Monday, November 30, 2015


Thomas Sackville (1536-1608)

The Induction (with the Complaint of Henry, Duke of Buckingham) was written around 1563. Its author was 27. He had married at 19 and been elected to parliament three times in the previous five years. In 1561, then aged 25,  he had co-authored Gorboduc with Thomas Norton.* In the same year his first son was born.

His career under his cousin Elizabeth fluctuated, but mainly it ascended. In 1586 he was selected to convey the news of her death-sentence to Mary Queen of Scots. In 1591 he became chancellor of the University of Oxford. He ended as Lord High Treasurer, succeeding Burleigh in 1599.  This was a post for life. In 1604 he became first Earl of Dorset.

Knole, one of the UK's largest houses, became Sackville's in 1566 (it is still part-owned by the Sackville-Wests).

So the general theme of the uncertain fortunes of the great was a relevant "mirror" for himself, at least in prospect. Did he ever become, I wonder, the figure of Old Age, praying "he might a while yet linger forth his life"  "And knows full well life doth but length his pain" ?


The Induction (Complaint of the Duke of Buckingham)

The PoemHunter online text continues for three stanzas beyond the one in Auden and Pearson; thus introducing us to the figure of the Duke of Buckingham, up to when he finally pulls himself together enough to speak.

(Nothing is more remarkable in older literature than the difficulty people find in speaking. The difficulty is associated with high emotion. This becomes a major leitmotiv in The Mysteries of Udolpho, but it had existed way back.)

The Induction is a sombre procession, mainly at glacial pace, of images of the vanity of human existence. Such a poem is best read at the end of November, and though its complaint is entirely generalized it's perhaps not likely to appeal strongly to a modern reader until they have real sorrows of their own.

The verse is rhyme royal, the diction mid-century (on the neo-medieval side of drab). That means there are lots of tears, griesly ghostes, shrieks and other alliterative epithets. Most of this blustering diction we see through the distorting glass of such parodies as Pyramus and Thisbe or Ancient Pistol, so it takes some effort of re-orientation to take it seriously, but seriously is the only rewarding way to read it.

Also neo-medieval is the splendid constellation-poetry near the start and the general sense of a dream-vision with allegorical figures, though this is combined with a guided visit to hell (the living visitor weighting Charon's boat) that I suppose comes by some other route from Virgil, but often makes me think of Dante.



According to Barbara Wooding, Norton's part of the play is the more interesting dramatically. Sackville's completion (Acts IV and V, according to the original headnote) is more like a poetical lament.

The Argument of the Tragedy.

Gorboduc, king of Britain, divided his Realm in his lifetime to his Sons, Ferrex and Porrex. The Sons fell to division and dissention. The younger killed the elder. The Mother that more dearly loved the elder, for revenge killed the younger. The people moved with the Cruelty of the fact, rose in Rebellion and slew both father and mother. The Nobility assembled and most terribly destroyed the Rebels. And afterwards for want of Issue of the Prince whereby the Succession of the Crown became uncertain. They fell to Civil war in which both they and many of their Issues were slain, and the Land for a long time almost desolate and miserably wasted.

The play could be seen as a precursor of e.g. Titus Andronicus. But where Gorboduc is patently political in its fear of dissension, its concern for succession and for maintaining national unity, what such message comes from Titus?

So, at the start of the play, Gorboduc comes up with a plan to abdicate in his old age and divide the kingdom between his two sons. (Sounds a bit familiar?)

In this opening, as in Act 1 of Titus Andronicus, the fascination is of watching people make suicidally bad decisions; the rest of each play unfolding the destruction that ensues.

As Wooding points out, the play's fear of dissension, its concern for clear succession and national unity, were highly topical in 1561, when England over the previous 15 years had suffered a rapid succession of monarchs (and their consorts) with disastrously opposed agendas. I'm not aware, though, that even then the specific issues of abdication or division ever came up. (The more obvious fear was that Elizabeth would marry and thus place national policy in the hands of some other lethal scourge like Philip.)

My suggestion is that playwrights, like other authors, found ways of discussing political affairs by choosing images that were close, but not too close, to the issues in people's minds. After all, that really wouldn't be safe. But this fear of censorship had a good side-effect, in broadening the way that the dramatic image could be seen to connect with the world.

The upshot is that forty years later  Lear tells the same parable again, and it seems just as applicable to the insecurities of the reign of James, just because it doesn't exactly match anything in the contemporary scene.

Pace the useless counsellors Arostus and Philander, both abdication and division are thoroughly bad ideas but the latter is much the worse.

The dumbshow that starts Act II brings with it another reminder, this time of The Mousetrap. Something about poisons and dumb-shows that goes well together. Meanwhile after the legal debate of I.2, we move into morality mode with scenes of temptation.



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