About Me

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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 30 March 2020

"The Clerkenwell Tales" by Peter Ackroyd

Ackroyd writes both fiction and non-fiction; he is well known for historical novels such as the truly superb Hawksmoor. He is also a great writer of biographies and he has specialised in telling the stories of London and Londoners. This novel therefore combines his passions.

It is a fascinating conceit. Each chapter is about a character who can be described as one of the characters in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales; thus we encounter a Wife of Bath (who is a madame so named because she runs a bath-house), a Miller, a Physician etc. But the tale is set in 1399 to the backdrop of the deposition of Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke. At this time (and Ackroyd tells this as if it were historical fact, and so convincingly that I believe him) a group of heretics who believed in predestination were conspiring with a shadowy Freemason-like organisation known as Dominus to create terrorist outrages (including bombing churches) in order to destabilise society. Somehow Ackroyd weaves these tales together with what purport to be historical murders to make a thriller worthy of the Da Vinci code. Where this novel excels, however, is the incredible detail of the setting. The language, the diet, the smells, the noise, the superstitions, the characters, the geography, the buildings, the laws, the customs of old London are meticulously described. In terms of verisimilitude this is a tour de force.

But there are too many characters, not only the 22 characters conforming to Chaucer's characters but many others too. I got so lost about who was who. And the price of the detailed period accuracy was that I could relate to few of the characters. Then again, much as I enjoyed learning about old London, the exhaustive detail was exhausting; sometimes there can be too much research. Becuase of these burdens placed upon me I failed to enjoy reading it as a novel. It was like one of those intricate and rapid Chopin compositions which you can admire for their cleverness and marvel at the musician's dexterity but which don't really speak to your soul.

It did contain many brilliant moments of which these are representative:

  • "It was as if he had calculated how many words would lead him through this life, and was determined not to exceed that number." (C 2)
  • "It was the smell of humankind, and those who lived in the city had become accustomed to it." (C 2)
  • "His hand was moving quickly, as if he were shaking invisible dice." (C 4)
  • "It was point and counterpoint taken out of a songbook of smell." (C 16)
  • "God may send a man good meat, but the devil may send an evil cook to destroy it." (C 16)

An impressive work of writing. March 2020; 206 pages

Books by Peter Ackroyd reviewed in this blog:
Historical fiction


Thursday, 26 March 2020

"Turtles All the Way Down" by John Green

John Green is the author of young adult phenomena such as Paper Towns (my favourite) The Fault in Our Stars (everyone's tear-jerking favourite) and An Abundance of Katherines.

He is superb at creating strong young characters and interacting them with superbly witty dialogue:

  • Narrator Aza lives in a state of permanent anxiety about her microflora, fearing that she will one day die of sepsis or some other microbial infection. She is so anxious that, having kissed her boyfriend and realised that she gas just imbibed an estimated 80 million of his bacteria, she has to go to the bathroom and drink hand sanitiser.
  • Her best friend Daisy writes very popular fan fiction about the romantic life of Chewbacca from Star Wars. She initiates the hero's journey by proposing that the pair of them investigate the mysterious disappearance of a local billionaire so they can get the reward money of 100,000 dollars.
  • Daisy and Aza therefore go snooping at the billionaire's house and meet Davis, his son. Aza and Davis begin dating (which is awkward when you don't like kissing).
I loved the idea of you not being you but rather a host to a whole ecosystem of microbes. This raises questions of selfhood: who are 'you':

  • The book starts with the narrator realizing "I might be fictional" (C 1) because her life is controlled by her school's timetable: "I was beginning to learn that your life is a story told about you, not one that you tell. ... You think you're the painter, but you're the canvas." (C 1)
  • "Humans are approximately 50 per cent microbial, meaning that about half of the cells that make you up are not your at all. ... It often seems like I can feel them living abd breeding and dying in and on me." (C 1)
  • "If half the cells inside of you are not you, doesn't that challenge the whole notion of me as a singular pronoun, let alone as the author of my fate." (C 1)
  • "Self is a plurality, but pluralities can also be integrated, right? Think of a rainbow. It's one arc of light, but also seven differently coloured arcs of light." (C 8)
  • "There are all these things living inside of me that eat my food for me ... I'm not a human person so much as this disgusting, teeming blob of bacteria ... Which means that I have maybe, like, no more of a soul than the bacteria do." (C 8)
  • Even the outside environment is in control: "You never think much about weather when it's good, but once it gets cold enough to see your breath, you can't ignore it. The weather decides when you think about it, not the other way around." (C 17)

Other great moments:

  • "The whole problem with boys is that ninety-nine percent of them are, like, okay. If you could dress and hygiene them properly, and make them stand up straight and listen to you and not be dumbasses, they'd be totally acceptable." (C 5)
  • "I have the soul of a private jet owner, and the life of a public transportation rider." (C 5)
  • "Wait, oh God, I just said I'm in love. We've been hooking up for under twenty-four hours and I'm dropping L-bombs." (C 10)
  • "It's a weird phrase in English, in love, like it's a sea you drown in or a town you live in. You don't get to be in anything else - in friendship or in anger or in hope." (C 12)
  • "I like short poems with weird rhyme schemes, because that's what life is like. ... It rhymes, but not in the way you expect." (C 12)
  • "What I love about science is that as you learn, you don't really gets answers. You just get better questions." (C 14)
  • "My whole life I thought I was the star of an overly earnest romance movie, and it turns out I was in a goddamned buddy comedy all along." (C 21)

Great fun to read. Another brilliantly written and thought provoking book from John Green.

March 2020; 286 pages

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

"The Breaking of Bumbo" by Andrew Sinclair

This is Sinclair's first novel, published in 1959. It was based on his experiences doing National Service. It was an instant success, making him famous. He wrote the screenplay and directed the film of the novel in 1970. He is most famous for writing the screenplay and directing Under Milk Wood, a film produced in 1972, based on the Dylan Thomas poem, in which Richard Burton reprised his role of narrator from the 1954 BBC Radio drama. Sinclair was a prolific writer of fiction and history.

The Breaking of Bumbo is a strange book. The first section describes how Bumbo, straight out of Eton, as a very raw (and virginal) eighteen year old, is trained as a National Serviceman and somehow, despite a chaotic night exercise, and an even more chaotic attempt to seduce a Debutante, becomes an officer in the Guards. This section was quite difficult to read: there were in-comments about his Etonian schooldays (which, as an ex-alumni, I understood but I doubt that others would) and extraordinarily callow conversations with a friend. Looking back having finished the book I appreciate how this showed how immature Bumbo was.

The second section describes his life as a junior officer in the Guards. Bumbo has always been a bit of an outsider: having grown up a son of perfectly respectable suburban parents he goes to Eton as a scholar and manages to get accepted by the (mostly much richer) boys because as well as being clever he is also good at sports. But he is fundamentally an Outsider (in the Colin Wilson sense) and this becomes more obvious in the Brigade. He enjoys the ceremonial duties and he likes getting drunk in the Officers' Mess but he feels detached from 'Them'. His social life revolves around an active sex life with a model called Susie and louche parties with speed-talking Jock ("So Jock's spiel babbled on to Babylon"; C 7) whose milieu seems to hint at homosexuality (which would have been illegal in 1959): "we like sex, slumming, and cool jazz too. As Humph said at the Chelsea Palace, a cat can look at a Queen. But don't you worry, Bumboboy, I know a fellow soul when I see one. No codpiece, honest. You just try it out for size chez moi, and if you like it, the door is always wide-open." (C 7)

Then he makes a stand for what he considers to be the 'right' thing to do and 'Their' forces combine to crush him.

