Francis Bacon – “On Truth”

Reading Bacon’s Essays is like eating stock cubes, they are so concentrated and I am afraid discussing them is nearly impossible, not because they are so difficult, but because it’s hard to write about them without just copying them. This essay begins with a reference to the Bible:’ “What is truth?” said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.’ Bacon here presents himself as a firm believer in the notion that there, in fact exists a definable truth, even if some modern-day sceptics deny it.  Why is truth so unpopular, then? Not only because it is hard to find but also because humans are naturally corrupt and love to lie, even when the lie cannot bring them any benefits, like with merchants, or pleasure, like with poets. The sad truth (ha!) is that a mixture of lie makes things more exciting, like some jewels which look best in candlelight, and the life of many people without lies and self-deception would be sad. But ultimately it is truth, which comes from God, and which is the only purpose worth pursuing. Moving on from philosophical truth to truth in everyday affairs, honesty is the best policy, because even if lies are more effective, they debase us, like the admixture of less precious metal which makes gold easier to work with, but it lowers its value. Bacon here quotes Montaigne, his great (though very different) predecessor in the field of essays, who wrote that those who lie are brave towards God and cowards before men, because in order to avoid the unpleasantness that comes with telling truth we decide to commit this grievous sin. It’s interesting to think that this essay with all its moralizing was published after Bacon’s spectacular trial for bribery and fall from power. All this moralizing could be read as hypocritical, but I prefer to think about it more charitably, as Bacon condemning also his past behaviour.


Rachel Speght – “A Muzzle for Melastomus” (the end)

In this excerpt Speght uses the methods of Aristotelian analysis to prove that the creation of woman, as described in the Bible, was good. First of all, the cause – and who can fault the cause, since it was God himself, who made all things good? (really, Rachel? even tapeworms and mosquitoes?) Secondly the material – Eve was made of Adam’s rib, so not from dust as he was, but from his own body, which at the moment of her creation already had a soul, so it proves she was actually made of better stuff than he. Moreover, the rib (as opposed to Swetnam’s jibes about how crooked it is) is actually a very noble part: God chooses not to make woman out of man’s foot, to make her subservient to him, or his hear, to make her superior to him, but from a bone near to his heart, to show that they are equals. Thirdly, the form – since the Bible says that both man and woman were created in the image of God, nobody can deny they both must have been excellent. And fourthly, the reason why she was made, it was to glorify God, just like man, so again nobody can find fault with that.

A short text “To the Reader”, serving as a kind of a preface to the appendix to A Muzzle, shows us Speght justifying herself, saying that although she is only a young woman, and whatever learning she has, it was snatched just in the few hours free from more feminine occupations, she is aware that according to the rules of the polemic her text should follow the form of Swetnam’s text. But – and here’s another blow – Swetnam’s pamphlet is so disorderly logically and gramatically that there’s no way she could follow him. God, I love this girl and I am very sad her writing career was apparently cut so short.

Rachel Speght – “A Muzzle for Melastomus”(excerpts)

Rachel Speght, a rather impressive 19-year-old wrote a spirited reply to Swetnam’s Arraignment of Women. By all accounts she was a rather precocious and very well educated daughter of a Calvinist minister. She wrote several other femnist texts, and then unfortunately she got married. From then on we have very little information about her life apart from the birth records of her children. We don’t even know when exactly shed died, and we can only assume it was before her husband, because he does not mention her in his will. It’s a telling fact that even women as talented and smart as Speght got almost erased from the pages of history.

Speght identifies Swetnam by name (he published his book under a pseudonym) and lays into him with all her force. You’re an idiot and an ignorant, and I would call you worse, but I restrain myself because of my young age, she writes. But your mind is like a pool of standing water and your book is like a putrid stream when the sluice is opened – who could expect any better of you? You are not even able to write a grammatical sentence, let alone a rational one. But the empty barrel makes the loudest sound and that’s the case with you as well. What is more, you offended God firstly, by misquoting and perverting the sense of his Word; secondly, by blasphemng against his creation, which he made all good. And also by publishing this book you exposed yourself to the whole world, showing how stupid you are.

