Writing a High Fantasy Ballad

the_fortress_unvanquishable3Many stories aspire to the condition of ballads, to the roots of folk storytelling. After reinventing myself as a writer of pirate ballads, I decided to go in search of one such story, preferably out of copright, in order to test my ballad-mongering craftsmanship.

I alit on ‘The Fortress Unvanquishable Save For Sacnoth’ by Lord Dunsay, freshly republished in a Penguin anthology of his shorter works. Dunsany, an Irish peer, belongs to the tradition of pre-Tolkien fantasy before it calved off into a whole genre. He had a prickly relationship with the Irish Literary Revival–a less than effusive introduction by W.B. Yeats makes it pretty clear that the future Nobel Prize winner hated his guts–but there was a strong public following for his plays, short stories and novels, the best of which are still in print.

Fortress is a simple tale, yet an eerie one. It tells how the villagers of Allathurion become plagued by nightmares, which the village mage determines to be the work of the evil wizard Gaznak. The only way for these nightmares to cease is for the Lord’s son, Leothric, to slay Tharagaverug, the metal crocodile, and forge from its spine the legendary sword Sacnoth. Only then will he be able to force an entrance to Gaznak’s fortress and face the wizard in single combat.

Appropriately for a story about the vanquishing of nightmares, ‘Fortress’ leans towards the nightmarish and dreamlike rather than Tolkien’s grounded worldbuilding or Lewis’s homely anthropomorphism. There maybe something silly about naming a dragon Wong Bongerok or a metal crocodile Tharagaverug, but Dunsany deploys the names carefully, using them to heighten the rich, melodious rhythm of his prose. Leothric and the sword Sacnoth have about the same depth of characterisation between them, but as in many fairy tales or stories from the Arabian Nights, the emphasis is not on the hero but on the strange and terrible marvels he encounters. Fantasy here is the last true refuge of the tall tale, and it ends with the frame story itself merging into the doubtful realm of dream, with the possibility that the defeat of the nightmare wizard was itself a long and terrible nightmare.

This is the tale of the vanquishing of The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save For Sacnoth, and of its passing away, as it is told and believed by those who love the mystic days of old.

Others have said, and vainly claim to prove, that a fever came to Allathurion, and went away; and that this same fever drove Leothric into the marshes by night, and made him dream there and act violently with a sword. And others again say that there hath been no town of Allathurion, and that Leothric never lived.

Peace to them. The gardener hath gathered up this autumn’s leaves. Who shall see them again, or who wot of them? And who shall say what hath befallen in the days of long ago?

It’s also, I feel, an invitation to future adaptors, which is partly why the concluding verse were among the first parts of the ballad I wrote, not knowing I would spend months inching towards them, verse by verse.

Alas, it seems all splendid dreams
in morning light must fade.
The sweetest songs must have an end,
like this ballad I have made
of The Fortress Unvanquishable
Except Through Sacnoth’s Blade.

Yet fair things gone do linger on
as phantoms of delight
to charm away the dullest day;
sweet be your dreams this night.

I wanted, in my retelling, to capture the quality of a healthy bed-time story–something that thrills and scares but ultimately sends you to sleep reassured. I had in mind G.K. Chesterton’s words, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” And so I set to work.

Many of Dunsany’s grace notes and side-details are an absolute gift to the versifier. The village-mage’s spell, for example, ‘had in it the word wherewith the people of the plains are wont to curse their camels, and the shout wherewith the whalers of the north lure the whales shoreward to be killed, and a word that causes elephants to trumpet; and every one of the forty lines closed with a rhyme for “wasp.”‘ I followed this description closely, with a ‘rasp / grasp / wasp’ off-rhyme had often qets a chuckle in my recitations. On the other hand, I thought some of his structure could use a little polish and rearrangement. In the first part of the story, the mage tells Leothric exactly what he must do to kill Tharagaverug, and Leothric goes off and does it like someone ticking off a to-do list. I decided to split the exposition between the village mage and an old man at the gate of the marsh people’s village, which had the multiple advantages of giving the poem a different voice, and giving the marsh people a modicum of agency in their own deliverance. Likewise, once inside the castle, I decided to reorder events to follow a more allegorical scheme: before he can confront Gaznak, Leothric is threatened first by an ambush of naked power, then by his feudal overlords, by a giant spider who represents fatalism and depression and finally by a vast abyss. My castle descends more slowly into the surreal that Dunsay’s original, where elephants flee trumpeting the moment Leothric forces and entrance. I also cut, with a twinge, the ball-room full of beautiful women who turn out to be Gaznak’s fever dreams. There were some lovely details, such as the wolves gnawing at the wainscot and the flames flickering in the sockets of their eyes, but I was determined to keep the episodes from overwhelming the forward thrust of the poem as a whole, and the seducing temptress angle seemed a little overtired.

