12 June 2012

Timon of Athens

The National Theatre is putting Timon of Athens on next month. I have thought about going but don't know the play so I read it. It's a curious work, kind of unfinished and unbalanced but you can see why the NT might be producing it at this time. Timon is a rich man in Athens, who has spent all his money on parties and helping out friends. When his debtors call in some debts, he finds he has nothing left. Worse, he finds none of his supposed friends is prepared to help him out.

So he goes mad, becomes a raving misanthropic wild man of the woods, and ultimately finances the rebellion against the Athenian government. In a week when we've seen a Nazi member of the Greek parliament physically attack a woman on a television programme, this is almost prophetic. All we need is a character called Imfio to complete the picture. But the end of the play ties all together again. Alcibiades, the rebel, shows mercy towards the subdued city, in contrast to Timon's scattergun malice. Like The Merchant of Venice, the play essentially suggests that extremes - either of generosity or of misanthropy - don't work. It's not a particularly complex finding.

 I've a feeling I won't be going to see the play. It's a play whose quality allows, in fact demands, a tendentious production and I don't think that's something I'm particularly interested in.

11 June 2012

The Merchant of Venice

I saw the film version (with Al Pacino as Shylock) of this on television recently. It seemed reasonably faithful rendering (in fact, too faithful to be a memorable film) and it reminded me it's a play I've barely thought about for many years. But what had struck me in the courtroom scene was the way it embodies some of the presumed conflict between early Christians and the Jewish establishment. In some ways it's an exposition of St Paul's thoughts on the attitude to The Law. In the play, Shylock adheres to a rigid interpretation of his bond, while Portia puts the case for mercy.

The other thing I wanted to check was the way the chant "Tell me, where is fancy bred?" is used. I can't remember where I saw the suggestion that this is a blatant bit of cheating. Bassanio has to choose between three sealed caskets, of gold, silver and lead. If he chooses correctly, he wins Portia's hand in marriage and all the fortune that goes with it. Portia clearly fancies him, and she's already seen that gold and silver are the wrong answers. And while Bassanio is pondering (Act III, scene 2) she sings:
Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
Reply, reply.
where the three lines all rhyme with "lead". Once this has been pointed out, it's so obvious, but it seems to go unnoticed quite often. For example, Tony Tanner in his Prefaces to Shakespeare is as always enlightening about many aspects of the play, but doesn't mention this. Is it just too obvious? Is it just me who finds it remarkable?

Whatever, it suggests that Portia is willing to bend rules to get the right outcome, which prepares us for the courtroom scene. Here she initially tries to persuade Shylock to be merciful, but when that fails she hoists him on his own petard, with a ridiculously to-the-letter interpretation of the bond: the famous pound of flesh must be exactly a pound, and must contain no blood.

And then, in her disguise as a lawyer who has been brought in as an independent expert by the Doge, she accepts a gift from Bassanio, one of the litigants. Which can't be right.

OK, it's clear we're not dealing with moral certainties. And so we come to Shylock, and things get even more difficult. In the courtroom scene, it's difficult not to feel intensely antagonistic towards him, but I think this antagonism is always based on his behaviour, not on the fact he's a Jew. Until this scene, his Jewishness has (to a modern audience, which is the only one there is these days) provoked sympathy for him. His hatred for Antonio arises from Antonio's prejudiced mistreatment of him - which nobody begins to deny. Similarly, it's clear that he's suffered from institutional racism of the state of Venice. He has legitimate causes for complaint, but as an individual - a Jew, not the Jew - his proposed remedy is disproportionate. By whatever means the play has to bring about restoration of appropriate responses. And yet it goes further. When Shylock refuses to risk enforcing the bond, with the inevitable punishment by death that would follow, he loses everything. There's no legal logic to this. His bond, however wrong-headed, was, as everyone accepts, perfectly legal. What law has he broken that all his goods should be forfeit? Finally he is punished for disrupting the assumptions of what reasonable behaviour is. The logic of the play means he must be punished. So, it is a comedy, after all. A largely happy ending reassures us that there can be sensible answers to terrible situations. But the world in this play is unsafe in the long run and non-conformity can be costly. The word "happy", after all, once meant "lucky". And the fate of the awful Gratiano, who ends the play with a bawdy pun, reminds us that unworthy people sometimes prosper.

01 June 2012

Aurora Leigh

Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, is a long poem (a long poem) about the life of a female poet in the nineteenth century whose life is divided between England and Italy. But it's not about EBB herself, really. You could see this approach as similar to Simon Amstell's Grandma's House except that no-one ever called EBB a post-modern ironist.

The poem's had an interesting critical history. It received a mixed reaction on publication, and after EBB's death 1861 it disappeared from view, unlike, say, her Sonnets from the Portuguese, which continued to be popular. In the 1970s feminist literary theorists repopularised it, and it was one of the first publications of The Women's Press (in 1978).

The introduction to this edition, by Kerry McSweeney, tends to see the poem as having survived the feminist attention, sees that as a stage in its critical rediscovery, rather than as the only, or best, way of reading. He comes close to suggesting that it can't be a feminist work because EBB was no feminist and "what is enunciated is not a feminist vision". The fact that feminists including George Eliot and Virginia Woolf enjoyed and praised the work suggests there is a feminist vision within it. And once again, we find that the text that is created when the poem is read is not the same as the text that was written.

For me, I found the earlier parts of the poem astonishingly feminist for their time. Aurora Leigh is fiercely independent and sets out to make her own way in life living off her poetry and rejecting marriage to her wealthy cousin, Romney. At the end of the poem they are reconciled, after he is blinded, and, reader, she marries him. The last two books (of nine) disappointed me: Aurora loses some of her independence of spirit and her christianity is more prominent. Earlier, it had seemed that she was in part dramatising the Church of England's reaction to the crisis of faith, showing how belief had become more philosophical than historical, but towards the end the belief becomes less considered, more axiomatic. There's also a regrettable triumphalism over Romney's renunciation of his progressive social aims. A feminist view could see this as an indictment of Aurora Leigh's society, which is seen to allow her to succeed only in the sphere of poetry and, ultimately, marriage.

The style of the poetry is sometimes difficult. Characters have improbably long and fluent speeches in blank verse and there's a lot of influence of German philosophy in the very language used. I'm thinking of terms like "artist-soul" and other compounds which read like calques. It's also obvious that EBB was incredibly well-read and fearsomely intelligent.

I don't think it's outlandish to suggest that the neglect of the poem for about 100 years was partly because of the feminism within it, which fans and critics alike recognised. EBB had stepped outside the proper sphere of the lady poetess, while the Sonnets, and her life story as an invalid love-object, gave the world a woman much easier to read, anthologise and admire.