Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

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It’s that time of year again: the Carnegie Medal Shortlist is announced! Much joy! Genuine excitement! Much fretting over how to juggle reading the Shortlist with doing work, marking, planning … and, this year, entertaining the baby!

And Roof Toppers was a lovely way to start the Shortlist … Which I finished today by reading it out loud to the baby! Who says men can’t multitask?!

The story follows Sophie, a year-old baby orphaned in a ship wreck in the English Channel and rescued by an English gentleman and gentle man by the name of Charles Maxim. It is set in an undefined period but with perhaps a nineteenth century feel: the authorities disapprove of a man raising a female child and, as she hits puberty, try to take her into care. To escape, Charles and Sophie flee to France in order to find Sophie’s natural mother as – despite all the evidence to the contrary – Sophie is convinced survived the catastrophe.

Rundell has a lovely turn of phrase in the book: the prose has a musicality which is perhaps unsurprising when we realise that Sophie is saved inside a cello case in which is the first clue that sets her en route to Paris. It’s the sort of book where I find myself underlining phrases such as

he had kindness where other people had lungs, and politeness in his fingertips.

In fact, Charles is a jolly good role model for a parent: unconventional, eccentric, scholarly to the point of archaic, he brought Sophie up on a diet of imagination, Shakespeare and music with large helpings of ice cream!

In fact, there are echoes of Shakespeare through the book. The eponymous roof toppers are a group of youths who inhabit the aerial spaces above Paris: the roof tops of buildings and tree tops of the parks. They are not far removed from the fairies of A Midsummer Nights Dream and Sophie’s mother’s photograph is discovered from the doomed vessel in which she was disguised as a man. Sophie also makes a copy of Hamlet “slightly damp” whilst using it as a booster seat and

had a habit of breaking plates, and so they had been eating their cake off the front cover of A Midsummer Night’s Dream….

Sophie … waited until Charles was looking away, then dropped the book on the floor and did a handstand on it.

Charles laughed. ‘Bravo!’ He applauded against the table. ‘You look the stuff that elves are made of.’

So, overall, and endearing and lovely book which is unlikely to win because it’s too sweet

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Intertextuality is a strange idea.

It’s reasonable and intuitive that texts refer both backwards and forwards within themselves: how many stories and tales begin and end at the same place and setting? Detective fiction is built on the importance of small early details turning into clues to be resolved later. Anton Chekov went so far as to call it a rule:

If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

As a reader, we’d say that the presence of the gun prefigures its later use. These references are what semioticians might call horizontal.

But the books we read are littered with what the same semioticians might describe as vertical references: references to other preceding texts. Every reference to any pastoral idyll echoes a range of poetry dating back to the Garden of Eden. Learned scholars might say something like

Intertextuality refers to far more than the ‘influences’ of writers on each other. For structuralists, language has powers which not only exceed individual control but also determine subjectivity.

This intertextuality stuff, to those of us who are just readers is, to my mind, anything that reminds us of any other text or style of writing. At its most superficial, it’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle or an in-joke; at its most abstruse, it can inhibit understanding. T. S. Eliot can fall within both these at the same time!

The most obvious example of intertextuality would be a quotation deliberately inserted by the writer. Susan Hill does this at the end of her opening chapter: Kipps recalls but cannot identify the lines

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

The quotation is from Hamlet and brings to mind the tortuous family relations within Denmark and the rottenness that ensues. It therefore deepens and prefigures the equally tortuous relations within the Drablow family, especially those between mother and child.

The fact of the quotation, however, itself recalls the quotation from Coleridge’s Rime Of The Ancient Marinerthat Dr Frankenstein is put in mind of after his creature rises:

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

As Kipps’ quote introduces key themes, so does Frankenstein’s. And the use of quotations by both characters highlights parallels between them: they are both rational beings catapulted into a world that is not susceptible to legal or scientific scrutiny.

This is not the only parallel with Frankenstein: the opening chapter consists of a ghost story competition, reminiscent of the creation story of Mary Shelley’s invention of Frankenstein; the tales of

“uninhibited castles and of ivy-clad monastery ruins by moonlight, of locked inner rooms and secret dungeons, dank charnel houses and overgrown graveyards”

recounts almost every Gothic trope and cliche including the charnel houses in which Viktor Frankenstein found his “materials”. Even the very framing narrative of older Kipps recalls both the framing narratives of Captain Walton in Frankenstein and of Lockwood in Wuthering Heights.

