“Very great and most tragic”

Kullervo, from Finland in the Nineteenth Century by Finnish authors. Illustrated by Finnish artists, edited by Leopold Mechelin (1894)
Kullervo, statue by C E Sjöstrand, from Finland in the Nineteenth Century by Finnish authors. Illustrated by Finnish artists, edited by Leopold Mechelin (1894)

J R R Tolkien The Story of Kullervo
Edited by Verlyn Flieger
HarperCollins 2015 (2010)

Tolkien’s reputation rests on two parallel streams of his work. First, and the more renowned of the two, is his creative work, his fiction, much of it founded on his secondary world of Middle Earth: The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion and so on. The second stream is what was his day job, so to speak, his work as a scholar, the academic who specialised in languages and literatures and was well regarded by his peers and students.

Less well known, except to a host of die-cast fans and Tolkien scholars, is his work in which those two streams — the creative and the academic — co-mingle. His fascination with mythologies and folktales and legends led him to recast disparate ancient materials into what he must have hoped were coherent wholes, though none of it was published in his lifetime. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009) was his reconfiguring of the Northern myths that were to famously inspire Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Tolkien’s own Lord of the Rings, while The Fall of Arthur (2013) dealt with the Matter of Britain, tidying up plot inconsistencies through his own verses inspired by Old English alliterative verse. The latest Tolkien re-envisioning (ironically one of the first he attempted) is The Story of Kullervo, which first appeared in Tolkien Studies VII in 2010, and then in an expanded form by HarperCollins in 2015.

Continue reading ““Very great and most tragic””

Soul of the age

Chandos portrait
Chandos portrait

… Soul of the age!
The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!
My Shakespeare, rise! …
Thou art a monument without a tomb,
And art alive still while thy book doth live
And we have wits to read and praise to give.
— Ben Jonson To the Memory of My Beloved
the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare

This valedictory poem by fellow playwright Ben Jonson summons up a contemporary estimation of the worth of William Shakespeare, whose death-day (and possibly birthday too) is annually celebrated — if that’s the right word — on April 23rd, St George’s Day. There can’t be many lovers of literature who aren’t aware that 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of his departure from this world, leaving it a richer place for what he left to us.

I’ve discussed the man and works a few times in these pages, and now may be a fitting time to draw your attention to the occasionally dark but sometimes floodlit corners that I’ve explored over the years, with links to the posts that deal with these matters.

Continue reading “Soul of the age”

Playing the innocent

  • Repost of a review first published in April 2014, and now dusted off as we approach the fourth centenary of his death on 23rd April 1616

Scholars suggest that Cymbeline was composed by Shakespeare and an unnamed colleague between 1609 and 1610, and first performed in 1611 — though not appearing in print for a dozen years until the First Folio. I have no competency to discuss which passages are by him and which by his collaborator, so I’ll treat the whole text as though by a single author, whom I shall call … “the Author”. In this final post about the play — marking the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s baptism on April 26th 1564 — I would like to draw out some of the strands that make up the fabric of the play before discussing its merits as drama.
Continue reading “Playing the innocent”

Mortal Coil Shuffled Off

Bard strip

Director: Action!
Great Actor: “To be or to not be –“
Director: Cut!

Director: Action!
Great Actor:To be or to be not –“
Director: Cut!

Mumbles off-camera.

Great Actor: OK …
Director: A-n-d action!
Great Actor:To be or not … to be:”

Muffled cheers off camera.

Great Actor:that is … the answer –“

Muffled swearing off-camera.

William Shakespeare died April 23rd 1616, having retired a couple of years earlier from the stage and from playwriting. Reportedly this scrap of manuscript was recently discovered concealed behind his monument in Stratford’s parish church.