In the final duel with Gaznak, I faced the age-old problem of making a sword-fight interesting on the page, but as Dunsany had already done it in prose, it wasn’t too difficult to pull off in verse. The traditional motif of the wizard’s castle dissolving into air after his death was satisfying to perform.

Sacnoth laid all his magic waste
and sundered every spell
and with a sound to rival all
the screaming choirs of Hell
in ruin unimaginable
the vanquished fortress fell.

RUIN UNIMAGINABLE!!! would probably be a more accurate representation of the way I bellow it out.

When the last rhyme was honed and the last verse polished, I had the longest poem I’d ever written: 575 lines and 132 stanzas, across two separate parts. The poem had taught me how to merge versifying with storytelling, bringing the much slighted arts of narrative back into the rhythms and images of verse. For me, composing and revising a poem is synonymous with memorising it, so I also had a half-hour long performance piece, and I’ve taken my staff and sword to venues across Cardiff and the valleys to tell me tale of dreams and magic, giant spiders and metal crocodiles. It’s a story now lodged in my head until the day I die, which is the best tribute I can offer to Lord Dunsany, that grand pioneer of fantastic fiction.

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A Sestina for the Huntington

Something I wrote for the AHRC about my time in Los Angeles studying at the Huntington Library, and the poem that came out of it.

Research beyond borders

In this latest Guest Blog, Thomas Tyrrell talks about his experience of the AHRC International Placement Scheme, and ultimately, his “Sestina for the Huntington”.

On my first day at the Huntington Library,Los Angeles, I was allocated a shelf for my books beneath a bust of Lord Byron. Madly jet-lagged but wide-eyed and vibrating on American coffee, I was here on the AHRC international placement scheme, which gives British PhD students the chance to travel abroad and access collections they couldn’t reach on their own budgets.

A bust of George Gordon, Lord Byron, from the Ahrmanson Reading Room in the Munger Research Centre - Photo Credit Thomas Tyrrell A bust of George Gordon, Lord Byron, from the Ahrmanson Reading Room in the Munger Research Centre – Photo Credit Thomas Tyrrell

After a previous fellowship at the Chawton House Library, Hampshire, I had thanked my hosts with a country house poem. Suitably inspired by Byron, I set myself the challenge of writing a poem for the Huntington

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Elegy of the Anglo-Saxon Cyclist

Every cycle tour has a nightmare day. On my first tour it was Day 2, the short leg between Bristol and Bath midway through my journey from my university at Cardiff to my parent’s house in Winchester. The rain poured down unrelentingly as I slogged along the old railway track between the two cities, the first bike path of a national network that now threads through most of the country.

I had spent the last couple of weeks on my sofa revising Old English adjectives for an exam, testing how well I could understand and translate the language of Beowulf and King Alfred. One of the key texts had been ‘The Seafarer’s Elegy’ a long and mournful poem where a sailor laments that the weather is awful, the ship comfortless, his feet are ‘forste gebunden’ or fettered by frost, and everyone on land is having a much nicer time.

As the rain dripped off my nose and my shorts reached saturation point, I wondered what ‘The Cyclist’s Elegy’ would sound like.

I decided it would sound pretty much like this.

https://soundcloud.com/user998852738/elegy-of-the-anglo-saxon-cyclist

I will tell my story, such as it is,
A short and a soggy one. At cease of exams,
I undertook a taxing journey,
A cycle trip from Cardiff home.
I disregarded railway lines,
Trams, taxis and all transport links,
And through the force of thighs and calves
I made my way through Wales and England
To Hampshire and home. Hardly he guesses,
For whom the miles pass unremarked,
Cocooned in cars, comfortable dwellings
Away from the wet, how the weary cyclist,
Remains by the roadside. Rain never ended;
A daylong drizzle, drenching and cold,
Soaks into my shorts; sagging tyres,
Flat and deflated, force me to spend
Aggravating hours, alone in the rain,
Patching the puncture. Appalling weather,
The bane of the British, brings no relief.
My ankles ache with every motion,
Chainwheel and sprocket clank and groan,
And hunger harries the heart of the engine.
And yet, in the morning, I yearn to continue,
To take to the saddle, sore as I am,
Put foot to the pedals and push myself onwards.

