Monday, September 29, 2008

It's a miracle ...

In Our Time (link) is back - and serendipitously hit on a related topic ... Miracles. You can go and download the programme this week or listen on line in the future.

What struck me with regard to 'The First Part of the Contention' was the difference between the Protestant and the Catholic attitude to miracles - apparently the miracles of the Elizabethan age would be regarded by the stronger sort of protestant as works of the devil rather than of God - the age of miracles was past - with the ascension of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels.

The scene in St Albans then shows two interesting things - one, Gloucester's skepticism is very modern and links him to the right religion on Elizabethan England. Two, the King is stuck in the old dispensation ... he is a Catholic King dupped by a false religion - which accounts for the failure of his religiousness to produce.

Much is made in productin of Henry's religious bent - perhaps Shakespeare's Henry was more ambiguously religious than we take him for ... he is not so much an innocent lamb as a fool (if holy one) like Gloucester's Duchess?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Animal Magic!

Lions and Lambs, Foxes and Chickens, Doves, Snakes, Wolves, Eagles, Crocodiles, Porcupines and Dogs … oh yes, and Caterpillars ... and a Calf and his dam.

Not a list of creatures you can see in a zoo, but the menagerie invoked in the first Scene of Act 3 of The First Part of the Contention … (Henry VI, Part 2).

It is quite a list – deliberately extending earlier references to both the domesticated and wild and linking them to the Duke of Gloucester (most are used with reference to him) the King and the realm of England itself.

Some carry a weight of obvious symbolism – the Lion, as king of the jungle is also the animal seen ‘rampant’ as representation of England itself (even Willy was a lion – the first ‘mascot in any Soccer World cup – now copied ad nausea and sub-intellect into every sporting event). Ravenous lions are a powerful image – but incorporate a residual (at least for the ‘true’ Englishman – and if you saw the mustache and leg hair on the average English beauty you’d know that was not sexist) jingoism and a degree of pride (sorry for the pun) in strength.

Lambs take on the inevitable representation of sacrifice and the christian association with Christ – as well as provoking the sentimental in urban dwelling moderns: Not an ‘original’ Elizabethan sentiment perhaps.

And of course – the lion shall lie down with the lamb – not exactly a threat in the long term.

A careful look at the list of animals reveals several ‘double edged’ and consequently ‘interpretable’ linkages.

If the fox is a predator on chickens he is also respected for his cunning – and as long as that cunning is used for good purposes it can be an appellation of respect ( it should be remembered that Shakespeare used ‘Foxes’ Book of Martyrs as a source) – chickens are silly, ‘headless’ creatures which make a lot of noise – begging the question, ‘Who, in this play, are the chickens?’

The King – who in this scene loses all the respect gained during his last appearance and is revealed as weak and ‘empty headed’- could certainly be seen as the chicken – but if the king is the head, then the dukes and the Kingdom are in fact the fowl so foolish. There plots and counter-plots, their clucking complaints and their single-minded stupidities are the very reflection of a bunch of farmyard hens.

Doves and snakes seem less ambiguous but both reference back to the ‘Book of Genesis’.

The Dove – as a symbol of love and peace – is the superficial reference made by most commentators … but in the play it is the King who first uses it in this scene – and his religiosity suggests the need to dig a little deeper: The dove is the bird that brings the leaf to Noah in his ark – a pointer to a future on dry land and final ‘saving’ after turbulent times.

The Snake – with its definite reference to Aesop and with a proverbial linkage - is also inescapably knee-jerk linked to the Satan/serpent of the Garden of Eden. For the Queen, daughter of Eve as she is (and French daughter of Eve at that), to raise the devil is an inevitable ‘back-fire’ with an audience schooled each Sunday in the sins of our progenitors.

The wolf is a pack animal – the Eagle is a noble bird: Not the intended meaning given by York as he hypocritically works against Gloucester and the King under the guise of legality.

Crocodiles and Porcupines are a touch exotic – and hence suspicious …weakening in this English context any power they might have and more suggestive of flights of fancy and trivial image making than serious insight.

At which point I go back to my last post –

and show itself, attire me how I can

the Duchess’s exiting lines and reminder that the truth will out in the end.

