Sense and Nonsense in All’s Well That Ends Well

[Between 2006 and 2016 I wrote a number of short articles for the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Around the Globe; I’ve been depositing them on this blog under the category ‘Globe Essays’This is the fifth, from September 2011.]

Francis Wheatley, Helena, Bertram and the King of France (1793) [i.e. Bertram indicates his disdain for Helen], Folger Shakespeare Library
All’s Well That Ends Well is a riddle that begins with the title. As a proverb, as a piece of folklore, the phrase draws attention to the role played by ancestral wisdom in the plot (the heroine, Helen, uses her father’s knowledge of medicine to cure the King of a terminal illness). It informs us that the play is concerned with happy endings, which are a distinguishing feature of the comic genre; but it also implies that happy endings justify the means to bring them about, and that these means may not always be ethical, safe or funny. And it also invites us to consider what ‘wellness’ is, both morally and physically speaking. There’s an air of uncertainty about the title, then, that suits it to this troubled comedy, which seems to pose the question of whether comedy can be brought off at all in a culture as self-absorbed as that of early modern Europe.

The play has much to say about the difficulty of dialogue; indeed it contains some of Shakespeare’s trickiest poetic language, parts of it quite literally nonsense. Verse is its medium, and much of that verse is rhymed. Helen uses rhyme often, and this gives her lines a proverbial feel, like the title, as if she is voicing long-established certainties. ‘Who ever strove / To show her merit that did miss her love?’ she asks, and the question becomes an assertion by virtue of the euphonic link between striving and desire. ‘He that of greatest works is finisher / Oft does them by the weakest minister’, she tells the King as she undertakes his cure, and the rhyme lends authority to her claim. The other great users of rhyme in the play are the Countess of Roussillon and the King himself; and their rhymed exchanges with Helen make all three sound as if they were singing from the same hymn-sheet. The King and Helen, in particular, understand each other perfectly as they rhyme in spite of reason – engaging in a melodious contest between sound and sense that gets revived by the King in the final act when he celebrates Helen’s return with a tentative restatement of the title: ‘All yet seems well; and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet’. Here, then, is yet another meaning of the title: that a conversation goes well when its metrical units end in rhyme. There’s clearly something contrived about this claim – it isn’t ‘true’ in any obvious sense. But its very contrivedness stresses the determination of the rhymers to stage a happy ending against all odds.

John Massey Wright, Helena and the Countess (c 1815), Folger Shakespeare Library

All’s Well is full of elderly people who lament the passing of old-time excellence: the Countess, the old courtier Lafeu, the clown, the King. Their nostalgia is for a very distant past, a golden age when miracles occurred (as they do again in this play: the miracles of the King’s recovery, of Helen’s seeming resurrection) and goddesses walked the earth (as they do again here, embodied by the girl Diana). Above all, they speak of the time when words were linked with their meanings, as Helen insists they are when she addresses Diana. But of all the good things of the past, this exemplary use of language is the hardest to recover. Words and meanings have grown so far apart that one must speak in riddles if one wishes to convey one’s meaning without risk of misunderstanding – what Shakespeare calls ‘misprision’. Helen speaks ‘riddle-like’ to the Countess when she confesses her love for Bertram; and in the final scene, Diana speaks in riddles to the King in her efforts to explain the convoluted paths by which a happy outcome is being accomplished. Riddles are the dialect of oracles, another ancient source of knowledge resurrected by Helen. When she promises the King that she can heal him, she invokes the ‘help of heaven’, just as the priestess did at Delphos when she begged Apollo for answers to his worshippers’ questions. The King is impressed by Helen’s confidence: ‘Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak / His powerful sound within an organ weak’, he tells her, ‘And what impossibility would slay / In common sense, sense saves another way’. Her claims to occult knowledge seem to him senseless, like the verses uttered by Apollo; yet the ‘sense’ of the Delphic verses was always confirmed by the outcome of events, just as the sense of Helen’s riddles will assert itself before the play is done. And Helen is only one of the characters in All’s Well to extract sense from a senseless world by uttering apparent nonsense.

