Saturday, October 31, 2009

(S)word Play

I should apologize for the overly clever title of this post--I couldn't resist. Sword play and word play often go hand in hand in Romeo and Juliet, especially if you take the term "sword play" in its, um, metaphoric sense. There's a lot of sexual double entendre here, as in all the comedies. That's right, I said comedies. This play is not only a war between Capulet and Montague, its a war between tragedy and comedy. And Will's comedies are full of suggestive, sometimes blatantly salacious humor. I'm still going to try and keep this a PG blog, but the comedies really aren't PG. Maybe PG-13.

Which is Juliet's age, believe it or not. Yes, girls occasionally married at 13 back then. Life was short, and you had to start making babies right away, since a good half of them probably wouldn't make it out of childhood. Before the advent of antibiotics and hand-washing, the flesh was frail(er). Death was ubiquitous--by the time they reached adulthood, most people had seen their share of corpses. And of course real people didn't die like Romeo and Juliet, with a gasp and an elegant swoon. Their hearts didn't "burst smilingly" as Gloucester's does in Lear. Nor were they sequestered in hospitals or hospices, being tended to by paid strangers. No, they died in full view of friends and family--a good thing, in my view--but often in really yucky ways. Some didn't get buried in a timely fashion, if you get my (olfactory) drift. So death was a pretty intense sensory experience all around.

No wonder early literature talks about mortality so much.

Romeo and Juliet is obsessed with death from the get-go. Everything having to do with sex or fertility seems to lead straight to the cemetery. There are lots of rhymes, double entendres, and metaphors that hammer you over the head with this idea. "Womb/tomb," "dead/married" (I can't do diacritical marks in this blog, but "married" has to be pronounced "marri-ed"). Of course, this sex=death thing isn't new. But the way Will deals with it here is absolutely unprecedented.

The play's opening is a good example. This is the only tragedy that Will opens with a sonnet, but this isn't your usual sonnet. Sonnets, remember, were the pop songs of their day. Everyone was writing them; I'm sure there were tons of really cringe-worthy sonnets floating around, but most of these one-hit wonders are (mercifully) lost to time. Like contemporary pop tunes, sonnets were almost always romantic/erotic in theme. Will's audience would have expected a sonnet to be about love. So it's telling that his prologue is in sonnet form, and that it's all about...death. Right from the very beginning, he lets us know that he's not playing by the rules:

Two households, both alike in dignity
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-marked love
And the continuance of their parents' rage--
Which but their children's end, naught could remove--
Is now the two-hours traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

The formal symmetry of this sonnet is at odds--one might even say at war--with its topic. Ancient grudges, recent mutinies, rage, violence, death are promised in this formally elegant but disturbing poem . In spite of its conventional form, this sonnet is a wild, unruly thing--but there's a gloomy, rhythmic beauty to it. Some bits I particularly like:

The alliteration in "from forth the fatal loins of these two foes" is terrific. But if you look at that line by itself, it sounds kind of silly, like a Monty Python spoof of Shakespeare. "Fatal loins?" Come on. But it works.

"Misadventured piteous overthrows." So many syllables! And the incongruity of "overthrows" after the almost cliched "high style" sound of "misadventured piteous." "Overthrows" kind of overthrows the whole sense of propriety here, a rebel Saxon word upending the decorous Latinate lament. (I don't know why Ivanhoe popped into my head there, but it did.)

"Doth with their death bury their parents' strife." Almost all the words in this line are monosyllabic, which gives the line a funereal quality. Only "bury" and "parents" break the incantatory rhythm. The idea of death burying something bad in order to bring about something good is hard to get your head around, unless your head is full of biblical analogues. Christ's death was thought to "bury strife" in that it brought a healing renewal to a fallen world. He, too, was a "child," a son of man and God. Will, like most literate people in the early modern period, really knew Christian theology in a way that even the most overtly religious people today simply don't.

It's important that the Chorus calls the lovers "children" here. But also kind of disconcerting. I mean, they're going to get married and have sex. They have to be adults, right? Yes and no--among other things, this is a play about generational revolt. Will actually made Juliet several years younger than she was in his source. That's why I still think the Zeffirelli film, from the late 1960's, best captures the "mood" of the play. The actors--Olivia Hussey and Leonard somebody (I need to look that up)--were actual teenagers. I remember there was a big scandal because Olivia did a nude scene at only 15. But the 1960's were a perfect time to make the movie, since the country was at war both within and without--the Vietnam conflict had created rifts in many middle-class families, and young people really thought that their parents were hypocrites, rigid guardians of outmoded ways of thinking and living. This play reminds us that, as Chaucer once wrote, "there is nothing so new that it is not old."

After laying that inaugural gloom and doom all over the audience, the play goes bipolar and decides to make us laugh. We're back in comedyland, with its rude, crude serving class and bawdy puns. Samson and Gregory, two servants of the Capulet household, are about to go into town, although one could easily put them in football uniforms and make this a locker room conversation before a big game:

Samson: Gregory, on my word, we'll not carry coals.
Gregory: No, for then we should be colliers.
Samson: I mean an we be in choler, we'll draw.
Gregory: Ay, while you live, draw your neck out of collar.
Samson: I strike quickly, being moved.
Gregory: But thou art not quickly moved to strike.

Okay, let's unpack this. Here's where things veer into the PG-13 zone--it's impossible to paraphrase these scenes accurately without a little profanity. Samson and Gregory play on an idiom about coal-carrying and "colliers"--i.e, guys who carry coal for a living. But essentially, Samson just says that he's not going to take any shit. Gregory says, no, we shouldn't because then we'd be hiding our true feelings (colliers were thought to be sneaky). Samson replies that if they get pissed off, they should just draw their swords and get down to business, but Gregory points out that if they kill anyone they could end up hanging for it. Samson insists that if he's really pissed off, he'll strike first and ask questions later.

After proclaiming their superiority over Montague's men, their boasting turns to sexual matters:

Samson: ...I will show myself a tyrant: when I have fought with the men, I will be civil with the maids. I will cut off their heads.
Gregory: The heads of the maids?
Samson: Ay, the heads of the maids, or else their maidenheads, take it in what sense thou wilt.
Gregory: They must take it in sense that feel it.
Samson: Me they shall feel while I am able to stand, and 'tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh.
Gregory: 'Tis well thou art not fish. If thou hadst, thou hadst been poor-John.

One of the greatest love stories in Western literature begins with two clowns joking about rape. And once again, sexuality and death go hand-in-hand as Samson mixes up "maidenheads" (the physical mark of virginity) and decapitation. He brags about the size of his...assets, and Gregory retorts that the appendage in question might be a shriveled-up thing , like a dried fish. It's all just talk, of course, despite the crude subject matter. Immediately following this banter, two of the Montague servants enter. The next lines would certainly have gotten a laugh from the audience, in light of the previous discussion:

Gregory: Draw thy tool. Here comes of the house of Montagues.
Samson: My naked weapon is out. Quarrel, I will back thee.

The scene continues to be funny, as Samson and Gregory seem to lose their nerve. Samson, deciding to be brave, "bites his thumb at them," but tries to seem nonchalant about it. It's sort of like flipping someone off, but pretending you're scratching your chin. The two pairs of servants then get into some back-and-forth about whether or not the thumb-biting was intentional, and finally draw swords. Benvolio, Romeo's cousin, tries to break up the sparring servants, telling them that they "know not what they do." This biblical phrase affirms that Benvolio is a good guy (his name says it all) who really does want to keep the peace. It's significant that it also announces Tybalt, the hotheaded nihilist of the play.

Although the stage directions say "Enter Tybalt," they might just as well say, "enter tragedy," since Tybalt represents the failure of language to make peace, the persistence of past trauma into the present. Tybalt is incapable of compromise--he's an old-style warrior, a barbarian who would have been more at home in an epic than a romance. Tybalt sustains the inexorable cycle of violence that will only be broken when the children are dead and their parents are left, as Queen Elizabeth said in Richard III, "old barren plants, to wail it with their age." One thinks of Achilles in Homer's Iliad, with his implacable rage, or Hotspur, in I Henry IV. A man of weapons, not words. A throwback, maybe--a killer, for sure.

What, drawn and talk of peace? I hate the word
As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.
Have at thee, coward.

He doesn't just hate the word "peace": he hates words altogether, as we'll see in Act 3. Where the servants were playing at violence, Tybalt is not. He means to kill Benvolio and any other Montague partisan who gets in his way. At this point, the old men race into the fray to prove that they indeed "be men." Their wives try to hold them back, but killing and vendetta-maintenance are men's work, and even the old coots want a piece of the action. Capulet calls for his long sword, but his wife questions his ability to wield one. Presumably in both senses:

Capulet: What noise is this? Give me my long sword, ho!
Capulet's Wife: A crutch, a crutch--why call you for a sword?

Again things veer into comic territory, but are yanked back to High Seriousness when Prince Escalus steps into the middle of it all. "Escalus" is a strange name--it reminds one of the Greek dramatist Aeschylus, author of the Oresteia, the trilogy about the Fall of the House of Atreus (that's the story of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and their kids). The audience might remember that this is another story about intergenerational violence, about bitter enmity that passes from parents to children, with tragic consequences.