The entirety of the chapter A Journey North appears to me to be an homage to Dracula: Kipps and Harker are both solicitors clerks heading out of London and into increasingly uncivilised and dangerous terrains, albeit one heading north and the other east; both travel by train (and the train and it’s timetables become so important to Dracula); the carriages, which were originally “as cosy and enclosed as some lamplight study” that becomes nothing more than a “cold tomb of a railway carriage”, recalling the coffins in which Dracula travels.

The In The Nursery chapter introduces the reader to the rhythmic “Bump bump. Bump bump. Bump bump” which is later revealed to be the rocking chair. But the rhythm clearly echoes that of the Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe. Even the title of the chapter Whistle And I’ll Come To You apes the title if M R James’ Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad. The graveyard and monastery around Eel Marsh House cause a wry dismissal of Romantic poetry whilst the house itself reminds Kipps and the reader of “the house of poor Miss Havisham” from Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Brontë, Shelley, Stoker, Dickens, Shakespeare, James, Poe. As well as John Clare and Walter Scott and Victorian novels and Romantic poetry in general. Epistolary narratives embedded in a first person narrative embedded within a framing narrative.

The book – the text – is as haunted by these writers as Kipps is himself! And is that not the point – or at least a point? That there is no such thing as a present without a history behind it? No such thing as a now devoid of then? Nothing original in the world, only old patterns re-worked? This is what those aforementioned semioticians might cite to challenge the entire concept of authorship: is this in any sense Hill’s story more than Shelley’s or Dickens’?

Kipps himself falls into the authorial fallacy: his belief that discovering Jennet Drablow’s story will somehow appease her ghost, “solve” her story as if it were some rational puzzle to demystify and control is shown in the horrific final chapter to be tragically wrong. And it’s a mistake he repeats as he attempts to tame her again in re-telling the tale to us! The stage version of the book delves further into this fallacy: the attempt to rationalise Jennet Drablow out of existence actually summons her into the theatre itself, unleashing her on the director and the audience.

The last book I read, The Passage by Justin Cronin, took me a month to read.

This book, The Shakespeare Curse, took me 72 hours. That’s not a good sign. Not good at all. I like to lose myself in a book, to live, breathe, love and bleed with the characters I share my reading with. I like to immerse myself in the narrative, care for characters, feel their relationships grow and develop.

I could barely remember who was who in The Shakespeare Curse. Perhaps this was the effect of too many mince pies over Christmas or early onset senility. Perhaps it was the fact that Carrell’s characters were so wholly one dimensional that they were essentially interchangeable.

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I had some hopes for this book when I picked it up. I love Shakespeare as both an historical character and a writer; MacBeth is one of my favourite plays; a thriller in which modern murders are somehow based on MacBeth had promise.

Not a whole lot of promise! But some.

I was only really looking for a light post-Yuletide no-brainer thriller.

What I got was Kate Stanley, a heroine so monumentally stupid that I was rooting for the bad guys to finish her off! She is a Shakespeare scholar turned director who discovered a lost Shakespeare manuscript in the previous The Shakespeare Secret. Appearing not to want to waste a basic plot by only using it once, Carrell regurgitates it here: Kate was summoned to Scotland to locate a missing version of MacBeth on behalf of Lady Nairn a famous retired Shakespearean actress.

I can forgive Carrell the repeated plot. She’s in good company. Shakespeare recycled his own and other people’s plots.

The problem is that there is only plot here. There is no narrative, just plot.

The most absurd point occurred almost exactly half way through on page 178 out of 338 in my edition. Out of thin air and a propos of nothing, Lady Nairn mentions that she has an evil niece, Carrie Douglas.

Later she hands over an iPod containing a digital copy of a lost performance of MacBeth. There’s no explanation of how she got it. And it just happens to have a vital clue in it.

