By Charles Matthews

Saturday, November 20, 2010

5. Soul of the Age, by Jonathan Bate, pp. 93-130

Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William ShakespeareSecond Age: Schoolboy; Chapter 6, After Palingenius; Chapter 7, Continuing Education: The Art of Translation; Chapter 8: The School of Prospero
Piero Angelo Manzolli, known under the pen-name Marcellus Palingenius, was the author of a poem, Zodiacus Vitae ("The Zodiac of Life"), which combined anti-Catholicism and an introduction to ancient astronomy and astrology. The book so offended the church that it was not only placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, but the Inquisition ordered his body exhumed and burned in 1558. "What Catholic Europe abhorred, Protestant England devoured," and the poem became a text used in the third form of many Elizabethan grammar schools.

We don't know whether Shakespeare's grammar school was one of the ones that studied Palingenius, or if he read it later in the English translation made by Barnaby Googe in the 1560s. But it seems to have been one of the sources for Jaques's "ages of man" speech. Not only does Palingenius advance the nation that "Life is a theatrical spectacle in which we are all actors playing a series of parts," but he also "combined it with another ancient commonplace, the division of human life into a series of ages." In Palingenius's scheme there are only five ages, but the division of things into seven parts was commonplace, starting with the seven days of creation in Genesis. "Both biblical and classical writers often ordered things in sevens, as with Joseph's prediction to Pharaoh of seven fat years, then seven lean ones. It was therefore widely believed that human life went in seven-year cycles."

Childhood lasted seven years, youth until the age of fourteen, adolescence from fourteen to twenty-eight, manhood was considered to continue until the age of forty-nine. "Old age sets in at fifty and lasts until death, if you are a believer in the six ages, or decrepitude, if you prefer seven. 'The climacterical year' of 63 (7 x 9, another number by which cycles or 'climates' were measured) was a likely candidate for either death or decrepitude, as was 81 (9 x 9)." In King Lear, Shakespeare tells us that Lear is in his eighty-first year and Kent in his forty-ninth. "Each is in a climacteric year, living in a time of crisis."

In Jaques's speech, Shakespeare made the earliest two ages (infant, schoolboy) and the last two (old man, very old man) generic ones, but he gave the three middle ages specific roles: lover, soldier, and justice: "The awakening of sexual desire, then the life of adventure and action, then the settled middle age of responsibility and public service." These three ages also correspond to the three genres of "his plays as they were ordered by his fellow actors in the First Folio: from comedy, the realm of lovers, to history, that of soldiers, to tragedy, that of justices and men grappling with old age and death."
Uniquely too in Shakespeare, who made his living from his actors' power of articulation, each age is a voice: the infant mewling, the schoolboy whining, the lover sighing, the soldier swearing, the justice preaching, the old man piping and whistling, his voice turning again toward childish treble. And only at the last oblivion comes the rest that is silence.
Although Shakespeare was drilled in Latin at school well enough to base The Rape of Lucrece on a story from Ovid that hadn't been translated into English, only university men in Elizabethan England usually learned Greek, so Thomas North's 1579 translation of Plutarch and George Chapman's 1598 translation of the Iliad were invaluable to Shakespeare. When he wrote Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare drew on Chaucer's poem and William Caxton's translation of the French romance Recueil des Histoires de Troye for the love story, but the military plot was drawn from Chapman's Homer. As for the Roman history in Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, that was informed by North's version of Plutarch's Parallel Lives.

English pride and Tudor statecraft were behind the efforts to translate the Greek and Roman classics. "Translation ... served the early Tudor program of knitting together an emergent nation-state on the basis of secular hierarchy and entrenched order.... To judge from the authorial prefaces to ... works from the classics undertaken in the 1560s and 1570s, the translation movement formed a concerted effort to demonstrate that the English tongue was dignified enough to express the wisdom of the ancients." Plutarch's match-ups of eminent Greeks with eminent Romans in the Parallel Lives had a particular appeal to the English who wanted to find parallel heroes in their own realm:
The purpose of the parallel was to ask such questions as "who was the greater general -- the Greek Alexander or the Roman Julius Caesar?" Shakespeare affectionately mocked the device of parallelism in Henry V, when Fluellen argues that Harry of Monmouth is like Alexander of Macedon because their respective birthplaces begin with an M and there's a river in each and "there is salmons in both." But the comedy here is at Fluellen's expense, not Plutarch's -- and, like all Shakespeare's richest jokes, it has a serious point. As Alexander the Great killed his bosom friend Cleitus in a drunken brawl, so King Harry in all sobriety caused his old chum Falstaff to die of a broken heart.
Historical parallels also made it possible for playwrights to comment on current events. "It would hardly have been appropriate to write a play about a group of highly placed courtiers -- the earl of Essex and his circle, say -- plotting to overthrow the monarch. But a play about a group of highly placed Roman patricians -- Brutus, Cassius, and company -- plotting to assassinate Julius Caesar had the capacity to raise some awkward questions by means of the implicit parallel."