Having been both a writer of references for people applying for higher education and employment, and a reader of references written, one thing is certain – bad comments say more about the writer than the subject. The instant you read a negative comment you ask – why have you put that? – you don’t say, ‘really, that’s not a nice thing’.

Shakespeare’s loading of the negative comments here with the animal images is a fascinating exploitation of this phenomenon and a delicious insight (in our post-subconscious world) into the slip from domestic husbandry to vicious wildness that the country is making as it removes the final good shepherd from his post.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Diptych; Triptych

Key pointer to change in a stage performance is the passage of people – an empty stage is a far greater marker of end/beginning than the written word ‘exaunt’ (with or without a new scene or act number).

The flow of people onto the stage – sometimes with a musical accompaniment, sometimes silently or with the clashing of weapons, the marching of feet and waving of banners – is an important stimulus to pay attention – something new is going to happen; the draining away of all, leaving a bare wooden platform, is a sure fire kick-start to the question, ‘Well, what was all that about then?’

Part of the difficulty of ‘reading’ a play like The First Part of the Contention … is this lack of definition – I am tempted to say it is the difference between seeing a postcard of Nelson on his column and being in Trafalgar Square, pigeons, traffic, tourists and all.

Paradoxically, a greater clarity of the individuality of scenes also leads to a sense of cohesiveness: Humans love to sum the parts.

It is a mistake to over emphasis the narrative as sole foundation upon which Shakespeare is building. It is a mistake easy to make – especially with the History Plays which are based on a national narrative, pre-written and only adapted by the word-play-forger.

The director in me (small, sniveling, unfulfilled, deflated, vestigial lump that it is) never lets go of Shakespeare’s love of juxtaposition. Examine any two scenes he placed next to each other and you will usually find a wealth of links – frequently, but not exclusively, in the form of a contrast. Put three scenes side by side and the sum becomes greater than the parts.

Act 2 of The First Part of the Contention (Henry VI, Part 2) provides an example in scenes 2,3 and 4.

Quite frankly, they are not a good read.

We have a complicated spoken genealogy guaranteed to confuse, even when re-read; a scene that seems to be taking place in a court – possibly a public execution place – with a short announcement and bit of a fight; then a scene in a street with more talk and next to no action: Nothing happens twice with a bit of physical distraction in-between.

Overtly scene 2 is York’s explanation of why he is the rightful heir to the throne and why Henry is an usurper. It is possible to dig out a genealogical table and follow his argument (although beware – Shakespeare, copying his source closely, gets a bit of it confused) – and come to the conclusion, ‘he has a point’.

Legally then, York should be King – but Shakespeare doesn’t leave it there – he adds a coda. When Salisbury and Warwick have knelt and declared him King, York goes on to suggest the need for all three to be deceitful and pretend to be what they are not – with the purpose of disposing of Gloucester, ‘the shepherd’.

At which point Mr Shakespeare empties the stage.

So – what was that all about?

We have a justified legal claim which sounds like ‘words, words, words’, and an intended illegal action in promotion of that claim. Do actions subvert rights? If York gets the crown this way is he in rightful possession?

By which time the trumpets are sounding and in walks the un-rightful king – in full splendour (complete with the crown) and power. He gives judgment in a court case – sentences, in full public view and with assurance (and a glimpse of god’s anointed majesty) to death evil-doers and, with rightful distinction, to internal exile their silly dupe (Gloucester’s wife). The language used is clear, straight and unambiguous.

The criminals go off to ‘execution’ and in come the master and apprentice for the trial by combat. One is drunk and getting drunker – the other almost insensible with fear. The drunk has pro-claimed York true King and is assured victory by both experience and physical size; the apprentice – and that meant boy – has no chance, even though right is on his side.

But a ‘miracle’ happens – the excessive drink confounds the man and the boy wins.

Watching this is Henry, the ‘young’ King, York, Warwick, and the rest of the court … including all of those mentioned in the previous scene as subverters of the state and its laws.

York, in two quick lines, sees not the actions of God, but the wine as cause of the victory; Henry, closing the scene in 6 lines (looking always for the interventions of God) heaven’s intent to punish and bring low the unrighteous, reward those true.