Treacherous modern words are a kind of nonsense, but they can bring people together if properly handled, like the patter of a crafty pimp. This is confirmed by the example of Paroles: a braggart soldier who leads Helen’s husband Bertram astray, but who also helps him return to his wife. As his name suggests, Paroles embodies the way words work in the present, leading people away from truth, yet accidentally restoring truth to those who have lost it. This double action can be detected in almost everything he says. In the first act, for instance, he lectures the virgin Helen on the uselessness of virginity (‘there was never virgin got till virginity was lost’); yet despite his salacious motives (he wants to sleep with her himself), Helen is not so much offended by his logic as liberated by it, asking: ‘How might one do, sir, to lose [virginity] to her own liking?’ The lecture later serves Bertram’s turn as well: the young man parrots Paroles when he courts Diana:

When you are dead, you should be such a one
As you are now, for you are cold and stern;
And now you should be as your mother was
When your sweet self was got.

Paroles, in other words, speaks both for Helen and disloyal Bertram. He gives voice to Helen’s desire, which she cannot easily voice herself; and he furnishes Bertram with the language of seduction, thus initiating him into the pleasures of sex – the first step on the road back to his wife. This dual action is apparent, too, in the message Paroles delivers to Helen after her marriage, explaining that Bertram has left for the Italian wars. Paroles describes this abandonment as a deferral of the couple’s pleasure, an erotic technique for enhancing their future love-making (it will ‘make the coming hour o’erflow with joy / And pleasure drown the brim’). And despite the fact that Paroles doesn’t mean it – he never expects the couple to meet again – his quasi-pornographic fantasy proves as prophetic as Helen’s promises to the King. The King’s last words before the epilogue (‘The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet’) repeat Paroles’s sentiment. Paroles, then, like Helen, is a vehicle for truthful utterance; an inadvertent prophet, as Bertram points out when the braggart’s lies are finally exposed: ‘this counterfeit model has deceived me like a double-meaning prophesier’.

Arthur Boyd Houghton, Act 4, scene 3 of All’s Well that Ends Well (c 1860) [i.e. Paroles Exposed], Folger Shakespeare Library
If Paroles acts as a prophet, then Helen and the older generation sometimes act as pimps. When Lafeu leaves Helen alone with the King he compares himself to the greatest of go-betweens, Pandarus: ‘I am Cressid’s uncle, / That dare to leave two together’. The newly cured King then acts as a pimp with Helen as his client, parading his courtiers before her like rent-boys, then using threats to make Bertram accept her advances. Lafeu expresses his disgust at the courtiers’ failure to respond as compliant rent-boys should: ‘An they were sons of mine […] I would send them to th’Turk to make eunuchs of’. And Bertram is appalled by the role reversal whereby a woman becomes the client and himself the sex object: ‘In such a business’, he says, ‘give me leave to use / The help of mine own eyes’. Later, Diana’s widowed mother uses the same word, ‘business’, to refer to prostitution: she tells Helen that she is too well brought up to be ‘acquainted with these businesses’. At this point Helen is urging her to work as a madam on her behalf, so that she can substitute herself for Diana between Bertram’s sheets. Helen’s plot to sleep with her own unwilling husband inspires yet another redemptive riddle; she describes it as ‘wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act; / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact’. In a world where men react with horror to lawful sex and instead seek pleasure with unlawful partners, pimping, prostitution and the playing of sexual practical jokes may be legitimate practices, and dealing in double meanings may be the only way to circumvent more damaging forms of duplicity.

In this world Bertram finds himself bewildered. A snob, he cannot see why he should be forced to marry a woman beneath his station, whatever service she may have rendered to his monarch. Twice he finds himself pimped out, so to speak, against his will; once when the King gifts him to Helen, and once when Helen pays the widow to let her bed him in Diana’s place. He lies often, but where other people get away with it (even Paroles, whose lies become his stock-in-trade when he becomes a clown), Bertram’s untruths are always laid bare to humiliating scrutiny, until by the end of the play he has no choice but to become what everyone thinks he should be: a loyal husband to his lady. Everyone else in the play can adapt themselves to the ways of this fallen world; only Bertram cannot deal with it. But he is young, as the King and the Countess insist. We can hope at the end that he has learned from his experiences; just as we can hope that we too have learned from this remarkable piece of theatre, despite all the nonsense we ourselves get up to.

[For a more detailed account of All’s Well, see here.]

Michael Goodman, Helena and the King (1880) [i.e. Helen chooses a husband]

Macbeth: A Scottish Play?

[Between 2006 and 2016 I wrote a number of short articles for the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Around the Globe; I’ve been depositing them on this blog under the category ‘Globe Essays’This is the fourth, written before the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014.]

Henry Fuseli, Study for the Three Witches in Macbeth.