While his bike is whole and sturdy
The cyclist is unstoppable,
An entire engine in himself.
And come the crash, when his bicycle hurls him
Headlong over the handlebars
To a painful impact, plastered in mud,
Face down in the dirt, his dignity gone,
His body bruised and bloody-kneed,
Still he will stride on, stronger than ever,
Firm in his frame, a fearless traveller,
Dreadless, undaunted. Durable men
Will live to outlast the little systems
Constructed to keep them. The cyclist knows
When after all this he arrives at his doorstep
Bloody, mud-splattered and spent with exertion,
His is a hero’s homecoming.

Thanks to everyone at the Cycle Touring Festival at Clitheroe, whose enthusiasm and kind remarks at the open mic night inspired me to put this post up.

And full credit to Ezra Pound, whose unique performance of his 1911 translation has been the inspiration for my own strange growlings.

Cycling USA

FullSizeRenderOn my fourth day in Los Angeles, I bought myself a bicycle. Before that, I’d borrowed the one my AirBnB host, Albert, keeps for the guests, but it was the sort of deathtrap people who know nothing about bicycles buy for $30 off Craigslist and congratulate themselves for being such savvy consumers. The rear brakes didn’t work, along with most of the gears, and the front wheel wobbled worryingly between the two forks. It was heavy as a sledgehammer, and so old there wasn’t an allen key socket on the whole thing, never mind a quick release.

A little research and $145 later, I got my hands on a white fixie with red wheels and bullhorn handlebars, much like my ride back home. LA has turned out to be a hillier city than I reckoned on, but the two mile sprint from my house to the Huntington is pleasantly level.IMG_0548

LA, as everyone knows, is built for the automobile, but this far I’ve been pleased with the cycling provision in Pasadena. After years in Britain duking it out for priority with Chelsea tractors – or actual tractors – in lanes originally designed for medieval haywains, it’s surprisingly relaxing to be somewhere that actually gives you space. Some of the roads even have a bike lane that isn’t a little patch of red paint in the gutter with five cars parked in it, but a whole extra lane between the traffic and the kerb. You can take bikes on trains and buses, you can ride on the sidewalk and no-one gives a damn, you can work up a good head of speed on the long straight boulevards and, of course, you can turn right on a red light. For me, at least, it’s a great alternative to hiring a car and having to ease my way onto one of those scary scary freeways.

In other news it was raining this Sunday in Los Angeles. Rain! In California! Who knew? IMG_0553Apparently LA hasn’t seen this kind of cloudburst in years. Before the rain it was easily as warm as an English summer out here, and now in spite of the constant sunshine there’s a definite chill in the air. Mine host downstairs has switched on his heating, but I’m calling on my reservoirs of student grit and doing my reading and writing wrapped up in duvets.

While I’m spending three months away from my girlfriend, I have decided to fill the some of thetime by trying out wildly experimental facial hair. This Friday I lopped off the moustache and went down to a chin beard. I’m not sure whether I look like a Quaker or a 70’s Marvel villain – certainly nothing like Lincoln – but I kind of like it. I think I’ll try out mutton chops sometime in March.

Next week I’ll write you something about the Huntington Library, and the photos will be gorgeous.

A Year in Shakespeare: As You Like It

as you likeAs winter nights enlarge the number of their hours, and autumn’s gold begins to displace summer green among the leaves of Bute Park, I look back on the promises of the spring and their fruits. It’s true that while several deadlines were met, chapters written and poems composed, my project, my project of reading all of Shakespeare’s plays this year fell by the wayside. Partly this was due to other writing commitments, and partly due to the testing conditions I set myself: viz, one play every nine days, different editions each time, with an accompanying blog post. However, I’m determined to get out of the Comedies by Christmas, and that seems like a goal I can achieve.
I read As You Like It early in the spring, forging out into the woods and perching on various stumps, fallen trunks and climbable crowns in order to enjoy this least claustrophobic of all Shakespeare’s plays; almost every scene, apart from a smattering in the first act, might be played out of doors. My slim and pocketsized Penguin paperback was a delightfully portable companion, and like the play’s exiled Duke I found ‘tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones and good in everything.’

