Johnson’s Criticism of Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’ and the Problematic Nature of Dark Comedy

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‘To remark on the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names, and manners of different times, and the impossibility of events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbicility…’

That is not an attack of a piece of work by some hack writer churning out pot boilers. It is  part of a review of William Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’.

It’s by Samuel Johnson, an opinionated writer by any standards. (I should know, being opinionated myself). Part of the problem, as I see it, is that he is applying the standards of the so-called Age of Reason – Johnson was writing in the eighteenth century UK, which prided itself on its ‘enlightenment’ – to a fairy story/dark comedy, which verges on the surreal.

But even taking Johnson’s view – that he represented The Age of Reason in his attack on the play  and its fantastic notions – there is something biased and absurd about a critic saying this of Shakespeare, when he had praised to the skies that  deeply flawed sentimental novel ‘Evelina’ by Fanny Burney. That is meant to be realistic, with believable characters. Any modern reader who has ploughed through it will have noted the absurd co-incidences in it, and also, the wholly unbelievable behaviour of the characters.

It is of course, possible that characters whose behaviour is plausible to one century might seem to have the strangest motivations to readers two centuries later; an intriguing thought.

Johnson, whose approach in literary criticism often seems unimaginative, approached a fantasy story looking for realism in the plot, and was bitterly disappointed.

The way I see it –  and there are many interpretations of ‘Cymbeline’ with critics arguing about what exactly Shakespeare was getting at – is that Shakespeare was experimenting with a new, darker form of comedy. He did this several times later in his career after the much simpler comedies such as ‘A Comedy of Errors’ and ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and most people believe that ‘A Winter’s Tale’ is a far superior play to ‘Cymebline’ which is, if our ideas about the timing of his plays is correct, one that followed his great tragedies.

Well, ‘King Lear’ is a pretty hard act to follow…

Anyway, this play seems to follow on from ‘All’s Well That End’s Well’ in that it combines traditional fairy tale themes and stereotypical characters from such legends with a contrasting realism in their presentation, which can confuse the reader. The events in the stories are quite dark: however, I don’t believe they are meant to be taken wholly seriously.

In ‘All’s Well That Ends’ Well’ Helena, a ‘low born’ but admirable physician’s daughter cures the king of a supposedly incurable malady. Naturally, he asks her what she might want, as he’ll give it to her. What she wants is to marry her guardian’s son, the Count of Rossillion, and this is an interesting twist. In fairy stories, it is usually the enterprising miller’s son or some such who wins the hand of the king’s daughter, and she is assumed to find being given away as a prize quite acceptable.

By contrast, in ‘All’s Well That Ends  Well’ (which is based on a story by Boccaccio) the Count throws a tantrum, goes through with the marriage, but announces that he will never consummate it. He leaves her a note stating impossible conditions for her to fulfil in order for him to accept her as his wife, and runs off to join the army, egged on by a cowardly braggart toady called Parolles.

So, this brings a new, realistic twist to the fairy tale theme. Helena now has to fulfil these impossible conditions – that is of course, a fairy tale convention – and so bring about a happy ending.

‘Cymbeline’ is actually named after a king of Ancient Britain, whom we don’t see much. Unlike that other defective ruler, King Lear, this king is a shadowy presence in the play named for him. He has fallen under the evil counsel of his second wife, who is also a Wicked Witch and Evil Stepmother to the king’s daughter from his first marriage, Imogen, who has secretly married her comparatively low born childhood playmate Posthumus Leonatus. She is, unusually for these times, also the heir,  as his two sons were kidnapped by an estranged courtier (they all reappear at the end of the play). Accordingly, the king is furious with her for making such a marriage, and banishes Posthumus, and puts pressure on her to renounce him and marry the Wicked Queen’s son, who is a portrayed as a buffoon.

