The Conscience of a King

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
To heaven.
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.”


10 thoughts on “The Conscience of a King

  1. ….clearly suffering from a serious bout of Oedipus complex as he contemplates his mother as a sexual being
    I confess, I didn’t get that impression, but we did see different performances. Oedipus to me is the guy that was prophecised to kill his father and marry his mother before he was born. The Freudian slant on it, the complex, is competing for your mother’s sexual favours. To me, the play leans more to the divine charge of murder. I never got the impression that Hamlet would go on to marry his mother, or even wanted to.
    What I did see was a son who had a deep emotional connection with his mother, that leads to the emotional outburst in the closet scene, when he’s only supposed to shake her up a bit. I thought he was angry at her remarriage because in his mind it broke the sanctity of the union. I know it’s socially frowned on for Catholics to remarry today once your spouse has died, so I think it applied in Shakespeare’s day. I didn’t get the impression Hamlet would rather she had married him. The performance I saw, Hamlet couldn’t get his head around the fact his mother still wanted sex at her age. That to me isn’t an ideal mentality for wanting your mother’s sexual interest.
    I also don’t see it as blackmail. The closet scene is a catharsis for both of them, where Hamlet finds someone beyond Horatio that he can trust in this mad craft. He bids her, not commands her or makes her swear. The Ghost reminds him that his mother will suffer with guilt, and I saw it as Hamlet not wanting her to add to that guilt by continuing to fuck the man who murdered her first husband vilely.
    I’m sure I’ve heard that Shakespeare endures because of the scope of interpretation. Apparently that applies to the same production, too. And fanfic, where readers come with their preconceptions about what to expect. Maybe this production’s mirrors reflects our ideas back at us.
    Something that amuses me, though, is the seeming parallel between the monarch of Shakespeare and the Tenth Doctor. If I believe television, Elizabeth I wanted Robert Dudley as her life partner, but circumstance kept them apart. Elizabeth remained a ‘virgin Queen’ and defended her country well, even if everyone including Shakespeare ‘had a go’ at her reign. The Tenth Doctor can’t have Rose, he defends Earth and everyone has a go at undermining his authority. If only there was as much information on Elizabeth I as there is of the playwright of her day.
    It must be a tad ironic that to fully appreciate the continued applicability of Shakespeare, we have to read up on what was happening four hundred years ago…

  2. It’s also why people can take his stories, rewrite them in modern language (I’m thinking 10 Things I Hate About You and O, specifically–though of course there are many others), and still have incredibly powerful stories. There have even been retellings of histories–Richard III with Sir Ian McKellan and My Own Private Idaho, which is basically Henry IV, part II–that work in a modern setting. They WORK.
    This was a wonderfully thoughtful and fascinating entry–I’m going to have to go find that book now. I’ve really enjoyed 1599, which you bought for me last year at the Globe. And I’m really excited for you, with this MA program. Good for you! I want to know all about it as you go through… well, all that you have time to post! Which, if I remember my own MA program, won’t be a lot. *G*
    **big hugs** I miss hanging with you, you know? A lot.

  3. I know it’s socially frowned on for Catholics to remarry today once your spouse has died, so I think it applied in Shakespeare’s day.
    I’m Catholic and I’ve never encountered nor heard of this. It’s certainly not doctrinal. There are some restrictions on some people — deacons who were already married when they became deacons can’t remarry after their wives die — but as far as I am aware, there are no restrictions, either doctrinal or traditional, on the remarriage of widowed laypeople.
    Of course I’m in the United States. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing in your part of the world?

  4. I thought he was angry at her remarriage because in his mind it broke the sanctity of the union. I know it’s socially frowned on for Catholics to remarry today once your spouse has died, so I think it applied in Shakespeare’s day.
    Actually, I always thought the thing that upset him (other than the usurpation of his father in his mother’s bed, which would be true of any new husband) was that the new husband was his father’s brother. Marrying your brother’s widow was marrying within forbidden degrees, a point that everybody who remembered Henry VIII’s first divorce would be acutely aware of. (It remained illegal in England until after World War I.) So Claudius and Gertrude’s relationship was technically incest, a serious sin.

  5. I probably used the term “Oedipus complex” a little sloppily. I agree that any suggestion Hamlet actually wants to sleep with Gertrude isn’t really supported by the text. It’s up to the production to infer that and I don’t think this particular one did. But I do think he has great difficulty with the concept of his mother as a sexual being – many young people do – and particularly in these circumstances.
    Couples who’ve been together a long time – long enough to have young adult children, tend to develop strategies for keeping their sex lives out of their offspring’s faces. But if a parent dies and the surviving one embarks on a much more demonstrative new relationship, that can be extremely upsetting for their children to watch. Add in the suspicious circumstances of old Hamlet’s death and the overtones of incest, and it’s hardly surprising thath Hamlet is revolted and confused. He hardly needs to feign madness – he’s already likely to be traumatised, and indeed his first appearance in this production is remarkable for the intensity of his grief as soon as he’s unobserved.
    I felt that catharsis was beginning to develop when old Hamlet shows up and reminds his son what he’s promised to do. Although this can be read as a stage toward family reconciliation, I felt it was far more intrusive and demanding than that. Old Hamlet ruled by force and he wants to impose his will on his family as soon as a more peaceful resolution appears to be possible.
    As for the parallel between Shakespeare, Ten and Elizabeth, I wonder if Tennant himself seems a parallel between his own situation and the Doctor’s – he has no trouble attracting partners but the demands of his profession make it very difficult for him to maintain those relationships. That might be why he delivers so well when loneliness and angst is called for.