IMG_0114_1024I should have written this then, but by letting the year mellow I was able to catch two excellent performances that will linger in my mind long after my pleasant afternoon among the ancient oaks and alder coppices. The first was the annual family trip to Shakespeare’s Globe, the second Everyman theatre’s open air performance in Cardiff’s Bute Park, and it would be hard to say which performance I most enjoyed. While the Globe, as ever, wound up their performance with a lively Elizabethan jig, the Irish band at the Everyman combined Shakespeare’s ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ and ‘What shall he have that killed the deer’ with traditional numbers dear to my own heart like ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ and ‘Finnegan’s Wake’; while the Globe’s Jacques was excoriatingly satirical, gleefully mirthful and fulsomely melancholy, the sexual electricity between Orlando and Rosalind in the Everyman version crackled and leapt; while in the Globe irish bandwe had the up-close underling experience of watching the play from the level of the actor’s boots, in the Everyman we had a wonderful arboreal backdrop to the stage as the evening drew on and the full moon began to dally with the treetops before arising in splendour to shine upon the wedding scene.

The title As You Like It, like What You Will, the alternative name for Twelfth Night, strikes a challenging note from a writer skilled at pleasing all classes of society from the poor groundlings to rich aristocratic patrons. No-one would dismiss this as insubstantial fare, for the characters are vivid and the dialogue substantial, but the plotting is often delightfully insouciant. Not that it particularly matters, but the play begins with the Wrongful Duke having usurped and exiled the Rightful Duke to the Forest of Arden, where His Rightfulness is content not to raise an army and scheme how to reclaim his throne, but to live like Robin Hood of England, and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world.

2076His Wrongfulness, meanwhile, steadily drives everyone to the forest with his tyrannical ways – first the talented young Orlando, then the Rightful Duke’s daughter, Rosalind. Here His Wrongfulness makes a big mistake, not realising his own daughter Celia is BFFs with Rosalind and more than willing to accompany her into exile, where Orlando and Rosalind enjoy a winning romance, complicated by the fact that, inevitably, Rosalind is cross-dressing as a man for no good reason. And then starts pretending to be a woman. It all gets a bit recursive at this point.

Part of the fun lies in what is brought onstage and what is left off. Most of the set-piece speeches, including Jacques’ party piece, the Seven Ages of Man, do little to advance the plot; a complex action sequence involving a snake, a lion, and a slumbering villainous brother is told entirely in narration; and the Wrongful Duke, who has been advancing threateningly upon the other characters’ location for at least three whole acts, is disposed of in a handful of lines at the plays end when a previously unheard of character enters to tell us he’s met with a religious hermit and had a change of heart about the whole thing. Yet what would be an utter disaster in anyone else’s hands remains utterly charming in Shakespeare’s own. It’s illuminating to compare the passage that seems most ridiculous in the print version with its performance on stage. In the scene Celia and Orlando’s brother Olivier meet, exchange a few civil words, and part. It seems fairly innocuous until the beginning of the next scene where are told they fell madly in love with one another at first sight and are to be married directly. Laughable on the page, but with the aid of lighting, sound cues, and a pair of good actors it works beautifully – indeed at the Everyman Olivier and Celia’s moment was not only obvious to everyone, but it got one of the best laughs of the evening. It’s a striking example of the confidence Shakespeare had not merely in his own language but in the skills of his acting company.

It’s that confidence and panache, not in the midnight faerie magic of a midsummer dream but the daylit quotidian magic of the Elizabethan stage that lends As You Like It its subtle, individual and unquantifiable charm, as fragile and as eternally renewable as the the English spring itself. To see two good productions in a year has been a fabulous treat.

