien bacteria, enough to set off a thousand epidemics among the flora and fauna of this fragile ecosystem.

So the mice are doomed, unless some miracle interposes itself. But why should this concern us? We have our own body-count to fret over: the fact that three valuable crewmembers have died since touchdown, and that a fourth entirely useless crewmember is about to follow them. We’re already beginning to view this planet with hatred, and to treat its victims as traitors, feckless collaborators with an invisible army of hostile micro-organisms committed to wiping out all human life. The sooner we rid ourselves of both, the safer we shall feel.

So here I lie in this bare room, making the smooth walls bulge. This is a skill I’ve acquired since falling ill: I can alter my surroundings with a glance. The only ornament in my room, a crucifix, stretches and bleeds whenever my eyes light upon it. Tiny gaps between the panels on the floor expand and contract as my gaze sweeps across them. My hands lie inert on the sheets and my mind is mostly empty; but not for lack of power. Not at all! On the contrary: I’m afraid that if I move, say, my foot just a quarter of an inch I might punch a hole in the side of the ship, even as I buckle the walls with sight alone. And if a thought should cross my mind – a real thought, I mean, not this burbling stream of consciousness, this aimless interior chat – it might rend the walls of my understanding and scorch me with intolerable light. So I lie inert in this naked berth, sweating with the effort to contain my energies, trembling with force withheld.

The door shoots aside to admit the captain, a tall woman with hair so thick with product it looks enamelled. Her helmet flashes as she enters, almost detonated by my vision. At the press of a button a seat slides out of the wall; she sits. I struggle with the muscles round my mouth, not because I’m trying to speak, but to stop them wrenching my jaw into a mighty yawn that would swallow her helmet and all. I haven’t spoken to her more than a dozen times in the course of this expedition, intimidated by her height, her authority, the rigidity of her coiffure.

‘Any better, padre?’ she asks the wall. Inside her helmet she has formed a decision, like another chamber in her skull. With infinite gentleness I shake my head. The room leaps from side to side, shimmering with fear of my hidden strength.

‘You understand, of course, that I have no choice,’ she says harshly. ‘We can’t go back to the station with the plague on board. It’s simply too contagious. Doc reckons it could work its way through an unprotected human population within hours; through the race as a whole in the time it takes for the slowest of our ships to reach the Outer Reaches. Even as it is, we’re going to have to go through the most rigorous decontamination procedure in history before we can dock at the station. It’s my duty to begin that procedure now, before we leave this planet. I’m afraid you’re going to have to stay here, padre.’

No reaction. You can see from her face that she thinks I haven’t understood a word, that I lost her drift before she’d finished her final, punitive sentence. As she speaks, her harsh voice over the intercom above my pillow grows gentler, more thoughtful, as if trying to soften the cruelty of duty with its maternal inflections.

‘Is there anything I can do for you, Padre? Any messages you want me to take back to your friends, your family? We’ll leave you with supplies, of course. But is there something else you need?’

I say nothing, but I’m touched.

My mind is almost tempted out of hiding by the captain’s kindness. I can feel it pushing against its restraints, swelling, burgeoning, growing. Be careful! Once free of my skull it will continue to expand till it fills the ship, crushing furniture and people against the vessel’s inner membrane as it thrusts itself into every corner, eager to make the most of its fine new cranial cavity. With a violent effort I force it back into the skull’s narrow casement, commanding it to retreat like a swollen snail into its shell. For a while its tender horns explore the bony walls of its enclosure, probing for weaknesses, shoring up fragile areas with its mental secretions. I satisfy myself that my head is sound, that the bulk of my new-found power may be safely contained there. Then one by one I allow the horns to steal forth into the open.

Good God! The sky!

My mind gives a dreadful lurch, almost dissipating itself into the limitless acreage of heaven before I take hold of it again with a grip of iron. Its mollusc foot once anchored in my skull, I dare tentatively to look around, take stock of my situation.

I’m on a stretcher, and the stars jump from horizon to horizon with the stretcher’s motion. They are carrying me in a straight line from the ship to the place where they plan to maroon me. Apart from sword-plants, the planet supports little vegetation: only many-coloured lichens carpeting the rocks and patches of crawling fruit-vines bristling with spikes the length of nails. The heart-shaped fruits burst beneath my bearers’ boots, spattering their suits with bloody liquor. We are making for the highest point in the vicinity, a hollow mound of rock eaten away by the acid rain so that it’s pocked full of holes. From one angle it resembles a crumbling snail, from another a skull.

Now and then rodents trot from the shelter of the thorns and stare at us with alien eyes. We know nothing about these creatures. The only biologist on board is a botanist, who advises us on the dangers posed by sword-plants and refuses to waste his attention on the little quadrupeds. Once I tried to interest him in the question of why they like to stare at us with such apparent interest. I have a theory of my own, I said. Somewhere I’ve read that there was a species of rodent on earth called a groundhog, long extinct, which used to sit along the verges of highways absorbing vitamin D from sunshine through a kind of plate in the top of its head. Perhaps the rodents here absorb energy through their eyes, so that they’re literally drinking us in as they watch us crashing about the surface of their planet, fiddling with our equipment, clearing paths through the foliage, gesticulating at one another and shouting through our intercoms. That would be a nice thought, wouldn’t it, I said: that we’re giving them, as it were, a visual feast, even as we spread the germs that will eradicate their species? The botanist just glared at me and returned his attention to a lichen he was trying to chip away from a boulder. I suppose he thought my theory as stupid as my faith; but it comforts me now as they carry me past a row of staring rodents. What a sumptuous banquet they must be getting from the heat that radiates from my feverish body! It would be strange and pleasing if I should finally get a proper function only after I’ve been abandoned to die on an alien planet!