And the stage empties again … with trumpets and display, cheering and the dragging off of a dead body.

Clearly there is a demonstration of ‘right over might’ – but York was on stage – and all those lords he was talking about … is Henry falsely secure?

And where were the combatants standing? Was Henry ‘above’ and the fight below? Where was York (and his friends) standing in the scene before? If York, then the witch and Gloucester’s wife, then the fight are all seen on the same spot – they are linked.

Why the drink? The previous scene took place after the Lords had dined together – were any of them slightly drunk? (It would make for a more entertaining scene if Warwick was slightly tipsy). Excessiveness in drink is a metaphor for other excessiveness – and the armorer was the one who supported York’s claim to the throne – is there truth in wine or is it just oil for the wheels on the tumbrel?

In silence, Gloucester enters. He is here to watch his wife’s punishment and penance – was he ordered to?

Eleanor Cobham enters – dressed in a simple white sheet (a shroud? Memento mori? Gloucester and his servants are is mourning black).

Gloucester refuses to break the law and rescue her – but she, apparently learning nothing from her experience, berates him for allowing her public disgrace. She invokes the image of Gloucester as a bird when she says a bush is being limed for his capture. Gloucester gently rebukes her and tells her to keep faith with the laws of the land – she is being rightly punished for a crime she did commit. She warns him that he will not live long – he is next in line for the chop.

She is taken off to the Isle of Man and Gloucester leaving earlier to go to the King’s parliament. Eleanor’s words close the scene – no matter how well dressed, she will always bear the ‘shame’ of the shroud.

The biggest contrast between scenes 3 & 4– and surely the one with the initial impact – is the costume: Scene 3 is all colour, all state, all heraldic splendor – Eleanor Cobham is still ‘Duchess’ and is in her finery, the King in his robes of state, and the peers of England resplendent; Scene 4 is plain black and then white – the black of mourning and the white of the dead. There is the martial uniform and weapons of the Sheriff and his men encasing the woman ‘caught in sin’ … and a brief reminder, in the person of the herald, of the previous colourful scene.

Eleanor’s closing words force us to think back to the previous scenes – and point to the future – we cannot hide our guilt in our surface appearances. It is a common enough theme in Shakespeare – no less significant for its ubiquity.

These juxtapositions reveal interesting aspects of the play which might not be noticed as so significant if analysis is restricted to any individual scene (or the play ‘as a whole’) – but what happens if we look at the three of them as a triptych?

One element that strikes me is the intensity with which the relationship between legality and right is put under the spot light.

It is clear that York has a legal claim to the throne – but has he any ‘right’? The first doubt to his claim is found within the scene where he expounds that right – he is willing to cheat, lie and play false in order to win. This is immediately brought into contrast with the Kingly Henry – for the first time (and possibly last) behaving as a true king – and with the condemnation of those who plot against the rule of God and the state. The fight then emphasises the ultimate exposure of such falsity even when supported by might. The drunkenness suggests an excessive intoxication as a cause of ultimate failure, which is a point acknowledged by York – but not absorbed.

The failure to act moderately results in death – both the physical death of the man (as the body carried off at the end of the third scene clearly indicates) and the spiritual death of Eleanor Cobham – who goes to her exile not repenting her sin, but repenting her fall.

Eleanor Cobham and York are paired in these three scenes – both have been driven by ambition, both are playing the Devil’s game, both wish to abuse the laws of the land for personal gain.

Henry appears in the central scene as a right acting rock standing against a battering sea of false aristocracy – he is ‘Peter’ – the name given to the winning apprentice – and the true rock on which the foundations of Christianity are laid. He has a blind faith in right winning out in the end. But we mustn’t forget - true justice is blind!

Which pairs him with Gloucester – the ‘Good Duke Humphrey’ of the plays original, full title. For in the fourth scene Gloucester makes the claim that he cannot be harmed because he has committed no crime.