A Year in Shakespeare – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

More than anything else Shakespeare wrote, how you interpret A Midsummer Night’s Dream centres around how you play the fairies. Are they the sweet delicate little things of the Victorian myth, posing in gardens for young girls to photograph? Are they proud, noble, natural aristocrats? The stuff of your worst nightmares? Or all of these in turn? Neil Gaiman rather captured the problem in an issue of The Sandman, where Shakespeare’s strolling players perform the play for the King and Queen of Faerie. Peaseblossom, a monster like a walking thorn bush, is outraged at his portrayal. ‘It’s nuffink like me! Nuffink! Issa wossname. Travelogue? Nah, travesty.’

FullSizeRender
Arthur Rackham, New York, Limited Editions Club, 1939. By kind permission of Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives

For these reasons, I was keen to get hold of an illustrated edition for my blog. Cardiff University Library hold one of the most beautiful examples ever printed, but to my disappointment I’d already covered that edition in my reading of The Comedy of Errors. I was sorely tempted to break my own rule of reading each play in a different edition, but eventually decided to move on – but not without giving you a view of Arthur Rackham’s incomparable Bottom. (No, sorry, that didn’t come out right.)

Fortunately, my friend Mikey is compiling a database of Shakespearean illustration, and let me borrow a hefty mid-Victorian volume of plays illustrated by Kenny Meadows who honed his trade on that stalwart of the era, Punch Magazine. It is quite fun for once to turn to Introductory Remarks that begin, in high Victorian style ‘Variegated, light, and splendid as though woven in the woof of Iris, the wondrous texture of this enchanting dream is yet of stamina to last till doomsday.’ A modern critiFullSizeRender 16c would be laughed out of his job for writing this, but everyone can admire the sentiment. The small print, two column format allow Meadows’s sketches to sit close to the actions they illustrate – sometimes, as with some of the fairy songs, the two seem almost to interact. It’s an organic way of illustration and one he seems much more comfortable with than the more standard dedication of a large illustration to a single page, to judge by the rather stiff and ungainly frontispiece to the play.

Meadows’s talents tend more to the light and delicate – the tiny fairies playing games with snails or encircling the moon. His portrait of Puck as a wicked cherub is unintentionally creepy, and his Bottom isn’t a patch on Rackham’s magnificent specimen. (Not quite right, again!) Yet what I really miss is the feel of the wild wood and the darkness, the maze in which the foolish, lovestruck mortals (and Faerie Queen) are wandering throughout the middle acts. Meadows, I think, gives us too clear a prospect out of Shakespeare’s tangled plotting and characterisation.

FullSizeRender 6Some of the comedies thus far, like Measure for Measure or Much Ado About Nothing, have felt like tragedies only lightly deferred, but A Midsummer Night’s Dream feels like an entirely new genre. Even having read Shakespeare’s early trials of the stage mechanics in the final fairy scenes of The Merry Wives of Windsorthe play seems to have a touch of the uncanny about it, as if sprung from nowhere. I will always remember the shiver that went down my spine the first time I read the play through, in my first year of university, and finished the play just as the chimes of midnight struck out over the sleeping city. For a moment, I was still in fairyland.

A Year in Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice

IMG_0147After struggling through Love’s Labours Lost, it was a relief to put the heavy collected edition back on the shelf and borrow a pocket edition of The Merchant of Venice from the university library. It’s part of a Cambridge Shakespeare series from 1958, and it’s small, squarish, a rather pleasant faded blue colour, and blessedly lightweight. It’s not for every pocket – it would be hard to slip this inflexible hardback into the back pocket of my jeans, for example – but it turns out to slip very nicely into the large square pockets of my favourite denim jacket, where it swiftly found a place among the cycling gloves, notebooks and mint humbugs. As it was quick access, I read several scenes in the queue at the supermarket. The editor apparently has a quixotic fondness for preserving archaic spellings such as ‘piring’ for ‘peering’, ‘moe’ for ‘more’ and ‘roth’ for ‘ruth’, but this difficulty is easily solved by turning to the helpful glossary.

Aside from the edition, however, there’s little about this play that’s lightweight. Antonio, the merchant of Venice himself, begins the play in a state of apparently causeless melancholy. If we assume he is both gay and in love with his straight friend Bassanio, much about the play that was mysterious now becomes readily fathomable. But that’s just my theory.