  6. Oh, indeed, about the modern interpretations. Sometimes they come over a little gimmicky – I didn’t quite “get” the Royal Exchange Macbeth set in a concentration camp, for example (though John loved it) – but I wish I’d caught the “Othello” on TV a while back. It was done in modern dress with Othello as London’s first black Chief Police Constable.
    The Michael Wood book is a great biography – you may also be able to pick up the DVD set “In Search of Shakespeare”. Also, there’s a new novel “Will” just out, which is written in Shakespeare’s own POV from his deathbed. It’s going to be filmed with Ben Kingsley in the main role, and that will be a treat.
    My upcoming trip to Stratford covers four performances of Love’s Labour’s Lost, so I reckon I’m in with a chance if I queue for a return ticket. I’ve reread the first scene because you miss so much of the quick repartee if you see it on stage and you aren’t familiar with it. On that evidence, Tennant as Berowne should be a joy – he’s a really cheeky charmer, just like Ten.
    What I hope to find out when I talk with people at the SI is what part-time, modular options are available. One of the choices, “Shakespeare in Education” is designed to be available to working teachers. I think it’s also possible to do modules one at a time on the other courses. Or I may decide – if they’ll have me – to hold off another year or two, because John’s interested in moving down there with me for a year while I study full-time, assuming we can get the kids launched and work out something with his job.
    So, lots of “if’s” but it’s all looking exciting. And this journey started for me, to a large extent, at the Globe last year, so I do feel you’re a part of it.

  7. It might well be the niche I’ve grown up in. I went to a Roman Catholic Secondary School. I don’t practice that faith. It just happened to be the closest school to me, and had the best results record, too. In my History and RE/RS (Religious Studies lol we studied one religion) classes, all of the teachers said it was socially frowned upon to remarry once your spouse had died, if you were Catholic. The idea was that when you died, you joined your spouse in heaven for eternity. Obviously this is problematic if you have two spouses! A second marriage is also problematic when it comes to Wills and inheritance in this life.
    The funny thing for me is that my Nan outlived both her husbands and was Baptised when she came out of hospital with my mom in her arms. I had to write ‘blood ancestors’ when the class got us to dig up information about our family. Even though my step-granddad loved us as if we were his own descendants, I couldn’t include him. So when this idea of one-partner-that’s-it was being taught to me because it was How It Was, I just sat there thinking my Nan had a fantastic life and I’d rather be loved than endure hollow sentiments. I hardly ever sung at compulsory Mass at school, because I didn’t believe and I didn’t want to be a part of it. I’d rather sit in respectful silence than pretend.

  8. Oooh, I wondered why there was such emphasis on ‘incest’ in the play. Today, incest is seen as a genetic thing, separate from divinity. But we still carry the titles sister-in-law and brother-in-law. I suppose back then, and even now, marriage makes big families laterally as well as through descendants. As soon as you became family, it was incestuous because the divinity of marriage made you brother and sister.

  9. But I do think he has great difficulty with the concept of his mother as a sexual being – many young people do – and particularly in these circumstances. Couples who’ve been together a long time – long enough to have young adult children, tend to develop strategies for keeping their sex lives out of their offspring’s faces.
    It’s the beauty of being either the youngest child or an only child that you can kid yourself that once you were conceived your parents stopped having sex. I do find it interesting that in recent years the advice to parents with children and teenagers is not to hide their affections. These columnists argue that to see physical and sexual affection between parents in a secure relationship will better prepare children for their own sexual relationships. Because at the moment it’s not seen and not talked about in a mature or responsible way, which could be a factor in teenagers not broadcasting their sex life but fumbling in the dark to negative consequence because they have no guidance. Except for the porn industry and sex-tip magazines, which is the wrong kind of exposure.
    While I have reservations about talking about David Tennant’s romantic life, I think it’s safe to do so here. 🙂 I can’t believe that the tabloids guessed at Georgia Moffett but it seems to be true. But the coincidence that goes with it: Peter Davison’s wife was in Doctor Who when he was the Doctor; Georgia was in Doctor Who when Tennant was the Doctor. Her son, Tyler, has the name of Tennant’s Doctor’s first companion – you just can’t make stuff like this up, can you? The BBC needn’t worry about the budget for future Doctor Who specials. They just have to send a camera round to the Moffett’s house at Christmas! And I confidently predict, if Tennant and Georgia have a child together, the caption will be “David’s son” (Davison).

  10. Modern Shakespeare
    How about the Lion King as a modern Hamlet? Take one warrior king and one manipulative younger brother who cannot get the throne because of his young nephew. Uncle kills his brother using a stampede, making it look like an accident. Uncle sends nephew away, but on the journey he plans for his hyena servants to kill him. Nephew has very few friends, but said friends are older than him and care for him as a person, but they know how the world works. Nephew happens across his childhood sweetheart outside the royl court and it convinces him to return home and claim his rightful place as King. Mother is obviously surprised to see him, and mistakes him for the ghost of his father at first. Mother goes on to secretly rally the disenchanted people against the bloat King. Zazu, the royal attendant, ass kisses, citing all the kingdom’s workings to Scar. Eventually the physical confrontation occurs where the truth of Mufasa’s death is revealed to all. Scar is given the choice of leaving to live (to repent), but he stays and dies by means of his own handiwork (poison/hyenas) after Simba corners him into it.
    Of course, this is Disney. The lead gets to live and fulfills his romantic interest. But I love the fact the only Disney production the Tenth Doctor’s ever mentioned is the Lion King.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s