The best parts of this novel are perhaps the interludes around Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan polymath and occultist. The parallels between theatre and the occult were interesting: the performance as ritual; players summoning and conjuring the semblance of Kings and heroes from the past; the dangerous nature of the Renaissance stage. But it was nothing that hasn’t been played with before: the Theatre and Globe were alleged by Carrell to have been made to Dee’s occult design to conjure within. An episode of Doctor Who entitled The Shakespeare Code showed The Globe’s structure and Shakespeare’s words summoning ancient alien Carrionites.

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As a thriller, this book did not work: I cared so little for Kate or Lady Nairn that the plot held no thrill. There was no twist to surprise me.

As a lover of Shakespeare, I found the hints that he derived his power from a magical rite mildly offensive. His poetry and language has power from its muscular, human heart not derived from an occultist rite!

This was a novel driven solely by plot and bereft of all those things that make Shakespeare wonderful: character, narrative, growth or humanity.

I’m sorry, J. L. Carrell, I wanted to like this book but just couldn’t!

Horror is not usually my thing at all.

I don’t like blood. I get bored by violence. I get worried by crime writing’s increasing interest in hugely violent bloodied crime scenes and the minutiae of destruction that can be inflicted on the human (and usually female) form.

So it was with some misgivings that I approached Justin Cronin’s The Passage. In all honesty, it was The Twelve I picked up and then backtracked to The Passage as the first in the trilogy.

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There was nothing original about the plot: scientists discover new virus with the potential to cure disease and prolong life; the US military take it over to produce super soldiers; the virus is tested, the test subjects become develop vampire-like abilities; the test subjects escape and slaughter or convert most of the population of the world. A plucky band of survivors later discover both the truth of the outbreak and how to defeat the vampire threat.

So far so predictable.

But this book is lifted above the plodding re-hash of this somewhat tired plot by the richness of the characters that live (and un-live?) in this world.

It’s a long read – 847 pages in my e-version – and has taken a long investment of time. But you are swallowed up in the worlds that Cronin creates absolutely. Note how in keeping with the vampiric theme I said swallowed rather than immersed there. Smug grin to myself.

I also say “worlds” deliberately. It is a book of two halves: both pre- and post-apocalyptic. The link between these worlds is the main character, the child Amy Harper Bellafonte, named by her mother after Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill A Mockingbird. We learn this in the opening page of the novel and the literariness and intertextuality suggested here abound in the book. The book is divided into eleven parts and each one is introduced by a quotation of or from literature – often Shakespeare although Percy Bysshe Shelley, Katherine Anne Porter, Louise Gluck, Henry Vaughan and Sir Walter Raleigh also appear.

Amy has echoes of Scout from To Kill A Mockingbirdthroughout the novel: self-contained, self-educated, knowing. But she is a Scout without an Atticus: her biological father is a drunkard and abuser and abandoned by the narrative sharply. Her mother is forced by circumstances into prostitution and eventually abandons Amy to a convent. In fact the emotional honesty and empathy of her mother Jeanette’s descent into prostitution and murder was one of the most effective and affective description of despair I have read.

Amy is the thirteenth subject of the virus: after twelve unsuccessful tests on death row inmates, FBI Agent Wolgast is dispatched to collect Amy so that it can be determined whether her immature state would accept the virus better than the grown inmates.

Wolgast becomes perhaps the Atticus-like father-figure for Amy: she takes the place of his dead daughter, he takes the place of her father. Their relationship again is an unexpected pleasure in the book: his attempt to escape with her before they reach the compound; his sitting with her after she’s been infected; his rescue of her after the infected have escaped; his isolation with her as the world dies around them.

Cronin managed to avoid the temptation to linger on violence or to depict the overrunning of the world with vampires. He closets Wolgast and Amy in the mountains and, save for the occasional piece of rumour, gossip or news, he concentrates on deepening the relationship between them.

The post-viral world was perhaps less successfully created: I found it hard to keep track of the families and relationships in The Colony but that may reflect more on my lack of brain power than Cronin’s writing. But the disintegration of society there, created when Amy re-emerges, was shockingly credible.

