Entry from September 26, 2006

According to The Times of London, Dominic Dromgoole, the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre there is scoring some good press for himself and his theatre by offering to a grateful public his opinion of where Shakespeare screwed up, claiming that the even more eminent Shakespearean director, Sir Peter Hall, agrees with him. “Peter’s take was that Shakespeare would wake up, bleary-eyed and hungover, think, ‘Oh f*** do I have to?’, then settle down with quill and paper. ‘Where was I?’ he’d groan, then start scratching uncomfortably away, trying to revive the magic of the day before.” It sounds plausible, I guess — until you read the examples of allegedly bad writing on which this charming portrait of the English national bard is based.

Here’s one. When, in The Tempest, Prospero warns Ferdinand for the second time to respect his daughter Miranda’s virginity until they are married, the young man answers: “I warrant you sir;/ The white cold virgin snow upon my heart/Abates the ardour of my liver.”

Here’s another. Lady Macbeth attempts to embolden Macbeth to the murder of Duncan, which he has agreed to perform but is now having second thoughts about, by saying: “I have given suck, and know/ How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me:/ I would, while it was smiling in my face,/ Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,/ And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you/ Have done to this.”

Well, people differ. There’s no accounting for tastes. And all that. So far from being examples of bad writing, these strike me as being among the more memorable and even haunting lines in all of Shakespeare. Maybe I just don’t know bad writing when I see it. But let’s notice something else about them. Both passages tell us something about the view of honor held by Shakespeare and his times — something vital. Can it be no more than coincidental that honor, even more than religion, is the very thing about the Elizabethan era that the class of modern-day Britons from which Mr Dromgoole has emerged understands the least?

The first of these quotations is, as I say, a repetition in different words of the same assurance given by Ferdinand to Prospero a few lines earlier. Just as, in Act I, Prospero repeatedly accuses Miranda of not listening to his account of their history as a way of calling attention to the connection between the story and her duty to him — this isn’t just a story but a definition of who she is, by relation to her father — so here he is repeating to Ferdinand his earlier warning of nature’s curse upon unchastity as a reminder of his duty to his father-in-law as well as his wife.

If thou dost break her virgin-knot before
All sanctimonious ceremonies may
With full and holy rite be minister’d,
No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall
To make this contract grow: but barren hate,
Sour-eyed disdain and discord shall bestrew
The union of your bed with weeds so loathly
That you shall hate it both: therefore take heed,
As Hymen’s lamps shall light you.

Could it be that these lines are informed by Shakespeare’s own experience of marriage with a woman whom he had first impregnated? Ferdinand replies:

As I hope
For quiet days, fair issue and long life,
With such love as ’tis now, the murkiest den,
The most opportune place, the strong’st suggestion.
Our worser genius can, shall never melt
Mine honour into lust, to take away
The edge of that day’s celebration
When I shall think: or Phoebus’ steeds are founder’d,
Or Night kept chain’d below.

This is not exactly a wishy-washy response. It’s not like he replied, “Yeah, whatever” — or, for that matter, “Oh f*** do I have to?” It is in fact an oath, and a very pretty one, a calling down of a curse upon his own head if he should disobey, in response to Prospero’s mention of the prospective curse of nature upon unchastity. Ferdinand’s “honour” that will not be melted into lust is his duty to Prospero, and complements as well as protects Miranda’s honor, which is her chastity. But even so emphatic a promise as this is not enough for Prospero. He knows that Ferdinand is a dutiful young man, or he would not have promised his daughter to him. He knows that he will obey as a matter of honor. But he wants to stress — to us as well as Ferdinand — that it is not, as honor so often is, merely pro forma. Outward obedience is not enough. He must discipline his feelings as well. The honor of female chastity is not just a matter of reputation, but part of God’s and nature’s prescription for our happiness. So he returns to his injunction.

Look thou be true; do not give dalliance
Too much the rein: the strongest oaths are straw
To the fire i’ the blood: be more abstemious,
Or else, good night your vow!

It is at this point that Ferdinand replies with the words that Mr Dromgoole considers bad writing. He calls upon Elizabethan physiology — lust, like courage and other passions, resides in the liver while the higher and finer feelings issue from the heart — and images of heat and cold to respond in the same terms that Prospero has used in order to signify that he understands not just his duty but also the reason why it is his duty: because the right ordering of human existence requires that the lower sort of feelings must be kept under the control of the higher sort.

That’s what we nowadays call “repression.” Mr Dromgoole (I’m guessing) doesn’t have any time for repression at all. He — probably — despises it. Certainly the élite culture out of which he comes despises it. But to suppose that this post-Freudian commitment to the shedding of emotional restraint and the celebration of all feelings, without distinguishing between higher and lower, would or could have been shared by Shakespeare — and that any suggestion that it might not have been shared by him must be as a result of Shakespeare’s own literary bungling — this is sheer philistinism and historical illiteracy of the first water.

Now consider the Macbeth quotation. Shakespeare is always interested in women who take a masculine approach to honor as a means of accomplishing the feminine purpose of manipulating a man. Portia in Julius Caesar and Volumnia in Coriolanus are examples of such women. I would argue that Desdemona in Othello is another. But the quotation that Mr Dromgoole cites as the sub-literate product of a Shakespearean hangover is the supreme example in Shakespeare and perhaps in all literature. Can he possibly even have understood what she is saying? The point is to taunt her husband in the most humiliating way she can think of. She is a mere woman, she says, stressing the point by the reference to her suckling a child. Yet if she had pledged her honor like a man by saying that she would kill the child — so implying her own dishonor if she should fail to keep her word — she would not have hesitated to break the strongest bond in nature, the bond between mother and child. If she would be as manly and, as she insists, honorable as this in rejecting mere nature, what does that make him if he shrinks from a comparable violation of a much weaker natural bond?

It’s also another way of saying what she has earlier said in soliloquy, to whatever gods she imagines are above:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief!

Just as Prospero has tried to put sex into the context of the natural and the divine, so Lady Macbeth tries to wrench them apart. Like the modern secular culture, she scoffs at the view of sexual differentiation as natural. She scorns nature and prays for a sex change — failing which, she is reduced to the grotesque parody of femininity that comes with the taunting of her husband’s manhood to make him do her will. It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature, as the old TV commercial used to say, and Shakespeare would have heartily agreed. But nature and honor have to be in agreement; the honorable nature of the bond between King and thane is explicitly compared to the natural bond between mother and child. Lady Macbeth’s attempt to use honor against nature is just like Prospero’s warning of allowing nature to circumvent honor. Both are reminders that, in Shakespeare’s view — and not only Shakespeare’s! — nature and honor must be kept in harmony for us to live as God and nature intend.

But the very idea of honor is more and more a closed book to us, as Mr Dromgoole’s foolish pronouncements make clear. Since in modern-day Britain, as in modern-day America, honor is not understood or respected, even where it is not actively despised, it’s not surprising that neither he nor Sir Peter nor the many that will read with approval their historical vandalism against Shakespeare’s memory fail to understand lines like these where honor is front and center. But it is obviously a gap in their understanding that they don’t know about. If they did, they wouldn’t cite such quotations as examples of Shakespeare’s incompetence when in fact they reveal their own.

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