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.
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 during life.'
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 the dark.
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 assur'd,
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 Claudio: Alas,
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 him.
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 plain:
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.
More of Winamop's Shakespeare Essays
© JBP 2003. Please do not reproduce without consent.