Like several other princes in Will's comedies, Escalus's default solution to social disorder is to issue draconian edicts:

Throw your mistempered weapons to the ground,
And hear the sentence of your moved Prince.
Three civil brawls bred of an airy word
By thee, old Capulet, and Montague,
Have thrice disturbed the quiet of our streets
And made Verona's ancient citizens
Cast by their grave-beseeming ornaments
To wield old partisans in hands as old,
Cankered with peace, to part your cankered hate.
If you ever disturb our streets again
Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.

Two things occur to me here. One is that the Prince's emphasis on how old the citizens are seems odd. It's as if Verona is full of grandparents and adolescents. In fact, both Capulet and Montague seem more like their children's grandparents. Juliet's just thirteen, and we learn that she's an only child. Logically, her parents should be in their late twenties or early thirties. But Capulet uses a "crutch," like an old man. The fighting skills of the townspeople are "cankered with peace," which means, essentially, that their hands are stiff or arthritic from disuse. There's a missing generation, really--no one in the prime of life. Will went to great pains to emphasize that this is a struggle between the bitter and cankered world of the old guard, and the new, as yet unimagined realm of youth and possibility.

The other thing is a more philosophical point, about edicts and prohibitions. In Will's comedies, this kind of draconian attempt to restore order always leads to more disorder. And isn't it often that way in real life? During Prohibition here in the United States, crime and alcoholism flourished. Our current anti-drug laws have made criminals rich, and actually fostered addictive behavior. Sexual education that emphasizes only abstinence has been statistically proven to be ineffective at best, counter-productive at worst. Blanket prohibitions, it seems to me, make the forbidden act or thing more desirable. The prohibited thing takes on a power it didn't have before, and begins to assert its own logic, whereby violating the injunction is a kind of freedom, and obeying it is a kind of slavery.

Moderation in all things, say I.

There's no moderation in this play. Benvolio--he who "wishes well"--is powerless to set limits on the violent behavior of either side. In this sense he prefigures Enobarbus, a much more developed character in Antony and Cleopatra. There are, in fact, many ways in which this play is a forerunner of that later (and to my mind, greater) drama. I'll have more to say about that later.

All that, and I'm only halfway through the first scene! But I thought it needed a thorough explication, since it sets up so many of the play's later concerns and conflicts. It's worth mentioning that Romeo and Juliet's obsession with opposition and duality isn't just a literary/rhetorical device. It's a part of the play's visual landscape as well. In this scene, two Capulet servants confront two Montague servants, each pair entering from opposite sides of the stage. Then a Montague enters from the "Montague side", followed by a Capulet from the other, then the two old couples. It's an almost ritual structure, but it's also a street brawl. As in the opening sonnet, the scene reflects both structural order and social disorder. Paradox upon paradox. It's dizzying.

Next, we put away our swords and hang out with the women.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Dangerous Digressions, Part 2


First, some True Confessions. No, not that kind--although since this is my first romance, you'll have to allow me a few pulp magazine moments. I love those old covers! My confession is somewhat less sensational: I haven't read Romeo and Juliet since college. Which is to say, (almost) several decades have gone by since I last even looked at this play. I certainly had ample opportunity to teach it during my professorial years--I taught lots of classes on The Early Plays--but it just never appealed to me. Why not, you may wonder? Well, there's the culturally overdetermined aspect of the whole thing. Romeo and Juliet has become synonymous with "romance" to such an extent that people can't seem to leave the story alone. We've got Prokofiev's ballet, Tchaikovsky's "Overture-Fantasy," countless movies, and West Side Story in myriad forms; Western culture is so saturated with Romeo and Juliet that every performance risks being seen as a parody. Another reason I resisted teaching it is because I found many of the characters annoying, especially in the first (comic) half of the play. Romeo has always seemed to me to be a rather shallow guy, with his outdated Petrarchan laments over "fair Rosaline," followed by the absurdly sudden coup de foudre at the Capulets' ball. Tybalt is a thug who more or less causes all the play's disasters, the Nurse is a crude Wife of Bath knock-off, and Juliet is a pathetic little girl who just wants to have fun before she's sold off to the highest bidder. Only Mercutio is even remotely interesting, I thought, and he gets killed off in Act 3.

I find the play strangely more compelling this time around, however. This surprises me, since I'm older, less naive, and probably way more judgmental than I was in college. It's an incredibly innovative work; I think we're so used to its cliched aspects ("star-crossed lovers," "wherefore art thou...," "a plague on both your houses"), that we forget what a game-changer it really was in its day.

Medieval and early modern romances were either comedies, like many of Will's early works, or tragedies anchored in history--like Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, set during the Trojan War, or Antony and Cleopatra, which, as I discussed last time, is a kind of homage to Virgil. The whole idea of a "tragic romance" just didn't make sense to people. Romances, unless they had some kind of oppressive historical backdrop, were happy stories, and ended with weddings. They were an opportunity for the playwright to show off his rhetorical pyrotechnics (think Love's Labours Lost, which is mostly about poetic language), and to engage in a little bawdy humor. Make that a lot of bawdy humor. The plots were usually pretty formulaic, involving mistaken identities, cross-dressing, and clownish class conflict. They often nearly missed being tragedies (think A Midsummer Night's Dream, with its paternal death threat, or Much Ado About Nothing, with its Othello-like plot). Like our contemporary romances--which are really comedies in this old sense--Elizabethan comedy held out the possibility of doom and disaster, while simultaneously reassuring audiences that all would be well at the end.

Romeo and Juliet starts out as a comedy in the same vein as A Midsummer Night's Dream, which was written at about the same time. Both plays begin with the specter of forced marriage, both feature autocratic authority figures with Greek names who issue edicts. Even the symmetrical structure of the play and its characters is a comic one--"two households, both alike in dignity," two lovers with two "mentors"--the Nurse and Friar Laurence--two "false loves,"--Rosaline and Paris, and so on. In a comedy, these doublets and oppositions would work themselves into a neat thesis-antithesis-synthesis structure by the end, culminating in a happy marriage that knits up all oppositions and purges all threats to the social order.

What Will does here, however, is turn the whole comic structure on its head. In a play obsessed with oxymorons and Petrarchan paradoxes (more on this in a moment), the founding paradox is the play's genre itself. It's a romantic tragedy. To Will's audience, this was an alien idea--a comedy that takes a wrong turn, and becomes tragic instead. It's hard to conceptualize how weird this must have seemed, since we mix up genres all the time now--we have arty action films and chick-flick horror movies and scripted reality shows. Genre doesn't mean that much to us, because we're not really interested in aesthetics anymore. We're all into "authenticity" (however staged). And whose fault is this?

It's at least partly the fault of...THIS PLAY!

Okay, that's an exaggeration. But it got your attention, didn't it? And, as with all my attention-grabbing exaggerations, I think there's something to it. Romeo and Juliet is a grandly humanist project. It's about the human need for emotional authenticity, and Will's need to sweep away all the old, anachronistic courtly love debris that still exerted its oppressive edicts over romance-writing. All the characters who speak in elaborate sonnet-y speeches using convoluted conceits--like Lady Capulet's stilted comparison of Paris to a book who "only lacks a cover"--are either deluded or hypocritical. Romeo's a total poser at the beginning, mooning over Rosaline in terms that are both artificial and outdated:

Here's much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything of nothing first create;
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love I feel, that feel no love in this.

This is classic Petrarchan sonneteering, done to an ironic extreme. Petrarch was Francesco Petrarca, a fourteenth-century poet and scholar who became known as the Father of Humanism. He was a big influence on the Father of English Poetry, Geoffrey Chaucer. By the time we get to the Father of English Drama, however, Petrarch's courtly love poetry had pretty much run out of gas.

Two-minute Petrarch: He wrote (among many other things) a collection of sonnets called Il Canzoniere, or "The Song Book." The poems had as their ostensible object a beautiful lady named Laura, who, sadly, just wasn't that into poor Petrarch. Isn't this often the case with poets? I mean, has any girl really ever been won with a poem? I once had an admirer (these days I guess he'd be called a stalker) who wrote me poems and filled my mailbox with rose petals and cinnamon sticks. I later found out this was kind of biblical--my stalker may have read the Song of Solomon. But at eighteen, I thought he was creepy and strange; my taste, sad to say, ran more to guitar players in garage bands. Laura may have felt similarly about Petrarch.

Actually, no one is sure if Laura was real, or just a pun--"l'aura," means "the wind" in Italian. So maybe Laura was just a lot of poetic hot air. Whatever the case, Petrarch's love poems were chock-full of paradoxes--love's fiery ice, knowing innocence, whatever. These paradoxes revealed love's ability to invert nature--for example, by making old people young, or a strong man weak. Petrarch's sonnets had more to do with poetry than love--they effectively "created" Laura. Like all courtly love objects, she was unattainable (because supposedly married), so the poet's erotic yearnings were never satisfied. The solution to this interminable sexual frustration was, of course, writing poems. Highly stylized, rigidly structured poems.

Don't get me wrong. They were beautiful in their day. They used love as a jumping-off point to muse about religion, time, politics, all kinds of stuff. They were brilliant, and they started a whole poetic movement. But they were, by the time Will's Romeo first uttered his "brawling love" speech, over two hundred years old. Even in an era that venerated the past, that's pretty out of touch. Like having a Disney teen star play Jimi Hendrix songs.

Can you picture the Jonas Brothers belting out "Purple Haze?" Maybe in a David Lynch movie...

So, Romeo's sonnet. It's so conventional it tips over into irony. It drags out the usual paradoxes, but here they have to be taken literally. Romeo's vaunted passion actually is "nothing" that wants to be something. His "heaviness" is pretty lightweight. He does have a serious case of vanity, since he's obviously in love with love rather than with a real woman. No wonder Benvolio laughs at him after his little performance.

