Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Couples in Shakespeare

There are indications that Shakespeare was a reluctant bridegroom.He was 18 and Anne Hathaway 26 when they got married. He spent most of his married life in London while his children stayed back at his hometown of  Stratford. In Will in the World,  Stephen Greenblatt writes:
In one of his earliest works, the 1 Henry VI, he had a character compare a marriage by compulsion to one made voluntarily:
                   For what is wedlock forced but a hell, 
                   An age of discord and continual strife?
                   Whereas the contrary bringeth bliss,
                   And is a pattern of celestial peace.
The character is an earl, cynically persuading the king to make what will be a bad match, but the dream of bliss seems valid enough, along with the sense that "wedlock forced" is an almost certain recipe for unhappiness. Perhaps at the time he wrote those lines, in the early 1590s, Shakespeare was reflecting on the source of his own marital unhappiness.
There have been attempts to portray Shakespeare's marriage as ideal but it looks as if the ardour cooled quite quickly. What he did not say seems to suggest that the marriage was not exactly made in heaven. Between the marriage licence and his final will and testament, he did not write a single word about his marital status which was unusual for an eloquent man. He did not mention his wife even once.

In the first draft of his will, he left the bulk of his estate to his eldest daughter, made some some provisions for his sister and numerous friends and relatives but it was as if his wife did not exist. In a revised draft, he mentioned his wife on the last page, leaving her 'my second-best bed and the furnitures'. As Greenblatt says, if this was a compliment, one shudders to think what his insults would have been like.

He does not portray marital bliss. An inevitable story sequence is Beatrice's succinct summary in Much Ado About Nothing - 'wooing, wedding and repenting'. When lovesick Orlando goes around claiming that he'll die if Rosalind won't have him, she points out that "men have died from time to time, and/ worms have eaten them, but not for love".  When Orlando declares that he will love "Rosalind" forever,she says "No, no, Orlando;/ men are April when they woo, December when they wed:/ maids are May when they are maids, but the sky/ changes when they are wives". In other words, Rosalind worries that Orlando will lose interest in her after he's married her.Greenblatt writes:
In The Merchant of Venice, Jessica and Lorenzo may take pleasure together in spending the money they have stolen from her father, Shylock, but their playful banter has a distinctly uneasy tone:
                  In such a night
                  Did Jessica steal from the wealthy Jew
                  And with an unthrift love did run from Venice
                  As far as Belmont.

                  In such a night
                  Did young Lorenzo swear he loved her well,
                  Stealing her soul with many vows of faith
                  And ne'er a true one.
The currents of uneasiness here - mingling together fears of fortune hunting, bad faith, and betrayal - extend to Portia and Bassanio and even to their comic sidekicks Nerissa and Graziano.  And these are newlyweds with blissful prospects compared to Hero and the callow, cruel Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing.  Only Beatrice and Benedick, in that play and indeed among all the couples of the principal comedies, seem to hold out the possibility of a sustained intimacy, and then only if the audience discounts their many insults, forgets that they have been tricked into wooing, and assumes, against their own mutual assertions, that they genuinely love each other.
Before Bassanio tried his luck in choosing the right casket in The Merchant of Venice, while he was expressing his love for  Portia, the latter says:
Upon the rack, Bassanio! then confess
What treason there is mingled with your love.
Portia may not have been mistaken. While asking Antonio for money to go to Belmont to marry Portia,a rich heiress, Bassanio pitches it as a business deal:
In my school-days, when I had lost one shaft,
I shot his fellow of the self-same flight
The self-same way with more advised watch,
To find the other forth, and by adventuring both
I oft found both: I urge this childhood proof,
Because what follows is pure innocence.
I owe you much, and, like a wilful youth,
That which I owe is lost; but if you please
To shoot another arrow that self way
Which you did shoot the first, I do not doubt,
As I will watch the aim, or to find both
Or bring your latter hazard back again
And thankfully rest debtor for the first.
All the views of cynicism about marriage are expressed in an airy,humorous fashion and not in a gloomy tone. All the couples in Shakespeare's comedies end up getting married even when they knew that it will not be roses forever. The audience is not given the impression that it will be roses all the way. Stephen Greenblatt writes in Will in the World:
Shakespeare's plays then combine, on the one hand, an overall diffidence in depicting marriages and, on the other hand, the image of a kind of nightmare in the two marriages they do depict with some care.  It is difficult not to read his works in the context of his decision to live for most of a long marriage away from his wife.
It looks as if in Shakespeare's plays, it is the male character who keeps talking about having fallen prey to 'loveria' [You tube link to Bollywood song] while the female character is alive to the possibility that love's labour may be lost. For eg., Hamlet writes to Ophelia:
Doubt thou, the stars are fire,
Doubt, that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.
 Ophelia responds by handing the letter over to her father.