Bassanio wants money in order to woo the beautiful Portia, and though Antonio’s assets are currently all invested in shipping, he agrees to borrow money on credit to give to Bassanio. However, this was the Renaissance, where Christians were forbidden from practicing the sin of usury (i.e. earning a profit on interest). So Antonio must borrow from Shylock the Jew, towards whose race he has the usual unedifying prejudices. Shylock, who looks on Antonio with equal dislike, agrees to lend him the money on no interest at all, provided he puts up a pound of his own flesh as forfeit upon non-payment – for what use would that be to anyone?

Once he has the money, Bassanio soon succeeds in wooing the beautiful, witty and brilliant Portia. That’s hardly surprising in a Shakespearean comedy. The real drama is when Shylock, incensed by the way Bassanio’s friend Lorenzo has seduced his daughter, demands his pound of flesh of the Doge of Venice after Antonio fails to make repayments.

IMG_0148Like Measure for Measure, it’s a problem play where the ending leaves us with questions still to be answered. The portrayal of anti-Semitism is unflinching – Shylock concludes the play forcibly converted to Christianity – and some scenes are certainly uncomfortable. Shakespeare gives Bassanio and the play’s heroes all the figures, rhetoric and fine language of courtly gentlemen, but no-one could accuse him of not giving Shylock a voice. The Jew’s finest speech begins with the kind of inspirational language familiar from nineteenth century abolitionist speeches, then doubles back down a dark path indeed:

Hath not  a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if we poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? if we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

The legal expert called in by the court to settle Shylock’s demand for his pound of flesh turns out to be Portia in disguise, and though she gets some of the most beautiful and eloquent language in the play:

The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.

Yet when Shylock will not show that mercy, she avails herself of a legal quibble that wouldn’t hold up a moment in any proper court of law, and has him harassed and taunted from the stage. Unlike its great predecessorChristopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, where the anti-hero Barabas is an entertainingly diabolical rogue capable of poisoning whole convents of nuns to get his own way, and who dies after accidentally falling into one of his own death-traps, The Merchant of Venice evokes a surprising and persistent sympathy with its sullen, stubborn and covetous adversary. Long after the final page is turned, or the curtain falls, one might find oneself pondering whether the characters with the fine, elaborate speeches, the fancy clothes, the riches and the sex appeal, might just be the villains of the piece after all.

A Year in Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor

Scan 7This is an odd play to come upon at this point, only three texts into my grand project to read all the works of Shakespeare in a year. In truth, it’s the closest Shakespeare ever came to writing the Renaissance equivalent of a spin-off TV show. The story goes that Queen Elizabeth I was so delighted with Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation, Sir John Falstaff, that when he stomped off the stage at the close of Henry IV Part 2, she demanded the playwright write a sequel, bringing the fat knight to England in the modern day and giving him a love story. In some accounts, she was so impatient she only gave him a fortnight to write the play. Wisely, Shakespeare did as the Queen bid him, but – perhaps wary of the possibility of having to write new episodes of The Falstaff Show until Kingdom Come – promptly killed Falstaff off at the beginning of Henry V. But all of that is a long way in the future – somewhere in June, when I’m out of the comedies and midway through the histories.

In search of an interesting edition to read the play in, I turned to the bookshelves in the postgraduate office, ever an interesting guide to people’s interests and research topics. My colleague Calum Gardner thoughtfully allowed me to borrow a thoroughly charming early twentieth-century edition, printed in New York and previously belonging to one A. Napier. There was no date on it anywhere I could spot, but it’s dedicated to Sir Henry Irving, a famous Shakespearean actor who also employed an Irish scribbler of penny dreadfuls with the unlikely name of Bram Stoker. Irving also provides part of the introduction to the edition, in a short and a wittily sarcastic essay on the Baconian controversy. His suggestion is that Francis Bacon wrote the entire output of the Elizabethan stage, including Shakespeare, but notes that who actually wrote Bacon’s work for him remains forever a mystery. It seems as likely as any of the other conspiracy theories!

Among the other treasures in the old book are a scattering of early photographs of Shakespearean actors and actresses. The Merry Wives of Windsor is represented by a studio portrait of Ellen Terry as Mistress Ford; Terry was one of the most famous actresses of her day, now sadly only known for having been Dickens’s mistress. In a delightful period feature, a collection of tabs recessed into the sides of the pages make it easier to flick from play to play.