There are some brilliant descriptions:

  • "Black tongues of fog licked under the spikes of the Traitor's Gate, and the ravens croaked like damned souls." (C 4)
  • "The lamp-lights throw wavy-yellow commas in reflection on the water." (C 13)
  • "Every blade of hair mowed into place." (C 7)
  • "Two birds sat on his eyelids, pecking through to the retina." (C 16) He has a hangover

He is also great at encapsulating ideas pithily:

  • "There was something, perhaps, to be learned even among the stupid." (C 1)
  • "If equipment did not fit a man, it was the man who was warped." (C 6)
  • "Hell, what was memory to a man anyway, except to make him believe his make-believe." (C 8)
  • "Nobody in their senses wants the crooked made straight. It's the corkscrew that opens the bottle, ain't it?" (C 9)
  • "The moment a man says, I'm one of a crowd, he might as well be dead." (C 12)
  • "Everyone's as nice as they can afford to be; it's just the rich who can afford rather more." (C 12)

Other great moments:

  • "Each Young Officer was given a private servant, to dress him in the armour of his divinity ... to bend his officer's cap with a wet towel, to brush his bowler, to spit on the pointed toes of his George boots, to polish his engraved sword, to wash his white gloves, and ... to brush the hair of his master's bearskin over his eyes, like a trainer pulling the fringe of the embroidered mat over the arse of a circus elephant." (C 4)
  • "He joined the rat-race of the Seasonal men, and strolled among the ragbags of puppy-fat and easy meat, that answered to the names of debutantes." (C 5)
  • "The whole racket was a badly-organized, commercial marriage mart, screened by a venial veneer of ex-aristos." (C 5)
  • "Bumbo ... could not see any pair of buttocks that seemed to be enjoying themselves." (C 5)
  • "Men who loved laughter for the good feeling it gave, like brown ale, in their stomachs." (C 6)
  • "They would wash down the mixture with the brown syrup they called tea, that lined their bowels as comfortingly as lime lines a kettle." (C 6)
  • "Do you always keep a down-turned horseshoe in your mouth?" (C 7)

A fascinating book which deserves to be better known. I must seek out further books by Sinclair.

March 2020; 200 pages

Sunday, 22 March 2020

"Territory of Light" by Yuko Tsushima

The narrator moves into a flat on the top storey of an office block with her two year-old daughter after separating from her husband, the child's father. This book consists of episodes during the next year in which the narrator experiences dreams, memories, problems raising her daughter, and problems with relationships and work. The episodes are presented more or less sequentially, and they are more or less standalone; in one case a subsequent episode refers to a previous one in a way that means one doesn't necessarily have to have read (or remembered) the earlier one.

As with Tsushima's Child of Fortune, the narrator doesn't seem a particularly good mother (one of the differences being that in CoF the protagonist is in the third person rather than the first as of ToL which makes the neglect seem worse in ToL). In one episode she loses her child at the park and after an initial panic more or less gives up looking for her. In another episode she leaves her child asleep in the flat while she goes out and gets drunk. Later she palms the little girl off on a neighbour for free childcare. Perhaps this is normal in Japan.

The prose is very flat. Mostly things happen and there is dialogue; there seems to be little exploration of feelings. In  The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu compares "Chinese brush paintings ... full of blank spaces" with " classical oil paintings ... filled with thick, rich, solid colours." Perhaps the same is true of Japanese literature. Certainly I have that feeling from the Tsushima novels that I have red, as well as The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe. This is not to deny that ToL some wonderful moments of description, such as: "When I lifted my face to the sky, the berries in their grapelike clusters gleamed an opulent red against its blueness." (Red Lights) Fundamentally, Tsushima's technique seems to be to aim for precision and clarity of expression, simplifying as far as can be done, and to allow emotions to be inferred from the actions and speech of each character.

Her prose is certainly elegantly exquisite and this book seems like a carefully crafted miniature. It drops hints rather than overacting.

Some great moments:

  • "Why were children the only ones who ever got to melt down." (Sunday in the Trees)
  • "Growing up is overrated, if you ask me. If I'd known adult life would be this boring, I'd have had more fun while I could." (The sound of a Voice)
  • "The way nightmares vanish and anxieties evaporate when you open your eyes is one of life's pleasures." (Red Lights)
  • "Stars! The colder it is, the more clearly they appear." (The Body)

March 2020; 122 pages

Saturday, 21 March 2020

"Lucky Jim" by Kingsley Amis

This is the classic story of Jim Dixon, a reluctant historian, in his probationary year as lecturer at a provincial university, who has to negotiate love affairs, mad professors and drunkenness in an attempt to cling on to his job.

I didn't find it very funny. On the whole I find comic novels hard going. There is the incomparable Wodehouse and there are the rest. Perhaps comedy dates quickly. Even Shakespeare's jokes are pretty poor and the only humour comes from the physical stuff and that's often down to the reinterpretation of the actors rather than the script.

This novel has some set pieces. There is the excruciating evening of madrigals at the house of Jim's professor, a classically bad driver. There is the dilemma of what to do when Jim wakes up as a guest in the professors house to find that an inattentive cigarette has burned his bedclothes, a bedside table, and a rug. There is the Summer Ball and the public lecture that Jim delivers, as usual, drunk. The best set piece was the slow bus ride to the station. There were some good bits in these set pieces.

There is, of course, the character of Jim. He gets so bored. And then he starts to pick fights. He imitates people and gets caught in the middle of the mockery. And he gets into hopelessly misunderstood tangles with girls, their boyfriends, and his professor.

But the best thing about this book is that Kingsley Amis actually writes very well indeed. There are some wonderfully original descriptions, especially of awkward social situations.

  • "He paused, and his trunk grew rigid as he walked; it was as if some entirely different man, some imposter who couldn't copy his voice, had momentarily taken his place." (C 1)
  • "Fury flared up in his mind like forgotten toast under a grill." (C 3)
  • "His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum." (C 6)
  • "It was clear he was about to blow his nose. This was usually horrible, if only because it drew unwilling attention to Welch's nose itself, a large, open-pored tetrahedron." (C 8)
  • "The thin red second hand swung smoothly round the dial, giving the illusion of time rapidly passing. The other hands pointed to five past nine." (C 2)
  • "He could only just handle her as a female friend; as her 'lover' he'd be a cowboy facing his first, and notoriously formidable, steer." (C 5)

Other great moments:

  • "I think I had some idea about wanting to have some sort of noise going on while I was ... going off." (C 2)
  • "Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way." (C 6)
  • "How wrong people always were when they said: 'It's better to know the worst than go on not knowing either way'. No; they had it exactly the wrong way round. Tell me the turth, doctor, I'd sooner know. But only if the truth is what I want to hear." (C 8)
  • "Those who professed themselves unable to believe in the reality of human progress ought to cheer themselves up ... by a short study of the Middle Ages.  ... Had people ever been as nasty, as self-indulgent, as dull, as miserable, as cocksure, as bad at art, as dismally ludicrous, or as wrong as they'd been in the ... Middle Ages?" (C 8)
  • "Dixon reflected firstly how inefficient a bar to wasting one's time was the knowledge that one was wasting it." (C 10)
  • "Christine's aim, he imagined, had been to show off the emphasis of her natural colouring and skin-texture. The result was painfully successful, making everybody else look like an assemblage of granulated half-tones." (C 10)
  • "Your attitude measures up to the two requirements of love. You want to go to bed with her and can't, and you don't know her very well." (C 12)

March 2020; 251 pages

Friday, 20 March 2020

"Hereward the Wake" by Charles Kingsley

Kingsley was a Victorian Church of England priest, a University lecturer and a social reformer who wrote a number of novels including Westward Ho!, Hypatia, and The Water Babies. Hereward the Wake was published in 1865, originally in serial form. It had the effect of making Hereward a folk hero along the Robin Hood line. But it seems likely that Hereward was a real figure: he is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as early as 1071 and the Kingsley novel is mostly based on the Gesta Herewardii which was probably written before 1130, although there are elements of the story that seem folklorish. Kingsley uses the book to promote the Victorian picture (also put forward in Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott) of a noble Anglo-Saxon revolt against Norman oppression and tyranny (although Kingsley is keen to emphasise Hereward as an Anglo-Danish hero; he believed that the English Royal family was descended from Odin, a warrior hero who later became deified). "Hard knocks in good humour, strict rules, fair play, and equal justice for high and low; this was the old outlaw spirit, which has descended to their inlawed descendants; and makes, to this day, the life and marrow of an English public school." (C 34)

The book is a classic example of a Victorian historical novel. Kingsley regularly refers to his sources, including in footnotes, which adds verisimilitude to his narrative but at the same time he hams it up with thees and thous and turns the story into a melodrama. There are fun boys' own adventure style bits and there is an interesting moral aspect (Hereward in later life forsakes his wife and child for a younger woman) but fundamentally this is a celebration of the manly virtues. Hereward is a larger-than-life hero who slaughters many but we can't sympathise with them because they are either weaklings or foreigners or both. There is no sense of irony when we are told "The two women went into the church at Matins and prayed long and fervently. And at early daybreak, the party went back laden with good things and hearty blessings and caught one of Ivo Taillebois' men by the way, and slew him, and got off him a new suit of clothes in which the poor fellow was going courting; and so they got home safe into the Bruneswald." (C 36). It would seem that the piety at the start of the paragraph is more than enough justification for violent and murderous highway robbery by the end of the paragraph. It is little surprise that he supported Edward Eyre, a Governor of Jamaica who had brutally suppressed a peasant rebellion.

