Sunday, 31 March 2013

Review: Four Tragedies (Penguin Classics) by William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Four Tragedies:
King Lear

Penguin Classics, Paperback, [1994].
8vo. 951 pp. Introduction and Notes to all plays by the editors, 
except Hamlet: Introduction by Anne Barton.

Hamlet edited by T. J. B. Spencer.
Othello edited by Kenneth Muir.
King Lear and Macbeth edited by G. K. Hunter

These editions first published in the New Penguin Shakespeare, 1967-80.


The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Further Reading
An Account of the Text

Act I, Scenes 1-5
Act II, Scenes 1-2
Act III, Scenes 1-4
Act IV, Scenes 1-7
Act V, Scenes 1-2


Further Reading
An Account of the Text
The Songs

Act I, Scenes 1-3
Act II, Scenes 1-3
Act III, Scenes 1-4
Act IV, Scenes 1-3
Act V, Scenes 1-2

King Lear

Further Reading
An Account of the Text
Words and Music in King Lear

King Lear
Act I, Scenes 1-5
Act II, Scenes 1-4
Act III, Scenes 1-7
Act IV, Scenes 1-7
Act V, Scenes 1-3


Further Reading
An Account of the Text
Words for the Songs in Macbeth

Act I, Scenes 1-7
Act II, Scenes 1-3
Act III, Scenes 1-6
Act IV, Scenes 1-3
Act V, Scenes 1-6


It seems that, so far as it can be assessed, at the turn of the seventeenth century Shakespeare reached a kind of artistic peak. The four tragedies collected in this massive Penguin Classics edition all seem to have been written during the first five or six years of the new century, and in the order they are arranged here. Shakespearean authorities also tell me that all four plays are definitely among Shakespeare's finest creations. So it seems like an excellent place to start a serious exploration of the Bard of Avon. But first be aware that:

Spoilers ahead! 

I cannot give a better advice to Shakespeare newcomers than to beware of learning plot details of plays they haven't read yet. I am not going to make ludicrous claims that this is the best Shakespeare can offer you, but he is certainly a better dramatist than is generally recognized. By this I mean his ability to supply dramatically effective stories that keep you on the edge until the end. The sublime beauty and the profound philosophical depth of the poetry are all very well, but they are not enough to make theatre. Shakespeare knew that very well indeed. It's often been said that today he would be writing screenplays. It is true, of course, and it is neither as startling nor as perceptive as it might seem at first glance. Do you think Wagner would be writing for the concert hall today? Not a chance: he would be writing for the screen. It pays better, too!

Such time-travel jokes are pretty pointless but they do serve one fine purpose. They remind us that no great writer ever wrote without wanting to be read, or staged and acted in the dramatist's case. It is a tremendous historical irony, and a very sad comment on our age, that Shakespeare's plays, so highly regarded today, were not even considered worth printing at the time of their writing. Anyway, let's have a look at these four tragedies.



The Characters in the Play

Othello, a Moor, General in the Venetian army
Desdemona, his wife
Cassio, his Lieutenant
Iago, his Ancient
Emilia, wife of Iago

Bianca, mistress of Cassio
Roderigo, in love with Desdemona
The Duke of Venice
Brabantio, a Venetian Senator, Desdemona's Father
Gratiano, his brother
Lodovico, his kinsman
Montano, Governor of Cyprus

Senators of Venice, Gentlemen of Cyprus, Musicians, Officers, A Clown in Othello's household, A Herald, A Sailor, A Messenger, Soldiers, attendants, and servants


What I have to say about Othello I have said it about the separate edition of the play in the Penguin Popular Classics series. Several notes about the differences between the two editions will suffice here.

The editorial work of Kenneth Muir is far more extensive than that of G. B. Harrison. Both his notes and his introduction are, with few exceptions, informative, illuminating and stimulating. The differences between the two texts are minor. They mostly deal with spelling, Mr Muir's being the more modernized version, though occasionally there may be slight differences in the words themselves (chiefly in the oaths) or the regularity of the lines. In Mr Muir's edition there is one scene more than in Mr Harrison's: II.2. has been split into II.2. and II.3., but the texts are virtually identical. Comparative reading is interesting but the play is pretty much the same in both cases.

The only really serious difference between both editions is the punctuation. In this respect, the texts are vastly different indeed. This is a matter that everybody should decide for his- or herself, reading aloud favourite passages from both versions. Mr Harrison claims that his text is closer than usual to what was spoken in Shakespeare's own theatre and that may well be true. For my part, however, Mr Muir's punctuation allows for better rhythm and more expressive delivery; it's easier on the eye, too.

Actually, there are some intriguing differences in the notes as well – and here Mr Muir is not always notably superior. Apt example is one of the most controversial stage directions in the play: Cassio's kissing Emilia (on the lips) in II.2. The stage direction itself occurs only in Mr Muir's edition, while Mr Harrison mentions it in his notes. In both cases, in the very next line, Iago makes it clear that the kiss was on the lips and that he, apparently, is amused by the occasion. Mr Muir tells us only that such kissing was common courtesy at the time, but Mr Harrison suggests that this is a sign of familiarity and signifies that Cassio considers himself of a higher social rank than Iago.



The Characters in the Play

Ghost of Hamlet, lately King of Denmark
Claudius, his brother, now King of Denmark
Gertrude, Queen of Denmark, widow of the late King and now wife of his brother Claudius
Hamlet, son of the late King Hamlet and of Gertrude

Polonius, counsellor to the King
Laertes, son of Polonius
Ophelia, daughter of Polonius
Reynaldo, servant of Polonius

Horatio, friend of Prince Hamlet
Voltemand, Cornelius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Osrick, A Lord, Gentlemen: members of the Danish Court
Francisco, Barnardo, Marcellus: soldiers

Two Messengers
A Sailor
Two Clowns, a gravedigger and his companion
A Priest
Fortinbras, Prince of Norway
A Captain, a Norwegian
English Ambassadors
First Player,
Second Player,
Third Player,
Fourth Player,
Lords, attendants, players, guards, soldiers, followers of Laertes, sailors


Hamlet is a monster. On the one hand, Anne Barton tells me that it is, by a wide margin, Shakespeare's longest play. Looking at those 5 acts, 20 scenes and more than 3700 lines, I can well believe it. On the other hand, the sheer popularity of the play is intimidating. I see it repeatedly described as "Shakespeare's best", "one of the most quoted works in the English literature", "one of the most influential works ever written", etc. It is amazing to find so many familiar phrases in Hamlet's lines: "Frailty, thy name is woman" (I.2.146), "To be, or not to be" (of course, III.1.56), "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" (III.1.58), "conscience does make cowards of us all" (III.1.83) and many others. The most disappointing of these discoveries was that the famous "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" (I.4.90) is actually not spoken by Hamlet. It was a big let-down to "hear" the words from the mouth of Marcellus. The most surprising discovery was that one of the earliest and most obscure essays by Bertrand Russell took its title from Hamlet's words: "Seems, madam? Nay, it is" (I.2.76). Clearly, the influence of the play has been tremendous if so many phrases are familiar to somebody who has read virtually no Shakespeare so far.

Now, all this is very fascinating but I don't particularly care about it, or at least I will do my best not to care. Scholars may argue where exactly to place "To be, or not to be" and critics may hail this and the other soliloquies as the most profound stuff ever written. That's their own business. My objective here is much more modest: to formulate as clearly as possible what Hamlet means to me as a newcomer to Shakespeare who is rather anxious to explore what's considered the playwright's best.