We reach the hollow mound by picking our way between crazier and crazier rock formations, some leaning so steeply that the stretcher-bearers hunch their shoulders in anticipation of an avalanche. Happily, though, we arrive unharmed at one of the skull’s decaying cavities. As we enter, the roof arches overhead like the roof of a mouth. The cave is deep, the floor uneven. They set me down in a corner, at such an angle that by the merest twist of the neck I can peep out of the cave-mouth and scan the twisted land beyond. By my right hand they place a plastic picnic hamper full of goodies. At least, that’s how I like to imagine it: stuffed to the brim with honey-roast ham, chicken drumsticks, pickles, cheeses, raspberries and cream, a dozen kinds of freshly-baked bread. In fact, of course, it contains only nutrition tablets, water tablets, and painkillers – enough of these to kill an ox. If I swallow the painkillers I shall be able to leave the other tablets for the next poor unfortunate to be marooned in this cave.

They place my battered old bible gently on the lid of the hamper. Then they gather round in awkward silence, hands clasped as if holding hats, heads bowed in a show of reverence they never managed at the daily act of worship. With the hint of a smile I raise two fingers in blessing, then inch them towards the bible on the hamper. I prod the spine, striving to open my lips and offer it as a gift. But the stretcher-bearers have gone; I must have taken longer than I intended.

My mind again retracts to wrestle with its power. This time I’m no longer a mollusc: I stand knee-deep in a pitch-black chamber full of echoes. Somewhere something flounders in the water, its splashes magnified by the high curved walls. Somehow I must reach that floundering thing before it drowns, discover its identity. A shower of acidic rain hisses down outside the cave, each drop raising a wisp of vapour where it hits the ground.
A flicker by the cave-mouth. A rodent sits there gazing at my face. Has it come to absorb another dose of my body’s warmth through its giant pupils? Another rabbit-mouse hops to its side; a third, a fourth. Dropping to all fours, the mice approach me paw by paw in a dance too complex to be followed by the uninitiated.

Now and then they sit up again and stare at me with alien eyes. Each time I find my thoughts distributed in dialogue.

RODENT: Are you sick?
MAN: I think so.
RODENT: So were many of our people.
MAN: What was their sickness?
RODENT: An epidemic brought by you, the creatures with two heads.
MAN: Aren’t you afraid I might infect you?
RODENT: Don’t be afraid. Our Queen is coming. She cures all disorders.

The conversation has gone this far before I know I’m neither dreaming nor delirious. Our speech isn’t made of words: it’s a mutual understanding. I hear the scrabble of claws on the rocky floor, the uneven sound of my breathing, but nothing else is audible over the intercom. An extraordinary warmth washes over me, an ecstasy of a wholly unfamiliar kind, as I bask in the sudden consciousness of full communion. We are speaking together without the use of tongues, rolling back the intervening ages since the fall of the Tower of Babel! After so long without speaking to anyone, the joy of this easy exchange is almost past bearing.

The first rodent has reached my boot and sniffs at it, nose a-quiver. I long to take off my glove and touch its fur, but fear that my hand will crush it into lifelessness.

MAN: Tell me about yourselves.
RODENT: We are the little dancers, we dance the star-dance among the piercing thorns. And you?

We believe, I’m about to say – some of us believe – that this lump of pallid flesh shares natures with infinity. But in my mind-vault I’ve finally reached the floundering thing and am struggling to lift it from the water, poor sodden mouse. It’s the magnitude of my next question, not the heightened power of my body and mind that dries up my tongue at the root. How share my faith with creatures who don’t share my humanity, to whom parables are nothing, comparisons mere confusion? Our minds have touched for an instant; but where on earth, or off it, can our souls connect?

Fever makes my head ache, but the pain in my heart is worse, because the love of those who have shared your skull is the deepest love of all. I remember the rodents’ Queen, the one who cures disorders. Perhaps one might draw a parallel from that?

MAN: Tell me about your Queen. What is her nature, what rooms does she inhabit?
RODENT: There is no telling, there is no knowing, there is only showing. She is here, she will give you comfort.

As we speak, more rodents gather at the cave-mouth looking in, then spill forward, more and more until the floor is crawling with rabbit-mice. Like the lichen on the tottering rocks they are all colours – purple, orange, emerald green, magenta – and they range in size from six inches to three feet. The multitude divides down the middle, leaving a gangway from the entrance to the soles of my boots. There’s no sound apart from the patter of claws, but the thoughts of this mighty gathering eddy and mingle like the voices of massed choirs. A light, sunshine I guess reflected from the steaming puddles outside, flashes from the cave-mouth. And now there’s a rodent scuttling down the passage as if on a sunbeam, a delicate white rabbit-mouse with a glint of gold on the top of her head, on the place where the groundhog absorbs the rays of the sun. Every mind in the assembly bows down low, every rodent’s nose touches the ground between its foreclaws in honour of their tiny Queen.

