Archive for October 3rd, 2019

I hadn’t bought a book on Shakespeare for about a year, so when my eyes fell upon Emma Smith’s lively approach to the Bard in This Is Shakespeare resistance was a lost cause.

Her take on most of the plays is interesting.

She resists stereotypical categorizations and tries instead to look at the play exactly as it is, and points out how Shakespeare in turn resists our attempts to pin down his exact intentions by such manoeuvres as omitting critical stage directions that would reveal to the actor how the character is supposed to feel as they speak, or even failing to provide any speech at all, leaving the audience to interpret the silence according to how the director/actor is signalling us to do.

My interest was particularly hooked by her approach to two plays which I had to teach in an earlier incarnation – Hamlet and King Lear. A bit more on that later.

Let’s start with Hamlet.

She looks at how changing tastes have impacted upon the play’s reputation (page 163):

We are so used to seeing a Hamlet that anticipates modernity, a play that is more popular and more appreciated four centuries after its composition than it ever was at the time, but it is hard for us to register the ways it is deeply retrospective in tone.

I won’t rehearse her detailed reasons for thinking the play is looking backwards rather than forwards: it’s partly to do with the cross-generational names of Hamlet and Fortinbras, both named after their fathers. It’s enough now perhaps to repeat here her reason for attributing some kind of nostalgia to the play (page 169):

Like Elizabethan culture more widely, the play prefers to look backwards rather than forwards: to dare to think forwards, to a time post-Elizabeth, was a crime.

She then looks forwards at how the play’s status has changed over time (page 224):

For the nineteenth century, Hamlet was identified as Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, as clever, modishly alienated men saw themselves reflected in its cerebral and isolated protagonist. But as the 20th century unleashed it’s mad cruelties at Passchendaele, Auschwitz and Hiroshima, King Lear insinuated itself into the cultural imagination instead. The play registered as the ultimate modern tragedy of desolation in which, as the Duke of Albany recognizes, ‘Humanity must perforce prey on itself,/Like monsters of the deep“ (4.2.49-50). . . .  A. D. Nuttall traced the shift from art as moral to art as provocation: ‘It is now virtually unimaginable that a reviewer of a new play should praise it by saying that it offers solace or comfort. Conversely the adjective uncomfortable is automatically read as praise’: the newly cruel King Lear whispers its siren song of nihilism into our willing postmodern ears.

Hamlet has always been a favourite play of Shakespeare’s for me. I’ve written at length about aspects of why this might be. At one point I explained:

Given my default position of doubt, it’s no wonder that Hamlet is the Shakespeare play I resonate to most strongly. ‘Now could I do it pat!’ except he can’t. Instinct gives way to the scanning of intellect. He stands ‘mammering,’ as Othello scathingly refers to this kind of hesitation.

It is intriguing to note at this point that if Othello had been in Hamlet’s shoes, Hamlet would have been much shorter and far less interesting, probably ending at Act I, Scene 2, shortly after Othello had left the battlements and cut his uncle’s throat before breakfast, whereas, if Hamlet had starred in OthelloDesdemona would probably still be alive, with Iago on a perilous mission somewhere in Africa, probably never to return. Neither play would have worked as a tragedy, or even as a comedy for that matter, as it would have lacked the necessary mismatch between character and situation.[1]

I still remember more lines from Hamlet than Lear, most of them from the soliloquies of its protagonist. Some of the most well-known quotes, and seemingly straightforward out of context, are as double-edged and difficult to definitively interpret as anything we are about to look at. Take the much quoted (Act I, Scene iii, line 78): ‘to thine own self be true.’ It seems straightforward enough until you remember it is said by a corrupt time-serving sycophant to his son. My marginal note to this whole speech, when teaching Hamlet was, ‘Ironically, if he had been able to heed such advice, he might have lived longer.’

Lear, perhaps because of its bleakness as well as Edgar’s interminable ramblings, has never stood as high in my estimation, though I never wished to go as far as mutilating it in order to make it more enjoyable, which is what happened late in the 17thcentury (page 226-27):

Nahun Tate . . . rewrote the play in 1681 as The History of King Lear.… This version notably reworks the ending of King Lear. Tate leaves a chastened but restored Lear and Gloucester alive at the end, men who have learnt from their experiences of doubting those who truly love them. The two faithful children of these parallel fathers, Cordelia and Edgar, are married. . . . His amelioration of that conclusion gained its critical stamp of approval when it was quoted by Samuel Johnson in the general introduction to his important 1765 edition of Shakespeare’s plays.

Eighteenth century taste was delighted. Good was rewarded and only evil punished, exactly as it should be. This situation did not last long (page 227):

Inevitably, Dr Johnson‘s discomfort at Shakespeare’s King Lear was on precisely the grounds that the next generation found so electrifying. Neoclassical preoccupations with regularity and probability and the moral obligation to reward virtue and punish vice was swept away by the romantic embrace of emotional extremity as a version of the sublime.

Nor should we complacently feel that the struggle to decide on exactly what the play is about, and how valuable its insights are into the human condition, has now been resolved in our more enlightened times.

We might be inclined to dismiss out of hand attempts to redemptively Christianise the play as A. C. Bradley and G. Wilson Knight tried to do. We need, though, to be careful not to assume that we’ve nailed it with our latest take, when their attempts to soften the bleakness of the play give way to existentialist endorsements of it (page 230-31):

Kott takes an existentialist view of the tragedy as the absurdist machinations of a world drained of providential intent. If for Wilson Knight King Lear is a kind of bad-weather Pilgrim’s Progress, for Kott it is a blank verse Waiting for Godot.