Rosaline, like Laura, isn't ever going to say yes. She exists to say no. No, no, no. Windy Laura was married; Romeo's Rosaline has taken a vow of chastity. Now we saw in Richard III that Will puts a high value on fecundity and procreation; a woman who has vowed to die a virgin is not an appropriate love-object in Will's world.

Romeo is mired in fakeness and cut off from generativity at the beginning of the play. What about Juliet? She's mired in social strictures and cut off from her own desires, like all young women of a certain class. Her parents are getting ready to marry her off to a man she's never met (which seems amazing, given the claustrophobic circles most historical aristocrats moved in). The Capulets pay lip service to their daughter's wishes--her father tells Paris that he must "get her heart" first, because his "will to her consent is but a part." By Act 3 this hypocrisy will be revealed for what it is, when Capulet calls his recalcitrant daughter a "green-sickness carrion," and a "tallow-face," threatening to drag her to the church in an execution cart if she doesn't agree to marry Paris willingly.

But in this early part of the play, we're still in comedy-land. All may yet be well. Juliet's mom tries to sell her daughter on the idea of marrying Paris by comparing him to...a book. How's that for an enticement? This guy's like a dusty old manuscript, and you can be his pretty cover. Even rose petals-and-cinnamon Romeo looks good compared to this:

Read o'er the volume of young Paris' face,
And find delight writ there with beauty's pen.
Examine every married lineament,
And see how one another lends content;
And what obscured in this fair volume lies,
Find written in the margin of his eyes.
The precious book of love, this unbound lover,
To beautify him only lacks a cover.
The fish lives in the sea, and 'tis much pride
For fair without the fair within to hide.
That book in many's eyes doth share the glory
That in gold clasps locks in the golden story.
So shall you share all that he doth possess
By having him, making yourself no less.

He's like a smooth-running computer program, a perfectly balanced accounting ledger, a lovely bank statement. Do you get the impression here that he's not much to look at? "To beautify him only lacks a cover"--isn't this the rationale behind trophy wives? The image of the fish in the sea seems jarring--a natural moment in a highly unnatural poem. At the end of this sing-songy rhyming book report, Lady Capulet gets to the point: "so shall you share in all that he doth possess." She means Juliet will partake of Paris's virtues, presumably, but the other meaning is also pretty clear. He's loaded, and if you marry him you will be too. This is probably the most comically artificial speech in the entire play, perfectly glossed by the Nurse, who calls Paris "a man of wax." Again, there are two meanings--Paris is perfectly sculpted, the quintessence of elegant urban manhood, or--Paris is malleable, weak, utterly artificial.

So this is the world Romeo and Juliet live in. A place of artifice, and poses, and elaborately justified cynicism. When they meet, this hard waxy realm cracks open, revealing another, truer world of genuine emotion. And much better poetry.

But the old regime won't go down without a fight.

Next: Gangs of Verona

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dangerous Digressions, Part 1

Romance takes time. You have to drop what you're doing when you fall in love--even if what you're doing is fighting a war, or carrying on a decades-long vendetta, or ruling an empire. Love demands it. You have to turn off your cellphone and ignore your Facebook friends and just go dark while you get lost in the dreamy world of erotic obsession. In the meantime, of course, empires may fall, nations may crumble, and evil may take over the world. But you've got the curtains closed, and you just don't give a damn. The earliest romances worried about this a lot. If you're all enraptured of some fair damsel, you might forget all your manly obligations. You might crawl under the sheets with her and just never come out again. You might, for example, forget to Found the Roman Empire.

Romance is dangerous business.

Virgil knew this, and that's why he made sure to get his hero, Aeneas, out of Carthage and packed off to Rome. Don't know what I'm talking about? I'm referring the the Very First Romance, written by Virgil around 30 BCE. Actually, Virgil's Aeneid isn't a love story--it's a war story. In the old days, all romances had their share of bloodshed. Maybe it's more accurate to call it an adventure story, or even a travelogue. Officially, it's called an "epic," in the tradition of Homer's Odyssey and Iliad. It's also the most masterful piece of literary propaganda ever written in the West, putting even Will's history plays to shame. Virgil created a whole history for Augustus Caesar's imperial aspirations, connecting Rome to the greatest (secular) Western story ever told, the Fall of Troy. It was all made up, of course. But back then people didn't really distinguish between history and literature.

Come to think of it, things seem to be headed back that way again.

I'm trying to come up with an analogy for Virgil's imperialist project, but it's hard to think of one. Let's see...I guess there are some parallels in the founding of modern-day Israel according to biblical geography, but I don't really want to get tangled up in that debate. The Mormon "translation" (in the literal sense of transference) of Christian mythology/sacred history (take your pick) to the New World would be another possible analogue. When in the business of mythmaking, it's always best to grab onto an existing powerful narrative, and write a sequel.

So what does this have to do with romance? Well, in order to become the founder of Rome, Aeneas--former Trojan prince and demi-god--has to get from point A (burning city of Troy) to point B (hilly country near the Tiber River, eventually Rome). Now along the way he encounters trouble from angry harpies (smelly bird-women) and the goddess Juno, who is a bit harpy-like herself. Juno decides to delay Aeneas's arrival in Rome--Virgil tells us explicitly that she can't prevent it, only postpone it.

There are some analogies to feminine sexuality here, but I'll leave that for you to think about. PG blog, remember.

Juno's delaying tactic is to blow Aeneas and his men off course, so they land in northern Africa instead of Italy. Specifically in the city of Carthage, now modern-day Libya. Aeneas is in bad shape, but the queen of Carthage, Dido, is really nice to him. I mean, really, really nice. So nice that he just doesn't want to leave. If it were up to Aeneas, he'd just scorch up the sheets with Queen Dido indefinitely.

Which would kind of wreck the whole founding an empire thing.

So the gods have to get involved. Mercury (travel god, remember) comes to Aeneas in a dream and tells him to get the hell out of Carthage before Jupiter's patriarchal scheme comes to naught. (There's a salacious pun there, for you dirty-minded philologists). Aeneas isn't a very sensitive guy--or else he's just afraid of confrontation, so he sneaks off in the middle of the night, setting sail for Italy.

These days, he'd just change his Facebook relationship status, block Dido's angry text messages, and refuse to answer his phone. Dido's one of those "women who love too much," so she kills herself. With his sword, which he conveniently left as a memento--or a metaphor.

Then Aeneas gets himself a more dynastically-appropriate wife--a nice Italian girl--and founds Rome.

You see the pattern, right? Romance is a threat to duty, to patriarchy, to careers and reputations. The Aeneid influenced lots of medieval romances, from twelfth-century Arthurian tales to Chaucer. It also influenced Will a lot, most obviously in Antony and Cleopatra, where a noble Roman wrecks his career by hanging out in North Africa (Egypt, this time) and mooning over another hot queen. But the same structure applies in Othello. This time the hero is the North African (Moor), but the issues are similar. He's stuck on Cyprus, because there's a lull in the war. He's got too much time on his hands. He falls for Desdemona, and then falls for some slanderous stories, and his reputation is ruined. Lacking any manly occupation, like killing Turks, Othello is seduced by love--and fiction. The opposition between romance/words and war/deeds is the foundation of the tragedy. Once Othello falls for Desdemona, and then falls for Iago's lies, it's

...Farewell the tranquil mind, farewell content,
Farewell the plumed troops and the big wars
That makes ambition virtue! O, farewell,
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th' ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!

Farewell the fifty-yard line, farewell the field goals, farewell the Gatorade bath...or, farewell the board room, the hostile takeover, the management bonuses, the thrill of a government bailout. Farewell to the manly, public life. Bonjour tristesse, guten tag Liebestod, hello emasculation. That sound you hear is the bedroom door slamming closed, shutting all your career ambitions and male friends out forever. You're in love, and you're doomed.

If you're a guy, that is. If you're a woman, it's your fault. So you're doomed not only to misery, but also to shouldering the blame for the Ruin of a Great Man. Hopefully he left a sword for you to fall on.

The moral of this story is, keep busy. Don't get washed up on the shore of some matriarchal resort town. If your current wars seem unpromising, start another one. Have sex to ensure your genetic immortality, and that's it. Don't get too into it. Or rather, don't get emotional about it.

Despite these thematic caveats, romance really caught on as a genre. People ate it up, and still do. Why? Because getting too emotional about things makes for much better stories than just, you know, raising armies and founding an empire. Even the good war stories are love stories now. They're just about love between men.

The rise of romance as a genre coincided with the rise of the middle class. Yeah, I know--every historical period I studied in college seemed to claim "the rise of the middle class" for its very own. As a crypto-medievalist (I just invented that label, and I like it), I'm going to claim that the rise of the middle classes started happening in the twelfth century. Right about the time people started thinking about belonging to nations, and not just churches. And, not coincidentally, at about the time they started getting really fed up with shiftless aristocrats engaging in continent-wide wars over tiny bits of land. It's hard to run a business--or a farm--when the neighboring lord keeps taking all your cattle and taxing all your profits so he can buy more mercenaries. It's unfair, and downright immoral.

Middle class people worried about morals, and they thought everyone else should, too. And romance, with its emphasis on the Problem of Intimacy in a Violent World, seemed like a good place to continue that discussion. Now this is not to say that early romances were about middle-class people. Not at all. They were about aristocrats with middle-class sensibilities. Just as, today, there are romances about rich people and celebrities who Just Want to Be Loved for Themselves. They may be billionaires, but what they really want are family camping trips, lawns and gardens, and movie nights with the kids.