Again words lack. I know the Queen shares natures with infinity, that she travels through this many-coloured Gethsemane towards some rodent passion as terrible as Calvary. I know that there is pain in her heart as there is in mine, that ahead of her lies sorrow, torture, despair and death, and that she can see the path ahead with appalling clarity. Wherever there are empty chambers, chaos-filled caskets, lonely cubicles or vaults teeming with isolated lives – there you will find Golgotha, place of the skull. The pain in my body and mind is worse than ever. But her claw touches mine and the doors are flung wide open, every room and closet filled with light.

And once again I’m lying in my naked berth. The captain sits beside the bed, hands propping her forehead (she has taken off her helmet). Between her elbows rests my battered old bible, shut. There are stains on the cover where she has wept, each tear raising an invisible wisp of vapour where it struck the binding.

A smell of burning, traceable to the gun in her holster, pervades the room. I planned to maroon you, padre, she whispers, because I feared you. The heat you radiated scorched my cheek, as if something inside you had grown so huge it was seeping through every pore. So why did you stumble out from behind the crazy piles of rock, scaring me so badly that I pulled out my gun and shot you down at my feet? And then why did you bless me, padre, broken on the broken ground, and press your book like a treasure into my trembling glove?

On the wall the crucifix shivers as if under water. There were suddenly so many rodents, padre, rodents of every size and colour milling about our boots as we carried your corpse to the ship, bursting fruit at every step. And now my crew regard me through the glass door of the cubicle with undisguised contempt, because I’ve murdered you twice over – first by giving the order for you to be marooned, then by blasting a hole in your chest through which the last few fierce convulsions of your heart were clearly visible. Where are you now, padre? Can you hear me at all? Have you found a tongue large enough to speak with? Is there room enough in the universe to accommodate such a tongue?

From the swelling in my skull I fear I’ve caught a touch of your sickness. If sickness it is… I find it more a heightening of the senses to the pitch of madness. Four crewmembers have died since we touched down on this planet, nineteen days ago.

Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and the Death of Orpheus

DT2737Venus and Adonis (1593) is Shakespeare’s cheeky and disturbing contribution to the fierce contemporary debate over the function of poetry. The poem was his first published non-dramatic work, an opportunity for the young author to drop clues about his poetic agenda. Fourteen years previously, The Shepheards Calender (1579) had trumpeted Spenser’s pretensions to becoming the official Elizabethan poet laureate, with its echoes of Virgil carefully annotated in E.K.’s obsequious gloss. Shakespeare, by contrast, offered his patron a poem which couldn’t be placed in any of the traditional generic categories, and which incorporated its own sardonic commentary. He chose a topic that allied him, not with Virgil, the celebrant of Roman nationalism, but with a poet who was banished from Rome, Ovid. And in doing so, he announced his intention to participate in some of the hottest poetic controversies of the 1590s.

Just as Ovid wove together the stories of the Metamorphoses into a complex web, so Shakespeare weaves together several metamorphic fables to construct his own imaginative labyrinth. The most obvious subsidiary fables he makes use of are the stories of Narcissus and Hermaphroditus.1 But another narrative can be detected more subtly woven into the fabric of the poem: the story of Orpheus.

painting1In Ovid’s poem, it’s Orpheus who sings the tragedy of Venus and Adonis, before being torn apart by the Thracian women. But Shakespeare’s treatment of the story goes back to an earlier stage of Orpheus’s history, before his marriage to Eurydice. Shakespeare could have found an account of Orpheus’s early career in a number of places; but the place where the story cropped up most frequently was in contemporary defences of poetry. Apologists repeatedly used the Orpheus myth to argue that poets were responsible for the foundation of civilization itself. Perhaps the most elaborate account of the civilizing powers of poetry available to Shakespeare could be found in the third chapter of George Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie (1589). Here Puttenham describes the state of anarchy that obtained ‘before any civil society was among men’, when humanity subsisted in a violent state of nature:

vagarant and di[s]persed like the wild beasts, lawlesse and naked, or verie ill clad, and of all good and necessarie provision for harbour or sustenance utterly unfurnished: so as they litle diffred for their maner of life, from the very brute beasts of the field.2

 It was the poets who rescued mankind from this bestial state, drawing people together into the first communities with their intoxicating utterances, and supplying these communities with the first politicians, the first lawgivers, the first official historians. Both Orpheus and Amphion are allegories of the early poets’ powers of speech. Amphion, who brought stones to life to build the walls of Thebes, represents the poet’s gift of ‘mollifying … hard and stonie hearts by his sweete and eloquent perswasion’; while Orpheus, who tamed wild beasts with his singing, represents the poetic orator who ‘by his discreete and wholsome lessons uttered in harmonie … brought the rude and savage people to a more ciuill and orderly life’.3 For apologists like Puttenham, eager to show that poetry could be subjected to the discipline of rules like any other social activity, Orpheus as the first administrator provided eloquent testimony to the fundamentally ‘civill and orderly’ functioning of the poetic art – to its qualifications as a supplement to other kinds of state policing.