Uncover his face (part 2)

Droeshout engraving

Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel
The True Face of William Shakespeare:
The poet’s death mask and likenesses from three periods of his life

Translated from the German by Alan Bance
Chaucer Press 2006

Having established, as thoroughly as she could, their documented provenance Hammerschmidt-Hummel arranged for the four primary candidates for Shakespeare’s genuine likeness — the Chandos and Flower portraits, the Davenant bust and the Darmstadt death mask — to undergo various scientific and technological investigations. These included computer montage, photogrammetry, trick image differentiation technique; the idea was to compare the four likenesses to see if there were enough correlations to establish that they were all of the same person. This proved to be the case in terms of proportion of features, head contours and so on.

What also emerged from these comparisons — of Shakespeare from his early 30s (the Chandos portrait), aged 45 (the Flower portrait), around the age of 50 (the Davenant bust) and soon after his death, aged 52 (the Darmstadt death mask) — was clear evidence of
Continue reading “Uncover his face (part 2)”

Uncover his face (part 1)

eyes

Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel
The True Face of William Shakespeare:
The poet’s death mask and likenesses from three periods of his life

Translated from the German by Alan Bance
Chaucer Press 2006

Here is my kind of book: a true life tale of literary detection that outshines fictional mysteries, however well written they may be. Sadly, it is also a piece of research that exposes at least two more mysteries: what has happened to two very probable Shakespeare likenesses in very recent times, centuries after the playwright’s death? But there is also pleasure and satisfaction that any lingering doubts expressed by anti-Stratfordians (“Did Shakespeare actually write Shakespeare’s plays?”) have finally been put to sleep … one hopes.

Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel is a determined Shakespearean academic who, in this closely argued study, examines two portraits, two sculptured busts and a death mask in great forensic and documentary detail. She gives the cultural context for the 16th- and 17th-century creation of accurate, true-to-life, warts-and-all representations of illustrious people before then going on to describe her selected images. Then she describes the various scientific tests she applied to those images (with the help of experts in several disciplines) using procedures available in the 1990s, and then summarises the results. Finally she puts those results back into historical and biographical context.

What were those images?

Continue reading “Uncover his face (part 1)”

Rough magic

Waterhouse's 1916 portrait of Miranda watching the shipwreck
J W Waterhouse’s 1916 portrait of Miranda watching the shipwreck in The Tempest

D G James The Dream of Prospero Oxford University Press 1967

… We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

The Tempest, along with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, seems to me to be among the most magical of Will’s comedies, with illusion, love, conflict and happy endings all genially conspiring to entertain us. Generally assumed to be the last play Shakespeare composed for the stage, completed in 1611, it’s ironically also the first play contained in the posthumously published First Folio of 1623. Meanwhile, D G James’ The Dream of Prospero is an expanded version of the author’s Lord Northcliffe Lectures of 1965 in which he sought to extend his reflections on Shakespeare’s great tragedies to musings on the last plays and, specifically, The Tempest. Bacon’s description of poetry as “a dream of learning” had provided the title to an earlier published discourse, and James followed this conceit here, appropriately given Prospero’s celebrated speech from Act IV. But how much of The Tempest is a dream-like fantasy, how much based on real life?

Continue reading “Rough magic”

Cymbeline, Act V

The model for Belarius? Horatius Cocles (Wikipedia Commons)
The model for Belarius? Horatius Cocles (Wikipedia Commons)

William Shakespeare
The Tragedie of Cymbeline
Act V in five scenes

Before we cut to the chase, Shakespeare presents us with a stupendous battle between the Britons and Romans. Unhistorical though it is, we may imagine this as happening in the 30s of the 1st century CE, when Cunobelinus was indeed a mighty king of Britain. The place isn’t specified, but it’s implied that this notional battle is near Milford Haven. Though it was well known as a deep-water harbour — George Owen, a local man, called it “the most famous port of Christendom” in 1603 — in choosing this port Shakespeare may have had in mind Henry Tudor: the future Henry VII, who landed here in 1485, mustering more troops on his way to Bosworth Field before taking the crown from Richard III. The outcome here, however, is rather different.