How Scottish is Macbeth? The answer, of course, is not at all. It’s a play written by an Englishman, performed in England, to an audience the bulk of whom would have been Englishmen – and Southerners at that. But the play is also evidence of Shakespeare’s intense interest in Scottish history; hardly surprising given his status as chief playwright for a company newly christened the King’s Men, patronized by King James VI of Scotland who had assumed the Scottish throne in 1603. And it’s evidence, too, of just how unsettling the rapprochement between these two nations, which had for centuries shared little but a  border and an intense mutual hatred, must have been for everyone involved.

Macbeth is about the near impossibility of holding a single kingdom together, or even of defining its limits: an impossibility that manifests itself in the dreadful trouble the play’s characters have in holding themselves together – that is, in keeping body and soul in one piece, or in reconciling their convictions with their actions, or in saying what they think. The threatened dismemberment of Scotland and its inhabitants in the play neatly parallels the religious, regional and factional divisions that had split the northern kingdom throughout the sixteenth century. And the Scottish royal family had felt the effects of these internal conflicts for generations before they were exacerbated by the Reformation. As Sir Charles Piggott pointed out to the English Parliament in 1606 – the year Macbeth was written and performed – the Scots ‘have not suffered above two kings to die in their beds, these 200 years’. The Stuarts had been subjected to a seemingly endless series of assassinations and massacres, more often at the hands of their own subjects than those of their English neighbours.

Fifteenth-century map of Scotland, drawn by the English spy John Hardyng. Note that it is cut off from England by the sea.

Ancient Scotland was no better, as Shakespeare would have seen as he browsed through Holinshed’s chronicle seeking plots for James’s entertainment. The kings who reigned before and after the eleventh-century monarch Macbeth met their ends in appallingly inventive ways: by poison, witchcraft, or (in one case) an elaborate trap involving a golden apple and hidden crossbows, whose quarrels were launched at Kenneth II ‘with great force and violence’ when the apple was touched. And the Scots had a habit of importing their violent ways into the neighbouring kingdom. The last Scottish monarch before James – his mother, Mary Queen of Scots – was accused of murdering James’s father (which led to her exile in England), then hatching a series of plots against her cousin Elizabeth I (which led to her execution). James himself had twice been kidnapped, in 1582 and 1600; and his experience of near shipwreck en route to collect his wife Anne of Denmark in 1587 left him certain that he had narrowly avoided murder by witchcraft. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605, whereby disaffected Catholics planned to destroy James and the English Parliament in one devastating explosion, may have convinced some Englishmen that the Scots had transplanted their own particular version of political hell into English soil along with their monarch.

A whiff of sulphur accompanied the stench of gunpowder. Scotland seems to have been associated in England with the supernatural: partly perhaps because of the spooky ballads that spread through England from north of the Border (think of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer), and partly because of James VI’s own treatise on magic and witchcraft, Daemonologie (1597 and 1603), which insisted on the dangers they posed as fiercely as the Englishman Reginald Scot had insisted on their non-existence in his The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584).  The witches in Macbeth, whose agency is so hotly disputed (did they drive Macbeth to murder, or did they merely redirect a murderous tendency he already possessed?), cater for both the English and Scottish views of witchcraft. They introduce the theme of double-talk or equivocation – saying one thing and meaning another, or convincing yourself through chop-logic that it’s permissible to do the unforgivable – that pervades the play. For them, ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’, and their delight in reversing moral polarities infects Macbeth’s language, so that he can persuade himself that in a world where ‘nothing is but what is not’ he might get away with regicide. The witches’ later prophecies – that Macbeth cannot be killed by a man born of woman, that he will be safe till Burnam Wood comes to Dunsinane – are classic examples of equivocation: they sound impossible, yet prove accurate because of unforeseeable circumstances (Macbeth’s killer was born by Caesarean section; the wood is uprooted to be used as camouflage by the English army). The witches’ double-speak reflects both the treachery associated with Scotland by the English, and the merging of two cultures and two languages under James, which transformed the English court into a hotbed of mutual misunderstandings.

Marcus Gheeraerts, illustration from Holinshed’s Chronicle (1577) showing Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches.