Meanwhile, Posthumus has gone about boasting about how Imogen would never be unfaithful to him, and even enters into a bet with an idle fellow called Iachmo, who insists that he could seduce any woman. He travels to the court to  hide in a trunk and have himself carried into Imogen’s bedroom, where emerges in the night, and leering at her naked, takes back the news to Posthumus that she has a mole on her breast.

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Instead of wondering if Iachmo has found this out through trickery, Posthumous immediately takes his word and having run off in a rage, returns to address the audience in a wild rant where he says that all women are sex obsessed, and incapable of fidelity: –

Me of my lawful pleasure she restrain’d,

And prayed me oft forbearance…O, all the devils!

This yellow Iachmo, in an hour, was’t not?

Or less; at first? Perhchance he spake not, but

Like a full acorn’d boar, a German one,

Cried ‘O’ and mounted…’

This is very ridiculous (I assume the said ‘German boar’ wouldn’t have said ‘O’ and the actor makes a  bestial grunting noise), and I found it grimly funny.However, it is worth noting that  when on the ‘Goodreads’  ‘Shakespeare Fans Group’ we discussed the play recently, a lot of people said they could see no humour in the play at all.

Later, however, Posthumus orders his servant to kill Imogen. Naturally, the man doesn’t, and Imogen and Posthumous are eventually reconciled. He does repent, even suggesting that being unfaithful to him was a comparatively small fault compared to his own enormous one in ordering her murder ( one wonders: why one earth did he think it fair to order his servant to do his dirty work?).

This, an unusual admission for the times, made me wonder if Shakespeare was here attacking the notion that a woman’s worth was equivalent to her so called chastity – the word ‘honour’ was used of both of women, though not of men. If so, he was well ahead of his time. More than two centuries later, the puritanical Samuel Richardson was writing in ‘Pamela’ as if physical virginity and mental virtue were the same for his heroines, and the astoundingly repressive view of women and sexuality being mutually exclusive so common in Victorian times is a commonplace.

That, however, is to wander off the topic, which I really meant to be, that experimenting in comedy was a tricky matter many centuries ago, and it remains as tricky a form of writing to do today. Humour is so individual a thing, even in individuals within a culture.

After all, sarcasm and irony, historically so much a part of the British character, aren’t invariably part of it. I have met Brits who wouldn’t know an ironic quip if they met it in the road, and these people aren’t in any way intellectually deficient. It is more that their brains seem to be connected in a different way to those who have a  keen sense of the absurd.  No doubt the same applied in Shakespeare’s time. Presumably, there were many in the audience at the Globe who would assume that Postumus, being the hero of the play, is expressing his creator’s own views, even if he is acting rather dramatically…

I have said before that the line between horror and the ridiculous is perilously thin. Sometimes, it seems easier to write unintentional comedy than it is to write it intentionally…

But for instance, one wonders about much of the melodrama in  various Victorian novels. ‘Wuthering Heights’, for example. The scene, for instance, where Cathy lies on the sofa ‘grinding her teeth as if she would turn them to splinters’. Is that meant to be as absurd as I find it? Or Heathcliffe’s hissed remark when Nelly rebukes him for his ill treatment of his bride:  ‘Let the worms writhe! I have no pity!’ seems to me so melodramatic as to be ludicrous.

And that is one of the good things about dark comedy. The two sides of that thin line between horror and humour, comedy and tragedy, meet and combine. I believe that was what Shakespeare, in his darker comedies, was exploring, in ‘Alls Well That End’s Well’ ‘Cymbeline’, ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and others.

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Historical Fiction: Celebrated Writers whose Names are Syonymous with the Fictional Depiction of an Age: Part I: Mary Renault and the Bronze Age.

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A horrible fight…

There are some writers of historical fiction on particular historical epochs who acquire such widespread  fame that they are often described as having ‘Made that era their own’.

One of these is Mary Renault, famed for her strong writing and thorough historical research.