As readers of this blog will know, I have struggled to accept that bleak despairing depictions of the human lot are basically more authentic than more positive ones (see the Los Solitarios sequence for more). I will keep it brief here.

Kenneth Tynan expressed the opinion (page 448) that ‘for the author of Godot’ passing the time in the dark ‘is not only what drama is about but also what life is about.’

Cronin, Beckett’s biographer, has no problem with where this takes us (pages 378-79:

. . . reduced as his characters are to the extreme simplicities of need and satisfaction, indeed by virtue of the fact that they are so reduced, Beckett does succeed in laying bare much of the reality of human situation as well as the grossness of its perhaps necessary illusions.

He endorses Beckett’s vision as more authentic than most of the work that preceded him (page 383): ‘. . . one could argue that the Beckett man, in all his abysmal aspects, is ‘truer’ to humanity’s real lineaments than most of what has gone before.’ His conclusion is that (page 384):

For 3000 years the bias of literature had been tilted one way, towards the heroic and the lyrical-poetic. Now it has been tilted the other, a process which began with the appearance of the first modern anti-heroes and culminated in Beckett.

Toynbee resonated with me when he called for a more inclusive vision, saying that Malloy expressed ‘an attitude to life which cries out for at least some opposing one.’

What makes this hole issue even more interesting in terms of deciding about Shakespeare’s intentions are the changes he made to his sources (pages 233-34):

It’s often pointed out – Dr Johnson mentioned it in his disapproval of Cordelia’s fate – that Shakespeare’s historical and other sources do not end in the way his play does. As for most of Shakespeare’s works, there is already established a well-known story and part of what is well known about it is that it has a happy ending: reinstating Lear to his throne, to be succeeded by Cordelia.[2]

This strongly suggests that bleakness of this magnitude was the playwright’s intention. This is further confirmed by the evidence that Shakespeare made bleakening changes to the original version of his own play (page 234):

Shakespeare even revised his own text: So the ending of King Lear is a prominent act of rewriting, and is itself rewritten. King Lear exists in two early and distinct texts, printed in 1608 and in 1623. They are different in hundreds of small, and scores of larger, ways. [The first is The History of King Lear and the second is The Tragedy of King Lear].

A critical example is probably the easiest to consider here (page 235 – my emphasis):

One example of this might be the detail around Gloucester’s torture at the end of Act 3. Gloucester is blinded on stage in a horrific scene of brutality, leaving him describing his world as ‘all dark and comfortless’ as he is thrust out to “smell/his way to Dover“. The History has a short but telling sequence that is later cut. In this version, two servants prepare to care for the wounded Gloucester… and [end] praying ‘heaven help him!’. It’s a moment of tenderness: not everyone is indifferent to Gloucester’s suffering, and servants behave with more decency than their masters. Without this, the play has no corrective to its own cruelties.

Interestingly the Arden edition I used in teaching Lear in the early 70s has the more humane History version of the blinding episode, whereas the Jonathan Bate RSC Complete Works has only the bleak version, while the Stephen Greenblatt Norton Edition prints both versions in parallel. How this change might influence an audience’s reaction is illustrated by the notes I made in the margins of my Arden edition. You can see, in the illustration, that I had written in the left-hand margin of page 144: ‘Humane values beginning to reassert themselves. The turning point.’ This feeling persists even at the dark ending of the play where the Arden uses the later bleaker edition upon which to base its text. By the side of the newly introduced line (Act V, Scene 3, line 311) ‘Look there, look there!’ I wrote ‘Dies partly of joy.’

This raises the question again: what was his real intention? Having Lear respond possibly to the spirit of his dead daughter could be seen as intending to invoke a sense of a compensating afterlife. Does this cancel out the earlier deletion of the compassionate servants? The Arden edition retains both the deletion and the addition in their version of the play, without as far as I can establish acknowledging that it has done so.

Perhaps we can go no further in understanding Shakespeare’s intentions than Smith describes, admittedly from her perspective that he loves to tease our understanding in this way thus permitting many different and equally valid interpretations of his text (page 237):

So Shakespeare is the first of the long history of literal and figurative rewriters of King Lear. His saddest play has prompted extraordinary spiritual, philosophical and artistic efforts to ameliorate its desolation, and the history of those interventions is a cultural history of just what it is we want from our tragic art: comfort, exhilaration or dissection.

Where do I stand in terms of this ambiguity? Firmly on the side of its being evidence of his genius. If you are really going to be able to render experience convincingly maybe you have to make your rendering as ambivalent as life itself. None the less I prefer the more balanced take on reality offered by the inclusion of the compassionate servants, otherwise he may have tilted the scales too far to the darkness to be completely authentic in my view.


[1]. I was shocked to discover (or perhaps to be reminded) that I wasn’t the first person to think of this possibility. In December 2015, six months after posting this, I read, on page 149 of Mark Edmundson’s brilliant Self & Soul, ‘A. C. Bradley has said that if you put Hamlet into Othello’s play, the prince will quickly make Iago [out] for what he is and just laugh him to scorn. In Hamlet’s place, Othello would draw his sword and slice Claudius nave to chops in the first act. In either case: no play.’ I definitely read Bradley 50 years ago. Was this then a case of cryptoamnesia? I think so. What does that suggest about the rest of what I write? I dread to think and feel obliged to apologise to anyone I have inadvertently plagiarised.

[2]. See also John Kerrigan Shakespeare’s Originality, pages 63-82, for a fuller discussion of the changes Shakespeare made to his sources in the writing of King Lear.

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