The Scottish King’s inheritance of England had been anticipated for years, as the English panicked over the ageing Elizabeth’s refusal to name an heir. That period of anxiety has its aftershocks in Macbeth. Problems of succession had often been solved in Scotland by spates of blood-letting – as when Kenneth II murdered the heir to the throne, Prince Malcolm, to ensure that his own son wore the crown. Shakespeare’s Macbeth re-enacts all the atrocities perpetrated by Scots through history against inconvenient heirs. His massacre of MacDuff’s children stands in for his desire to massacre Duncan’s sons Malcolm and Donalbane, Banquo’s heir Fleance, and with them the whole line of monarchs that descended from Banquo to James. Each time he thinks he has the kingdom and its succession under control a new child emerges to taunt him. Young Fleance escapes from the scene of his father’s murder, and his escape leaves Macbeth ‘bound in / To saucy doubts and fears’. Later the witches summon up two infant spirits to taunt Macbeth with the fact that his children will not succeed him. At the end of the play, a Scottish prince, Malcolm, defeats Macbeth at the head of an English army composed largely of ‘unrough youths’ – adolescents who have not yet started shaving. Children die at Macbeth’s hands only to be resurrected like a succession of vengeful ‘newborn babes / Striding the blast’.

The reign of the ‘boy Malcolm’ promises fresh new possibilities for the kingdoms that have combined to put him on the throne. The new king promises to make himself ‘even with’ his helpers of all ranks, thus anticipating a fair and equal partnership between Scottish ruler and subject, and between the erstwhile enemy nations. But the bloody head of Macbeth, dangling like a chunk of Scotland’s history from the fist of his killer MacDuff, undermines Malcolm’s self-assurance with a second promise: that the Stuart dynasty will continue to encounter more than its share of rebels and regicides – including, as we now know, the parliamentary decapitators of James’s son. Accompanied by omens like this, it’s no wonder that a hundred years would pass before the union of England and Scotland would be finally ratified.

Henry Fuseli, Macbeth, Banquo and the Witches.

[For more on Macbeth see my post ‘Wonders of the Northlands: Hamlet and Macbeth’, here.]

 

 

 

Where Even Trees May Speak Their Minds: As You Like It

[Between 2006 and 2016 I wrote a number of short articles for the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Around the Globe; I’ve begun to deposit them on this blog under the category ‘Globe Essays’This is the third, and the topic seems appropriate for LGBTQI+ month here in the UK.]

Jack Laskey as Rosalind and Nadia Nadarajah as Celia in the 2009 Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre production

As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s magical plays. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream the bulk of its action takes place in a forest; and like Prsopero’s island in The Tempest the forest can be what you will, assuming a different shape for each mortal that stumbles into it. The forest of the play, then, mimics the stage. It can suddenly shift location, becoming the English forest of Arden or the Belgian forest of Ardenne, freely mingling Mediterranean palms and olive trees with northern blackthorn and bramble, populating itself with European stags and Asiatic lionesses, English shepherds and Greek shepherdesses. In the forest you can dress as you like: girls as boys, Dukes as outlaws, courtiers as farmers, and everyone as a lover, however foolish, ugly, wicked, old, or cynical. The forest, then, is less like the world as it is than the world as it never can be. But it invokes too the desire to ‘Cleanse the foul body of the infected world’ beyond the limits of its magic circle, and for this reason this comedy has seemed to many commentators to be something much more substantial than a theatrical firework display or a sylvan love-feast.

The play begins in a land ruled by a tyrant, Duke Frederick, who has usurped the throne of his elder brother, and lives in paranoid fear of falling victim to a similar betrayal. In his dukedom free speech is impossible, as it sometimes was in the England of Elizabeth I: in 1599, for instance, when As You Like It was being written, the Bishops of the Church of England burned a number of offensive books in central London, including satires and erotic poems by Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe. Banishing Rosalind, the daughter of his elder brother, Duke Frederick tells his own daughter Celia not to ‘open […] thy lips’ to defend her, despite their friendship. In the previous scene one of his courtiers warns young Orlando that the Duke has taken an equally unreasonable dislike to him, but that the courtier dare not say so openly: ‘What he is indeed / More suits you to conceive than I to speak of’. Yet even in this oppressive atmosphere the Duke’s subjects dream of a ‘better world than this’, as the courtier puts it. Celia and Rosalind preserve their friendship despite the bad blood between their fathers; and everyone knows that the old Duke lives in the nearby forest ‘like the old Robin Hood of England’, where he ‘fleets the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world’. So it’s to the forest that Celia and Rosalind flee with the jester Touchstone after Rosalind’s banishment; and Orlando flees there too with his servant Adam, as if in a bid to find some sort of Eden in Arden, a place where the hand of tyranny cannot touch them.