On the whole, my experience with Hamlet has been like my previous encounters with Shakespeare. I was prepared for something unreadable and overrated: I actually got something compulsively readable and rather underrated. No, of course I don't think it is the greatest work in English, nor do I think Shakespeare is the greatest writer in that language. Neither any single work nor any single writer should be degraded by such cheap accolades. Shakespeare himself, I am sure, would not have taken his modern fame seriously. He might have been offended. But more probably he would have been amused.

The play is by no means perfect. It has some dull moments and it has some, indeed many, issues that remain quite unresolved after the final curtain. Above all, there is a tantalising, and often perplexing, ambiguity about the central character. My overall impression, however, is of a superbly crafted piece of theatre that deals with many serious issues. It will not answer any profound philosophical questions. Great literature is not supposed to do that anyway. It is you who should do it for yourself. The best that a great writer can do is to make you think harder than ever before on such questions. That Shakespeare does.

Unlike Othello or Romeo and Juliet, the action in Hamlet takes place over longer periods of time, weeks and even months, and this may be one of the reasons why it is not quite satisfactory as a structure. The plot depends a little too heavily on eavesdropping, some scenes are unduly extended with material of whose importance I fail to be convinced (e.g. Hamlet's ranting to the players and to Guildenstern and Rosencrantz in II.2. and III.2., or the exquisite but inappropriate comedy with the two gravediggers that opens V.2.), and the mass slaughter in the finale is just a trifle too lurid. Four corpses in four pages tends to turn a tragedy into a comedy. I also expected the critical play within the play (III.2.) to be dramatically more effective; as it is, it gives the impression of something that was written in haste and remained rather unfinished, or unpolished if you like.

Despite all that, Hamlet makes for a surprisingly dramatic read. The second act and the beginning of the third are almost painfully dull, but after III.2., one of the longest and most important scenes, there is no slowing down until the holocaust in the end.

I can well see why nearly every actor, including many ill-qualified ones, is only too eager to play the Prince of Denmark. Hamlet is a most fascinating creature, full of contradictions. Much like, broadly speaking, Philip Carey in Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage or David Morey in Archibald Cronin's The Judas Tree, Hamlet is one of those characters you can always sympathize yet are often exasperated with. The finest description of the Dane I have ever heard is Mel Gibson’s: ''Hamlet is more than a part. It's an assault on your personality. Every passing day his doubts become more your doubts.'' Indeed!

In the end, somewhat surprisingly, I find myself overwhelmed with sympathy for the Prince. Much as I sometimes want to shake him by the shoulders and cry into his face "Get a grip, man!", I often find it much easier to identify with Hamlet's uncertain mind, a bizarre mixture of integrity, cowardice, nihilism, morbidity, nobility, madness. So, let's have a look inside Hamlet's head, as revealed in his relationships with the other characters as well as in his famous soliloquies.

First of all, it must be said that Hamlet is no fool. In fact, he is well educated, having just returned from the university of Wittenberg, and highly intelligent fellow, as obvious not just from his introspective soliloquies but also from many of his lines addressed to other characters. Nor, with the obvious exception of his deliberate ''antic disposition'', is he insane. Quite to the contrary. He often shows a remarkable capacity for dispassionate self-analysis.

The soliloquy in which Hamlet, after reflecting how drama mirrors life, decides to set a ''Mousetrap'' for his uncle is very rich in self-disparaging remarks, one more apt than the other: ''O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!'' (II.2.147), ''A dull and muddy-mettled rascal'' (II.2.164). Please note that this is no pose. There is no one else on the stage for Hamlet to pretend. I wonder how many people can look inside themselves with such degree of honesty. Hamlet goes even further, mocking himself how ''most brave'' his lack of determination is:

O, vengeance!
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must like a whore unpack my heart with words
And fall a-cursing like a very drab,
A stallion!

It is striking how accurately Hamlet describes some of the other characters, too. ''Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!'' (III.4.83) suits Polonius perfectly. It's also notable that sometimes he reveals himself, unwittingly, in conversations with others. It is a superb touch of irony that Hamlet, while discussing the drunken habits of the Danes, should make an acute analysis of his own personality. It might even be that he is aware of the irony, but thinks, rightly, that Barnardo and Marcellus wouldn't grasp the relationship and he doesn't mind if Horatio does. Not for nothing did Laurence Olivier start his classic movie version with these lines:

So oft it chances in particular men
That - for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As in their birth, wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin,
By the o'ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that too much o'er-leavens
The form of plausive manners - that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature's livery or fortune's star,
His virtues else, be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo-
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault.

In fact, Olivier even went as far as declaring the above to be the essence of all of Shakespeare's tragic characters: Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, Othello, Richard (Shylock if you like). This is surely an over-simplification. But it's worth considering.

Not the least important, nor the least attractive, feature of Hamlet is his sardonic sense of humour, often expressed by subtle puns and allusions. The very first words of his, prompted by the King's ''my son'' and brilliantly summing-up Hamlet's predicament, immediately establish the Prince as a sharp-tongued fellow: ''A little more than kin, and less than kind!'' Hamlet also has an enviable ability to make quips. Favourite examples include a rebuke of Polonius' complain that the prologue is too long – ''It shall to the barber's, with your beard.'' (II.2.497) – and a daring reply to his uncle who asks where (the now dead) Polonius is. Hamlet replies that he is at supper but ''Not where he eats, but where he is eaten.'' (IV.3.19), and a little later adds ''In heaven. Send thither to see. If your messenger find him not / there, seek him i' th' other place yourself.'' (IV.3.32-34). My favourite example of comedy within the tragedy must be Hamlet's blindly slaying of Polonius, hidden behind the arras (III.4.28-29).

Queen: What thou hast done?
Hamlet: Nay, I know not. Is it the king?

Last but not least, when Hamlet is in the mood for talking dirty, the poor Ophelia is left almost speechless. I am grateful to the editor for pointing out to me that ''country matters'' actually means ''sexual intercourse''. Now that's magnificent:

Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
Ophelia: No, my lord.
Hamlet: I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ophelia: Ay, my lord.
Hamlet: Do you think I meant country matters? 
Ophelia: I think nothing, my lord. 
Hamlet: That's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs.

On the other hand, Hamlet's inability to make up his own mind is pathological. His complete lack of resolution, his simply outstanding incapacity to take any responsibility, often diminish my sympathy to nearly non-existent levels.

In his first soliloquy (I.2.129-158) we see Hamlet distraught by what must be a serious predicament: his father's dead body is still warm, yet his uncle, a ''satyr'' to ''Hyperion'' compared to the old king, has already married his mother. For some rather inscrutable reason the new King and the old Queen insist on Hamlet's staying in court, rather than returning to his studies in Wittenberg. It is understandable that the Prince is depressed by the whole situation, especially considering his obvious love for his late father. Shortly after that, indeed the very same evening (I.5.), Hamlet meets and speaks with the Ghost of the old King. He tells him in no uncertain terms that he had been killed, poisoned by his own brother who, moreover, had an affair with his mother.

Then follows, naturally enough, Hamlet's second soliloquy (I.5.92-109), which is a passionate ranting that he would fulfil his father's request and revenge his death. What do you think Hamlet does next? He decides ''To put an antic disposition on'' (I.5.172), in simpler words: to pretend he is crazy in order (presumably) not to be discovered that he has any suspicions. Being a theatre lover and apparently an adept dramatist himself, in his third soliloquy (II.2.547-603) Hamlet decides, with furious passion yet rather sensibly, that he must have something more substantial than a mere Ghost, and the theatre is the perfect weapon for the purpose:

I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaimed their malefactions.
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle. I'll observe his looks.
I'll tent him to the quick. If he but blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil, and the devil hath power
T' assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I'll have grounds
More relative than this. The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King.