The second scene has prepared us to hear these words with a dramatically ironic ear – we know the plots and traps being laid for the old man, the limed twigs that will snare him – but we have also just seen right winning in the end. If York and Gloucester’s wife are linked – then the ultimate fate of both is also linked and no matter what deceptions York contrives, in the end he will be made to do penance for his crimes – and go to punishment after that penance.

It is worth remembering that Shakespeare’s play, despite its verisimilitude, has taken a great liberty at this point – it has moved the events of 1442 when Gloucester’s wife and the others were tried and condemned forward to 1448 when York and his two friends met in the garden. This is not the accidental juxtapositioning of chronology – it is the deliberate artistic mixing of disparate events in a unified space.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Wind and fair weather friends… ?

After several days of wet miserable (English-style) weather, the rain dropped away and left a cool, billowy day yesterday.

I sat in the Park. Wet drips from the trees and grey clouds canvas out the sky; I listened to/read the first scene in Act 2 (The First Part of the Contention).

There were similarities – none more so than the difficulty the birds were having flying. Most of the ground level, tree flitting birds were OK – it was the cross the sky birds – the crows, the occasional adventurous pidgin and the Kestrel I usually see circling behind the cathedral tower that were having difficulties. They were there, they were getting on with their ‘birdie lives’, but it was difficult.

Wind is exciting – ask any school teacher on playground supervision (do teachers do that sort of thing now?). Great childhood battles brew under Aeolia’s influence …; Juno bribed and browbeat the original in an attempt to destroy Aeneas; Chicago, the windy city, is famed for its gangs and violent crime.

The Queen is under the influence of the wind – she enters the stage on a high. And if the behaviour of the Lords is anything to go by, they too have their schoolboy spirits stirred: Gloucester and the Cardinal plot, the others bicker. The King ignores, to his cost.

It is marvellous how Shakespeare, in a few moments of dialogue, can sum up the basic human experience of exposure to nature. And the wind will be back …

We are out in the wind with our ‘falcons’ – well, Taming the Shrew was an act of falconry and here, in the next play, the we are reminded again of that early marriage comedy – the King tells his wife to shut up – and she apparently does.

Behind the dialogue, spurring it on, one might say, is Gloucester’s Heraldic crest. This included a hawk – so the jokes which follow are bound in with the identity of the Gloucester family in a way which modern audiences have no real way of grasping.

Nowadays we are familiar with the Logo of sports teams and manufacturers of sports wear … a few people might recognise the heraldic devices of a few countries, some still carry them on their flags – but for most, the shield and the livery are quaint ideas, symbols of decadence or mere decoration.

Not so to Shakespeare – he after all, went to get his own coat of arms drawn up. It is worth noting that Shakespeare was not the only stage professional who did this – Augustine Phillips also applied … which would suggest that the heraldic was something of meaning and worth at least to the theatre people. One of the written pieces of evidence for Shakespeare as a writer is in the account books of the Earl of Rutland – payment to Burbage (a carpenter who could act and paint!) and Shakespeare for making/painting/writing a heraldic device and accompanying poem to be used at a ‘joust’ celebrating a visit of James I/VI .

Punning on the meaning of such devices must have been a very powerful ‘weapon’ in the political armoury of the play … giving the right ‘nickname’ to an opponent can be very revealing – children may shout out, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me’ – but they will go home and cry about it in the secrecy of their own bedrooms.

And the fact that the jokes about towering and raising above don’t reflect the person of Gloucester doesn’t negate the fact they do reflect his ‘family’ in the person of his wife – who we have just seen arrested and the news of whose arrest brings the scene to an end.

Which brings us to the second part of the scene – the revelation of false miracle and reminder of the ever-present ‘low-life’ undertow to the play.

What interests me at this point is plums (testicles) and climbing plum trees (sexual intercourse). We have some overt punning going on here. Again, likely to be lost to modern audiences – and to have been crystal clear to the early watchers of the play.

When ‘the wife’ says:

…, and bought his climbing very dear

a set of levels of meaning are activated – which resonates through all on stage.

Simpcox must surely be regarded as ‘driven’ by his wife – or led through his lust for her. His wife has possibly led him on using his uncontrolled passions.

On stage, we see Gloucester – he is about to fall, like Simpcox, because of his wife – although it is not Gloucester’s fault – but his wife’s blindness to god which will make her husband lame.