John Edmund Buckley, Touchstone, Silvius and Phoebe (1864)

What they find in the forest is free speech, and a measure of egalitarianism. Exile has made the old Duke philosophical, and everyone in his vicinity may speak their minds, even the trees (he sees ‘tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything’). Unlike Duke Frederick, Duke Senior encourages anti-authoritarian satire; he even has a pet satirist, the traveller Jaques, who tells him off for every act that smacks of despotism. Later the Duke takes equal pleasure in the impudent banter of a boy named Ganymede, who tells him he is as well-born as he is (which is true, since Ganymede is really Duke Senior’s runaway daughter Rosalind in disguise). He is equally disposed to like the jester Touchstone, whose patchwork costume or ‘motley’ grants him liberty to mock whom he pleases, regardless of rank. And these are only three of the free-speakers who populate the woods where the old Duke dwells. The shepherd Corin can hold his own against any courtier in defence of his profession; the shepherdess Audrey, the shepherd William and the hedge-priest Oliver Martext each possesses their dignity, despite the mockery of the ruling classes; and the shepherd Silvius is enlisted in the final act as spokesman for all the lovers in the play, whatever their station.

Arthur Hughes, Rosalind (1872-3)

But the most remarkable free speaker in the forest is the boy-girl Rosalind/Ganymede, who meets her lover Orlando, finds that he does not recognise her as the woman he dotes on, and initiates a game which changes the direction of the play. Since Orlando misses Rosalind, Ganymede ‘pretends’ to be her, seeking to disabuse him of the absurd fantasies about women that were common currency among Elizabethan males. The charm and wit with which he does so seems to spread the benign infection of love throughout the forest. The shepherdess Phoebe promptly falls for Ganymede, Celia for Orlando’s brother Oliver, and Touchstone for the bashful Audrey, while Silvius takes his old love for Phoebe to giddy new heights. As this happens, satire gives way to love as the dominant mode of the comedy. Love-songs take over from songs of betrayal and exile, and lovers become the most eloquent of the foresters, sweeping aside all social inequalities in their willingness to serve one another, and finally rendering the satirist Jaques redundant.

At the end of the play, Ganymede turns magician. Using a spell he learned from an imaginary wizard uncle – invented by Rosalind as a background for her male persona – he finds a way to join the play’s lovers together in a quadruple wedding by changing himself from boy to girl, from Ganymede to Rosalind, with the help of the great god Hymen. As he casts his spell, Duke Frederick wanders into the forest and sloughs off his tyranny like a serpent shedding its skin. Love conquers all, then, in this play, with an efficiency that satirists can only dream of. And at the end of the play, the newly feminized Rosalind turns to the audience and invites them to join the magic circle of love by applauding the actors’ efforts, spurred on by their liking for this boy-girl who has made herself attractive to all genders. It would be a hardened cynic indeed who did not respond to her invitation, and discover in the process that the free-speakers of Arden had subtly changed his/her/their outlook.

2022 Delacorte Theatre production, Central Park

The Merry Wives of Windsor: A Commonwealth of Merriment

[Between 2006 and 2016 I wrote a number of short articles for the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Around the Globe; I’ve begun to deposit them on this blog under the category ‘Globe Essays’. This is the second, on a play I left out of my book, Shakespeare and Comedy, because there wasn’t room to include it].

Falstaff with beaker, by Eduard von Grützner

‘Cry God for Falstaff, England and Saint George!’ For one scene only, in 2 Henry IV, we are given a glimpse of an England where Falstaff, not Harry, is king: a land engendered by the sheer force of the fat knight’s imagination. Throughout the play Falstaff’s disease-ridden body, grown cold with age and huge with self-indulgence, paradoxically generates wholesome hilarity, the healthiest of moods, which spreads from him like a benign virus until it erupts, near the end, in the cheeriest party in theatrical history. The party takes place on the eve of Harry’s coronation, and in it a man called Silence bursts into song; a servant is commended for being a good ‘husband’ to his master; Falstaff’s seedy follower Bardolph speaks like a monarch; a young page finds himself entertained by a judge with the same gusto as his elderly employer; and the company in general is urged to ‘Lack nothing’, to slough off their years of penury and feast instead on the fruits of Justice Shallow’s orchard. And the party ends with a promise that this genial mood will soon extend itself throughout the kingdom. When Falstaff hears of the old king’s death he declares ‘the laws of England are at my commandment’; his comrade Pistol salutes a happy future (‘welcome these pleasant days’); and for a few seconds we dare hope that this ragtag of ne’er-do-wells may be granted some small fragment of their wishes, if no more than a pittance with which to fund their ongoing revelry. Instead, Falstaff is discarded by his former protégé, the new-crowned monarch, and slinks off to die of disappointment. Few audiences have found it in their hearts to forgive Henry V for his dismissal, even when their heads insist that it’s in the best interests of the English economy.