Turning to The Merry Wives, I am struck once again by the comparison to what went before – the language of Two Gentlemen of Verona was elaborate, beautiful and almost constantly in blank verse; Merry Wives is written mostly in prose, and the language is heavily spiced with Welsh and Spanish malapropisms from the two comic rivals in love, Sir Hugh Evans and Doctor Caius.

Scan 5But it’s not their play. It’s not even Falstaff’s play, though he steals every scene in which he appears. Uniquely, the heroes are two married women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, to each of whom Falstaff sends exactly the same letter, pledging his whole heart and undying affection, and not realising that these two best friends might just get together and uncover his ruse. Together, they foster a scheme not only to humiliate Falstaff for his impudence, but to teach Mistress Ford’s needlessly suspicious husband a lesson in trust, climaxing in a night of fairytale revels that looks forward to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My favourite line in the production belongs to Mistress Page, in conversation with the jealous Mister Ford:

Ford: Well met, Mistress Page. Whither go you?

Mrs Page: Truly sir, to see your wife. Is she at home? 

Ford: Ay; and as idle as she may hang together, for want of company; I think, if your husbands were dead, you two would marry.

Mrs Page: Be sure of that, – two other husbands.

Actually, my favourite Merry Wives joke belongs not to any of the characters in the play, but to that well-known master of mirth and merriment, Kaiser Wilhelm II. It’s his only recorded joke. Due to wartime anti-German feeling, King George V issued a proclamation changing the Royal Family Name from ‘Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’ to the more English sounding ‘Windsor’. Kaiser Bill shrugged this off this snub by saying he looked forward to seeing a performance of The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

Heh. I fancy Shakespeare would have groaned as loudly as the rest of us.

A Year in Shakespeare: Two Gentlemen of Verona

I’ve always loved reading on trains. The views are great, you can do what you like, and the romance of travel always stirs something in me. This Saturday’s trip to London proved particularly pleasant, going from the grey predawn drizzle of Cardiff into the Newport sunrise, to snow on the fields of England and ever-changing January skies – very beautiful to look at while sheltered from the constant alternation of sunshine, rain and hail. It was a perfect time for the second part of my project to read the Complete Works of Shakespeare in a year.

IMG_0845After reading The Tempest in the RSC’s modern edition of the First Folio, I decided to do something different with Two Gentlemen of Verona and read it in the oldest edition Cardiff University Library still kept on loan. After a few minutes browsing the dustiest and least regarded avenues of Shakespeare Criticism, I found myself holding a 122 year-old edition published in 1893 as part of the original Cambridge Shakespeare series. A tall book printed on handmade paper with generous margins, it was clearly something of a prestige object, and the bookplates in the endpapers revealed a long working life. Originally part of the City of Cardiff Libraries Collection, it was withdrawn as duplicate stock and presented to the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, as it was then, in 1939. Now broken in the spine and largely held together by sticky tape, it still proves a pleasure to read – thScan 6e thick luxurious paper feels good under the fingers, and the whole volume exudes a strange sweet smell, like aged honey. It feels strange to be bereft of the usual cribs and glosses with which modern editors fill the margins, and to find in its place a variorum commentary in the page footer referring to the long-superseded eighteenth-century editions of Pope, Theobald, Rowe and Johnson (of which, more later in the blog) but it adds to the interest of the reading experience.

And so to Two Gentlemen of Verona, regarded by critics as being one of Shakespeare’s very first plays – an interesting comparison with The Tempest, one of his latest and finest. If you’ve heard any of it at all, it will probably be these fine lines, which Tom Stoppard borrowed for Shakespeare in Love:

What light is light, if Silvia be not seen?
What joy is joy, if Silvia be not by?
Unless it be to think that she is by,
And feed upon the shadow of perfection.
Except I be by Silvia in the night,
There is no music in the nightingale;
Unless I look on Silvia in the day,
There is no day for me look upon.