Eventually, a plucky band leave The Colony with Amy in order to save her from potential mob justice. At one level they could be seen as a little cliched; Alicia the fighter, Michael the engineer, Peter the leader, Sara the medic, Hollis the support. They are a typical well balanced team you’d expect in any role playing game. But Cronin does imbue each one with depth, character and interest.

There is so much to praise here. But I think the most praiseworthy is what Cronin leaves out: so much is unexplained or hinted at or suggested; so much is left at being evocative such as Amy’s chaotic moment in the zoo; so much of the violence occurs off the page and there’s no glorying in it; and there was no giving in to the temptation to play sexually on Amy’s chronological ambiguity as outwardly a teenage girl aged a hundred. There’s so much to mention that it’s hard to fit it all in: Sister Lacey, the underlying religious echoes ( the project to create the super soldiers was entitled Project Noah, which is the story that underpin the whole novel).

The book that this most reminds me off actually is Patrick Ness’ The Knife Of Never Letting Go for all that that is a Young Adult novel. The clear trajectory of the novel following the flight of the main characters. And I have the same concern for the rest of the trilogy: as Peter claims at the end of the novel that “Now we go to war” I hope that Cronin remains as restrained and humane as he has here.

Update: for my review of the sequel The Twelve, please click here.

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Hamlet, perhaps the most famous and most argued over play by Shakespeare, was written between the years 1599 and 1601 as Elizabeth I was reaching the end of her reign. The play features two of the most famous women in Shakespeare: Ophelia and Gertrude and Hamlet’s relationships with these women account for a large number of the three hours or so stage business that the play comprises. The presentation of these women constantly shifts as the play develops and according to the contexts in which they are shown: women are frequently reviled by Hamlet who seems repulsed by their sexuality; yet there are also moments of genuine tenderness; women are regularly accused of deceit, yet are also frequently the victims of deception perpetrated by men; women are controlled and dominated by the men in a clearly patriarchal society; despite this, however, they consistently show moments of genuine statesmanship and real competence.

The two women are at polar extremes of experience. Gertrude, as the Queen of Denmark, possesses the greatest status it is possible to achieve, she is mature and experienced, her son Hamlet being 30 years old. Ophelia, on the other hand, as the young daughter of a courtier, has a very lowly status in Danish society and has no opportunity to exercise any independence.

Hamlet’s so-called “sex nausea” is given full and robust voice in his first soliloquy in Act I scene ii. He declares to the audience that “Frailty – thy name is woman” and abhors his mother for her re-marriage when Hamlet senior is “but two months dead… a little month”. Within this soliloquy, Hamlet compares his mother to a

“beast that wants discourse of reason”

and the sixteenth century audience would have been aware that animals in drama were often associated with lechery and lust. When combined with the sensual image of Gertrude who

“would hang on [the old King Hamlet] /As if increase of appetite had grown / By what it fed on”

it becomes clear that Hamlet is implying that the hasty remarriage was caused by his own mother’s sexual urgings. The fractured grammar and frequent caesurae in this soliloquy reveal the almost incoherent disgust that this breeds in Hamlet.

Nor does this disgust end here. In Act III scene iv, the closet scene, Hamlet returns to the same question and dwells on the same concerns. He initially refuses to accept the fact of his mother’s sexuality because, at her age “the heyday in the blood is tame” and later he accuses her of a “mutine in matron’s bones”. This continues through the scene, culminating in the disturbing image of Gertrude choosing

“to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty”

which continues the animal imagery of the earlier scene. This central scene in the play, therefore, revolves around the presentation of women as debauched, bestial sexual creatures. Hamlet’s language in this scene is crude and violent and one of the final images in the scene is of an

“ulcerous place,
[Where] rank corruption, mining all within,
Infects unseen”.

This image of corruption and disease, recalls Hamlet’s previous utterance that there is “something rotten” in the state of Denmark, along with a wealth of others. This “something rotten” in Act III scene iv becomes identified with the rotten, unhealthy and diseased sexuality of Hamlet’s own mother and, by extension all women.

