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.

 

 

Wonders of the Northlands: Hamlet and Macbeth

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Alan Cumming as Hamlet

Hamlet and Macbeth are the Shakespeare plays with the most northerly settings. Elsinore in Denmark, where Hamlet is set, lies pretty much on the same latitude as the Perthshire countryside where much of the action in Macbeth takes place, and there’s been a lot of toing and froing between the countries through history. In the original story that lies behind the tragedy of Hamlet – the tale of Amleth, Prince of Denmark, as told by the twelfth-century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum – the Hamlet figure marries the Queen of Scotland and uses her forces to help him defeat the armies of the King of Britain. In Shakespeare’s time, the Scottish king James VI – later James I of England – married Princess Anne of Denmark in 1589, and by the time Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in about 1600 it would have been widely assumed that this Scottish-Danish couple would be the next King and Queen of Shakespeare’s country. What would an English playwright have known about Scotland and Denmark, I wonder?

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Alan Cumming as Macbeth

One thing both countries had in common was an abundance of wonders (events, objects, creatures or people whose emotional impact is far greater, for a while at least, than our capacity or will to explain them). Saxo Grammaticus said that Denmark was originally a land populated by giants, who can still be found in the ‘rugged inaccessible wastelands’ of his own time, and whose powers include being able to vanish at will and reappear in a different place, rather like the ghost in Hamlet (‘’Tis here – ’Tis here – ’Tis gone’, [1.1.141-2]).[1] Witches and magic abound there, and the land itself is deadly, full of poisonous springs, treacherous crevasses and fire that can burn water. The same was thought to be true of Scotland; there were wonders everywhere, most of them dangerous. When he visited the country in the fifteenth century, Aeneas Piccolomini – later Pope Pius II – wanted only to see one of these wonders, the barnacle geese that grow on trees along the shoreline, which he’d heard about from some medieval scholar: Albertus Magnus, maybe, or Vincent of Beauvais. In a play by one of Shakespeare’s early rivals, Robert Greene, called The Scottish History of James IV (c. 1592), Scotland is full of fairies – including Oberon, who may have given his name to the King of Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The English pamphlet News from Scotland (1591) fills Scotland instead with witches, some of whom hatched diabolical plots against the young King James VI in the 1580s, and were tried and executed under the watchful eye of James himself. Later James acknowledged the presence of witches in his homeland in his tract Daemonologie (1597), which explains how they prey on the ‘viciated’ imaginations of their Scottish clients. Apparently they’re particularly prevalent in the Hebrides, and it seems that the Clan Chiefs of Mull and Skye were given to consulting wise women before undertaking major expeditions – though they didn’t always heed their advice. Sir Lachlan Mor Maclean of Duart was murdered by a man called the Black Dwarf or Fairy on Islay after failing to pay attention to the warnings of a witch; that was in 1598, eight years or so before Macbeth was written.[2] It’s nice to think Shakespeare might have heard of his death, though there’s no evidence for it as yet.

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Danish Giants, by Arthur Rackham

According to Saxo Grammaticus, the inhabitants of the icy northlands have had to acquire phenomenal powers to cope with the wonders that surround them. Amleth is a trickster figure with what are hinted to be magical abilities, and Saxo agrees with the Roman historian Tacitus that northerners in general are braver, stronger, cleverer and better behaved than the corrupt population of the Mediterranean. Having said this, the story of Amleth is unremittingly violent, with far more ‘carnal, bloody and unnatural acts’ than there are in Shakespeare’s play. Meanwhile the chronicles of Scotland to which Shakespeare had access are simply packed with murderous episodes – hardly a king of the country seems to have died safely in his bed. The prospect of getting James VI of Scotland as an English monarch – along with his Danish queen – may well have seemed a deeply uncomfortable one to Shakespeare and his friends and relatives, given the association of both countries with murder and magic.

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The Witches, by Henry Fuseli

Shakespeare feeds this sense of discomfort in both Hamlet and Macbeth by opening the action of each play with a major supernatural incident: the appearance at a time of political turbulence of a ghost and a coven of witches, each of whom (both the ghost and the witches) can appear and disappear at will, like the Danish giants, and each of whom casts a long, long shadow over the play that follows. Shakespeare further feeds the unsettling effect by his frequent use in both plays of the adjective ‘strange’, which means ‘wonder’ and ‘foreign’, and thus combines two attitudes associated by the English with the Danes and the Scots. The ghost and the witches are deeply ambiguous; nobody quite knows what to think of them or where they come from; and their ambiguity infects their countries like a virus, leading Hamlet and Macbeth to reconsider not only who they are and what they are capable of, but the possible ways of thinking about and acting on the lands they live in and the people they interact with. I’d like to consider in this post how the supernatural wonders that trigger the action in each play continue to resonate through the rest of the narrative, and how they transform the plays’ protagonists themselves into northern wonders – just as the wonders of Denmark, according to Saxo Grammaticus, made heroes and magicians of the ancient Danes.

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The Ghost, by William Blake

The opening of Hamlet is all about a crisis of identity. It’s a collective crisis, not an individual one: the guards on the walls of Elsinore castle are clearly nervous, shouting questions at passers by and expressing anxiety over whether or not what they say, and what they claim to have seen, will be believed by their social superiors. The play opens with the words ‘Who’s there?’, and it could be said that this is the question that continues to be asked until the play’s last scene. How do we know who anyone is, how can we tell what’s happening inside their heads, inside their beating hearts, inside their souls, whatever those are? It’s a standard question for guards to ask, of course – are you friend or enemy, ‘Stand and unfold yourself’, as one man puts it [1.1.2] – but it’s prompted in the guards on this particular night by something they’ve witnessed. Modern audiences would call what the men have seen a ‘ghost’, and they might go further and give the ghost a name: the spirit of Hamlet’s father, the recently deceased King of Denmark. But the guards themselves are not so sure – no one calls the apparition a ghost until Hamlet does so in the play’s fifth scene. They call it ‘this thing’, and the scholar Horatio, who hasn’t yet seen the apparition and doesn’t believe in ghosts, is clear that it’s not even that: ‘Horatio says ’tis nothing but our fantasy, / And will not let belief take hold of him / Touching this dreaded sight’ [1.1.23-5]. For him it’s no more than a figment, a dream, a symptom, perhaps, of excessive drinking. And even when the ghost appears in front of his eyes, at the very moment when the guard Bernardo is describing it – so that his words effectively materialize in front of the listeners – Horatio and the other witnesses are extraordinarily careful about how they describe it. The apparition comes ‘In the same figure, like the King that’s dead’, they say cagily [1.1.41]. A figure is something that stands for something else, a sign pointing to a thing rather than the thing itself; and later the witnesses describe it in an even more evasive way. ‘What art thou,’ Horatio asks it directly, ‘that usurp’st this time of night / Together with that fair and warlike form / In which the majesty of buried Denmark / Did sometimes march?’ [1.1.46-8]. The word ‘usurp’st’ here suggests one reason why they’re being so careful: a usurper is a person who seizes the throne by illegal means – a dangerous thing to talk about – and talking about a recently dead monarch, too, could have been seen by his paranoid successor as usurping the right to interfere with politics, which under a monarchy is the prerogative of the king and his closest advisers. So the men say that what they have seen is in the shape of the king, thus protecting themselves from accusations of treason. Their carefulness may signal to the audience – like their nerviness in the opening lines – that the land they live in isn’t a bastion of liberty; it’s a place where you watch your words if you don’t want to get into trouble; a complicated place to live in, like any dictatorship or dystopia.