Venus_and_Adonis_by_TitianShakespeare’s Venus and Adonis inhabit a landscape that closely resembles the wilderness colonized by Puttenham’s Amphion and Orpheus. Coleridge, the poem’s most sympathetic commentator, said that Shakespeare wrote his text ‘as if he were of another planet’.4 But it might equally be said that Shakespeare’s narrator writes the poem as if he were peering through the web of Elizabethan culture at another age, an age immeasurably distant from the sixteenth century but intimately bound up with it. Venus and Adonis live at a time before history has been subjected to what Puttenham calls the rules of art, before the ‘rude and savage’ condition of humanity has been rendered ‘civill and orderly’. A favourite Elizabethan metaphor for history was that of a mirror, in which the contours of present-day events could be traced, often with disturbing implications, in events of the past. Shakespeare’s narrative dissolves the glass that separates the violent pre-Orphic state of nature from the ‘civill’ world of Elizabethan social custom. In doing so it exposes the rudeness and savagery that Elizabethan culture strove to conceal under layers of allegory and rich brocade.

From one point of view, Venus and Adonis are completely Elizabethan. Adonis wears an Elizabethan bonnet, and his horse sports the rich trappings suitable for the mount of a young Elizabethan aristocrat. More importantly, Shakespeare’s narrator is a detached and worldly Elizabethan spectator who likes to flaunt his familiarity with the social and economic conditions of London life. He knows the legal scene, offering his opinions on the fee Venus’s ‘heart’s attorney’ ought to charge for its eloquent pleading (335).5 He knows the points of a good horse by the book, quoting almost verbatim from a contemporary riding manual when he describes Adonis’s palfrey.6 He knows the drama scene, at one point describing Venus’s actions as a dumbshow to which her tears act as an ineffectual chorus (359-60).

Above all, he is a cynic. Like other spectators in Shakespeare’s work, the narrator of Venus and Adonis finds his greatest delight in spectacles that involve cruelty, frustration, and especially violence. He’s the kind of spectator who takes pleasure in blood-sports like bear-baiting and hunting, and who can produce sophisticated commentaries on the pain these activities cause their participants, as Jacques comments on the wounded stag in As You Like It; who would rush with Rosalind to watch a wrestler breaking the necks of his challengers, or enthuse with Puck over the murderous violence he has stirred up between the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Venus and Adonis is the poetic equivalent of a blood sport, with the same indifference to the agony of its victims that Venus attributes to the hunters of the hare. The narrator is not interested in the feelings of his actors; he’s aroused only by the intellectual games he can play with those feelings, as when at the emotional climax of the poem, as Venus approaches the dead Adonis, he contemplates the effect of her eyes and tears ‘lending and borrowing’ from each other as if in an Elizabethan money-market (961). At times a note of overt sadism creeps into his text:

O what a sight it was, wistly to view
How she came stealing to the wayward boy!
To note the fighting conflict of her hue,
How white and red each other did destroy! (343-6, my emphasis)

To this jaded narrator, who confesses that conventional love language bores him (841-6), the only interesting relationship is a mutually destructive one. He may be sophisticated in the ways of court and city, but he is hardly ‘civill’.

A9180And his readers are implicated in his cynicism. When Venus tells Adonis he need not be ashamed to kiss her because nobody can see them (121-6), we, the invisible spectators, become voyeurs, sharing the narrator’s jokes as we ogle the couple. The narrator keeps reminding us of our complicity, with cries of ‘Look’ and ‘Lo’; and if at first this voyeurism seems no more than a harmless game, it soon becomes less comfortable, more openly an act of aggression committed on the actors.

Shakespeare’s text can be broadly divided into two halves. In the first half, Venus tries with increasing desperation to entice Adonis into sex. The language she uses is a giddyingly inventive display of familiar Petrarchan tropes. She bombards him with oxymorons involving hot ice, showers him with floral metaphors, launches into an extended variation on the old carpe diem theme, cracks the familiar puns about harts and deer, and interpolates a parodic passage where she inscribes herself as a Petrarchan mistress, the Laura of an inverted sonnet-sequence composed by Laura herself (139-50). Venus seems to have imaginative control over her own body, putting it through whatever changes she pleases, making it heavy enough to need trees to support it, then giving the violets she lies on the strength of trees (152). For all its desperation, the first half is energetic and hopeful, emphasising Adonis’s youth, Venus’s constantly self-renewing flesh, and the sexual pride of the courting horses, who inject new life into Venus’s own courtship just as she’s running out of ideas.

But at the centre of the poem comes a change of mood. Adonis announces that he intends to hunt the boar tomorrow. Venus collapses with the boy on top of her, and there follows what ought to be the sexual climax of Venus’s wooing. But all Venus gets from the encounter is frustration: ‘all is imaginary she doth prove’, the narrator tells us (597), and compares her frustration to that of the birds who tried to peck at Zeuxis’s temptingly painted grapes and found them to have no substance (601-4). After this the poem is wrapped in gathering gloom, a kind of post-coital lassitude rendered the gloomier because there has been no coitus. In the second half of the poem Venus speaks of fear, the fear of the boar and the terror of the hunted hare. Death, which has been a shadowy presence throughout the first half, becomes the tyrant of the second. Instead of urging Adonis to beget, Venus warns him that he will be murdering his own posterity if he fails to make love (757-60). The youthfulness which had been described in such vital terms in the first half, able to ‘drive infection from the dangerous year’ (508), suddenly finds itself subjected to more infections than it can hope to cure:

As burning fevers, agues pale and faint,
Life-poisoning pestilence and frenzies wood,
The marrow-eating sickness whose attaint
Disorder breeds by heating of the blood (739-42).