How do I know this, you may wonder? Because, yes, I read popular romances! Not that many, because I have this thing about good writing, and some of them are written like bad teenage diaries. But there's nothing like a well-written romance--the happy endings alone are worth the seven bucks. Yes, most genre romances (those sold in grocery stores as well as bookstores) have happy endings now, which reflect the happy cultural triumph of the bourgeoisie.

For those of us who don't have to fight in the Crusades or found an empire, the romance world is still a great place to vacation in the middle of the afternoon. If you like to see the sublime joys of the private life triumph over the fleeting pleasures and enduring injustices of the public one, here are a few recommendations. My very favorite historical romance writer is Eloisa James. She writes Georgian (late 18th century) and Regency (early 19th century) romances. She uses a pen name because she's--wait for it--a Shakespeare professor in her real life! A lot of her stories have "Bardic" elements, and they're all well-written. I also like Suzanne Brockmann, who writes military romances, about special ops guys and spunky women who are, like, sharpshooters and martial arts experts. Someone should do a remake of Othello where Desdemona kicks Iago's ass.

Okay, not really.

Now, if anyone reading this is from the FTC, I want you to know that I haven't gotten a thing from these authors. Not even a free book. So don't even think about fining me, you hear?

On to Romeo and Juliet. I'm just going to set this up, and really get into reading the play next time. Romance is first of all a metaphysics. It's about oppositions: Venus and Mars, love and war, true feelings and sleazy come-ons, humans and vampires...well, you can plug any sort of opposition into a romance frame and make it work. R & J takes this foundational idea and goes wild with it. Love and war, night and day, young and old, artificial-sounding poetry and genuine emotion--theses and antitheses, as far as the eye can see. The play starts with a sonnet, but fancy poetic language gives way to the crude obscenities of the next scene, when two sets of servants--representing the warring houses of Capulet and Montague--mix it up in a public street. Is it a romance, or a civil war?

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

History, Fiction, and the Seeds of Tragedy


It's surprisingly hard to leave Richard to his fate. Not his fate at the end of the play, which was a foregone conclusion, but his historical fate. Will's masterful characterization makes Richard not only the quintessence of unrepentant evil(ness), but also a consummate actor, a protean figure who will later morph into some his his best villains. But this Machiavellian manipulator clearly has little to do with the real man who ruled but two years, before being deposed by an ambitious adventurer with an altogether shaky claim to the throne. I suspect, if the truth were told, the real Richard was probably far less interesting, and the real Henry more so, than this play suggests. Who, of the two of them, had more overweening ambition? Who had the gall to insert himself into history at the head of an invading army? Richard's brother, after all, had been king. Henry's claim began on the wrong side of the blanket, and had to be legitimized by a hasty marriage and some surreptitious document-shredding (the Titulus Regius, mentioned back in the "History's Mysteries" post).

History is written by the winners, however. And Richard, whatever his failings as a man and a king, had the misfortune to run afoul of the Tudor propaganda machine.

So, why should any of this matter? Richard's dead, the Tudors essentially died out with Elizabeth, and we've got a great play to praise, perform, and quibble about for many generations to come. I guess it matters to me. When slanders metamorphose into historical fact, we all lose something. This case is particularly compelling because it sets historical truth against art in a pretty obvious and irreducible way. Literature, and art in general, has the power to make and break reputations for all time. Sometimes our most creative moments as a species can be our most dishonest.

I know, that's not the humanist party line. But it's a valid point nonetheless.

I'm hard-pressed to think of an example that's as powerfully vilifying as Richard III, however. At least not in English. (If anyone can think of one, I'd be interested to hear it). Of course, historical fictions are much less popular these days than they once were. There are hundreds of competing narratives out there. There's JFK the statesman, JFK the playboy, JFK the cold warrior--and I can't tell you who wrote any of those books, off the top of my head. Because they aren't aesthetically important or memorable. I daresay if Richard III had been written by Christopher Marlowe, the slurs to his reputation would be but a footnote in some obscure biographies. Richard, however, had the ill fortune to pique the interest of Shakespeare.

That just seems unfair. What's that old expression? Like breaking a butterfly on a wheel.

This kind of thing happens all the time in smaller, more mundane ways. A compelling or entertaining story gets started, it lands on the Internet, it's number one on Google, and it never, ever goes away--despite alternative narratives that seek to undo its destructive fictions. Lives are altered, and sometimes ruined, because we've increased our thirst for entertainment and lost our hunger for questions.

We need to care about the truth. Not to the exclusion of art, but neither should a good story short-circuit our moral sensibilities (or, for that matter, our common sense). Yes, the truth is elusive--we'll never know exactly what happened in the past, or even in our own lives. But we have to care--we're morally obligated to keep the question open. We can't let Google be our moral compass! Or Shakespeare (the institution, not the writer), for that matter. For one thing, the moral authority accorded The Bard in anglophone cultures is, sadly, often decontextualized. Plenty of people cite Polonius's dictum, "to thine own self be true," without realizing that Polonius was a sententious old fart and a sycophant who used his own daughter to curry favor with a corrupt regime. And how good is that advice, anyway? It's not the same as the Socratic/Delphic "know thyself." It suggests that, given a choice between serving the interests of a larger group or your own, you should always go with the latter. Certainly Polonius himself took it to heart, and look where it got him.

Will's history plays are theater--entertainment--and not historiography. Wonderful, sublime entertainment, certainly. Edifying, without a doubt. But not factual. These days, the people who know Richard III at all simply assume that he was the "villain" he aspires to be in the play. Henry V, by contrast, is the hero of Agincourt, not a bloodthirsty imperialist who made up convoluted dynastic reasons for invading lands he had no claim to. These two myths--one demonic, the other heroic--have endured mostly because Will made these two characters so compelling. His Henry VIII, on the other hand, has not made much of an historical impression. The play is certainly less powerful as drama (and may not have been written entirely by Will, anyway). Other, more compelling versions of Henry have triumphed over Will's benevolent monarch. We're more likely to agree with Dickens, who called Elizabeth's dad "a most intolerable ruffian, a disgrace to human nature, and a blot of blood and grease upon the history of England."

I love that--"a blot of blood and grease."

Yes, I know that history is an interpretation, too. But competing narratives, taken together, can constitute a kind of truth. The refusal to obliterate possibility is a way of treating the past ethically, it seems to me. And it's an investment in the future, as well. So I'm giving the last historical word (and my last visual aid, see above left) to the Ricardians. It's only fair.

Okay, that's my anti-slander rant. Now, back to literature. Richard III is a kind of a hybrid play--it's history, but also tragedy. And the history part sometimes just doesn't mesh with the tragedy part. Histories, in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, were supposed to be edifying, exemplary, and commemorative. They celebrated the noble deeds of past generations--most of which were performed in war. Histories were....manly. Women were mostly marginal characters--or increasingly so, if one takes a close look at Will's two tetralogies. In the three Henry VI plays, women are dangerous--foreign, witchy, and threatening to the patrilineal succession essential for social stability. In the second tetralogy, they are completely subservient and hardly present at all. Richard III is a kind of transitional play, a halfway point between the older vision of women as violent and domineering, and the later one, where they're fully domesticated. The play relegates these formerly scary women to a choric role--they are the hand-wringers, the cursing witches, the mourners. Victims, every one. And passive, too. The only time a woman acts in the play is near the end, when Elizabeth refuses to let Richard marry her daughter, handing her over to Henry instead. But we don't see her thought process, or her actions, and Elizabeth of York remains invisible.

It was said that the historical Henry VII wanted to keep her that way--even to the point of denying her a coronation. Perhaps the example of the last Henry, who was ruled by his foreign wife (Margaret, remember) just freaked him out. Whatever the case, public outrage eventually forced him to have her formally crowned queen.

At the end of the play, Henry orders that the dead be "interred...as befits their birth." Social hierarchy--in those days synonymous with social order--has been restored. Henry wouldn't even talk to a page, much less order one to help him with some nefarious scheme. Richard, however, cares little for boundaries. He can "play the maid," or be a man's man on the battlefield. He can refuse to associate with the upstart Woodvilles (Elizabeth's kin), but surround himself with lowlifes. He's too big, too subversive (although I confess I dislike that word--it's too cliched among academics), for a history play.

Which is why he has such a long afterlife in Will's other works. All of Will's great villains carry some of Richard's literary DNA. In King Lear, Edmund declares his disdain for hierarchies and the law--like Richard, he blames his evil actions on a congenital misfortune, his illegitimate birth. When he calls on the gods to "stand up for bastards!" we can hear the echo of Richard's determined villainy. He's as masterful a manipulator in his own way as Richard is in his--and fully as duplicitous, playing the loving son and brother even as he plans to destroy both Gloucester (father) and Edgar (brother). In Othello, the Richard-like Iago quite upstages the hero. He pretends to be Othello's friend, but readily admits his sinister motives:

I follow him to serve my turn upon him.

I pretend to be his man so I can get back at him, for some imagined slight.

Like Richard, Iago is an actor, a master of double-speak:

Though I do hate him as I do hell pains--
Yet for necessity of present life
I must show out a flag and sign of love
Which is indeed but sign...

He few lines later, his duplicitious words to Othello remind us of Richard, insisting on his "childish-foolish" naivete:

...I lack iniquity,
Sometime, to do me service.