There’s another reason why the men are reluctant to say that the apparition is for sure the old King’s ghost; and this is religion. Like Scotland, the Denmark of Shakespeare’s time was Protestant – though of a different order of Protestantism from the Scottish one, since the Danes followed the teachings of Luther while the Scots followed the severer doctrines of Calvin. Of course neither the historical Amleth nor the historical Macbeth lived in Protestant countries, but most members of Shakespeare’s audience would have brought Protestant sensibilities to the theatre, and for Protestants ghosts just aren’t possible. Protestants believe that when the body dies the soul dies with it, and that both body and soul will be resurrected only at the last judgment. For Catholics, by contrast, the soul is separated from the body at death and for the most part goes to a place of temporary punishment called purgatory, where sins are purged from it – as the name suggests – in preparation for its eventual removal to Heaven. For a Protestant, then – and hence for many in Shakespeare’s audience – the apparition simply can’t be a ghost, and can only be an illusion, or an evil spirit, a devil, a fallen angel (there aren’t any good spirits wandering the earth in Protestant doctrine). For a Catholic it can be a ghost – and of course that’s how the apparition describes itself when Hamlet finally confronts it. But it could also be an evil spirit, a devil, or a blessed angel sent from heaven in human form; you can never tell. Hamlet chooses to believe that it’s his father – but he’s fully aware of the other options:

Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com’st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. I’ll call thee Hamlet,
King, father, royal Dane. [1.3.40-5]

This is an act of belief that is also an act of will, of deliberate choice – and a dangerous one; if Hamlet is wrong his soul is in danger of damnation, as Horatio warns him. And the consciousness of all the characters in these early scenes, Hamlet, Horatio, Bernardo and all the rest, that they don’t really know what the ghost is, becomes, in the course of the play, a general sense that nobody knows who anyone is, not really; that proof to sustain belief is something incredibly hard to come by; and that belief is always dangerous, because to believe a lie can lead to ruination and death, if you’re not very careful.

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The Ghost, by Henry Fuseli

Even if the ghost is a ghost it brings further problems with it. First, it embodies or at least makes visible the fact that human beings are not simple creatures. They’re made up of two distinct elements, body and soul, and what’s good for the former may not be so good for the latter. Second, if what the ghost says is true then it reveals something Hamlet has always suspected: that the current King of Denmark, Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius, isn’t who he claims to be, King of Denmark. Or rather, he is but he shouldn’t be, since he got the title by murdering his brother, the true king, Hamlet’s father. And he’s not the reasonable, balanced man he presents himself as when we first meet him: he’s an adulterer who poisoned a man because he fancied his wife and lusted after his power. Claudius has substituted himself for his brother in the marriage bed and on the throne, and the true King of Denmark should ideally be old Hamlet – and if not him, then his son, young Hamlet the Dane. Another substitution, then, should take place to put right the injustice committed by Claudius. But how to effect that substitution? By the same act of murder that made Claudius both a king and an assassin? That would make Hamlet a king and an assassin, too, effectively continuing the cycle of violence and rooting it in Danish history. Let no one tell you Hamlet’s choice is easy, or that he delays the inevitable with unnecessary fussing. He’s got real problems, and the ghost is the source of them.

When Hamlet hesitates to kill Claudius while the king is praying, it’s because of the binary nature of the human being: under the circumstances the king’s body will die but his soul will go to heaven, or so the prince believes. ‘Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge,’ he tells himself, and puts his sword away [3.3.78]. He means he’ll be doing the king a favour by killing him at this particular moment, when his soul is knocking at heaven’s door in an act of religious supplication. The audience knows, of course, that it wouldn’t in fact have been such a favour – the king is not praying properly, so his soul would have gone to hell or purgatory; but Hamlet doesn’t. The ghost, if it’s really a ghost with good intentions, makes revenge necessary; but it also makes it next to impossible to accomplish that revenge, because it reminds us that we know next to nothing about the state of one another’s souls. ‘To be or not to be, that is the question,’ Hamlet says in his famous soliloquy [2.1.56]. ‘To be’ is to be multiple things at once, a person with a body, a soul, a social role, a network of relationships, a past, a future – and sometimes we might well feel tempted to abandon this condition, given the difficulties that attend it. But ‘not to be’ is equally complicated, since we can dream in so many different ways about the ‘undiscovered country’ beyond death – as the Reformation demonstrated. Thanks, ghost, the prince might be saying in this soliloquy. You’ve dumped on me all the issues that sparked off the religious wars of the sixteenth century.

Shakespeare Quartos Project

The ghost also means that Hamlet’s own identity is deeply questionable. The play is called The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark; and every element in the second part of this title is problematic. Hamlet’s name, for instance. The ghost reminds him that he shares this name with his dead father, which is what sets him up as the appropriate revenger for his father’s murder – he can’t escape the obligation, as he could perhaps if his name were Sid or Keith. His title of ‘Prince’ is problematic, too, because any revenge he undertakes needs to take cognizance of the wellbeing of the country to whose throne he is heir apparent. This makes the method of dealing with his uncle’s crime extremely important, since dispensing justice appropriately is part of a prince’s job. As for Denmark; well, it’s contested territory, as the ghost again reminds him. His father’s apparition is wearing the same armour he wore when he fought in single combat against the King of Norway. The fight ended with old Hamlet’s victory, which according to the terms of the duel meant that Norway legally forfeited part of its dominions to the Danish crown. And this highlights another reason for the jumpiness of the guards at the beginning of the play. Denmark is in a state of emergency, because the young successor to the dead King of Norway, Fortinbras, is heading towards the country at the head of an army, determined to win back the part of his lands his father lost when he lost the duel. Hamlet, then, when he speaks to the ghost, discovers just how complicated it is to be Hamlet, to be a prince, to be a Dane. No wonder he chooses to hide his confusion by pretending to be mad. His madness isn’t a screen for his true identity; it’s a means of providing a front for his very real doubt over who he is.

