I have spent much of the past week mentally in Tudor and Jacobean London, reading Michael Wood’s “In Search of Shakespeare”. It’s remarkable how much time I spent in my youth studying various Shakespeare plays with little or no knowledge of the world that he inhabited. It didn’t seem to be considered relevant to “Henry IV Part I”, “Othello” and “The Winter’s Tale” – and they wonder why teenagers don’t like the Bard.
Wood brings Shakespeare’s high pressure existence at the top of his profession vividly to life. The book was originally a TV series and it still comes across as very visual and dynamic. No wonder he died in his early 50s – he wrote 39 plays in 20 years, and all that as part of a punishing schedule of morning rehearsals, afternoon performances and numerous appearances at Court. The whole company must have been total pros – putting on six different plays in a week. About 40 new plays a year were needed to satisfy demand.
There were considerable political and religious pressures on the players. Condemned as immoral and dangerous by the Puritans, their work was at the topical cutting edge and scrutinized carefully by the Elizabethan thought police. For example, due to sensitivities regarding the unpopularity of the ageing Queen after a series of costly wars, the deposition scene from “Richard II” was probably never performed in S’s lifetime. One of the major reasons for the difference between the two main texts of “Othello” was a Puritan edict forbidding oaths in public performances. And both “Julius Caesar” and “Hamlet” had very topical resonances at the time – one thing I enjoyed about the recent Greg Donan reading of “Hamlet” was his honesty about whether Claudius is a better king than the one he usurped. (After all, he sends ambassadors on sensitive foreign policy missions, and they succeed where a warlike attitude failed and brought Denmark to its knees).
One of the most interesting issues of the period, for me at least, is the birth of Protestant England. The country was very much in transition after Mary Stuart’s bloody attempt to reinstate Catholicism, and the old ways were privately adhered to by many people. At first this was tolerated, but gradually throughout Elizabeth’s reign attitudes hardened, until by the early 17C it was a serious criminal offence not to take CofE communion on Easter Sunday, and a number of Shakespeare’s close friends and family associates died for their loyalty to Rome.
Shakespeare survived at the top for so long because he was able to articulate a very nuanced view of human motivations with immense diplomacy and skill. For example, the injunction of Hamlet’s father’s Ghost is very much couched in terms of traditional Catholic doctrine – he makes it clear that he must suffer in Purgotary untill his death is avenged. Tennant plays a Prince who is emotionally stirred and frightened by this command, yet he is very much Protestant man at heart, believing intensely in the right for individuals to work out their own salvation. It is significant that, right up to the final scene, Tennant’s Hamlet does not kill Claudius, but presents him with a sword whereupon the erring monarch kills himself. And there is a fascinating contrast between the scene of Claudius stuggling to pray but unable to do so because he is wracked with guilt:
“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below,
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”
(Act III, Scene 3)
…and the claustrophobic closet scene between Hamlet and his mother, in which Hamlet pleads with her to repent and leave Claudius, but the force of his message is undermined by the fact that he’s bouncing around on her bed and clearly suffering from a serious bout of Oedipus complex as he contemplates his mother as a sexual being.
“…….this I bid you do:
Let the bloat King tempt you again to bed,
Pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse,
And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses
Or paddling in your neck with his damned fingers,
Make you to ravel all this matter out,
That I essentially am not in madness,
But mad in craft”
(Act III scene 4)
To borrow another line, “Methinks he doth protest too much.” To hear that speech from David Tennant sends a shiver down your spine – it is so full of jealousy and hatred, yet here is a man who couldn’t bear to kill the object of his loathing, but needs to emotionally blackmail the Queen instead.
Going back to the scene of Claudius at prayer, which actually spans the interval in this production, making it a cliffhanger worthy of Doctor Who itself, Hamlet’s reasons for not killing his uncle at that point are fascinating. Most of us would feel an instinctive moral revulsion at the idea of stabbing a man in the back while he prays, and it’s likely Hamlet shares that, but he doesn’t give that as his reason for prevarication.
Rather he appeals, once again, to traditional Catholic doctrine, which by the time the play was staged was not only outdated, but illegal and punishable by death:
“A villain kills my father, and for that
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge.”
(Act III 3-4)
Here again, Hamlet articulates his own inner conflict, but not entirely honestly. He is of course, referring to the doctrine that it’s possible for the blackest villain to die in a state of grace and repentance – if he repents at the moment of his death, he’s rescued from Hell – a situation Hamlet says he wants to avoid, because Claudius deserves damnation. But Hamlet’s phrase “hire and salary” reveals that he feels compelled to avenge his father in the traditional sense; he’s been ordered to do so against his gut instincts, emotionally blackmailed by the thought of his father being tortured. He is being denied free agency. (Wittenburg University, incidentally, was the cradle of the Reformation).
So it seems to be that Hamlet’s dilemma is very much on the sharp end of the generation divide – he wants to please his father, but his instincts are drawn towards the more modern worldview that we are individuals responsible for our own actions and destinies. Shakespeare was probably caught in a similar conflict between two spiritual worlds – the traditional, Catholic England of his parents and the modern post-Reformation society. (There’s some evidence that he received the Last Rites on his deathbed, and you couldn’t just call in a priest to do that casually – you had to know your way around an underground network of Catholic priests and their protectors – he died a few years after the Gunpowder Plot, when Catholics must have been regarded as terrorists).
The more you delve into Shakespeare’s world, the more of these resonances you pick up and the more you gain from the plays. Shakespeare was incredibly subtle, writing for a sophisticated audience and regularly presenting plays at Court. The fact that he was able to probe so deeply into the moral conflicts of his age yet never fell out of Royal favour shows how skilfully he could present not only the issues themselves (which would often have been dangerous to present directly) but to the dilemmas behind them. He realised that our spiritual and political loyalties are often complex and, to some extent, irrational. That’s why we can still get so much out of seeing his plays – he was, as Ben Johnson said, “not for an age, but for all time.”