By Charles Matthews

Sunday, November 28, 2010

12. Soul of the Age, by Jonathan Bate, pp. 343-372

Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William ShakespeareSixth Age: Pantaloon: Chapter 21, The Principal Comedians; Chapter 22, The Foolosopher
Shakespeare's plays were inevitably shaped by the actors available to him, such as Richard Burbage and the clowns Will Kempe and Robert Armin.
Burbage the tragedian was supposedly like the shape-changing god of classical myth, Proteus: "so wholly transforming himself into his part, and putting off himself with his clothes, as he never (not so much as in the tiring-house) assumed himself again until the play was ended." [An early method actor.] The original Richard III, Romeo, Hamlet, Othello, and Lear, he was almost certainly the exemplary actor described by John Webster: "By a full and significant action of body, he charms our attention: sit in a full theatre and you will think you see so many lines drawn from the circumference of so many ears, whiles the actor is the centre."... Burbage played until his death in 1619, upon which he was mourned in an array of epitaphs.
John Hemings and Henry Condell, also actors in the company, are forever linked because of their efforts to put together the material for the First Folio in 1623. Condell, as well as Kempe, had been part of a troupe that toured Denmark and performed at the court at Elsinore; they may well have supplied some of the local color for Hamlet.

Kempe was one of the company's stars, in large part because of his role in the jigs, the bawdy musical skits that followed the play. One of his surviving jigs involved a scene in a graveyard that might have suggested the graveyard scene in Hamlet, while another bears a resemblance to some of the plot of The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Though the question remains open as to whether the part of Falstaff was written for [Thomas] Pope or Kempe, the latter was undoubtedly Costard in Love's Labour's Lost, Peter (the Nurse's servant) in Romeo and Juliet, Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Lancelet Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, and Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. He would have left a great hole in the company when he left in 1599.

Kempe was replaced by Robert Armin, who relied more on cerebral wit than physical comedy. As many critics have noticed, this accounts for the change of style in Shakespeare's later fools: Touchstone in As You Like It ... , Feste in Twelfth Night, Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, Lavatch in All's Well That Ends Well, Autolycus in The Winter's Tale, and above all Lear's Fool are all to varying degrees wise, witty, and cynical.

John Marston's play The Malcontent gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the  King's Men in 1604 with a prologue in which Burbage, Condell, and several others in the company appear as themselves. A couple of years earlier, some student actors at Cambridge had played Burbage and Kempe in a Christmas show called The Return From Parnassus Part 2, which also features jokes alluding to Shakespeare and his works. It also alludes to Thomas Dekker's Satiromastix, a 1601 play lampooning Ben Jonson, and suggests that Shakespeare may have had a hand in it. But Shakespeare himself may have been the object of Dekker's satire in the character of Sir Adam Prickshaft: His opening lines echo the opening lines of Justice Shallow, and there is a running joke about Sir Adam's baldness. "The combination of the name, the direct allusion to Henry IV, and the fact that Sir Adam Prickshaft is a balding poet would be an extraordinary coincidence if the part had nothing to do with Shakespeare." On the other hand, it's also possible that Shakespeare was a good sport and played the part himself.

The word "philosopher" appears only ten times in all of Shakespeare's works: once in The Merchant of Venice, twice in As You Like It, once in Much Ado About Nothing, and three times each in Timon of Athens and King Lear. One of Portia's suitors in The Merchant is a melancholy man who is compared to "the weeping philosopher" Heraclitus. Another melancholy man, Jaques, calls the shepherd Corin "a natural philosopher," punning on the Elizabethan meaning of "natural" as an idiot, but also suggesting "that Corin speaks the truth of nature -- which is opposite to that of the court." The other use of the word in the play is in the phrase "'the heathen philosopher.' It occurs immediately after the saying 'The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool. This is the most famous saying of Socrates."

The fourth use in the comedies is Leonato's observation in Much Ado: "For there was never yet philosopher / That could endure the toothache patiently." Bate comments, "The irony here is specifically directed against Stoicism, the philosophy that preaches 'patience' in the face of adversity and recommends that we aspire to be like the gods who are above fortune.... A testing of the limits of Stoicism is one of the principal motifs of the Roman plays."

The three references in Timon of Athens center on the character of Apemantus, who is "the only professional philosopher in Shakespeare." Apemantus "is an extreme embodiment of the philosophy embraced by Jacques: Cynicism. A Cynic takes the Stoic rejection of worldliness to an extreme.... Yet for Apemantus, as for Jacques, Cynicism is a pose, a performance -- they both actually rather enjoy company and food." In the play, Timon is the one who truly follows the precepts of Cynicism, "rejecting all worldliness, dying in his cave by the seashore."