Of course, this doubt on Hamlet’s part also makes it extremely difficult for anyone else to know who he is; and this proves maddening to his friends, his enemies, and his family. Much of the first three acts of the play is taken up with the King and his chief adviser, old Polonius, trying vainly to work out what’s going on in Hamlet’s mind – what has triggered his strange behavior, what his plans are, whether he’s really mad or just pretending. They set traps for him, encouraging Ophelia to accept his courtship – after first telling her she should reject it – so that they can see for themselves whether or not he is mad for love, as Polonius believes, or for some other reason. The ghost has already shown us, however, that seeing or witnessing something is not the same as believing it; this all depends on your philosophical or religious position. And it soon turns out that the problem of knowing people’s minds is as complicated when it comes to people who are not insane, or acting insane, as it is of madmen. Within the first few scenes of the play we see Ophelia’s brother Laertes telling her not to believe what Hamlet tells her about being in love. His reason for saying so is that Hamlet is not just a person but also an instrument of the state; as a prince he can’t decide for himself who he will marry, so anything he says that may suggest otherwise must be taken as an error, or wishful thinking, or an outright lie. Later we see Polonius sending a spy after his son Laertes as he heads back to Paris, unconvinced that the young man will behave as he has promised he will when he reaches the French capital. For Polonius, who is an experienced politician, it stands to reason that what you say can bear no relation to what you mean or to what you intend. To find out the truth about someone, even your son – to lay the grounds for something about them you can really believe in – you have to lie and plot; he encourages the spy to tell outrageous fibs about Laertes’ behavior, and pay close attention to people’s reactions to these fibs. If they say I know what you mean, I’ve seen him do exactly what you describe – gamble, sleep around, get into fights, take drugs and so on – then Polonius thinks that his spy can begin to build up an accurate picture of the young man’s true identity. In his world, words are always a screen for some hidden agenda. Add this to the already vexed question of how many roles a man can have – as a social figure, a member of a family, a desiring animal, a spiritual being, a man, a woman – and the question of how you attain belief or trust in anyone becomes unanswerable, unless you’re prepared to rely on your faith in what they tell you, make the decision to take their word for it that they are indeed who they claim to be.

It’s complicated. And all attempts to make things simple invariably fail. Laertes tells Ophelia that this is particularly the case with women. No matter how well she behaves, he tells her – no matter how simply good she is in her personal conduct – she must also make sure there can be no suspicion that she is misbehaving, or that she would misbehave if she could only get the chance:

Virtue itself scapes not calumnious strokes;
The canker galls the infants of the spring
Too oft before their buttons be disclosed;
And in the morn and liquid dew of youth
Contagious blastments are most imminent. [1.3.38-42]

In other words, Ophelia can easily find herself infected by other people’s views of her, and will also find that it’s next to impossible to shake off their ungrounded suspicions once they’ve taken root. Her only way to ‘scape’ the ‘calumnious strokes’ of slander or gossip is to avoid conversation with Prince Hamlet altogether; and old Polonius reiterates these warnings a few lines later. Later still, of course, Polonius reverses this advice and encourages her to meet with Hamlet so he can spy on him. Here’s another complication: people in Denmark are inconsistent, especially politicians. Before sending his spy after Laertes, the old man gives his son a set of precepts or rules to live by: ‘to thine own self be true,’ he tells him, ‘And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man’ [1.3.78-80]. But which self should he be true to? There are so many.

Those unfortunate college buddies of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, also try to simplify things when they are sent by Claudius to spy on Hamlet. With would-be cunning words they try to prize from him some hint as to his attitude to his uncle, the King of Denmark – and in the process prove themselves false friends at the same time as they prove themselves true subjects of the monarch. Hamlet sees through their efforts and is outraged. He makes Guildenstern try to play the recorder, and when he can’t, points out triumphantly how much more ridiculous it is to think that Guildenstern could ‘play’ a man like Hamlet, ‘pluck out the heart of his mystery’ [3.2.357], when the prince is so much more complicated than a musical instrument.

Yet Hamlet, too, tries to simplify the man he has set himself to spy on, his uncle Claudius. Again and again he attempts to reduce him to a stage villain: ‘Bloody, bawdy villain!’ he calls him at one point; ‘Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!’ [2.2.575-6] – and the word ‘kindless’ here seeks to divorce him altogether not just from Hamlet’s family – his kind – and from all feelings of kindness – but from that complicated species, man-kind itself. But of course this doesn’t work; Claudius remains irrevocably multiple. He’s Hamlet’s uncle and Hamlet’s mother’s lover as well as a killer, and can’t be dismissed so easily. Later Hamlet tries to make him into a villain in his mother Gertrude’s eyes, showing her portraits of his father and his uncle, old Hamlet and Claudius, and drawing distinctions between them on the basis of classical mythology: ‘Look here upon this picture and on this, / The counterfeit presentment of two brothers’ [3.4.53-4]. Old Hamlet, he claims, resembles Hyperion, the Greek god of the sun, while Claudius looks like one of the lecherous goat-footed demigods of the woods, a satyr – or a ‘mildewed ear / Blasting his wholesome brother’ [3.4.64-5] (this is a nasty joke, since it’s into his brother’s ear that Claudius poured the poison which killed him). But this attempt too doesn’t really work. Claudius still behaves like a king in public, and expresses affection for Gertrude in private, preventing the audience as well as Hamlet from dismissing him as a monster. It’s not until Claudius is publicly behaving as a monster in the final duel scene that Hamlet finds the means to kill him – and he can only do it if he doesn’t think too deeply about it.

king-hamlets-ghostMost complicated of all, perhaps, as an idea that the ghost brings with it, is the question of whether it’s generated by the minds of the people who see it. It could be a product of the nerviness in Denmark at a time of imminent war with Norway, or of a sudden change of government, or of a collective sense of embarrassment at the very rapid remarriage of the old king’s wife to his younger brother. Or it could have been something summoned by Prince Hamlet, rather as the devil Mephistopheles was summoned by Faustus in Marlowe’s play – not through magic but as a side-effect of the Doctor’s blasphemous language and impious thoughts, as Marlowe tells us. As we’ve seen, Horatio thinks at first that the apparition is a product of the soldiers’ ‘fantasy’, their disordered imagination; he’s only convinced of its existence when he sees it, at which point he describes it as a thing that ‘harrows me with fear and wonder’ [1.1.44], and later a ‘marvel’ [1.2.195]. When Hamlet sees it, by contrast, he takes it as the embodiment of something he’s been thinking about since the moment of his father’s death: ‘O my prophetic soul!’ he exclaims [1.4.40], as the spirit tells the story of old Hamlet’s murder, and one gets the impression that the whole story is simply the reenactment of a scenario Hamlet devised for himself on the day his uncle’s marriage to his mother was announced.[3] This is why he so readily makes the choice to take what the ghost has said as true – because it conforms in every detail with what he suspected; and this is why he promises to erase all other thoughts and memories from his mind but those that tend to support the phantom’s testimony.

