“Who besides Shakespeare can continue to inform an authentic idea of the human?”

Conclusion to The Play’s the Thing
Part One
By Dennis Abrams

It’s hard to believe it’s been two and half years since we started our journey through Shakespeare’s plays. For me, it’s been incredibly educational, fulfilling, inspiring, and downright fun. In my last post I’m going to share my final thoughts on all the plays, but for today, I have to give you my beloved Harold Bloom, and his coda to Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, “The Shakespearean Difference,” which I think is direct to the point:

conclusion photo 1“If there is validity to my surmise that Shakespeare, by inventing what has become the most accepted mode for representing character and personality in language, thereby invented the human as we know it, then Shakespeare also would have modified severely our ideas concerning our sexuality. The late Joel Fineman, questing to understand Shakespeare’s ‘subjectivity effect,’ found in the Sonnets a paradigm for all of Shakespeare’s (and literature’s) bisexualities of vision. Setting aside Fineman’s immersion in the critical fashions that ascribe everything to ‘language’ rather than to the authorial self, he nevertheless had an authentic insight into the link between Shakespeare’s portraits of an ever-growing inner self, and Shakespeare’s preternatural awareness of bisexuality and its disguises.

Here, as ever, Shakespeare is the original psychologist, and Freud the belated rhetorician. The human endowment, Shakespeare keeps intimating, is bisexual: after all, we have both mothers and fathers. Whether we ‘forget’ either the heterosexual or the homosexual component in our desire, or ‘remember’ both, is in the Sonnets in the plays not a question of choice, and only rarely a matter of anguish. Antonio’s melancholy in The Merchant of Venice seems the largest exception, since his sorrow at losing Bassanio to Portia has suicidal overtones. Shakespeare was, at the least, a skeptical ironist, and so his representations of bisexuality hardly could forgo an ironic reserve, more ambiguous than ambivalent.

Nietzsche ambiguously followed Hamlet in telling us that we could find words only for what was already dead in our hearts, so that there was always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking. Before Hamlet taught us how not to have faith either in language or in ourselves, being human was much simpler for us but also rather less interesting. Shakespeare, through Hamlet has made us skeptics in our relationships with anyone, because we have learned to doubt articulateness in the realm of affection. If someone can say too readily or too eloquently how much they love us, we incline not to believe them, because Hamlet has gotten into us, even as he inhabited Nietzsche.

Our ability to laugh at ourselves as readily as we do at others owes much to Falstaff, the cause of wit in others as well as being witty in himself. To cause wit in others, you must learn how to be laughed at, how to absorb it, and finally how to triumph over it, in high good humor. Dr. Johnson praised Falstaff for his almost continuous gaiety, which is accurate enough but neglects Falstaff’s overt desire to teach. What Falstaff teaches us is a comprehensiveness of humor that avoids unnecessary cruelty, because it emphasizes instead the vulnerability of every ego, including that of Falstaff himself.

conclusion photo 2Shakespeare’s wisest woman may be Rosalind in As You Like It, but his most comprehensive is Cleopatra, through whom the playwright taught us how complex eros is, and how impossible it is to divorce acting the part of being in love and the reality of being in love. Cleopatra brilliantly bewilders us, and Antony, and herself. Mutability is incessant in her passional existence, and it excludes sincerity as being irrelevant to eros. To be more human in love is, now, to imitate Cleopatra, whose erotic variety make staleness impossible, and certitude just as unlikely.

Four centuries have only augmented Shakespeare’s universal influence; it seems accurate to observe that many more have read the plays, for themselves or in schools, than have attended performances, or even seen versions in movie houses and on television. Will that change in the new century, since deep reading is in decline, and Shakespeare, as the Western canon’s center, now vanishes from the schools with the canon? Will generations to come believe current superstitions, and so cast away genius, on the grounds that all individuality is an illusion? If Shakespeare is only a product of social processes, perhaps any social product will seem as good as any other, past or present. In the culture of virtual reality, partly prophesied by Aldous Huxley, and in another way by George Orwell, will Falstaff and Hamlet still seem paradigms of the human? A journalist, scorning what he called any ‘lone genius,’ recently proclaimed that the three leading ‘ideas’ of our moment were feminism, environmentalism, and structuralism. That is to mistake political and academic fashions for ideas, and stimulates me to ask again, Who besides Shakespeare can continue to inform an authentic idea of the human?

Had Shakespeare been murdered at twenty-nine, like Christopher Marlowe, then his career would have ended with Titus Andronicus or the Taming of the Shrew and his masterpiece would have been Richard III. Social processes would have courses on under Elizabeth and then under James, but the twenty-five plays that matter most would not have come out of Renaissance Britain. Cultural poetics doubtless could be as well occupied with George Chapman or Thomas Heywood, since a social energy is a social energy, if that is your standard for value or concern. We all of us might be gamboling about, but without mature Shakespeare we would be very different, because we would think and feel and speak differently. Our ideas would be different, particularly our ideas of the human, since they were, more often than not, Shakespeare’s ideas before they were ours. That is why we do not have feminist Chapman, structuralist Chapman, and environmentalist Chapman, and may yet, alas, have environmentalist Shakespeare.

Shakespeare has had the status of a secular Bible for the last two centuries. Textual scholarship on the plays approaches biblical commentary in scope and intensiveness, while the quantity of literary criticism devoted to Shakespeare rivals theological interpretation of Holy Scripture. It is no longer possible for anyone to read everyone of some interest and value that has been published on Shakespeare. Though there are indispensible critics of Shakespeare – Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, perhaps Samuel Taylor Coleridge – certainly A.C. Bradley – most commentary upon Shakespeare at best answers the needs of a particular generation in one country or another. Those needs vary: directors and actors, audiences and common readers, scholar-teachers and students do not necessarily seek the same aids for understanding. Shakespeare is an international possession – transcending nations, languages, and professions. More than the Bible, which competes with the Koran, and with Indian and Chinese religions writings, Shakespeare is unique in the world’s culture, not just in the world’s theaters.

This book – Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human – is a latecomer work, written in the wake of Shakespeare critics I most admire: Johnson, Hazlitt, Bradley, and their mid-twentieth century disciple, Harold Goddard. I have sought to take advantage of my belatedness by asking always, Why Shakespeare? He already was the Western canon, and is now becoming central to the world’s implicit canon. As I assert throughout, Hamlet and Falstaff, Rosalind and Iago, Lear and Cleopatra are clearly more than great roles for actors and actresses. It is difficult sometimes not to assume that Hamlet is as ancient a hero as Achilles or Oedipus, or not to believe that Falstaff was as historical a personality as Socrates. When we think of the Devil, we are as likely to reflect on Iago as on Satan, while the historical Cleopatra seems only a shadow of Shakespeare’s Egyptian mesmerizer, the Fatal Woman incarnate.

Shakespeare’s influence, overwhelming on literature, has been even larger on life, and thus has become incalculable, and seems recently only to be growing. It surpasses the effect of Homer and of Plato, and challenges the scriptures of West and East alike in the modification of human character and personality. Scholars who wish to confine Shakespeare to his context – historical, social, political, economic, rational, theatrical – may illuminate particular aspects of the plays, but are unable to explain the Shakespearean influence on us, which is unique, and which cannot be reduced to Shakespeare’s own situation, in his time and place.

If the world indeed can have a universal and unifying culture, to any degree of notice, such a culture cannot emanate from religion. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have a common root, but are more diverse than similar, and the other great religious traditions, centered upon China and India, are very remote from the Children of Abraham. The universe increasingly has a common technology, and in time may constitute one vast computer, but that will not quite be a culture. English already is the world language, and presumably will become even more so in the twenty-first century. Shakespeare, the best and central writer in English, already is the only universal author, staged and read everywhere. There is nothing arbitrary in this supremacy. Its basis is only one of Shakespeare’s gifts, the most mysterious and beautiful: a concourse of men and women unmatched in the rest of literature. Iris Murdoch, whose high but impossible ambition has to become a Shakespearean novelist, once told an interviewer, ‘There is of course the great problem – to be able to be like Shakespeare – create all kinds of different people quite unlike oneself.’

What Shakespeare was like, we evidently never will know. We may be incorrect in believing we know what Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe were like, and yet we seem to have a clear sense of their personalities. With Shakespeare, we know a fair number of externals, but essentially we know absolutely nothing. His deliberate colorlessness may have been one of his many masks for an intellectual autonomy and originality so vast that not only his contemporaries but also his forerunners and followers have been considerably eclipsed by comparison. One hardly can overstress Shakespeare’s inward freedom; it extends to the conventions of his era, and to those of the stage as well. I think we need to go further in recognizing this independence than we ever have done. You can demonstrate that Dante or Milton or Proust were perfected products of Western civilization, as it had reached them, so that they were both summits and epitomes of European culture at particular times and particular places. No such demonstration is possible for Shakespeare, and not because of any supposed ‘literary transcendence.’ In Shakespeare, there is always a residuum, an excess that is left over, no matter how superb the performance, how acute the critical analysis, how massive the scholarly accounting, whether old-style or newfangled. Explaining Shakespeare is an infinite exercise; you will become exhausted long before the plays are emptied out. Allegorizing or ironizing Shakespeare by privileging cultural anthropology or theatrical history or religion or psychoanalysis or politics or Foucault or Marx or feminism works only in limited ways. You are likely, if you are shrewd, to achieve Shakespearean insights into your favorite hobbyhorse, but you are rather less likely to achieve Freudian or Marxist or feminist insight into Shakespeare. His individuality will defeat you; his plays know more than you do, and your knowingness consequently will be in danger of dwindling into ignorance.

Can there be a Shakespearean reading of Shakespeare? His plays read one another, and a double handful of critics have been able to follow the plays in that project. I would like to believe that there could still be a Shakespearean staging of Shakespeare, but is quite a long time now since I last encountered one. This book offers what is intends as a Shakespearean reading of the characters of his plays, partly by employing one character to interpret another. Sometimes, I have resorted to a few characters by other authors, particularly by Chaucer and Cervantes, but going outside Shakespeare to apprehend Shakespeare better is a dangerous procedure, even if you confine yourself to the handful or fewer of writers who are not destroyed by being compared with the creator of Falstaff and of Hamlet. Juxtaposing Shakespeare’s characters to those of his contemporary and rival dramatists is ludicrous, as I have indicated throughout this book. Literary transcendence is now out of fashion, but Shakespeare so transcends his fellow playwrights that critical absurdity hovers near when we seek to confine Shakespeare to his time, place, and profession. These days, critics do not like to begin by standing in awe of Shakespeare, but I know of no other way to begin with him. Wonder, gratitude, shock, amazement are the accurate responses out of which one has to work.

Jacob Burkhardt, a rather distinguished Old Historicist, has just one mention of Shakespeare in his masterwork, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), but is quite devastating to Renaissance Italy, and to its Spanish overlords. That Shakespeare’s timing and location were immensely fortunate has to be granted, but then several other dramatists in his generation had the same advantages. Burckhardt’s true point was ‘that such a mind is the rarest of heaven’s gifts.’ Together with his younger colleague at Basel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jacob Burkhardt revived for us the ancient Greek sense of the agnostic, the vision of literature as an incessant and ongoing contest. Shakespeare, though he has to begin by absorbing and then struggling against Marlowe, became so strong with the creation of Falstaff and Hamlet that it is difficult to think of him as competing with anyone, once he had fully individuated. From Hamlet on, Shakespeare’s contest primarily was with himself, and the evidence of the plays and their likely compositional sequence indicates that he was driven to outdo himself.

concllusion photo 3Charles Lamb, admirable critic, has been much denigrated in this century for insisting that it was better to read Shakespeare than to watch him acted. If one could be certain that Ralph Richardson or John Gielgud or Ian McKellan was to do the acting, then argument with lamb would be possible. But to see Ralph Fiennes, under bad direction, play Hamlet as a poor little rich boy, or to sustain George C. Wolfe’s skilled travesty of The Tempest, is to reflect upon Lamb’s wisdom. When you read, then you can direct, act, and interpret for yourself (or with the help of Hazlitt, A.C. Bradley, and Harold Goddard). In the theater, much of the interpreting is done for you, and you are victimized by the politic fashions of the moment. Harry Berger, Jr., in a wise book, Imaginary Audition (1989) gives us a fine irony:

‘It is no doubt perverse to find that desire of theater burning through Shakespeare’s texts is crossed by a certain despair of theater, of the theater that seduces them and the theater they seduce; a despair inscribed in the auditory voyeurism with which the spoken language outruns its auditors, dropping golden apples along the way to divert the greedy ear that longs to devour its discourse.’

conclusion photo 4Presumably, this ironic perversity stems from Shakespeare’s apparent fecklessness as to the survival of his plays’ texts. The creative exuberance of Shakespeare doubtless suggested carelessness to the superbly labored Ben Jonson, at least in some of his moods, but ought not to mystify us. There is indeed a bad current fashion among some Shakespearean scholars to reduce the post-dramatist to the crudest texts that somehow can be deemed authentic. Sir Frank Kermode has protested eloquently against this destructive practice, which can be seen at its worst in the Oxford Editions of Gary Taylor. Charles Lamb was amiably seconded by Rosalie Colie, who reminded us of the advice given by the editors of the First Folio, Shakespeare’s fellow actors, Heminges and Condell. ‘Read him, therefore, and againe, and againe.’ Cole added the fine reminder that ‘no excuse is needed for treating Chaucer’s work as read material, although we know he read it aloud, as performance, at the time.’

Shakespeare directing Shakespeare, at the Globe, hardly could supervise performances of Hamlet or King Lear in their full, bewildering perplexities. As director, even Shakespeare had to choose to emphasize one perspective or another, the limitation of every director and of every actor. With dramas almost infinite in their amplitude, Shakespeare (with whatever suffering, or whatever unconcern) had to reduce the range of possible interpretation. The critical reading of Shakespeare, not by academics but by the authentic enthusiasts in his audience, had to have begun as a contemporary concern, since those early quartos – good and bad – were offered for sale, sold, and reprinted. Eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays had appeared in separate volumes before the First Folio of 1623, starting with Titus Andronicus in 1594, the year of its first performance, when Shakespeare turned thirty. Falstaff’s advent (under his original name, Oldcastle), in 1598, was attended by two quarto printings, with reprintings in 1599, 1604, 1608, 1613, and 1622, and two more quartos followed the First Folio in 1632 and 1639. Hamlet, Falstaff’s only rival in contemporary popularity, sustained two quartos within two years of his first stage appearance. The point is that Shakespeare knew he had early readers, less numerous by far than his audience, but more than just a chosen few. He wrote primarily to be aced, yes, but he wrote also to be read, by a more select group. This is not to suggest that there are two Shakespeares, but rather to remind us that the one Shakespeare was subtler and more comprehensive than certain reductionists care to acknowledge.

William Hazlitt, in 1814, wrote a brief essay called ‘On Posthumous Fame – Whether Shakespeare Was Influence by a Love of It?’ One can wonder at Hazlitt’s conclusion, which was that Shakespeare was wholly free of such egotism. Nowadays, many critics like to think of Shakespeare as the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day, coining money and allowing posterity to care for itself. This seems very dubious to me. Shakespeare was not Ben Jonson, but he was much in Jonson’s company, and probably he had too keen a sense of his own powers to share in Jonson’s or George Chapman’s anxieties about literary survival. The Sonnets of Shakespeare are very divided on this, as on most matters, but the aspiration for literary permanence figures strongly in them. Perhaps Coleridge, in his transcendental intensity, got this best: ‘Shakespeare is the Spinozistic deity – an omnipresent creativeness.’

Spinoza said that we should love God without expecting that God would love us in return. Perhaps Shakespeare, as such a godhead, accepted his audience’s homage without giving it anything in return, perhaps indeed Hamlet is Shakespeare’s authentic surrogate, provoking the audience’s love precisely because Hamlet palpably does not need or want its love, or anyone’s love. Shakespeare may not have been strong enough not to need the poet-dramatist’s equivalent of love, an intimation of the applause of eternity. Yet so ruthless an experimenter, who increasingly declined to repeat himself, who used the old almost always to make something radically new, seems as a playwright to have consistently quested for his own inward interests, even as he took care to stay ahead of the competition. The essence of poetry, according to Dr. Johnson, was invention, and no poetry that we have approaches Shakespeare’s plays as invention, particularly as invention of the human.

conclusion photo 5There is the heart of the matter, at once the subject of this book and the mark of my difference from nearly all current Shakespearean criticism, whether academic, journalistic, or theatrical. It is most possible that Shakespeare was unaware of his originality at the representation of human nature – that is to say, of human action, and the way such action frequently was antithetical to human words. Marlowe and Jonson, in their different but related ways, can be said to have valued words over action, or perhaps rather to have seen the playwright’s proper function as showing that words were the authentic form of action. Shakespeare’s apparent skepticism, the opening mark of his difference from Marlowe and Jonson alike, asks us to observe that we act very unlike our words. The central principle of Shakespearean representation at first seems a more-then-Nietzschean skepticism, since Hamlet knows that what he can find words for is already dead in his heart, and consequently he scarcely can speak without contempt for the act of speaking. Falstaff, who gives all to wit, can speak without contempt, but he speaks always with ironies that transcend even his pupil Hal’s full apprehension. Sometimes I reflect that not Hamlet and Falstaff, but Iago and Edmund are the most Shakespearean characters, because in them, and by them, the radical gap between words and action is most fully exploited. Skepticism, as a term fits Montaigne or Nietzsche better than it does Shakespeare, who cannot be confined to a skeptical stance, however widely (or wildly) we define it. The best analyst of this Shakespearean freedom has been Graham Bradshaw, in his admirable Shakespeare’s Skepticism (1987), one of the half-dozen or so best modern (since A.C. Bradley, that is) books about Shakespeare.

For Bradshaw, Shakespeare’s mastery of ironic distancing is one of the poet-dramatist’s central gifts, creating a pragmatic skepticism in regard to all questions of ‘natural’ value. I would alter this only by swerving away from such skepticism, as I think Shakespeare himself did, by giving up all rival accounts of nature through an acceptance of the indifference of nature. We can surmise that Shakespeare, with nature’s largeness in him, testified to nature’s indifference, and so at last to death’s indifference. Yet Shakespeare, with art’s greater largeness also in him, is neither indifferent nor quite skeptical, neither a believer nor a nihilist. His plays persuade all of us that they care, that their characters do matter, but never for, or to, Eternity.

