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Tintoretto, Tarquin and Lucretia, circa 1580 [1]

Tintoretto, Tarquin and Lucretia, circa 1580

4,836 words

Editor’s Note:

This is the transcript by Lee and Donna Hancock of Jonathan Bowden’s talk on William Shakespeare, which you can listen to with dramatic examples here [2]. Please post any corrections below as comments.   

We’re here today to talk about William Shakespeare, one of the greatest artists, writers, and playwrights that has ever existed in our race—the Aryan or Indo-European people—or, to be truthful, in any other group on this planet. Shakespeare lived during the Elizabethan period and wrote over 50 plays. He was an artist who was also an active actor and jobbing writer. For him, the work was part of the craft that he did in and around theaters, which he helped to own and manage.

Shakespeare has become integral to Western culture, and to English and British culture in particular. But there is a degree to which many liberals at the present time find a lot of his work to be problematical. There are elements in all of the plays which do not fit in well with contemporary discourse. If we look at a play like Taming of the Shrew, for example, even the title itself is “sexist” and doesn’t fit in with allegedly politically correct nostrums of this period.

Let’s go right to the heart of the most controversial metapolitical area involving Shakespeare. Metapolitics is cultural struggle. It’s the politics of culture, rather than narrow, sectarian, and party interest. Race and discourses about ethnicity are central to the Shakespearian experience. They occur in an early work like Titus Andronicus; they occur throughout the oeuvre; they center in Othello.

Traditionally Othello has always been played in our theaters by a white man blacked-up, in the manner of Laurence Olivier. Now, he’s a blackamoor, in some ways a Negroid Arab, but he’s nearly always played as a black or African individual in the British or Western theater. But as things have moved on, we now have a viewpoint manifested from post 1960s British drama in particular that Othello is a “racist” play. This means that non-white actors traditionally have started to take up the role and perform Othello thereby.

But later on, possibly in the last ten to fifteen years, pioneered by Dobbs from the Yorkshire Playhouse for example, there is the view that because this play is “racist” even to have a non-white in the leading romantic part isn’t good enough. So what has now happened is that a rather liberal-minded white actor not blacked-up plays Othello in order to fit in with new linguistic and mental and moral conceptions as regards this part.

Now, why go to all of these difficulties? Why consider that this play is in any way difficult to understand or ethically appreciate? The real reason is that there is a critique of miscegenation at the heart of this particular play, even though Othello and Desdemona are treated as tragic characters in love. Iago, the villain of the piece, without any question, and based upon certain Machiavellian, philosophical precepts of which Shakespeare was generally aware at that time, and coming out of Tudor discourse before him, makes Iago into a real villain. He is the agent of evil, of malevolence, of forces of destruction or non-creativity.

Shakespeare is always true to the moral caste of a character, and puts himself in their place. He’s shallow, but he’s an egotist. He’s puffed up with the splendor of self and with glory. He wishes to debase and destroy, yet at the same time feel his own power in the quickness of the struggle. But he is also an agency of fate, of what ancient Greeks would have called ate, negative fate, a destructive entity which comes, in their religious system, from the Furies.

He destroys and tears down and mutilates morally and, ultimately, physically these two characters—Othello and Desdemona—because they have contracted into a union outside their own racial kind, because Shakespeare is coming out of a post-Medieval conception, even though the country has formally rejected Roman Catholicism as the state religion and turned to a mildly Protestant or Anglican dispensation under Henry VIII and his successors on the throne.

In this way of thinking we have a situation which says that all of the races are created by God. But at the same time they should remain separate or entire. There is always a discourse–as with Leni Riefenstahl’s photos from the 1960s of the Nuba in the Sudan–of estrangement and difference and differentiation about “the other.” In Nietzsche’s thinking at the end of the 19th century such an idea will be called the “pathos of difference.” It is, in many ways, an aristocratic mode of thought. It is quite alien to the egalitarian and liberal-Left values which dominate British and Western European and North American culture at the present time.

So we see in this particular play a medley of ideas which have come to seem unacceptable to present-day opinion, but which were totally integral and centered in the culture out of which Shakespeare came. But Othello isn’t the only play where these alleged problems come to the fore.