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Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

The process turns Hamlet into something very like a ghost: inscrutable, out of order, often deeply scary. When Ophelia sees him for the first time after his meeting with the apparition she describes him as the phantom’s double:

Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors. [2.1.81-4]

The ghost has here made a ghost of Hamlet; and Hamlet goes on to ‘make a ghost’ of several more people before the end of the play, as he threatened to do when he first met the apparition [1.4.85]. He fills the performance, in fact, with the wonders and strangenesses he was imagining when we first met him in his black suit among the merry-makers at his mother’s wedding. And when he’s dead, Horatio describes the scene the prince has helped to stage – a court full of bodies – as a place of wonders: ‘What is it you would see?’ he asks the astonished Fortinbras, ‘If aught of woe or wonder, cease your search’ [5.2.354-5]. If Hamlet’s mind helped produce the ghost, by whatever means, then it also helped to produce the astonishing theatre of northern excesses that his Norwegian neighbour wanders into at the end of the play.

Hamlet, as I said, was probably written in 1600, three years before James VI of Scotland ascended to the English throne. He probably wrote Macbeth in 1606, three years afterwards; a neat symmetry when we’re looking at the plays side by side. For the later tragedy he drew on James’s pamphlet about witches, Daemonologie, for inspiration, and made the power of witches over men’s imaginings the trigger for tragedy.

 maxresdefaultThe chief power or wonder performed by the witches in Macbeth is that of prophecy or ‘strange intelligence’ [1.3.76] – predicting the future. In this they aren’t far removed from Hamlet the Dane, whose prophetic soul imagined the whole story of his father’s murder before he heard it. The witches, too, predict what is in effect murder. They tell Macbeth that he will be Thane of Glamis and Thane of Cawdor, and these prophecies come true more or less at once; and they also prophesy that he will be ‘King hereafter’ [1.3.50], a prediction that would seem to have little chance of coming true at all at the time it’s uttered. As a result of this lack of likelihood that their prophecy will be fulfilled – as a result of its very improbability – the witches feed Macbeth’s imagination both with an idea (the idea of being king) and with the kind of logic that will impel him to body forth his ‘horrible imaginings’ of the path to kingship, to make them real. The witches give Macbeth a language whereby to express what he thought impossible, in very much the same way as the ghost gives Hamlet an image whereby to confirm what he thought quite likely – that his father was murdered. And the language the witches utter resonates through the rest of the play in much the same way as the ghost generates more ghosts in the earlier tragedy.

The language of the witches is a logic of reversal, of the world turned inside out and upside down. In the play’s first scene, the witches utter this logic in a famous phrase that captures their philosophy in a nutshell. For them, they say, ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’ [1.1.10], because they take pleasure in things other people find nasty or frightening. A short time later, Macbeth echoes their phrase on his first appearance: ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen’ [1.3.38]. He says this because he has just emerged from a battle where the ‘Strange images of death’ made by his sword [1.3.97] have brought him victory and promotion – fair things (from his point of view) arising from foul bloodshed. The witches’ prophecy that he will be king confirms that such a reversal of the world’s values can work in his favour, since the foul treachery and death of the Thane of Cawdor has the fair result of elevating Macbeth to the traitor’s lands and title. And this result, in its turn, stimulates Macbeth’s fantasies of kingship to the extent that non-existent things take precedence over real ones, so that for him ‘nothing is but what is not’ [1.3.141]. The particular ‘nothing’ that interests him – the thing that is not yet – is the image of himself as monarch; and this image occurs to him, when he thinks of it, with such intensity that it has the same effect as the apparition has on those who see it in Elsinore:

[…] why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs
Against the use of nature? [1.3.134-7]

At this point in the play Macbeth becomes a prophet, already haunted by the man he will kill, the old King of Scotland whose faithful servant he has been in the recent wars. Like Hamlet, Macbeth has a prophetic soul, and like Hamlet he seeks to make his visions of the future true through his own actions.

From this moment in the play the Thane of Cawdor lives, by his own choice, in a world of marvels – the Scotland of the English chronicler Holinshed, which is a place of bloodshed as well as of wonder. In this country, women can become ‘unsexed’ [1.4.38], as Lady Macbeth is when she makes herself into what is effectively a fourth witch, as a means of furthering her husband’s prospects; a man can ‘look like the innocent flower / But be the serpent under it’ [1.4.62-3]; invisible daggers can materialize and incite their owners to regicide; horses eat each other in horror at their owner’s assassination; dead men and sleeping women walk by night; adults condone the wholesale slaughter of babies and children. Macbeth dies, too, in a flurry of wonders, where forests transplant themselves, friends turn into enemies, and men are not born of women, in defiance of nature. The ‘juggling fiends’, as he calls the witches [5.8.19], have conjured up in his mind so many kinds of reversal that his story becomes at last one long reversal, ‘A tale / Told by an idiot […] signifying nothing’ [5.5.26-8].

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St John writes the Book of Revelation, by Hieronymus Bosch

All these things Macbeth predicts in the early scenes of the play, so that he too becomes, in effect, a member of the witches’ coven. Like a prophetic witch, he knows from the first that killing the king will ‘teach / Bloody instructions’ to other men [1.7.8-9], making it possible for them to imagine killing the killer – even after he’s been crowned in the victim’s place – since he has proved with his own hands that kings are mortal. Macbeth, then, can foretell his own assassination from the moment he decides to assassinate Duncan. His vision of his death takes the form of an image that recalls the most celebrated set of prophecies in the Bible, the Book of Revelation:

And pity, like a naked new-born babe
Striding the blast […]
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. [1.7.21-5]

