Friday, September 12, 2008

Devil in t' tale ...

Nothing separates me further from the average Elizabethan than belief in the supernatural.

There not only was a God, but a Devil – that personification of Evil was a physical reality which was capable of manifesting itself and which had servants, both human and other.

It is quite ‘remarkable on’, that, in this first of the History plays, Shakespeare brings on to stage one such ‘servant’ and several human exploiters of Evil – and provides what must have been a sensational end to the first act (if he was thinking in acts at the time).

When I say sensational, I am using the term in a way that indicates the stimulation of the senses rather than ‘original’ – because it is not very original - it is one of the older tricks in the book – for what is raised for the Duchess is very much a Mediaeval Mystery Play deceiving devil – the chase-through-the-crowd with horns and pitchfork devil which must have been a mix between clown at the circus and horror movie thrill.

There is not a great deal of subtlety in it – and Marlowe and Greene, both write around the same time plays which include spirit raising.

What is the supernatural doing in a retelling of History?

The obvious answer is that it was in the history books – the characters named and the events portrayed on stage were, more or less, in the chronicles. This, more than anything else, should hammer home the way the spiritual was ingrained in the early modern mind’s perceptions of reality.

What Shakespeare does is shift the timing – moving the downfall of Eleanor Cobham forwards into the time frame of the play – in reality she had committed her witchcraft (which included the making of a doll of the King for an ‘attempt on his life’ – things Shakespeare cuts) before Margaret came to England – they never actually met.


Two reasons fall into place for me – one to do with Shakespeare’s exploration of the metaphor of marriage and one to do with the ‘theatrical’.

In direct disobedience to her husband and all the warnings of religion, Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester consorts with evil spirits. She does so in order to promote her own status in search of the crown of England. This heady combination of ambition and disobedience is played out several times in the play – with consequences.

It is not only the female characters (for this is what Margaret does, and Simpcox’s wife) but, if we take the idea of husband equating with King, also the Cardinal and York – in fact, it is at the root of nearly every dispute and disagreement.

The only character who seems true to both king, country, religion and family is Gloucester … ironically enough. It is Gloucester who maintains the faith – as is shown in the previous scene where he sentences to trial by combat, despite the obvious physical disparity, York’s armourer and his apprentice. He is saying, ‘God’s will be done’.

This is not the passive Christianity of Henry – it is a forceful assertion.

Eleanor goes against her husband – showing as strongly as possible the doctrine of free will and independence of judgment. In Shakespeare’s previous play (The Shrew), Katherine submits to Petruccio not through force – but through realisation of the rightness of her submission. As a consequence, what will Petruccio not do for his wife?

So too with Gloucester – as long as it is within the bounds of morality, what will Gloucester not do for his wife – he has raised her to the status of second woman in the realm … but she wants more.

To get it she chose the summoning of spirits … and how could Shakespeare not exploit the theatrical possibilities of such an opportunity?

As I mentioned above, there is the thrill and excitement of such an enactment – sound effects and special effects (the stage directions of the time call for them) were possible – if the play is being performed on stage there is the chance to raise the devil through the trap on stage: The stage picture itself emblematic – a semi-circle of conjurers around the chalk marks on the platform, one man with pen – putting to paper the words spoken and on the upper platform, standing at the apex of a triangle, Eleanor.

Eleanor doesn’t speak – her words are transmitted – through writing: Later, in Macbeth, Shakespeare (or Middleton) dares go one further and have a direct between the questioner and the answerer.

In the theatre, you remember this scene – on the page it looks somewhat limp and silly.

There is another element which is worth comment.

Giotto, an Italian painter who looks somewhat dated to us (although with his frescoes nicely cleaned he has a great line in blue), has claim to be the first great modern man – certainly in the world of arts. Before Giotto, the visual representation of people was somewhat formulaic – and very one dimensional. With a few strokes of his brush he gave a reality to his people – three dimensional bodies. It was the start of a roller coaster leading to perspective, the portraits of the Renaissance and even the Sistine Chapel roof painting.

Shakespeare’s first ‘spirit’ manifestation has something of that renaissance makeover feel too.

If it is the child of the Medaeval Mystery Devil – gone is the flatness. This is a devil in torment. The language spoken, nodding in the direction of ritual and Latin (kick at the Catholic church?) is clearly a modern English – and the modernness of it is an extra source of fear … this is possible, this is real, this could be us.

Cutting edge or what?

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