Titus Andronicus was an early work and is a violent tragedy of revenge. Sometimes the number of bodies, as with John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi, at the end of the dramaturgy, leads a modern audience to giggle, because there’s so many corpses around the stage. It’s almost a grand guignol or Punch and Judy element to the number of people who die, and their deaths are treated with a certain levity often after sword-fights and stabbings and so on, which had the pit in the Globe at the height of the Elizabethan Age on their feet, roaring and cheering and throwing nuts and orange peel about. Because people went to this theater the way a proportion of people today go to a soccer match.

Now, in Titus Andronicus, Tamora who is the queen of the Goths, has a black lover—Aaron—and this symbolizes her outsider status, her status as a demon and a Lilith who tortures Andronicus’ family and, in the end, is done to death. Much of the blood dramaturgy of this particular work is based on Seneca and is based upon Roman tragic drama which draws upon the Greeks. And Elizabethans had Greek tragedy out of Rome via a discourse of modernity that came through Erasmus and from the Italian Renaissance.

So, in a way, Shakespeare and Webster and Marlowe and Kyd and all the other great Elizabethan playwrights are working their way back to the beginnings of our tragic art and sensibility through Romanesque examples which have been handed down to them, or across to them, by the Italian Renaissance. We’re particularly looking, ultimately, back to Sophocles—less Euripides, really—but primarily to Aeschylus. Now, at the heart of the Oresteia, which is the beginning of all tragic Western drama, there’s a blood sacrifice and a feast, particularly involving the house of Atreus and revenges that go on there in this part of south-eastern Mediterranean Europe two-and-a-half to three thousand years ago.

This is then filtered through Romanesque tragedy via Seneca in the play Thyestes, which was glossed by Caryl Churchill in the 1980s in quite a famous Royal Shakespeare Company performance. And this then comes forwards to the use of revenge as a motif for early and bloody Elizabethan tragedy. There was a very famous version of Titus by Peter Brook, who was highly influenced by Artaud’s ideas of the theater of cruelty in the 1960s and late ’50s, and it partly was based on the Stratford production from the early 1950s which made Laurence Olivier’s name, which catapulted him to great star status, and which ultimately led him to become the first major principal of the National Theatre, first at the Old Vic and then to be based on the South Bank.

Those are two of the plays that deal with the nature of race in a way that makes them very relevant today given that a multiracial society for the last 50 years has been created around us.

The other play which liberals, in many ways, do not “like” is The Merchant of Venice. This is a play which is allegedly “anti-Semitic,” but much less so, even if we admit that it might be, in comparison to Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, for example, which really is a piece of puppet adult theatre and grand guignol, deliberately made as a theatrical pot-boiler by Marlowe, in comparison to a play like Tamburlaine, to make money. Because these were playwrights who were interested in getting the public in. They weren’t just writing for a small, little intellectual elite. They were drawing in an entire culture—the aristocracy, the burgess orders, whores, soldiers, the plebs. Everyone went to the Globe, and there are parts of the play that appealed to each part of the audience.

The Merchant of Venice was put on in the late 1980s by Trevor Nunn’s company at the National. There’s one black character of a minor cast in that particular play. A third of the characters at the National were black. And there was an apology at the end of the play for the Holocaust, which I don’t imagine had occurred 500 years ago when the play was actually conceived. Now these things are done and, sometimes, quite mainstream modern variants of this material are done, without any cognizance of politically correct rhetoric at all. But these things are done because people are ashamed and embarrassed and self-estranged from their own culture and from the manifestation of their own ethnicity in—in this respect—high culture.

Now, if we move on from race as a motif of otherness and other-worldliness and outsider status to look at the sexual politics in these particular dramas you can look at the relationship, complicated though it be, between the three daughters and Lear in a play that bears that name. Shakespeare set King Lear before the Christian era, and morally in the atmosphere of King Canute, as it were, because he wanted to explore certain ideas which were non-Christian. Lear is the harshest play—in terms of its moral theory of life, in terms of its eschatology and its belief in ultimate moral human purpose—that Shakespeare ever wrote. During one particular period, the end of Lear was actually changed by a man named Tate in the 18th century because people found the ending too harsh and too violent; yet again, an example of the fact that Puritanism or philistinism has always interfered with Shakespeare and his direct appeal to audiences after the immediate Jacobean and Elizabethan periods. Today the form of Puritanism and censorship that’s involved is of a liberal-Left variant, but it wasn’t always so.