It is notable that the Prince has absolutely no idea what he would do if the king did prove guilty. When this duly happens, what do you think Hamlet does next? The answer is absolutely nothing – except his usual specialty of evasive, opaque, obscure, confused reflections. Not deeds or actions or even plans, but just that: thoughts. And there is a superb irony here, an irony I already learn to expect in Shakespeare. Just some fifty lines after the above quote, when Hamlet openly questions the veracity of the Ghost, we, the audience, have our first proof that Claudius is indeed guilty of his brother's death, as clearly expressed in his short soliloquy (III.1.50-54). But never mind that. For there follows an even more exquisite irony.

After the critical scene (III.2.) with the inset play, Hamlet has a superb opportunity to kill his uncle. While on his way to Gertrude's closet, he glimpses Claudius on his knees, praying for his sins, altogether an excellent target for some sword practice. What do you think Hamlet does? Why, he soliloquies, of course! This is his fifth monologue (III.3.73-96) as well as one of the most suspenseful scenes in the whole play. Hamlet, of course, does nothing, and his excuses are characteristically vague, not to say stupid. If I kill him now, the Dane reflects wisely, his soul would go straight to Heaven, ''Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge.'' (III.3.79). Such a spineless creature! The sheer dramatic genius of Shakespeare shines brightly in the last two lines of this scene. They belong to Claudius, Hamlet having apparently left the stage, and they make it clear that his prayers had been quite unsuccessful.

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

In other words, Hamlet needn't have worried. He might have cut his uncle's throat without his soul going anywhere near Heaven. It really does take a dramatic genius to finish a scene like that.

As for Hamlet himself, in his last soliloquy (IV.4.32-66) he continues to agonize over the weakness of the human nature, finishing in grand style (my emphasis): “My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” It is by no means unimportant that all three killings Hamlet does commit until the final scene are of victims he doesn't see because they are either behind the arras (Polonius) or far away in England (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). When he finally does kill Claudius, face to face, he knows he has been poisoned and will be dead soon.

Yet to condemn the Prince of Denmark for his lack of character is only too easy. And pointless. After all, what could Hamlet do? Kill Claudius and take the throne? Yes, certainly. But imagine what kind of king he would be! Why becoming a king only to have Fortinbras knocking spots off you? Hamlet knows only too well that he would never make half as good a king as his father did. No matter what he chooses to do, he is doomed. On the one hand, he is quite unfit by temperament to be king and, on the other hand, his own inactivity and cowardice, not to mention his mother's betrayal with his Cain-like uncle, torture him more painfully than anything else. Perhaps the only thing that Hamlet could possibly have done in order to save himself was to go somewhere far away from Denmark and try to forget the whole thing. But probably it would not have worked anyway.

There is, perhaps, a deeper reason for Hamlet's essential incompatibility with this world. I have deliberately left out above his most celebrated soliloquy: ''To be, or not to be'' (III.1.56-89). You know, these thirty lines are very much like Newton's three laws. They are so obvious that it's often neglected how profound they actually are. To be, or not to be, that really is the question to end all questions. Does life have any meaning, and if it does what is it?

To be, or not to be - that is the question;
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.

So far as the Dane is concerned, the answer is a resounding ''not to be''. In this soliloquy Hamlet's nihilism, pessimism and morbidity reach their absolute peak. This is a most unhealthy state of mind, to be sure, but if that's what you are, if that's the way your mind has developed, you don't have much choice. Hamlet looks around and is horrified by the world he sees, a world that can be ended once and for all with a ''bare bodkin'':

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?

What stops Hamlet from committing suicide is what stop us all, myself included, who have the same mental defect: a deep, deeper than anything, fear of this ''consummation / devoutly to be wished'' [III.1.63-64]. Yes, it is tempting. Yet here is another nagging question for which there is no answer. What happens afterwards? Either you simply cease to be – forever: a horrifying enough notion – or something else which, being unknowable, is every bit as frightening:

To sleep – perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.

Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns- puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,

Most people, no doubt including many who have read Hamlet, never ask themselves questions like ''To be, or not to be''. Their lives are purely instinctive and, to continue echoing Somerset Maugham, theirs may be the greater wisdom. I envy those people for whom the answer is definitely ''to be'', who consider their lives worth living and death not worth bothering about. Didn't Spinoza once say that the free man thinks of nothing less than of death? True. Hamlet is not that kind of man, nor am I. And this is what, above all, makes Shakespeare's Hamlet such a shattering experience for me.

Now let's get down from those rarefied planes of metaphysical speculation.

There are other extenuating circumstances as regards Hamlet's endless vacillating. To begin with, the only piece of "evidence" about his uncle's guilt he has, apart from his own suspicions, are the dubious words of the Ghost or his uncle's leaving the play in the middle, obviously deeply shaken. Both of these are, to say the least, circumstantial. How exactly does one stab in the back a man during his prayer on such grounds? Not until the end of the play (IV.7.) did Hamlet learn about some of the dark sides of the King's character, as he intercepted the letter that asks the British to secure his own death. But even then Hamlet can't really be sure that Claudius committed fratricide. It seems to me that, despite his deeply disturbed mind, Hamlet's refusal to take his revenge does say something about the nobility and the humanity of his character.

We, of course, know only too well that Claudius is guilty as hell. Whether he had seduced Gertrude while the old Hamlet was still alive remains elusive (we have only the Ghost's testimony for that), but his two soliloquies made it clear that he did commit fratricide. The reasons for this, as so much in the play, remain unclear. The most likely explanation, it seems to me, is that Claudius did indeed seduce Gertrude, or at least lusted for her while she was married to his brother. I can't see why he, and not Hamlet, should be elected king after his brother’s death. The editor is silent on the matter. Does it make any sense rushing into a questionable marriage with your sister-in-law soon after your brother's death if the kingdom is what you really want? The editor doesn't tell me that, either.

There is about the King the same duality of character that makes Hamlet so fascinating. The significant difference is that the case of Claudius is black-and-white, far removed from Hamlet's intensely grey mind. The King's decision to kill his nephew, including his chilling plotting with Laertes (IV.7.), are perfectly understandable. After all, the play that Hamlet has arranged, in addition to making it clear that the Prince knows of the fratricide, is as clear a threat to the King's life as anything. In ''The Murder of Gonzago'' it is the nephew who slays the ruler. The dramatic contrast with the King's rather friendly, almost affectionate, attitude in the beginning of the play is very effective. The same is true for the characters on the whole: Hamlet never dares act until he is on the verge of death; Claudius acts immediately after he is provoked, especially after the Prince slays that patent eavesdropper Polonius.

By the way, the councillor of the King is not without charm himself. You have to admire the stupendous amount of common sense he imparts to his son before he leaves for France. It may be preachy, but it is nonetheless profound for that. For my money, it's one of the most amazing passages in the play:

And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatched, unfledged courage. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel. But being in,
Bear't that th’opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice.
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not expressed in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulleth edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

It is difficult to imagine that there may exist a man on this planet who cannot profit in one way or another from following at least some of these ''precepts''. It's also diverting to learn (III.4.) that in his youth Polonius was an actor and even played ''Julius Caesar'', a nice ironic touch as regards his death in the very next scene. The verbosity so typical for him is rather amusing; as the editor tells us, in a rare flash of wit, Polonius' first lines are typical: he takes 33 words to say ''yes''.