Gertrude is not the only woman to receive this treatment from Hamlet. In Act III scene i Ophelia is told by Hamlet that

“the power of beauty will sooner
transform honesty from what it is to a bawd”

and that

“wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them”

. This reference to the myth of the cuckold reveals Hamlet’s apparent certainty that no woman would fail to deceive and be unfaithful to their husbands. There is a different quality to the language here, however. The language seems almost proverbial or academic and lacks the bitterness clearly seen in the closet scene. Even the famous “Get thee to a nunnery” is more than capable of being interpreted as Hamlet giving very sound advice to Ophelia about the physical and moral danger that Elsinore poses to her.

Indeed, it is perhaps with Ophelia that we see Hamlet’s moments of tenderness towards women. In Act 2 scene i, Ophelia relates an incident between herself and Hamlet which had left her “affrighted”. She recalls that Hamlet entered her closet, and

“falls to such perusal of my face
As he would draw it”.

Whilst this incident clearly and understandably distressed Ophelia, and whilst her father interprets it as the first sign of Hamlet’s madness, this scene represents one of the most touching in the play. This shows, through Ophelia’s recollection, Hamlet’s farewell to her, having decided to “wipe away all trivial fond records” from his life in order to pursue the ghost’s commandment to “remember me”. The ferocity and length of time with which Hamlet gripped Ophelia, his unusual silence throughout the meeting, the final turning of his eyes to watch her as he left the room are all telling and moving signs of the love that he felt for her and his regret at having no more opportunity to pursue it.

The extent of Hamlet’s feelings for Ophelia are never made clear, however, and Hamlet is contradictory in his attitude to her. He alternates in Act III between “I did love thee once” and “I loved you not” within four lines; it is clear that he has made “tenders” of her affection, yet he claims also that “I never gave you aught”. Prior to the start of the Mousetrap, Hamlet appears to deliberately attempt to humiliate Ophelia in public by offering to “lay in your lap”, referring to “country matters” and dwelling on the euphemistic meanings of “nothing”.
Ophelia’s death, too, forms an emotional core within the play. Gertrude’s description in Act IV scene vii of the willow’s “hoar leaves in the glassy stream” from which Ophelia fell and her clothes which “spread wide and mermaid like awhile they bore her up” is undeniably moving. The use of slightly archaic and lyrical words such as “hoar” and the peaceful rhythm of her verse powerfully evoke the tenderness with which the audience views Ophelia and contrasts with the way both Hamlet and Polonius speak to, manipulate and use her throughout the play. This beautiful tribute to Ophelia undermines the vulgarity with which she had at times been treated by other characters, fittingly echoed in the

“long purples that liberal shepherds give a grosser name”

in Gertrude’s litany of flowers and reveals Shakespeare’s own presentation of her. It is no wonder that Ophelia’s death has inspired a range of iconic art.

It is typical of the attitude other characters in the play have of women that Ophelia’s burial becomes the scene of an extraordinary contest of protestations of love for her between Laertes who offers to be buried with her and Hamlet who offers

“Woo’t weep? woo’t fight? woo’t fast? woo’t tear thyself?
Woo’t drink up eisel? eat a crocodile?
I’ll do’t.”

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The tenderness of Ophelia’s death, the pain of her fractured mind are suborned to two competing male egos challenging each other to declare their love for Ophelia in the most bombastic manner imaginable and physically squabbling in her very grave. Shakespeare pits these two men as nemeses from the beginning of the play: Claudius ignores his son-in-law by speaking to Laertes first, speaking his name repeatedly in Act I scene ii; Laertes is permitted to return to Paris, Hamlet is denied permission to return to Wittenburg; both men have lost a father to violence; both men seek revenge for that father’s death. Shakespeare clearly shows in this scene how male impulses and male competitiveness hijack Ophelia’s last moments and trample on her. This reflects in miniature the overpowering masculinity and patriarchy of the Elsinor court in which nothing feminine is permitted to thrive.

Hamlet’s most damning criticism of women in this scene is the accusation that

“God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another”

, a theme that returns in Act V scene i where Hamlet speaks to the skull of Yorick and tells it to

“get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick”

. His inability to trust women, his belief in the gulf between their apparent facade and the real person beneath the mask finds a telling image in these references to make up. This is, of course, doubly ironic because no women were permitted on the stage in 1600 so both Ophelia and Gertrude were played by male actors on whom the make up was no doubt applied an “inch thick”.