If, as scholars have argued, the poem was written while the London theatres were closed because of plague, Shakespeare could hardly have given contemporary readers a more shocking reminder of the powerlessness of poetic discourse.

Young-Hare-IAt the same time Venus loses control over her body. As she hurries through the woods after the sound of Adonis’s horn, her body is subjected to the intrusive gropings of bushes: ‘Some catch her by the neck, some kiss her face, / Some twine about her thigh to make her stay’ (872-3). The elaborate mythical structure she wove in the first half of the poem is abruptly unwoven. The second half is full of metaphors of unweaving; terrifying expansions of the oxymorons beloved of the Petrarchans. The hare ‘turns, and returns’ in the ‘labyrinth’ of its flight (704, 684). Later, Venus re-enacts the flight of the hare as she searches for Adonis (‘She treads the path that she untreads again’ [908]). Later still, in her efforts to persuade herself that Adonis is alive and well, she tells herself story after story, each one less convincing than the last: ‘Now she unweaves the web that she hath wrought’ (991). By this stage, the mysterious power of poetic eloquence and imagination as it was celebrated by the Elizabethan apologists has been laughed out of court. The process of telling stories has become no more than a trick to procrastinate the inevitable confirmation of misery, a meaningless incantation to keep off the encroaching dark.

adonisIn Venus and Adonis Shakespeare weaves and unweaves the poetic fantasies of his contemporaries. The best known English treatment of the Adonis myth before Shakespeare’s was the episode of the garden of Adonis in the Faerie Queene, the first three books of which were published in 1590. Expanding on a false etymology of Adonis’s name, Spenser depicts the garden as a pagan Eden, a ‘joyous Paradise’ constructed on the pattern of a female body, whose inexhaustible fertility nurtures flowers, throngs of babies and an unmutilated Adonis.7 In the first half of Shakespeare’s poem Venus struggles to create just such a poetic Eden out of the substance of Adonis’s body and her own. She tells him that he is the ‘field’s chief flower’ (8), and urges him to join her on a bank of flowers, an enchanted circle from which serpents and other vermin are banned. She then proceeds to transform her own flesh into a metaphorical Paradise. Her cheeks become gardens (65), she assures him that ‘My beauty as the spring doth yearly grow’ (141), and offers herself to him as a protective enclosure where he can shelter from the savage environment: ‘I’ll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer:/ Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale’ (231-2). But, as the central stanzas of the poem warn us, ‘all is imaginary she doth prove’. The landscape of the poem only ever becomes Edenic in the rhetoric of Venus. As the poem moves on, her rhetoric loses its persuasiveness, and a very different landscape emerges, a landscape which has more in common with Puttenham’s pre-Orphic wilderness than with Spenser’s idyll. Always present alongside Venus’s imaginary Eden, always encroaching on its borders, is a savage environment where the sun scorches exposed flesh, and where forests seethe with wild beasts. As this wilderness emerges, its climate gets less Edenic. In the first half, Venus compares Adonis’s breath to ‘heavenly moisture’, a dew like the one God used to water the plants before he invented rain (62-6).8 But the alternating weather conditions generated by the lovers’ bodies grow steadily less moderate, passing from rain to parching heat and back again to rain in a bewildering flurry of changes. In the second half of the poem these changes become wholly violent, hurrying through the ‘wild waves’ of the night (819) towards the tempest signalled by the ‘red morn’ of Adonis’s open mouth (453-6). The storm breaks during Venus’s search for the boy (‘Like a stormy day, now wind, now rain, / Sighs dry her tears, wind makes them wet again’ [965-6]), and her discovery of his body unleashes a climactic earthquake: ‘As when the wind imprison’d in the ground, / Struggling for passage, earth’s foundation shakes’ (1046-7). Where Puttenham’s Amphion brought stones to life with his poetry and used them to found a city, by the end of Shakespeare’s poem the earth itself has been shaken to the foundation. And Venus’s final prophecy bequeaths the same turbulent climate to future societies, whose sexual alliances will ‘bud, and be blasted in a breathing while’ (1141).

Antonio_Allegri,_called_Correggio_-_The_Abduction_of_Ganymede_-_Google_Art_ProjectIn the same way, the text reverses Orpheus’s transformation of ‘brute beasts’ into civilised human beings. Shakespeare’s works are full of animals, but not even King Lear has such a high proportion of beasts to humans as Venus and Adonis. The animals range from horse and hare to lions, tigers, bears and boars; and these beasts repeatedly swap characteristics with people. Adonis becomes a deer, a ‘dive-dapper’, a snarling wolf, while Venus changes into a vulture, a pregnant doe, a snail, a boar, a falcon, until the dividing line between humans and ‘beasts of the field’ becomes as imprecise as it was in Puttenham’s state of nature. Even as she promises to protect the boy from serpents, Venus transforms herself into the most terrifyingly voracious eagle the Elizabethans had ever read about, who ‘Tires with her beak on feathers, flesh and bone’ (56). This eagle either has not yet assumed its emblematic function as a royal bird, or else must act as emblem for a very violent and barbaric sort of royalty. Ascham, Gosson and others warned that erotic poetry subjected its readers to a Circean metamorphosis from humanity to bestiality. Shakespeare’s poem makes explicit what Ascham and Gosson imply: that the human body trembles on the borderline between beast and rational being.