The picture conjured up in his passage is that of the child in Revelation Chapter 12, who is borne by the ‘woman clothed with the sun’ and immediately snatched up to heaven to protect him from the fearful Dragon who is waiting to devour him. This child returns in Chapter 19 in the form of Christ riding on a white horse. By this stage his eyes shoot out flames and his robe is dipped in blood, while his sword and his rod of iron wreak a terrible vengeance on those who have ruled unjustly in his place: ‘the beast, the kings of the earth, and their armies’. For Macbeth, by contrast, the vengeful Christ-figure is still an infant, as he was when he was first snatched up to heaven after his birth; and his youthfulness predicts – or perhaps ensures – that Macbeth’s violence will be particularly visited on the very young: on MacDuff’s children, young Siward in the final battle, Banquo’s son Fleance (though the last of these escapes). His eagerness to kill off the young – like the archetypal biblical tyrant, King Herod, who slaughtered the innocents in an effort to kill off Christ – is part of his attempt to prevent the prophecies of the witches, and more importantly his own prophecy of his death at the hands of his subjects, from coming true. To this end he tries to anticipate his prophetic thoughts, to catch them before they get out of hand, by acting on them as soon as they occur to him. A few scenes after his speech about ‘pity, like a naked new-born babe’, Macbeth tells us that from now on ‘The very firstlings of my heart’ will be ‘The firstlings of my hand’ [4.1.147-8] – that is, he will put his murderous ideas into action at once, as soon as they are conceived. But the attempt to stem the tide of self-fulfilling prophecies is doomed to failure, as any Jacobean spectator would have known it was when Macbeth conjured up an echo of that most infallible prophecy of all, the Book of Revelation. In the same speech the new King of Scotland tells us that ‘Time’ itself ‘anticipates my dread exploits’ [4.1.144], since the people he is thinking of killing put themselves beyond his reach as if his plans for them have been broadcast by the vividness of his ‘horrible imaginings’. MacDuff has fled to England, and his response is to kill off the future generation – MacDuff’s children – as a substitute for killing MacDuff himself. This in its turn prompts MacDuff to avenge himself on Macbeth, bringing about the very eventuality Macbeth was trying to avoid. From the moment he starts to prophesy, the Scot is locked in a cycle of inevitability, unable to turn aside from the course he mapped out for himself in his head after meeting the witches.

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Isuzu Yamada as ‘Lady Macbeth’ in Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood

Prophecy is particularly at home in Calvinist countries, where predestination is a given, since for Calvinists God has foreknown everything since before the beginning of time, and human choice is therefore more or less an illusion. As I said earlier, Calvinism didn’t exist in Macbeth’s historical period – the eleventh century – since Calvin himself had not yet been born. So Macbeth’s willingness to believe himself predestined could be said to be another prediction, foretelling Scotland’s Calvinist future as well as his own ‘life to come’. And his gift of prophecy could also be said to be something all Calvinists had in common in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Though not prophets themselves, they were deeply familiar with the concept that their every exploit had been anticipated; predictions of what was to come would therefore not have seemed surprising to them, and a prophecy about a person didn’t make them exceptional. By the end of the play, Macbeth anticipates this attitude. He has come to believe that the art of prophecy has nothing wonderful about it, and that the sameness of successive days and years makes the future endlessly predictable. When his wife dies, for instance, he has little more to say than what Gertrude said to Hamlet about his father’s death: it is common, or dead ordinary, to die:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day […]
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. [5.5.19-23]

Since death will be everyone’s end, in other words, all human beings – not just Calvinists – are in some sense prophets, and prophecy itself is one of the tricks played by the cruel supernatural powers that love to toy with us, since it is useless to the people who have it, a mere imaginative trap.

Yet for all his apparent cynicism, Macbeth continues to believe he can evade his fate, thanks largely I think to the impossibility of the witches’ prophecies being fulfilled. What man was ever born without the help of a woman? Since when have woods walked from place to place? The answer, of course, is since the language of reversal and impossibility – the language of wonder – was unleashed by the witches at the start of the play, and since Macbeth helped to spread that language and the wonders it describes through his country, Scotland. The fact that this is so, and that the witches have tricked him, comes as a tremendous shock to the half-mad tyrant in the final scene, despite the fact that he has always known them to be ‘juggling fiends’ – and has always known, thanks to his own logic, how his story would end. And for the play’s audiences, the progress of his disenchantment – which has the ghastly inevitability of a nightmare, yet is chock full of linguistic and imaginative surprises – has always been the most potent and shocking of theatrical wonders.

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Toshiro Mifune as ‘Macbeth’ in Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood

Thanks to Hamlet and Macbeth, we in the twenty-first century know we still live in an age of wonders. There are more things in our heaven and earth than are dreamt of in any philosophy; astonishing things being generated every moment by our minds, our words, our actions, and by the physical and metaphysical spaces beyond us. There are giants, ghosts, witches, assassins, prophets and pygmies in our collective cultural imagination. And there are monsters too, sometimes indistinguishable from heroes. These monsters – the hyper-imaginative, hyper-playful Hamlet and the clear-eyed murderer Macbeth – are the biggest wonders Shakespeare bequeathed us, and it’s them rather than the ghosts and witches we go to see, when we seek out the plays in which they appear.

[1] See Andrew Hadfield, ‘The Idea of North’, Journal of the Northern Renaissance, Issue 1 (2009), http://www.northernrenaissance.org/the-idea-of-the-northandrew-hadfield/

[2] For details, see Nicholas Maclean-Bristol, Murder Under Trust: The Crimes and Death of Sir Lachlan Mor Maclean of Duart, 1558-1598 (1999).

[3] See also 1.2.184-5, where Hamlet says – before he’s even heard of the ghost – ‘methinks I see my father […] In my mind’s eye, Horatio’.

Shakespeare, ‘Tam o’Shanter’, and the Theatrical Works of Robert Burns

[This post doesn’t focus on fantasy – though it gets there in the end. I’m putting it up in honour of Burns Night, 25 January; and in response to this recent piece in The Times, which may have slightly over-sensationalised what I’ve been saying about the relationship between Burns and Shakespeare. It’s more or less the paper I gave at the Two Bards Conference on 16 January, which brought the two national poets together in an atmosphere of friendly revelry and rivalry. We had a fantastic day, thanks to all concerned: especially Gerry Carruthers, David Hopes, and whoever was responsible for making it snow while we were standing on Brig o’ Doon.]

230px-PG_1063Burns_NaysmithcropAs everyone knows, Burns was a passionate lover – of the stage. When a new Theatre was built in Dumfries in the 1790s he gave its actor manager, George Sutherland, his full support, and commissioned his friend Alexander Nasmyth (the man who painted his portrait) to design some scenery. He also wrote prologues for play productions at Dumfries both before and after the theatre was built, and these contain a number of clues to his theatrical tastes. One of them, written for a New Year’s Eve performance in 1789-90, offers the young men and women in the audience sage advice in the person of Father Time, in unmistakable tribute to The Winter’s Tale. Another, written for Mrs Sutherland’s Benefit night in March 1790, gives us a tantalizing vision of a potential canon of Scottish plays to rival Shakespeare’s. ‘Why is outlandish stuff sae meikle courted?’ the prologue asks; there’s ample material for comedy, at least, in Scotland, since ‘A knave and fool are plants of every soil’. But Burns waxes especially eloquent on the theatrical possibilities of topics from Scottish history:

Is there no daring Bard will rise and tell
How glorious Wallace stood, how hapless fell?
Where are the Muses fled that could produce
A drama worthy o’ the name o’ Bruce? […]
O, for a Shakespeare, or an Otway scene
To paint the lovely, hapless Scottish Queen!