There are three daughters that Lear has and very foolishly, as every contemporary listener of the play would have known, he divides his kingdom between them—one, two, three; Cordelia, Goneril, Regan. Goneril and Regan are out for themselves and are wolves and are animals who want to tear Lear down and reduce him to penury and madness on the heath with his fool—the only one who’s foolish enough or brave enough or moral enough, depending—to stay with him, together with Edgar who, in a sense, is Gloucester’s fool in the subplot of the play.

There’s one scene in that play—the blinding of Gloucester where he is made to physically suffer, which is one of the most remarkable and cruelest acts in world theater. But it in turn goes back to Sophocles in ancient Greece and is brought forward. Sophocles wrote a trilogy called the Theban plays in which Oedipus blinds himself because he murders his father accidentally and commits incest with his own mother, Jocasta. Now, Shakespeare factors that forward to the blinding of Gloucester by the sadist Cornwall when he shouts, “Out, vile jelly! Where is thy luster now?” And Gloucester is sent away to throw himself metaphorically and actually off the cliffs at Dover with his son Edgar.

Shakespeare is never frightened of violence or of cruelty or of patriotism or of warfare, but they are never gratuitous. Much of contemporary culture which masquerades as mass entertainment often involved motifs endlessly repeated, because they’re always in the human mind, of sexuality and violence. But the problem with a lot of this material is it’s not connected to anything organic and therefore it doesn’t mean anything and is just shallowly superficial and pornographic in the worst, rather than the best, of senses. With Shakespeare these things are always bred in the bone and related to language and related to ideas and structures of being and meaning, which is why they’ve resonated with people, in all groups actually, but principally our own, all over the world.

If one moves to another play like Macbeth, Macbeth has been criticized by feminist critics, particularly in new wave or second-generation feminism in the 1970s, because of the portrayal of Lady Macbeth. She is more staunch than Macbeth, more ruthless, more feminine in a vindictive way, more of a Hecate, more of a Lilith, more of a woman who keeps [unintelligible] a touching stone, who gives him the daggers in reality and metaphorically so he can go in and stab Duncan under their roof which of course is a blasphemy against honor and the code of hospitality, whether in the Scotland of Macbeth’s day or the England of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan Renaissance.

Henry Fuseli, Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers, 1812 [3]

Henry Fuseli, Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers, 1812

Now, there’s an extraordinary painting by Fuseli in the Tate which shows the aftermath of the murder of Duncan and his two stewards. When Macbeth, who’s been brought up to the nature of the deed by his wife Lady Macbeth, comes out with the two daggers and holds them up before her, steaming and reeking with blood and with gore, and to one side she’s there—the Gorgon—almost in see-through white like a ghost, wrapped in silk, looking very much like a Medusa in certain images on coins and shields which have come down to us from ancient Greece.

Now, in this play there is an understanding of the dialectic and the interrelationship between a man and a woman in a ruling marriage where he’s been elevated to being Thane of Cawdor by Duncan. But . . . “Thane of Cawdor? Why not king of all Scotland?” when he can take it with power outside morality, which ultimately leads, in the concourse and cavalcade of the play, to murder after murder, to the return of ghosts of those that he’s slain, and ultimately to nihilism and to moral despair at the end of the drama, “signifying nothing.”

Now, it’s important to understand that Shakespeare cannot be fitted easily into any box—a liberal or allegedly politically correct one at the present time, or an illiberal one, or an ultra-conservative one. With him all voices are the flow-through of his own artistic consciousness and imagination. He is a pure playwright, perhaps the purest that’s ever lived, which is why he has in some ways become universal in his present moral currency. And that’s because when he has a character before him on the page he thinks himself totally into that character and what they are, what their values amount to, the philosophy which may animate them at any stage of their being, flows through him onto the page. It’s pure theater, even though it’s rooted in the ideology of the period when he lived and wrote and worked and acted.