Yet, for all of his apparent wisdom, Polonius is a fool. He is totally taken in by Hamlet's feigned madness (II.2.) and he continues to believe until the end that the sole reason for this is Ophelia's rejection (on his advice) of the Prince's advances. It never passes Polonius' mind that Hamlet may be troubled by trifles like incest and adultery. It is interesting to speculate whether the councillor knows of the King's crime. There is nothing in the play – or if there is, it went above my head – to suggest that he does. This effectively makes Polonius less of a fool. Also, there is no evidence that there ever was any friendship between the Prince and the Prime minister. So it is hardly surprising that Polonius should stick to the easiest explanation of Hamlet's bizarre behaviour. To arrange his murder while doing his favourite thing – eavesdropping – was a masterful stroke of Shakespearean irony.

In passing it may be noted that the Ghost is a very fishy subject. That's perhaps not something unusual for a ghost, but it's disappointing that his nature – whether by Shakespeare's deliberate intention or by his fault – is never fully explained. That he is the old Hamlet is certain enough. But he can be neither seen nor heard by his former wife (III.4.), and to the rest of the characters who do see and recognise him (Horatio, Marcellus, Barnardo) he never speaks a word. The oath in the end of I.5. is the only place (except the Closet Scene of course) when the Ghost speaks in the presence of somebody else but Hamlet. But the words of Horatio – ''O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!'' (I.5.164.) – do not necessarily indicate that he can hear the old king; he may be referring to Hamlet's speaking apparently to the air. So it seems most probable, if decidedly strange, that the Ghost, though real enough to be visible at least to some of the characters, is not very talkative.

I am inclined to believe that his words materialize only inside Hamlet's head as a kind of vivid imagery of his suspicions. Not for nothing, perhaps, does the Prince exclaim ''O, my prophetic soul'' (I.5.40) when it becomes clear who slew his father. Fascinatingly enough, Hamlet's only basis for such remarkably correct suspicion is the fact that his mother married his uncle rather in haste (a mere month as abundantly clear from the first soliloquy) after the old king's death. It might also be relevant to note that the Ghost explicitly demands of Hamlet not to plot against his mother. I surmise the only reason for his appearance during the Closet Scene two acts later is to prevent his son, now beside himself, from disobeying his command.

Another fishy point of contention is Hamlet's frequent harping on incest. Either I am missing something here or "incest" had a different meaning in Elizabethan times; if the latter, I wish the editor had warned me. We do have Hamlet's words that ''man and wife is one flesh'' (IV.3.) but they seem to be either more devoid of brains than is usual for him or they lean to some obscure convention of the times. For incest between Claudius and Gertrude is, of course, not possible at all. Adultery, yes. But to have incest there must be a blood relationship, preferably a close one. There is no such thing here. Claudius is Gertrude's brother-in-law. This is a legal relationship, not a blood one. This accusation seems to be Hamlet's chief objection to his mother's behaviour, with adultery and hurried marriage firmly on second place. He mentions it in his very first soliloquy and never tires of repeating it throughout the whole play, often including Claudius. The Ghost, too, speaks of incest in I.5.

To say the least, this incest obsession is a trifle strange. Even though I do not share "Freudian" or "Oedipal" interpretations of Hamlet's relationship with the Queen, they may still play some part in his attitude. Opinions have ranged from Olivier's somewhat blatant pro-Oedipal kisses in his movie to Asimov's complete rejection in his Guide. I would rather view Hamlet's incestuous ramblings as part of his personal weakness, rather than as being motivated by some unconscious desire for his mother. This does not fit really well with his cerebral make-up, yet it might have something to do with his madness (the real and subtle form of it, not the ''antic disposition'').

Hamlet's relationships with the two female characters in the play are, perhaps, the most perplexing of all. The fact that the parts of both Gertrude and Ophelia are at best sketchy doesn't help the matter either. Hamlet himself hardly comes out of both confrontations with unstained conscience. His treatment of Ophelia is absolutely abominable. In III.1. he rejects her in a pretty brutal fashion, and in III.2. he constantly uses her as a scapegoat while he is really angry with his mother. Even Gertrude herself hardly deserves the vitriol she gets in III.4., the justly famous "Closet Scene". But, of course and as always, the things are not that simple. It is certainly significant that in both cases there is in the end something very much like reconciliation, no matter that, again in both cases, it's too late for it.

Don't you believe anybody who tells you that there is a love story or any kind of romance between Hamlet and Ophelia. There was something like that, but by the time the play opens it is completely over, presumably because the shock of his father's death and his mother's second marriage had disturbed Hamlet's amorous disposition too much. What is one to make of his confused "I loved thee once" and then, four lines later (!), "I loved thee not"? I really don't know. Perhaps it is not worth exploring this direction.

Ophelia, after all, is not a character. She is a pawn, blatantly used by her eternally scheming father for demonstrating Hamlet's "antic disposition". Despite her most affecting madness, I cannot bring myself to be especially sorry for her. Hamlet's feelings, however, might well have been much deeper. Nothing else could explain his outburst at the funeral (V.1.), with the bold declaration to Laertes that 40 000 brothers can't equal his love for Ophelia. Or maybe he just feels guilty? It is never made clear why the girl goes crazy in the first place. I suspect that it was Hamlet's brutal treatment, and not her father's violent death, that was instrumental in that.

Gertrude is a more sympathetic character, if very scantily drawn. It is interesting that in the Closet Scene she makes no attempt to defend herself against Hamlet's torrent of abuse. Then again, what does she have to apologize for? The whole problem – adultery, hasty marriage, incest – is mostly in Hamlet's mind, not in the events, most of which are unsubstantiated enough anyway. What seems certain, and what speaks in favour of Gertrude, is that she probably doesn't know anything about the fratricide. It is not that her surprise at Hamlet's mention of it is genuine, but earlier in the play (II.2.56-57) she makes the perfectly accurate diagnosis of her son's mental disease: ''I doubt it is no other but the main, / His father’s death and our o'erhasty marriage.'' She tells this to the King alone, and there is no reason why she should not add at least an allusion to the murder of the old Hamlet had she been aware of it. Last but not least, she finally yields to Hamlet's uncompromising requests: ''Assume a virtue, if you have it not.'' (III.4.161). (The editor tells me that ''assume'' here means ''acquire'', but the modern meaning ''to pretend to have a particular quality'' suits the occasion so much better!)

In short, Shakespeare's Hamlet does deserve its fabulous fame. It should be required reading for every thinking creature, unless one has some strong aversion to drama, which is unlikely considering how much it resembles life. I suspect it should also be a ''required seeing'' for everybody who enjoys the paper version. Since I have never seen the play on the stage, I have to rely on the cinema.


King Lear

The Characters in the Play

Lear, King of Britain
Gonerill, Lear's eldest daughter
Regan, Lear's second daughter
Cordelia, Lear's youngest daughter
Duke of Albany, husband of Gonerill
Duke of Cornwall, husband of Regan
King of France
Duke of Burgundy
Earl of Kent, later disguised as Caius
Earl of Gloucester
Edgar, son of Gloucester, later disguised as Poor Tom
Edmund, bastard son of Gloucester
Oswald, Gonerill's steward
Lear's Fool
Three Knights
Curan, gentleman of Gloucester's household
Three Servants
Old Man, a tenant of Gloucester
Two Messengers
Doctor, attendant of Cordelia
A Captain, follower of Edmund
Two Officers
Knights of Lear's train, servants, soldiers, attendants, gentlemen


King Lear is certainly the most complex of the four tragedies. At 3217 lines, it is significantly shorter than Hamlet. Yet it contains six scenes more, and the range of characters and the intricacy of the plot are greater. The first reading may be rather baffling, but once one gets familiar with the broad outlines, it becomes more and more rewarding.