At the same time, the closer one looks into the text, the more disruptively it seems to parody the posturings of contemporary apologists. Even the Latin motto Shakespeare prefixes to the poem is ironized by the narrative that follows it. In Marlowe’s translation the lines read:

Let base-conceited wits admire vile things:
Fair Phoebus lead me to the Muse’s springs.9

Outside their context in Ovid’s Amores these lines sound like an arrogant repudiation of ‘inferior’ art (although in Ovid’s elegy they form part of a witty demolition of poetic hierarchies). But in Shakespeare’s poem Phoebus is only one of the aggressive inhabitants of the pre-Orphic wilderness. The first we see of him, he is blushing violently and breaking away from a weeping woman:

Even as the sun with purple-colour’d face
Had ta’en his last leave of the weeping morn. (1-2).

This sounds suspiciously like the aftermath of a rape, the same kind of sexual violence that leads the boar to gore Adonis at the end of the poem, or which generates Venus’s mutation into the eagle. When Apollo reappears a few stanzas later he’s as randy as ever, this time lusting after Venus, and prepared, without any of the misgivings that afflicted Phoebus in the Metamorphoses, to let Adonis guide his chariot like a second Phaethon, while he takes his pleasure for the second time that day (177-80). In this poem the classical patron of the poetic art is an irresponsible lecher.

The other gods are equally savage. The god of war spends his time in violent conquest, before being reduced to slavery in his turn by Venus (97-102). The moon goddess, who had so often stood in for Queen Elizabeth, proves as unstable as any of the others; in her jealousy of Adonis she bribes the destinies to make beauty ‘subject to the tyranny / Of mad mischances and much misery’ (737-8). No more gods are mentioned. There is no overruling authority, no Jove or Nature to make up for the demotion of the lesser gods; and Shakespeare’s ‘tyranny / Of mad mischances’ has none of the compensatory ‘eternity in mutability’ Spenser placed at the heart of the garden of Adonis.10 In place of the dignified Olympian structure implied by the poem’s Latin motto, the mocking narrator presides over a text that disintegrates into an unruly brawl. And his interpolations keep drawing unnerving parallels between this brawl and conditions in his own culture; a culture that constructed an elaborate mythology of its own stability, which Shakespeare’s alternative mythology systematically demolishes.

Shakespeare’s poem has no context. Few characters apart from Venus and Adonis themselves are given names. The genealogy of the protagonists is never mentioned, and the land they find themselves in is nameless, in marked contrast to Spenser’s Faerie land, or Lodge’s Isis, or Marlowe’s Sestos.11 The struggles in the text take place in a topographical and historical vacuum, outside the orderly records of Elizabethan classicists and chroniclers. Venus and Adonis are dislocated, in fact, from all the verbal conventions that give a semblance of structure to Elizabethan affairs. Even their conversations are incoherent, not so much acts of communication as a kind of verbal autoeroticism, ornate variations on guttural moans. They never really talk to one another. The only form of speech Venus is really interested in is her own minute register of the changes that take place in Adonis’s body, as it responds to arousal, to embarrassment, to violence; and the narrator with his rhapsodies over Venus’s body shares her limited interests. Venus hardly listens to Adonis; she shuts him up with kisses (48) or with wordplay (‘Speak, fair, but speak fair words, or else be mute’ [208]). When he does manage to get a word in edgeways, she first waxes eloquent about the sound of his voice, then faints dead away as he opens his mouth to speak again. In the second half of the poem the language of Venus loses all pretence of conveying meaning, as she quibbles with echoes which respond like ‘shrill-tongu’d tapsters’ (849), or stops to talk with one of Adonis’s dogs which ‘replies with howling’ (918).

173562c232235aba34d2abd0e3451212Running through this dissonant wilderness is a series of ‘speaking pictures’, the verbal evocations of the visual which Horace and Sidney identified as the poet’s chief source of persuasive power. Shakespeare’s recalcitrant speaking pictures rebel against the functions they performed in contemporary theory. At the centre of his narrative he sets a picture whose power is solely that of stressing its own uselessness: the trompe l’oeil painting of grapes, that at once arouses and frustrates the appetites of birds. Earlier in the poem, Venus accuses Adonis of being another such useless artefact, a ‘lifeless picture, cold and senseless stone, / Well-painted idol, image dull and dead’ (211-2). These two empty works of art mockingly enact the repressive uses poetry was put to in Elizabethan apologetics. The policing of sexual desire was one of these functions; Sidney’s exemplary speaking picture was a verbal portrait of Lucretia killing herself.12 Yet at the same time Sidney himself maintained that the advantage ‘speaking pictures’ had over other forms of discourse was that they stimulated emotions in their readers: whether appetite, like the painting of the grapes, or battle-lust, like the old song of Percy and Douglas in Sidney’s Apology, or sexual desire, like Venus’s statuesque Adonis. For the moralists, poetry was designed to regiment and frustrate the feelings it played on: to arouse emotion only to crush emotion.