But legend has it that another monarch – Elizabeth I – compensated for Henry’s bad sportsmanship by insisting that Falstaff be granted an imaginative kingdom of his own: a play in which he falls in love, thus confirming the physical fruitfulness of his laughter-engendering body. No-one knows if she really made this request, but if she did, Shakespeare did not quite comply with it. Falstaff could never truly be in love, except perhaps with Harry or Hal and the possibilities he represented; and an England, or rather a play, that was dominated by this monstrously self-centred anarchist would quickly collapse into nightmare. Nevertheless, The Merry Wives of Windsor makes concrete the merry England that is hinted at in Justice Shallow’s orchard; and it renders that fictional construct both stable and convincing by plucking it out of the hands of the aristocracy and gentry – the classes to which Falstaff and Shallow belong – and placing it firmly in the hands of the middle classes, to which Shakespeare belonged himself.

Falstaff disguised as Herne with Mrs Ford and Mrs Page, detail of painting by Robert Smirke

In doing so, Shakespeare lifts England out of the nightmare of history to which his plays had so far consigned it. Apart from the History Plays, The Merry Wives is the only play he set in his own country, and it’s firmly linked with the two parts of Henry IV both by the presence of Falstaff and by the fact that the impoverished gentleman Fenton once drank ‘with the wild Prince and Poins’. But Fenton’s link with the cast-list of the English chronicles – the Prince of Wales and his aristocratic companions – merely disqualifies him as a suitable match for a nicely-brought-up middle-class girl in the eyes of her parents. Throughout the Second Tetralogy the middle classes carefully exempted themselves from the epic narrative of the nation, paying their way out of military service and thus avoiding the slaughters and betrayals that bedeviled the ruling classes; and in The Merry Wives they firmly decline to be dragged back into those events by an ill-considered union. The events of ruling-class history are not just irrelevant to these people’s lives but obnoxious to them. Instead this play narrates the histories of ordinary men and women, history as it’s purveyed in the Tudor jest-books, whose so-called ‘merry tales’ full of pranks and japes are mimicked in the farcical situations with which it is filled: situations based, as nowhere else in Shakespeare’s works, on a mutual trust that never for a moment seems in any danger of breaking down.

The titular merry wives occupy an egalitarian rural space in which nearly everyone can participate with equal enthusiasm in plots to make, break, prevent or procure each other’s marriages. It’s a space where women rule the roost, hatching stratagems designed to show, as Mistress Page insists, that ‘Wives may be merry and yet honest too’, in contrast to the dishonest merriment of hereditary knights like Sir John. And it’s a space where jests do no harm, as all the characters repeatedly assure us. The Host’s deception of the physician, Doctor Caius, and Hugh Evans the parson, is devised not to hurt them but to prevent them from damaging each other in a duel. The wives’ deception of Falstaff aims to prevent him from hurting their husbands by committing adultery. Fenton’s tricking of Anne Page’s parents proves that he has laid aside his aristocratic wildness and committed himself to the stability of middle-class matrimony. As Parson Evans puts it, the play is driven by ‘fery honest knaveries’, and Master Page piously confirms this view: ‘God prosper our sport’. Moral disapproval of this sport – of the kind expressed by the Elizabethan anti-theatrical lobby – is as irrelevant here as the iron hand of the law, or civil war, or bloody revenge. And so rigorously are these oppressive considerations excluded from the action that it would be fair to describe The Merry Wives as Shakespeare’s only ‘pure’ comedy, the one play in his oeuvre that is unshadowed by the threat of death or the intimidating presence of rulers.