Shakespeare's favorite classical poet was Ovid. Christopher Marlowe's translation was available for the Amores, which influenced the sonnets, but it was clear that Shakespeare could read Ovid in the original Latin, as he did when he adapted the story in Ovid's Fasti for The Rape of Lucrece. The Heroides were Ovid's verse epistles in the personae of women jilted by their lovers, such as Ariadne and Dido, and one of the grammar school exercises was to "write a letter in the style of X or from the point of view of someone who has suffered Y," so these would have given Shakespeare "his first steps in the art of dramatic impersonation. John Lyly and Christopher Marlowe, the two dramatists who most influenced him when he began writing plays himself, both made extensive use of the Heroides as models for the art of a character's self-examination at moments of emotional crisis. The art, that is to say, of soliloquy." 

But the chief source and influence on Shakespeare was Ovid's Metamorphoses. "Scholars have calculated that about 98 percent of Shakespeare's allusions to classical mythology refer to stories included in that epic compendium of tales." Interestingly, Shakespeare used both the original and Arthur Golding's translation of the Metamorphoses. The great speech at the end of The Tempest in which Prospero renounces his magic is based on both the Latin and English version of Medea's incantation. Prospero calls on "Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves." In Ovid's Latin, the "elves" are "gods" -- it was Golding who turned them into elves. Ovid refers only to "lakes," whereas Golding made them "standing lakes." "But later in the speech, where Ovid had 'convulsaque robores' ('and rooted up oaks'), Golding did not specify the kind of tree ('and trees doe drawe'), so Shakespeare must have remembered or looked at the Latin for his 'and rifted Jove's stout oak.'"

The Tempest is the last play Shakespeare wrote on his own, but Ovid was a major source at the beginning of his career, too. Both Titus Andronicus (1594) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595-96) draw on the Metamorphoses. In Titus, a copy of the Metamorphoses is brought on stage in act four to expose the crime that has been committed on Lavinia: "in Ovid, Tereus cuts out Philomel's tongue so that she cannot reveal his name, but she gets around her disability by sewing a sampler portraying her fate. The rapists in Titus forestall this course of action by cutting off Lavinia's hands as well as removing her tongue." Shakespeare has Lavinia outwit them by drawing on another incident in the Metamorphoses, in which Io, who has been transformed into a cow, writes her name in the sand with a hoof. Lavinia uses a staff that she holds in her mouth and guides with her stumps to write her rapists' names on the ground. Titus gets his revenge by a variation on the way Procne avenged her sister, Philomel. "Procne tricked Tereus into eating his own son, whereas Titus goes one better and bakes both Tamora's sons in a pie, which he takes pleasure in serving onstage to her and her husband."

Ovid's tales hinge on the transformation of characters into animals, and in A Midsummer Night's Dream Bottom's "translation" with the head of an ass "remains the closest thing to an actual animal metamorphosis onstage." At the end of The Merchant of Venice (1597), Lorenzo and Jessica celebrate their love by invoking the Ovidian stories of Pyramus and Thisbe, Dido, and Medea. "All these lovers are associated with the night. Shakespeare thus establishes the final act of the play as a night of love. But the night deeds evoked are dark and bloody, another gesture toward the ease with which comedy can tumble over the precipice into tragedy (something that Jessica's father, Shylock, maybe knows all too well)."  The cruel tale of Actaeon, turned into a stag by Diana and torn apart by his hounds, is echoed but inverted in the comic ending of The Merry Wives of Windsor, when Falstaff wears the antlers of Herne the Hunter, and in Twelfth Night, when Malvolio curses "the pack of knaves who have undone him," recalling Orlando's allusion to Actaeon at the beginning of the play:
That instant was I turned into a hart,
And my desires like fell and cruel hounds,
E'er since  pursue me.
In The Winter's Tale, Perdita compares herself to Proserpina, and Florizel, the prince disguised as a shepherd, runs through a list of gods who transformed themselves in the Metamorphoses, asserting, "Their transformations / Were never for a piece of beauty rarer..."
There is something highly Ovidian about this simultaneous extolling of implicitly chaste "beauty" and gesturing toward sexual satisfaction -- gods in the stories cited here are really high-class rapists, while Florizel's word "piece" suggests a slang term for woman as sexual meat. 
And in the final act of The Winter's Tale, the restoration of Hermione, who poses as a statue that comes to life, Shakespeare borrows from Ovid's story about Pygmalion and Galatea.

The aim of Elizabethan grammar school education was based on the theory of the Renaissance humanist Desiderius Erasmus: "Boys would learn about virtue from books, and the wisdom they found in the ancients would be translated into civic action when they grew up. This was the basis of humanist theory." But in The Tempest, Shakespeare brings this theory into question. "Prospero is a humanist prince: he imagines that the contemplative study of books in his library will make him into an enlightened leader of his people." But the play "ends with a drowning of the books, a renunciation of humanism's secular wisdom, and a heavy epilogic hint that the only true book is the Bible."