FontenelleFor a moment, there, the alluring possibility of a dramatic works of Robert Burns raises its head. Wallace, we know, was a subject he loved, and Mary Queen of Scots could hardly fail to appeal, dying as she did at the hands of a ‘rival woman […] As able – and as cruel – as the Devil’. But it’s hard to think of Burns as a tragic playwright; and another of his prologues, written for the comic actress Louisa Fontenelle (pictured right), dismisses tragic subjects out of hand. The poem depicts Fontenelle approaching a famous poet with a request for a prologue, only to be told that he will only write on serious subjects, and is afraid she will not be able to cope with them:

‘Ma’am, let me tell you,’ quoth my man of rhymes,
‘I know your bent – these are no laughing times:
Can you – but, Miss, I own I have my fears –
Dissolve in pause, and sentimental tears?’

Theatre Royal DumfriesFontenelle at once rejects his services and ends the prologue by enjoining the audience to follow her example in preferring comedy to tears, sentimental or otherwise: ‘be merry, I advise; / And as we’re merry, may we still be wise!’. Merriment is Burns’s as well as Fontenelle’s forte, and if he’d turned his talents to the theatre it seems likely he would have excelled in comic rather than historical or tragic subjects.

shakespeareBut Shakespeare has shown us that history doesn’t need to be divorced from the comic, any more than tragedy does. The closing words of Fontenelle’s prologue invoke the comedy of Shakespeare’s that’s most closely associated with history, The Merry Wives of Windsor, which teaches that ‘Wives may be merry, and yet honest too’ (IV.ii). The star of the Merry Wives is, of course, Sir John Falstaff, Prince Hal’s unruly companion in the two parts of Henry IV; and Burns had written a prologue for an Edinburgh production of the comedy in 1787. The Merry Wives therefore has the distinction of being the only known Shakespeare play to have been performed in Burns’s lifetime with Burns’s verses attached to it. And it’s my contention that the play continued to resonate in the poet’s mind long after that Edinburgh performance. I’d like to suggest, in fact, that a memory of the Merry Wives lies behind Burns’s favourite poem, Tam o’ Shanter (1790), and helps to lend that poem some of its distinctively theatrical qualities.

If Burns loved the stage, he could also be described as a dramatic poet. His lyrics often resemble miniature plays, as any singer can tell you: in part because they so often involve direct address to a specific listener, or invoke specific actions (think of ‘Ae fond kiss’ or the joining of hands in Auld Lang Syne), or paint vividly realized characters – from Holy Willy to Burns himself. For my money, though, there are two of his works that show us most clearly what we lost when he died without writing anything but prologues for the stage. The first is his cantata, ‘Love and Liberty’ or ‘The Jolly Beggars’ (c. 1785); and the second is Tam o’ Shanter. The cantata has often been compared to John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, though there’s no hard evidence Burns knew it. It’s hard to believe he didn’t, however, since Gay’s work was probably the most successful play of the eighteenth century, and the one most calculated to appeal to Burns, both in subject matter and form. And as it happens, Louisa Fontenelle was famous for playing two roles in The Beggar’s Opera: Lucy, which she performed in Edinburgh in 1793, the year when Burns wrote his prologue for her; and Macheath himself in London a few years earlier, in a performance described by the Theatre Journal as ‘offensive to decency’.

Jolly Beggars‘Love and Liberty’, too, could be described as offensive to decency, with its serial lovers and sometimes explicit lyrics; but it seems to me that it has as much in common with Shakespeare as with Gay. Burns’s little company of homeless drinkers and singers meets in a tavern like the Boar’s Head in Shakespeare’s Cheapside, on a night that recalls the chill of winter invoked in one of Shakespeare’s most popular lyrics (compare ‘When lyart leaves bestrow the yird’ to ‘When icicles hang by the wall’, Love’s Labour’s Lost V.ii). The female innkeeper Poosie-Nansie takes on the role of the hostess of the Boar’s Head, Mistress Quickly, in Henry IV, and the company freely bandies about the ‘terms of chivalry and honour’, as Carol McGuirk has pointed out, despite their obvious contempt for law and sexual fidelity – very much like Falstaff’s gang of self-styled ‘minions of the moon’ (1 Henry IV, Act 1 scene 2).[1] A maimed soldier celebrates the ‘gallant game’ of war and swears to ‘clatter on my stumps’ to serve his country in time of need. His mistress describes him as a ‘hero’, the latest and best in a succession of fighting men she has loved and let go; while her pickpocket friend sings of living ‘like lords and ladies gay’ with her dead lover, the ‘gallant, braw John Highlandman’ who was hanged for breaking the ‘Lalland laws’ despite his unimpeachable adherence to those of his clan. John’s widow is comforted by a pygmy fiddler, who praises her ‘heaven o’ charms’ and promises her a pastoral life of picking over old bones and sunning themselves on dry stane dykes. But his wooing is cut short by a swaggering tinker, who threatens to ‘speet him like a pliver’ with his ‘roosty rapier’ if he doesn’t give her up. The fiddler comforts himself for the loss of the widow by raking ‘fore and aft’ the lover of a penniless poet, a ‘bard of no regard’ who nevertheless sings of his willingness to give women ‘my dearest bluid, to do them guid’ whenever the inclination takes him. The cantata closes with the verses Burns liked best in the sequence, a praise of the vagabond life with a utopian chorus that dismisses the establishment as a bunch of money-grabbing self-servers:

A fig for those by law protected,
Liberty’s a glorious feast!
Courts for cowards were erected,
Churches built to please the priest.