Although the structure is quite sprawling, there is very little superfluous material that could be cut without some loss. I was amazed to read suggestions that the omission of Gloucester and Edgar would improve the play. Absolutely it would not. Still less is one advised to dispense with the Fool. It is true that the scenes that bring together Lear, Poor Tom and the Fool (III.4. and especially III.6.) make a hard read that needs constant help from the notes. This is partly because the Fool is constantly cryptic, partly because the disguised Edgar is obliged to mix pure nonsense with his otherwise perceptive observations, and partly because Lear is beside himself. But these are poor reasons to cut the scene, even if I don't share the editor's exaltation about III.6.:

The antiphonally placed voices of the three madmen – lunatic King, court fool, feigned Bedlam – weave the obsessive themes of betrayal, demoniac possession, and injustice into the most complex lyric structure in modern drama.

The scene is nevertheless among the most important in the play. The charade with the mock trial is as amusing as it is significant for Lear's amazing transformation from childishly vain and decrepit old man into enlightened symbol of human suffering. It's charming – and a little chilling – to observe that none of the three key players in this scene is what he seems. The Fool is not at all foolish; indeed he is just about the smartest fellow onstage. Edgar is of course disguised as a halfwit, though he is so moved by Lear's pitiful condition that he nearly betrays himself in the end. And the madness of Lear is a curiously illuminating one. It's really a healing process.

Much like the tragedy of the Dane, King Lear is a family drama with but a faint streak of politics in the background. The significant difference is that the family element is much more prominent here. The fallout between Lear and his daughters has a fine counterpoint in the one between Gloucester and his two sons. Both are concerned, not just with clash of generations, but also with the lust for land, money, titles, or in short: power. Virtually all conflicts and reconciliations happen onstage, which makes the play highly dramatic but emotionally draining.

Despite the nearly overwhelming abundance of characters, and despite the fact that even minor ones like Cordelia, Cornwall, Albany and Oswald have considerable importance for the plot, the title of the play is appropriate. King Lear is certainly the main character. It is his folly in the very first scene (I.1.) that generates all subsequent developments. Is it folly or is it merely senility? I firmly believe it is the former. At first glance, the king's folly seems to be our old and quite possibly eternal adversary: vanity. But there is perhaps something more. The poor old Lear is actually hungry for affection, not flattery. And he is so desperate to be loved, that he is completely unable to see through Regan's and Gonerill's blatant hypocrisy. That's why, of course, he is enraged beyond reason when Cordelia refuses to participate in the show.

The fascinating thing about Lear is that his development as a character is extraordinary yet masterfully delayed. In the first two acts he is an infantile old man fond of pranks and overreacting. Even when he is rejected by both of his daughters – more brutally by Gonerill (I.4.) but equally firmly by Regan (II.4.) – it is difficult to sympathise with his outrageous curses. After all, the girls may have some right: it must be very difficult to have the quarrelsome old man living with you, and there is no reason to suppose that his hundred knights are less profligate than suggested by Gonerill. When he is locked out in the storm (II.4.), it is by his own accord, rather than by some special cruelty of his daughters.

In spite of the splendid rhetoric that opens Act III – ''Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!'' – the most important events come afterwards. I think it is the meeting with the Poor Tom that's critical. The role of the Fool as Lear's last link with sanity is of utmost importance, to be sure, but by this time he has largely fulfilled his purpose. But in Poor Tom Lear meets with complete misery, misery untarnished by glamour or romance. In combination with his communion with nature – first during the storm, later with the crown of flowers on his head – this experience detaches Lear from his personal unhappiness and finally transforms him into something much larger, something that transcends all things earthly.

Lear from Acts IV and V is a possessor of an altogether different mentality than the one in Act III, who in turn is way removed from the buffoonish creature in the first two acts. The catharsis is perhaps a little too sudden, not unlike Albany's change of heart, but within the limitations of drama one is unwise to ask for more. (The same, it may be added in passing, applies to the incredible coincidences on which the plot depends, for instance Oswald's meeting Edgar and Gloucester on his way to deliver Gonerill's traitorous letter. This is all too common in Shakespeare's plays and those who degrade them on such grounds are completely missing the point.)

As far as Act IV is concerned, Lear appears only in the last scene of it (IV.7.), but this is his reunion with Cordelia: undeniably one of the most affecting moments in the play. The king has some trouble recognising his own daughter, but he no longer has any illusions about himself. ''I am a very foolish fond old man'' (IV.7.60), he describes himself, and when a reference to his kingdom is made, he snaps ''Do not abuse me.'' (IV.7.77). He frankly admits that Cordelia has every reason to hate him, as opposed to her sisters who have none, and if she has poison for him he will drink it. It is much to Cordelia's credit that she forgives him without any delay. The scene somehow manages to be deeply moving without degenerating into sentimentality.

The climax of the Lear-Cordelia relationship, and the climax of the whole play, is reached in V.3. It starts, anti-climactically enough, with their going together to prison, having just lost the battle against Edmund. Then follows Shakespeare's trademark slaughter in the end, but just when we think that all of the bad guys are dead (Edmund, Gonerill, Regan) and the Good will prevail after all, enters Lear carrying the dead Cordelia and crying ''Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stone.'' (V.3.255). As it turns out, Lear had killed Edmund's assassin, but not in time to save his daughter. The only slight spark of light to relieve the almost unbearable tragedy of the final scene is the fact that Lear, apparently, dies under the happy impression that his daughter is still alive:

And my poor fool is hanged! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more;
Never, never, never, never, never.
Pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her! Look, her lips!
Look there! Look there!

The rest of the characters form an admirable gallery of great diversity and superb vividness. They all are involved in some of the subplots, but most of them also play important parts in Lear's personal odyssey.

From the rich crop of villains, Edmund takes the cake. What a magnetic fellow! As all villains in Shakespeare, or at least as the best of them, Edmund is anything but simple. (He is certainly far more interesting a bastard than Don John from Much Ado About Nothing.) In his soliloquy on ''bastardy'' (I.2.1-22), Edmund appeals for equal treatment of bastards and the so called legitimate sons: a most humane appeal indeed. It is true that modern genetics do not in the least support his notion that bastards, conceived in ''lusty stealth of nature'', are any the better than their legitimate counterparts, but neither does science suggest the opposite.

Edmund's prose soliloquy on astrology (I.2.118-132) is strikingly modern. Its uncompromising rationality is indeed badly needed today. It is frightening that there are still people who seriously believe in such rubbish. Edmund's brutally blunt words are worth quoting:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune – often the surfeits of our own behaviour – we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars, as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance, drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in by a divine thrusting-on. An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star. My father compounded with my mother under the Dragon's tail, and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and lecherous. Fut! I should have been that I am had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.

Edmund is also by far the smartest and most dangerous of all villains in the play. Being exceptionally handsome, he seduces both Gonerill and Regan, shrewdly summing up the situation: ''Neither can be enjoyed / If both remain alive.'' (V.1.58-59). In addition to the banishment of his half-brother and his blind father, it is Edmund, too, who orders the murders of Cordelia and Lear, succeeding on both occasions (if only indirectly in the second one), and again summarising brilliantly his motives: ''for my state / Stands on me to defend, not to debate.'' (V.1.68-69).