In many Bollywood movies also, it is the male character who gets an attack of 'loveria' and there are many songs of budding love and sundered hearts, two of which come to mind. On the other hand in his song, Man Smart Woman Smarter, Harry Belafonte says that it is men who have to be wary of women. Love is not a simple matter that can be settled by just a yes/no answer. A popular old Bollywood song warns of the dangers involved in matters of the heart. As Dorothy Parker  puts it bluntly:
By the time you swear you're his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying -
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying. 
As is usual with events that happened long ago and for which limited material is available, the two books I read about Shakespeare had different interpretations about the engraving on his grave slab:
Bleste be ye man yt spares thes stones,
And cvrst be he yt moves my bones
In Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt writes that he may have feared that his grave may be opened one day to let in the body of his wife. In A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, James Shapiro writes that the lines indicated that he had no interest in his remains being shifted to Westminster and the company of Chauser and Spenser.

Writers down the ages have pondered over the question of whether they have rambled on a bit beyond the limits of endurance of their readers or whether they can go on for some more time. I have similarly been giving this question considerable attention and have reached the conclusion that you have just about had enough so I will end this here.

PS: What if everyone actually had only one soul mate, a random person somewhere in the world?

Saturday, March 16, 2013


The Shakespeare play that I know best is The Merchant of Venice. This is because it was part of the syllabus for the ICSE Std. X Board exam so I had to study it for a couple of years in the course of which I had memorised much of the play.  Though he appears in very few scenes, the most riveting character in the play is Shylock. In contrast, Antonio, who is the merchant in the title of the play. is a droopy character who sets his melancholy tone in the opening lines of the play:

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.

Antonio's reply to the second speech of Shylock that I quoted in an earlier post was (in Shylock's first appearance in the play - in this video from 3:24 to 13:00):

I am as like to call thee so again,

To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.

If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not

As to thy friends; for when did friendship take

A breed for barren metal of his friend?

But lend it rather to thine enemy,

Who, if he break, thou mayst with better face

Exact the penalty.
This the good guy? I was not impressed. Shylock on the other hand, has the best lines in the play and his constant denigration by his rivals evokes chords of sympathy in the audience. The eponymous character in the play is often mistaken to be Shylock instead of Antonio. Stephen Greenblatt writes in Will in the World:
The Merchant of Venice has a host of characters who compete for the audience's attention: a handsome, impecunious young man in search of a wealthy wife; a melancholy, rich merchant who is hopelessly in love with the young man; women - three of them, no less - who dress themselves as men; a mischievous clown; an irrepressible sidekick, an exotic Moroccan; an absurd Spaniard. The list could be extended. But it is the Jewish villain everyone remembers, not simply as villain.  Shylock seems to have a stronger claim to attention, quite simply more life, then anyone else. 
 Greenblatt writes that The Merchant of Venice would have been one of Shakespeare's lesser works like The Two Gentlemen of Verona were it not for the resplendent character of Shylock. The question is: Why did Shakespeare make the Jew such a riveting character in his play?

About 300 years before Shakespeare's time, the entire Jewish community was expelled from England and forbidden to return on pain of death. That is why the play is set in Venice and not in England. Shakespeare never saw a Jew. Though the Jewish community had disappeared, they continued to exist in the imagination, in fables and jokes. Myths about them flourished - that they murdered children, poisoned wells, controlled a huge international network of capital,  plotted a secret war against the Christians....Shakespeare used the figure of a Jew without moral compunctions to depict the outer limits of human behaviour.

But there were complications. The Jews were after all 'the People of  the Book'.  In Elizabethan society, where weekly church attendance was compulsory, ministers regularly read passages from the holy scriptures of the ancient Israelites. Thus a people who were  reviled were also exalted figures in the holy book of the population. The intertwined histories of Jews and Christians could not be ignored. The conflict between mockery and identification is depicted in The Merchant of Venice.

Then there was usury. Christians were prohibited by canon law from taking interest. Since there were no Jews in England and since the realm's mercantile economy depended on money lending, some people were allowed to lend money and charge interest. Usurers were thus simultaneously despised and played a key role. Shakespeare loved such a contradiction of contempt and centrality.