This is a complex plot, made more so because we have several individuals who are not as they seem. Shall I list them all? Continue reading “Cymbeline, Act V”

The geography of Cymbeline

Roman Britain according to Ptolemy c. 90--168
Roman Britain according to Ptolemy c. 90 — 168

The first thing to remember is that The Tragedie of Cymbeline is, despite its published title, a comedy. It’s certainly not a Shakespearean ‘history’ so we mustn’t expect any degree of accuracy or verisimilitude. If anything it belongs to a genre we’d nowadays happily accept as Fantasy if it was to be written up in modern language. And its sources, particularly Geoffrey of Monmouth’s so-called History of the Kings of Britain, were pure fantasy, in the broadest sense, albeit with some authentic pieces like nuts or fruit included in the baking of a cake.

The map I’ve used is a Renaissance edition of Roman geographer Ptolemy’s great work, mapping the world as known at the time. Everything appears distorted but at least north is to the top instead of to the left as in most medieval maps. I’ve marked in Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire near where most of the later action takes place. I’ve made the assumption that Cymbeline’s palace is in Lud’s-town or London, on the walls of which Cloten promises to raise Posthumus’ severed head on a pole (and where medieval traitor’s heads were similarly displayed). Sadly for Cloten he doesn’t get to keep his promise. The historical Cunobelinus, the original Cymbeline (Cynfelyn in Welsh) actually had his ‘capital’ at Colchester in Essex, then called Camulodunum; incidentally, the latter site, named after the god Camulos, may have inspired the choice of ‘Camelot’ as Arthur’s capital.

The Roman fleet came from Gallia, but probably Shakespeare imagines it coming from a Breton port up the western seaways. The overland route taken by Imogen and Cloten west over the river Severn and the Welsh mountains to Milford is marked in green, mostly following the Roman roads that Ptolemy’s map marks out. This rather ‘squeezed’ depiction of Britain allows relatively quick movement from east to west since the chronology of Cymbeline is also particularly squeezed. Modern road or rail routes cut journey times but all Imogen, say, could manage was a score of miles a day on horseback, and to get from London to Milford at this rate would have required a fortnight’s travel (if indeed London was Cymbeline’s capital).

However, in the confines of Shakespeare’s great ‘wooden O’ such considerations were irrelevant. And 450 years ago today — or thereabouts — such considerations were inconceivable to the newborn William about to cry his lungs out.

Cymbeline, Act IV

skyline
Rocky tor on Preseli Hills skyline  (author’s photo)

William Shakespeare
The Tragedie of Cymbeline
Act IV in four scenes

I’ll say this for Will: he knows how to lead you to sometimes expect the expected but then takes an unexpected turn which, in retrospect, you could also have expected. For example, in Act IV a certain villain gets their hoped-for come-uppance, but not in the manner that we might have imagined — and while that comes as a bit of a shock it is entirely appropriate.

The action is still switching between Cymbeline’s court (in London, one assumes, as Lud’s-town gets a couple of mentions) and the cave where Belarius and his two young wards, Guiderius and Arviragus, reside under assumed names — on a mountain near Milford Haven, which I’ve suggested could be the Preseli Hills (highest point: 1760 feet). Cloten has arrived hotfoot on the trail of Imogen, following directions reluctantly given by Pisanio, and while in Posthumus’ garb is still fixated on her insult comparing him to underpants, working himself up mightily to fulfil his bloodthirsty boasts. Continue reading “Cymbeline, Act IV”

Cymbeline, Act III

Hoopoe
Hoopoe: clipart courtesy Florida Center for Instructional Technology http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/

