Shakespeare by JBP.
The interpretation of any authentic creative writer whose work
is rich in perceptions that come 'from nowhere', and ambiguities which he would
not wish to resolve, must be largely a matter of intuition. Since nothing can
be proved there is evidence for almost anything.
I do not believe that Shakespeare's mature attitude can be
arrived at by examining the Elizabethan world-view of a political order
reflecting the cosmic order, and human hierarchy reflecting divine hierarchy.
Shakespeare is aware of this theory, so convenient to monarchs, but himself
believes only what experience has proved to be true.
Examination of the plays in supposed order of production would
suggest that he began work with optimistic elan and a willingness to accept
whatever might be necessary to achieve success, suffered a period of deep
disillusionment and bitterness, embarked on an examination of power, pain and
evil, and eventually found a resolution in acceptance and understanding. The
content of this resolution could be formulated as 'a sense of the
self-inflicted blindness of men and the necessity for awakening into
realisation of their fundamental nature.'
Reference to a few key plays is all I have space for: the Henry
V Trilogy (Henry IV, parts 1 & 2 and Henry V. Ed.); Troilus and
Cressida, Measure for Measure; King Lear;and finally The Tempest.
The historical plays start out as Tudor propaganda. They could
hardly be anything else in a spy-ridden State, with artistic activity largely
dependent on the patronage and approval of the Court. But as always in
Shakespeare there is an underlying counter-current of realistic criticism.
As the dramatist slogs through his historical marathon, growing
disillusionment with the wielders of power breeds profound suspicion of the
nature of power itself; and once he begins to question the human order he
conceives doubts about the divine order too.
Beneath the Henry V story - the creation of an 'ideal English
King' - there is another story which acts as a commentary on it - the story of
Falstaff is a rascal, a sponger, a coward, a scoundrel and a
cheat, yet because he is without malice he has a quality which resembles
innocence. He accepts the value of being alive for its own sake. He does not
live by codes and concepts, except to undermine and exploit them. He gives life
to the people around him; when he leaves, the party flags.
Prince Hal's ploys are malicious, Falstaff's a kind of seedy
fantasy. Hal is never the boon companion that Falstaff imagines him to be.
Hal's taste in enjoyment is satirical and sadistic. He relishes and torments
Falstaff for his own entertainment, just as he would relish a low-life comedy.
Falstaff is his butt. Hal is a future King slumming, and has the psychology of
a man of power. To use power and to extend it is his pleasure and destiny. On
accession to the throne he kills Falstaff in two sentences:
'I know thee not, old man; fall to thy prayers; How ill white
hairs become a fool and jester.'
King Harry's speech at Agincourt is the climax of the cycle of
history plays, and is taken as a vision of the ideal England. It is also
statecraft, intended to persuade men to die for Henry's territorial claims on
France - that is, for his interests, not theirs.
Falstaff, on the other hand, knows what happens to soldiers when
the fighting is over: 'I have led my ragamuffins where they are pepper'd.
There's not three of my 150 left alive, and they are for the town's end, to beg
Between the time when Shakespeare wrote Henry V and the time
when he wrote Troilus and Cressida he suffered a crisis of confidence. Troilus
is an essay in contained bitterness, and Measure for Measure was written facing
Nothing could make his point better than use of the heroic
legend of the Trojan wars to show the participants as all-too-human, their
beliefs a delusion; the Greeks a gang of bickering louts or political
manipulators; the Trojans blind men fighting in a wrongful cause. Hector tells
them they are wrong and in the next breath exhorts them to go on fighting;
Cressida betrays Troilus with the first presentable Greek she meets; Achilles
has the unarmed Hector killed by his thugs, then claims a personal victory in
combat; the play ends in a welter of useless bloodshed.
The action can be considered as a commentary on Ulysses'
eloquent, pompous and politic speech about hierarchy, which he calls 'degree' -
and the necessity for order in all things. Shakespeare is not using the vicious
railer Thersites as an example of disorder but to express the gutter-view of
reality ' 'war and lechery confound all.'
There is more than this in Measure for Measure. Shakespeare is
asking what is the cause of corruption and cruelty? What lies behind human
beings, all of whom who are capable of it? What then of 'divine nature'?
We can hardly see the play without asking 'What does the Duke of
Vienna represent?' His role is ambiguous. He is not a good advertisement for
hierarchy and degree.
He pretends to go on a journey, leaving as his deputy the coldly
puritanical Angelo, well aware that Angelo is totally unsuitable as a guardian
of morality and law. The Duke intends Angelo to suffer the unpopularity for
strict enforcement of decrees which the Duke has been lax in implementing.
What's more, he does not conduct the experiment fairly. He
returns to the city disguised as a friar and interferes with events throughout.