Maimed soldier‘Love and Liberty’, then, resembles an old-fashioned coronet or garland of verses in which the last line of one poem forms the first of the next.[2] The resemblance is not so much in form as in content, one lover giving place to another in successive songs, just as one gives way to another in the singers’ makeshift beds. Undaunted by this culture of unfaithfulness, the singers praise promiscuity as equivalent to political liberty, and drink as a bottomless source of artistic inspiration. In doing so they recall the quasi-utopian evocation of Merry England in Justice Shallow’s orchard (Henry IV Part 2), where Falstaff regales his friends with promises of riches and influence when his friend Prince Hal succeeds to the throne. In the Land of Plenty that follows Hal’s coronation, he tells them, thieves will no longer be hanged and cowards no longer questioned when they praise their own valour; justice will be in the hands of the lawbreakers, and loyalty to one’s criminal friends will be rewarded, not punished as it was in John Highlandman. The notion of a company of drinkers, thieves and promiscuous lovers as an alternative court is evoked by the presence in Burns’s company of stock characters from chivalric romance: soldiers, musicians, poets, amorous couples. Falstaff too holds mock court, donning a crown in Henry IV Part 1 as he acts the part of Prince Hal’s father (Act 2 scene 4), and Burns’s company seems to echo Falstaff’s. I’ve already mentioned the Poosie-Nansie/Mistress Quickly connection. The tinker – who is also a deserter – recalls the swaggerer Ancient Pistol, while the maimed soldier tells us he displays his wounds, presumably for money, exactly as Pistol plans to do in Henry V. The hanged Highlandman evokes the hanging of Hal’s old friends Bardolph and Nym for pillage in the same play, while the various unfaithful lovers might make us think of Falstaff’s unkept promises of marriage to Mistress Quickly. The sentimental reminiscences of the pickpocket and the poet mimic Justice Shallow’s false recollections of his own youthful gallantry in Henry IV Part 2. Even the final chorus, which questions whether the ruling classes have any reason to think themselves more virtuous than Poosie-Nansie’s clients, reminds us that Falstaff’s plots to gain power and influence in Prince Hal’s England have a bloodier counterpart in the martial plots of the nobility during the civil wars of the fifteenth century. The presence of Hotspur, that hot-headed northern rebel, can be detected behind the fiery attitudes of the soldiers, tinkers and poets of Burns’s sequence, and one wonders whether Hotspur’s alliance with one of Shakespeare’s few Scottish characters besides Macbeth – ‘yon sprightly Scot of Scots, Douglas’ (Henry IV Part One, Act 2 Scene 4) – was one of the things that drew Burns’s attention to the Henry IV plays – especially given the local interest in the Douglas family in Dumfries and Galloway.

Burns’s song sequence ‘Love and Liberty’, then, pays homage to Shakespeare’s Henriad, the Second Tetralogy. That the poet was interested in these plays is confirmed by his poem ‘A Dream’ (1786), written one year later, in which he compares the pleasure-loving Prince of Wales to Prince Hal, who idled away his youth with ‘funny, queer Sir John’. And four years later he produced his own version of Sir John in Tam o’Shanter, whose adventures at Alloway Kirk bear no little resemblance to Falstaff’s only supernatural adventure, the Herne the Hunter episode in The Merry Wives.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is the only one of Shakespeare’s comedies to be set in England, and in a locality as specific as Burns’s Alloway. It features Falstaff and a number of his cronies from the history plays: Mistress Quickly, Pistol, Bardolph, Nym, Justice Shallow, Master Slender – and tells of Falstaff’s attempted seduction of two married women, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, in the hope of financial gain. The women, who have no interest in the fat knight, subject him to successive humiliations before he’s finally discouraged; and it’s the last of these humiliations that’s called to mind by Tam o’ Shanter.

themerrywivesofwindsorI’ve described the Herne the Hunter episode as supernatural, but from the first we hear of it the tale’s supernatural dimension is clearly a sham. The incident is based on an ‘old tale’ told in Windsor Forest about the spirit or ghost of a hunter who haunts Herne’s oak in winter time, at midnight, wearing ‘great ragged horns’ like those of a stag; but only superstitious old folk tell this story ‘for a truth’, and intelligent people of the next generation don’t believe it (Act 4 Scene 4). Tam o’Shanter’s story, too, is full of food for scepticism. The product of long nights of hard drinking and a culture of extravagant tale-telling, the poem invites its readers to consider whether Tam’s encounter with the devil and a coven of witches might be a hallucination, engendered in Tam’s mind by a combination of booze, the dire warnings of his wife against late-night boozing, frustrated lust, and the dreadful fates of other legendary boozers. Burns’s poem pits what it calls ‘truth’ –that is, the tendency of topers to forget the ‘lang Scots miles’ that lie between the pub and their houses – against the ‘queerest stories’ of Tam’s friend Souter Johnnie, the ‘sage advices’ of Tam’s ‘sulky sullen dame’ against Tam’s own superstitious fear, as he sets off on the journey home, of the bogles, ‘ghaists and houlets’ who may lie in wait for him along the way. But unlike Shakespeare’s play, Tam o’Shanter finally vindicates the supernatural events it relates as another kind of ‘truth’ with a bit of hard evidence; evidence that identifies Burns’s poem, unlike Shakespeare’s play, as a work of Gothic, heroic and erotic fantasy, which frees itself in the end from the influence of its sources.

Like the incident in Alloway kirk, the Herne the Hunter episode in The Merry Wives springs out of a culture of tale-telling and fear of the supernatural; and in it, as in Tam o’Shanter, tales and superstition are woven in with the tensions and conflicts of married life. If the party pooper in Tam’s world is his wife Kate, in the Merry Wives it’s the jealous husband Master Ford, who’s convinced his wife is having an affair with that ‘gross fat man’ Sir John Falstaff. Ford’s jealousy turns him into a kind of devil, as he himself confesses: ‘Amaimon sounds well,’ he says when he first succumbs to it; ‘Lucifer, well; Barbason, well; yet they are devils’ additions, the names of fiends. But Cuckold! Wittol! Cuckold! The devil himself hath not such a name’ (Act 2 Scene 2). And his acquisition of a cuckold’s horns links him not only to the devils he lists here but to the would-be adulterer, Sir John. He calls the fat knight an ‘Epicurean rascal’, that is, a sub-standard stag not worth the hunting; and he assumes he must be in league with the ‘devil’ to have frustrated all Ford’s attempts to catch him red handed. The jealous husband grows more superstitious, in fact, as his suspicions grow. His first search for Falstaff in his house is prompted by a dream, he tells his wife (‘I have dreamed tonight’, Act 3 Scene 3); and when he encounters the fat knight disguised as ‘the fat woman of Brentford’, he assumes at once that the woman is a witch as well as a bawd or madam. ‘She works by charms, by spells’, he insists, to ply her double trade, and he beats her soundly to exorcise her ‘daub’ry’ or magic (Act 4 Scene 2). In Shakespeare’s play, imagining adultery spawns other imaginings, immersing the jealous man in a maelstrom of groundless fear and loathing.