Relying on such contradictions, Shakespeare creates a play in which the audience laughs at the Jew but is also uncomfortable with the laughter. (Witness Shylock's alternating between pleasure and pain in this video till 6:57.) Shylock is not the typical villian that you love to hate. In the court scene (from 10:13 in this video, the whole of this video and till 8:15 in this video)Shylock is crushed and even loses his identity. Even though relieved that he is prevented from executing his diabolical bond, the audience cannot help feeling some sympathy for Shylock. It is his mockers who are shown in poor light. In Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt says:
This generosity makes theatrical trouble; it prevents any straightforward amusement at Shylock's confusion of his daughter and his ducats, and, what is more disturbing, it undermines the climactic trail scene.  That scene is the comedy's equivalent of the real-world execution: it is meant to reach satisfying legal and moral closure, to punish villainy, and to affirm central values of the dominant culture.  All of the elements seem to be in place: a wise duke, an implacable Jewish villain sharpening his knife for slaughter, a supremely eloquent appeal for mercy, a thrilling resolution. Yet this scene, as the experience of both the page and the stage repeatedly demonstrates, is deeply unsettled and unsettling.  The resolution depends upon the manipulation of a legal technicality, the appeal for mercy gives way to the staccato imposition of punishments, and the affirmation of values is swamped by a flood of mingled self-righteousness and vindictiveness. Above all, without mitigating Shylock's vicious nature, without denying the need to thwart his murderous intentions, the play has given us too much insight into his inner life, too much of a stake in his identity and his fate, to enable us to laugh freely and without pain.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Shakespeare - II

During Shakespeare's time, severe corporal punishment in schools was common. The rote memorization, repetition, recitation exercises, etc. were backed up by threats of violence. It was understood that Latin learning meant whipping.One educational theorist of the time speculated that buttocks were created to facilitate the learning of Latin. A good teacher was supposed to be a strict teacher who beat his students.

The level of violence in Elizabethan England was amazing compared to the standards today. It was not a good time to write poetry. Court intrigues, treasonous plots, torture, public executions, displaying severed heads on stakes, etc. were common. Even educated playwrights (the flaky types) engaged in duels which often resulted in someone getting killed. For example, Ben Jonson killed a fellow writer in a duel and Christopher Marlow (an exact contemporary of Shakespeare, both being born in the same year) was killed in a bar-room brawl at the age of 29.

There was even a class distinction in the manner of carrying out executions: hanging for common people and beheading for aristocrats. The violence of the times was reflected in Shakespeare's tragedies and it would not have been extraordinary for the Elizabethan public since they would have witnessed similar scenes in real life. The thirst for vengeance is reflected is reflected by the comment about Iago's fate by an official of the state at the end of Othello:
If there be any cunning cruelty  
That can torment him much and hold him long,
 It shall be his
It is easy to believe the main thesis of Steven Pinker's latest book that the levels of violence has decreased over the centuries. (I haven't read the book. Reading around 700 pages about the worst of human behaviour is not appealing even though it leads to a positive conclusion.) Here is a TED talk by Pinker on this theme.

Shakespeare did not create the plots of most of his plays but rather borrowed them from existing sources. The main source of Julius Caesar was Plutarch's Lives. As You Like It was adapted from another play called Rosalind. The plot of Hamlet was lifted from another play by the same name. He used his mastery of the English language to create plays that moved Ben Jonson to comment that he was 'not of an age but for all time'. (Not everybody was such an unabashed admirer of Shakespeare. Leo Tolstoy was probably his most famous critic. I heard  a speaker say that say that this was because he considered Shakespeare his only rival.)

Shakespeare appears to have been something of a hypocrite. At one time, he stored large quantities of malt in his barn. Malt was made from barley which was expensive at the time and could only be afforded by rich men. This was at a time when the harvest was poor and strictures were passed against hoarders. Since the leading citizens - who were the main offenders, Shakespeare being one of them - were supposed to implement them, nothing happened. So he obviously had no compunctions making money off the poor. 10 years later he wrote Coriolanus which had a sympathetic portrayal of poor people threatening to rise up against hoarders.

In Shakespeare's time, plagues were common, maternal and child mortality was high and life expectancy was low.The average life expectancy was 45 years. And, going to theatres was not a universally approved pass time. The public liked it but there was also powerful opposition to it. An example is given in Will in the World:
Go to plays, thundered one irate minister, John Northbrooke, "if you will learn how to be false and deceive your husbands, or husbands their wives, how to play the harlots to obtain one's love, how to ravish, how to beguile, how to betray, to flatter, lie, swear, forswear, how to allure to whoredom, how to murder, how to poison, how to disobey and rebel against princes, to consume treasures prodigally, to move to lusts, to ransack and spoil cities and towns, to be idle, to blaspheme, to sing filthy songs of love, to speak filthily, to be proud...." The catalog of vicious lessons continues breathlessly, to be augmented over the years by many other preachers.
PS: BBC Radio 4 had a podcast series called Shakespeare’s Restless World.