The raffish and licentious Lucio calls him 'the old fantastical Duke of dark
corners' and says 'The Duke yet would have dark deeds darkly answered.' There
is more in Lucio than meets the eye. No wonder the Duke has it in for him.
The key speech of the play is made by Isabella, the would-be
nun, whose chastity Angelo seeks to ravish:
' . . . . man, proud man
Dress'd in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most
His glassy essence, like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic
tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep.'
What does Shakespeare mean by 'his glassy essence'? My guess is,
that faculty in man which awakens only with the exercise of insight, and
constitutes his essential nature. It is 'glassy' in the sense of being itself
invisible, and only perceptible in operation.
The Duke's judgements on Angelo is this: 'if his own life answer
the straitness of his proceeding, it shall become him well; wherein, if he
chance to fail, he hath sentenc'd himself.'
Very pithy. But the Duke does not question the morality of his
own manipulations. For example, he saves Isabella's brother Claudio from
execution by a trick, yet avoids telling her that Claudio has been saved. His
actions are dark, ambivalent, unpredictable. In the end, it appears that he
wants Isabella for himself. Is Shakespeare making a comment not only on the
actions of men, but on the operations of heaven?
Two comments in the play stand out in my mind. It is said of
He hath but as offended in a dream, and he
To die for't'
' . . . truth is truth
To th'end of reckoning.'
It is truth above all with which the dramatist is concerned.
We are plunged from this point into the great tragedies of
blindness, of man's lack of insight into his own condition: Othello is blind
from jealousy, Macbeth from ambition, Anthony from passion, Coriolanus from
pride, Lear from vanity and the corruption of power. Lear at the end of a play
thick with images of blindness begins to 'see' - but it is too late.
Lear's division of his kingdom betwen his daughters Regan and
Goneril, and his banishment of Cordelia, are acts of blindness, and his
expectation that the beneficiaries will continue to welcome him and his retinue
of layabouts entirely unrealistic. As the Fool remarks, 'Thou shouldst not have
been old till thou hadst been wise.'
Lear has been damaged by the lifelong possession of power, a
drug which induces blindness. He is totally blind to the true nature of those
around him, and his blindness is mirrored in that of Gloucester, who trusts the
treacherous Edmund rather than the honest Edgar.
The play charts the power-mad charge to destruction of Goneril
and Regan, and the disintegration of the deluded Lear into near-madness. But
the dramatist shows us that Lear's innate nature remains alive. His capacity
for sympathy and insight are revived by suffering as reality forces itself upon
The theme of the play, then, is spiritual blindness and the
restoration of sight. The text is thick with references to sight and blindness
- I counted up to fifty.
In Shakespeare's last plays - Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and
The Tempest - he shows us reconcilaition with the world not on the level of
fatalism but of understanding. These plays are centred on fresh, innocent
women. Are they 'real'? No. But they demonstrate Shakespeare's belief that
goodness is possible, and its effect 'magical'.
In The Tempest Prospero, Duke of Milan, has been unseated and
exiled by a conspiracy between his brother Antonio and the King of Naples. He
unintentionally invited the coup by repeating Lear's error in appointing
Antonio as deputy to do the work while still expecting to retain power. He now
lives on an island with his daughter Miranda and the half-human Caliban,
exercising domination over spirits by magical arts.
Prospero is not a benevolent sage but a capricious user of
arbitrary power, whose affections are confined to love of his daughter. His
relationship with the executive spirit Ariel combines the pressures of
emotional blackmail with crude tyranny. Prospero resembles the Duke in Measure
for Measure, both in his hidden power and the ambiguity of his position. As he
recounts to Miranda the tale of his usurpation he can hardly contain his fury
and mortification even after all these years. Like the Duke he manipulates the
whole action of the play. But he is not, like the Duke, a dark point about
which the play revolves. He changes. The play is about awakening.
When Prospero causes a ship carrying Antonio to be wrecked on
the island, Antonio and Sebastian plot a further usurpation, to kill the King
and his counsellor Gonzalo. They are prevented by the magic of Prospero.
Caliban throws himself into service with a drunken steward, persuading him to
attempt Prospero's murder.
Gonzalo describes his longing for a Golden Age, a peaceful
commonwealth without sovereignty. It will never arrive. What is the
alternative? The movement of individuals through knowledge to understanding -
awakening from sleep.
Prospero's awakening is in two stages. First his magic becomes
less arbitrary and more benevolent; second, all thoughts of revenge dissipate,
he destroys his magic books and returns to the world of everyday, but a world
transformed by his acceptance of responsibility for it.
Even Caliban is attacked by light and sees Stephano the Steward
What a thrice-double ass
Was I to take this drunkard for a god
And worship this dull fool.
We are not required to believe in the redemption of Antonio and
Sebastian. The world remains as it is, rich with darkness as well as light, and
populated largely by zombies. But light is real, the possibility of awakening
exists, and that's enough.
© JBP 2003