Kingsley also, typically for his time, favoured those of good birth. The aforementioned Ivo Taillebois is one of the villains and is repeatedly scorned because his grandfather was a woodcutter. The illegitimate birth of William the Conqueror is also mentioned several times. Hereward, on the other hand, has a noble pedigree.

He was also a social Darwinist: "In the savage struggle for life, none but the strongest, healthiest, cunningest, have a chance of living, prospering, and propagating their race. In the civilised state, on the contrary, the weakest, and the silliest, protected by law, religion, and humanity, have their chance likewise, and transmit to their offspring their own weakness or silliness." (Prelude)

One of its attractions for me was that it was about the area where I lived for more than thirty years; indeed, Hereward was imprisoned in Bedford Castle.I also remember the BBC TV adaptation from 1965 (although wikipedia tells me that no trace of that is left).

Memorable moments

  • "The lowlands of the world, being the richest spots, have been generally the soonest conquered, the soonest civilised, and therefore the soonest taken out of the sphere of romance and adventure, into that of order and law, hard work and common sense, as well as - too often - into the sphere of slavery, cowardice, luxury, and ignoble greed." (Prelude)
  • "My lands are the breadth of my boot sole." (C 3)
  • "Atheism and superstition go too often hand-in-hand." (C 10)
  • "Schoolcraft and honesty never went yet together." (C 15)
  • "The devil, as usual, was a bad paymaster." (C 30)
  • "The neglect of new roads, the destruction of the old ones, was a natural evil consequence of local self-government." (C 38)
  • "Life, to most, is very hard work." (C 41)

This is a novel very much of its time. Its time is not March 2020; 570 pages

Sunday, 15 March 2020

"The Gauntlet" by Ronald Welch

A children's book from the old days (published 1951); my brother-in-law says it was his favourite children's book and he is aged over 60. I remember reading it when I too was a young boy.

It is a classic boy's adventure story mixed with historical novel. Peter falls asleep on a Welsh hillside under a ruined castle and wakes up to find himself holding a gauntlet. He is transported back to the fourteenth century where he discovers he is the elder son of the castle's Marcher Lord. Over the next few months he learns about mediaeval table manners and diet, how to be a squire, how to handle a falcon and a longbow and a sword, and he goes to a monastery to be taught his letters (he is criticised for not spelling son 'sonne'). Then the castle is besieged by Welsh rebels and Peter discovers what really happened to Peter de Blois, whose brass-plated tomb is in the local church.

A cleverly written book mixing careful research with a simple story.

March 2020; 194 pages

"Men At Arms" by Evelyn Waugh

In the blurb on the back of the book a review from Clive James is quoted in which he compares Waugh's charatcers with those of Dickens and Shakespeare; Cyril Connolly is quoted saying that this is 'Unquestionably the finest novel to have come out of the war'. I am amazed.

I assumed when I started that this was a straight novel but about half way through I imagined it was a comic novel although the comedy is of the light, drawing-room type. It is an account of Guy Crouchback's experiences at the beginning of the Second World War as he trains with an old-fashioned regiment in various locations including a boarding school on the coast of south east England, Scotland, and Cornwall; they eventually see limited action on the West African coast. So far as I could see there is no character development. Crouchback, we are promised at the start, has an emptiness of soul: "Into that wasteland where his soul languished he need not, could not, enter. He had no words to describe it. ... There was nothing to describe, merely a void. ... It was as though eight years back he had suffered a tiny stroke of paralysis; all his spiritual faculties were just perceptibly impaired." He is, of course, a Roman Catholic; later The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene is mentioned but Greene does far better when it comes to spiritually void Catholic characters than Waugh can. Nothing happens in which Crouchback's spiritual paralysis manifests itself in any other way than his passivity, enabling him to be the recorder of and reactor to the events happening around him. The name promises villainy of the order of Richard III but Crouchback only kills once and that is by accident.

The Crouchbacks are, of course, an old Catholic family ("Mr Crouchback acknowledged no monarch since James II"; Prologue 3) who stand in proud and isolated opposition to "the rest of mankind, Box-Bender, the butcher, the Duke of Omnium (whose onetime wealth derived from monastic spoils) ..." (Prologue 3). Waugh loves his exclusivity like any other snob and just like any other snob he despises those outside his charmed circle. One might argue that Waugh's purpose is to satirise the established order. Sentences such as "The discipline of the square, the traditions of the mess, would work their magic and the esprit de corps would fall like blessed unction from above." (1-1) can read like ironic critiques of the idea that the  old ways will win the war. But Waugh repeatedly fails to criticise class and race-based presumptions:

  • The regiment that Crouchback joins is the "Royal Corps of Halberdiers" (1-1) and Guy is an officer with all this entails including mess servants and batmen.
  • "The porter who should have been at the station was helping hand round drinks in the lounge. 'I'll go just as soon as I can, sir', he said. 'If you don't mind waiting until after dinner'. Guy did mind. He wanted a change of shirt after his journey ..." (Prologue 3) Heaven forfend that a servant doing two jobs should prevent a master changing his shirt.
  • "At Crewe the train stopped for an hour. Base little men with bands on their arms trotted about the platform bearing lists." (2-10) The stupendous arrogance of dismissing these people with such unnuanced adjectives is, to today's sensibilities, unforgivable. 
  • Equally unforgivable is the acquisition of a "Negro's" head on a raid on the West African coast carried out as an unauthorised prank (3-5). The resonances with the slave trade are unmissable - but Waugh seems to miss them. There is no sense that this senseless murder of a human being is anything more than comic. It is this level of unconscious racism that makes Waugh's 'comic' novel Black Mischief such an unpleasant read.

There are moments of nicely judged metaphor such as when a honeymoon couple, both virgins, are on a cruise: "Later, they joined a yacht at Naples and stealed slowly up the coast, putting in at unfrequented harbours." (Prologue 1)

Other moments:

  • "He lived too close to Fascism in Italy to share the opposing enthusiasms of his countrymen. He saw it neither as a calamity nor as a rebirth: as a rough improvisation merely." (Prologue - 1)
  • "Never can tell a tune till I've heard the words." (1-1)
  • "It was like watching the ball at roulette running slower and slower, trickling over the numbers." (1-2)
  • "Throughout all the smooth revolutions of barracks life there had been accumulating tiny grits of envy which were now generating heat." (1-6)
  • "Guy experienced the classic illusion of an unknown, unsought companion among them." (3-5)
  • "Queer bird, the mind. Hides things away and then out they pop. But I mustn't get too technical. It's a hobby horse of mine, the mind." (3-7)

To ex-public schoolboys who underwent similar forms of training this novel might have resurrected memories of the officers' mess but, even allowing for the change in sensibilities since then which, thank goodness, render the snobbery and racism unacceptable, I found this a rather pointless novel which drifted along with dull gleams of weak mostly-weak comedy.