Sometimes these personages matter to others, but always finally to themselves – even Hamlet, even Edmund, even the wretched Parolles of All’s Well That Ends Well and the rancid Thersites of Troilus and Cressida. Value in Shakespeare, as Jane Austen admirably learned from him, is bestowed upon one character by or through another or others and only because of the hope of shared esteem. We are skeptical of Hamlet’s final estimate of Fortinbras, even as we are somewhat quizzical as to Hamlet’s perpetual overestimation of the faithful but colorless Horatio. We are not at all skeptical of Hamlet’s own value, despite his own despair of it, because everyone in the play even Hamlet’s enemies, somehow testifies to it.

conclusion photo 5We cannot get enough perspectives on Hamlet, and always want still more, because Hamlet’s largeness and his indifference do not so much merge him into nature as they confound nature with him. Falstaff’s equal circumference of consciousness suggests that nature can achieve mind only by associating itself with Falstaff, and thus acquiring something of his wit. Edmund mistakenly invokes nature as his goddess, whereas his actual, negative achievement is to tender nature into a devouring entity, a mind (of sorts) that excludes very nearly all affect. Iago, more accurately invoking a ‘divinity of hell,’ succeeds in his brilliant project of destroying the only ontological reality he knows, organized warfare, as epitomized by the war god Othello, and replacing it with an anarchic incessant warfare of all against all. Iago does this in the name of a nothingness that can compensate him for his own wound, his sense of having been passed over and rejected by the only value he has ever known, Othello’s martial glory.

Shakespeare’s representation of the human is not a return to nature, despite the startled sense that has prevailed from Shakespeare’s contemporaries to the present, which is that Shakespeare’s men, woman, and children are somehow more ‘natural’ than other dramatic and literary characters. If you believe, as so many apostles of ‘cultural studies’ assert they do, that the natural ego is an obsolete entity, and that individual style is an outmoded mystification, then Shakespeare, like Mozart or Rembrandt, is likely to seem interesting primarily for qualities that all artists share, whatever their relative eminence. Disbelief in a self o one’s own is a kind of elitist secular heresy, perhaps only available to the sect of ‘cultural studies.’ The death of the author, Foucault’s post-Nietzschean invention, convinces academic partisans gathered under Parisian banners, but means nothing to the leading poets, novelists, and dramatists of our moment, who almost invariably assure us that their quest is to develop further their own selfish innovations. I don’t want to blame postmodernist Paris upon Freud, but I suspect that the master’s sublime confidence at inventing inner agencies, and ascribing independent existence to such gorgeous fictions, is the foreground to the ‘death of the subject’ in the poststructural prophets of Resentment. If the ego can be predicated or voided with equal ease, then selves can be shuffled off with high cultural abandon.

conclusion photo 7What happens to Sir John Falstaff if we deny him an ego? The question is doubly funny, since some of us would shrug and say, ‘After all, he is just language,’ and a few of us might want to say that the vivid representation of so strong a selfhood dismisses all skepticism as to the reality of the ego. Sir John himself certainly feels no self-skepticism; his gusto precludes Hamletian waverings as to whether we are too full or too empty. There is an abyss of potential loss in Falstaff; he senses that he will die of betrayed affection. Empson, determined not to be sentimental about fat Jack, wanted us to think of the great comedian as a dangerously powerful Machiavel. Empson was a great critic, but nevertheless he forgot that Shakespeare’s major Machiavels – Iago and Edmund – know themselves to be ontologically nil, which is not exactly a Falstaffian malady. In vitalistic self-awareness, Falstaff surely is the Wife of Bath’s child. He would have liked Henry V to fill his purse, but his killing grief at being rejected is not primarily a worldly catastrophe.

Is it possible to account for Shakespeare’s universalism, for our sense of his uniqueness? I grant that America’s Shakespeare is not Britain’s, nor Japan’s, nor Norway’s, but I recognize also something that really is Shakespeare’s, and that always survives his successful migration from country to country. Against all of our current demystifications of cultural eminence, I go on insisting that Shakespeare invented us (whoever we are) rather more than we have invented Shakespeare. To accuse Shakespeare of having invented, say, Newt Gingrich or Harold Bloom is not necessarily to confer any dramatic value upon either Gingrich or Bloom, but only to see that Newt is a parody of Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice, and Bloom is a parody of Falstaff. A nouveau historicizer would dismiss that as a politics of identity, but I dare say it was the praxis of the audience at the Globe, and of Shakespeare himself, who gave us Ben Jonson as Malvolio, Kit Marlowe as Edmund, and William Shakespeare as – There you take your choice. The playwrights in Shakespeare are inspired amateurs: Peter Quince, Falstaff and Hal, Hamlet, Iago, Edmund, Prospero – and I suspect that the highly professional Shakespeare has no surrogate in that rather various group. The only parts we know for sure that he acted were the Ghost in Hamlet and old Adam in As You Like It. One gathers he was available to play older men, and we can wonder how many English kings he portrayed. A number of critics suggestively have called Shakespeare a Player King., haunted by images akin to those assumed by Falstaff and Hal when they alternate the role of Henry IV in their improvised skit. Perhaps Shakespeare played Henry IV, we do not know. To be a player clearly was for Shakespeare an equivocal fate, one that involved some social chagrin. We do not know how closely to integrate Shakespeare’s life and his sonnet sequence, but critics have intimated, to me convincingly, that Falstaff’s relation to Hal has a parallel in the poet’s relation, in the Sonnets, to his patron and possible lover, the Earl of Southampton. Whatever it was that Shakespeare experienced with Southampton, it clearly had a negative side, and too searingly reminded him that he was indeed a player and not a king.

Why Shakespeare? He childed as we fathered; he cannot have intended to make either his characters or his audience into his children, but he fathered much of the future, and not of the theater alone, not even of literature alone. Almost the only lasting human concern that Shakespeare can be said to have not affected is religion, whether as praxis or as theology. Though his care was to avoid politics and faith alike, for his-neck’s sake, he has influenced politics considerably, though far less than he has shaped psychology and morals (circumspect as he was to morality, at least in his fashion). As much a creator of selves as of language, he can be said to have melted down and then remolded the representation of the self in and by language. That assertion is the center of this book, and I am aware that it will seem hyperbolical to many. It is merely true, and has been obscured because we now assert far too little for the effect of literature upon life, at this bad time when the university teachers of literature teach everything except literature, and discuss Shakespeare in terms scarcely different from those employed for television serials or the peerless Madonna. What runs on television, or with Madonna, is akin to Elizabethan bear baitings and public executions; Shakespeare indeed was and is popular, but was not ‘popular culture,’ whether then or now, at least not in our curious, current sense of what increasingly has become an oxymoron.

Why Shakespeare? Who could replace him, as a representer of persons? Dickens has something of Shakespeare’s global universalism, but Dickens’s grotesques, and even his more normative figures, are caricatures, more in the mode of Ben Jonson than of Shakespeare. Cervantes is closer to an authentic rival: Don Quixote matches Hamlet, and Sancho Panza could certainly confront Falstaff, but where are Cervantes’s Iago, Macbeth, Lear, Rosalind, Cleopatra? Chaucer, I suspect, comes closest, and Chaucer is Shakespeare’s authentic precursor, more truly influential on Falstaff and Iago than Marlowe (and Ovid) could ever be on any Shakespearean character. Doubtless we read, and even go to the theater, in quest of more than personalities, bust most human beings are lonely, and Shakespeare was the poet of loneliness and of its vision of mortality. Most of us, I am persuaded, read and attend theater in search of other selves, larger and more detailed than any closest friends or lovers seem to be. I hardly think that makes Shakespeare a substitute for life, which, alas, so often seems an inadequate substitution for Shakespeare. Oscar Wilde, with his canny observation that nature imitates Shakespeare, as best as it can, is the proper guide to these matters. The world has grown melancholy, Oscar murmured, because a puppet, Hamlet, was sad. Other poets have made a heterocosm or second nature, Spencer and Blake and Joyce among them. Shakespeare is a third realm, neither nature nor second nature. This third kingdom is imaginal, rather than given or imaginary.

By ‘the imaginal,’ I here mean Shakespeare’s idea of the play, which has been subtly expounded by a number of critics since Anne Barton. Even as a growing uneasiness gradually removed much of Shakespeare’s pride in the theater, an implicit confidence in his own power of characterization partly took the place of a waning contact with his audience. Acting and harlotry blend into each other in Shakespeare’s disillusionment, and he recoils from the mix only to suggest that plays themselves, as deceits, are ghostlike imitations of sordid realities. But what of those greater shadows, the men and the women of the ‘dark comedies,’ the high tragedies, and the tragical comedies that we (not Shakespeare) call ‘late romances?’ To turn against representation is to renew Plato’s polemic against the poets, yet we do not sense any transcendental element in Shakespeare’s dialectical revulsion from shadows. Transcendentalism, in Shakespeare, tends to be available only in its withdrawal and departure, as when we hear the music of the god Hercules abandoning his favorite. Antony. Shakespeare, even at his darkest, is reluctant to abandon his protagonists. We cannot imagine Shakespeare, like Ben Jonson, collecting his own plays in a large folio entitled The Works of William Shakespeare, and yet Prospero is hardly a figure of diminishment, however he chooses to conclude. We do not see the Shakespearean magus very plainly on our stage these days, because more often than not he is presented as a baffled white colonialist who does not know how to cope with a heroic black insurgent (or even two, if George C. Wolfe’s fancy about Ariel as a defiant black woman should prove contagious). Still. Prospero abides as an image of Shakespeare’s pride (somewhat equivocal) in his own magic of creating persons.

conclusion photo 8Leeds Barroll, in a persuasive revision of Shakespearean chronology, argues that Shakespeare produced King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra in about a year and two months – in 1606-7. This extraordinary pace, again according to Barroll, was also standard for Shakespeare, who wrote twenty-seven plays in the decade from 1592 to 1602. Still, it is a kind of shock to envision the composition of King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra in just fourteen months. And yet, each time I read King Lear, I am startled that any single human being could compose so vast a cosmological catastrophe in any time span. I think we are returned to the basis for now unfashionable Bardolatry: we find something preternatural about Shakespeare, as we do about Michelangelo or Mozart. Shakespeare’s facility, marked by his contemporaries, seems to us something more. Whatever the social and economic provocations that animated him, they could scarcely differ, in kind or in degree, from the precisely parallel stimuli upon, say, Thomas Dekker or John Fletcher. The mystery of Shakespeare, as Barroll implies, is not the composition of three tragedies in sixty weeks but that the three comprised Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra.

I have been chided by my old friend Robert Brustein, the director of the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard, for suggesting that we might be better off with public readings of Shakespeare, on screen as on stage. Ideally, of course, Shakespeare should be acted, but since he is now almost invariably poorly directed and inadequately played, it might be better to hear him well rather than see him badly. Ian McKellan would be a splendid Richard III, but if his director insists that McKellen portray Richard as Sir Oswald Mosley, the English would-be Hitler, then I would prefer to hear this remarkable actor read the part aloud instead. Laurence Fishburne is an impressive-looking personage, but consider how long one could listen to his reading of Othello’s part aloud. Shakespeare’s texts indeed are somewhat like scores, and need to be adumbrated by performance, but if our theater is ruined, would not public recitation be preferable to indeliberate travesty?

It is a commonplace that there is even more commentary on Shakespeare than there is on the Bible. For us, the Bible is the most difficult of books. Shakespeare is not; paradoxically, he is open to everyone, and provocative to endless interpretation. The prime reason for this, put most simply, is Shakespeare’s endless intelligence. His major characters are rich in multiform qualities, and a mixed few of them abound as intellects: Falstaff, Rosalind, Hamlet, Iago, Edmund. They are more intelligent than we are, an observation that will strike a formalist or historicist critic as Bardolatrous nonsense. But the creatures directly reflect their creator: his intelligence is more comprehensive and more profound than that of any other writer we know. The aesthetic achievement of Shakespeare cannot be separated from his cognitive power. I suspect that this accounts for his mixed effect on philosophers: Hegel and Nietzsche celebrated him, but Hume and Wittgenstein regarded him as overesteemed, possibly because a human being as intelligent as Falstaff or Hamlet seemed not possible to them. Falstaff is at once a cosmos and a person; Hamlet, more enigmatic, is a person and a potential king. The equivocal Machiavel, Prince Hal, is certainly a person, and becomes a formidable king, but he is considerably less of a world-in-himself than are Falstaff and Hamlet, or even Rosalind. Iago and Edmund each is an abyss in himself, fevering to a false creation.

A.D. Nuttall, one of my heroes of Shakespearean criticism, wonderfully tells us that Shakespeare was not a problem solver, and cleared up no difficulties (which may be why Hume and Wittgenstein undervalued the maker of Falstaff and Hamlet). Like Kierkegaard, Shakespeare enlarges our vision of the enigmas of human nature. Freud, wrongly desiring to be a scientist, gave his genius away to reductiveness. Shakespeare does not reduce his personages to their supposed pathologies or family romances. Freud, wrongly desiring to be a scientist, gave his genius away to reductiveness. Shakespeare does not reduce his personages to their supposed pathologies or family romances. In Freud, we are overdetermined, but always in much the same way. In Shakespeare, as Nuttall argues, we are overdetermined in so many rival ways that the sheer wealth of overdeterminations becomes a freedom. Indirect communication, the mode of Kierkegaard, so well expounded by Roger Poole, was learned by Kierkegaard from Hamlet. Perhaps Hamlet, like Kierkegaard, came into the world to help save it from reductiveness. If Shakespeare brings us a secular salvation, it is partly because he helps ward off the philosophers who wish to explain us away, as if we were only so many muddles to be cleared up.

I remarked earlier that we ought to give up the failed quest of trying to be right about Shakespeare, or even the ironic Eliotic quest of trying to be wrong about Shakespeare in a new way. We can keep finding the meanings of Shakespeare, but never the meaning: It is like the search for ‘the meaning of life.’ Wittgenstein, and the formalist critics, and the theatricalists, and our current historicizers, all join in telling us that life is one thing and Shakespeare another, but the world’s public, after four centuries, thinks otherwise, and they are not easily refuted. Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s shrewdest friend and contemporary, began by insisting that Shakespeare wanted art, but after Shakespeare’s death, Jonson felt differently. Advising the actors on how to edit the First Folio of Shakespeare, Jonson must have read about half of the plays for the first time, and he seems to have come around to Shakespeare’s own view that ‘the art itself is nature.’ David Riggs, Jonson’s biographer, defends Jonson from Dryden’s accusation of insolence toward Shakespeare, and shows rather that the more neoclassical poet-playwright changed his mind when the full range of Shakespeare was made available to him. What Jonson discovered, and celebrated, is what common readers and common playgoers keep discovering, which is that Shakespeare’s personages are so artful as to seem totally natural.

Nothing is more difficult for scholars of Shakespeare to apprehend and acknowledge than his cognitive power. Beyond any other writer – poet, dramatist, philosopher, psychologist, theologian – Shakespeare thought everything through again for himself. This makes him as much the forerunner of Kierkegaard, Emerson, Nietzsche, and Freud as of Ibsen, Strindberg, Pirandello, and Beckett. Working as a playwright under Elizabeth I, and then under James I, Shakespeare necessarily presents his thoughts obliquely, only rarely allowing himself a surrogate or spokesperson among his dramatic personages. Even when one may appear, we cannot know who it is. The late novelist Anthony Burgess judged Sir John Falstaff to be Shakespeare’s prime surrogate. Myself a devout Falstaffian, with a passion against the novelists who lack gratitude for Falstaff, I want to think that Burgess was right, but I cannot know this. I tend to find Shakespeare in Edgar, perhaps because I locate Christopher Marlowe in Edmund, but I do not wholly persuade myself. It may be that no character – not Hamlet, nor Prospero, nor Rosalind – speaks ‘for’ Shakespeare himself. Perhaps the extraordinary voice we hear in the Sonnets is as much a fiction as any other voice in Shakespeare, though I find that very difficult to believe.

Shakespeare, canny and uncanny, played with almost every ‘received’ concept that was available to him, but may have been persuaded by none of them whatsoever. If you reread his plays incessantly, and ponder every performance you attend, you are not likely to think of him either as a Protestant or as a Catholic, or even as a Christian skeptic. His sensibility is secular, not religious. Marlowe, the ‘atheist,’ had a more religious temperament than Shakespeare possessed, while Ben Jonson, though as secular a dramatist as Shakespeare, was personally more devout (by fits and starts, anyway). We know that Jonson preferred Sir Francis Bacon to Montaigne; we suspect that Shakespeare might not have agreed with Jonson. Montaigne was a kind of tenuous link between Shakespeare and Moliere: Montaigne would be all that they might have had in common. His motto, ‘What do I know?’ is a fit epigraph for both playwrights.

conclusion photo 9Whatever it was that Shakespeare knew (and it seems not less than everything), he had generated most of it himself. His relation to Ovid and to Chaucer is palpable, and his contamination by Marlowe was considerable, until it was worked out by the triumphant emergence of Falstaff. Except for those three poets, and for a purely allusive relationship to the Bible, Shakespeare did not rely on authorities, or on authority. When we confront the greatness of his tragedies – Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra – we are alone with Shakespeare. We enter a cognitive realm where our moral, emotional, and intellectual preconceptions will not aid us in apprehending sublimity. When acute scholars pratfall into the trap of assuring us that Shakespeare somehow trusted in ‘a universal moral order which cannot finally be defeated,’ they lose their way in King Lear or Macbeth, which are set in no such order. The man Shakespeare, cautious and diffident, wrote only one play taking place in Elizabethan England, the not-very-subversive farce The Merry Wives of Windsor. Shakespeare was too circumspect to set a play in Jacobean England or Scotland: King Lear and Macbeth keep an eye upon James I, while Antony and Cleopatra avoids any too close resemblances to James’s rather dubious court. The death of Christopher Marlowe was a lesson Shakespeare never forgot, while the torture of Thomas Kyd and the incarnation of Ben Jonson doubtless also hovered always in Shakespeare’s consciousness. There is little authentic evidence, in the plays, that Shakespeare strove either to uphold or to subvert, however covertly, the established order.