Humanism is predicated on the notion that education "is what separates us from the animals. The acquisition of language is the essential civilizing prerequisite for effecting that separation. So it is that eloquence and wisdom are coterminous and that the linguistic study of classic texts can lead to moral edification and wholeness of life (integer vitae).  Exemplars of virtue, piety, and good government in those classic texts, especially in works of history, can be applied in such a way as to facilitate good government in the present."

Humanism in northern Europe was politically conservative, especially as contrasted with Italian humanism as voiced by Machiavelli: "the defender of liberty and apologist for republicanism as the ideal form of government was in many quarters (on the Elizabethan stage, for instance) demonized as an atheist who threatened the theory of degree and the rights of kings." The Tempest is conservative, too, in that it doesn't advocate a change in the social order so much as it does an improvement in those who rule over it. In Erasmus's Education of a Christian Prince he shows the way for such improvement. "The difference between a king and a tyrant is that the latter uses his power for himself, the former for the benefit of of the commonwealth as a whole. The good ruler will also make himself visible to his people, frequently appearing in public and touring his realm." What caused Prospero's downfall and usurpation was his obsessive devotion to his books and his ignoring the duties of public appearances: "And to my state grew stranger, being transported / And rapt in secret studies." "Instead of making his learning the basis of sound government, he pursues it secretly, for his own benefit. This self-centeredness brings him closer to the tyrant than the virtuous prince."

Moreover, his studies are taking him into the dangerous realm of magic: "The audience is to imagine him as analogous to the Faustus of Marlowe." He failed to become a good ruler of his people in Milan, but on the island he has learned to rule the forces of nature. "But one still wonders if he is ruling well: Erasmus wrote that the Christian prince should abhor slavery, yet Prospero does not hesitate to call both Ariel and Caliban his slaves and to treat them thus." On the island he has also become a schoolmaster: "He ... casts himself in the role of Roger Ascham to Miranda's young Queen Elizabeth." He also has pupils in Ariel and Caliban, but with them his tutoring is less benign. "With Ariel he relies on a reductive process of rote learning as opposed to a creative application of exemplum to action. Once a month he repeats to his pupil a history lesson about Sycorax and earlier events on the island. He relies on threats as well as the promised reward of freedom." Threatening Ariel and bullying Caliban "make him sound like the bad schoolmaster described in Erasmus's De Pueris Instituendis: .... Masters who are conscious of their own incompetence are generally the worst floggers.... They cannot teach, so they beat."

He has failed with Caliban, and Miranda thinks, particularly after Caliban's attempted rape, that it's because of his nature on "Which any print of goodness will not take." But Bate argues that Caliban had initially welcomed Prospero to the island and "only acts basely after Prospero has printed that baseness on him; what makes him 'filth' may be the lessons in which Prospero has taught him that he is 'filth.'"
Learning language should be what makes man godlike as opposed to beastlike, but since the first effect of Caliban's education is his desire to rape Miranda, one wonders whether there is not in fact something devilish about the way in which Prospero has taught him. Language and learning ought to be paths to right rule, but as Prospero's learning in Milan has led to Antonio's coup, so his teaching on the island leads to Caliban's rebellion. 
When Ferdinand arrives on the island, he becomes another of Prospero's pupils, and once again his educational methods leave something to be desired: "Prospero often seems more interested in the power structure that is established by his schoolmastering than in the substance of what he teaches. It is hard to see how making Ferdinand carry logs is intended to inculcate virtue. The purpose of the order is to elicit submission."

But after the conspiracy of Caliban with Stephano and Trinculo fails, Prospero begins to see the light: "his humanist project has not worked.... In recognizing his failure, he begins to realize that all along he has been pursuing power, not wisdom. This has led him into a misreading of Caliban. If Caliban were merely 'a devil, a born devil,' as Prospero claims he is, he would not have the ability to sympathize with other beings, which humanism took to be one of the highest capacities of man."
Caliban is at once the lowest and the highest human, the rebel and the man with music in his soul. The full extent of Prospero's misreading of him is apparent from the oft-remarked fact that, far from only knowing how to curse, he speaks the play's most beautiful verse in the "isle is full of noises" passage. The attempt to make nurture stick upon him may fail, but there is something within him that leads him finally to seek for grace.
Prospero "now sees that to be truly human is a matter not of exercising wisdom for purposes of rule, but of practicing a more strictly Christian version of virtue.... For Prospero what finally matters is kindness. And this is something the master learns from his pupil: it is Ariel who teaches him, not vice versa." But Prospero "only achieves true humility in the epilogue. That achievement is perhaps due to his internalization of evil: his final renunciation is the acknowledgment of Caliban as his own thing of darkness. It is this that frees them both to seek for grace."

[I have to say here that Bate's reading of The Tempest is for me a transformative one. I'll have to reread the play, which I thought I knew well, to see how his reading sticks.]

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