Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

A Reader’s Diary, 23 April 2014

We appreciate the modern in Shakespeare and ignore, excuse or improve everything else. It happens to all writers. They go out of fashion soon after they die and wait in the literary graveyard for the day of resurrection. Most are still waiting. Critics and directors wait too like ‘resurrection men’ to exhume dead reputations and make their own. The way out of the literary graveyard is for the corpse to be dug up, dusted off and made modern again.

It was reading three of Shakespeare’s plays on three consecutive evenings, before the grave-robber and the surgeon had got their hands on them, that prompted these thoughts. First I read Much Ado About Nothing, which I shall be seeing soon at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. This was one of the plays Shakespeare wrote in the middle of his career and I knew it already, so I turned next to one from near the beginning, Titus Andronicus, and then to one from near the end, Timon of Athens, neither of which I had read before.

The first thing a director would do with them is bring them up-to-date. In particular, leaving aside the question of costume and setting, the actors would have to speak the lines, not as Shakespeare wrote them, but as a modern audience is used to hearing them. The modern does not include poetic drama, so the poetry is the first thing to go – or rather to be modernised. Modern actors are taught to speak verse as if it were prose. In Much Ado About Nothing there is no verse to speak of until Act III. It is, of all Shakespeare’s comedies, the most prosaic and, perhaps for that reason, much loved by modern directors. When Hero and her Gentlewomen are plotting together in the orchard and doing it in perfectly balanced Elizabethan blank verse, the contrast with what has gone before is striking.

For look where Beatrice, like a lapwing, runs
Close by the ground, to hear our conference.

Open Shakespeare’s poem, Venus and Adonis, at any page and you will find lines like it.

Look how a bird lies tangled in a net,
So fasten’d in her arms Adonis lies.

To modern ears, this way of speaking sounds artificial and, because ‘artificial’ has changed its meaning from ‘skilful’ to ‘false’, it is almost impossible that a modern audience should find dramatic poetry as natural as it once was. Modern audiences know less about lapwings too.

Much Ado may have less poetry in it than most of the other comedies, but what it has is first rate and the boy who played Hero must have appreciated the lines Shakespeare gave him. The prose lines he gave to the other actors are good too, which is a clue to the kind of play it is – or was. It was a showcase for the company, with parts written for each actor in the style they did best and all the ingredients needed to please the audience. Like the other comedies with throw-away titles, written in that middle period of Shakespeare’s career, it does not pretend to be anything other than ‘what you will’. It is easy to imagine the cheers that went up when Dogberry made his first appearance in Act III. Notice how Shakespeare times his arrival, making the audience wait until halfway through the play before their favourite comedian comes on. Dogberry’s lines are a gift to a comic actor, not least his insistence on being called an ass, which Shakespeare lets him milk for every last laugh.

The early and late plays that I read have still less of the modern in them. Titus Andronicus was very early, number five in the Wordsworth Edition (the only one I know of that has the plays in chronological order) coming between Richard III and The Comedy of Errors. Timon of Athens comes much later at number thirty-two, between Coriolanus and Pericles. Absence of the modern, not any lack of intrinsic worth, explains why each of these two plays has been variously ignored, excused or improved.

Both plays belong to dramatic traditions that were still current in Shakespeare’s day, but were not new and not even then part of the modern. The modern was what Ben Jonson was doing, writing plays ‘in the language men do use’. The older traditions that Shakespeare drew on were those of the Mystery Plays and Morality Plays, whose purpose was to educate. Character and dramatic incident are present in both, but are less important than meaning. Both traditions have their origins in religion and old English verse.

Shakespeare, though modern in his time, was always in debt to the past. The prologue of play number thirty-three, Pericles, is spoken by the old English poet, John Gower (1330-1408). The lines Shakespeare writes for Gower are not pastiche, but part of a living tradition.

If you, born in these latter times,
When wit’s more ripe, accept my rimes,
And that to hear an old man sing
May to your wishes pleasure bring,
I life would wish, and that I might
Waste it for you, like taper-light.

Remembering, when you read these eight-syllable lines, to substitute four stresses for regular metre, is the way to discover its inherent muscularity. Shakespeare’s songs and some of his poems owe more to Gower than they do to Petrarch.

The attraction of Titus Andronicus to a modern director is its portrayal of extreme violence. The scene in which Lavinia’s hands are cut off and her tongue cut out are as modern as anything in the movies of Quentin Tarantino. The scene was modern in Shakespeare’s day too, but for different reasons, viz: 1) it was an explicit rejection of the classical rule that action should take place off-stage, in other words it was Shakespeare saying ‘A fig for your unities’ and establishing himself as one of the moderns; 2) extreme violence like this was part of Elizabethan real life, not just fantasy as it is with us, enshrined in the legal system, no worse than hanging, drawing and quartering, arguably better in that Lavinia was at least able to hold a stick between her teeth afterwards and use it to scratch the name of her rapist in the sand; 3) the play as a whole was a kind of modern morality play, showing the worst in human nature so as to encourage the best, and for this reason it was not just the violence that held the Elizabethan audience’s attention but the long speeches too. Today’s modern audience has a shorter attention span than the Elizabethan one.

The suffering of Timon of Athens was as great as that of Titus Andronicus, but different in kind. His is an inner torment, brought on partly through his own innocence and partly through the selfishness of others. It is like a story from the Old Testament or a parable from the New, a re-working of the themes of play twenty-nine, King Lear. Of the two, King Lear seems to us the more modern, because there is more psychology in it and more interaction between the characters. Timon of Athens is a morality play. Whether for that reason an Elizabethan audience would have thought it old-fashioned or post-modern is a moot point.


My next Reader’s Diary will be published here on Wednesday 7 May.

My next post, on 30 April, will be On the origin of Dylan Thomas.

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