The Sonnets seem to manifest a profound chagrin at being what we call an entertainer, but I think that Shakespeare might have felt even more chagrin had he found himself to be what we call a moralist. Insofar as Marlowe was his forerunner, Shakespeare desired to hold an audience even more firmly than Marlowe held them. Shakespeare railed against the actors, but never – like Ben Jonson – against the audience. Jonson’s trauma was that his tragedy Sejanus had been hooted off the stage at the Globe. Shakespeare, acting in the play, must have reflected that he had had no similar experience, and he never would. His audience loved Falstaff and Hamlet from the start. Doubtless, the groundlings hissed Sejanus for some of the same reasons that caused Jonson to be summoned before the Council, there to be accused of ‘popperie and treason,’ but probably they also found it as boring as we do. Jonson – a magnificent comic playwright in Volpone, The Alchemist, and Bartholemew Fair – alas was a pedant of a tragedian. Shakespeare, who bored none, took care not to offend ‘the virtuous’ in his England; that came later, and has achieved it’s apotheosis now, in our humorless academy. That Shakespeare reigns still as the world’s universal entertainer, multicultural and amazingly metamorphic, returns us to the unsolved secret of what it is in him, that transcends history.

To call Shakespeare a ‘creator of language,’ as Wittgenstein did, is insufficient, but to call Shakespeare also a ‘creator of characters,’ and even a ‘creator of thought’ is still not enough. Language, character, and thought all are part of Shakespeare’s invention of the human, and yet the largest part is the passional. Ben Jonson remained closer to Marlowe’s mode than to Shakespeare’s in that Jonson’s personages also are cartoons, caricatures without inwardness. That is why there is no intergenerational contest in Jonson’s plays, no sense of what Freud called ‘family romances.’ The deepest conflicts in Shakespeare are tragedies, histories, romances, even comedies: of blood. When we consider the human, we think first of parents and children, brothers and sisters, husband and wives. We do not think of these relationships in terms of Homer and of Athenian tragedy, or even of the Hebrew Bible, because the gods and God are not primarily involved. Rather, we think of families as being alone with one another, whatever the social contexts, and that is to think in Shakespearean terms.

Change – of fortune, and in time –is Shakespeare’s largest commonplace. Death, the final form of change, is the overt concern of Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories, and the hidden preoccupation of his comedies. His tragicomedies – or romances, as we now call them, treat death more originally even than do his high tragedies. Perhaps all sonnets, being ultimately erotic, tend to be elegiac; Shakespeare’s appear as the shadows of death itself. Death’s ambassador to us uniquely is Hamlet; no other figure, fictive or historic, is more involved with that undiscovered country, unless you desire to juxtapose Jesus with Hamlet. Whether you subsume Shakespeare under nature or art, his peculiar distinction prevails: he teaches us the act of dying. Some have said this is because Shakespeare approximates a secular scripture. It does seem more adequate, to me, to take Shakespeare (or Montaigne) as such a text than it would be to take Freud or Marx or Franco-Heideggerians or Franco-Nietzscheans. Shakespeare, almost uniquely is both entertainment and wisdom literature. That the most pleasure-giving of all writers should also be the most intelligent is almost a bewilderment to us. So many of our ‘cloven fictions’ (as William Blake called them are dissolved by Shakespeare that even a brief listing may be instructive: affective versus cognitive; secular versus sacred; entertainment versus instruction; roles-for-actors versus characters and personalities; nature versus art; ‘author’ versus ‘language’; history versus fiction; context versus text; subversion versus conservation. Shakespeare, in cultural terms, constitutes our largest contingency; Shakespeare is the cultural history that overdetermines us. This complex truth renders vain all our attempts to contain Shakespeare within concepts provided by anthropology, philosophy, religion, politics, psychoanalysis, or Parisian ‘theory’ of any sort. Rather, Shakespeare contains us; he always gets there before us, and always waits for us, somewhere up ahead.

There is a fashion among some current academic writers on Shakespeare that attempts to explain away his uniqueness as a cultural conspiracy, an imposition of British imperialism, and so a weapon of the West against the East. Allied to this fashion is an even sillier contention: that Shakespeare is no better or worse a poet-playwright than Thomas Middleton or John Webster. After this, we are taken over the verge into lunacy. Middleton wrote Macbeth, Sir Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford wrote all of Shakespeare, or whole committees of dramatists wrote Shakespeare, commencing with Marlowe and concluding with John Fletcher. Though academic feminism, Marxism, Lancanianism, Foucaultianism, Derrideanism, and so on are more respectable (in the academies) than the Baconians and Oxfordians, it is still the same phenomenon, and contributes nothing to a critical appreciation of Shakespeare. This book commenced by turning away from almost all current Anglo-American writing about, and teaching of, Shakespeare; I mentioned it as rarely as possible, because it cannot aid any open and honest reader or playgoer in the quest to know Shakespeare better.

The wheel of fortune, time, and change turns perpetually in Shakespeare, and accurate perception of him must begin by viewing these turnings, upon which Shakespeare’s characters are founded. Dante’s characters can evolve no further; Shakespeare’s, as I have noted, are much closer to Chaucer’s and seem to owe more to Chaucer’s mutable visions of men and women than to anyone else’s, including biblical portrayals or those of Shakespeare’s favorite Latin poet, Ovid. Tracing Ovid’s effect upon Shakespeare in his study The Gods Made Flesh, Leonard Barkan observes, ‘Many of the great figures of Ovid’s poem define themselves by their struggle to invent new languages.’ Metamorphoses in Shakespeare are almost always related to the playwright’s endless quest to find distinct language for every major and many a minor character, language that can change even as they change, wander even as they wander. Turning around, in Shakespeare, frequently takes on the traditional image of wheeling, the wheel sometimes being Fortune’s emblem of extravagance: of roaming beyond limits.

Shakespeare’s own audiences chose Falstaff as their favorite, even above Hamlet. Fortune’s wheel seems to have little relevance to others; Falstaff is ruined by his hopeless, misplaced paternal love for Prince Hal. Hamlet dies after a fifth act in which he has transcended all his earlier identities in the play. Falstaff is thus love’s fool, not fortune’s, while Hamlet can only be regarded as his own fool or victim, replacing his father surrogate, the clown Yorick. It is appropriate that the antithetical figures of Lear and Edmund both invoke the image of the wheel, but to opposite effects and purposes. Shakespeare’s plays are the wheel of our lives, and teach us whether we are fools of time, or of love, or of fortune, or of our parents, or of ourselves.”


My next (and last post) Thursday evening/Friday morning.

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“O you heavenly charmers,/What things you make of us! For what we lack/We laugh, for what we have we are sorry; still/Are children in some kind.”

The Two Noble Kinsmen
Act Five
By Dennis Abrams


the two noble kinsmen photo act 5 2Act Five: Palamon and Arcite, each accompanied by three knights, separately pray for success, while Emilia prays that whoever loves her best will emerge victorious. Back at the jail, the Doctor’s “treatment” of the Jailer’s Daughter seems to be working, and he encourage the Wooer to sleep with her. At court the contest begins, but Emilia refuses to attend and its progress is reported to her. Though at first it seems that Palamon will win, he is eventually defeated: Arcite wins Emilia’s hand while Palamon and his knights are condemned to death. But…just as Palamon is about to be executed, news arrives that Arcite has been fatally injured in a riding accident. The two noble kinsmen are briefly reunited, and Arcite “gives” Emilia to Palamon with his dying breath.

As the tournament draws near, the two rivals prepare themselves for combat. Once again gesturing toward the stylized devices of masque, the play has them perform elaborate (and lengthy) rituals of preparation (rituals that also guarantee theatre goers some impressive special effects): Arcite prays to Mars to the sound of clanging armor, Palamon invokes Venus accompanied by strains of mystical music – and even Emilia calls upon Diana for guidance, being rewarded with a blossoming rose tree that springs from the altar at which she kneels. Even when the competition finally arrives, though, the audience is kept guessing. The fight takes place off stage, with only background noise indicating what is going on. At first it seems that Palamon is winning, but then the cries for “Arcite” begin to filter through. When the news becomes more certain, the fretful Emilia greets the news with joy. ‘Half sights saw/That Arcite was no babe,’ she exclaims.

God’s lid, his richness
And costliness of spirit looked through him – it could
No more be hid in him than fire in flax.,
Than humble banks can go to law with waters
That drift winds force to raging. I did think
Good Palamon would miscarry, yet I knew not
Why I did think so.

She accepts Arcite gladly, and Theseus concurs, announcing that ‘the gods by their divine arbitrariment/Have given you this knight’ (5.5.107-8).

But in the play’s lurching final move Shakespeare and Fletcher show that the gods’ will is not always so easily interpreted. Palamon is about to be beheaded when a messenger bursts in, calling on the executioner to halt. Pirithous breathlessly follows, with news that it is Arcite who is on the point of death: the “hot horse, hot as fire” bestowed upon by Emilia as a token of her love has bolted, and crushed the victorious knight. In a supreme but troubling sacrifice that directly recalls the first play we read, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the dying Arcite insists that his kinsman should take his place: against all expectation it is Palamon, not his cousin, who is to marry Emilia. If the gods have declared their wish, as Theseus insisted before, their messages are very difficult to interpret. The Duke is permitted to address them one last time. “O you heavenly charmers,” he calls,

What things you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh, for what we have, are sorry; still
Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful
For that which is, and with you leave dispute
That are above our question.

This scene is probably by Shakespeare, and as a conclusion to his career these halting words of Theseus are infinitely more painful than anything voiced by Prospero at the close of the Tempest. Everything is provisional, they seem to imply – and the human condition is one in which comedy and tragedy are so closely entwined that we may never finally know which is which.

Helen Cooper, “Jacobean Chaucer: The Two Noble Kinsmen and Other Chaucerian Plays”:

“Palamon’s unexpected salvation from execution is not the metaphorical resurrection of Shakespeare’s other late plays, but just one more turning that will delay for a little his arrival in the marketplace of death.”


From Marjorie Garber:

the two noble kinsmen photo act 5 1“The battle that will be the play’s denouement is also, curiously enough, an ‘unscene,’ only reported to us – and to Emilia – by a servant (5.5). While this denies the audience the full enjoyment of a pageant and a rousing fight, it increases the sense of random chance, and also of the untrustworthiness of report. (A good comparison here is the early ‘unscene’ in Julius Caesar, in which Caesar is three times offered a crown – offstage – while the onstage characters try to guess at the tone and import of the events at one remove.) Emilia’s excuse is that she cannot bear to watch either of these brave men die. instead of following the hardier Theseus and Hippolyta, the audience is left behind with her, and gets its information from the servant and from period offstage shouts of “a Palamon’ (i.e., the fight is going Palamon’s way), “Arcite, Arcite! And finally – or apparently finally – ‘Arcite, victory!’ Emilia, like a sports fan listening to an event on the radio rather than watching it on television, is moved to supply her own mental pictures. One of these, of the two kinsmen merged into a single ‘composed’ entity, is memorable in its own right and closely akin to a phrase in another play by Shakespeare and Fletcher, Henry VIII, describing another heroic offstage encounter. Here is Emilia:

Were they metamorphosed
Both into one! O why? There were no woman
Worth so composed a man: their single share,
Their nobleness peculiar to them, gives
The prejudice of disparity, value’s shortness,
To any lady breathing –

And here is a passage from Henry VIII, in which the Duke of Norfolk describes how the two kings of France and England met on the Field of the Cloth of Gold:

I was then present, saw them salute on horseback,
Beheld them when they lighted, how they clung
In their embracement as they grew together,
Which had they, what four throned ones could have weighed
Such a compounded one?
(Henry VIII 1.1.8-12)

Arcite is the victor, and Palamon must die. But once Arcite has claimed his garland and his bride, and has departed the stage to be replaced by the pinioned Palamon and his knights, the play presents its audience with yet another reversal. Palamon, onstage, is generous in the face of death, giving money to the Jailer as a dowry for his daughter – Palamon’s knights following suit – and laying his head on the execution block, only to be rescued at the last minute by Pirithous and a messenger, who run in, the messenger crying, ‘Hold! Hold!’ ‘What/Hath waked us from our dream?’ asks Palamon, echoing a familiar Shakespearean theme that is also the theme of Calderon de la Barca’s La vida es sueno (Life is a Dream). The story is a tragic one, yet again recounted rather than shown: Arcite had been presented by his newly betrothed Emilia with a spirited black horse in honor of his victory. The horse, frightened by a spark, bucked and threw his noble rider to the ‘flinty pavement.’ The dying Arcite now requests to be brought to his cousin’s side:

O miserable end of our alliance!
The gods are mighty. Arcite, if they heart,
Thy worthy manly heart, be yet unbroken,
Give me thy last words. I am Palamon,
One that yet loves thee dying.

Take Emilia,
And with her all the world’s joy. Reach thy hand –
Farewell – I have told my last hour. I was false,
Yet never treacherous. Forgive me, cousin –
One kiss from fair Emilia – (they kiss) ‘tis done.
Take her; I die.

Those audience members familiar with Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” would perhaps recall that Palamon and Arcite are there distinguished by their differing allegiances to the classical gods. Palamon prays to Venus, the goddess of love, while Arcite swears fealty to Mars, the god of war. In the poetic logic of the tale, both of them ‘win’: Arcite is the victor in the battle, Palamon gets the girl. In Shakespeare and Fletcher’s dramatized version, some of the hieratic ‘appropriateness’ of this division of spoils is inevitably lost, and the two kinsmen in this play have, it not more ‘personality’ in the modern sense, at least more homely and confiding moments, suitable for sustained dramatic action. Palamon does see Emilia first, which may give him a prior claim, assuming the lady has no opinion in the matter. So in this sense the play’s ending not only echoes Chaucer’s but is in some slim way ‘just.’

But poetic justice is not, or not always, dramatic justice. After witnessing the mad affections of the Jailer’s Daughter and Palamon’s admirable and stoic deportment at the supposed moment of execution, we are vouchsafed a glimpse of Palamon through others’ admiring eyes. And Theseus tries to shore up this sense in his closing words:

Your kinsman hath confessed the right o’th’ lady
Did lie in you, for you first saw her and
Even then proclaimed your fancy. He restored her
As your stol’n jewel, and desired your spirit
To send him hence forgiven. The gods my justice
Take from my hand, and they themselves become
The executioners. Lead your lady off,
And call your lovers from the stage of death,
Whom I adopt my friends…

Palamon and his knights (‘your lovers’) are freed and rewarded, and Theseus will make the best of the situation, decreeing ‘[a] day or two’ for the funeral of Arcite and then – shades of Gertrude and Claudius – moving right along to the marriage. His scene-clearing gesture, ‘Let’s go off/And bear us like the time’ (5.6.136-137), is a familiar gesture but also a somewhat unsettling one, since so much has happened so quickly, and one virtually identical suitor has been replaced by another. Emilia, we may recall, could not bring herself to choose between them, though she expressed to herself a strong preference first for the one, then for the other. The final love tableau, though, remains a triad rather than a dyad. Arcite takes Palamon’s hand, and Emilia’s kiss, before giving them to each other.

This play, written by two authors, seems to have as its ideal the melting of two (kinsmen, authors) into one. This would eliminate friction and rivalry but at the price of a death. It is fitting that the final tableau displays both the triangle of rivalry and, in the end, the death that thus anchors union.”


From Bloom:

the two noble kinsmen photo act 5 4“After the furious Duke threatens the two erotic madmen with the prospects of death or banishment, a tournament is agreed upon, each duelist to be backed by three knights of his choice, the victor to receive Emilia, the loser (and his supporters) to suffer beheading, so that Theseus is bound to achieve his dubious satisfaction. Shakespeare thus gets to write Act V (except for Fletcher’s weak second scene), and to improve on Chaucer only by giving both Arcite and Palamon wonderfully outrageous prayers delivered receptively to Mars and to Venus before the tournament begins. These two ghastly invocations are followed by Emilia’s chaste prayer to Diana, which can hardly compete with a Shakespeare wholly bent upon mischief in the prior effusions. Arcite begins with a preliminary virtual cheerleading, urging his knights (‘yea, my sacrifices’) to ready themselves for invoking Mars:

Our intercession, then,
Must be to him that makes the camp a cistern
Brimmed with the blood of men, give me your aid,
And bend your spirits towards him.

‘A cistern/Brimmed with the blood of men’ prepares us for the climax of Arcite’s rhapsody, where a Shakespeare who clearly enjoys being wicked goes almost too far to be funny.

O great corrector of enormous times,
Shaker of o’er-rank states, thou grand decider
Of dusty and old titles, that healest with blood
The earth when it is sick, and curest the world
O’th’plurisy of people; I do take
Thy signs auspiciously, and in thy name
To my design march boldly. Let us go.

Shakespeare’s disgust with the London of James I, from which he is self-exiled, peeps through these hyperboles, which would have been excessive even for Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great. The ‘enormous’ times are at once disorderly and unnatural, and the ‘o’er-rank states’ which include James’s notorious court, so overripe that it is rotten. To heal ‘with blood’ refers to the bad medicine of bloodletting, and the memorable phrase ‘plurisy of people’ plays upon both overpopulation and inflammation, a nation both too many and too diseased. The Falstaffian Shakespeare, subtle in his worries in Henry V, overreachers here to considerable effect, yet only as a warm-up to his most unsavory utterance, surpassing his own Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, and yet all an idealistic paean. Here is Palamon celebrating Venus.