This, however, is not a concern which is not directed solely at women: Hamlet suspects his uncle of being a “smiling, damned villain” and declares that “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain”. The courtly and sophisticated “smile” which acts as a mask behind which Claudius’ villainy hides is a far more invidious and sinister image than the women’s make up. Within the play, Shakespeare at no point shows a woman being deceitful: Polonius concocts a plan to “loose” his daughter on Hamlet; Claudius spies on them with him; Polonius decides, fatally, that “behind the arras I’ll convey myself”; Hamlet declares that during the Mousetrap, “mine eyes will rivet to his face” as he joins in the routine of espionage amongst the men. Whilst the language of the character Hamlet berates women for being, literally, two-faced, the play Hamlet portrays men acting in that manner and using women for their own ends.

The first time that the audience sees a female character in the play Hamlet is in the very public Act 1 Scene 2 and for a very long stretch of time, Gertrude is silent. This scene introduces the royal family to the audience and Claudius occupies centre stage throughout. Although he constantly uses the first person plural in his address, such as “it befitted us to bear our hearts in grief”, it is clear that this is a royal “we” and he is clearly referring only to himself, as when he refers to Gertrude as “our sometime sister”. He does, nominally, accord power to Gertrude in the long verse address to the Court, referring to her as his “imperial jointress”, but her very silence reveals the hollowness of that title, as does the ominous phrase “Taken to wife”. Whilst the play is silent about the motives behind the marriage, it is certainly credible that Gertrude was an unwilling partner whom Claudius seduced or pressurised into marriage in order to consolidate his own claim to the throne and pre-empt any criticism from Hamlet.

It is telling that the first time at which Gertrude feels able to speak is in domestic matters: her son’s intention to return to Wittenburg. She chooses to speak as Hamlet tells Claudius that he is “too much i’the sun”, echoing Claudius’ calling him “my cousin Hamlet and my son”. Whilst his response is punning and riddling, he is implicitly spurning Claudius’ publically offered and politically motivated allegiance. The relationship between Claudius and Hamlet could only be incredibly difficult: any step-parent relationship is challenging, exacerbated as Hamlet may have had “ambition” to succeed his father but Claudius had

“popped in between th’election and my hopes”

and further complicated by Hamlet’s apparent hatred of Claudius referring to him as a “satyr” even before knowing of the murder. For this difficult relationship to have fallen apart quickly and before the entire Court as appears likely at this moment would have been catastrophic and it is Gertrude who steps in and consoles her son. Hamlet makes it clear that in remaining in Elsinor, he

“shall in all my best obey you, madam”

and not Claudius. Similarly, Gertrude gently cajoles Polonius to keep to the point, appears to correct Claudius as to Rosencrantz and Guildernstern’s names and listens intently and sensitively to her son in the closet scene. Despite the misogynistic rhetoric that fills the play, therefore, what we see of Gertrude is neither a sexually aggressive predator nor a deceiver but a mature and competent stateswoman who is frequently seen treading a difficult path in a very surefooted way.

Whilst there is an argument that Gertrude is being manipulated and controlled by Claudius, it is patent that Ophelia is in thrall to her family. Polonius when discussing her relationship with Hamlet even states that

“You do not understand yourself so clearly / As it behoves my daughter and your honour”

. It is crucial that he demands that Ophelia act appropriately as his daughter before considering her own feelings. This was typical of the patriarchal society of the sixteenth century in which Shakespeare was living and writing. Daughters were treated almost as a commodity by their fathers and it was a motif that recurred throughout his career: Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Hero in Much Ado About Nothing and Desdemona in Othello are all rounded on by their fathers for refusing to marry the man their father picked, appearing to sully the family name or marrying an inappropriate suitor. This commodification of daughters recurs again in Act I scene iii as Polonius demands that Ophelia

“tender herself more dearly”

, clearly adopting a semantic field drawn from the mercantile world. It is noticeable that at no point does Ophelia rebel against or reject her father’s instruction, instead obeying it to the letter she does indeed reject Hamlet’s advances.