It should be noted that Edmund is something of a humorist and he by no means lacks courage. Upon learning about the deaths of Gonerill and Regan (the former poisoned the latter and then committed suicide), the now wounded and dying Edmund demonstrates again his superb succinctness: ''I was contracted to them both. All three / Now marry in an instant.'' (V.3.226-7). Shortly after that, Edmund even makes a genuine attempt to redeem at least partly his crimes – ''some good I mean to do / Despite of mine own nature (V.3.241-2) – by telling Edgar about his indirect assassination of Lear and Cordelia. An officer is sent away immediately, but it is too late for Cordelia, and, in a way, it is too late for Lear also.

Kent is Edmund's exact opposite. Perhaps he is a bit idealized, for such devotion as his is hardly in existence. In the first scene he is banished together with Cordelia, yet he later comes to serve Lear, who doesn't recognise him, and he does so with unflinching loyalty until the end. Apart from his obvious functions in the plot, I see Kent as a testimony of Lear's greatness as a king. Such loyalty is not won by tyranny. Whatever his present weaknesses may be, Lear must have been formidable but just king in the old days of his youth and middle age.

Gloucester is a much more ambiguous character. He regards both of his sons, the legitimate Edgar and the illegitimate Edmund, with equal affection, which is praiseworthy. But he is a powerless pawn in the hands of Cornwall, Regan and the rest of the gang, and he is too easily taken in by Edmund who convinces him in Edgar's guilt in no time at all. Nevertheless, Gloucester has much to recommend him. He suffers the loss of his eyes and, as pointed out by the editor, gains insight which finally leads – after a failed attempt for a suicide – to the touching reunion with his son.

Gloucester's offering shelter to Lear during the storm, however, may not have stemmed from entirely altruistic motives. As Isaac Asimov has shrewdly suggested, he might be feathering his own nest if the whole thing comes to a showdown and the French troops (since Cordelia is of course married to the French king) defeat the Gonerill-Regan forces. This notwithstanding, Gloucester's fate is remarkably close to Lear's, in terms of both folly and redemption. He is on a lower level of intensity, of course, but he does parallel the tragic self-discovery of the old king.

Cordelia is the minor character with by far the greatest weight on her shoulders. She appears in only four scenes (I.1., IV.4., IV.7., V.3.), yet it is her rejection of hypocrisy in the first scene that precipitates the plot and it is her death that turns it into a true tragedy. She is altogether a delightful and very likable creature. In the beginning she demonstrates remarkable boldness and candour, not only by refusing to express her love in words (an impossible task anyway), but by declaring that her love for her father extends to no more than her duty. What's more, when she marries, her husband will take away at least half of that love. Even Lear himself is kind of impressed, initially at least:

Lear: So young, and so untender?
Cordelia: So young, my lord, and true.

But when Cordelia learns about the civil-war-like conditions between her sisters and her father, she immediately comes to his help. Indeed, it says a great deal about her character that in the beginning the King of France takes her for a wife without any dowry, Lear having declared ''Thy truth then be thy dower!'' (I.1.108) and the avaricious Duke of Burgundy having withdrawn his marriage offer. The King of France is presumably quite rich enough not to need any dowry, but that's not the point. It was the custom and the fact that it's broken suggests that the Frenchman is aware that there is something special about Cordelia. Thus we gain a fine indirect insight into her character, probably founded on events that happened before the beginning of the play.

Finally, there are the Fool and Edgar, both of them already discussed as regards their crucial rendezvous in Act III. Here I would like to add a few quotations from the Fool's remarkably pregnant replies. Not for nothing does Lear regard him with unabashed affection. And Kent is rightly impressed:

Lear: Dost thou call me fool, boy?
Fool: All thy titles thou hast given away; that thou was born with.
Kent: This is not altogether fool, my lord.

Note that the Fool addresses the King with the rather informal ''thou''. This is normally used for friends and subordinates. It's quite extraordinary to see it applied to a king. In the first scene Kent does the same, apparently trying a kind of ''shock therapy'' (in the memorable words of the editor) in order to convince the king that the banishment of Cordelia is a very wrong thing to do. At any rate, it pays to read the Fool's lines carefully. When I mentioned briefly above the Fool's role as Lear's last link with sanity, something of which the king is surely aware if only unconsciously, I meant exchanges like this:

Fool: The reason why the seven stars are no more than seven is a pretty reason.
Lear: Because they are not eight?
Fool: Yes, indeed. Thou wouldst make a good fool.
Fool: If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I'd have thee beaten for being old before thy time.
Lear: How's that?
Fool: Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.

All in all, King Lear is a spectacular dramatic achievement. A vast canvas of characters drawn with depth and individuality on the one hand, and dealing with the eternal themes of old age, familial tensions and lust for power on the other, the play can hardly fail to be of interest to pretty much everybody. For my part, it will bear a great deal of rewarding re-reading (not especially euphonious, this alliteration, but no matter).



The Characters in the Play

Duncan, King of Scotland
Malcolm, Donalbain: his sons
Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, later of Cawdor, later King of Scotland
Banquo, Macduff, Lennox, Ross, Menteth, Angus, Cathness: Thanes of Scotland
Fleance, Banquo's son
Seyward, Earl of Northumberland
Young Seyward, his son
Seyton, Macbeth's armour-bearer
Son of Macduff
Lady Macbeth
Wife of Macduff

A Captain, An English Doctor, A Scottish Doctor, A Porter, An Old Man, Gentlewoman attendant on Lady Macbeth, Three Weird Sisters, Three Other Witches, Hecat, Apparitions, Three Murderers, Other Murderers, Lords, Gentlemen, Officers, Soldiers, Attendants, Messengers


Macbeth is not really a play. It's a screenplay. It should not be staged at all. It should be filmed. For one thing, it is full of supernatural elements (witches, ghosts, apparitions) that modern cinema can explore in a truly magnificent way. For another, its 23 scenes and (about) 2100 lines are superbly organized to provide an action story with many exciting moments; many of the scenes, indeed, are so short that resemble movie stills. The whole play can be turned into a script with minimal cutting and re-arranging. Of course the cast and the director must be first-class. I am dismayed to note how few notable movie versions of Macbeth there are. But more about them anon.

I often hear Macbeth described as Shakespeare's darkest play and now I see why. There is some relentless grimness that pervades the whole work. Coleridge was perfectly right that the opening scene, full of witches and thunder, serves only one purpose and this is to set the atmosphere of the whole play. Even the stage directions are often disturbing: ''Enter Ghost'', ''Enter Murderers''. Yes, it's a bloody play, too, with four murders on the stage (Macbeth, Macduff's son, Banquo, Seyward's son) and nobody knows how many offstage but at least five are referred to in the text (Duncan, his two servants, Macduff's wife, Lady Macbeth). The only comic relief in the whole play is the lively prose of the talkative Porter in the beginning of II.3. He is a welcome relief, indeed, and he has some amusing reflections about the momentous effects of alcohol:

Lechery, sir, it provokes and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance: therefore much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand to: in     conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and giving him the lie, leaves him.

Despite its tight organization, the play may well survive some cuts, indeed it would benefit from them. The scene with Hecate's tedious song (III.5.) is so completely unnecessary that it must have been either a later interpolation or a deliberate catering to the taste of King James. Pretty much the same is true for the pastiche in the beginning of the scene with the visions (IV.1.); apparently the King was nuts about witches. The only other episode which seems to me unduly extended is the conversation between Malcolm and Macduff (IV.3.). Who cares about these fellows? They are not characters. They are stage conventions.