William Shakespeare
The Tragedie of Cymbeline
Act III in seven scenes

The story so far
Imogen’s story is that of the Calumniated or Slandered Wife, whereby she is wrongly accused of being unfaithful to her husband. This results from Shakespeare’s use of the folktale motif of the Wager on the Wife’s Chastity, linked to the theme of the supposed lover — here played by Iachimo — hidden in a chest in the heroine’s bedchamber. The tale Imogen was reading before retiring to bed was from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and concerned the Thracian tyrant Tereus. His Athenian wife Procne asks Tereus to allow her to see her own sister Philomela. Tereus, seized with lust, rapes Philomela, and cuts out her tongue to stop her reporting his violence. However, Philomela weaves a tapestry which reveals the rape and sends it to her sister. Procne metes out a bloody revenge on her unfaithful husband before she and Philomel turn into birds, Procne becoming a swallow and Philomel a nightingale. Tereus also transforms into a bird, the hoopoe, which laments with a distinctive cry while wearing a distinctive crest to mark it out. Continue reading “Cymbeline, Act III”

Cymbeline, Act II

cowslipsWilliam Shakespeare
The Tragedie of Cymbeline
Act II in five scenes

“… On her left breast
A mole cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops
I’ the bottom of a cowslip …”

— Cymbeline II ii

Most of the principal characters having been introduced in Act I, Act II settles down to working out some of the scenarios that have been triggered: so the mystery of the chest supposedly filled with treasures for the Roman emperor is now revealed, and Iachimo’s trap is sprung. The Queen’s son, Cloten, who has been revealed as a strutting coxcomb in Act I, continues to display what a complete clot he is: having heard that an ‘Italian’ (Iachimo from Rome) is newly arrived, he expresses his intentions to beat him, perhaps cheat him, in some game or other. Though he never gets to meet Iachimo, we don’t doubt the outcome of that match. It is in the next scene, in Imogen’s bedchamber that the apparent ‘tragedie’ of the drama is played out. Continue reading “Cymbeline, Act II”

Cymbeline, Act I

Ely House portrait
Shakespeare: the Ely Palace portrait, probably 19th-century — before 1864, when it first appeared

William Shakespeare
The Tragedie of Cymbeline
Act I in six scenes

The Medieval and Renaissance sense of the past was particularly liable to admit anachronisms, for example narrating how pre-Christian classical heroes would go to Mass before setting out on their adventures. In Cymbeline Shakespeare had no worries about anachronistic details: a story set just before the arrivals of the Romans in Britain includes for example men from France, Holland and Spain, when these countries were yet to come into existence, and its curious mix of Welsh, Italian and Latin-sounding names is quite disconcerting. But the author cares not a jot or a tittle about this, for this is principally a fantasy about power struggles in high politics, conducted by individuals with very human failings. Like many a Shakespearean comedy (don’t be fooled by the ‘tragedie’ label of its original title) it is essentially a fairytale full of all the folktale motifs and themes that we expect from traditional stories. Continue reading “Cymbeline, Act I”

Shakespeare’s The Tragedie of Cymbeline

Scene-II-Act-IV-From-Cymbeline-By-William-Shakespeare-1564-1616
Henry Singleton Scene ii Act IV from Cymbeline http://www.1st-art-gallery.com/Henry-Singleton/Scene-II-Act-IV-From-Cymbeline-By-William-Shakespeare-1564-1616.html

Shakespeare was christened on April 26th, 1564, four and a half centuries ago. To mark his birth — traditionally set on St George’s Day, feast day of England’s patron saint, though his actual birthday is not known — Lizzie Ross and I will be looking at one of his more obscure plays, The Tragedie of Cymbeline, act by act until we get to April 26th. We tweeted a similar dialogue with our views on the graphic novel Watchmen.

CymbelineAccording to IMDb a modern version of Cymbeline is due to be released as a film this year, set in New York and starring Ed Harris, Dakota Johson, Ethan Hawke and Milla Jovovich among others. This will be a far cry from either Iron Age Britain, when Cunobelinus ruled from Camulodunum — now Colchester in Essex — or from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s chronicle The History of the Kings of Britain, which in turn supplied Cymbeline as a fantasy character to later inspire Shakespeare via Holinshed’s Chronicles.

But despite the title, this is not primarily a tale about the king — as we will no doubt see.