March 2020; 246 pages

Other Waugh novels reviewed in this book:

Friday, 13 March 2020

"The Jew of Malta" by Christopher Marlowe

On the surface, this play is stuffed with anti-semitism. Marlowe's Barabas is an ill-used character at the start, who therefore has some sort of motivation for his wickedness, but the delight he takes in his evil and his relatively quick downfall make it much harder for us to sympathise with him than for Shakespeare's Shylock.

The relationship between arch-villain Barabas and his clownish sidekick Ithamore is a little like that between Faustus and Mephistopheles and the delight they take in their murders reminded me of the mischievous wickedness in Dr Faustus. The victims of Barabas and Ithamore are fools and idiots; it was difficult to care that they were being slaughtered. 

The plot is picaresque, one thing after another.

The plot (spoiler alert)

The Prologue is spoken by Macchiavel. He argues against morality and sees the only right as that conferred by might. The play the segues into Barabas, the protagonist, in his counting house; neatly it opens with him in mid-thought. His primary (indeed, almost sole) motivation is money.

The Turks turn up in Malta and demand ten years back-payment of the agreed tribute. Governor Ferzene decides that this can best be achieved by taxing all Jews in Malta at 50% of their wealth ... and when Barabas hangs back he, the wealthiest, is taxed at 100%.

But Barabas has hidden some treasure in his house ... which is being turned into a nunnery. So he has to recruit his daughter, Abigail, to become a nun to move into the nunnery to get his hidden treasure back. This done, she stops being a nun.

Martin de Bosco, a Spanish ship's Captain newly arrived from defeating the Turks at sea, persuades Ferzene and his council to refuse to pay the tribute to the Turks and use the money levied on the Jews to mount a defence against the Turkish invasion that will surely follow.

Two boys fancy Abigail: Lodowick, Ferzene's son, and Mathias, whom she fancies. To revenge himself on governor Ferzene, Barabas and his newly purchased Turkish slave and enthusiastic sidekick in evil, Ithamore, decide to trick Lodowick and Mathias into fighting a duel; both are killed. 

Abigail, realising she has been duped into getting her boyfriend killed, becomes a nun again. Barabas and Ithamore, realising they have to silence Abigail, make a poisoned porridge and kills all the nuns in the nunnery, including Abigail. On her deathbed she confesses to Father Barnardine.

Father Barnardine is bound by the seal of the confessional so he can't tell anyone. But, supported by Father Jacomo, he goes to Barabas and Ithamore and drops hints ... so they strangle him and dupe Jacomo into thinking he has done the deed. They then turn Jacomo in to the authorities and he is hanged.

Local prostitute Bellamira and her pimp Pilia-Borza conspire to get gold from Barabas. She pretends she has fallen in love with Ithamore; he, besotted, blackmails Barabas about the two boys tricked into duelling, the poisoned nuns and the strangled friar. Barabas initially pays up but then disguises himself as a musician and tricks Bellamira, Pilia-Borza and Ithamore into smelling poisoned flowers. 

He is not in time to prevent the three denouncing him to the authorities but before he is found guilty the witnesses are dead. He feigns death using a sleeping draught and governor Ferenze has his body thrown over the wall.

Where he encounters the besieging Turks and shows them a way into Valetta. The Turks defeat the Maltese and, in gratitude, make Barabas governor. But he realises that he cannot rule a people who hate him and decides to rebetray Malta, this time back to Ferzene, for money. He arranges to blow up the Turkish troops in an old monastery and to trick the Turkish leader into having dinner on a platform in the castle which will collapse. But Ferzene double crosses Barabas (keeping up?) and it is Barabas who is on the platform when it collapses and tips him into a cauldron where he is boiled to death.

It looks to me like the plot is merely a device for lots of exciting things to happen on stage: 
  • Abigail breaking into her own house to steal back the treasure from Barabas and throwing it down from the balcony to where he waits below
  • the swordfight between Mathias and Lodowick, cheered on from the same balcony by Barabas
  • the comedy when Barabas is poisoning the porridge and Ithamore is protesting that it is a shame to waste such good food
  • the deathbed confession of Abigail ... and the problem with the secrets of the confessional leading to the comedy in which Barnardine and Jacomo try to lure Barabas into confessing without ever being able to accuse him outright
  • the strangling of Barnardine and the framing of Jacomo
  • the ludicrous love scene between Bellamira and Ithamore
  • Barabas masquerading as a musician in order to foist poisoned flowers on Bellamira, Pilia-Borza and Ithamore
  • the apparent death of Barabas and the hurling of his body from the battlements
  • the collapse of the platform the the cooking of Barabas
Irony and betrayal and critique of religion
What distinguishes the play is the use of an outsider's perspective (principally Barabas but a little of Ithamore) to critique the established order. Almost everything that Barabas says is tinged with scorn and irony; he repeatedly criticises the supposedly superior morality of the Christians. Furthermore, Marlowe's characters are almost all motivated by money: Bellamira the prostitute when she seeks to seduce Ithamore to get him to blackmail Barabas, Fathers Jacomo and Barnardine when they fall out over which of their religious houses will benefit from the fortune of converted Barabas, even Ferenze when he realises that if he defies the Turks the Maltese can keep the tax they have levied on the Jews to pay the tribute.

For example:

“I count religion but a childish toy,
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.” (Machiavel in the Prologue; doesn't he sound like Faustus?)

“Who hateth me but for my happiness?
Or who is honour'd now but for his wealth?
Rather had I, a Jew, be hated thus,
Than pitied in a Christian poverty;
For I can see no fruits in all their faith,
But malice, falsehood, and excessive pride,” (Barabas, Act 1)

“Some Jews are wicked, as all Christians are:
But say the tribe that I descended of
Were all in general cast away for sin,
Shall I be tried by their transgression?” (Barabas, Act 1)

Marlowe frequently repeats the contemporary myths about Jews (including that they crucify babies) and this seems to be done ironically, as when Barabas (Act 2) himself says:
“As for myself, I walk abroad o' nights,
And kill sick people groaning under walls:
Sometimes I go about and poison wells
Then, after that, was I an usurer,
And with extorting, cozening, forfeiting,
And tricks belonging unto brokery,
I fill'd the gaols with bankrupts in a year,
And with young orphans planted hospitals;
And every moon made some or other mad,
And now and then one hang himself for grief,
Pinning upon his breast a long great scroll
How I with interest tormented him.
But mark how I am blest for plaguing them;--
I have as much coin as will buy the town.”

“It's no sin to deceive a Christian;
For they themselves hold it a principle,
Faith is not to be held with heretics:
But all are heretics that are not Jews;” (Barabas, Act 2)

Words, words, words
So is the play redeemed by its words? Marlowe has a special place in English letters as the creator of the 'royal line': the iambic pentameter of blank verse that Shakespeare later used to such effect (although Shakespeare developed it by mixing it with prose and by frequently breaking the strict form to include weak endings (such as the extra syllable in 'To be or not to be, that is the question'). 

There are some great lines:

“Many will talk of title to a crown:
What right had Caesar to the empery?”

“Might first made kings, and laws were then most sure
When, like the Draco's, they were writ in blood.”

Act One
“What more may heaven do for earthly man
Than thus to pour out plenty in their laps,
Ripping the bowels of the earth for them,”
"Your extreme right does me exceeding wrong”

“she were fitter for a tale of love,
Than to be tired out with orisons;
And better would she far become a bed,
Embraced in a friendly lover's arms,
Than rise at midnight to a solemn mass.”

Act Two
“Thus, like the sad-presaging raven, that tolls
The sick man's passport in her hollow beak,
And in the shadow of the silent night
Doth shake contagion from her sable wings,
Vex'd and tormented runs poor Barabas
With fatal curses towards these Christians.”

“I learn'd in Florence how to kiss my hand,
Heave up my shoulders when they call me dog,
And duck as low as any bare-foot friar”

“First, be thou void of these affections,
Compassion, love, vain hope, and heartless fear;
Be mov'd at nothing, see thou pity none,
But to thyself smile when the Christians moan”

Ithamore, the Moslem, is also allowed to boast of his evils:
“In setting Christian villages on fire,
Chaining of eunuchs, binding galley-slaves.
One time I was an hostler in an inn,
And in the night-time secretly would I steal
To travellers' chambers, and there cut their throats:
Once at Jerusalem, where the pilgrims kneel'd,
I strewed powder on the marble stones,
And therewithal their knees would rankle so,
That I have laugh'd a-good to see the cripples
Go limping home to Christendom on stilts.”