This is true for all characters except the Macbeths. And, of course, it should be expected. To depict a character in drama is hard enough. To depict two, and their whole degradation, in mere 2000 lines is a towering achievement. The Macbeths, apart from their deeds, are very likeable couple. They share everything, including their ultimate fate, and support each other with all possible means. Two things fascinate me about them: the fluctuations in their relationship and the different ways by which they end their single journeys in this world.

In the beginning Lady Macbeth takes the upper hand. It is she, after receiving the faithful letter from her husband, who plans Duncan's assassination with meticulous care. In her first soliloquy (I.5.13-27), unusually clumsy and repetitive one, she makes an accurate diagnosis of her Macbeth's weakness: ''yet do I fear thy nature; / It is too full o' the milk of human kindness''. Two scenes later she scolds him – very perceptively – for his pusillanimity: ''Art thou afeard / To be the same in thine own act and valour / As thou art in desire?'' (I.7.39-41.). The Lady's second soliloquy is justly famous. And very scary:

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it. Come to my woman's breasts
And take my mill for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever, in your sightless substances,
You wait on nature's mischief. Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry, 'Hold, Hold!'

The witches are cheerful and harmless creatures by comparison. Yet it must be mentioned that the Lady is pretty disingenuous here. She masterminds everything, that's true, but she commits no murder herself. So she needn't have worried about ''my keen knife see not the wound it makes''. Nevertheless, after the murder she acts coolly and with remarkable composure, much unlike Macbeth's distress. (Even his condition, however, is nothing like ''ecstasy of moral hysteria'', as idiotically described by the editor; Macbeth is horrified more on physical grounds, I think, rather than on moral ones.) When he refuses to go back and leave the bloody daggers where they should be, the Lady shows her ''undaunted mettle'':

Infirm of purpose!
Give me the daggers. The sleeping and the dead
Are but as pictures. 'Tis the eye of childhood
That fears a painted devil. If he do bleed,
I'll gild the faces of the grooms withal,
For it must seem their guilt.

Much has been made of the pun here, how inappropriate to the situation is and so on. The editor here supplies a much more interesting insight, quoting one Cleanth Brooks; for Lady Macbeth ''guilt is something like gilt – one can wash it off or paint it on.'' If I may add, the pun fits superbly the Lady's famous Sleepwalking Scene (V.1.) where she tried, pathetically and unsuccessfully, to wash the imaginary blood from her hands – and the guilt from her already deranged mind. 

With the progress of the play, the condition of Lady Macbeth steadily deteriorates. She discovers that ambition taken to extremes becomes self-destructive. There is a short soliloquy in the beginning of III.2. which eloquently conveys her anxiety. It's in sharp contrast with Macbeth's overbearing and over-confident, indeed arrogant, attitude as King of Scotland. But his wife knows better:

Nought's had, all's spent,
Where our desire is got without content.
'Tis safer to be that which we destroy
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.

Nevertheless, the Lady still stands by her husband. In the chilling scene with Banquo's ghost (III.4.), a weird mixture of comedy and tragedy, she takes the comical part by trying to convince the guests that her husband regularly behaves like that. Apparently the royal family could get away with it. But the Lady continues to be haunted by the bloody deed they had committed. By the time of the Sleepwalking Scene (V.1.) she is completely mad; in the next scene she commits suicide offstage. Her incoherent ramblings are not easy to forget:

Out, damned spot! Out, I say! - One: two: why then, 'tis time to do't. – Hell is murky! - Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier and afeard? – What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to accompt? – Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?

Both Macbeths finally lose their grip of reality, which is of course prerequisite of madness, but the truly amazing thing is the different ways by which they do that. While Lady Macbeth is haunted by bloody memories, Macbeth himself is obsessed by completely irrational visions of a glorious future. Naturally, he doesn't commit suicide. Yet in the end of the play, though driven by different forces than his wife, he becomes mad, too.

In the beginning Macbeth is timid and refuses to take seriously his wife's dark plans. ''We will speak further'' (I.5.69), he evades the matter. Later he brings some objections, but note that these deal, not with pangs of conscience, but with the danger of failure: ''If we should fail?'' (I.7.59). Lady Macbeth has, of course, no problem demolishing such weak arguments. Despite further hesitations in his famous ''Dagger Monologue'' (II.1.33-64.), Macbeth finally cuts Duncan's throat.

Macbeth's crime is aggravated by a number of circumstances. Firstly, Duncan appears to be a good king, so any ideas of saving Scotland from tyranny are out of the question. Secondly, it is perfectly clear that the King actually regards Macbeth with great respect, even affection. Thirdly, Duncan is a guest of honour in Macbeth's house; a double-edged circumstance, this one, though probably more in the host's disfavour. Fourthly, as soon as the body is discovered (III.3.), Macbeth kills the two servants who were found with the bloody daggers and were thus suspected to be the murderers. Thus he creates immediate suspicions, as clearly reflected in Macduff's brusque question ''Wherefore did you so?'' (II.3.4). Macbeth replies with a passage of hollow rhetoric to which even the Lady's brilliant fainting (surely deliberate simulation) cannot attach much veracity, nor dispel the rising suspicions.

Those suspicions are the beginning of Macbeth's end. As every usurper, he discovers that, if not your conscience (which doesn't bother him in the least), the constant fear of being overthrown will finally take its toll. This leads to the murders of Banquo (III.3.) and the family of Macduff (IV.2.); the latter manages to escape in England where he joins forces with Malcolm. Macbeth's insecurity on the throne may be at least partly responsible for his despotic rule of the country, something that's made abundantly clear by the short III.6.

Banquo is a somewhat superfluous character, but Shakespeare has made a marvellously effective use of him. He accompanies Macbeth from the very beginning with the Weird Sisters, so it stands to reason that he does suspect his ambition and the planned assassination; when Macbeth wishes him ''Good repose the while!'' in the fatal night, he replies (ironically?) ''Thanks, sir: the like to you'' (II.1.29-30). In addition to his highly effective ghost appearances, Banquo also has the honour to supply the most accurate description of the Witches. If only Macbeth had listened to it more carefully:

But 'tis strange;
And oftentimes to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths;
Win us with honest trifles, to betray's
In deepest consequence.

Macbeth's chief defect of character is, of course, the lust for power. It is typically insatiable: thane of Glamis is not enough, nor is thane of Cawdor. But there is another defect that shouldn't be neglected. This is Macbeth's superstitious nature. He keeps repeating, especially towards the end, the two most important prophesies of the witches: that the Birnam wood would never come to Dunsinane, and that no man that's born of woman shall kill him. This seems to ensure his invisibility. It never occurs to Macbeth that these lovely messages, if not exactly untrue (for the Weird Sisters cannot lie), may be highly misleading.

Macbeth's downfall is a chilling spectacle. Already in III.2., soon after he has become king, the vastly changed attitude to his wife, so different than the warmth of the earlier acts, indicates that his mind is already profoundly disturbed. Thereafter the tension escalates violently: Banquo's ghost, the escape of Fleance, the news from England that Malcolm and Macduff prepare invasion. By the end of the play (V.3.), Macbeth is way out of his mind. He chants his superstitions with an air of supreme confidence, he insists of putting his armour long before it is necessary, he requests a psychiatrist to cure his wife. The last deviation is perhaps the most remarkable of all – and quite a few centuries premature:

Not so sick, my lord,
As she is troubled with thick coming fancies
That keep her from her rest.

Cure her of that.
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

Therein the patient
Must minister to himself. 
[V.3.36-46, slight mislineation above.]