The Queen, who is still playing a virtuous game (Henry VI Part I, has not yet been written) is going to go the way of ‘The Wife’ and use a man’s lust to bring down the Lancastrian family fortunes.

The lustful man is surely William de la Pole – Suffolk: He, like Simpcox, will defy God and, attempting to climb into the Queen’s Plum Tree, fall and break his head.

Finally, another, easy to miss element is the onlookers – the crowd who will accompany Simpcox and his wife in the direction of fortune, cheering them on – and then join as heartily in the jeers as they are whipped through the towns – the playground crowd watching the for any excitement and excuse to coagulate.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Black Marks, on Skin of Calf ...

Ambivalent Writes, Certain Deaths

A little ‘sub-text’ developing in the play is concerned with writing.

The written word has made a number of appearances so far – too many to be accidental?

Each of the occasions has also shown a degree of falsehood and/or innate disaster.

The play starts with a written contract – the marriage contract; the petitioners try to present written petitions; Eleanor’s questions and the spirits answers are inscribed and recorded.

It is not hard to see the reaction of Cade to lawyers (hang all of them) and writing as potentially justified in the light of these documents.

The marriage contract is seen as disastrous – Gloucester has a fainting fit when he first reads it and it sets off the whole chain of events of the play. As I mentioned earlier, it is a contract binding unequal partners in a ‘til-death-do-us-part’ union.

The petitioners rightful grievances, once written, are either taken and used as a weapon against someone not concerned in the original petition (York) or are simply ripped up and prove impotent – although costly, for a scribe will have had to have been paid, and a lawyer consulted. Can we say it is the written word that ultimately causes the battle between the apprentice and his master – and the death of one of them?

In this last scene of the first act we have the written word associated with evil – it is used to write down the words of a Devil, and York, even though he knows the seriously ambivalent nature of what is written, still holds on to it. Again, the written words will be used in a court to condemn people – and whilst Eleanor gets sent to the Isle of Man (a living death) the others are killed. It is noticeable that the one person really responsible for the getting together of the condemned ( Hume – truly a devil’s advocate) escapes the power of the words to entrap.

For a playwright, written words are ambivalent – she or he puts into the written form meaning and intent - but the performance of any play will never equal the intent.

Shakespeare, as an actor and playwright was well aware of this. Indeed, all three of the plays he has so far written have shown considerable propensity to ‘interpretation’ – the words do not pin down to a single meaning, the actor has scope to interpret and almost completely invert the meanings.

There is a strong belief held by many (meaning me) that Shakespeare didn’t want his play texts published – that he didn’t want them read – precisely because they are not complete on the page – that as writing they are open to the evil of distortion and misjudgment – used to make a trap for fools – and, until in the mouth of the actor, they are incomplete.

Did Shakespeare play Cade? Did he want all the lawyers and dealers in written words, the teachers and those who can read, executed – Academics and readers of Shakespeare as literature, beware!

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?

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Base Cullions ...

The need to protest against a perceived injustice runs deep in all of us. It is an expression of faith in the power of those that hear to redress the injury.

A couple of days ago Romanian football threw up another occasion for spontaneous popular protest. The machinations of the footballing barons, the disputes over ‘territory’ and the helplessness of ordinary against the powerful, resulted in several hundreds of fans protesting publicly, a minor skirmish or two (complete with broken heads), the temporary blocking of traffic and a loud march to the centre of the town.

It was quite exciting – I followed the crowd in the hope of seeing some action but in the end was disappointed as it fizzled out – the protesters were leaderless and, by the time they’d made it to Opera Square, it was late.

Although this made the national press little has appeared outside of Romania - which is strange, because it was such a minor protest in the same city of Timisoara which caused the Revolution of 1989, which brought down Nicolae Ceausescu (I won’t say communism) to start.

The difference, I guess, is the comparative political stability now. The spark of a minor grievance is not enough to set a significant social blaze – but should be heeded as a warning by those in power.