Act Three
“O mistress, I have the bravest, gravest, secret, subtle, bottle-nosed knave to my master, that ever gentleman had!”

"My sinful soul, alas, hath pac'd too long
The fatal labyrinth of misbelief,”

“he that eats with the devil had need of a long spoon”

"Why, master, will you poison her with a mess of rice-porridge? that will preserve life, make her round and plump, and batten more than you are aware.”

“As fatal be it to her as the draught
Of which great Alexander drunk, and died;
And with her let it work like Borgia's wine,
Whereof his sire the Pope was poisoned!
In few, the blood of Hydra, Lerna's bane,
The juice of hebon, and Cocytus' breath,
And all the poisons of the Stygian pool,
Break from the fiery kingdom, and in this
Vomit your venom, and envenom her
That, like a fiend, hath left her father thus!”

Act Four
“How sweet the bells ring, now the nuns are dead,
That sound at other times like tinkers' pans!"

“Fornication: but that was in another country;
And besides, the wench is dead.”

“To fast, to pray, and wear a shirt of hair,
And on my knees creep to Jerusalem.”

“He sent a shaggy, tatter'd, staring slave,
That, when he speaks, draws out his grisly beard,
And winds it twice or thrice about his ear;
Whose face has been a grind-stone for men's swords;
His hands are hack'd, some fingers cut quite off;
Who, when he speaks, grunts like a hog, and looks
Like one that is employ'd in catzery
And cross-biting; such a rogue
As is the husband to a hundred whores;”

Act 5
“For he that liveth in authority,
And neither gets him friends nor fills his bags,
Lives like the ass that Aesop speaketh of,
That labours with a load of bread and wine,
And leaves it off to snap on thistle-tops”

This is very much a play to be performed rather than read; the spectacle is clear. It is driven by a bitter critique of hypocrisy in religion. But the plot is just one thing after another and the characterisation is weak.

March 2020;

Plays by Marlowe reviewed in this blog also include:
Edward II

Monday, 9 March 2020

"Tracking Marco Polo" by Tim Severin

Severin is an explorer and travel writer; other works of his include The Sindbad Voyage and The Brendan Voyage. In this trip he used motorbikes to follow the route of Marco Polo, comparing what he discovered with the account in Polo's famous book. His companions were Michael de Larrabeiti, a cameraman who later became a novelist, and Stanley Johnson who later became the father of the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Johnson, initially described as "a burly young man with an unruly shock of blond hair" (C 1), becomes a sort of expedition bludgeon who drives his motorbike (which he repeatedly crashes) where it is determined not to go.

Despite still being an undergraduate at the time, Severin showed that many of the features of Polo's narrative could be matched with things still to be seen. For example, he found a family of Armenian descent in a Turkish village still weaving a fine silk cloth that he interpreted as 'buckram', described by Polo. He also ate a nectarine which he believed to be what Polo had called one of the 'apples of paradise' and locates the Village of the Magi, complete with an ancient Zoroastrian fire-temple. There is one moment (in chapter 7), though, where he discovers a water culvert which plunges into a subterranean tunnel and he compares it with Marco Polo's description, seemingly unaware that this might be the reference that Coleridge turned into "Alph the sacred river" which "ran through caverns measureless to man."

The history and travelled are enlivened by the description of three young daredevils on two motorbikes, originally with sidecars, which they couldn't properly ride (they didn't even have licenses for the English section of the journey). By the most brazen good fortune, the expedition repeatedly overcomes catastrophe. This would make a great road trip movie!

There are also a number of passages of extraordinarily brilliant description:

  • "The mineraliferous mountains glowed in their reds, purples, greys and browns, where the naked rock lay exposed to the long winter snows and the fierce summer sun. The road itself was little more than a rough stony path along which we twisted and turned the labouring motorcycles, leaving plumes of dust along the steep climbs and round the sharp shoulders of the rocky flanks. From time to time we skidded down into valleys and the track plunged sharply into a rushing stream. Then with the engines roaring wildly, we were forced to slither crazily into the ford, hoping that our momentum would surge the machines across before water was drawn into the bubbling exhaust pipes or we came to grief on a hidden boulder." (C 4)
  • "The fabled lakes of Band-i-Amir ... amongst the highest in the world. In the clear air of the Hindu Kush, they lie like a broken ribbon of glowing tortoiseshell, caught between the peaks. The walls of the surrounding cliffs contract and expand, giving strange and beautiful shapes to the cold, clear waters which lie in basins, slivers and goblets of crystal. At one end of the chain, a gentle trickle flows in to feed the series. At the lower end, the same trickle re-appears, lapping gently out over a natural dam of rock. When this outflow spills away over the downstream face of the dam, the mineral deposits from the sheet of water have covered the rock wall with a glowing patina of mingling tints, reds, blacks and yellows. In the heady air of the high plateau with the snow-sheathed peaks gleaming at a romantic distance, the limpid purity of the lakes of Band-i-Amir with their sheen of many colours successfully isolate an unsullied shrine of beauty." (C 10)

Other great moments:

  • "The driver was in such a state of intoxication that he kept on getting his arms entwined in the spokes of the steering wheel" (C 3)
  • "The lives of ordinary people have always been ruled by the common factors of climate and terrain." (C 11)

March 2020; 164 pages

Other great travel books in this blog:
This is one of a number of travel books reviewed in this blog, of which my favourites include:
Travelling in Britain:
And others:

Saturday, 7 March 2020

"A Life in the Theatre" by Tyrone Guthrie

I hadn't heard of this gentleman; I had muddled him up with Tyrone Power the film star (they are cousins). Mr Guthrie was a small-time actor and important theatre director and producer from the 1920s until the early 1960s; he also developed talk radio in the very early days of the BBC, and possibly produced the very first drama serial for Canadian radio. He had an influential life and he worked with an enormous number of much better known people including Robert Donat, Flora Robson ("I ... persuaded Flora Robson to return to the stage. She had quit in despair after a series of wretchedly insignificant parts followed by a long period out of work, and was doing welfare work in a factory."; C 4), Edith Evans, Charles Laughton, James Mason, Laurence Olivier, Robert Morley, Emlyn Williams, Sybil Thorndike, Alec Guinness (as Hamlet), John Mills, Jack Hawkins, Andrew Cruickshank, Ralph Richardson (as Bottom and Othello), Vivien Leigh (as Titania), Margaret Leighton, Anthony Quayle, Leonard Bernstein, and many others. His influence included him working on the first Edinburgh festival. Yet the memoir is modest; he seems genuinely more interested in giving other people credit and in explaining the technical issues involved with staging plays. This was a very interesting memoir from a man who seems unjustly forgotten.

The Old Vic, where, under the management of Lilian Baylis, Mr Guthrie spents several seasons, was opened in 1818 as the Royal Coburg, named after Prince Leopold, the husband of Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince Regent and the Heir Presumptive. When she died in childbrith Leopold left Britain (having declined the throne of Greece, he later became the first King of the Belgians)' the theatre subsequently became known as the Royal Victoria after Leopold's niece (and the Queen).