Hail, sovereign queen of secrets, who hast power
To call the fiercest tyrant from his rage
And weep unto a girl; that hast the might
Even with an eye-glance to choke Mars’s drum
And turn th’alarm to whispers; that can’st make
A cripple flourish with his crutch, and cure him
Before Apollo, that mayst force the king
To be his subject’s vassal, and induce
Stale gravity to dance; the polled bachelor,
Whose youth, like wanton boys through bonfires,
Have skipped thy flame, at seventy thou canst catch,
And make him, to the scorn of his hoarse throat,
Abuse young lays of love. What godlike power
Hast thou not power upon? To Phoebus thou
Addest flames hotter than his; the heavenly fires
Did scorch his mortal son, thine him; the huntress
All moist and cold, some say began to throw
Her bow away and sigh. Take to thy grace
Me thy vowed soldier, who do bear thy yoke
As ‘twere a wreath of roses, yet is heavier
Than lead itself, stings more than nettles.
I have never been foul-mouthed against the law;
Ne’er revealed secret, for I knew none; would not,
Had I kenned all that were; I never practiced
Upon man’s wife, nor would the libels read
Of liberal wits. I never at great feasts
Sought to betray a beauty, but have blushed
At simpering sirs that did; I have been harsh
To large confessors, and have hotly asked them
If they had mothers – I had one, a woman,
And women ‘twere they wronged. I knew a man
Of eighty winters – this I told them – who
A lass of fourteen brided. ‘Twas thy power
To put life into dust; the aged cramp
Had screwed his square foot round,
The gout had knit his fingers into knots,
Torturing convulsions from his globy eyes
Had almost drawn their spheres, that what was life
In him seemed torture. This anatomy
Had by his young fair fere a boy, and I
Believed it was his, for she swore it was,
And who would not believe her? Brief, I am
To those that prate and have done, no companion;
To those that boast and have not, a defier;
To those that would and cannot, a rejoicer.
Yea, him I do not love that tells close offices
The foulest way, nor names concealments in
The boldest language, such a one I am,
And vow that lover never yet made sigh
Truer than I. O then, most soft sweet goddess,
Give me the victory of this question, which
Is true love’s merit, and bless me with a sign
Of thy great pleasure.
(Here music is heard and doves are seen to flutter. They fall again upon their faces, then on their knees.)
O thou that from eleven to ninety reignest
In mortal bosoms, whose chase in this world
And we in herds thy game, I give thee thanks
For this fair token, which, being laid unto
Mine innocent true heart, arms in assurance
My body to this business. Let us rise
And bow before the goddess. [They bow.]
Time comes on.

At sixty-seven I wince as I read this, its visions of seventy, eighty, and ninety partly reminding me that Shakespeare, at forty-nine, does not seem either to anticipate or to welcome reaching such gladsome stages of existence. This astonishing hymn to Venus is beyond irony, and is a negatively sublime coda to Shakespeare’s quarter century of dramatic poetry. How does one catch up to Shakespeare in what looks like a new mode even for him, and one that he declined to develop? No critical method will aid us to confront and absorb this perpetually new poetry, the farewell voice of the poet so much stronger than all others ever that his difference in degree from them works as a pragmatic difference in kind. And if men wince as they read Palamon’s prayer (and they should), it must be because it activates an all-but-universal guilt and shame. No passage in all of Shakespeare impresses me as being at once so painful and so personal, since Palamon speaks only for innocents like himself, and not for the rest of us, Shakespeare included. Suddenly, Palamon is endowed with personality, and is radically distinguished from Arcite, and from the male audience, except for some tiny saving remnant, if they are there. We live now in what is at once a shame culture and a guilt culture, and this uncannily powerful speech certainly will provoke both shame and guilt in many of us, if we have inner ears left after the visual assault that is our era. I am not exactly a moral critic, and my Bardolatry emanates from an aesthetic stance, so I turn now to a more purely aesthetic appreciation of this superb speech.

The terrible power of Venus is described here almost entirely in grotesque and catastrophic images, and yet Venus is being absolved of victimizing us, even as our wretchedness is so memorably portrayed. Chaucer has taught Shakespeare a final lesson beyond mere irony; Palamon is wholly admirable, but he does not quite know what he is saying, and only an authentic exemplar of the chivalric code could speak with his peculiar authority and not sound absurd. If Venus is not culpable, and only we are responsible for the insanity she provokes in us, then we need to ask (as Palamon will not) why we are unable to sustain her sway without disasters and disgrace. Palamon may possess original virtue, but most of us between eleven and ninety do not, and nothing in this play or in all the rest of Shakespeare gives support to a Pauline-Augustinian doctrine of an erotic original sin. On the probable evidence of The Two Noble Kinsmen and the Funeral Elegy for Will Peter, Shakespeare himself was well enough battered to be able to be out of it all, but simply to urge ‘true love’s merit’ upon us does not seem suitable for the ambivalent husband of Anne Hathaway. Palamon is an erotic realist, who precisely estimates and describes Venus’s dreadful power over, and terrible effects on, males from eleven to ninety, even as he rightly protests his merit as her chaste votary. Shakespeare does not allow one nuance within the speech to betray its grandest more-than-irony: like Emilia just after him, Palamon might as well be invoking Diana, since she is really his goddess.

Palamon has a double vision of Venus; Shakespeare, like most of us, is an erotic monist, and though he preserves Palamon’s speech from any shadows of rhetorical irony, he takes care to gives us an undersong that severely qualifies this paean to a guiltless and flawless Venus. Chaucer, for all his ironic mastery, might not have trusted his auditors (to whom he read aloud, at court and elsewhere) as much as Shakespeare seems to trust the audience here, though I think it likelier that Shakespeare had despaired of all audiences by now, and composes the paradox of Palamon’s speech for himself and a few confidants. Such an attitude would lead to no more plays, and this indeed is Shakespeare’s prelude to the three years of dramatic silence that concluded his life. Chance is the presiding deity of The Knight’s Tale; Venus rather than Mars or Diana is the tyrant governing The Two Noble Kinsmen. In regard to Palamon’s grand oration, we should trust the song and not the singer, totally devout as this young warrior thinks himself to be. His Venus destroys inwardly, as Mars does outwardly; the litany of obliterations is absolute as Venus hunts all of us down. Wasted ole men (‘stale gravity’) perform the dance of death. Bald bachelors of seventy hoarsely sing love songs. Cripples cast their crutches aside. Phoebus Apollo dotingly allows his son Phaeton to drive the sun’s chariot, a fatal venture. Diana falls in love with Endymion and discards her bow. Best of all is the ‘anatomy’ of eighty with his bride of fourteen; here we are given the parody of God creating Adam in Venus’s ‘power/To put life into dust,’ resulting in a deliberate ugliness surpassing anything like it in Shakespeare.

the aged cramp
Had screwed his square foot round,
The gout had knit his fingers into knots,
Torturing convulsions from his globy eyes
Had almost drawn their spheres, that what was life
In him seemed torture.

Eyeballs popping, feet and hands distorted, the lust-driven ‘aged cramp’ appears more a victim of torture than an enjoyer of pleasure. Palamon’s accent registers scorn, yet we feel terror. The angriest reaction to this provocative passage was that of Talbot Donaldson:

‘What part of Palamon’s prayer is not devoted to Venus’ power to humiliate and corrupt is devoted to praise of himself for never having conspired sexually against women or made lewd jokes about them, constantly reminding himself, like a good boy, that he had a mother.’

It is certainly a question of Shakespearean distancing, which here evaded a Chaucerian ironist. Following Chaucer, Shakespeare grants victory to Arcite, and Theseus implacably prepares to execute Palamon and his three champions. But Arcite’s horse throws the triumphant rider, and the fatally injured disciple of Mars graciously yields Emilia to Palamon. Since Shakespeare has emphasized that the heroine’s heart is in the grave with the eleven-year-old Flavina, we hardly rejoice at this turn of fortune. The last words are given to Theseus, who seems finally to be aware of the absurdity of it all, thus merging himself with Shakespeare:

A day or two
Let us look sadly, and give grace unto
The funeral of Arcite, in whose end
The visages of bridegroom we’ll put on
And smile with Palamon; for whom an hour
But one hour since, I was as deadly sorry
As glad of Arcite, and am now as glad
As for him sorry.

This amiable revisionism yields to the wonderful closing passage, in which Theseus seems to have vanished, and Shakespeare himself says goodbye to us forever:

O you heavenly charmers,
What things you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh, for what we have we are sorry; still
Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful
For that which is, and with you leave dispute
That are above our question. Let’s go off,
And bear us like the time.

Those ‘heavenly creatures’ scarcely seem Venus, Mars, and Diana; something more whimsical is being evoked. Palamon, Arcite, Emilia, Theseus – all these cartoons have been dismissed, and what remains is Shakespeare and ourselves. He had learned to laugh for what he lacks, and to be sorry for what he has: both lack and possession are very light, as in our own best moods when we were, or still are, children. The rest is not quite silence, for bearing us like the time means sustaining not just a particular moment but whatever time still remains. No concluding lines elsewhere in Shakespeare seem to me nearly as comforting.”



And that is that – our last play. What did you think? I’m going to have two more posts – Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning and Thursday evening/Friday morning, trying to sum up the last two years.

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“It is a falsehood she is in, which is with falsehoods to be combated.”

The Two Noble Kinsmen
Act Four
By Dennis Abrams

the two noble kinsmen photo act 4 1Act Four: The Jailer’s Daughter, now completely mad, is reunited with her father. Observing her behavior, the Doctor advises that the only possible remedy is if a former suitor (the Wooer) simply pretends that he is Palamon. In the meantime, Emilia is still unable to choose between her two suitors – so the contest between the two rivals must proceed.

The plight of the Jailer’s Daughter, in loving someone socially beyond her reach, is rather unusual in Shakespeare (Helen in All’s Well is her closest relative) – Shakespeare’s women seem to marry beneath them – unusual enough for the Restoration dramatist William Davenant to enhance his status in his adaptation so that she can marry Palamon after all. (Davenant called his adaptation The Rivals. As with his other reworkings of Shakespeare’s plays, this bulldozed many of the play’s more unsettling aspects and turned it into a straight comedy. Arcite is spared death while “Celania” (equivalent to the Jailer’s Daughter in the original play) is magically cured and married to “Philander,’.)

But The Two Noble Kinsmen does not permit itself such a tidy conclusion, and in this play, the remainder of the daughter’s experience is fairly wretched. A doctor persuades her father that the best cure for her illness is simply for the man who was wooing her previously (the script just calls him “Wooer”) to seize advantage of her mental imbalance. “Take upon you, young sir,” he tells the Wooer,

the name of Palamon; say you come to eat with her, and to commune of love. This will catch her attention, for this her mind beats upon…Sing to her such green songs of love as she says Palamon hath sung in prison; come to her stuck in as sweet flowers as the season is mistress of, and thereto make an addition of some other compounded odours which are grateful to the sense. All of this shall become Palamon, for Palamon can sing, and Palamon is sweet and ev’ry good thing.

“It is a falsehood she is in,” the Doctor smartly concludes, “which is with falsehoods to be combated” (4.3.90-1), and many real-life Renaissance physicians would probably have agreed with his treatment. Even so, the tone of the play is, I think, difficult here to read, balanced between comedy and something incalculably more perplexed – as it was a few scenes earlier, when the Daughter happened upon a group of country folk who took advantage of her insanity by getting her to join their chorus line and perform for Duke Theseus. While the rustic performance is of course another nod to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the suggestion in Kinsmen that it doesn’t really matter whom the Daughter loves, Palamon or another man pretending to be him, also plays some of the Dream’s comedy concerns, but in a much darker key.

A little earlier the Jailer’s Daughter is reported as having attempted to drown herself: death is a nagging theme in the play. Having opened on a scene in which three widowed queens plead with Theseus for their slaughtered husbands to be given a decent burial, the play has a finale, which resolves the conflict between Palamon and Arcite only in the messiest of ways, that is equally gruesome. Finding the two kinsmen fighting illegally in the woods, Theseus decides that unless Emilia can decide between them, they must face each other in combat one last time, with whoever losing facing execution. In what is probably a nod to the masques increasingly popular with the King’s Men’s royal employer, this climactic contest – like the queen’s formal appeals to Theseus – will be performed with plenty of courtly, pseudo-medieval trappings. Each combatant is attended by three knights, and Theseus orders that whoever succeeds in touching a pyramid he sets up (an ancient symbol of success) will win the lady’s hand. Yet, at the heart of these intricate performances like a stark emotional crisis. Emilia has no answer to the quandary she faces, and in a later scene she is movingly depicted debating which of the two men is better (she ultimately can’t decide – and how can she? They’re basically the same.) Earlier Arcite had declared with characteristic fervor that to be removed from her sight would be ‘death/Beyond imagination’ (2.3.4-5), but here the risk he and Palamon face is painfully real: Emilia’s inability to choose between her suitors guaranteed that one of them must die.

From Garber:

the two noble kinsmen photo act 4 2“One of the play’s many pleasures is the way it juxtaposes the ‘high’ courtly and triangulated romance of Palamon, Arcite, and Emilia with the ‘low’ story of the Jailer’s Daughter and her Wooer. The fact that these country characters have labels rather than names – not unusual in plays of the period – underscores their difference from the nobility. Yet the Jailer’s Daughter, and indeed the Jailer himself, are in some ways far more vivid characters than their courtly counterparts. The Daughter falls in love with Palamon after at least slightly more acquaintance than the noble kinsmen have with Emilia, and Emilia, for her part, reenacts that scene of falling-in-love-from-afar in a comical replay in act 4, after she has told them both to forget her and then agreed to marry whichever wins the contest. ‘Enter Emilia with two pictures,’ says the stage direction, and the lady proceeds to admire first one, then the other, than the first again. ‘What a sweet face has Arcite!’ she rhapsodizes (4.2.7). ‘Palamon/is but his foil’ (25-26). And then, ‘I have lied so lewdly/…On my knees/I ask thy pardon, Palamon, thou art alone/And only beautiful’ (4.2.35-38). ‘Lie there, Arcite,’ she says, putting down his picture. ‘Thou art a changeling to him, a mere gypsy,/And this the noble body. I am sotted,/Utterly lost’ (4.2.43-46). Ultimately she confesses to herself that she is unable to choose. ‘What a mere child is fancy,/That, having two fair gauds of equal sweetness,/Cannot distinguish, but must cry for both!’ (4.2.52-54).

Emilia’s dialogue with the two pictures (presumably miniatures, of the soft often given as love tokens) will remind a modern Shakespeare audience of the more famous scene in Hamlet, where Hamlet challenges his mother to see the dissimilarity between her two husbands, old Hamlet and Claudius, who are also, technically, ‘noble kinsmen’ (‘Look here upon this picture, and on this,/The counterfeit presentment of two brothers’ [Hamlet 3.4.52-53]). The stage echo of Hamlet is given more pertinence by the fact that in the previous scene (4.1) we hear of the madness of the Jailer’s Daughter, presented, like that of Ophelia, in a long set piece, an ‘unscene’ narrating events that have taken place offstage and out of our sight. The lovesick girl is described as singing songs – including Desdemona’s ‘Willow, willow, willow’ — unbinding her hair (loose hair was a classic stage sign of madness in women), plucking flowers, and speaking aimlessly of her father’s death and burial. But the Daughter will live to marry her faithful Wooer (in his therapeutic disguise as “Palamon’), and the Jailer will not meet Polonius’s ignominious end. Like many of the last plays in which Shakespeare had a hand, and especially his late romances, this play seems to cite, quote, and excerpt from key moments in earlier Shakespearean plays, especially those that were – and are – memorable onstage. And as was the case in those late other plays, the citation (for example, Leontes’ jealousy of Hermione, compared with Othello’s jealousy of Desdemona) is briefer, less motivated, and slightly more distanced from character and personality than its tragic original. It has, in short, become a trope, a figure in this case not so much ‘of speech’ as ‘of stage,’ recognizable as a Shakespearean minigenre.”

And from Frank Kermode:

the two noble kinsmen photo act 4 3The Two Noble Kinsmen breaks the association of Shakespeare with the original Globe Theatre; it may have been performed in the new one, opened in June 1614, but it was probably performed at the Blackfriars. It must have been liked, since it was known to have been played in 1619, and the Quarto edition was published as late as 1634. As with Henry VIII, the question of authorship and shares remains contested, but it seems that in general Shakespeare is to be credited with Act I and the first scene of Acts II, III, and V, and the last two scenes.

Charles Lamb may have overstated the contrasts, but his comparison between the manner of Fletcher and that of Shakespeare has some justice: ‘[Fletcher’s] ideas move slow; his versification, though sweet, is tedious, it stops every moment; he lays line upon line, making up one after the other, adding image to image so deliberately that we see where they join: Shakespeare mingles everything, he runs line into line, embarrasses sentences and metaphors; before one idea has burst its shell, another is hatched out and clamorous for disclosure.’

The terms of the comparison may be too favorable to Shakespeare: The Two Noble Kinsmen is a romance, light in texture and sometimes rather silly, and the style preferred by Lamb seems unsuited to it. A recent editor suggests that at this stage of his working life, almost at its end, Shakespeare was somewhat under the influence of Donne, who had the habit, as Coleridge put it, of wreathing iron pokers into true love knots. It has been argued, defensively, that ‘the age often found in incomprehensibility a positive virtue.’ But Donne was not writing for a theatre audience.

The speeches of the Three Queens at the beginning of the play have a right to be impassioned, as they communicate their desire to buy their husbands, but they tend to be complicated in expression:

O, my petition was
Set down in ice, which by hot grief uncandied
Melts into drops; so sorrow wanting form
Is press’d with deeper matter.

She means that in her earlier plea she had spoken too coldly; now her grief has melted the ice and she weeps. So far so good; Shakespeare more than once thought of ice as candy, as we have seen in Antony and Cleopatra. But what follows is very obscure and, if puzzled out, adds little to the sentiment; it seems to offer the generalization that sorrow is harder to bear if it cannot find a form of expression. This Third Queen is particularly hard to understand:

There, through my tears,
Like wrinkled pebbles in a glassy stream,
You may behold’em, Lady, lady, alack!
He that will all the treasure know o’ th’ earth
Must know the centre too; he that will fish
For my least minnow, let him lead his line
To catch one at my heart.