Michel de Montaigne
The three instances of the word in King Lear all occur in the hovel on the heath, where Lear questions his philosopher: Tom o' Bedlam, an apparent madman. The play reduces all formal philosophies to an absurdity. When Gloucester blames the ills that befall humankind on the stars, Edmund remarks, "An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a star." He sees himself as the victim of "custom," of societal conventions such as illegitimacy, and "commits himself to 'nature' as a principle of survival and self-seeking." Bate sees Edmund's position as "close to that of Michel de Montaigne in the closing section of his longest essay, 'An Apology of Raymond Sebond':  any custom abhorred or outlawed by one nation is sure to be praised or practiced by another." Edmund "has been seen as a proto-Hobbesian philosopher, espousing a doctrine of raw competition. Montaigne argues instead for Christian love and humility. Perhaps that is what Edmund moves toward at the end of the play, with his last attempt to do some good and his discovery that he was beloved."

Gloucester, on the other hand, turns toward Stoicism, trying to endure the misery he finds himself in until he dies, but after Lear and Cordelia are taken he can't maintain his resignation. Edgar encourages his Stoic resolve, "Men must endure / Their going hence even as their coming hither, / Ripeness is all." But "by mistiming the revelation of his own identity to Gloucester, Edgar precipitates his father's death. The pattern, then, is of Stoic comfort not working."

Albany believes in divine justice, but finds his belief undone: "in response to the news that Cordelia is to be hanged, Albany says, 'The gods defend her,' only for Lear to enter with her in his arms already hanged -- the gods haven't defended her." And all of his efforts to set things to rights are failures.

Lear's observation, "Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou [Tom] art," has its possible origins in John Florio's translation of Montaigne, whose "whose point is that it is arrogant and illogical to suppose that humans are 'naturally' superior to animals, chosen by God as the supreme beings, since in our natural state of nakedness our bodies have defects, vulnerability, and 'manifold imperfections' in comparison with those of animals, adorned as they are with wool, hair, or feathers that we borrow in order to clothe ourselves."
Montaigne's work is a perpetual critique of abstract wisdom in the name of experience. As the passage about the philosopher and the toothache in Much Ado About Nothing suggests, Shakespeare had been engaging in a similar critique throughout his career. He always finds theory wanting in the face of action. He is more interested in how people perform than in what they profess. He was, after all, a performer himself.
Desiderius Erasmus
Shakespeare made two major changes from his source, the old King Leir play: he took away its happy ending, and he changed the action from a Christian setting to a pagan one, the latter change presenting "humanity as monsters, preying on one another." But he also made two important additions: the Fool and Poor Tom. As Bate sees it, this moves us from Montaigne to Erasmus, specifically The Praise of Folly. "The Fool's one-liners make more sense of Lear's predicament than do the Stoic rationalizations of Gloucester and Edgar." In the court, the licensed fool is the only one allowed to speak truth. "The tragedy of the court is that you can only gain advancement there through false speaking. Plain-speaking Kent is forced into disguise as servant Caius."
Under the aspect of Folly, we see that a king is no different from any other man. The trappings of monarchy are but a costume: this is both Folly's and Lear's discovery.... Folly tells us that there are two kinds of madness -- one is the thirst for gold, sex, and power. That is the madness of Regan, Cornwall, Edmund, and company.... The second madness is the desirable one, the state of folly in which "a certain pleasant raving, or error of the mind, delivereth the heart of that man whom it possesseth from all wonted carefulness, and rendreth it divers ways much recreated with new delectation." ... [Lear's] final words are spoken in the delusion that [Cordelia's] lips are moving -- "Look on her, look, her lips, / Look there, look there!" Her lips aren't moving, but it's better for Lear that he should not know this. Philosophers say that it is miserable to be deceived. Folly replies that it is most miserable "not to be deceived," for nothing could be further from the truth than the notion that man's happiness resides in things as they actually are.
As Lear loses everything, he actually improves, he "becomes kind. Little things show us this: in act one, he's still always giving orders. Even in the storm he continues to make demands: 'come, unbutton here.' In the end, though, he learns to say please and thank you: 'Pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir." And although Shakespeare removed the specifically Christian setting of his source, "those essentials of the Erasmian and Montaignian ... Christian vision are still there: folly and love."

In The Praise of Folly, Erasmus coins the word "morosophos," from the Greek words for "foolish" and "wisdom." "The compound word may be attached most aptly to the Shakespeare of King Lear. In writing this play, he was not a historian. Nor was he a philosopher. He was a FOOLOSOPHER." 

No comments:

Post a Comment