Herne the HunterSo the final plot laid by the merry wives, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, against Sir John Falstaff involves plunging him into the supernatural element to which his own adulterous plots have subjected Master Ford. By convincing Falstaff to dress up as Herne the Hunter – his antlers giving substance to his association with stags and devils – the wives turn him into an image of what he would have made Ford has his plots to cuckold him succeeded; and by having the neighbourhood boys and girls dress up as fairies and the priest as a ‘Welsh devil’ (Act 5 Scene 3) they ensure that the whole community is involved in the magical performance that exposes his adulterous designs. The whole set-up, in fact, looks very like Tam’s encounter with the magic population of Alloway. It takes place at midnight; it’s presided over by an evil spirit; it involves music and dancing (‘twenty glow-worms shall our lantern be / To guide our measure round about the tree’, Act 5 Scene 5); it has a hunting theme (hunting horns accompany Falstaff’s humiliation, just as Tam becomes the quarry when the witches give chase); and in theory it involves the chastening of a notorious wrong-doer (Falstaff or Tam). More strikingly still, the leading lady in each case has the same name. Mistress Page’s daughter Nan plays the fairy queen in The Merry Wives, while the best of the dancers in Alloway kirk is Nannie, the ‘Cutty-sark’ who drives Tam to shout out and reveal his presence. Much play is made of this leading woman’s clothes in both texts – Nan must be dressed in white or green so that she can be identified, despite her fairy disguise, by one or other of her suitors, while Nannie is famously dressed in the scanty clothes made for her in childhood by her grandmother, which makes her stand out from the other dancers. And both Nan and Nannie have outgrown the control of their elders; Nan in that she elopes with a man of her own choosing instead of the suitors chosen for her by her respective parents; Nannie by virtue of her presence at the midnight coven.

The plot links between poem and play, then, are self-evident; but it’s the ambiguous ‘moral’ of each text that most strikingly links them. Tam o’Shanter poses as a kind of parable, enjoining men like Tam to heed their wives’ advice, and to think hard before over-indulging in drink or the contemplation of cutty sarks. But the narrator is clearly in sympathy with his boozy protagonist, ready to shed his own ‘breeks’ like a shot for ‘ae blink’ of a ‘winsome wench’ like Nannie. The epic similes Burns attaches to Tam’s exploits elevate the man from local soak to classical hero. And a similar double standard governs Shakespeare’s comedy. Falstaff’s persecution by fairies is conceived by the merry wives as punishment for his treading of ‘sacred paths […] in shape so profane’ (Act 5 Scene 5) – in other words, for his lechery and greed. At the same time the assault on Falstaff serves as cover for a second plot, whereby a disreputable courtier named Fenton takes advantage of the general confusion to elope with his girlfriend, Nan. The young couple fool Nan’s parents, Master and Mistress Page, by getting married without their consent, and the parents are forced accept the marriage with good grace, conscious that their own tricks have exposed them to this trickery, their punishment of Falstaff’s desires opened up a space for the desires of the next generation. Falstaff closes the action by pointing out with satisfaction that he has not been the only quarry pursued by hunters on this night of wonders: ‘When night-dogs run,’ he concludes, ‘all sorts of deer are chased’. Horns have been distributed all round – and horns, of course, are associated with hunting as well as with cuckoldry. In this play, as in Burns’s poem, moral probity does not mean restraining desire or forgoing liberty. And it’s for this reason, I suspect, that Burns found himself drawn to it.

paint_2But there was another reason, perhaps, why Burns might have been attracted to The Merry Wives. I said earlier that the supernatural elements in the final scene were ‘clearly a sham’; but I’m not sure they come across that way on stage. In old editions, the performers who play the fairies are named as characters we’ve encountered in the course of the comedy: old friends such as the parson Sir Hugh Evans, the braggart soldier Pistol, the schoolboy William Ford, and Mistress Quickly, the hostess of the Boar’s Head who can’t manage long words. Mistress Quickly is often identified as playing the role of the Queen of the Fairies in place of Nan, who is busy eloping with Master Fenton. But who could actually imagine Mistress Quickly managing that role without mangling it as thoroughly as the craftsmen mangle their roles in the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, which occurs at exactly the same point in that earlier fairy play of Shakespeare’s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream? But she doesn’t. Instead, she speaks unstumblingly some highly complex verses with the genuine fairy flavour, commanding her fairy minions to bless Windsor castle and ‘scour’ its ceremonial accoutrements ‘With juice of balm and every precious flower’. The speech would have reminded the play’s first audiences of the moment in that earlier fairy play when Oberon and Titania pronounce a blessing over the sleeping forms of Theseus, Hippolyta and the young lovers, in a speech that ritualistically erases the bitterness of the squabbles and confusions that preceded it. Like this speech, the song Mistress Quickly sings as the Fairy Queen could be taken as a riposte to the Elizabethan anti-theatrical lobby, who chastised the London players as inciters of lust and other kinds of sensual excess.[3] This particular player, who takes the double role of a female spirit and the landlady of a pub, sings only of chastity (‘Foe on sinful fantasy! / Fie on lust and luxury!) – though she cannot prevent the young lovers from pursuing their fantasies, any more than Titania and Oberon could.

I said earlier, too, that ‘Tam o’Shanter’s story […] is full of food for skepticism’, since it occurs in an atmosphere of excessive drink and superstition. But the veracity of the poem is never questioned by its narrator, who seems to be besotted by Tam and his vision. And at the end of this mock epic, at the very point when the ‘moral’ is pointed up, we are reminded of the one extant piece of material proof that Tam’s experiences really took place. ‘Ilk man and mother’s son, take heed’, the narrator cries,

Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d,
Or cutty sarks run in your mind,
Think, ye may buy the joys o’er dear,
Remember Tam o’Shanter’s mare.

117The reference is of course to the stump of poor Meg’s grey tail, which was seized by the vindictive Nannie as she galloped across the bridge and pulled off with such force that the horse was left with ‘scarce a stump’. The narrator turns the tailless horse into an eerie warning against self-indulgence; but her taillessness is also something else: a sure sign (within the world of the poem) that Tam’s vision was true, a vindication of the facts of his heroic escape, scot free, from a voyeuristic brush with the devil and his voluptuous accomplices. If we are to remember Tam o’Shanter’s mare it need not be as a deterrent from similar feats but an incitement to them: if Tam could take his pleasure as he did and get away with it so lightly, why not me? Shakespeare’s unexpectedly convincing fairies in The Merry Wives say something more didactic; but their celebration of chastity can also be read, like Tam o’Shanter, as a vindication of the world of sensual delight and imaginative exuberance – in this case, the world of the theatre. And the transformation of the drunken doyens of the Boar’s Head in Cheapside into a fairy ballet de corps could well have sparked off Burns’s poetic act of defiance against the puritanism of his own very different time and place.

 

Notes

[1] For the ‘terms of chivalry and honour’ see Carol McGuirk (ed.), Robert Burns: Selected Poems (London: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 221. On this page, too McGuirk says Burns had probably never read The Beggar’s Opera, but his friendship with Fontenelle makes it likely he was familiar with it one way or another.

[2] The most famous example of this form is Donne’s devotional sonnet sequence ‘La Corona’.

[3] For more on A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a response to the Elizabethan anti-theatrical prejudice, see my essay ‘Dreams, Freedom of Speech, and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow’, Journal of the Northern Renaissance, Issue 1.1 (March 2009), pp. 129-44. It can be found here.