What are to be beheld are presumably ‘eyes’; but ‘’em’ has no plural antecedent. The remainder of the statement is presumably meant to suggest the depth of her grief by comparing it to the centre of the earth, and by saying that to fish for it you would need to weight the line. There are more examples of unprofitable complexity in this play. here Arcite addresses his friend and enemy Palamon in V.i:

I am in labor.
To push your name, your ancient love, our kindred,
Out of my memory; and i’ th’ self-same place
To eat something I would confound. So hoist we
The sails that must these vessels port even where
The heavenly limiter pleases.

The verb ‘port’ and the noun ‘limiter’ give the expression of this perfectly understandable idea connotations more obscure and mysterious than its occasion seems to require. The general idea is expressed by a confusion of the figure of labour pains, the figure of ships sailing in different directions, and the idea that he wants to put in the place of his friend Palamon an enemy of the same name. But even this last notion is not clear, for he presumably does not want the enemy only in his memory.

Arcite’s speech to his knights (V.i.34ff.) contains lines that have baffled commentators, lines of which an audience would deserve congratulations if they caught the general drift. Some compensation may be found in the fineness of his address to Mars, with its odd reminiscence of Macbeth:

Thou might one, that with thy power hast turn’d
Green Neptune into purple, [whose approach]
Comets prewarn, whose havoc in vast field
Unearthed skulls proclaim, whose breath blows down
The teeming Ceres’ foison, who dost pluck
With hand armipotent from forth blue clouds
The mason’d turrets, that both mak’st and break’st
The stony girths of cities: me thy pupil,
Youngest follower of thy drum, instruct this day
With military skill, that to thy laud
I may advance my streamer, and by thee
Be styl’d the lord o’th’ day.

The incantatory, almost liturgical purpose of the speech limits the scope of involution; there is no doubling back, but a cumulative celebration of the destructive power of war; the battlefields are strewn with unburied corpses, the ruined harvests, the cities besieged and destroyed; and finally there is apt petition for ‘military skill,’ and the dedication of success to the praise of the god. The strange words – ‘armipotent,’ ‘laud,’ and ‘streamer’ [pennon] – are all slightly out of the common way yet within reasonable intellectual compass; ‘the lord o’th’ day’ gives the sense to a festive combat or tourney, which, despite its homicidal purpose, this joust amounts to. The passage is indebted to Arcite’s prayer to Mars in Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, but, it is grander and has its own rapt quality.

Since she is the sister of the military Hippolyta, Emilia, for the fight between the kinsmen is perhaps entitled on occasion to speak with the masculine persuasive force of Shakespeare:

Half-sights saw
That Arcite was no babe. God’s lid, his richness
And costliness of spirit look’d through him, it could
No more be hid in him than fire in flax,
Than humble banks can go to law with waters
That drift-winds force to raging.

Emilia’s oath ‘God’s [eye]lid’) has surprised the commentators, and might seem to fall under the ban of the Act of 1606, but the terms in which she praises Arcite are even more striking. ‘Costliness,’ a redundant reinforcement to ‘richness,’ is odd, as it applies to his spirit, not his fine dueling clothes; the notion of a fine spirit looking through a person’s body is now more familiar from some familiar lines of Donne, written and published at just this time. (We understood/Her by her sight; her pure and eloquent blood/Spoke in her cheeks, and so distinctly wrought/That one might almost say, her body thought.’ Of the Progress of the Soul, 1612) Emilia, having expressed this idea, finds two similes to reinforce it: the fire in the flax and, more remote, the impossibility that riverbanks can go to law against flood ties. This last comparison is bizarre enough without the added difficulty that the rush of water is due to ‘drift winds.’ Editors plausibly guess that the word ‘drift’ means ‘driving’; indeed, it is hard to see what else it could mean, but the usage is apparently unique; and considering Shakespeare’s ease in converting nouns to verbs, it may be worth while occasionally to consider that the effect, though undoubtedly striking and ‘muscular,’ is sometimes merely distracting. ‘Waters/That drift winds force to raging’ might be defended on the ground that the language itself is being driven and forced, in imitation of flood water in spate; but in the end the inability of the banks to do anything about it has hardly any relation to the original idea, that Arcite’s noble spirit ‘look’d through him.’

Sometimes it seems that Shakespeare, in these latter years, is simply defying his audience, not caring to have them as fellows in understanding. One finds editors reduced to saying, ‘The idea is clear…but it is hard to make grammatical sense out of the lines.’ It is a price we have to pay. Consider this:

Here we are,
And here the graces of our youths must wither
Like a two-timely spring. Here age must find us,
And which is heaviest, Palamon, unmarried.
The sweet embraces of a loving wife,
Loaden with kisses, arm’d with thousand Cupids,
Shall never clasp our necks; no issue know us;
No figures of ourselves shall we ev’r see
To glad our age, and like young eagles teach ‘em
Boldly top gaze against bright arms, and say,
‘Remember what your fathers were, and conquer!’

This is the soft, explicit Fletcher, admirably skilled with his dying falls and his willingness to spell everything out. Presumably the managers of the King’s Men could have made him a collaborator with Shakespeare, fifteen years his senior, and the author who, for fifteen years, had so astonishingly enlarged the drama and educated its audience. It must have been a strenuous experience for everybody involved. But now those who could afford it might relax at the Blackfriars to the tunes of Fletcher. Shakespeare sounds still as if the work of transformation was not done, that the testing of the audience (and himself) must go on. Did he overestimate their endurance, and ours; did he perhaps even exaggerate his own?”

Our next reading: Act Five of The Two Noble Kinsmen
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning. And, after that, I’ll have posts (two or three, I’m not sure yet) summing everything up.

Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.

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“Only a little let him fall before me,/That I may tell my soul, he shall not have her.”

The Two Noble Kinsmen
Act Three
By Dennis Abrams
the two noble kinsmen photo act three 1Act Three: Separated from the royal party while out celebrating May Day, Arcite is suddenly confronted by Palamon. The two argue over Emilia once again, before agreeing to fight a duel over her. At the same time, the Jailer’s Daughter, is desperately searching the woods for Palamon when she comes upon a group of countrymen rehearsing an entertainment. Realizing that she has seemingly lost her mind, the performers include here in their masque, which they then present to Theseus and his companions. And in yet another part of the wood, Arcite brings his cousin armor but no sooner do the two begin go fight when they are interrupted by Theseus and his party. When the Duke condemns them to death, Emilia pleads for the sentence to be commuted to banishment, but the kinsmen turn down the offer (both preferring to die rather than never see her again). Theseus then demands that Emilia choose between the two, but when she is unable to do so, he agrees to supervise a final contest to win her hand.

Shakespeare and Fletcher took the story of the Jailer’s Daughter (for whatever reason they gave her no other name) from the tiniest of hints in the “Knight’s Tale” – there it is merely a mysterious “freend” who helps Palamon escape – but what they made out of it becomes utterly crucial to the play. (And as we read, the Jailer’s Daughter is Bloom’s favorite character in the entire play). Against the narrative of the two kinsmen, which becomes more and more contorted than ever – Arcite manages to work his way into Theseus’s court is disguise, while Palamon hides in the forest – the two playwrights (I’m guessing mostly Shakespeare) set four haunting scenes that trace her emotional collapse. “Let not my sense unsettle,” she begs when she is unable to find her beloved (3.2.2(, but a scene later her fears have been realized. As she addresses the audience in soliloquy (virtually the only character in the play to do so), it becomes clear that her sanity is gone. “I am very cold,” she shivers,

and all the stars are out too,
The little stars and all, that look like aglets –
The sun has seen my folly. Palamon!
Alas, no; he’s in heaven. Where am I now?
Yonder’s the sea and there’s a ship – how’t tumbles!
And there’s a rock likes watching under water –
Now, now, it beats upon it – now, now, now,
There’s a leak sprung, a sound one – how they cry!
Open her before the wind – you’ll lose all else.
Up with a course or two, and tack about, boys.
Good night, good night, you’re gone.

As we’ve seen, Shakespeare is usually credited with Act One of Kinsmen, the first two scenes of Act Three and three scenes in Act Five, including the play’s very last – but even if this soliloquy is Fletcher’s handiwork (and I really can’t see – or hear – that it is), it reads like a collection of Shakespearian motifs. Mumbling scraps of folk ballads, the Jailer’s Daughter reminds of Hamlet’s Ophelia, though her habit of repeating words resembles nothing less than that of King Lear. More tragically even than these, her rambling voice also resembles that of the equally nameless maiden in A Lover’s Complaint, a poem of Shakespeare’s also given over to the story of a grief-stricken and isolated young woman.

From Bloom:

the two noble kinsmen photo act 3 2“We then go off to prison with Palamon and Arcite, but since this is part of John Fletcher’s share in the play, we can evade it, except for noting that the cousins fall in love with Emilia at first sight, thus destroying their own friendship forever, as in Chaucer. Shakespeare began writing again by supplying a first scene to Act III, where Arcite, long since liberated by old acquaintance with Theseus’s friend Pirithous, is wandering lovelorn in the woods, while everyone else is off a-maying. On this fateful Mayday, the still-shackled Palamon, freshly escaped from prison, confronts Arcite, and the two agree on a fight to the death, the winner take Emilia. The scene has a mad, irrealistic charm, as Shakespeare juxtaposes their high rhetoric of chivalry with their mutually insane, regretful need to immolate one another. It is difficult to describe the comedy of their encounter, parallels being few, but some lines of Arcite’s catch the flavor:

Honour and honesty
I cherish and depend on, howsoe’er
You skip them in me, and with them, fair coz,
I’ll maintain my proceedings. Pray be pleased
To show in generous terms your griefs, since that
Your question’s with your equal, who professes
To clear his own way with the mind and sword
Of a true gentleman.

This intricate mix of pomposity and courtesy disappears when Fletcher takes over for the duel, which is interrupted by Theseus and his entourage, Emilia included. After the furious Duke threatens the two erotic madmen with the prospects of death or banishment, a tournament is agreed upon, each dualist to be backed by three knights of his choice, the victor to receive Emilia, the loser (and his supporters) to suffer beheading, so that Theseus is bound to achieve his dubious satisfaction.”

And from Garber:

the two noble kinsmen photo act 3 3“There is, however, another love story in the making, one with a less ‘noble’ shape and – for a while at least – boding a far less happy ending. For the Jailer’s Daughter has fallen in love with Palamon, just as Palamon has fallen in love with Emilia. Smitten, the Jailer’s Daughter frees Palamon from prison. He encounters Arcite in the wood, where the two kinsmen determine to fight a duel for the right to claim Emilia as ‘my mistress’ (3.1.29) – a duel that takes place in act 3, scene 6, and constitutes the second of this play’s ‘broken,’ or interrupted, ceremonies.

As for the Daughter, she promptly goes mad, afflicted by melancholy or madness arising from passionate love. Her situation and her onstage response to it recall that of Ophelia, and she sings a similar song of unrequited passion and betrayal, with similar slips into sexual innuendo (‘O for a prick now, like a nightingale,/To put my breast against’ [3.4.25-26]). The Daughter will be recruited as a ‘dainty madwoman’ into an antic dance being staged by a pedantic schoolmaster and his countrymen and ‘wenches’ for the edification of the Duke (much in the spirit of the sheepshearing scene in The Winter’s Tale, or the pageant of the “Nine Worthies” staged by the pedant Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost). Madwomen – and madmen – were regarded in some quarters as figures of entertainment in this period. Webster’s Duchess of Malfi features a dance of eight madmen (4.2). The Schoolmaster’s long rhyming preface to his entertainment staged in act 3, scene 5, as a play-within-the-play with Theseus, Hippolyta, and Emilia in the onstage audience, features dubiously chiming couplets (‘The body of our sport, of no small study,/I first appear, though rude and raw and muddy’) and some fearsome alliteration (‘dainty Duke, whose doughty dismal fame/From Dis to Daedalus’), and gives way to a morris dance, constituting a rustic spectacle in the middle of the play, between the ‘high’ ‘comic,’ or romantic, movement, in which the noble kinsmen fall nobly in love with an unattainable woman, and the ‘tragic’ movement, in which they fight for her to the death, and one of them actually dies.

But as for the daughter, her plight is less hopeless than it may at first have appeared – the play is, after all, a tragicomedy, not a tragedy like Hamlet. In fact, she is recovered to her wits by a piece of extended role-playing undertaken by her faithful Wooer, who is advised by the Doctor,

[T]ake upon you…the name of Palamon; say you come to eat with her and to commune of love…Sing to her such green songs of love as she says Palamon hath sung in prison; come to her stuck in as sweet flowers…Learn what maids have been her companions and play-feres, and let them repair to her, with Palamon in their mouths, and appear with tokens as if they suggested for him. It is a falsehood she is in, which is with falsehoods to be combated.

Like the trope of entertaining a mad world with madmen, this strategy has a peculiarly ‘modern’ feel. (‘It is a falsehood she is in, which is with falsehoods to be combated’) The ‘cure’ is effected in act 5, with the Doctor, the Jailer, the Wooer, and the Daughter all onstage, and the Doctor’s down-home sexual advise to the Wooer (‘Lie with her if she ask you./…in the way of cure’ [5.4.27]). The ‘low’ plot of the Jailer’s Daughter and the faux Palamon offers a nice counterbalance to the ‘high’ plot of Emilia and her two suitors, since Emilia has a little real cognizance of the individual qualities and natures of the courtly kinsmen Palamon and Arcite as the mad Daughter does of the difference between ‘Palamon’ and Palamon.

As for the duel scene (3.6), it is structured, as we have already noted, as a second broken ceremony, paralleling the interrupted wedding in act I, scene I. Again the women will kneel and plead with Theseus, and again he will ultimately yield to their request. The scene has some strong elements of comedy, a little reminiscent of the threatened duel in Twelfth Night between Viola/Cesario and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, in which each for different reasons is terrified to fight the other. Palamon and Arcite have no such fear; they are defined, and they consistently define themselves, as soldiers (as Arcite says, ‘We were not bred to talk, man. When we are armed/And both upon our guards, then let our fury,/…fly strongly from us’ [3.6.28-30]). But they find themselves caught in a courtly dilemma and rather wish there were an honorable way out. ‘Your person I am friends with,’ Arcite tells Palamon, as he gives him a choice of swords and armors. ‘And I could wish I had not said I loved her,/Though I had died; but loving such a lady,/And justifying my love, I must not fly from’t’ (3.6.39-42). And Palamon replies, ‘Arcite, thou art so brave an enemy/That no man but thy cousin’s fit to kill thee’ (43-44). As they outfit themselves and each other – putting on armor is not a task that is easy for a man to do for himself – they chat in a homely and intimate way that is the opposite of martial confrontation:

Pray thee tell me, cousin,
Where gott’st thou this good armour?
‘Tis the Duke’s,
And to say true, I stole it. Do I pinch you?


…use your gauntlets, though – those are o’th’ least.
Prithee take mine, good cousin.
Thank you, Arcite.
How do I look? Am I fall’n much away?
Faith, very little – love has used you kindly.

Such affectionate and even comical exchanges, born of long familiarity, give way to an awkward ceremonial: as the stage direction says, ‘They bow several ways, then advance and stand’ before they commence their flight. ‘Once more farewell, my cousin,’ says Arcite, and Palamon replies in kind: ‘Farwell, Arcite.’ But no sooner have they begun to trade blows in earnest than they are interrupted – yet another interrupted ceremony – by the hunting horns of Theseus and the arrival of Theseus, Hippolyta, Emilia, Pirithous, and their train.

The scene here will resemble both the beginning of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Theseus enforces the restrictive law of Athens, and the late scene in that same play when he and Hippolyta encounter the sleeping lovers in the woods. In The Two Noble Kinsmen, Theseus demands:

What ignorant and mad malicious traitors
Are you, that ‘gainst the tenor of my laws
Are making battle, thus like knights appointed,
Without my leave and officers of arms?
By Castor, both shall die.

Theseus has forbidden the kind of individual armed combat in which they were about to engage if it were not under his control. Palamon’s reply is eloquent – as, indeed, is Arcite’s – as both undertake to explain the code of love that has inspired their ritual enmity. ‘We are certainly both traitors,’ acknowledges Palamon,

both despisers
Of thee and of they goodness, I am Palamon,
That cannot love thee, he that broke thy prison –
Think well what that deserves. And this is Arcite;
A bolder traitor never trod they ground,
A falser ne’er seemed friend. This is the man
Was begged and banished; this is he contemns thee,
And what thou dar’st do; and in this disguise,
Against thine own edict, follows thy sister,
That fortunate bright star, the fair Emilia,
Whose servant – if there be a right in seeing
And first bequeathing of the soul to – justly
I am; and, which is more, dares think her his.

This is the ‘treachery’ that Palamon would combat. As for Arcite, he embraces the title of traitor:

Let me say thus much – if in love be treason,
In service of so excellent a beauty,
As I love most, and in that faith will perish,
As I have brought my life here to confirm it,
As I have served here truest, worthiest,
As I dare kill this cousin that denies it,
So let me be most traitor and ye please me.
For scorning of thy edict, Duke, ask that lady
Why she is fair, and why her eyes command me
Stay here to love her, and if she say, ‘Traitor,’
I am a villain fit to lie unburied.

‘Let’s die together, at one instant, Duke,’ proposed Palamon (his line here echoes, probably unconsciously, another famous Shakespearean ‘twinning ‘passage, Celia’s ‘WE still have slept together,/Rose at an instant, learned, played, eat together’ [As You Like It 1.3.67-68]). ‘Only a little let him fall before me,/That I may tell my soul, he shall not have her.’ (3.6.178-179)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Athenians – all but Theseus – are swept away by this idealistic rhetoric. ‘O heaven,/What more than man is this!’ exclaims Pirithous when he hears Palamon. In a visual echo of the play’s opening scene, the two women, Emilia and Hippolyta, fall to their knees in supplication, and they are joined by Pirithous. ‘These are strange conjurings,’ observes the disconcerted Theseus, but he is persuaded – as is the way with Shakespeare’s over-strict law-enforcing Dukes – to seek a better solution. Asked how she would solve this problem, Emilia, the object of the noble kinsmen’s adoration, modestly suggests that they should both be banished and have nothing further to do with her, a suggestion that enrages both smitten men (‘forget I love her?/O all ye gods, despise me then’ [3.6.257-258]) and makes the rest of the company admire them. (‘These are men!’ exclaims Pirithous [3.6.264] Coming shortly after his ‘What more than man is this!’ this delirious approbation may suggest to a director a moment risibly over-the-top.)