Some delightful moments:

  • "My mechanical capacities are a little limited. I can pump a bicycle tyre; switch an electric light on - and off; and, if I count twelve slowly, take a deep breath, and clear the mind of cant, I can recall whether, if you turn it clockwise, you can make a screw go in, or out." (C 3)
  • "Who would want caviar if it were not only cheaper and more available than cod, but it appeared at every meal; if it were not merely familiar, but inescapable?" (C 3)
  • "A good journalist must discipline himself to write intelligibly and fast ... but I can conceive that in knocking the nonsense out of you, it may knock out much of the sensibility too." (C 5)
  • "None of Hamlet's scenes demand a very close rapport between the participants. Most of the psychological material is conveyed in soliloquy." (C 5)
  • "Just as doctors prescribe bread pills in Latin and a handwriting totally baffling to every human eye except that of the particular pharmacist with whom they are hand in glove; just as musicians have to say fortissimo instead of 'very loud' so stage-lighting experts like to make use of a highly technical vocabulary" (C 5)
  • "Like most ardent young people ... I thought it my duty to make people like what I liked, I even thought that if I tried hard enough the attempt would succeed." (C 5)
  • "once God had told Miss Baylis what to do, there was really no point in opposing their joint will." (C 8)
  • "Pommer looked agonized but grimly determined, like Prometheus after the eagle had pecked out his gizzard for the millionth time." (C 9)
  • "If people say a thing is good for you, it is merely a ruse to induce you to undergo a thoroughly unpleasant experience." (C 10)
  • "No one thinks well of a medicine that tastes nice; to be good for you it must taste filthy and if possible smell filthy, and look filthy too; disinfectants must sting; a good book must be a penance to read - one of the reasons why the Bible is printed as it is." (C 10)
  • "On the opening night ... one of the actors got lost and flew about in a frenzy through room after room, pre-set on a turntable. The actors on stage, making up lines and pretending to look for their lost colleague in the garden, were startled to see him crawl through a fireplace." (C 11)
  • "One of the charms of a tall tale is its tallness." (C 13)
  • "Personality - the great euphemism for sex appeal" (C 15)
  • "The whole effect was like Chopin scored for military band." (C 15)
  • "At its best, grand opera is the greatest experience the theatre can offer to an audience. ... Opera is such a great, grinding, galumphing behemoth n- so much energy goes into battling with the multitude of people concerned, the masses of scenery, the mountainous heaps of coronets, riding boots, fans, goblets, scimitars and rosaries that the purpose of it all gets lost." (C 16)
  • "Feeling rather as I imagine some of the less gregarious animals must have felt on the first night in the Ark." (C 17)
  • "It is extraordinary to what an extent British life is still dominated by the traditions and opinions of a numerically tiny upper class. ... The Times is the house magazine of quite a small, exclusive, but overwhelmingly influential club. To 'get anywhere' in England ... it is still almost a prerequisite that you subscribe the 'establishment' conventions of speech, manners and morals. If you do not, then you must make your way ... by enacting, rather cleverly, the character role of an Outsider." (C 18)
  • "I for one do not subscribe to the belief that there exists a vast body of unproduced masterpieces just because all the metropolitan managers, agents, producers, actors and directors are too dull to know a good thing when they see it." (C 19)
  • "She lacked the push, the restless demonic energy which alone lifts a player into the first rank." (C 19)
  • "She liked the life of a touring, or provincial, player: knitting and companionable chats in draughty, grimy dressing-rooms, the brightly lit two hours of painted fantasy, then the long trudge through the rain, under the railway arch, past the gasworks, round by the Sacred Heart convent to the digs and cocoa in a Thermos." (C 19)
  • "It was a sparrow slum. By day it was comparatively quiet; but towards evening, when the business sparrows came back home, their love life become most obtrusive. Boy sparrow would meet girl and pursue her all over our stage. They were impervious to fear, or for that matter shame. Scenes of unbridled bird sexuality made the life of Richard III seem very anaemic and suburban. These dear little feathered friends would not have hesitated to make away with their nephews. Why, they had no compunction whatever about the death of their own offspring. As the weeks wore on and their eggs hatched, the nestlings fell to their death on the concrete floor below literally by the dozen." (C 21)
  • "In schoolmastering or the Church, the labourer is in a seller's market. You can get a job unless you are patently half-witted or have a record blacker than even the hardest-pressed employer can overlook." (C 22)

A fascintating and very readable memoir of A Life in the Theatre. March 2020; 314 pages

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

"Troilus and Cressida" by William Shakespeare

Troilus and Cressida is a strange play. It is a love story in which at least one of the lovers is unfaithful. It ends on this sad note, compounded by the death of brave Hector. There are some brilliant scenes and some also-rans. But it contains some of the best Shakespearean insults, perhaps some of the best in all drama:
  • Thou bitchwolf’s son, thou mongrel beef-witted lord!” (A2 S1)
  • he has not so much brain as earwax” (A5 S1)
Introduction from the Folger edition

“By convention in epic, the characters associate with the gods and thereby share the glory of these divinities; by convention in drama, the gods do not appear, and the characters therefore cannot exceed the limits of their humanity.”

“In contrast to Chaucer’s Troilus, Shakespeare’s fails to mature in response to his love and remains in adolescent self-absorption,

Shakespeare’s Cressida shows nothing of the thoughtful reflection of her Chaucerian predecessor; it is replaced in her by calculation and manipulation of her suitors.”

I saw T&C in an amateur production by the Marlowe Youth Theatre on 5th March 2020 and the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury.

The Play: Spoiler alert!
Act 1
Scene 1
Troilus confesses his love for Cressida to Pandarus (who is the uncle of Cressida and has been acting as a go-between). This love unmans him, prevents him from going to fight the Trojans.
“I am weaker than a woman’s tear, 
Tamer than sleep” (8-9)
This theme of love unmanning someone is reflected elsewhere in the play in the theme of Achilles, who has withdrawn to his tent because he loves a Trojan princess and has sworn to her that he will not fight. It is contrasted with the fact that the Greek army is fighting to retrieve Helen for Menelause and that therefore Helen is the cause of much death:
“Helen must needs be fair 
When with your blood you daily paint her thus.”

Scene 2

Cressida prefers Hector to Troilus. Pandarus tries to persuade her that Troilus is the better man by saying Helen fancies Troilus.

There is a little procession of Trojan warriors (Aeneas Hector Paris Helenus) returning from battle and Pandarus names them to Cressida. A useful bit of stagecraft to introduce characters.

After the princes come the common warriors ... and Pandarus refers to them in the most disparaging terms:
“Asses, fools, dolts, chaff and bran, chaff and 
Bran, porridge after meat. ...
... the 
Eagles are gone. Crows and daws, crows and daws!”
This is another of the themes. Ulysses later speaks in favour of the established order in which each man knows his place. Opposing this is the major role played by Thersites, a servant of first Ajax and later Achilles, who insults his masters with a most inventive range of insults. It is possible that Shakespeare meant Thersites as a comic character, a clown, but traditionally Thersites has been seen as a critic of the established order; he criticises Agamemnon in the Iliad and is beaten for it. So it seems safe to treat Thersites as a threat to the establishment, a way that Shakespeare could use to argue against the pride and arrogance of the Greek and Trojan princes.

Scene 3
We move to the Greek camp. Here is the hymn in which Ulysses praises hierarchy in society:
“When degree is shaked, 
Which is the ladder of all high designs, 
The enterprise is sick. How could communities, 
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities, 
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores, 
The primogeneity and due of birth, 
Prerogative of age, crowns, scepters, laurels, 
But by degree stand in authentic place? 
Take but degree away, untune that string, 
And hark what discord follows.”
But, on the other hand, Ulysses recognises that ambition is dangerous:
“appetite, an universal wolf, 
So doubly seconded with will and power, 
Must make perforce an universal prey 
And last eat up himself.”
The theme of pride (a key theme of the Iliad) is important elsewhere in this play.

Aeneas bears a challenge from Hector to fight the best man of the Greeks but Ulysses schemes with Diomed to keep Achilles from Hector, putting Ajax in to fight instead, on the principle that you reserve your best till later (but mainly because he thinks Achilles will grow too proud if he wins and perhaps because he is hoping that Ajax will be killed).
“Let us like merchants 
First show foul wares and think perchance they’ll sell; 
If not, the luster of the better shall exceed 
By showing the worse first.”

Act 2
Scene 1
This is our introduction to Thersites, perhaps the most ingeniously insolent of any of Shakespeare’s characters, with a wonderful repertoire of insults:

“I would thou didst itch from head to foot,
and I had the scratching of thee; I would make 
thee the loathsomest scab in Greece.”

“thou sodden-witted lord.”

