Aspects of the Early Modern Fantastic in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Part 2.

[This is the second part of a paper I gave this week at the University of St Andrews. The first part considered some general approaches to the early modern fantastic. The second part considers Shakespeare’s The Tempest as an example of what might happen if we applied the modern concept of fantasy to an early modern work of art.]

Giorgione, The Tempest (c. 1508)

The Tempest is set on a non-existent island like More’s Utopia, which combines characteristics of the East and West Indies with the epic resonances of the Mediterranean islands. It’s a secondary world, then, which can’t be placed by conventional means; we are given no help in locating it on the global map. Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, reached it in a boat without sail or oar, like a medieval saint. The men who banished him arrived there twelve years later in a more conventional vessel, steered in that direction by the agency of Christian Providence, or pagan Fortune, or Prospero’s magic, we never know exactly which. Our ignorance, even by the end of the play, of the precise mechanisms by which any of these people reached the island makes the story look like modern fantasy. Science fiction would invite us to speculate as to how it was done, while Shakespeare only asks that we consider the strangeness of the eventuality, and the equal strangeness of the nameless place where they come together.

On the island, the usual rules of the world as we know them no longer apply. The laws of nature don’t obtain: water doesn’t moisten clothing, salt doesn’t stain, dead men come back to life, old pagan myths and folkloric superstitions turn out to be true, in open defiance of the English sceptic Reginald Scot. Social rules, too, get flouted. Sailors dismiss the commands of their royal passengers, servants become kings, slaves liberate themselves, political and poetic thoughts keep surfacing at awkward moments, sometimes articulated by commoners in blank verse, sometimes expressed by slaves in song or story. All these things violate decorum, the theatrical convention whereby the social elite get to think, speak, act and even dream in a more exalted fashion than their inferiors. In these ways, too, the work plays out like modern fantasy fiction, which makes up new rules or revives old ones in the interests of representing alternative ways of living never encountered in the historical record, though often yearned for.

Isabelle Pasco as Miranda, John Gielgud as Prospero

The play makes much, too, of the mechanics of storytelling. It begins, after the initial flurry of attention-grabbing special effects that evoke the tempest of the title, with an old man settling down to tell his daughter a story. Further stories get told in the course of it, or acted out by supernatural performers, and it ends with the promise of further stories still, told over several nights like the traditional winter’s tales of an English Yuletide. The stories are as full of wonders as any traveller’s lying narrative or old wives’ tale; yet some of them, at least, get supported by the empirical testimony of the listeners’ senses. Impossibilities become possible within the island’s limits, persuading even hardened cynics to keep an open mind about the extravagant anecdotes they may have heard in the past or may hear in future.

In its hospitality to wonders Shakespeare’s island recalls the Fairy Land of Spenser, Sidney’s Arcadia or More’s Utopia; but where it differs from those other non-existent places is in the extent to which its ownership and identity are contested, as if in mimicry of war-torn Europe or the lands and trade routes throughout the world over which the European powers were also squabbling. The island’s namelessness is a symptom of its contested ownership. A name would give it specific cultural and historical associations; instead it is firmly marginal, set beyond the borders of the known or spoken, the mapped or painted. Many of its occupants arrived there against their will, by compulsion or chance: the pregnant Sycorax, banished for witchcraft from Algiers; Duke Prospero, a political exile from Milan, with his infant daughter; a load of shipwrecked Neapolitans. As a result, the play that contains the island presents itself as an excursion to the periphery, an unplanned trip to a strange location something like Sidney’s journey of discovery into the world of poetry or fiction as he describes it in the Apology. Sidney claims in his essay that he never meant to be a poet, summing up his leisure-time literary activities as an ‘unelected vocation’, which suggests a certain transgressiveness about them, since they represent a time-consuming departure from the more serious work in the world for which he was divinely ‘elected’ by a Calvinist God (though of course the term ‘unelected’ could just as easily mean simply ‘unchosen’ or ‘inadvertent’).[1] In the same way, Prospero became a scholar-magician by accident rather than design. As a young man he dedicated himself to his books at the expense of his dukedom, expecting the country to run itself – or rather, expecting his brother to run the country – and then thoroughly outraged when that same brother made himself popular enough to raise a ‘treacherous army’ strong enough to oust him from the throne (1.2.128).[2] Prospero’s exile was an effect of clashing perspectives: the Duke’s assumption that he was the natural born ruler of Milan, and his brother’s that running the country gave him the right to rule it as well, a perspective the Milanese people seem to have shared.

Michael Clark as Caliban

Accordingly, the island too is a place where perspectives clash. For Prospero the place represents a sign that ‘Providence divine’ (1.2.159) shares his opinion as to how badly he has been treated, and that it will support him in regaining his inheritance – a perspective that seems to be confirmed by the arrival off its shores of his brother and the man who helped him seize the dukedom, the King of Naples. For the sole surviving native of the island, Caliban, on the other hand, Prospero is as much of a usurper as Prospero’s brother was for Prospero. And as the ship’s occupants land in scattered groups on the island’s shore, each group takes a different view of who should rule it and how it should be ruled. A single perspective on the appropriate government or governor for this particular patch of ground simply doesn’t exist; and this of course casts doubt on Prospero’s claim to have a unique arrangement with Providence that his hereditary rights will be restored to him.

For one thing, Providence is a Christian concept and there are competing religious affiliations on the island. Caliban worships Setebos, and is still worshipping that god in the final act when he swears to ‘be wise hereafter, / And sue for grace’ (what, I wonder, might the ‘grace of Setebos’ consist of?) (5.1.294-5). At one point Caliban takes Stephano for a god, but returns to his old faith when Stephano fails him. Prospero himself repeatedly links his magic art with varieties of paganism: ‘bountiful Fortune’ (1.2.178), who may or may not be the same as Providence; the Greek and Roman gods he invokes in the masque he puts on for Ferdinand and Miranda, deities whose blessings (and potential curses if the pair disobey his ‘hests’) he evidently expects will have a material effect on the young couple; rural English folkloric beliefs in the ‘elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves’ (5.1.33). Meanwhile other people on the island can imagine other theological arrangements. The spirit Ariel describes himself and his fellow spirits as ‘ministers of Fate’ (3.3.61), which he puts in the hands of what he calls the ‘powers’ (3.3.73) – perhaps again the classical gods, since he is disguised at this point as a classical Harpy, though their namelessness makes them a kind of placeholder for whatever deities you choose to put there. And Miranda sees her father Prospero as a deity. When she thinks he has sunk the ship and drowned its crew she tells him:

          had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth, or ere
It should the good ship so have swallowed, and
The fraughting souls within her. (1.2.10-13)

Her implied recognition of her father as a ‘god of power’ here is importantly qualified by her ability to imagine herself in his position, with the same magical abilities; and this capacity of people to imagine themselves as other people, and in particular as other people of power, is precisely what led to the supplanting of Prospero by his brother as Duke of Milan, and what threatens to supplant him on his island.[3]

Mark Quartley as Ariel

The same capacity to imagine himself as someone else is shared by Prospero’s slave-spirit, Ariel. When he reports the impact of Prospero’s magic on the human castaways from the ship he tells his master that ‘Your charm so strongly works ’em / That if you now beheld them, your affections / Would become tender’; and when Prospero asks ‘Dost thou think so, spirit?’ Ariel replies ‘Mine would, sir, were I human’ (5.1.17-20). Ariel, then, here balances Miranda at the beginning of the play, who visualized herself as a godlike alternative Prospero; though the spirit whose power the magician exploits doesn’t see him as godlike. For Ariel, Prospero is human, and the question of who is human in the play – Caliban is variously referred to as beast, devil or man – opens up a range of other perspectives as to the possibilities available to the occupants of Shakespeare’s island. If Prospero is neither a god nor the darling of a Christian Providence then he can claim no divine sanction for what he is doing; his dream of avenging the perceived wrong done to him becomes a personal fantasy, a quirk or daydream, which would be on a par with everyone else’s daydreams if it weren’t for the power he wields – which is itself entirely dependent on the powers of the slave-spirit Ariel.

The capacity of characters to imagine themselves taking each other’s places becomes increasingly apparent as the play goes on. In many cases, as with Prospero’s brother Antonio and Caliban, their claim to have the right to take someone else’s place is pretty good. Caliban’s foiled attempt to rape Miranda is an example; it’s a bid to confirm his claim to the island by ‘peopling’ it with his offspring, begotten on the body of the only child of the colonial oppressor (1.2.352-3). In this it directly equates to Prospero’s plans to regain his power in Italy through his daughter’s marriage to Ferdinand, son and heir to the King of Naples. The difference, of course, is that Miranda is in love with Ferdinand (something Prospero may have engineered with his charms), whereas she never saw Caliban as a potential sexual partner. But what would have happened if she had not been in love with the Neapolitan prince? In that case she might have found herself in the position of Alonso’s daughter Claribel, who was married to the King of Tunis against her will (this is the traitor Sebastian’s assertion, but no one denies it). Forced marriage is rape, so Caliban’s intention to rape Miranda could well have been a behaviour he has imbibed from the values of his Italian tutors. He did it because he imagined himself in Prospero’s place as king of the island, with heirs enough to found a dynasty. The ‘darkness’ of Caliban’s nature, as Prospero calls it in the final act (5.1.275), reflects the darkness of Prospero’s – just as Miranda’s perception of Caliban may well have been based on her father’s view of him.

Ferdinand and Ariel, by Sir John Everett Millais (1850)

Other characters who legitimately imagine themselves in the positions of others include young Ferdinand, Alonso’s heir, who on arriving at the island believes his father to be dead and so assumes the title King of Naples. Ariel encourages this inadvertent usurpation by singing him a song about his father’s corpse – ‘Full fathom five thy father lies’ – which imagines the royal body being supplanted or replaced by submarine wildlife: ‘Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange’ (5.2.399-404). Yet Prospero, who put Ariel up to this exercise in misdirection, pretends to believe that Ferdinand has committed an act of treason in claiming the Neapolitan crown. He enslaves him as he enslaved Caliban and Ariel, and in the process again casts doubt on the validity of his own claims to stand for justice, whether human or divine.

Stephano (centre), Trinculo and Caliban, by Johann Heinrich Ramberg (early 19th century)

More surprisingly, Stephano the drunken butler has an excellent claim to imagine himself king of the island when we first meet him. Like Ferdinand he assumes that the rest of the crew were drowned in the tempest of the opening scene; and after drinking from his bottle – itself serving as a replacement for the Bible that confirms a subject’s oath of allegiance and a monarch’s obligation to serve the people (‘kiss the book’, 2.2.131) – the legitimate ruler of the island, Caliban, swears fealty to him. So Stephano’s statement at the end of his first scene in the play, ‘Trinculo, the King and all our company else being drowned, we will inherit here’ (2.2.174-5), has a far stronger mandate than Prospero’s claim to be monarch of Caliban’s country. In addition, his rule is far more egalitarian. He begins by thinking of enslaving Caliban, just as Prospero did; but he quickly sets Caliban free and begins to elevate him in his commonwealth, first to the position of his ‘lieutenant’ (3.2.14), who will not be allowed to ‘suffer indignity’ (3.2.35), and then to his ‘viceroy’ (3.2.106), whose status equals that of Trinculo, and whose title puts him next in line to the king himself (a viceroy takes the king’s place at official functions, becoming him, so to speak, when he is unavailable). Ironically, it’s only Prospero’s belongings that break up this miniature utopia of liberated servants, and their quasi-egalitarian philosophy remains undamaged by their humiliation and capture. In Act III they sing a round declaring that ‘Thought is free’ (3.2.121) – whose ribald primary sense doesn’t mask its political application;[4] while in the final act Stephano is still proclaiming his commitment to social equality: ‘Every man shift for all the rest, and let no man care for himself; for all is but fortune. Coragio, bully-monster, coragio!’ (5.1.256-8). Prospero’s repeated promises of freedom to his slave spirit Ariel – whose implementation gets deferred till after the play’s ending – sound profoundly unconvincing by comparison.

Chris Cooper as Antonio, Alan Cumming as Sebastian

The most extended meditation on imaginative replacement of others occurs in Act 2 scene 1, where we first meet Prospero’s usurpers – Alonso, Antonio, Alonso’s brother Sebastian – along with his benefactor, Gonzalo. In this scene Gonzalo playfully imagines himself as the replacement king of the island, inadvertently deposing Caliban and Prospero from power in his mental exercise as well as his monarch, Alonso, and that monarch’s next of kin (Ferdinand, Claribel, Sebastian). Like Stephano’s, Gonzalo’s lighthearted act of treason enables a utopian alternative island to form temporarily in the mind’s eye of the audience, a place where ‘All things in common Nature should produce / Without sweat or endeavour […] To feed my innocent people’ (2.1.155-60). Sebastian and Antonio mock the inconsistency of Gonzalo’s fantastic commonwealth, since like Stephano he plans to be king of this egalitarian paradise, but their scorn may also stem from the fact that their own views on supplanting other rulers have no truck with equality. As Antonio seeks to persuade Sebastian to kill his brother in his sleep – imaginatively replacing the king’s sleeping body with a dead one – he points out how he himself has flourished since replacing his brother: ‘look how well my garments sit upon me, / Much feater than before. My brother’s servants / Were then my fellows; now they are my men’ (2.1.267-9). In this their views on governance are close to Prospero’s, who never seems to have thought to make his fellow human beings coequals with him in his new home; and like Prospero they take themselves to be the darlings of a Fortune who has given them the opportunity to make their imaginings real by putting Alonso and his lords to sleep, leaving them at the mercy of the would-be usurpers’ blades.

Tom Conti as Gonzalo

It’s in this scene, Act 2 scene 1, that the island seems first to be identified as a fantastic space, where the impossible is made real. Interestingly, its most fantastic property is that it can be seen in such radically different ways by different people; in other words it’s a contested imaginative location from the very beginning. For Gonzalo and the young courtier Adrian it’s a lush paradise ‘of subtle, tender and delicate temperance’ (2.1.41-2), where clothes miraculously dry shortly after immersion, while for Antonio and Sebastian it’s a marshy desert and their clothes remain soaked and salt-encrusted. Interestingly, there’s no way of knowing whether the two factions of courtiers are really having different experiences; it’s perfectly possible that Gonzalo and Adrian are only claiming the island is pleasant to cheer up the king, or that Antonio is exaggerating the wretched state of his clothes. But in describing the island as paradisal Gonzalo is exercising the prerogative of poets, as Sidney saw them: makers of fictions whose imaginings could bear substantial fruit in the conduct of those who listened to them. One such poet was the classical musician Amphion, who raised the walls of Thebes with the power of his music; and Gonzalo’s earlier imaginative transformation of Tunis, where Claribel’s recent marriage took place, into the legendary city of Carthage (he tells Adrian that the two places were the same) changes a disastrous liaison into the promise of future cultural glory (Carthage was both a great civilization in itself and a staging post on the road to the founding of Rome). In doing so, Antonio and Sebastian claim, he accomplishes miracles greater even than Amphion’s elevation of the walls of Thebes:

Antonio: His word is more than the miraculous harp.
Sebastian: He hath raised the walls, and houses too.
Antonio: What impossible matter will he make easy next?
Sebastian: I think he will carry this island home in his pocket, and give it his son for an apple.
Antonio: And, sowing the kernels of it in the sea, bring forth more islands. (2.1.83-9)

The vision of further paradisal, temperate islands springing up all over the ocean reaffirms Sidney’s conviction that the poet could change the world by summoning up attractive impossibilities. This impression is only reinforced when Gonzalo goes on to imagine the island as a political utopia. For Protestants, the age of miracles is over; but for Sidney the best secular poets may have taken on the mantle of the Catholic miracle-workers, and Gonzalo’s view of Prospero’s atoll as a place where poetic wonders can be made real seems to be confirmed by subsequent events.

This happens in a number of ways. First, Miranda discovers in the castaway Ferdinand the ideal man she has always dreamed of:

          I would not wish
Any companion in the world but you,
Nor can imagination form a shape,
Besides yourself, to like of. (3.1.54-7)

This is hardly surprising, as Prospero points out, given her lack of experience; but the more experienced Ferdinand shares her view that he has met an ideal human being: ‘you, O you, /So perfect and so peerless, are created / Of every creature’s best’ (3.1.46-8). Both Ferdinand and Miranda, in other words, each fulfil the function of poetry according to Sidney, in offering the reader an ideal by which to be stirred to emulation. Again, this exchange could be dismissed as the habitual hyperbole of all new lovers. Later, however, the island also confirms the more extravagant impossibilities of travellers’ tales, as strangely shaped spirits serve food to the courtiers and the sceptics Antonio and Sebastian find themselves converted to belief in the most ridiculous of reports:

          Now I will believe
That there are unicorns; that in Arabia
There is one tree, the phoenix’ throne; one phoenix
At this hour reigning there. (3.3.21-4)

The spirits’ kindness beyond the customary practices of human beings extends the impossibilities they stand for to include Gonzalo’s utopian vision (and suitably enough, it’s Gonzalo who remarks on it). Meanwhile the island’s native, Caliban, who was capable of perceiving the island as a marshy wasteland when he was cursing his owner (‘All the infections that the sun sucks up / From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall’, 2.2.1-2), treats Stephano and Trinculo to a vision of its paradisal aspect: ‘the isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not’ (3.2.133-4). Caliban associates these ‘sweet airs’ with the pleasure of dreaming – a state that makes him forget his enslaved condition and find himself a king once more – so we can’t be certain they’re anything more substantial than psychological projections. His account of these happy moments, though, reinforces our sense of the island as a place that generates Sidneian poetic fantasies in astonishing abundance; and it also indicates, as Gonzalo’s perspective did, that not all these fantasies are conjured up by its self-styled ruler, Prospero. It’s hard to imagine that the ‘sounds and sweet airs’ Caliban experiences were provided for his delectation by Prospero’s orders. Throughout the play, Ariel shows an independence of mind that allows him to improvise wonders when they occur to him – like Robin Goodfellow in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as Frank Kermode has pointed out.[5] Could the other spirits have done the same in blessing Caliban’s rest, by virtue of the inhuman kindness Gonzalo notes in them?