I wish I could be wicked and hard-hearted, but it's just not in me.

Macbeth probably owes the greatest debt to Richard III. As Richard begins his descent in Acts 4 and 5, there are many moments that prefigure Macbeth's own quick rise and hasty fall from power. Like Richard, Macbeth asserts that he's done too much murder to stop. In Macbeth, Will makes much more of the issue of time--of "o'erleaping" the rightful succession to the throne and of speedy plots outrunning nature itself. As in the Richard III, the "high crime" of regicide poisons the entire nation. Will here divided Richard's sexually ambivalent personality in half--Lady Macbeth is the instigator, policing her husband's manhood, while Macbeth himself is the actual homicide. As Macbeth isn't fully a man, his wife isn't really a woman--she's an unnatural corruption of her sex. Rather like Margaret, in the Henry VI plays, only a whole lot scarier.

Tragedy, in other words, is about character. It pulls at our emotions, eliciting feminine empathy rather than masculine patriotism. Okay, that's reductive--but I think there's something to it. Tragedy transcends history in the same way that Richard himself--Will's Richard, that is--transcends the historical context of the play. In claiming to be a villain, a Machiavel (actually he uses that word in 3 Henry VI), he claims to be immune to the predations and judgments of historical time.

I haven't talked about Machiavelli here, and I don't want to get too much into philosophy, but Machiavelli's The Prince was very widely read in the Renaissance. Like most popular works, it became reduced to a few ideas in the popular imagination--as a "mirror for princes," i.e., a treatise on right rulership, it promoted an active use of power in specifically theatrical ways. A prince should be a mythmaker, an illusionist, a creator of spectacles that inspire fear and awe. Machiavelli's emphasis, however, was on social order; he knew from experience that powerful, contentious nobles and restless commons can lead to social and political chaos. Order was the desideratum of all princely actions, no matter how cruel or parsimonious. For Machiavelli, the Prince wasn't a figure who stood outside history--he was a character who wrested history from the grasp of fortune and made it his own.

This struggle, between the individual will and the relentless tide of events, is, in some sense, the origin of tragedy--in literature as in real life. Tragic figures go against the tide--either because they initially think they're above it (Lear, Macbeth), or because circumstances force them to (Hamlet), or because they are too innocent to understand what's at stake (Othello, Romeo and Juliet). History is that tide, even if it's marginalized, as it is in many of the greater tragedies of Will's later career.

I'll have more to say about this in upcoming posts, when I start re-reading Romeo and Juliet, a play that isn't really about erotic passion at all (okay, there is some of that, but it's a sideshow); rather, it's about the struggle between public and private life--the social/historical world and the inner realm of character and emotion. This conflict, rather than some nebulous notion of "love," is what all romances are about. Yes, even the ones you buy at the grocery store. Don't believe me? Just wait, I'll prove it.

So, Richard. Although he dies at the end of the play, he still has the last word--his ghost inhabits Iago, Edmund, Macbeth, Don John, and even Claudius on occasion. A creature who disdained boundaries, he's managed to transcend even that most inexorable one, the final curtain. He's dead, but like the Terminator, he'll be baaack. So let's not say goodbye, or farewell, but simply...later.

Next: Hormonally-charged adolescents and crazy Italian families. Sounds like a page out of my own history!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Endgame, Part 2


In the last post, I wrote about the trouble I'm having with Will's version of events. This time, at least initially, I'm going to just read the play the way it wants to be read. Act 5 begins with Buckingham's execution, the last of Richard's bloody deeds--although technically, B. deserved it. Treason against a sitting king was punishable by death. Immediately afterward we meet Richmond, the future king and Richard's "foil" (why does that word always remind me of high school English class?)--or, more precisely, the protagonist who is only a bit player in this antagonistic drama. He immediately offers the audience a clear choice. It's me--just and fair, bringer of sunshine and mellow fruitfulness, or him-- devouring vampiric cannibal pig:

The wretched, bloody, and usurping boar
That spoils your summer fields and fruitful vines,
Swills your warm blood like wash, and makes his trough
In your inbowelled bosoms, this foul swine
Lies now even in the centry of this isle
Near to the town of Leicester, as we learn.
From Tamworth thither is by one day's march.
In God's name, cheerly on, courageous friends,
To reap the harvest of perpetual peace
By this one bloody trial of sharp war.

His speech, which is addressed to Richmond's armies but also to the audience as a whole, is a masterpiece of political oratory. The image of the "bloody boar" trampling the edenic fields of the countryside, drinking human blood like hog swill out of hollowed out human torsos is horrifying and mythic--Richard is a wild animal who feeds on his own kind. This graphic picture is followed by a somewhat jarring return to the real geography of England, a reminder that this is history, not legend, and the stakes are quite real. Then the requisite invocation of divine favor, ending with a (somewhat) mixed metaphor--to reap the harvest, you must endure a trial.

Some of Will's most memorable metaphors are awkward by most people's standards. "To take arms against a sea of troubles" is impossible to visualize. It's a "bad" metaphor, but it's used powerfully to indicate that things in Denmark--even metaphysical things--are indeed "out of joint." Richmond does the same thing here--that a "trial" should yield a "harvest" only makes sense if we remember that Richard has inverted nature itself. In his sickly kingdom, women give birth to corpses and animals feed on humans. Fruitfulness will only return when justice is served.

That night, the two contestants go to sleep in tents on opposite sides of the stage. I know, "contestants" sounds like a game show.

Let's go with it...

Who will take home today's grand prize, this royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this other Eden, demi-paradise, this fortress built by nature for herself against infection and the hand of war...? Will it be the blood-swilling boar, eater of his own kin and trampler of those demi-paradisal fields of fruitfulness? Or will it be the newcomer, this tall, good-looking guy who always smiles and only murders people when he absolutely has to? Let's begin the game and see!

Hmm. Mixed up my Richards for a second there. Richard II is a great play, too, in a completely different way--but that's for later. Anyway, back to the stage. Richard and Richmond (I think I'll start calling him Henry now, since he's going to be king in just a few scenes) both take a few notes, then fall asleep. The stage is dark, except for...ghosts! Yes, the ghosts of all Richard's victims traipse across the stage, making dire predictions for Richard and, just to be spiteful, happy ones for Henry. All these bit players get one more chance to show off their acting chops--and just in case the audience can't remember who they are, they announce themselves as if they're reading from a history book:

Ghost of Prince Edward (to Richard): Let me sit heavy on thy soul tomorrow,
Prince Edward, son to Henry the Sixth.
Think how thou stabbest me in my prime of youth
At Tewkesbury. Despair, therefore, and die.
(To Richmond) Be cheerful, Richmond, for the wronged souls
Of butchered princes fight in thy behalf.
King Henry's issue, Richmond, comforts thee.

There are so many Edwards (and not a few Richards) among the royals that it does get confusing. Nice of the ghosts to remind us of their lineage. Next, the ghost of Ed's dad, Henry VI, shows up:

Ghost of King Henry (to Richard): When I was mortal, my anointed body
By thee was punched full of deadly holes. Think on the Tower, and me. Despair and die.
Henry the Sixth bids thee despair and die.
(To Richmond) Virtuous and holy, be thou conqueror.
Harry that prophesied thou shouldst be king
Comforts thee in thy sleep. Live and flourish!

Henry predicted that Richmond/Henry (now there are two Henrys, so it has to be Richmond again) would accede to the throne in 3 Henry VI; Henry's body was "anointed" because that's part of the coronation ceremony. (Presumably, Richard's kingly body was similarly oiled up, but never mind). The "despair and die," "live and flourish" messages become a ritualized chant as Clarence, Rivers, Gray, Vaughan, the young Princes, Hastings, Anne, and Buckingham repeat some version of the curse/blessing, accompanied by a few distinguishing details. Anne blames Richard for never letting her have a decent night's sleep, Buckingham for disloyalty (although this seems hypocritical, under the circumstances), Clarence for his undignified end in a tub of wine.

Although the stage directions seem to indicate that these figures enter from one side of the stage, visiting Richard's tent, then Henry's, a modern production could make more of the fact that this is supposed to be a dream, not a visitation. The ghosts could be represented using some sort of visual technology--figures on a screen, or even just voices--which would make them mere symptoms of Richard's guilty conscience and Henry's smug self-confidence.

I mean virtuous optimism.

After the ghosts exit, Richard "starteth up out of a dream," imagining himself on the battlefield. The speech that follows is Richard's penultimate long monologue; in many ways it's the antithesis of the play's opening. Once rhetorically masterful, completely in control of his own theatrical duplicity, he's now fully internalized that duality. No longer duplicitous, he's now simply fragmented, divided in two by his guilty conscience. A modern psychoanalytic reader might call this a psychotic break:

Give me another horse! Bind up my wounds!
Have mercy, Jesu!--Soft, I did but dream.
O coward conscience how dost thou afflict me?
The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? Myself? There's none else by.
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly! What, from myself? Great reason. Why?
Lest I revenge. Myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O no, alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain. Yet I lie: I am not.

Because dreams and prophecies are potent in this world, his call for another horse will echo into the historical future just a bit later, when he utters his famous "kingdom for a horse" line. The fractured, jerky cadence of this speech indicates that Richard himself is broken, and that his psychic and spiritual "wounds" can't be bound up or healed. The mirror that he once imagined reflecting his mastery of events ("I'll be at charges for a looking-glass," he boasts in Act 1) is now shattered. The fragmentation of the nation, soon to be reunited under Henry's healing reign, has now become Richard's own psychic civil war. A few lines later, he seems to foretell his own historical afterlife:

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.