“Falstaff in the Washbasket” by Henry Fuseli

The egalitarianism of the play manifests itself in the fact that nearly everyone in it has at least one prank played upon them. Falstaff is tricked more often than anyone else, of course, and subjected to more painful physical abuse: half-drowned in a ditch, beaten in women’s clothes, pinched black and blue by children disguised as fairies. But he is never isolated in his comic sufferings, as he was in Henry IV; his humiliation is shared by. the bulk of the Windsor community. Master Ford, Master and Mistress Page, Slender, Sallow, Doctor Caius, the Host of the Garter Inn and Parson Evans, are all conned as comprehensively as he is, and he himself notes the multiplicity of quarries there are for the play’s pranksters: ‘When night-dogs run, all sorts of deer are chased’. So if in this play Falstaff is toppled from the position of comic pre-eminence he enjoyed in Henry IV, his former absolute monarchy of wit is supplanted by a commonwealth of merriment, the model for a new anti-authoritarian England. In place of the crown of power and influence he hoped for in the ‘Henriad’, the fat knight is tricked into accepting a crown made of the antlers of a Windsor stag, ‘the fattest, I think, i’the forest’. And while the stag is the most lordly of English beasts, it’s also the chief ingredient of the ‘hot venison pasty’ Master Page serves to his guests in the first scene of the play, in token of perpetual amity. between them. In other words, Falstaff here becomes a wholly wholesome dish, his predatory sexual desires transmuted into a harmless fairy-tale, his bulk made the centre of an inclusive social circle. He is defused, in other words, but not deflated, and this cheerful metamorphosis is completed at the end of the final scene when Mistress Page invites him to ‘laugh his sport o’er by a country fire’ and enjoy, with his friends, ‘many, many merry days’.

In The Merry Wives merriness is vindicated, laughter liberated from slaughter, and the shadow of civil war dispersed from a land where everyone enjoys warmth and enough to eat. It’s not the land where the Elizabethans lived; but thanks to Falstaff and his friends they could go home from the performance nurturing the hope that one day it might be.

Serena Evans (Mistress Page), Christopher Benjamin (John Falstaff) and Sarah Woodward (Mistress Ford), in the Globe’s 2010 production

 

Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus: Extreme Comedy

[Between 2006 and 2016 I wrote a number of short articles for the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Around the Globe. Strangely, though, I only saw my first production at the Globe this year, when my daughter Gracie took me to see King Lear performed by the incomparable Kathryn Hunter under the direction of Helena Kaut-Howson. The experience made me think I should publish my Globe essays on this blog, in the hope they may remind a few readers of the productions staged at the playhouse through all those years when I couldn’t see them. This is the first, on a play for which I’ve always had a soft spot since seeing it in the 1970s with Imogen Stubbs as a handless, tongueless Lavinia.

The following piece comes with multiple trigger warnings: rape, mutilation, murder, cannibalism and more.]

Shakespeare’s Globe

Ancient Rome lay at the heart of the Elizabethan grammar school system. At Stratford grammar school Shakespeare would have learned to see Roman culture as the source of all good writing, the touchstone by which any modern society must measure the degree to which it could claim to be civilised. So when Shakespeare set his first non-English tragedy, Titus Andronicus, in Rome, one might have expected him to approach the subject with timidity: a little over-awed by the sheer weight of expectation that must accompany any theatrical dealings with the supreme exponents of theatre, a little abashed at the prospect of testing his rhetorical skills on the historical home of rhetoric…

Not a bit of it.

Shakespeare dealt with the anxiety of influence by cocking a snook at Rome. Instead of drawing on Roman history he invented a story of his own, rewriting the decline and fall of the Empire as a series of violent set-pieces, riddled with derisory laughter. He responded to the belief that ancient Italy was the cradle of civilization by depicting it as fundamentally barbaric. And he mocked the solemn attitude of his old schoolmasters by filling his play with allusions to the schoolroom, where an appreciation for Latin had been beaten into him with a stick. In Titus, Shakespeare had the temerity to laugh at the culture that shaped him; and having done that so early in his career, it must have seemed to his Elizabethan audience that he was capable of anything.

On the face of it, Titus deals with the infiltration of a great metropolis by the forces of barbarism, as the Queen of the Goths Tamora and her Moorish lover Aaron take a terrible revenge on the Roman general Titus for subjecting them to the humiliation of a military defeat. But as the plot unfolds it becomes clear that barbarism was already endemic in the Empire long before the Goths came on the scene. In the first act, Titus presides over a bloody ritual that horrifies Tamora: the sacrificial killing of an unarmed prisoner-of-war, Tamora’s eldest son; and in the last, he perpetrates a series of atrocities that puts all her crimes in the shade. Between these framing acts of violence, the Empire’s affinity with barbarism signals itself repeatedly: among other things, in the speed with which the Roman Emperor Saturninus woos and marries Tamora, and the ease with which the Romans catch on to the lesson she has to teach them, which is about the intimate relationship between revenge and laughter. This was a topic that fascinated Shakespeare throughout his career, from The Merchant of Venice to Twelfth Night, from Hamlet to The Tempest. And in all his work it is the Roman general Titus who is its bloodiest exponent.