Helen Mirren as Prospera

The greatest miracle the island produces is a radical change of heart in Prospero himself. The process of change begins after a feast of impossibilities he has himself served up – a masque performed by spirits, featuring non-existent classical deities. As the masque comes to a sudden close, Prospero suddenly seems to realize that he is not the only human being capable of conjuring up wonders; that they are, in fact, integral to human experience, since even the most extraordinary and seemingly permanent structures we encounter in our lives have the evanescent quality of dreamscapes:

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a wrack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. (4.1.152-8)

This new perspective is precipitated by an abrupt recollection of Prospero’s would-be usurpers, Stephano, Trinculo, and that master of dreamscapes Caliban – drunkards whose magic bottle has liberated their imaginations from submission to conventional hierarchies. Their challenge to his hierarchical point of view would seem to be what yields his famous vision of transience, which makes castles in the sky of substantial structures and associates them with dramatic performances (‘pageants’) as well as dreams. The magician remains unable to imagine things from Caliban’s point of view – he continues to typecast the islander as a ‘born devil’ till the end of the play – but not long afterwards he succeeds in seeing things from the perspective of another slave of his, Ariel. When the spirit tells him he would pity the distraught courtiers if he were capable of human pity, Prospero recalls his own capacity for the sympathy – the act of putting oneself in someone else’s place – that so many of the other characters have displayed in the course of the action:

Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art? (5.1.21-4)

In recognizing himself as of the courtier’s ‘kind’ or kin – no better, no worse – Prospero is especially moved by the presence among them of his saviour Gonzalo, the man whose kindness in stocking his boat with supplies enabled him to survive the voyage to the island so many years previously. As he studies the Neapolitans, Prospero finds himself ‘sociable’ to Gonzalo’s feelings (5.1.63), weeping the same tears of contrition and pity, occupying in effect the same emotional space. This sympathy makes it possible for Prospero to imagine himself as being legitimately supplanted or replaced by other human beings in time to come. His revelation to the exhausted courtiers of the long-lost Ferdinand playing at chess with Miranda displays them in Prospero’s own cell, a space which is in effect his ducal ‘court’ as well as his habitation (5.1.166). Their presence in that simultaneously private and public location predicts their eventual usurpation of Prospero’s place at the court of Milan, as well as of Alonso’s place in Naples. And this may explain the exiled Duke’s later observation that when he returns to his dukedom ‘every third thought will be my grave’ (5.1.311): once he is buried, after all, he will be replaced by the next generation, like every other mortal. Those third thoughts of his might well be about the interchangeability of human beings, and hence about their kinship and equal status, regardless of the greater or lesser titles they have been accidentally endowed with.

Ferdinand and Miranda Playing Chess, by Gillot Saint-Èvre (1822)

The revelation of the lovers in Prospero’s cell marks the culminating moment of two miraculous events: the discovery that the former Duke of Milan is still alive, against all odds, and the seeming resurrection of the King’s dead son. These are ‘wonders’, as Prospero points out, and as such typical of the contents of old wives’ tales, the winter’s tales that gave an earlier Shakespeare play its title – itself recalling the title of another work of the 1580s, George Peele’s extravagant comedy The Old Wives’ Tale (printed 1595), which contains many of the ingredients of The Tempest (an enchanter, a servant spirit, lost travellers, slaves, metamorphoses, musical interludes, etc. etc.). The final scene of The Tempest sees the play we have watched being gradually transformed into a traveller’s tale full of impossibilities, a ‘most strange story’, as Alonso puts it (5.1.117), which nevertheless has substance to it (Prospero calls it ‘the story of my life’, 5.1.304). And the play’s epilogue sees the whole imaginative shebang acknowledged as a collective exercise on the part of the spectators as well as the cast of Shakespeare’s company.

If Prospero could achieve wonders on the stage, it was with the help of the ‘good hands’ of his willing audience. The audience worked as crew on the imaginative ship of the production, helping to make the tempest happen in the opening scene, to accept that Miranda was a woman, not a cross-dressed boy, that the goddesses in Prospero’s masque were played by spirits rather than ordinary members of Shakespeare’s company, and that the surface of the stage was made of rocks and sand and mud, not the wooden planks of an early modern playhouse. The audience must therefore also assist with the final wonder, Prospero’s return to Naples. The sails of his ship must be filled by their ‘gentle breath’ in a benign inversion of the violent winds that sent Odysseus off on his ten-years’ journey round the Mediterranean in Homer’s epic. Their sympathy with him, their capacity for putting themselves in his place, must be activated for one last time to send him home, their applause signaling the willingness of their busy imaginations to do the work of crafting him a happy ending. Prospero’s epilogue, in other words, invites us to imagine ourselves as Prospero, endowing us all with ducal status, making us all the beneficiaries of a fairy tale conclusion we ourselves construct. It also invites us to imagine ourselves as Prospero’s spirits, those newly liberated slaves whose abscondment is what drove him to appeal for our assistance in the first place. The epilogue, then, identifies the stage as the space where for a strictly limited time the utopian egalitarianism of Gonzalo’s and Stephano’s visions is necessarily achieved every time a successful performance takes place.

Miranda, by John William Waterhouse (1916)

The possibility of that final replacement – of hierarchy with utopian egalitarianism, of a dukedom with a theatrical collective – was made available in the final scene by Prospero’s own revelation of that ‘wonder’ Miranda in his cell, alongside that other wonder, the resurrected Ferdinand. Miranda’s name, of course, means ‘wonderful’ (from Latin miranda), and so suggests that she embodies the condition of wonder in the play: that is, the immediate emotional response to astonishing novelties, the state that preexists any effort to rationalize them – something close to the experience of ‘hesitation’ Tzvetan Todorov makes central to his understanding of the fantastic.[6] The young couple’s bodies are one of the wonders of the island, as we’ve seen: both represent ideals of the male and female forms. And Miranda makes a yet more remarkable wonder happen on stage in the final act, when she briefly allows the audience to see all humankind as wonderful, despite – well, despite everything the audience knows about the species in general, and the characters on stage in particular. ‘O, wonder!’ she exclaims as she catches sight of the Neapolitan courtiers:

How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in it! (5.1.181-4)

Prospero’s response to her reaction sounds cynical: ‘’Tis new to thee’; and Aldous Huxley’s use of one phrase of it for the title of his famous dystopia makes it hard to avoid reading both the response and the phrase itself as anything but ironic. But at that particular moment in the play the Neapolitan courtiers themselves seem to be as wonder-struck as young Miranda. Alonso briefly endows the girl with the divine status she imagined for herself in the second scene: ‘Is she the goddess that hath severed us / And brought us thus together?’ (5.1.187-8). And although Ferdinand at once claims Miranda as his possession (‘I chose her when I could not ask my father / For his advice’, 5.1.190-1), Gonzalo promptly steps in to make the couple equal again by endowing them both with royal status: ‘Look down, you gods, / And on this couple drop a blessed crown!’ (5.1.201-2). The old man’s timely reminder that the young couple will shortly replace both Alonso and Prospero makes possible the impossibility of some sort of genuine ‘brave new world’, free from the rivalries and acts of treason that characterized the older generation. The extent and nature of that possibility will depend on how cynical the collaborative audience is feeling (or has been made to feel by any given production) as the play draws to a close.

Djimon Hounsou as Caliban

Which brings us back to the question of whether or not the play is a fantasy. Frank Kermode’s Arden edition of the play includes appendices that remind us of the early modern technologies that could make Prospero’s magic a practical possibility for the play’s Jacobean spectators.[7] The play makes a distinction between the mendacious travellers’ tales, for which the island appears to offer material proof when in fact that proof is largely supplied by Prospero’s spirits, and the magic of Prospero, which is genuinely effective in the world of the play. Those spirits, as Kermode also demonstrates, have much in common with the fairies and elves that had been rendered non-existent by Protestant orthodoxy. Does this mean the fairies have been restored to the status of the possible, since they could simply be mischief-making devils? On the other hand, there’s no sign that Prospero’s supernatural slaves are damned, and Ariel’s relative humaneness compared to the usual habits of humanity distinctly suggests otherwise. For a strict Protestant the idea of blessed spirits being at work in the world was heretical; so we return to the notion of Shakespeare’s spirits as fantastic inventions, or of course to the possibility that strict Protestants were wrong in their perception of how the universe operates.

What Shakespeare’s play does do without any doubt at all is to set belief systems and notions of what is and is not possible at odds with one another, thus enacting on stage the ideological and religious conflicts that were being acted out all over the world at the time of writing. For different characters different things are deemed to be possible or impossible at different times. Gonzalo’s belief in Ferdinand’s survival, or in the beneficial properties of the island, are as absurd for Sebastian and Antonio as his evocation of an island utopia, though the former at least turns out to be true in the final act – ands the latter too, if my reading of the ambiguously utopian atmosphere of the play’s ending is a convincing one. Meanwhile Sebastian and Antonio begin the play not believing in traveller’s reports but become believers when faced with Prospero’s spirits – though we have no way of knowing if they retain this belief after they’ve learned who is pulling those spirits’ strings. Miranda’s belief that the courtiers of Naples are things of wonder is an extravagant fantasy of her own, which can hardly be shared by Shakespeare’s audience any more than by her father, given both what we’ve seen of Sebastian and Antonio and the general reputation of Italians in early modern England.[8] The notion that Miranda is a wonder, in the sense of an ideal human being, is something even Prospero doesn’t seem sure of, given his anxiety over whether or not she is listening to his story in the opening act, and whether or not she will listen to his injunctions to stay chaste till marriage, as expressed in the masque scene and elsewhere. Ariel and his fellow spirits are perhaps the most conspicuous fantasies in the play, being benevolent supernatural beings of the sort unacknowledged by Protestant orthodoxy and having much in common with the diminutive fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Ariel can lie in a cowslip’s bell, which makes him no bigger than Peaseblossom). Even they, however, are treated as possible beings by all in the play, and members of the audience might well have seen them as possible in their own world too: Ariel’s name is biblical, and Elizabeth I had a personal magician, John Dee, who claimed to have dealings with benevolent spirits – which he called angels – rather than damned ones.

Another term for what is possible is what Kathryn Hume refers to in Fantasy and Mimesis as ‘consensus reality’, and in The Tempest there’s no final consensus about the nature of what is and isn’t real.[9] There is, however, a consensus invoked in the play’s epilogue, as we’ve seen, which makes real the possibility of collectively imagining a happy ending for Prospero, and perhaps even for Naples under the benevolent watch of a new generation who have shown themselves open to the condition of protracted wonderment. The question of how far the play is a fantasy, in other words – and how extravagant that fantasy might finally become – is left firmly in the hands of the spectators, whose multiple perspectives have been briefly combined to invoke the multiple perspectives of the play’s diverse characters. In the end, one might say, early modern fantasy lay in the eye of the early modern beholder. Which is precisely what makes it so interesting to consider early modern literature and drama in the light of the modern fantastic.

 

Notes

[1] An Apology for Poetry, with Geoffrey Shepherd (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002), p. 81, line 27.

[2] The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode, The Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1970). I have changed some punctuation slightly.

[3] For Shakespeare’s interest in replacing, substituting or supplanting people, as worked out in Measure for Measure, see R. W. Maslen, Shakespeare and Comedy, Arden Critical Companions (London: Thomson Learning, 2005), Afterword, pp. 213 ff. 

[4] ‘Thought is free’ is often used mockingly in early modern English to suggest unvoiced suspicions about another person’s sexual activities…

[5] See The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode, Appendix B: ‘Ariel as Daemon and Fairy’, pp. 142-5.

[6] On hesitation, see Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975), pp. 24-5.

[7] See The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode, Appendix B.

[8] For the early modern English response to Italian culture see R. W. Maslen, Elizabethan Fictions: Espionage, Counter-espionage and the Duplicity of Fiction in Early Elizabethan Prose Narratives (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), Introduction etc. Naples in particular gets a bad press in one of the most popular prose romances of Elizabethan times, John Lyly’s Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578).

[9] See Kathryn Hume, Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature (New York and London: Methuen, 1984), p. xi etc.

 

 

Aspects of the Early Modern Fantastic in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Part 1.

[This is the first part of a paper I gave this week at the University of St Andrews. It considers some general approaches to the early modern fantastic. The second part considers Shakespeare’s The Tempest as an example of what might happen if we applied the modern concept of fantasy to an early modern work of art. My thanks to Professor Neil Rhodes for asking me to speak, and for getting me thinking along these lines!]

Fantasy has often been defined as the literature of the impossible;[1] but deciding what that means isn’t always easy. The term ‘impossible’ raises historical as well as cultural questions; what can’t be done in one period is perfectly feasible in another, and the magical technologies available in the sixteenth century (for instance) far outstripped the pathetically limited technical resources of the twenty-first. In any case, how could anything be described as impossible at a time when spirits walked the earth and the atmosphere of every room was alive with trickster devils, as Thomas Nashe suggests in The Terrors of the Night (1594)? Or when the English countryside swarmed with elves and fairies, mermaids preened themselves on beaches, monsters lolloped in the ocean depths, and the wildest imaginings of Ariosto, Shakespeare or Spenser (animated brass men, bridges in the sky, humans morphing into beasts, the transformation of base metal into gold) could be accomplished by any reasonably adept witch or conjurer or alchemist? The question has led many historians of the fantastic to trace its rise to a time two centuries later when the world began to be viewed as a material entity, whose dimensions, composition and contents could be catalogued and recorded in encyclopaedias, those multi-volume compendiums that aspired to include all that could ever be known about the physical universe. Only when what is possible has been properly categorized can the impossible be clearly distinguished from it. Fantasy could be said to have originated, then, in the Enlightenment, which gave birth to its irrational or monstrous antitheses Romanticism and Gothic fiction, which in turn gave birth to the fantastic, as exemplified in the fairy tales of George MacDonald, the romances of William Morris or the children’s fiction of Edith Nesbit.

Pirated first US edition of The Lord of the Rings

Except, of course, that this is not an accurate account of the rise of the genre. As Jamie Williamson (among others) has argued, fantasy did not really emerge as a recognized literary kind until the early 1960s, when the popularity of the paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings in the United States led to the foundation of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series under the editorship of Lin Carter[2]. The series served, among other things, to establish a genealogy for fantasy, reprinting a range of key texts from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which had inspired Tolkien and his circle or were in some way analogous to their works. Like the printed books and pamphlets of the early Reformation which sought to trace a genealogy for Protestantism running from the days of the primitive Church to the Tudor present – a genealogy which included Chaucer and Langland as proto-Protestant satirists of the Catholic clergy – Carter’s project deftly located a golden thread of narratives of the impossible that extended throughout the century or so before The Lord of the Rings made its first appearance in the 1950s. He didn’t reprint much from before the 1850s, and for the most part histories of fantasy have tended to accept his model of the genre’s emergence, despite the fact that it describes (like the history of Protestantism) a literary lineage that didn’t exist until he invented it.

Lin Carter took as his source for the series the various references to modern texts (MacDonald, Morris, Dunsany, Chesterton, Lindsay, Eddison, Peake) which are touched on by Lewis and Tolkien in their prefaces and essays, along with a number of texts he himself identified as similar to these. What united most of these texts was the kind of passion for the medieval and early modern periods that manifests itself on every page of The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books. George MacDonald’s Phantastes draws on Wolfram von Eschenbach and Edmund Spenser; William Morris’s The Well at the World’s End is deeply indebted to Malory; Lord Dunsany’s early fantasies use the style of the King James Bible, while two of his later novels are set in the Spanish Golden Age of Don Quixote; E. R. Eddison peppers his secondary world romances with quotations from Jacobean poets and playwrights; Hope Mirrlees evokes the Netherlands of the seventeenth century. For Carter, then, modern fantasy has its roots firmly embedded in English Literature of the late medieval and early modern periods – although some of them reach as far back as the early medieval period of Beowulf and the sagas, as represented by the works of Tolkien and the early romances of William Morris. What is it that links the hundred years between MacDonald’s first fairy tale and the publication of The Lord of the Rings with the turbulent world of the Wars of the Roses, the Tudor dynasty and the Jacobean succession? Can a case be made for the late medieval and early modern periods as having given birth to the fantasy genre – not just in the sense of having inspired it, but also perhaps of having invented an early form of fantastic discourse?

If such a case is to be made it needs to rest, I think, on whether or not it was possible for something to be impossible in the period. Or perhaps we should put it another way: for fantasy to exist in early modern times it must have been necessary for people to claim that certain things were impossible. The latter formulation gets to the heart of what was happening between 1450 and 1650, when major political forces in Europe found themselves ranged against each other, each cleaving to a different sense of how the material and spiritual worlds were organized, each convinced that their political rivals were peddling untruths to their credulous subjects – pushing monstrous impossibilities in the interests of seizing or retaining power. I’d like to suggest that the Reformation lent an intensity to the debate over what was true and what was false – and increasingly, over what was and was not possible – which laid the foundations of what would become the fantasy genre.

Illustration from Reynard the Fox

Lurid imaginings were of course thoroughly familiar in pre-Reformation England – as was the notion that they were lurid imaginings, making no claim to truth. These included the extravagant stories known as ‘winter’s tales’ or ‘old wives’ tales’ – narratives in which astonishing events occurred with unusual frequency, such as encounters with dragons, elves, goblins, giants, ghosts and enchanters; travellers’ tales, which acquired a reputation for hyperbolic mendacity; animal fables, in which beasts spoke with human voices – the most popular and elaborate of which was the so-called ‘beast epic’ Reynard the Fox; and more literary forms of extravagance, such as the dialogues of the late Greek satirist Lucian so beloved of Thomas More and his friend Erasmus.

Illustration from Beware the Cat

With the advent of the Reformation in England, however, these over-the-top narratives got caught up in religious controversy. The Old Wives became proponents of the Old Faith, their willingness to tell extravagant tales an index to the superstition in their minds. The travellers with their lying anecdotes had become infected by continental Catholicism; the talking animals had been invented as a means of circumventing censorship, whether by the Catholic Church or the secular powers that worked hand in glove with the so-called ‘Bishop of Rome’; while the sceptic Lucian, who was a noted atheist in the days of the pagan gods, became a model for effective literary assault on all false religions[3]. Polemical writers who brought together these forms of extravagant fiction in their work included William Baldwin, author of the brilliant Lucianic fable Beware the Cat (c. 1553), and William Bullein, whose Dialogue against the Fever Pestilence (1568) ascribed the rise of plague in Europe to the sins of Catholics and wavering reformers and featured a lying Catholic traveller called Mendax.[4] Roger Ascham’s treatise, The Schoolmaster (1570), eloquently summarized the case against extravagant fictions, condemning chivalric romance as the invention of lewd monks who reveled in ‘open manslaughter and bold bawdry’ and dismissing the newly popular and erotically charged Italian novella as Catholic propaganda, unwelcome travellers’ tales come to infect the brains of the English with continental follies.[5]

Circe by Dosso Dossi

There came a time, though, when the extravagant stories associated with Catholicism began to lose their polemical punch and acquire instead an air of exoticism which links them, again, with modern fantasy. It’s tempting to suggest that this turning point came in 1570, when Elizabeth I was excommunicated by papal bull, thus confirming England’s opposition to Catholic culture and paradoxically liberating English writers to treat aspects of that culture as a form of extravagant fiction. Certainly it was in the 1570s that English writers began to write prose fiction in a pseudo-continental Catholic style – ornate in diction and syntax, packed with mythological references, wordplay, and formal experiment, peppered with references to Italy – as if in deliberate emulation of the Italianized English travellers condemned by Ascham[6]. For Ascham these travellers underwent what he called a Circean metamorphosis, transformed into strange new shapes as though by the sorceress Circe in the Odyssey, who came to stand for continental Catholicism in general and Italian culture in particular. The papal bull could be said to have fictionalized the Catholic imaginary, opening it up to be treated with the same imaginative freedom as classical mythology, itself associated with Italy through its transmission by way of ancient Rome.

Venus and Adonis by Titian

Meanwhile classical mythology underwent a modernization at these writers’ hands, becoming cross-contaminated with the Italian novella. The novella in turn picked up elements of the newly discovered ancient Greek and Roman prose romance, whose extravagance of incident furnished Elizabethan writers with the equivalent in plot of the elaborate prose styles (euphuism, Arcadianism and the rest) they delighted in.[7] Kidnappings by pirates, followed by an enthusiastic embracing of the pirate’s life; visits to pagan shrines and oracles, whose powers proved highly dependable; coincidental encounters, confirming the operation in the pagan world of a decidedly pagan fate or fortune, in competition with the more solemn operations of Christian Providence – these ingredients militated against the moral purpose of literature as promulgated by Saint Paul and the humanist education system, promoting a new culture of rebellious youth which was being celebrated in many inventive variations on the Prodigal Son story.[8] Classical myths, which had gained respectability through their use in Christianized versions in schools and universities, detached themselves from their contexts in the Metamorphoses and became excursions into bizarre alternative universes (Coleridge famously described Shakespeare’s mythical poem Venus and Adonis as having been written ‘as if he were of another planet’). Infested by the absurdities of Lucianic satire and seizing every opportunity to foreground the outrageous eroticism that had been sedulously glossed over by Elizabethan schoolteachers, the Ovidian epyllion or ‘minor epic’ reinvented itself as a fresh new form, like the novella, evading the familiar generic categories into which classical literature had traditionally segregated itself.

Northern European influences, too, fed into that highly spiced soup or gallimaufry, the literary melting pot of 1570s and 80s England. Chivalric romances took to the stage as well as the printed page, their association with the medieval church endowing them with a radical detachment from contemporary Protestant life that delighted audiences as greatly as it enraged religious hardliners. Supernatural biographies, such as the stories of Doctor Faustus and Friar Bacon, lost their polemical edge (although not always their anti-Catholic slant) and began to revel in the magic tricks of their protagonists, more concerned with the adventures and jokes made possible by the skills of their protagonists than with the damnable consequences of their necromantic dabblings. By the early 1590s, the jestbook describing the life of the medieval English magician Roger Bacon allowed him to evade any consequences at all by a timely repentance, while the condemned Doctor Faustus redeemed himself as a ghost in the Second Report of Doctor John Faustus (1593) by helping the combined armies of Christendom to lift the Turkish siege of Vienna.[9] By the early 1590s, even Purgatory had made itself available for imaginative exploitation. If the spirits of the dead couldn’t exist in the Purgatorial fires, since Protestant doctrine holds that the spirit dies with the body and is only resurrected at the Day of Judgment, then fictions could be stored there instead, merry tales or romances that laid no claim to historical accuracy. A series of anthologies sent the goblin Robin Goodfellow down to Purgatory to collect these fictions and presented them to readers with prefatory comments by the elvish editor.[10]

Joseph Noel Paton, Oberon and Titania

By the time Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1594), in fact, both Purgatory and fairies or goblins had become relatively acceptable material for literary or theatrical treatment – though Oberon still has to explain to Puck that they are ‘spirits of another sort’ than the damned beings who must return to Hell at cockcrow, like Old Hamlet’s ghost.[11] Shakespeare’s miniaturization of his supernatural beings was a declaration of their detoxification: no one could believe in, or at least be afraid of, a little person who could be overwhelmed by the bursting of a honey bee’s bag full of pollen. Romeo and Juliet consigns the fairies to the realm of dreams, while Thomas Nashe in The Terrors of the Night identifies a whole category of the dream state as the product of a poor digestion, their extravagant contents attributable to eating cheese at bedtime. Meanwhile the association of a belief in fairies with the Old Religion was confirmed by William Warner in his epic poem Albion’s England (1586), where a half-forgotten Robin Goodfellow laments the loss of that universal faith in the existence of fairies which obtained in the reign of Elizabeth’s Catholic sister, Mary I.[12] Reginald Scott’s Discovery of Witchcraft (1584) helped to spread the idea that the end of superstition should mean the end of other folk beliefs; and by the time William Corbet wrote the much-loved early seventeenth-century ballad ‘The Fairies’ Farewell’ – whose first line, ‘Farewell rewards and fairies’, furnished Rudyard Kipling with the title of his fantasy of 1910 – the loss of faith in both fairies and Catholicism could be spoken of in the regretful terms that set the tone of so much modern fantasy literature. The same nostalgic note suffuses the various near-contemporary accounts of the loss of the old classical myths, such as Milton’s ode ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ (1629). This wistfulness is increasingly the tone of the religious moderate, as against the puritan or the militant Catholic, and their propensity for nostalgia is surely one of the chief reasons for the frequent invocation of early modern times in fantasies of the first half of the twentieth century.

The imaginative spaces made available by Purgatory and the dreams of incautious diners were lighthearted equivalents of the invented secondary worlds celebrated by Sir Philip Sidney in his Apology for Poetry (1595), which first appeared in print around the time when A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet were holding the stage. Sidney’s observations on the capacity for poetry to invent worlds anticipate Tolkien’s in his essay on Fairy Stories – especially his comments on the capacity of the storytelling imagination to activate ‘recovery’, the process of enabling its readers to see the world they live in with fresh, more-or-less unfallen vision. The passage in the Apology is deservedly celebrated:

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

Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too much loved earth more lovely. Her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.[13]

Sidney’s well-known association of poetry with fiction – things that have been made up or imagined, as against history or philosophy – here gets extended to suggest that the most exalted form of fiction is what we would now call fantasy, the invention of hybrid ‘forms such as never were in Nature’: impossibly gifted heroes, pagan divinities and chimeras, as well as non-existent ‘golden’ worlds fit to contain them. Like Tolkien he is convinced that the justification of such escapist dreamscapes lies in their capacity to materially change the people who read about them – they are not ‘wholly imaginative, as we are wont to say by them that build castles in the air’, but work ‘substantially’ by inspiring readers to emulate the impossible heroics and altruistic adventures they celebrate. Coming into print at the high point of the transition of the Catholic imaginary to fictional status, Sidney’s essay provided a theoretical basis for the widespread enjoyment of extravagant fictions over the preceding two-and-a-half decades.

Meanwhile his great work of prose fiction, the second draft of his Arcadia (1590), provided an example of the ‘golden’ secondary world he spoke of, stuffed as it is with evil enchantresses and high-minded cross-dressing heroes or heroines endowed with improbable eloquence, whose paths crisscross in a fictionalized Mediterranean which clearly bore little resemblance to the place itself. At the same time Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590-6) provided readers with a fictionalized Britain where enchanters tangled with intelligent lions, book-spewing monsters, dragons, men made of brass, women made of flowers. I suggested at the beginning that none of these things were strictly impossible for an early modern readership, but the immeasurable distance between the golden world of Faerie and the squabbling, plague-ridden country it was based on, together with the sheer abundance of rare wonders with which it was stocked, precipitated Spenser’s inventions into the realm of impossibility described by Sidney. In the latter half of the 1590s, Richard Johnson’s Seven Champions of Christendom (1596) took Spenser’s appropriation of the Catholic saint’s life for fictional purposes (Saint George in the opening book of The Faerie Queene) several stages further, sending the patron saints of England, Scotland, Ireland and the rest in knightly form across a fantastical Europe whose geography bears no relation to the one you might find in contemporary maps.[14]

In his essay, Sidney gives as a key example of the poet’s capacity to invent models for good conduct Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), which supplies its readers with the ideal rhetorical technique for describing a perfect commonwealth, even if Sidney has reservations about how that technique was used: ‘that way of patterning a commonwealth was most absolute’, he observes, ‘though he perchance hath not so absolutely performed it’. Sidney was a militant protestant, keen to see Elizabeth involve herself in the continental wars of religion in the 1580s, so his praise of More is striking; he puts the shortcomings of Utopia down to the failings of More the man (‘where Sir Thomas More erred, it was the fault of the man and not of the poet’), and this distinction between the writer with his erroneous convictions (More was of course a fierce defender of Catholic orthodoxy against the inroads of Lutheranism) and the secondary world he generated marks out the imagined island as a more-or-less neutral zone, tainted by its writer’s religious affiliations but by no means undermined by them in principle. The Apology itself declares its intention to steer clear from religious topics, ostensibly because these are too exalted to be brought into a discussion of imaginative literature, and so both theorizes and justifies the development of a field of fiction that embraces and expands upon the rich heritage of stories inherited from the pre-Protestant epoch.

In the 1590s Shakespeare was at the centre of the fictionalizing of Catholic culture – a process that remained tinged with an air of real danger, treading as it did on ideological ground that was being fought over with unprecedented savagery. His most fantastic inventions of that decade – Venus and Adonis (1593), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1594-5), the Queen Mab speech in Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595), the Herne the Hunter episode in The Merry Wives of Windsor (c. 1597-8), the god- and lion-infested forest of As You Like It (c. 1598-1600) – draw their energy from a passionate union of Catholic art and literature with the Protestant repudiation of Catholicism and other forms of superstition, including native folklore as well as classical mythology – producing a hybrid literary-theatrical child of a kind that hadn’t been seen before. I’d like to proceed, though, by skipping a decade and looking at the point when Shakespeare seems to have gone back to the white-hot period of literary fusion that helped to generate his early writings. The series of plays known as the late romances rode on a wave of Jacobean nostalgia for the Elizabethan period which may well have gained impetus from a certain discontent with the reign of James I. Shakespeare returned to the genre of Greek romance, of the kind popularized by Robert Greene in the 1580s, with Pericles (c. 1607-8), Cymbeline (c. 1609-10), and The Winter’s Tale (c. 1609-11), which introduced impossible wonders, astonishing coincidences and spectacular special effects into his oeuvre, while reminding audiences of the giddy time of Greene’s prolific fiction-writing heyday. The Tempest (c. 1610-11) seems to me (as to many others) most richly to reimagine the liberation of the imagination in which Shakespeare had participated; and in harking back as it does, the play also seems to me most vividly to anticipate fantasy fiction of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, summarized by Rosemary Jackson as a ‘literature of desire, which seeks that which is experienced as absence and loss’.[15] What might happen, then, if we were to read it through the lens provided by modern fantasy? That’s the question I’ll try to answer in the second of these two posts.

 

Notes

[1] For fantasy as literature of the impossible, see Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn’s summary of the broad consensus among its theorists and commentators: ‘The major theorists in the field – Tzvetan Todorov, Rosemary Jackson, Kathryn Hume, W. R. Irwin and Colin Manlike – all agree that fantasy is about the construction of the impossible whereas science fiction ay be about the unlikely, but is grounded in the scientifically possible.’ The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge etc.: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 1.

[2] See Jamie Williamson, The Evolution of Modern Fantasy: From Antiquarianism to the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series (New York: Palsgrave Macmillan, 2015), Introduction, and Edward James and Farah Mandlesohn, A Short History of Fantasy (Farringdon: Libri Publishing, 2012), p. 76.

[3] On early modern travellers’ tales and magical journeys see R. W. Maslen, ‘Magical Journeys in Sixteenth-Century Prose Fiction’, Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 41, no. 1 (2011), pp. 35-50.

[4] For more on Baldwin and Bullein see R. W. Maslen, ‘The Cat Got your Tongue: Pseudo-Translation, Conversion and Control in William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat’, Translation and Literature, vol. 8, Part 1 (1999), 3-27, and ‘The Healing Dialogues of Dr Bullein’, Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 38, nos. 1 and 2 (2008), ed. Andrew Hiscock, pp. 119-35.

[5] For Roger Ascham’s views on Italian fiction see R. W. Maslen, Elizabethan Fictions: Espionage, Counter-espionage and the Duplicity of Fiction in Early Elizabethan Prose Narratives (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997),pp. 41-51.

[6] See Maslen, Elizabethan Fictions, Introduction.

[7] For the English imitation of Greek and Latin prose romance see Robert H. F. Carver, ‘English Fiction and the Ancient Novel’, in Thomas Keymer (ed.), Prose Fiction in English from the Origins of Print to 1750, The Oxford History of the Novel in English, Volume 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017, Chapter 8, pp. 123-45.

[8] The classic work on representations of the Prodigal Son in Elizabethan fiction is Richard Helgesson, The Elizabethan Prodigals (Berkeley, Ca.: University of California Press, 1976).

[9] For a detailed account of this little-known work of early modern prose fiction see R. W. Maslen, ‘Marlowe’s Ghost: The Second Report of Doctor John Faustus’, Airy Nothings: Imagining the Otherworld of Faerie from the Middle Ages to the Age of Reason: Essays in Honour of Alasdair A. MacDonald, eds. Karin E. Olsen and Jan R. Veenstra (Leiden: Brill, 2014), pp. 1-24.

[10] For Robin Goodfellow in the early 1590s see R. W. Maslen, ‘Dreams, Freedom of Speech, and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow’, Journal of the Northern Renaissance, Issue 1.1 (March 2009), pp. 129-44.

[11] See R. W. Maslen, Shakespeare and Comedy, Arden Critical Companions (London: International Thomson Publishing, 2005), pp. 141-54.

[12] See Maslen, ‘Dreams, Freedom of Speech, and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow’, 3.

[13] Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, with Geoffrey Shepherd (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002), p. 85, lines 17-27.

[14] See Richard Johnson, The Seven Champions of Christendom (1596/7), ed. Jennifer Fellowes, Non-canonical Early Modern Popular Texts (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003).

[15] Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London and New York: Rutledge, 1981), p. 3.

Comedy Comes of Age in Shakespeare’s All’s Well

[I gave a version of this piece as a lecture at the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, in 2009, at the invitation of John Jowett. It’s pretty closely in dialogue with my book Shakespeare and Comedy (Arden, 2005), especially Chapter 3, ‘Lightness, Love and Death’ and the Afterword, ‘Comedy for a New Reign’. I’m putting it here because All’s Well is in effect a Lost Book among Shakespeare’s plays.]

Michael Denison as Bertram, Jill Dixon as Diana

‘All’s well that ends well’ was already an old saying in early modern England; the only non-biblical proverb to be used as a title for one of Shakespeare’s plays. The story on which the play is based was also old by the time he adapted it. It derives from Boccaccio’s tale ‘Giletta of Narbonna’ in The Decameron (c. 1350), as mediated through an English translation first published in Shakespeare’s infancy.[1] The sense of going back to the past to gain a new perspective on the present is pervasive in the play. In itself, this idea is nothing new; but Shakespeare’s understanding of how the past manifests itself in the present and comes into conflict with it is subtly different here than in any of his other works – subtly different, too, from anything by his contemporaries. Above all, he’s concerned with the changes undergone by language in each generation, and with the forms of discourse – proverbs, old stories, riddles, prophecies, jokes – which may be used to maintain a sense of continuity between one generation and another.

Kimberly Parker Green as Helena, James R. Winker as the King of France, Graham Hamilton as Bertram

To put it crudely: All’s Well That Ends Well – which is generally dated to the early days of the reign of James I, between 1603 and 1607 – dramatizes a conflict between two discourses or verbal attitudes. The attitude to language it presents as modern, and which it seeks to challenge, is an excessive reliance on what has come to be called the ‘cold light of reason’ – or simply ‘sense’; the notion that one can argue one’s way to the truth using the structures of formal logic, based on an understanding of the world that perceives it as always and everywhere the same, and that therefore fails to recognize its subjection to the transformative operations of time. The means by which the play mounts this challenge is by way of a variety of time-worn discourses which were branded by contemporary moralists folly or nonsense. The seriousness of this encounter between two conflicting philosophies of language is stressed by the quasi-legal structure of the play’s last act, in which an informal trial is staged at a point when one might expect a formal trial to have been set up. But the triumph of nonsense at the end of the play – its success in engineering a happy ending against all odds, in supplanting a legal sentence with what is in effect a punchline – makes it an endorsement of comedy, a genre that would seem to be directly at odds with the notion of trials, judgements or any other form of legislation. An ambiguous endorsement, to be sure; but then verbal comedy (as opposed to slapstick) has always thriven on ambiguity.

In a law-court, the proper and improper use of language may be a matter of life and death. And the fact that the quasi-trial in Act 5 of All’s Well does not take place in a law-court stresses the extent to which every verbal act is a risky business – the extent to which you take your life in your hands, put yourself on trial as it were, every time you open your mouth. I have argued elsewhere that Shakespeare’s comedies are pervaded by the notion that the word-play which is the medium of comedy is the riskiest business of all; and I would like to suggest here that the period of Shakespeare’s life when he’s most aware of the riskiness of the comic is just before and just after the accession of James I. Mock-trials occur with astonishing frequency in the plays of this period; trials in which men of power accuse, convict and sentence their inferiors – usually women – without giving them the benefit of a jury or a formal defence. The most extreme example of such a mock-trial is the final scene of Othello (c. 1603-4), in which Desdemona’s husband appoints himself her judge, jury and executioner. But Othello’s precursors include Claudio and Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1598), who condemn Hero without listening to her plea of not guilty; Hamlet, who accepts as the only witness of Claudius’s guilt what might well be a ‘goblin damned’; Troilus, whose summary sentencing of Cressida has no interest in exonerating circumstances; and the Duke in Measure for Measure (c. 1604), who passes a series of arbitrary judgements on Isabella, Mariana, Angelo and Lucio in the play’s last scene. The implication of all these plays is that grammatical sentences may become quasi-legal sentences at a moment’s notice in the sophisticated discourse of the 1600s. And since the word ‘sentence’ could mean ‘proverb, saying, aphorism’ (from Latin sententia), the right use of proverbs as a means of swaying judgement – your own or other people’s – becomes a particularly urgent issue in this play ruled by a proverb.

Othello is the play of Shakespeare’s that most fully exploits the more sinister aspects of sententia, as well as of the quasi-legal sentence. Iago’s manipulation of Othello deploys well-known proverbs, which are supposed to articulate ancient wisdom, as a means to instigate prejudice – that is, pre-judgement, the bane of all efforts to set up an equitable trial. He persuades Othello to see Desdemona through the lens of the proverbial licentiousness of Venetian women, and tricks him into conforming with the proverbial stereotypes of ‘changeable’ Moor and jealous old husband, the commedia del arte Pantaloon with a murderous twist. And Iago does this by convincing Othello of Iago’s own simple honesty, as exemplified in a style of speech that’s liberally sprinkled with old sayings. As has been often pointed out, the success of Iago’s proverb-fuelled project would be comic if its consequences had not been so appalling.

Helena as pilgrim, by John William Wright

All’s Well inverts Othello. The play’s protagonist Helen is honest, deriving her honesty from her father – whereas Iago, as a Spanish stranger in Venice, has no known forebears to guarantee his honesty. Helen’s parents were poor but honest; but finding herself in a world where honesty is despised, she resorts to tricks that might be construed as dishonest, allying herself through word and action with the professional fool Lavatch (whose brazen honesty in telling harsh truths to his mistress often gets him into trouble) and the foolish professional soldier Parolles (whose brazen dishonesty gets him into trouble till he learns to be honest about it by becoming a professional fool).

The proverb that emblazons All’s Well, however, furnishes it with a title as unsettlingly knotty as any scheme Iago could come up with – as knotty as the play it introduces. It carries with it, for example, the notion that meaning in discourse is always deferred – that is, contingent on the passing of time; a notion Shakespeare was to play with at length in his late romances.   It implies, too, that this comedy is concerned with happy endings; though the phrase also incorporates the sense that all happiness has an ending. And it raises the question of what an ending is (many commentators have pointed out that the play’s conclusion, like that of Johnson’s Rasselas [1759], is one ‘in which nothing is concluded’). The end of one epoch, after all – such as the reign of Elizabeth, which also signaled the end of the Tudor dynasty – is the beginning of another – such as the reign of James I, which inaugurated the age of the Stuarts; a single life can span both epochs without changing significantly; the structure of the realm may not change a great deal between the end of one historical period and the beginning of another; measurements are always contingent, even the measurement of a life, which may not end when the quietus comes, as Hamlet reminds us. Until we can ascertain that an ending really has taken place, and agreed both what has ended and what the significance of that ending is, the proverb of the play’s title cannot come into play; it remains always a promise or possibility rather than an assertion, an illustration of the crassness of proverbs rather than a trusted piece of familiar wisdom passed down from one generation to the next.

But the play is not solely concerned with endings; it’s equally concerned with beginnings that may or may not be happy – a topic of keen interest to a nation at the beginning of a new century and a new reign. And the play’s attitude to the new epoch is quite different from that of Shakespeare’s other theatrical salute to the Stuart dynasty, Measure for Measure. Where the latter begins with a set of characters who nurture unrealistic expectations of protecting their absolute principles in a degenerate world, All’s Well that Ends Well introduces us to a set of men and women who are acutely conscious that they must deal with a flawed world on its own terms, and that they will probably not be able to protect their most cherished principles from becoming compromised by these worldly dealings as one age or period or fashion gives way to another. This is another implication of the title: that happy endings may be held to justify the means used to reach them, and that not all of these means may be good ones. But the title also invites us to consider from the beginning the question of what it means to be ‘well’, either physically or morally speaking. There’s a sense, then, both of resignation and of doubt about the title – of the conditional mode, as it were, the big ‘if’ that governs its proceedings – that perfectly suits it to the play it emblazons.

James R. Winker as the King of France, Kimberly Parker Green as Helena

Like Measure for Measure, the comedy has much to say about the difficulty of dialogue – and indeed it contains some of Shakespeare’s most complex and elusive poetic language. Verse is its medium, where prose was the dominant medium of Measure for Measure – especially in the second half of that play. And an astonishing proportion of the verse in All’s Well is rhymed. The play’s protagonist Helen uses rhyme repeatedly, and the formal closure rhyme gives to her lines imparts to many of them a proverbial feel, like that of the play’s title, as if she is quoting long-established, carefully formulated philosophical truths – drawing, perhaps, on the same store of ancient knowledge that formed the basis of her father’s reputation as a man of letters. ‘Who ever strove / To show her merit that did miss her love?’ she asks (1.1.212-3), and despite the uncertainty of the answer, the question becomes an assertion by virtue of the euphonic link it establishes between striving and desire. ‘He that of greatest works is finisher / Oft does them by the weakest minister’ (2.1.135-6), she tells the King of France as she undertakes to cure him of a terminal illness, and the rhyme lends an authority to her verbal empowering of the weak that both testifies to her confidence and gives confidence to her hearers. The other great users of rhyme in the play are Helen’s adoptive mother, the superannuated Countess of Roussillon, and the aged King of France himself, whose cure she effects using a drug invented by her father, and who becomes a replacement father-figure to her. Helen’s, the Countess’s and the King’s rhymed exchanges make them sound as though they are singing to the same tune, as it were.   The King and Helen in particular establish a family resemblance in the scene where they first meet, as their speeches gradually get closer to each other in rhyme, in despite of reason – a contest between sound and sense, euphony and probability, which gets reignited by the King at the end of the play when he celebrates Helen’s return to his court with a tentative restatement of the play’s title: ‘All yet seems well; and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet’ (5.3.326-7, my emphasis). There’s a mutual understanding between Helen and the King that unites genders and generations through the medium of melodic utterance. Here, then, is yet another meaning of the title: that a conversation goes well when each of its metrical units ends (meetly and sweetly, as the King might say) in a rhyme. There’s clearly something contrived about such a claim; it cannot be said to be true in any obvious sense. But its very contrivedness stresses the extent to which this play is preoccupied with the elaborate engineering of a happy ending, against all odds, by all means necessary, regardless of improbabilities – or even impossibilities. Helen and the King acknowledge that they live in a universe that resists happy endings. They are determined nevertheless to achieve one, and the way they talk articulates that determination.

As with the Duke and Isabella in Measure for Measure, their plan to engineer happiness flies in the teeth of the ferociously anti-romantic environment they inhabit. Both Helen and the King are old-fashioned in their belief that happiness is a condition worth having – or even possible to have. The play is full of elderly people who lament the passing of old-time excellence and the ascendancy of a self-centred new generation. The Countess of Rossillion, who cannot countenance her son Bertram’s treatment of Helen; the elderly courtier Lafeu, who is disgusted that the young aristocrats of his time cannot appreciate Helen’s beauty and wit; the King, who in the first act wishes that he, like Bertram’s father, had not lived ‘to be the snuff / Of younger spirits, whose apprehensive senses / All but new things disdain’ (1.2.59-60) – all note the course of the world’s decline, its gradual loss of affection with each succeeding age. Helen allies herself with these nostalgic old folk both by her deployment of old knowledge – her use of her father’s medicine to cure the King – and by their adoption of her as their imaginative offspring. The Countess adopts her as her daughter in the first act, the King effectively adopts her in the second, and she substitutes herself for Lafeu’s daughter in the final act, when she reclaims Bertram’s hand just after he has contracted it to the old man’s child. By the end of the play, the base-born Helen has effectively forged a new lineage for herself, an ancestry that extends into the mists of French antiquity, linking her to the past as strongly as the ancient wisdom she inherited from her father.

Sir Thomas Elyot, by Hans Holbein

The nostalgic attachment to the past shared by Helen and her adoptive parents is not, then, a reactionary one. It seems to liberate them from reactionary class positions, making them prize a person’s words and actions more highly than her birth, in marked contrast to young men like Bertram, who do not understand that it’s necessary to inherit their ancestors’ ‘moral parts’ as well as their facial features (1.2.21). Early modern conduct manuals very often stress the notion that aristocracy was first bequeathed to certain families by common consent of the people, as a reward for their achievements. Perhaps the richest and most intriguing assertion of this view comes in Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Governor (1532) – a favourite book of Shakespeare’s. ‘In the beginning,’ Elyot tells us in his chapter on nobility,

when private possessions and dignity were given by the consent of the people, who then had all things in common, and equality in degree and condition, undoubtedly they gave the one and the other to him at whose virtue they marveled, and by whose labour and industry they received a common benefit, as of a common father that with equal affection loved them.[2]

It’s therefore necessary, Elyot asserts, for each new generation of nobles to reassert their nobility in action if they wish to retain their hereditary privileges; and Shakespeare’s King of France concurs. ‘Honours thrive,’ the King tells Bertram, ‘When rather from our acts we them derive / Than our fore-goers’ (2.3.133-5). Those nobles who fail to act nobly not only forego their right to the title they inherit, but show symptoms of a more general sickness in the world they inhabit. Elyot puts it like this:

Where virtue joined with great possessions or dignity hath long continued in the blood or house of a gentleman, as it were an inheritance, there nobility is most shown, and these noble men be most to be honoured; forasmuch as continuance in all thing that is good hath ever pre-eminence in praise and comparison. But yet shall it be necessary to advertize those persons, that do think nobility may in no wise be but only where men can avaunt them of ancient lineage, an ancient robe, or great possessions, at this day very noble men do suppose to be much error and folly. Whereof there is a familiar example, which we bear ever with us, for the blood in our bodies being in youth warm, pure, and lusty, it is the occasion of beauty, which is everywhere commended and loved; but if in age it be putrefied, it loseth his praise. And the gouts, carbuncles, cankers, leprosy, and other like sores and sicknesses, which do proceed of blood corrupted, be to all men detestable. (p. 104)

What this passage reveals is the fact that the past is the location of radical thought and action. It was as a result of a communal decision, a revolutionary rethinking of the problem of how best to live together, that people first established the institution of nobility. Elyot’s identification of nobility as having been granted to certain men by democratic agreement implies that it can be taken away just as easily (notice that resonant phrase ‘as it were an inheritance’ – Elyot denies that inheritance is ever either essential or automatic). The political implications of this position were taken up much later in the century in the notorious French treatise Vindiciae contra tyrannos (1579), by Philippe du Plessis Mornay and Hubert Languet, which argued that kings as well as nobles were originally elected by the people, and might be deselected – deposed – should their merits become subject to ‘degeneration’. And Elyot’s comparison of successive generations of nobles to the ageing of the human body implies something more: that later generations are in a sense older than those that went before them, since they are further removed from the vigorous, innovatory convictions that motivated the institution of nobility. The younger generation is therefore more vulnerable to the ravages of disease – to what he calls putrefaction – than the old. Bertram is sicker than the King of France, his body less responsive to Helen’s loveliness, his concern for the public weal, as Elyot calls it – for the wealth and/or wellness of the state (Elyot was an amateur physician as well as a politician) – almost non-existent. The notion that he is to be healed in the second half of the play, as the King was in the first, is a structuring principle of the comedy. And the play implies too that the world Bertram represents – the world occupied by the theatre audience – is as sick as he is, and needs restoring to health by similar means if it’s not to fall apart under the burden of its own decrepitude.

Sir Thomas Elyot was a lexicographer like Samuel Johnson. He authored the first Latin-English dictionary, and his Book Named the Governor is also a kind of lexicon, passionately committed to the belief that the right use of words, the respect for their etymology and proper deployment, is essential to the wholesomeness of any early modern society.[3] His chapter on nobility is more concerned with restoring that word to its proper signification in the here and now than it is with antiquarianism. All’s Well is similarly concerned with the use and misuse of words; and its title implies a similar reading of the world as having gone off track, as needing to return to where it started, to the common weal, which depends on a common or mutual understanding of what words mean – an understanding that has almost been lost, with disastrous political and social consequences.

The nostalgia of Helen and the old people of All’s Well is for a very distant past; perhaps even for the days before the nobility was founded, that golden age when the idea of nobleness mattered more than any social institution. They speak of the age when miracles occurred (as they do again in this play: the miracle of the King’s recovery, the miracle of Helen’s return from the dead to reclaim the hand of her husband); or when goddesses like Diana walked the earth (as she does in this play from Act Three, in the person of the mortal girl Diana). Above all, they speak of the days when words were inextricably linked with their simplest meanings, as Helen insists they are when she addresses people like Diana who share her integrity, or as the King says they were whenever Bertram’s father opened his mouth. ‘His honour,’ says the King of his dead friend, ‘Clock to itself, knew the true minute when / Exception bid him speak, and at this time / His tongue obeyed his hand’ (1.2.38-41). Words in those days were carefully weighed, sparingly spoken, sincerely meant; and once again, the King’s and Helen’s deployment of rhyme would seem to replicate the careful timing and placing of words that characterized this legendary epoch.

Of all the good qualities of the past, this exemplary use of language is the most difficult to recover in the present. The Countess’s desperate efforts to get Helen to confess her love for Bertram, the Countess’s son, are rendered necessary by the time they live in; a time when the tongue is hobbled by the knowledge that its owner’s best intentions may be wilfully misread, its most direct and honest utterances subject to misprision. ‘Only sin / And hellish obstinacy tie thy tongue,’ the Countess tells Helen, ‘That truth should be suspected’ (1.3.170-2); but she is wrong. Helen is merely concerned to defer her declaration of love until she knows she will be pardoned for it; that she will not be condemned out of hand for ambition in loving a man above her station, or brazenness in giving her desire expression. These days, Helen finds, well-meaning people must convey their thoughts in riddles if they wish to avoid instant misprision. She speaks ‘riddle-like’ to the Countess when she finally confesses her love for the Countess’s son (1.3.208); and in the final scene, her friend Diana speaks in riddles to the King in her efforts to explain the convoluted paths by which the play’s happy ending is being achieved. Riddling is the language of oracles, another of the ancient sources of knowledge that Helen resurrects. When she promises the King that she can cure him, she relies on the ‘help of heaven’ to substantiate her promise (2.1.151), just as the priestess did at the Delphic oracle when she begged Apollo for answers to his worshippers’ questions. The King is both amazed and impressed by Helen’s confidence: ‘Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak / His powerful sound within an organ weak,’ he tells her, ‘And what impossibility would slay / In common sense, sense saves another way’ (2.1.174-7). Her claims to occult knowledge, in other words, seem to him senseless, like the verses delivered by the Delphic oracle; yet in one way or another the ‘sense’ of the Delphic verses was always confirmed by the outcome of events, just as the sense of Helen’s riddles will assert itself before the play is done. The plot of All’s Well is an elaborate device to give substance to the latter-day oracular riddle spoken by Diana in the final scene: or to put it another way, to extract sense from a senseless world by uttering seeming nonsense.

Conleth Hill as Parolles, Michelle Terry as Helena

In the modern age, words are wayward, treacherous, suspicious, and must be circumvented by discovering a new discourse composed (perhaps) of riddles and rhymes. Yet even words as used in the modern age can serve to bring people together if cleverly used – like the wheelings and dealings of a crafty pimp. This is confirmed in All’s Well by the words and actions of Parolles; a braggart soldier who helps to lead Helen’s husband Bertram astray, but who also helps to bring him back to the wife he abandons; a pimp who lends his services in an effort to help Bertram commit adultery, but who ends instead by introducing the wayward husband to the deferred delights of his wedding night. As his name suggests (it means ‘words’ in French), Parolles embodies the way words are used in the here and now, the duplicitous ambiguity of latter-day discourse. Words lead people away from truth, just as Parolles encourages Bertram to be untrue to Helen; yet they also inadvertently restore truth to those who have lost it, as Parolles restores Bertram to his lost spouse. This verbal double action is present in everything Parolles says. In the first act, for instance, he delivers an oration to the virgin Helen on the uselessness of virginity (‘Loss of virginity is rational increase; and there was never virgin got till virginity was first lost’, 1.1.117-9). Yet despite his obviously salacious motives in speaking thus (he wants to sleep with Helen himself), Helen is not insulted by Parolles’s oration. On the contrary, she finds it intriguing: it impels her to ask him what is (for her) the million dollar question: ‘How might one do, sir, to lose [virginity] to her own liking?’ (1.1.141). Yet the same speech serves Bertram’s turn as well; the young man later parrots it when attempting to seduce Diana: ‘When you are dead, you should be such a one / As you are now, for you are cold and stern; / And now you should be as your mother was / When your sweet self was got’ (4.2.7-10). Parolles, in other words, speaks both for the loyal Helen and for the disloyal Bertram. He gives voice to Helen’s desire, which she cannot easily voice herself without being condemned for it like her Homeric namesake; and he furnishes Bertram with the language of seduction, thus initiating the young man into the pleasures of sex – the first step on the way to reconciliation with his wife. This dual action of Parolles’s words is apparent, too, in the message he delivers to Helen from Bertram after their marriage, telling her that Bertram has left her for the theatre of war. For Parolles, this abandonment – which seems so disastrous to Helen’s adopted parents – is merely a deferral of the couple’s pleasure, an erotic technique (familiar to frequenters of brothels) for enhancing the ecstasy of their future love-making. Bertram’s departure, says Parolles, will ‘make the coming hour o’erflow with joy / And pleasure drown the brim’ (2.4.44-5). And despite the fact that Parolles doesn’t mean this – that at this point he doesn’t expect Bertram and Helen ever to meet again – this quasi-pornographic fantasy proves prophetic. The King’s last words before the play’s epilogue (‘The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet’, 5.3.327) effectively repeat Parolles’s sentiment. Parolles, then, is a vehicle for truthful utterance – a servant, like Helen, of the gods, or of whatever forces lend structure to chaos, bring sense out of nonsense. The difference is that Helen is conscious that she has this function, whereas Parolles is not.

If Parolles acts as a kind of inadvertent soothsayer or prophet, then Helen and the older generation to which she allies herself sometimes act as pimps. When the old courtier Lafeu first leaves Helen alone with the King he compares himself to the most famous of pimps: ‘I am Cressid’s uncle, / That dare leave two together’ (2.1.96-7). His pimping has a positive effect: the King is cured, and Lafeu alludes to the King’s restored health in sexual terms: he is ‘Lustig, as the Dutchman says… he’s able to lead her a coranto’ (2.3.38-40). The newly cured King then acts as a pimp with Helen as his client: first parading his courtiers before her like whores in a brothel, then using threats to make her chosen partner, Bertram, accept her advances. The comparison of King to pimp may seem a trifle strained; but it does not seem so to Lafeu, who is disgusted by the young courtiers’ failure to respond to Helen as compliant whores should do: ‘An they were sons of mine I’d have them whipt; or I would send them to th’Turk to make eunuchs of’ (2.3.84-6). And the comparison occurs, too, to Bertram, who is appalled by the role reversal whereby a woman becomes the client and himself the sexual partner she chooses: ‘In such a business’ he says, ‘give me leave to use / The help of mine own eyes’ (2.3.105-6, my emphasis). Later in the play, Diana’s widowed mother uses the same word, ‘business’, to refer to pimping: she tells Helen that she is well brought up and therefore ‘Nothing acquainted with these businesses’ (3.7.5), such as that of getting a strange woman into bed with a man. But at this point Helen is urging the widow to act as a legitimate pimp between herself and Bertram, just as Lafeu and the King acted as legitimate pimps in the play’s second act. Bertram has fled to Italy without consummating his marriage to Helen, and Helen prostitutes herself with the aim of producing lawful effects from Bertram’s unlawful desires. In Italy, Bertram is attracted to Diana, the widow’s daughter, and makes an arrangement through Parolles to sleep with her; but Helen substitutes herself for Bertram in Diana’s bed, thus creating the context for yet another redemptive riddle. Her plot to sleep with Bertram, she says, ‘Is wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act; / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact’ (3.7.45-7). In a world where men react with horror to lawful sex and instead seek pleasure with unlawful partners, pimping, prostitution and the playing of sexual practical jokes may be legitimate practices, and dealing in double meanings may be the only way to circumvent more damaging forms of duplicity.

Jim DeVita as Parolles

Parolles is the presiding spirit of this decadent modern world, self-centred, dishonest, bombastic, morally hollow; and what happens to him demonstrates how this world can most effectively be dealt with. Parolles, like the duplicitous words invoked by his name, can be worked on to generate useful meanings. His particular brand of nonsense can be exploited to produce sense, just as the more elevated nonsense of prophecy can make sense when properly applied. In the fourth act Parolles is subjected to a terrifying practical joke that unleashes a torrent of verbiage from him. A band of his fellow soldiers, attached like him to the Florentine army, disguise themselves as members of the army with which Florence is at war. They capture Parolles, then interrogate him in a nonsensical made-up language cobbled together from fragments of European dialects ancient and modern. Under their interrogation and in terror of his life, Parolles regales them with a flood of truths and half-truths, treacherously telling them all he knows and more about the composition of the Florentine forces and the private lives of the Florentine generals. At the end of the dreadful interview the traitor’s eyes are unbound and he finds himself confronted with the men he has been betraying and traducing. And his exposure betrays not only Parolles but the man who took Parolles at his word, Bertram. The young man’s trust in the protestations of a fool who is so palpably untrustworthy suggests that he himself is not to be trusted. The interrogators find in Parolles’s pocket evidence of both his and Bertram’s unreliability: a letter from Parolles to Diana, urging her not to trust Bertram (‘After he scores, he never pays the score… He ne’er pays after-debts’, 4.3.208-210) and to transfer her favours to Parolles instead. Later, Parolles again betrays the truth about Bertram, inadvertently testifying to his attempted seduction of Diana at a crucial moment in the play’s last scene. Parolles, like Helen, makes sense out of nonsense if properly ‘found’.

The man who ‘finds’ Parolles’s dishonesty is old Lafeu (‘I have now found thee,’ he crows in Act Two, 2.3.203); and it’s Lafeu who employs him as a fool at the end of the play. The old courtier notes the danger of taking Parolles seriously – of lending excessive credence to the kinds of insubstantial words he represents. He tells Bertram that ‘there can be no kernel in this light nut’ and warns him to ‘trust him not in matter of heavy consequence’ (2.5.42-5). At the same time, Lafeu sees too that properly handled Parolles’s lightness can be wholesome. The Countess of Roussillon’s fool Lavatch urges him to find the fool in himself: ‘much fool may you find in you, even to the world’s pleasure and the increase of laughter’ (2.4.34-5); and it’s ‘to the increase of laughter’ that he is tricked into betraying what he knows about Bertram and the Florentine army, since the French lords who plan the prank do it ‘for the love of laughter’ (3.6.29). As a result of their exposure Parolles becomes an honest man – or rather, honestly dishonest, dedicating himself to a career in making people laugh with his blatant lies and petty treasons. From being a corrupting influence when given too much weight, he becomes an invigorating one when taken as what he is, the epitome of lightness. And this transformation of Parolles from heavy and corrupt to light and wholesome is masterminded by a man whose name allies him with light, an ennobled reincarnation of Measure for Measure’s Lucio, Parolles’s new master Lafeu.

Parolles the Captive, by Francis Wheatley

Lafeu specializes in well-timed humour, distinguishing the serious from the frivolous with a tact and sensitivity that recalls the King’s description of Bertram’s dead father. When introducing Helen to the King he begins by associating her with a chain of sexual allusions. ‘I have seen a medicine’ he says, ‘That’s able to breathe life into a stone… whose simple touch / Is powerful to araise King Pepin’ – Pepin being a long-dead ancestor of the French King’s whose name comically distorts the word ‘penis’ (2.1.71-5). But Lafeu goes on to testify seriously to Helen’s apparent worth, ‘If seriously I may convey my thoughts / In this my light deliverance’ (2.1.80-1). He thus becomes the first to warn of the ease with which women may be taken too lightly, the substance of their ‘light’ – that is, their knowledge, wit and wisdom – left unrecognized, to the detriment of all. Bertram’s mother the Countess of Roussillon is the next to see it. Instructing her steward to write to Bertram about Helen’s departure from France she tells him, ‘Let every word weigh heavy of her worth / That he does weigh too light’ (3.4.31-2). And the King is the last; speaking of Helen’s supposed death he tells Bertram that ‘Our rash faults / Make trivial price of serious things we have, / Not knowing them until we know their grave’ (5.3.60-2). Lafeu has helped to teach his elderly contemporaries the distinction between different forms of lightness; and at the end of the play he proposes to go on using Parolles as a tool for illustrating the distinction.

Bertram, by contrast, goes on devaluing women till the last possible moment. When Diana accuses him of seducing her in the final scene he dismisses her as a plaything, a disposable toy: she is ‘a fond and desp’rate creature / Whom sometime I have laugh’d with’ (5.3.177-8). No wonder, then, if women have recourse to light strategies to get justice from men of his generation. Helen poses as a ‘light’ woman, a whore, to get him back when he deserts her; and Diana has recourse to the ‘light’ or frivolous language of riddles to explain Bertram’s actions to the King (‘So there’s my riddle: one that’s dead is quick’, 5.3.297). Diana’s jokes almost kill her; exasperated by their seeming senselessness, the King orders her to prison and adds that he will put her to death ‘within this hour’ if she cannot give him a more satisfactory account of herself (5.3.278). Luckily, Diana is able to provide a visual clue to the ‘meaning’ of her riddle by presenting the King with the living body of Helen, who was thought to be dead; a body that is also ‘quick’ with child, that is, pregnant by Bertram. There is substance to her quibbles, sense to her senselessness, as there is not to Bertram’s lying protestations of honour and fidelity. It is Bertram, not Diana or Helen, who is light – as hollow as the drum with which Parolles is repeatedly linked. And at the end of the play one cannot help but wonder if he can ever acquire the substance to keep his promise to Helen and ‘love her dearly, ever, ever dearly’ (5.3.310).

In an earlier French play by Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1594-5), words grew wings and flew away from meaning. The play’s repeated references to children and childishness reflected the immaturity of the witty courtiers who set its tone, and its unsatisfactory ending stressed the difficulty of reuniting what they had divided: sound and sense. All’s Well introduces us to another set of French courtiers many of whom are elderly, as if they have long ago completed the rigorous course of instruction imposed on Navarre and his companions by the youthful Queen of France. In All’s Well comedy comes of age, its destructiveness and its wholesomeness held in a delicate balance. Throughout the play, as has often been noted, there’s an emphasis on healing that reflects yet another meaning of the title: all’s well that ends in a state of health. And good comedy was said to be one of the most potent medicines of all, reviving and restoring its auditors through the healing influence of laughter. At the beginning of the play Helen wishes Bertram well as he leaves for the court of France, although she is uncertain that his departure will bring him wellness. ‘Tis pity,’ she tells Parolles,

That wishing well had not a body in’t
Which might be felt; that we, the poorer born,
Whose baser stars do shut us up in wishes,
Might with effects of them follow our friends
And show what we alone must think, which never
Returns us thanks. (1.1.166-74)

In the rest of the play Helen does indeed give a body to her wishes and follow Bertram, like an embodiment of the base-born comic playwright, who gives body to his thoughts for the benefit of the highest as well as of the lowest social classes. She plays an audacious comic trick on him to marry him, and a yet more audacious prank to consummate their marriage; and she contrives a comic ending to their adventures in defiance of hatred, infidelity and death. She is a mistress, then, of the related arts of medicine and comedy; and her early success in healing the King permits us to hope that she will finally succeed in healing Bertram, too, despite all appearances to the contrary. After all, less plausible things have happened, both on and off the comic stage.

Kristin Villanueva as Helena, Timothy Douglas as the King of France

[1] William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure (1566-7), Volume 1.

[2] Sir Thomas Elyot, The Book Named the Governor, ed. S. E. Lehmberg (London and New York: Dent and Dutton, 1962), pp. 103-4.

[3] See my Elizabethan Fictions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), chapter 1, for more on Elyot’s The Governor as lexicon.

Comedy, Gender and Freedom of Speech in the Plays of Lyly and Marlowe

[I’ve recently been working with Dermot Cavanagh on a special issue of the Journal of the Northern Renaissance in honour of our friend Alison Thorne, who was forced by illness into early retirement. While writing the introduction to the issue I spent some time thinking about Alison’s remarkable academic career, and in particular a major conference she co-organised with Jenny Richards, ‘Renaissance Rhetoric, Gender and Politics’, at the University of Strathclyde, 24-25 April 2003. I gave a keynote at the conference which was never published, although the opening paragraph found a place in my book Shakespeare and Comedy in 2005. On reflection I thought this would be a good moment to publish it here, even if neither play under discussion is precisely fantastic. John Lyly’s Campaspe, at least, is something of a lost book, or at least a lost play, and Marlowe’s Tamburlaine Part 1 celebrates (or warns against) the political potency of the imagination. That’s fantastic enough for me this afternoon. Here it is, for Alison.]

Comedy in the 1580s was a genre under siege. The assault on the theatre, galvanized into new life by the erection of the first purpose-built playhouse in 1576, was in large part an assault on comedy. For writers of the anti-theatrical movement, playhouses provided a solid foothold in English soil for potential foreign invaders, while the comedies performed in them imported sophisticated and seductive foreign values into a culture that had once prided itself on its simplicity. Comedy softened and feminized the stern minds and muscular bodies of Englishmen in readiness for the imminent return of their wily Catholic colonists from across the water. Comedy was a virus, a debilitating contagion capable of spreading like wildfire from the playhouses on the city’s margins into the heart of the metropolis. And it was also an addiction. As the cleverest of the anti-theatrical writers put it: ‘in Comedies delight being moved with varietie of shewes, of eventes, of musicke, the longer we gaze, the more we crave, yea so forcible they are, that afterwards being but thought upon, they make us seeke for the like an other time’. For this writer – Stephen Gosson – cross-dressing and other comic violations of decorum represent ‘rebellion raysed against reason’ and the ‘lawes of God’. And there is only the shortest of steps between rebellion against God’s laws and insurrection against the state.

Invective against comedy in the 1570s and 80s freely deploys the vocabulary of violence. If the genre is ‘forcible’, rebelling against law and logic, then it must be suppressed by force. Playhouses must be demolished, and the laughter-loving players arrested and aggressively punished for fostering idleness and dissidence among the citizens of London. Yet comedy’s chief offence is that of spreading effeminacy: bringing men closer to women through the twin agencies of desire and disguise, part of a larger theatrical agenda of unsettling gender and class distinctions which will result, the polemicists insist, in the collapse of the English social order. The fusion of the discourse of violence with that of seduction, of ‘male’ aggression with ‘female’ allurement, in the anti-theatrical polemics of the period, is profoundly unsettling for a modern reader. But I’d like to suggest that it was also unsettling for sixteenth-century theatre-goers – writers, players and audiences – and that it had a profound effect on the way comedies got written in the decade before Shakespeare got started as a playwright.

I’d like to suggest, in fact, that the anti-theatrical movement helped to consolidate a tendency already prevalent among English playwrights: that of mixing the comic and the tragic modes for dramatic and political purposes. There were very few ‘pure’ comedies written in English before the late 1590s: ‘pure’, that is, in the technical sense that they dealt exclusively with matters of moderate importance and persons of middling fortunes, having nothing to do with high politics or exalted estates. But the impurity of English comedy was part of what made it both ‘forcible’ and seductive. Comedy, I shall argue, was seen in Elizabethan times as a space where people of the middling sort – people of the class to which the players themselves belonged, who had only limited access to the machinery of power in the Elizabethan state – could engage with matters of moment. It was a platform from which they could address representatives from the whole range of social classes who jostled each other in the streets of the city, and who were forced into still more intimate contact in the crowded space of the playhouse. Comedy was a forum for free speech: and the playwrights of the 1580s were seriously interested in the question of when and how far the licence to speak freely could be made available in a monarchy.

Apelles and Campaspe by Jodocus de Winghe (c. 1600)

I shall make my case by looking at two very different plays from the 1580s: John Lyly’s Campaspe and Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine Part 1. Despite their obvious differences – one is a comedy, the other a tragedy, one in prose, the other in verse, one written for the court, the other for public performance in a London playhouse – these plays have a lot in common. Each was the first piece written by a major playwright, and each set out to establish that playwright’s dramatic agenda. Both were hugely influential, both played sophisticated games with contemporary theories of the comic, and both are preoccupied to a greater or lesser extent with violence – especially violence against women. Above all, both are concerned to draw attention to their own innovative discourse, parading their distinctive new rhetorical techniques as exceptional instances of the many forms of free speech available to be exploited by educated commoners in the late sixteenth century. These plays, then, are courageous and radical dramatic experiments, whose achievements made possible the astonishing sophistication of Shakespearean comedy in the following decade. As if in direct response to Stephen Gosson’s anti-theatrical polemics – which Lyly, at least, knew well – they both acknowledge and celebrate the danger of getting involved with the theatre; and it’s only by recapturing that sense of danger that we’ll be able to do them justice today.

As Michael Pincombe has pointed out in his seminal book on Lyly’s plays, Campaspe is not a court comedy, though it was published as one by Edmund Blount in the 1630s. Lyly’s plays were not exclusively shown to a courtly audience. Before being presented to the queen they were first staged for an audience of citizens at the ‘private’ indoor theatre known as the Blackfriars playhouse – a more expensive venue than the ‘public’ open-air playhouses – on the pretext that they needed to be thoroughly rehearsed if they were to reach the proper standard for a court performance. And after both sets of performances were over, they were published and read voraciously by a public eager to gain an insight into the current fashions in language and drama among the aristocracy. These plays, then, had a multiple audience, and Lyly’s self-consciousness about his audiences is embodied in Campaspe by the forthright philosopher Diogenes, who combines the roles of clown, entertainer and teacher in a manner that enables him to move freely between very different social levels.

Diogenes and Alexander by Gaetano Gandolfi, 1792

Lyly’s Diogenes operates on two fronts. On the one hand he is a commoner who succeeds in criticizing a king without suffering for it – which is all the more remarkable since the monarch in question is Alexander the Great, famous both for his interest in philosophers and for his readiness to put them to death. On the other hand, Diogenes is a harsh critic of his fellow citizens in the Greek metropolis, Athens, whom he berates in the city market-place for their irresponsibility, moral turpitude, and willingness to encourage their king in his most damaging vices. The philosopher-clown’s unwavering determination to speak openly makes him the personification of libera vox, freedom of speech, as the rhetorician Thomas Wilson conceived it. ‘Freenesse of speache,’ Wilson writes, ‘is when we speake boldely, and without feare, even to the proudest of them, whatsoever we please, or have list to speake. Diogenes,’ he adds, ‘herein did excel, and feared no man when he sawe just cause to saie his mynde. This worlde wanteth suche as he was, and hath over many suche, as never honest man was, that is to say, flatterers, fawners, and southers of mennes saiynges’ (396-7). Far from being a fault, Diogenes’ refusal to honour persons, time or place is a sign of his integrity and courage, and his comic bluntness challenges Alexander to show equal integrity and courage by granting the philosopher a licence to speak as he pleases. The historical Alexander was thought by many to have been assassinated as a direct result of his efforts to silence his critics; as Sir Thomas Elyot put it in his Book Named The Governor, in the context of a detailed discussion of the Macedonian prince: ‘O what damage have ensued to princes and their realms where liberty of speech hath been restrained!’ (108). Lyly’s comedy offers his Elizabethan rulers the opportunity to redress a wrong committed by one of their most illustrious ancient predecessors.

Apelles and Campaspe by Willem van Haecht, c. 1630

Lyly may have created his Diogenes as a direct response to Stephen Gosson’s criticisms of the theatre, which he certainly knew. The fearless philosopher who stages instructive comic performances for all classes serves to demonstrate that a well-made, playful comedy can be as forthright in its denunciation of social corruption as any polemical pamphlet. But Lyly also incorporates into his play an artist who embodies everything Gosson decried in contemporary comedy: the painter Apelles, who is employed by Alexander to paint the woman he has fallen in love with, Campaspe, and who promptly falls in love with her himself. Gosson’s strictures on the obsession of early modern drama with erotic love would seem to be borne out both by Alexander’s love and by Apelles’: by Alexander’s because it distracts him from serious military endeavours, and by Apelles’ because it confirms Gosson’s suspicion that most art is exclusively preoccupied with gratifying the senses at the expense of reason. Indeed, one might argue that Lyly had no choice but to confirm Gosson’s suspicions if his play was to be read as a serious response to Gosson. If Diogenes’ role is to purge the comic space he inhabits from its vices, then in order for him to do this convincingly, Lyly must introduce these vices into his own dramatic production. The philosopher’s Gossonian hostility to erotic love would seem to be confirmed by a short scene in Act 5, where the prostitute Lais encourages the young men of Athens to ‘conquer worldes with great wordes: but stay at home, where in steede of Alarums you shall have daunces, for hot battelles with fierce menne, gentle Skirmishes with fayre womenne’. In response, Diogenes berates her as poisonous carrion; and in the next scene he communicates his misogyny to Alexander, thus preparing him for his eventual abandonment of his temporary role as lover and his return to the theatre of war.

Apelles painting Campaspe by Francesco Trevisani, 1721

But comedy itself is not corrupt in Campaspe as it is in Gosson’s polemic. On the contrary, it’s the king’s willingness to thrust himself ‘by head and shoulders’ into a comic milieu where he does not belong that is the chief cause of anxiety in Lyly’s comedy. Throughout the play, Alexander’s preoccupation with his base-born captive, Campaspe – a prize from his recent conquest of Thebes – is represented as a diversion from his proper business, which is the savage one of conquering other people’s kingdoms. The play represents a space of leisure time in the midst of frenetic military activity: as Alexander puts it in the third act, ‘recreation [is] necessary among so many assaults, bloudye wounds, intollerable troubles: give mee leave a litle, if not to sitte, yet to breath’. But the king’s intervention in the recreational world of comedy brings mortal terror to the practitioners of the arts of peace. He begins by planning to transform his court into a school of philosophy, like the King of Navarre in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. But when interviewing the Athenian philosophers for admission to his school he starts by reminding them of a philosopher who was executed for treason – Callisthenes – and warns them that such a scholar’s ‘treasons againste his prince shall not bee borne out with the reasons of his Phylosophy’. As a result, the philosophers hasten to transform themselves into courtly sycophants, adapting their doctrines to Alexander’s wishes – with the honourable exception of the philosopher-clown Diogenes. Later Alexander tries his hand at painting, and his tutor and love-rival, the painter Apelles, has to use all his tact to criticize his work without giving offence. When the monarch asks ‘how have I done heere?’ the artist replies ‘Like a king’, and Alexander at once takes the real point of what sounds like a compliment: ‘I thinke so: but nothing more unlike a Painter’. Lyly’s point seems to be that governing is an art, but that it does not give governors either the skill or the right to intervene in other arts. And the appeal for artistic freedom in Lyly’s play comes into sharpest focus when Alexander seeks to initiate himself in the art of love.

The king’s decision to fancy himself in love with Campaspe is an unmitigated disaster. For one thing, he thinks – like the Pagan gods he seeks to emulate – that his royal status permits him to do anything to satisfy his desire, since he arrogantly presumes that kingly ‘passions and thoughts do as far exceede others in extremitie, as their callings doe in Majestie’. The fact is, however, that love is an arena in which royal status is more of a hindrance than a help. As his friend Hephestion warns him – after carefully seeking permission to speak openly – a king may command a reluctant subject ‘to yeelde to luste by force; but to consent to love by feare, you cannot’. Campaspe herself later confirms the incompatibility of monarchs with romance: ‘They place affection by times, by pollicie, by appointment; if they frowne, who dares cal them unconstant? if bewray secretes, who will tearme them untrue? if fall to other loves, who trembles not, if he call them unfaithfull?’ Campaspe’s observations are couched in the language of self-censorship that permeates the play: every character except Diogenes spends the entire action engaged in elaborate efforts to avoid giving verbal offence to the irascible conqueror. The soldiers Clitus and Parmenio, for instance, take the view that the king’s love affair has feminized his people, much as Gosson held that the theatre had feminized the English people. As Parmenio puts it, ‘youthes that were woont to carry devises of victory in their shieldes, engrave now posies of love in their ringes: they that were accustomed on trotting horses to charge the enimy with a launce, now in easie coches ride up and downe to court Ladies; in steede of sword and target to hazard their lives, use pen and paper to paint their loves’. But the two soldiers never dare to express these thoughts openly, for reasons Parmenio explains earlier: ‘kinges… have long eares and stretched armes, in whose heades suspition is a proofe, and to be accused is to be condemned’. In other words, Alexander’s misplaced love makes him a tyrant in that he becomes deaf to the voices of his subjects. And it also makes Apelles a traitor for exercising the faculty he is best qualified to practise: the judgement of beauty.

Apelles painting Campaspe, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1740

One of Lyly’s favourite authors, Baldassare Castiglione, argued in his Book of the Courtier that Apelles was a better judge of Campaspe’s beauty than Alexander could ever be, and suggested that it was ‘perhaps also for this respect’ that the king ‘determined to bestow her upon him, that (in his mind) could know her more perfectly than he did’ (82). Castiglione also suggested that Campaspe probably felt aggrieved at being forced to exchange ‘so great a king for a painter’. But in Lyly’s play she reciprocates Apelles’ feelings, conscious that a man of her own class is a safer match for her than royalty, and convinced that the painter’s love ‘commeth from the heart, but Alexanders from the mouth’. Lyly’s Apelles certainly appreciates beauty: when Alexander asks him in Act 2 if he has yet finished his famous painting of the goddess of beauty, Venus, he replies ‘Not yet: Bewty is not so soone shadowed, whose perfection commeth not within the compasse either of cunning or of colour’. Later he tells Alexander that he will never finish painting Campaspe, ‘for alwayes in absolute bewtie there is somwhat above arte’. But Apelles is being over-modest; he does in fact finish painting Campaspe to his satisfaction, and thinks her portrait superior to Pygmalion’s image. But he is also driven, both by his desire to see her again and by his fear of revealing this desire to the king, to damage his own painting so that she will sit for him a second time. Lyly agrees with Gosson, then, as well as with Castiglione, that it is the business of art to enhance our appreciation of bodily beauty. But unlike Gosson he implies that this only becomes dangerous when the powerful begin to make unreasonable claims on the artist and his materials: when they profess, for instance, absolute power over the minds, bodies and emotions of their subjects, or when they presume to dictate the way art should be practised. Art is a middle-class activity – just as Apelles and his model Campaspe are middle-class lovers – and the interference of rulers in its affairs makes it as deformed as Apelles’ damaged painting.

Apelles painting Campaspe, by Joos van Winghe (1544–1603)

At the end of Lyly’s play Alexander comes at last to recognize these facts and to affirm his regal distance from, and mild disdain for, the emotional terrain which is part of the artist’s territory. From now on, he says, he will restrict himself to ‘using fancy as a foole to make him sport, or a minstrell to make him mery’. In saying so he claims to have achieved another conquest: as Hephestion admiringly tells him, ‘The conquering of Thebes was not so honourable as the subdueing of these thoughts’. But in fact Alexander has egregiously failed to master the various arts of peace at which he has tried his hand in the course of the action; and only a few lines earlier he has confessed that he ‘cannot subdue the affections of men, though he can conquer their countries’. Art and love, and above all the comedy or tragicomedy in which Lyly dealt with these topics, have been shown both to inhabit a space beyond the control of governors, and to be capable of probing the doings of the governing classes. To put it another way, in comedy the king, the player, and the acerbic social commentator are equals, as Alexander again confesses when he makes his famous remark about the philosopher-clown: ‘were I not Alexander, I wolde wishe to be Diogenes’.

This was a bold statement for Lyly to make in his first court comedy. Perhaps he felt impelled to make it because he was writing at the time when a court official had been given new powers over the censorship and regulation of the English stage. The official was the Master of the Revels, a post that Lyly seems at one time to have wanted for himself; and the Master appointed in 1581 was Edmund Tilney, who remained in charge of licensing plays for performance throughout most of Shakespeare’s career. If the new powers granted to Tilney represented the court’s attempt to impose its stamp on contemporary drama, then Lyly’s Campaspe might be seen as the dramatists’ defiant response: at once confirming and dismissing Gosson’s fears about contemporary comedy, defining the limits of Tilney’s censorial activities, and proclaiming the courage, independence and value of the voice of the middle-class dramatist as a restraining (but delightful) influence on both court and city.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that Campaspe was one of the most influential plays of the 1580s, and that its influence went well beyond the ‘private’ theatre of the court and the Blackfriars playhouse. Lyly’s wittily outspoken drama straddling court and city gave Shakespeare and his immediate predecessors a model for the production of dramatic texts that could successfully negotiate both spheres. But Lyly’s range as a playwright was relatively limited, curtailed, no doubt, by his sense of his social position – as a gentleman born, a descendant of eminent educators, and a man who hoped for a reward at the queen’s hands which in fact never came. His humbler characters are for the most part oddly static, signalling, by their willingness to let events take their course, that they pose no real threat to royal authority (indeed, in one of his most celebrated plays – Endimion – the protagonist spends most of the play fast asleep). At the other end of the social scale, kings and queens in his plays always decide for themselves what to do about the situations in which they find themselves, and make it clear that they will always disregard their counsellors when their advice proves unpalatable. As we’ve seen, Campaspe self-consciously inhabits a space that is not the main sphere of political action: if it defines a privileged platform for comic free speech at court, it’s one that is decorously segregated from serious acts of government such as law-giving, war, or political debate. Although one gets the sense that Diogenes could intervene in these areas should he choose to do so, it’s equally plain that in this play, at least, he does not.

The Theatre playhouse, by C. Walter Hodges

The plays written for the new purpose-built public theatres, by contrast, insist on their political centrality. Although the playhouses themselves occupied only a limited and marginal geographical area – because of the hostility of the city authorities they had to be built in the suburbs of London – the plays performed in them cover a dizzying expanse of the world’s surface, as if to articulate the players’ triumphant sense of having finally colonized a plot of land in the name of drama. From the city of London itself, to which a number of plays in the 1580s presumptuously offer advice, to the vast fields of Europe, Africa and Asia, the fixed space of the stage showed itself able and willing imaginatively to take on the properties of the most powerful cities and states on earth at crucial moments in their history. From 1575, when the Theatre playhouse was erected in Shoreditch, Elizabethan drama increasingly declared its ambition to throw off the shackles of decorum and take the Globe as its subject. And this ambition was carried well beyond the walls of the theatre buildings by the touring versions of the plays that roamed the far-flung provinces of England and Europe.

Discarding restrictions of space inevitably also entailed discarding restrictions of time; and not just in the sense of flouting the dramatic unities favoured by followers of Aristotle. For the anti-theatrical lobby, the very existence of the playhouse buildings constituted a violation of the authorities’ bid to control urban space and time, whose regulation was always being disrupted by wayward servants and recalcitrant apprentices. The 1580s and 1590s witnessed a busy exchange of letters between the city authorities and the Privy Council of Elizabeth I, many of which are dominated by the topic of the players’ refusal to keep to the days of the week and times of the day for which they have been licensed. In this as in all things, complained the Mayor and Aldermen of the city, modern players run ‘Contrary to the rules and art prescribed for the makinge of Comedies eaven amonge the Heathen, who used them seldom and at certen sett tymes, and not all the year longe as our manner is’ (Chambers 322). Performances during working hours or on Sundays ‘draw apprentices and other servauntes from theire ordinary workes and all sortes of people from the resort unto sermons and other Christian exercises’; while performance ‘In the time of sicknes’ – during outbreaks of plague – helps to accelerate the spread of infection through the city streets. If Elizabethan comedies show something of an obsession with the notion of bad timing they are merely responding – on one level at least – to the stock prejudices of the anti-theatrical lobby concerning the flagrant disregard for proper time-keeping among players and their audiences.

Marlowe by anonymous

Geographical expansiveness is of course the hallmark of the drama of Christopher Marlowe, whose career began with the irruption onto the public stage of a would-be global conquistador still more bloody, uninhibited and eloquent than Alexander, Tamburlaine – who is also, and perhaps not coincidentally, surnamed ‘the Great’ in the title of Marlowe’s play. Marlowe was the greatest dramatic poet of time misspent, whose Tragical History of Doctor Faustus boldly violates all temporal and spatial restrictions on drama, only to confront its own chronological limitations in Faustus’ last soliloquy, every line of which represents a minute of his last hour. But Marlowe was also one of the boldest innovators in the field of comedy: his skilful provocation of horrified laughter at moments of high emotional tension was one of the most important dramatic techniques he bequeathed to Shakespeare. Instances of such laughter abound, whether provoked by the impish Barabas in The Jew of Malta, who gleefully poisons convents full of nuns, strangles friars, and tricks amorous young men into assassinating one another (‘brave sport!’) before being killed by one of his own murderous practical jokes; or by the Guise’s jocular stabbings of Protestants in The Massacre at Paris. In Marlowe’s plays this horrified laughter is not only not segregated from royalty; it is omnipresent in royal courts, where the misplaced humour of monarchs often proves as fatal to them as to their subjects. King Henry of France in The Massacre at Paris, for instance, cracks an obscene joke that goads the Guise into assassinating one of his royal favourites – the first in a chain of assassinations that ends with Henry’s death; while in Edward II the king and his lover Gaveston arouse the deadly resentment of Mortimer by making fun of his dress sense. ‘Whiles other walk below,’ Mortimer complains, the two men ‘From out a window laugh at such as we, / And flout our train, and jest at our attire. Uncle, ’tis this makes me impatient.’

Laughter in Marlowe’s plays, in other words, is an invaluable tool both for those who wish to seize power and for those who wish to assert the power they already possess; but it’s above all a litmus test of a person’s hold on power. Those who laugh at their enemies with impunity have their authority resoundingly confirmed; but those whose ill-judged laughter stings their enemies into successful retaliation find their ascendancy irretrievably damaged. Laughter and the responses it provokes unerringly seeks out the cracks and fissures in any given hierarchy and helps to prize them open. Shakespeare took full advantage of this principle in his dramatic explorations of English history; but it was Marlowe who gave the principle its most provocative demonstration, in his first play for the public stage, Tamburlaine 1.

From one point of view, Tamburlaine 1 can be read as a stupendous revision of Campaspe. Marlowe’s Scythian shepherd turned warrior is an over-inflated pastiche of Lyly’s Alexander, and this is nowhere more obvious than in his treatment of his captives. Lyly’s play takes place in the aftermath of Alexander’s conquest of Thebes, and opens by stressing the merciful treatment of his prisoners by the Macedonian monarch: ‘Thebes is rased, the people not racked, towers throwne down, bodies not thrust aside, a conquest without conflict, and a cruell warre in a milde peace’. As Michael Pincombe has shown, this account is profoundly unhistorical – the real sack of Thebes was remarkable for its ruthlessness – and in Tamburlaine Marlowe’s base-born barbarian dedicates himself systematically to violating the chivalric code followed by Lyly’s more ‘civil’ protagonist, as if to underscore the true workings of power in history.

Tamburlaine’s treatment of women prisoners, in particular, is the reverse of Alexander’s. It’s true that both men profess to have fallen in love with one of their female captives, and that in both plays they are said to have refrained from exercising the ancient prerogative of the male victor, which is to rape as well as to pillage (though it should be added that Campaspe lives in perpetual fear of rape, and that Tamburlaine is at one point accused of having raped Zenocrate – a claim he denies and she does not). But where Alexander was merciful to the painter Apelles when he too fell in love with Campaspe, Tamburlaine shows no mercy to his rivals, killing both Zenocrate’s Arabian fiancé and the noble who seeks to remind her of their betrothal. Where Alexander spares all his women captives without exception, Tamburlaine expresses his sense of Zenocrate’s uniqueness by killing or driving to suicide every other female prisoner he takes in the course of the play. Where Alexander finally shows himself superior to love’s force by giving Campaspe away, Tamburlaine expresses his command over love by keeping Zenocrate for himself in defiance of kings and emperors. Alexander’s courtesy to Campaspe is an instance of noblesse oblige, and ends with the pair’s due restoration to their proper social positions. The Scythian shepherd’s courtesy to his captive princess, by contrast, is a token of his conviction that nobility consists not in birth but in action – a conviction that the play triumphantly vindicates. Zenocrate did not exist in any of Marlowe’s possible sources; she seems to have been invented for the sole purpose of inviting comparisons with Campaspe, the best play that had so far been written for the English stage. That a play written for the public playhouse should have shown itself so much fiercer and bolder than its courtly predecessor must have struck Marlowe’s first audiences as a testament to the young playwright’s impudence as well as to his skill.

For all its tragicomic elements, Campaspe keeps itself within the bounds of comedy by practising a moderation which is articulated in the balanced clauses of Lyly’s prose style. Tamburlaine, on the other hand, is bursting at the seams with the language and action of excess, yet wittily refrains from fulfilling the tragic expectations it builds up. If Campaspe is a bold generic experiment, Tamburlaine is an outrageous one, and its experimental nature seems to have been recognized by its first publisher, Richard Jones. Jones first entered the play in the Stationer’s Register as one of ‘The twooe commicall discourses of TOMBERLEIN the Cithian shepparde’, and although he later published these as ‘the two tragical discourses of the Scythian shepherd Tamburlaine’, he seems to have done some pruning to make Marlowe’s plays as generically pure as he wanted them to be. In his epistle to the Gentlemen Readers he explains that he has left out ‘some fond and frivolous gestures’ because for these comic scenes ‘to be mixtured in print with such matter of worth, it would prove a great disgrace to so honourable and stately a history’. Yet even with these scenes left out – and the ‘fond and frivolous’ middle scenes of Dr Faustus might give us some idea of what they were like – Tamburlaine 1 remains mixed enough, generically speaking, to be described as a ‘great disgrace’ to history’s claims to be ‘honourable and stately’.

John Douglas Thompson as Tamburlaine

The play’s tragicomic affiliations declare themselves on two levels: that of plot and that of language. On the level of plot, the play strays into comic territory because of its refusal to honour the tragic conventions it claims to respect (as the Prologue puts it, ‘View but his picture in this tragic glass / And then applaud his fortunes as you wish’). At each stage of the performance the Elizabethan audience, primed to expect the fall of great men as the proper subject of tragedy, would have been anticipating the sudden collapse of Tamburlaine’s inordinate enterprise: above all after the death of his principal prisoner Bajazeth, Emperor of the Turks, when Zenocrate reads Bajazeth’s corpse as a sign that his captor Tamburlaine is about to suffer the same atrocious fate. But Tamburlaine 1 confounds all these expectations as gleefully as it builds them up. The successive deaths of the virgins of Damascus, Bajazeth, Zabena, the King of Arabia and the rest are followed not by the death of their destroyer but by his marriage celebrations, which he defers with admirable comic timing from the first act until the play’s last scene. The play closes with the Scythian thief standing among the corpses of his enemies, surrounded by the happy family he has worked so strenuously to create: Zenocrate, her father, and his brothers in arms, now newly made kings and ready to assist at Tamburlaine’s wedding. Far from showing how men’s fate resides in the grip of fortune, as tragedies were supposed to do, the play’s tragic ‘mirror’ finally sets up its protagonist as the ultimate showman, who controls every aspect of the performance in which he takes part, and who uses his last few speeches to convert the play’s bloody pageant into a nuptial masque as splendid as anything seen in the Elizabethan court. It’s entertaining to imagine the shocked delight such an ending would have instilled in its first spectators, and the baffled applause that may have followed.