"Ajax, who wears his wit in his 
belly, and his guts in his head”

Scene 2
Priam and the Trojan princes: the Greeks have offered peace if Helen is returned. The Trojans are debating the offer.
“What’s aught but as ’tis valued?”

“’Tis mad idolatry 
To make the service greater than the god;”

“We turn not back the silks upon the merchant 
When we have soiled them,”
There is, in passing, an obvious reference to Marlowe’s Faust:
“Is she worth keeping? Why, she is a pearl 
Whose price hath launched above a thousand ships”

Scene 3
“He that is proud eats up himself.”

“I do hate a proud man as I hate the engendering 
of toads.”

Ulysses winds Ajax up to the point where Agamemnon has to restrain Ajaz from attacking Achilles

Act 3
Scene 2
This, in the middle of the play, is where Troilus kisses Cressida. There are hints of sexual love but also heavy foreshadowing that love cannot last:
“This ⟨is⟩ the monstruosity in love, lady, that
the will is infinite and the execution confined, that 
the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit.”

“They say all lovers swear more performance
than they are able”
Scene 3
Back in the Greek camp, Ulysses is scheming to take Achilles down a peg or two.
“pride hath no other glass
To show itself but pride,”

He proposes that the Greek princes all pass by Achilles’ tent in a procession and ignore Achilles, sending him to Coventry.
Achilles is stung:
“they passed by me 
As misers do by beggars,”
Ulysses points out that Achilles can’t rely on his past prowess to stay popular. As they say nowadays: you’re only as good as your last gig.
“Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back 
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion, 
A great-sized monster of ingratitudes. 
Those scraps are good deeds past, which are devoured 
As fast as they are made, forgot as soon 
As done.”
Act 4
Scene 1
The Greeks send an embassy to Troy proposing a prisoner swap: Antenor, a Trojan prince, for Cressida. Cressida is the daughter of Calchas, a Trojan soothsayer who has defected to the Greeks. Diomed wants Cressida as his bride.

Scene 2
Troilus and Cressida have spent the night making love and now Troilus is ready to be off. They get wind of the proposal for Cressida to be off.

Cressida, in an attempt to delay Troilus, delivers one of the great Shakespearean double-entendres:
“My lord, come you again into my chamber.”
Scene 3
The Greeks come to take Cressida away
Scene 4
A sad goodbye scene. T & C swap love tokens: his sleeve for her glove.
He proposes that, if she will keep faithful to him, he will sneak into the Greek camp at night “To give thee nightly visitation.

She, talking to proposed husband Diomed, tries to persuade him not to demand her but he refuses to be bound by her.

Scene 5
The start of the single combat of Ajax and Hector

Act 5
Scene 2
Diomed woos Cressida while Troilus (who is part of a Trojan embassy to the Greek camp) and Ulysses, his host, watch them, unobserved. Cressida at first refuses Diomed and then accepts him, giving Diomed Troilus’s love-token sleeve. Troilus swears he will kill the man with the sleeve; Ulysses tries to restrain him. But fundamentally, Troilus realises that Cressida is unfaithful:
“any man may sing her, if he 
can take her clef.”

“The bonds of heaven are slipped, dissolved, and loosed, 
And with another knot, ⟨five-finger-tied,⟩ 
The fractions of her faith, orts of her love, 
The fragments, scraps, the bits and greasy relics 
Of her o’er-eaten faith are given to Diomed.”

The rest of the play is a series of battle scenes which culminate in the death of Hector at the hands of the Myrmidons of Achilles.

Other great lines
“When I do tell thee there my hopes lie drowned,
Reply not in how many fathoms deep
They lie indrenched” (A1 S1)

“Do you know what a man is? Is
Not birth, beauty, good shape, discourse, manhood,
Learning, gentleness, virtue, youth, liberality and
Such-like the spice and salt that season a man?” (A1 S2)

“When the splitting wind
Makes flexible the knees of knotted oaks” (A1 S3)

“They tax our policy and call it cowardice,
Count wisdom as no member of the war,
Forestall prescience, and esteem no act
But that of hand.” (A1 S3)

“The worthiness of praise distains his worth
If that the praised himself bring the praise forth.” (A 1 S3)

“There is a law in each well-ordered nation
To curb those raging appetites that are
Most disobedient and refractory.” (A2 S2)

“some men creep in skittish Fortune’s hall,
Whiles others play the idiots in her eyes!” (A3 S3)

“A plague of
opinion! A man may wear it on both sides, like a
leather jerkin.” (A3 S3)

March 2020; 

Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog include (productions mentioned in parentheses; RSC = Royal Shakespeare Company; NT = National Theatre):

Monday, 2 March 2020

"The Genius of Shakespeare" by Jonathan Bate

Bate seems to want to prove that Shakespeare was:
  • not a genius in the Romantic sense of a prodigy, created rather than taught, but a talented Elizabethan grammar school boy whose gift for poetry was fortunately combined with his profession as actor allowing him to improve on the work of others
  • but a genius whose especial gift was for creating complex characters whose qualities were often inconsistent, in part by stripping away the motivations ascribed to the characters in his source-material. These multi-faceted and enigmatic characters enable actors and directors to interpret the plays in many ways (but not in any ways) and this has made Shakespeare's drama adaptable and able to evolve.
The Life
He starts by considering the facts of Shakespeare's life and shows that we know much more about him than the anti-Stratfordians pretend:
  • “In his will the Stratford man left money to buy mourning rings to ‘my fellows, John Heminges, Richard Burbage and Henry Condell’.” (p 69)
  • Ben Jonson “knew Shakespeare intimately ... as both an actor - Shakespeare was in the cast of at least two of Jonson’s plays - and a writer ... he christened him ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’.” (p 69 - 70)
  • “When in 1613 ‘William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon’ ... bought a gatehouse in Blackfriars, one of the trustees he named in the purchase deed was William Johnson, the owner of the Mermaid” where Francis Beaumont, who know of Shakespeare as a writer, drank. (p 70)
  • “William Camden ... describes Shakespeare as a leading writer and answers a complaint about granting a coat of arms to the player by delineating Shakespeare’s Stratford pedigree.” (p 70)
  • “John Davies of Hereford ... published an epigram addressed to Will Shakespeare, which simultaneously alluded to his acting and praised him as a great playwright.” (p 71)
He also finds evidence in the plays. For example, in the Merry Wives of Windsor (A4 S1) “a boy called William is given a Latin grammar lesson by Sir Hugh Evans, a Welsh schoolmaster. Was this scene written by an earl such as Oxford who never set foot inside a grammar school in his life?? Or by a man called William who as a boy was entitled ... to attend the grammar school at Stratford-upon-Avon, where there was a Welsh schoolmaster, one Thomas Jenkins? The lesson ... is based on the Latin grammar book that was the standard school test of the period.” (p 8) “Many of the ‘wise saws’ for which Shakespeare’s plays have become so renowned ... can be traced back to the Adagia or comparable textbooks.” (p 10) The Adagia being a collection of the works of Erasmus that were used as a basis for writing exercises in grammar schools. 

In school S would have learned to “take a piece of received wisdom ... turn it on the anvil of your inventiveness, and ... give it new life.” (p 12) This is a pattern for the way S wrote his plays.