Rearing-Horse-1483-98In contrast to these useless and frustrating speaking pictures, Shakespeare intersperses his text with very different verbal paintings. The extended descriptions of Adonis’s horse (259-324), the boar (615-72) and the hare (673-708) all refuse to perform the functions the apologists would have demanded of them. The description of the horse comes just at the point when Venus’s eloquence has failed her: ‘Now which way shall she turn? what shall she say?’ (253). At this moment of creative crisis Adonis’s horse snaps its reins and so lends a new energy to Venus’s poetic improvisations. The narrator invites us to compare the animal to an equestrian painting, an idealized re-presentation that possesses all the points an artist would choose ‘when a painter would surpass the life / In limning out a well-proportion’d steed’ (289-90). But this is no conventional Renaissance painting, gracefully instructive; it is the picture of something out of control, a beast that defies its master, crushes its bit, and gallops off in mad pursuit of a mare. Unlike Sidney’s speaking pictures, it forms no part of any pedagogic or political agenda: and the ‘moral’ Venus derives from it stresses the horse’s exuberant resistance to the constraints of morality.13

il-porcellino--florence-italy-boar-statue-gregory-dyerThe same is true of the boar. Commentators have repeatedly tried to read the boar as an allegory, whether of winter, of war, or of homosexual desire, but it resists moral or generic classifications. Venus recreates the boar verbally in order to scare Adonis from hunting it; but she succeeds only in scaring herself, with

The picture of an angry chafing boar,
Under whose sharp fangs on his back doth lie
An image like thyself, all stain’d with gore (662-4).

This vatic prediction is vouchsafed her, not by the Muses appealed to in the poem’s motto, but by fear and ‘dissentious jealousy’ (657), a form of imagination that cannot be trusted, since it ‘sometime true news, sometime false doth bring’ (658). And like Venus’s other speaking pictures, it has no effect on its audience whatever.

In fact, the deeper we plunge into the second half the more undisciplined and ineffectual Venus’s imagination becomes. Her inventiveness comes more and more to resemble the hapless cunning she ascribes to the hare, which designs a random ‘labyrinth’ in a vain attempt to elude its enemies. What Venus says of the hare is equally true of herself: ‘Danger deviseth shifts, wit waits on fear’ (690). The creative intelligence that Venus shares with the hare, the wit that ‘waits on fear’, has little in common with the semi-divine ‘erected wit’ that governs Sidney’s aristocratic poet.14 It is the wit of the poor, generating the same fantasies that inhabit the streets and taverns of Elizabethan London, as the similes in the text increasingly remind us. After Adonis has left her, Venus begins a conversation with Echo. The poet who converses with Echo was a favourite device used by courtly poets like Sidney; but Venus’s Echo is no courtier but a barman, who is well used to soothing the imaginative humours of ‘fantastic wits’ (850). Later, Venus’s fearful imaginings about Adonis’s fate are nothing nobler than a child’s nightmares – she describes them as ‘causeless fantasy, / And childish error’ (897-8). The predictions she makes when she sees Adonis’s hounds resemble the superstitious predictions made by ‘the world’s poor people’ when they see a comet (925-6). Venus started the poem as a strong-armed poet-queen rather like Puttenham’s Queen Elizabeth; but by mid-way through the second half she has lost all her mythical and cultural potency and become as helpless as the poorest of her subjects.

AN00575557_001_lShe herself stresses her own helplessness when she imaginatively evokes the ruler of this wilderness, as she approaches Adonis’s body. Where Spenser’s April eclogue concluded with a hymn to Eliza, the queen of the shepherds, safely inscribing the Shepheards Calender as a royalist tract, the highest authority in Shakespeare’s poem is a vague and menacing shadow, a force that has no identity at all: Death. Venus describes it twice over as she hurries towards Adonis’s corpse. At first, when she has convinced herself that the boy is dead, Death is a ‘Hard-favour’d tyrant’ who drinks the tears of his victims (931). Later, thinking Adonis might still be alive, she abruptly changes her tune; in an outburst of renewed hope and gratitude she ‘clepes him king of graves, and grave for kings, / Imperious supreme of all mortal things’ (995-6). Venus’s two contradictory versions of Death mimic the sycophantic carollings of court poets, whose celebrations of the sovereign waxed more lyrical as their hopes of preferment grew stronger. But like his treatments of the traditional royal emblems, the eagle, the sun, and Cynthia, Shakespeare’s treatment of the myth of monarchy itself has been drained of all glamour, all civility, reduced instead to the savagery of arbitrary power: a power that cannot create, only destroy.

In fact, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis enacts a process which is the precise obverse of the civilizing influence ascribed to poetry in Puttenham’s myth of Orpheus. If Venus and the narrator are Shakespeare’s poets, their words and actions expose the barbarity that lurks beneath the elegant surface of Elizabethan court culture. And the poem’s commentator recognizes this fact. As Venus composes her seductive poetry, Adonis acts as her surly critic, a disgruntled version of Spenser’s E.K., who fails miserably to respond to the force of poetic discourse. He tells her that her fictions are hackneyed and unprofitable (‘this idle theme, this bootless chat’ [422]). He informs her, as Ascham or Gosson might have done, that her eroticism is unwholesome for adolescents (524-8)); tries to cut short her endless story-telling (716); and finally launches into an extended attack on her ideological stance, made up of phrases that might have been culled from the works of the ‘poet-haters’. Her discourse is the song of a mermaid or siren, which incites its hearers to lust rather than rational love; her poetry is made up of ‘forged lies’ (804) and offensive to chaste ears. However redundant Adonis’s distinction between lust and love may be, it incorporates one insight which the poem bears out: that Venus’s poetry represents just one more effort to gain power, and that her wit fails to hide the fact that she serves a ‘hot tyrant’ who is potentially as destructive as Death (797). From the beginning of the poem, Venus was at her most savage when she came closest to getting what she wanted:

Her face doth reek and smoke, her blood doth boil,
And careless lust stirs up a desperate courage,
Planting oblivion, beating reason back,
Forgetting shame’s pure blush and honour’s wrack (555-8).