Born in 1905 in a middle class home, strongly influenced by her father and suffering from an unsatisfactory relationship with her mother, Renault attended Oxford, became a nurse, and had a life long relationship with another woman with whom she emigrated to  South Africa in 1948. Although many of her novels deal with the theme of same sex love and sexuality, and she acquired a strong gay following, she did not define herself as a gay writer. However, she always saw herself a something of an ‘honourary man’.

Renault  tried various sorts of writing before concentrating on novels set in Ancient Greece. She wrote various novels about Alexander, and also a duo set in the Bronze Age, featuring the mythical hero Theseus, ‘The King Must Die’ (1958) and ‘The Bull from the Sea’ (1962).

In these novels, Renault depicts Theseus as the initiator of the overthrow of the ancient matriarchal societies by the new system of patriarchy.  Although Renault was influenced  by the writings of Robert Graves, author of ‘The White Goddess’ and other works on the ancient Goddess religion, Renault, in line with the conventional views of her era, depicted  their destruction as the inevitable result of historical progress, while Graves’ sympathies were all with female power.

In her introduction to the ‘The King Must Die’, Bethany Hughes comments:  ‘It is perhaps odd that  Renault should choose Theseus, a macho warrior with a bloody biography, as her favoured hero.  The myth cycles of antiquity declare Theseus to be a hero who tricked, bludgeoned and raped his way through life. There are lurid, ancient descriptions of his rape of the eight year old Helen…’

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‘Tanglewood Tales’ with its depiction of the Ancient Greek legends, was read to me when I was about five. I was so horrified by the Minotaur that I couldn’t put my fear into words, and talked instead of being scared of the dragon in the ‘dragon’s teeth’ myth. I was in awe of Theseus for being brave enough to go and fight such a terrible monster, and never having investigated the darker side of the myth, my feelings for him remained benign when I grew up.

This is certainly why, when I read ‘The King Must Die’ and its somehow fragmented sequel, ‘The Bull from the Sea’ , I was startled to find that Theseus obnoxious. When I finished the book and looked over the reviews on the internet, I was dismayed to find  that these books are recommended enthusiastically by not only male readers, but by a fair amount of female readers too.

While I quite agree that an historical society must be depicted to the best of the author’s ability as it was – not sanitized according to modern sensibilities- there are still ways in which the author can use the narrative tone and plot devices to distance herself from the ugly attitudes of the age. This remains true, even if a first person voice is chosen, as it is in the Theseus series.  It seems to me that Renault, having failed to do this, leaves this reader at least with the uneasy impression that on the whole she  sympathized with Theseus  (and many male readers of this series) in thinking that a society that sacrificed one man a year is somehow more bloody and barbaric than one which brutalises countless women.

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I was dismayed by the internalised misogyny which Renault displays. This so detracted from my engagement with the stories, that the lively narration and vivid depiction seemed to me to be tainted by it.

Renault  tries to be fair, but given the attitude towards women in the era in which she is writing, this is difficult.  Though she was in a marriage type relationship with another woman, she seemed to illustrate her generally low view of her sex by her various dismissive quotes (ie, the one on the possibility of a female Shakespeare quoted by David Sweetman in his biography), and she saved her admiration for male figures.

This was probably typical of the women who identified as ‘masculine’  in the era when she was young. By the time feminism and gay liberation appeared, Renault was, in middle age, unable to identify with them.

In this series, only masculine woman  (like the Amazon Queen Hippoylata, who suffers from a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome after her capture) are depicted as admirable. More conventionally ‘feminine’ women are seen as devious, motivated by vanity, and untrustworthy.  There is the extraordinary assumption that the Amazon Queen, though raised apart from men, is nevertheless boyish because she is athletic and courageous. That it is possible to be athletic and physically brave without being mannish was not an idea that seems to have occurred to Renault’s generation.

To be fair to Renault, she does depict some splendid matriarchal women,  such as the wonderful matriarchal Queen who is Theseus’ first wife (or rather, he is her last out of maybe a dozen Kings for a Year, bringing about her own death), and Theseus’ own mother.  I was less sympathetic towards the apostate Amazon Hippoylata.