In this feverish condition, Macbeth often has striking flashes of lucidity. They are not only clad in some of the most gorgeous poetry in the whole play (perhaps in the whole of Shakespeare?), but they also offer a candid self-analysis of his present state of mind as well as a merciless summing-up of his life. It is in these moments that Macbeth becomes a real tragic character, and I understand many great people (Verdi, for one) described this play as one of the greatest tragedies ever written:

I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud, but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.

I have almost forgot the taste of fears.
The time has been my senses would have cooled
To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in't. I have supped full with horrors,
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me.

When he is informed that his wife is dead, Macbeth's answer is almost painfully poignant: ''She should have died hereafter. / There would have been a time for such a word.'' (V.3.17-8), which I take it to mean that had she died later, he could have mourned her. In his present condition he is no longer capable of that. This leads to his most famous soliloquy - ''To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow'' – which has become almost as well-known as Hamlet's ''To be, or not to be''. It is much shorter, but its power and beauty are undeniable:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth is a mighty tragedy, no mistake about that. The fates of Macbeth and his Lady, so different yet so alike, are pathetic. But they are conveyed with such stunning force, with such pervasive spiritual desolation, that they never look tawdry or melodramatic. The completely ordinary conclusion, with Malcolm's indifferent speech, is a typical stroke of Shakespearean irony. (Cf. Horatio's final words in Hamlet.) Malcolm would doubtless make a much finer King of Scotland than Macbeth did. But about his rule only boring dramas can be written, never heartrending tragedies.

PS Macbeth by Verdi and Piave.

I wish Verdi had composed this opera at least a few years later than 1847. It falls in the end of his middle period and it's among his finest achievements from that time. But it does no justice to Shakespeare's original. It may be, as Deryck Cooke has suggested, that those great tragedies simply do not translate well into opera. And yet, had Verdi come to Macbeth 15 or 20 years later, by the time he composed mighty masterpieces like La Forza del Destino and Don Carlo, it would have been a very different – and vastly superior – musical drama. It is true that he did revise the 1847 version as late as 1865, but this revision, though better and preferred today, is not as thorough as sometimes supposed.

The libretto is very well constructed. It was written by Francesco Maria Piave, who was not just one of Verdi's finest collaborators, but a man who knew how to handle great poetry: most of the text is literal translation of Shakespeare's original. There are, of course, many omissions of scenes and characters, but they are finely done too. For instance, the Porter is entirely omitted and Duncan's part is reduced to a silent one. Most of the soliloquies are retained, though there are some strange omissions (e.g. ''Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow''). On the whole, the libretto is an excellent reduction with a minimal loss of power and depth – minimal, that is, considering the specific requirements of opera.

But the music is definitely subpar. With the exception of two great arias – Banquo's ''Come dal ciel precipita'' (bass) and Macduff's ''Ah, la paterna mano'' (tenor) – nothing else has gained a popular appeal. This is not exactly accidental. The only other extraordinary achievement is Lady Macbeth's Sleepwalking Scene (Act 4, scene 3), perhaps the only moment where Verdi truly reminds us of the genius that was to blossom fully for the first time only a few years later in Rigoletto (1851).

But the rest is entirely forgettable. Even fine late additions like Lady Macbeth's ''La luce langue'' fail to evoke anything like the dark and mysterious atmosphere of the play, not to mention its metaphysical dimensions. The great monologues – Macbeth's about the dagger, the Lady's about being unsexed – are almost embarrassingly operatic (in the worst sense of the word). Just compare with Rigoletto's ''Pari siamo'' and you will know what I mean. True, the original here is Hugo's, not Shakespeare's, but Verdi's treatment is definitely worthy of the Bard.

Macbeth has divided the specialists. Charles Osborne in The Complete Operas of Verdi (1969) bluntly stated that the opera is ''worthy to stand beside Shakespeare's'' original. Five years earlier, in the essay ''Shakespeare on Music'', Deryck Cooke dismissed similar claims as side-effects of the ''present Verdi craze''. Though I may be prejudiced in this respect, I'd rather agree with the latter estimation. So would the public, it seems. Despite several remarkable recordings, with such luminaries in the title role as Warren, Taddei, Cappuccilli, Fischer-Dieskau, Milnes and Nucci, Macbeth has never been half as popular as Verdi's best loved masterpieces.


Note on the edition.

The plays and the editorial apparatus are exact reprints of the four separate volumes in the New Penguin Shakespeare. There is, however, one very important difference. The text has been reset and the notes by the editors appear, not in the end of the book, but on the same pages as do the passages they discuss. This is extremely helpful. To be sure, it doesn't look very pretty to have almost every page half occupied by footnotes in minuscule font, but it's a great deal better than flipping through hundreds of pages every few lines.

I cannot imagine why Penguin don't reprint these reset versions in their "New Shakespeare" series which in fact consists of the texts and notes from the old "New Penguin Shakespeare". The only new things in these editions are the introductions and the hideous covers, neither of which is any improvement over the old ones.

The introductions in this volume are surprisingly superb, and I really don't see how they can be improved. All four of them are pretty substantial pieces, some thirty to forty pages long on the average, and they discuss the plays from every point of view: historical background, sources, plots, characterisation, language, imagery, etc. Needless to say, the discussions are neither comprehensive nor exhaustive: Shakespeare wouldn't be where he is if one could tell everything about some of his finest plays in mere thirty pages. But the essays are very well written, lucidly and insightfully, and can be read both as introductions and as afterwords; indeed, all four of these pieces do reward re-reading, and it's always a pleasure to agree or disagree with the editors.

The psychological dimensions of the characterisation are especially well captured, perceptively yet without any outrageous meddling with amateur psychology. The historical backgrounds are also fascinating. They are rather revealing about Shakespeare's dramatic genius, as well as about his poetic one. He borrowed a lot from all and sundry, yet he elaborated on that material in a thoroughly individual manner. After all, it is not the material that really matters. It is the pattern.

I must say, however, that G. K. Hunter is something of an exception. He is the only one of the editors who occasionally slips into pretentious and not altogether lucid prose. He makes a number of interesting points about both Macbeth and King Lear, but at times I find it hard to follow him.

The notes are, on the whole, equally fine. They can, of course, sound rather dogmatic sometimes, but they are nonetheless invaluable for that. And one, presumptuous as this may seem, doesn't have to agree with everything. For example, Mr Muir's interpretation of "Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago" as referring to the difference in their respective social positions seems rather superficial to me; I should think Iago means the profound difference in their natures. Never mind. The notes are absolutely essential for everybody with as little experience of Shakespeare as I. They clarify lots of issues: obscure words and meanings, allusions and metaphors, cross references with other scenes or even other plays, textual variants between the First Folio and early quartos, etc.

The ''Account of the Text'' sections consist of an introductory essay and any number of collation lists. The former examines all known editions, how they differ from one another, and what problems is the modern editor faced with. The latter gives the more interesting deviations of the present text from earlier editions. As usual with Penguin (cf David Womersley's editorial work on Gibbon's Decline and Fall), the scholarship is scrupulous, meticulous and exhaustive almost to the point of pedantry. It is not stretching a point too much to suggest that every comma is accounted for. Then again, Shakespeare deserves such a treatment, and I am grateful to the Penguin editors for their magisterial work.

The book is massive and not especially handy, but the text, except for the footnotes of course, is printed in an eye-friendly manner – normal font size, not too closely printed, comfortable line spacing – that makes for an easy and pleasant read.

No comments:

Post a Comment