He's fulfilled his own ambition "to prove a villain," but it's dust in his mouth. Now he seems positively whiny:

I shall despair. There's no creature loves me,
And if I die no soul will pity me.
Nay, wherefore should I?--Since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself.

His pity party is interrupted by Ratcliffe, who advises him to "be not afraid of shadows." Shadows are actors, the audience knows. But they need a sun. Richard prided himself on being a "shadow" on the Sun of York. Now that he's king, he needs to be that sun--but he's only a shadow, a theatrical poseur, a fake. Henry's the sun, now, and Richard's brief reign is about to be eclipsed.

Before that, however, Henry gives his soldiers the necessary inspirational pep talk. In the great tradition of generals and football coaches, he invokes God, the home fires, future generations, and, because it's England, Saint George. It's fairly formulaic, structured to be a contrast to Richard's bigoted and vitriolic final speech (see below). Henry reminds the audience that Richard is "a bloody tyrant and a homicide," who "hath ever been God's enemy." If they win, he assures his troops, they'll be rewarded with a peaceful, prosperous country, grateful wives (and all that that entails) and happy grandchildren.

There are omens, of course, before the battle. Medieval and Renaissance people got pretty freaked out by astronomical phenomena--comets and eclipses were thought to be harbingers of certain doom for someone. It was said that a sighting of Halley's comet in 1066 portended the Norman triumph, for example. There is, naturally, no record of an eclipse prior to the Battle of Bosworth Field, so this is definitely poetic license. But it does add to the apocalyptic ambiance. Richard tries to see it as ominous for Henry, and not himself:

The sun will not be seen today.
The sky doth frown and lour upon our army.
I would these dewy tears were from the ground.
Not shine today--why, what is that to me
More than to Richmond? For the selfsame heaven
That frowns on me looks sadly upon him.

Does it? Henry didn't mention anything about an eclipse. At this point in the play, Richard's like one of those cartoon characters who walks around with his own private raincloud--his own umbrella of doom. He knows it's over, too--that's why his oration to his troops--his final speech--is so desperate, a vitriolic stream of Francophobia laced with images of suicide and rape:

Remember whom you are to cope withal:
A sort of vagabonds, rascals, and runaways,
A scum of Bretons and base lackey peasants
Whom their o'ercloyed country vomits forth
To desperate ventures and assured destruction.

France--and particularly Brittany--is like a nauseated belly, spewing out its own poison scum to fill up Henry's army. Like all lowlifes, they will steal your stuff and rape your women:

You having lands and blessed with beauteous wives,
They would distrain the one, distain the other.

Moreover, the guy who leads them is a girly man, a "milksop," a "paltry fellow." If his followers hadn't been enlisted in the army, they'd probably have "hanged themselves" in despair at their lowly circumstances.

If we be conquered, let men conquer us,
And not these bastard Bretons, whom our fathers
Have in their own land beaten, bobbed, and thumped.
And in record left them the heirs of shame.
Shall these enjoy our lands? Lie with our wives?
Ravish our daughters?

Politicians who resort to this sort of invective are invariably losers. It's okay to make racist/xenophobic insinuations, but saying them out loud smacks of desperation. Richard here suggests that the Breton soldiers will pollute the land and compromise its racial purity. Those wives and daughters who are (in the usual scheme of things) useful only as vessels of hereditary privilege, hold a privileged place in this kind of "ethnic cleansing" narrative. It would be heavy-handed to point out that Hitler used similar tactics in his early speechifying years. But hey, why not point it out anyway?

Well, we know what happens after that. There's fighting offstage, clamor and the clanging of swords, and then Richard stumbles in, calling for "a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" This moment is more powerful if we remember how fast Richard's plots raced through the first three acts of the play--and now, history races ahead without him. He's not above making bargains, however--

Slave, I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die.
I think there be six Richmonds in the field.
Five have I slain today, instead of him.
A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!

It was, apparently, common practice for leaders to send out "decoys" on a medieval battlefield--since everyone was covered up in armor, it was also pretty easy to do. This kind mistaken identity plays a large part in medieval romance--knights were always putting on someone else's armor in order to fight incognito. Still, it's hard to know how to take this. Some critics have suggested that Richard's deluded here, and others see the "six Richmonds" as evidence that the new king understands the theatrical uses of disguise as well as his nemesis does. Personally, I think that the six Richmonds imply that Richmond/Henry is kind of a placeholder himself. He's two-dimensional figure here, and obviously not Will's favorite character in the play, although he's (necessarily) the "hero." He doesn't get any really good lines, relative to Richard or even Margaret; he seems curiously vacant, a blank page awaiting the scribbles of history (you see why I'm a literary critic and not a poet). There can be six Richmonds, certainly. Six, or a hundred. But only one Richard.

In the play, Henry gets to defeat Richard in single combat. It's more romantic that way, but the gory chaos of a real medieval battlefield was anything but. After dispatching his enemy, Henry gives his final "synthesis" speech, in which he mentions (the fixedly absent) Elizabeth of York, whose bloodlines will ensure the legitimacy of his claim. Elizabeth herself matters so little that she's not even a character. She's a "peaceweaver" in the great Anglo-Saxon tradition--a woman useful only insofar as she can be exchanged in marriage. By marrying her, Henry hopes to silence those who would call him a usurper.

There is an uneasy moment in the midst of all this reconciliation and peace-talk. In the final lines of the play, Henry hints that there might be more bloodshed to come:

Let them not live to taste this land's increase,
That would with treason wound this fair land's peace.

My thanks to Jonathan for pointing out that this threat to potential traitors hints at future purges of real or imagined enemies. Shades of Richard himself....

Next time, I'll have a little more to say about history, fiction, and the seminal role of this play--and Richard--in Will's later tragedies.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Endgame, Part 1


It's been a long week, with too much work in it--October is probably my busiest month all year. I've been thinking a lot about the play, but have had little time to write. My thanks to Jonathan for the mid-week food for thought (see our exchange after the "fertile womb" posting). Fifteenth-century history has been much on my mind, and I almost find myself feeling a bit like the characters in the play--things have moved too fast, and I'm playing catch-up. At the same time, I'm aware that this story will never really have an end. We'll never know the truth, even if we had the time to sift through reams of Tudor and Ricardian propaganda in pursuit of the holy grail of irreducible fact.

I don't know how this happened, but after decades spent as a literary scholar, arguing for the privilege of cultural fantasy over material history, I've become, in my middle age, weirdly enamored of the truth. However elusive.

Act 5 has made me feel more sympathy for this man whose reputation fell into the hands of his enemies. I know how hard it is to change the course of an appealing narrative, even when it's widely acknowledged to be false. As much as I admire Will, I feel strongly that Richard, whatever his faults (and surely there were many) has been ill-used here. Part of my sympathy derives from my discomfort with the pat way things are resolved. Events are telescoped, which is necessary to the drama--but the simple moral dualism, which extends even to a divided stage--is surely reductive at best, dishonest at worst. The other thing I realize is that I really dislike Richmond, later Henry VII. I find his speeches cloying and his vaunted compassion disingenuous. He creeps me out.

So, let's take a look at the play, and I'll show you what I mean.

We left off at the end of Act 4, after Richard's attempt to "woo" Elizabeth into handing over her daughter. After Elizabeth leaves the stage, we're immediately thrust back into the masculine realm of warfare. Richmond is attacking from the western shore, and Buckingham has raised an army. Richard calls upon his remaining loyal lieutenants, Catesby and Ratcliffe (popularly known in a contemporary song as "the Cat and the Rat") to muster his supporters. He sends Ratcliffe to Salisbury, and Catesby to the Duke of Norfolk. And then he seems to forget what he'd just said.

Ratcliffe: What, may it please you, shall I do at Salisbury?
King Richard: Why, what wouldst thou do there before I go?
Ratcliffe: Your highness told me I should post before.
King Richard: My mind is changed.

His mind is definitely changed. Where once he was decisive and unflappable, he now seems confused and distracted. His allies have deserted him, or, like Stanley, are in the process of doing so, leaving him with a motley crew of disreputable men.

Stanley confirms that Richmond "makes for England, here to claim the crown." Richard seems to think that the crown itself conveys the right to wear it:

Is the chair empty? Is the sword unswayed?
Is the King dead? Is the empire unpossessed?
What heir of York is there alive but we?
And who is England's king but great York's heir?
Then tell me, what makes he upon the seas?

His argument is simple--since there is a king, and that king is himself, why is Richmond coming to claim a throne that isn't vacant? The speech seems absurd, given the fact that he's a usurper as well, but to Will's audience it would have had a deeper historical resonance. When Henry IV (Harry Bolingbroke) deposed Richard II less than a hundred years previously, he asserted the right of a lesser branch of the royal line to overthrow a legitimate ruler. This set an unfortunate precedent, and led to decades of internecine violence. In this context, a sitting king necessarily rules more by might than right. For Will, the coup d'etat that pushed Richard II off the throne was the "original sin" that would only be redeemed when Henry Tudor united the houses of Lancaster and York. That his reign also began as a usurpation is a fact for which this play attempts (rather heavy-handedly) to compensate.