Because he acted in nearly all of his plays. He performed in a lot of the sword fights. He directed people. He took plays by Fletcher that were half-made, such as Pericles, and he reworked them to make them slightly better.  And probably other manuscripts of which we know very little, like Edmund Ironside and so on, were worked over by him. He was always coming to material, basing much of what he said and wrote on [unintelligible] chronicles and building it up into new tabernacles of force and ecstasy and energy. This is particularly seen in the patriotic plays, quintessentially Henry V.

Henry V—which was made into a famous wartime propaganda film in 1940–41 at the behest of Winston Churchill with Laurence Olivier in the lead, a magnificent sort of traditional British cinema film, seen in its own terms—is a quintessential play of English radicalism and patriotic forethought. It’s a statement of warlike intensity where these Norman nobles war back upon the France from which they ultimately came to seize large chunks of it for England and to force a union between the English and French royal houses. It’s a play which even today is nakedly patriotic in its feel and which many liberals internally dislike as a consequence.

William Hazlitt, the well-known liberal writer of the early part of the 19th century, wrote a debunking essay about Henry V along these lines. Ezra Pound responded to that in a different spirit, for example, in the 20th century about 100 years on.

Now, in all of this it’s important to remember that Shakespeare had a cosmology and a feeling of life. The Elizabethans believed that there were static globes or spheres above us ascending to the heavens and to God. They also believed that life was classical and proportioned in a way that we, thinking about physical processes of pure energy, don’t really believe the world—biologically or otherwise—now to be.

They also believed that not only was Man God’s creature but he was at the center of everything, and at the center of life on this earth was England, which is why Shakespeare internalizes the idea that the Elizabethan monarchy and its culture had moved away from the Papacy and from Roman Catholicism. The real point about having a Christian religiosity, or any religiosity for ourselves in these islands at Shakespeare’s time, was to have a national version of the European culture. This is the foundation point culturally of the British state before it goes out to the world, in the Empire, which will become the largest empire that the world has seen since Rome up to the present time. That empire only really begins to die fifty years ago in our society, in the lifetimes of some of the people reading this text.

Now we have a situation where liberal ideas have come in over the last fifty to sixty years and, in turn, have retrospectively reoriented everything and see everything in their own terms and in accordance with their own lights.

Othello is seen as a tragic and romantic hero who doesn’t point out the dangers of race-mixing but is, in a strange way, a validation of that which was once decried.

Titus Andronicus is seen as a pithy comment in a supererogatory way on the nature of the revenge tragedy, upending it, producing so many bodies and having so much militancy of blood and struggle that there’s a degree to which the whole thing becomes a bit of a joke and can be considered as such and is treated as a bit of a sadist ballet where people like Brook in his well-known version of it with Olivier 40-plus years ago.

We have a situation where the Taming of the Shrew is considered to be a “reactionary” play and is played up to the hilt in order to demarcate our present feelings of feminism and sexual egalitarianism in relation to that which once was.

We have a situation where some of the battle scenes in Julius Caesar are considered so far back that they don’t need to be considered seriously in relation to contemporary violence and slaughter.

We have a play or, in this case, a long poem which is dramatic and theatrical but is still a poem—The Rape of Lucrece—which can never really be viewed without irony because you have a member of the Roman aristocracy who is raped by a dissolute individual descended from the royal House of Tarquin, which was the key early monarchy in Rome before it became an aristocratic republic. And she is raped and done down, and her husband avenges the rape by killing the rapist, namely Tarquinius. But at the same time she, dishonored, kills herself because of the cult, not of the virgin, but of the marital virgin, in other words, of the woman who only gives herself to one man within marriage.