Laura Rees as Lavinia in the 2006 Globe production of Titus Andronicus

Aaron and Tamora see themselves as teachers, instructing Tamora’s surviving sons in the art of comic vengeance. Summing up his career in Act Five, Aaron explains how he taught the boys to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses – one of the standard books in the Elizabethan school curriculum – as an instruction manual in the art of rape. From it they learn to rape Titus’s daughter Lavinia, then cut off her hands and tongue to prevent her revealing their crime. The Moor finds this ghastly prank hilarious: Lavinia, he says, was ‘washed and cut and trimmed’ by barbarous barbers, and it was ‘Trim sport’, he adds, ‘for them which had the doing of it’. Later, he framed two of Titus’s sons for murder, then tricked the old general into cutting off his own hand in a vain attempt to save them from execution. As Aaron puts it, he ‘played the cheater’ for Titus’s hand – a cheater being at once a swindler, an officer of the crown and a cant word for hand – ‘And when I had it drew myself apart / And almost broke my heart with extreme laughter’. Afterwards Aaron and Tamora celebrated the downfall of the Andronici in an orgy of sex and merry-making: ‘when I told the Empress of this sport / She swoonéd almost at my pleasing tale / And for my tidings gave me twenty kisses’. Clearly, reading the Roman classics in a certain way could have quite the opposite of a civilizing influence; and this is a way of reading that Titus takes to heart. For Aaron is Titus’s tutor too, teaching him through a series of sledgehammer blows to abandon the excessive respect for time-honoured custom with which he began the play, and to discover instead the terrible power of comic improvisation.

The turning point in Titus’s fortunes comes in the middle of the play, when he learns to join in the monstrous mirth provoked by the Moor’s atrocities. This happens at the moment when a messenger comes in carrying the heads of his executed sons, together with Titus’s hand, which Aaron lopped off on the old man’s orders in a bid to procure his sons’ release. As the messenger says, the judges who refused to spare the boys made ‘Thy grief their sports, thy resolution mocked’. And it’s by mimicking this grotesque conversion of grief to jest that Titus finds the path to vengeance. His brother Marcus tells him that this is the proper moment to vent his sorrows: ‘Now is the time to storm’. Instead Titus bursts into peals of hysterical laughter, stinging Marcus into an offended inquiry: ‘Why does thou laugh? It suits not with this hour’. But Titus’s mistimed merriment signals his readiness to take part in the appalling comedy set in motion by Tamora and her lover. Grief is powerless, he tells his brother, making his eyes ‘blind with tributary tears’ and obscuring the path to ‘Revenge’s cave’. Laughter, by contrast, serves as the perfect means of blurring his enemies’ vision, while leaving his own sight clear to seek out the nastiest and most appropriate form of retribution.

Poster for Julie Taymor’s extraordinary movie Titus, 1999

The revenge he chooses wittily completes the story from the Metamorphoses that Aaron chose to dramatize when he plotted the rape and mutilation of Lavinia. After a series of comic performances – filling Rome with satirical taunts aimed at Tamora and her Emperor husband, pretending not to recognize Tamora and her sons when they visit him in disguise – Titus stages a banquet as the final act of his comedy, a grotesque parody of the feast of reconciliation that closes the traditional comic plot. In it, he serves up Tamora’s sons to their mother, baked in a pie: a scene that recalls the tale of Philomela, in which her sister Procne killed and cooked a rapist’s son, then served him to his father in a stew. The Gothic Queen is being forced to eat her words: after all, it was she and her sons who first liberated Philomela from Ovid’s pages. Her death at the climax of this cannibalistic supper demonstrates the success of Titus’s scheme to stun her into silence, finally putting an end to the pernicious cycle of comic vengeance she helped to spark off.

Except that Tamora and Aaron, and the horrendous form of comedy they practise, are not so easily suppressed. As the ‘breeders of these dire events’, the couple have also bred a healthy baby in the course of the play; and Aaron’s last trick on the Romans is to make them swear that they will raise the child as one of their own. The offspring of the two notorious pranksters survives the play along with Titus’s grandson, and both branches of the Roman family were adopted by the Elizabethans, who indoctrinated their own offspring in the ways of ancient Rome. The inheritance from that Empire is an unsettling one, and in stressing its unsettling nature Shakespeare makes his audience rethink the concept of civilization, and whether they can claim – or would ever wish to claim – to aspire to the Roman brand of it. Titus Andronicus is a funny play as well as a savage one. its humour is in poor taste; but who says that history, politics, myth, or even good drama have to be tasteful?

The famous drawing of Titus Andronicus by Henry Peacham, 1595