The next excerpt is Speght showing that she can beat Swetnam at his own game, that is biblical exegesis, and at least, in contrast to him, she quotes her Bible correctly. True, Eve ate of the fruit first. But the Bible says about the moment when Adam and Eve first realize their sin “Their eyes were opened”, so it means the sin was fully accomplished, so to say, only after Adam ate the fruit, too. And as for Eve giving Adam the fruit, she at least meant well. And even God wants to protect her against being rejected by Adam (he didn’t have much of a choice, did he?), immediately after the original sin is committed, he promises Eve that her descendant is going to vanquish Satan. And finally, St Paul (nor a particularly women-friendly writer) states that “male and female are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Joseph Swetnam – “The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward and Unconstant Women” (excerpts)

The printing revolution did on a smaller scale what the Internet revolution did – every club bore and misogynist could get a platform for his views. Such was the case with Joseph Swetnam, a fencing master with probably little formal education, whose treatise against women under this rather wordy title (and it’s still an abbreviated version) gained much popularity. The NAEL reprints its fragments so that, presumably, we can know what the women writers of this era had to cope with, not that it has any intrinsic literary or philosophical value.  Swetnam explains he was inspired by being “in a great choler against some women”, even though he might have done something better with his time than such “an idle business” (good point). He invites his readers to his “bear garden”, the verbal equivalent of the bear-baiting arena, but warns all women to keep away because surely they will criticize him. What follows is the standard-issue polemic against women based on the biblical arguments: the woman was supposed to be a helper unto man, but she only helps to spend what the man has to earn painfully; the woman was created from a rib, and its crooked shape shows in her crooked nature; and of course Eve caused the Fall. He quotes some lines from the Ecclesiasticus, erroneously ascribing them to David and Solomon, about what a bane of mankind women are. Women are stubborn, jealous, proud and disdainful if you treat them kindly and bitter serpents if you treat them badly.  Thus marriage is to be avoided at all costs, says Swetnam, quoting a line of 1 Corinthians out of context. And of course if your wife is beautiful, she is sure to be a whore and spend all your money for her finery.

Elizabeth Cary – “The Tragedy of Mariam” (the end)

After Sohemus ends his speech, the Chorus starts to moralize upon the proper duties of a woman. The woman with her marriage, it (he? she? they?) claims, forfeits her own identity and even her own thoughts. The true chastity consists in not only not having sex with our men, but in not even speaking to other men. In a monologue from Act 4 Mariam, now sentenced to death, deplores her fate. She sees herself essentially as a kind of overreacher, because she thought her beauty could always win Herod over. Herod loved her so much that he didn’t succumb even to Cleopatra’s advances. Since this is an excerpt, I don’t know how the plot about Mariam’s vowing never to sleep with Herod again was developed. But if she stuck to her guns, then it was kind of naive to think Herod would accept it, wasn’t it? Anyway, Mariam observes that she had the traditionally desired womanly virtue of chastity, but alas, it was not accompanied by humility. She thought chastity was enough. But at least now, secure in the knowledge of her innocence, she can look forward to death and resting in Sara’s lap (not Abraham’s)

The play was written a long time before Elizabeth Cary’s conversion to Catholicism, which cut her off dramatically from her own family. But it seems already back then Cary was interested in the female agency and what constitutes female virtue. Are we meant to take Chorus’s moralizing on the face value? It seems so, but on the other hand we know Cary’s relationship with her husband was difficult even before her conversion. Perhaps what she really means to say is that the patriarchal system is set against women and unless they are prepared to take all sorts of BS from their husbands, their fate is going to be as tragic as Mariam’s.

Elizabeth Cary – “The Tragedy of Mariam”

Elizabeth Cary was an English aristocrat, the mother of Lucius Cary eulogized by Ben Jonson and a truly fascinating and learned woman who at some point converted to Catholicism and brought over some of her children with her. The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry is the first play written by an Englishwoman, a closet drama (meaning it was never meant to be actually produced on stage, but only read) based on the story of Herod and his wife Mariam as told by Joseph Flavius. The play starts with Herod sailing off to Rome where it is widely assumed he is going to be executed for his support of Mark Anthony. When the rumours about his death reach Judaea, everybody breathes a sigh of relief and they start quickly arranging new life without Herod (political dissidents come out of the hiding, Herod’s son is announced to be the next king etc.). But at the beginning of the excerpt Sohemus, Herod’s officer, tells his queen Mariam (whom he was actually ordered by Herod to kill in the event of his death, so that no other man would have her) that Herod is actually alive and more in favour with Rome than ever. Mariam after the first shock says it does not change  a thing for her because she has sworn she will never sleep with Herod again. Sohemus, with much apologizing, tries to tell her it’s actually a bad idea, knowing Herod, but Mariam won’t budge. She knows she could easily wrap Herod around her finger and fight the intrigues of Herod’s family against her, but she is disgusted with her life so far and she won’t stoop so low. (In case you don’t know it, Mariam is the daughter of the original Judean ruling family, whom Herod, an arriviste, killed for the most part, so she had good reasons to hate him even before she heard about his orders to kill her as well). When she leaves, Sohemus soliloquizes about how his own death is certain, but he is perfectly happy to die, protecting the beautiful queen, whose beauty however does not inspire low lust, but only admiration. I have a nagging feeling there’s more than a hint of Mary Sue about Mariam.

