Samuel Johnson – “The Preface to Shakespeare” (ctd.)

If people know that theatre is only make-believe, why do they care? Well, for the same reasons they like to look at the pictures of beautiful landscapes or read books; they are not transported bodily into the beautiful scenery or to the setting described in the book, but they like to imagine what it would be like to be in this place. And theatre gives delight precisely because it’s make-believe: we wouldn’t like to see the carnage at the end of an average tragedy if it were real. Theatre is just like reading books but on stage, and while comedies often seem funnier in actual theatrical productions than when being read, tragedies often fall short, as few actors can come up with the sublimity imagined by the readers. Did Shakespeare know about all the three unities and chose to ignore two of them, or did he just not know them? The answer actually doesn’t matter, but Johnson likes to think that also in Shakespeare’s times there were plenty of people who were only too happy to point out his shortcomings to him and he just ignored them. At the end Johnson adds carefully that maybe there are people who can give him better reasons for the necessity of keeping the unity of time and place, but he couldn’t find any. The writer who will manage to write an excellent play with all the three unities will deserve as much praise as the architect who built a citadel with all the architectural orders, without sacrificing its efficiency as a fortress.

The next excerpt is a very short introductory note to Twelfth Night, in which Johnson praises the play for its elegance, but says that Aguecheek, being apparently dim-witted by nature, is not the appropriate target of comedy, unlike Malvolio, who is brought down by his pride (a vice which could and should be corrected). He also faults the play for the marriage of Olivia, because he doesn’t find the story very credible.


Samuel Johnson – “The Preface to Shakespeare” (ctd.)

The second excerpt starts with Johnson saying that great as Shakespeare is, he has his fault, and mine oh mine, how many faults he finds. Firstly, as could be predicted, he is not moral and didactic enough for Johnson. His plays are full of factual errors and anachronisms, like Hector quoting Aristotle in Troilus and Cressida. His plots are loose-limbed and often hurried when nearing the end. His comedy is coarse. His tragedies are great when he writes simply and from the heart, but the harder he tries, the more tedious he gets. Hamlet’s soliloquy is for contemporary theatre the equivalent of Mona Liza, so universally celebrated that it’s hard to really hear it, but for Dr Johnson Shakespeare’s “declamations” are “cold and weak”. He often struggles with a thought he can’t express well instead of just dropping it, and the style often doesn’t match the idea expressed. And – here I have to agree with Johnson – Shakespeare never met a pun he didn’t like.

Richard Crashaw – “In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord God: A Hymn Sung as by the Shepherds”

The poem under this succinct title has the format of an oratorio, with the chorus singing the introduction and then the soloists taking their part, although I do not think it was every actually set to music. The shepherds, on their way back from the stable, sing to wake up the sun and tell him that tonight they saw a thing much more brighter than he; also, they saw by night something much better than they ever had seen by day. Then the two shepherds, named rather incongruously Tityrus and Thyrsis rather than Aaron and Isaac, take parts to describe the shining face of the child Jesus and how around him winter turned to spring. Tityrus scolds the world for not offering its God anything better than a cold stable and a manger, but Thyrsis corrects him: like phoenix building its own nest, God created the whole world and by extension also the place where he chose to be born. Clouds offer white bedsheets of snow, but these are too cold; the seraphim offer their fiery wings, but these are not pure enough. But the Virgin Mary’s breasts, in another metaphor uncomfortably too close to erotic poetry of the day, offer both warmth and the purity of snow. Then the full chorus takes up, welcoming the child Jesus in a series of oxymorons (“Summer in winter, Day in night” etc.) Even though Jesus is not born in riches, he has something far better than that: “two sister seas of virgin milk”. He is not welcomed to this world by vain courtiers but by humble shepherds, who nevertheless promise to come back in spring with its first gifts: flowers, lambs and doves.

Richard Barnfield – Sonnets from “Cynthia”

Richard Barnfield is a unique figure among Elizabethan poems – while many of them (Shakespeare, Spenser, Marlowe) wrote about same-sex desire, Barnfield was probably the only one who, when writing about love, wrote exclusively about homosexual one. His poems did win praise and he himself tried to avoid the charges of immortality by writing int the preface to his second volume of poetry that all he did was just imitating Vergil. However, the third volume was less successful and after that Barnfield fades from the public view. It seems that he was disinherited by his father (maybe for being too openly gay?) and that he died in 1627 (ODNB says 1627) in Shropshire but what he did between leaving London and dying is unknown.