It is vital in the play Hamlet not to be dragged into the characters’ own views of women. There is a vast gulf between the misogynistic and patriarchal views expressed by Claudius, Polonius and Hamlet and the competent, tender and sensitive portrayals of both Ophelia and Gertrude. Neither of them are simply the weak victims that men treat them as, nor are they the lascivious beasts that they are described to be. Instead, Gertrude represents a competence and calmness throughout the play whilst Ophelia becomes an icon of the effects of the repressive and patriarchal society in both Elsinore and England at the time in which Shakespeare was writing. Both women are destroyed by that society and their presentation in the play is extraordinarily sympathetic.

Absolutely sublime play. Re-reading it after many many years and still bowled over. A GCSE set text; an integral part of Degree level “tragedy” unit (other people got to play with dead bodies, I learned how to be miserable: thanks Cambridge!!); and a vital part of my make up!

As I write, please near in mind this confession: I adore Cleopatra! With and because of all her faults, I adore her. I see in her echoes of all my favourite Shakespearean characters and feel personally convinced that Shakespeare wrote the part for the same actor who played Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Falstaff in Henry IV, perhaps even Hamlet. That same boundary between comedy and tragedy, life and death, ribaldry and poetry is danced by them all!

Maybe more on that connection in a future post…

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So, the story (which is by far the least important part of this play) revolves around the eponymous Anthony, one of the thee rulers of Rome along with Octavian Caeser and Lepidus, and the wonderful Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Our first scene Opens with soldiers Demetrius and Philo berating Anthony for allowing his gaze to “now bend, now turn… Upon a tawny front” and become nothing more than a “fan / To cool a gypsy’s lust”.

Even now I feel aggrieved at that description of my Cleo! But love the unreliability of our commentators: Roman to the core, bored in the hedonism of Egypt, aching for battle. Their words undermined by her scene stealing appearance.

We quickly learn of politics that drag Anthony from his lover’s bed: his wife has waged war on Caesar; pirate lords rule the sea; Caesar needs him. So Anthony heeds the call of duty. And herein lies one of the cores of the play: the dichotomy and conflict between Rome and Egypt, duty and pleasure, land (firm and solid and reliable) and the water (treacherous and changeable), the square and the circle, marriage and love.

It is when Anthony returns to Rome that we see the latter: being passionately in love with Cleo (and yes I do think it is love not infatuation) he agrees to marry Caesar’s sister in order to apologise for his first dead wife’s war. Seriously. Was that ever going to end well?

The war with the pirate lord Pompey dissipates in a scene with a peace treaty and Anthony is soon back in bed with Cleopatra (whose reaction to news of his wedding had not been terribly gracious and left the messenger rather bruised, timid and obsequious.

Anthony and Caesar fall out again, rather quickly – something to do with the division of Pompey’s lands and Lepidus but the politics really didn’t interest me: Shakespeare is at heart a domestic rather than epic writer. Another war starts and Anthony – with a massive aromas land army at his back – takes to the seas to attack Caesar’s superior, vaster, quicker navy, principally because he is lent the Egyptian navy. D’uh! Cleo, I love you, but you ain’t no strategist!

They flee; Enobarbus (Anthony’s lieutenant) and Hercules (his divine protector) abandon him; Caesar tempts Cleopatra to betray Anthony. Enobarbus’ abandonment and regret and Anthony’s generosity to him afterwards is a wonderfully lyrical scene which I had completely forgotten about! His death is tear jerking.

Another battle, another loss, another flight led by Cleopatra again.

Cleopatra gives word that she has died in order to win Anthony back; Anthony takes his own life; she takes hers in reality (once you’ve got a good ending why change it, eh, Will?!).

It is not the plot though that drives this play! It is the character of Cleopatra (I love you, Cleo). The beauty of the language here is outstanding even for Shakespeare: the

Age shall not wither her

speech is worth the price of the book or theatre admission itself. That Cleopatra – played in 1600, as everyone knows, by a boy actor – is horrified at the prospect of

Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I’ th’ posture of a whore

is a wonderful piece of modernist metatextuality 400 years before modernism!

It is sublime and amazing and so full of gems! Not the best Shakespeare play (which honour goes to King Lear) but sparkling poetry and – have I mentioned – I love Cleopatra!