John Webster – “The Duchess of Malfi” Act V scene 5

Cardinal enters, reading what seems to be a theological treatise. He wonders aloud, undoubtedly thinking about his own predicament, why the author of this book claims that the fire in hell is the same but it burns the sinners with different force, depending on the nature of their sin. He says that even when he looks into his fish-pond, he sees a fellow seeming to try to strike him with a rake. Bosola and the servant enter with Antonio’s body.  Cardinal observes Bosola looks ghastly and Bosola explains that’s because he came to kill him. Cardinal tries to plead with Bosola, promising to share his income with him, screams for help, yells, but all to no avail. Now, I would like very much to see this scene on stage, because the stage directions and what the characters say do not explain clearly the stage movement here. Anyway, Bosola says he has cut off Cardinal’s way of escape, so he can’t go any further but into Julia’s chamber. In the meantime, Pescara, Malateste and co. appear in the balcony (a feature of the early modern thrust stage), meaning that they are on a different floor or in a different wing of the palace. They hear Cardinal’s cries and they comment among themselves “Ha ha, how very realistic, of course we are not going there, we won’t be fooled”. Finally Pescara says “these sound a tad too realistic, I’ll go down and break the door open”. Others say “let’s follow him and see how Cardinal laughs at him.” In the meantime, Bosola kills the servant in another pointless act of cruelty. He says he does it so that the servant can’t open the door and call help, but couldn’t he send him away before he barricaded himself with Cardinal? Cardinal asks Bosola why he wants to kill him and Bosola explains it’s because of Antonio (whom he killed not so much because of Cardinal’s orders but because of poor judgement, so he has mainly himself to thank for that) and Duchess. He stabs Cardinal. Ferdinand enters (how? Did he have a room next to Julia’s or did he just wander there by chance?). In his deranged mind, he interprets the noises as the battle noise. He thinks Cardinal fights for the opposite side, in the melee wounds him and stabs Bosola as well. He makes some philosophical observations about how Caesar’s death was harder than Pompey’s, because Caesar died at the height of his success, and Pompey died disgraced. Pain is nothing, he says, in comparison with the apprehension of pain, just like we fear more the barber who has come to extract the aching tooth, than the actual toothache. Bosola stabs him and Ferdinand, now more lucid, remembers his sister and then observes that we are brought down by our own errors, like diamonds which are cut by their own dust. He dies.

Pescara & Co enter the room and see with horror the dead or soon-to-be-dead bodies strewing the floor. Bosola and Cardinal helpfully explain to them who killed whom and die. It’s interesting that Bosola seems to fear no hell, as opposed to Cardinal. He is happy to die in “so good a quarrel”, but does he really think that revenging Duchess makes up for everything he has done? In fact, he seems to indicate that he believes in no afterlife, when he compares people to “dead walls or vaulted graves, /That, ruined, yield no echo”. Thus, the ghostly conversation Antonio had with the echo in a previous scene would mean that Duchess is indeed in a better world. Anyway, he expires. Delio brings on stage Antonio’s eldest son, saying that he is going to “establish this young hopeful gentleman/In’s mother right”, which would seem like a spark of hope, except that a) what about Duchess’ son by first marriage, never seen, but mentioned in Act III? and b) Antonio asked before his death expressly to tell his son to “fly the courts of princes”. Of course he said it to Bosola, who dies before Delio appears on stage, so there’s likely some dramatic irony in there.

And that’s the end. My impression of the play could be best summed up as a string of scenes, some of them quite beautiful, which don’t quite add up. I wonder if it’s the result of somebody else having a hand in the play. I have a feeling that Webster is quite good in creating these individual scenes, more for their dramatic effect than for advancing the plotline. I can admire the individual moments like Antonio’s dialogue with the echo, but I have to pay for it by going through so many mind-boggling illogicalities and plotholes. The best scene in my opinion is Act 3 scene 2, where we have first rather sweet marital banter of Antonio and Duchess, and then after they are discovered by Ferdinand, Duchess thinking quick on her feet to save the situation. The first part made me wish Webster tried his hand in comedy, although comedy requires even more airtight writing and ability to control complicated plots, so perhaps Webster realized it was not quite his forte. The second part is so well-written it makes me think it was the only scene written by one playwright from the beginning until the end.