He also seeks, as so many do, for the Dark Lady of the sonnets, finding it in the wife of an Italian called John Florio who worked in the household of the Earl of Southampton (and may have been the source of Shakespeare's knowledge of Italian). Florio may have inspired the title of Love's Labour Lost from a passage in a language manual he wrote: “We need not speak so much of love, all books are full of love, with so many authors, that it were labour lost to speak of Love.” (p 55 - 56)

The Sources
Of even more interest (for me, OK, I am a geek) is when Bate discovers sources for Shakespeare's work. For example:
  • “Sir John Falstaff ... dies in Hostess Quickly’s tavern, calling out for sack and remembering a woman called Doll in an uncanny repetition of Greene’s death.” (p 19) Robert Greene, Cambridge MA, one of the ‘University wits’ like Marlowe, who were poets and playwrights, was the one who described Shakespeare as an ‘upstart crow’ for not being university educated and presuming, as a mere actor, to write plays; he died in a shoemaker’s house, his death described by ‘Hostess Isam’ the shoemaker’s wife; on his death bed Greene “called for a penny-pot of Malmsey and then scribbled a letter to his abandoned wife” who was called Doll. 
  • Greene also wrote the novella Pandosto, the source material for The Winter's Tale
  • Shakespeare’s early comedies patterned after the comedies of John Lyly, the “leading writer of comedies” when Shakespeare first came to London. (p 136)
  • Marlowe was both rival and inspiration:
    • Richard II is patterned on Edward II: “The structure of the two plays is identical: the King is surrounded by flatterers and pitted against an assemblage of nobles with vested interests of their own, then isolated and uncrowned, stripped of his royal identity, thus forced to discover his inner self by means of a supple, reflective soliloquy delivered whilst humiliatingly in prison. In each play the Queen is pushed to the margins in part because of the king’s homoerotic leanings.” (p 113)
    • Titus Andronicus is modelled on the Jew of Malta: “Aaron the Moor’s catalogue of villainous misdeeds ... is closely modelled on an exchange between Barabas and his slave Ithamore in which they outdo each other in outrageous ill-doing.” (p 115)
    • Henry V is like Tamburlaine in the story of the conquering King with the weak son. In Henry IV Part 2 Pistol misquotes Tamburlaine’s “Holla, ye pampered jades of Asia/ What, can ye draw but twenty miles a day?” (when Tamburlaine enters in a chariots pulled by two kings) as “hollow pampered jades of Asia/ Which cannot go but thirty miles a day.” (p 121)
    • When in The Tempest Prospero says “I’ll drown my book” this echoes Faustus: “I’ll burn my books” (p 129)
  • Rosalynd, a 1590 novella by Thomas Lodge, was the model for As You Like It. “It begins with the legacy of a gentleman to his three sons and the ill-treatment of the youngest at the hands of the eldest. The latter plans to do away with his brother by having him killed in a bout with a supposedly invincible wrestler at court; amazingly, though, the youth wins the wrestling match and in doing so attracts the eye of Rosalynd, daughter of the rightful king who has been forced into exile by a usurper. Further schemes against the hero, Rosader, force him to leave home; he goes to the forest of Arden, in company with his faithful retainer, Adam Spencer,; there he meets up with the exiled king and his courtiers.Meanwhile, Rosalynd is banished. Alinda, the daughter of the usurping king, determines to go with her. Since two women travelling alone would be vulnerable, the tall Rosalynd dresses as a boy and pretends to be Alinda’s page; they call themselves Ganymede and Aliena. In the forest they encounter an old shepherd and a young man, the latter complaining about his unrequited love for a shepherdess named Phoebe. The princesses in disguise give financial help to the shepherds; the court-in-exile gives civil welcome to young Rosader and hungry old Adam. The princesses meet up with Rosader, who has been busy writing love poems in praise of Rosalynd. Ganymede pretends to be Rosalynd, so that Rosader can rehearse his wooing of the real Rosalynd ...” (p 141) It is clear that As You Like It was an adaptation of Rosalynd. However, Shakespeare adds the clown Touchstone and the melancholic Jacques, who are probably the keystone characters of the play. (p 142)

MotivelessOne of Shakespeare's peculiarities was the way he tended to strip motive from his source materials:
  • In Twelfth Night Viola chooses to dress in male clothing; in the source this is explained as a result of a near-rape.
  • In The Winter’s Tale, from Robert Greene’s Pandosto, the sudden jealousy of Leontes is “better accounted for in the novella”; the ridiculous incident of the statue coming to life is Shakespeare’s invention.
  • In the source for Othello, but not the play, Iago is motivated by his unreciprocated love for Desdemona
  • In King LeirLeir abdicates because his wife has just died ... Leir does not want Cordfelia to marry a foreign potentate and live abroad ... In Shakespeare’s play ... neither the abdication not the staging of the love-test are properly justified.” (p 148)
Bate suggests that this is because of a difference between novels and plays: “Logical plot development and long-term psychological motivation are two of the glories of the novel ... But a play is not a novel. Theatre audiences care not a hoot about Viola’s reasons for dressing as a boy; they are too busy watching her” (p 146) He concludes that this removal of motivation is what gives Shakespeare's characters their power: “The peculiar power of Shakespearean characterization stems from the way in which the motivations that drive his source-narratives are removed. Instead of being predetermined, identity is performed through action. At the same time, a vacuum is created in the space that belongs to motive; spectators and readers rush in to fill that vacuum.” (p 332)

Bate also suggests that the infinite adaptability of the Shakespearean capacity was the way in which Shakespeare could represent multiple points of view, even those which are oxymoronic.  “Shakespeare was receptive to every mood, every position and disposition: hence the intermingling, the layering and counterpoint, which is one of his stylistic hallmarks. He was receptive to everything but reductive singularity: hence his stripping of unitary motive from such characters as Leontes and Lear.” (p 152) William Hazlitt, reviewing Measure for Measure, said: “Shakespear was the least moral of all writers; for morality ... is made up of antipathies, and his talent consisted in sympathy with human nature.” (p 296) “Shakespeare’s greatest cunning is ... he knows that there is more drama in a complex question than a pat answer.” (p 354)

Shakespeare also flouted the rules. Lope de Vega, a contemporary (and perhaps equally great) playwright ecommended “locking away all classical precepts and concentrating instead on pure entertainment for the masses.” (p 339) Shakespearean drama “with its loose and episodic scenic form, its multiple plots, its vertiginous course from tragedy to comedy and back again, its motley assemblages of character, its profligacy of vocabulary and speech idiom, its jumble of verse and prose.” (p 160) repeatedly broke the established rules of the canon. “From a neoclassical point of view, Shakespeare’s verbal inventiveness and his mingling of kings with clowns were unforgivable ‘irregularities’.” (p 165)

Bates illustrates Shakespeare's progress towards rebellion with Romeo and Juliet. Their first speech at the ball is a sonnet: “Romeo speaks the first quatrain, Juliet the second (but picking up on Romeo’s rhyme of ‘this’ and ‘kiss’); the third quatrain is divided between them, then each delivers one line of the closing rhyming couplet. ... Their speaking in a sonnet, the conventional form of courtly love, establishes their relationship in the terms of traditional courtly artifice. Juliet’s unobtainability ... is of a piece with this. ... As then play progresses and the love is intensified, the poetic language is loosened. ... The aubade, in which lovers part at dawn, was another conventional courtly form, but when Romeo looks out on the morning sky, he is no loner impeded by the sonneteer’s rhymes and end-stops.” (p 279) Bates concludes that “Romeo and Juliet was crucial to Shakespeare’s artistic development, because its way of representing the intensification of Romeo and Juliet’s love led the dramatist towards the fluid blank verse that her perfected in his mature tragedies.” (p 280)

I adored this brilliant analysis of Shakespeare's fabulous work.

Other wonderful moments:

  • Ovid would have us believe that one of the functions of love poetry is to persuade people to jump into bed with you.” (p 24)
  • It is not coincidental that British detective fiction came of age ... in the 1860s, the decade immediately after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.” (p 101)
  • The device of overhearing is a stroke of comic genius because it dramatizes one of the chief processes through which comic satisfaction is constituted: dramatic irony, whereby we in the audience know more than the character on stage.” (p 139)
  • It is we in the audience who are really in the position of the gods. We know how things are going to turn out. That is one of the reasons why we like comedies: we know that, give or take a few loose ends, they will work out as we would want them to. Which is not something we can say about our own lives.” (p 139)
  • The poetry of a teenager in love is sincere: that is what makes it bad.” (p 150)
  • Our posture and gesture as we read or watch and listen; our return to what we have read or seen or heard before, through which in our clumsy way we re-perform the work: these are the testing-grounds of aesthetic greatness.” (p 320)
  • Asked what a piece of his music meant, Robert Schumann played it again.” (p 321)

A wonderful book.March 2020; 357 pages

Books about Shakespeare reviewed in this blog include: