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

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Alan Cumming as Hamlet

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

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Alan Cumming as Macbeth

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

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Danish Giants, by Arthur Rackham

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

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The Witches, by Henry Fuseli

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

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The Ghost, by William Blake

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

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

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

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

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The Ghost, by Henry Fuseli

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

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

Shakespeare Quartos Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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St John writes the Book of Revelation, by Hieronymus Bosch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes

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

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

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