Saturday, December 27, 2008

Gift horse in the mouth

I have been thinking about gift giving in Shakespeare.

There doesn't seem to be too much of it if I remember rightly.

What there is tends to be more insult or cupboard love ... which is interesting.

Timon goes over the top with gifts - which in this 'Christmas' season might not seem a bad thing. I am not so sure.

I don't celebrate Christmas and I don't give (or take if I can avoid it) gifts. I've got around to a feeling of superficiality in both the giving and the taking - and there is certainly nothing spiritual in it.

So what is Timon doing? Is he weak in the mind?

I did give a gift this week though - and shall give another on Sunday.

Because of the state of my health and the severe possibility that I shall be leaving Romania for a long time, I passed on to one of my young friends my complete DVD collection of Shakespeare and my precious Oxford Complete Works - I hope it gives much pleasure and starts him on a path of adventure and exploration.

What I don't feel I've given is anything material. There was an intellectual gift there - and not a definitive one - it is more like a dowry, a source of future riches, a foundation

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Wood within a wood ...

Although the play has no evidence for it, I like to think of Macbeth looking out over the castle walls at Birnam wood and reflecting.

Much in the way I have been reflecting on my tumour.

I can actually see it - the doctor cut a 'vent' so he could take the biopsy and has left me a nice view of the problem. For those morbid enough (or with the stomach) it looks a little like a walnut - or half a walnut (the doctor, struggling for the correct English comparison, described it as a cauliflower - which is much too floral). It reminds me of my time in school when we dissected things - and the vengeance of the mouse is upon me - very mouse brain with alcohol dripped on it.

Anyway, when you look at 'Birnam Wood' you see your fate - you have to face that fate, there is no alternative. You are looking into the probable end. Macbeth's initial reaction has to turn cold. It is not depression, it is not even depressing, there is a satisfaction as you look and reflect - a knowingness - of being tricked into a false security and of smiling at your own gulability.

There is a determination too - OK, you've got me, but I'm going down strong. Not necessarily fighting (although in Macbeth it is that), not necessarily raging - but with whatever strength you can muster and with at least an attempt at dignity.

There is a certainty of defeat - and this is possibly an English thing - fighting the game to take part, not to win. The battle will be the final one, and Macbeth has no illusions as to silly schoolboy ideals of glory - he has fought before and knows the hacking of limbs, the bathing in blood the agonies and screams - as I know the fight against pain of cancer - I've seen enough of my family fall to it not to have any illusions: There will be no dignity in the end, just the coughing up of blood,the manual evacuation and the balance between enough pain killer and not extinguishing life.

There is no bravery possible, you have a choice of illusion or facing the fight - bravery is when you choose to fight when you do not have to - Macbeth has to, I have to.

I am aware though of Macduff - Macbeth as he looks at Birnam knows nothing of him. I know there will come an energy sapping moment when defeat stares me very closely in the face. Macbeth, ever the soldier, 'lays on': I hope to goodness sake I can do the same.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Nothing serious in mortality

It is strange when Shakespeare pops into one's head.

I was flat on my back in hospital last week coming out of a spinal block and several quotes and ideas popped into my head.

Macbeth, of course - with an inevitability only to be expected -

There's nothing serious in mortality ...

- but I'm concentrating on the lack of serious.

Being recently diagnosed with a tumour, my sense of humour has been considerably sharpened. So too is Fate's - both the initial 'revelation' under local anesthetic, with the sound of 'jingle bells' (you need to think where the growth is spreading to get the full implication of that one) on the radio (strange music for the urologist I'd say) and then, recovering from the spinal block used for a more adventurous cutting expedition, to have to endure flat on my back without resistance more 'Christmas Cheer' - Angels are apparently singing - not about my plight I hope.

No, there is nothing serious in mortality.

The spinal block though was another Shakespeare moment.

I couldn't help but think of Titus and limb chopping. To have the sensation of legs but no feeling and no possible movement ... it is a weird, frustrating incomprehensibility of a sensation - I'll be coming to the play not too far from now and hope to explore a little that moment.

As regular readers of this blog will now understand ... my absence is fortold, but I do hope to get a bit further into the journey before the old antic pops his pin through brass.

And I promise to try not to be as self-pitying as Richard.

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.