In any case, Theseus, forced to rethink his harsh edict and avoid Emilia’s kindly meant but harsher one (as in Romeo and Juliet, the lover’s choices would have been death or banishment), ordains a new contest, under his own aegis, to replace the outlaw duel between the rival friends. In three months’ time they are to reappear before him, each accompanied by three knights, and participate in a challenge, a kind of jousting contest. Whichever of the men can force the other ‘[b]y fair and knightly strength’ to touch a pyramid installed by Theseus will win Emilia; the other will lose his head, as will his knightly friends.”

Our next reading: The Two Noble Kinsmen, Act Four
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning.

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“I saw her first.”

The Two Noble Kinsmen
Act Two
By Dennis Abrams

the two noble kinsmen photo act 2 2Act Two: In jail in Athens, Palamon and Arcite are busy consoling themselves with the closeness of their friendship when Palamon suddenly sees the beautiful Emilia (Hippolyta’s sister) gathering flowers outside. Both men fall instantly in love with her, but Palamon claims that since he saw her first, he gets precedence, and the two begin to argue. Their quarrel stops only when Arcite is suddenly released. Though banished from Athens, Arcite takes the opportunity to appear in disguise at Theseus’s games, where he impresses everyone with his wrestling skills (not to mention his noble bearing). His reward, fittingly, is to be bestowed on Emilia as a servant. Meanwhile, the Jailer’s Daughter has arranged Palamon’s escape in the vain hope of winning his love.

But even though the play is properly Chaucerian, it is also convincingly a Shakespearean one as well. As well as taking its cue from Chaucer, the story of cousins Palamon and Arcite gestures back to early comedies such as The Two Gentleman of Verona and Love’s Labour’s Lost, in which close (even intimate) male friendships occupy a central position in the drama. In Kinsmen, nowhere is this clearer than after the battle between Theseus and Creon that occurs in the middle of Act One. Despite the fact that the kinsmen have been captured by Theseus following the Theban defeat and thrown into prison, their Athenian jailer and his daughter are amazed by the prisoners’ jovial spirits. “They eat well, look merrily, discourse of many things, but nothing of their own restraint and disasters,’ the Jailer’s Daughter wonderingly observes (2.1.38-40), and it soon becomes clear that what sustains the two men, “dearer in love than blood,” is their own friendship (1.2.1). Arcite describes it extravagantly. “Even from the bottom of these miseries,/From all that fortune can inflict upon us,” he declares,

I see two comforts rising – two mere blessings,
If the gods please, to hold here a brave patience,
And the enjoying of our griefs together.
Whilst Palamon is with me, let me perish
If I think this is our prison.

Their intimacy is such that it overcomes physical hardship, and Palamon echoes not only his friend’s thoughts but his high-flown way of expressing it. “Let’s think this prison holy sanctuary,” he agrees,

To keep us from corruption of worse men.
We are young, and yet desire the ways of honour,
That liberty and common conversation,
The poison of pure spirits, might, like women,
Woo us to wander from. What worthy blessing
Can be but our imaginations
May make it ours? And here bring thus together,
We are in an endless mine to one another:
We are one another’s wife, ever begetting
New births of love; we are father, friends, acquaintance;
We are in one another, families…

This doctrine of mutual self-sufficiency is incredible in every sense of the word. Rewriting their imprisonment as something they have chosen voluntarily, like life in a monastery, Palamon suggests that they provide the substance of each other’s lifes – friends, family, even spouse. Though it’s undeniably more grandiose (or overblown), this pact does seem to each the “deep oaths” signed at the start of Love’s Labour’s Lost by the King of Navarre and his three lords, and like those ivory-tower fantasies it will prove, not surprisingly, totally unsustainable. Palamon and Arcite, though they persuade themselves otherwise, are only this close because circumstance has brought them together, and now circumstance will tear them apart.

The transformation comes more immediately than anyone – even perhaps the audience – expects. Just a few minutes later Palamon and Arcite are joined onstage by Emilia, Queen Hippolyta’s sister, who appears outside the prison picking flowers. “She is wondrous fair,” says Arcite, and Palamon echoes him, sighing, “She is all the beauty extant.” (2.2.148). So closely attuned to each other that they boast of being each other’s “wife,” the cousins, with the most ironic inevitability, fall for exactly the same woman. But it isn’t long (naturally) before the pair find themselves exchanging terms of high sentiment and refinement for something less noble: “What do you think of this beauty?” Palamon asks, suddenly suspicious.

‘Tis a rare one
Is’t but a rare one?
Yes, a matchless beauty.
Might not a man well lose himself and love her?
I cannot tell what you have done; I have,
Beshrew mine eyes for’t! Now I feel my shackles.
You love her, then?
Who would not?
And desire her?
Before my liberty.
I saw her first.

Palamon’s childish interject here is genuinely funny, but it also indicates just how easy it has been for these two young men to renounce the vows they swore so passionately just a few minutes earlier.

Palamon and Arcite are not alone in feeling the violent tremors created by love. When Arcite is suddenly banished from Greece, Palamon is left alone in prison – an arrangement that suits the Jailer’s Daughter, who is earnestly trying to catch the stranger’s eye. Acknowledging the social gulf between them, she admits that “to marry him is hopeless,/To be his whore is witless’ (2.4.4-5) but can see no other way out. Then an idea strikes. “Say I ventured/To set him free?” she wonders,

What says the law then? Thus much
For law or kindred? I will do it,
And this night or tomorrow he shall love me.

The play does not make things that easy, however, her lover remains indifferent and aloof, seeming not to realize even when she helps him escape that her motivation is the hope of marrying him.


To continue with Bloom:

the two noble kinsmen photo act 2 1“Shakespeare, more grimly than ever before, declines to glorify war, and gives us a truly shocking speech by the Amazon Hippolyta, as she and her sister Emilia bid farewell to Pirithous, cousin and closest friend of Theseus, as he goes off to join the Duke in battle:

We have been soldiers, and we cannot weep
When our friends down their helms, or put to sea,
Or tell of babes broached on the lance, or women
That have sod their infants in – and after ate them –
The brine they wept at killing ‘em.

If once cannot weep at mother’s boiling, in their own salt tears, their own infants for dinner, one can perhaps laugh, in psychological self-defense. Since this grotesque vision is cause for neither woe nor wonder on Hippolyta’s part, we can surmise that Shakespeare again achieves an alienation effect, in the mode of his own Titus Andronicus of two decades before. But that play was an outrageous send-up of Marlowe and Kyd. What is this sentiment doing in The Two Noble Kinsmen? Neither Hippolyta herself nor Emilia seems to take this hideous image as other than merely factual, which is another mark of Shakespearean distancing in this uncanny play. It would be at least as difficult to gauge Hippolyta’s lack of jealousy when she considers the depth of the Pirithous-Theseus relationship:

They two have cabined
In many as dangerous as poor a corner,
Peril and want contending; they have skiffed
Torrents whose roaring tyranny and power
I’th’ least of these was dreadful; and they have
Fought out together where death’s self was lodged;
Yet fate hath brought them off. Their knot of love,
Tied, weaved, entangled, with so true, so long,
And with a finger of so deep a cunning,
May be outworn, never undone. I think
Theseus cannot be umpire to himself,
Cleaving his conscience into twain and doing
Each side like justice, which he loves best.

To say that your marriage may outwear but never outdo your husband’s relation to his closest male companion is again to manifest an uncanny dispassionateness, particularly since Hippolyta evidently does not care which one Theseus loves best. Emilia’s reply is both polite and even more dispassionate: ‘Doubtless/There is a best, and reason has no manners/To say it is not you.’ Unless Shakespeare means to parody his major excursions into jealousy, including Othello and The Winter’s Tale, he is giving us an entrance into an Amazonian consciousness very different from anything he has portrayed in his women. All this is prelude to the most moving account that Shakespeare ever rendered of love between young girls. Rosalind and Celia, as their respective lusts for Orlando and Liver evidence, were early inseparables of a very different order than were the older Emilia and the departed Flavina, lost when each lady was just eleven:

You talk of Prithous’ and Theseus’ love:
Theirs has more ground, is more maturely seasoned,
More buckled with strong judgement, and their needs
The one of th’other may be said to water
Their intertangled roots of love;But I
And she I sigh and spoke of were things innocent,
Loved for we did, and like the elements,
That know not what, nor why, yet do effect
Rare issues by their operance, our souls
Did so to one another. What she liked
Was then of me approved; what not, condemned –
No more arraignment. The flower that I would pluck
And put between my breasts – O then but beginning
To swell about the blossom – she would long
‘Till she had an other, and commit it
To the like innocent cradle, where, phoenix-like,
They died in perfume. On my head no toy
But was her pattern. Her affections – pretty,
Though happily her careless wear – I followed
For my most serious decking. Had mine ear
Stol’n some new air, or at adventure hummed one,
From musical coinage, why, it was a note
Whereon her spirits would sojourn – rather, dwell on –
And sing it in her slumbers. This rehearsal –
Which every innocent wots well comes in
Like old emportment’s bastard – has this end,
That the true love ‘tween maid and maid may be
More than in sex dividual.

We see why Emilia, more even than Chaucer’s Emily, will be so despairingly passive as to whether she will be awarded to Arcite or to Palamon. The length, weightedness, and complexity of this declaration is unique in Shakespeare, and deserves to be better known as the locus classicus in the defense of such love in the language. Emilia’s speech is much Shakespeare’s most passionate in the play, as Hippolyta dryly observes. Hippolyta’s courtly irony cannot lessen the poignance of Emilia’s paean to the dead Flavina, or more precisely to the perfect love of the two pre-adolescent girls, each finding her entire identity in the other. The contrast between this union of serenities and the murderous violence of the Palamon-Arcite strife for Emilia could not be more persuasive. With a mordant wit, Shakespeare concludes the scene with a sisterly debate as gravely courteous as it is disquieting:

You’re out of breath,
And this high-speeded pace is but to say
That you shall never – like the maid Flavina –
Love any that’s called man.
I am sure I shall not.
Now alack, weak sister,
I must no more believe thee in this point –
Though in’t I know thou doest believe thyself –
Than I will trust a sickly appetite
That loathes even as it longs. But sure, my sister,
If I were ripe for your persuasion, you
Have said enough to shake me from the arm
Of the all-noble Theseus, for whose fortunes
I will now in and kneel, with great assurance
That we more than his Pirithous possess,
The high throne in his heart.
I am not
Against your faith, yet I continue mine.

The key phrasing is ‘a sickly appetite/That loathes even as it longs,’ a superb expression of acute ambivalence. It is difficult not to conclude that the ambivalence is very much that of the forty-nine-year-old Shakespeare, who seems to intimate his own newfound freedom – if not from desire, then from its tyranny – and seems also to manifest a nostalgia for other modes of love. Shakespeare’s sexual complexity, which may have chastised itself in the elegy for Will Peter, breaks bounds in The Two Noble Kinsmen, if only in some ironic grace notes, since he avoids celebrating anything like the Emilia-Flavina ecstasy of oneness in his accounts of the Pirithous-Theseus and Palamon-Arcite relationships.

The victorious Theseus, having captured the wounded Palamon and Arcite vows to heal them and then to hold them prisoner,, for reasons that Shakespeare keeps implicit but that have about them a touch of sadistic and homoerotic possessiveness, a pride at having in one’s power two such superb defeated warriors. Shakespeare’s first act comes full circle, with the reappearance of the three Queens, now burying the remnants of their husbands, and keening a memorably enigmatic couplet:

This world’s a city full of straying streets,
And death’s the market-place, where each one meets.

This may be Shakespeare’s most direct response to The Knight’s Tale’s warning that we are always keeping appointments we have never made. We then go off to prison with Palamon and Arcite, but since this is part of John Fletcher’s share in the play, we can evade it, except for noting that the cousins fall in love with Emilia at first sight, thus destroying their own friendship forever, as in Chaucer.”


And from Garber:

the two noble kinsmen photo act 2 3“Part of the importance of [the scene between Emilia and Hippolyta] is the way it skillfully sets up a similar conversation between the imprisoned Palamon and Arcite in act 2, in which the noble kinsmen articulate the pattern of their friendship and the implications of their captivity. Palamon starts with the twin theme: ‘O never/Shall we two exercise, like twins of honour,/Our arms again.’ (2.2.17-19). Arcite sees the end of their hopes for a future, and for progeny:

Here we are,
And here the graces of our youths must wither,
Like a too-timely spring. Here age must find us
And, which is heaviest, Palamon, unmarried –
The sweet embraces of a loving wife
Loaden with kisses, armed with thousand Cupids,
Shall never clasp our necks; no issue know us;
No figures of ourselves shall we e’er see
To glad our age…
This is all our world,
We shall know nothing here but one another,
Hear nothing but the clock that tells our woes.

Still, there is some comfort in the fact that they are together. ‘Whilst Palamon is with me, let me perish/If I think this our prison,’ Arcite says, and Palamon replied in the same spirit: ‘’Tis a main goodness, cousin, that our fortunes/Were twined together’ (2.2.61-62, 63-64). This leads Arcite to a further set of speculations and escapist fantasies (in the same vein as John of Gaunt’s counsel to his exiled son Bolingbroke, to suppose ‘the singing birds musicians’ in Richard II):

Let’s think this prison holy sanctuary,
To keep us from corruption of worse men.
We are young, and yet desire the ways of honour
That liberty and common conversation,
The poison of pure spirits, might, like women,
Woo us to wander from. What worthy blessing
Can be, but our imaginations
May make it ours? And here being thus together,
We are an endless mine to one another:
We are one another’s wife, ever begetting
New births of love; we are father, friends, acquaintance;
We are in one another, families –
I am your heir, and you are mine…
Were we at liberty
A wife might part us lawfully, or business;
Quarrels consumes us; envy of ill men
Crave our acquaintance. I might sicken, cousin,
Where you should never know it, and so perish
Without your noble hand to close mine eyes,
Or prayers to the gods…

Palamon is overwhelmed with this vision: ‘You have made me –/I think you, cousin Arcite – almost wanton/With my captivity’ (2.2.96-97). The conversation ends on a note of certainty:

Is there record of any two that loved
Better than we do, Arcite?
Sure there cannot.
I do not think it possible our friendship
Should ever leave us.
Till our deaths it cannot.

Like Emilia’s ‘never,’ Palamon’s ‘not…ever’ invites a dramatic reversal, and that is exactly, and immediately, what it gets. Having rhetorically claimed that their captivity protects them from women who might seduce them away from the path of honor, that ‘[W]e are one another’s wife,’ and that ‘[a] wife might part us,’ Palamon and Arcite are about to become rivals for the love of a woman they behold from afar, as Emilia and her waiting-woman enter the garden below their prison window to admire the flowers that grow there, especially the one called ‘narcissus.’ (By this time Emilia has changed her views at least enough to critique the ‘fair boy’ who was ‘a fool/To love himself,’ for [W]ere there not maids enough? [2.2.120-121]).

‘Never till now was I in prison, Arcite,’ says Palamon (2.2.132), and shortly – having nothing better to do – these two noble kinsmen have both fallen in love:

Might not a man well lose himself and love her?
I cannot tell what you have done; I have,
Beshrew mine eyes for’t. Now I feel my shackles.
You love her then?
Who would not?
And desire her?
Before my liberty.
I saw her first.
That’s nothing.
But it shall be.
I saw her too.
Yes, but you must not love her.

And so on and on, putting their friendship, and their kinship in jeopardy. ‘Why then would you deal so cunningly,/So strangely, so unlike a noble kinsman,/To love alone? asks Arcite. ‘Speak truly. Do you think me/Unworthy of her sight? (2.2.193-195). Like another eponymous duo, the two gentlemen of Verona in Shakespeare’s play of that name, likewise sundered by their love for Silvia, Palamon and Arcite split apart over their ‘love’ for Emilia, to whom neither has ever spoken. When, shortly, Theseus sends for Arcite, gives him his liberty, but banishes him from Athens, Arcite’s first thought is that Palamon is far more fortunate, since he can look at Emilia every day from his prison window. ‘I will not leave the kingdom,’ Arcite resolves. ‘If I go he has her’ (2.3.19, 21). Learning from some rustic countrymen that ‘games’ are going forward and that Duke Theseus himself will be present, Arcite determines to put on a ‘poor disguise’ and enter the competition, hoping, he says, that ‘happiness prefer me to a place/Where I may ever dwell in sight of her’ (2.3.84-85). At the country sports, Arcite – like Pericles disguised in his play as ‘the mean knight’ – distinguishes himself as the fastest runner and best wrestler, identifies himself as a ‘youngest’ son (in the time honored spirit of fairy tales), and is presented to Emilia – whose birthday has, it turns out, inspired these celebrations, as her courtly servant. Theseus admires both the man and his prowess, and urges Emilia to supply Arcite with horses and to look upon him with favor, perhaps as a ‘master,’ or husband.”

Our next reading: The Two Noble Kinsmen, Act Three
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning.

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“Than I will trust a sickly appetite/That loathes even as it longs.”