Richard becomes increasingly paranoid as the final confrontation looms--although, as the saying goes, "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not really after you." Stanley is planning to defect, so Richard is right to fear that he will "revolt and fly" to Richmond. When the messenger arrives to tell him that Buckingham's army has dispersed, Richard doesn't wait for the good news; he assumes the worst and strikes the messenger.

Being a royal messenger in the bad old days before telecommunication seems to have been a high-risk occupation. Bring good news, and you might be set for life. Ill tidings, however, could be fatal. Maybe messengers were adrenaline junkies, like skydivers today...

When the messenger finishes, Richard learns that it's good news after all. Buckingham has been captured; naturally, he's sentenced to death. In his final speech, he regrets his broken oath to Edward in Act 2, and remarks that "Margaret's curse falls heavy on my neck." He here echoes Hastings, who lamented before his own execution that Margaret's curse "is lighted upon poor Hastings' wretched head."

Will seems to give Margaret a lot of power in these moments--not as an historical woman, or a queen, but as an avenging Fury who brings the disavowed past "heavily" to bear on the present. This is justice of a sort, but it doesn't end the cycle of violence. "Wrong hath but wrong," says Buckingham, "and blame the due of blame." An eye for an eye--but no scores are settled, and no balance is restored. That won't happen until the "hero," Richmond, takes the stage.

It seems odd that Will takes so long to bring Richmond into the play. I mean, he could have shown him in France, plotting his next move, or fulminating about how evil Richard is and how determined he is to set things right. But he doesn't do any of that. I think the reason Will holds off is because Richmond, no matter how fine and noble he makes him, can't possibly compete with Richard on the stage. As his fortunes fall, Richard still compels our gaze and even (in my case at least) some of our sympathies. Like Anne, we know he's evil, and we don't care. He's...cool.

Evil, of course, but still cool.

What is coolness, you may wonder? Speaking as someone who comes from a very hip and (sometimes irritatingly) cool family, I'll tell you. It's an ontological state, like (theatrical) evil. And its distinguishing characteristics are a vision, a will to bring it into being, and--here's the intangible part--a kind of "style" that transcends fashion. When, after wooing Anne, Richard imagines looking in the mirror and finding himself handsome, what he's really saying is "Am I cool, or what? Am I not the quintessence of fifteenth-century hipness? Is there anyone who can match my savoir faire, my je ne sais quoi, my utter and complete mastery of the social scene and its emotional runoff? No, there isn't. I am it. And then some."

It's a delusion, of course. But if you can get other people to believe in it, you're living the dream.

Richmond is not cool. He's like the teacher's pet, the prep school brat, the Eddie Haskell (if any of you are old enough to remember Leave it to Beaver) who sucks up to everyone and mouths a lot of platitudes about a "new dawn," and how he's going to bring back all those "summer fields and fruitful vines" and so on. He calls the captain of his troops "good" and "sweet," and bids his army march into war "boldly and cheerfully!" He's a motivational speaker, touting the power of positive thinking. Visualize victory, and it's yours! Imagine I'm going to be a great king, and I will! We can do this thing if we just, you know, believe....and remember, the other guy is a bloodsucking swine! Be cheerful! Smile! The sun of York is about to set, but my sun will be even brighter.

If he were a twenty-first century American, he'd be preaching in a megachurch and making a bundle off of self-help books and lectures.

Meanwhile, back in the Middle Ages, Richard is still confused about why his people are abandoning him:

...the King's name is a tower of strength,
Which they upon the adverse faction want.

I'm king, remember? That should count for something. He's not king. I am. Me. Not him. Get it?

What they get is that the throne is up for grabs, and the odds don't favor Richard. I use the idiom intentionally, because Richard himself has always been a gambler. Even his last words, "my kingdom for a horse!" are a gambler's plea--all or nothing.

Will's vision of the Battle of Bosworth Field is one of theatrical symmetry--two tents, two camps, two contestants for the throne, facing each other across the stage. Throughout this scene, Richmond's orderly, hierarchical approach to the coming battle is juxtaposed against Richard's emotional disarray:

Henry Earl of Richmond: Give me some ink and paper in my tent.
I'll draw the form and model of our battle,
Limit each leader to his several charge,
And part in just proportion our small power.
Let us consult upon tomorrow's business.
Into my tent, the dew is raw and cold.

Richmond is the kind of guy who color-codes his ties and irons his underwear. He's a quintessential bureaucrat, prefiguring Will's "managerial" characterization of Octavius Caesar (later Augustus) in Antony and Cleopatra. In these post-Freudian days, he'd be called anal. Compare Richard, on the other side of the stage:

King Richard: I will not sup tonight. Give me some ink and paper.
What, is my beaver easier than it was?
And all my armor laid into my tent?

Richard also calls for ink and paper, but then seems to forget what he wanted it for. He's distracted by his helmet visor, which might not be as tight as he'd like. A few lines later, he calls for all kinds of stuff:

...Fill me a bowl of wine. Give me a watch.
Saddle white Surrey for the field tomorrow.
Look that my staves be sound, and not too heavy.

While Richmond is busy laying out a strategy, Richard, like a knight in a romance, is busy with his armor--as if preparing for single combat, not a clash of armies. Again, this reminded me of Antony and Cleopatra--Antony wants to meet Caesar in single combat, not realizing that that era (which only really existed in literature, anyway) is over. In Caesar's new world, the rulers are managers, not warriors.

Historically, Richard was the last English king to die on the battlefield. If he was the "man of tomorrow" early in the play, he's now become yesterday's news. Richmond is the new man now, the guy who's got a feminine side, who can weep as well as wield a sword, who understands the importance of hierarchy and order. At least that's what Will wants us to think.

Is this "synthesis" convincing? Or does it tip over into irony? I'll talk about that next time.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Nothing But Songs of Death


I've been really enjoying reading this play, but it does take its toll. I find Richard usurps my thoughts at odd hours, and lines from the play jump out and caption things almost randomly. Today I woke up to find the our president had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This was pretty surprising, since he's only been at this job for about nine months. My reaction was mixed--I think Mr. Obama is a good man, well-intentioned, but lately I've been feeling like he's in over his head. Health care, Afghanistan, climate change, the Middle East, the recession. I mean, really. No wonder his hair is going gray (and how weird is it that that always seems to happen to presidents--although I think nine months may be a record). I feel--and I've already had someone chew me out about this, implying that I'm a Friend of Fox News--that this award was premature. I blame the Nobel committee, not the president. The prize represents a blatant attempt to influence policy in this country, and I think that's kind of low, although also brilliant, in a way....

So what pops into my head this morning, but Richard asking Elizabeth to consider

...what I will be, not what I have been,
Not my deserts, but what I will deserve.

Now I'm not comparing Obama to Richard! So don't even go there. My point is that I had this uncanny moment when life seemed to imitate art. The award seemed to race ahead of Obama's achievements, catching us all by surprise, just as Richard seems to do for the first three acts of the play.

I think this says more about my own obsessive relation to this text than it does about contemporary politics. Which in turn makes me realize that blogging Richard III has taken quite a bit longer--already--than The Taming of the Shrew. It just asks more, and you (I) have to give it.

But it's still fun. I like doing this, even if I'm not sure who's listening. (A blog is like prayer that way, I guess). I want to do something different after this, however. Initially I thought that it would be cool to blog Macbeth, because of Halloween--but that was before I remembered how like Macbeth this play is. No more premeditated murder for awhile.

I want to stick with something early, so my two current contenders are The Merchant of Venice--which I love because it's all about debt, and grace, and justice--and Romeo and Juliet, which is interesting mostly because it's had such a profound and long-standing cultural impact: it's been made into a ballet, a musical, and several films. It's part of the way we think about romance now, and I find that fascinating.

If you want to weigh in, I'm happy to consider votes. My cousin, to whom I owe the existence of this blog--because she urged me to do it repeatedly--wants romance. (Don't we all!) Absent any other persuasion, I'll probably go with that...but I'm open to other suggestions.

Now back to Act 4.

In the second scene, Richard ascends the throne with all necessary pomp. Although he's gotten what he wanted, he clearly has no idea how to rule. So long an antagonist, he's incapable of anything else--least of all reigning over a kingdom. He can't sit on the throne for even a moment without plotting yet another murder. Like Macbeth, who was "in blood/stepped so far" that he couldn't turn back, so Richard muses that he is "in/so far in blood that sin will pluck on sin."

As "sickly" as the kingdom was under Edward, it becomes much more so under Richard, a reflection of his twisted mind. Wombs bring forth beasts, children arrange for the murders of other children, weeping women ventriloquize a suffering nation. It's a testament to the court's disorder that the king must ask a page--a mere child--to find him a hired assassin. That a child knows just where to look is even more telling. The court is teeming with criminals, and all good men are running off to join Richmond.

Although Buckingham is less than thrilled about killing the princes, it's implied that he would go along with it if Richard were to grant him "th'earldom of Hereford, and the moveables" that he'd been promised. Rewarding loyalty is rule one of kingship, but Richard made the princes' murder a test of that loyalty, and Buckingham failed. Denied his reward for service rendered, the king's most loyal minion decides he'd rather keep his head, and runs off to raise an army.

If Richard of Gloucester was crazy like a fox, King Richard seems to be just plain crazy, muttering to himself about Richmond and recalling earlier prophecies of doom. He's not sleeping, and, like all murderers in Will's plays, thinks that more killing is just the soporific he needs. That and a new wife, once he poisons the one he's got.