The sonnets are appended to a long poem Cynthia in praise of the Queen. The sonnets follow the format of the English sonnet, with the final couplet summing it up. Sonnet 9 is about the creation of Ganymede. I think the name here is a kind of label for a beautiful young man rather than the actual Ganymede from mythology. In the story told by Barnfield Diana hurts her foot on a thorn, and Venus gathers her blood in a crystal vessel. Then she goes to Mound Rodope and mixes the blood with the snow from its slopes, creating the divinely beautiful boy.

Sonnet 11 is really a sophisticated play with the reader’s gender assumptions. The speaker sighs and displays all the conventional signs of being in love and the man he is in love with, unaware of this, asks him who the lady he loves is. Only at this point do we realize they are both male because of this question – I know one could imagine the situation played out in an Elizabethan lesbian bar, but it’s highly unlikely. The speaker tells him to look in this mirror, presumably handing to him some kind of hand-held one. The addressed man thinks it’s a trick, so he takes the mirror, takes off its cover and then sees his own face.

I am going to spend the next few days reading the introduction to the “Early Seventeenth Century” section, so I’m going to have a short break in posting.

Thomas Nashe – “A Litany in Time of Plague”

“A Litany in Time of Plague” is a rather sober song from a light play Summer’s Last Will and Testament, written for Nashe’s patron Archbishop John Whitgift, when he and his guests were stuck at the end of summer in bishop‘s summer home in Croydon because of the plague’s outbreak in London. The song is the answer to the dying Summer’s requet for some “doleful ditty”. What I’ve read about the play makes me feel it’s an attempt to put a cheerful face on a rather dire situation. The song is called “litany” and like the litany, it has the refrain “I am sick, I must die”, followed by the line from the Litany in the Book of Common Prayer -” Lord, have mercy on us!”. After the first stanza introducing the main theme, that is the transience of the world, the following stanzas illustrate respectively the fleeting nature of wealth, beauty, strength and wit. You have to accept the inevitability of your own death, says the last stanza, because “earth’s but a player’s stage”. Poor Nashe died just a few years after writing these words, at the age of thirty-something, of unknown causes.

William Shakespeare – Twelfth Night (ctd.)

Sir Andrew wants to leave the town since he has just seen Olivia showing Cesario more favours within a few minutes than she has ever shown him during his courtship, and all that in plain view of him. But the cunning Fabian explains to him that she just did it to provoke jealousy in him and possibly make him challenge Cesario, but now this opportunity has passed and her opinion of him has sailed north, where he is going to sail like an icicle on a Dutchman’s beard. This is possibly an allusion to William Barents (him of the Barents Sea fame) and one of many topical allusions in this scene. Shakespeare apparently understood the power of a joke that gave the audience the pleasure of recognition. So now, in order to win Olivia back, Andrew should challenge Cesario to a duel by a letter as big as the sheets on the Great Bed of Ware. Sir Andrew goes off to write the letter and left alone, Sir Toby admits to Fabian that he has no intention of ever delivering this letter, since Andrew is a coward. Maria enters, laughing her head off about Malvolio’s preposterous behaviour. Apparently he’s doing everything Maria pretending to be Olivia told him to do – wearing yellow stockings with crossed garters and smiling so much his face looks like the new map of the world. Toby and Fabian follow Maria to enjoy this sight.

William Shakespeare – Twelfth Night (ctd.)

Sir Toby and Sir Andrew enter with Fabian, another member of Olivia’s staff, who also wants to have his revenge on Malvolio for snitching on him to Olivia about Fabian organizing bear-baiting on the premises. Bear-baiting was a cruel sport in which a bear was baited by dogs in a special arena; Puritans opposed it, although, as Thomas Macaulay famously said, not because “it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.” The non-Puritan English found the view of a tormented animal very funny and entertaining. I know one should not transfer one’s own cultural values to another place and era, but I’m with Malvolio on this one. Maria approaches with the forged letter and lays it in Malvolio’s path. They all hide behind the hedge (the scene takes place in the garden).

Malvolio approaches and from his soliloquy we learn that he really does not need much encouragement because he already fancies Olivia in love with himself (with a little help from Maria). He muses pleasantly about how nice it would be to become Olivia’s husband and Count Malvolio; how one day he would come from “a day-bed where I have left Olivia sleeping” (ehem…) and ask the servants to bring Sir Toby, in order to admonish him about his drunkenness and keeping company with Sir Andrew. Malvolio imagines these scenes in great detail, especially his own behaviour, serious yet humble – he really is the author of his one fan-fic. But what is it? A letter, and Malvolio immediately identifies it as written in Olivia’s hand, making an inadvertently rude joke by saying “I recognize her c’s, her u’s and her t’s”, perhaps because his head is still full of the image of post-coital Olivia on the couch.