On the level of language, the Prologue to Part 1 offers a foretaste of the fiercely competitive form of humour that dominates the Tamburlaine plays. By comparison with the ‘high astounding terms’ of its protagonist, the Prologue boasts, the language of other plays is no better than that used in the crudest form of comedy, the song-and-dance numbers or ‘jigs’ improvised by clowns at the end of each performance:

From jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits,
And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay,
We’ll lead you to the stately tent of war,
Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine
Threat’ning the world with high astounding terms,
And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.

Alongside his ‘high astounding terms’, Tamburlaine exploits laughter to put down his rivals – as the Prologue does – mocking them into submission and death. But in doing so he is merely the most successful player of a deadly game of mockery in which most of Marlowe’s characters participate; and the chief target for this cruel mirth is the class which is supposed to be wholly exempt from the indignities of comic treatment: royalty. Tamburlaine 1 opens with perhaps the most flagrant flouting of decorum in English stage history, the portrait of the clownish king Mycetes, who is openly derided by his subjects, then dethroned by them. According to the rules of rhetorical decorum, kings should speak more splendidly than anyone else, so that Mycetes’s opening lines – ‘Brother Cosroe, I find myself aggrieved, / Yet insufficient to express the same’ – would have struck a first-night audience as hilariously inappropriate. Mycetes’s brother Cosroe is the most derisory of his inferiors, undermining his authority at every opportunity with jokes at his expense – at one point he tells the king to ‘kiss’ his ‘royal seat’ – and contemptuously enlisting the common thief Tamburlaine to dethrone him and crown Cosroe in his place. But Tamburlaine knows vastly more than Cosroe about the power of laughter to reinforce and undermine authority, and applies this knowledge mercilessly at the expense of monarchs throughout his astonishing career.

John Douglas Thompson as Tamburlaine

Both Tamburlaine plays culminate in scenes where kings are reduced to the status of comic entertainers. In the first, Tamburlaine declares that he and his followers made Cosroe king ‘only to make us sport,’ and will snatch his newly-won crown from him in the interests of pulling off a ‘pretty jest’. Later, the Emperor of Turkey is paraded in an iron cage and ritually mocked at mealtimes like a licensed fool (‘How now, Zenocrate, doth not the Turk and his wife make a goodly show at a banquet?’). In Tamburlaine 2 the kings of Trebizond, Soria, Natolia and Jerusalem are absurdly transformed into ‘pampered jades of Asia’, pulling Tamburlaine’s chariot with tongues bridled to stifle their curses. The Asian kings had meant, we learn, to make Tamburlaine and his followers ‘jesting pageants’ for their concubines, and are now become comic displays themselves, while ‘common soldiers jest with all their trulls’. Thus Tamburlaine turns the tables on monarchy, deploying its own potent weapon of ‘jesting’ against it, caging those who once had a monopoly on the use of cages, binding the tongues of those who once claimed absolute control over the tongues of their subjects. And in doing so he bears out all the direst predictions of the anti-theatrical lobby.

As we have seen, sixteenth-century theorists declared comedy to be the special province of the lower social classes, a rhetorical tool that could be exercised anywhere and at any time without special training. In consequence, many of these theorists warned against mingling the classes in comic performances for fear of destabilizing the distinctions between them. Comedy was fenced in with rules to guard against the spread of its characteristic rulelessness; anarchic though it was, there were fixed times and places when the comic could be unleashed, and proper audiences before whom it could be performed. But the base-born Tamburlaine, with his dazzling skill in formal rhetoric and his cruel sense of humour, makes a mockery of the constraints placed on the eloquence of the humbly born. His violent strain of comedy, flouting all regulations of persons, time or place, effortlessly bridging the artificial gulf that separates the classes, demolishes the claims of teachers and their aristocratic pupils to have a monopoly on the language of power. In Tamburlaine’s rhetoric, incitements to laughter seamlessly merge with the most highly-charged incitements to emotion or political action. The old moral interludes tended to separate the two registers by embodying them in different characters: the comic Vice was not the same person as the king, although he might occasionally share the stage with him. Campaspe, too, has two distinct modes, separating Alexander’s dialogues with philosophers and artists from the cheerful banter of the boys who serve them. Tamburlaine, by contrast, switches between the comic and the tragic within a few lines, or mixes the modes in a single speech. In one moment he is condemning the Virgins of Damascus to execution with a callous pun, instructing his lieutenant Techelles to ‘charge’ his cavalry to ‘charge’ the virgins with their phallic spears, thus acquainting them simultaneously with sex and death; in the next he has embarked on one of the most eloquent celebrations of beauty in Renaissance literature. As with all tyrants, his mood dictates that of his environment, and we can never be sure what mood he will be in from one sentence to the next. And as the anti-theatrical lobby predicted, this emotional volatility declares a kind of war both on Elizabethan generic theory and on the system of hereditary monarchy which it is supposed to underpin.

Tamburlaine’s cheekiest interventions in the war over the theatres occur when he appears to take Gosson’s side against poetry and the performing arts. The Scythian justifies the killing of the Virgins of Damascus, for instance, in terms that recall Gosson’s attack on the theatre and its capacity to feminize its male spectators. After asking his lieutenant whether they have been satisfactorily despatched he observes:

I will not spare these proud Egyptians,
Nor change my martial observations
For all the wealth of Gihon’s golden waves,
Or for the love of Venus, would she leave
The angry god of arms and lie with me.

Tamburlaine, in other words, sets himself against the ‘feminizing’ effects of sex and excess as vigorously as Gosson could desire. But he also takes Gosson’s praise for the militarism of Britain’s past to an abominably logical conclusion: the indiscriminate butchering of young women in the name of peremptory military ‘customs’. And in the second part he goes still further, butchering his own son (‘this effeminate brat’) for manifesting the ‘folly, sloth, and damned idleness’ which Gosson said had been instilled in young Englishmen by contemporary theatrical spectacle. The son in question, Calyphas, is a devotee of the comic arts of peace – sex and games – as against the tragic or epic arts of war, and his death fulfils Gosson’s ambition to expunge the invidious influence of comedy from the body of the land. Marlowe could hardly have launched a more scathing attack on the perverse notion of masculinity that informed the Elizabethan anti-theatrical prejudice than he does in the two Tamburlaine plays.

John Douglas Thompson as Tamburlaine, Keith Randolph Smith as Techelles

But Tamburlaine also claims to have command over the comic, ‘feminine’ arts of peace as well as over the epic/tragic, ‘masculine’ arts of war. He makes this claim most clearly in the speech that follows the massacre of the Virgins of Damascus, where he claims to have created, in his capacity as director of the play’s action, the perfect conditions under which to appreciate the beauty of Zenocrate. It’s when weeping in distress for her country and her father, who are threatened by Tamburlaine, that she is at her most aesthetically pleasing – or in Tamburlaine’s terms, that she fights most fiercely with the Scythian’s ‘tempted thoughts’. This idea leads to a discussion of beauty which bears a close resemblance to Apelles’ meditations on the subject in Campaspe. The discussion begins with a direct quotation from Lyly’s second play, Sapho and Phao – ‘Fair is too foul an epithet for thee’ – and culminates with the statement that beauty is finally beyond representation by the verbal artistry of poets, since in it there is always ‘One thought, one grace, one wonder, at the least, / Which into words no virtue can digest’. Lyly’s Apelles is in agreement concerning the limitations of art when copying beauty, since to do justice to Campaspe he must learn to paint ‘things unpossible for mine arte, but agreeable with my affections: deepe and hollowe sighes, sadde and melancholye thoughtes, wounds and slaughters of conceites, a life posting to death, a death galloping from life, a wavering constancie, an unsetled resolution, and what not, Apelles?’ As a warrior, however, Tamburlaine is able to realize Apelles’ metaphors of battle as a poet or painter is not. Half way through his speech, shocked by his own vulnerability to the ‘feminine’ emotions that he has hitherto abjured, he resorts for a moment to Gossonian misogyny:

But how unseemly is it for my sex,
My discipline of arms and chivalry,
My nature, and the terror of my name,
To harbour thoughts effeminate and faint!

But he at once changes his mind, and concludes that by admitting himself to be susceptible to desire while at the same time refusing to be distracted by it from his military purpose he shows himself superior to the ancient gods, whose appetite for sex was notorious. Desire brought the ancient gods down to earth ‘To feel the lovely warmth of shepherd’s flames’. Tamburlaine’s love, on the other hand, raises him from his lowly status as shepherd to a position high above the ancient gods, reversing the degrading effect of desire that Gosson had objected to so strongly throughout his polemical pamphlets. The Scythian’s ability to transcend his birth offers the ultimate proof that virtue, not heredity is the ‘sum of glory, / And fashions men with true nobility’. Lyly’s Alexander claimed to have conquered love but in fact left it to be enjoyed by the lower classes. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, by contrast, is right to claim a triumph over love as one of his conquests, since his response to Zenocrate serves as an illustration of his ability to transcend both class and genre. By loving fame, victory and Zenocrate with equal passion he finally destroys the distinction between the comic and the epic which Lyly’s Alexander sought to reinstate at the end of the earlier tragicomedy. He confirms the potential of Marlowe’s class – Marlowe was the son of a cobbler from Canterbury – to emulate his achievements in word and action, at least within the space of the playhouse. And Gosson was not the only one of Marlowe’s contemporaries to assume that what was represented in the playhouse had a direct effect on what went on beyond it. Taken together, Campaspe and Tamburlaine 1 show just how sophisticated the theory and practice of comedy, and of the interplay between the comic and other modes, had become by the 1580s. By bringing comedy into close contact with other genres or modes, especially tragedy, Lyly and Marlowe helped to intensify the power of the comic voice, making it a more incisive tool for anatomizing contemporary politics and culture. Lyly’s Campaspe confirms comedy’s role as a major forum for free speech available to educated commoners, which could address both court and city on political and social issues with equal confidence. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine confirmed the conviction of the anti-theatrical lobby that the comic could be exploited even by the unschooled under-classes as an adjunct to political agitation. In fact, both writers fulfil the potential of comedy as a significant weapon in the class conflict of the late sixteenth century: a conflict that had become more ferocious as schools and universities made themselves available to a wider range of social groups. Lyly and Marlowe were young men who had attended university, been given a rhetorical training which was explicitly designed to prepare them for participation in government, and then found themselves in limbo, with no certain job prospects and no clear notion of how best to make use of their training. Tragical comedy – or in Marlowe’s case, comical tragedy – gave them a space in which to articulate their frustrations, to convert them into a kind of action. And who knew how far the action instigated in a private or public playhouse might spread?

Tamburlaine’s Mausoleum, Samarkand. I visited in 1991.

Generals and Degenerates in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida

Mask of Agamemnon
So-called Mask of Agamemnon

Shakespeare wrote Troilus and Cressida in 1602, after the execution for treason of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, in the protracted final years of Elizabeth I. With the death of Essex a phase of Shakespeare’s life came to an end. When the Earl staged an abortive coup in 1601, one of his co-conspirators was Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated his poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Another co-conspirator was Shakespeare himself, since his company had staged one of Shakespeare’s plays, Richard II, with its controversial deposition scene, two days before the rising at the behest of the Earl’s supporters. After that performance Shakespeare stopped writing English history plays for over a decade. It’s hardly surprising, then, if the Greek history play he wrote the following year has an air of bitter retrospection, inverting the triumphalist rhetoric of Henry V – the final play in the Second Tetralogy, which refers to Essex as the heroic ‘general of our gracious empress’ – in an amazingly tortuous and orotund prologue.

Robert_Devereux,_2nd_Earl_of_Essex_by_Marcus_Gheeraerts_the_Younger
Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex

Troilus and Cressida is Shakespeare’s long farewell to English history, and to the particular history of England under Elizabeth. It concerns itself with the question of the ‘indirect, crook’d ways’ by which the past gets written, and with the function of history as theorized by the humanist education system that shaped Shakespeare’s mind. Its chief target is the humanist claim that you can draw general principles or rules from the disconnected fragments and wilful distortions of conflicting historical narratives. I’d like to suggest that this concern was already implicit in his choice of topic – Troilus, Cressida, the war over Helen – and that he and his audience would have approached it with a strong sense of their own complicity with the notoriously treacherous dispositions of the ancient Greeks.

by William Hole (Holle), after Unknown artist, line engraving, published 1616
George Chapman

In Tudor times the Trojan War was bound up with English history. The English traced their ancestry to Brutus, grandson of Aeneas, who founded a city as great as the city state of Aeneas’ birth: Troynovant or New Troy – later rebranded as London – in the land of Albion – later rebranded as Britain. It was easy, too, for Elizabethans to connect the Trojan War with recent history. Like the Essex rebellion, the Trojan war was an internecine conflict, with relatives on both sides taking arms against each other; the motive of the war was a woman; it involved a tangled web of betrayals; and one of its central figures was Achilles, who had been linked with Essex by the poet George Chapman in his 1598 translation of seven books from Homer’s Iliad. Chapman’s translation is dedicated to ‘the most honoured now living instance of the Achilleian virtues eternized by divine Homer’, the soldier-earl, and this sentence transforms Robert Devereux into an instructive example of the kind historians and poets seek to supply when penning their texts. At the same time, Chapman argues in his prefatory epistle that poets are more reliable than historians – or indeed their living subjects – in offering exemplary nourishment for the soul, that is, the moral and intellectual life of the mind. In the real world, Chapman contends, the soul is trapped in what he calls ‘the scum of the body’, that ‘wormeaten idol’ which invariably fails to manifest the soul’s ‘excellency’ – or worse still, contrives through its actions to ‘murder and bury her’. Great poems, on the other hand, like those of Homer, offer the perfect bodily vehicle for the soul, communicating its qualities as no human actions can, and resurrecting past heroes with a few well chosen syllables. As a result, ‘the lives of […] poets’ can be seen as the heroes’ ‘earthly Elysiums, wherein we walk with survival of all the deceased worthies we read of; every conceit, sentence, figure and word being a most beautiful lineament of their souls’ infinite bodies’. If this is so, then the Earl of Essex – who at the time of writing still occupied the ‘wormeaten idol’ of his living body – could never have represented Achilles as accurately as Homer’s verse does; and it was only one year later that the Earl’s Achillean virtues found themselves buried, so to speak, in the dismal failure of his campaign against the Irish (1599). Those who remembered Chapman’s dedication, then, would have seen the irony in Shakespeare’s portrayal of Achilles, whose body is verbally infested with so many diseases by the satirist Thersites. Once Achilles, always Achilles – so long as Achilles is merely a verbal rather than a corporeal construct, and hence not subject to old age, lack of fitness, or infectious diseases of body and mind.

2015-11-23_zu-Art_Giovanni-Domenico-Tiepolo_The-Procession-of-the-Trojan-Horse-in-Troy_WGA22382Despite Chapman’s praise of poets, Homer’s account of the Trojan War was viewed with distrust in early modern England. The war, in fact, was the perfect example of the untrustworthy nature of history itself, since there were so many competing versions of what happened, each weighted in favour of one of the warring sides, each accusing the other camp of inventing lies to support their cause. The versions of Homer and Dictys of Crete were said to be biased towards the Greeks, while Virgil and Dares the Phrygian sided with the Trojans. There were even suggestions from serious historians, such as Polydore Virgil, that all accounts of the Trojan War had been fabricated, and that the ancient history of Britain was therefore entirely fanciful. The body of evidence, then, as well as the bodies of the people who took key roles in the ten-year siege, was subject to corruption, and the question of whether the exemplary function of history was damaged or enhanced by its fabricated elements was fiercely debated in the sixteenth century.

The proto-novelist Geoffrey Fenton gives one of the most detailed accounts of the uses of history in early modern England. In the preface to his story collection Certain Tragical Discourses (1567) he states that like all arts, narratives of the past contain embedded in their particular details ‘certain special principles and rules for the direction of such as search out their disposition’, and that the responsible reader’s task is to extricate these general ‘precepts’ from the specific examples scattered so liberally through their pages. In the process the reader makes use of the past to plan for the future, on the presumption that ‘the nature of man in all ages, although the singular persons be changed, remaineth still one’, so that consequences of the same action or situation will be always and everywhere the same.

The point of reading history, then, is not so much to know what happened as to anticipate what will happen, in the interest of constructing policies. The ‘chief gain derived of such travail,’ he writes, ‘is in that we shall see set forth good and wholesome lessons of all sorts, whereof we may take to ourselves and benefit of our country such as we like to follow; and which presents to us the true picture and report of such enterprises as had both sinister beginnings and much worse endings’. In a well-written history, ‘good and wholesome’ actions must be made alluring – we need to like to follow them – while ‘sinister’ actions must be made repellent; something which, as Philip Sidney points out, is not always the case in authentic records. Unlike Sidney, however, Fenton seems to believe that the archives always show virtue rewarded and viciousness punished – that’s one of the general ‘rules’ he’s extracted from history. He acknowledges that ‘description figurative’ as used by poets has been readily accepted by many thinkers as a fine substitute for true history, but asserts that we are far more inclined to emulate our ancestors than to mimic invented figures with no connection to us. Truth is always preferable to feigning, and truth always yields instruction, because it comes from God.

Working Title/Artist: Giovanni Battista Scultori, Naval Battle between the Trojans and Greeks Department: Drawings & Prints Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: photography by mma, 30E_CP52R3M_cv scanned and retouched by film and media (jn) 2_2_04

The problem with the Trojan War is that it’s neither wholly fictional nor wholly factual, so that the truth of it can’t easily be located. For some commentators its hybrid nature as part fact, part fiction is unproblematic. Writing in 1531, the humanist Sir Thomas Elyot defines history much as Fenton does, as a record of past events which can be used to supplement our personal experience, and he considers the question of whether it’s true to be largely irrelevant to this function. ‘Admit that some histories be interlaced with leasings [lies]’, he writes,

why should we therefore neglect them, since the affairs there reported nothing concerneth us, we being thereof no partners, nor thereby […] may receive any damage? But if by reading the sage counsel of Nestor, the subtle persuasions of Ulysses, the compendious gravity of Menelaus, the imperial majesty of Agamemnon, the prowess of Achilles, the valiant courage of Hector, we may apprehend anything whereby our wits may be amended and our personages be more apt to serve our public weal and our prince, what forceth us [what does it matter] though Homer wrote leasings?