The result of all these influences is that in ‘The King Must Die’  particularly, the reader is assumed  to b e quite happy in cheering  Theseus on in his onslaught on female power. While  its oddly inchoate sequel, ‘The Bull from the Sea’ has been interpreted by critics as ‘The Goddess’s revenge’, this is incompletely depicted. Theseus in the end kills himself by jumping off a cliff, an anti climatic end. It is surely less drawn out and painful than that which he gives his errant wife Phaedra when he chokes her to death (I have always been puzzled why, as a supposedly brilliant wrestler, he didn’t use the strangle – cutting off the blood to the brain – rather than the clumsy choke – cutting off air to the lungs;  Renault, usually meticulous in research, fails there).

In fact, all of Theseus’ three wives (counting Hippoylata) die through his actions (or inactions) so that I have always felt that the title should be altered to, ‘The Queen Must Die’.

However, my reaction is that of a minority. Most readers of Renault are wholly admiring, or, if they find that internalised misogyny offensive, are able to ‘get past it’ better than I am. Today, sixty years after the date of its publication, ‘The King Must Die’ is still selling well – 30,533 in the Kindle Store at Amazon.co.uk.

Renault’s influence has been pervasive- to the point when her name is almost equated with the fictional depiction of that  period – despite the fact that her style is old fashioned, and that modern research to some extent disagrees with her interpretation. This poses a  problem for subsequent writers on the Bronze Age.

Such writers are invariably, because of Renault’s continuing influence, compared to Renault, and all too often, to the detriment of experimentation.

I have, since reading Renault’s series, come on a couple of excellent ones which take an opposing view of the destruction of the ancient female centred cultures, seeing this as the beginning of warlike cultures, typified by aggression, rape and brutality.

However, while I would find this portrayal sympathetic, it would not be enough for me to have a great admiration  for them, if they were not brilliantly written. For me, these books have all the advantages of Mary Renault’s scholarship, without incorporating that dismal internalized misogyny.

On this, I have just discovered that back in 1971 a male author – Poul Anderson – wrote a novel  ‘The Dancer from Atlantis’, which is actually based on Renault’s own. This is an inverted version, where Theseus is dipicted as the brutal destroyer of the civilisation of Ancient Crete. I would be interested to read this, and wonder it has received so little attention.

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Another story based on the Theseus legend is the brilliant, but eminently tragic, duo by June Rachuy Brindel,  ‘Ariadne’ and ‘Phaedra’, published respectively in 1980 and 1985.

Another saga set in the Bronze Age about the destruction of the ancient matriarchies – though not about Theseus – is Rebecca Lochlann’s excellent ‘Child of the Erinyes’ series of eight books, which is still ongoing, the first book having been published in 2011.

Frequenters of this blog will know that I am a great admirer of this writing. I  have been exasperated by the wearisome tendency of some reviewers – including some males clearly stung bythe unflattering portait of the patriarchy contained in it – to make those invidious comparisons with Renault of all works of fiction about Bronze Age Greece, including Brindel’s and Lochlann’s work.

Renault wrote an interesting, thoroughly researched and vividly portayed series – one which I personally found distasteful, but many will disagree. It was  based on the views of her time. Sixty years have gone by since then.  Surely it is time for readers to move on from interpreting Bronze Age Greece and the Greek legends through Renault’s specific lens, and to investigate new fictional explorations of Bronze Age Greece, ones which are fairer in their treatment of women and female power.

The view that any age or indeed, any aspect of writing is the domain of, or should be depicted using the same approach of, some celebrated author is surely ridiuclous and stifling.

Of course, there will always be a hardcore of admirers of some writers of yesteryear who simply don’t want to move on – who think that particular writing can never be surpassed. However, most readers are hopefully not of so rigid a mindset, and surely the same argument must apply even more to the rest of the publishing world, who are supposedly ever eager for new ideas or new approaches to familiar themes.

But this post is becoming too long: so more on these, in my next post.

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