The Two Noble Kinsmen
Act One
By Dennis Abrams


Prologue and Epilogue
Palamon and Arcite, cousins (the two “noble kinsmen”), both nephews of King Creon.
Theseus, Duke of Athens
Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, later Theseus’s wife
Emilia, Hippolyta’s sister
A Woman, Emilia’s attendant
Pirthous, Theseus’s close friend
Artesius, an Athenian soldier
Three Queens, widows to kings killed at the siege of Thebes
Hymen, god of marriage.
Valerius, a Theban
Six Knights, attending Arcite and Palamon
A Jailer of Theseus’s prison
The Jailer’s Daughter and her Wooer
A Doctor
Six Countrymen led by the schoolmaster Gerald

the two noble kinsmen photo act oneAct One: In Athens, preparations for the marriage of King Theseus and Hippolyta are disrupted by the sudden appearance of three queens, whose husbands have died fighting the evil King Creon of Thebes. Denied the right to bury their husbands – whose bodies still lie on the battlefield – the women demand that Theseus take up their cause and attack Thebes. At that moment, Palamon and Arcite (Creon’s nephews) are debating whether to escape the corruption of Thebes when a messenger arrives with news that Theseus is threatening the city. Despite their disgust with their uncle, the two kinsmen decide to remain and fight. Theseus triumphs, however, and the wounded Palamon and Arcite are captured and imprisoned.

As I mentioned in my introduction, it’s been suggested that The Two Noble Kinsmen is a kind of Midsummer Night’s Dream part two: both plays draw heavily on Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale,” the graceful and courtly story told by the worthy, wise and “parfit gentil” Knight to the assembled gaggle of pilgrims as the first of The Canterbury Tales. But where the Dream merely takes up the Athenian setting of Chaucer’s narrative and the wedding between the duke Theseus and his bride Hippolyta, discarding the rest, Kinsmen is a full dramatization of the tale itself, that of two cousins, “yonge knyghtes” captured by Theseus as prisoners of war, who tragically fall for the same woman. That Shakespeare returned once more to a medieval author who had served him well before (most obviously in Troilus and Cressida as well as the Dream) attests not only to Chaucer’s continued popularity – an expanded edition of his works appeared a decade or so before Kinsmen reached the stage – but also to a Jacobean taste for medieval romance. The small, indoor Blackfriars became the King’s Men’s winter house from around 1609, and the refined audiences who attended that theatre a few years later would surely have been flattered to hear that “Chaucer, of all admired” was providing the night’s entertainment, as the Prologue announces. “If we let fall the nobleness of this,” he goes on,

And the first sound this child hear be a hiss,
How it will shake the bones of that good man,
And make him cry from under ground, ‘O fan
From me the witless chaff of such a writer,
That blasts my bays and my famed works makes lighter
Than Robin Hood?’ This is the fear we bring,
For to say truth, it were an endless thing
And too ambitious to aspire to him,
Weak as we are, and almost breathless swim
In this deep water.
(Prologue 13-25)

Begging its audience not to ‘hiss’ – if only to preserve Chaucer’s ‘sweet sleep’ and keep him from spinning in his grave – the ‘child’ play attempts a similar trick to the earlier Pericles, apologizing for, yet also showing off, its prestigious paternity. The authors keep their promise, too: while in previous scripts based on Chaucer Shakespeare reworks his material intensively (Troilus and Cressida is the most obvious example), in Kinsmen he and Fletcher are more restrained. This is to be a properly Chaucerian play.

From Garber:

the two noble kinsmen photo act one 2The Two Noble Kinsmen begins with a Prologue and ends with an Epilogue, thus bracketing its ceremonial, romantic, and tragic events from a faraway past with gestures towards the present-day audience. The Prologue is jaunty, bawdy, with gestures toward the present-day audience. The Prologue is jaunty, bawdy, and colloquial – a nice, and deliberate, contrast with the more formal, even hieratic scene that is to follow. The ‘breeder’ to which the Prologue alludes is the author of the play’s source:

New plays and maidenheads are near akin:
Much followed both, for both much money giv’n
If they stand sound and well. And a good play,
Whose modest scenes blush on his marriage day
And shake to lose his honour, is like her
That after holy tie and first night’s stir
Yet still is modesty, and still remains
More of the maid to sight than husband’s pains.
We pray our play may be so, for I am sure
It has a noble breeder and a pure,
A learned, and a poet never went
More famous yet ‘twist Po and silver Trent.
Chaucer, of all admired, the story gives:
There constant to eternity it lives.
If we let fall the nobleness of this
And the first sound this child hear be a hiss,
How will it shake the bones of that good man…?
(Prologue 1-17)

Instead of the ‘hiss’ of a dissatisfied audience, the Prologue sues for applause (in a figure recognizable from Prospero’s Epilogue in The Tempest): ‘Do but you hold you/Your helping hands and we shall back about/And something do to save us’ (Prologue 25-27). The play, he assures the audience, ‘is ‘[w]orth two hours’ travel,’ whyere ‘travel’ is the same as ‘travail’ (effort or labor). The phrase recalls the ‘two hours’ traffic of our stage’ from the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet. The result, at least for a modern audience, is to suture this play to the framing techniques of other, more familiar ‘Shakespeare’ plays, and also to replace the narrator figure of Gower (in Shakespeare’s earlier medieval romance, Pericles) with a free-standing actor, the Prologue, who will then disappear into the action.

The Epilogue, spoken by a different actor and coming almost immediately after the onstage death of Arcite, one of the play’s attractive eponymous ‘kinsmen,’ will be even more colloquial and flirtatious (Lois Potter in the Arden edition writes that ‘the most likely speaker is a boy actor dressed as a woman’), more closely resembling Rosalind than Prospero:

I would now ask ye how ye like the play,
But, as it is with schoolboys, cannot say.
I am cruel fearful. Pray yet stay awhile,
And let me look upon ye. No man smile?
Then it goes hard, I see. He that has
Loved a young handsome wench, then, show his face –
‘Tis strange if none be here – and if he will,
Against his conscience let him hiss and kill
Our market…
If the tale we have told –
For ‘tis no other – any way content ye,
For to that honest purpose it was meant ye,
We have our end…
(Epilogue 1-15)

Prologues and epilogues of this kind are, of course, present in numerous early modern stage plays, and the evocation of the modes of address of Prospero, Rosalind, and the Romeo and Juliet Prologue here is meant to be indicative rather than exhaustive.

The play contained between these two audience-engaging parentheses begins with a broken ceremony. The stage direction to act 1, scene 1, like those in Henry VIII is highly detailed, and both descriptive and prescriptive:

Music. Enter Hymen with a torch burning, a BOY in a white robe before, singing and strewing flowers After Hyman, a nymph encompassed in her tresses, bearing a wheaten garland. Then THESEUS between two other nymphs with wheaten chaplets on their heads. Then HIPPOLYTA, the bride, led by [PIRITHOUS] and another holding a garland over her head, her tresses likewise hanging. After her, EMILIA holding up her train.

The occasion is the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta. Emilia (Chaucer’s ‘Emily,’ a character deriving from his source, a tale by Boccaccio) is Hippolyta’s sister, and Pirithous a friend of Theseus. Hymen – also present in the wedding finale of As You Like It – is the classical god of marriage. But before the ceremony can take place, it is interrupted by the arrival of three queens, dressed in black, seeking Theseus’s assistance in the war against ‘cruel Creon’ of Thebes, who has slain their husbands and refuses to yield up the bodies for burial. Theseus at first declines to interrupt his marriage ceremony, and its erotic aftermath, for this mission of mercy, but he is importuned by Hippolyta and Emilia, and by the eloquent widowed queens. ‘O when/Her twinning cherries shall their sweetness fall/Upon thy tasteful lips, what wilt thou think/Of rotten kings or blubbered queens?’ (1.1.176-179), one of the queens demands of him with pathos and pertinence. Hippolyta lends the force of her own persuasion, sounding, as she does so, rather like Portia sending Bassanio off to rescue Antonio before he comes to her wedding bed – or like Othello postponing his own wedded pleasure in order to quell the Turks in Cyprus. Here is Hippolyta:

Though much unlike
You should be so transported, as much sorry
I should be such a suitor – yet I think
Did I not by th’abstaining of my joy,
Which breeds a deeper longing, cure their surfeit
That craves a present medicine, I should pluck
All ladies’ scandal on me [Kneels] Therefore sir,
As I shall here make trial of my prayers,
Either presuming them to have some force,
Or sentencing for aye their vigour dumb,
Prorogue this business we are going about, and hang
Your shield afore your heart – about that neck
Which is my fee, and which I freely lend
To do these poor queens service.

Theseus charges Pirithous to ‘[k]eep the feast full,’ to go on with the festivities, and prepares to assist the queens: ‘As we are men,/thus should we do; being sensually subdued/We lose our human title’ (1.1.230-232). This, too, echoes the Othello theme of the subjugation of private sensuality to public service.

The scene then shifts to Thebes, and the two ‘kindsmen,’ Palamon and Arcite, cousins and best friends, are introduced. They lament the ‘decays’ of Thebes and the fallenness of the city, ‘where very evil/Hath a good colour; where every seeming good’s/A certain evil’ (1.2.38-40), Affectations of style, speech, and dress have overtaken the court of Creon, and the two young men are determined to ‘leave his court that we may nothing share/Of his loud infamy’ (1.2.75-76). No sooner have they made this declaration, however, than the situation changes. The announcement of Theseus’s approach turns the two men into patriots, who will fight for their city’s honor rather than for its dishonorable tyrant: ‘Our services now stand for Thebes, not Creon’ (1.2.99). Palamon and Arcite go to battle to defend Thebes against Athens, are injured, and are treated kindly by Theseus, who orders that they be tended back to health, and imprisoned. Described by a herald as ‘[m]en of great quality…/sisters’ children, nephews to the King’ (1.4.15-17), ,they are taken to an Athenian jail and cared for by a jailer and his daughter. ‘[T]he prison itself is proud of ‘em, and they have all the world in their chamger,’ rhapsodizes the Daughter, echoing a common theme of Renaissance lyric from Raleigh to Donne to Lovelace. ‘It is a holiday to look on them. Lord, the difference of men!’ (2.1.22-24, 50-51). The stage is set for a move from pageantry to love comedy, and then, via the Daughter’s unrequited love for Palamon, to madness.

In Athens, meanwhile, those left behind discuss male and female friendship, and articulate strong models of same-sex allegiance, akin to those articulated in other Shakespeare plays (Antonio and Bassanio; Hermia and Helena; Leontes and Polixenes; and so on). In our discussion of The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Winter’s Tale, we touched upon the Renaissance ideal of friendship and its Platonic and erotic associations. In The Two Noble Kinsmen, as in most – though not all – Shakespearean instances, these discussions locate the ideal model of friendship in the past, as something to be accommodated to the changed circumstances of marriage (in the case of Theseus and Pirithous) or as something lost and perhaps irreplaceable (in the case of Emilia and her friend Flavina, who died when she was eleven years old). It is worth examining the ways in which these two paradigmatic friendships are described, early in the play, since these models will have a bearing on the relationship between Palamon and Arcite, and the manner in which that ‘ideal friendship’ will be breached, first by competitive love for the same woman, Emilia (a version of Rene Girard’s concept of ‘mimetic desire’), and then by death. Shakespeare’s plays use the pattern of mimetic desire over and over, as we have seen in the early comedies. In The Two Noble Kinsmen this triangular desire underwrites much of the action, coloring eroticism with rivalry – and rivalry with eroticism.

‘How his longing/Follows his friend!’ exclaims Emilia about Pirithous, whose mind seems divided between thinking of the absent Theseus and fulfilling his injunction to keep the festivities alight (1.3.26-27). Hippolyta is happy to agree: ‘Their knot of love,/Tied, weaved, entangled with so true, so long,/And with a finger of so deep a cunning,/May be outworn, never outdone’ (41-44) This reflection reminds Emilia of her own loss, which she describes in one of those passages of exposition that are plainly for the audience’s enlightenment. Hippolyta, though she listens with every evidence of close attention, makes it clear that she has heard this tale before:

I was acquainted
Once with a time when I enjoyed a playfellow;
You were at wars when she the grave enriched,
Who made too proud the bed; took leave o’th’ moon –
Which then looked pale at parting – when our count
Was each eleven.

Twas Flavina.

You talk of Prithous’ and Theseus’ love:
Theirs has more ground, is more maturely seasoned,
More buckled with strong judgement, and their needs
The one of th’other may be said to water
Their intertangled roots of love; but I
And she I sigh and spoke of were things innocent,
Loved for we did, and like the elements,
That know not what, nor why, yet do effect
Rare issues by their operance, our souls
Did so to one another. What she liked
Was then of me approved; what not, condemned –
No more arraignment. The flower that I would pluck
And put between my breasts – O then but beginning
To swell about the blossom – she would long
‘Till she had an other, and commit it
To the like innocent cradle, where, phoenix-like,
They died in perfume. On my head no toy
But was her pattern. Her affections – pretty,
Though happily her careless wear – I followed
For my most serious decking. Had mine ear
Stol’n some new air, or at adventure hummed one,
From musical coinage, why, it was a note
Whereon her spirits would sojourn – rather, dwell on –
And sing it in her slumbers…

In short, Emilia speculates, ‘true love ‘tween maid and made may be/More than in sex dividual’ (1.3.81-2). Hippolyta intercedes to interpret, translating Emilia’s thoughts: ‘[T]his high-speeded pace is but to say/that you shall never, like the maid Flavina,/Love any that’s called man’ (1.3.83-85). To which Emilia replies promptly and roundly, ‘I am sure I shall not’ (86).

We might pause here to note the oddity of this conversation, in which Hippolyta, the Amazon Queen, maintains the view of heterosexual love and marriage, while her sister insists upon her ‘faith’ in the fact that she will never love a man as she loved the dead Flavina. Hippolyta’s peroration, in which she gently advises her sister that she will change her mind one day, may seem contrary in spirit to the idea of a Shakespeare imagined as limning powerful patterns of same-sex love – and, indeed, from that of a Fletcher memorably described as sharing a bed and a wench with his best friend and frequent collaborator Francis Beaumont – but it is nevertheless quite in line with the usual plots and practices of Shakespeare’s plays. Hermia and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Celia and Rosalind in As You Like It, are first twinned, then divided. Each chooses a husband, although that choice does not invalidate either the passion, or the eloquence, or their romantic friendship. In Twelfth Night Olivia’s love for the cross-dressed Viola – whom she knows as the boy ‘Cesario’ – is transmuted, by the machinations of the plot, into a marriage with Viola’s twin, Sebastian, and the embrace of Viola herself as a ‘sister.’ The Two Noble Kinsmen revisits this classic Shakespearean scenario in which passionate childhood loves between persons of the same sex, while they may be rhetorically reconfirmed at the play’s end, are also formally augmented or superseded by heterosexual marriage.

Now alack, weak sister,
I must no more believe thee in this point –
Though in’t I know thou doest believe thyself –
Than I will trust a sickly appetite
That loathes even as it longs. But sure, my sister,
If I were ripe for your persuasion, you
Have said enough to shake me from the arm
Of the all-noble Theseus, for whose fortunes
I will now in and kneel, with great assurance
That we more than his Pirithous possess,
The high throne in his heart.

Hippolyta’s ‘we’ is the personal plural, what is sometimes called the ‘royal we.’ She is confident that she, and not his childhood friend Pirithous, is Theseus’s chosen partner.

Perhaps it is enough that Shakespeare does allow the alternative view to stand, at least for the moment – ‘I am not/Against your faith, yet I continue mine,’ says Emilia – and the form that these philosophical conversations always takes is dialogic, so that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer to such a debate. But ‘never’ in such conversations serves almost always, especially in the comedies, as a kind of dare, waiting to be proved wrong. (‘That you shall never, like the maid Flavina,/Love any that’s called man’).

The ‘dead twin’ theme is a familiar one in the plays (compare Juliet and the dead Susan in Romeo and Juliet – ‘Susan is with God’ [Romeo and Juliet 1.3.21]; Viola Cesario and her imaginary sister who pined away ‘like patience on a monument’ in Twelfth Night; and the dead sister of the merry Catherine in Love’s Labour’s Lost). Empirical social history tells us that child mortality in this period was high, but we do not need recourse to the ‘real’ to see that dramatically and poetically the dead twin emblematizes a road not taken. Flavina dies at eleven, the partner and soul mate of her loving and beloved Emilia. But Emilia lives, and her life changes. Her definitive ‘I am sure I shall not’ dangles as a tantalizing piece of plot bait, waiting for its reversal – and this would be true no matter what she averred to be unalterably true. The reversal, in other words, is theatrical, not merely narrative and psychological.”


And from Harold Bloom:

the two noble kinsmen photo act one 3“Chaucer’s heroes, Palamon and Arcite, are sworn brothers and chivalric idealists, until they gaze upon the superb Emily, the sister of Hippolyta, now married to Theseus of Athens. From that fatal falling-in-love onward, they are sworn rivals, determined to cut each other down, so that the survivor can possess Emily. Theseus sets up a grand tournament to settle the matter, but Arcite’s victory proves ironic, since he falls off his horse during a victory canter and is mortally injured. Palamon therefore gets the girl, and Theseus delivers an oration that insists all this was divinely ordained.

But Theseus does not speak for the narrating Knight, nor does the Knight speak for the poet Chaucer, though the differences between the three are subtle. For the Knight, love is an accident, and all life is accidental, including the ruin of the friendship of Palamon and Arcite. Talbot Donaldson interprets Chaucer as implying that pure chance governs everything, including love and death, which does not leave much of Theseus’s theodicy but bears out the Knight’s stoic acceptance of keeping appointments one has never made. Since Palamon and Arcite are virtually indistinguishable, while pure Emily is passive, the reader might not much care if it were not for Chaucer’s own subtle negations. Palamon, Arcite, and Emily pray respectively in the temples of Venus, Mars, and Diana, all of which are chapels of pain, replete with representations of victims and victimization. The Knight describes these with bland cheerfulness, but we shudder, and Chaucer clearly intends that we are to be appalled.