Shakespeare gives us a similar ‘protest’ at the start of the third scene of ‘The First Part of the Conflict …’. The protesters are the petitioners – men with a grievance they wish to make public and have redressed by the powers that be (in their eyes, the Lord Protector: Gloucester).

They are not able to get access to the person who counts (much as the Timisoarian protesters, who really need UEFA and FIFA to listen don’t get their voices heard through international media indifference).

The Queen, showing a severe lack of insight, sends them off with an:

‘Away, base cullions.’

She might as well have said, ‘Let them eat cake’!

In less than 40 lines, shifting from the seriously dangerous devil-dabblings of Gloucester’s wife, to an ‘all is not well’ in the body politic Shakespeare has given the foundations for all that is to follow – here we have the rule (and importantly spirit) of right and justice being swept aside, earlier we had basics of ‘respect’ and ‘God-given authority’ being ignored.

The protesters in Timisoara appear to have been as unsuccessful as those in Shakespeare’s play … All they need is a Jack Cade though to feed on their genuine grievances.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Family Values ...

The fun and games going on over the other side of the pond with regard to illegitimate babies, women in politics and ‘redneckidness’ might seem to be far removed from Shakespeare and Elizabethan Theatre, but I’m not so sure.

One of those constant metaphors (in western society at least) seems to be to view the body politic as a family. There is the head of the family, the family itself and, in earlier times at least, the servants. The very powerful combination of man and wife in harmony, with children growing under their protection, operating within a sometimes hostile world is a very strong idea – just look at the galvanizing effect the ‘Republican ticket’ has had.

Shakespeare starts his first History play (The First Part of the Contention) with this image.

Henry is united with Margaret and they go off to unite with the state in her coronation. But there is a degree of family disharmony – the elder statesman, Gloucester is not happy with the settlement – this is not a marriage of equals and too much has been spent – there is a danger to the stability of the family – his ‘uncle’ argues and goes behind his back, others do the same … just as in any normal family. Instead of looking to the family, each (perhaps with the exception of Gloucester) is looking to himself.

It is the job of the head of the family (and his wife) to control this natural sibling rivalry – and it is the responsibility of the children to follow the rules of the family … to the Elizabethan, this was a God-given responsibility: I suspect, to a number of dwellers across the seas, the same would apply.

We are so used these ideas we forget the element which was so exciting to the Elizabethan was the changing role of the woman in all this.

As I pointed out in an earlier post the significant role of the junction of man and wife as a religious, moral and ideal unit was a consequence of Protestantism and Shakespeare’s promotion of this ideal could be considered almost revolutionary.

In his two previous plays he dealt with the issues directly in terms of comedy – of male uniting with female.

Here, in the first of a new genre of play for the writer, he deals with a more abstract, almost philosophical conception – the power of an ordered group over the disorder of chaos – the need for a natural balance with people fulfilling their roles, accepting both their strength and limitations. The play which follows from the union of Henry and Margaret is in a direct line to the speech of Katherine at the end of The Taming of the Shrew.

But what we get here is not Petruccio and Katherine’s story – it is that of the Widow and Hortensio, or of Bianca and Lucentio. The necessary submission for unity is not going to be made.

I think it is very telling that the first very public, very political scene is followed by the private domestic scene between Gloucester and ‘Nell’, his wife, the ‘Duchess’.

Central at this point is Gloucester – he is the only one in the previous scene who seems to have the needs of ‘King and Country’ foremost in his mind – he is rebelled against by everyone, behind his back … and when he is at home, his wife preaches rebellion and treachery – and (significantly) goes behind his back and disobeys his orders – for her own benefit rather than the countries or even her family.

But Shakespeare isn’t only drawing a parallel here, he pushes it one stage further – it involves consorting with the powers of evil, with a going against God and consulting the devil and his subordinates … and these actions are linked to a supposed holy man (the Cardinal Uncle) and others of the political commonweal.

Rebellion in the family, rebellion in the state and rebellion of the soul against the heavenly ordained.

The redneck Cade and his followers are merely and extension – the wild consequence of a breakdown in the values enshrined in the family.

What is playing out in the US of A at the moment is an echo of this first history play – and is an exploration in real life of the issues Shakespeare explored (based quite closely on real life) several centuries ago.