Now, this is really, and has been regarded for the last 250 years never mind the last 50 years, in increasingly liberal ideas, as a ridiculous notion which moderns, so to say, can’t really get their heads around. There was a famous painting of this incident by Tintoretto whereby Lucrece is raped by Tarquin, or you begin to see the early stages of that. Benjamin Britten made a chamber opera of these very events and of certain textual elements of Shakespeare’s work in the 1950s, halfway through the cycle of operas which for him was to end with Billy Budd, which is based on a novella by Herman Melville.

Now, Shakespeare brings to bear in all of this and in all of the plays which we haven’t even mentioned. Even though we’ve been through Caesar and Macbeth and Lear and Titus Andronicus and we’ve looked the Rape of Lucrece and other works, Shakespeare brings to bear the entire weight of a culture which is animated through him and in him and in his language. Most people find the language, at times, when they first confront it, a bit of a bar or something that they have to leap over. But, in actual fact, the language is the key to the nature of the entire work. Even Nunn, who I’ve criticized for certain of his PC variants of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy when he was head of the National Theatre in the mid to late ’80s and the early 1990s said, “In the end, all you have is the text.” An unusual source for it, but Steven Berkoff said much the same in relation to Macbeth.

You can pare away everything. You can have even a minimalist set. You don’t have to play in Elizabethan period à-la the Globe, but you can have the text before you semiotically as a living document because of its power, because of its magic, because of the almost incantatory nature of the language which is used. It’s a special type of language. It’s called technically iambic pentameter. This is the register in which he wrote. But it is designed to heighten experience and to distil emotion and to make of it blood and bone poetry that speaks to us and to our race and to all people for all time.

Language is key to all meaning in Shakespeare. Let’s have a look at certain key passages, certain dramatic moments and aporia within some of the plays that I’ve mentioned so far.

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up,
About a prophecy, which says that “G”
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
Clarence comes. (Richard III, act 1, scene 1)

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!” (Henry V, sct 3, scene 1)

This is from the Rape of Lucrece. This is after the deed:

To this well-painted piece is Lucrece come,
To find a face where all distress is stell’d.
Many she sees where cares have carved some,
But none where all distress and dolour dwell’d,
Till she despairing Hecuba beheld,
Staring on Priam’s wounds with her old eyes,
Which bleeding under Pyrrhus’ proud foot lies.

In her the painter had anatomized
Time’s ruin, beauty’s wreck, and grim care’s reign:
Her cheeks with chaps and wrinkles were disguised;
Of what she was no semblance did remain:
Her blue blood changed to black in every vein,
Wanting the spring that those shrunk pipes had fed,
Show’d life imprison’d in a body dead.

On this sad shadow Lucrece spends her eyes,
And shapes her sorrow to the beldam’s woes,
Who nothing wants to answer her but cries,
And bitter words to ban her cruel foes:
The painter was no god to lend her those;
And therefore Lucrece swears he did her wrong,
To give her so much grief and not a tongue.

“Poor instrument,” quoth she, “without a sound,
I’ll tune thy woes with my lamenting tongue;
And drop sweet balm in Priam’s painted wound,
And rail on Pyrrhus that hath done him wrong;
And with my tears quench Troy that burns so long;
And with my knife scratch out the angry eyes
Of all the Greeks that are thine enemies.

“Show me the strumpet that began this stir,
That with my nails her beauty I may tear.
Thy heat of lust, fond Paris, did incur
This load of wrath that burning Troy doth bear:
Thy eye kindled the fire that burneth here;
And here in Troy, for trespass of thine eye,
The sire, the son, the dame, and daughter die.”

Shakespeare is quintessentially English and British but belongs to all Western, white, and European people throughout the world. There’s a great attempt now to dumb down everything and to place all things upon a cultural level. Shakespeare, amongst many other authors, stands out against this prevailing trend. But if we lose what he says across half a millennium to us, we will have lost a core, integral, linguistic and racial part of what it is to be English, to be British, to be white, to be European. His language isn’t old or fustian and archaic or fuddy-duddy. It’s immediate and strikes through to the hearts of men and women. In love, in hate, in war, in peace, in belief, in the absence of belief, to read Shakespeare is a revolutionary act in an age where people say we have no culture but the culture of globalism, and where all groups and all usages of language are deemed to be of equal merit.