Eliot here suggests that we need not bother about the accuracy of Homer’s account of the Trojan War because modern Englishmen have no stake in it – they are ‘thereof no partners’. As we’ve seen, he’s being disingenuous, since the myth of Britain’s Trojan origins meant that the Tudor regime, at least, might be said to have had a stake in whether or not the story of their forebears had been made up. In 1600 an expert in heraldry, William Segar, wrote a passage that neatly summarizes some of the difficulties with Eliot’s position:

True it is […] that many enterprises in times past attempted and achieved above the expectation of men, are now thought rather fabulous than faithfully reported: either because we that now live did not know, or see them, or that ignorant men cannot conceive how they might be done, or that want of courage doth disable them to take the like actions in hand. […] And who so shall well consider how difficult a thing it is to write an history of so great truth and perfection, as cannot be controlled, will easily excuse these writers that have taken in hand matter so far from our knowledge and understanding. For like unto all other men, moved with love, hate, profit, or other private passion, they are either willing or ignorantly induced to increase or extenuate the actions and merits of those men, of whom their histories have discoursed. Howsoever that be, I verily think the acts and enterprises of Ulysses, Aeneas, Hector, and other famous captains […] were indeed of notable men, and some of their doings such, as writers have made mention.

Segar here presents us with a historical record that is always subject to the vicissitudes of ‘love, hate, profit or private passion’, where historiography is always ‘controlled’ – a word that could mean either ‘censured, criticized’ or ‘censored, kept in check’ – and where writers are always exaggerating or excusing the behaviour of the men they favour. If some of the deeds of the Greek and Trojan heroes were authentic, which ones were they? It’s important to know the answer if we’re to use their actions and those actions’ consequences as a means of planning our future enterprises.

150px-William_Segar_1603
William Segar

Another way in which the Trojan War is mixed is in the examples it contains. These are divided along gender lines: men represent ideals to be followed, women vices to be shunned. But surely a man’s particular qualities can’t be disengaged from the larger project in the interests of which he chooses to use them? It’s all very well to say that Agamemnon is the perfect example of an enlightened general, or that Ulysses is the model counselor, or Achilles the ultimate warrior – but each of these men has undertaken a ten-year war to retrieve a woman who is widely cited as the ultimate example of infidelity and its consequences. And what if the judgement of women recorded by history is itself profoundly unsafe? Throughout the sixteenth century there’s a tradition of defending women like Helen and Cressida – especially the latter – as having been traduced by the faithless historians mentioned by Segar. In the much-reprinted poetry collection A Paradise of Dainty Devices (1576), for instance, Troilus tells Cressida that she has become an example to all women of the effects of what he calls ‘caterwauling’ (sleeping around like a lustful cat), and Cressida replies with a counter-accusation of her own:

No gadding moods, but forcéd strife,
Compelléd me retire from Troy:
If Troilus would have vowed his wife,
We might have dwelt in former joy.

Screen-Shot-2015-05-26-at-17.53.51If Troilus had simply married Cressida, in other words, or fought to keep the woman he loved, she wouldn’t have been forced to seek the protection of his Greek enemy, Diomedes; and she adds that she has been misrepresented by tradition largely thanks to Troilus’s willingness to blacken her name. Shakespeare’s Lucrece (1594) is equally conscious of her dependence on the untrustworthy narratives of men for the example she will be deemed to have set for other women. Her urgent task after her rape by Tarquin is to pass on an accurate speaking picture of herself to future generations: she hates the idea of being fictionalized, transformed into a distorted image which is rendered convincing by the scraps of evidence from which it’s partly assembled. Her body is one such scrap of evidence, and she pleads with the personified Night to keep it concealed:

Make me not object to the tell-tale day.
The light will show, charáctered in my brow,
The story of sweet chastity’s decay,
The impious breach of holy wedlock vow;
Yea, the illiterate, that know not how
To cipher what is read in learned books,
Will quote my loathsome trespass in my looks.

As she seeks some answer to the question of how to transmit the brutal facts of her rape to her husband and the world in general, she finds herself looking at a painting of the siege of Troy, where she instantly recognizes the exemplary heroes, Ulysses and Ajax – though both seem a little ambiguous as moral examples:

In Ajax and Ulysses, O what art
Of physiognomy might one behold!
The face of either ciphered either’s heart;
Their face their manners most expressly told:
In Ajax’ eyes blunt rage and rigour rolled,
But the mild glance that sly Ulysses lent
Showed deep regard and smiling government.

The most puzzling image in the picture, however, is the treacherous Sinon, the Greek whose pretended defection to the Trojan side helped convince Priam to bring the wooden horse within the city walls. Sinon seems to be the direct opposite of exemplary, in that his appearance completely obscures his disposition:

But, like a constant and confirméd devil,
He entertained a show so seeming just,
And therein so ensconced his secret evil,
That jealousy itself could not mistrust
False-creeping craft and perjury should thrust
Into so bright a day such black-faced storms,
Or blot with hell-born sin such saint-like forms.

In this disconnect between his appearance and his treacherous behaviour Sinon confirms Lucrece’s experience of the rapist Tarquin, whose appearance disastrously misled her into trusting him. From now on, she declares, she will always assume that beautiful looks can only serve as the index of a vicious mind. At this early stage in Shakespeare’s career, in other words, Troy is already associated with the problem of assigning values to a man or woman on the basis of a reading of those ‘wormeaten idols’, their bodies. It’s also linked with the problem of extracting general ‘principles and rules’, in Fenton’s phrase, from particular examples: even after Lucrece has identified Sinon the general rule she derives from his looks is scarcely a credible one. Add to this that the best known account of Sinon’s treachery occurs in a version of Troy narrated by a biased poet, Virgil, and the relationship between the particular and the general, the example and the precept, is plunged into crisis by the ambiguities of Trojan history.

4fdee66d2782c1e397c6186f86116e1d.391x633x1When Shakespeare opened his Trojan history play, then, with a prologue who wears full body armour because he has no confidence in ‘author’s pen or actor’s voice’, and when that prologue ends his speech with the couplet ‘Like or find fault, do as your pleasures are; / Now good or bad, ’tis but the chance of war’ – I suggest that the Elizabethan audience would have found itself in familiar territory. The competing versions of the Trojan War demonstrate exactly this: that the outcome of any particular conflict, and the factional bias of its poets and chroniclers, determines the general moral lessons it is deemed to impart. And the play that follows is given over to an extended analysis of the mechanics of making examples out of men and women in a time of crisis.

b91af9ae77b696780f964ea13bf8a188In the play, examples are made in different ways depending on your gender and the moral and political priorities of the side you’re on. At the centre of this version of the Trojan War are two women: Cressida, who is deemed exemplary by Troilus in particular, and Helen, who is theoretically deemed exemplary by both Greeks and Trojans but is also the topic of heated debate in Troy over the current status of her exemplarity. Both are valued, it seems, only for their beauty, so that their exemplary function is limited and questionable (is bodily beauty a value or merely a trigger for erotic desire?). In fact a third woman is fought over during the play, but it would be easy to forget her presence in it. In the second scene we hear that Hector is angry because he has been humiliated on the battlefield by Ajax, and his reaction to the humiliation is to lose his temper with his wife – and hence to jeopardize his own exemplary status: ‘He chid Andromache, and struck his armourer’, as Cressida’s servant tells her. In the following scene, however, he sends a challenge to the Trojan camp which proclaims Andromache to be the most exemplary woman of all, and urges the Greeks to fight him in single combat if they disagree. Aeneas, who brings the challenge to the Greeks, expresses it thus:

Hector, in view of Troyans and of Greeks,
Shall make it good or do his best to do it:
He hath a lady wiser, fairer, truer,
Than ever Greek did couple in his arms.

This kind of challenge is of course familiar from chivalric romance, but in the context of the matter of Troy it is problematic: if Andromache is so much better than any Greek lady, past or present – and if a Greek challenger is prepared to fight on the basis that his own lady is supreme – what precisely is the war about? Moreover, Andromache – who was rebuked by Hector before he issued the challenge – quickly disappears as a motive for the single combat; and when we see her again it’s once more as the target for her husband’s wrath. She tries to make him change his mind over fighting on a day of ill omen, and his response is to say: ‘Andromache, I am offended with you. / Upon the love you bear me, get you in’. Clearly Hector’s reputation as a man of war is always his first priority, and the women he fights for are always and only ever the excuse for combat, the context in which Hector’s own exemplarity can best be displayed.

Troilus, by contrast, consistently identifies Cressida as lying at the heart of his system of values – as the centre of his world. This too, however, is problematic, since his image of her is entirely imaginary. His description of her in the first scene makes this patently obvious:

O, that her hand
In whose comparison all whites are ink
Writing their own reproach; to whose soft seizure
The cygnet’s down is harsh, and spirit of sense
Hard as the palm of ploughman!

Cressida_-_Edward_J._PoynterIf the whiteness of Cressida’s hand makes other whites seem black as ink, the term ‘white’ has lost all meaning – and the argument that black is white was the classic instance of chop-logic or sophistry as taught in Elizabethan schools. Again, if her skin is so soft it makes a cygnet’s down seem harsh then the term ‘softness’ no longer has a function; while if the ‘spirit of sense’, which is the faculty by which we convey sense impressions to the brain, has lost its sensitivity, then we can no longer distinguish one thing from another by touch. This view of Cressida, Troilus says to Pandarus, is not merely true – it falls short of truth; so that truth itself would seem to be both imaginary and inaccessible through the senses. There’s no chance at all, of course, that any woman could live up to this kind of hyperbole, and sure enough at the point when Troilus finally sleeps with Cressida his main concern is that she won’t match his expectations – the onanistic fantasies with which he has satisfied himself during their courtship. This, at least, is one interpretation of his speech before their union:

Th’imaginary relish is so sweet
That it enchants my sense. What will it be
When that the wat’ry palate tastes indeed
Love’s thrice-repuréd nectar? Death, I fear me;
Swooning destruction; or some joy too fine,
Too subtle-potent, tuned too sharp in sweetness,
For the capacity of my ruder powers.

In other words, Troilus fears he will be unable to feel the delights of sex about which he has been fantasizing for so long. His private fantasies are the zenith of his sex life, and sexual action can only be a disappointment by comparison.

Cressida herself is fully aware that it’s the male imagination that makes women exemplary, and that women have no agency in the process (apart from Lucrece, of course, whose technique of doing so is hardly appealing). She holds Troilus off as long as she can, as she informs the audience:

Women are angels, wooing.
Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.
That she beloved knows nought that knows not this:
Men prize the thing ungained more than it is.

Helen, too, has good reason to know that she is a construct of the male imagination. Troilus points this out, unaware that his words ironically underscore the fantastic nature of his image of Cressida; ‘Helen must needs be fair,’ he tells his Trojan compatriots, ‘When with your blood you daily paint her thus’. The painting here is that of cosmetics, an art form that stood for deceit in Elizabethan culture; so Troilus is suggesting that Helen is not what the Greeks and Trojans make her out to be – that she is, in fact, made up in another sense. Troilus’ rival Diomedes has a similar view of her:

For every false drop in her bawdy veins
A Grecian’s life has sunk; for every scruple
Of her contaminated carrion weight
A Troyan hath been slain; since she could speak,
She hath not given so many good words breath
As for her Greeks and Troyans suffered death.

popular_helen_of_troyHere Helen’s painted body has become carrion – another ‘wormeaten idol’, in Chapman’s phrase – hideously overwhelmed by the male corpses who have fought to uphold the myth of her exemplarity. The association of her with cosmetics and rotting flesh suggests that she is ageing, like the late portraits of England’s queen, so that the one quality that’s been ascribed to her, bodily beauty, is fading fast. The Trojan debate over her value in the play’s second act therefore focuses on time: if she was deemed worth taking from her husband in the first place, she must of necessity be deemed worth keeping seven years later. Hector objects that her value cannot be determined by a ‘particular will’ – presumably that of Paris – but must instead be inherent in her if she’s to be kept; he’s therefore in favour of giving her back, since ‘doing wrong extenuates not wrong, / But makes it much more heavy’. Troilus and Paris, on the other hand, insist that the ‘will’ that imputed value to her was a general one. But the upshot of the debate is a rejection on Hector’s part of the philosophical principles for which he’s been arguing; he dismisses what he claims is ‘truth’, that Helen is worthless, and chooses to retain her because ‘’tis a cause that hath no mean dependence / Upon our joint and several dignities’. A general rule – that two wrongs don’t make a right – is supplanted by a different kind of generality: that the collective honour of the Trojans would be impugned by any belated admission they were wrong; and thus the myth of Helen’s exemplarity is prolonged for another three years. The scene makes it plain, if it wasn’t already, that the Trojan War is not about women but about men, and that the women who are its ostensible motive are essentially male inventions.

brad-pitt-as-achilles-in-troy-1080p-desktop-pc-backgroundMen’s exemplarity, meanwhile, would seem to be yet more unstable than women’s. Distinguishing one man from another is a difficult matter; in the second scene, for instance, Pandarus fails to distinguish Troilus at a distance from his brother Deiphobus – a mistake Cressida takes great pleasure in mocking; and later Aeneas finds it hard to tell Agamemnon apart from his fellow Greeks, despite repeated heavy hints from the general himself. This difficulty explains the Greek insistence that the purpose of their continued siege of Troy is to establish the difference between heroes and ordinary men; it takes something as calamitous as a war to separate the masculine wheat from the effeminate chaff. Agamemnon’s anonymity also identifies the source of the problem he faces within his camp: that of insubordination. The general is simply not sufficiently distinguished to take his place at the head of a military hierarchy – and this is not just the fault of Achilles, who refuses to recognize Agamemnon as his general. The same attitude is spreading through the lower orders, with the result that Agamemnon can no longer be seen as generally representative of his people. His exemplary status as the ideal general is therefore at risk, and he responds – on the advice of Ulysses – by hatching a plot to undermine Achilles’ reputation, in turn, as the exemplary warrior. Agamemnon, then, agrees to undermine a hierarchy in a bid to restore a hierarchy, to discredit an example in a bid to restore his own exemplarity; a situation which, as Ulysses points out in his great speech on order, erases the distinction between right and wrong by erasing the basis on which such distinctions are made. The scene in which all this takes place, the third in the play, contains, I think, not a single mention of the woman who is ostensibly at the centre of the Trojan War; so in this way too the hierarchy of values has been undermined. The Greeks are clear, then, about their real motive in fighting the war: to achieve distinction; but they are also clear about the extreme difficulty of obtaining and retaining such distinction – and contribute to this extreme difficulty by their willingness to destroy each other’s reputations.

Agamemnon_head-_Marie-Lan_Nguyen_from_Louvre_CollectionThe Trojans make Helen central to their cause, though they betray their real priority as being their honour. The Greeks put their honour squarely at the centre of the conflict, while admitting that it’s badly tarnished. The Trojans look to the past for justification of their present commitment to retaining Helen. The Greeks look to the future to justify their long campaign, and take every chance they can get to bequeath a positive image of themselves to their descendants. The Trojans pride themselves on their consistency – what we valued once, Troilus insists, must always be valued. The Greeks don’t care about being consistent so long as they come out of it smelling of roses. But the Trojans are not consistent, whatever they claim. Troilus swiftly loses interest in Cressida after a single night of pleasure: ‘Sleep kill those pretty eyes’, he tells her next morning as he arms for battle, and Cressida sees at once that her prophesy has been fulfilled: ‘You men will never stay,’ she complains as she tries to dissuade him. Hector, who has a reputation for sparing unarmed men, forgets it completely when he sees a fine suit of armour on a fleeing enemy; and we’ve already seen how consistent he is when it comes to women. The Greeks and the Trojans, in other words, are indistinguishable, and it’s the duel between Hector and Ajax that points this up. The duel ends before it’s begun because it turns out that the ox-like Greek is partly Trojan. ‘Were thy commixtion Greek and Trojan so,’ Hector tells him,

That thou could’st say ‘This hand is Grecian all,
And this is Troyan; the sinews of this leg
All Greek, and this all Troy; my mother’s blood
Runs on the dexter cheek, and this siníster
Bounds in my father’s’; by Jove multipotent,
Thou should’st not bear from me a Greekish member
Wherein my sword had not impressure made
Of our rank feud.

But Ajax is neither one thing nor another, and neither are the warring armies between which he is so evenly divided. Cressida, too, is neither one thing or another, as Troilus finds; ‘This is and is not Cressid,’ he tells himself when he catches her with Diomedes; and even at this point he seems reluctant to let go his fantastic image of her as the touchstone by which the value of everything else is to be measured. Human beings, it seems – whether actual or fantastical – are not the best material to fashion simplistic examples out of. There is too much ‘commixtion’ in them, as Hector puts it. They are too subject to change, through time, through shifting moods, through illness, desire, the chance of war, and basic rottenness. Thersites nails it when he verbally spreads venereal disease throughout both factions: ‘Lechery, lechery! Still wars and lechery! […] A burning devil take them!’ The exemplary bodies Shakespeare has given us are already falling to pieces before this curse can take effect.

The process of making history, meanwhile, is best summed up by the death of Hector. Achilles finds himself too out of shape to defeat him man to man, and like Ulysses decides to deal with the problem by trickery. He orders his personal guard, the Myrmidons, first to isolate Hector on the battlefield, then to murder him. Having done so, the Myrmidons raise the cry ‘Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain’. A general murder becomes a particular triumph, and the two opposing versions of the Trojan War are brought into being: the version we’ve seen, in which Hector is murdered, and the version favoured by Homer, in which he’s killed by Achilles’ prowess. Neither history, nor the examples drawn from history, could ever look simple again after Shakespeare penned this episode. But then these things hadn’t looked simple for decades, thanks in part to the conflicting versions of the tale of Troy. The death of Essex may have brought this home to Shakespeare; and Shakespeare’s version of the death of Hector bequeathed his unease with the processes of making history to men and women in the twenty-first century. In the age of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage I suspect we share it.

Hector_brought_back_to_Troy

Shakespeare’s Comic Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

 

 

 

 

Wonders of the Northlands: Hamlet and Macbeth

alan-cumming-hamlet-skull
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.