April 23rd: four hundred years since the death of William Shakespeare.
A couple of weeks ago I made my own modest contribution to the Shakespeare celebrations. I was invited to speak to the Cumbrian Literary Group and decided that it had to be a Shakespeare talk. I considered how a playwright who died 400 years ago became such an iconic figure of English literature. It was my first powerpoint talk (never act with animals, children or technology) and, once I had got that sorted, I was able to liven things up with pictures of some of the key people who contributed to Shakespeare’s reputation over the centuries.
Shakespeare’s plays seem to be infinitely malleable – they have been exported and translated all over the world, staged in weird and wonderful costumes and settings, interpreted to provoke thought about the politics of the day, edited, rewritten, and turned into operas, films, cartoons, musicals. They have influenced artists, composers, novelists and poets.
I’m fascinated by the way poetry can explore the characters imagined by Shakespeare. Auden’s virtuoso The Sea and the Mirror consists of monologues in the voices of the characters in The Tempest. It is also a compendium of poetic forms - each character is given a different poetic form. It’s brilliant, though I do find Caliban’s prose section (lesser characters traditionally spoke in prose in the plays) somewhat impenetrable.
Still on The Tempest a fellow Cumbrian poet recently recommended Michael Hamburger’s “Gonzalo’s Afterthoughts” (Collected Poems 1941 -94). It’s in the voice of Gonzalo, one of those good old honest counsellors in Shakespeare’s plays, and it begins after the play has finished:
“A happy ending? Well, we might have carried
Corpses away, as usual, clamped into doom’s
But no, “We all went home”. The poem goes beyond the play’s characters to consider illusion, creativity, dreams, imagination. Gonzalo concludes “There is no end”. This is a wonderful poem, worthy of many re-readings.
Samuel Johnson wrote of King Lear: “I was so shocked by Cordelia’s death that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play until I undertook to revise them as editor”. Not a play to take a child to see, one would think, but Gillian Clarke was taken to see Lear at Stratford at the tender age of ten. The experience fed into her poem “Llŷr” which blends Shakespeare, the Welsh Mabinogion stories and the Warwickshire and Llŷn landscapes.
I’ve been reading Malcolm Carson’s new collection Route Choice recently and been intrigued by his Edgar poems. There are six in the new book, but there are also seven at the end of Rangi Changi and a tentative three in his first volume Breccia.
Edgar in Lear is an embodiment of the theme of appearance and reality which is so common in Shakespeare’s plays. He changes from naively over-trusting brother, to “Poor Tom”, to anonymous warrior who kills his half-brother Edmund, to the moral good guy who restores order at the end of the play. Even this is in doubt as there is textual debate over whether he or the Duke of Albany has the last word. And order? After what we have to go through in Lear order seems a simplistic term. Rather a cessation of cruelty and violence.
It seems to me that it is Edgar’s capacity for morphing into different roles that Malcolm adopts for his Edgar poems. So in Route Choice we have, for example, “Edgar Tends His Cacti” with the lines
“Too much love, too little,
and all’s undone”
and “Edgar Regards His Attire”:
“Burrs cling to the troubled heart,
the skin to scratch away where nothing is”.
At Words by the Water last month I heard Andrew Dickson speak on Shakespeare world-wide. He talked about how the situations in the plays have parallels with people’s experiences today. In The Comedy of Errors, behind the knockabout comedy, there are journeys, mistakes, strange cultures, disasters. Aegeon has spent five years searching for those he loves, he is arrested and put on death row. Exile, refugees, imprisonment – news stories which don’t change with the centuries.
On and off over the last few years I’ve been writing poems based on characters in some of the plays, (sometimes the minor ones – “Boy” in Henry V is probably my most obscure). One character I’ve found fascinating is Cressida in Troilus and Cressida. She has had a bad press – as true as Troilus, as false as Cressida is the persistent refrain from Shakespeare, as well as Chaucer and Robert Henryson. But all these accounts are written by men, and I thought it was time to hear Cressida’s voice. I would like to add that Cassandra wasn’t the only woman whose words were ignored.
Because you won’t believe me I will speak
the truth. I woke up one morning and knew
that war would go on for ever, each side
claiming victory (only the merchants do well –
the procurers of flour, fish and flesh).
With one night’s pleasure Venus took my name
for a debt I cannot redeem. In Troy
there is nowhere to hide. Once, as a child,
I rolled a loom-weight down the stairs and watched
it smash on the final step. A hostage exchange –
that’s all it ever was. When I entered the Greek camp
the common soldiers pawed my skin, the lazars
begged with cop and clapper. Read me truly –
sister of the first casualty of war.
© Mary Robinson 2011
(First published in Envoi issue 160, October 2011)