Talbot Donaldson wryly notes that ‘whereas the horrors in Chaucer seem mostly charged to the gods above, Shakespeare puts them back where they started, in the hearts of people.’ For The Two Noble Kinsmen, that is an understatement: eros is the authentic horror, the never-ending and ultimate illness, universal and afflicting all ages of men and women, once they have left childhood for the sorrows of sexual life. In fact, Shakespeare’s part of The Two Noble Kinsmen might make us doubt that life is anything except sorrows. Act I opens with three mourning Queens throwing themselves down at the feet, respectively, of Theseus, Hippolyta, and Emilia. These women in black are the widows of three kings among the Seven Against Thebes, whose rotting corpses surround the walls of Creon’s city, for the tyrant refuses them burial. The Queen’s supplicating laments are ritualistic, essentially baroque in their elaborations:

We are three queens, whose sovereigns fell before
The wrath of cruel Creon; who endured
The beaks of ravens, talons of the kites,
And pecks of crows in the foul fields of Thebes.
He will not suffer us to burn their bones,
To urn their ashes, nor take th’ offence
Of mortal loathsomeness from the blest eye
Of holy Phoebus, but infects the winds
With stench of our slain lords. O, pity, Duke!
Thou purger of the erath, draw thy feared sword
That does good turns to th’ world; give us the bones
Of our dead kings, that we may chapel them,
And of thy boundless goodness take some note
That for our crowned heads we have no roof,
Save this which is the lion’s and the bear’s,
And vault to everything.

One could fit the matter of their plea into ten fewer lines, but the mannerism of their speech is more important. The luxuriance, not so much of grief, but of outrage, dominates. Outrageousness is the rhetorical tonality of Shakespeare’s final mode, where most voices carry the burden of being outraged: by injustice, by time, by eros, by death. Thomas de Quincy, the Romantic critic most attuned to rhetoric, found in Acts I and V of The Two Noble Kinsmen ‘the most superb work in the language,’ and commended Shakespeare’s more ‘elaborate style of excellence.’ What are the poetic motives of such extraordinary elaboration? Theodore Spencer, puzzling out these ‘slow rhythms’ and this ‘formal grace,’ suggested a choral effect, distanced from action:

‘There are, in the Shakespearean parts of The Two Noble Kinsmen, an unmistakable incantation, tone, and order: the incantation which accepts illusion, the tone which has forgotten tragedy, and an order melted at the edges into a larger unity of acceptance and wonder.’

Spencer, shoe lyrics closely imitated Yeats’s, seems to me to be describing late Yeats, not late Shakespeare. Illusion, acceptance, and wonder are neither the matter nor the manner of The Two Noble Kinsmen. The style of old age suits the Yeats of Last Poems and Plays or the Hardy of Winter Words, or the Stevens of The Rock, but not Shakespeare in this final play. If this greatest of poets is weary of passion, he is also estranged from the enormous panoply of styles he has previously created. Ellipsis becomes a favorite rhetorical figure, which is bewildering in so baroque a style; to elaborate while leaving out is a strange mode, yet it is perfectly appropriate for this play of destructive desire and obliterated friendship. Theseus reacts to the first queen’s litany by remembering the long-ago day of her wedding to the slain Capaneus:

you were that time fair;
Not Juno’s mantle fairer than your tresses,
Nor in more bounty spread her, your wheaten wreath
Was then nor threshed nor blasted; Fortune at you
Dimpled her cheek with smiles.

Himself about to be married, Theseus abruptly laments (rather unflatteringly to her face) the loss of the first Queen’s beauty:

O grief and time,
Fearful consumers, you will all devour!

It is that sense of loss, more than the entreaties of the Queens, and even of Hippolyta and Emilia, that makes Theseus decide to postpone his marriage, in order to march against Creon and Thebes. This first scene of heraldic intensity yields to an equally deliberate second, the introduction of Palamon and Arcite. Shakespeare wastes no art in rendering them at all distinct from each other; they seem, indeed, as inseparable cousins, to share the same high, somewhat priggish moral character, and to exhibit no personality whatsoever. Their interest for Shakespeare, and for us, is as a polemical thrust against the London of 1613, the city the playwright had abandoned for Stratford, and yet rather uneasily, since he kept a foot in the capital. In 1612, heretics and witches were still being executed, while in the next year Sir Thomas Overbury was poisoned in the Tower of London, at the behest of the Countess of Essex, whose marriage to James I’s catamite, Robert Carr, Overbury had protested. As always, the circumspect Shakespeare kept his comments both recondite and indefinite, though Creon’s Thebes rather clearly is the rancid London of James I:

This is virtue,
Of no respect in Thebes. I spake of Thebes,
How dangerous, if we will keep our honours,
It is for our residing, where every evil
Hath a good colour; where every seeming good’s
A certain evil; where not to be even jump
As they are, here were to be strangers, and
Such things to be, mere monsters.

To be ‘even jump,’ or ‘exactly,’ with the way things are in Thebes-London is to descend rapidly from the state of innocence that Palamon and Arcite continue to celebrate. Moral warriors, estranged nephews of Creon, they rejoice mutually in their ‘gloss of youth,’ and in being ‘yet unhardened in/The crimes of nature.’ Yet they are patriotic young men, and rally to Thebes when informed that Theseus marches against it; however noble his cause.”

More on this in my next post.



Our next reading: Act Two of The Two Noble Kinsmen
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.

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“His purposes here are very enigmatic, he abandons his career-long concern with character and personality and presents a darker, more remote or estranged vision of human life than ever before.”

The Two Noble Kinsmen
An Introduction
By Dennis Abrams

the two noble kinsmen photo intro 3After the political intrigue of Henry VIII, it would be difficult to imagine a play more different than the one which followed it onto the stage. The Two Noble Kinsmen concluded Shakespeare’s professional theatrical career, and although it was also co-written with John Fletcher, their collaboration seems to have been much less intimate than before. And despite being elegant and courtly – its source is Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale,” its dramatic language heavily influenced by the elaborate Jacobean masques of the time – the tone of Kinsmen is mixed, and often difficult to gauge. While the story of two men who fall in love with the same women stirs memories of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies, most obviously The Two Gentlemen of Verona, in this play resolution proves strikingly difficult to achieve. The “kinsmen,” Palamon and Arcite, claim to be closer to each other than anyone alive, but their conversion from extravagant devotion to bitter hatred undermines the chivalric ideals both claim to serve – and in the handful of professional performances the play has received, they have often been completely overshadowed by another character, the nameless Jailer’s Daughter, who falls hopelessly and tragically (of course) in love with Palamon. Dominated by loss and compromise – never more so than its gruesome, troubling conclusion – Kinsmen feels a world away not just from Henry VIII, but from the renunciations and reconciliations offered by Shakespeare’s ‘last plays,” especially The Tempest, often thought of as Shakespeare’s cordial farewell to his art.

Featuring Shakespeare’s last writing for the professional stage, The Two Noble Kinsmen was first performed in 1613-14, possibly at the indoor Blackfriars theatre.

Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” is the play’s key source, as for A Midsummer Night’s Dream – another influence. The masque in Act Three is “lifted” from Francis Beaumont’s Masque of the Inner Temple (1613).

One of several Shakespeare plays not to make it into the First Folio (1623), Kinsmen was printed in a 1634 quarto edition proclaiming that it was co-written with John Fletcher – a plausible excuse for its earlier exclusion. Though regularly published in editions of Fletcher, it was not generally believed to be Shakespeare’s work until the nineteenth century.

From Harold Bloom:

the two noble kinsmen photo intro 1“Ultimately the supremacy of Shakespeare consists in his unmatched power of thinking. Since this is poetic thinking, and usually dramatic in its nature, we tend to consider it as imaging rather than arguing. But here too Shakespeare-as-inventor encloses us. His is the largest form of representing thought, as well as action, that we have known. Can we truly distinguish his thinking from his representations of thinking? Is it Shakespeare or Hamlet who thinks not too much but much too well? Hamlet is his own Iago just as he is his own Falstaff, because Shakespeare has made Hamlet the freest of all his ‘free artists of themselves,’ to use Hegel’s phrase. Shakespeare’s eminence among all strong poet is that, compared even to Dante or Chaucer, he enjoys and manifests the greatest degree of freedom in fashioning his free artists of self. Nietzsche implied that the Dionysian Hamlet perished of the truth, presumably after abandoning art. The Hamlet of Act V is certainly not the poet-playwright-director of Acts II and III, and Shakespeare allows the dying prince to hint that he possesses a new kind of knowledge not yet available to us. Such knowledge would have come from a different thinking that began with Hamlet’s sea change, on the abortive voyage to England. Our only evidence for differences in Shakespeare’s own thinking ensues from intimations that his greatest plays induced sea changes in their own author. The experience of composing Hamlet and King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest left traces available to us in his final work, The Two Noble Kinsmen, of a new Shakespeare, who chose to abandon writing after touching, and transgressing, the limits of art, and perhaps also of thought.

As far as we can know, the Shakespearean portions of The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613) constitute the final writing of any sort by the author of Hamlet and King Lear. I have never seen a performance of The Two Noble Kinsmen, and don’t particular want to, since Shakespeare’s contributions to the play are scarcely dramatic. Critics of The Two Noble Kinsmen generally disagree, but I find Shakespeare’s style, in this final work, to be subtler and defter than ever, though very difficult to absorb. His purposes here are very enigmatic, he abandons his career-long concern with character and personality and presents a darker, more remote or estranged vision of human life than ever before. Pageant, ritual, ceremony, whatever one chooses to call it, Shakespeare’s share in The Two Noble Kinsmen is poetry astonishing even for him, but every difficult poetry, hardly suitable for the theater. It contrasts oddly with the rest of the play, written by John Fletcher, in perhaps the third collaboration between the two. Since we do not have their Cardenio, and since Fletcher may have written relatively little or even none of Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen is their only certain joint enterprise. Shakespeare’s colleagues, editing the First Folio, included Henry VIII but not the final play, thus conceding it to Fletcher (then their resident playwright, as Shakespeare’s successor). Scholars now mostly agree that Shakespeare wrote Act I, the first scene of Act III, and Act V (excluding the second scene). Three-fifths of the play is evidently Fletcher’s, and is both lively and rather silly. Shakespeare’s two-fifths is somber and profound, and perhaps gives us a better entrance into Shakespeare’s inner life, in his final phase, than is provided by Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest.

More lyrical than dramatic, The Two Noble Kinsmen’s Shakespearean portions manifest little action and minimal character portrayal. Instead we hear a voice, hardly, as in Henry VIII, in ‘the style of old age’ (Shakespeare being forty-nine) and yet more than a little weary of great passions, and of the sufferings of what Chesterton was to call ‘great spirits in chains.’ Prospero, Shakespeare’s anti-Faust, was his last great spirit. Theseus, who by the close of The Two Noble Kinsmen is almost Shakespeare’s surrogate, is in himself only a voice, one remarkably unlike that of the Theseus of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The earlier Theseus was Hippolyta’s inferior, this final Theseus is at least her equal. He is Shakespeare’s last poet, possibly reflecting what I suppose must be called the playwright’s staggered and uneasy retirement. Shakespeare seems to have gone home again, to Stratford, in late 1610 or early 1711, but then to have returned intermittently to London until sometime in 1713. After that, in the nearly three years before his death, he was in Stratford, writing nothing. The rest was silence, but why?

Only conjecture is available to us, and I suspect our best clues are in The Two Noble Kinsmen. Shakespeare’s abandonment of his art is virtually unique in the annals of Western literature, nor can I think of a major composer or painter who made a similar retreat. Tolstoy gave up his true work for a time, and wrote religious tracts instead, but returned magnificently at the end with his short novel Hadji Murad. There are poets who should have stopped and didn’t; Wordsworth after 1807 and Whitman after 1865 wrote very badly indeed. Moliere died at fifty just after writing, directing, and acting the lead part in The Imaginary Invalid. Shakespeare possibly gave up acting as early as 1604, in his later thirties, and presumably directed all his plays through Henry VIII, though he may have stopped earlier, perhaps in 1611, since by then he lived mostly in Stratford. We can only guess whether he supervised The Tempest in 1611, or whether he was on hand to see the Globe Theater burn down during a performance of Henry VIII on June 29, 1613. Biographers surmise some of Shakespeare’s familial and financial activities during the last three years of his life, but they cannot help us to speculate as to why he chose to end after a dramatist’s career of a quarter century. Russell Fraser, my favorite Shakespeare biographer, wryly repeats Theodore Spencer’s fantasy that a deputation of the King’s Men called upon their old friend and urged him to leave the writing to John Fletcher, who by 1613 had begun to be much more in the mode than the old-fashioned Shakespeare. Indeed, I can imagine the players reacting with great puzzlement and frustration to the speeches provided them by Shakespeare in The Two Noble Kinsmen. Yet they would have known that Fletcher was an inkblot in comparison to Shakespeare, whose enormous success had been their fortune also.

In his final effort, the endlessly fecund experimenter goes beyond romance or tragicomedy into a strange new mode, which he founds upon Chaucer, his truest precursor, and still his only authentic rival in the language. Shakespeare returns to The Knight’s Tale, which had helped inform A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and this time he engages it much more directly. Chesterton, who had a shrewd sense of the relationship between Chaucer and Shakespeare, remarked of The Knight’s Tale that

‘Chaucer does not himself to go prison with Palamon and Arcite, as Shakespeare does in some sense go to prison with Richard the Second. Nay, to some extent, and in some subtle fashion, Shakespeare seems to identify himself with Hamlet who finds Denmark a prison or the whole world a prison. We do not have this sense of things closing in upon the soul in Chaucer, with his simple tragedies; one might also say, his sunny tragedies. In his world misfortunes are misfortunes, like clouds in the sky, but there is a sky.’

But by The Two Noble Kinsmen, Shakespeare has no interest in going to prison (or anywhere else) with Palamon and Arcite, and the play (or Shakespeare’s part in it) is all clouds and no sky. Where Shakespeare based his own Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream more on Chaucer’s Knight than on Chaucer’s Theseus, the Theseus of The Two Noble Kinsmen is a harsh figure throughout, until at the close he seems to modulate into someone rather like Shakespeare himself. Chaucer’s Knight and Shakespeare’s earlier Theseus are chivalric skeptics; the final Theseus might be called a brutal nihilist, who nevertheless plays at maintaining the outer forms of chivalry. The ethos of Chaucer’s poem is condensed by one of the Knight’s couplets:

It is ful fair a man to bare him evene,
For alday meeteth men at unset stevene.

My old friend, the great Chaucerian Talbot Donaldson, superbly paraphrased this as:

It is a good thing for a man to bear himself with equanimity, for one
is constantly keeping appointments one never made.

That is not quite the stance of Theseus in the final lies of The Two Noble Kinsmen, as far as we know the last lines of serious poetry that Shakespeare ever wrote:

O you heavenly charmers,
What thing you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh, for what we have are sorry; still
Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful
For that which is, and with you leave dispute
That are above our question. Let’s go off,
And bear us like the same.

I will return to this passage when I conclude this chapter, but for now note that to ‘bear us like the time’ alludes to ‘bare him evene,’ while swerving away from the Chaucerian equanimity. Chaucer, a genial satirist, is also a very good-humored ironist; the ironies of The Two Noble Kinsmen, as we will see, are savage. One might have thought that Shakespeare had reached the limits of bitterness in Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure, but he extends those limits in his final play. Mars and Venus govern The Two Noble Kinsmen, and it would be difficult to decide which deity is more reprehensible, or whether indeed it is pragmatically responsible to distinguish between the two. ‘Make love, not war!,’ a popular chant of the sixties becomes sublimely insane in The Two Noble Kinsmen, since Shakespeare at forty-nine scatters organized violence and eros into a confusion not to be resolved.

In temperament and visions of reality, Shakespeare’s work from about 1588 through Twelfth Night in 1601 was profoundly Chaucerian. The dramatist of the problem plays, the high tragedies, and the late romances still rendered a kind of homage to Chaucer, but the final resort to this greatest of precursors hints at a third Shakespeare, from whom the genial spirit, even in irony, has departed. Had there been a theater to write for, perhaps Shakespeare would have left us another three or four plays, but he evidently sensed that no theater would or could have played them, and one can doubt that even his prestige would find a theater now for a nihilism surpassing The Two Noble Kinsmen’s, even if a darkness were possible. The Knight’s Tale evades the abyss of nihilism, though its implications are dark enough: pure caprice governs all of live.”

And from Garber:

the two noble kinsmen photo intro 2“A late play, first published in 1634, The Two Noble Kinsmen is attributed, on its title page, to ‘the memorable worthies of their time, Mr. John Fletcher, and Mr. William Shakespeare, Gent.’ Both Fletcher and Shakespeare were dead (Shakespeare died in 1616, Fletcher in 1625) by the time the published version appeared, but the title page cites its first performance, ‘presented at the Blackfriars by the King’s Majesty’s servants,’ Shakespeare’s company. Only gradually, however, has the play entered the popular Shakespeare canon, regularly taught and staged. Shakespeare had collaborated with Fletcher before, in Henry VIII, and also, apparently, on a lost play called Cardenio. Neither Cardenio nor The Two Noble Kinsmen, however, is in the 1623 First Folio; the presence there of Henry VIII seems to indicate that the collaboration was no bar to a claim of authorship, and in fact many stage plays of this period were to some extent collaborative works, with additions offered by other playwrights, and by players, and sometimes with improvised bits that became regular parts of the acting script.

The chief course of the play is Chaucer’s ‘Knight’s Tale,’ and the personae therefore have a certain commonality with Shakespeare’s earlier comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which likewise opens with the expectation of the wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens, and his Amazonian bride, Hippolyta. Unlike Dream, a true comedy in which all dangers are averted or contraverted and everything ends (relatively) happily, The Two Noble Kinsmen, is a tragicomedy, so described by the publisher in the Stationers’ Register. One of its noble heroes dies, tragically and somewhat unexpectedly (at least to those unfamiliar with the plot of Chaucer’s tale). While the virtues and pleasures this play offers are very considerable – it is full of magnificent poetry, and also of the kind of theatrical spectacle that distinguishes Henry VIII – it will probably be more useful here to discuss patterns in The Two Noble Kinsmen that are both like and unlike better-known plays in the Shakespeare canon, not in order to assimilate and tame this play by suppressing all its interesting singularities, but rather to make it legible, so that its differences and special qualities are easier to discern and to appreciate.”

This is going to be interesting.

Our next reading: The Two Noble Kinsmen, Act One
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning


And for those of you were going to join in the next reading adventure, the site for our reading of the best of Murakami is now up: The Wild Murakami Chase. Check it out here and subscribe here – we’ll kick it off in the beginning of May.

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