The plot bears many familiar Shakespearean comic motifs, later to be honed and finessed  in plays like Twelfth Night and As You Like It – girls dress up as boys, letters miscarry, and love affairs are pleaded by proxies with their own agendas. The eponymous Veronese gentlemen are Proteus and Valentine, who have been friends since the nursery. Proteus has long been in love with Julia, who grows to respond to his passion, but Valentine’s heart remains unencumbered until he is sent to Milan, and falls in love with Silvia, daughter of the Duke of Milan. (What, if any, relation this Duke of Milan bears to the lineage we see in The Tempest is pure speculation – but he seems more than tyrannical enough to be Antonio, Prospero’s usurper. I know, I’ll be writing fan fiction next.)

This is the cue for a lot of charmingly silly romantic games that wouldn’t be far out of place in your average playground – Julia rips Proteus’s love letter in pieces, and then has a change of heart and goes to great lengths gathering up the fragments. She stamps on and scatters all those that bear her name, tucks all that bear his name in her bosom and, where the fragment bears both, folds them over so they kiss. Silvia, the more resourceful of the two, saves a lot of labour and invention by getting Valentine to write a love letter for her, to ‘a secret unknown friend’ and then pointedly delivering it back to him – something that has to be explained to the clueless Valentine by his valet, Launce, in the usual ‘cheeky servant’ role. His wilful misunderstandings and laboured wordplay quickly become tiresome, but his selfless devotion to his dog, Crab, is equally touching and hilarious.

A darker element to the plot emerges when Proteus’s peremptory father decides to send his son to Milan after Valentine. Proteus duly says his heartfelt goodbyes to Julia, exchanging rings and pledging eternal affection, and no sooner arrives in Milan than he forgets all about her and falls wildly in love with Silvia. His machinations cause the Duke of Milan to discover Valentine’s plot to elope with Silvia, and to banish him from the realm, while Proteus, pretending to forward the suit of the Duke’s preferred husband, the foppish and cowardly Thurio, pleads his own case to Silvia in the form of a series of very Shakespearean songs and sonnets. Unknown to him, his infidelity is witnessed by Julia, who has come to Milan disguised as a male page, and found a position in Proteus’s employ.

At this point the plot, which until this point has held up pretty well, begins to unravel. The exiled Valentine is captured in the forest by a bunch of soft-hearted outlaws, the elder brothers of the Pirates of Penzance, who elect him their King with comical haste. Back in Milan, meanwhile, Silvia enlists the aid of the honest widower Sir Plot-Device in order to escape her enforced captivity in her father’s house. Sir Plot-Device, the most thankless role in the production, duly rescues her, accompanies to the forest, and then vanishes from the play without a word. The reader is left to guess whether he was secretly murdered by Proteus or if he merely knocked himself out on a low-hanging branch. His absence gives space for the disgracefully rushes final scene, a confrontation between Proteus and Silvia in the forest, while Julia wrings her hands on the sidelines in disguise and Valentine, unknown to any of them, watches from afar. Maddened by lust, Proteus resolves to rape Silvia – at which point Valentine intervenes to avert tragedy. Proteus goes down on his knees and begs forgiveness, and in a worryingly short space of time – about 20 blank verse lines – Valentine forgives him, and seems to offer him Silvia as pledge of their renewed friendship. At this point Julia faints, and her disguise is penetrated by means of the rings she and Proteus exchanged earlier; Proteus is allowed to revert to his former love with hardly a word of blame. The Duke of Milan is dragged on stage by the outlaws just in time to give Valentine’s marriage his blessing and issue a general pardon, and the play concludes in the least convincing happy ending until I get round to Measure for Measure.

It would be no exaggeration to call the resolution problematic. I caught the cinema version of last year’s RSC production, which at least attempts to inflect Valentine’s forgiveness with some doubt and consideration by filling it with very long, awkward silences. Julia’s silence in this scene irritates me in the extreme. It would surely be a good moment to tiptoe up behind Proteus with a blackjack in hand, or at the very least, make a moving speech of dissuasion – but she remains voiceless and passive, and it’s only Valentine’s appearance that saves the day. Surely, having witnessed Proteus’s behaviour in the play, her opinion of him has changed? Just a trifle? Often with Shakespeare, I find myself wondering whether the problematic bits are really that bigoted, or just there to make you think. This time, it just feels like he was writing in a hurry, and produced a rushed and ill thought out conclusion to a play that, despite its flaws, remains broadly enjoyable, and shadows forward the greater dramaturgy and the more triumphant poetry of Twelfth Night, As You Like It and The Sonnets.