Monday, September 19, 2011

Shakespeare, power, theme in literature

In ninth grade, my English teacher, Miss Barbara Ballou, required each of her students to memorize a soliloquy from one of William Shakespeare's plays. I don't remember if we all had to choose a soliloquy from Julius Caesar, but in any case I chose a key passage from that play, out of Act II. Scene I., in which Brutus talks himself into the need to murder Caesar as an act of altruism, of loyalty to republican Rome:

It must be by his death: and for my part,
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general. He would be crown'd:
How that might change his nature, there's the question.

I read the soliloquy aloud the other night (memory failed me after pretty-darn-many years), inspired by the happenstance that my partner is reading Henry IV, Part Two in my copy of The Riverside Shakespeare. That nearly-2000-page tome has a sentimental resonance for me: I bought it for a long-ago university course, and it is awash in my scribbled marginalia.

The introductory notes to Julius Caesar in the Riverside (first) edition, authored by Frank Kermode, treat Brutus' soliloquy at length. Early in his essay he notes:

It has long been commonplace that Brutus is a kind of sketch for Hamlet; but now it is almost equally commonplace that Shakespeare, who had just finished a long series of political studies in English history, could hardly have brought to his play about the great crisis of Roman history and institutions a mind void of political interests.

It would have come as no surprise, then, to the late Professor Kermode, that my thoughts leapt to Henry IV, Part Two as I read the following lines from Brutus' speech. (Never mind that the leap was primed by the fact that the Riverside had come off its venerable place on our bookshelves to be opened to 2 Henry IV.) Again Brutus, from Julius Caesar:
[...] But 'tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition's ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round.
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. [...]

And from there, the leap:

For me, as its author probably intended, the most stirring, spine-tingling, heart-rending, and chilling moment in Henry IV, Part Two occurs in its final scene. Here, the young Prince Hal's companion in ribaldry calls out to his old drinking buddy, now crowned as Henry V, in a street near Westminster Abbey.


    God save thee, my sweet boy!


    My lord chief-justice, speak to that vain man.


    Have you your wits? know you what 'tis to speak?


    My king! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!


    I know thee not, old man. fall to thy prayers;
    How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
    I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
    So surfeit-swell'd, so old and so profane;
    But, being awak'd, I do despise my dream.

The two plays were composed in close proximity. Henry IV, Part Two is dated to 1598, and Julius Caesar to the following year. It wasn't until a half-dozen years after I memorized Brutus' soliloquy for Miss Ballou's class that I explored Shakespeare's histories as a student at Berkeley. The link between the two plays, plain when one sees it, didn't occur to me until last week, when I circled back to Julius Caesar after oh-so-many years.

It is just the gesture Brutus fears -- unto the ladder turns his back, / Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees / By which he did ascend -- that plays out when the newly-crowned Henry V spurns the companion of his profligate youth: I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers.

Herschel Baker wrote the essay in The Riverside Shakespeare that introduces the two Henry IV plays. Of this scene, the late Harvard scholar concludes, "It is the price that greatness pays for power."

Shakespeare's Brutus, for his part, does not treat 'greatness' so benevolently.

And there's the crux of what excited me to find this small link between two of the bard's plays, an excitement in no way lessened by the fact that countless readers have undoubtedly found it before. Theme is to literature what mycelia are to mushrooms: the pervasive substrate in the soil of human experience from which works of literature bloom and fruit.

I have a friend who used to insist that books, music, or art is only interesting to the extent that it's new. I disagreed then, and disagree still.

That corruption is power's handmaiden -- and that we know and fear its effects -- appears over and over and over again in human life and literature, whether set in the Roman republic or Plantagenet England, in Joseph Conrad's Indonesian archipelago (Lord Jim) or Robert Penn Warren's Louisiana (All the King's Men) or Jorge Amado's Brazil (Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon) or even, if you will, Kazuo Ishiguro's future (Never Let Me Go). Repeat appearances do nothing to diminish fascination with this theme in its countless literary variants.

What we recognize in themes we've seen before -- the ones that make our spines tingle -- is experience, reflected. Caesar, Henry V, Jim, Willie Stark ... it's not as if the types of historical leaders fictionalized by Shakespeare, Conrad, and Warren no longer occupy positions of power. It's not as if wealth and well-being no longer lure those who have and can to grasp for advantage at the expense of those who haven't and can't.

When life or literature reveals the mycelial threads that link one manifestation of a deep theme of human experience to another, we light up to see and understand -- if only for a moment, if only in part, if only a bit better than before -- how the world's great, slippery, imprecise machinery works.

It happens that both Julius Caesar and Henry IV, Part Two are on this year's playbill at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in Ashland. Thanks to Lincolnian (Brian) for his image of the bard from "the sign outside the Shakespear[e] pub at the southern end of Lincoln's High Street"; to wallyg (Wally Gobetz) for his image of Nicolas Coustou's sculpture of Julius Caesar from the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris; and to goron (Adrian Milliner) for his image of the tomb of Henry IV from Canterbury Cathedral -- all three images shared via Flickr.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Raising a glass to Miss Ballou
Dystopias in fiction
Sarah Palin, you're no William Shakespeare

1 comment:

  1. Interestingly, I just read some analysis on Julius Ceasar and saw how Brutus was viewed by that author. To him, Brutus was rather not avert to greatness, as long as it was HIS greatness. Read how Cassius talked him into the conspiracy. Brutus was not Hamlet, rather a vain character who could not stomach other's overwhelming presence. It was not the common good motivated him, rather jealousy.

    I never thought of Brutus such but I was convinced.

    Matthew Felix Sun