Monday, February 03, 2014

William Shakespeare: King John (1595?)

Mrs Siddons on Constance, quoted in Thomas Campbell's Life of Mrs Siddons

King John is now about the least-performed of Shakespeare’s plays. I have read a review of a college production at M.I.T.; but it’s a long time since Mrs Siddons and her directors seized eagerly on the role of Constance to make a showstopping display of female loftiness.  The words used by Mrs Siddons, Mrs Jameson and others are “vehemence”, “passion” and “exquisite sensibility”. These were topics of urgent interest. The Romantic/Victorian cult of “the feminine nature” - though really depending on a belittlement of women as practical agents, as is now easily seen - permitted the relief of some acute pressure in that bizarre culture.

R. L. Smallwood’s interpretation of the play (in the New Penguin Shakespeare, 1974) turns its back on all this to emphasise the centrality of the Bastard and Hubert as, eventually, decent bystanders. This reading is humane and detailed, but it has some scarcely acknowledged difficulties. (Despite the evidence of speech prefixes, I hardly accept Hubert as identical with the citizen on the walls of Angiers. The two roles have clearly defined functions and nothing but questions seems to be gained from assimilating them.)

One difficulty is that the Bastard’s outrageous (and nearly implemented) suggestion that Angiers be levelled first and argued over later must be regarded as a sort of sarcasm. The idea is proposed with considerable energy. Another is that the Bastard is not shown as being in possession of the facts, so far as John’s death warrant on Arthur is concerned. This matters if his decisions are to be regarded as morally normative.

                                    If thou didst but consent
            To this most cruel act, do but despair...

So he says to Hubert. But John did consent, and the Bastard, not knowing this, is not really put to the test.

A better approach to this rumbustious character is via his kinship with Richard Coeur de Lion. His impatience with treaties is a military and temperamental one. He is well positioned to make deflating criticisms but he is not at all suitable as a comprehensive guide to political and national behaviour. Pugnacity is a sort of behaviour that is occasionally useful.

It is perhaps with these issues in mind that someone else has proposed playing King John as a “black comedy”, i.e. (so I suppose) a play in which all the action is to some extent vain and there is no moral centre. “Black comedy” seems to me an anachronistic genre, I mean when applied to Shakespeare; it can glide over difficulties but not help us.

What everyone admits is the linguistic exuberance. Tennyson even referred to “Aeschylean lines”, though I think this too is unhelpful if put to the question. If I was directing (this is my big-budget production on the “Infinite Culture Channel”), I would just want to play each scene for all it’s worth – no interpretation, no worrying about character consistency. This implies a reluctance to unify. The drama would be of situation, rather than character development, somewhat resembling a soap opera (for example currently, in Brookside, Jackie is pregnant and is very unhappy about it – but this has nothing to do with her “character”, which cannot be “summed up” - she represents, momentarily, any woman in that situation).

Now I have invoked a naturalistic genre; but the scenes before Angiers, in particular II.1, are choral, a development of the “Senecan” formality of Shakespeare’s first tetralogy. II.1 is an ensemble scene (all the speakers are of equal importance) with a highly patterned architecture. It’s impossible to conceive a naturalistic presentation in which all sides are simultaneously within easy earshot, for they speak out of two opposed armies and from within a besieged town. Perhaps it was this that made me concede, after I’d read the play through fast, that yes, it was an unactable kind of a play, and no wonder it wasn’t bothered with. (More likely, the real reason is that as a result of the subtle devaluation of Shakespeare over the last half-century, we now like to take our history plays in batches. To only see one of them doesn’t feel sustaining enough.)

But it’s different when you read more slowly.

            The Pyrenean and the River Po,
            It draws toward supper in conclusion so.

            With slaughter’s pencil, where revenge did paint
            The fearful difference of incensèd kings.

            Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
            Lies in his bed,

            And all the shrouds wherewith my life should sail
            Are turnèd to one thread, one little hair;

At this pace it’s ridiculous to say that “the play is not a play of character”. These are plainly the words of fully-realized speakers, and the reading experience, though its effect is in a way accidental and unintended by Shakespeare, has a depth of realization that, because we have filled its gaps and spaces, exceeds the most detailed novel. The Victorian “Complete Shakespeare” thus supplied an unattainable vision for the novelists to aim at.

If most books in the canon are now read in circumstances remote from the author’s intended purposes, Shakespeare’s is a peculiarly obvious instance. (The way we now receive classical music, on personal audio systems, is an analogy that likewise calls into question the purpose of reviving an “authentic” presentation - it isn’t the promise of an enhanced engagement.)

And wild nature itself? Is that, too, comprehended with a special intensity as a result of its streaked and slender persistence in our developed environments? To long for a return to universal wildness, as I find myself doing, is to ask for I know not what. It is to give up most of what we think of as comprehension of nature (which originates in dissection and in use) – it is to make a demand that is not for our civilisation, but for its surrender. In practice the conservationist fails to achieve more than a slight, ornamental correction. But in principle the longing is distinctly anti-humanist.

Mrs Siddons as Constance, detail of drawing by John Flaxman

(2002, 2014)

These notes on Shakespeare: Full list



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