The historical murderer, James Tyrrell, doesn't kill the princes in Will's version of events--he calls upon his servant and some lowlife cronies to do the dirty deed. The play once again makes mediation an issue--the murder is passed from the page to Tyrrell to his lackeys, and we only hear about the deed through Tyrell's narrative. Where once Richard pulled the strings, he's now distanced even from his own evil plots; his power has become diffuse and events are slipping out of his control. What's more, he doesn't talk to us anymore--when he mutters his asides, he's obviously talking to himself.

From Machiavel to madman, in three acts.

The murder of the princes, unlike that of Clarence, takes place offstage. It's more powerful as theater that way, but it's also a nod to the mystery of the Princes in the Tower, I think. Tyrrell's confession is the only "proof" that Richard was the culprit, and Will at least honors the historical record to that limited extent.

The confession itself is so full of pathos that it borders on cloying. According to Tyrrell, who heard it from the killers, the two children huddle together

...girdling one another
Within their alabaster innocent arms,
Their lips were four red roses on a stalk,
And in their summer beauty kissed each other.

He paints a picture of hardened criminals ("fleshed villains, bloody dogs') who

...wept like two children in their deaths' sad story.

In telling Tyrrell what they've done, the murderers become the victims, weeping like the "two children" they've killed. Interestingly, Tyrrell doesn't say they wept while they were doing the killing. They were overcome with remorse when they had to narrate it. Thus we see, once again, the moral triumph of literature over life, stories over real deeds, and (perhaps) theater over history.

In scene 4, Margaret returns with a vengeance. Literally, since revenge is practically all she can talk about. It's a shame that so many productions cut her part, because I think she's central to Will's whole concept of the play. Her curses in Act 1 are really a competing narrative--Richard has his scenario, and she has hers. As several characters note throughout, Margaret's version wins out in the end; everything she predicted comes to pass.

Historically, Margaret of Anjou died in 1482, so she wouldn't have been alive when Richard took the throne in 1483. But Will brings her back from the dead, a cursing revenant to remind the audience that the past is never finished, and there's no escaping from the inexorable whirl of fortune's wheel. Some readers have compared her to Hamlet's father, and I think that's apt up to a point. "Remember me," says Hamlet's ghost. Margaret asks instead that we remember history--she's only the messenger. More than anything else, she speaks for the dead.

After the murder, Margaret takes center stage alone, conjuring the old idea of the Fall of Princes once again:

So now prosperity begins to mellow,
And drop into the rotten mouth of death.
Here in these confines slyly have I lurked
To watch the waning of mine enemies.
A dire induction am I witness to,
And will to France, hoping the consequence
Will prove as bitter, black, and tragical.

Prosperity, like a rotten fruit, is about to fall off the tree. Margaret uses the language of theater--the induction, or prologue, has begun, the consequence, or conclusion, will likely prove bitter. These were Richard's words, too. In his opening soliloquy, he promises "inductions dangerous"; when Buckingham balks at murder, he mutters, "O, bitter consequence"--by which he means Buckingham's unwelcome response to his request. No longer in control of "double meanings," he isn't aware that his own bitter consequence is at hand. In usurping Richard's own words, his theatrical language, Margaret gains the advantage; the rest of the story follows her script.

In the remainder of this scene Margaret taunts the other two women with their misfortunes. She calls Elizabeth a "queen in jest," and asks her

Where is thy husband now? Where be thy brothers?
Where are thy two sons? Wherein dost thou joy?
Who sues, and kneels, and says 'God save the Queen?'
Where be the bending peers that flattered thee?
Where be the thronging troops that followed thee?

This is a very old poetic motif called the Ubi Sunt lament. It's from the Latin phrase "Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt?" which means "where are those who were before us?" One of the most haunting uses of the ubi sunt trope is in the Old English (c. 700 CE) poem The Wanderer, about a warrior who has lost his comitatus, or war-troop:

Where is the horse gone?
Where the rider?
Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast?
Where are the revels in the hall?

I was trying to think about what sort of things we might "ubi sunt" about today. Even at my age, it was hard to think of anything. "Where are all the good rock bands?" doesn't really have the same poignancy. Nor does "where now are your discos, your eight-track tapes, your high school smoking lounges...?" I wonder if it's possible for us to think about the past without irony. Or nostalgia laced with irony.

It's not nostalgia, but rather mortality, the passing of men and eras, that the ubi sunt calls to mind. Will uses it in Hamlet, too, in the graveyard scene, when Hamlet makes a joke about lawyers. When Margaret uses it, she's dead serious. "Thus,"' she exults, "hath the course of justice whirled about,"

And left thee but a very prey to time,
Having no more but thought of what thou wert
To torture thee the more, being what thou art.

This is classic Boethianism--Elizabeth had risen high on the wheel, and now the memory of that happiness is nothing but torture. You'd think she'd be royally pissed off, no pun intended, and tell Margaret to get lost and leave her to her grief. Instead, she asks for "cursing lessons," proving that misery does indeed love company, even if it's in the form of a crazy old woman who talks like something out of a Latin textbook.

Before Margaret can get to the advanced course, however, Richard marches in, trailing kingly pomp and circumstance. The women block his way, and he demands to know

Who intercepts me in my expedition?

His mom answers

O, she that might have intercepted thee
By strangling thee in her accursed womb,
From all the slaughters, wretch, that thou hast done.

On the "should Hitler have been aborted" question that provided much discussion fodder in my Catholic girls' school, the Duchess has little ambivalence. Now I have to admit, there is one tiny little moment here where I almost feel sorry for Richard. The Duchess seems to have hated him from birth:

Thou cam'st on earth to make the earth my hell.
A grievous burden was thy birth to me;
Tetchy and wayward was thy infancy;
Thy schooldays frightful, desp'rate, wild, and furious;
Thy prime of manhood daring, bold, and venturous;
Thy age confirmed, proud, subtle, sly, and bloody;
More mild, but yet more harmful; kind in hatred.
What comfortable hour canst thou name
That ever graced me in thy company?

Childbirth was rough, he was a cranky baby, a wild kid. Which makes him...just like millions of other kids. Small wonder that by the time he gets to be a man, he's sneaky and violent. As a twentieth-century girl (which is to say, one who left her girlhood in the last century), I can't help but do a little psychoanalyzing here.

You must imagine the German accent:

Dr. Freud: So, Richard. Tell me about your mother.

Richard: She never loved me, even when I was a baby! She always compared me to my brothers, who were better at sports. It's not my fault I was born deformed, with a withered arm and this hump on my back.

Freud: How did this make you feel?

Richard: How do you think? Lousy! I tried to please her by being smart. I memorized poems and plays, and I was good at languages. I learned to fight with one hand. I was charming, and had good manners.

Freud: And did these things win her love?

Richard: No. No matter what I did, the bitter old hag told me I was a grievous burden, tetchy and wayward, born to make her life hell.

Freud: "Tetchy?" Das verstehe ich nicht. But never mind. So what did you do when you realized she wasn't going to love you?

Richard: (smiles) I decided to prove a villain, and kill everyone else in my family--as well as a bunch of other people who got in the way of my overweening ambition. And you know what? It was a total rush.

Freud: Umm-hmm. I see...

In fact, Freud did have a few things to say about Richard. In a short essay he called "The Exceptions," Freud wrote about patients who have become neurotic owing to some "experience or suffering to which they had been subjected in earliest childhood," an experience they found to be unjust. These people grow up to think that normal rules do not apply to them--i.e., that they are "exceptional." Freud's primary example of this type of neurotic was Richard III (Will's version, not the historical king). According to Freud, Richard was "a figure created by the greatest of poets--a figure in whose character the claim to be an exception is...motivated by the circumstance of congenital disadvantage." In other words, since he was deformed and (therefore) unloved, he became determined to play the villain.

Right. Personally, I think Freud was seduced by Richard's own version of things--Richard claims that all his villainy has its origins in congenital deformity, but he really just likes being wicked. He plays up his "congenital disadvantage" when it suits him, but that's not the cause of his...evilness. (I like this word more and more, I find. In this era of inflated everything, evil definitely needs an intensifier.)

Freud was, in my view, a pretty good philosopher, but a lousy clinician. If you read the footnotes and post-scripts of his case studies, you find out that he never cured anyone. But he did tell a hell of a good story.

Even if Freud overstates the case, however, there is something between Richard and his mother. He's different around her.

Duchess: I pray thee, hear me speak.
Richard: You speak too bitterly.
Duchess: Hear me a word, for I shall never speak to thee again.
Richard: So.

She curses him with a bloody death in battle, which I won't repeat here, because it's just like all the other maternal curses in this part of the play. But am I wrong to hear something in that "so?" Richard, who always has a retort, is reduced to a monosyllable. He lets his mother have the last angry word, as if he's allowing her to punish him yet again.

Maybe Freud was right, and it is all about Richard's oedipal issues!

Nah.

Well, I've already written about the "second wooing scene" in the last post, so I won't dwell on it. I simply want to reiterate the differences between this scene and the first one, with Anne. The primary difference, of course, is that Richard is wooing an intercessor, not a lover. The other difference is that he completely misreads her. After she seems to give in and exits the stage, he calls her a "relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman." These words would have been appropriate had they been said of Anne in Act 1, but here, they seem to associate Elizabeth with Fortune herself, who, as any Boethian knows, is indeed shallow and always changing.

Lastly, of course, Elizabeth's a mother. Richard has no luck with mothers in this play. They are like anti-matter to his matter, and they're utterly immune to his seductive power.

Next: The king in check.