Where Orpheus tamed the bestial hearts of wild men, Venus urges a return to bestial action; where Puttenham’s early poets planted the artificial memory of history, Venus plants ‘oblivion’.

Venus is no Orpheus; but then, neither is the frigid Adonis. Standing over his corpse, Venus finds herself quite incapable of giving an accurate account of his death; far less of his life, which is much less verifiable. Like distorted glasses, her tears make his wounds look twice as bad as they are; she therefore seeks to console herself by mythologizing his biography. As she narrates her own version of his history she transforms him into a voiceless Orpheus, taming wild animals wherever he went. ‘To see his face the lion walked along / Behind some hedge, because he would not fear him’, she croons (1093-4), and we might be inclined to believe her, if we didn’t remember her terror when she found he was hunting ‘the blunt boar, rough bear, or lion proud’ (884). In Shakespeare’s text, myth is no allegory of actual events but a falsification of history, a consoling lie designed to conceal the ‘black Chaos’ that underlies the veneer of historical order.

Jean_Cousin_the_Elder,_Eva_Prima_PandoraThe implications of this go far beyond a critique of Elizabethan poetic theory. After all, Queen Elizabeth herself was to a great extent a construct of poetic mythmaking. It’s always tempting when confronted with a powerful queen in Elizabethan poetry to transform her into one of the many aspects of Elizabeth. The problem with Shakespeare’s Venus is that she seems to present the queen and sexual politics at court in such a darkly satirical light. Yet the more one looks at the poetry of the 1590s, with its blossoming of satire in verse and prose, the less unlikely such a reading looks. Two years before Shakespeare published his poem, the patriotic Spenser produced his most satirical collection of verse, the Complaints (1591). One of the poems in the collection, The Teares of the Muses, recounts a reversal of the civilizing process very like the descent into savagery enacted in Venus and Adonis. One after another the Muses complain that their verses have lost their potency and that the social structure is collapsing as a result. The one hope they have of reversing the process of degeneration is a queen called Pandora. Of course, officially speaking, the name Pandora as applied to Elizabeth could only invoke its most complimentary etymological derivation. But Spenser’s View of the Present State of Ireland shows that he knew the myth of Epimetheus very well, and was fully aware that Pandora did not bring civilization to early mankind, but ‘black Chaos’ (he doesn’t mention hope).15 Might he be insinuating that Elizabeth/Pandora is the cause of, as well as the potential solution to, the collapse of Elizabethan court culture?

By the 1590s, the rich poetic mythology that had been woven into Elizabethan culture, and which had looked so alluring at the time Spenser wrote the Shepheards Calender, seems to have begun to fray and fall apart. Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis wittily charts that disintegration. And it ends with an echo of the myth that had been most closely identified with the reign of Elizabeth: that of Astraea. The English queen was said to be the reincarnation of Astraea, dedicated to restoring the Golden Age on Earth.16 But Shakespeare’s poem ends like the beginning of Juvenal’s sixth satire, with a disappointed and bitter goddess – no longer the goddess of justice, nor even effectively the goddess of love – retiring in disgust from a wilderness in which she no longer has a place.

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Notes

1 For Shakespeare’s use of the fable of Hermaphroditus, see the Arden Edition of The Poems, ed. F.T. Prince (London: Methuen, 1960), Introduction and Appendix I. All references to Venus and Adonis are taken from this edition. For allusions to the fable of Narcissus, see Prince, p. 12, l. 157-62, and pp. 47-8, l. 829-52.

2 The Arte of English Poesie (London: Richard Field, 1589) fols. 3-4.

3 Puttenham, fol. 4.

4 The Literary Remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Henry Nelson Coleridge (London: William Pickering, 1836), vol 2, p. 59.

5 ‘Her pleading hath deserv’d a better fee’. l. 609.

6 See Prince, p. 19, l. 295-8, fn.

7 The Faerie Queene, ed. A.C. Hamilton (New York and London: Longman, 1977), III vi 29-50; ‘joyous Paradize’, III vi 29.

8 Genesis, 2, 6.

9 The Complete Poems and Translations, ed. Stephen Orgel (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971), p. 135, l. 35-6.

10 Spenser’s Adonis is said to be ‘eterne in mutabilitie’. III vi 47.

11 A bank of the river Isis is the setting for Lodge’s Glaucus and Scilla (1589); Sestos is the setting for Marlowe’s Hero and Leander (1598). Both poems can be found in Elizabethan Minor Epics, ed. Elizabeth Story Donno (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963).

12 See An Apology for Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Shepherd (London: Nelson, 1965), p. 102, l. 21-37.

13 ‘The sea hath bounds, but deep desire hath none;
Therefore no marvel though thy horse be gone.’ l. 389-90.

14 See Shepherd, p. 101, l. 14-24.

15 See A View of the Present State of Ireland, ed. W. L. Renwick (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), p. 2.

16 For an account of Elizabeth as Astraea and of Juvenal’s treatment of Astraea in his sixth satire, see Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters (Sussex: Harvester, 1983), Chapter 6.